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Jonathan Franzen arrived late, and last, in a family of boys in Webster Groves, Missouri. The Discomfort Zone is his intimate memoir of his growth from a "small and fundamentally ridiculous person," through an adolescence both excruciating and strangely happy, into an adult with embarrassing and unexpected passions. It's also a portrait of a middle-class family weathering Jonathan Franzen arrived late, and last, in a family of boys in Webster Groves, Missouri. The Discomfort Zone is his intimate memoir of his growth from a "small and fundamentally ridiculous person," through an adolescence both excruciating and strangely happy, into an adult with embarrassing and unexpected passions. It's also a portrait of a middle-class family weathering the turbulence of the 1970s, and a vivid personal history of the decades in which America turned away from its midcentury idealism and became a more polarized society. The story Franzen tells here draws on elements as varied as the explosive dynamics of a Christian youth fellowship in the 1970s, the effects of Kafka's fiction on his protracted quest to lose his virginity, the elaborate pranks that he and his friends orchestrated from the roof of his high school, his self-inflicted travails in selling his mother's house after her death, and the web of connections between his all-consuming marriage, the problem of global warming, and the life lessons to be learned in watching birds. These chapters of a Midwestern youth and a New York adulthood are warmed by the same combination of comic scrutiny and unqualified affection that characterize Franzen's fiction, but here the main character is the author himself. Sparkling, daring, arrestingly honest, The Discomfort Zone narrates the formation of a unique mind and heart in the crucible of an everyday American family.


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Jonathan Franzen arrived late, and last, in a family of boys in Webster Groves, Missouri. The Discomfort Zone is his intimate memoir of his growth from a "small and fundamentally ridiculous person," through an adolescence both excruciating and strangely happy, into an adult with embarrassing and unexpected passions. It's also a portrait of a middle-class family weathering Jonathan Franzen arrived late, and last, in a family of boys in Webster Groves, Missouri. The Discomfort Zone is his intimate memoir of his growth from a "small and fundamentally ridiculous person," through an adolescence both excruciating and strangely happy, into an adult with embarrassing and unexpected passions. It's also a portrait of a middle-class family weathering the turbulence of the 1970s, and a vivid personal history of the decades in which America turned away from its midcentury idealism and became a more polarized society. The story Franzen tells here draws on elements as varied as the explosive dynamics of a Christian youth fellowship in the 1970s, the effects of Kafka's fiction on his protracted quest to lose his virginity, the elaborate pranks that he and his friends orchestrated from the roof of his high school, his self-inflicted travails in selling his mother's house after her death, and the web of connections between his all-consuming marriage, the problem of global warming, and the life lessons to be learned in watching birds. These chapters of a Midwestern youth and a New York adulthood are warmed by the same combination of comic scrutiny and unqualified affection that characterize Franzen's fiction, but here the main character is the author himself. Sparkling, daring, arrestingly honest, The Discomfort Zone narrates the formation of a unique mind and heart in the crucible of an everyday American family.

30 review for The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    I spent the weekend at the beach, but I thought I might wind up enjoying something, so I brought along the gloomiest Gus in town, Jonathan Franzen. Here's the thing. Franzen is the only mainstream American culture (he's been on Oprah and the cover of Time, and as far as I'm concerned that puts him at Miley Cyrus levels of mainstream for the middle-aged, -class, and-Western) who actually spits venom at the system. I appreciate this. Here he unleashes his rage against himself and his various insecur I spent the weekend at the beach, but I thought I might wind up enjoying something, so I brought along the gloomiest Gus in town, Jonathan Franzen. Here's the thing. Franzen is the only mainstream American culture (he's been on Oprah and the cover of Time, and as far as I'm concerned that puts him at Miley Cyrus levels of mainstream for the middle-aged, -class, and-Western) who actually spits venom at the system. I appreciate this. Here he unleashes his rage against himself and his various insecurities. And as someone who was likewise an oversensitive youth in Middle America, I should empathize. But instead I see all my least attractive traits on the page. And Franzen is enumerating those unattractive traits as his unattractive traits. I don't need to read that. And then he mopes about girls he crushed over at a distance as a teenager. This is a bad habit I mostly, successfully purged. Yet somehow he felt the need to publish this, while at the same time, thankfully, thankfully-- and how afraid I was he was going to go there-- sparing us the story of losing his virginity. He might as well have though. Harumph. There were some good parts in this, some parts that would have made outstanding essays in their own right. But as a whole, I just really didn't give much of a shit.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sasha Martinez

