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The Book of My Lives Hardcover – March 19, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

MacArthur fellow Hemon’s potent fiction (Love and Obstacles, 2009) is seeded with autobiographical elements now brought forward in his first book of nonfiction. In revised versions of essays first published in Granta and the New Yorker, Hemon chronicles with defining intensity, rueful self-critique, and piquant humor indelible revelations personal, cultural, and political. He is passionate about his hometown, Sarajevo, which he ardently explored and wrote about as a young militant journalist, to the point of realizing “that my interiority was inseparable from my exteriority.” This made his exile in the U.S. after war broke out in his homeland while he was away all the more excruciating. In his incisive, masterfully crafted, and complexly affecting family stories; Sarajevo exploits, including the party-performance piece that led to a 13-hour interrogation at State Security; tales of remapping the “geography of the soul” in Chicago, his adopted home; and his staggering chronicle of his daughter’s tragic death, Hemon writes with deft force, piercing observation, and commanding candor about the individual’s place within life’s web and the horrors and beauty of the human condition. --Donna Seaman

Review

Aleksandar Hemon is, quite frankly, the greatest writer of our generation. His literature is deep, agile, funny, graceful, searing, angry, raw, questioning. The Book of My Lives is worth it simply for the dedication: 'For Isabel, forever breathing on my chest.' He writes it, and so she breathes on ours too. Such is the function of storytelling: to get to the essence of that which might eventually break our hearts. This is a book--like all of Aleksandar Hemon's books--that is an aria for our times. I will cherish it. (Colum McCann)

Incandescent. When your eyes close, the power of Aleksandar Hemon's colossal talent remains. (Junot Díaz)

Aleksandar Hemon's work crackles with so much humor and irony, so much compassion and humanity, that The Book of My Lives's true calling almost goes by unnoticed: it is, without doubt, the most necessary, intimate, and heartbreaking portrait of a world lost to one of history's darkest conflicts. (Téa Obreht)

I'm not quite sure Aleksandar Hemon counts as an American writer, but he is one of my favorite American writers. Before The Book of My Lives, I never really thought of him as a nonfiction person, but this new book--a memoir in essays--has some of his best writing. When Hemon's work is funny, it can make you laugh in spite of everything, and when it is sad, it's hard to stand up afterward. (John Jeremiah Sullivan)

The Book of My Lives is written with the full force of humanity. It will make you think, laugh, cry, and remember yourself. If you've never read Aleksandar Hemon, prepare to have your worldview deepened. (Jonathan Safran Foer)

You should read Aleksandar Hemon's memoir for the same reason you should read his fiction: He is not only a remarkably talented writer but also one of the great social observers, a cultural anthropologist who seems at home everywhere and nowhere and who balances despair with hope, anger with humor. (Benjamin Percy, National Public Radio)

One of the best prose stylists--in any language--at work today . . . and this collection is a compelling argument for his emergence as a vitally important writer. (Edward Hart, Kansas City Star)

A tour de force. (Megan O'Grady, Vogue)

The writing is gorgeous, the ending unexpected . . . I was left wanting more. (Ken Armstrong, The Seattle Times)

Elegant and funny . . . Acutely observed, deeply felt. (Ann Levin, Newsday)

Hemon has a dazzling gift for observation. (Chris Wallace, The Daily Beast)

Unforgettable. (Jesse Dorris, Time)

Powerful . . . Engaging . . . Hemon invites readers to savor both his émigré triumphs and his émigré pain--an invitation worth seizing. (Julia M. Klein, Chicago Tribune)

Acute meditations on exile and otherness, and the redeeming power of language. (The Economist)

Wise and entrancing. (Lucas Wittmann, Newsweek)

Hemon is engaging and interesting company, and the story of his life--or lives--is one worth telling. (Lisa Weidenfeld, The Christian Science Monitor)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (March 19, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374115737
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374115739
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.8 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #561,035 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Taylor McNeil on April 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Memoirs are tricky things: too much detail, and they are clearly fictional; too little detail, and it's dry and uninteresting. Aleksander Hemon takes the middle path with The Book of My Lives, and in episodic chapters, we see his life (and loves) from many different vantage points. Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, when it was still socialist Yugoslavia, its rotting edifice starting to crumble. War arrives in the early 1990s, and this conflict that passed me by as a series of newspaper headlines becomes real and menacing--a nasty little war among people much like us. Not that Hemon was there for most of it: he lucked out with a U.S. government sinecure as a visiting writer in Chicago just before Sarajevo came under siege. But he reports on the trapped lives of family and friends--not to mention some of the madmen leading the charge--making it all too real.

