Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer

daytonasplendor's review

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more like 3.5 stars probably

steph_84's review against another edition

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This is indeed an ambitious book, both in regards to format (switching between styles and narrators) and content (family life, religion and finding meaning). It’s just so darn long: 571 pages in the edition I read and it’s just excessive. It would have been better as a more tightly-written and more focussed book of 250 pages.

There are some interesting ideas and themes: the cultural, emotional and historical roles that religion play for atheists, what makes or breaks a marriage, what it means to be a good person or live a good life; but often the anecdotes and D&Ms seem self-important or just rambley. Sometimes I felt like I was overhearing one of those slightly-drunken, overly-earnest conversations that uni students have at 1am as a houseparty is winding down. I’ve had enough of those in my life without needing to read them too. Ditto for the long strings of conversation where people are arguing or musing: they were like clips from real life but less interesting because they’re not real. Perhaps if the characters were more likeable we’d care more?

The best parts of the book were where the narrative was stronger, but even then there are scenes or ideas that seem like good opportunities but then disappear into nothing. For example, the most likeable characters for me were Billie and Noam, yet they only appear briefly and we don’t find out what happens to them.

In short: good ideas, no where near enough editing.

carola_janssen's review

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Een boek met lagen, een boek met humor, een boek met verdriet. Om vaker te lezen. Geen vijf sterren want net iets te irritant slimme kinderen in het boek.

mbdlopez's review

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“Nothing could matter more. Without context, we’d all be monsters.”

This was a really great book, though not for what I usually think about great books. It was the little things in this book that made it amazing! Just the small details about the family and all of their quirks. I felt like I was looking into each of their live as if they’d written a personal journal I’d somehow gotten a hold of. It is a long book (600 pages) with depths that span beyond what you need to know about the characters, but what you definitely are wanting more of by the end.

Let me start off by saying, one of Jonathan Safran Foer’s other novels ‘Everything is Illuminated’ is my favorite novels. So when I saw this book come out I was eager to pick it up. ‘Here I Am’ is a look into a modern Jewish family’s life. The novel starts off with a small story of one of their kids about to be barred from having his bar mitzvah because he was writing some horrific words in school. From there the story just follows the family over the years. It is epic in the most ordinary sense of the word, and I mean that in the best possible way. It is one of the most highlighted books on just the small details, showing Jonathan’s way of weaving a story with his in-depth knowledge of his characters and the intricate way he can craft sentences doesn’t disappoint!

I can pretty much say without hesitation, that I don’t think a general audience would enjoy this book, but for those who do, I think they will really enjoy it! If you are a fan of the book description and my take of what were some of the best parts of the novel, I’d say give it a shot!

mima345's review against another edition

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did not like it. Felt a little bit antiquated and mean.

laura_elane's review

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Well. I finished it this time. My god can JSF break my heart. I couldn't handle Argus (the dog). If animals are a tender spot for you, beware.

There was so much to this book. And yet so little at the same time. I didn't hate it, I didn't love it. But I finished it.

lucyannunwin's review against another edition

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I have a daughter. She’s five, and so endlessly smart, funny and good that Foer himself could have written her. But I’m constantly pulling her up on the slightest thing; a slump, a delay, a bit too much cheek. She’s just so very close - to what, I don’t know - that I feel the need to pick away at the little things. And so it is With Here I Am.

This is an epic, ambitious, stimulating, layered, witty and insightful book. It’s magnificent, truly. And yet.

The standards for Jonathan Safran Foer are considerably higher. Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close is a constant in my ever-changing top 5 books. And, as expected, Here I Am is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in years. But I still feel compelled to pick it apart. It has everything piled into it, but it’s at once too much and not enough, it’s painfully sharp but then seems lost in the fog of whatever point it’s trying to make, it picks such uncannily familiar emotions from the minutiae of everyday life, but it fails to actually connect with me emotionally. It's beautifully, effortlessly written, but feels in desperate need of a fearless edit.

The family at the centre of Here I Am are the Blochs. Successful, urbane couple Jacob and Julia - Jacob is a TV writer perpetually in need of reassurance, Julia an architect, but first and foremost a mum, expertly spinning plates and balancing the needs of their three beloved sons Sam, Max and Benjy while dreaming of escape. Jacob’s Dad Irv is a controversial political antagonist, his Mum Deborah the calm port in the storm, his grandfather Isaac the holocaust survivor contemplating suicide as his final life goals are completed and Argus the old dog as simultaneously loved and ignored as Isaac. There is also Jacob’s visiting Israeli cousin Tamir - at once comic relief and moral centre.

