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The Empathy Exams: Essays Paperback – April 1, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Jamison wrote about “wounded women” in her powerful novel, The Gin Closet (2010), and she pursues that subject in this collection of gutsy essays. But the line of inquiry that connects these riveting works of acute description and exacting moral calculus, these amalgams of memoir and risky investigative adventures is Jamison’s attempt to discern and define empathy in diverse and dicey situations. She begins with an account of her experiences working as a “medical actor,” performing as patients with baffling ailments that medical students must diagnose, encounters that deliver the realization that empathy requires humility and imagination. She discloses her own medical travails and asks, “When does empathy actually reinforce the pain it wants to console?” Jamison’s mission to put empathy to the test is more covert and even more provocative in her wrenching chronicles of drug-war-ravaged Mexico; Nicaragua, where a man attacks her and breaks her nose; a silver mine in Bolivia; and a “Gang Tour” in Los Angeles—explorations that inject guilt into the equation. A tough, intrepid, scouring observer and vigilant thinker, she 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. --Donna Seaman

Review

Extraordinary. . . . she calls to mind writers as disparate as Joan Didion and John Jeremiah Sullivan as she interrogates the palpitations of not just her own trippy heart but of all of ours. . . . Her cerebral, witty, multichambered essays tend to swing around to one topic in particular: what we mean when we say we feel someone else's pain. . . . I'm not sure I'm capable of recommending a book because it might make you a better person. But watching the philosopher in Ms. Jamison grapple with empathy is a heart-expanding exercise. (Dwight Garner, The New York Times)

Extraordinary and exacting. . . . This capacity for critical thinking, for a kind of cool skepticism that never gives way to the chilly blandishments of irony, is very rare. It's not surprising that Jamison is drawing comparisons to Sontag. . . . There is a glory to this kind of writing that derives as much from its ethical generosity, the palpable sense of stretch and reach, as it does from the lovely vividness of the language itself. . . . It's hard to imagine a stronger, more thoughtful voice emerging this year. (The New York Times Book Review)

Jamison writes with sober precision and unusual vulnerability, with a tendency to circle back and reexamine, to deconstruct and anticipate the limits of her own perspective, and a willingness to make her own medical and psychological history the objects of her examinations. Her insights are often piercing and poetic. (The New Yorker, "Books to Watch Out For")

This quirky, insightful collection dazzles. (People)

If reading a book about [pain] sounds . . . painful, rest assured that Jamison writes with such originality and humor, and delivers such scalpel-sharp insights, that it's more like a rush of pleasure. . . . To articulate suffering with so much clarity, and so little judgement, is to turn pain into art. (Entertainment Weekly, Grade: A-)

A virtuosic manifesto of human pain. . . . Jamison stitches together the intellectual and the emotional with the finesse of a crackerjack surgeon. . . . The result is a soaring performance on the humanizing effects of empathy. (NPR)

Extraordinary. . . . Much of the intellectual charge of Jamison's writing comes from the sense that she is always looking for ways to examine her own reactions to things; no sooner has she come to some judgment or insight than she begins searching for a way to overturn it, or to deepen its complications. She flinches, and then she explores that flinch with a steady gaze. . . . [A] beautiful and punishing book. (Slate)

A brilliant collection. . . . We're in a new golden age of the essay . . . and in The Empathy Exams Leslie Jamison has announced herself as its rising star. (The Boston Globe)

Remarkable. . . . [Jamison] combines the intellectual rigor of a philosopher, the imagination of a novelist and a reporter's keen eye for detail in these essays, which seamlessly blend reportage, cultural criticism, theory and memoir. (Los Angeles Times)

A stunning collection. . . . a profound investigation of empathy's potential and its limits. (Cosmopolitan, "10 Books by Women You Have to Read This Spring")

[Jamison] writes consistently with passion and panache; her sentences are elegantly formed, her voice on the page intimate and insistent. Always intelligent, self-questioning, willing to experiment with form, daring to engage with the weird and thrust herself into danger spots, a patient researcher and voracious processor of literature and critical theory, she is the complete package: state-of-the-art nonfiction. (Phillip Lopate, San Francisco Chronicle)

[Jamison] writes with intellectual precision and a deep emotional engagement. . . . The Empathy Exams is a gracefully powerful attempt by a tremendously talented young writer to articulate the ways in which we might all work to become better versions of ourselves. (Star Tribune)

Jamison is determined to tell us what she sees and thinks without condescension or compromise, and as a consequence her act of witnessing is moving, stimulating, and disturbing in equal measure. . . . Jamison is always interesting, often gripping. (Bookforum)

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)

Leslie Jamison positions herself in one fraught subject position after the next: tourist in the suffering of others, guilt-ridden person of privilege, keenly intelligent observer distrustful of pure cleverness, reclaimer and critic of female suffering, to name but a few. She does so in order to probe her endlessly important and difficult subject--empathy, for the self and for others--a subject this whirling collection of essays turns over rock after rock to explore. Its perambulations are wide-ranging; its attentiveness to self and others, careful and searching; its open heart, true. (Maggie Nelson)

