The Empathy Exams: Essays

17934655The Empathy Exams: Essays
Leslie Jamison
Published April 1, 2014
256 pages (paperback)

My husband makes fun of me because I can’t see someone crying without crying myself. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances behind the tears may be (melodrama on reality television gets every time). Suffice it to say: I am an empathizer.

So, it should come as no surprise that I was intrigued by Leslie Jamison’s award-winning collection of essays, The Empathy Exams. The collection poses questions about empathy and how we empathize: “How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other?” Some of the essays encourage the reader to empathize with others (prisoners, sufferers of disease). Others beg the reader to empathize with the author herself.

Generally, the essays can be broken into three broad categories: Continue reading

We Are Called to Rise

18271235We Are Called to Rise
Laura McBride
Published June 3, 2014
309 pages (hardcover)

On February 12, 2008, a tragedy occurred in Las Vegas. An Albanian-immigrant mother was shot and killed by a police officer during an otherwise routine traffic stop. She was standing beside her ice-cream truck when she was shot . . . and her children were standing with her (you can read more here):

Continue reading

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories

UnknownThe Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories
Hilary Mantel
Published September 30, 2014
242 pages (hardcover)

I know a lot of people who hate short stories.

“Short stories take too much effort without enough payoff!” they say.

“You get invested in the characters, and then everything ends so abruptly!” they proclaim.

“They’re too short to matter!” they decry. “A short story is too brief to allow for anything deep or meaningful or significant!”

If you’re in this group of whiners, steer well clear of Hilary Mantel’s new collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (unless, that is, you’re open to having your mind changed). The ten stories that make up this collection are all very short and quick (the book is just shy of 250 pages, but the font is big and the margins are huge . . . so it’s really more like 150 pages). But these very short stories are decidedly not for the lazy reader. They are brilliantly written, clever, and disturbing. Mantel loves playing with words in smart and witty ways. And her stories employ dark, twisty, and thought-provoking endings.

These are decidedly “thinky” stories and they pack a punch. Mantel uses the brevity of the stories as a device to make the reader more involved. She does not spoon-feed you information. So, if you’re looking for something easy and obvious and unambiguous, this collection is not your fare. Continue reading


David Nicholls
Published October 28, 2014
396 pages (hardcover)

At most American law schools, at the end of the first year, students have an option to participate in a writing competition, the goal of which is to earn a place on one of the law school’s journals.

At my law school, this competition was closed-research and entirely anonymous (each participant is assigned a number at random and entries must use an exact font, margin, spacing, etc.). Participants have a few weeks to read the materials provided, come up with a topic about which to write, and compose a well-supported, properly-cited legal paper. They must also complete a short grammar test and a cite-checking test (legal cases and articles use a specific citation method, and if you become a member of a journal, a major duty is to review articles’ citations for accuracy prior to their publication). Current members of the journals’ boards read the competition submissions and, based on those submissions, offer participants places on their journals.

Being on a journal is a big deal. Employers assume that students on prestigious journals are smart, analytical writers, so it’s a huge resume booster. And, if you’re on a journal, it gives you the opportunity to have an academic work published.

For me, participating in the competition was a nerve-wracking process. For several weeks, I did nothing but read, write, and Bluebook. But it paid off—I was offered a place on the Law Review, the most prestigious journal. I was thrilled. I immediately called my parents to share the news.

My father was happy for me . . . but his reaction was not ideal. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: I made the Law Review!

Dad: Women’s lib strikes again!

Me: What? It was an anonymous writing competition, Dad.

Dad: Oh. Well, congratulations.

Me: I have to go. Just wanted to let you know the good news. Continue reading

Bird Box

51sRzyuUwcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Bird Box
Josh Malerman
Published May 13, 2014
293 pages (Kindle e-book)

When I was a fifth-grade teacher, I made a deal with a kid who was struggling in science: if he got 100% on a test, I would take him out for ice cream and a movie. Positive incentives clearly worked for this kid; he stayed after school for extra help, studied like crazy, and got 100% on his very next test.

I told him we could go to any movie he chose, as long as it was mother-approved. As it turned out, that was a huge mistake. He decided he wanted to see The Ring Two, and his mother, for some inexplicable reason, thought that was perfectly fine.

Just watching the trailer gives me the big-time creeps: But I am a woman of my word. So, despite my reservations, I took that kid to see that stupid horror movie, and I jumped and gasped and hid my eyes all the way through it. He, of course, loved it and thought it was hilarious that I was scared.

Continue reading


Meg Wolitzer
Published September 30, 2014
266 pages (hardcover)

One of the first books I reviewed for this blog was Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 bestseller The Interestings. It’s about a group of six unique and flawed friends who meet at a hippie-dippy summer camp for artsy teens called Spirit-in-the-Woods. The book follows their relationships (which, in some cases grow, and in others devolve) from 1974 to 2011.

The Interestings was a big hit. It was named a best book of the year by TIME Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Entertainment Weekly. The Washington Post and The New York Times Book Review named it a notable book in 2013.

So, it’s perhaps not a huge surprise that Wolitzer decided to stay the course with her next novel, Belzhar. Continue reading