THE EMPATHY EXAMS by Leslie Jamison

“Creative nonfiction” might be the broadest genre designation out there. It encompasses literary journalism, personal essays, memoirs, travel writing, flash nonfiction (like that found on Brevity), science writing…basically, if it’s fun to read but it’s also true, it’s creative nonfiction. And I love it all. My personal favorite, though, are the essays that fall somewhere in between literary journalism and personal essay: essays that examine something external about the world, but in doing so, uncover a connection to something internal to the writer, a connection that will most likely resonate with something internal to the reader. This preference probably comes from my early readings of Joan Didion as a high school student. Ever since, I have always sought out and admired writers who can make me feel both as though I know them intimately and that they are much, much smarter than me, and I’m learning something just by spending some time in their company. Enter Leslie Jamison.


Jamison’s collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, is one of the most talked about essay collections that I can recall. Published by Graywolf Press (and the Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize), this collection spans a lot of the mini-genres of creative nonfiction. The pieces in this book are parts journalism, criticism, and unflinching self-examination, and these threads are woven together so masterfully that it’s hard to even notice their distinctions. Jamison is honest about herself and the world around her as she writes about topics ranging from life in a prison, extreme marathon runners, Morgellons disease, and in many cases, Jamison herself.

In one sense, the essays in this collection are linked in their exploration of pain, both the physical (and often, the very medical) pain we experience and the emotional wreckage that can cause just as much damage. Jamison explores these topics with intelligence, scholarship even. This book will certainly teach you a lot about topics you’ve probably never even thought to google. But of course, as the title suggests, simply examining pain does not seem to be the aim of this book. Jamison explores these topics not just to learn about the pain of others, but to try to understand and even sympathize with it: the book itself is an exercise in empathy, both for Jamison and the reader. It’s incredibly smart, but it’s also written with compassion, and that combination is what made me love it, what turns it from an interesting read into an artful experience.

It’s almost impossible for me to pick a favorite essay, but perhaps the one that has stayed with me the most is “Devil’s Bait,” an essay about the sufferers of Morgellon’s disease. (This essay was originally published in Harper’s and was anthologized in The Best American Essays 2014). This essay serves as a fairly decent microcosm of the book, combining Jamison’s journalistic framework, scholarly impulses, and powerful personal narrative to bring you into a world you would have otherwise known nothing about. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Jamison’s writing is how quickly she can bring the reader from knowing nothing about a subject to feeling intimately connected to it. As Mary Karr notes in a blurb on the front cover, “This riveting book will make you a better human.”

Basically, I just can’t rave enough about this book. I’m a little late to the internet rave party about it, but let me add my voice now. Go read this book. Let’s all strive to be better humans.


Off-Syllabus Links: Week of September 20, 2015

Here are my bookish links for the week:

The recent controversy surrounding white poet Michael Derrick Hudson getting published in this year’s Best American Poetry anthology has sparked a lot of conversations about diversity in publishing. This article by Jenny Zhang is an important perspective.

Have you been misreading Robert Frost’s most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken”? A fun read about one of America’s most famous poems.

You’ve seen a lot of Harry Potter on this blog so far. Here’s a really smart article about why exactly that is.

And finally, I am 100% with Mallory Ortberg in her call for more “cozy” versions of our favorite genres.

The Hogwarts Library by J.K. Rowling

This summer, I re-read the Harry Potter series. This was my first time doing so, meaning I hadn’t read these stories since they first came out. I had remained somewhat active in the fandom, taking sorting hat quizzes and enjoying comics like these when they circulated around social media (warning: not-safe-for-work language in that link). Upon re-reading the series, though, I became re-addicted. One of the biggest appeals of getting back into the books was simply re-entering the world they create. While I remembered most (but not all) of the key plot points and characters, I had forgotten just how much minutiae is there, how much texture J.K. Rowling has given this world. In the throes of my nostalgia-ridden, anxiety-filled post-graduate days, I wanted more Harry Potter magic. I logged back into Pottermore, I obsessed about my upcoming trip to the Wizarding World (the details of which I covered in a previous post), and I knew I had to get my hands on as much content as possible. This is where the Hogwarts Library comes in.

IMG_0863The Hogwarts Library is a series of three books, all written by J.K. Rowling (who, for each book, is writing as a different character from the Harry Potter universe). The proceeds of these books go to two different charities (Comic Relief for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages, and Lumos for The Tales of Beedle the Bard), and they are published as though they are real wizarding textbooks being made available to Muggles. As such, they are minutiae-tastic, a creative and fun welcome back into J.K. Rowling’s imagination. (Also, a note: for the ease of the rest of the review, I’m going to speak of fictional events and people as if they are real, without using quotation marks or winky-face emojis or anything like that. I hope you won’t mind playing along 🙂 ).


