For many writers, especially the authors of memoirs, it can be hard to predict where and how readers will make the strongest connection to their stories. For Richard Blanco, whose The Prince of los Cocuyos is one of our favorite memoirs of 2014, the part of his book that seems to be attracting the most attention is especially surprising: It involves a can of Easy Cheese.
Growing up in Miami in a family of Cuban immigrants, little Ricky Blanco accompanied his cantankerous abuela (grandmother) to Winn-Dixie, a rare incursion onto the turf of los americanos. Blanco yearned to fit in with his American schoolmates, so he asked his abuela to buy a can of that uniquely American food, Easy Cheese. ("What? Queso en una lata? she questioned, unable to fathom the idea of cheese in a can. But I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was intrigued.") We won't spoil the story by telling you what happened next, but it's clear that the anecdote is making an impression on readers.
Blanco, the inaugural poet at President Obama's second inauguration in 2012, recently began a tour to promote The Prince of los Cocuyos. During one of his first stops, at Brookline Brooksmith in Massachusetts, a reader presented him with a very special gift—you guessed it: a can of Easy Cheese.
Will the gifts become a trend? No Easy Cheese was evident during Blanco's weekend appearance at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, but we have a feeling that Blanco might end up with a lifetime supply of canned cheese before his book tour is over.
To learn more about Blanco and his tender and keenly observed coming-of-age memoir, check out our Q&A with the author.
Is it me, or is 2014 the year of the essay? I've raved in previous posts over The Empathy Exams and Bad Feminist; On Immunity is another essay that moved me, entertained me and made me think. Biss, who teaches at Northwestern, won a Guggenheim Fellowship and used it to support her work on her third book, a combination of mythology, morality, medicine and mortality that is like nothing you've ever read before.
Blending personal experience with social history and myth, Biss takes on the thorny topic of immunization—moving from the story of Achilles, whose dip in the water was perhaps the first documented attempt of a parent to innoculate their child against harm, to modern-day anti-vacciners in a meditation on the concept of immunization and what it means on a personal level as well as a societal one.
Though this is a short book, it's not something to be read quickly. Biss' thoughful writing contains levels of meaning and plenty to ponder on every page.
When my son asks me about his belly button, I describe the near-mythological umbilical cord that once connected us. I point to my belly button and tell him that all of us were once contained within another body on which our lives depended. Even a three-year-old, who is still wholly dependent on me but already accustomed to thinking of himself as independent, finds this perplexing. Speaking from a moment just before the Enlightenment, Queen Elizabeth expressed a paradox that eludes us to this day—our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater body composed of many bodies. We are, bodily, both independent and dependent.
What are you reading this week?
Today the final National Book Award category longlist was announced. For the authors involved, that means it's time for nervous hand-wringing to commence. For readers, well, it's time to dig into those lists and start reading, dissecting the judges' motives and/or rooting for your favorite . . . which is exactly what we're doing at BookPage! Read on for the behind-the-scenes action.
I’m pulling for young, experimental poet Maureen N. McLane—third er, collection’s the charm, right? The New York University English professor blends lush natural imagery with pointed, contemporary syntax in This Blue. At once playful and profoundly sobering, these poems examine mankind’s history and our tendency to exploit and abuse the beauty of our earth. Now is the perfect time to dive in if you missed this fantastic collection during National Poetry Month.
—Hilli Levin, Editorial Assistant
Looking at the NBA’s nonfiction longlist reminds me of the old “Sesame Street” song: One of these things is not like the others. Roz Chast’s hilarious and moving graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, stands out from a crowd of traditional narrative history and biography. Could Chast emerge as the winner? It seems highly unlikely, but I’m thrilled to see her deeply personal look at the perils of aging among this year’s contenders.
