How Pain Defines and Defies Us: Leslie Jamison Discusses “The Empathy Exams”

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Leslie Jamison

Photo: John Freeman

By John Freeman

Newspapers may be dying, our publishing industry is at war with Amazon, but a bright spot remains in U.S. letters: the literary essay. In the past decade, writers known for other books and other work have begun working in the form that gave birth to the New Yorker.

These new essayists—from John Jeremiah Sullivan to Elif Batuman, Aleksandar Hemon and Daniel Alarcon—don’t come from the same boys club as the writers of the last heyday of the essay. They are unglossy, smart, deeply stylish and, with her debut collection of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison proves she will probably write her way into their company.

Jamison is hardly an underdog. She grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a prominent economist, niece to the psychotherapist Kay Redfield Jamison. She attended Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently studying for a Ph.D. at Yale. Her debut novel, “The Gin Closet,” the tale of three generations of women and their tortured family history, received high praise when it appeared in 2010.

And yet it did not prepare readers for “The Empathy Exams.” Written over a period of many years, the book examines how pain both defines and defies us, and meditates on its role in empathy. The title essay recalls a period that Jamison spent as a medical actor, faking ailments in scenarios meant to test doctors of their diagnostic skills and their ability to demonstrate empathy. “Empathy isn’t just listening,” Jamison writes, “it’s asking the questions that need to be listened to.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande

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Being Mortal IIRECOMMENDED

We’re all going to die, apparently. I’ve known enough of death to assiduously avoid thinking about it until it’s too close to ignore. The other week I visited a friend in hospice. He spent his last days holding court and watching herons stalk frogs in the wetlands beyond the windows. His room seemed more like a hotel than a hospital, with floor-to-ceiling glass and plush lounge chairs. A few weeks earlier he’d had a cough checked, now he was dying—or at least, now he knew he was. There would be no heroic efforts to prolong his life, just medication to enhance its quality. He talked about what he valued. He felt at peace. The next week, he was too tired for visits, so we talked by phone. Then he slipped into death. It was timely to pick up “Being Mortal” by physician writer Atul Gawande a few days later.

We all know the quip about the certainty of death or taxes, but still they creep up and catch us unawares. We don’t consider our life’s end thoroughly enough, asserts Gawande. He writes to “lift the veil” on the whole ghastly institutionalized business of illness, aging and dying, in order to refocus on what he believes to be most important—sustaining meaning in life. He wants us to have an urgent conversation about issues of autonomy and maintaining the integrity of one’s life, so we don’t lose ourselves at the end. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: “Where To? A Hack Memoir” by Dmitry Samarov

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers, Memoir No Comments »

wheretoRECOMMENDED

I wish I’d had a taxi driver like Dmitry Samarov when I immigrated to Chicago. Our driver got lost on the way from O’Hare Airport, pulled over on a dark, midnight road by the Des Plaines River so we could check our map, then crashed through roadwork and over a bunch of orange traffic cones. Samarov seems a more careful driver, a meticulous observer of people and a sharp storyteller.

“Where To? A Hack Memoir” is a series of linked vignettes that are wry, hilarious and sometimes melancholic. Samarov, the immigrant “progeny of Soviet intelligentsia and an art school graduate,” describes the cab driver as a passing presence who sees the ugly, the beautiful and the inexplicable. Cab drivers are frequently immigrants, former professionals, now “forced back down to the bottom rung of the societal ladder.” They contend with a gritty city and ruthless cops. The bureaucracy is a time-sucking revenue collector, its authority figures despotic. Passengers are lovelorn, snowbound, disabled, drunk, sweet, amusing, obnoxious and sometimes famous. We glimpse it all. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Thrown” by Kerry Howley

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Howley7RECOMMENDED

Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of fighting. My teen son was a wrestler and endured his share of cauliflower ear, knee injuries, concussion and all-or-nothing coaches. My husband made a documentary about head injuries in sport, so I tend to be squeamish and protective of the human body. I therefore approached “Thrown” with caution.

