Book of Extraordinary Tragedies By Joe Meno, 352 pgs.

Sep 22, 2022

Book of Extraordinary Tragedies takes place in Chicago in 2008 and is the story of an Eastern European family. Twenty-year-old Aleks and his slightly older sister, Isobel, are the main characters, but the book also involves their ill mother, their secretly gay cousin, Isobel’s daughter who is losing her hearing, the absent father, the darkly troubled brother, and others. The tale is primarily told through Aleks’s viewpoint as he looks for work and tries to keep his seemingly cursed family together, both physically and emotionally. Along the way Aleks tries to find connection through dating, with limited success. Despite their difficulties, ultimately he starts to see some hope for his family members.

Author Joe Meno is a wonderful writer. The content moves at a good clip and the writing is economical without being devoid of emotion or description. The reader becomes invested in these characters, despite how much they shoot themselves in the feet through their destructive tendencies. Meno will certainly make you like Aleks and his family, but he drags them (and the reader) through some tough times before they reach their redemption. And along the way he’ll make you laugh out loud at the family’s sense of humor and oddball nature. I especially loved that the mom was writing a screenplay. (“I’m thinking of writing a screenplay about Tom Cruise.” “Oh no. Please don’t.”)

Emotionally, Book of Extraordinary Tragedies is somber and sad but never depressing. These are characters who can’t catch a break but still somehow hold it together. It’s the story of many immigrant families. It’s also a great example of Meno working many different groups of people into the book. There are not only immigrants but characters with disabilities, a gay character, and an African-American. All of them are developed and pertinent to the story’s arc. Meno shows how one can write diversity into a novel without reverting to tokenism. 

Book of Extraordinary Tragedies may have a grim title, but don’t let that cause you to hesitate to pick it up. It’s ultimately a rich, uplifting read of family, fate, and surviving (and maybe even thriving?) in this world that is so often unfair. Highly recommended. –Kurt Morris (Akashic, 232 Third St., A115, Brooklyn, NY 11215)

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