Book Brahmin: Leslie Jamison

photo: Colleen Kinder

Leslie Jamison was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Los Angeles, Calif. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Harper's, the New York Times, the Believer and the Oxford American.The Gin Closet, her debut novel, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award in 2010. Her essay collection, The Empathy Exams (just published by Graywolf), won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. In it, she writes about medical acting, ultra-runners, prison, an ultra-runner in prison, parasites, silver mines, gang tours, and--beyond and beneath all else--the possibilities and limits of compassion.

On your nightstand now:

Hilton Als's White Girls and my own diary. Opening any page of White Girls and quoting from it would be better than my trying to explain it. "I sucked his figurative toe because its sweat acted as a kind of poultice on my tongue." How do you put that down?

Favorite book when you were a child:

Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery. The Emily trilogy follows a young orphan writer with "purplish" eyes growing up on Prince Edward Island. I identified with her--or aspired to identify with her--and thought the girl on the cover of my book was so pretty. She wants to be a writer, too, and the prose has this gorgeous and overly dramatic way of talking about what writing feels like: parting a curtain to reveal some other world, something like that. In the end, I think I dodged a bullet by not being Emily. If memory serves, she ends up marrying a much older and fairly cynical hunchbacked priest.

Your top five authors:

William Faulkner, Anne Carson, Janet Malcolm, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace.

Book you've faked reading:

Cervantes's Don Quixote. I think others have answered this question with this book as well, making me feel like a failure even in what I've failed to read.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee. I cannot stop writing and talking and hurting about this book. It's such a beautiful, messy account of how hard it is to do justice to the suffering of others. It scared me and inspired me and pained me to read this book; I spread the word because I want others to feel the pain, too.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Are You Hungry Tonight? Elvis' Favorite Recipes. If the title's not enough, the cover features a hot dog with a side of apple wedges.

Book that changed your life:

Wallace's Infinite Jest. The hugeness of this book--not just its imagination but its heart, and especially its portrayal of addiction and recovery--made me feel less alone in the world, and made me want to write things that made other people feel less alone. Wallace, of course, has talked about writing in this way as well: "Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved."

Favorite line from a book:

"How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away." --from Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. (Like I said, it changed my life.)

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein. I remember reading it with my dad when I was a little girl. He was a traveler, always going off on the grand adventures of a global health economist, and when he came home we'd go together on these grand adventures through Middle Earth. The sweep and scope and richness of this world are so incredible to encounter for the first time.

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