Wednesday, October 30, 2019

This Does Not Belong to You/My Parents by Aleksandar Hemon

Readers of this blog know I appreciate Aleksandar Hemon’s writing. I re-read his novels and loved The Book of My Lives—so much so that I recall passages from it at random moments (especially since I live in Uptown where he based some of his observations). He has the peculiar ability to offer a surprising word in a sentence. I owe this to the fact that English is his second language. He uses it to its fullest.

His newest volume is non-fiction comprised of flash memoir pieces. The book is divided between memories of his parents, perhaps their memories, and his own thoughts back on his life—including preambles on mortality, writing, and other philosophical meanderings. Early on he riffs on Robert Shields who recorded his life in 5-minute segments, accumulating eventually more than 94 cartons of diaries. It is like always being “on.” It also begs the question: Who cares?

This work reflects a kind of Bosnian nostalgia=meaning there is no Yugoslavia. It is a pragmatic look back at something no one can no longer conjure. When I reminisce about the Ohio of my youth—there is at least a Ohio to refer back to. We take so much for granted, such as childhood. It vanishes along with childhood friends, places, and culture. Childhood culture of the 70s meant running the sidewalks with your pals until the street lights came on and then coming inside to the family.

We are so far away from that point in time—see Parent College Admissions Scandal, see Life360—an app that allows you to track your offspring, even if they are in their 20s and in college.

Here’s a small excerpt—it leaves me in a nostalgic mood.

We’d drive back home on a Sunday afternoon in early September, the experience of my time in the countryside ebbing already, the cherry stains on my hands fading like misremembered jokes. The last stretch of road, before Sarajevo opened like a palm of a hand, went through the Bosna River Valley. The sun would already be tucked in beyond the hills, a blue sky turned gray, the river fading into black, the cars would have their headlights on, ready for the onslaught of darkness. Summertime shuddered, quietly awaiting its end. We would see the rash of feeble fires on the slopes where the peasants scorched the summertime grass and dry bushes. That smell of burning in the Bosna Valley is the smell of coming back home at the summer’s end, a few days before school started, before my birthday, before the rains, before everything stopped being what it was. The smell of home, however was different: when we walked into our apartment, it would have the fragrance of our absence, of silence and cleanliness, of no one being there. I’d always be the first to inspect the apartment as if to see if something had changed, if somehow the order of things as we’d left them was altered, if something other than our life had taken place in that space, if someone had slept in my bed, touched my toys, read my books. But nothing, if course, would ever be different: when we were not there, and I always found comfort in that. Home is a place where there is void when you’re not there; home is what your body fills out. Nowadays we live elsewhere and otherwise, but there is still nobody in our place when we are not there. When I visit, that’s where I may be. I’m always absent somewhere. Home is fragrant nothing where I am not.

--and this from a guy who left home and was unable to return because of a war, suddenly seeking asylum in Chicago.

Absent from this volume are political analogies or observations. Perhaps because Hemon surmises that whatever he writes today will within minutes change—as current political news moves so fast. Suffice it to say: there are correlations between blind, obedient populations willing to follow a leader into oblivion.

I highly recommend this divided memoir of flash memoir.

Image result for aleksandar hemon picks a fight trump

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What's Wrong With You?

Over the weekend I got hit on my bike--

I'm okay.

It was by another cyclist at a 4-way stop. I stopped and he came around me to pass into the intersection as I made a turn left. Definitely it was an accident. As I picked myself up off the pavement (he was able to stay up as he was skirting by; I hit his back wheel and fell) he immediately said: You didn't signal.

True, I thought, but you didn't shout out "passing." Then also thinking these things take a while to sort out, I guided my bike over to the curb and out of the intersection. Once off to the side I asked him his name. "Why do you need to know?"

Hmm, okay, I thought, this guy's a jerk. He was a middle-aged white guy and I immediately picked up a whiff of privilege. I also surmised he wanted to control the narrative--even though the only thing I'd said so far was to ask his name.

"Are you okay?" I knew he wanted me to be okay so he could keep going and get on with his day. But as someone who has been riding for over 50 years (I know, I'm pathetically old) I knew that I needed to access myself and the bike before letting him go.

