Big Other Book Award Finalist
Mayor’s Book Club selection
“Olstein succeeds marvelously when directly reflecting on her own pain and her attempts to treat it. An accomplished poet, she often uses language beautifully and inventively.” New York Times Book Review
“In the spirit of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. . . . Think of Pain Studies as a kind of travel literature, a Gulliver’s Travels-like guidebook for those visiting the land of pain.” Rain Taxi Review of Books
“[Olstein] lays down shimmering prose that subtly unhinges the reader, conveying what it’s like to see the world from a migraine’s point-of-view. . . . Pain Studies is all the more powerful because its content is echoed by its form. It builds in fragments and bursts of prose. Its colors are vivid and brilliant.” Adroit Journal
“Deft, ingenious. . . . This is raw physicality in words. . . . Take the journey, read it. It’s brain, blood, pain, life, and death; poetry in prose, a book that must be read and lived.” Lone Star Literary Life
“Pain Studies is an excavationno mere poking around!of pain and transcends the restraints of either prose or poetic forms. . . . Olstein achieves a gorgeous mosaic . . . to produce remarkable work.” Literary Review
“Unexpectedly bright and punchy. . . . [Olstein] drops the heavy mantles of pain writing and dips, like a swimmer, into the ways that pain infiltrates and orients a bodymind, into the ways that it arranges a life.” Avidly
“Like an artist’s drawings of a bird or a human hand, Olstein’s studies show us pain from dozens of angles so that we eventually see its whole shapeBrevity
“Dazzling, puzzling, ornate, arcane, and deeply intelligent.” Literature, Arts and Medicine Database
“Olstein is a poet, which is clear in the quality of her language. [Pain Studies] is rich, absorbing, and suggestive.” Book Riot
“Grabs readers’ attention, even those without a history of chronic illness. . . . Its analysis spans multiple perspectives and includes Olstein’s sincere recollections, making this extended lyrical essay shine.” Library Journal
“Fascinating. . . . [Pain Studies] succeeds in delivering an intriguing look at a set of questions with wide relevance.” Publishers Weekly
“Erudite. . . . Olstein’s blending of the personal and the academic is compelling. . . . A quality addition to the literature on pain.” Kirkus Reviews
“Thoughtful and thought-provoking.” Midwest Book Review
“Lisa Olstein’s luminous meditation on pain winds around a beautifully curated series of artifacts. Bits of poetry, ancient medicine, brain science, television episodes, excerpts from the trial of Joan of Arc, and works of art support the spiderweb on which her insights hang like condensed mist. A fascinating, totally seductive read!” Eula Biss, author of Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays and On Immunity: An Inoculation
“Olstein offers readers an eclectic and deeply personal set of meditations on pain as experienced and remembered, inflicted and endured, perceived and denied. Through neuroscience, literature, and history, from hit TV shows to classical philosophy, this is a unique and fascinating contribution to the literature of pain in general, and migraine in particular.” Katherine Foxhall, author of Migraine: A History
“In Pain Studies, Olstein paints a sharp-witted and insightful picture of the rollercoaster ride that is called pain. Her own experiences allow her to approach the topic in a way that provides relevant reading to anyone treating or living with chronic pain. As doctors, we need to find more effective ways to help patients dealing with pain. This book is a step in that direction.” Jill Heytens, M.D., neurologist
“Olstein’s remarkable Pain Studies is a book built of brain and nerve and blood and heart, about what it means to live with pain. Irreverent and astute, synthesizing the personal and the historical, popular culture and poetry and visual art, Pain Studies will change how you think about living with a body in our beautiful and doomed world.” Elizabeth McCracken, author of Thunderstruck and Bowlaway
“Like a prismatic series of artist’s sketches, Pain Studies offers a dazzling variety of perspectivespersonal, political, phenomenological, lyricalon the unanswerable question of human suffering. Through virtuosic readings of everything from pre-Socratic philosophy to the trial transcripts of Joan of Arc to the cultural semiotics of House M.D., Olstein brilliantly extends the literature of pain into our contemporary historical moment. But this searching work also illuminates how pain studies us. Turning the last page on Olstein’s agonistic anatomy, we’ve come to know one of hurt’s intimate acquaintances, unbroken by her suffering, or if broken in parts, then painstakingly remade.” Srikanth Reddy, author of Voyager and Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry
“These spectacular sentences chart a thrilling investigation into pain, language, and Olstein’s own exile from what Woolf called ‘the army of the upright.’ On a search path through art, science, poetry, and prime-time television, Olstein aims her knife-bright compassion at the very thing we’re all running from. Pain Studies is a masterpiece.” Leni Zumas, author of The Listeners and Red Clocks
A meandering yet erudite exploration of the representation of chronic pain in history and popular culture.
Olstein (English/Univ. of Texas; Late Empire, 2017, etc.) suffers from chronic migraines. In total, she estimates, she has had a headache for 9.5 years of her life. Throughout this slim, perceptive book, she wrestles with the challenge of expressing something that is essentially indescribable: "all pain" is "unknowable except while being lived." As a poet, the author employs lyrical language ("left brow like a pressed bruise, an overripe peach you accidentally stuck your fingers into; top of head a china vase in a vise tightening, all angled echo and clamor") as well as rhetorical questions and litanies in the attempt to characterize her pain. She includes alarmingly extensive lists of incidental migraine symptoms, medicines and therapies she has tried ("our fickle, beloved cures"), and side effects she has experienced. Her surprising points of reference range from Antiphon, the ancient philosopher who taught pain avoidance, to the TV show House, which starred a pain pill-gobbling misanthrope who solved medical mysteries. It's harder to appreciate the relevance of a long discussion of Joan of Arc. Olstein seems to take Joan as a model for women speaking out in defense of their subjective experiences (in Joan's case, hearing voices). All the same, the passages from her trial transcript are overlong. In general, Olstein relies too much on quotations from other thinkers—though, surprisingly, not Susan Sontag. While the book joins a conversation rekindled by Anne Boyer, Leslie Jamison, and other contemporary authors, it is not quite as memorable as its antecedents. Still, Olstein's blending of the personal and the academic is compelling, and her themes of catharsis, denial, and causality are well worth exploring. "Does our pain define us?" she asks. Ultimately, she concludes that pain has no essential meaning and is all up to chance. Yet there is dignity in resisting it—and in capturing it in words.
A quality addition to the literature on pain.