• A.Word.A.Day

    Check out my favorite daily treat, A.Word.A.Day : The magic and music of words.

Teaser Tuesdays: Lillian & Dash by Sam Toperoff

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

lillian&dash

I am really loving this treat: a glimpse into the lives (fictionally rendered here) of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, in their irresistible, funny, dry voices. Here, from inside Hellman’s head:

Store detectives. Hammett once held such a job, briefly. He quit. He identified too closely with the shoplifters.

Of course he did, dear.

Do check out Lillian & Dash; it’s great fun, and this audio edition is tops.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

An essay collection that earnestly examines feelings–the author’s and the world’s.

empathy

Leslie Jamison follows her debut novel, The Gin Closet, with an essay collection that has earned her the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The Empathy Exams opens with Jamison’s experience as a medical actor. In this role, she is given a character, complete with props and not only symptoms, but behaviors: body language, failure to make eye contact, dishonesty. In portraying deception, or a pretended lack of self-knowledge, Jamison contemplates what it is to feel, how we communicate what we feel and what we do with these communications.

While all her essays are linked by the topic of empathy, their subjects range widely. One essay about incarceration deals with a man serving time for mortgage fraud who continues to declare his innocence; another covers the case of the West Memphis Three and the documentaries about them that so moved Jamison as a young woman. “Morphology of the Hit” studies Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, which Jamison calls “a map for storytelling,” and she uses that map to construct a narrative of the random act of violence she experienced in Nicaragua.

Within the context of pain, both injury and chronic illness receive repeated treatment. The Barkley Marathon, a grueling, almost unfinishable race through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, is presented both as a subcultural phenomenon and a subtext for pain. Jamison attends a conference for Morgellons patients–who believe they are infested with fibers and foreign matter crawling out of their skin–and the few doctors who will take them seriously; she finds herself responding with such empathy that she is in danger of catching the disease herself. She also leads readers on two “Pain Tours,” closing with the specter of female pain, and female guilt over pain–making the studied choice to apologize for neither.

Throughout these varied topics, Jamison makes references to many thinkers and influences, from Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), Susan Sontag and Frida Kahlo to her own friends. Her essays often dwell in the theoretical and the academic; she is interested in philosophies, and admits to difficulty experiencing, recognizing and sharing her own emotions–a difficulty that occasionally manifests in pedagogy. However, readers will finish with no doubt she is sincere in her quest to own, identify and comprehend empathy.


This review originally ran in the April 3, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 itchy patches.

Not a great rating, right? Reminder: when I write reviews for the Shelf I work to (mostly objectively) state what is of high quality about a book, and who might like it and why; if applicable, I mention who might want to steer clear. When I rate the books here, I am stating my personal reaction. I think Jamison did good research & does some good writing; but the academic & theoretical nature of these essays didn’t appeal to me. I was hoping for a more emotional reaction to the world; and specifically I was interested in the medical acting concept, which received relatively little play time. I wonder if *I* have an essay to write about empathy, based on my experiences working in a cancer hospital. I don’t know that I’m ready to write it right now; but if/when I do, it will be more emotional and less cerebral than these essays here. Not better or worse; but this is how my personal reaction – the personal appeal this book had for me – rates The Empathy Exams.

book beginnings on Friday: Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

gone feral

Novella Carpenter’s Gone Feral tells the story of seeking a relationship with her mostly-estranged father, who prefers the outdoors to the city. It begins:

My dad officially went missing on October 17, 2009.

The morning I found out, I woke up to the hum of traffic from Interstate 980 harmonizing with the nickering of milk goats at my back stairs.

She managed to sneak right in there her own preferred ratio of city-to-outdoors: she has an “urban farm” in Oakland. Not a bad beginning, I think.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm

An accessible study of Seneca, adviser to the appalling and scandalous Roman emperor Nero.

dying every day

Classical historian James Romm tackles Nero’s Roman Empire, and the controversies and contradictions of the moral philosopher Seneca, in the appropriately titled Dying Every Day.

Nero became emperor in 54 A.D., at the age of 16, under the thumb of his overbearing mother, Agrippina. Like his uncle Caligula–who had also come to the throne at a young age–Nero scandalized Rome with debauchery, exhibitionism, violence and terror. Romm’s chapters are tellingly named: Fratricide, Regicide, Matricide, Matriticide and Holocaust are bookended by two Suicides, the whole capped by an epilogue entitled Euthanasia.

