Reasons to Live / The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel Book Cover

Author: Amy Hempel
Winner: One of the 10 Best Book of 2006, New York Times Book Review
Original Publication: 2006
Genre: Fiction, Short Stories
#234 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” (Reasons to Live)

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel is a compilation of four previously published collections of her short stories – Reasons to Live, The Dog of the Marriage, Tumble Home, and At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. Reasons to Live appears on the list “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die.”

There are writers who write for other writers, writers who write for the people, and Amy Hempel, who manages to beautifully nail both. Her stories do not simply unfold; they writhe, snap, quiver, and burst with an unnerving wealth of humanity. Each are carefully carved minimalist slices of life; each only exposing their narrators enough to break your heart. Hempel is also blackly funny, and I (like many others), read her at author Chuck Palahniuk’s (Choke, Fight Club) glowing recommendation.

Palahniuk wrote in LA Weekly that one of the lessons to be learned from Hempel is: “You will never write this well.”

He adds: “The French philosopher Jacques Derrida likens writing fiction to a software code that operates in the hardware of your mind. Stringing together separate macros that, combined, will create a reaction. No fiction does this as well as Hempel’s, but each story is so tight, so boiled to bare facts, that all you can do is lie on the floor, face down, and praise it.”

If I were still a teenager discovering favorite authors, Hempel’s novels would have earned a permanent dog-eared place in my backpack. As it stands, I won’t be able to part with this book. It is the sort of book which one selfishly hoards, stowing it away to be picked up from time to time with a glass of wine. Hempel’s menagerie of characters are your friends, your parents, your neighbors, and they are you. “My blind date arrives at 7:30, and unless my bangs grow two inches by then, I will not be answering the door.”

“The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.” With one sentence, she has piqued your interest while simultaneously perfectly describing a teenage girl dabbling in what she thinks is sophistication. In less than twenty words, you have a complete feeling of the soul of the character. This is where Hempel’s writing shines – using fewer words than most of us use to order breakfast, she paints a picture of a life.

From “Tumble Home”: “When I go to sleep, I sleep on the side of the bed my mother used to sleep on. Sometimes, at dawn, I wake up and find myself in the pose my mother died in — lying on her side, her arm reaching from under her head as though she were doing the sidestroke in a pool, the pills she had swallowed weighing her down like so many pebbles in her pockets.”

As Hempel’s forte is short stories, there are a number of them available in full for your enjoyment on the web. Here are a few:

In a Tub (from Reasons to Live)
In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried (from Reasons to Live)
Today Will Be a Quiet Day (from Reasons to Live)
Offertory (from The Dog of the Marriage)

Treat yourself to reading those. As I read them, I found myself looking around for someone to whom I could read whole sections aloud. Al Jolson has the distinction of being the first story she ever wrote.

Fun Fact: Hempel was born in Chicago, Illinois. She lives in New York and is Briggs-Copeland Lecturer on English and Creative Writing at Harvard University. Additionally, she teaches at Bennington College and in the creative writing program at Princeton University. She is also a contributing editor at The Alaska Quarterly Review.

Bother If: Read this book. Read ANY of her books, period. The writing is a treat and left me aching in many ways, not the least of which was to create my own characters. Each story is a lesson in how to make every word matter.

Don’t Bother If: The writing is so condensed and focused that it is by no means lighthearted. The stories are often funny, but what makes many of them so affecting is the underlying melancholy so inherent to humanity. I hesitate to discourage anyone from experiencing these – Hempel’s stories need to be read. However, they are deeply intense and personal and might not appeal to strictly recreational readers.

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