Reading for Empathy

indexThe 2016 summer reading assignment for Whitman College freshmen  is to read the book Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. It is a collection of essays that explore empathy, beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose. Jamison’s essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: Why should we care about each other? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? How can my child become more empathetic? How important is reading fiction in socializing children? How does reading literature move people in a different way than non-fiction reading?

Researchers at The New School in New York City have found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling. And a Cambridge University study by Maria Nikolajeva, professor of education, found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think.” Finding the right book is the first step to helping children understand what their peers may be thinking and feeling.

index (1)I once had a father who wanted a book for his young son who was starting to bully another boy in preschool partly because the new boy was from another country. I came up with I’m New Here by Anne O’Brien, in which three children from Somalia, Guatemala, and Korea struggle to adjust to their new home and school in the United States. It is positive and uplifting, as they do all make new friends and succeed at the end of the book.

index (2)The book that I thought of after the father had walked away was Children Just Like Me by Anabel Kindersley. Photographs and text depict the homes, schools, family lives, and cultures of young people from around the world. Children will enjoy reading about the dreams and beliefs, hopes and fears, and day-to-day events of other children’s lives. Children are encouraged to participate in a special pen pal arrangement, so they may share their own experiences with children in other countries.

index (1)Another book along these lines is A Life Like Mine: How Children Live Around the World by DK Publishing. Wonderful photos show children from all over the world leading their lives in completely different and fascinating ways. They speak different languages, look different, and face all kinds of challenges every day. Although they live thousands of miles apart, in so many ways their needs and hopes are alike. Meet these special children in this book and other books created by UNICEF and DK Publishing.

index (2)A fascinating ‘look-at’ book is What the World Eats by Peter Menzel. This is a  photographic collection exploring what the world eats featuring portraits of twenty-five families from twenty-one countries surrounded by a week’s worth of food. The resulting family portraits give an interesting glimpse into the cultural similarities and differences served on dinner plates around the world.

index (3)One of my favorite picture books is Stella’s Starliner by Rosemary Wells. Stella is perfectly happy living in her silver home until a group of weasels tease her for living in an air stream trailer. Her bubble is burst but her parents help her by moving the trailer to a new setting where she meets two bunnies who think that her home is awesome and that she must be really rich to live in a silver home. You’ll just love Stella and her story.

indexLast Stop on Market Street won both the Caldecott Honor Award and the Newberry Medal this year. Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don’t own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn’t he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty–and fun–in their routine and the world around them.

Reading is a great way to understand another’s situation or feelings. When you read, you walk a mile in another’s shoes and get an idea of his feelings and situation. I hope that these books (and others that we have at the library) will help your child empathize with others.

Vroom Vroom

suicidemotorclubI have to admit I almost didn’t read this book for a stupid reason: I kept seeing an ad for it on Facebook. I rolled my eyes and thought ‘Another self-published writer hawking his stuff on Facebook. Ugh.’ This is how I know I probably won’t be a published writer. I don’t like to pimp my work out. I feel like one of those pimps with a gold-fish in the heel of his platform shoes, a purple fedora with an Ostrich feather dangling off it, and a voice that could melt steel: “Hey, guuuuuuuurl. You wanna read my short story? Leave the money on the dresser.”

But then I was processing new books and The Suicide Motor Club by Christopher Buehlman turned up. I sighed the sigh of a billion sighs and thought: ‘might as well take a peek at it.’

I am glad I did.

Granted, I am super high on Benadryl as I’m writing this so maybe I’m seeing the novel through Benadryl colored glasses. And that little dragon running by with a cat on its back isn’t helping. Someone’s at the door. I smell pennies. The lights just flickered. I smell burning toast.

Oh….Benadryl.

Picture it: a deserted stretch of road on Route 66 in New Mexico, 1967. In the dark heart of the night a car full of psychopaths preys on those passing through this lonely stretch of nowhere. They pull up alongside other cars and snatch people away. Sounds kind of acrobatic for humans, huh? Well they aren’t human. They look into your eyes and can convince you of anything. Want to kill your husband? Go ahead, the rifle is in the hall closet. On top of a high-rise? Get up on that ledge and drop because you’re a bird.

One night while roaring up and down the highway looking for cars to wreck, they pull alongside a car with a woman, a man, and a small child. Quick as an eighth grader sneaking a cigarette behind the cafeteria dumpster, they grab the boy from the car and intentionally run it off the road where it crashes, killing the man but leaving the woman barely alive. Nobody questions a wrecked vehicle along the side of the road. Bad things happen on empty roads. You drive by a wreck and a secret sick fascination compels you to look for bodies by the road.