—Lynn Green, Editor
One farm. One family. One hundred years. Jane Smiley is taking on a seriously ambitious literary project with her Last Hundred Years trilogy, so it doesn’t surprise me a bit that the first novel, Some Luck, grabbed a spot on the NBA longlist this year. This installment takes us through the life of the Langdons from 1920 to 1953, and if the next two books are anywhere near as marvelously executed, then don’t be surprised if the critical praise and award nominations continue to flow her way.
—Hilli Levin, Editorial Assistant
It might feel shocking to see John Darnielle, a man most famous for being the lead singer of The Mountain Goats, on the NBA longlist for his first novel, Wolf in White Van. But when you consider the fact that his lyrics might as well be poetry or short stories, it's really not that surprising. Blame it on my love of the underdog, but I'm hoping for a win for this musician-turned-novelist.
I'm also rooting for Molly Antopol and her quietly beautiful collection of short stories, The UnAmericans, because, well, wow. She's under 35 and this is her debut work of fiction. I'm under 35 and I just googled "how to handwash stuff" so I find this immensely impressive.
—Lily McLemore, Assistant Editor
As the fiction editor at BookPage, I'm starting to have a visceral reaction to the descriptor "post-apocalyptic fiction." But Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven brings a breath of fresh air to the genre with her fourth novel, a beautiful and deeply felt story that uses its dystopian setting to explore our very human need for shared culture, art and stories. Here's hoping this original and insightful work moves on to the shortlist.
—Trisha Ping, Managing Editor
It’s no surprise to see Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, on this list, and you’ll likely see it on several more award lists before the end of the year. Her accessible and poignant story shares what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and ’70s in a country “caught / between Black and White” and how writing helped her find her voice.
Also, is there any living writer who better captures the hilarity, messiness (sexual, social and emotional) and adventure of being a teenage boy than Andrew Smith? Not likely. Although I thought Grasshopper Jungle was the better of his two books that came out this year, 100 Sideways Miles is another winner—and it’s about time Smith was publicly and widely recognized for his talent.
—Cat Acree, Associate Editor
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in another era? Scientists have yet to create a time machine, but until then, we've got the next best thing: books! From medieval mysteries to WWII dramas, we've put together a list of books published this year that will let you escape to another time.
The life of Laura Bridgman, the first person to communicate using finger spelling, is explored in this compelling novel set in the mid-1800s. Without the ability to hear, see or taste, Bridgman was confined solely to the sense of touch, and both her inner life and her relationships were intensely complex. But despite being a celebrity during her lifetime, Bridgman has largely been forgotten by history. Thankfully, Elkins skillfully revives the memory of this pioneering woman and her singularly fascinating world.
The mind of Tom Robbins is a world in and of itself, and we're invited to journey through it in his memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie. Detailing his childhood during the Great Depression, his time as a soldier in Korea and his experiences during the LSD-fueled counterculture movement, the author of the classic Even Cowgirls Get the Blues guides the reader through his life with a sly, playful voice. You can't help but be taken along for the ride.
In 1527, 600 men set sail from Spain to explore the New World. By the end of the year, only four men remained alive. Among the survivors was a Moroccan slave named Mustafa, renamed Estebanico by his Spanish captors. The four men wandered the wilderness for eight years before finally reaching a Spanish settlement, yet Estebanico's account of their journey was never written down. In Lalami's meticulously researched novel, she imagines what the first black explorer of the New World might have to say about the years spent searching for civilization—and what he found when he finally reached it.
If you're looking for a fat, juicy tome to get lost in, this novel, set in 1794 England, might be it. Bent on marrying off their daughters to wealthy suitors, four oblivious high-society men hire a pianoforte instructor to teach the girls the art of the newest musical craze. Little do they know, the musician has an agenda of his own and is instructing their daughters in quite a bit more than pianoforte . . .
Take a relaxing trip to Walden Pond, literary oasis of Henry Thoreau. In his biography of the famous poet, Sims paints a lovely portrait of the delightfully zany father of nature writing. You might be inspired to leave the cumbersome modern world behind and retreat to your own Walden Pond . . . or at least go for a hike.
