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The Bosnia List Book Review

The Bosnia List Book Review for Rappahannock Magazine

With the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and under the rule of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, a ghastly, grisly war ravaged Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. The longest running siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare (Sarajevo); the use of systematic mass rape as a tool of genocide; the mass murder of 8000 Bosnian boys and men over the span of two days in the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica; mass graves and concentration camps—sights so macabre as to be incomprehensible and recall the Holocaust in a chilling way. This was a well-documented war, watched over by the UN, journalists, and the world at large. The Bosnia List is the raw, honest, and captivating story of boy and his family’s survival of the Bosnian War and escape to the United States.

A compelling, human, and incredibly moving book, it follows the author, Kenan Trebincevic, as he recalls the idyllic days of his childhood where ethnicity and religion was never something that people even thought about until national rhetoric stirred the flames of hatred and created monsters out of ordinary people.

The Bosnia List fits squarely within the category of survival (and survivor) literature—it is as though by remembering and recognizing one can defy genocide in the most powerful way—by refusing to be erased, to disappear, to be forgotten. It is also unique in that the protagonist is able to return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and face the very same neighbors who turned on him. Revenge and forgiveness, we find out, are different sides of a coin.

Movingly told with the help of his former teacher Susan Shapiro, Kenan weaves a story that goes back and forth from his childhood to adulthood. 12-year-old Kenan is a karate-loving regular kid living in Brcko, a northern Bosnian town. One day, he hears shelling and gunfire. His world is about to be upended—all of a sudden, he is a Muslim, a “Turk”—words he had never thought would be used to describe him and, even less so, make a target of extermination. “Where we lived was the most religiously mixed,” he writes. “32 percent Christian Serbs; 17 percent Croats, who practiced Roman Catholicism; and 45 percent Muslim, like us.” Brcko is a secular town; his only awareness of being Muslim that “we had Ramadan and no Santa Claus.”

The Bosnia List is filled with the kind of intricate sensory detail that transports the reader back to a place, inhaling this book and waiting with bated breath to see what happens next. “The first sacrifice of the war was her (his Mom’s) flowers. We kept our shades closed to avoid being sprayed with bullets. She had to watch, mute, while her plants died one by one.” The youngest in his family, he is the only one who can leave the apartment in search of food. While looking for bread, he runs into his karate teacher, Pero, his hero. Pero presses a gun to Kenan’s head, but it misfires, saving Kenan’s life. All of his former closest friends turn on him. He can’t find food for his family because “balije (ethnic slur for Bosniaks) don’t need bread.” Heart-wrenchingly, he writes, “I was the little shrimp outside on the stairwell who every day was picked on by former friends, spat at, denied food in stores, hit, tripped on the steps, shot at.”

The Serb neighbor starts stealing furniture from his house, ominously telling his Mom, “You won’t be needing that carpet.” Saved by the fact that his father was a well-loved community man, his family avoids going to Partizan Sports Hall, where he used to practice karate—“on the wooden floor where I’d kicked and somersaulted, my people were being gummed down by Pero and his comrades, their bodies left on the ground in pools of blood.”

Through a series of miraculous events, his family escapes to Vienna and finally the United States. But as his Dad ages, he longs to return to Bosnia. Reluctantly and apprehensively, Kenan returns to what was once his home…with an agenda, a list. Revenge, closure, resentment, understanding are all stirred up in one. When they leave Brcko, they are literally the last Muslim family there, escaping a tragic fate that does not spare the rest. By the end of the war, Brcko is a skeleton of what was once a beautiful community. As they return back home, he hears the sounds of Muslim prayers over loudspeakers — “the sound reassured me we were no longer the only Muslims in Brcko. Now they say prayers five times a day. For spite. Most of the town is secular.”

Is there healing or closure to be found for Kenan? There is no patois, forced reconciliation, nor are there lugubrious theatrics. Perhaps this is the greatest tragedy—that everyone is dumbfounded by what happened, unable to explain, wanting to forget, yet unable to move on. No one seems to understand how they could get swept up in the horrors of war. “Milos looked horrified that I’d ever thought of him as a murderer. He wasn’t angry at all. His eyes caught mine. They seemed to plead for my understanding, my mercy.”

Yet, he is also able to see that many Serb people also chose to help his family. Conciliation and peace are, nevertheless, hard to come by. “Everyone we knew in this country was more twisted in knots than I was. I was fortunate to have an American life to go back to.”

