I dare anyone who doubts the abillity of the personal essay to enlighten to remain in that mindset after reading even two pages of The Empathy Exams. In a dozen wide-ranging essays, Jamison, a Brooklyn-based writer who previously published the novel The Gin Closet, seems to leave no nook or cranny of the human experience unexplored. With fearless honesty, she reveals the ways pain—both physical and mental—affects us and the ways we respond to others around us. Take the title essay, which takes on the subject of empathy using the lens of Jamison's experience as a medical actor, as she displaying symptoms for doctors-in-training who must ask the right questions to unlock a diagnosis. During this process, she reflects on her own response to others in pain, and on the ways she expects those around her to react when she is in need of empathy.
I wonder which parts of my brain are lighting up when the med students as me: "How does that make you feel?" Or which parts of their brains are glowing when I say, "the pain in my abdomen is a ten." My condition isn't real. I know this. They know this. I'm simply going through the motions. They're simply going through the motions. But motions can be more than rote. Tey don't just express feeling; they can give birth to it.
Empathy isn't just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it's also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for one another because we know we should, or because it's asked for, but this doesn't make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we've committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I'm deep in my own. To say going through the motions—this isn't reduction so much as acknowledgement of effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person's state of heart or mind.
What are you reading this week?
Before Sookie Stackhouse and Harper Connelly, there was Aurora Teagarden—the star of Charlaine Harris' very first mystery series. These small-town Georgia stories, which star librarian Aurora as an amateur sleuth, are now being adapted to air as films on the Hallmark network.
"Full House" star Candace Cameron has been cast as Aurora, but no other cast announcements have been made.
It remains to be seen whether this cozy series, which was launched in 1990 with the Agatha Award-winning Real Murders, will appeal to those who came to Harris' work through the steamy and blood-drenched "True Blood"—but it's a second chance for a second of Harris' series to get a TV makeover, after the Harper Connelly adaptation was scrapped by both CBS and Syfy.
Will you watch?
Readers who came to Michel Faber via The Crimson Petal and the White (which was adapted as a miniseries) might find his first novel in nearly 10 years to be, well, full of strange new things. But true Faber fans know that one of the major themes of his work is giving an outsider's view of humankind. And while sometimes that means Victorian prostitutes, it more often means adding in a bit of the fantastical (did you see Scarlett Johannsen in Under the Skin? Yep, based on Faber's book).
Whether you're a longtime fan or a Crimson Petal aficionado, Faber is returning on October 28 with a long-awaited novel that is both epic and magical, and should satisfy both crowds of readers.
The hero of The Book of Strange New Things is a missionary ministering to his flock and facing the normal, everyday struggles that entails—that is, if you live in the future and your ministry has taken you not to China, South America or Africa, but to a distant planet that is light years away from your true home and family. Still, Peter is reconciled to his fate and becoming fond of his welcoming alien flock, until the news from Earth turns more horrifying than usual. Natural disasters are striking the planet, and on a more personal note, Peter's wife is facing a crisis of faith.
Check out the opening passage:
FORTY MINUTES LATER, HE WAS UP IN THE SKY
"I was going to say something," he said.
"So say it," she said.
He was quiet, keeping his eyes on the road. In the darkness of the city's outskirts, there was nothing to see except the tail-lights of other cars in the distance, the endless unfurling roll of tarmac, the giant utilitarian fixtures of the motorway.
"God may be disappointed in me for even thinking it," he said.
"Well," she sighed, "He knows already, so you may as well tell me."
He glanced at her face, to judge what mood she was in as she said this, but the top half of her head, including her eyes, was veiled in a shadow cast by the edge of the windscreen. The bottom half of her face was lunar bright. The sight of her cheek, lips and chin—so intimately familiar to him, so much a part of life as he had known it—made him feel a sharp grief at the thought of losing her.
Will you read it?
Short stories make for perfect reading in the summer. Since each one is a self-contained dose of literature, you barely even need a bookmark—plus, there's no worrying about whether you'll remember what you read on the flight over when you reopen the book on the way back. If you're looking for a bite-sized dose of summer reading, explore our guide to 2014's spring and summer collections.
Readers looking for a voice from a very different world should pick up Hassan Blasim's The Corpse Exhibition (Penguin). Compared to Roberto Bolaño and Borges, this Arabic author sets the stories in his debut collection during the Iraq War—and they're told from the Iraqi perspective. If you want a collection that will test your beliefs and haunt your dreams, this might be your pick.
Another collection that features a distinctive cross-cultural voice is Snow in May (Holt), the first book from author Kseniya Melnik. Melnik was born in Russia and emigrated to Alaska as a teen, and the stories featured here are connected through her hometown of Madagan, a port city in the Far East of Russia that was a stopover on the way to Stalin's gulags. Spanning the later half of the 20th century and geographical locations from Madagan to Fargo, these stories plumb the weight of history and the struggle to reconcile where you come from with where you are now.