    In which I tell Jonathan Franzen to stop trying to distract me with goddamned ducks, dammit: (Why not call it essays? Or a memoir? Because Franzen is at pains to show you what a cool cat he is, that’s why.) Franzen’s a different animal here, is all I can say—or, perhaps more aptly: I come to strange realizations about the big grump I’ve always loved. I was drawn to The Discomfort Zone because he can be so incisive about his family [see his other essays in How to Be Alone and in Farther Away, whic In which I tell Jonathan Franzen to stop trying to distract me with goddamned ducks, dammit: (Why not call it essays? Or a memoir? Because Franzen is at pains to show you what a cool cat he is, that’s why.) Franzen’s a different animal here, is all I can say—or, perhaps more aptly: I come to strange realizations about the big grump I’ve always loved. I was drawn to The Discomfort Zone because he can be so incisive about his family [see his other essays in How to Be Alone and in Farther Away, which I read and enjoyed in last year’s blog-coma] and, consequently, himself; that is, I saw The Discomfort Zone as a back door into The Corrections and partly into Freedom. This is Franzen, I told myself, unadorned—no excuse of fiction to cover it up. This is, perhaps, the curmudgeon explained, if obliquely. (Why do you read memoirs, Sasha?) Reading The Discomfort Zone, however, I’m reminded of how much I have always hated the man’s digressions. In The Corrections, it was Lithuanian shenanigans; in Freedom, it was the goddamned environment and the frakking birds everywhere. I understand now, however, that this is how Franzen’s mind works: Franzen, I’ve found, shies away from an indulgent narrative about families—about his family, here in particular. Snidely, I think: His essays need to have reach—they shouldn’t only be about the Franzens. And so: Family dynamics should naturally draw on Snoopy and its creator. An awkward adolescence—too enlightening, really: who knew Franzen was such a big dorkus?—dignified by an examination of the youth group he belonged to. Selling the house his mother had spent nearly a lifetime to build—a house full, no doubt, of his mother’s disappoints—should lead to a dissection of real estate in America. And, goddammit, troubles with his wife should veer into bird-watching in them good ol’ United States. Perhaps he’s living up to that irritating moniker, “a personal history”—that this wasn’t indulgent and navel-gazing, that this wasn’t a book of essays that focused merely on one’s self. This was broad; this tackled Big Issues. But come on, Jon: Your family is the story, your patent uncoolness is the story, your heartaches and your disappointments are the story. Stop trying to distract me with ducks, dammit. I loved him best when he let go, when he so baldly talked about what made him tick. I loved it when he was earnest, if clumsy: I’ve always maintained that Franzen possesses such heart, all the better because it is so unexpected—and it’s no different here. More of that, please. A tiny voice in my head sneers that this is just about what interests me. I tell that tiny voice that it is mostly right: I wanted a more personal Franzen—I found that in How to Be Alone, and I found that in about one and a half essays in The Discomfort Zone. What these have in common, aside from the family as touchstone: Language and literature, the wielding and the imbibing of. I will argue, though, that those remain personal. That is: I found a more personal Franzen than what we normally see and read. In much the same way I can’t seem to sever my private life from my reading life when I blab here, Franzen assures me that the books one devours and the life one tries so very hard to lead are intricately, if irrevocably, connected. So, you know: More of that, please. ____ [ cross-posted ]

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    I am perplexed by the New York Times reviewers’ antipathy to this book. I have always found Franzen to be a captivating essayist, and Discomfort Zone is no exception. Most distressing to his critics, it seems, is Discomfort Zone’s abundant narcissism--but I found the essays to be a reflection on youthful egotism from a mature and contrite remove. To the Times reviewers, Franzen’s description of his family is sterile and unloving. His “disarming, sometimes misguided candor,” seems instead, to me, I am perplexed by the New York Times reviewers’ antipathy to this book. I have always found Franzen to be a captivating essayist, and Discomfort Zone is no exception. Most distressing to his critics, it seems, is Discomfort Zone’s abundant narcissism--but I found the essays to be a reflection on youthful egotism from a mature and contrite remove. To the Times reviewers, Franzen’s description of his family is sterile and unloving. His “disarming, sometimes misguided candor,” seems instead, to me, a genuine struggle to reconcile the myopic interiority of childhood (a common enough crime) and the smothering expectations and self-abnegation of his parents (again, common enough). Hilariously, the author resents his own liberal beliefs: he is bitter at his own convictions that he should moderate his material consumption and sacrifice to promote the welfare of others--sentiments I often intuit from the liberal community but never hear articulated. I found none of these confessions outsized or repugnant. If anything, I found Franzen’s view of himself and his family refreshingly healthy and honest: No family is free of resentment, and all resentment is rooted in a sense of entitlement. The essays are not contiguous. Each is an autonomous work; three of the five have appeared in the New Yorker. Each paints a picture of Franzen’s emotional development. The second, for example, describes a boy aware of his many sins but comically oblivious to the degrees by which they vary: “Just after summer vacation started, Toczko ran out into Grant Road and was killed by a car. What little I knew then about the world’s badness I knew mainly from a camping trip, some years earlier, when I’d dropped a frog into a campfire and watched it shrivel and roll down the flat side of a log... I felt guilty about Toczko. I felt guilty about the little frog. I felt guilty about shunning my mother’s hugs when she seemed to need them most. I felt guilty about the washcloths at the bottom of the stack in the linen closet, the older, thinner washcloths that we seldom used. I felt guilty for preferring my best shooter marbles, a solid red agate and a solid yellow agate, my king and my queen, to marbles father down my rigid marble hierarchy.” The most enticing thing about Franzen’s essays is his use of the objective correlative. In his early childhood, the author’s identification with Snoopy of the Peanuts comics conveys all we need to know about his buoyant and wicked playfulness. In his early adulthood, the author’s fascination with dark, psychological German literature dovetails his sexual preoccupations, his frustrated literary ambitions, and the realization of his parents’ frailty. In each essay, the objective correlative weaves neatly into the personal history, sometimes as a reprieve from the traditional narrative and sometimes as a momentum-building digression from it. It’s an effective mechanism, mostly light-hearted, sometimes nerdy, and almost always charming.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Michele

