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I read this author on impulse, as I had heard that he had been described as a 'great' American writer. May be I selected the wrong book to determine whether he is or isn't a great writer, but I found him pretentious, unfocused and overly verbose. I do not consider it good writing, to describe something in a way that the reader needs to be constantly referring to a dictionary, in order to understand it. The book was erratic and skipped from one uninteresting subject to another, without any real understanding of what he was trying to achieve. It seemed like a scrapbook of memories, that he thought the reader might be interested in. I was not. The book depicted him as spoiled, wealthy with a puerile sense of humour. A writer, I guess so but, Great, surely not.
Jonathan Franzen became my favourite author after I read "The Corrections" - and read it again and again. The book is so deeply layered and each section so valuable and intertwined with the others that it is a pleasure to reread, but what appeals before all else is Franzen's breathtaking style. In "The Discomfort Zone" he is playful, self-deprecating; he solicits our compassion and makes us cringe and laugh along with his younger self. There were so many great lines and great passages that I took to reading it with a pen in hand to underline things. I would definitely recommend this to any fan of Franzen's work.
Ok, I'll start with the disclaimer that I am a Franzen fan. This is quite different from his earlier collection "How to be alone". The essays in this one are apparently autobiographical and more or less go from his high school years till when his mother dies fifteen or so years later. The later essays, especially the last one, seem to have been written about the time he was either writing Freedom or outlining it as all the themes of Freedom are present. The essay on his participation in Fellowship (no "the") gets to Franzen's attraction to groups and other folks as well as his more or less constant running away from the same. There is also a lot on birds and bird watching and many ruminations on the fate of the earth. Lots of curmudgeonly rants along the way. If you liked Freedom and/or The Corrections you'll like this.
If you,like me, like Jonathan Franzen's crisp prose, profound observance of the world and its inhabitants, and doleful sense of humor, you should read this. What you get with these essays is a deeper look into one of the world's best modern authors. His self assessment are as compelling as his fictional characters. On the other hand the last chapter which is all about bird watching is a little much.