Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Stay Close, Little Ghost

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I won the book--which would have been a perfect five-star read if not for my own frayed edges getting snagged on typos often enough to jar me out of an otherwise euphoric reading experience--through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.)

Stay Close, Little Ghost, Oliver Serang
24 to 26 January 2014
4.5 / 5 stars

Written while the author was also finishing his Ph.D. in some field that's well beyond my range of comprehension (or genome sciences, whatever), Oliver Serang's debut novel, Stay Close, Little Ghost, is a meditation on loves both past and present that is made all the more personal by the mathematician protagonist sharing a name with his creator. It slams the rigidly logical vehicle of mathematical distillation into the hallucinatory fog of magical realism while the neither-black-nor-white realm of romantic love and the games it can make people play hang in the balance of such a collision, giving rise to a maelstrom of jagged emotions, discombobulating experiences and brutal self-discovery set against a backdrop that's at once universally familiar and hazily disorienting.

The story begins with city-dwelling Oliver meeting up with friends who introduce him to the chronically flirtatious Yuki (whom he'd already met in an elevator under less than auspicious circumstances). It's plainly obvious that their ensuing romance is not long for this world, given Oliver's lingering damage from previous relationships and the rightful jealousy he fosters over Yuki's inappropriate displays of affection for her male friends. They fight, they make up, they break up, they reconcile, they fall to pieces all over again until the last Oliver sees of the girl who was so careless with a boy she deemed far more wholesome than herself and his still-freshly wounded heart is her slow disintegration into a subway tunnel shadow, where she remains a stubborn reminder of a last desperate attempt to mend irreparable harm every time Oliver passes her frozen silhouette.

Oliver flounders around the city for a while as he's plagued by strange happenings--an eyeless girl scratching subterranean messages to our hero, mirror realms, secret worlds of which only a chosen few are told, unnaturally persistent homeless subway riders, obliterated mental maps charting the locations of all the city's four-leaf clovers--and the all-too-common ruefully single man's ruminations on his other ex-girlfriends, like Anne, the girl who began his transformation into something more jaded and jagged than he used to be, and "you," the one Oliver speaks of most regretfully and to whom he directs his narration. He eventually flees to a lakeside house far from the city, where he befriends both a gravesite and, later, a skittish, artistic girl named Laika whose innocence and need to be protected allow Oliver to shed the role of the wholesome half in a pair. It seems that Laika's fragility exists in tandem with the kind of gentle heart that can soften some of the prickliness that Oliver has acquired with time and experience, but she, too, falls victim to infidelity; their love disintegrates as the painted landscape in her home turns from idyllic to cataclysmic, driving Oliver out of her life with a frenzied snowstorm.

The story ends as it began, with a letter to the "you" Oliver has lost and the love he'll be trying to replicate for the rest of his life, only the concluding letter is so awash in remorse over the past being an out-of-reach dream to which the future merely pales in comparison that it would actually hurt to read the final pages if they weren't infused with the kind of hope that comes with accepting the dualities of growing up, that one cannot know the pain of exquisite heartbreak without stumbling upon something sublimely beautiful first, and that learning from both gives them a place in the peaks and valleys of one's personal landscape.

Playing fantastic elements against the universally felt bitterness of a broken heart and the people whose purpose for passing through our lives is to remind us that not all love stories conclude with the fairy-tale endings they deserve puts a strange spin on an otherwise ordinary rite of passage into adulthood. It's so easy to dwell on the slings and arrows we've survived like tragic heroes while conveniently glossing over the times we dealt those same cruelties to others. Here, Oliver watches a sobbing Yuki turn into a frozen shadow and a wailing Laika disappear in the snow, in silent, metaphorical acknowledgment that the end of their romances hurt more than him, regardless of the women's cavalier attitudes toward romantic loyalty.

Oliver finally accepts that we all do desperate, unknowingly hurtful things to simultaneously satisfy our need for self-preservation while tightening our hold on the one person we've entrusted with the safekeeping of our most vulnerable selves, observing that the "you" he's writing to has always seen past his transgressions to accept him as a good person who couldn't help but commit a few wicked acts: When someone means the world to us and they make it clear their love is divided among others, it's only natural to let our lesser selves lash out like a hurt animal--but that doesn't damn a person to unconquerable rottenness.