Furst's masterfully executed spy novel unfolds as the world is on the cusp of WWII, capturing the tumultuous, dangerous moment before all-out war enveloped Europe. Recruited to secretly fight the agents of fascism, a truly diverse crew carries out clandestine deeds across Nazi-infested Europe in this fast-paced, thrilling novel.
The 17th-century Medici court of Florence is the scene for this tale of a talented wax sculptor, Zummo, attempting to outrun his past. While completing a bizarre commission from the Grand Duke, Zummo finds love with a mysterious young woman. But of course, scandal is not far behind, and dangerous secrets lurk in the shadows of the beautiful city.
Reeling in the aftermath of WWI, Frances Wray and her mother decide to take on a young married couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber, as tenants in their South London apartment. The lonely Frances is delighted when she becomes fast friends with the affable Lillian, and Frances' confession that she is attracted to women feeds the flames of their relationship. But as their infatuation grows, things take a dark and deadly turn.
She's got (arguably) the most famous face on the planet. But who is the woman in da Vinci's Mona Lisa? Experts disagree, but many believe the painting depicts Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the Florentine wife of a wealthy merchant. Through public records and informed guesses, Hales is able to reconstruct a probable portrait of her life—a life perhaps just as fascinating as her portrait.
Inspired by a real unsolved murder, Frog Music is set in San Francisco during the muggy, disease-ridden summer of 1876. When her cross-dressing friend is murdered, Blanche delves into the shady underbelly of the city, determined to find the killer.
Fast-forward 60 years, and San Francisco is on the upswing. In the talented Lisa See's latest novel, three women of Asian descent with very different backgrounds form a seemingly unbreakable bond working as dancers at the Forbidden City nightclub. But as their fame grows and the world around them begins to change, their friendship is tested.
King Richard II is nervous—and with good reason. Whisperings of a dangerous book are floating around 14th-century London. Within this book are the accurately predicted deaths of every king of England—including him. Rulers, deceit, prophecies and every English major's best friend, Chaucer, all make an appearance in this satisfying medieval mystery. Holsinger, a renowned medieval scholar, lends his formidable knowledge to the novel, giving it a well-deserved air of authenticity.
Perhaps you would like to revel in these last sweltering days before fall. If that's the case, this evocative memoir will take you back to midcentury Georgia as travel writer Mayes unspools memories of her early life, filled with the chaos and love of a dysfunctional family. Highlighting the beauty and pain of her Southern childhood—not to mention the steamy afternoons—Mayes has written the perfect companion book to a tall glass of iced tea.
Spanning decades, this novel inspects the evolution of love and evil within a group of friends. Paris in the 1920s was about as fabulously decadent as you can get, and within the city's glittering night life, a group of misfits and strange geniuses finds acceptance and encouragement. But as the world takes a truly horrific turn, the stunning characters within this novel must turn with it, leading them to unexpected and devastating choices.
The Golden Age of Amsterdam comes to life in this wonderfully imaginative debut. When country girl Nella marries a much-older merchant and moves to Amsterdam, she's disappointed to find that life in her new household is incredibly dull and austere. Her husband seems to take no interest in her, and his severe sister runs the household with an iron fist. So Nella is surprised when her husband orders an expensive cabinet-sized replica of their home as a gift. She commissions a miniaturist to furnish her little home, but soon the miniaturist's work reveals dark secrets about the odd family she has married into.
If you think it's hard to get a book published these days, try publishing in Cold War Russia. The Zhivago Affair details the travails author Boris Pasternak, had to endure in order to get his now-classic novel, Dr. Zhivago, published. It's a fascinating tale of intrigue, the CIA (yes, really) and how one phenomenal book helped sow seeds of dissension in Soviet Russia.
Set in a North Carolina coastal town as the Revolutionary War draws to a close, Smith's debut follows three generations of a troubled family as they struggle to cope with loss. The memory of the well-loved, deceased Helen haunts the family she left behind, affecting each family member in complex ways. This novel eloquently conveys how intrinsically connected love and grief truly are.
