Author pens collection that is never boring

Published: March 30 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:19 am in

On the one hand, Leslie Jamison’s stunning debut essay collection, “The Empathy Exams,” is an academic treatise exploring empathy: what is it, the dangers of it, the challenge of acquiring it. On the other hand, the book is a brutally honest, sometimes funny, always touching portrait of a woman growing up and moving through a complicated world.

Here’s what this book is not: boring. The essays in this collection are good.

In each essay, Jamison acts as the observer, and finds herself in some pretty remarkable positions, including watching her brother participate in the Barkley Marathons, an invitation-only, 50-plus-hour race outside Wartburg, Tenn,; and attending a conference on Morgellons disease, a skin disorder that may or may not actually exist, depending on who you ask. There also are essays where Jamison observes text and media (including a moving essay about films documenting the West Memphis Three), and herself and past experiences.

While the situations are intriguing in their own right, Jamison also reflects on the power — and challenge — of acting as an observer, and the importance of addressing privilege. This is readily apparent in her essay “Indigenous to the Hood” where she takes a Gang Tour through Los Angeles.

But there’s still one more layer for Jamison to peel back: that of being a writer. Jamison exposes all the scaffolding behind her essays, letting readers know how she started and when she got stuck. The result is a picture of Jamison not as a higher-than-thou essayist, but a curious, real woman — someone all readers can empathize with.

Book reading

  • What: Leslie Jamison to read from “The Empathy Exams”
  • When: 6 p.m. Monday
  • Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
  • Cost: Free

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