Mary Karr, no stranger to excellent non-fiction writing herself, has a blurb on the cover on this collection of essays. She says, “This riveting book will make you a better human.” She’s right on both counts. As a book of essays, as any kind of essays, it is remarkably riveting. I was absolutely hooked. And it will go high up on the list of books that have changed the way I see the world which will, I hope, make me a better person.

The notion of empathy is an elusive one, so Jamison is wise to start “The Empathy Exams.” For $13.50 an hour, Jamison volunteers to be a mock patient in order to evaluate the empathy of prospective doctors. Item #31 on her evaluation asks her to what extent the doctor-in-training “voiced empathy for my situation / problem” (5). This allows Jamison to set the terms for her collection. What is empathy? And what is it that we empathize with?

The essays are consistently excellent and, well, riveting. Jamison weaves strands of stories (including her own) together in order to explore the meaning of pain and empathy in the world. After a first reading, I think “Pain Tours (II)” is my favorite. In it, Jamison starts with the life (and pain) of Frida Kahlo to explore the role of observers like Joan Didion and herself. And she realizes (154):

Irony is easier than hopeless silence but braver than flight. The problem is that sometimes your finger shakes as you gesture, there is no point to point to, and maybe you can’t point anywhere – or at least not at anything visible.

Reflecting on her time in Bolivia, Jamison offers this (155):

I look back at my notes: canned salad and powdered pumpkins. I have trouble remembering the point. Metonymy shrugs its shoulders. So does metaphor. The white space between details overwhelms whatever significance they were supposed to bear, whatever pleasure they were meant to provide.

In her final essay, a brilliant and necessary manifesto, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison asks (191):

How much do we choose to feel anything? The answer, I think, is nothing satisfying – we do, and we don’t. But hating on cutters insists desperately upon our capacity for choice. People want to believe in self-improvement – it’s an American ethos, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps – and here we have the equivalent of affective downward mobility: cutting as a failure to feel better, as deliberately going on a kind of sympathetic welfare – taking some shortcut to the street creed of pain without actually feeling it.

Before you get lost in the surgical and provocative insights, note the writing – not a wasted or wrongly chosen word. These essays are compact.

I’m not sure I’ve done this book justice. Perhaps I’ll come back and edit this. I’ve noticed that I want to hold on to this book, to keep it close to me. I will share some of the essays with my students in order to return to them myself. There’s an urgency about this book. It’s the kind of guide we need that will never be found in the self-help section. To live up to it would be to live completely. I can only hope.

When I saw my son reading and re-reading and re-reading this book and then he turned his bookshelves into a library, I figured I should, literally and figuratively, check this one out.

What an odd little book. There’s very little story. It’s more of a funny how-to book, in this case, how to give a cat a bath. I’m not sure what fascinates our son quite so much, but he’s reading, so I’m happy.

The artwork is great, too.


“Very funny.” ~ Zoë

A good old-fashioned spy story that focuses on an actor, Frederic Stahl, who gets mixed up with the Gestapo just prior to the German invasion of France. I liked the pace of this book. There was action, but our hero is an actor, not a man with a gun and a lot of witticisms. He has to balance the need to finish the film and his increasingly complex sense of duty. And, appropriately, his acting skills help him through some of his most challenging times (though, strangely, he succeeds with one task with very little commentary or description from Furst).

This read like a movie, something of the noir variety. I could see the people and the places. The main characters, especially the women, are fully realized and interesting. There is a quiet tension throughout the story. Good stuff.

This is probably the most perfectly titled book I’ve ever read. I relished its necessary exploration of the concept of time and the meaning of Nao (the name of one of the protagonists) and now, the temporal word. The story is perfectly interwoven, the characters are vivid, and the emotions are genuine. The dichotomies here are endless, and that’s part of the point. (Any book that has an Appendix that explains Schrodinger’s Cat is bound to have a lot of them.) Even the cat, Pesto, is fully realized. This is a book fully aware of and fully in need of its meta level. The other protagonist is not only named Ruth, but she’s also a novelist.

A few quibbles. Nao’s narration rings false at the beginning – too forced. Perhaps this is deliberate in order to reflect her transformation. If so, the transition is too sudden (and very much welcome). Then there’s the Chekhovian ending, a kind of celebration of now with the familiar (and welcome and appropriate) refrain about the need to continue living. Between that and the large amounts of exposition at the end, the conclusion feels like a let down, albeit a small one.

[In the spirit of full disclosure. . .

1. Rac Jac is a former student of mine. She even gives me a generous shout out in the back of this collection.

2. She is also a Facebook friend.]

All that said, she remembers that if I did not like her work that I would tell her so!

With all that being said, this is a remarkable collection.

My first impression came a few poems in when I thought to myself, “There is music here.” Something prompted me to return to the cover where I saw that the poems had been written and arranged by Rac Jac. Of course, there’s music.

