Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Published September 2019 by Little, Brown and Company
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
With the virtuosic synthesis of memoir, criticism, and journalism for which Leslie Jamison has been so widely acclaimed, the fourteen essays in Make It Scream, Make It Burn explore the oceanic depths of longing and the reverberations of obsession.
Among Jamison's subjects are 52 Blue, deemed "the loneliest whale in the world"; the eerie past-life memories of children; the devoted citizens of an online world called Second Life; the haunted landscape of the Sri Lankan Civil War; and an entire museum dedicated to the relics of broken relationships. Jamison follows these examinations to more personal reckonings — with elusive men and ruptured romances, with marriage and maternity — in essays about eloping in Las Vegas, becoming a stepmother, and giving birth.
Often compared to Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, and widely considered one of the defining voices of her generation, Jamison interrogates her own life with the same nuance and rigor she brings to her subjects. The result is a provocative reminder of the joy and sustenance that can be found in the unlikeliest of circumstances.
I had recently finished Jamison's The Recovering when I saw that her latest collection of essays was available for review. Well, let's be honest, I didn't know it was a collection of essays (not that I'm opposed to a collection of essays); I just picked it up because of the author.
Like all collections of essays I've read, this one has essays that are stronger than others. Some had me wondering if I might not be smart enough for Jamison's writing, especially when I looked at reviews where they raved about the very essays that least impressed me. Others were entirely unique in their approach, including 52 Blue and We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live Again, an essay about children who have memories that can seemingly only be attributed to a prior life.
There are essays about journalists inserting themselves into the lives of their subjects without exploiting them. One, the title essay, confused me; it seemed to go on and on and Jamison seemed to berate author James Agee for exploiting the family he was living with and inserting himself too fully into the story. Another, Maximum Exposure, photographer Annie Appel becomes deeply involved in the family she photographs over 20 years and Jamison seems to have no problem with that. Frankly, I liked that essay much more. My favorite of this series of essays, though was one about the Mathew Brady's Civil War photography.
I'm sure the final group of essays won't be any of the professional reviewers favorites, but, as the most personal essays, I connected the best with them. It felt like I was back to reading Jamison's memoir. Looking for more of that may have been part of my problem with the earlier essays; had I gone in better prepared, I might have appreciated some of those more. But some of my favorite essayists rely heavily on their personal lives and it's a style I enjoy reading. Perhaps the reader in me is always looking to connect with books even as I am trying to learn from reading them.