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Aleksandar Hemon's lives begin in Sarajevo, a small, blissful city where a young boy's life is consumed with street soccer with the neighborhood kids, resentment of his younger sister, and trips abroad with his engineer-cum-beekeeper father. Here, a young man's life is about poking at the pretensions of the city's elders with American music, bad poetry, and slightly better Aleksandar Hemon's lives begin in Sarajevo, a small, blissful city where a young boy's life is consumed with street soccer with the neighborhood kids, resentment of his younger sister, and trips abroad with his engineer-cum-beekeeper father. Here, a young man's life is about poking at the pretensions of the city's elders with American music, bad poetry, and slightly better journalism. And then, his life in Chicago: watching from afar as war breaks out in Sarajevo and the city comes under siege, no way to return home; his parents and sister fleeing Sarajevo with the family dog, leaving behind all else they had ever known; and Hemon himself starting a new life, his own family, in this new city. And yet this is not really a memoir. The Book of My Lives, Hemon's first book of nonfiction, defies convention and expectation. It is a love song to two different cities; it is a heartbreaking paean to the bonds of family; it is a stirring exhortation to go out and play soccer—and not for the exercise. It is a book driven by passions but built on fierce intelligence, devastating experience, and sharp insight. And like the best narratives, it is a book that will leave you a different reader—a different person, with a new way of looking at the world—when you've finished. For fans of Hemon's fiction, The Book of My Lives is simply indispensable; for the uninitiated, it is the perfect introduction to one of the great writers of our time. A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013


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Aleksandar Hemon's lives begin in Sarajevo, a small, blissful city where a young boy's life is consumed with street soccer with the neighborhood kids, resentment of his younger sister, and trips abroad with his engineer-cum-beekeeper father. Here, a young man's life is about poking at the pretensions of the city's elders with American music, bad poetry, and slightly better Aleksandar Hemon's lives begin in Sarajevo, a small, blissful city where a young boy's life is consumed with street soccer with the neighborhood kids, resentment of his younger sister, and trips abroad with his engineer-cum-beekeeper father. Here, a young man's life is about poking at the pretensions of the city's elders with American music, bad poetry, and slightly better journalism. And then, his life in Chicago: watching from afar as war breaks out in Sarajevo and the city comes under siege, no way to return home; his parents and sister fleeing Sarajevo with the family dog, leaving behind all else they had ever known; and Hemon himself starting a new life, his own family, in this new city. And yet this is not really a memoir. The Book of My Lives, Hemon's first book of nonfiction, defies convention and expectation. It is a love song to two different cities; it is a heartbreaking paean to the bonds of family; it is a stirring exhortation to go out and play soccer—and not for the exercise. It is a book driven by passions but built on fierce intelligence, devastating experience, and sharp insight. And like the best narratives, it is a book that will leave you a different reader—a different person, with a new way of looking at the world—when you've finished. For fans of Hemon's fiction, The Book of My Lives is simply indispensable; for the uninitiated, it is the perfect introduction to one of the great writers of our time. A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013

