Hemon is a Bosnian writer, now living in Chicago, that’s gotten good notices for some fiction he’s written. This book of non-fiction got raves last year, so I checked it out. It’s a short book, not much over two-hundred pages, and it’s pretty brisk. But it’s a collection of various essays he’s penned for publication in different magazines and journals over the years, so it’s incredibly sketchy and doesn’t feel even the least bit cohesive. The essays have been arranged in a more or less chronological order in a desperate, unsuccessful attempt to make it feel more like a traditional autobiography/memoir, but it really doesn’t at all. The subjects of the essays range from a dog he owned as child to stories of his parents fleeing violence in Bosnia; from playing soccer in parks in Chicago to his love of the Borscht he ate as a child. It’s really beyond dull for a lot of its length; there simply isn’t any particular insight in my opinion or brilliance that might make something beautiful of these mundane events. However , the final essay in the book, The Aquarium, is an absolute masterpiece; it’s the story of the birth of Hemon’s daughter and the almost immediate realization by the doctors that the newborn had a malignant brain tumor. This essay is beyond gut-wrenching. I mean, it will absolutely kill you. When I was finishing it, I was sitting in a restaurant just openly weeping. It’s one of the most devastating essays I’ve ever read. So, I suppose Hemon needs something of great import in order for him to become a great writer. But this creates a weird imbalance in the book. It feels weird, once you’re reading The Aquarium, to realize that he spent twenty pages talking about soccer just a couple of essays ago. Maybe the publishers are reaching for some kind of grand statement about life by placing essays about the most mundane aspects of life in the same book as a horrific, deeply disturbing and heartbreaking essay about a newborn with brain cancer, I don’t know. If they are, it doesn’t work. I’m going to give this a negative rating, but I’m going to recommend that you track down The Aquarium and read it; it’s a bona fide masterpiece. But the book as a whole, I can’t recommend. Recommended against. 2 stars.
tl;dr – collection of disconnected essays is frustratingly mundane and unengaging; the inclusion of one absolute masterpiece, The Aquarium, only points out how lame and dull the rest of the book is. 2 stars.