Fast forward two years later. The woman, Judith, has physically recovered from that horrible night but in her brain she’s been plotting revenge. Not knowing whether her child is still alive or was killed immediately after being grabbed, she becomes a nun. This is the first step of her revenge. Waaaaay drastic measure. She gets contacted by a group made up of people whose loved ones have been snuffed out by the carload of vampires and are bent on seeking revenge. Yeah, I said vampires but don’t worry about it. These vampires do not sparkle or feel love. This is basically the group:  a bunch of people who were assholes when they were alive and are now undead, but still assholes.

Except there’s one vampire who walks a fine line between good and evil, whose vestiges of humanity throws Judith for a loop. Kinda threw me too. I like my vampires evil as can be. I don’t want any of those vampires who loathe their existence and rail at a God for letting them become monsters. Not God’s fault. He was probably on a conference call with Pat Robertson and Jim Jones.

While reading this I would sometimes have to close the book and stare off into space for five minutes. How is that different from what I do with every book I read? Usually when I stare at a wall I’m thinking about what I want to eat, is it going to involve putting on pants, and do I have to interact with other humans. Reading The Suicide Motor Club made me put the book down and stare at the wall both in awe and in frustration. I’ll never be able to write like this, damn it. This book is up there with Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire mixed in with a little bit of Stephen King and a pinch of the hilarious Christopher Moore.

So there you have it. A car full of marauding monsters not unlike the ‘Squeal like a piggy’ psychopaths from Deliverance except instead of rape, they will drain your body of blood and leave you on the side of the road next to the burned out hulk of your car. End of story. Okay. You can go now. Get out of here before I throw some holy water on you and throw a cross at your head.

Heartwood 6:4 – The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre

JacketPierre is a 56-year-old bartender in a Parisian restaurant called Le Cercle. The restaurant is owned by a husband-and-wife team (Henri and Isabelle) in their early 40s. In addition to Pierre, they also employ a Senegalese cook by the name of Amédée, a waitress named Sabrina (with whom, it is assumed, Henri is having an affair), and a new girl, Madeleine, who’s been hired to fill in for Sabrina, who is out with the flu. The title is a bit misleading, as the new waitress is a very minor character and this tale is really about Pierre, the wonderfully – and a bit woefully – composed barman who the reader comes to understand through his gentlemanly behavior and conversations with the others, but especially through his thoughts and observations.

The action takes place over just a few days. On the day the new waitress starts, the boss slips out the backdoor and disappears. The boss’s wife typically shows up mid-day and she is glum when she finds her husband has skipped out. There is a pattern to this behavior, and Pierre and Isabelle assume he has gone off for a tryst with Sabrina. This is the dramatic set-up which makes the workday that much harder for the other employees, being a small operation where every hand is needed to get things done. The day ends with Pierre wondering if the new girl will even return the next day. As the senior employee, Pierre provides some emotional support for the boss’s wife, and we also learn about the dissolution of his own marriage (which he thinks was for the best), his mid-life crisis of two years earlier, and even a bit of his mother’s parenting style. The story develops from here in ways that are significant for the few Le Cercle staff, but without any great action, mostly we get Pierre and details of his daily life: Pierre in his apartment doing domestic chores, worrying about reaching the point where he can claim his pension, attempting to shake off the image of dead leaves from a dream, taking his medications, and trying to muster his energy for the next day.

One might grumble about the rather abrupt ending, but this is in keeping with the slice-of-life narrative and the uncertainty that circumstances have thrust Pierre into – I only wished for a little more time in his company. The Waitress Was New is an everyman kind of story told by a character with an easy and, at times, melancholy grace. We’re there as Pierre habitually wipes down the bar, sizes up and interacts with customers (some of whom need to pay off their tabs), banters with Amédée across the pass-through, and reflects on the path his life has taken. Readers drawn to books for character will definitely be glad to have taken a seat at the bar where, in a switch of typical roles, they get to listen to this personable barman’s story, insights, and observations.

All the Missing Girls

Enjoy my review of All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda which will  be published on Tuesday, June 28th.

allthemissinggirlsThis was a suspenseful book, that had me wondering “who dunnit” the whole time. Ends up, it wasn’t anyone I thought it was!

Corrine goes missing after a night with friends at the fair. There is a huge search for her, and much finger pointing, speculation and gossip by the townsfolk. It seems that people both loved her AND hated her, adding another layer to the mystery of what has become of Corrine.

Fast forward 10 years and Nicolette, who was one of Corrine’s closest friends, comes back to town to help her brother get their childhood home ready to sell because her father has Alzheimer’s and is now in an adult care home. Within a few days, Annaleise, who provided an alibi for Nicolette and her friends that night at the fair, goes missing.

An interesting part of this book is that Nicolette gets back to Cooley Ridge and we jump ahead 15 days and tell the story backwards from that point, ending with the day she got back into town. I admit it was a little confusing. I kept thinking: oh wait… that happened the next day, so she doesn’t know about this or that yet… But it was a relief to have all the pieces fall into place as I finished the book and saw how things all played out, and it suddenly all made sense!