30 review for The Book of My Lives

  1. 5 out of 5

    Kris

    Below is my review of Hemon's first non-fiction collection, which was posted at California Literary Review -- http://calitreview.com/37340/book-rev... In the Acknowledgements to The Book of My Lives, his first volume of non-fiction, Hemon writes, “I write fiction because I cannot not do it, but I have to be pressed into writing nonfiction.” There is a feeling of reticence hanging over this collection, which is composed of revised articles and essays published elsewhere. The title The Book of My Below is my review of Hemon's first non-fiction collection, which was posted at California Literary Review -- http://calitreview.com/37340/book-rev... In the Acknowledgements to The Book of My Lives, his first volume of non-fiction, Hemon writes, “I write fiction because I cannot not do it, but I have to be pressed into writing nonfiction.” There is a feeling of reticence hanging over this collection, which is composed of revised articles and essays published elsewhere. The title The Book of My Lives is apt: rather than presenting a seamless memoir, Hemon instead emphasizes discontinuity, a series of Aleksandar Hemons moving before us in different settings, sometimes without roots to ground them. His decision to provide his version of a table of contents at the end of the book, and to title it “Table of Discontents,” is a play on words that reveals a sense of sadness and dislocation. Given Hemon’s identity as a Bosnian who emigrated to the United States and watched much of the violence and destruction of his homeland from afar, this is not surprising. And indeed, Hemon’s trademark use of language, his somewhat distanced critical eye, and his appreciation for the absurdities of life come together to make this autobiographical collection greater than the sum of its parts. Hemon opens with “The Lives of Others,” a seven-part chapter in which he explores identity in many forms. He begins in “Who is That?” with the startling changes brought into his life by the birth of his sister Kristina in 1969 when he was four years old, and his attempts to “exterminate” her by choking her: “Suddenly, I recognized that I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing, I shouldn’t be killing her, because she was my little sister, because I loved her. But the body is always ahead of the thought and I kept up the pressure for another moment, until she started vomiting curdled breast milk. I was terrified with the possibility of losing her: her name was Kristina; I was her big brother; I wanted her to live so I could love her more. But, although I knew how I could end her life, I didn’t know how I could stop her from dying.” Luckily, his mother came to the rescue, but this episode remained important for Hemon’s sense of identity: “The recollection of that sororicide attempt is the earliest memory in which I can observe myself from outside: what I see is me and my sister. Never again would I be alone in the world, never again would I have it exclusively for myself. Never again would my selfhood be a sovereign territory devoid of the presence of others. Never again would I have all the chocolate for myself.” Throughout the rest of the chapter, Hemon continues to explore different facets of his identity through his life: the importance of the raja, a generational hierarchy of children in Sarajevo organized by location; the immigrant experiences of his parents and sister when they moved to Ontario in 1993; the crucial importance of ethnic identity in Bosia, where it shadowed all other aspects of identity. Hemon concludes by considering how he would now answer the question, “Who are you?”: “So I say I am complicated. I’d also like to add that I am nothing if not an entanglement of unanswerable questions, a cluster of others. “I’d like to say it might be too early to tell.” Many of the other chapters in The Book of My Lives are less obviously thematic, but continue to reveal Hemon’s discomfort with his identity. In “Family Dining,” he considers the ways that eating borscht transports him from Chicago, back in time and across space to Hemon family meals in Sarajevo. In “The Kauders Case,” he describes the surprising ways in which fiction became life when he aired some radio pieces based on a character he developed, Alphonse Kauders, as a means to criticize Tito. In several chapters, Hemon describes the mountain cabin at the Jahorina ski resort where he not only spent family vacations, but also weathered the violence from the Croatian war in 1991: "My monastic mountain living was now about rudimentary thought protection, for once war got inside my mind, I feared, it would burn and pillage it. I read The Magic Mountain and Kafka’s letters; I wrote stuff full of madness, death, and whimsical wordplay; I listened to Miles Davis, who died that fall, while staring at the embers in our fireplace. On my hikes I conducted imaginary conversations with imaginary partners, not unlike the ones between Castorp and Settembrini in Mann’s novel. I chopped a lot of wood to ease my rising anxiety. Occasionally, I climbed a steep mountain face without any gear or protection. It was a kind of suicidal self-soothing challenge: if I made it all the way to the top without falling, I thought, I could survive the war. One of the daily rituals was watching the nightly news broadcast at 7:30, and the news was never good, always worse.” Hemon’s sense of watching the Croatian war from a distance permeates his life in the US as well. In “The Lives of a Flaneur,” Hemon remembers his experiences volunteering at the International Human Rights Law Institute of DePaul University’s College of Law, where he contributed to a project investigating Bosnian war crimes by identifying the location of destroyed and damaged buildings in Sarajevo: “Many of the buildings photographed were roofless, hole-ridden, or burned, their windows blown out. There were few people in those pictures, but what I was doing felt very much like identifying corpses. Now and then I could recall the street or even the exact address; sometimes the buildings were so familiar they seemed unreal. There was, for example, the building at the corner of Danijela Ozme and Kralja Tomislava, across from which I used to wait for Renata, my high school girlfriend, to come down from Džidžikovac. Back then, there was a supermarket on the ground floor of the building, where I’d buy candy or cigarettes when she was late, which was always. I’d known that building for years. It had stood in its place solid, indelible. I’d never devoted any thought to it until I saw its picture in Chicago. In the photograph, the building was hollow, disemboweled by a shell, which had evidently fallen through the roof and dropped down a few floors. The supermarket now existed only in the flooded storage space of my memory. “There were also buildings that I recognized but could not exactly place. And then there were the ones that were wholly unknown to me—I couldn’t even figure out what part of town they might have been in. I have learned since then that you don’t need to know every part of a city to own the whole of it, but in that office in downtown Chicago it terrified me to think that there was some part of Sarajevo I didn’t know and probably never would, as it was now disintegrating, like a cardboard stage set, in the rain of shells. If my mind and my city were the same thing then I was losing my mind. Converting Chicago into my personal space became not just metaphysically essential but psychiatrically urgent as well.” In addition to writing heartrending passages like the ones above, Hemon also gives full rein to his eye for detail and his love of the absurd, especially in the chapter “If God Existed, He’d Be A Solid Mid-Fielder,” in which he describes his experiences playing in weekend soccer games with other immigrants to Chicago. The chapter is filled with finely-observed details about the different men with whom he was playing, including some beautifully grounded descriptions of a game that was interrupted by a torrential downpour: “Meanwhile, on the bike path, Lalas (nicknamed after the American soccer player) stands beside his wife, who is in a wheelchair. She has a horrific case of fast-advancing MS and cannot move fast enough to get out of the rain. They stand together, waiting for the calamity to end: Lalas in his Uptown United T-shirt, his wife under a piece of cardboard slowly and irreversibly dissolving in the rain. The Tibetan goalie and his Tibetan friends, whom I’d never seen before and never would after that day, are playing a game on the field, which is now completely covered with water, as if running in slow motion on the surface of a placid river. The ground is giving off vapor, the mist touching their ankles, and at moments it seems that they’re levitating above the flood. Lalas and his wife are perfectly calm watching them, as if nothing could ever harm them. (She has passed away since that day, somebody rest her soul.) They see one of the Tibetans scoring a goal, the rain-heavy ball sliding between the hands of the goalie, who lands in a puddle. He is untroubled, smiling, and from where I sit, he could well be the Dalai Lama himself.” For Hemon, the sense of being “completely connected with everything and everyone around you” made moments like this a necessary part of his life in Chicago. The most personal and moving chapter is Hemon’s final one, “The Aquarium,” a wrenching description of the illness and death of his younger daughter Isabel from an extremely rare atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor. The chapter moves back and forth from the hospital where Isabel had surgeries and chemotherapy treatments (starting when she was 10 months old), to his home where he and his wife Teri tried to help their older daughter Ella live as normal life as possible under the circumstances. Ella started to talk about an imaginary brother, named Mingus, who was later represented by an inflatable blue space alien. This alien is depicted on the cover of The Books of My Lives. Mingus represents the power of imagination to cope with tragedies. It seems fitting that Hemon concludes this honest, open, terribly sad chapter with these words: “Mingus is still good and well, going steadily about his alternative-existence business. Although he stays with us a lot, he lives around the corner yet again, with his parents and a variable number of siblings, most recently two brothers, Jackon and Cliff, and a sister, Piccadilly. He has had his own children—three sons, at one point, one of whom was called Andy. When we went skiing, Mingus preferred snowboarding. When we went to London for Christmas, Mingus went to Nebraska. He plays chess (“chest” in Ella’s parlance) pretty well, it seems. Sometimes he yells at Ella (“Shut up, Mingus!” she yells back); other times he loses his own voice, but then speaks in Isabel’s. He is also a good magician. With his magic wand, Ella says, he can make Isabel reappear.”

