“The Empathy Exams” Covers Expansive Ground in an Innovative Way

Leslie Jamison’s arresting collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, graced more than one “best of” list at the end of 2014. After reading it, I can see why. It’s original, often challenging, and an ultimately thought-provoking book.

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Not surprisingly, the quest to understand empathy — what it really means and how we come to experience it — ties all the pieces together here. What’s interesting is the way Jamison approaches it through her writing, coming at the topic from multiple angles. And given the fact that the essays included here were all published elsewhere prior to appearing in this book, the nature of empathy and our expression of it is seems to be something that preoccupies her.

In the opening essay, which gives the book its title, Jamison describes her experience working as a medical actor. These are people who pretend to have symptoms and illnesses so that doctors in training can practice both diagnosing them and interacting with patients. The actors are instructed to grade the doctors on how much they felt they empathized with them (which ultimately tends to be the doctors saying some of the same rote phrases again and again). But Jamison uses this as a jumping-off point to write about some of her own actual medical history and the way she felt doctors responded to her with empathy, or a lack thereof.

The landscapes in The Empathy Exams are expansive, taking the reader from the hills of northern Tennessee for an ultra-marathon to the gang-addled neighborhoods of south central Los Angeles to a violent night in Nicaragua and beyond. We learn, in an uncomfortably up-close and personal kind of way, about Morgellons disease and the plight of people suffering from something that many in the medical community aren’t convinced really exists. We hear about inmates and crime and also about the suffocating existence of Bolivian silver miners, working twelve-hour shifts in mines beneath the highest city in the world.

Jamison takes us to these places and introduces us to these people in an effort to answer what I see as her primary question: how can any of us truly know and feel what it’s like to be another person? We can talk about it with them, we can try to imagine ourselves in their circumstances, we can draw on the repository of similar experiences from our own lives, but we’re never quite sure we’re getting it right. That’s no reason not the try, though. As human beings, we owe that to one another. I believe that’s the overarching message of this compelling book.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2015/01/16/louann-lofton-jamison-gives-exploration-empathy-many-angles/)

Books: On This Is Running for Your Life

For many of us, the word “essay” conjures up thoughts of college application essays or the essay portions from exams in middle school and beyond. Or, perhaps we remember the assigned readings of essays by thinkers like Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (who was the first person to describe his writing as essays back in the mid-1500s), John Locke, Thomas Malthus, or Francis Bacon.

Though they’ve been around a long time, and might remind us initially of their use in education, the essay in its modern form is still very much alive and well. Writers as diverse as Joan Didion, John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Sedaris, Jonathan Franzen, and the late David Foster Wallace all have employed essays in their bodies of work to great effect.

The definition of an “essay” is hard to pin down exactly, as there are as many different kinds and expressions of the form as there are people writing them, but perhaps the easiest definition is simply, “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.” What differentiates an essay from memoir is that typically an essay will link or tie personal reflections or stories from the author’s life to a bigger theme or idea. Essays also may require research and need to be supported with facts. Done well, essays provide a way for a writer to explore a topic in a unique way, and for readers, they can be like getting an inside look into someone’s mind and thought processes.

Author Michelle Orange’s book of essays, This Is Running for Your Life, is an excellent example of the power of the essay form from an up-and-coming writer. I hadn’t heard of her or her book, but just stumbled across it in a bookstore and was intrigued. She’s quick-witted and wry, and is as comfortable exploring our culture’s fascination with famous people who die young (and the way that the definition of “famous” has changed for many to now encompass reality television stars and the like) to her Canadian family’s various quirks and history to the way we all get stuck at some point in nostalgia for the music and movies of our youth.

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For me, an essay is successful if I finish it feeling like I both learned something about the author and his or her life and I learned about something else, too. Bonus points for essays that really challenge my own viewpoints and thinking. I found those qualities repeatedly in Orange’s book, which made it a pleasure to read.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/04/14/bool-biz-old-literary-form-gets-new-life-writer-rise/)

Books: On This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Sometimes you love a book so much that you feel like it’s a travesty if everyone you know doesn’t read it right away. That’s exactly how I felt about Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

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Ann Patchett, is, of course, perhaps best known for her best-selling fiction, including Bel Canto, which won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in 2002. Here, though, she brings together an assortment of nonfiction published throughout her career, spanning from the Atlantic Monthly to the Wall Street Journal to Outside Magazine to Vogue and beyond. You get a real sense for who she is, both as a person and a writer — and she’s absolutely mesmerizing and entertaining.

In addition to writing with such wit and clarity that you feel like she’s right in the room next to you, just telling you stories about her life, the breadth of this collection makes it so compelling. You learn about, for instance, her deep devotion to her grandmother as well as her childhood growing up in Nashville after her mother divorced her father and moved the family there from California. She also tackles a controversy over one of her books after it was made assigned reading for all freshmen entering Clemson University, and in another couple of essays, you learn about her sweet dog, Rose. And yes, obviously (given the title essay), you hear about her marriage to her husband Karl.

The surprises for me, though, were a trio of essays about topics I wouldn’t ordinarily have thought I’d be interested in. In one, Patchett tries out for the Los Angeles Police Department, as both an homage to her cop father and as potential fodder for a book. In another, she writes so lovingly about opera and how she developed a passion for it that I felt I understood something about opera for the first time ever. And in the third essay, she and her husband take a Winnebago out for a trip in Montana that turns out in a much different way than she’d anticipated.

In addition to being a writer, Patchett is also the co-owner of the independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville. One of the most fascinating essays in this collection talks about the power and importance of bookstores and how she ended up opening one. As well, one of the earliest pieces in the book discusses her philosophy on writing and contains valuable gifts for any writer or aspiring writer.

Simply put, you should read this book.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/12/04/louann-lofton-book-essays-contains-something-everyone/)