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.

Review: Green Fields: Crime, Punishment, and a Boyhood Between by Bob Cowser Jr. Print E-mail

greenfieldscover(Contray Magazine Fall 2010)

In Murder-Crazy America

Be warned, the writer Bob Cowser Jr is a grappler. He clinches, bear hugs, throws down, and pins his subject to the mat before we know what’s happening. In previous books, Dream Season: A Professor Joins America’s Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team and Scorekeeping: Essays from Home, Cowser often corrals a foe, himself among them, belligerents with whom he grips tight and won’t let go.

Green Fields layers three such struggles: the murder of a child, the author’s link to the long-ago crime, and a polemic against the killer’s state-sponsored execution. Cowser tells the first of these with CSI-like precision: Eight-year-old Cary Ann Medlin is raped by twenty-three-year-old Robert Glen Coe, murdered, and left in a ditch beside Bean Switch Road outside of Greenfield, Tennessee, September 2, 1979. The author pushes us unsparingly into the senseless killing, the harried manhunt, the grisly find, the politically-tinged trial, the purgatory of appeals, a family begging for justice, and the unclean state execution with the pithy naturalism of a Dreiserian narrator.

Hog Wild Print E-mail
San Diego Reader

20100804(San Diego Reader August 4, 2010)

The only sign of life in Julian at 5:00 a.m. this April morning are men in white paper toques rolling out pie dough at the bright-lighted Julian Bakery. It’s a deep black morning when I meet Marc, a hunter who’s agreed to lead me by starlight to a semisecret spot, down several ravines in the Cleveland National Forest. There we’ll track and surprise and he’ll shoot, if he’s lucky, San Diego’s newest and most elusive game animal, the Russian boar.

Five miles southwest of town, driving into the headlighted darkness, we stop at an access point, a chain barring our entrance. Marc leaves his Dodge Durango running, and we talk in the red glow of his taillights. Of the few admonitions he offers up — the 40-year-old French-Canadian and 9-year Julian resident prefers I not use his last name — is this: “If you don’t mind, don’t say where we are. If we get a pig today, tomorrow there’ll be 50 people from PETA and 200 hunters converging on this spot.” Though I can’t see the playful tease in his eyes, I get the seriousness in his voice — some things are worth keeping secret. Especially to hard-core hunters.

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.

Caitlin Rother: Crime Writer Print E-mail

caitlin(San Diego Magazine July 2010)

If you don’t know San Diego true-crime writer Caitlin Rother by name, you may recall the notorious subject of her 2005 book, Poisoned Love—the pretty, young toxicologist, Kristin Rossum, whose meth addiction drove her to sleep with her boss and poison her husband. To give his death the aura of suicide, Rossum sprinkled rose petals around his body. That book, a bestseller, launched Rother’s career. In five quick years, the former Union-Tribune reporter and Pulitzer-Prize nominee, has written “back-to-back-to-back books,” a string which, she says, in a break from editing her next grim tale, has been “exhausting.”

The fortyish author, attractively dapple in a black turtleneck and black leather jacket, seems anything but worn. At a Kensington coffeehouse, she opens up about a life she never expected would be this full. For Rother, the slog of producing a book a year—four nonfiction murder stories and a novel about “beautiful beauty [school] students” being killed in Pacific Beach—include researching, interviewing, and writing. And that’s just the half of it.

Review: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields Print E-mail

952632(Agni Online June 15, 2010)

Driving Cars in Clown Suits: David Shields Terrifies Novelists

Whenever writers of a new era question the purpose of literature, it takes a poet to declare the old aim dead and make the new aim live. In our time, such a poet, or, more accurately, such a prose collagist, is David Shields. His Reality Hunger is an improvised explosive device applied to the sacred cow of narrative. Its troubled, prickly unease is palpable. Hewing to the self-reflexive tenor of our age, Shields provokes us as much as he interrogates himself. Neither nasty nor narcissistic, he makes his case with 618 nuggety fragments, half in aphoristic style, half in the paragraph vein.

As I read, I was mesmerized by Shields’s originality. Until he pointed it out, midway through, that his content was barely his own: “Many (most?) of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. One bonus point for each identification.” In effect, he outsourced actuality, then pushed it, with much subterfuge, back into Reality Hunger.

Review: The Adventures of Cancer Bitch by S. L. Wisenberg Print E-mail

cancer_bitch(Contray Magazine Summer 2010)

Upbeat Diary: Victory Over Cancer

Not far into S. L. Wisenberg’s memoir, I was hooked on the deft craft of this writer. The longtime Chicagoan, author of Holocaust Girls, and Northwestern writing instructor couches this tale in the familiar lay of a diary—the year-and-a-half in which she was diagnosed with cancer, endured chemo, lost her curly tresses, threw up (but not much), and got through. Wisenberg’s approach, however, hardly records just the facts, the style our grandmothers used to bullet-point their identical days with. Instead, this “cancer journal” is thematically wrought and keenly essayed.

Deracinating the diary, Wisenberg includes little of the quotidian and lots of the indispensable. The time-frame is chronological, a recent spell of eighteen months, January 1 to June 30. The entries, though, are cleverly titled and shaped, mini-essays running in mini-fits-and-starts.

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