  2. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    Christ was I not prepared for this book's final essay. Originally titled The Aquarium, maybe you read it in the New Yorker in 2011, about Hemon's younger daughter? I hadn't, nor had I read any of these previously published pieces, edited slightly and assembled chronologically for a collection that amounts to Aleksandar Hemon's memoir. And for much of The Book of My Lives I was thinking the same sorts of things that I was thinking when I read his novel, The Lazarus Project. Which is, basically: t Christ was I not prepared for this book's final essay. Originally titled The Aquarium, maybe you read it in the New Yorker in 2011, about Hemon's younger daughter? I hadn't, nor had I read any of these previously published pieces, edited slightly and assembled chronologically for a collection that amounts to Aleksandar Hemon's memoir. And for much of The Book of My Lives I was thinking the same sorts of things that I was thinking when I read his novel, The Lazarus Project. Which is, basically: this guy can really write, but I wish he was a little more emotional, a little less intellectual. He could try to lighten up a bit, too, maybe? Sometimes I feel like Hemon's telling a funny story, but for some reason I'm not laughing. Anyway, there are some terrific scenes/passages/chapters/essays here, most especially when he talks about his beloved, native Sarajevo, which he left, for Chicago, right before war ripped that country to pieces in the mid 1990s. Hemon clearly had as massive, and as active, a crush on Sarajevo as I do on New York City, which drives him to walk his city in the same way I walk mine, with energy and passion, always watching, finding something new even on the most familiar blocks, feeling at peace, and at one, with the urban organism as a whole. Which sounds corny and crazy, but it's true. I liked these chapters a lot. And he does a nice job of portraying the giddy sense of doom, that reckless, desperate need to really FEEL and LIVE, that fell over everyone and everything in the year or so before the fighting really hit home, figuratively and literally. And the story of his apartment in a horrifyingly filthy Chicago house, with the insane landlady and the three dogs? Here Hemon finally DID make me chuckle out loud, even as my skin was crawling. So I was enjoying myself with The Book of My Lives, engaged and admiring, even while wanting Hemon to open his heart just a little more... and then the last chapter came and WHAMMO!!! Only recommended if you want tears streaming down your face, softly crying, as you're riding the F train. Which, I must say, I don't mind doing at all, when the horror and sadness is so honestly earned, and genuinely deserved.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    Seven years ago, a patron returned this book to me at the Circulation desk saying that I would enjoy reading it. I was a little taken aback, while I enjoyed a natural rapport with her, I didn't really know her and couldn't think how she would know my taste in reading! Frankly, I was fascinated, however, the cover was a little off-putting and I assumed it was some sort of science fiction. I put it on my to-be-read list and left it there. Then, a month ago, I decided to read or remove books that ha Seven years ago, a patron returned this book to me at the Circulation desk saying that I would enjoy reading it. I was a little taken aback, while I enjoyed a natural rapport with her, I didn't really know her and couldn't think how she would know my taste in reading! Frankly, I was fascinated, however, the cover was a little off-putting and I assumed it was some sort of science fiction. I put it on my to-be-read list and left it there. Then, a month ago, I decided to read or remove books that had been on my to-be-read pile the longest. I was truly taken by surprise to realize that this book is not at all what I imagined! Once I picked it up, I quickly became absorbed in Aleksandar Hemon's narrative of how he came to live in Chicago from Sarajevo. His story of his lives in both Sarajevo and Chicago is truly fascinating and beautifully and devastatingly written. Standout passages that either took my breath away or caused me to pause for thought: "The situation of immigration leads to a kind of self-othering as well. Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past, with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation." I loved Hemon's reminisces of his family's borscht as "a utopian dish: ideally, it contains everything; it is produced and consumed collectively; and it can be refrigerated and reheated in perpetuity." And his final conclusion that it "needs to be prepared on the low but steady fire of love and consumed in a ritual of indelible togetherness." It's a family meal best enjoyed while gathered together around the dining table together. His same sense of warmth and togetherness cannot be recreated in a solitary bowl eaten all alone in his apartment in Chicago. For me, this brings back memories of meals prepared by my grandmother that my family ate heartily and enjoyed thoroughly while feeling relaxed in the warmth of her love and care of us. It leaves me nostalgic for what was in my 'old' country. At first, trying to re-create these dishes in my 'new' country was fraught, the same ingredients were not available, substitutions had to be made. It's not the same. It doesn't taste the same. Gradually, after a time of feeling dislocated and no longer belonging in either country, an adaptation occurred. Our lives had been reshaped into a new reality. The 'new' country had become 'home.' I have a sense that this happened for the Hemon family also. Finally, my favorite passage of all: "Narrative imagination - and therefore fiction - is a basic evolutionary tool of survival. We process the world by telling stories and produce human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves."

  4. 4 out of 5

    Roxane

    Extraordinary chronicle of one man's lives. Sweeping yet intimate. Both personal and political. Masterfully organized from the dedication through the very last word of the final essay. The intelligence and passion of these essays shall not soon be forgotten. Extraordinary chronicle of one man's lives. Sweeping yet intimate. Both personal and political. Masterfully organized from the dedication through the very last word of the final essay. The intelligence and passion of these essays shall not soon be forgotten.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Melanie

    At the end of her review of this stupendous collection of essays for the Kirkus Review, Jenny Hendrix writes: "Perhaps this is why, throughout, one gets the sense that Hemon is trying to draw himself, not just as a series of characters in various essays (“I have the sense of my life as several parallel acts,” he says), but as a character whose memories, pulled together and edited, have the same kind of intrinsic artifice as the narrative of a novel. In one passage, Hemon compares his life to an a At the end of her review of this stupendous collection of essays for the Kirkus Review, Jenny Hendrix writes: "Perhaps this is why, throughout, one gets the sense that Hemon is trying to draw himself, not just as a series of characters in various essays (“I have the sense of my life as several parallel acts,” he says), but as a character whose memories, pulled together and edited, have the same kind of intrinsic artifice as the narrative of a novel. In one passage, Hemon compares his life to an apparition of Mary that only those who expect it can see. This book seems like a way of learning to see that apparition, of cultivating the proper creative expectance. Life as a coherent entity being, like a memoir or a Virgin in the frozen peas, only really visible to the believer." A way of learning to see that apparition, of cultivating the proper creative expectance. That is simply the most beautiful way to illustrate what goes on in every single essay of this stark and unflinchingly honest collection. Hemon's sense of self (or rather "selves") is unadorned, fiercely intelligent, complex and in continuous awe of all the ambiguities that make us who we are: frail human beings in constant search of stories. A brave and essential piece of work.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Glenn Sumi

    Aleksandar Hemon’s first book of non-fiction is as complex and entertaining as his novels and short stories. The Book Of My Lives is a series of personal essays that form a loose sort of memoir reflecting the various lives Hemon’s lived up until now: Bosnian child, bohemian layabout, socialist shit-disturber, American immigrant, husband, father, artist. Born in Sarajevo, he was on a month-long trip to the U.S. when war broke out there, essentially stranding him in a new country where he could bare Aleksandar Hemon’s first book of non-fiction is as complex and entertaining as his novels and short stories. The Book Of My Lives is a series of personal essays that form a loose sort of memoir reflecting the various lives Hemon’s lived up until now: Bosnian child, bohemian layabout, socialist shit-disturber, American immigrant, husband, father, artist. Born in Sarajevo, he was on a month-long trip to the U.S. when war broke out there, essentially stranding him in a new country where he could barely speak the language, although he knew lots about American culture. The essays don’t follow a predictable path – they hop around in chronology, for instance – but the range of topics is intriguing. And Hemon has a poet’s eye for the unifying symbol. Playing in a regular pickup soccer game in his adoptive city of Chicago lets him discuss the differences between immigrants and locals. And a description of his paltry meals during his mandatory service in the Yugoslav People’s Army leads to reflections on borscht and the pleasures and pains of family dining. Because of the format, there’s some repetition. And it’s odd that there’s no account of Hemon’s learning to write and publish in English. (When he first started out in the U.S., he couldn’t write fiction in any language.) But each self-contained essay is readable – even the breezy love letter to Chicago that will accompany me the next time I visit the Windy City. Two chapters are outstanding. In one, he reflects on a former beloved lit professor who went on to become the right-hand man of Serbian Democratic Party president Radovan Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia. And the poignant final essay chronicles a family tragedy. Devoid of sentimentality but full of rich detail, Hemon manages here to capture a dark moment in his life while showing how storytelling lets us make sense of such things. Apropos for one of the finest storytellers around. https://www.nowtoronto.com/books/stor...

