One-Minute Book Reviews

November 2, 2013

Why Does the Horseman Have No Head in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? — Quote of the Day / Amanda Foreman

Filed under: Classics,Quotes of the Day,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:23 pm
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Is a classic American story about the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman?

A lot of us have enjoyed “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as simply a rousing tale of a schoolmaster undone by his vision of a headless horseman. But is there more to it? Washington Irving’s schoolmaster is the superstitious Ichabod Crane, a gold digger who hopes to marry Katrina Van Tassel, a rich farmer’s daughter. Katrina has also caught the eye of the prankster Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt. One autumn night, Crane goes to a party at the Van Tassel’s at which Brom Bones and others tell ghost stories, and on his way home, he sees a headless horseman who flings his missing head at him — an act that so terrifies him that he flees town for good.

An unanswered question of the story is: Why does the horseman have no head? Literary monsters typically have fangs, claws or other menacing elements added to their bodies. The headless horseman has had something subtracted. The historian Amanda Foreman indirectly suggests an explanation for it in an her article, “Headless, and Not Just the Horseman,” in the Nov. 2–3 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Could it be, she asks, that Ichabod Crane’s Katrina symbolizes the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman? “To some,” she adds, “the mere possibility is a fate worse than death.”

– Janice Harayda

May 25, 2013

James Salter’s 10 Worst Sentences — From ‘All That Is’ and ‘Dusk’

Filed under: Novels,Quotes of the Day,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:40 pm
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James Salter’s novel All That Is came out last month, and many articles about it have quoted Richard Ford’s comment that Salter “writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.” Does he deserve that praise? You be the judge.

Here are 10 sentences from All That Is and from Salter’s PEN/Faulkner Award–winning Dusk and Other Stories:

From All That Is
“It was a departure of foreboding, like the eerie silence that precedes a coming storm.”
“Eerie silence” is a cliché, and “coming” in that sentence is redundant.

“It’s too peaceful.” [A sailor just before a kamikaze strike on his ship]
Cavalrymen say this before the Apaches attack in cowboy movies.

“He had no system for gambling, he bet on instinct, some men seem to have a gift for it.” 
Meet the king of the comma splices.

“Her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery …”
No comment.

“Her husband-to-be was smiling as she came towards him, Sophie was smiling, nearly everyone was.”

Apart from the comma splices: What’s with the British spelling of “towards,” which appears 36 times in this novel about an American man? It’s “toward” in American English. The book also uses “backwards” instead of the American “backward.”

From Dusk and Other Stories
“Forty-six. … She would never be any younger.”
In other words, she’s just like the rest of us who will never be any younger.

“Of course, she was nervous. She was thirty.”
See a theme developing?

“He was wildly generous, he seemed to care nothing for money, it was crumpled in his pockets like waste paper, when he paid for things it would fall to the floor.”
More comma splices.

“She was a woman who had read books, played golf, gone to weddings, whose legs were good, who had weathered storms, a fine woman whom no one now wanted.”
When he says “no one now wanted,” he means, “no man now wanted.”

“Her most useful friend was a hysterical woman named Mirella Ricci, who had a large apartment and aristocratic longings, also the fears and illnesses of women who live alone.”
Women have their uses, even if they’re “hysterical? And what are those unspecified “fears and illnesses of women who live alone”? They can’t be worse than the “fears and illnesses” of men who live alone, who die younger and are less healthy than their female peers.

You can follow can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 12, 2012

‘New Jersey Noir’ – Taking the Final Exit in the Garden State

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Poetry,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:50 pm
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“It’s clear that I’ve been double-crossed / It’s clear that I’ve been framed” Paul Muldoon

New Jersey Noir. Edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Akashic, 274 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

“Is noir the dominant sensibility of New Jersey?” a writer for New Jersey Monthly asked in a review of this book. No, that distinction belongs to tragicomedy. But New Jersey has an underside barely suggested by what Joyce Carol Oates calls the “noir drama” of The Sopranos. New Jersey Noir exposes part of it in 19 previously unpublished short stories and poems set in places far from the back rooms of strip clubs and pork-butchers’ shops.