Genesis Girl by Jennifer Bardsley

genesis girl jennifer bardsley

Blanca’s parents never posted baby photos of her on Facebook. They never taught her to ride a bike, or took her to Girl Scouts, or even walked her to school. They’ve never even taken a family photograph together. That’s because Blanca’s parents severed all lines of communication when she was very young, choosing to offer her up as a Vestal postulant.

Blanca has been raised her whole life at Tabula Rasa, a boarding school/cloistered academy of sorts that raises children to be supplicant and free of all technology. She’s been training her whole life to be a Vestal, essentially an internet virgin incapable of making decisions for herself. In a world where technology has moved away from handheld phones and literally into the user’s hands in the form of tech implants, Blanca and her classmates are extremely valuable. No one outside the school has ever seen them or a photograph of them.

When a Vestal graduates from Tabula Rasa at eighteen, corporations bid on them. They will purchase Vestals to serve as product spokespeople. A Vestal’s image has never before been released on the internet, and now the corporation owns everything about their likeness. Consumers find Vestal families depicted in advertising campaigns as trustworthy, wholesome, and believable. Even though everyone knows how a Vestal is made, the corporations still sell so many more products and services when a Vestal is involved in the ads.

I’ll let Blanca explain it:

For a Vestal, a clear Internet history is the most important
thing. Without that, I’m nothing. Our elusive privacy is what makes us valuable. I’ve watched our class shrink from two hundred eager postulants to a graduating group of ten. The infractions were usually unavoidable: their memory was spotty, their temperament was bad, or worst of all, they turned out ugly. But once in a while, somebody was thrown out because of an online transgression. Everyone left is bankable. Ten perfect human specimens who could sell you anything.

Still with me? This is a dystopian society in which technology has played a key part in the destruction of the human race. In this world, brain cancer has killed off many of the previous generation thanks to radiation in cell phones. That’s why tech implants in fingers and hands have become popular. People no longer have to hold the tech to their heads. But it also makes it easier for someone to sneakily take a photograph of someone, which is why Vestals aren’t ever allowed outside of Tabula Rasa’s lead walls.

That is, until the day our book begins, when someone manages to break into the underground parking area of Tabula Rasa as Blanca and her friend Fatima are attempting to get into a vehicle to take them to their auction. Blanca is stunned, horrified and not sure what to do. I mean, our girl immediately fights back in the form of kicking the photographer and trying to prevent him from uploading her image. But with her image potentially out there for the world to see, she fears no corporation will want her, no one will bid on her, and she’ll be let go with her whole life up til now being a big waste.

Corporations aren’t the only entities that can bid on a Vestal. There are also private bidders, and a Vestal purchased by one is considered to have “gone Geisha.” That’s because the speculation is usually that a Vestal purchased by an individual will actually be treated like a wife or husband, rather than an employee.

Genesis Girl brings a fun-house mirror up to our current society obsessed with technology and asks: what if tech was everything? What if we put some serious value on those who don’t use technology and are truly present in every conversation? The book also kept turning the tables, forcing both Blanca and the reader to repeatedly change their perception of Blanca’s identity. Will she go Geisha? If so, does that mean she will be forever stigmatized? Will she even be bid upon or thrust back into the cruel world with no notion of how to operate even the simplest computer? What will happen to her Vestal friends? And what is going to happen to that rude guy who took her photo on the first page of the book?

You guys, I usually don’t like dystopias and it’s rare that I can get into a Sci-Fi novel. But I completely loved Genesis Girl. In fact, I had a few chapters left last Sunday when I snuck it into The Paramount to finish at intermission. Genesis Girl is the start of a series, which you will be happy to hear once you read the ending and are left wanting more! More Blanca! More of the crazy world depicted! More secrets revealed!

The author of this insanely addicting book, Jennifer Bardsley, is more than just a debut author. She’s even more than just a Pacific Northwest/Snohomish County author. She’s the genius behind The Herald’s weekly parenting column, I Brake for Moms. Yes: her words break out into the world from right here in Everett! She was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book, as well as some awesome bookmarks that we’ve put out in the teen area for you. She has a huge following on Instagram, where I first connected with her. As I was writing this she posted a video trailer for Genesis Girl that you need to go watch right now! And she recently gave us a peek into the life of a debut author via this article in The Herald.

What more could you possibly want? Read Genesis Girl and I guarantee you will want the next book in the series.

You Spin Me Right ‘Round, Baby, Right ‘Round

The_Exorcist_1971I’ve been afraid of many things during my life, but for some reason the idea of being possessed by a demon has always horrified me. It’s right up there with nuclear winter and Donald Trump becoming president. With all the other evils in the world, I have to worry about demon possession because let’s face it: I don’t think I have a soul. If there’s some wisp of a soul it’s pretty weak and I’m almost 100% certain it’s gas.