Those interested in coming-of-age stories and tricky relationship dynamics will enjoy the linked stories in Polly Dugan's debut collection, So Much a Part of You (Little, Brown). Featuring characters that reappear across decades, the book explores the way that relationships—romantic and otherwise—change over time. When Anne inadvertently dates her best friend's high school boyfriend, the same mistake destroys both relationships. A student's one-night stand changes her college life. And a deathbed revelation spurs forgiveness. Utterly real and insightful.
Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish (Milkweed Editions) is a much wider-randing collection, spanning decades and countries in stories linked only by the strange twists each one takes. The delusional narrator of one story is addicted to making lists, stalking a girl called Allison and writing love songs to Jodie Foster. In the title story, parents struggle with the dual burdens of unemployment and a child with behavior issues. Occasionally experimental, always imaginative.
Another edgy collection comes from Scottish author James Kelman, whose novel How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize in 1994. The stories in If it Is Your Life (Other Press) are mostly written with the stream-of-consciousness style and dark humor that Kelman is known for, and they're a bit more outré than his novels. But readers who like to read about lives lived on the edge will be excited for this new collection.
Take a nostalgic trip back to your childhood (at least, if you're a child of the late 80s like me!) with a newly published collection of Lois Duncan's short stories, Written in the Stars (Lizzie Skurnick Books). The author of teen classics like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Duncan has collected 13 tales from her very early career—including a story she published when she was only 13 years old—and includes a brief contemporary commentary on each one. As you might expect of stories that originally appeared in places like Seventeen or American Girl, these are mostly focused on the concerns of youth, but the glimpse they provide into the shaping of a young writer are fascinating.
Another familiar name with a new collection is David Guterson. The author of Snow Falling on Cedars returns with the playfully titled Problems with People (Knopf), which branches out from the author's typical Pacific Northwest territory to encompass most of the U.S. as well as Nepal and Africa. Though diverse in locale, these 10 tales are united by Guterson's strong storytelling voice and will be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of his fans.
And we'll end with another collection from a beloved voice: Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck (Dial). Though most of these nine stories have been previously published in some of the best short fiction venues—Granta, The New Yorker—taken together, they demonstrate McCracken's remarkable range as well as her ability to truly understand the her characters and her quirky sense of humor (the title story opens with a 12-year-old girl being brought home by the police from a nitrous oxide party).
The City by Dean Koontz
Bantam, $28, ISBN 9780345545930
On sale July 1, 2014
Dean Koontz has long been known for providing thrills and chills to readers, but his new novel The City is something of an exception. Set in the 1960s and 1970s, it tells the story of Jonah Kirk, growing up as part of a close family in a nameless city and dreaming of becoming a "piano man." Jonah becomes a remarkable boy mostly thanks to his remarkable mother, who gave up her own dreams of attending Oberlin to have and raise him without much help from Jonah's ne'er do well father. Their close relationship is a highlight of the book, as shown in this excerpt, which takes place shortly after Jonah's mother has thrown his father out for good.
After school that day, I walked to the community center to practice piano. When I got home, all she said was, "Your father's no longer living here. He went upstairs to help Miss Delvane with her rodeo act, and I wasn't having any of that."
Too young to sift the true meaning of her words, I found the idea of a mechanical horse more fascinating than ever and hoped I might one day see it. My mother's Reader's Digest condensation of my father's leaving didn't satisfy my curiousity. I had many questions but I refrained from asking them. . . . Right then I told Mom the secret I couldn't have revealed when Tilton lived with is, that I had been taking piano lessons from Mrs. O'Toole for more than two months. She hugged me and got teary and apologized, and I didn't understand what she was apologizing for. She said it didn't matter if I understood, all that mattered was that she would never again allow anyone or anything to get between me and a piano and any other dream I might have.
What are you reading this week?
This morning, the PEN/American Center released the shortlist for their annual awards, which are some of the most lucrative (and therefore most coveted!) in the United States. The 18 awards cover categories from debut fiction to science writing to essays, and this year the various judging panels included the likes of Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Dee, Terry McMillan, Ariel Levy, E.L. Doctorow and Zadie Smith.
Here are the shortlists for some of the bigger prizes; for the full list of finalists visit PEN's site. Which books are you rooting for?
PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize ($25,000 to the author of a debut work of fiction)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Brief Encounters With the Enemy by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
Everybody’s Irish by Ian Stansel
Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay ($10,000 award)
PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography ($5000 award)
Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson
Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore by Linda Leavell
Margaret Fuller by Megan Marshall
American Mirror by Deborah Solomon
A Life of Barbara Stanwyck (Volume 1) by Victoria Wilson.
Ah, summer vacations. The crowds. The traffic. The high gas prices and/or airfare. The long waits at airport security. The HEAT. These are the reasons that I, like any sensible person, schedule my yearly trips for spring or fall. But once my Instagram and Facebook feeds start filling up with waterfront photos, I confess to craving a little more escapism in my fiction. If you've got the staycation blues, here are 10 books with creative settings that will take you a world away . . . even if you're still in your easy chair.
