One-time musical prodigy Aleks begins to lose his hearing at age 10, and by 20 he’s trying to keep his family of five off the streets, out of jail, and alive.
Wolfgang Amadeus Aleksandar Fa, aka Aleks, lives on the South Side of Chicago with his ailing mother; his older sister, Isobel; her daughter, Jazz; and his younger brother, Daniel. Aleks tries to hold down odd jobs to pay the bills, but he's equally as liable to walk away from one as to show up to work at it. He’s expelled from community college for plagiarism. Isobel drinks, smokes, does drugs, dates the wrong sorts of men, and generally might not be paying enough attention to 3-year-old Jazz. Jazz is biting classmates in preschool. Daniel, 13, is stealing luggage from unsuspecting travelers at the airport, dressing like a ghost, and taking a bow and arrows to school. To add fuel to the fire, “kuzyn” Benny and Aleks’ absentee father take turns entangling Aleks in criminal activities. If these maladies of choice weren’t enough, there are a litany of circumstances beyond the characters’ control, all setting them further down the path to failure, not the least of which is the looming financial crisis that comes to be known as the Great Recession. Readers have an inherent desire to see talent recognized and to see it overcome adversity. Nothing drives the compulsion to follow Aleks and company to their literary conclusion more than this. At heart, these are good people, in tough circumstances, making the same mistakes that many of us make. Will they allow themselves the chance to obtain happiness?
A family of gifted individuals can’t seem to stop sabotaging their own lives, but you’ll want them to.
Additional Praise for Book of Extraordinary Tragedies:
“Joe Meno’s Book of Extraordinary Tragedies captures something of a modern-day naturalism. His characters, a family of Eastern Europeans living on Chicago’s South Side, are—like those of Frank Norris and Ernest Hemingway—molded by their social conditions, shaped by their heredity, and victims of seemingly inescapable poverty, drugs, and crime . . . The novel itself can be seen as a symphony of artful complexity with careful timbre, melody, and countermelody all harmonizing together . . . if you’re seeking a dark commentary on the life of a third-generation immigrant family in 21st-century America—one that reveals its more subtle undertones only upon additional reads—the author gives you exactly that.”
"With his nuanced portrayal of Chicago's ethnic, class, and cultural dividing lines, Meno once again proves himself a true heir to Stuart Dybek for the way he captures the essence of life in our neighborhoods."
—Chicago Reader, one of the ten best Chicago Books of 2022
"Joe Meno is among a couple other writers (Kevin Wilson and Patrick DeWitt) who do a genre I'm going to call SadQuaint. It's a little Wes Anderson, a little morose, and a Joe Meno SadQuaint is always a pleaser."
—LitReactor, A Best Book of 2022
"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."
"[A] richly embroidered coming-of-age story . . . An uplifting and interesting exploration of one family’s struggle for existence in the United States, against the backdrop of history, classical and popular music, and the financial crisis of 2007–08; highly recommended."
—Library Journal, starred review
"[Meno] writes of a South Side Chicago family of Eastern European descent that is full of damage—hearing loss, poverty, cancer, sick mothers and lost fathers—who are really just holding on for much of the book, yet full of love, curiosity and desire as well. As he always does, Meno brings a lot of sadness, a lot of humor, and something magical to all pages."
"Set against the backdrop of the 2008 economic meltdown, Book of Extraordinary Tragedies is an incisive exploration of ethnic identity, uneasy family legacies, thwarted ambitions, and the city of Chicago itself."
"Joe Meno writes with a humor and tenderness that sometimes doesn’t feel made for this bleak hour of history . . . Or. Maybe it’s exactly what we need right now? . . . Meno reminds us that though family’s do, in fact, fuck you up, sometimes they’re the only thing that can put you back together."
—Lit Hub, Most Anticipated Books of 2022
“At heart, these are good people, in tough circumstances, making the same mistakes that many of us make. Will they allow themselves the chance to obtain happiness? A family of gifted individuals can’t seem to stop sabotaging their own lives, but you’ll want them to.”
“Though the family saga is relatively simple, the characters’ passions and their desire for fulfillment is made achingly real. This ought to please Meno’s fans and win him some more.”
"We're longtime fans of Chicago author Joe Meno, whose work such as Hairstyles of the Damned and The Great Perhaps helped put the city on the literary map in the early 2000s. Book of Extraordinary Tragedies follows siblings and former classical music prodigies Aleksandar and Isobel as they navigate their messy, unfulfilling twenties and their abandoned ambitions. When an illness forces Isobel to return to their childhood home on the Far South Side of Chicago, she revisits her love for playing cello and opens a new world of possibility and wonder for her complicated family."
—Chicago Review of Books, 12 Must-Read Books of September
“[D]espite the long odds stacked against his characters, Meno keeps their story buoyant . . .They’re hopelessly optimistic in their own twisted way . . . What this story gets so right is how so many of us live in the past and the present all at once.”
“When I sat down with Joe Meno at New Wave Coffee in Logan Square immediately after devouring his latest novel, Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, my primary campaign was to play it cool and maybe figure out why I’m literally filled with joy whenever I read anything he writes. (Even when there are extraordinary tragedies in the title.) Seconds into our conversation, though, I’m reminded that he’s the last person you have to play it cool for.”
“I don’t know how Joe Meno does it—if I did know, I’d copy him. This book has such velocity that it generates wind, yet it is meditative and steeped in love, music, and human connection. It’s stunning.”
—Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels
“Set on Chicago’s southside, this is a quirky, tender, and absurdly funny coming-of-age novel about not only caring for the ones we love, but also tending to the dreams they have for our future. It’s a novel about work and the relentless grind of surviving paycheck to paycheck. Joe Meno writes beautifully of the way tragic stories become a kind of inheritance in this bittersweet love letter to the immigrants who built Chicago.”
—Leigh Stein, author of Self Care
"'Catastrophe will never let you down,' we’re told in Joe Meno’s deeply felt new novel, one that plumbs the depths of family, all the painful ways we’re bound to the people who shaped us, and all the generations previous. But having been a fan of Meno’s work for so long, I also know that he will never let you down, that he will find some measure of the extraordinary in any story, some deeply human and beautiful thing that keeps us reading. A sensitive and imaginative work by a writer who deserves every reader.”
—Kevin Wilson, author of Nothing to See Here