It’s a layered, complex work about MMA fighters, their ambitions, obsessions and myth-making. Out of sweaty training basements and small-town fighting cages in the Midwest, we meet fighters Erik and Sean. Why do they fight? We are asked to weigh their world of “ecstatic experience” against the alternative offered by the healthy-minded, with their pre-natal yoga and gluten-free diets, “their dull if long lives of quietist self-preserving conformism.” By the end of the book, I’m in with the fighters. Read the rest of this entry »

Critical Force: Make Way for Roxane Gay and Her “Bad Feminist” Self

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roxanegayBy Amy Beth Danzer

It was this year’s AWP Conference in Seattle when I first came in contact with the tour de force that is Roxane Gay. After an evening of readings, publishing-house parties and general carousing, a crew of us found ourselves in the lobby of one of the main hotels hosting the conference, where the likes of Tobias Wolff or Richard Bausch could be spotted waiting for an elevator. As we made our way toward the hotel bar, my friend Adrienne stopped and gasped, “Oh my god, that’s Roxane Gay! I love her.” There she was in unassuming jeans and t-shirt, the ubiquitous culture critic who Flavorwire declared one of 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture in 2014, Roxane Gay. I knew about her, but was not yet intimate with her work. Adrienne on the other hand was a confirmed admirer and devoted follower. As soon as an opportunity arose, she jumped at the chance to discuss with Gay the very important matter of Juan Pablo Galavis, the then-new Bachelor, and his romantic interests, Ferrell and Crawley. Though not a fan of the show myself, I was thoroughly entertained by the conversation and thoroughly impressed by Gay, who was clearly an intellectual, informed and sophisticated, yet still able to speak vox populi—a combination I dig in people, especially in writers. I needed more of a fix, which was all too easy to satisfy; she and her work are everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

Writing What? Essaying Megan Stielstra, Essayist of “Once I Was Cool”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Essays, Memoir 1 Comment »

megan stielstra

By Liz Baudler

Megan Stielstra’s writing career is forever changing. She tells me this as we sit on couches in the office space for her new nine-to-five job, and it looks like a sushi bar, all square lines and pale stripes of wood and white blocks. The walls are whiteboards and she can’t wait to take a marker to them.

Stielstra’s writing career has never been about the best-selling novel she hoped to write. It took shape as she scrubbed floors in Florence and read a lot. When she went to Columbia College, she walked out of her first class feeling like she had smoked everything there was to smoke, so high was she from the excitement of writing.

The writing career detoured when a trusted professor asked her if she’d ever thought about teaching. Yet she can’t stand in front of a classroom without writing, or else she’d violate some incredible trust with her students. It still amazes her that they trust her with first drafts: she would balk at handing over hers like that. Read the rest of this entry »

A Mockingbird Sings? A Conversation with Marja Mills about her Controversial Memoir of Her Onetime Neighbor, Harper Lee

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marja_millsBy June Sawyers

In 2001, reporter Marja Mills met up with Harper Lee, or Nelle, as she is known, and her older sister Alice Lee, in Monroeville, Alabama, while on assignment for the Chicago Tribune after the Chicago Public Library had chosen Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” as its One Book, One Chicago selection. Mills went back and forth to Alabama—and in 2004, she even moved next door to the sisters—and struck up a friendship with the two women. The story of the unusual camaraderie is the topic of Mills’ fascinating, touching and, it must be said, respectful, memoir, “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.” In the following email conversation, Mills recalls the first time she read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, as well as the recent controversy over Lee’s very public disavowal of the memoir.

Do you remember the first time you read “To Kill a Mockingbird”? And your reaction to it?
Yes. I was in the West High Library in Madison, Wisconsin. I felt as if I were in Maycomb, Alabama, walking those dusty, red clay roads. Harper Lee drew that world so vividly. It was transporting.

