Tag Archives: Correspondence

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Title: South and West: From a Notebook
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524732790
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Joan Didion’s works are not easy to read. But once you read her books, there is no stopping. I remember reading “The Year of Magical Thinking” when it was first published in 2005 and wrenched completely to the gut by its honesty. Since then, I haven’t missed reading a single book by her. My copy of her latest, “South and West: From a Notebook” came all the way from Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, a gift from my sister. Anyhow, now back to the book.

Her essays are introspective unlike her fictional works. Don’t get me wrong here, I adore her writing, just that I feel her non-fiction is stronger than fiction. This thin volume contains two pieces: the first, a collection of assembled jottings in her notebook from a road-trip through the South in 1970; the second piece is about the Patty Hearst trial.

The first piece forms the bulk of the book – with details on everything South as they traverse that landscape – from its swimming pools in motels, to meeting regular people, knowing their views on class and racism (nothing has changed since then or so it seems) to the sedentary life lead there. At the same time, her keen eye for detail and candidness, makes you wish there was more to this book and more so to this piece.

Didion makes the South alive for you – every nuance, twitch of the faces of the people she observes and interacts with to the weather (more so important for the South) is pat down to the last nitpicking detail and as a reader you are only too happy for it. At the same time, you also feel that it could very well have been a travelogue (or is it?) with rich descriptions of the landscape and the minor details that are paid attention to.

What struck me about the book the most is that though written in the 70s, it still is so relevant today given the views of the people in the South – where discrimination – racial and classist are taken as the norm and no one seems to object – it was almost as though this were a warning for the times to come with the current President of the United States of America.

The second piece in the book is too brief – it finishes even before you have started reading it which is quite a pity. It is just a collection of notes and sketches (which of course what the entire book is) and nothing else adds to it. In fact, I had to go to Google to know more about the Patty Hearst trial.

All said and done, “South and West: From a Notebook” is a book which perhaps isn’t meant for all – or I don’t even know if it will be enjoyed by all. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner to Joan’s works but for someone who is familiar with her writing, you will love it, just as I did, so please pick it up.

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The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison Title: The Empathy Exams
Author: Leslie Jamison
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 9781555976712
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 226
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

There is a certain lack of empathy in the world. That is the conclusion I have come to given my interactions with most people and I wish it were different, but sadly it is not that way. There is cruelty everywhere – offline and mostly online. There is this sense of superiority that comes with making fun of someone, assuaging one’s insecurity I guess, and the fact that maybe you cannot do but bully someone or a set of people, just to show who the boss is. I have never understood this behavior and never will I guess.

There was also this Twitter incident that occurred last week and that clearly showed that we do not live in a world with enough empathy. There are bullies. There are people who mock. I know I am coming across too strong in this review, but a fact is a fact is a fact and there is nothing we can do about it, or wait, there actually is. We can try to be kind. We can be more empathetic. We can understand people – bit by bit and not be insensitive and unkind.

“The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison is a book that opened up a lot of these thoughts stuck in my head – page after page and I loved every bit of it. Jamison talks about empathy through her life-situations and what she has gone through. While reading the book, there were so many thoughts that ran in my head and I just could not stop thinking about how we are unkind and insulting most of the times. Being a Gay man, I have faced it way too many times and I know how it feels. It feels terrible. Jamison’s book takes center stage on this and begins to uncover layer by layer on the whats, whys and why-nots of empathy.

“The Empathy Exams” is a personal book. Jamison makes the reader experience empathy, she talks about her wounds and her life (baring it all out in front of the readers, which is one mean task to do, according to me), and how it really is to be empathetic. The writing is real, raw and extremely honest. Leslie makes us realize the limitations of empathy and why is it so important for us to not let it be restrictive.

Why did the book resonate with me? Like I said, we have forgotten what it is like to be considerate, to be kind, and we just want to be mean. The book made me think of everyday situations and how we choose to deal with them and to me that is something. The fact that a book can do that to you and those ideas stick with you long after you have finished reading the book. “The Empathy Exams” is an introspective read and will tell you a lot more about you as a person than you have ever known. Read it and learn from it. I will try to. Every single day.

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