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‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer *****

Ana and I decided on a whim to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close together.  Whilst it is a first-time read for Ana, this is the fifth time which I have picked up Foer’s 2005 novel, and I fall a little more in love with it upon each successive read.

Since first encountering the delightful Oskar and Safran Foer’s stunning way of writing, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been a firm favourite of mine.  The protagonist, Oskar Schell, is a nine-year old boy who lives in New York City with his mother.  Oskar’s father was killed during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.     The main thread of the story comes when grieving Oskar unearths a key, and believes that it holds the answer to a mystery which only he can solve.  There are, Oskar works out, 162 million locks in New York, but he has no idea as to which of these his father’s key will open.  He consequently goes on a quest of sorts through his city, piecing things together as he goes.

Picking up clues along the way, he is soon put onto the trail of someone with the surname of Black: ‘That was my great plan.  I would spend my Saturdays and Sundays finding all of the people named Black and learning what they knew about the key in the vase in Dad’s closet.  In a year and a half I would know everything.  Or at least know that I had to come up with a new plan’.

Oskar is one of the most original child characters whom I have come across in fiction, and he is a sheer joy to become acquainted with.  He is a headstrong and creative child; at the beginning of the book, for example, he talks about a host of inventions which he has thought up, clearly placing the reader inside his mind and giving an insight into his thought patterns: ‘What about a teakettle?  What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?…  What about little microphones?  What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls?’

The novel is at once beautiful, heartwarming and achingly sad.  Safran Foer has such a gorgeous and rather original way of writing; he immediately captures vivid scenes through Oskar’s eyes, and makes every single one of his characters both quirky and utterly believable.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a creative novel.  Whilst the majority of the story is told from Oskar’s perspective, there are also letters and photographs which, at first, add to the overall mystery.  The incredibly well-plotted whole has been so thoughtfully crafted and put together, and the reader is able to play the part of detective alongside our adorable, naive narrator, who becomes more worldly-wise as he follows the trail.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction around.

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‘Frances and Bernard’ by Carlene Bauer ***

Frances and Bernard is Carlene Bauer’s second book and first novel, which follows a volume of memoirs entitled Not That Sort of Girl. The story, which begins in 1957, takes place for the most part in the United States, and much of its action occurs in New York City. An epistolary style has been adopted throughout.

‘Frances and Bernard’ by Carlene Bauer (Vintage)

After the first meeting of Frances Reardon and Bernard Eliot – which does not exactly go to plan – occurs at a writer’s colony, Bernard sends Frances a letter which ‘changes everything’. Much of the correspondence occurs between the two protagonists, but there are occasional letters sent to their best friends, Claire and Ted. The opening letter from Frances, which is addressed to Claire, details how she has finished ‘what I think might be a draft of the novel’ which she has been working on since finishing college. She goes on to set out her meeting with Bernard, who wishes to become a poet: ‘I hear John Donne in the poems [he has written] – John Donne prowling around in the boiler room of them, shouting, clanging on pipes with wrenches, trying to get this young man to uncram the lines and cut the poems in half’. In his first letter to Ted, Bernard tells him of Frances, whom he believes to be ‘a little Mother Superiorish… A curious mix of feminine and unfeminine’.

The two begin to correspond with one another around a month after their first encounter. Bernard informs Frances: ‘I very much enjoyed talking with you this summer, and I would like to talk to you some more. But I’m in Italy. And you’re in Philadelphia. So will you talk to me in letters?’ Bernard’s often overpowering questioning nature, which shadows everything else which he writes about at times, allows Frances to flesh out her own responses to him. The whole novel is rather spiritual, and is driven by religion throughout. A lot of their correspondence relates to their Catholicism and Bernard’s conversion, and this element of the story becomes rather repetitive quite quickly. Throughout, their relationship is charted through good times and bad. Small progressive shifts in the ways in which they write to one another can be found, from ‘sincerely’, to ‘yours’, to ‘love’.

In terms of Bauer’s writing, the narrative voices which she has crafted often sound distinct, but there are some overlapping phrases used by both protagonists. The scenes described also often overlap, as one would expect, but many of the details are told again in concurrent letters, which gives a real sense of deja vu at times. Some of her similes and metaphors are lovely – ‘there is something about the lower register of her voice that makes me feel as if I am afloat in an ocean the color of midnight’ – but their use is not overly consistent throughout. The period detail which has been used – Kerouac’s mysticism and jazz music, for example – does help to set the scenes and era in which the novel takes place, but there is not enough of it to cushion the entirety of the book as it goes on. When it reaches around the eighty-page mark, it feels as though the tale could easily take place in any other time or city – its foundations are not concrete, and this is a real shame.

Frances and Bernard has been well envisioned, and we do learn a lot about both protagonists as it goes on. A coherent story has been woven through the medium of letters, but it does become a little bogged down with the theological and philosophical, so that the thread of Frances and Bernard’s relationship and its progression is sometimes lost. The characters are not likeable ones on the whole, but they are relatively interesting, and Bauer has used the epistolary format well to present both protagonists to her readers.

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‘I Never Knew That About New York’ by Christopher Winn

 

Empire State Building as seen from Top of the Rock

Empire State Building as seen from Top of the Rock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I’m sure that I speak for many when I say that New York is one of my favourite cities.  I was astounded by it when I visited in 2011, and Winn’s marvellous book has left me longing to go back.  I Never Knew That About New York is an addition to an already impressive series, which includes similar fact books about Ireland, Scotland, The Lake District and Royal Britain, amongst others.  In I Never Knew That About New York, Winn has endeavoured to dig ‘beneath the gleaming taverns and mean streets of New York’ and ‘discovers its secrets and hidden treasures… [He] unearths much that is unexpected and unremembered’.  Strange, then, that two rather commonplace facts are included on the book’s dustjacket – that the Empire State building was the tallest in the world for a forty year period, and that the Grand Central Terminal is the largest railway station in the world.

I Never Knew That About New York is split into separate sections which relate to different districts or areas of the city.  These range from New York Harbor and Wall Street to Chelsea and Greenwich Village.  Rather than focus on New York State, Winn has taken only Manhattan Island as his foundation for this volume, in fear of not doing the other boroughs justice.  The entirety of the book is written in columns, almost forming a continuous newspaper article.  The style of the headings merely add to this effect.  Throughout, illustrations by Mai Osawa have been included, and it is fair to say that her beautiful line drawings match the text perfectly.

A timeline of Manhattan has been provided at the beginning of the book.  It begins in 1524, when Giovanni da Verrazano became the first European to enter New York, and stretches to the sole entry for 2013, which states that the One World Trade Center was completed.  Winn has encompassed the full history of New York, from navigator Henry Hudson sailing up the Hudson River in 1609 to Wilbur Wright’s 1909 flight from Governor’s Island (the first ever in a military plane and the first flight over water in America); from the Great Fire of 1835 to a list of the tallest buildings in the city; from the formation of Little Italy to the beginnings of world famous shops and delicatessens; and from the city’s first speakeasy to the many Art Deco buildings which grace its streets.  Separate grey boxes dotted throughout reveal biographies of notable figures associated with the city – Cornelius Vanderbilt, for example.  The city’s many monuments, tourist attractions and historical events are also presented in this way, ranging from facts pertaining to The Statue of Liberty and the circumstances of John Lennon’s murder, to the famous couples married at the Marble Collegiate Church.

I Never Knew That About New York is a fabulous resource for jetsetters and armchair travellers alike.  Its format as an amalgamation of travel guide and fact book is sure to be a marvellous companion for anyone embarking on either a short break or a longer stay.  The geographical format makes such a use of it perfect, in fact.