Nero’s legacy is fairly straightforward, but the tutor brought out of exile to prime him for autocratic rule is a more complex character. Seneca was a Stoic who admired Socrates and Cato, prolifically produced moral treatises and scorned wealth. In his role as Nero’s teacher, mentor and trusted senior adviser, however, he colluded in murders within the royal family and amassed a personal fortune. His prose and drama leave behind a contradictory image, and historians from his contemporaries through the present day have puzzled over his true character. Ascetic Stoic moralist or conniving courtier? Romm (Ghost on the Throne) doesn’t claim to settle the centuries-old mystery, but sheds light using ancient sources and occasional references to modern critics, joining his readers in marveling at a regime remembered by history for its shocking excesses.


This review originally ran in the March 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 bloodlines.

two-wheeled thoughts: Arthur Conan Doyle

When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.

–Arthur Conan Doyle, Scientific American, 1896

Thank you, sir. That’s my mental health maintenance plan, right there.

Teaser Tuesdays: Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

light shining in the forest

This is a remarkable novel I have here, from the author of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I don’t want to say too much about it now… but there is a library.

Now Karen is at the lay-by, waiting for the blue (bookmobile) van to come. She is worried that someone else will get there first, and take out the book before she can, so she has formed a queue of one.

Isn’t that charming? And maybe a little sad…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

crossing to safetyIn the fine tradition of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Of Mice and Men, Crossing to Safety borrows its title from poetry – in this case, Robert Frost. I find this an interesting tradition; it does not always necessarily yield greater meaning, at least not for me (perhaps if I were better with poetry!), but I’m sure it does say something about the author and his tastes, and maybe about the book itself as well.

Crossing to Safety is a novel of four people, told in first person by one of them. At the beginning, our narrator Larry Morgan and his wife Sally have just traveled to Vermont to visit old friends; it becomes clear fairly quickly that Charity Lang is dying, attended by her husband Sid. These four have been best friends for decades, although they haven’t always been as close (especially geographically) as they’d like. Before spending much time in the Vermont of the present, Larry begins remembering their youth together.

Larry and Sally were newlyweds and new graduates during the Depression, when Larry got a one-year post teaching English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It’s not much – not much money, and not much security for the future; but they’re young, Sally is pregnant, and this is the Depression; they will take whatever they can get. Larry is determined to produce as much writing as possible. He wrings every moment out of every day: eating, sleeping, teaching, prepping for his classes, and writing. They meet another young couple, the Langs, and are impressed with Charity’s warmth and 1000-watt smile, Sid’s open heart and intellect, and not least, their money. Both Sid and Charity come from backgrounds entirely different from Larry’s and Sally’s; but despite being very wealthy, Charity’s ambition for Sid’s academic career makes the Langs no less dependent upon the university’s approval than the Morgans are. Strangely, despite vastly different financial circumstances (and during the Great Depression, when these things matter possibly more than ever), the foursome is able to form a singular bond. The Langs are generous without seeming to be; they honestly take pleasure in sharing, or need to share, and the Morgans receive gracefully and understand that they are giving a service, as well.

In fact, one of the main messages of this novel is that of this uniquely strong and loving friendship, which while it does contain some jealousies and insecurities, handles them with such grace that they don’t seem to matter; but another of its main messages, for me, was about class. It’s every bit as rare and surprising to me that such a wealthy couple and one that needs to work so hard for its money could be so close, and I think that’s at least as powerful a point as the first one.

Crossing to Safety is a quiet novel, in terms of having relatively little action. Arguably the greatest challenge faced by our foursome – certainly, by the Morgans – is Sally’s near-death from polio, which cripples her permanently; and yet this action takes place off-screen, as it were. Where many of the past memories are presented in flashback form, Sally’s experience is merely referred to. In other words, while there are certainly evocative, moving events in the lives of the Langs and Morgans, Crossing to Safety is overwhelmingly contemplative and rearward-facing: quiet, more than anything.

And yet, as Terry Tempest Williams quotes in her introductory piece to my edition, and as Stegner writes as Larry Morgan, this story is not dramatic in the sense of big reveals, cheating spouses, or large conflicts. And that’s okay – it’s beautiful, in fact, as a celebration of friendship (even while acknowledging flaws and hiccups) and life itself. The latter part of the book deals with end-of-life issues, and perhaps because I work in a hospital for a living, I found this section particularly thought-provoking. Here, as throughout, none of our foursome handles things perfectly, but we can still love them all.

Crossing to Safety is quiet and loving and lovely as a representation of marriage, friendship, ambition, contentment, and end of life. Stegner is a beautiful writer; I’m won over.


Rating: 9 picnics.
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