Happy Independence Day!
Here in the Chicago area we’ve got a light drizzle, but the smell of charred flesh being cooked on the grill still is floating around the atmosphere. Unfortunately, with the ever advancing global economy, many, if not all, stores are treating the day as normal-a benefit for last-minute shoppers, to be sure, but less so for many of the workers who undoubtedly prefer to be with their families.
Be that as it may, today is the day that America celebrates its declaration of independence from Great Britain, even though Garry Wills wrote Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, a book that I read in high school during Mr. Wright’s A.P. History class. Inventing America demonstrated that it was impossible for the declaration to have been signed on July 4 since many of the signers were not in the country. Beyond that, if I remember correctly, many of the signers did not even remember having done so just 10 years later. Wills’ point was that the subsequent elevation of the declaration reveals more about the story of patriotism and national identity, rather than the identity as seen by those who actually contributed to its formation.
Two books I’ve finished today touch in different ways on themes of patriotism and America.
Address Unknown by Katherine Kressmann Taylor is a short story told through the exchange of letters between two close friends and business partners, one German Jewish and one a non-Jewish German, whose relationship is torn asunder during the early years of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Taylor skillfully shows how Martin Schulse, the non-Jew, gets taken in by Hitler’s appeal and the threat of brute force-to the point where he turns away the sister of Max Eisenstein, the other correspondent who is running the business in San Francisco. While a bit heavy handed at points, the story unquestionably brings home the danger of facism and nationalistic excess.
America appears in a different light in Aleksandar Hemon’s latest short story collection, Love and Obstacles. Far from the patriotic superpower celebrated so often in backyards across the country, America is seen as the last of little culture by the protagonist’s parents, who offer the continual consumption of cheeseburgers as evidence.
The series starts slowly with Stairway to Heaven, an account of a Bosnian teenager’s forced summer stay in Kinshasa, but gathers steam after that and has the vintage obscure vocabulary, painful moments, artful painting of scenes and unflinching looks at life’s loneliness and desire for connection that Hemon readers have come to expect and love in his previous three books.
While the book contains familiar themes of a Bosnian immigrant who leaves his country to visit America on a temporary basis shortly before war broke out-something Hemon himself did-readers of Nowhere Man and The Question of Bruno may find these stories lighter in places and more focused on the protagonist’s teen and early adult years. Hemon’s ability to create entire worlds, smattering of Serbian phrases, interweaving of droll use of humor are on full display in this loosely interconnected series, which is dedicated to his parents.
I particularly enjoyed “Everything” and “The Noble Truth of Suffering,” and look forward to hearing from you about which stories in the collection moved you.