Killed at the Whim of a Hat by Colin Cotterill. Cotterill has made a name for himself with offbeat mysteries set in East Asia. The first in a new series, Killed provides "a beautifully crafted look at life with a Thai twist," not to mention a hero named Sticky Rice. Escapism, indeed!
The Ruins by Scott Smith. Got friends visiting Mexico? Well, that trip will seem a lot less desirable after reading Smith's dark, suspenseful story of four friends whose excursion to a Mayan temple doesn't go exactly as planned.
Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann. This debut takes you away in place and time—and throws in a murder to boot. Set in a wealthy enclave on Martha's Vineyard (is there any other sort of enclave on Martha's Vineyard?), it follows two families whose fortunes and fates are changed by World War II—and by one fateful night.
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson. The titular hero of Jonasson's quirky second novel goes around the world and back again on a madcap journey from 1960s Soweto to modern-day Sweden that will thrill fans of Forrest Gump or François Lelord.
Beach House No. 9 by Christie Ridgway. The first installment of Ridgway's best-selling series set in coastal California is a sexy and sun-kissed escape that follows the slowly developing romance of a memoirist and the woman sent to help him finish his latest publishing project.
The Red House by Mark Haddon. If you're stuck at home idealizing the "family summer vacation" thing, here's your antidote. Told in multiple voices, Haddon's creative third novel from adults is set in a cottage in Wales, where a family reunion slowly falls apart.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub. Longing for a taste of Europe? Straub's second novel follows a family on a visit to the idyllic island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain. But amid the olive trees, family drama lurks.
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. An isolated lighthouse off the Australian coast, on an island full of natural wonders, is the setting for Stedman's debut, which follows the consequences of a couple's morally ambiguous decision to raise a foundling child as their own.
The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris. Is there anyone out there who would turn down a trip to Paris? I didn't think so. Take one in this sequel to the bestseller Chocolat, which finds chocolatier Vianne Rocher and her daughters living in Montmartre and opening shop in the big city.
Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan. This second novel from Sullivan is set on the Maine coast, which is as lovingly detailed as the family drama between the characters, who are visiting a weather-worn beachfront cottage packed with memories.
Have you read any books with a memorable setting lately? Share in the comments!
P.S. Enter this week's Monday contest for a chance to win two of these books, plus more great armchair travel reads.
Yesterday the winner of the 2014
Orange Bailey's Prize for Women's Fiction was announced, and it was a bit of a dark horse: debut author Eimear McBride's modernist masterpiece, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.
The Irish author, who is 38, snagged the prize despite a highly competitive shortlist that included Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Donna Tartt, as well as the acclaimed debut Burial Rites.
Published in the Commonwealth last year, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a challenging stream-of-consciouness narrative, told from the perspective of a young girl, that proved a tough sell: McBride spent most of a decade shopping it around before finding a home with Norwich's Galley Beggar Press. But its vital, visceral voice—one UK reviewer called the book "an instant classic"—proved impossible for the judges to ignore.
In her announcement, judge chair Helen Fraser called the book, “An amazing and ambitious first novel that impressed the judges with its inventiveness and energy. This is an extraordinary new voice—this novel will move and astonish the reader.”
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing will be published in the U.S. in September by Coffee House Press. Will you read it?
You heard it here first, folks: The film version of Tom Rob Smith's gripping thriller, Child 44, will be hitting theaters in October. We got the news from the author himself, at Grand Central's BEA party last week.
Set in Stalin's Russia, the book is a nail-biting, gasp inducing thriller of the first order about a civil servant, Leo Demidov, who is investigating a serial killer. Problem is, in Stalin's perfect society, serial killers aren't supposed to exist.
With novelist Richard Price writing the screenplay and actors like Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Gary Oldham (aka Sirius Black), this is one book-to-film adaptation that I have high hopes for. Smith told us that he visited the set in Prague (filming in Russia being sort of tricky these days) and met with the cast—turns out Gary Oldman had read not only the book in question, but the entire series.
What book-to-film adapatations are you looking forward to this fall?
Canadian author Stephen Galloway takes a magical tack in his follow-up to his poignant debut, The Cellist of Sarajevo. The Confabulist is the story of an ordinary man, Martin Strauss, who in his waning years feels compelled to tell the truth about his connection to Harry Houdini, the most famous magician of all time. As Martin recalls it in the prologue, he didn't just kill Houdini—he killed him twice. But how? That question keeps the reader turning the pages as the fascinating world of magic and spiritualism that took center stage around the turn of the 20th century unfolds.
Unless the magician has actual supernatural powers, unless what he does alters the workings of the known universe, then all we witness is a man pretending to be a magician. Everything else is an illusion.
This is what has always captivated me about magic—the idea that we can create something that seems both real and impossible. That we could be two things at once without fully knowing which is material and which is reflection.
What are you reading this week?