  7. 5 out of 5

    F.J. Nanic

    It is a real pleasure and honor, if those two go together at all, to read a memoir that attained such prominence and maturity. First of all, we were both born in Sarajevo, the same generation, and we both wrote about "raja (rayah)" that old expression from the Ottoman Empire originally standing for poor people paying taxes to the Sultan, gradually deriving into a well-known synonym that in English means "mates," but also a group of adults or children usually gathered around that magic ball so in It is a real pleasure and honor, if those two go together at all, to read a memoir that attained such prominence and maturity. First of all, we were both born in Sarajevo, the same generation, and we both wrote about "raja (rayah)" that old expression from the Ottoman Empire originally standing for poor people paying taxes to the Sultan, gradually deriving into a well-known synonym that in English means "mates," but also a group of adults or children usually gathered around that magic ball so indispensable for a soccer or basketball match more important than life itself at times. I use this opportunity to congratulate my fellow countrymen, because I am truly glad whenever Bosnians succeed scattered around this "big" world. Before the war there were only four million of us, enough for a solid city. I don't know how much their number has dropped off after the war. I always remember growing up in my hometown though; we had free medical and free education. I am grateful for the things i have learned there, and I'm proud I'm not responsible for killing, raping, or harming anyone in any way. Like Hemon, I happened to be abroad when the war broke out. He wrote in Chicago, i wrote in Paris. I also worked with the ex-prisoners of the death camps in Omarska and Manjaca, taking care of my refugee mother at the same time. Maybe the funny difference was that I wrote in English while being in France, like in another Mujo & Suljo joke that Hemon pictures so vividly, and that only we can truly understand because we're born into it. I continued being a rolling stone gathering no moss crossing two big ponds all the way to Australia and back. Even there I came across my scattered countrymen. Once you reach New Zealand, "the end of the world," and even there find a NOWHERE MAN from Bosnia hanging on a thread in godforsaken Onehunga, surrounded by bare junky walls, then you realize how small this world is and imbued with so many lives that will never have a book written about them. Lest we forget, they didn't die in war, but they died in peace, as if in their sleep they dug a tunnel and emerged at the other side of the world. I wish all remaining Bosnians would read this book and never forget who they are and where they come from...

  8. 4 out of 5

    Larisa

    You think you know who you are. You have a degree or two. You have a job and a family. Perhaps you even have an expensive car, a house and a dog. Imagine one day finding yourself not having any of the above. You are thousands of miles away from what you thought was your home and you have nothing. Who are you? An alien. The ingenious German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm said: "If I am what I have and if I lose what I have who then am I?” The collection of essays written by Aleksa You think you know who you are. You have a degree or two. You have a job and a family. Perhaps you even have an expensive car, a house and a dog. Imagine one day finding yourself not having any of the above. You are thousands of miles away from what you thought was your home and you have nothing. Who are you? An alien. The ingenious German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm said: "If I am what I have and if I lose what I have who then am I?” The collection of essays written by Aleksandar Hemon, American writer of Bosnian descent “The Book of my Lives” is about who we are, how we become what we think we are and how we lose ourselves by losing what we had. This book caught me off-guard. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me suffer. I didn't read it - I lived through it. Hemon writes about his childhood in socialist Jugoslavia, and I have a feeling that I played on the same playground. “… we were all Pioneers and we all loved socialism, our country, and it’s greatest son…”. He remembers his family's borscht and I can feel the taste of it in my mouth. “… the food needs to be prepared on the low but steady fire of love and consumed in a ritual of indelible togetherness.” He tells about his first months in America, “… my displacement was metaphysical to the precisely same extent to which it was physical.” - Still is for me. What if you lose someone you truly love? Suddenly all you have is pain. My favorite book of the year, “The Book of my Lives” written by Alexandar Hemon.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Philip

    Generally speaking, I choose my books carefully. I think this is why I have so many 3, 4, and 5 star books on my shelf. Maybe I'm just a generous guy... The Book of My Lives resonated with me for several reasons. I was an exchange student to Croatia in 2000. The war had been over for several years, and they were in the process of rebuilding. Still, there was a lot of uncertainty and rumor in the United States about what the country that had so recently gone through such tragedy would hold. I went Generally speaking, I choose my books carefully. I think this is why I have so many 3, 4, and 5 star books on my shelf. Maybe I'm just a generous guy... The Book of My Lives resonated with me for several reasons. I was an exchange student to Croatia in 2000. The war had been over for several years, and they were in the process of rebuilding. Still, there was a lot of uncertainty and rumor in the United States about what the country that had so recently gone through such tragedy would hold. I went after I graduated high school in the United States for a number of reasons. I'm offering none up now, except to share with you what one of my best friends wrote in my high school yearbook upon graduation: *My pictures are showing up upside down if viewed on mobile devices... I don't know why that is, if you know, help me out...* Like I said, there was a lot of uncertainty. Most of my friends wouldn't have been able to place Croatia on a map, I mean... it had only been around for a couple years in its modern incarnation. (Come to think of it though, I wonder how many of my current friends would be able to place Croatia on a map... See the heartbreaking section on Luxembourg on pages 104/5 - explained in spoilers.) And indeed, Vitko was very, VERY wrong about what Croatia was like. It's AMAZING. So maybe that's part of what drew me into this beautifully written book. He talks about the Pioneers, and I know what they are. I have the hat to prove it. ...Hold on... Honestly though, I still don't understand the full implications of the hat. I don't understand Tito, or the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Or the history, or the motivations behind the bloodshed of the 90s. I was in Varaždin when Slobodan Milošević fell from power - just a hop, skip, and a jump away. But while I was there that all seemed very distant, as I didn't know the back-story. I was too tied up trying to learn the language and culture on a summary level before I could dig into anything deeper. I get the impression Hemon often felt the same way - especially in his opening essay, "The Lives of Others." Take this, for instance: "Yes, we were all Yugoslavs and Pioneers and we all loved socialism, our country, and its greatest son, our marshall, Tito, but never would I have gone to war and taken blows for those. Our other identities- say, the ethnicity of any of us - were wholly irrelevant." Granted, he was writing about his childhood, but later he seems to feel the same way - with the added sense of possible guilt? Guilt that he didn't feel guilt? -for not staying to fight. Displaced people will always struggle to find an identity, and that was (and maybe is) Hemon's key problem. But that's what makes the book so great: we all are struggling to find an identity. ...And maybe this is more of an American problem, right? I love America and its beautiful and often troubling history. But the diversity and mutability of American culture force upon our nation a constant re-identification. We don't have a dynasty. We don't have a monarchy. We elect new leaders every year, and a new president every 4 years. And those leaders are often swayed by the public. On the other hand, if you think the 200/300 years of American History you learned in high school was a lot, try learning history in India, or Syria, or England, or Bosnia. Right? Reconciling Bosnian (and Yugoslav) life, history and culture with American adds another layer to Hemon's search for identity in the book. The book is rife with ironic insight, and melancholic beauty. (See the irony of the birthday party on page 54; the irony in his title choice on page 125 - both explained in spoilers.) I have a question that can only be explained by Hemon himself: was the uniformity/circle of the book (explained in spoilers) intentional? For, the book was several previously published essays. But how could it be? I know the book isn't for everyone. I read several sections to my wife, and she hated it. That's interesting, because we agree on so much. And I kept trying to push it on her, which I think turned her away... which is a shame, because it's really an amazing book. Seriously, you should read it. Last pre-spoiler thought: was it me, or was all his chess-notation off? Was that some sort of inside joke to himself, and chess lovers everywhere? Or is my chess notation just that bad? When is a Ke2 to e4 move possible? (page 185). (view spoiler)[ Luxembourg (pg.104): "Many Americans I talked to had a hard time processing what for Bosnians was basic information. I had little patience for getting into all the human intricacies of the situation for the benefit of a routinely curious American. Often I could not bear explaining that in Bosnia there were people of complicated backgrounds or that there were Serbs and Montenegrins who were fully committed to their neighbors, loyal to the idea of a multiethnic Bosnia, which put them in a position of being seen as traitors by the Serbs and suspect by other Bosnians... Eventually when asked about my country of origin by a lazily inquisitive American, I'd say 'Luxembourg,' safe in the assumption that no one would ever ask, 'So what's going on in Luxembourg?' and safe in the fact that in that peaceful land I had no friends." Irony: Birthday Party (pg. 54): I won't put the full quotes for this one, but it was hilarious. He threw a birthday party that was... in poor taste, and became somewhat of a national scandal. Later in life, he had to join the chorus of those chanting that whoever was behind it should be strung up. Irony: Title Choice (pg. 125): I can't spoil it. I just can't. It's a short essay. Go read it. Pg. 125. Sneak into a library or bookstore and read it yourself. It's short. Seriously. Full circle: The book begins with a story of a 4 year old Aleksandar trying to kill his baby sister out of jealousy. He didn't know what he had at the time. And, in my reading, he wasn't really trying to kill her. He was just a jealous older sibling. Fast forward to the last story: (genuine spoiler here) he's in the doctor's office with his youngest child Isabel. Her head is measuring a little too large. She has a brain tumor. (This is very difficult for me to write, because I'm remembering the phone call from my wife that I received about my own daughter. I'm remembering acquaintances not knowing what to say, and offering up platitudes, and friends saying nothing at all, but being there. I'm ever grateful to my boss at the time, who, when I received the call at school yelled at me, "GO!" And I'm remembering the letters, like Hemon's ATRT, that no one else aside from my wife understood or even could understand and how the vision I had developed for my daughter had irrevocably and irreparably been changed. And above all I remember the uncertainty.) So let me say there's a level of understanding there when I read the last section. An understanding I think we can all grasp at some level. And maybe it's arrogant of me to claim a deeper understanding than some others, but I can't change how I feel about it. That's not to say that our situations are the same: cruelly, and incomprehensibly, they're not. I understand that my daughter lives - true, a different life than I had anticipated for her, but a life. And I have no platitude to offer Hemon, only thanks for writing so openly about such a difficult topic. And I understand what you wrote when you said, "One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling, that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel's suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. The only result of her suffering that matters is her death. We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anybody." And yet you wrote about it. Maybe when we share these things we're giving meaning to the meaningless. Maybe the meaning was already there and we've failed to see it. Obviously, I don't have answers. And our worldviews are different. Thanks for sharing, I know it must have been difficult. I was moved by the portrayal of your older daughter, who also didn't quite understand what she was losing, who was trying to figure out who she was - like all of us. She made up imaginary friends and siblings to help her make sense of the world, and like Bill Waterson says, "sometimes I think all my friends are imaginary." I couldn't help but compare that to all the different lives you've lived: in Chicago, with your friendships - real or guilt-ridden - in Bosnia, playing soccer. And of course, I inserted myself into the story and all of these lives too. (hide spoiler)]

