three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
user_rating: 
0

Stories

A-Love and ObstaclesBorn in Sarajevo, Bosnian American writer Aleksandar Hemon was stranded in America during a short visit to Chicago when his homeland descended into anarchy in 1992. Within three years, he had learned the English language and published his first short story. His most recent novel, The Lazarus Project ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2008), was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The Story: In these eight interconnected stories, a nameless Bosnian writer comes of age and settles in Chicago when civil war breaks out in Yugoslavia. In "The Conductor," the narrator struggles with his envy of the profound and edgy writing style of a fellow poet from Sarajevo-a direct result of the poet's wartime experiences-as the two barhop together. In "The Noble Truth of Suffering," the narrator, on a present-day trip to Sarajevo, meets a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and invites him to an unexpectedly disastrous lunch with his parents. In these stories, the narrator, wrestling with the guilt, loss, and relief from having left his homeland and avoided the war, comes to understand what home really means.
Riverhead. 224 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9781594488641

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The siege of Sarajevo is the dark cloud that seems ever to drift through the atmosphere of Hemon's fiction, sometimes in the historical periphery, sometimes in the story's present on American television, sometimes in the adjustments of émigré life, casting its shadow on tales that might otherwise read as family comedy out to trace human foibles and-what shall we call it?-the existential oddity of being." Art Winslow

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Early in his career his prodigious gift for wordplay, meshed with the skewed perspective of a foreigner, often startled readers with his offbeat inventiveness. With English mastery has come reservation, however, and Hemon has morphed into a lean, powerful emitter of wry cultural commentary and colorful characterizations." Justin W. Sanders

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"As we've come to expect with this remarkable writer, Hemon's prose here tilts at the world with sly and playful metaphors: One man has a chin dimple 'deep enough to put a screw in,' another's eyebrows are 'like hirsute little comets,' an immigrant father speaks 'Tarzan English,' a shattered skull spurts 'brain offal,' a man works a crossword puzzle, 'fellating his pen.' But the freedom of the language is balanced by the abiding sense of loss and return." Todd Shy

Kansas City Star 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Love and Obstacles is written in a nimble and entertaining style. ... Given the degree of autobiographical content and the apparent lack of shaping imagination, several of these pieces seem more sketches than short stories." Chauncey Mabe

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There are occasional indications here of Hemon's adoption of English at a relatively late age. ... Yet Hemon's prose generally proves elegant, as with his descriptions of characters' physical appearance, and sometimes witty, as with his riffs on differences in enunciation, doubtless an issue of some relevance in the author's life." Rayyan Al-Shawaf

Salon 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Individually the stories in Love and Obstacles work, but it's hard not to feel that Hemon hasn't strained a bit to force their connections in order to present the book as a novel. ... Love and Obstacles is superb fiction, but it's not a major artistic advance for Hemon." Allen Barra

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Whereas Hemon's voice sounded raw and fresh in The Question of Bruno, these new stories seem twice-told and stale. Unlike Conrad's use of English to explore the 'heart of darkness,' Hemon too often uses the language to celebrate an alcohol haze." Charles E. May

Critical Summary

"Steeped ... in male ego [and] sexuality" (Houston Chronicle), Hemon's wry, robust, and entertaining stories bring to light the immigrant's hunger for identity-caught between two worlds but truly belonging to neither-and the writer's hunger for validation. Poised between two worlds himself, Hemon's vantage point and marvelous flair for the English language yield deliciously sardonic cultural observations and ask insightful questions about the meaning of family and home. Critics were especially moved by his portrait of his eccentric father and the growing chasm between father and son. Though the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel considered Hemon's subject matter trite and uninspired, most critics, in spite of a few complaints-including some awkward language, a sporadic anti-American undercurrent, and forced connections among stories-were pleased by Hemon's return to familiar terrain.