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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, December 12, 2002

These Selections Shed a Bit of Light on Holiday Spirit

Following in the tradition that the library Sunday book review columns should have a theme, I've been struggling the past few weeks to pull together a Christmas offering. None of the slim Christmas novels and mysteries I glanced at seemed worthy.

So I settled on "illuminating" and "inspiring" for this Christmas column. All of today's novels were written by well traveled, creative, and wise authors who have chosen to share their insights through the medium of fiction. It's their gift to us.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Recorded Books, 2002, unabridged on 9 cassettes, 12 hours).

One of the most extraordinary works I have ever encountered, this aptly narrated audiobook kept me welcome company on a long drive.

You will laugh out loud one minute and cry inside the next as you follow the story of a Jewish American college student, Jonathan, who travels to Eastern Europe to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. His irrepressible young Ukrainian translator, Alex, reminds me of the two "wild and crazy" Festrunk Brothers on Saturday Night Live (Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd), as he struts his stuff and butchers the English language with the help of a dated thesaurus.

The novel skips back and forth between the unintentionally hilarious travelogue being patched together by Alex, and the complicated and poignant folk tale on the history of his grandfather's Jewish shetl of Trachimbad being spun by Jonathan. Add in a large dog, Alex's own curmudgeonly grandfather, oversexed villagers, an old Jewish woman with a house full of mementoes from the vanished Trachimbad, secrecy, and guilt, and you can begin to get a picture of this awesome work.

Foer wrote "Illuminated" in five weeks following his own unfruitful investigative trip to the Ukraine at age twenty.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (Hightbridge Audio, 2002, slightly abridged on 6 cassettes, 10 hours).

Jasper Fforde has been compared to Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, and Kurt Vonnegut after this inventive debut. His intrepid heroine Thursday Next has attracted some dedicated followers (http://www.thursdaynext.com) who are eagerly awaiting Lost in a Good Book, due out in the spring.

In Great Britain in 1985, the Crimean War is still dragging on, Goliath Corporation has 38,000,000 employees, the cloned dodo is the most popular pet, and time travel is common. The general public's zeal for great literature is comparable to our passion for Friends and The Sopranos. Will-Speak machines quote Shakespeare on command.

Literary Special Operative Thursday Next is hot on the case when someone starts altering original literary manuscripts, thereby changing the stories for the rest of time. After Jane Eyre is kidnapped (made possible through bioengineered bookworms, of course) and held for ransom, Thursday must venture into the novel to save Jane.

Fforde has created a zany alternate world where great novels count. If that's not inspiring to a reader, I don't know what is.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Harcourt, 2001).

Canadian Yann Martel, who has lived and traveled all over the world, wrote this enchanting 2002 Booker Prize winner while in India. His hero, Pi, is a sixteen-year-old Indian boy who survives in a lifeboat at sea for 227 days with a full-grown Bengal tiger.

Pi uses his native ingenuity, the lifeboat's cache of survival supplies, his knowledge as a zoo director's son, and his faith to tame the tiger. Lest you doubt the possibility of this, the alternative explanation (presented late in the story) involves four shipwreck survivors, killing, cannibalism, and greed. Take your pick.

The Giver by Lois Lowry (BDD Audio, 1995, Unabridged on 4 cassettes, 270 minutes).

Lowry writes of a seemingly ideal planned community where rudeness, crime, disease, and discomfort have been banished. Sameness and conformity are valued highly.

When a young boy named Asher is chosen to be the next Receiver of Memories, the Giver imparts to him the unsettling truth of how such harmony is maintained.

A long-ago Christmas and the love that it symbolized is the Giver's most treasured memory, but one he gladly gives to Asher. This gift nourishes the young boy in his quest for freedom. The winner of the Newbery Medal in 1994, The Giver is an illuminating holiday surprise.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.