    A Mixed Bag I believe Jonathan Franzen fans will be both delighted and disappointed with this collection, The Discomfort Zone. It starts out very strong, showing off Franzen's remarkable vocabulary, storytelling ability, and his disregard for political-correctness. In a piece called, "House for Sale," Franzen tells what it feels like to take on the chore of emptying and selling what was his childhood home. Anyone who has faced the death of a parent and has undergone this emotional task will relat A Mixed Bag I believe Jonathan Franzen fans will be both delighted and disappointed with this collection, The Discomfort Zone. It starts out very strong, showing off Franzen's remarkable vocabulary, storytelling ability, and his disregard for political-correctness. In a piece called, "House for Sale," Franzen tells what it feels like to take on the chore of emptying and selling what was his childhood home. Anyone who has faced the death of a parent and has undergone this emotional task will relate to his musings, admissions, and actions. We get to know his mother in this opening tale and soon learn she is a central figure throughout the collection. At first her controlling nature seems relatively benign, when we learn she's written the classified ad meant to showoff her home--her most successful investment--in the best light. Having done extensive research on her St. Louis-area neighborhood prior to her death, she even suggests an asking price. Franzen uses this story to kick-off a theme, where he comes off as a continual disappointment to his strict, provincial parents and shows how his mother's "strong opinions" have deeply affected his life. The second entry, "Two Ponies," focuses on "Peanuts" cartoon creator Charles Schulz, and how Franzen related (or didn't relate) to the characters. He also relates to Schulz himself, particularly because of Schulz's feelings as an outsider while growing up. Additionally, I believe he admired Schulz for holding a grudge regarding his disdain for the label "Peanuts" placed upon his life's work. What I liked about "Two Ponies," is that I grew up reading this comic strip and could therefore relate to Franzen's story, and I liked the way the writing comes full circle. Unfortunately, for me the collection goes downhill from there. Long passages about a Fellowship church camp and its youth minister, "Mutton" . . . a tale about his high school "gang" attempting acts of vandalism, and too much German (translations included) during a semester abroad, seem to be written more for himself and the characters he portrays than the general public. Finally, with "My Bird Problem," Franzen is back on track. He offers political and personal takes on global warming, our country's energy policy, along with intimate revelations about his marriage and an ensuing relationship, and ultimately his passion for birding and what it has taught him about himself . . . and his mother. Readable in one day.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Corey

    Unless you are an employee of the New York Times, it has become uncool to admit to liking Jonathan Franzen. I don't know when Franzen's innate un-hipness became official. Was it when he announced his mixed feelings about his work being included in Oprah's book club? Was it when he wrote his essay on Edith Wharton--an article that would go on to become perhaps the most misunderstood piece of nonfiction in the last 10 years? Was it when he started bashing Kindles and Twitter? Was it, perhaps, when Unless you are an employee of the New York Times, it has become uncool to admit to liking Jonathan Franzen. I don't know when Franzen's innate un-hipness became official. Was it when he announced his mixed feelings about his work being included in Oprah's book club? Was it when he wrote his essay on Edith Wharton--an article that would go on to become perhaps the most misunderstood piece of nonfiction in the last 10 years? Was it when he started bashing Kindles and Twitter? Was it, perhaps, when he wrote an essay included in this collection, in which he professes in detail his love of bird-watching? Maybe it was when his latest essay was published, on his admiration of Karl Kraus and his disdain for Amazon (and, let's face it, implying that Jeff Bezos is the anti-christ was just a tad harsh). More likely, though, it was a culmination of all these things, as well as a few misguided editorial rants (written by people who have clearly not read Franzen's work) which heavily suggested Franzen is responsible for misogyny in the publishing industry. If you're into word association, some of the most common adjectives that come up when I talk with friends about Franzen are, in no particular order: "asshole," "pretentious," "technophobe," and, in so many words, "that guys who knew David Foster Wallace." In spite of all this, I have always had, and continue to have, a deep admiration of Franzen's work, and furthermore, I think the qualities I like most about what he does are displayed perfectly in this short collection of essays (which has, in my opinion, been mislabeled as a memoir, or, in Franzen's words, "A Personal History). It is the brutal honesty Franzen possesses and the beautiful articulation of alienation, of self-consciousness (without, unlike most of his contemporaries, implementing self-consciousness into his prose), of ineptitude and anxiety and shame and, perhaps most of all, guilt. The fearlessness required of anecdotes like the ones in this book, where, for instance, a pre-pubescent Franzen exposes himself to a pair of twin girls who just moved into the house next door, the bravery innate in a sentence like: "I'd finally started to love my mother near the end of her life, when she was undergoing a year of chemotherapy and radiation and living by herself." There is a sternness and a mad pursuit of what his old friend DFW would call "the capital-T Truth" which exists in all of Franzen's work, fiction and nonfiction, that I identify and sympathize with. And the fact that he is so misunderstood, that critics condescendingly refer to him as a "neo-Luddite," that he is ridiculed for his disregard for words not printed on a sheet of paper, and that his deep, unrelenting passion and concern for the world he lives in and for the people in it with him make it easier for people to laugh him off as a "Downer"--these are things that only prove to endear him further to me. There are, of course, more technical concrete reasons to love Franzen's work. His uncanny knack to see the hypocrisies and contradictions upon which modern society is founded, his nearly flawless prose, and his ability to create characters that feel all-too real to us (regardless of whether or not we like them, which is a topic for another day)--these are all good reasons to explore the man's work, and to tune out the critics whom, I suspect, mostly haven't read it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Lobstergirl

    Franzen is a good writer, but leaves you with that nagging feeling that you wouldn't like him if you met him. He's awfully self-absorbed. Still, I really enjoyed this dream he relates - and he seems to be aware there's much truth in it: “...I had a nightmare about the Averys’ sweet-tempered German shepherd, Ina. In the dream, as I was sitting on the floor in the Averys’ living room, the dog walked up to me and began to insult me. She said I was a frivolous, cynical, attention-seeking “fag” whose Franzen is a good writer, but leaves you with that nagging feeling that you wouldn't like him if you met him. He's awfully self-absorbed. Still, I really enjoyed this dream he relates - and he seems to be aware there's much truth in it: “...I had a nightmare about the Averys’ sweet-tempered German shepherd, Ina. In the dream, as I was sitting on the floor in the Averys’ living room, the dog walked up to me and began to insult me. She said I was a frivolous, cynical, attention-seeking “fag” whose entire life had been phony. I answered her frivolously and cynically and chucked her under the chin. She grinned at me with malice, as if to make clear that she understood me to the core. Then she sank her teeth into my arm. As I fell over backward, she went for my throat.”

