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Reasons to Live

4.16  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,247 Ratings  ·  193 Reviews

Hempel's now-classic collection of short fiction is peopled by complex characters who have discovered that their safety nets are not dependable and who must now learn to balance on the threads of wit, irony, and spirit.

Paperback, 144 pages
Published May 6th 1986 by Penguin Books (first published 1985)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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K.D. Absolutely
Jul 05, 2014 K.D. Absolutely rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to K.D. by: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2008-2012)
I read somewhere that if you want to become a good writer, read Amy Hempel.

The reason is that she is not only a minimalist but also because she is an intelligent short story writer.

This is true. I don't have a plan to write because I am still busy with my corporate career. Maybe someday, who knows. Right now though, I am reading because I enjoy knowing the lives of other people, the situations they are into and I appreciate good writing styles. Seeing different techniques in writing, you know,
Colin McKay Miller
If you’ve been keeping track of my reviews thus far, you know I don’t rate very highly, but Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live is the standard to which all other fiction books must rise. Long before Chuck Palahniuk’s frenzied fan base or the New York Times 2006 Book of the Year Award drove her collected stories to mass acclaim, I was graced to read Hempel’s widely anthologized “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” in late 1998. It’s a story about a woman visiting her terminally ill friend in hos ...more
Mar 13, 2015 Douglas rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Wall Street Journal said of this, "One of the delights of these stories is that they approach the usual cliches of real life and fiction at an unexpected oblique angel." I couldn't say it better if I tried.

There's so many reasons to live, but Hempel reminds you of one major one, which is to read work like this.
Bill  Kerwin
Nov 02, 2015 Bill Kerwin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: short-stories

A very good book of short stories. The shorter pieces are spare and elliptical--sort of like Raymond Carver, but without the power. But the better longer pieces--"Nashville Gone to Ashes," "In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried," "Today Will Be a Quiet Day" are very fine. In their classical, restrained, deeply human way they remind me of Tillie Olsen at her best--and that is high praise indeed.
Ryan Faulkner
Jul 10, 2007 Ryan Faulkner rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
okay, jesus. how do you even start to tackle the subject of amy hempel? i'll make a list of things that make this book better than anything that will ever make it into the top ten of the bestseller lists:

[1] minimalist (or "miniaturist," if you ask hempel) writing style that is unique and moves at a rapid clip
[2] emotional displacement
[3] subtlety.

that last one is particularly important, since i think one of the more difficult challenges any writer faces when wanting to express a complex emotio
May 02, 2007 Sam rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: shortfiction
Amy Hempel's single biggest strength is combining apparent simplicity with deep reserves of meaning; her stories tend to be short, full of small sentences, and intentionally opaque, so much so that some people have taken to lumping her into the Carver/Wolf American Minimalism sort of school. I think this is a terrible mistake. Carver and Wolf are capital R realists; the spaces between the words - the part of the iceberg hidden underwater, as they told you in English class - tend to contain some ...more
Sep 17, 2010 Chantal rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Death and tragedy haunt the short, short stories in Amy Hempel’s first story collection Reasons to Live (1985) like empty chairs at the table. And there is no steak, no potatoes, nor substantial courses atop Hempel’s literary table. Instead the reader is treated to tapas -- bite-size delicacies of exquisite flavors -- a literary lunch that only a truly talented minimalist (or miniaturist) writer could cook up successfully. And underneath the table: a dog or two lay near the diners’ feet, ready ...more
Sabra Embury
I feel like an idiot for not appreciating Amy Hempel's Reasons to Live as much as expected to. But I really thought a few of the stories in this collection were great. Especially Nashville Gone to Ashes and Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep. Hempel's writing is feminine in a way that's it's not flowery, or (extremely) passive, but of feminine things like knitting, laundry and being a wife.

I have to admit that stories with a few unpredictable twists of structure, which are of no consequence otherwise,
Aug 14, 2014 Bryant rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
I've read several champions of the short story: Carver, Hannah, O'Connor, Munro, Lydia Davis, Hemingway.... and while-- regardless of my personal preference --these are all incredibly skilled writers, worthy of their accolade, for my money, no one I've read matches Hempel in terms of sheer precision and power from sentence to sentence. This is writing at its purest and most potent. Give these stories what they deserve (100% of your attention) and they will take your breath away.

Also this: "The
May 02, 2013 Renee rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Well. I don't think I got it.

This book had been recommended to me by numerous classmates and professors. I kept hearing how great Amy Hempel is, and she is great to some people of course. The stories in this collection are short (which I do like), usually first-person, rarely name characters, and bounce around from action to memories. I guess you could call them slices of life. They don't have "plots," so the stories just meander around vague situations and characters.

