One-Minute Book Reviews

March 10, 2012

What I’m Reading … Forrest Gander’s ‘Core Samples from the World,’ a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry

Filed under: Poetry,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:18 am
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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading, which I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Core Samples from the World (New Directions, 95 pp., $15.95, paperback), by Forrest Gander with photographs by Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide and Lucas Foglia

What it is: A 2011 poetry collection that includes haibun, a Japanese form that intersperses prose and haiku or haiku-like verse, often in a travel diary or journal. Core Samples from the World has poems about Chile, Mexico, China and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Why I’m reading it: I like haiku, and the book combines haibun with impressionistic black-and-white photographs. Haibun seems a fine metaphor for life: You have take a lot of prose to get a little poetry.

Sample lines: “Then they are whisked by van to the desert to witness the Kyrgyz version of a polo match, played with the decapitated carcass of a goat.” From the prose section of a haibun that describes a trip Gander took with other poets through Asia

Furthermore: Core Samples from the World was a finalist for the most recent National Book Critics Circle award for poetry, given on Thursday to Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains.

Read an excerpt from Core Samples from the World.

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© 2012 Janice Harayda
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

June 30, 2008

Another ‘Lone Survivor’ — Captain Scott O’Grady in Bosnia

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:44 pm
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Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor is a three-gun turret — one part gripping adventure story, one part Valentine to George W. Bush, and one part screed against journalists. And because those parts don’t always mesh well, it’s a hard book to recommend unreservedly. Not so Return With Honor (HarperTorch, 208 pp., $7.99, paperback), by Captain Scott O’Grady with Jeff Coplon. O’Grady was shot down while enforcing a NATO no-fly zone over Bosnia in 1995 and survived for six days, eating ants and hiding in the woods, until rescued by Marines. O’Grady tells his story in a book that is remarkably suspenseful, given that we know the outcome from the start. Return With Honor also lacks the angry political rhetoric of Lone Survivor, so it has a broader appeal than Luttrell’s account of what he calls “Little Big Horn with turbans.” A review of and reading group guide to Lone Survivor appeared on this site on August 13, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/13/.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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