  7. 5 out of 5

    Andra

    I read the New York Times’ review of The Discomfort Zone earlier today. The Times’ conclusion after reading was that Jonathan Franzen is hopelessly self-absorbed. I don’t disagree, but I don’t think that’s such a terrible thing. We’re all self-absorbed and at least Franzen had the good sense to use it for comedy. Anyways, onward with my review… I enjoyed learning more about Franzen as a person. I liked seeing how his personal experiences (fascination with birds, environmentalism, strange relations I read the New York Times’ review of The Discomfort Zone earlier today. The Times’ conclusion after reading was that Jonathan Franzen is hopelessly self-absorbed. I don’t disagree, but I don’t think that’s such a terrible thing. We’re all self-absorbed and at least Franzen had the good sense to use it for comedy. Anyways, onward with my review… I enjoyed learning more about Franzen as a person. I liked seeing how his personal experiences (fascination with birds, environmentalism, strange relationship with his mother, etc.) are echoed through his characters in his novels. It seems to me that Franzen uses his characters as a vehicle to express his own feelings and the character development in his fiction is much deeper than that in The Discomfort Zone. After reading stories about Franzen’s own interactions with his family, particularly his mother, I was reminded of his character Joey from the novel Freedom. I remember a particularly vivid scene where Joey, after a phone conversation with his mother Patty, begins to cry and looks for a nearby bush in which to hide himself. Joey’s conversation with his mother made him so upset that he was moved to tears, his stomach was unsettled and he felt he might have to vomit. That sort of raw emotion isn’t found in The Discomfort Zone. Franzen discusses the unhappiness he felt with himself at certain points in his life, at one point referring to himself as a “small and fundamentally ridiculous person”, but it’s obvious that even though he’s written a memoir, he’s keeping the truly revealing moments to himself. I really enjoyed Franzen’s reflections on his childhood and adolescence – there were moments that made me laugh out loud. For me, the most memorable parts of the book came with Franzen’s reflections on his love for the “Peanuts” comic strip. He wrote: “Like most of the nation’s ten-year-olds, I had a private, intense relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle. He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house.” Franzen continued later: “’Everything I do makes me feel guilty,’ says Charlie Brown. He’s at the beach, and he has just thrown a pebble into the water and Linus has commented, ‘Nice going… it took that rock four thousand years to get to shore, and now you’ve thrown it back.’ “… I felt guilty about shunning my mother’s hugs when she seemed to need them most. I felt guilty about the washcloths at the bottom of the stack in the linen closet, the older, thinner, washcloths that were seldom used. I felt guilty for preferring my best shooter marbles, a solid red agate and a solid yellow agate, my king and my queen, to marble further down my rigid marble hierarchy. I felt guilty about the board games that I didn’t like to play – Uncle Wiggily, U.S. Presidential Elections, Game of the States – and sometimes, when my friends weren’t around, I opened the boxes and examined the pieces in the hope of making the games feel less forgotten. I felt guilty about neglecting the stiff-limbed, scratchy-pelted Mr. Bear, who had no voice and didn’t mix well with the other animals. To avoid feeling guilty about them, too, I slept with one of them per night, according to a strict weekly schedule." That passage really reminded me of what it’s like to be a child and to feel ashamed for having the most innocent of preferences. Though The Discomfort Zone didn’t delve into adult emotions as well as his novels, I thought Franzen captured the feelings of a child perfectly.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    Franzen trying to dissect his own existence isn't quite as thrilling as Franzen dissecting the existence of the characters in his novels, but this definitely has its moments, and unlike so many memoir-ish books, this has no interest in romanticizing anything from out of the past, in fact when it works well, it does so because it reminds you that a mid-western, middle class upbringing (I'm telegraphing myself into this now) is usually just full of a lot of petty little triumphs and disappointment Franzen trying to dissect his own existence isn't quite as thrilling as Franzen dissecting the existence of the characters in his novels, but this definitely has its moments, and unlike so many memoir-ish books, this has no interest in romanticizing anything from out of the past, in fact when it works well, it does so because it reminds you that a mid-western, middle class upbringing (I'm telegraphing myself into this now) is usually just full of a lot of petty little triumphs and disappointments, and that genuinely formative experiences are usually few and far between, and almost never recognized as such at the time. It's also got some really great ruminations on the nesessity of isolation for the creative process, Charles Schultz, wildlife conservation, bird watching, the minor hypocrisies of being a middle aged, urban liberal, the really grotesque hypocrisies of being a neo-conservative anywhere, the creepy insularity of church youth groups, etc. Overall I found it by turns manic and poignant.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alicia

    Jonathan Franzen has come home to St Louis to get his parent's house ready to sell after the death of his mother. While he is waiting for it to sell he reflects on the significant moments of his life with particular emphasis on his childhood. The language in the book is beautiful and it is well constructed but for me, the characters were flat and uninteresting. For someone who has had such a rich and varied life and writes so well I think he could have come up with more interesting things to tal Jonathan Franzen has come home to St Louis to get his parent's house ready to sell after the death of his mother. While he is waiting for it to sell he reflects on the significant moments of his life with particular emphasis on his childhood. The language in the book is beautiful and it is well constructed but for me, the characters were flat and uninteresting. For someone who has had such a rich and varied life and writes so well I think he could have come up with more interesting things to talk about. Even when his marriage is in trouble there is such a sense of distance that it is hard to care about the outcome. I found myself having to force my attention back to the story time and time again. On so many levels this is a lovely book but in the end I just didn't care enough. If I hadn't been reading it for the committee I probably would have stopped reading it at some point along the way.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Eva

