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