Book Review of The Secret Life of Pronouns

My review for Rappahannock Magazine

What’s in a word? Apparently (or maybe not so), a lot argues Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, in his book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Pennebaker is a psychologist—as such, he is not interested in the study of language for its own sake but rather in how language gives us an insight into our psychological states. While discourse analysis presently seems to be the realm of communications scholars and anthropologists, Pennebaker breaks with that pattern and offers a rather unique and lively take on a research method that has been used far too long to be novel per se. The Secret Life of Pronouns reads like a sleuth piece (all the more amusing that his research assistant is named Sherlock Campbell)—it wryly reads in a “bet you didn’t expect this” way, all the more so because the book is focused on function words, which lack the pizazz of style words. “Style” or “function” words, along with pronouns, include articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs and conjunctions — all of the connective tissue of language. The nuts and bolts, if you will. People are reasonably good at picking up on “content words”: nouns, action verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. “Function words are almost impossible to hear,” Pennebaker explains, “and your stereotypes about how they work may well be wrong.” These sneaky lexicon bytes offer an interesting look at our individual psyche and identity, the book demonstrates. Pennebaker and his team created a computer program named LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count). His initial interest was in the use of function words, particularly pronouns, as an indicator of improved mental health. Recovery from trauma seemed to require a kind of “perspective switching” that shifts in pronoun use could indicate. The Secret Life of Pronouns is rife with curious discoveries—for example, Pennebaker reveals that Secretary of State John Kerry’s advisers made that mistake during the 2004 presidential race in encouraging him to use “we” more often so as to appear more personable. Kerry was already using “we” too much and unlike with every day people, “When politicians use them, we words sound cold, rigid and emotionally distant.” Or the book opines on why some cultures drop personal pronouns and others don’t (for example, in Spanish, Yo estoy triste vs. estoy triste)—maybe because more tightly knit collectivist cultures tend to drop pronouns, whereas individualist cultures keep them. In the chapter on analysis of poets’ work, Pennebaker discovers that the chairwoman of the “Depressed Poets Society,” Sylvia Plath, uses a lot more “I” words in her poetry, as though taking us closer to the edge of her personal melancholia. The book also uncovers the strong effects that factors such as gender, age, and class have on our language. Women use “I” words a lot more than men and they use cognitive words and social words at much higher rates as well. “The person who uses fewer I-words is the person who is higher in the social hierarchy”—in other words, when people converse with higher-ups, they felt diminished and compensated for that by focusing on their agency. Women, younger people, and people from lower social classes more frequently use pronouns and auxiliary verbs. Lacking power, he argues, requires a deeper engagement with the thoughts of one’s fellow humans. Pennebaker even discusses “language style matching,” which should pique the curiosity of most online dating hackers out there! The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us is incredibly comprehensive in scope, yet written in an accessible, charming way that will make an armchair psychologist out of you. This is not the stuff of stodgy discourse analysis your college professor may or may not have purveyed. Pennebaker also explores how writing can be used to improve mental health. Three aspects of emotional writing are associated with improvements in people’s physical and mental health: 1) accentuating the positive parts of an upheaval, 2) acknowledging the negative parts, and 3) constructing a story over the days of writing. Also, the more people changed in their use of first-person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my) compared with other pronouns (e.g., we, you, she, they), the better their health became, again illustrating that an internal focus is not necessarily a bad thing for depression; the flip side of anger turned inward is the “I am capable” more agency-driven aspect. The book will truly leave you dazzled by computational linguistics (yes, dazzled)! For example, Pennebaker’s work proves that lying shows rather clearly in people’s words, and that Paul McCartney proved to be a more creative writer than John Lennon. McCartney’s lyrics were far more flexible and varied both in terms of writing style and content than John Lennon’s.

Book Review of The Other Language

My book review of The Other Language by Francesca Marciano

Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language is essentially the literary and literal antithesis of Eat, Pray, Love—it upends the insufferable, Oprah-sanctified-and-sanctimonious trope of a privileged white woman who travels to exotic locales to “find herself” and replaces it with something all the more magical in its realism. The acclaimed author of Rules of the Wild gives us nine stories that conjure emotions and places with the kind of natural story-telling that eschews cheap grabs for our emotional investment, reliant on lachrymose and saccharine writing, and instead explore the truism that “home is really where they love you.” The vibrant characters in The Other Language travel across the globe, but the territory covered is far wider than merely geographical. The book is a beautifully-written testament to the absurdity of ideas like “finding yourself,” whether it be through travel, escapism, or intervention. The natural fluency and virtuosity of Marciano’s writing will take you on an engrossing journey and speak to you in a language you can viscerally understand.