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ellie

    Hemon is a fine and fascinating writer--whether he is talking about soccer as so much more meaningful than just a sport, his life in Sarajevo before the war, his coming to Chicago (stranded there by the war) or the illness of his infant daughter. The essays are like polished gems. Like Nabokov, Hemon is writing in a language not that of his birth and upbringing and doing it brilliantly. I was interested, intrigued, and very deeply moved. I look forward eagerly to reading Hemon's fiction. Hemon is a fine and fascinating writer--whether he is talking about soccer as so much more meaningful than just a sport, his life in Sarajevo before the war, his coming to Chicago (stranded there by the war) or the illness of his infant daughter. The essays are like polished gems. Like Nabokov, Hemon is writing in a language not that of his birth and upbringing and doing it brilliantly. I was interested, intrigued, and very deeply moved. I look forward eagerly to reading Hemon's fiction.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kiwi Begs2Differ ✎

    Uneven, some parts brilliant (I particularly liked his essays on immigrants and the chapter on soccer players), other less so, the last one is heart-breaking. Overall a solid 3 stars. Favourite quotes: The funny thing is that the need for collective self-legitimization fits snugly into the neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism, which is nothing if not a dream of a lot of others living together, everybody happy to tolerate and learn. Differences are thus essentially required for the sense of belon Uneven, some parts brilliant (I particularly liked his essays on immigrants and the chapter on soccer players), other less so, the last one is heart-breaking. Overall a solid 3 stars. Favourite quotes: The funny thing is that the need for collective self-legitimization fits snugly into the neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism, which is nothing if not a dream of a lot of others living together, everybody happy to tolerate and learn. Differences are thus essentially required for the sense of belonging: as long as we know who we are and who we are not, we are as good as they are. Sometimes, if a team was a player short, he’d referee and play simultaneously. In such a situation, he was particularly hard on himself and once gave himself a yellow card for a rough tackle. We—immigrants trying to stay afloat in this country—found comfort in playing by the rules we set ourselves. We’d play and I’d lose, each and every time. My mother objected to his never letting me win, as she believed that children needed to experience the joy of victory to succeed. Father, on the other hand, was ruthlessly firm in his conviction that everything in life had to be earned and that wanting victory always helped achieve it.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Tuck

    for hemon fans this will be a devastating and luscious look into his childhood and history of yugo and its dissolution into horror, how he got to and stayed in usa, started to write, and what his fiction means (that is, these histories will help one understand and appreciated his fiction). and too about his own family wife and children. he seemed to begrudgingly write this and re-worked mostly already-published essays and stories, with some contextual transitioning. i believe he said this will b for hemon fans this will be a devastating and luscious look into his childhood and history of yugo and its dissolution into horror, how he got to and stayed in usa, started to write, and what his fiction means (that is, these histories will help one understand and appreciated his fiction). and too about his own family wife and children. he seemed to begrudgingly write this and re-worked mostly already-published essays and stories, with some contextual transitioning. i believe he said this will be pretty much the last nonfiction he will do. hemon lovers= 5 stars. others = 3 or less, probably. oh god too, the cover seems kinda of out-of-place, until you understand what it is and how that little blue alien figures into the life of sasha hemon and his family. i see that alien now and just want to cry, really.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    This book is not a linear expose of Hemon's life but rather musings and dialogues of some important events that impacted his life. The first and last story begin and end with an infant struggling for life. The last story particularly heartbreaking and difficult to read. Leaving his native Sarajevo, just weeks before violence breaks out, this is also a book about displacement and how it feels to watch what is happening to your country on a television set. His stories of Sarajevo, his home pre-war This book is not a linear expose of Hemon's life but rather musings and dialogues of some important events that impacted his life. The first and last story begin and end with an infant struggling for life. The last story particularly heartbreaking and difficult to read. Leaving his native Sarajevo, just weeks before violence breaks out, this is also a book about displacement and how it feels to watch what is happening to your country on a television set. His stories of Sarajevo, his home pre-war contrasted with the violence happening during the war were touching. His arrival in Chicago and his love for this city becomes a new harbor for his growing talents as a writer. His writing is crisp and refreshingly honest. The inner working of a fine novelist, what matters to him and what has had an impact on his life are all displayed here for the reader.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Madeleine

    Oh, look, another book I've read and will eventually get around to copy-and-pasting its review. Oh, look, another book I've read and will eventually get around to copy-and-pasting its review.

