Sunday, November 23, 2008

Margie's Book Review: Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon (Riverhead Books 2008, 292 pages, $24.95) Available at The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn. [Now available in paperback.]

I loved this book so much I even highlighted the hardcover. But I couldn’t resist. When the author is an official “MacArthur grant genius” (wouldn’t that be great on your resume?) I guess it’s okay.

The Lazarus Project, shortlisted for the 2008 National Book Award, is a smart, wry, and insightful immigration story that somehow manages to both honor and challenge our pride in America as a “beacon of hope” to the rest of the world. The novel weaves between the stories of two Chicago immigrants: Lazarus, a Russian Jew who came over in 1908, and the other, Brik, a Bosnian writer who navigates his way in an anxious post-9/11 America. They escaped ethnic cleansing in their homeland, from pogroms in Kishinev to slaughter in Sarajevo, with the hope of melting into the warm pot of the City of Broad Shoulders. Instead, they are confronted with more prejudice and misunderstanding, and learn that a new passport cannot erase their past.

The author was an outsider too, having arrived in Chicago from Sarajevo in 1992, and thus understands both sides of the coveted blue passport. One of the characters tells a feels-like-a-true story about the members of a Moldovan “underwater hockey team” who can’t even swim, but join a faux Olympic team in order to get a visa into Canada, and then promptly disappear before opening ceremonies. When Brik takes a road trip through Eastern Europe, Brik realizes his American passport is “my soul.”

At the same time, Hemon knows that while America still represents the promise of freedom, there is an enormous gulf between arriving and assimilating. It seems like Brik will be able cross that bridge and live the American dream; he meets and marries an American neurosurgeon named Mary. However, the reader slowly learns about the crevices in their marriage: they have a bitter fight about the Abu Ghraib pictures from Iraq. His wife couldn’t comprehend evil, but Brik saw “young Americans expressing their unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else’s life and death.” As dishes flew, he told his wife that “to be an American you have to know nothing and understand even less. . . .” Later in the book, Brik reveals they also argue about having children. Brik’s afraid his own children would become “too American for me,” that he would “hate what they became; they would live in the land of the free, and I would live in fear of being deserted.” Through Brik and Mary’s marital discord, we can begin to understand how immigrants view our world and why they can’t just be more like us. And more understanding is always a good thing.

There's so much more to enjoy about this book. There are photographs integrated into the story line, supposedly taken by Brik's road trip pal, a Sarajevo-born photographer with fascinatingly hyperbolic war stories; there's the true story of Lazarus Averbach, fictionally expanded from his surviving sister's tender point of view, and there's the story of Sarajevo, all contained in this one novel, like Russian dolls.

This book would be a great for an intense book club discussion. It’s like a cross between Everything is Illuminated, with its tragic but comical road trip through Eastern Europe, and The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, about American peacekeepers in post-war Kosovo. I highly recommend it. It's the work of a genius. (No pressure if you don't like it!)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why Books Make Great Christmas Presents

Bookstore Thought for the Day:

Why books are such a great Christmas present:

"Longer-lasting than a fruitcake, cheaper than a flat screen, more fun than a partridge in a pear tree."

"Why a book?: Because a new tie never changed anyone's life."

(Thanks, Shelf!)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gingerbread Friends Cookie Party at The Bookstore

Kids Had A “Sweet” Time
At the Gingerbread Cookie Party at The Bookstore
On Sunday, November 9th

The Bookstore kicked off its holiday season with a Gingerbread Cookie Decorating Party for children ages 3-6 on November 9, 2008. The party was inspired by Jan Brett’s beautifully illustrated books, Gingerbread Baby (hardcover, $16.99; board book, $7.99) and the newly released Gingerbread Friends (hardcover only, $17.99).

As the children listened to a reading of Gingerbread Friends, they played a contest offered by Jan Brett’s fun and fabulous website, Jan Brett is offering to donate one of her new books (1,000 in total) to the library of your choice when you enter the “hedgehog spotting contest.” The children wiggled with excitement every time they spotted one of the four hedgehog illustrations. We sent our answers in through Jan Brett’s website, and chose the Glen Ellyn Public Library to be our hopeful recipient of one of the free books. Winners will be selected on November 20, 2008. I promised the kids I would let them know if our very own local library will be one of the lucky 1,000 winners! In the meantime, check out Jan’s website with your child – it’s an amazing resource filled with alphabet coloring sheets, bookmarks, recipes, crafts and games. You can even print out beautifully illustrated animal masks! It might be the great place to get ideas for a holiday or birthday party.

As exciting as the hedgehog contest might have been, there was no doubt the kids’ favorite part of the party was when they got to decorate their very own gingerbread cookie (fresh out of the oven!) with frosting, peppermints, m&m’s and raisins. It was fun to see how the frosting worked like glue!

Please check our website or our most recent newsletter for more details on upcoming children’s parties at The Bookstore, including a “Fancy Nancy Holiday Party” on Sunday, December 14, 2008. To sign up, call us at (630) 469-2891. In addition, The Bookstore offers free drop-in story times for preschoolers at 10:30am every Tuesday and Friday. It’s a great way to teach your child how much fun books can be!

Book Review and Commentary: Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman

If you’re like me, you’ve started going green, but you know you could do more. Read Thomas L. Friedman’s new book Hot, Flat and Crowded (Why We Need A Green Revolution- And How It Can Renew America), $27.95, and I guarantee you’ll be motivated!

Hot, Flat and Crowded is a shocking but good read. Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, has a great way of explaining some pretty complicated issues to a popular audience without dumbing it down. I can’t count how many times I stopped to think, wow, I get it now! The good news is that this book isn’t just alarming, it’s a call to action. Friedman compares a new Green Revolution to the Space Race in the 1960’s, and suggests we commit to the climate/resource crisis with the same creative and scientific energy that we did in our quest to put a man on the moon.

This book will probably motivate you to go greener faster. I’ve noticed that Glen Ellyn folks are starting to go green, and that life in our little village is starting to change. We’re making the conscious effort to buy local. We’re shopping at the farmer’s market, and we’re toting around reusable bags. You’ll notice that The Bookstore will be reducing paper and going more electronic in the months ahead. Look for us on this blog and on our website at We’re gearing up to shift many of our newsletters from paper to e-mail. So we’re getting there, but we have a long way to go.

A Green Revolution has to start at home. This book is a great place to start! Buy one for yourself, one for a friend, and one for your favorite politician. Suggest it for your next book club selection. Then let’s get out there and save the earth, one little village at a time!