If you like your historical novels with a bit of a biting edge, this novel drips with dark Gothic mystery. When Charlotte's brother goes missing within the elite world of Victorian society, she is determined to find him. But she soon discovers that there is something supernaturally sinister afoot, and that high society might be more than a little connected to the underground.
Need an escape from the late-summer heat? Picking up a book with "Ice" in the title might be a good route. In his gripping nonfiction account of the ill-advised 1879 expedition to the North Pole, Sides follows the shipwrecked crew of the USS Jeannette as they struggle to survive the Arctic tundra. This vivid nonfiction thriller is guaranteed to leave you chilled—in more ways than one.
Do you see any books that make you want to hop in a time machine? Let us know in the comments!
Sunday, August 24 will mark the 200th anniversary of the night British troops set fire to the White House, the only time other than 9/11 when the U.S. capital city sustained a direct attack. First Lady Dolley Madison had fled the building just hours before the redcoats arrived, famously exclaiming "Save that painting!" and ordering that a precious Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed from the wall and carted off to safety, along with the red velvet curtains from the White House drawing room.
British journalist Peter Snow gives a stirring account of that fateful night, as well as the days before and after, in When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington. The book was published in the U.K. last year to glowing reviews and was released this week in the U.S. by Thomas Dunne Books.
Snow keeps the action moving and adds immediacy by citing the letters, diaries and other accounts of those who witnessed (or participated in) the attack. As the British advanced, Americans on horseback sounded the alarm to the fearful residents of Washington, D.C. "Fly, fly! The ruffians are at hand. If you cannot get away yourselves, for God's sake send off your wives and daughters, for the ruffians are at hand." Under the command of Admiral George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross, British invaders set fire not only to the White House, but to the U.S. Capitol building as well. "Never shall I forget my tortured feelings," one resident recalled, "when I beheld that noble edifice wrapt in flames, which . . . filled all the saddened night with a dismal gloom."
If you've always been a bit hazy about what led to the War of 1812 (and why it was still going on two years later), Snow's excellent account of these crucial events in U.S. history will sharpen your understanding—and make you surprised and grateful that the U.S. today counts Britain among its staunchest allies.
Fall always brings a bounty of fabulous books, and this year is no different. Here's our guide to the 30+ books we're looking forward to seeing in bookstores this fall.
Lock In by John Scalzi (Tor).
The Hugo Award-winning author sets his latest in the near future, where a very contagious virus causes 1% of the people it infects to become locked in their bodies.
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Smith Thompson (S&S).
Set in North Carolina during the American Revolution, this accomplished first novel is a lyrical exploration of one man's loves and losses.
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley (Little, Brown).
The acclaimed author of Jim the Boy returns with a collection of linked short stories.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House). Welcome to a world where lifespans are negotiable—Mitchell's latest is a tour de force of imagination, suspense and literary chops.
The Secret Place by Tana French (Viking). A new crime novel from the talented French is always news. This time, she's delving into the secret-filled world of an all-girl's school, which just might be harboring a murderer.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Doubleday). Would it feel like fall without an Ian McEwan novel? Here, the action takes place in family court, where a successful judge faces personal challenges as well as a complicated case that pits faith against medicine.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf). Yes, we know you think you've been there, done that when it comes to post-apocalyptic fiction, but Mandel brings something fresh to the genre with a story that focuses on what remains after most everything is lost.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. In a novel that early readers say could be her best yet, the British writer turns to 1920s London, where a widow and her daughter take on a young married couple as boarders—needless to say, things don't work out quite as planned.
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (FSG). The lead singer of The Mountain Goats makes his fiction debut with a world-bending story featuring a role-playing game and its mysterious creator. (read more)
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (Little, Brown). When an Israeli politician finds himself attacked by his own for taking a moderate position on settlements in the West Bank, he retreats to Yalta, the place he vacationed as a child. But in running away, he is instead forced to confront his past.
