Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Two RSBRs on the subject of empathy: "My Friend Dahmer," by Derk Backderf and "The Empathy Exams," by Leslie Jamison.

Ridiculously Short Book Reviews on "My Friend Dahmer" and "The Empathy Exams."
Here's a question I've been pondering: How far can empathy be stretched? Is it possible to put yourself in someone else's shoes no matter who that person is, no matter what acts of evil that person has committed? Is there always a path available to us through which we can understand another's experience? Backderf does this in his stunning graphic novel. The prose and pictures work together perfectly to convey what Backderf witnessed in and knew about Dahmer, his classmate: Dahmer's wildy dysfunctional set of parents, his childhood marked by neglect of such a magnitude it could have unmoored the best of us, and the terrible, cruel, evil behavior that escalated until the day he was caught. "The Empathy Exams" is a collection of essays by Leslie Jamison that I haven't yet finished. But it's a remarkable read. She deftly inserts facts about her own life into bigger world-stories which allows her to examine and parse complex issues. Isn't this why any of us write? To understand ourselves and the world?
Both books, athletics for the mind. Ways to stretch our empathy. Isn't this the basic job description of a human? Two books, so different, both gems.

RSBR: The Infinite Tides, by Christian Kiefer

Ridiculously Short Book Review: "The Infinite Tides," by Christian Kiefer
Pam Houston, author of "Contents May Have Shifted," and one of my favorite essays, "Corn Maze," came to Butler two years ago. At dinner, I sat across from her, dazed. Earlier that day I watched one of my kids undergo a medical procedure. And because this is about one of my kids that's all I can say, except that I was reeling from watching the procedure and from its import. Even when I'm not in the midst of going through family drama I'm introverted, and super-shy around authors I admire. But I managed to ask Ms. Houston about what she was reading. And did she ever give me some great recs. One was "The Infinite Tides," a story about an astronaut whose family undergoes tragedy while he's in orbit. The prose is EXQUISITE, and the story idea, the way the author set up his protagonist so he experiences grief under the starkest, most isolated circumstances, is brilliant. I loved this novel and can't wait to see what Kiefer writes next.

RSBR: Bringing in Finn, by Sara Connell

Ridiculously Short Book Review: Bringing in Finn, by Sara Connell
Sara and her clan made it onto Oprah: Sara's 61-year-old mother carried Sara and her husband's baby. Before it was born. In her uterus. It's a fascinating story, compelling despite that it's not a great work of literature. I still wonder about the structure, telling the story from a tragedy that happened mid-story and then working backward through time before moving forward. But if you've got a mother who is able and willing to carry and bear your child, how could you not write the book? Like I said, I'm a sucker for pregnancy drama stories. Do they call that preg-lit?

RSBR: Half Baked: The Story of My Nerves, My Newborn, and How We Both Learned to Breath, by Alexa Stevenson

I have been missing you, blog. Missing the chance to document -- and therefore remember -- the books I've read. Missing the chance to write about them, to process. But I no longer have the time to write essays about each of my book reading experiences, so I'm trying something new: RSBK, Ridiculously Short Book Reviews. A few sentences to gesture toward the plot and any thoughts I have. We'll see if this works. It won't be as satisfying for me -- or for any readers, if any of you remain. But I think I might be on to something. Let's give it a shot, shall we?

Half Baked. LOVE this memoir, and I love Ms. Stevenson, although I've never met her. I'm a sucker for dramatic pregnancy tales, and I can't help but feel a kinship with other anxiety-disordereds. Anyway, when I write about my anxiety I'm inclined to do so with humor -- because the premise of anxiety, of being afraid of something that hasn't yet happened and indeed may never even happen, is funny. The author has a few problems with infertility and then, with the help of medical science, becomes pregnant with twins. There's a lot of sadness and uncertainty and indeed, tragedy, but the author tells her story with tenderness and humor. Ms. Stevenson is very funny. And my humor bar is set high. I won't give any more away because it's a great read. Btw this author began as a blogger, I believe. Find her at

Friday, February 28, 2014

You Came Back, by Christopher Coake

At a certain spot in the audiobook of Christopher Coake's “You Came Back,” the plot took a very unexpected turn, and I almost drove into a snowbank. Oh my God! I can't believe this happened! I thought, but my heart wasn't pounding because I'd nearly plunged the minivan into a wall of snow--I was thinking about the story.

I loved, loved, loved Coake's characters. Mark Fife is trying to move on after his young son dies, and his wife, Chloe, divorces him. Allison is Mark's new fiance. These people were as deeply textured and complex as off-the-page, nonfictional humans. “You Came Back” is a tender, heartbreaking, gripping story about families and the terrible and wonderful and strange things that happen to them. To us. It's about about loss and love. It's about grief, and how we cope.

It's about hope.

When I began Coake's novel I knew nothing about its plot. So the reading—I mean listening—experience brimmed with the frisson that comes with discovering new terrain. That's why I'm not giving any more information about the story, dear reader, because my hope is that you, like me, will be swept away.