Maybe it's because I'm coated in a little residual magic from recently revisiting the similarly feverish, preternaturally dreamlike world of Haruki Murakami, or because I've been wallowing in a surfeit of 30s-onset introspection about things that exist in a more distant past than their still-healing scars suggest, but Stay Close, Little Ghost offered one of those fated chance encounters of crossing paths with a novel at the absolute perfect time: It told me everything I've been needing to hear and I got to be the patiently, earnestly receptive audience it deserved. Perhaps I took interpretational liberties with this story but I do think that anyone who never got a sense of closure for a crucially formative but prematurely extinguished experience would have to be rubbed as raw as I was by this book: It's hard to resist personalizing a tale that serves as a tribute to the heartaches both inflicted and suffered that usher us away from childhood's temporary refuge by tempting us with romances fuelled by intensities we can't understand and are destined to burn out in spectacular disasters we can't yet imagine.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Egg Said Nothing

The Egg Said Nothing, Caris O'Malley
21 to 23 June 2012
4.5 / 5 stars

Dear Caris,

Do you mind if I call you that? It's how you signed your most recent message so I'm assuming that we're on a first-name basis now. Please let me know if I'm being too forward because my social ineptitude likes to make itself known even on the internets.

I've been meaning to read The Egg for quite some time but prefer doing almost everything in the hazy future. What finally propelled me toward your novella were two overwhelmingly common factors in all the reviews I read: One, everyone seemed to either like it quite a bit or REALLY like it more than just a bit; and two, no one is willing to say much about why they liked it so much for fear, they say, of divulging too much of the plot and ruining the first-time reading experience for others.

Sure, I was starting to wonder if the latter phenomenon was a cop-out or simply lazy reviewing. Then I thought maybe some folks were conspiring to shroud
The Egg in mystery so that those of us who are insatiably inquisitive would have to break down and buy the book to stave off the creeping madness that too much unresolved curiosity brings. Finally, I considered that maybe some reviewers were following the novella's titular action and, in fact, deliberately said nothing. Turns out, I was wrong on all counts: It really is hard to offer a detailed commentary on such a tightly written piece without spoiling the surprises that make The Egg such a joy to read. Will I follow previous reviewers' tactful lead? Meh, not entirely.

So! Let's talk about your book a little--rather, let me talk vaguely about how fucking rad your book is. Because it is. So far as I can remember (last week was a long time ago), I had exactly one issue with it: Every time I glanced at the page number, the book was closer to being over. Maybe you can work on that for your follow-up offering? I'm sure there's a fancy, newfangled way to push a novel into the infinite-page-count realm these days. Look into that, okay?

By the time your hero Manny and his love-interest Ashley found themselves in a laundromat, I was desperately wishing that someone would make this into a movie. Because even with a giant egg and paradoxes born of time travel, yours is a thoroughly relatable piece of fiction. In fact, the juxtaposition of Manny's believable reactions, motivations and wishes against the unbelievably crazy shit that dogs him created more effective suspense than I've seen in books three times as long. To steal a line I previously used, what I liked best about your book (and I did like an awful lot about it) is that Manny remains convincingly, sympathetically human while dealing with some.... well, bizarre problems.

To further rip off a previous communique of mine, it seemed that your book had something to say about the uselessness of fighting what's fated to be for the sake of an individual's short-sighted desires--a bigger-picture, greater-good sort of moral, if you will. It is downright refreshing to encounter a time-travel tale that didn't blindly accept the sanctity of the future, which is how I imagine a real-life confrontation with time travel would actually go down. Whether it was my own weakness for broken, down-on-their-luck characters, Manny's genuine likability or a combination of the two, it was increasingly difficult to watch the protagonist's honest efforts to fix things himself only further ensnare him in his increasingly upside-down existence.

In the end, I came for the bizarro; I stayed because I got way too emotionally invested in the characters. Please don't ever abandon the cruel mistress that is word-slinging. You've got a lot to offer her. And your readers.


P.S.: Please note how I did not once call your story "eggs-cellent." I need a cigarette after the kind of willpower I've demonstrated in avoiding such an obvious opportunity for punny business.

P.P.S.: I fucking HATE clowns but would put aside that phobia long enough to read about them if you're the one at the tale's helm. The glory-hole story, however, shouldn't even be a question. Kindly add me to the list of people who want to read that yesterday.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Mastodon Farm

(This review was originally written for and posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. The ever-amazing Lori supplied me with a digital copy of this novella.)
Mastodon Farm, Mike Kleine
21 October 2013 
4 / 5 stars

Sometimes a book so thoroughly defies its reader's expectations, is such a departure from more conventional fare and is still utterly enjoyable that it's a difficult entity to write about. Sometimes it takes a person three months to find the words to describe such a uniquely entertaining read when a few paragraphs of casually punctuated chuckles would be the most appropriate reaction. And sometimes, you just have to exclaim that a book was a damn good way to spend an hour or so and not give three flying figs that many, many people would disagree. Because those sounding alarms of dissent probably did not give this odd little book the chance it deserves.