Rooms by Lauren Oliver (Ecco). The popular YA author makes her adult debut in this story of a family who inherit a mansion when their father dies—along with its ghosts.
A Sudden Light by Garth Stein (S&S). In his first adult book since the runaway bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain, Stein returns to the Pacific Northwest—but this time, he's telling a story of fathers and sons.
Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner). A journalist whose first work of history (Empire of the Summer Moon) was a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Gwynne applies his stellar storytelling skills to the story of Stonewall Jackson, a mediocre professor from the Virginia Military Institute who became one of the Confederacy’s most brilliant generals.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories by Hilary Mantel (Holt). As the world eagerly awaits the final volume in her Wolf Hall Trilogy, Mantel throws us a bone with this collection of accomplished short fiction. (read more)
The Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco (Ecco). The first Latino and openly gay inaugural poet (he read his poem “One Today” at Barack Obama’s second inauguration) offers a lyrical, hilarious account of growing up in Miami as the son of Cuban immigrants.
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin (Scribner). In his seventh novel, the acclaimed Irish novelist follows the quiet life of a widowed young mother, who must bring her four sons up alone in her small community of Wexford, Ireland.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Riverhead). In this literary tour de force that recalls Toni Morrison, James takes on Jamaican history through the attempted assassination of reggae star Bob Marley.
Some Luck by Jane Smiley (Knopf). The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres is back with an ambitious new project: a trilogy that spans from 1920-today. This first installment introduces the Langdon family, an Iowa farming clan at the center of her story. (read more)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (FSG). Robinson returns to the quiet Iowa community she created in Gilead with the story of yet another of the town's inhabitants: Lila, the mysterious young woman who comes to town and marries John Ames. (read more)
The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue (Picador). Donohue is known for his ability to craft eerie and magical tales. His latest is no exception: It tells the story of a young boy whose talent for drawing monsters suddenly starts affecting the real world.
The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster). Journalist and author Isaacson, who has penned biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, turns now to the "Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks" who brought us the computer and the Internet. His narrative reveals the contributions of little known engineers and programmers, as well as the stars of the show (Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Larry Page, etc.).
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (Ecco). One of America's most beloved Southern writers returns with another story of modern-day Appalachia, where a young park ranger and a longtime sheriff join forces to solve a crime that threatens their community.
Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (Ballantine). An elephant sanctuary is at the heart of Picoult's latest, which finds a lonely young woman attempting to track down the mother who left her without a word a decade before.
The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury). The sequel to The Bone Season promises more thrills in a near-future London, where clairvoyant Paige Mahoney continues to uncover the secrets of the Rephaim. [EDITOR'S NOTE: This book has been moved to January 2015.]
Prince Lestat by Anne Rice (Knopf). Rice returns to the genre that made her famous with her latest, which brings back everyone's favorite vampire: Lestat. Vampires around the world are being massacred, and Lestat may be their only hope.
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg (Harper). It’s an author/subject match made in heaven: The chronicler of hardscrabble Southern life recounts the adventures of the hell-raising musician who brought us “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
Yes Please by Amy Poehler (Dey Street). The first book from the SNL alum and “Parks and Recreation” star promises personal stories and advice on everything from sex to parenting. We hope it’s as funny and appealing as Poehler herself.
Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford (Ecco). In case you couldn't guess by the title, Frank Bascombe (The Sportswriter) is back in Ford's latest book, which finds Frank attempting to put his life back together after Hurricane Sandy.
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin (Pantheon). The author of Waiting investigates the secrets that can be hidden within even the closest of families in his latest book, which veers between post-WWII China and the modern-day U.S.
Us by David Nicholls (Harper). The best-selling British writer, whose tear-jerker One Day was a dark horse hit back in 2009 and later became a film starring Anne Hathaway, returns this fall with a second novel that follows one man's attempt to rescue his broken marriage.