Rac Jac writes often of metaphors and does some of her best work when she’s mixing them – “gymnasiums that are / under / constructive criticism” (“Background Check”) and “wondering why I still carry around / that card /like it’s really worthy of going/ between the thighs of / credit and debit swipes” (“Chase (‘cash away’) Bank”). From “Avenues and Noise Cancelling Headphones” – “Squealing babies, who crawl the streets, / looking to pacify their withdrawals, are never / discreet.”

The first poem (and there are many here that will force you to stop and recover) that really knocked me for a loop was “Planned Childhood.”  The title itself is magnificent. It plays on the notion of Planned Parenthood in a completely unexpected way. Told from the point of view of a fetus, this is fetus with a voice, one who wants control – to plan his / her childhood. S/he has seen the behavior of her mother (“this woman /  left pipes, needles, and spoons on”) and wants to say, “No, thanks.” The fetus is hoping to be aborted.

The conversation between the generations is a regular motif in this collection. In Part 3 of “Lineage Court / Generational DNA Tests,” Rac Jac writes, “the older generation neglected us / so the media and the streets / want joint custody.”

In “Seconds (I’m Just Sayin’),” she invents a stunning verb – “out shoe shined” – another example of how she blends metaphors. Another great verb comes in the 4th Part of “Lineage Court / Generational DNA Tests” – “I got wildfire aspirations / that I hope will bedspread / to future generations.”

More music. An immigrant in “E.T. Material” has “a visa and a vision.”

In “Judges” – “all you / really see in / those inkblots / is the noose friendly nectar.” That line sent me reeling.

Though Rac Jac has much on her mind – the generations, the city streets of Baltimore – she has a sharp wit. “Outtakes” made me laugh out loud. The ending – “DAMN I’m luvin the / way your assonance look in / them short tight stanzas.”

She knows her history. “Theme for English 503″ is an excellent homage to Langston Hughes.

Though there’s much in here that’s bleak, Rac Jac does not despair. She is relentless. “place me on life row,” she demands in “Gift Rapping Paper.”

There is, as the title suggests, a motif about hair (see “I am My Follicles’ Keeper,” etc.), and I’m not sure I tracked it that well. It is not the first time that I have felt outside of an insight about black women and their hair. Some of Adichie’s Americanah is set in a hair salon, and I’m sure I only understood that strand (pun intended) on the most superficial level.

Rac Jac is a poet who needs to be read and heard.

Washing Out My Dandruff Thoughts

Washing Out My Dandruff Thoughts

Buy from Amazon


Have you ever seen a movie preview and gone to the movie only to realize that the best parts of the movie were in the preview?

I had the good fortune to hear Busch (featured in The Wire, son of the author Frederick) read from his memoir at the Brews + Prose (  event at the Market Garden Brewery last month. Now that I’ve finished his book, I know that he read some of the best scenes in it in voices only he could recall / create.

He called his book a “recursive memoir.” That’s fine. I don’t need things to go in order. But after a while, things began to feel a bit formulaic, like he’d decided on a recipe and was intent on contriving a way to make sure each chapter, named after an element (water, metal, soil, bone, etc.) adhered to the pattern.

Slowly, though, the memoir built a quiet but cumulative power. Busch stands on the beach between the water and the land and realizes what’s going on to land and what’s headed back out into the water. At the same time, he’s aware of what’s below his feet. It becomes almost scientific. Nothing goes away; it changes form – sometimes with the help of man, who is often responsible, and sometimes to blame. That’s why when he says in his Epilogue “I have been presented all the evidence of every particle’s part in universal transience, and I have decided to believe in none of it” (295-296), the line comes off as a throwaway, like he’s yanking on the thread that might threaten to unravel his whole book. But it doesn’t wash. “Dust to Dust” is the truth of this book, and Busch, who seemed to spend forever in Iraq and its deserts, is in a good position to know.

In honor of the eight years that have passed since his father’s death, Busch gave away 8 copies of his father’s book, A Memory of War, to anyone who promised to try to read it. And that is how he presented his father’s work, like they would represent a significant challenge to the reader. I took the last one. And I will read it. Just not next.

Every once in a while, I need a classic. And I need sentences don’t call attention to themselves.

It has taken me a long time to warm to Hemingway. The stories (not the Nick Adams ones) were first. I really like A Farewell to Arms. This posthumous novel gave me the prose I wanted, but the story was hardly captivating. It’s episodic and probably somewhat autobiographical (but I care little about such things). I’d forgotten Hemingway’s habit of leaving things unsaid, and he uses that technique powerfully here.

There’s a loyalty to art here. And men. And drinking. Everyone seems to like Thomas Hudson, and he manages to persevere despite some serious losses. The ending is sad and inevitable and true.

Though I know little of life on the water or life, for example, in Cuba, I found the story evocative. Hemingway and Hudson paint well with deceptively simple strokes.

What’s your favorite Hemingway?


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