Thursday, August 6, 2015

How Did Aleksandar Hemon and Rebecca Makkai Wound Up Reading Together at Boswell on August 20?

I whine a lot about how few books I am able to read, so you know I must be excited about a pairing when I've actually read both new books by the authors. But that's the case for Rebecca Makkai and Aleksandar Hemon, who are coming on August 20. And I should note that I've been working on this a long time, hence the not-exactly-new pub dates.

First Hemon. This is our third time hosting Mr. Hemon, following visits for Love and Obstacles, his second excellent collection of short stories, and one for The Book of My Lives, his collection of personal essays. For the first event, we also did an in-store lit group discussion of The Lazarus Effect, so that led me to three of his books. So finally we're promoting a novel, but it's a bit of a change of pace work for him compared to his first two novels. his first being Nowhere Man.

While Mr. Hemon is definitely a funny writer, The Making of Zombie Wars is his first flat-out comedy. It's about Josh Levin, a Chicago ESL teacher, who in his spare time is a budding screenwriter. Alas, most of his projects are terrible but "Zombie Wars" shows the most promise. In this case, the zombie outbreak is due to chemical weapons we inflicted on the Mideast that created a bit of collateral damage back in the United States, notably zombie apocalypse. 

Levin's personal life is not going that well either. He's got a pretty sweet girlfriend but his living situation is a bit off, considering his landlord has either PTSD or some drug-induced equivalent. And then he messes up his love life by accepting the advances of one of his students, a married Bosnian refugee. And of course his real life sort of bleeds into the screenplay too. One of the things about comedies is that they almost call for house-of-cards plots and The Making of Zombie Wars is no exception. It's a bit crazed, but so are zombies, after all.

I never know how much it is ok to excerpt from a review. I usually figure two sentences. But what a fascinating reading of The Making of Zombie Wars in The New York Times Book Review. "Two epigraphs set up the dialectic: one from Baruch de Spinoza, the great philosopher of the self, the other from George W. Bush, the great miscommunicator of the unself. Spinoza tells us we are all one, while Bush insists they are all other. And in 2003, the year in which The Making of Zombie Wars is set, the United States seemed to be all brainless gut, a zombie nation feeding on revenge without thinking of consequence. The Bosnian characters remind us of the aftereffects, of Joshua’s blindly tripping into action, of the dangers of the thirst for flesh. For the most part, the book does not wear this theme heavily (though there are a few unfortunate references to the phrase 'let’s roll'). It is history, as one character says, as 'badly translated joke.' This funny, free-flowing, gloriously imperfect book has the impression of an important writer in transition, of moving from the dead toward the living, of trying to have some fun despite this land so crowded with the lost and the lamented. In the end, we are all fighting our zombie wars, and we all need stories to keep us moving."

How can you not want to hear more? But wait, there's more.

Rebecca Makkai has heretofore published two novels but while she was writing them (and probably beforehand), she was also writing short stories. In fact, she was featured in four consecutive editions of Best American Short Stories. My guess is that her publisher said, let's wait on the short story collection until you have more books under your belt. And it's possible they might have even passed. But something happened this year that has opened the floodgates of short story collections, and I'm guessing it actually goes back to January 8, 2013, when George Saunders released Tenth of December. 

This fall alone we're hosting, in addition to Makkai's Music for Wartime, we're featuring short story collections from Lauren Holmes (Barbara the Slut, just out and very hot and coming September 14), Luis Alberto Urrea (The Water Room, coming September 17), Bonnie Jo Campbell (Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, October 22), and Adam Johnson (Fortune Smiles, October 23). We were also going to host Nickolas Butler (Beneath the Bonfire) but his publisher would really like to see the second novel, and so would we and all his fans, so we think it's a good idea for him to focus on writing.

One of our resident short story readers (I would say there are as many as six of us who will read short fiction), Carly Lenz, had this to say about Makkai's new collection: "For lovers of the short story genre, please see Rebecca Makkai's collection Music for Wartime. The characters in these tales are so original and imaginative, and the various worlds that Makkai portrays are riddled with aspects of history, folklore, and contemporary thought. The stories and situations are so diverse -- a touring cellist comes home to find a memorial in her front lawn for the recent death of a teenage motorcyclist, the beloved elephant of a traveling circus suddenly dies and must be buried by a small-town minister who is doubting his faith, a college professor teaching Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ironically shoots an albatross -- and the range of topics and people and detail that Makkai masterfully conveys is undeniably impressive."

Noah Cruickshank wrote in Shelf Awareness: "As the title implies, nearly every piece in Rebecca Makkai's Music for Wartime involves a musician or survivor of conflict. But the title also suggests an underlying theme throughout the stories: the all-too-human attempt to make order and beauty out of chaos. Music, for all its flurry and improvisation, does just that." And that's why I found it interesting that the stories are more connected with Hemon's work than the novels. But you can also see how The Hundred-Year House is connected to the academic shenanigans that happen in "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," the story of the guy who shoots the albatross.

So one thing that made me curious was that Makkai told me beforehand (we were both at a party at the home of the agent for both authors at this year's Book Expo) that they'd be a great pairing.  Well it turned out that reading Music for Wartime brought their connected interests and overlapping themes into sharper focus.

Had we waited a little longer, Aleksandar Hemon would have had another new book out, a nonfiction work called Behind the Glass Wall: Inside the United Nations. Hemon was appointed the United Nations first writer in residence. The book is once again edited by Sean McDonald, who seems to have edited him all the way back to his first books at the Nan A. Talese imprint and through Riverhead. Here's McDonald talking about both books in an Library Journal column. And there was yet another book, only in electronic form, last year called The Matters of Life, Death, and More: Writing on Soccer.

Oh, and don't forget, we're discussing The Hundred-Year House at in the magazine area at 6 pm. Its a spoiler zone for the book, so please only come to this pre-event if you've finished The Hundred-Year House. For the rest of you, joing us for the main event on Thursday, August 20, 7 pm.

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