Oates notes in her wide-ranging introduction that prototypical noir fiction involves a man “whose desire for a beautiful woman has blinded him to her true, manipulative, evil self.” Her book revives that tradition in Jonathan Santlofer’s “Lola,” a contemporary tale of a femme fatale on the PATH train from Hoboken to New York. Other stories in New Jersey Noir support Oates’ view that noir treachery can involve something more complex than sexual double-dealing: “a fundamental betrayal of the spirit – an innocence devastated by the experience of social injustice or political corruption.” An idealistic technician at a Newark morgue falls victim to her own naiveté and to the duplicity of a co-worker who sells corpses’ hair to wig shops in S.A. Solomon’s “Live for Today.” A rookie cop is a pawn in a dangerous game that pits his father, a Republican U.S. Attorney, against the powerful Camden County Democratic machine in Lou Manfredo’s “Soul Anatomy.” And a hard-up South Jersey substitute teacher agrees to a friend’s plan to sell glass eels illegally, only to run into thugs running a lethal game of pay-to-play, in “Glass Eels.”

Faithful to noir conventions, the bleakness of these stories goes mostly unrelieved by devices used in other types suspense fiction, such as a wisecracking protagonist or a sentient tabby cat who helps to solve crimes. But the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Paul Muldoon offers an inspired bit of comic relief in his satirical poem, “Noir, NJ.” As he sends up noir clichés, Muldoon neatly encapsulates a theme of this book in two of his lines: “It’s clear that I’ve been double-crossed / It’s clear that I’ve been framed.”

Best line: In her excellent 10-page introduction, Oates gives an overview of noir themes in novels, movies and television shows; of each story or poem she has chosen; and of true crimes in New Jersey that provide context for New Jersey Noir.

Worst line: Oates: “Quintessential noir centers around …”

Published: November 2011

Furthermore: The 19 original stories and poems in this collection cover New Jersey cities and towns that include Montclair, Princeton, Paramus, Rutherford, Cherry Hill, Long Branch, Asbury Park and Atlantic City. Publishers Weekly and New Jersey Monthly also reviewed the book. The Akashic Noir series has produced more than 50 other books, including London Noir, Paris Noir, Seattle Noir, Lone Star Noir and Twin Cities Noir.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 18, 2012

In Defense of the Pulitzer Board’s Decision to Give No 2012 Fiction Prize

Update, Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: I’ve learned since writing this post that when juror Michael Cunningham was an unknown, nominee Denis Johnson helped to launch his career by providing a blurb for his first novel, Golden States (Crown, 1984). Johnson helped Cunningham again more recently by allowing Cunningham to reprint his work in an anthology he edited, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (Crown, 2002). Juror Maureen Corrigan says in today’s Washington Post that the jurors “unanimously agreed” on the books they nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If she is right, Cunningham failed to recuse himself from the judging as would be required by many other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle awards. Cunningham’s conflict of interest in promoting the career of someone who promoted his work is all the more reason why the Pulitzer Prize Board acted correctly in rejecting Johnson. Jan Harayda 

The Pulitzer board angered people when it gave no fiction award Monday, but it made the right call

By Janice Harayda

My newspaper nominated me for a Pulitzer when I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and I didn’t win. Many of my colleagues who have done worthy work have failed to earn a medal. And Pulitzers have often gone to books that, as a critic, I saw as less deserving than those that went unrecognized.

So I know that the loss of a prize can hurt. And I know that the Pulitzer Prize Board, the ultimate arbiter of the awards, has at times appeared to wield its power with the neutrality of a Soviet-era figure-skating judge.

But the board made the right call when it said on Monday that for the first time in 35 years, it would give no fiction prize, a decision that caused an uproar in the publishing industry. Choosing a winner sounds straightforward: Every year a three-member Pulitzer jury selects three finalists for the award, and from among those nominations, the Pulitzer board picks a winner. Or it rejects all candidates and gives no prize. That’s what happened Monday when the board declined without explanation to give a medal to any of the jury’s choices: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, all books by authors much-honored for their work.