In Chicago, an instant exile, another of his lives begins, that of the impoverished refugee in the big frozen city. But this Bosnian quickly excels at English and hunkers down, walking the streets (in addition to his wanderings as a Greenpeace fundraiser) and finding his niche and his neighborhood (and his butcher). He stumbles upon a weekly refugee soccer game--the players are called their countries of origin, and Bosnia, as he's known, shows us a shadow society few of us see, but which exists in every large city.

The book consists of set pieces, wry and self deprecating at times, painfully realistic at others. All but one have been published elsewhere, and mostly work quite well as a single narrative here, except for the occasional repeated fact that perhaps should have been excised.

The most powerful essay here is the last one, "The Aquarium," a sad tale of his second daughter's losing battle with a rare brain cancer.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Jacquelyn on June 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I had been thinking for a while that a book has to have a narrative thread in order to pull the reader in. But then I came across this book and it blew that theory out of the water. The individual chapters for this book were all published as separate stand-alone pieces (mostly in the New Yorker) so the book is truly a collection of disparate pieces. It starts off with a story about the birth of the author's sister, then it discusses identity issues when the family moves to Canada, then it talks about how he moved out of his parent's home and got his first real job. One chapter is about the family dog! Another is about playing chess! Another is about the importance of soccer in his life! How the heck could I have possibly found this book interesting?! And yet I kept turning the page because I liked hanging out in this guy's head. His descriptions were honest, deftly and sparingly stated, and full of insight. I would love to hang out with him in real life but, alas, he would probably be a curmudgeon (that's what he says in the book) and I'd probably be afraid of him judging me, so lucky me, I get to read his book. I actually wish I could continue reading the book now, but unfortunately, I finished it. Clearly, I need to pick up another book by Aleksandar Hamon!

The backdrop of the story, and narrative thread if any, would have to be the turmoil in Bosnia during the 90s, which forces his family to migrate and compels him to be a writer. The turmoil is Bosnia has nothing to do with soccer or pet dogs or chess, but these are the common-place things that dominate our lives, I guess, even amidst chaos and unrest.

He reminds me of Milan Kundera, minus the misogyny.

Hemon's language is not high-falutin' in the least but he is probably more readable to something looking for deep insights.

I'm giving this five stars, which I don't think I've ever given before. I can't believe English is this guy's second language.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Miriam Day on December 2, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
This funny, sad, readable and thought-provoking book is a collection of articles that has been edited and reassembled, by the author, into a memoir of his three lives.

The first life, prior to the vicious 1990s civil war in Yugoslavia, is lived in Sarajevo - a city which Aleksandar Hemon conjures in brief and memorable vignettes. Here, he explains, his primary sense of teenage identity came not from his cultural background but from the gangs to which every self-respecting boy belonged. In contrast he describes the inevitable question posed during and after the civil war by combatants, international journalists and bureaucrats alike: 'What are you?' To which the only admissible answer was the reductive tick-box identity of ethnicity or religion.

Fleeing Yugoslavia as it is fractured along sectarian and ethnic lines he finds refuge in the USA, leaping from the centuries-old mixing pot of Sarajevo into the fires of Chicago - a city of refugees. As he recounts his struggles to create a second life we are introduced to a succession of others who have been similarly dislocated, from the multi-national football team whose players are known by their country of origin to the Assyrian, Peter, who beats him at chess.

This second life is bought to a close by a bereavement which creates a rupture with all former sense of self, as certain bereavements are wont to do. Hemon's account of this loss is merciless - to the reader and most of all to himself - and it brings the book to a sobering and difficult end. But this very private coda casts its light on all that has been recounted before, a challenge to the sentimentalisation of suffering beloved by Hollywood in which loss is so often seen as a prelude to 'redemption'.
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