(I have been wanting to add a new category to my blog for awhile now. Reading Memories will be posts about books I didn't read recently but am still thinking about.)
I read an article the other day about how, when you are writing a novel, you should think about your audience and tailor your writing according to what that audience generally expects. I was frustrated by this article, because it made some fairly sweeping generalizations (for example, suggesting that women in their 40s are drawn to mysteries, and I'd rather poke my eyes out than read most mysteries), but it did make me think:
What kind of reader am I the audience for?
While I am not the most snooty of readers, I do have my own kinds of book snobbery (as has already been established here!). Just like my tastes in music are a little bit strange, I like offbeat books. Collections of essays, books with tidbits of story that eventually connect (or don’t), even, yes, poetry. I like novels that stretch me outside of my current ways of thinking. I like books with plots that surprise, characters who change or learn, and writing that makes me stop and think ahhh, that is beautiful. I will read any genre, so long as the book expands something for me.
In other words, most of the books I love are not destined to be best sellers, and let's face it: that is probably the kind of book I am likely to write. Expanding books aren't always appreciated in droves.
Aleksandar Hemon's collection of long essays, The Book of My Lives, is an expanding book for me.
I read it two years ago, right after it came out and I discovered it on our New Book display the library. Read it, and fell in love, but didn't ever write about it because, I think, I needed to let it age a bit. Today I thought about it, then found it and put on my display shelf. It'll sit there for a while, until someone brave takes a chance on a book with a blue alien on the cover.
Most of the essays are about Hemon's younger life in Sarajevo, his response to the war in Bosnia, and his experiences as an immigrant to America. These were moving and memorable to me because it that is not a part of the world I am very familiar with, and yet I have a clear picture of it in my mind, even two years after reading this. The way he writes about Radovan Karadzic (the man responsible for the killing of thousands of Bosnians) was startling and illuminating, a man turned into a killing machine by way of a book.
When he moves to America, he is able to find (after much walking) a sort of "geography of the soul," or at the very least a city he never wants to leave. (His "Incomplete, Random List" for why made me wonder if I could write something similar about my own little town.)
Perhaps because his way of thinking and his reactions are similar to mine, I responded with a sort of ache of familiarity to his experiences, even if we lived in entirely different settings. In his twenties, for example, when he was feeling anxious or depressed, he would retreat to his parents' cabin in the mountains. He writes that he experienced this malady as "a drought of thought and language. The purpose of going to the mountain was to replenish my mind, to reboot the language apparatus." Depression as drought is not a connection I have drawn for myself, but it feels entirely right, and yes: the mountains replenish many things for me, including my mind.
One of the book's reviewers, Colum McCann, says that the writing here fulfills a function of storytelling: "to get to the essence of that which might eventually break our hearts." Nowhere is this more true than the final essay in the book, "The Aquarium," which is about his infant daughter Isabel, who has an incurable brain tumor. The whole experience is related in a language that is simultaneously stiff (that tone you use when you are trying to speak around the lump in your throat) and moving (yet never sentimental). At the end, Hemon writes something I will never forget:
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 Isabel most certainly did not earn ascension to a better place, as there has never been a place better for her than Teri's breast, Ella's side, or my chest...Isabel's indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.
When I read that, I thought about my mother-in-law's death, and about how angry I still am over it. Maybe she is needed where she is at. But she was also needed here. Kaleb needed her. Kendell needed her, in ways he maybe couldn't see but I could. I don't think I would have acknowledged that anger without reading that paragraph in Hemon's book.
Maybe I thought of this book today because my friend's husband died last week. One of those deaths where you have to decide: how much medical intervention do we want to put this body through? I have been thinking about what to say to her. "I'm sorry" hardly seems like enough, but I want to say—how sitting with my dad as he died was one of my life's most difficult and yet sacred experiences, and how deciding to stop with medical treatments that do nothing but prolong misery still feels akin to murder. (Even though it isn't.) I don't know how to say that to her, though, because it is a knowledge I gained from my dad's death. Maybe that same knowledge is harder to find with your husband. "There has never been a better place for her," and yet, people still die. Our bodies still fail us and the rest of us stay here, for awhile, surviving. But always with that new, dreadful organ.
This is a book that will never be a bestseller. It is too full of hard truths and lacks easy platitudes. Some sorrows you never recover from, and we are all a survivor of something. But he is wrong in his idea that his daughter's suffering did nothing for the world. It is a small thing that it did—the death and his willingness to write about it—and so is only cold comfort. But he brought to me a lingering sort of shared knowledge. We try to make peace with death with religious imagery, and while I believe some things that he does not, I think there is still something to be said for saying: no, I can't find peace with that idea because that person should, by every right thing in the world, still be with me. However they go—war or the ravages of an insane leader or old age or inexplicable illness—even if a death is a blessing in the end, it is still, even as we witness it, unimaginable.