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is probably the hottest item right now, given the film that’s in the works, but this was surprisingly my least favorite of the three (although it was still a delight). The book is written by magi-zoologist Newt Scamander, but to add further texture to this, the copy itself is a duplication of the one Harry and Ron shared in school, complete with their marginalia. The book itself is a pretty straightforward encyclopedia of the magical creatures in the Harry Potter universe, which is really enjoyable (and shows just how much research and thought J.K. Rowling has put into this world). The marginalia provides a bit of humor, but I preferred the entries themselves the most.

Quidditch Through the Ages surprised me. I’m sure I would enjoy Quidditch if I lived in the Harry Potter universe (I did attend a Big Ten school, after all), but the matches were often the least interesting parts of the books for me. I found this book to be a lot of fun, though. It details the history of Quidditch’s formation, ending with a detailed explanation of the rules, teams, and culture of the sport as it’s currently played. It also takes some really funny jabs at real-life sporting culture. There are a couple of instances in Quidditch’s history in which some of the more dangerous elements were removed, and the book details the outrage at these changes, with fans saying that the sport was ruined now that they could no longer witness grave injuries or set fire to equipment. There is also a funny note that Quidditch isn’t as popular in America because it has to compete with our home-grown broom sport (a jab, I’m sure, at the unpopularity of soccer compared to football). Overall, this book gave me a new appreciation for this element of the Harry Potter universe.

IMG_0867Of course, my favorite of the series was The Tales of Beedle the Bard. This is a book of wizarding fairy tales, and this particular edition comes from the copy Dumbledore passed on to Hermione Granger and includes his notes on each story. This means that you get the story AND a literary analysis of it, all of which is lovely and smart (and what a great way to recruit future English majors!). This is the only book in which J.K. Rowling’s voice appears, and in her introduction, she makes a point of noting that one of the biggest differences between wizarding fairy tales and Muggle ones is the agency of the female characters. So, to sum up, you’re getting fairy tales, literary nerdiness, and feminism. It’s like all of my favorite things rolled into one.

IMG_0866Obviously these books are short, and they’re written in a way that is accessible to all ages. If you’re looking for something with meaty plot and dramatic twists, this isn’t it. But if you’re eager for a little more time in the Harry Potter universe, and you want to support a good cause, these books are a really enjoyable answer.

Off-Syllabus Link List: Week of September 13, 2015

Here is a round-up of bookish links for the week:

Valeria Luiselli has been on my to-read list for a while, but this profile makes me really wish I had been quicker to read her so I could be one of the “smart friends” of yours talking about her.

I’m so excited that authors are using twitter as a new form of fiction. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy in a “we are all just storytellers painting on our cave walls” sort of way.

I’m pretty new to serious genre reading, but the genre I’m probably the least familiar with is romance. But this profile of Christina Lauren, the name used by authors Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings when they write books together, makes me think I need to get a jump on it (and certainly gives me a good entry point). I really enjoyed reading this piece. It celebrates fandom and collaboration, and is an excellent example of Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s Shine Theory (which is also completely worth reading about if you’re unfamiliar).

LIFE ON MARS by Tracy K. Smith

I am always thrilled when science and art (particularly writing) can come together in one beautiful project. It’s one of the reasons why I love Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series so much (and why some of my favorite moments from The West Wing involve impassioned, poetic speeches about the space program). It’s also why I was immediately drawn to Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, Life on Mars, published by Graywolf Press. Smith navigates the space between–or perhaps within and among–art and science expertly, crafting what has become possibly my favorite book of poetry.

Life on MarsThe main endeavor of this book is to serve as an elegy for Smith’s late father, and in this aim, it confronts a myriad of uncertainties with the concrete, scientific realities of our world. (Also, a warning: this review is about to address some hard topics.) Smith seems to be using scientific symbols and objects to address the idea of mortality, a concept that is both the most certain and uncertain part of our existence. As such, this book plays with an interesting paradox, creating an idea of a God (of sorts–I would call this book more “spiritual” than “religious”) that exists within the scientific universe, rather than opposed to it. This book seems to be constantly playing with paradoxes. It often juxtaposes images of Earth (ice, stones, the ocean) with those of outer space, but it also links them together within its metaphors. It gives a similar paradoxical treatment of the body, examining it as both an earthly tether and its own universe.

Despite the heavy topics of this collection, it never veers too far into melancholy. It uses the uncertainty of the afterlife, combined with the wonders of the universe that we do know about, to create a sense of hope. The poem that could probably serve as the thesis statement of the collection is “The Speed of Belief,” a long poem dedicated to Smith’s father. This poem contains perhaps the central conflict and question of the collection: “My father won’t lie still, though his legs are buried in trousers and socks. / But where does all he knew–and all he must now know–walk?” My favorite poem of the collection, however, is one called “The Universe as Primal Scream.” It starts with something mundane: the speaker awakening to the sounds of her upstairs neighbor’s children crying. Smith takes this basic symbol of want, along with other mundane elements of the speaker’s home, to meditate on the fragile line between daily life and the unknown of where we came from and where we’re headed. As the speaker muses, “I’m ready / To meet what refuses to let us keep anything / For long.”