I answered him by saying, "You didn't want to give me your name." I thought maybe adrenaline was making him present as a jerk and he'd snap out of it. No.

"Jeremy. What's yours?" His tone was demanding. I stood there staring at him. Really?

I got on my bike and rode away, disgusted. There was no way I wanted to continue looking at this bully. Later at home I bandaged my scrapped elbow. I'm okay, but angry.

Angry at myself for giving up and not letting him know then and there that I was a person. Angry at him for his smug privilege. Are people so afraid to be real and show authentic concern without automatically assuming I'm going to sue?

Monday, October 28, 2019

Ann Patchett, everyone’s BFF

I need to start this entry with an admission: I have not read a single Ann Patchett book. I have heard her name come up in literary circles for over a decade and it is “on my list.” FredShafer uses her material in his workshops at OCWW, but I just haven’t gotten around to reading Bel Canto, The Commonwealth, and—now, The Dutch House.

I moonlight At Wilson Abbey an event space and especially show up for book events put on by The Book Cellar and Women and Children First, as well as book launches held there. As much as I’ve decried buying more books, I am packing out my shelves more than ever.

Back to Ann Patchett who had a Chicago appearance to support The Dutch House at Wilson Abbey last week. I wanted to hear this woman that everyone talks about so glowingly. There were 350 people in the auditorium. I stood in the back. When she came on at exactly 7 pm she apologized for being late??? Then told us that she’d missed an earlier flight and had to take the next one out of Nashville, being United that was 3 hours delayed. Okay, this sounds like a kerfuffle—then she shared why she missed that first flight. She was able to get into the dentist office to repair two crowns that had broken.

Okay. So now the stage is set for a brave, high-functioning woman, not only a writer. She was only a smidgen sedated.

For the next 90 minutes she stood and spoke non-stop without a moderator or the benefit of an interviewer to carry part of the load. She spoke extemporaneously and with great wit and clarity. We were held in the palm of her hand.

She seems to be everyone’s best friend. She lauded friends’ books and promoted various writers, not just for their lyrical voice but because they are wonderful humans. She is someone who can wrangle a favor for you and give one in return.

Ann Patchett reminded me of Charles Dickens on a speaking tour. Because little money was made in publishing (then and now) he converted his fame into a speaking tour. Imagine the Beattles in Yankee Stadium, now picture Charles Dickens coming on stage. He was greeted like a rock star, once of the most famous people of his day.

“As painstaking a performer as he was a writer, Dickens had prepared diligently for the tour, rewriting and memorizing key passages from his books especially for these engagements. He used a book only as a prop; he was so familiar with the material that he could improvise with ease.” He spoke for over 2 hours most evenings.

Patchett then took question from the audience before going to a back table to personalize books. I had to leave early so did not stay till the end. She outlasted me—and I hadn’t been to the dentist and rushed to an airport.

Ann Patchett is a class act.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Keeping a Blog during the Trump Impeachment

Okay, maybe it was the wedding. Last week my daughter got married, but, seriously folks, I have not gotten a lot done these past few months. When all else fails, blame it on T-rump.

I owe people I love, fabulous writers, reviews of their books. There is flash articles queued up inside my head to be written. I’m also working on a sudden book—a manuscript that has lain dormant for a while and perked up suddenly asking to come to life. Then there is the other bits of life such as relationships that needed attention. Coffee conversations, birthday, etc etc.

The etc is what has crowded in lately, usurping the plan. The pan being to be on top of things. Which is always going to get inconveniently interrupted.

Then there’s the constant computer card playing, checking Facebook, commenting on stranger’s posts, ugh! The impeachment.

The messing around before buckling down to put words on the page. I promise to be better.

As I drift off to favorites: Pinterest,—when all other distractions fail, I plan a bike trip.

Prayers, light and love, good Zen thoughts appreciated.

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Thursday, October 17, 2019

New Work (out soon)

Sorry MIA--crazy last coupla weeks--
daughter got married
the house was full

should I write a poem about white roses?