  15. 4 out of 5

    ثمین

    Got impressed particularly by the last chapter Aquarium, I could literally experience how pain and sorrow was getting into me through reading.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Gautham Vasan

    His writing style is a unique combination of beauty and brevity. It's always just the right number of words. Nothing more, nothing less. Neither verbose, nor terse. It's self-contained and succinct. A masterpiece. There's double entendre about a Freudian keyhole at the very start which raised my hopes up about the quality of the book. Let's say I wasn't disappointed. It's an easy, flowing read. Yet, it's not fluff. It's packed with passion and substance. A unique combination of wit, wisdom, comp His writing style is a unique combination of beauty and brevity. It's always just the right number of words. Nothing more, nothing less. Neither verbose, nor terse. It's self-contained and succinct. A masterpiece. There's double entendre about a Freudian keyhole at the very start which raised my hopes up about the quality of the book. Let's say I wasn't disappointed. It's an easy, flowing read. Yet, it's not fluff. It's packed with passion and substance. A unique combination of wit, wisdom, compassion and a sardonic sense of humour. I'd love to have a drink with this guy. Someday, I need to meet him in person.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Georgiana

    "One of the most common platitudes we heard was that 'words failed'. But words were not failing.If there was a communication problem it was that there were to many words; they were far to heavy and to specific to be inflicted upon ohters." "One of the most common platitudes we heard was that 'words failed'. But words were not failing.If there was a communication problem it was that there were to many words; they were far to heavy and to specific to be inflicted upon ohters."

  18. 5 out of 5

    Paul Fulcher

    Overall a worthwhile read - but read all of his fiction by preference. I'm a big fan of Hemon's fiction - short-stories, novels and indeed works that fall between the two. But I was rather disappointed by this, his first non-fiction book. The source of the problem is revealed in the "Table of Discontents" (his pun, not mine) in the appendix - most of these pieces have appeared elsewhere, and while they have been "revised and edited" for this book, the overall effect is still that this doesn't come Overall a worthwhile read - but read all of his fiction by preference. I'm a big fan of Hemon's fiction - short-stories, novels and indeed works that fall between the two. But I was rather disappointed by this, his first non-fiction book. The source of the problem is revealed in the "Table of Discontents" (his pun, not mine) in the appendix - most of these pieces have appeared elsewhere, and while they have been "revised and edited" for this book, the overall effect is still that this doesn't come across as a coherent work, neither thematically nor stylistically. Some of the pieces are individually excellent. My favourite, "The Lives of Others" offers some telling philosophical thoughts on life as an immigrant - and how recent immigrants define themselves by their difference to their newfound compatriots and how this becomes more difficult as social integration increases (eg by marriage). "You could theoretize Canadians only if you didn't interact with them, for then the vehicles of comparison were the ideal, abstract Canadians, the exact counterprojection of us. They were the not-us, we were the not-them". He also neatly skewers the "neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism" ("in the multicultural world there are lot of them, which ought not to be a problem as long as they stay within their cultural confines, loyal to their roots". And also the neoconservative approach ("and whoever they may be, we need to win the war against them so that we can triumphantly be alone in the world"). But then we find "Family Dining" a simple and rather over nostalgic take on family life in Sarajevo, which concludes in sub-Oprah fashion that "the metaphysics of family meals [is that] the food needs to be prepared on the low but steady fire of love and consumed in a ritual of indelible togetherness". And some pieces don't work at all - "The Kauders Case" documents his college-age dabblings in performance art and literature eg "Irrelevant Poetry", but to what purpose it is unclear. Hemon clearly believes that he was being ironically pretentious, but I suspect the irony is only bestowed with hindsight, and ultimately the whole piece is of no interest to the reader. The final chapter is the most powerful - a heartbreaking piece "The Aquarium" about the severe illness of his infant child, but which, in just 27 pages, also explores why children invent imaginary friends, and why adults write fiction - "like [my elder daughter] I found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which exceeded the pathetic limits of my biography: I needed narrative space to extend myself into." And that last point leads us full circle and to my main conclusion. Hemon's fiction is more powerful than his non-fiction - indeed in the introduction he statess "I write fiction because I cannot not do it, but I have to be pressed into writing non-fiction".

  19. 5 out of 5

    Iva

    Hemon is an extraordinary writer. Up until now he has mostly published fiction with occasional essays about his life in Bosnia and how he wound up in Chicago, a city he admires on many levels. Many of these pieces were published in the New Yorker and other literary journals. There is so much to admire here: his love of family, the sadness of his parents having to emigrate from Bosnia to Canada, his love of animals; it painful to read of his losses. Hemon is a writer who extends and broadens our Hemon is an extraordinary writer. Up until now he has mostly published fiction with occasional essays about his life in Bosnia and how he wound up in Chicago, a city he admires on many levels. Many of these pieces were published in the New Yorker and other literary journals. There is so much to admire here: his love of family, the sadness of his parents having to emigrate from Bosnia to Canada, his love of animals; it painful to read of his losses. Hemon is a writer who extends and broadens our view of the world.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Holly

    This book had quiet, confident power and pulled me effortlessly forward. There is nothing show-offy about Hemon's language and he attempts no verbal pyrotechnics in this collection of personal essays. His sensibility is never pretentious; he appears the epitome of humility. And the final essay? My god. I finished with tear-filled eyes sitting in my vehicle in a gradually-filling parking lot waiting for a business to open, and I forgot the world. This book had quiet, confident power and pulled me effortlessly forward. There is nothing show-offy about Hemon's language and he attempts no verbal pyrotechnics in this collection of personal essays. His sensibility is never pretentious; he appears the epitome of humility. And the final essay? My god. I finished with tear-filled eyes sitting in my vehicle in a gradually-filling parking lot waiting for a business to open, and I forgot the world.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Suzy

    I loved this collection of essays from Hemon's life in Bosnia before the war, during the war and after emigrating to Chicago. I laughed, cried, was inspired and crushed by his exquisitely drawn stories of "his lives". His glimpse into what life is like when forced to leave where you were born because of tragic circumstances enriched me. Having lived in Chicago made an even stronger connection for me. I have not read Hemon's fiction, but I will! I loved this collection of essays from Hemon's life in Bosnia before the war, during the war and after emigrating to Chicago. I laughed, cried, was inspired and crushed by his exquisitely drawn stories of "his lives". His glimpse into what life is like when forced to leave where you were born because of tragic circumstances enriched me. Having lived in Chicago made an even stronger connection for me. I have not read Hemon's fiction, but I will!

