Thought she was too young to have anything wise to say to me. Also, I felt she mined her abortion for her literary career. I realize that's harsh, and it IS a memoir, after all, but I just couldn't support the narrator and I grew weary of her.
If you like quirky non-fiction with take-away weird facts and tidbits then this is for you!
Since reading Charles D'Ambrosio's excellent collection "Loitering," I've gotten back into the literary essay. D'Ambrosio contributes one of the many laudatory quotations (sometimes I think they do more harm than good) to this book of essays by Leslie Jamison, who takes pain, suffering, and empathy as her great themes. It's intriguing idea to unify her essays, which cover the West Memphis 3, female illness, travel, the writer James Agee, and her own loss (romantic) and physical pain (an assault). To call them far ranging is a nice way of saying that she goes off on many tangents, is overly reliant of quotes from prominent writers like Sontag, Dickens, Yeats, and Kundera. Too often she comes off as self-absorbed rather than empathetic and she is too liberal with episodes from her own life, which just aren't that interesting. If I hadn't just read D'Ambrosio, I might be kinder, but he sets the bar quite high for essays. Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize!
The essay as a literary form is underrated, and I really wanted to love this collection. By its very nature, the essay is grounded in the personal, which can make for evocative writing in the right hands. But Jamison's collection veers into self-obsession in too many places, and what is strutted out as deep analysis comes off as nothing more than sound and fury. The writing in The Empathy Exams isn't consistent and some essays careen into a hodgepodge of digressions and confessions. I'm fine with Jamison revealing her guilt and anxieties—it's a book of essays about empathy after all—but Jamison lays it on thick.
What I hoped to find in this much-hyped collection was intellectual honesty and emotional truth. What I got was something of a mixed bag. Jamison's writing is a blend of the journalistic and personal, with a heavy-hand on the personal. She seeks to understand—so I think the intellectual honesty is there—but her earnestness feels strained, like a singer hitting high notes she has no business hitting. In fact, I cringed every time Jamison tries to paint experiences, which are obviously grounded in realities far removed from her own, with poetic, hazy brushstrokes to make them her own. Ugh. Like a form of appropriation. The sad irony: This kind of writing actually screams a lack of empathy.
Leslie -- I'm sorry I wanted to be intrigued but you were so into your head and second guessing yourself it was unpleasant.
Building on previous tropes, conversations and representations this collection explores what it means to be a feeling human. Instead of trapping us as victims, or dismissing people as melodramatic, it claims those possible interpretations and then broadens the narrative--simultaneously acknowledging the reality of suffering while moving forward with these truths strapped to its back. In this way the book allows us all more room for our complex relationships with pain.
I didn't find this book to be "risky,brilliant and full of heart" like it said on the cover. I found it to be self centered, pretentious and kind of boring. Maybe an English major would like it better.
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