Mastodon Farm, much in the tradition of American Psycho and The Stranger before it, demands to be read as an allegory almost from its first word. Otherwise, it's no easy task trying to impose much sense on its page-long lists, restlessly leaping gambols both across state lines and from celebrity crib to celebrity crib, name- and brand-dropping like there's an endorsement deal on the line, and endless parade of circuitous conversations.

A novella told in the second person, Mastodon Farm follows you with a stalker-like attention to details as you deal with broken African masks at James Franco's house (yes, really), measure the passage of time in songs listened to and movies watched, drive to Dean Cain's apartment only to stare at his bookshelves, lie to your parents about your imaginary relationships and just wish for things to return to normal. 

And what is this normalcy for which you're striving, exactly? Good question. Because you seem to be taking your celebrity-populated, party-hopping, crashed-your-Ferrari-so-you'll-just-buy-a-Bentley-rather-than-wait-for-the-shop-to-fix-it existence in admirably nonchalant (though some might say suspiciously numb) stride. Scenes and chapters flicker by as if someone is impatiently flipping through the hundreds of channels comprising the made-for-TV movie of your life. One minute you're hopping on the company jet and heading to Libson; the next, you're casually doing drugs with Kirsten Dunst and talking about living on the moon before she gets up to make chili for you and James Franco (to whom you seem rather close, as he will later accompany you to, among other things, your grandmother's funeral--your grandmother's death, of course, will occupy not even two pages of your attention and warrant absolutely no further mention).

The adage about what's discussed among simple minds (people), average minds (events) and great minds (ideas) is turned on its head here, thanks to the aforementioned metaphorical approach to this fidgety, quirky book. Because the things mostly addressed herein are people more famous than you--wealthy as you apparently are--and the things they either consume for pleasure or create for a living, a superficial read would reduce Mastodon Farm (which derives its name, presumably, from that of a nonexistent apocalyptic film rather than the similarly titled Cake song) to a roll-call of digestible entertainments rather than appreciate it for what it symbolizes.

Applying a dollop of whatever cynicism the reader can bring to the experience of Mastodon Farm greatly adds to the enjoyment one can derive from it--not for the mean-spirited sake of belittling the topics at hand but rather to scratch through the story’s opaquely artificial sheen of mindless, disposable superficiality coating to arrive at its true intent. We live in a time of easy digestion, fleeting obsessions and diminishing attention while clinging to the life raft of escapism, and this novella highlights the maddening vapidity of it all by training a hyper-focused eye on something for a few pages before bouncing to something entirely new and offering it the same intense scrutiny of even the minutest details, over and over again. In a time where irony’s self-congratulatory mockery has become an easy default, it is a relief to witness Mastodon Farm’s more subtle (if not mildly schizophrenic) approach to social commentary via deceptive sincerity: It does not exist to poke fun but rather to raise awareness that we are losing sight of what really matters with a dangerous haste.

Mastodon Farm is not for everyone but those who give it a chance will be rewarded handsomely for their efforts. You may walk away with a slight concussion and a temporary onset of low-grade anxiety, but such admission fees are a small price to pay for taking an eye-opening ride with this distinctly thought-provoking beast.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Middle C

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. The book was a present from my little brother and my future sister-in-law, neither of whom gave this book to me in exchange for a laudatory review.)

Middle C, William H. Gass
December 2013 to 13 January 2014 
5 / 5 stars

Joseph Skizzen is a fraud. Or maybe just a chameleon. Or is he a forgery beget by a phoney? It could be that he's just an isolated man who's so far removed from the rest of humanity that he has no idea his own shortcomings are not a damnation waiting to be unveiled but rather the nifty revisions and coping mechanisms and all-around mainstays of any given human being.

William Gass's Middle C is a lot of things without being any one thing, just like its protagonist, Professor Joseph Skizzen. It's a novel written like a song, what with its refrains, themes (and variations on such), shifting tempos, divided segments and a triumphant resolution that practically breaks into a swelling crescendo of a happiness it spends its entire duration trying to reach. It's a coming-of-age tale but also a story of self-discovery and second chances. It's a fictional tale of a man who creates his own image from delicately calculated fictions, and a celebration of mediocrity most prodigiously cultivated.