The torrent of protests that followed gushed with the strongest force from publishers and others who would have profited from the sales bump the award provides. One of the more bizarre outbursts came from Ann Patchett, the novelist and Nashville bookseller. Patchett said in a New York Times op-ed piece that  she “can’t imagine” a year that had more “need” of a fiction Pulitzer even though none was given in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Was the board’s decision so terrible? Consider the books nominated by the jury. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long short story that appeared in the Paris Review, that had about 50 pages when reprinted in a PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, and that its publisher repackaged to look like a novel by using a large font. Foster Wallace left The Pale King unfinished, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, completed it after his death. Russell’s Swamplandia!, the strongest candidate, is a B/B-minus novel substantially less deserving of an award than many previous winners.

Whatever their merits, these three books comprised a seriously flawed shortlist. Should the board have honored a single short story by Johnson, however good, when it gave the Pulitzer to an entire book full great ones in The Stories of John Cheever? Should it have rewarded Foster Wallace for a novel written partly by someone else? Should it have given a medal to Russell’s B/B-minus book instead of to the A/A+ work that a Pulitzer implies?

Choosing any of those books would have had drawbacks that outweighed benefits such as a sales boost for the winner. Rewarding unworthy books fosters cynicism among readers and devalues literary prizes. In this case, it would also have lent the imprimatur of the board to nominations that seemed almost willfully perverse, given that the list ignored a host of more deserving candidates, including Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (a National Book Award finalist that won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction) and Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser’s We Others (which won the Story Prize for short fiction).

Ann Patchett rightly notes that reading fiction matters because it allows us to imagine lives other than our own. But no evidence shows that the failure to award a Pulitzer will keep people from doing that. On the contrary, research has found that by adulthood, people generally have a habit of reading or they don’t. Those who have it won’t give it up because the Pulitzer board fails to pick a winner. They will instead get literary recommendations from friends, bookstores and libraries, reviews in print and online, and other sources. That process will lead some people to fiction they will enjoy more than the three books nominated by the Pulitzer jury. For that, we should be grateful.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 22, 2011

Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:28 pm
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Stories about “the action of grace on a character” who resists it

Everything That Rises Must Converge. By Flannery O’Connor. Introduction by Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 269 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Flannery O’Connor raised peacocks, a symbol of immortality in Christian art. Her stories rank among their American literary equivalents, a sign and example of timeless fiction about sin and redemption in an age of ephemera.

O’Connor once said that all of her stories were about “the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it” – typically because of pride, envy, sloth, gluttony or another of the seven deadly sins. This is not to say that her work is abstruse. Everything That Rises Must Converge has nine of her later stories, and all are taut, clear, linear and free confusing shifts in point of view or time frame. They are among the most reliable antidotes to the disjointed, postmodern fiction that is so popular today.

All of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge are tragicomedies that expose a spiritual void in the lives of their characters. The gap is typically thrown into relief by the convergence of races, classes or generations in the newly integrated South. One of the best stories is “Revelation,” which involves a self-satisfied churchgoer brought low partly by an assault that occurs in a doctor’s waiting room after a patient hears her alternately praising Jesus and talking about sending blacks back to Africa. Another of the finest is “Parker’s Back,” which deals with an ex-sailor who tries to ease his spiritual emptiness by marrying a preacher’s daughter and filling his body with tattoos but who suffers cruelly when those efforts intersect. In all of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge, redemption comes through divine grace after tragedy or great sorrow. Six of the nine end in violent death – they reverse the pattern of contemporary mysteries that serve up a corpse in the first pages – and in those in which everyone lives, an inner cataclysm unfolds.

For all their tragedy, these stories brim with humor. O’Connor keeps tragedy and comedy in an equipoise that few American writers can match. In the title story, a bitter and ungrateful college graduate lives at home and sells typewriters because he can’t earn a living as a writer. Julian mocks his widowed mother’s reverence for her prominent ancestors even as he benefits from the family pride that keeps her from tossing him onto the street: “She lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which he had never seen her set foot. The law of it was to sacrifice herself for him after she had first created the necessity to do so by making a mess of things.” The humor modulates in this and other stories from deadpan wit and droll irony to much more satirical commentaries that fall equally on whites and blacks.