Can you say a bit more about how you were feeling when Alice Lee invited you into the house for the first time? You indicate you were surprised, thrilled and even a bit regretful. Is there anything else that you care to add? 
She was so gracious, and here I had made this petite woman with the walker and raspy voice get up and answer the door. I kept telling myself to remember every detail of every room, because I wouldn’t be there again. But she seemed to enjoy the conversation, as did I, and it became the first of many. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Other Side” by Lacy M. Johnson

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RECOMMENDED theotherside

Lacy M. Johnson’s new memoir “The Other Side” tragically details her experience of getting kidnapped and raped by her former boyfriend. Nothing about this is necessarily strange—Johnson isn’t the first to write a memoir in order to render a personal trauma. What is strange about “The Other Side” is that despite its difficult subject matter, it is pleasurable to read. Johnson isn’t a victim of a crime who has become a writer in order to work through the physiological repercussions of that crime, but rather, she is a writer first and has the powers to render these events in a virtuosic prose that is simultaneously horrifying and admirable.

The book opens just as Johnson is escaping a soundproof room where she was raped and slated to be murdered. From there Johnson’s narrative is in constant nonlinear motion, racing back and forth between self-confessed naiveté and hard-fought empowerment. Although most of what is contained in “The Other Side” is reflected off of the crime at its center, Johnson is smart enough to use this horrific event to reach for higher truths and new epiphanies. What her audience is left with is a powerful, but often quiet, meditation on memory as it pertains to the physical body. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg

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RECOMMENDED hownottobewrong

Jordan Ellenberg starts off his mathematics paean by invoking, of all things, sports. Much like math, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Not everyone’s going to be a professional soccer player, he says, but pickup players and World Cup defenders use the same skills. So is it with math. It’s more than just the passing drills of multiplication tables and quadratic formulas. “How Not To Be Wrong” is the logical continuation of Ellenberg’s classroom teaching, and Slate’s “Do The Math” column. For years he’s been working to inspire not just math literacy, but respect and wonder too.

The stories Ellenberg tells—and he is a storyteller—refuse to insult his reader’s intelligence. Whether it’s the bullet-riddled planes coming back from the front or the dead salmon that seem to show a thought process in an MRI, things are not always what they seem. To the mathematician, math is a curious process of assumption and provocation. “How Not To Be Wrong” is part exposé—concepts most of us are never privy to are explained along with obvious surprises we just need to hear over again. (Numbers are fudged, findings inconclusive. If we had a logically mathematical voting system, we’d have elected President Gore.) A truly gifted professor, Ellenberg includes diagrams, proofs and poetry to illustrate his points. His utility has been clearly maximized by the telling of mathematical yarns. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy,” edited by Katherine Bucknell

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theanimals

RECOMMENDED

The most enlightening part of “The Animals” is the introduction. Without it, there would be simply no way to tell what letters Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy had exchanged in times of strife. Isherwood and Bachardy are among the most eminent of historic gay couples: right up there with Stein and Toklas. Isherwood—famous for writing the stories that formed the basis of “Cabaret!” and the novella “A Single Man”—spied a barely legal Bachardy, who would become a portrait sketcher to the stars, on Valentine’s Day in 1953.

“The Animals,” which collects a large sum of the letters the two sent each other, starts three years into their relationship, and soon the lover’s lexicon creeps in. The middle-aged Isherwood is Drubbin, an old wise horse perpetually one trot away from the glue factory, while the frisky young Bachardy plays a snow-white Kitten longing for Drub’s cuddles. As they transcribe their sweet nothings, their hands become paws or hooves, their domiciles baskets or stables.

Aside from each letter’s rather fulsome beginnings and endings, theirs is a pragmatic, chatty love of the day-to-day. It’s odd to discover that Bachardy and Isherwood have similar voices. Both are quick to cut down a boring dinner companion. There are digressions about unpaid bills or slow mail. Theirs is a world of rented apartments, trips to England and notable names: Cecil Beaton, W.H Auden, Glenn Ford. Read the rest of this entry »