In the title story, “The Other Language,” Emma is a 12-year-old girl who has recently lost her mother. She travels with her father and brother and sister from Italy to a summer vacation in a sleepy Greek village. The story presents the reader with one of the most trenchant and genuine examinations of death and how it thrusts those left behind into a social limelight that makes their personal pain all the more difficult. “The adults had decided they were too small to be told such dreadful particulars, as if their mother’s death was just another protocol they had to observe, like never ask for a soft drink unless they were offered one and never fish inside a lady’s handbag…They assumed death must be an impolite subject to bring up in conversation, a disgrace to be hidden, to be put behind.” To “survive the pain buried inside her was to become an entirely different person.”
On the Greek island, Emma develops a crush on an English boy…and of course, she must learn to speak English to communicate with him. Marciano’s touching description of Emma’s language teacher—Joni Mitchell, singing songs about “the wind is in from Africa,” is such a vivid picture of how people often learn a new language. Emma, “didn’t know what she was getting away from, but the other language was the boat she fled on.” “The Other Language” elegantly captures the indelible mark adolescence often leaves on our lives. Emma’s fascination with English causes her to move to America, where she “made sure to pick up every mannerism and colloquial expression that might polish her new identity.” The bitter-sweet melancholy and wistfulness one experiences when looking back is profoundly conveyed by Marciano’s writing.
The other stories in the book also share this theme of a seeming schism, unraveling, separation, followed by the discovery of something that perhaps was there all along. In, “Chanel,” which sort of recalled O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Three Magi,” for me, a woman buys a Chanel dress she cannot possibly afford. Eventually, she cannot possibly afford to part with this dress she has never worn, yet has now transformed into a talisman of sorts, one harkening to past “glories,” now long-gone. The dress is a reminder that finding out what is glorious simply requires a change of viewpoint. In “Big Island Small Island,” a man has escaped to an island off the coast of Tanzania. Marciano’s description of him as a “beached hippie” is incredibly humorous and apropos. Beached whale; beached hippie; beached human…all the same, in essence.
In another one of my favorite stories in the book, “The Presence of Men” is about the friendship between an extraordinary local seamstress and a divorced woman named Lara who escapes to a small Italian village after her divorce. Her past life keeps tearing at the seams of her new one, with everyone wondering what Lara is running away from, blaming it on all on some kind of a midlife, post-divorce crisis. Until she sheds the vestiges and togs of her past, everything else is only so much curtains…and obfuscation. Of course, there is yoga involved, too. But only in an incredibly hilarious way—Lara, a former yoga teacher, has the proverbial awakening that yoga is not about doing poses that give you a swollen knee (literally, in this case) and about forcing ideas about “living in the present” on yourself. Yoga happens when one isn’t paying attention to yoga. Yoga is realizing that you are not really trying to do anything with yourself.
The Other Languageexplores romantic relationships in a (mercifully) histrionic-less and melodramatic-free way (in case you are wondering why Oprah did not pick this book to sing paeans to instead of Eat, Pray, Love). The characters are all due for some big realizations; the locations are incidental to their process of disentangling. In “An Indian Soiree,” a husband and a wife decide to end their marriage, perhaps all too easily. Nothing catastrophic happens—apparently, they just choose to. “They had to say things to each other that would make turning back impossible and they obliged…How odiously clichéd it all sounded, and yet—at that very moment—so utterly real and satisfying.”
The stories are all of reinvention, but not the kind of clichéd, spoon-fed reinvention that comes seemingly all-too-readily in books like Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, the characters might be in exotic locales, but the locales are not the self-realization catalysts. “After seven years of European life, she found herself smiling at the predicament she’d found herself in. It was a reminder that there were still places in the world where one could vanish, be lost, be found and rescued by strangers.” The reinvention often comes only by seeing things that were already there—in that sense, this book will not give you “why am I not traveling” complex. You don’t need to incinerate all vestiges of your “comfortable” life to travel far, as long as you can do that some of that traveling sitting at home, it suggests.
Marciano is not in the business of cheaply tugging at the heartstrings, but her deceptively simple and evocative prose will do that effortlessly and pull you along on a tour-de-force journey rich with sensory details like, “the pots of basil on the windowsills to keep the mosquitoes away.”