I liked a few (maybe 3) of

My heart hurts. This is actually the first section of her collected stories, so I'm still reading. But this really took me by surprise and like Lindsay said, made me feel like I got hit by a truck. It's harder for me to read and hear stories about parents and children, or would-be children, now that I have kids. It just puts my heart through the wringer in a way that I'm not really equipped for anymore. I'm too busy to feel this much. My heart is too full to be flooded like this
Jun 25, 2008 Steven rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: short-stories
As with Carver, Hempel is only a minimalist when read shallowly and with certain misperceptions in mind about what detail consists of, and, most probably, already bent on affixing reductive labels on writers rather that appreciating their essence. It doesn't surprise me that she is more popular now than when this collection first came out: The quirky juxtapositions, the stand-up comic lines, and the staggering emotions under the surface that are suppressed in words but not affect, all seem so no ...more
Amy Hempel can write. She has a fresh hand, a talent for dialogue, and a decent sense of humor. Her endbeats are always good. Problem is, few of her short stories left an impression on me. I read them, enjoyed the writing, but moved on easily afterward. Only three of her 15 stories made me go, wow. I will never forget "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried," particularly the images she presents with the chimp. "Three Popes Walk into a Bar" and "Tonight is a Favor to Holly" got me thinking. O ...more
Jul 13, 2007 Kirsten rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who appreciate brevity
The pieces in this collection are often so short that they veer towards gestural sketches. Rarely do we know things about Hempel's characters such as name, age, and sometimes even gender beyond a reasonable guess. However, the writing is so taut that these stories hum with energy and often build to a blow-like ending, painful and revelatory. While a few lines of dialogue come across as preciously precocious, these stories dazzle with their humor as well. Particular favorites were "In the Cemeter ...more
Dec 28, 2010 warmdesertwinds rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Amy Hempel is why I want to write. She makes an art out of this botched and awkward language known as English. And even the most juvenile speaker of our language can appreciate the poetry of her style. The woman must spend hours scrutinizing every single word that she puts in a sentence. And for good reason. Her writing is simply flawless. She is a master in creating atmosphere. She paints moments in time better than a dream can.

I'll forever aspire to create images like Amy Hempel can. So much
Steve mitchell
Funny and some detailed impressions on seemingly rudimentary daily items, but something was missing for me. I never got any moral from any story, except the one about the gal visiting the other gal in hospital, that one I really liked, and the monkey stories were grand! All together though I cant believe this is on the 1001 books to read before you die, but I am an insensitive guy so there is always that reason for missing the main point.
Robert Blumenthal
Nov 04, 2015 Robert Blumenthal rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is Amy Hempel's first book of short stories, and it is a strange but powerful group of stories. They range from a single page to 12 pages or so, and they are unique and quite creative. The language is stark and somewhat non sequitur at times. The stories can be a bit hard to decipher, but there are emotional wallops that are amazing. I particularly loved the story about the narrator's best friend dying from cancer. It had one of the most profoundly beautiful endings I have read. A few of th ...more
Aug 20, 2012 Brian rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fellow Amy Hempel crushing fanboy Chuck Palahniuk writes in his essay "Not Chasing Amy", "I once gave At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: Stories to a friend and said, 'If you don't love this, we have nothing in common.'" Hempel has that effect on her readers: you don't come away from her stories having read them - you walk away a snarling, gauntlet throwing, lit-beast.

Hempel's minimalist style feels anything but; her sentences are so packed with meaning and nuance. It isn't uncommon for additio
Jun 29, 2011 Jamie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jamie by: Conley Wouters
The Great: "Tonight is a Favor to Holly"; "Nashville Gone to Ashes"; "In the Cemetery"; "Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep"; "Pool Night"; "Three Popes"

The Pretty Darn Good: "When It's Human"; "Today Will Be a Quiet Day"