  22. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    This has been on my list for a long time, and I'm glad I finally got to it. It's beautiful and sharply funny and full of visceral feeling. It's also, in many parts, strikingly and uncomfortably apropos for the current historical moment. This has been on my list for a long time, and I'm glad I finally got to it. It's beautiful and sharply funny and full of visceral feeling. It's also, in many parts, strikingly and uncomfortably apropos for the current historical moment.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Chris Blocker

    Dear Sasha, May I even still call you by you that name? Perhaps we should stick with more formal titles. I hope I may still call you Aleksandar. Surely, our relationship is not so torn that we have to refer to one another by our surnames. We've known each other for some years. At least I've known of you. I first encountered your words eight years ago now. From across a room, your gorgeous prose seduced my ears. They were words spoken with grace. The selection was read during a lecture on word choi Dear Sasha, May I even still call you by you that name? Perhaps we should stick with more formal titles. I hope I may still call you Aleksandar. Surely, our relationship is not so torn that we have to refer to one another by our surnames. We've known each other for some years. At least I've known of you. I first encountered your words eight years ago now. From across a room, your gorgeous prose seduced my ears. They were words spoken with grace. The selection was read during a lecture on word choice entitled “Knocking the World Askew...”. The lecturer was Amy Hassinger, my first MFA mentor. I credit her with introducing the two of us. Admittedly, I was enamored. I pretended that the language did not somehow arouse and haunt me simultaneously. I wrote your name at the margin of my notebook. I wrote it again on my suggested reading list for the semester. I casually mentioned my desire to read “something of this Hemon guy” to my peers. I strolled through these early days of knowing you as though my heart had not been stirred. I'd hoped my feelings were not evident to everyone. Secretly, I couldn't wait to crack open one of your novels, but I waited, desperate to not seem too eager. And then you wrote to me. No, I couldn't wait too long, but I did wait until the end of that semester to make my first selection. Four long months of waiting for your words. Your letter was aptly titled, Love and Obstacles. Indeed. I found more of the words I'd fallen in love months earlier, though I was disappointed with the stories themselves. I called you an “average storyteller,” but raved to all my friends about your brilliance with the English language. I showered your prose with words that paled in comparison to your own: original, gorgeous, extravagant. And yet, I was slightly disappointed. There was so much beauty but I felt that, for whatever reason, you and I didn't connect. Yet there were so many more opportunities to win me over. Our next outing came in the shape of The Lazarus Project. Oh, how part of me died with that novel. I had so much hope and it was dashed completely. Such a great idea and such careful orchestration, but all for naught. The language was of course wonderful as always, but I just failed to see your vision for this very personal project. At the time, I thought your words almost felt stilted, as though you were holding something back from me. Were you? Now, I cannot help but think you were. And yet, I had continued to hope. In my response to The Lazarus Project I wrote, “Nevertheless, I look forward to my next meeting with Aleksandar Hemon. I have no doubts it will be a delight.” If only it were true. Aleksandar, you have failed me time and time again. Or perhaps, I have failed you. When two forces fail to connect, is one more to blame than the other? It's easy to cast blame on you, but I recognize my own faults. Perhaps I romanticized your words far too much. Perhaps they weren't meant for me. Perhaps I am just too shallow and ignorant to truly understand your brilliance. As you may know, next came The Question of Bruno. Some amends were made for the previous letter, but I admit that it was then that I began to wonder about us. I had trouble finding the beauty of the Bruno affair. I didn't hesitate to blame myself. “Perhaps I’m way too lazy,” I said, “or I’ve grown too familiar with Hemon’s style of writing and didn’t notice” the musicality of the words. And though publicly I expressed hope for the one Hemon book that “knocks me off my feet,” inwardly, I doubted that day would ever come. In the sea of your letters, this last one had finally arrived. I'd left it unopened for some time. The days of peeling back the pages and leaning into the words are long gone. Nevertheless, I hoped. I thought if ever I would fall in love again with the words, it would be in the letter of your life, The Book of My Lives. Oh how I wanted it to be true. I read the pages voraciously, but carefully, yearning for a semblance of what I knew must not be. There were tales of drunkenness and orgies, tales of escapades. And I felt you pulling away, not even a shadow of the person I thought you were. Suddenly, the words began to feel dirty in my hands. I never knew this side of you; I never even imagined it as a possibility. It's not that I expected you to be a saint, by any means, Aleksandar. It's only that I felt there was a grace beneath those words that I thought might make me a better person. I'd hoped for someone who was benevolent and romantic. You lacked sobriety. You were a crass teenager who happened to have a way with words. And yet, you are so much more. I see it in the words you sacrifice in memory of your daughter, the words you end this volume with. In these concluding words, I saw so much potential. I thought to myself, here it comes, the moment I have been waiting for. There was so much beauty in your tribute to Isabel. And all of that was brushed aside to fulfill some rant about religion. It was in this moment, I fell out of love forever. Dearest Aleksandar, I do not want you to get the wrong idea. I do love your words. There are times in your letters that I am swept away to that moment when I first heard your words spoken. I did think less of The Lazarus Project, but I recognized the beauty. I praised the rest of your letters, but with some apprehension. I wish this were not so. Not for your sake, but my own. The fact is, the more I get to know you, the more I realize you are not the writer I fell in love with eight years ago. I took one passage from afar and shaped into a gorgeous creature that benefited my needs, but this creature was alien to you. It was not you. And yet, I cannot help but think maybe it is you, an alien creature within you that you yourself have yet to face. And perhaps I continue still to this day to hope that is the truth. Maybe I am still projecting my own desires. I believe in you. I believe there is a beautiful writer in there with words that can change the world. I don't know if you want to be that writer, only you can decide that, but that's what I believe and it's what I hope for. There are letters from your past I have yet to open and I assure you I will open them when I am ready. When new letters from you arrive at my doorstep, I will read them. It's not that I don't love your work (as I hope is evident from the many four-star reviews), it's that I had wanted so much more. Love is like that sometimes, as I'm sure you know. There's that moment you see her across the room and immediately know, she's the one. You learn all you can about her, you study her from a distance, and the more you learn, the more you are sure. You meet, your infatuation gets in the way, but there is no denying the spark. But the more you get to know her, the more you see: she is beautiful, but there's some disconnect between you. How much you wish it wasn't true. How much you want to fall in love again. And at some point, you may have to choose to let go. I am letting go. I hope we can still be friends. As I said and I hope you believe, I will not give up on you. I will continue to read your work with great zeal. But it will be as a casual reader who loves to read. It will be as a student of writing who has much to learn and who recognizes your talent. It will be with a closed heart and some apprehension. And if ever again I hear your words spoken across a room by a dazzling voice, I will stop and I will feel, but I will not turn around. Sincerely, Chris Blocker, reader