Book Review Of East Of The West by Miroslav Penkov

My review of East Of The West
Not only are we the only people to reverse the head signals for yes and no, but we Bulgarians also hold the dubitable honor of being really sad people. To some readers, Miroslav Penkov’s East Of The West: A Country In Stories may not seem to dispel the idea much. There is a profound difference between sad and melancholic and a large chasm between lugubrious and stoically wistful. Penkov’s book is about Bulgaria and a very Bulgarian ethos informs it, but ultimately, it is a thoroughly moving, beautifully-written collection of short stories about love, blood, ideals, and borders. Its stories are the product of exile–literal and metaphorical, yet this homelessness is also the story of a journey–at times a very Odyssian journey to a place that only exists in one’s mind and resides in our blood.
Language plays an integral role in East Of The West–like a lot of writers for whom English is a second language, Penkov’s love affair with it is palpable and he engages the readers’ senses with its richness. He is “lexicon drunk.” With great ingenuity, Penkov wryly inserts Bulgarianisms throughout the book [Sinko, for example, refers to a “young son,” and is not just a proper name] or yad is defined as “what lines the inside of every Bulgarian soul. Yad is like spite, rage, anger, but more elegant, more complicated. It’s like a pity for someone, regret for something you did or did not do, for chance you missed, for an opportunity you squandered.”
East Of The West is also an eerily accurate yet non-didactic primer on Bulgarian history–it manages to cover almost all pivotal points such as the Ottoman Empire [or Turkish yoke, as it is commonly referred to], komiti, gorilla fighters living in dugouts, the advent of communism, the Macedonia-Bulgarian separation, the fall of communism. To read it is to inhale and grasp some important milestones in the shaping of the Bulgarian spirit, if you will. At times the “centuries-old wrath of the slave,” moves mountains, literally, at other times, these ideals ring hollow and only reaffirm their own meaninglessness as in the story of “East Of The West” where a young couple dies just because they live on the opposite sides of a river separating Bulgaria from Macedonia. As the protagonist’s seemingly-communist-for-life Grandfather in “Buying Lenin,” says “What kind of a world is this where people and goats die in dugouts for nothing at all? And so I lived as though ideals really mattered.” Ideals are simultaneously metaphoric and metamorphic.
One of these ideals is the struggle for freedom/liberation and here the very Bulgarian theme of the mountain really towers. The mountain is where all the freedom fighters hide, where people live in hideouts, but more than its geographical advantage, the mountain is literally the mother that holds anyone in need in her bosom and protects those who call for her help. People move mountains and the mountain is moved by them/moves for them. In “Devshirmeh,” the girl beset by the sultan’s army begs, “Planino, please hide us in your bosom.” The song, “I got no father, I got no mother. Father to scorn me. Mother to mourn me. My father – the mountain. My mother – the shotgun,” really underscores its mythical, moving power.
Penkov also uses incredibly evocative metaphors to underscore the pull of that blood–not in a literal genetic sense but in the sense of some ancestral knowledge or visceral call that cannot be erased by distance or time. In “Buying Lenin,” he poignantly describes the intense loneliness and longing for [a] home he feels as a student here in the US; he has mastered the language but this knowledge is at times pointless and even worse…poisonous in further removing him from home: “My ears rang, my tongue swelled up. I went on for months, until one day I understood that nothing I said mattered to those around me. No one knew where I was from, or cared to know. I had nothing to say to this world…I cradled the receiver, fondled the thin umbilical cord of the phone that stretched ten thousand miles across the sea.” He desperately wants to make anyone hear, or at least feel, what he is experiencing in this exile, but ultimately, he can only reassure himself that “blood is thicker than the ocean.” And even though he had rebelled against his Grandpa’s seemingly laughable veneration of Lenin, he comes to realize that he and Lenin are alike in some small but human sense –“Like me he had spent his youth abroad, in exile. He sounded permanently hungry and cold.” In “Devshirmeh,” blood literally speaks, underscoring the pride in one’s heritage that is so integral to the Bulgarian ethos: “It is your blood you spill. My blood runs in her veins and hers in mine. Blood will make us see.”
The life in exile is a thread that runs through many of the stories and is a trenchant commentary on the immigrant limbo. One of the characters yearns to just sit with his Grandfather under the black grapes of the trellised vine. They are all looking back, nostalgic and wistful, to a place that really only lives in their minds, but looking back is dangerously heavy and weighs one down–“you either turn to a pillar of stone or lose your beloved into Hades.”
East Of The West’s heroes are not heroic in the traditional sense–in an incredibly creative way, the book lauds the “un”heroic cowards, if you will, because “cowardice” is reality and living alone takes courage. In “Makedonjia,” a husband bravely reads to his ailing wife letters she had received from her first love–“their love was foolish, childish, sugar-sweet, the kind of love that, if you are lucky to lose it, flares up like a thatched roof but burns as long as you live. I am just her husband and she is my wife.” The story is a melancholic but beautiful rumination on aging and love and love’s aging as well. “Isn’t it good to be so young that you can lose a tooth and not even notice?” it asks. The line “a man ought to be able to undress his wife from all the years until she lies before him naked in youth again” illustrates Penkov’s brilliant gift of prose and profound skill at character studies. East Of The West is not a sad book–it is existential yet thoroughly in touch with magical that lives in everything seemingly pedestrian. Ultimately, it is a truly penetrating yet drolly mirthful look into the “deep dark Slavic soul.”

