Booked Up

I’ve done everything I can with my book. Its fate is now in the hands of my agent and the publishers he’s pitching. While I wait to hear what happens (as patiently as possible – not exactly easy), I’m trying to keep busy.

After voting yesterday, I checked out the new café offering Providence’s first Montreal-style bagels (not as good as Myer’s). I started two crocks of green tomato pickles. And I put up 17 storm windows. Today I might actually haul out the vacuum cleaner.

My default position is at my computer, pretending to work on my next project. I don’t have one yet. As far as I know. I do have a lot of ideas floating around, though, and I try to remind myself that a cloud of floating ideas was about all I had 10 years ago, when I started writing what eventually became Little Grandma’s Mirror. Maybe, if I pretend long enough, the ideas I have floating around now will coalesce into another book.

The other thing I’m doing while I wait is reading. Novels.

This might not sound like a big deal. But it is. I’m a very slow reader, and novels especially absorb me. Even if I don’t particularly like a book, I get caught up in analyzing where it falls short. If I do like a book, it’s even worse. I don’t just admire the marvel of the structure and linger over the minutia of the language. I become emotionally invested in the characters and caught up in the story. And when that happens, it’s hard for me to think about anything else.

There was no way I was going to risk getting so absorbed in someone else’s book at a time when I needed to be so absorbed in my own. But ever since I handed my revised manuscript off to my agent, I’ve felt free to get absorbed all over the place. And getting absorbed is an understatement for what happened with the first book I turned to.

I picked up Aleksandar Heman’s 2008 The Lazarus Project after hearing the author read a story by Bernard Malamud on a New Yorker podcast (if you love short stories and you don’t know this series, check it out). Heman is a Bosnian native who became an accidental American when war broke out at home, in1992. That means English isn’t Heman’s first language – and yet he handles it with a delicacy and deftness that brings to mind Nabakov. Heman is also seriously funny, and in The Lazarus Project he uses humor to spin a tale that is dead serious.

Actually, more than one tale. The Lazarus Project tells several stories. One imagines the fate of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish immigrant who was gunned down by Chicago police in 1908, as part of a trumped-up war on anarchism. Alternating chapters follow Brik, the post 9/11/2001 Bosnian-immigrant writer who tries to understand Averbuch’s story by retracing his journey through Eastern Europe. Traveling with Brik is his photographer friend Rora, whose improbable tales of wartime Sarajevo provide the book’s third narrative thread.

Any one of these stories packs enough plot and colorful characters to comprise a satisfying novel on its own. What makes The Lazarus Project so extraordinary is the way Heman juxtaposes and intertwines the tales. Each one sheds light on issues raised in the others, and the combined creation offers timely insights into the disorientation of the displaced person, the dangers of the xenophobia, and the meaning of home.

I like a lot of books. But it’s not often I come across one I wish I’d written. It was like that with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. Jayne Anne PhillipsMachine Dreams, too. Also The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. And now I’m adding The Lazarus Project to the list.

Few things in life are better than finding a book that resonates so deeply. And the best part? The way a book like this sends me back to the keyboard to take another look at those floating ideas and imagine the story they’re trying to tell.

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