The Empathy Exams: Essays*
by Leslie Jamison
Unless you’ve been hiding from all forms of media for the last few months, you’ve no doubt heard the overwhelming praise for this collection of essays, winner of Graywolf Press’s Nonfiction Prize. I am pleased to report that The Empathy Exams deserves all the good press.
In these intensely personal meditations, Ms. Jamison turns her sharp wits on herself, examining her experiences, faults, successes, and privilege as she writes about empathy and how we deploy it. Anyone who’s ever had a difficult experience conveying pain in a medical environment will find material of great interest here, but Ms. Jamison reaches beyond the medical in essays about prison, mining, an extreme endurance race, and the history of artificial sweeteners, among other topics. Her essays vary in length and form, expanding the parameters of the genre and allowing the reader the pleasure of wondering what will come next even as the insights from the previous essay are still being digested. The final essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” is a tour de force, and an absolute must-read.
Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems
by David Rakoff
Last year, I reviewed David Rakoff’s 1997 collection, Fraud, which was in some ways responsible for me being forced to sit through a Steven Seagal marathon, and which is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, so funny that it had me choking with laughter.
Don’t Get Too Comfortable (2005) finds Mr. Rakoff in a less jocular mood, skewering American consumerism in its many forms. Don’t get me wrong — a society that produces Hooters Air richly deserves skewering, but in these essays, laced as they are with humor, I felt a sense of bitterness, which simply wasn’t what I was expecting, though maybe I should have been, given the collection’s title. Still, essays on edible foraging in Central Park and the zaniness of fashion week are worth the price of admission.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.