Books I read this week: April weeks 3 and 4

These two weeks held a run of seriously downer books. They were good, and I kind of ran with a theme, but you’ll see what I mean.

The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison was on the top of all of last years “Best of 2014” lists, and for good reason. The woman can write excellently well thought through essays. Her subjects are thought provoking and sometimes painful, which is a good thing. She doesn’t usually flinch away, but if she does, she admits it. In the title essay Jamison ponders her time as an empathy tester for doctors- while in medical school, doctors practice empathy skills with actors who present a host of symptoms, some that they are upfront about and others that they’ve been told to hold back. The doctor’s task is to get all of the information from the “patient”. It’s fascinating, especially so when she counterpoints it with her own actual experience of going to have an abortion performed.  Other topics include prison inmates, the West Memphis Three, how female pain is talked about, silver mines in Bolivia, a “gang tour” in LA, and others. They’re all excellent. Through them all runs the question of how we can assess others’ pain and why empathy is important.

Pain without a cause is pain we can’t trust. We assume it’s been chosen or fabricated.

But I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think that paying attention yields as much as it taxes. You learn to start seeing.

We like who we become in response to injustice; it makes it easy to choose a side. Our capacity to care, to get angry, is called forth like some muscle we weren’t entirely aware we had.


The Etiquette of Illness: What to Say When You Can’t Find the Words by Susan P. Halpern is a must read. For everyone. It is a practical how-to book on talking to those who are ill, whether temporarily, chronically, or terminally. Halpern is a cancer survivor, psychotherapist, social worker, and founder of the NY Cancer Help Program, so she has lots of experience, and it shows. This is a really eye opening book, and a truly helpful one. Throughout the book she gives concrete suggestions, including options of things to say in different situations. She also has advice for those suffering from illness, of how they can better help those around them help them. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

As a giver I sometimes feel helpless. It is hard to remember that my presence is sufficient. I want to rush in and fix and comfort and solve the problem. However, if I am the “fixer,” then the sick person may feel broken. Listening closely, questioning, allowing the sick person to set the tone, take the lead, make the plan, is the greatest act of kindness. To engage with the sick person in how he or she wishes to be cared for is an enormous gift.


Her: A Memoir by Christa Parravani is gutting. I was scared of it when I bought it, scared of it every time I thought about reading it, and scared when I read it. It was worth the read, but my goodness. It’s the memoir of Parravani’s life with and without her twin sister Cara, who died of a drug overdose.

Did you know that 50% of twins die within two years of their twin? It’s a real statistic, and one that Parravani comes dangerously close to being a part of. Cara and Christa’s childhood is tumultuous, to say the least, but it is a horrific attack and rape that traumatizes Cara to the point of self medicating with serious drugs. Parravani’s account of what being a twin is like, “People think having a twin means never being lonely. Nothing is lonelier than being separated.” is eye opening, as is the raw honesty of her grief and struggle to continue living when the person she considers to be half of herself is gone. Her memoir is interspersed with pieces of Cara’s writing (until Cara died, Cara was the writer and Christa the photographer, because they “couldn’t” both be writers), which gives insight into Cara and how she viewed things. It provides a searing look into the damage that rape causes, to the body. mind, and identity.

Having read this review, you will say, “who would ever read this?’ but it is really good, and I do recommend it. Just know it’s tough going, but worth it.

We shared everything until there was nothing of our single selves left. It was my task in grieving her to unravel the right, prickly braid of memory rope we’d woven- to unwind and unwind and unwind until I was able to take my strand and lay it out beside the length that was hers.

Her face is prettier than mine. We look exactly alike.

I thought the doctor’s diagnosis was the first step to mending her. I know now that a diagnosis is taken in like an orphaned dog. We brought it home, unsure how to care for it, to live with it. It raised its hackles, snarled, hid in the farthest corner of the room; but it was ours, her diagnosis. The diagnosis was timid and confused, and genetically wired to strike out.


The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah was just about the worst choice I could have made to follow up Her. As I told my mom, every tragedy in WW2 happened to the family in this book. Seriously. So many bad, worse, and most horrible things happen, and they just keep happening. The story follows two sisters in Vichy France and their very different ways of dealing with what is happening around them. One sister joins the resistance, the other (unwillingly) has a SS officer billeted in her home. And awful things happen.

And that’s what you get with a WW2 book, I suppose. The main issue I had with the book was that the characters were a bit thin, we kept being told that one character was impulsive or strong or resilient, for example, without anything to back it up. It got to the point that one character would make a choice and I just didn’t believe it, because we’d been given no reason to believe it other than other characters saying things about her.

I did learn a fair bit about Vichy France, and it had some nice sentences. It also made for a great book club discussion.

If I had told him the truth long ago, or had danced and drunk and sung more, maybe he would have seen me instead of a dependable, ordinary mother. He loves a version of me that is incomplete. I always thought it was what I wanted; to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.


The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen was the perfect antidote for my WW2 / sisters dying induced depression. It’s weird and odd and magical. It’s been compared to Twin Peaks, the Brothers Grimm, The Secret History, The Shadow of the Wind, and Murakami’s works, and I’d say all of those comparisons are solid.

Ella is a substitute teacher in her home town of Rabbit Back, Finland. When she calls out a student for messing up the story of Crime and Punishment in an essay, he hands her a copy of the book with the inaccurate story printed inside. She takes it back to the library only to find incorrect versions of other books, and a cagey librarian, who soon afterwards lets her know that she has been chosen as the 10th and final member of an extremely select writing group run by a renowned children’s book author. It’s so select that the other 9 members were chosen 20 years previously. Then the children’s book author disappears in a puff of snow at a party, and it’s up to Ella to figure out what in the world is going on. It’s a razor sharp look at writing and writers, at where they get material and the cost exacted for it. It’s got magic realism and fairy tale elements and possibly a murder mystery and so much strangeness. I adore it. Fair warning, there is one pretty graphic discussion and a decent amount of cussing.

Where would we be if anything at all could turn up in books?

A person shouldn’t talk too much, Ella realized. With writing, you could construct a whole world, but talking too much could demolish it.


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo is a really inspiring book. In it, Kondo lays out a plan for going through everything that you own and deciding what to keep and what to get rid of, so that you only keep those things that truly bring you joy. The “tidying” in the title is a bit of a misnomer, she’s not talking about putting things away- the magic of purging might have been more accurate. And I don’t know that her approach is more Japanese than any other approach, she’s just Japanese. But her tone is inspiring and half way through the book I was ready to start getting rid of stuff. She does bring a Japanese sensibility with the idea that every item has a spirit, and comes into your life for a reason, and that once that reason is fulfilled, you can (and should) let it go and serve its purpose elsewhere. She thanks her possessions for their hard work on her behalf, which I could see making readers give her a side eye, but I liked her so much by that point that I didn’t mind.

We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.

I have yet to see a house that lacked sufficient storage. The real problem is that we have far more than we need or want.

Life becomes far easier once you know that things will still work out even if you are lacking something.

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