But the family are only half of this book. The title Here I Am refers to the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac - Abraham replies 'Here I am', and later, when Isaac questions why they have no animal for the sacrifice, calling out “my father,” Abraham repeats the phrase, ‘Here I Am’. Sam’s interpretation of the story - delivered at the Bat Mitzvah speech of his Latina alter-ego in online game world ‘Other Life’ - is that Abraham wants to be fully present for both his God and his son, even though, in the circumstances, that is impossible.

A parent’s relationship with their child, an individual’s relationship with God; family and Judaism. These are the two threads at the centre of this book, and for the Bloch family, as with Abraham, the two are inextricable, competing as they feed into each other. Jacob is grappling with his identity in both those arenas. His marriage is falling apart - triggered by some secret and salacious sexts, but essentially for no greater reason than ennui and drift, and so is Israel, via more dramatic means in the form of an imagined devastating earthquake that triggers war.

Of the two threads, I found the family storyline by far the stronger. I loved the Bloch family and I cared about their disintegration. Foer’s take on family life is subtle, fascinating and tender. I ached over every gap in communication, every wall erected needlessly between characters, every insult that fell harder than intended. More than once I couldn’t resist reading a quote to my husband as it was such an interesting angle either on marriage or parenting. I’ve made mental notes of some of their charming romantic constructs to use in my own life. The dialogue is amazing, and I frequently laughed out loud - although admittedly loudest when 5 yr-old Benjy is pestering the grown ups to explain what the n-word is, and his grandma Deborah decisively tells him ‘noodle.’ You have to be there.

I was less sold on the Israel /Judaism thread. Maybe I’m simply the wrong audience to wring all the power from this; while I’m fascinated by the insight into a culture I don’t know enough about, I’m not emotionally involved in that particular identity struggle. But in fact my issue is more with the fictional earthquake than the theology. The whole disaster happens off-stage and feels as though Foer needed something to peg an identity crisis on, so shoehorned in a natural disaster to provide a cultural challenge for Jacob to face up to: should he answer the call of the Israeli Prime Minister and return to his ‘homeland’ to fight? It felt overly constructed and artificial, leaving the cracks of the story showing and distancing you from the narrative.

It‘s that sense of distance that niggled at me throughout the book. It is all so self-conscious and self-aware. In addition to his day-job, Jacob has written an unshared TV show based on his family life. As the book progresses it shifts nebulously between Jacob’s ‘real’ life, and the parallel tv script. It’s hard to resist the temptation to assume a third layer - the TV show sitting within the book, sitting within Foer’s own life - and just like that you are outside the book, analysing rather than experiencing. It’s just too self-conscious to lose yourself in.

There is a certain self-importance too. Or is it just an importance? Am I doing it another disservice? This is an ambitious book. It has EVERYTHING in it. It feels like the book to end a very talented authors career, his masterwork. But despite the number of pages, it’s a little too rushed. He needs it to to be War and Peace to deliver all of his messages through the story rather than from the soapbox. Instead we get JSF’s intriguing personal philosophy in quote-able form, often in a speech.

So, while intellectually fascinating, that distance meant it didn’t emotionally connect. I cared about the Blochs, but I was pulled too far away from them, sat next to Jonathan Safran Foer - in awe of him and listening with interest to his analysis of his characters, but not feeling their pain. There are places in the book where I would have expected, if only because of personal resonance, to be sobbing uncontrollably. But I got to the end without a single tear - not my preferred result. People who dislike Foer’s previous work, seem to find it kitschly sentimental and too shameless with the heartstrings (especially the precocious children.) But I love that bit. I want my life lessons to seep in unnoticed as I’m swept away with love for the characters. In Here I Am Foer has kept all the precociousness, but lost the lovability.

And that’s the difference between Here I Am and my wonderful daughter. Of course I love her and care about her while picking at her flaws, but for all its brilliance, I’m not sure I care quite enough about this book. But we’re still talking about niggling flaws in a great book. For a review of a Jonathan Safran Foer book, it may only get 3 stars, but for a book in the context of all the other books I’ve read this year it still gets 5.

lilgranolabar32's review against another edition

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emotional funny reflective slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


While reading the book, i thought i ought to give it a five star rating, but now that i finished i see a few flaws. 
I didn't necessarily like the portrayal of the israelian destruction, it made me feel uneasy reading it (maybe that was the point) but for me it kind of destroyed the atmosphere of the book. 
It is remarkable how JSF can catch the feelings and spirit of a family on so many levels in his words. 
I particularly love the way the children are written. So relialistic, heartwarming/breaking and funny.

I think this book is worth a re-read in a few years.

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lyde_'s review

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challenging emotional funny inspiring reflective sad medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? N/A
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


bethcgreenberg's review

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Loved this on so many levels.