    The start is very strong. Author uses his remarkable vocabulary, storytelling ability, and his disregard for political-correctness. The book is divided in five chapters and in first Franzen describes in detail how he chose the wrong realtor to sell his mother's house. I believe he uses this start as an introduction where tries to bring a reader closer to his continual disappointment over strict, provincial parents and how mother's opinions have deeply influenced his life. Franzen reflects back to The start is very strong. Author uses his remarkable vocabulary, storytelling ability, and his disregard for political-correctness. The book is divided in five chapters and in first Franzen describes in detail how he chose the wrong realtor to sell his mother's house. I believe he uses this start as an introduction where tries to bring a reader closer to his continual disappointment over strict, provincial parents and how mother's opinions have deeply influenced his life. Franzen reflects back to his childhood with the next chapter "Two Ponies". He is telling about "Peanuts" and its creator Charles Schulz, and how is he related to these characters. At some point he also relates to Schulz himself, particularly because of Schulz's feelings as an outsider whiles growing up. I liked this chapter because story telling is sweet/bitter/sarcastic and entertaining. Unfortunately, for me the book goes a bit downhill from there to the next chapters. Long passages about a Fellowship church camp were boring on a moment, with exception a tale about his high school gang adventures of vandalism. Furthermore the part of his German during a semester abroad and his college years were interesting to me. He describes his growing 'love/interest/criticism' to this language and its literature. I like it because it's full of wavering, grave consideration on the beginning, but then the debates with his professor Avery and colleagues ripped his opinion. Finally, with "My Bird Problem," Franzen beat the spirit of the book. For me this was the most boring part. Bird chasing all over the country, description of rare species, its extinction, the world climate changes,...For some bird fans I believe this one would be enjoyable, but not for me so far. However, this was the first book I read from him. I think it is not a very good choice reading his biography first. Since he got a National Book Award for The Corrections, maybe this would be better choice for a start.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kat

    All my books nowadays come from the English section of the library in Oslo, so a smaller selection than I've ever experienced. I chose this book only for it's title. And I knew I'd heard of Franzen, but couldn't remember what. The book travels through time while the main character, who seems to be Franzen himself,remembers his childhood, his teenage years, young adulthood, adulthood when his mother died, his divorce, his subsequent relationship and eventual immersion in bird watching as a hobby. All my books nowadays come from the English section of the library in Oslo, so a smaller selection than I've ever experienced. I chose this book only for it's title. And I knew I'd heard of Franzen, but couldn't remember what. The book travels through time while the main character, who seems to be Franzen himself,remembers his childhood, his teenage years, young adulthood, adulthood when his mother died, his divorce, his subsequent relationship and eventual immersion in bird watching as a hobby. The story was engaging, the writing was good, and I had to look up a few words, which I always appreciate, but the book also sometimes felt overly self-interested. I was a bit surpised, as I thought it was a work of fiction and his style has the fiction feel, but really it seems to be autobiographical. Franzen is introspective and anyone studying psychology appreciates a good look into someone's mind. There's something nice about hearing about awkward teenagers and how people magically grow up and "escape" into adulthood. When I hear stories spanning from adolescence to adulthood , I usually feel relief, as if getting to adulthood has finally and mysteriously rid the person of any aches, but of course on second thought, we mostly just carry these experiences with us for the rest of our lives. Reading stories like this helps me to remember that everyone has something they carry, whether it was being shunned in the school cafeteria, a violent home, too much focus on football, neglect, or bad skin. It helps me to humanize everyone and I value that.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Tina

    I've only recently become aware that Jonathan Franzen exists, so when I saw this book at my local bookstore for the price of a meagre 3 euros, I sort of had to buy it. Tbh, I wouldn't have minded paying a bit more now that I've read it. It's a great book all in all. Franzen gives us a relatable look at his early life; he explores and portrays the Franzen family dynamics, proclaims his love for the Peanuts (esp. Snoopy), recalls his boyhood antics, talks about his non-existent sex life as a young I've only recently become aware that Jonathan Franzen exists, so when I saw this book at my local bookstore for the price of a meagre 3 euros, I sort of had to buy it. Tbh, I wouldn't have minded paying a bit more now that I've read it. It's a great book all in all. Franzen gives us a relatable look at his early life; he explores and portrays the Franzen family dynamics, proclaims his love for the Peanuts (esp. Snoopy), recalls his boyhood antics, talks about his non-existent sex life as a young adult and yes, there is even a section dedicated to his love of German literature (every German lit major should read that part, tbh). The style is amazing and the story flows seamlessly, although the changes in the timeline can sometimes be quite abrupt. I loved reading it and I would have given it 5 stars if it were not for the last 20-30 pages. I was really engrossed in reading about his personal life, yet in the end he basically (more or less) just talks about observing birds in probably every US state and he becomes so obsessed with watching them that he secretly takes time off his work to continue this peculiar hobby. God, I wasn't ever a big fan of birds, but now I feel like I hate them with a passion. Maybe I'm overreacting, but that part really bugged me. I would still recommend it tho.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Petra-X

    I enjoyed some of the stories of him as a kid, especially the Christian stuff, less so his school exploits. However, I am not a fan of writer-as-hero books with context, and other characters, left fuzzy, and so I found the book mostly pretty tedious.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    Enjoyed it even though I didn't know the author beforehand, which is the mark of a good bio.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Alysa Craigie

    Horribly depressing. Well-written, though.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Koen Crolla