Life on Mars is full of wonder and sadness, the vastness of the universe and the minutiae of our daily life.  If you’re new to poetry, this is a beautiful introduction. If you’re already a poetry fan, you’ll appreciate Smith’s original use of scientific symbols to confront some of life’s biggest questions. This collection made Tracy K. Smith one of my favorite poets, and I can’t wait to read more of her.

Off-Syllabus Links: Week of September 6, 2015

Here is a round-up of bookish links for the week:

This piece on writers Dodie Bellamy and Eileen Myles gave me a lot of interesting things to think about regarding gender, transgressive art, and forms of creative nonfiction. (A warning: the language is pretty adult.)

I’ve been trying to explore different genre writing more (it’s probably the area of literature I have the least experience in, and it’s so vast!), and one of the genres I’ve been interested in lately is Young Adult fiction. I couldn’t resist this quiz, which recommends a YA book based on your favorite Disney princess.

It turns out I’m a bigger fan of comics publisher Drawn and Quarterly than I realized. The Millions wrote an interesting article on their upcoming anthology, which celebrates 25 years of work.

And finally, not to overwhelm you with Disney and comics geekery, but I wholeheartedly agree with everything Christine Hoxmeier wrote in her list of Disney attractions that should be comics (the Haunted Mansion idea especially).

Diagon Alley at Universal Studios: An Off-Syllabus Field Trip

This summer, I was lucky enough to go to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, where I was finally able to check out The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. It was AMAZING. The Wizarding World (both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, located in the adjacent Islands of Adventure park) is completely immersive and more detailed than you can imagine, making it really feel like you’re a part of the experience that, if you’re a reader of my generation, you probably grew up reading and loving.

IMG_0814There are many, MANY sources out there that can tell you all about Diagon Alley in detail (although I must say, the more you can keep a surprise, the better!), so I’ll just go over some of my highlights. The main attractions of Diagon Alley are, as you can probably imagine, all of the little shops that Universal has meticulously re-created from the stories. Unfortunately, while a façade exists for Flourish & Blotts (Diagon Alley’s bookstore, for those that don’t remember), you can’t actually go inside. 😦 However, those of us humanities-inclined, studious types can still get our nerd on in Sribbulus Writing Implements, a little shop attached to Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment. At first I thought it might just be another façade, but upon walking in, I was surrounded by journals, parchment, stationary, and even quills and bottles of ink. Needless to say, this was my favorite spot in Diagon Alley.

IMG_0821My other favorite experience is one that I imagine is a little unexpected for most theme-park goers. On the hour in Diagon Alley, a group of actors puts on a show based on one of two stories from Beedle the Bard, the Potter-universe equivalent of, say, Aesop or the Brothers Grimm. While both the stories were pretty enjoyable, the best one was The Tale of the Three Brothers (fans of the book will remember this as the original story that sets up the mythos for the “deathly hallows”). My absolute favorite part of the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the animated sequence that told this story. I don’t want to give too much away, but the show in Diagon Alley captures that art style so beautifully, making for a really spectacular visual experience. (If you’re curious and don’t mind spoiling the surprise, you can watch the entire show here).

Now, onto food. The restaurant in Diagon Alley is, of course, the Leaky Cauldron. Unfortunately, the lunch and dinner menu doesn’t have many veggie options, so we didn’t plan a meal here. However, I heard from a WONDERFUL Universal employee that they served hot butterbeer (in most of the Wizarding World locations, you can only get butterbeer cold or frozen). My mom and I went inside to check it out during breakfast, and I noticed that there were many more vegetarian options then (something I’ll have to do next time, I guess!). But y’all. Hot butterbeer is the way to go. While the cold version is more like soda, the hot version is like butterscotch hot chocolate. It might sound bad in the Florida heat, but if you get it early enough and drink lots of water after (as you should be doing anyway), it’s totally fine.

I was also really excited about Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, but I have to say, this was my only miss. I was intrigued by an Earl Grey and Lavender flavor I had heard about, but it was really more vanilla-y than anything else. It was fine, it just didn’t compete with Jeni’s Wildberry Lavender ice cream (an unfair standard that I unfortunately hold all other ice cream to). If I go back, I will definitely try the Butterbeer flavored ice cream.

IMG_3630Those were my highlights from Diagon Alley. If you’ve been, leave a comment about your favorite experiences, and if you’ve never been, tell me about what you would be most excited to see!