Leslie Jamison writes with her whole heart and an unconfined intelligence, a combination that gives The Empathy Exams--an inquiry into modern ways and problems of feeling--a persuasive, often thrilling authority. These essays reach out for the world, seeking the extraordinary, the bizarre, the alone, the unfeeling, and finding always what is human. (Michelle Orange)

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)

When we chance upon a work and a writer who summons and dares the full tilt of all her volatile resources, intellectual and emotional, personal and historical, the effect is, well, disorienting, astonishing. We crash into wonder, as she says, and the span of topics Jamison tosses up is correspondingly smashing and wondrous: medical actors, sentimentality, violence, plastic surgery, guilt, diseases, the Barkley Marathons, stylish 'ex-votos' for exemplary artists, incarceration, wounds, scars, fear, yearning, community, and the mutations of physical pain. (Robert Polito, from his Afterword)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press; 1 edition (April 1, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555976719
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555976712
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (92 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,911 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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41 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Michael Czobit on April 20, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Leslie Jamison's "The Empathy Exams" has deservedly been praised by critics, but that's not what brought me to buying and reading it. I'd read some of the essays here in various publications. Before you buy the book, I recommend a quick Google search to find one or two of the essays floating around the 'net; read those and you'll get a good idea if you want to continue with Jamison for a full book. I hope you do; it's a terrific collection, as I said.
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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Kara on October 1, 2014
Format: Paperback
The more concrete essays (like the one about Morgellons disease or the one about the Barkley Marathons) are quite good. The rest of them are well-written, but I couldn't get past the author's tone. And I can't even quite put my finger on it, but let me try.

Jamison says, "Part of me has always craved a pain so visible--so irrefutable and physically inescapable--that everyone would have to notice."

Pain is a very personal thing, and these are a bunch of essays about different kinds of pain. And no matter whose pain it ultimately is, Jamison finds a way to turn it around and bring it back to her. Even in the Morgellons disease essay, she ends basically wondering if she herself has Morgellons. I didn't care for this. It feels like appropriation.

Sure, Jamison addresses this almost directly in her last essay, and sure, maybe I'm one of those people who don't feel comfortable with the expression of pain, but all that means is that I didn't find the book as enjoyable as I wanted to.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This quote by Susan Sontag serves as a central tenet of this book of essays. Jamison's intent is to explore the ways that empathy allows each of us to understand the pain of the other as a part of your own. In accepting that merging of her boundaries, she learns the underlying unity of pain. "No trauma has discrete edges" within the person. But also trauma cannot occur in isolation.

I respect the underlying premise of these essays, and I think the goal is reached in pockets of Jamison's prose. However her line of thought is often distorted or too broadly amorphous. The language is not easy to read in a sitting. Ease of transition is not a necessary element for me in judging writing, however she can be just too confusing. I understand the trope she is painting as the observed sufferers are seen as part of the observer, but it is often done in too abrupt a transition. Although her intent is clearly not to offer her own pain as primary or unique, it appears often enough to be tiring and ultimately overdone.

The topics of the essays are in fact quite fascinating in scope. She explores such diverse topics as those people who act as patients to train medical students to sufferers of the rare and controversial Morgollons disease in which people find crystals and threads emerging from within them. The chopping of the chapters with her philosophical musings tend to lead the mind off the frame of the topic rather than more deeply in exploration. All in all it felt as if she just couldn't get out of her own way which is a shame because this book held a lot of promise..
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on June 13, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
It is all too common for even the most honest of writers to slip in to their work a certain amount of self-praise and narcissism veiled only as skillfully as they are able to write, and their readers are willing to overlook (if not accept outright).

This is not that.
It should never be mistaken for that.

Separating oneself from the mistakes, the suffering, the lesser-nesses of others-- to write about human tragedies from a safe distance-- is to coddle oneself and one's readers with security that is is unkind and insulting to everyone involved.
Leslie Jamison does the opposite of this. This is what courage looks like. It is tragic when it is so rare that we're suspicious of it, and don't recognize it when we see it.

She exposes herself-- so nakedly, so bravely--and at such personal cost. She shares with us--as she has shared with her subjects-- that which is endlessly painful and personally precious, and unfailingly honest. That's the point. Make no mistake: this is hard.

Who among us has dared to expose his or her most secret self? How often do we make naked the parts of ourselves we so painstakingly hide? Naturally, we conceal the raw places that do not/ will not heal. We hide what we fear is ugly-- or what we know is hideous. Who doesn't understand the shame of wishing to either heal or die (sometimes one doesn't care) without the sharp scrutiny and judgment of others?

Jamison was not *unafraid* to be naked in all the most terrifying ways--but make no mistake: she was fearless. She did it anyway, and only because it was necessary. She did it not because it was gratifying to expose herself-- but because it is among the hardest things one can do. Readers can *feel* that. That's the idea.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Ken Stewart on April 8, 2014
Format: Paperback
Very thoughtful reflections on the various aspects of empathy - on the self and the other in a recursive dialogue of compassion. I shall use quotes from it for my graduate students in marriage and family therapy. Empathy is a complex thing ... it is not easy, it is very difficult and bears a great cost to attempt to step into the pain of others. It is quite necessary for our personal and professional and spiritual development.
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