    I've been reading far too many memoirs and autobiographies for someone who's on record as hating them. For this one, my specific aim was to establish if an anonymous inquirer was right in believing me to have been too generous in my review of The Corrections. Regrettably, I was unable to answer this question with certainty, The Discomfort Zone not being a straightforward autobiography or memoir so much as an elaborate attempt on Franzen's part of proving himself not to be the most boring person I've been reading far too many memoirs and autobiographies for someone who's on record as hating them. For this one, my specific aim was to establish if an anonymous inquirer was right in believing me to have been too generous in my review of The Corrections. Regrettably, I was unable to answer this question with certainty, The Discomfort Zone not being a straightforward autobiography or memoir so much as an elaborate attempt on Franzen's part of proving himself not to be the most boring person in the world. It's a small comfort that Franzen didn't succeed in his mission either; in fact, he may be the most intensely dull person on the planet, to the point where I can't imagine what possessed him to write a memoir, or his publisher to publish it. He's the living embodiment of the stereotypical inoffensive, sheltered, self-absorbed Midwestern liberal who moved to the East Coast to partake in uninteresting gentrification, who seems to be oblivious to the fact that there's absolutely nothing remarkable about him. He believes ― or desperately wants to believe ― his various insecurities and neuroses make him interesting, pointing to other, arguably more interesting people who also had insecurities and neuroses; it doesn't work that way. He commits various small sins against what he believes to be mainstream liberalism, unaware that his kind of lack of integrity is precisely what has defined American liberalism for decades, and as such isn't interesting so much as tediously expected. He takes up birding, of all things, because... well, I'm not sure. The only message I got from the whole thing is that Franzen is mildly autistic, which, again, isn't interesting (it's almost fashionable). It's certainly true that I'd much rather live in a world peopled by people like Franzen than in one full of some of the other people whose autobiographies I've read over the years, but that's as far as it goes. At least it helped me make up my mind about whether I should read Freedom. (The answer is no.)

  17. 5 out of 5

    Gregory

    I read a few of the reviews of "A Personal History" before writing and saw all the protesting that he didn't just say memoir, or, essays; my suggestion for a title, for at least the first three stories, is "The Roast of Jonathan Franzen, a Roast, by Jonathan Franzen." "Jonathan Franzen seems like the kinda guy who's mom wouldn't let him wear jeans in high school. Jonathan Franzen seems like the kinda nerd guy who tried to build a physics planned catapult unsuccessfully for a school prank in high I read a few of the reviews of "A Personal History" before writing and saw all the protesting that he didn't just say memoir, or, essays; my suggestion for a title, for at least the first three stories, is "The Roast of Jonathan Franzen, a Roast, by Jonathan Franzen." "Jonathan Franzen seems like the kinda guy who's mom wouldn't let him wear jeans in high school. Jonathan Franzen seems like the kinda nerd guy who tried to build a physics planned catapult unsuccessfully for a school prank in high school. Jonathan Franzen seems like the kinda guy who quit listening to a band he really liked because Rolling Stone magazine said people who listen to them are the kinda people who say "I Love You" to one night stands Jonathan Franzen seems like the kinda guy who puts a map of his heart on his collection of personal essays." **** Jonathan Franzen is very self-aware about how dumb and shitty young men can be and didn't really try and separate himself all high-and-mighty. The Jonathan Franzen in some of these books is the shitty guy who pretends to really care about your relationship problems with your shitty boyfriend just to listen but doesn't really listen or want to help at all and just kinda wants you to break up and have sex with him instead. Writing something along the lines of "when I ended my marriage and started hooking up with a 27 year old I started REALLY HAVING FUN" just seems to be there to hurt his ex-wife if she read it lol. Which is an insane petty move that I hate equally as much as I like. His realistic musings on whether or not certain hobbies or characteristics he's developed would help and fix former relationships is so nostalgic and pure it is easy to be infatuated with how pure he can seem at points. The final personal essay juxtaposing his marriage collapse with his undertaking of bird watching is 6 stars out of 5, it is a perfect blend of comedy and heartbreak and hope that the likes of a very select few outside of David Sedaris can get at & just based off that story I recommend this to anyone.

  18. 4 out of 5

    RE de Leon

    There really wasn't any reason for me to read Franzen. His settings tend towards suburban America like the plague. And I normally I avoid suburban America. But a friend wanted me to read and review it. So I picked it up, read it, liked it, and predictably I'm uncomfortable about the fact that I did. There is so much hear that resonates with my own life, and I suspect, the lives of many who were raised the Hollywood-driven global culture. Awkward-but-still-close family ties, the thousand faux pas- There really wasn't any reason for me to read Franzen. His settings tend towards suburban America like the plague. And I normally I avoid suburban America. But a friend wanted me to read and review it. So I picked it up, read it, liked it, and predictably I'm uncomfortable about the fact that I did. There is so much hear that resonates with my own life, and I suspect, the lives of many who were raised the Hollywood-driven global culture. Awkward-but-still-close family ties, the thousand faux pas-es of growing up, memories of things you used to believe in, wasted hours of your life on... it was cathartic for me, in some good ways, and in some bad ways. Being able to examine Franzen's growing-up background as described here helped me understand why I'm such a constipated writer, and helped me further understand the discomforts inherent to the self-disclosure inherent in the act of writing. So, this book is discomforting. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe that's a bad thing. That probably depends on where you are in your life as you read it. Either way, it's a worthwhile read, if only to help you emotionally explore the alienation inherent to modern living. Specific note for my network: If you're a Philippine-based Filipino reader, a warning - this is a very American book. Probably not for you unless like me you grew up in Hollywood by virtue of Television, books, and private school education. In fact here's how I sum it up. Take this book, and then merge it with Bob Ong's ABNKKBSNPLKO, and you've described my growing up years. If you read THAT book, and you don't feel it skipped out on the western aspect of your growing up years, this book is likely not particularly relevant. Just reading ABNKKBSNPLKO and Stainless Longganisa will probably serve you well enough. RE de Leon Agoo, La Union 8:17 PM January 7, 2011

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jesse

    Last week I was reading Andrei Codrescu's Involuntary Genius at home and listening to Franzen's Discomfort Zone at work. There isn't a doubt in my mind that Codrescu has lead the better life. It kills me that it's Franzen I can relate to. Why, why, why does my heart sink into my stomach when I'm faced with the brands of soy milk that I never buy? Why do I make a ceremony of apologizing to things before throwing them away? Where does this guilt come from? It has to be our least useful emotion. Do Last week I was reading Andrei Codrescu's Involuntary Genius at home and listening to Franzen's Discomfort Zone at work. There isn't a doubt in my mind that Codrescu has lead the better life. It kills me that it's Franzen I can relate to. Why, why, why does my heart sink into my stomach when I'm faced with the brands of soy milk that I never buy? Why do I make a ceremony of apologizing to things before throwing them away? Where does this guilt come from? It has to be our least useful emotion. Does this have anything to do with a suburban upbringing? I feel like a college freshman for even suggesting it. Does this have to do with the power of advertising? With cartoons? Franzen's writing on his childhood and adolescence is great but the portions of the book that deal with his adult life generally seem rushed and lacking in perspective. The first 2/3 of this book is highly recommended and I'd love to see Franzen's revise that last 1/3 some twenty years down the line.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mel

