The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, March 16, 2009

so many books gone by

and I've blogged about none. Busy few weeks. A return, and very successful, research trip to Fayetteville (no ice storm this time, but a very fun basketball game and eighty-degree temps on the last day), the CCCC convention in beautiful San Francisco, and a two-and-a-half-year old who now sheds his pajamas after bedtime, hoping to be helpful by changing his own diaper. Fortunately he only got as far as smearing himself with diaper cream and didn't succeed in getting that particularly ripe paƱal off. Now it's home for about a month; next trip is the Boston Marathon in late April.

I'll start with THE LAZARUS PROJECT by Aleksandar Hemon. This was an purchase, and as I mentioned in my post about NETHERLAND I find the experience of listening to a book to be qualitatively quite different than the experience of reading one. NETHERLAND was particularly odd, as I listened to long stretches of it while freezing in a dark, unheated hotel room in powerless Fayetteville, drifting in and out of sleep, so it all seems a bit dreamy. I've taken, in fact, to putting on the earbuds and turning on an audiobook when I can't sleep. But most of THE LAZARUS PROJECT I listened to fully awake, and in fact it was my companion for almost the entire twenty-mile Spring Thaw race in North Park.

Oddly enough it's got the "historic present" structure that another audiobook I listened to, Junot Diaz's THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, uses--it switches back and forth between events in the present and events in the past, the connections between which are implicit (that is, the narrator never makes them fully clear). The "present" in this case is present-day Chicago, where Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian refugee who writes a newspaper column, decides to write a book about the killing of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant, by the Chicago chief of police in 1908. Fascinated by the story, Brik decides to use fellowship money to travel (with a friend, a fellow Sarajevan named Rora) to the Ukraine to research Averbuch's story and the history of the 1903 pogrom that sent him to the US. Alternating with Brik's story is that of Lazarus' sister and a friend of his, who deal with the police, the "respectable" Jewish community in Chicago, and the roiling discontent of the city's anarchists as Emma Goldman comes for a visit.

The book was a critical success, and was a National Book Award finalist. But, like NETHERLAND, I thought it was only a partial success. Brik is a much more interesting and appealing character than the similarly dislocated and expatriated van den Broek, and unlike that previous book I didn't feel like the author was trying to write a different story and hang it on his main character. The parallels between Lazarus and Brik are pretty clear without being utterly contrived, and the character of Rora--like Chuck in the other novel--is vivid and energetic, providing a nice contrast with the sluggish, in-their-own-headness of the protagonists. The contrast between the kinetic energy of the flashback sections in LAZARUS and the present sections, set in a Ukraine-Romania of today where everything is rotting both physically and morally--made me want to spend more time in 1908 Chicago.


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