Christopher Coake's novel “You Came Back,” is a gift, my friends. Read it on the beach (if only!). Read it in bed. Read it for your book club. Just read it.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

What's at stake? "The Middlesteins," by Jami Attenberg.

The two-hour drive on snow covered I-70 was worth it. The Lions of Winter conference at Eastern Illinois University featured authors I love, so despite my panic at driving on slush I persevered. (I won't even mention how my attendance itself pushed against my introversion, how I freeze whenever I'm around the event's planner, the much admired Roxane Gay.)

Two workshops in particular caught my eye. One was led by Alissa Nutting (subject of the previous post), and the other by Jami Attenberg. I'd read Jami's fourth novel, “The Middlesteins,” months ago. The Middlesteins are a family much like my own neurotic, Jewish mishpocha—except the Middlesteins exist only on the page, so I can appreciate their endearing antics without enduring angst.

Matriarch Edie Middlestein has an obsession. She seeks solace in steak dinners and steaming bowls of cashew chicken. She shovels piles of potato salad into her mouth as her adult children plan their kids' bnai mitzvahs, complete with chocolate fountains. Edie's food addiction drives her husband, Richard, out of the house and the story soars. “The Middlesteins” is a novel, but it reads so true. Attenberg doesn't spare the fictional family—they cry, they bloat, they search for comfort—but she paints them with such empathy, I couldn't not adore them. “The Middlesteins” is a rare novel—simultaneously insightful and fun. Go read it. You won't be sorry.

Not That Kind of Steak.

“In a good story the guiding force is the stake,” said Attenberg in the workshop. “Always ask yourself: Do I care about what's at stake? Your story needs more than interesting characters.”

The author added that the stake, which can be about anything—money, friendship, love—should be revealed in the first 50 pages of a novel and has to be resolved by the end of the book. Also, a novel should have one big stake and lots of other smaller stakes weaving around it.


“The setting of a story can increase the stakes,” said Attenberg, who taught that the bigger the stake, the better the story. Some settings, like New York City, naturally amp up the stakes. “Instead of writing a scene in which your characters have a conversation in a park,” she said, “put them in an elevator. One with a stop.”


On character development: One good way to get to know a character is to kill off someone the character knows. How does the person react to the death? Another way to get to know a character is to send him/her on a simple task. Attenberg told us, “I like to send someone off to buy a pack of cigarettes.”

Jar of Secrets.

Attenberg's provocative prompt had my heart pounding. She passed out slips of paper onto which each of us was to write our deepest secret. She collected the slips, put them in a jar, and instructed us to take out a random slip and write a scene about it. On the slip I pulled my co-workshopper disclosed that she had punched her father during one of her parents' fights. (Or maybe the author of the secret was a guy. Who knows?) I admit to being slightly disappointed—I was hoping to pull a murder confession—but made do. Besides, hitting a parent who's already rumbling with your other parent doesn't seem so dark to me. But then again, who am I to judge someone else's shame? I have enough of my own. My deepest secret? I'm not telling.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Disturbing and Twisted World of Alissa Nutting

Back in May of 2012 I reviewed on this blog “Monsters,” a collection of monster stories and highlighted my favorite: Alissa Nutting's Daniel. I adored this riff on the ambivalence of motherhood which featured a mother who blames herself when her boy grows up and morphs into a monster with fangs. She remembers that as she breastfed him she was exhausted and overwhelmed. As he drained milk from her breasts she imagined he was draining blood from her slit wrists.

Speaking of overwhelmed mothers, I was one today. I tend to hyperventilate when driving on snow, but I managed to stay calm enough to motor over black ice and through white slush this morning to get to the Lions in Winter conference at Eastern Illinois University. I'll repeat: In Illinois.

Nutting was the first speaker.

Ms Nutting began her talk by confessing that she had suffered a serious bout of postpartum depression and attended a therapy group. The lab coated counselor in charge of her group pulled out a dry erase marker and wrote the word “Disease” on the white board. “I was bored, so I stared ahead and started to do Kegels.” She looked at the audience, a smile in her eyes and added, “You might be doing the same thing now.” Her counselor took the marker and drew a line through the word “Disease,” splitting it into “Dis” and “ease.” Nutting decided that this concept could inform her writing—a character's levels of ease and dis-ease defines his/her motivation.

Alissa Nutting spent a good amount of time sharing her thoughts about evil. She projected onto the wall a chart that divided evil into ten ascending levels, at its base is a killing done in self defense, and at the apex is a killing in which the murderer tortures his victims. “My interest is in individuals who kill one person at a time,” she said, straight-faced. “Mass murders are simply too big in scope for me to understand.”

I can't figure out a segue from “evil” to discount marketers—you'll have to make that leap on your own—but when Nutting spoke about the craft of writing and building her characters, she said she likes to take characters and imagine they are in a Kmart in order to make note of what the character notices and feels.

The talented Ms. Nutting not only gave an informative and entertaining talk, but her new novel, “Tampa,” distracted me while I navigated the icy roads.
“Tampa” is a story about sexual predation told from a different angle. It's thought provoking. It's salacious. It's disturbed. It's wonderful. So is Alissa Nutting.