*Pub dates subject to change.
Hampton Sides' true-life Arctic thriller, In the Kingdom of Ice is our August Top Pick in nonfiction.
Sides, best-selling author of Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers, displays his knack for narrative history yet again as he chronicles the journey of American officer George Washington De Long and his crew of 33 aboard the USS Jeannette. The crew set out from San Francisco in 1879, hoping to prove the popular theory that the polar sea was free of ice past the Bering Strait, but those hopes are soon dashed when the Jeannette becomes trapped in ice—where it stayed for the next 21 months.
Drawing on newly available letters, diaries, journals and other archives as well as his own first-hand experience in the Arctic terrain, Sides delivers an utterly spellbinding tale that's sure to keep you reading into the wee hours.
Watch the trailer from Doubleday below:
What do you think, readers? Are you interested in this heroic and harrowing tale?
As summer begins winding down, it's about time to kick off the new school year.
When Kim Bearden began her teaching career, she never expected so many of her school day's teaching moments to come from her own students.
Bearden delves into her 27 years of experience in the education field and tells the story of her founding of the Ron Clark Academy (an innovative middle school in Atlanta with a world-renowned reputation) in her uplifting new memoir, Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me.
Crash Course is filled with anecdotes about the importance of bringing creativity into the classroom, advice for tackling problems from a place of honesty and embracing and celebrating her students' cultural differences—all relayed in Bearden's down-to-earth voice.
While aimed at fellow teachers, Bearden's memoir is a beautiful read with insights for anyone working with youth or the public at large.
See Bearden and some of her real students discuss Crash Course in the trailer below:
What do you think, readers? Any teachers out there looking for a back to school read?
In today's guest post, BookPage contributor Carla Jean Whitley discusses what it's like to go from critic to critiqued on the eve of the publication of her first book.
I was recently part of a group of readers who were assessing recent reads and recommending a variety of books. A dozen people curled themselves around cups of coffee in the second-story nook of my local bookstore, eager to hear what upcoming books the booksellers would suggest.
Some of those gathered—including me—were equally excited to share the best books we’d read lately. But as the conversation grew more analytical, I was taken aback by a realization: Soon, readers could be assessing my book.
I’ve grown accustomed to reviewing other people’s work. Review writing was my favorite course in grad school, and my first writing paycheck was for a book review. I’ve reviewed books and music for much of the 10 years since that first piece was published. I try to consider the reader or listener, not the author or musician, when I write a review; even so, I’m keenly aware that there’s nothing to be gained in beating up on an artist. Even when I’m editing at my full-time magazine job or grading the work of college students, I’m quick to offer criticism coupled with praise.
Will reviewers be so kind when they read my work?
My first book, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music, goes on sale today. It’s a history of a tiny recording studio in northwest Alabama and how it became a destination for artists such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, The Black Keys and the Rolling Stones. Eleven-and-a-half months lapsed between the day I received a signed book contract and the moment I hit send on an email containing my manuscript. I spent those days buried in research, poring over album reviews and old interviews, watching documentaries and searching for mentions of the historic Alabama recording studio. And as I did, I battled the voices in my head, which were quick to assess every stroke of the keyboard.
As I wrote, I often returned to my writing mantra, care of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: shitty first drafts. I practice this daily as a magazine editor, but writing a book amplified every insecurity I’ve got. Rather than obsessing about whether people would like the book, if it would sell well or what I might write in the future, I labored to redirect my attention to the thing I know best: Writing.
After months of questioning myself—but never the story of this remarkable recording studio—I’m ready to hold the finished product in my hands.
Carla Jean Whitley is a writer, editor and teacher based in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is managing editor of Birmingham magazine. She is a regular BookPage contributor, and is still talking about her favorite book of 2013, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Carla Jean volunteers with literacy organizations and teaches journalism at the University of Alabama and Samford University. Connect with her at carlajeanwhitley.com.
Author photo by Cheryl Joy Miner.
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. They 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?