The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland

The TranscriptionistThe Transcriptionist
Amy Rowland


Lena Respass is alone in her job as a transcriptionist for the Record, a major New York newspaper. She’s the last of her profession, made almost completely unnecessary by technological advances, and she sits alone in a room on her building’s eleventh floor, transcribing called-in stories. Stories from Lena’s Dictaphone thread endlessly through her head, even when she’s not working, and they leave her numb and strangely uneasy.

When Lena sees a print story in the Record about Arlene Lebow, a woman who climbed into the lions’ den at the zoo and was killed, she recognizes her. It’s the same woman she recently sat next to on a city bus. She had talked with the Arlene, who was blind, and felt oddly connected to her. Was the woman trying to tell her something?

Lena becomes obsessed with the story and wants to understand why Arlene would choose to end her life in such a violent way. She desperately wants to give Arlene the honor of being remembered. Like the stories she transcribes, Arlene’s death fills Lena’s mind. And these thoughts begin to overlap Lena’s own feelings about being raised on a farm by a strict religious father, about her mother’s death and about the newspaper profession, which to her has taken an unattractive turn. The answers she finds don’t seem to help Lena, however. Instead, she becomes more and more removed from the people around her.

The Transcriptionist is an unusual combination: a story about an emotionally unsettled woman and a commentary on the business of reporting news, especially since 9/11. Right away, Rowland provides a view into the way things are in the newsroom, the hierarchies, the egos, and the competition. She also points to the inevitable technological changes that meet resistance, and it’s incorporated nicely into the plot, with a mysterious feel-good character. In addition, The Transcriptionist gives the reader an unflattering look at reporters’ motives. Do they want to report the news or create fame for themselves? Is it a newspaper’s job to fight the war on terrorism or should they just report the news?

This is Rowland’s debut novel and she knows her material. She’s spent over ten years working at the New York Times, much of it as a transcriptionist, and now as an editor in the Book Review section.

Rowland includes many literary references, which are built into Lena’s tendency to quote books and poetry. It’s one of the things that distances Lena from other people and, in a way, I think, from the reader. Lions and birds, especially pigeons and a predatory falcon, also figure prominently throughout the book, from the lion statues that sit outside the library, to the pigeon outside Lena’s office window, to the mountain lion on the loose during Lena’s childhood, and of course, the lion in the den. The lion and falcon references invite the reader to think about the instinct of killing in nature. The lion kills Arlene by this instinct, but her death leaves the animal, used to being fed, in limbo. Did Arlene’s suicide remind the lion of what its life could be?

I enjoyed reading The Transcriptionist. It’s very different from other books, so it was a nice change and it’s quick and easy. Its difference, however, makes it a bit of a quirky read. But I like books that make you think after you’ve finished and The Transcriptionist does that.

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2015 Pulitzer Prize winners announced


In case you missed it, winners of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize were announced on Monday, April 20. Here are some interesting facts about the famous newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer and the award:

photo from Wikipedia
photo from Wikipedia
  • Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary in 1847. He came to the United States as a recruit for the Union Army during the Civil War and later became a U.S. citizen. He died in 1911, at age sixty-four.
  • Before he became a newspaper magnate, Pulitzer was aimless and unemployed. He once sold his only possession, a white hankie, for 75¢.
  • He once had a job as a mule hostler, but quit that job in frustration, later noting, “The man who has not cared for sixteen mules does not know what work and troubles are.”
  • Pulitzer married Katherine Davis in 1878. They had seven children. Five lived to adulthood.
  • Pulitzer was elected to the Republican state legislature in Missouri in 1870. But he switched parties in 1880 and served a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He was an outspoken supporter of the Democratic platform.
  • The term “yellow journalism” became a common strategy during the circulation war between Pulitzer’s New York World and Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Both publishers used sensationalism, exaggeration, and scandal to sell their newspapers.
  • Pulitzer was a driven newspaper publisher, but he had many health issues. He was nearly blind, a condition that worsened over time from long hours on the job. He also suffered from depression and was painfully sensitive to noise. He eventually relinquished control of the day-to-day operations of the World, but still controlled the editorial content and direction of the paper.
  • The Columbia School of Journalism was founded in 1912, using money from Pulitzer’s estate.
  • The Pulitzer prizes were established in 1917 to recognize outstanding journalism, photography, literature, history, poetry, music and drama. There are twenty-one award categories.
  • Twenty of the winners receive $10,000 cash. The winner in the Public Service category of Journalism receives a gold medal. This award goes to a news organization, not an individual.
  • Only United States citizens are eligible to apply for the prize in Letters, Drama and Music, except for the History category of Letters, in which the book must be about the United States, but the author may be of any nationality.
  • In the Journalism category, entrants do not have to be U.S. citizens, but the work must have appeared in a U.S. newspaper that is published at least once a week, on a newspaper’s website or an online news organization website.
  • John F. Kennedy has been the only President to receive the Pulitzer Prize. He was awarded the prize in 1957 for his biography, Profiles in Courage.
  • Self-published books are eligible for the prize, but they must be available in print.

Here are the 2015 winners, as posted in the Pulitzer Prize website:


PUBLIC SERVICE – The Post and Courier, Charleston, SC


INVESTIGATIVE REPORTINGTwo Prizes: – Eric Lipton of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal Staff

EXPLANATORY REPORTING – Zachary R. Mider of Bloomberg News

LOCAL REPORTING – Rob Kuznia, Rebecca Kimitch and Frank Suraci of the Daily Breeze, Torrance, CA

NATIONAL REPORTING – Carol D. Leonnig of The Washington Post


FEATURE WRITING – Diana Marcum of the Los Angeles Times

COMMENTARY – Lisa Falkenberg of the Houston Chronicle

CRITICISM – Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times

EDITORIAL WRITING – Kathleen Kingsbury of The Boston Globe

EDITORIAL CARTOONING – Adam Zyglis of The Buffalo News

BREAKING NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY – St. Louis Post-Dispatch Photography Staff

FEATURE PHOTOGRAPHY – Daniel Berehulak , freelance photographer, The New York Times

Books, Drama and Music

FICTION – “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)

DRAMA – “Between Riverside and Crazy” by Stephen Adly Guirgis

HISTORY – “Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People ” by Elizabeth A. Fenn (Hill and Wang)

BIOGRAPHY – “The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe” by David I. Kertzer (Random House)

POETRY – “Digest” by Gregory Pardlo (Four Way Books)

GENERAL NONFICTION – “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt)

MUSIC – “Anthracite Fields” by Julia Wolfe (G. Schirmer, Inc.)


Thank you to the following sources:

Pulitzer Prizes website
Pulitzer website biography
Wikipedia biography on Pulitzer
Wikipedia article on yellow journalism
Encylopædia Britannica biography on Pulitzer

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