The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
I read The Empathy Exams during my time off from work in late December and early January. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Leslie Jamison’s essays on how we experience the pain of others, not to mention our own pain. Whether writing about the personal – falling in love, drinking too much, getting an abortion – or subjects a bit further flung – Morgellons disease, an extreme endurance race – Jamison’s observations struck me over and over again as honest, intelligent, and enlightening.
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Tampa is a book about a female middle school teacher who uses her position to have sexual relationships with pubescent boys. I know that sounds fucked up but, guys, listen to me. It’s really good! I mean, it’s also fucked up. But it’s funny, suspenseful, and very well-written, and those things made for a very enjoyable reading experience.
How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti
This was the third time I’d read this book in the last three years, so it’s really hard for me to even try to talk about it objectively. (Not to suggest that this is a space where I would ever talk about anything objectively; it’s not.) I think I’ve written about this book on Emphatic Hands at least two times already, so I’m sorry, I guess, if you’re sick of hearing about it, but you’ll just have to bear with me. I reread How Should A Person Be? both knowing that I was going to see Sheila Heti’s play, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, which is a not insignificant part of this autobiographical novel, and feeling that I needed its guidance. I was at the end of a short-lived but significant (to me) relationship, struggling with how to process a lot of things happening in my life, trying once again to figure out what kind of person I should be. Heti’s exploration of female friendship, relationships with men, art, and identity struck a chord with me once again. There is nothing better than revisiting a beloved book and finding that it still resonates.
Three Tall Women by Edward Albee
Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women was an unusual pick for our book club in January. We had never before read a play. I don’t read plays often, but when I do, I usually wish I did so more. Three Tall Women examines the life of one woman at three different stages of her life. It was, at times, painful, and I almost certainly would have rathered see it performed on stage, but the subject matter was relevant to my interests as a reader and a writer, so I would say that I’m not worse off for having read it.
The Story Of A New Name by Elena Ferrante
Oh, boy. I loved this book so, so much. The Story Of A New Name is the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and I think it was my favorite of the three books that have been published. (I wrote about My Brilliant Friend here.) In this novel, the narrator, also named Elena, continues the story of her friendship with the ferocious Lila, whose wedding ended the previous installment. While Lila becomes a glamorous young wife in their Naples neighborhood, Elena forges ahead with her studies, eventually leaving the neighborhood and the city altogether. The urgency and beauty of this book stirred something up inside me. It made me want to experience more of life, to write more (and improve my writing), to be honest with myself and others. I suspect my strong reaction had a lot to do with the highly emotional state I was in for basically all of this winter, but I have yet to meet anyone who’s read these novels who hasn’t been affected by them.
Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
Actually, that’s not true. My therapist told me that she read Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay and thought it was fine, but felt it was unfinished. I contend that she may have liked it more if she had read the first two books before reading this third one, the penultimate novel in the series. Elena and Lila are adults in this novel, living completely separate lives. Everything I said about The Story Of A New Name could apply to this novel. I read it even more quickly, but was slightly disappointed by some of the characters’ actions and found myself having to try hard to pay attention to passages about political philosophy.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I have recommended Station Eleven to almost everyone I know since I finished it. I firmly believe that anyone can find something to like in this book. (I think its overwhelming win in The Morning News Tournament of Books is proof of that, though I’m not sure I would have voted for it over All The Light We Cannot See.) Mandel brilliantly bridges the world as we know it today with that of a postapocalyptic future with that of a graphic novel written by one of the main characters. There are maybe a few things I could complain about, but I was in awe of the novel’s construction and it was just a really fun book to read.
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
I felt The Flamethrowers was a book that I had to read, but didn’t want to read. Naturally, I ended up really liking it. It’s narrated by Reno, a young artist who moves to New York City in the 1970s. She becomes an observer of the art world, a motorcycle racer, a lover of men. I related to her struggles to adjust to a world that is harsher than she had imagined, to figure out who she is as an artist, and define herself as an individual. I was saddened and disappointed by the men with whom she has relationships. By the end, I wanted more.
The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum
It turns out my first three months of reading this year were bookended by spectacular books of essays. The Unspeakable includes ten original personal essays in which Daum explores her mother’s death, her decision not to have children, embarrassing encounters with celebrities in Los Angeles, and other topics that she deems “unspeakable.” Some essays were more powerful than others and there was at least one (“Honorary Dyke”) that perplexed me, but I devoured this book over the course of two busy days. I admire Daum’s candor and humor and I aspire to one day write so well about my own life.