Skizzen himself is an aggressively unremarkable individual: a professor with a half-true resume; a meddling musician; a self-taught bibliophile; an isolated soul with no real frame of reference for the universal elements of the human condition that should give him a sense of community but drive him to endless self-doubt; a man with a $35 car he barely knows how to drive, but that's okay because his license is a forgery he probably put more effort into fabricating than he would have actually trying to obtain a legal one (to be fair, Skizzen was a child immigrant with nary an official paper to any of his names, leaving him to forge documents to prove that he's a man with an identity). His interests and musical tastes are obscure, mostly so no one else will find him out as the fraud he insists he is.

Thing is, had he spent more time cultivating kinships with anyone other than his mother and the women who clumsily try to seduce him, Skizzen wouldn't have to spend so much time fiercely guarding what are the inconsequential lies everyone tells themselves--voraciously devouring music we're not even sure we like but feel obligated to pretend that we do, which Skizzen feels is one of his greater sins--because that's the very stuff of the human experience. It probably doesn't help that Skizzen's father changed his own identity, his family's identities, their nationality and religion according to circumstance--like claiming to be Jewish to flee Austria and to free themselves from the blame of association with Nazis--all for the sake of keeping his hands and conscience clean, an aim negated by leaving his family of newly minted Londoners after a beefy racetrack payout gave him the means to free himself from familial shackles. Which the elder Skizzen did seemingly with neither a second thought nor a twinge of conscience.

It's hard to know where you came from when a part of you is missing but it's easier to forge a new identity when you're forced to figure out where you're going. Skizzen's father taught him little else beyond turning a man into a character with a pliable history, an art upon which Skizzen improves. He tells himself that he studies the obscure so no one can get the intellectual jump on him, not realizing that preparatory learning delivers the same outcome he denied himself by religiously maintaining an unobtrusive C average in school--that is, the acquisition of knowledge--but with the bonus of it all being voluntarily self-administered. As a professor, he augments his soft but naturally acquired foreign flavor and adopts peculiar habits to further embellish the charming oddities one would expect from a music professor. He digresses into beautiful tangents that exhibit his self-cultivated intellectual garden in thoroughly unpretentious, innocuous ways, bringing the information he feels he doesn't deserve to know to life with a genuine application not often seen in those whose minds are veritable treasure troves of tasty informational morsels soured by self-obsessed bombast. Things become real when they become actualized and tangible, and the personalities and quirks and interests Skizzen meticulously fosters as a facade are who he is because they comprise the only Skizzen people know him to be.

But Skizzen is so determined to ostracize himself from not only his surroundings but also humanity that he does things like allow himself to be consumed by perfecting a sentence that came to him as a raw, unpolished germ of an idea: "The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure." Skizzen later entertains a fleeting admission that he no longer believes beauty is possible in the world, as his faith in the goodness of men has been effectively dismembered by painstaking devotion to his Inhumanity Museum, a collection of articles occupying the attic of his house (on loan from the school that employs him, his employer blissfully unaware of his padded resume) that tell of the ongoing atrocities mankind is inflicts upon itself over and over again, a permanent display that is always growing under its curator's watchful eye and indefatigable devotion. While Skizzen struck me as a mostly sympathetic figure who just never had the emotional means to forge lasting connections, the toxicity of his pet project has tainted its lone patron's soul a bit, though perhaps its true service is to remind him to keep others at arm's length, lest they get to close and finger him for a fraud.

What could have been a hodgepodge of back-and-forth meanderings across a few periods in a deliberately unremarkable man's life turns into a medley of experiences under Gass's direction because Gass is just one hell of a writer. In prose that's as rich in vocabulary as it is proof that it's time I start accepting that not all similes are inherently inferior to metaphors, a symphony in middle c emerges in unassuming, detachedly self-aware and bitterly optimistic resplendence.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Goldfinch

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. My own funds supplied this book.)

