Colin McKay Miller's Reviews > Reasons to Live

Reasons to Live by Amy Hempel
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it was amazing
bookshelves: short-stories-novellas, favorite-of-this-author

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 hospital and the freedom she feels when she’s not there. Many of the stories in Reasons to Live center on people losing their safety nets—to fires, to fear, to lost friends and children. They are short, succinct, and often slash their way to the depths of emotion.

Amy Hempel says more with one sentence than most authors say with a whole novel.

If you miss a sentence, you can get lost and have to backtrack. That’s minimalism for you. Standout pieces in the collection include “Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep,” “The Man in Bogotá,” and “Tonight is a Favor to Holly.” Not every story is great though. In fact, some are downright awful. I got nervous when I initially bought the collection and found the first story, “In a Tub,” so lackluster. Still, I appreciate that Reasons to Live has enough risk in it to where it can miss the mark. Maybe that’s what makes a five-star book—that you even appreciate its flaws.

I can’t say all that makes a five-star book, but I know that with Amy Hempel I was simultaneously glad and disappointed when she got popular. Glad because she really does deserve it and there are too many great stories that go unnoticed next to some blasé fiction writer’s latest rehash; yet disappointed because there are some things that you wish could stay yours, even if that’s ridiculous since they never were yours to begin with. You don’t loan a five-star book to just anyone. You can’t risk that. (I had to learn that the hard way.) Though Amy Hempel’s other collections are still very good, they note the slow downhill slide from Reasons to Live, and with the exception of the now out of print At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, I don’t feel compelled to look for them at used bookstores. Whatever equates to a five-star book, Reasons to Live is it for me.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 5, 1999 – Finished Reading
May 16, 2008 – Shelved
July 19, 2010 – Shelved as: short-stories-novellas
July 19, 2010 – Shelved as: favorite-of-this-author

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