The Forgettable: the rest

I'm not entirely sure what this tells you about a short fiction collection comprised of fifteen stories ranging from one-page to no more than twelve or thirteen in length. I can say that the six stories I listed above as 'great' are almost certainly worth the p
Some brilliant stories, and some that suffered from Hempel's clipped style. Hempel's one fault is that her stories come across formulaic and overly constructed. The thoughts and sentences are beautiful, but it never feels like a real world in the way of, say, Carver. Instead it feels like I'm reading the fiction of a very clever 30-year old. I guess my point is that the stories FEEL like stories, all written by the same woman. In fact, a few of the most acclaimed stories in the collection---San ...more
Ms. Kamerow
Sep 15, 2015 Ms. Kamerow rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read Reasons to Live on an airplane in what seemed like no time at all. This collection includes some of Hempel's most celebrated stories including "In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried." While I think some of her later stories are stronger, all of the stories in this collection do showcase her careful sentence construction. Even the shortest story leaves a real emotional imprint on your mind.
Apr 26, 2012 Stacy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I was not prepared for Hempel the first time I picked up this collection from the library several years ago. Now I am and I was pretty much floored with every story, how she's able to encapsulate so much so economically, but not feel prosaic or forced. These stories just are, with all the multiple interpretations and manifestations the reader can project onto them. They are thematically strung together as well and fit so well together in the collection. "The Man in Bogota" is perhaps the most pe ...more
Jul 05, 2013 Nancy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The stories are brief and the language clear, so you would think this would be a quick read. But you'll want to make it last a week, so you can learn to breathe like this. There is some well of generousity here; all the characters feel forgiven. Not Gratuitously! Some stories were like poems -- playing off one key metaphor. Others reminded me of improv, and how you might start a scene with one "what if" and build it by believing it, and then keep it going by believing it elaborately.
James Noonan
Jul 23, 2014 James Noonan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Anything short of five stars seemed inadequate. Beautiful, reductive, minimalist, economical, haunting, compelling--these works of, essentially, micro fiction (some stories are a page or two in length) brim with feeling and pathos and probably should not be read from start to finish in a single sitting, as I couldn't help but do, but instead savored, bit by bit, while remembering to come up for air. Floored me.
Apr 01, 2013 Işıl rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4.5 stars. Since I'm doing a paper on "the Harvest" I thought it'd be good to go through other short stories of Hempel. The book altogether is difficult to put down but that doesn't mean there wasn't anything saggy. Not each story is a "Harvest" but your eyes get to feast on the best kind of the minimalist literature. Very roots of Palahniuk's creativity.
Rachel Drew
Dec 24, 2010 Rachel Drew rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried at some point in college or graduate school and thought it was great, but for some reason I didn't buy and finish this collection. This is the kind of book that makes me want to be a short story writer forever, no novels, no poetry, just these perfect stories. Plus, the narrators all like dogs.
Aug 20, 2007 Jonathan rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Connor Kilpatrick (
this book does not = one of them
(okok, too easy. a bit pat. Was she not asking for it, though, with a title like this for a collection of stories? Is that not a bit presumptuous?
Mar 10, 2016 Cynthia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Cynthia by: Rebecca Schweitzer
Shelves: 2016
Large or small, human or animal, there's always a hope and a reason to live.
I'm giving this five stars solely for the story (not that the rest weren't good) "In the cemetary where Al Jolson is buried". That story blew my mind.
Tara S.
Nov 22, 2015 Tara S. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1001-list
Good literature should sock you in the face. It should wake you up and make you feel alive inside and remind you of the transcendent beauty that is possible in this world. It should knock the breath right out of you. More than one of these tremendous short stories did that for me, and for giving me that experience, this book deserves at least 5 stars. Reading this book turned an otherwise ordinary afternoon into what is now a lovely memory I shall cherish.

Some of my favorites (if I can even rea
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A man's writer? 6 37 Sep 18, 2012 08:54AM  
  • Samuel Johnson Is Indignant
  • The Ice at the Bottom of the World: Stories
  • Like Life
  • Through the Safety Net: Stories
  • Among the Missing
  • Forever a Stranger and Other Stories
  • Honored Guest
  • High Lonesome
  • Tell Me 30 Stories
  • What Was Mine: & Other Stories
  • Black Tickets: Stories
  • Typical: Stories
  • Stories in the Worst Way
  • Shiloh and Other Stories
  • Who Do You Love: Stories
  • Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories
  • The Stories (So Far)
Amy Hempel is an American short story writer, journalist, and university professor at Brooklyn College. Hempel was a former student of Gordon Lish, who eventually helped her publish her first collection of short stories. Hempel has been published in Harper's, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Bomb. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as the Ambassador Book Award in 2007, the Rea Award for ...more
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“He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn't good.” 18 likes
“It was like that class at school where the teacher talks about Realization, about how you could realize something big in a commonplace thing. The example he gave--and the liar said it really happened--was that once while drinking orange juice, he'd realized he would be dead someday. He wondered if we, his students, had had similar 'realizations.'
Is he kidding? I thought.
Once I cashed a paycheck and I realized it wasn't enough.
Once I had food poisoning, and realized I was trapped inside my body.”
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