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QUINTESSENCE

Spring Reads

What life is, we know not. What life does, we know well.
- Lord Perceval (The epigraph to Elizabeth Gilbert's "The Signature of All Things")

This year has been one of the most remarkable book seasons for readers in recent memory. One of many varied, beautifully-written, and meticulously researched stories by fresh new authors and authors we already know and love. Stories that span the gamut of interests in fiction and nonfiction. If your late spring offers time for reading, these are a few of the books that have crossed my desk and left memorable impressions:

THE EMPATHY EXAMS, by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf Press, 2014)
Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Leslie Jamison is completing a PhD in English at Yale. THE EMPATHY EXAMS links essays about the concept, practice, and meaning of empathy in ordinary lives. From her experience as a "practice patient" for medical students, to cooking chicken at an ultra marathon designed to torment and reward its runners by equal measure, to delving into the after effects of random violence, Jamison explores the limits and expressions of human empathy with clear engaged language, dispassionate awareness, and with such inward and outer honesty, I recommend this book without reservation. Empathy, I believe, is the root of human compassion.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS, by Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking Press, 2013)
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the adored memoir EAT, PRAY, LOVE, returned to fiction in 2013 with this wonderful novel of adventure, exploration, research and the history of botany, experienced by the tough, outspoken, wildly original Alma Whittaker. Spanning much of the eighteenth and ninetieth centuries, this is a novel to lose yourself in for days.

UPDIKE, by Adam Begley (Harper Collins 2014)
A book I read in galley, this outstanding biography by the acclaimed critic Adam Begley of America's great gentlemen of letters and art criticism, John Updike, contains gems by both Updike ("Beyond the also uncreated but illegible stars," from Updike's "Toward Evening") as well as Adams ("Updike's ideas about Nabokov spring from a root sympathy: shared delight in the aesthetic bliss of wordplay."). Begley writes lightly and fluidly as he shines a scholarly yet intimate spotlight on the life and career of this fascinating, often contradictory American writer.

MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH, by Rebecca Mead (Crown, 2014)
A lovely read, particularly for fans of George Eliot, Rebecca Mead fashions this story of her own life entwined with that of Eliot's tale Middlemarch in a novel sparked by the idea that a passionate lifelong attachment to a great work of literature can shape our own lives and guide us to read our own histories. A wonderful read.

I SEE YOU MADE AN EFFORT: COMPLIMENTS, INDIGNITIES, AND SURVIVAL STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF FIFTY, by Annabelle Gurwitch (Blue Rider Press, 2014)
Never one to shy away from the humorous and daunting realities of middle age, Annabelle Gurwitch, famous for her documentary Fired! based on her memoir and play Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, & Dismissed, is a familiar humorist, writer, and frequent commentator on NPR. I SEE YOU MADE AN EFFORT is a rib-cracking collection of tales from the precipice of modern life. Essays about falling in lust at the Genius Bar to petty theft to fund retirement are but a few of the topics Gurwitch hits as she declares the many ways in which 50 is not the new 40, but, oh dear, really 50.

AN UNTAMED STATE, by Roxane Gay (Grove/Atlantic Press 2014)
This powerful debut novel by critic and essayist Roxane Gay, author of a soon-to-be-released collection of essays, BAD FEMINIST (Harper Collins 2014), will sweep you off your feet and into a world where survival sets its own rules. The story of Mereille, a married woman of privilege on vacation with her family in Haiti when she is kidnapped by a band of outlaws, the novel tells the harsh story of Mereille's survival in captivity as her brutal captors seek ransom from her wealthy father, who vows not to meet their demands. AN UNTAMED STATE explores the socio-economic consequences of vastly polarized wealth, personal crisis and it's consequences, and what it takes to live and survive regardless of the circumstances. A riveting read.

THE GOLDFINCH, by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown 2013)
Donna Tartt, known for her novels The Secret History and The Little Friend, has, after a long absence, produced this monumental novel of obsession and circumstance. Marked by a telling epigraph, The absurd does not liberate; it binds, by Albert Camus, THE GOLDFINCH tells the tale of a boy, Theo Decker, and the violent event that binds his life forever to the fate of a painting. As Theo grows older, he struggles to define himself in light of all that has happened. Beyond loss, beyond displacement, beyond his unbreakable connection to the painting that is his secret, his life. Told in language rich in imagery and philosophy, THE GOLDFINCH is a big read for endless lunch hours in the sun.

Let me know if you've read any of these recent books. I'd love to know what you think. Summer will soon bring its own new bounty of fabulous books and I'll post a fresh list then. As always, enjoy the read!


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