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The Empathy Exams: Essaysby Leslie Jamison
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Leslie Jamison is a marvel. The essays that make up this collection are wise, uncomfortable, beautiful, humane, and utterly absorbing. They demand an investigation of the reader's own heart. I can't think of another book I've recommended to so many people so fiercely. I'm already happy to declare it the best nonfiction book of 2014.
The Empathy Exams is an absolute stunner. Jamison writes masterfully about myriad experiences of pain, how we deal with our own, and how we view others'. Compassion routes its way beautifully throughout the book, and her two "Pain Tours" essays are especially evocative as they track the ways consumerism and suffering so often intersect. Overall, it's a dazzling, enthralling, and complex look at humanity, and I tell everyone they should read it.
What does it mean to be sentimental? What does it mean to feel pain? Jamison's writing completely changed my perspective on these impossible questions. Her essays are beautiful, heartbreaking, and intelligent. Each one pulls you in to a universe that portrays new meanings of empathy and human understanding. She never fails to be as raw as possible, and I love her for that.
Synopses & Reviews
From personal loss to phantom diseases, a bold and brilliant collection, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize
A Publishers Weekly Top Ten Essay Collection of Spring 2014
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison's visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another's pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain — real and imagined, her own and others — Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory — from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration — in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.
"Novelist Jamison's (The Gin Closet) first collection of essays, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, is a heady and unsparing examination of pain and how it allows us to understand others, and ourselves. Whether she's playacting symptoms for medical students as a medical actor, learning about the controversial Morgellons disease (delusional parasitosis), or following ultramarathoners through the rugged Tennessee mountains, Jamison is ever-probing and always sensitive. Reporting is never the point; instead, her observations of people, reality TV, music, film, and literature serve as a starting point for unconventional metaphysical inquiries into poverty tourism, prison time, random acts of violence, abortion, HBO's Girls, bad romance, and stereotypes of the damaged woman artist. She focuses on physical and emotional wounds because, as she writes, 'discomfort is the point. Friction arises from an asymmetry.' For Jamison, that friction shatters the clichés about suffering that create distance between people, resulting in a more honest — and empathetic — way of seeing. Agent: Jin Auh, Wylie Agency." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"A stunning collection...a profound investigation of empathy's potential and its limits." Cosmopolitan
"Gutsy essays....A tough, intrepid, scouring observer and vigilant thinker, [Jamison] generates startling and sparking extrapolations and analysis. On the prowl for truth and intimate with pain, Jamison carries forward the fierce and empathic essayistic tradition as practiced by writers she names as mentors, most resonantly James Agee and Joan Didion." Booklist, starred review
"The Empathy Exams is a work of tremendous pleasure and tremendous pain. Leslie Jamison is so intelligent, so compassionate, and so fiercely, prodigiously brave. This is the essay at its creative, philosophical best." Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize
"Leslie Jamison threads her fine mind through the needle of emotion, sewing our desire for feeling to our fear of feeling. Her essays pierce both pain and sweetness." Eula Biss
"Leslie Jamison has written a profound exploration into how empathy deepens us, yet how we unwittingly sabotage our own capacities for it. We care because we are porous, she says. Pain is at once actual and constructed, feelings are made based on how you speak them. This riveting book will make you a better writer, a better human." Mary Karr
"The Empathy Exams is a necessary book, a brilliant antidote to the noise of our time. Intellectually rigorous, it's also plainly personal, honest and intimate, clear-eyed about its confusions. It's about the self as something other than a bundle of symptoms, it's about female pain and the suffering of solitary souls everywhere, it's an exploration of empathy and the poverty of our imaginations, it's ultimately about the limits of language and the liberating possibilities of a whole new narrative....The Empathy Exams earns its place on the shelf alongside Sontag." Charles D'Ambrosio
"These essays — risky, brilliant, and full of heart — ricochet between what it is to be alive and to be a creature wondering what it is to be alive. Jamison's words, torqued to a perfect balance, shine brightly, allowing both fury and wonder to open inside us." Nick Flynn
"Brilliant. At times steel-cold or chili-hot, [Jamison] picks her way through a society that has lost its way, a voyeur of voyeurism. Here now comes the post-Sontag, post-modern American essay." Ed Vulliamy, author of Amexica: War Along the Borderline
About the Author
Leslie Jamison is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Her essays have appeared in Believer, Harper's Magazine, Oxford American, and Tin House. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
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