My Book Review Of Another Bullshit Night In Suck City

My book review

Another Bullshit Night In Suck City [on which the film Being Flynn is based] is Nick Flynn’s autobiographical memoir, yet it is as much his story as it is his father’s story, especially apropos because his father’s “literary masterpiece,” will not see the light of day save through his son’s pen. It’s as though through the chain of words, like a literary trail of crumbs, he is attempting to both know and locate his absentee father. The book simultaneously constructs a father out of letters and words, and masterfully documents Nick’s bifurcated take on him—equal parts fascination with this man who or may not be the literary genius he proclaims himself to be and equal parts dread that he may be “like his father.”

Another Bullshit Night In Suck City is set in and around Boston, where Nick grows up with his brother, raised by his far-too-overworked Mom, after his father leaves when he is 4. After a stint in jail and a series of alcohol-induced screw ups, Jonathan resurfaces when he comes to the homeless shelter where Nick works. His limited sense of his father up to that point comes from the bravado-laden letters to Nick, filled with Jonathan’s self-avowals about his earned spot in the pantheon of great American writers and his always upcoming but never really materializing masterpiece of a novel. While Jonathan manifests as an absence in his son’s life, his non-presence couldn’t be more momentous to Nick, not the least of which because Nick is a writer. That very absence is ample kindle for the “who am I and what is my blood” fire and the mythos of him can only grow by virtue of his larger-than-life persona. At its most fundamental level, the source of the tension of their father-son relationship is not wanting to be like his “deadbeat Dad” while wondering how much like him he really is, especially if he really is the undiscovered writing genius he says he is. Discovering the family history is, thus, a road to a more complete sense of personhood yet it is littered with emotional potholes and craters.

Nick Flynn is a talented poet and it shines in his prose, which often flows like a Zen koan. For one, the story is not told chronologically and relies on some really interesting devices—there is a play in one of the chapters, a poem in another, extended allegories in several other spots, like the ones about Noah and Dostoevsky. His language is phenomenally rich and vibrant and beats with a life of its own. And more importantly, while the subject matter is sad, it is not lugubrious or self-pitying, nor is it matter-of-fact. A beautifully-written, instantly gripping story, refreshingly devoid of hero-villain dichotomies, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City’s title rings especially true–this story could take place in any city, on any night. One gets the sense that this is some kind of archetypal tragi-comic play that has been and will be acted out eternally: “Each man has a role—one will be the lunatic king, one will be the fool. One will offer dire warnings, one will plot against us, one will try to help.” And the role of the son will, inevitably, be played by Nick or someone else. The parts of the book that narrate Nick’s time at the Pine Street Inn offer a rare glimpse into the lives of the nameless and the faceless. Nick steers clear of moralistic asides, instead opting to offer us a glimpse of the daily but not the pedestrian. “Nothing in this shelter makes more sense, makes me understand my purpose more, than to kill bugs on a homeless man’s flesh, to dress him well in donated, cast-off clothes, to see him the next day laughing besides a burning barrel.”

Another Bullshit Night In Suck City is, essentially, about homelessness—literally and in the sense of being permanently lost and adrift in the sea of life. Nick Flynn’s metaphor of standing in one place, if you are lost, so you may be found is especially poignant when he adds, “but they never tell you what to do if both of you are lost, and you both end up in the same place, waiting.” Later on, he continues, “I see no end to being lost. It isn’t a station you reach but just the general state of going down.” The novel is haunted by the specter of the ever-presence yet utter invisibility of being lost, especially palpable and trenchant when personified by the ghosts of the homeless who are seemingly all around us, yet entirely invisible to us. The vent that his father sleeps on in the winter is no less a prison because it has no walls: “The blower is a room of heat with no walls. My father stands in this room, an invisible man in an invisible room in an invisible city.” He has “plenty of places to go, but no place to be.”