  24. 5 out of 5

    Stella

    I'm not sure what I was expecting with this one, but I was really drawn in. At first, I thought it would be a series of simplistic essays about how we go about creating tribes and othering others, but while it stayed on that theme, each essay had a life and breath of its own (as can be expected as they were all published initially for different publications at different times). I loved Hemon's take on what it means to be an immigrant and the existential go-betweenness of it all. His commentary o I'm not sure what I was expecting with this one, but I was really drawn in. At first, I thought it would be a series of simplistic essays about how we go about creating tribes and othering others, but while it stayed on that theme, each essay had a life and breath of its own (as can be expected as they were all published initially for different publications at different times). I loved Hemon's take on what it means to be an immigrant and the existential go-betweenness of it all. His commentary on war and how it transforms and changes people, and breaks them, and even his comparisons of what being American seems like to someone who isn't (I loved how that Italian guy, Lido, explained what life in Italy was like versus the U.S.--so typical of many immigrants who live in this realm of comparison) all felt intelligent and presented ideas with complexity and nuance. I loved them. He had a moment when he was discussing the processes of making borscht and what it meant for his family--how basically it's a dish of everything thrown in there and then basically the act of making it and eating it as family is what is so critical to its enjoyment; now, partly that seems like a metaphor for having a country made of up a multitude of people who are all different, but partly it also seems ekphrastic--a metaphor for his own act of compiling this book of essays. I definitely was not expecting that final whammy of an essay and it hurt reading it. In fact, this made me really interested in reading more of Hemon's work and seeing what his fiction is like.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mbogo J

    There is that feeling you get when you drive across a place may be at night and later drive through the same place during the daytime with a host who knows more about the place and as you drive they fill you in with the history, facts and you get a better sense of place and the people. This collection felt like that, the place being Sarajevo and the people Hemon and his family. Hemon's writing succeeded in allowing the reader to see through his eyes, there was no sleight of hand or page fillers. There is that feeling you get when you drive across a place may be at night and later drive through the same place during the daytime with a host who knows more about the place and as you drive they fill you in with the history, facts and you get a better sense of place and the people. This collection felt like that, the place being Sarajevo and the people Hemon and his family. Hemon's writing succeeded in allowing the reader to see through his eyes, there was no sleight of hand or page fillers. For one thing it revealed a yawning ignorance on my part on the Bosnia- Serbia conflict. I vaguely remember the warring sides and my memory on the matter was about the calculus President Clinton was facing on what to do. Doing something was darkened by the memory of the doomed intervention in Somalia that saw the shooting down of two black hawk helos and the desecration of the bodies of fallen US Rangers while doing nothing proved costly with the Rwandan genocide;while people debated on what really "genocide" meant an untold slaughter of humanity went on unchecked. Clinton in the end made what we could say was the right call. I also remember the shooting down of the US fighter pilot Captain Scott O'grady and the subsequent rescue mission which was immortalized by Owen Wilson in the movie Behind Enemy Lines. My memories were conspicuously missing non americans but in my defense I didn't know any Bosnians or Serbs aside from the ones being charged with crimes against humanity. This collection remedied that. There is also a cosmic reason to me reading this. I remember years back I came across a review of this book, made a mental note to check it out and then forgot all about it so when I came across it again recently, I felt I was fated to read this and as such I allowed Hemon to talk about a soup whose recipe is only known by the chef without getting worked up. Other reviewers were not so kind. The final essay Aquarium stands out as a singular moment of reading this that is beyond words, where you had to stop after a few sentences to get a hold of yourself. Asked yourself countless questions with no answers. How could this happen? She was just, just... and you had to settle for empty statements like life is meaningless, Allah is not obliged or my heart goes out to you and your family. It was just heart breaking. May Hemon and his family find peace... Highly recommend this.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Drew Hastings

    Was recommended to me by an editor. I didn't like it so much as I appreciated it. It is a memoir per se, but not chronological - it's done as essays montaged together. You get to know Hemon by his worldview more than anything. He's from Sarajevo and those Eastern European writers are so damned....Eastern European! Was recommended to me by an editor. I didn't like it so much as I appreciated it. It is a memoir per se, but not chronological - it's done as essays montaged together. You get to know Hemon by his worldview more than anything. He's from Sarajevo and those Eastern European writers are so damned....Eastern European!

  27. 4 out of 5

    Zana

    "Oh wow I wasn't ready for the last essay", I say to myself, as I weep uncontrollably. "Oh wow I wasn't ready for the last essay", I say to myself, as I weep uncontrollably.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Antonia

    I love reading about people’s lives, it’s how we get to know them. That’s just what the book is, it’s hard for me to give any stars but some parts did tug at my heart. Stars.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Abby

    “There is always a story, I learned on that walk, more heartbreaking and compelling than yours.” A beautifully written memoir in a series of unconnected essays. Just the way I like to encounter a writer’s life. I am looking forward to reading more from him.

  30. 4 out of 5

    David Hendrickson

    This is the third book by Aleksandar Hemon, and the first non-fiction work, that I have read in the last two months. I really need to start pacing myself. There are only three more books by him I have left to read and I really need to savor them. The essays are compelling reading from start to finish. I am usually reluctant to read essays by my favorite writers, outside of David Foster Wallace, I usually end up disappointed in the product. But maybe because all of Mr. Hemon’s writing seems autob This is the third book by Aleksandar Hemon, and the first non-fiction work, that I have read in the last two months. I really need to start pacing myself. There are only three more books by him I have left to read and I really need to savor them. The essays are compelling reading from start to finish. I am usually reluctant to read essays by my favorite writers, outside of David Foster Wallace, I usually end up disappointed in the product. But maybe because all of Mr. Hemon’s writing seems autobiographical (at least what I have read so far) the essays are just a look into the source of his fictional work The title of the book is a great distillation of what these essays explore as a group. Mr. Hemon definitely has a life that can be broken into different lives that are divided by war, divorce, and death. A division that just about all of us can relate to in one way or another He is from Sarajevo and grew up before the civil war began in that region and left for Chicago right before the siege of Sarajevo. Most of the essays are about his pre and post war hometown, his adopted hometown of Chicago, and the connections he is born into and creates by shear will in both places. No writer I have read, besides maybe Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, captures the day to day experience of being an immigrant in America like Mr. Hemon. The feelings of displacement, confusion, and sadness are palpable on the page. As a resident of Chicago and a lover of the city, I especially enjoyed his essays about the city and his love for it. The essay “Reasons Why I do not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List” offers a view of Chicago that is very personal, unusual and is a good counterbalance to the way the city is portrayed in the national media. I just discovered Mr. Hemon lives in my neighborhood in Chicago and hangs out at one of my favorite bars, Hopleaf, and I have convinced myself I will run into him one of these days. But like Studs Terkel before him, I just like knowing he is around. The last essay in the book, “The Aquarium”, is Mr. Hemon’s description of the diagnosis of his infant daughter’s brain tumor and her eventual death in 2010. As one can imagine it is gut wrenching and heart breaking. I knew it was coming and its presence haunted the entire collection as I read it. I was tempted to skip it but I choked back tears as I read. It is a beautiful tribute to a short life and the reality that parents, and all of us face everyday, living life in the face of death. And really that is what all of Mr.Hemon’s writing seems to grapple with, how do we live a quality life in the face of war, hardship, and death? He doesn’t answer this question directly but reading this book will make the reader face the question and try to answer it. Something I think we should all do. Read it.

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