    I love his fiction, but hot damn this one was a tedious read. Some moments of brilliance, but for the most part this was self-satisfied self-indulgence that felt oh so clever. I'll stick to Franzen's fiction.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Feisty Harriet

    I firmly believe that every examined life can be interesting...Franzen seems determined to believe that, upon examination, his middle-class midwestern upbringing is dull as balls. And I'm sad to say that he made me believe that too. Skip.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Edward

    This collection of six personal essays about Franzen's life opens with a very funny one describing the selling of his deceased parents' house, and closes with one that talks about his mother's last days. The middle four are about his adolescent schooldays, and in a sense they are preliminaries to the first and last essays. Franzen writes in the fourth esaay, "Adolescence is best enjoyed without self-consciousness, but self-consciousness, unfortunately, is its leading symptom. Even when something This collection of six personal essays about Franzen's life opens with a very funny one describing the selling of his deceased parents' house, and closes with one that talks about his mother's last days. The middle four are about his adolescent schooldays, and in a sense they are preliminaries to the first and last essays. Franzen writes in the fourth esaay, "Adolescence is best enjoyed without self-consciousness, but self-consciousness, unfortunately, is its leading symptom. Even when something important happens to you, even when your heart's getting crushed or exalted, even when you're absorbed in building the foundations of a personality, there come these moments when you're aware that what's happening is not the real story. Unless you actually die, the real story is still ahead of you." I find that one of the key sentences in this book. Franzen, while he always writes about himself, is looking back on his experiences with a slight detachment. He knows that he was often inexperienced and naive, but his early life would be reshaped and re-interpreted by his older middle-aged self. There is a sense, then, of trying out things, seeing what would work and what wouldn't. For example, there were the pranks he played at school, his competition with an older brother, a father who took a dim view of his early ambitions to be a writer - all of them made him who he is age 45. The last essay, "My Bird Problem" brings his life to the present. The "problem" revolves around the ending of several parts of his life. His marriage is coming to an end, earth's ecological health seems to moving toward an bad concljsion, and his mother is dying of cancer. He becomes interested in bird watching, almost in reaction to these events. He writes, "A glimpse of dense brush or rocky shoreline gave me an infatuated feeling, a sense of the world being full of possibility. There were new birds to look for everywhere . . ." The "problem" is that he begins to wonder what is the point of having seen so many birds (400 species) when so many birds may be threatened by extinction. And that makes him think of his doomed mother who was cheerful and hopeful to the end, despite debilitating pain. When he would come home, she would always say, "So? So what did you see?" It's fitting that his mother has the final influence on him.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Michael Shaw

    Franzen remains his brilliant self in this memoir. I found it less powerful than his tear-inducing novels, but in some ways more poignant in it's reality. His stories, like his novels, ring true. While I can't say he's always a good person, and I wish that I do not share some of the flaws he so exhibits, the work resonates with my own life experiences. Short, and well worth it's

  24. 5 out of 5

    Max Levin

    This was terrific. Whenever I read Jonathan Franzen, I think to myself that he's the best writer I've read. Was interesting to learn about parts of his life that obviously inspired characters and events in his novels.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Mirko

    A little too divergent, uncoherent to track by, with boring parts.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Miriam Jacobs

    Franzen remembers and is not too embarrassed to talk about the 70s in way I haven't encountered. He doesn't say much about writing, however, and the book doesn't really end but simply stops.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Max

    This was terrific. Whenever I read Jonathan Franzen, I think to myself that he's the best writer I've read. Was interesting to learn about parts of his life that obviously inspired characters and events in his novels.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Louis

    I started reading Jonathan Franzen, it seemed, because I could no longer resist the world's infatuation with "The Corrections." I was a fruit-loop for Oprah's book club and had resisted the book for years merely because Franzen had resisted Oprah when she attempted to make it part of her Club. "What an arrogant fool," I'm sure I defensively muttered. For though I never watch Oprah, her books are amazing. So I took up a pretentious opinion of all things Franzen-esque.But I read "The Corrections" I started reading Jonathan Franzen, it seemed, because I could no longer resist the world's infatuation with "The Corrections." I was a fruit-loop for Oprah's book club and had resisted the book for years merely because Franzen had resisted Oprah when she attempted to make it part of her Club. "What an arrogant fool," I'm sure I defensively muttered. For though I never watch Oprah, her books are amazing. So I took up a pretentious opinion of all things Franzen-esque.But I read "The Corrections" and it was superb. No. It was sensationally superb. So I discarded my ridiculous facade. I listened to "How to Be Alone" on a roadtrip between Kansas and New York. Looking at the case's cover, I answered that question in my brain: "just drive through the Midwest, dummy." The backroads (even the tollroads) of the Midwest are the American epitome of emptiness. That trip was phenomenal, though. I encountered some of the most beautiful terrain throughout the upper Midwest, lower Ontario and upstate New York. Hearing him speak "to me" about his family life made me feel like I had a wonderful friend along for the ride--despite the fact that I was taking complete pleasure in my own isolation.* * *Now when I read Franzen, I'm always shocked to remember that he's not in his late-20s, gay, a little OCD and...well...me. I get so caught up in how much I embody his stories: feel them as if they were my own. His writing captures the idiosyncratic (forgive me, I'm calling myself idiosyncratic), anxious, ranting, bookish life I simultaneously try to avoid and espouse. But of course he's different. He's experienced some serious ups and downs that I hope never to encounter. Yet, I can't always resist the self-involvement of reading some of his passages in my own voice.Perhaps this passage from page 189--where he's speaking of birds--best summarizes my own embattled connection to Franzen: "I've been told that it was bad to anthropomorphize, but I could no longer remember why. It was, in any case, anthropomorphic only to see yourself in other species, not to see them in yourself."How often do we see ourselves in songs about love, plays laced with tragedy, books examining neuroses? Everyday, surely. And how often do we allow ourselves to descend into those stories as if they were our own; as if entering a scene as a bystander, watching the drama unfold: mute friends witnessing the scene? We cry at movies though they're fictional and have little real consequence to our actual lives.Self-awareness is crucial to Franzen's journey. And via his probes for understanding, I become aware of how much I'm clinging to other species (whether writers or penguins) for advice and equanimity. Though I can't help but wonder: maybe Franzen's crucial to my journey, too.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mowey Godoyzki

