One-Minute Book Reviews

October 23, 2009

Backscratching in Our Time – Aleksandar Hemon and Gary Shteyngart

The latest in a series of occasional posts on authors who praise each other’s books

Aleksandar Hemon on Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan:
Absurdistan is not just a hilarious novel, but a record of a particular peak in the history of human folly. No one is more capable of dealing with the transition from the hell of socialism to the hell of capitalism in Eastern Europe than Shteyngart, the great-great grandson of one Nikolai Gogol and the funniest foreigner alive.”

Gary Shteyngart on Aleksandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles:

“Hemon can’t write a boring sentence, and the English language (which he adopted at a late age) is the richer for it.”

The “Backscratching in Our Time” category on this site has other examples of logrolling by contemporary authors.

October 13, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – National Book Awards Finalists to Be Announced Tomorrow

Just a reminder: The shortlist for the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced at noon Eastern Time tomorrow. The list will consist of five finalists in each of four categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature – and should be posted by early afternoon on the site for the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation, and on www.twitter.com/nationalbook.

The winners will be announced on Nov. 18, well before those for the Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Critics Circle Awards, both of which will be handed out in 2010. Some finalists for the young people’s literature award may also be considered for American Library Association’s Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, which will be given out in January. Only Americans are eligible for the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, and Newbery Medal, but authors of any nationality may win NBCC awards.

I haven’t read enough of the candidates predict who might turn up on tomorrow’s list. But two of the 2009 books that I read are as strong as many past National Book Awards finalists — Aleksandar Hemon’s short story collection, Love and Obstacles, and Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on list. And Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs – which I hope to review soon – seems to have gained the kind of unstoppable momentum that, rightly or wrongly, often precedes major awards.

Jacqueline Woodson’s novel for ages 12 and under, Peace, Locomotion – which I’ll review Saturday, Oct. 17 or Oct. 24 — isn’t as strong in its category as Hemon’s and Gooch’s books are in theirs. But it’s a sequel to Locomotion, which was a National Book Awards finalist. And Woodson also made the shortlist for Hush. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see her among the finalists, either.

Whom would you like to see win in November?

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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

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