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
26 October to 22 December 2013  
5 / 5 stars


The story that is the backbone of Donna Tartt's third novel, The Goldfinch, is one I keep seeing compared rather favorably, if not with a bit of reductive simplicity, to Dickens: An adolescent Theo Decker loses his mother in a museum explosion, leaving him first emotionally orphaned and later legally unmoored when his ne'er-do-well father meets a graciously early end (which is the only death in this book that brought me physical relief), eventually driving him to seek refuge with the avuncular Hobie, an antiques dealer to whom Theo was fatefully led in the aftermath of his mother's death. Theo carries around the untreated damage of his mother's death for as long as The Goldfinch follows him---into the early years of his adulthood---and presumably well beyond that to the point where he refers to his PTSD and its array of triggers with a familiarity usually reserved for an appendage. This gaping, fiercely protected wound draws him into some less than savory proclivities, like a nasty drug habit and selling Hobie's lovingly refurbished antiques as extant relics from earlier times, unbeknownst to the guardian who's more of a father figure than he's ever known in the only way he knows how to rescue the older man from financial ruin, but also renders Theo so bravely honest and sympathetically magnetic that it's easy to forgive his lesser qualities, especially since many of his shortcomings are born of a marriage between good intentions and limited options.

In fact, among the myriad lessons this book explores regarding the dualities of human nature and life itself, the fact that goodness doesn't always come from goodness and that bad doesn't always beget bad is one of its most fervently emphasized--and it should come as no surprise that a novel so devoted to art should be so keen on the notion that the world is painted in much more than just blacks and whites. The Goldfinch borrows its title from the Carel Fabritius painting of the same name (the artist, it should be noted, also died in an explosion), a favorite painting of his mother's that Theo "rescues" from the museum during his dazed, frantic efforts to escape, a theft that was really executed as a testament to the hope that his mother would soon return home to both her son and the painting he liberated for her delight alone. It is the painting that propels Theo toward a life of covert misdeeds but it is also a tangible connection to the mother whose death threw the trajectory of his future regrettably off course. Theo himself is proof that something good can come from less than well-intentioned origins, as his own father lacks the integrity and heart Theo inherited from his mother. Far from harboring delusions about himself, Theo is his own worst critic, which only renders him all the more likable.

Theo is the bruised, beating heart of this novel and the supporting cast does lend vibrant splashes of color and gorgeous harmonies throughout the composition, but the cities Theo finds himself ping-ponging across are just as alive as any corporeal character. The New York City Theo considers his lifelong home and the one he returns to after years of Las Vegas life reflect the city's tireless mutability as well as Theo's own internal metamorphosis. If NYC acts almost as its own foil, then the thin, flashy veneer and always encroaching desert of Vegas offers a glimpse into downright alien territory, a life of premature adulthood's self-reliance and prolonged childhood's tendency toward bad life choices under the uninterested watch of his self-absorbed father that contrasts darkly but critically against with the two-against-the-world safety and warmth his mother offered. The unceremonious and abrupt shift to Amsterdam robs the city of some of its old-world, foreign charm in Theo's alternately confused, feverish and despairing states during his relatively short but transformative stay, but Tartt still subtly weaves its essence into Theo's distracted narration. The full effect allows the unique spirits of the three cities to spring off each page with a palpable dimensionality that is wholly immersive. It is impossible to not see each dark street, feel each slap of icy wind and tiny drop of sweat, conjure each richly but unobtrusively detailed scene down to the draping of a tablecloth.

The painstaking research that went into this book--foreign languages, art, literature, antiques restoration, far-flung locales, capturing low-brow banter and high-class empty chatter with equally convincing success--is as impressive as Tartt's enviable command of storytelling and word-slinging. Each detail is as necessary as it is beautifully finessed, the mark of a gifted writer who knows exactly what to highlight for maximum impact rather than an amateur's scattershot load of tacked-on trivialities to hold up a story that carries no emotional weight.

A work that champions the restorative power of art, how one thing can be so beautiful in so many ways that it indiscriminately sings out to scores across the barriers of time and geography and culture to unite an audience that can't begin to know the exhaustive scope of its reach, ought to be an appropriately transformative work itself. Celebrating a masterful talent that echoes across otherwise impregnable distances because it is so rarely seen again rings trite if the tribute isn't equal to the task. The Goldfinch hits all the high notes, captures a complicated spirit in the warmest and richest of tones, and deploys an impressive literary arsenal all to such resounding success that it is, without a scrap of doubt, my only logical choice for Best Book of 2013. What else do you call a book that spans nearly 800 pages and still feels too short? That it takes a commanding self-control to write about without using five exclamation points after every caps-locked sentence? That brings with its last page the heartache of saying goodbye to an old friend?

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Book of My Lives

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I bought this book with my very own dollars.)

The Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon
Read: 30 November to 4 December 2013  

4.5 / 5 stars


It can be dangerous for a book to boast the kind of praise that covers the dust jacket of The Book of My Lives. Phrases like "the greatest writer of our generation" and "prepare to have your worldview deepened" carry a considerable amount of expectation and set the reader up for a reading experience that had better deliver the goods. Fortunately, Aleksandar Hemon proves with his first book of non-fiction that he knows a thing or two about turning a catchy phrase, about playing the maximum emotional impact off a minimal word count, about how to strike a sympathetic and powerful chord with his audience without pandering to cheap sentimentalism: It doesn't take more than a few pages to realize that he is a writer who deserves the heaps of hype thrust upon him.

Despite beginning with attempted sororicide, detouring through a Sarajevo under siege and a strange Chicago filled with potential, and ending with an infant daughter's death, The Book of My Lives is a triumph of life-affirming celebrations and diversions that are all pitted against the specter of death that palpably lingers around every corner and unignorably lurks in every shadow. Honoring life while kicking death in the ass is a leaned defense that those who live on the brink of an infrastructure's collapse have to embrace if they're going to make it through another day, and that determination to survive on the riches of the present with the threat of an impoverished future always near served Hemon well. Even when faced with an array of losses both intimate and a world away, his gratitude for everything that the immediate now offers never wavers, nor does his eloquently terse, richly evocative language or his knack for finding beauty in the most hopeless of places.

Hemon's collection of personal essays is most akin to a snapshot of his life experiences thus far. He divests himself of any sort of protective barrier as he lays bare his finest loves and lesser moments with equal amounts of honesty, never asking his audience to see him as anything other than an ordinary player who just happens to be living among extraordinary backdrops: his family narrowly fled Sarajevo; his homeland's turmoil and his youthful need to rebel while wringing every drop of life from an increasingly bleak world combined to thrust him into a birthday party-turned-threatening political statement that would dog him for years; his young daughter was afflicted with a medical condition so rare that there are few established treatments for it; while he rarely address it, he is one of the lucky few who Made It as a writer. His is a life of seemingly impossible rarities that he mostly addresses with a humble poesy, offsetting the expression of human suffering at its worst with simple language, poignant observation and an undeniable humor that derives its bite not from inherently funny situations but rather the way Hemon frames them. There is a sense of immediacy in everything Hemon writes, which made me feel that he was trying to decide if living a life that is so intertwined with national tragedies and rarely witnessed moments makes one obligated to write about them so others will understand.

When he's not writing about how what he's lived inside has affected one man's tiny existence, Hemon relates the threads of his own story to the much bigger, more impersonally all-encompassing tapestry to render both the overall picture and his unusual circumstances more accessible. As Sarajevo's descent into war becomes increasingly evident, Hemon's general love of dogs and particularly those in his life surges to the forefront with a sense of kinship--especially since he notes that love of an animal is a luxury in desperate times--as he is apt to find widely unifying elements to relate his own unusual experiences to the statistically more mundane lives of those to whom he's bringing his story: Like any family that includes a beloved pet, his parents take great care and greater risks to ensure that their Irish setter flees to safety with them. He also radiates a a genuine adoration of literature, speaking of and alluding to a familiarity with renowned authors through their works (and often with the the works themselves) in a way one speaks of old friends and formative loves, rather than the detached pretensions of academia, marking himself with the sign of a true bookworm, one who drew strength from and sought refuge in literature during turbulent times when tomorrow seems as just an unlikely promise as fifty years from now.

It is, like its laudatory book jacket proclaims, ultimately a tribute to two very different cities, but The Book of My Lives is more than that: It's about the payoff of getting to know where one is in the world and appreciating the unique influence that places and eras have on their inhabitants. It's knowing that you're a part of a city and that it's a part of you, that you wouldn't be the same you if you had been influenced by another when and another where. Hemon's ability to see some of the things he loved about Sarajevo in the Chicago he would one day consider a second home, and then returning to Sarajevo after letting Chicago wash over him gave him the strength to find himself in once-familiar places turned alien, in wholly unfamiliar places turned into home. Home is like love: You have to work for it and you have to let it find you when the time is right. It is a thing that can't be forced. What's more, home is the sanctuary that protects against the outside world, and is a haven worth worth protecting from life's uglier forces. It's easy to love a city; it is another thing entirely when you feel like a city, in its animated entirety, might actually love you back.