William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, was a comedy writer. Probably still is. I don’t know. I’d have to look it up. He read an account of a teenage boy who had been showing symptoms of an odd and inexplicable illness. The boy’s bed would levitate and he would rise from the bed like Lazarus from the dead at a beer pong competition. Words would be written on his skin-but from the inside. The kid’s parents were a mess. Was their boy gravely ill or was it a spiritual matter?

They called in a couple of priests to do an exorcism on the boy and whip bang, old Split Hoof was out of there. Later, there was a story that the boy had been molested by his aunt. Whether the ‘possession’ was a side effect or a cry for help, I don’t know. Maybe in the 1940’s (and sometimes now) it’s easier to talk about being possessed by a demon than it is about sexual assault.

The story stuck with Blatty for years and the outcome was The Exorcist. Here’s the lowdown: Father Merrin is on an archaeological dig in Iraq and uncovers a small statue of a demon he’s come up against in the past. He knows – in the way that priests and prescient children seem to know – that evil is nearby. In the movie, this whole part never made a lot of sense to me, but then again I was six when I first watched it, so a lot of things didn’t make sense.

In the novel, Regan MacNeil is a sweet 12-year-old daughter of a movie star. Regan’s father isn’t in the picture and the mom, Chris, is an actually with-it famous movie star single parent. She and Regan have a very close bond. But while her Mom is filming a movie in Washington, DC something strange is beginning to happen in their house and to Regan herself. Weird noises are coming from the attic. The housekeeper convinces Chris there are rats up there because hey, who would hear scratching noises in the attic and think ‘Is that you Satan?’ (By the way, demonic possession is never by Satan himself in a lot of books and movies. He’s too busy juggling campaigns and suicide bombs and which Kardashian is going to have a “hard” year because her nude selfie didn’t break the Internet).

Regan begins speaking in a language she’s never spoken before. She vomits green stuff. GREEN stuff. That ain’t natural. Chris thinks her daughter is going through a period of pre-teen angst over the divorce of her mother and father. She does what every mom does, takes her kid to get tested for everything and when the doctors can’t find anything wrong, well, maybe her kid is having a breakdown. It doesn’t occur to Chris to search for spiritual support. She is an atheist. Luckily, the place where she’s wrapping up filming is rife with Jesuit priests. She turns to Father Damien Karras for help.

Father Karras is enduring his own struggle: his mother just died and he’s having a bout of ‘Are you there God, it’s me, Damien.’ He sees Regan as a psychologist at first, shooting down the idea of demonic possession until there is no other explanation. I guess once a little girl brags that your mother’s soul is in hell and you actually hear the weak voice of your mother coming from her mouth, there’s not much else to turn to. So he goes to the bishop and the God Network begins to gossip and Father Merrin gets wind of it and says “Hey, that’s the asshole I battled long ago in Africa!”

exorcistfilmRegan is aggressive and speaking in tongues and using swear words that would make a sailor blush. Yeah. This is beyond psychological. What ensues is not only a battle for a young girl’s soul, but also for restoring faith – not just religious but in humanity. What I loved about the novel was the fact that Blatty didn’t shy away from things he knew would be controversial – much like the 1973 adaptation of his novel that shocked and sickened theatre goers. There’s a scene with a cross and….well….if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. You’re going to a movie called The Exorcist, people! Not Fluffy Puppies on Clouds. And yeah, I even liked the restoration of faith stuff in the book, not the Roman Catholic ritual of Exorcism (although that is pretty gnarly) but the idea that dark matters can be overcome. At least for a little while. Or shipped off to the next unsuspecting soul.

But I do embrace my own darkness and demons, isn’t that right, Beelzebub? Bubs? Oh damn. He’s been exorcised again. Damn it.

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

Enjoy Sarah’s latest book review and, as always, check out our Facebook page for more reviews from Sarah and the latest happenings at Everett Public Library.

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

miller's valleyMimi Miller is the youngest of her siblings, and grows up on a rural farm. The land has been in her family for generations. The government is attempting to buy out homesteads, in an effort to flood the valley, and create a public recreational area.  Mimi’s family is stubborn and her parents are refusing to budge. Mimi’s eldest brother moves to the city, and embarks on a career and family. Her next eldest brother tries to escape the monotony of country living, enlists in the military, and completes several tours of Vietnam. At home, Mimi is determined to find her own path to independence. An emotionally fragile aunt takes up residence on their property. Mimi navigates romantic interests throughout high school, while maintaining high academic success. When her time comes, will she be ready to make her mark? Quindlen’s latest saga is a timeless tale of family drama: the ties that bind, and the ties that break.