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Monday, April 1, 2013 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.

Book review
‘The Book of My Lives’: war and wonder, death and remembrance

By Ken Armstrong
Special to The Seattle Times

‘The Book of My Lives’

by Aleksandar Hemon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 214 pp., $25

Fifteen autobiographical pieces comprise Aleksandar Hemon’s first book of nonfiction. In the 11th, Hemon, a Sarajevo journalist come to America, lists reasons why he does not wish to leave Chicago. He describes the downtown at night, the lit windows in the skyline:

“It seems that stars have been squared and pasted on the thick wall of a Chicago night; the cold, inhuman beauty containing the enormity of life, each window a possible story, inside which an immigrant is putting in a late shift cleaning corporate trash.”

Now that’s good stuff. The writing is gorgeous, the ending unexpected. There’s a nod to beauty (albeit cold, inhuman) and possibility both sparkling and vast, but then romance gives way to the janitor’s vacuum. We begin with stars and end with trash.

In “The Book of My Lives,” Hemon doesn’t abide platitudes or false comfort. He bristles at the notion of suffering as ennobling, be that notion drawn from an epic poem or a religious text. And his subjects tend toward the decidedly dark: the siege of Sarajevo, his home until age 27; displacement and disillusion; how obsession with ethnic identity can render personal identity irrelevant; and his painful realization that you cannot “hide from evil in the comforts of art.” The book’s closing essay, on the death of his baby daughter, is one that will make readers revisit the dedication — “For Isabel, forever breathing on my chest” — with a wounded heart.

But Hemon’s touch can be so light — his brush strokes so elegant — that I found myself, at times, smiling or even laughing. (That is, when I wasn’t marveling at how he could pull this off in his second language. For good reason Hemon has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov.) He suspends ruminations on “otherness” to tend to the restorative powers of a good dog, the connectedness of soccer and the ingredients of the perfect borscht.

His baby sister, born when he was 4, was “something you had to get around to get to Mother.” He discovers he loves her while choking her — and removes his hands.

Hemon, a 2004 recipient of a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, is perhaps best known for his fiction. (His novel “The Lazarus Project” was a National Book Award finalist.) In this nonfiction collection, almost every piece was first published elsewhere — many in The New Yorker — and though Hemon has reworked them, they remain what they are: pieces.

There is the occasional redundancy, and some figures enter and exit abruptly — fine in an essay, frustrating in a book. I found myself trying to supplement, searching other sources for additional details and context.

The only writing class Hemon ever took was from Nikola Koljevic, a university professor and Shakespearean scholar who proved to have “genocidal proclivities,” becoming a monstrous political figure in the Serbian Democratic Party. Koljevic told students that his daughter, when 5, had begun writing a book titled “The Book of My Life.” She wrote only one chapter, deciding she must live more before writing more. But that’s where Hemon leaves her. She is one of those windows in Chicago’s nighttime sky, a possible story, not a story told.

Reading Hemon’s pieces, I was left wanting more. But there are worse things.

Like wanting less.

Ken Armstrong: karmstrong@seattletimes.com. A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of “Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity,” winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best fact crime book.


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