O’Connor died of lupus at the age of 39 and won a posthumous National Book Award for fiction her Complete Stories. Few winners of that prize have deserved it more, and her stature has grown since she received it. In 2009 the sponsor of the award asked the public to vote for the first “Best of the National Book Awards” winner. O’Connor won for her Compete Stories, which includes all nine that appear in Everything That Rises Must Converge.

Best line: Two from “Greenleaf”: “Wesley, the younger child, had had rheumatic fever when he was seven and Mrs. May thought that this was what had caused him to be an intellectual.” “She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

Worst line: At times O’Connor uses a perhaps too heavy-handed verb, such as “hissed” or “groaned,” instead of “said” or another that sits more lightly on the page.

Published: 1965 (first edition).

Caveat lector: Everything That Rises Must Converge doesn’t include two of O’Connor’s best stories, “Good Country People” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which appear in the 555-page The Complete Stories. But it stands on its own and has an excellent 21-page introduction by Robert Fitzgerald.

Book clubs: If you can’t read one of O’Connor’s books, try reading three or four of her best stories, such as “Greenleaf,” “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back” and the title story in Everything That Rises Must Converge.

Furthermore: One-Minute Book Reviews has also reviewed O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. It posted quotes from that book on symbols in fiction and on “compassion” in writers. Jonathan Yardley reviewed a collection of O’Connor’s letters in the Washington Post. One of the best resources about her work is the Flannery O’Connor Repository. Andalusia, the Georgia farm on which O’Connor raised peacocks, has a peafowl aviary open to visitors.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 20, 2010

Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’ – The Graveyard Shift at a Newspaper in Rome

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Staff members at the Christian Science Monitor used to joke when the newspaper had a print edition that “we bring you yesterday’s news tomorrow.” A similarly idiosyncratic worldview links the reporters, editors and others attached to the unnamed English-language daily in Rome that whistles in the dark in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. The newspaper lacks a website because, the editor-in-chief’s point man believes, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.”

The paper is an amiable throwback, and so is The Imperfectionists. Misleadingly billed by its publisher as “a novel,” the book consists of 11 linked short stories that read like smartly written parables about the human illusions at the intersection of work and love. The over-the-hill Paris correspondent for the paper faces a crisis that forces him to confront two long-held fantasies — that he can still write page-one stories and that his son has a worthy job at the French foreign ministry. The corrections editor gets a visit from a schoolmate that upends his romantic notion that his friend could become a great writer and that he and Jimmy are “gradations of the same man – he the middling version and Jimmy the great one.” And the icy chief financial officer learns through a macabre twist that she has been deluding herself about both her sexual allure and the effect of her staff purges. A theme of these stories is not that we are wrong to cherish our illusions – it’s that often we need them, because they’re all we have.

Fittingly for a book about a newspaper founded in the 1950s, the tales in this one resemble good stories from the early-to-middle decades of the 20th century, before the triumph of the cynical, elliptical and ambiguous. Each tale has a clear beginning, middle and end, and if not a moral, at least a point. Each takes as its title a hapless headline of the sort of that appears regularly in American newspapers: The more amusing include “U.S. GENERAL OPTIMISTIC ON WAR” and “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” And Rachman gives his characters enough humor and pathos to transcend his occasional lapses into journalese or glibness. His most memorable story involves than a widow in Rome who, since the suicide of her husband, has invested much of her emotion in reading the English-language newspaper each day. Through the old woman’s life, Rachman shows a poignant aspect of the decline of newspapers that, ironically, newspapers have scarcely discussed: For some people, the loss of a newspaper is the loss of a world.

Best line: “Blast Kills People Again.” – A headline written by a copy editor at Rachman’s unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome.

Worst line: “a women’s magazine that specialized in recipes utilizing cans of condensed mushroom soup.”

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: April 2010

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for The Imperfections was posted on this site on July 20, 2010.

Read an excerpt from The Imperfectionists.

About the author: Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome and worked as an editor for the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 19, 2009

‘The Story of the Other Wise Man’ — Henry Van Dyke’s Christmas Classic

A parable about the meaning of faith that first appeared in 1896

The Story of the Other Wise Man. By Henry Van Dyke. Enthea, 128 pp., $10.99, paperback. Available in other editions, including abridged picture-book versions for children.

