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.

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