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Review: 'The Book of My Lives'

Lisa WeidenfeldThe Christian Science Monitor

Aleksandar Hemon’s "The Book of My Lives" is a series of mostly chronological autobiographical essays, beginning with his youth in Sarajevo and moving on through his life as an adult in Chicago.

Hemon, a “New Yorker” contributor who has primarily written fiction outside the magazine, casts an amusingly jaundiced eye back at his younger self. It’s somewhat unexpected, given the still-vivid memories of the violence that took place in Sarajevo, but it turns out that, even in the face of political and social catastrophe, a country can still be filled with feckless youths who believe that every action they take is the most radical and exciting action ever.

In these essays, Hemon manages to write about his own younger days in a way that makes them both uniquely his own, but also universal.

Not everyone has a themed anti-fascism or maybe accidentally pro-fascism birthday party, as a friend of his does, but almost everyone can remember being just as opinionated when they were young. In the US, of course, many of us may recover from an embarrassing party in the wake of a few goofy Facebook photos.That Hemon's fascism party ends with the state police questioning him about his commitment to the country is the particularly Bosnian wrinkle to the story.

The essays, written for a series of different publications, can sometimes shift tonally. Early essays about Hemon's gang of childhood friends are so lighthearted as to be almost a little frivolous. Hemon’s amusement at his own childhood might be a little greater than the reader’s. Fans of Hemon familiar with past work like the heartbreaking “The Lazarus Project” might be a little surprised to see how much of a teddy bear the author appears to be in real life.

This isn’t to say he skirts serious topics. An essay about his love of and lack of skill in chess touches on fatherhood, both in his relationship with his own father and through the story of one of his chess companions, whose son was shot in the street during the Islamic Revolution in Tehran. Yet overall the tone of the book is not one of pessimism or despair. Despite a life that has seen his family displaced and his childhood home ravaged nearly beyond repair, Hemon seems to remain mostly good-humored.

The final essay proves the exception. It depicts an event of such epically tragic proportions that to describe much of it here would take away from the experience of reading it. Suffice to say, the fact that Hemon continues to write with any humor at all is nothing short of miraculous.

One of the cheerier aspects of the book is Hemon’s long blossoming romance with the city of Chicago. It’s the kind of love letter more often associated with New York. Hemon is an inveterate walker from his days of being a young writer in Sarajevo, and he walks all over Chicago to get a feel for it once he’s unintentionally emigrated there because of the violence back home.

Hemon's initial plan to visit the country for a short stay unexpectedly coincides with the worsening of tensions in his own country, and he finds himself applying for refugee status. Forced to learn to love a new home, Hemon finds himself enchanted with the lake, the neighborhoods, the people, the food. One of the essays is simply a list of reasons he loves it there. The poetry in that list evokes a magical city of random gorgeous images and events.

Visitors to Chicago may complain about the cold, but Hemon finds beauty in the way that very same cold makes people huddle together under the heat lamps on the elevated train tracks, “an image of human solidarity enforced by the cruelty of nature, the story of Chicago and of civilization.” It takes a special love for the city to stand under those warming lights in the frigid cold and think about anything besides when the next train will be coming. That this essay turned out to be one he wrote for a compilation his future wife was editing only adds to the overall sense that the relationship between Hemon and his adopted home is a romance.

“The Book of My Lives” may not turn out to be the most substantial work in Hemon’s oeuvre. “The Lazarus Project,” despite being a work of fiction, more powerfully describes the pain of diaspora common to people forced to leave their home country. Nonetheless, Hemon is engaging and interesting company, and the story of his life – or lives – is one worth telling.

Lisa Weidenfeld is a Christian Science Monitor contributor.