By Janice Harayda

What is the meaning of faith? Does it involve saying prayers? Attending religious services? Making pilgrimages to shrines or holy places?

Henry Van Dyke (1852–1933) never raises these questions directly in The Story of the Other Wise Man. But they lie at the heart of this classic parable about the meaning of faith in a secular age.

Van Dyke invents a fourth wise man, Artaban, who trades his belongings for gifts for “the promised one” foretold by prophets: a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl. Artaban plans to give the jewels to the infant after meeting up with his companions Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, who have gold, frankincense and myrrh. But he misses the connection after he stops to nurse a dying man, and later on, he parts with his jewels. He uses the ruby to ransom a child whom King Herod had ordered slain and the pearl to free a girl about to be sold into slavery.

Artaban believes he has missed all opportunities to meet the promised one until, near the end of his 33 years, he reaches Jerusalem just before the Crucifixion. There he realizes that his search has ended when he hears a faint voice saying: “Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.”

On his journey Artaban wrestles with what The Story of the Other Wise Man calls “the conflict between the expectation of faith and the impulse of love.” But Van Dyke resisted appeals to explain what his book “meant.”

“How can I tell?” he asks in his foreword. “What does life mean? If the meaning could be put into a sentence there would be no need of telling a story.”

Furthermore: Van Dyke was the minister at Manhattan’s Brick Presbyterian Church, where he first told Artaban’s story. He later became a professor English at Princeton University and Ambassador to the Netherlands. Van Dyke may be best known today as the author of the text for the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” set to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony. Click here to read Van Dyke’s words and listen to the music. You will also see a picture of Van Dyke if you click.

An online version of The Other Wise Man appears on Classic Reader.

The post first appeared on Dec. 23, 2007.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 17, 2009

A Sherlock Holmes Christmas Story — ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’

Filed under: Classics,Mysteries and Thrillers,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:36 pm
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The world’s most famous detective must figure out how a priceless gem ended up in a white goose

By Janice Harayda

Great holiday crime stories are rare. Set a murder mystery against the backdrop of a celebration of the birth of Christ and you risk accusations of trivializing the season or playing it for heavy irony. And who wants to be reminded that the wreath-draped mall teems with pickpockets or that burglars may strike after we leave for the airport?

Part of the genius of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is that it implicitly acknowledges such realities. Arthur Conan Doyle begins this Sherlock Holmes tale on the second morning after Christmas. It’s a holiday story without the freight it would carry if it took place two days earlier. And it has a plot perfectly attuned to the season. Holmes has the benign Watson by his side as usual. But he doesn’t face his arch-foe, Moriarty, or a killer armed with a gun or a trained swamp adder as in “The Dancing Men” or “The Speckled Band.” He needs only to find out why a priceless gem – the blue carbuncle – turned up in the gullet of a Christmas goose abandoned on a London street.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. But Holmes resolves the case, in fewer than a dozen pages, with panache and in a spirit of holiday generosity. You could probably read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” aloud in 20 minutes or so as a yule log burns. And it appeals to nearly all ages – not just to adults but to children who need more dramatic fare than The Polar Express.

Part of the allure all the Sherlock Holmes tales is that, while their stories are exciting, Holmes is imperturbable. “My name is Sherlock Holmes,” he tells a suspect in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” How nice that, in this case, he knows how to set the right tone – in a secular if not religious sense – for the season.

Furthermore: You can download “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” for free at the online Classic Literature Library, which makes available at no cost books in the public domain. At top left is the Audio CD “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — The Blue Carbuncle” (Mitso Media, 2006), read by James Alexander.

This review first appeared on this site on Dec. 19, 2007.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

September 18, 2009

The Ambiguous Losses of Aleksandar Hemon’s ‘Love and Obstacles’ – Tales of Immigrants Who Are ‘There, But Not There’ in America

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:18 am
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“The newspapers had cooed over the international romance: he had wooed her by singing and writing poetry; she had taken him to mass grave sites.”
– From the story “The Conductor” in Love and Obstacles

Love and Obstacles: Stories. By Aleksandar Hemon. Riverhead, 224 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda
All of the stories in this fine collection deal with the condition that therapists call ambiguous loss, or unresolved grief for people who are physically present but psychologically absent or physically absent but psychologically present. The tales involve characters who are, as one of them says, “There, but not there.”