    recently, there's this period of time in my life when something's not going right. during which i decided to read Franzen to see if it would get me through the night. exactly the reason why i thank literature so much, cos it did every time. when other people chose to waste up at clubs to try to be cool & be seen, i was lying in my bed reading Franzen, & it's like the feeling of home, comfortable. it's like a pet you come home to after a long, tiring day. loyal, uncomplaining. The Discomfort Zone recently, there's this period of time in my life when something's not going right. during which i decided to read Franzen to see if it would get me through the night. exactly the reason why i thank literature so much, cos it did every time. when other people chose to waste up at clubs to try to be cool & be seen, i was lying in my bed reading Franzen, & it's like the feeling of home, comfortable. it's like a pet you come home to after a long, tiring day. loyal, uncomplaining. The Discomfort Zone is a memoir, & Jonathan's life is so fucking rad & interesting in its hilarity & reality. it's the smart, thinking guy's personal history. just when i thought i had it bad, i read how Franzen recounts his bittersweet life & it made me feel better. i wish i think the way this guy thinks. funny at times but no non-sense. personal yet identifiable. his own life's dissertation is very unsentimental & frank, written in a lyrical way. his influence on Jeffrey Eugenides is very visible in the sense that The Marriage Plot is Franzen's sort of real-life adolescence. this guy, who loves Narnia books & J.R.R. Tolkien, who's incorporated Kafka & Freud in his own effed-up life, blossomed into his own version of this novelist who is unapologetic & very spot-on with his observation of the modern times. with this piece, he achieved being hip without deliberately meaning to. never mind how people call Franzen an "elitist". you don't blame this man either for boycotting Oprah Winfrey on her own talkshow to discuss his book, or for dissing Facebook, Twitter or any form of social media that promotes the disintegration of one's person or the misrepresentation of what's real & there. he is his own person. the wiring of this man's intellect is sound and authentic. he is the real deal. and then there's this sentences that mirror your own: "But when does the real story start? At forty five, I feel grateful almost daily to be the adult I wished I could be when I was seventeen. I work on my arm strength at the gym; I've become pretty good with tools. At the same time, almost daily, I lose battles with the seventeen-year-old who's still inside me. I eat half a box of Oreos for lunch, I binge on TV, I make sweeping moral judgments, I run around town in torn jeans, I drink martinis on a Tuesday night, I stare at beer-commercial cleavage, I define as uncool any group to which I can't belong, I feel the urge to key Range Rovers and slash their tires; I pretend I'm never going to die." it is the perfect combination of elegiac, comical, cerebral and ironic journey of a " true male" from boyhood to manhood.a must read.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ann

    Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections, the 2001 National Book Award for fiction winner. He has also written two other novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion along with a book of essays How To Be Alone. Mr. Franzen’s books are rich with truth, his truth. In The Discomfort Zone the reader gets a glimpse inside his life through six personal essays. The book opens with "House For Sale." This chronicles the experience of the sale of his family home after his mother’s death. It gives insigh Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections, the 2001 National Book Award for fiction winner. He has also written two other novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion along with a book of essays How To Be Alone. Mr. Franzen’s books are rich with truth, his truth. In The Discomfort Zone the reader gets a glimpse inside his life through six personal essays. The book opens with "House For Sale." This chronicles the experience of the sale of his family home after his mother’s death. It gives insight into his mother and father, their relationship with each other and him, and the emotional ties to home base. The description of a visit to Disney World with his parents when he was a teenager brings his experience of closing out his mother’s affairs full circle. In this portion, Jonathan has chosen to ride the merry-go-round just to make his parents happy. “My mother seemed to me hideously conformist and hopelessly obsessed with money and appearances; my father seemed to me allergic to every kind of fun. I didn’t want the things they wanted. I didn’t value what they valued. And we were all equally sorry to be riding the merry-go-round, and were all equally at a loss to explain what had happened to us.” One of the best essays within this collection is "Centrally Located." It is the story of a prank involving Franzen, his friends, their high school, a flagpole, and steel-belted radials. I leave the reader to find out what happens. But I will say the essay is complete with illustrations. I do want to give the reader a preview of the rich description that brought this essay alive for this reviewer. Mr. Knight is the high school principal. “Mr. Knight was a red-haired, red-bearded, Nordic-looking giant. He had a sideways, shambling way of walking, with frequent pauses to hitch up his pants, and he stood with the stooped posture of a man who spent his days listening to smaller people.” I was delighted to see that the artwork from the hard back book carried over to the soft back. It is so central to this collection. It is a heart-shaped map of this group of personal stories. It adds to the pleasure of the read. The Discomfort Zone would make an excellent stocking stuffer for that reader in the family. I highly recommend this collection of memories told in such an artistic manner.

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