NEW WORK will be up soon at  The Blue Pages Journal
which accepted a weird piece, a flash series called Tiny, Little Horrors about intersectional moments
flash memories of being suddenly scared or grossed out and how those memories have never left me--or left me scarred.

Image may contain: 1 person, wedding and outdoor

Wednesday, October 2, 2019


Pajtim Statovci
Translated by David Hackston
Pantheon Books, New York, 2019

I like to think of myself as a fairly astute and close reader: I literally did not see the ending of this book coming.

But once I read it I understood and wanted to immediately begin reading it again.

Let me start at the beginning: Albania, a place so foreign and exotic that there is no category for it. It is a land that has been trampled over and over by foreign invaders and then largely left alone. Their language is quite like nowhere else. We traveled to Albania via a tourist bus from the small country of Montenegro. In Tirana we slipped away from the tour group. We had a contact of a diplomat, an attaché staying in the capital. Little did we know the little we knew.

Albania had just emerged from a repressive regime on the scale of North Korea. Under their version of Kim Jong-un, Enver Hoxha erected a series of bunkers—in case the West invaded. They only wished. Albania was a small forgotten place.

What finally it pushed it into the forefront of media and the Western attention was the problem of Kosovo, a mainly Muslim republic occupied by Albanians, Serbs, and ethnic Kosovars. In the late 90s Serbian forces attacked Kosovo. During the two-year conflict 13,500 people were killed or went missing. The Yugoslav and Serb forces caused the displacement of between 1.2 million to 1.45 million Kosovo Albanians.

After the death of Hoxha in 1985 different schemes initiated by Italian developers/businessmen defrauded man Albanians of their savings. When I visited in 2007and stayed with the diplomat at his apartment it was still a chaotic country. Every evening at about 7 pm the entire capital of Tirana lost power, plunged into sudden darkness and a weird pause. For the split second before the generators kicked in there was a soylent-green/apocalyptic atmosphere of a breakdown in society. All over the neighborhood you could voices, the howls of dogs. But it also felt joyful and spontaneous—as if by ingenuity anything could happen; they were remaking their history.

Even their stories spring from their own local sources—and are particular to that area. For example we heard a couple times while in the country the story of brothers building a wall to keep out invaders. They could only finish the wall or hope for it to withstand an army if they inserted into the wall a woman. They flipped a coin as it were to see whose wife would be encased into the brick wall. I remember upon hearing this story that it sounded misogynous—why a woman? The spirit of the woman haunted the brothers, the castle walls. There was an addendum to the story that she only asked for a breast to be bared so she could continue to nurse who son until she died of starvation/asphyxiation/thirst. Again, there is something terribly wrong here.

I remember as we were about to leave for the bus station. Our acquaintance called a taxi. The driver had pulled up and was cleaning the windows with newspaper. The curbs and sidewalks were full of litter. People drove as if they’d never had a lesson—which is exactly the case. There was no appreciation for road rules. As we were about to take off the driver tossed the wet newspaper into the street and opened the doors for us. This, I thought, is Albania.

In Statovci’s novel we are introduced to 2 boys, Bujar and Agim, both a bit outside of their family and society. Bujar has grown up listening to the stories of his father about the origins of Albania and the Skanderbeg Monument in the main square of Tirana. At the same time the country is weakening and growing sick and impoverished, so also Bujar’s father is dying of cancer. None of this feels good. Just as the stories carry a dysfunctionality to them, so also the parallel story of the country of Albania. The novel is a hall of mirrors. One part speaking to another—even as Bujar travels, leaving Albania for Italy. In fact, the book opens in Rome. From Rome to Madrid to New York, then to Finland. In each place Bujar takes on a new persona.

The idea of crossing is analogous to both an internal and external narrative. Agim and Bujar are both somewhat fluid characters sexually. Throughout the scope of the novel Bujar traverses different sexual and relational boundaries. Through relationships and moving to a new place he is looking for connection. Ultimately he has become separated from his home/heart and must return in order to find forgiveness.

Crossing is a complex and layered novel exploring identity, immigration, homeland, and how story factors into our own story. No matter how we react to the main protagonist and his choices, we will be brought into a deeper level of understand and compassion for those crossing over.

Image result for Crossing Pajtim Statovci