Aleksandar Hemon was born in Sarajevo of Ukrainian descent and stranded in the U.S. when the Bosnian War broke out while he was visiting Chicago in 1992. The unnamed first-person narrator of the eight linked stories in Love and Obstacles survives a similar uprooting from the Balkans to the Midwest. These tragicomic tales often invoke a Sarajevo that is physically absent but psychologically present and describe other psychic and geographic displacements.

Hemon’s narrator has literary aspirations that comfort and bedevil him in his homeland and later in America, where he sells magazines door-to-door before becoming a writer. In the first story, he is a teenager in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire — the latest posting for his father, a minor Yugoslav diplomat — and thinks of Joseph Conrad’s phrase inhabited devastation as he travels to the slums of Kinshasa with a man who may or may not be be an American spy. An air of menace lingers after he settles in Chicago: Hemon’s stories show that the condition of exile transcends the place of exile, and America does not necessarily hold fewer dangers for expatriates than an African dictatorship.

Two of the best stories in Love and Obstacles involve writers who might seem overrated – a Bosnian poet and an American novelist — until the tales raise the possibility that the literary-ratings systems are inadequate to the complexity of art. “The Noble Truths of Suffering” could have been too clever by a half – it has a scene in which a writer reads another writer’s story about a writer and his family – but reveals Hemon’s gifts as a satirist as it tweaks a self-important Pulitzer Prize-winner on a book tour in Bosnia.

“The Conductor” brings together the two great threads of Love and Obstacles. By now well-established in the U.S., the narrator still feels guilty about not having stayed for the siege of Sarajevo, a city physically absent but psychologically present in his life. Then he reconnects in Madison, Wisconsin, with a revered Bosnian poet who did stay. In his youth the narrator had known and mocked Dedo for writing poetry perhaps more admired for its sentimental patriotism for its art. But he finds him changed by the siege. Dedo had married an American lawyer who collected war-crimes evidence in Bosnia: “he had wooed her by singing and writing poetry; she had taken him to mass grave sites.” (Both the dark humor and the semicolon are typical of Hemon.) And if the siege took a toll on Dedo, his subsequent move to the U.S. took another. His wife scorns his work, and he has become a drunk, physically present but psychologically absent in his marriage.

The differences between Dedo and the man who once mocked him come into sharp focus as a young woman walks toward the bathroom in a bar in Madison. The narrator says, “Cute.” Dedo says, “She is crying.” This exchange suggests that the Bosnian poet, for all his defects, has kept a part of his humanity that his more Americanized — and successful — companion has lost. The narrator eventually sees this. He comes to believe that Dedo, flawed as he is, is  “a beautiful human being.” This casts Dedo’s work in a new light. He may be a bad poet, or he may be good one. But the distinction is less important than the narrator once thought. These stories remind us that – for immigrants as for others – life itself is the great art.

Best line: A character in the story “The Bees, Part I” says that the apples you got in Canada “tasted as if they had been dry-cleaned.”

Worst line: The narrator of “The Noble Truths of Suffering” describes a cocktail party: “The writers were recognizable by the incoherence bubbling up on their stained-tie surfaces.”

Published: May 2009

Furthermore: More about Love and Obstacles appeared on this site on Sept. 7.

Read an excerpt: The complete “The Nobel Truths of Suffering” appears on The New Yorker site.

About the author: Hemon was a finalist the 2008 National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for his novel The Lazarus Project.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

September 7, 2009

Aleksandar Hemon Sends Up a Pulitzer Prize–Winner’s Bad Writing

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:42 pm
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Aleksandar Hemon has an amusing sendup of the bad writing of a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist in “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” a story in Love and Obstacles (Riverhead, 224 pp., $25.95). An example of the pretentious prose of Dick Macalister (whose name and literary affect suggest Cormac McCarthy): “Before Nam, Cupper was burdened with the pointless enthusiasm of youth.” There and elsewhere in the story, Hemon nails the macho posturing that prize judges often reward, though his tale is more than a sendup of pomposity. “The Noble Truths of Suffering” appeared in The New Yorker and remains on its Web site.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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