Essays and Memoirs
Your Brain on Nonfiction Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

IMG 0187(Richard Gilbert's Blog March 27, 2012)

In a recent New York Times essay, “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul argues that “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica” to “construct a map of other people’s intentions.” Research suggests that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

Narratives make us better people. I’m open to that. I do agree reading fiction is a pleasure as well as socially instructive. And, it seems, neuroscience confirms it. But why only study novel-reading and then moralize it, like eating your spinach, into preferential behavior?

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Disenthralled: An End to My Heart Disease Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

RT 13.2(River Teeth Volume 13.2 Spring 2012)

[Note: This 2012 publication carries some of the initial material for what became The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease. This essay explores areas I didn't follow up on, with the book, and, thus, is quite different from the memoir.]

You Were Dying

You have to love this line from the Abbott Labs pamphlet on coronary artery disease, one of the parting gifts the charge nurse presents to you after you’ve had a heart attack: “The first symptom of heart disease is sudden death.” It’s among a flurry of statements about your condition, which, even though it’s only now materialized, you realize you’ve always had. Had you died, you would have had none of the secondary symptoms like agonizing chest pain and claustrophobic fear. But thanks to the cath lab and the cardiologists and your good fortune to be only a mile from the hospital, you didn’t die. You’re still kicking, albeit pinned between “it’s here” and “what do I do next?” One thing’s certain: you’ve been returned to your sense of wonder, now more sharply teleological than ever. The unanswerable questions start to queue. Is it possible to move before the bullet’s impact? Halfway from the bridge to the water, will your regret reverse the plunge? (Shouldn’t it be the first symptom of suicide is sudden death?) These indirections, which you haven’t had the luxury of contending with until now, initiate you into a new drama, the comedy of blood. You awake to the patient’s lot, which is to face (or not) this conundrum: as the language of treatment and recovery, of advice and afterthought, of lyric and lament claims to embody the disease, the disease, living on in you, articulates something else entirely.

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Awash in Celebrity Authors Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Yue-Minjun---Postmodern-Garden(Ontologica: A Journal of Art and Thought Winter 2011)

The most fun I’ve had on the Internet of late has been watching YouTube broadcasts, uploaded from celebrityautobiography.com. Subtitled “We Couldn’t Make This Stuff Up!” the site archives and advertises performances of some eighty-four live “readings,” among them Kristin Wiig doing a selection from The Early Poems of Suzanne Somers, whose sexed-up spiritual poetry includes—“If anyone has any extra love/ Even a heartbeat/ Or a touch or two/ I wish they wouldn’t waste it on dogs”—and Mario Cantone’s raucous rendition of Prairie Tale: A Memoir by Melissa Gilbert, whose opening has Gilbert spotting Rob Lowe one day in Hollywood circa 1984, falling “totally” in love with him, starting a “relationship” which is buoyed by “profound” sex, then confronting him weeks later when she discovers his affair with Natasha Kinski: “I walked up to Rob, put my finger in his face, and said very calmly and slowly, ‘You don’t fuck with America’s sweetheart.’”

The rest of this essay is available at Amazon Kindle, "Awash in Celebrity Authors," for $0.99.

 
Authoring Ourselves Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

shelved_1(Fiddleback August 2011)

The cover of The New Yorker, October 18, 2010, by Roz Chast, is titled, “Shelved.” The cartoon features a young man, whom I’ll call Jimmy, sitting in an overstuffed comfy chair, a laptop opened on his knees, headphone buds stuck in his ears. What’s Jimmy doing? Reading? Listening? Watching? Perhaps all three. All three at once. Whatever Jimmy’s absorbed by, the eight-and-one-half shelves of books above and behind him are reacting. Faces on spines (the eyes-nose-mouth motif) are angry, indifferent, surprised, chagrined, shocked, curious. Many of the books appear to have their personalities, perhaps reflecting the book’s contents, captured in their gaze. For every enraged expression (How dare you! This is a library) there’s another look which seems powerless—after all, what can books do to counter the realm Jimmy occupies other than bemoan his disinterest or their fate?

Roz Chast’s comment seems obvious: the books have been shelved, forgotten, abandoned. Their grand era is no more.

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Now, Where Was I? On Maggie Nelson's "Bluets" Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Jet

(TriQuarterly February 2011)

The author Maggie Nelson, born in 1973, has authored half-a-dozen books, among them poetry collections, memoirs, and nonfiction. Bluets may be her finest work. It is a set of two-hundred-and-forty loosely linked fragments. Each numbered fragment is either a sentence or a short paragraph, none longer than two-hundred words. The book totals some nineteen-thousand words. The work hybridizes several prose styles and verges on the lyric essay. The themes of lost love and existential aloneness come to dominate, bathed in a kind of blued longing.

Nelson utilizes memoir, philosophy, quotation, analysis, scientific exposition and query, meditation, and more, each in stylistic miniature. Subjects include an ex-lover and a friend who’s been paralyzed, but the majority of the text features her analyzing her reading, often deferring to others’ comments (including Leonard Cohen, Joseph Cornell, and Joan Mitchell) on blue. She’s not the only one so smitten by a color. Nelson combines spiritual inquiry with erotic obsession, searches for beauty and gets hung up on memories. As she criss-crosses sorrow and wonder, doubt and desire, her tone darkens.

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Music and War's Grief Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Platoon_village_scene(San Diego Union-Tribune, Veterans Day, November 11, 2010)

The degree to which we mourn our war dead as a nation is matched by the music for mourning our composers have given us. In America’s case, it’s virtually none. The reason our composers have been so stingy with writing elegies—contrast this with the Irish ballad or the fiddle dirge, keening traditions that go back 1,000 years—is that our culture has not demanded they write sad music.

We attend to public loss with private grief. We have a funeral, a memorial, a wake; we pay tribute, shed tears, tell stories and play a brief, favorite tune to remember the departed and to evoke a modicum of sorrow. We grieve not for the dead. We lament the individual who lost his or her life. If the remembrance has a religious bent, someone sings “Amazing Grace.” If it’s military, the tune is “Taps.” We watch the casket lower or the ashes scatter, and return to our separate lives, changed only in personal ways.

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The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Graham_Jackson_Warm_Springs_FDR_DeathAdagio for Strings: Leonard Slatkin, BBC orchestra, September 15, 2001, perhaps its longest and most emotional performance ever.

The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," Pegasus Books. Hardcover, September 2010, paperback, March 2012.

The first and second chapters of Saddest Music are excerpted in the Fall 2010 Issue of The Missouri Review.

A YouTube video of my one-hour "Saddest Music" multimedia presentation at Warwick's Bookstore, La Jolla, CA, Tuesday, November 30, 2010.

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