Monday, February 4, 2013


Jonathan Safran Foer's book Everything Is Illuminated is one of the most delightful books I have ever read. He was inspired by Helen Dewitt's The Last Samurai, which is a book I tried to read back in 2008 whilst on a trip to London and didn't get through. Recently, I tried it again and not only got through it, but loved it. It is a beautiful book full of innovation, and I can see why Foer would want to use some of DeWitt's tricks.

<Alert: spoilers throughout>

First, I should say that Dewitt's The Last Samurai was not the inspiration of the 2003 movie The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise. Dewitt's TLS is the story of a mother, Sibylla, trying to raise her autistic/genius son, whom she calls Ludo, even though his birth certificate states that his name is David or Stephen...she's not sure which. The samurai come into play because Sibylla loves Kurasawa's 1954 movie Seven Samurai, and considers the seven samurai and the seven actors to be 14 ideal role models for her fatherless son.

Both Sibylla and Ludo have learned dozens of languages using books and highlighters, and Sibylla explores the idea that stories shouldn't be written in one language, but should freely draw from several languages independent of the characters speaking them or the location where the stories are taking place. The languages, instead, should be thought of as instruments in an orchestra, and writers should be able to draw on whichever language fits the tone he or she is trying to create.

The book also talks about things like teachers who teach that a good student of literature should be able to see any word on a page and think of twenty other books that use the same word and has lines like "heroes are people who are yet unformed while villains are people who are already formed." That's not always true, of course, but it's an interesting idea to think about because it's true a lot of the time.

The ideas in the book are great, and the writing in the book is full of energy and creativity:

There are 60 million people in Britain. There are 200 million in America. (Can that be right?) How many millions of English-speakers other nations might add to the total I cannot even guess. I would be willing to bet, though, that in all those hundreds of millions not more than 50, at the outside, have read A. Roemer, Aristarchs Athetesen in der Homerkritik (Leipzig, 1912), a work untranslated from its native German and destined to remain so till the end of time.

I joined the tiny band in 1985. I was 23. 

The first sentence of this little-known work runs as follows:

Est ist wirklich Brach- und Neufeld, welches der Verfasser mit der Bearbeitung dieses Themas betreten und durchpflugt hat, so sonderbar auch diese Behauptung im ersten Augenblick klingen mag.

I had taught myself German out of Teach Yourself German, and I recognised several words in this sentence at once:

It is truly something and something which the something with the something of this something has something and something, so something also this something might something at first something. 

The book also made me hungry to learn and to read, which is a wonderful thing.

To celebrate, Red, who I will now call Red, made us millet for dinner, which is the food that the peasants in Seven Samurai are forced to eat instead of rice because they are giving all of their rice to the seven samurai. The millet was not very photogenic, nor did it taste very photogenic, and now I feel like I need to figure out a recipe for millet that makes it taste less like peasant food (in case I should be on an episode of Chopped and millet should be one of the basket ingredients). That will be a nice challenge.

Scott, I think you would like this book, and I'll send you a copy if you don't already have it.

Jennifer, this book made me cry.

What's Peanut eating? Samurai food. 


  1. This book sounds fantastic and I do want to read it so I will wait for you to send me a copy.

    I finished Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea. It didn't make me happy when I was reading it and a lot of it seemed clumsy but now that a few days have gone by since I finished it, I'm actually glad that I read it. There were some isolated moments of absolute beauty, of perfect clarity into the soul. I'm actually thinking that it would be a better book if it was 100 pages longer (not tacked onto the end, but if the story was filled out more throughout; part of the problem is that it's very sketchy so the characters seem false a lot of the time). So huh. I don't want to read another Mishima novel soon, though. Right now I'm reading Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, which is really funny.

  2. I will happily send you a copy! Chances are I will take a long time to do it, but I will send you one!

    I should read a Mishima book. They are not very long, from what I remember, so i really should. I'm trying Melville's The Whale now. It has been years since I've read it, and I barely remember it.

  3. Sailor was 144 pages in mass-market paper. His books are really more novellas than novels. You could read it between chapters of the Melville. I realized that I'm avoiding long novels right now. Probably next week I'll just read short stories.

  4. Since I'm keeping track of books I read this year, I'm tempted to read a bunch of short books just to get the number up. I balance out the temptation by getting long books I've always wanted to read, like Moby Dick. I may also read Don Quixote. Maybe.

  5. Davin, I sort of skimmed through after you said spoilers, but when you said it made you cry I knew I'd be reading it. Consider it added to my list.

    Maybe THAT is the next smackdown. The best book that made you cry. With comfort food, obviously.

  6. Jennifer Zobair, that is an excellent idea for the next smackdown. I like it a lot!

  7. I was deciding if I should read through since you said spoilers, but I did read through because you know how my memory is. I like that "something" line! Where can you get millet? My father in law made us "poor man's rice" the other day, since he loves Chinese culture and explained to us that real poor man's rice in China is when the peasants would carry their bowls around town, begging for the leftover scraps from wealthier families. Then they'd all take their bowls back to their fire and pour everything into a big wok and cook it. It's good rice. We foraged in the fridge for leftovers, chopped it all up, and cooked it with rice. I doubt that's what millet is like. :)

  8. By the way, sorry it takes me so freaking long to get to your blog posts. I've been stupidly busy.