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Politicians, stop saying mass shootings are tragedies unless you’re going to do what literary critics do with tragedies: actually interpret them.

“This was a horrible tragedy:” perhaps the most common thing we hear after each new incident that adds to the alarming trend of mass shootings in the United States. Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Umpqua, Las Vegas, and Parkland are only the most notable communities whose names have come to symbolize the phenomenon. Their “tragic” quality is the reason, some politicians say, we shouldn’t “politicize the tragedy” – we shouldn’t refer to it in arguments about policies for the good of the nation. More… “Something Is Rotten in the United States of America”

Jeffrey R. Wilson is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard University, where he teaches the Why Shakespeare? section of the university’s first-year writing course. Focused on intersections of Renaissance literature and modern sociology, his work has appeared in academic journals such as ShakespeareLaw and the Humanities, and Crime, Media, Cultureas well as public venues such as National Public RadioThe Chronicle of Higher EducationAcademe, CounterPunch, and Shakespeare and Contemporary TheoryHe is on Twitter @DrJeffreyWilson.

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I’m sitting next to a wall covered in photos of Umm Kulthoum. From behind her omnipresent sunglasses, she looks down sternly on the crowded teashop, sharing wall space with dozens of other notable personalities from the Middle East. Along the ceiling hang WWI-era rifles, dusty phonographs, and lank flags discolored by years of cigarette smoke. My new friend Omar orders us another round of Karak Chai and resumes his animated explanation of why the pop star Shakira is such a great dancer — he insists it’s because she was born in Bahrain; I learn later she was born in Colombia. While Omar speaks, all sweeping gestures and croaking voice, I take a sip of scalding tea and compose my face, trying not to betray the fact that my heart is lurching wildly, like a drunk trying to skip rope. I take another sip and tell myself it’s just the highly-caffeinated, sugary tea, and not the heart attack my anxiety disorder insists is imminent.

I’m on the island of Muharraq in the Kingdom of Bahrain to explore Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy, a site known colloquially as the Pearling Trail. Currently in the midst of construction, the serial heritage site will encompass a segment of the seafront, three offshore oyster beds, and 17 buildings connected by a three-and-a-half-kilometer pathway running through a historic neighborhood. The Trail is Bahrain’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site and will offer visitors a vision of the culmination of the 7,000-year Arabian Gulf pearling tradition. This summer, over and over again, I keep returning to walk this path with my notebook and water bottle in tow. “But it isn’t finished yet,” people tell me, worried I’ll be disappointed; but seeing it at this time, in the midst of its birth, when some parts are done and some parts are still old and crumbling, is exactly why I can’t stay away. After a year when my world was swallowed up by cataclysmic anxiety, this is supposed to be the summer that I change, too, and so I keep returning to be near something else that is being transformed. More… “Pearls of Wisdom & Fear”

Natasha Burge is a Pushcart Prize and Sundress Best of the Net nominated writer from the Arabian Gulf region, where she is the writer-in-residence at the Qal’at al-Bahrain Museum. Her writing has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and The Establishment, among others. More can be found at www.natashaburge.com.

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As a writer, I’m only anything if observant. And yet I have frightening blind spots. Despite the low square footage of my Harlem apartment, too often I can’t find things in it. Clothes, shoes, the remote. Even the can opener, which has only one place of keeping, the utensils drawer, which I search through and swear doesn’t contain the utensil it inevitably must. On the other hand, things I can find easily — and know I can find easily — I waste my time finding (my wallet, keys, and phone), a vestige of my childhood compulsions.

Such as knowing the location of my security animals. As a child I had a stuffed Tigger which I brought on sleepovers and errands with my mother. Around the third grade I added a rhinoceros named Rhino.

The night I couldn’t find Rhino, we were shacked up in a transitional apartment; we were moving about an hour away from where I had great friends and awesome sports teams and a sense of home. I wasn’t inconsolable, but unconsciously desperate. Searching not my room, but some proxy box-with-bed, I felt poles of sick hope and futility pulling from each end of me, with the magnetic force of an ultimatum I hadn’t agreed to. Too young to question the imperative of Rhino’s presence, my dread that he was still missing bemused me. Childhood is rife with navigating conflicting feelings. Most of the time, that’s when you called for Mom. More… “A Year in Psychoanalysis”

Brian Birnbaum grew up just outside Baltimore. An MFA graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, his work has been published or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Atticus Review, 3AM Magazine, and more. Brian is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) working in development for the family communications access business. He lives in Harlem with MK Rainey and their dog.

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Why do so many poets commit suicide? My daughter’s away at college and planning to be a poet. Needless to say, I’m worried. Can you say anything to discourage this trend? — R. D.

 

I once dressed up as Sylvia Plath for a “Dress as Your Favorite Poet” festival. I wore a box painted as an oven over my head. Funny, right? Plath’s dramatic exit from this world has made her the poster child for poets who have committed suicide: John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and more recently, Sarah Hannah — professor at Emerson College, where I received my MFA. Those are only three names swimming in the sea of dead tortured artists — we always use that term, don’t we? We hide the agent by using the passive case, suggesting a flawed psychosis or something else so private… More…

August 26 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of William James, a giant in American intellectual history. James was a founder of pragmatic philosophy and of modern psychology. His two greatest works, The Principles of Psychology (1890) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), are towering achievements, still relevant today in providing insights into why we behave as we do and why we believe what we do.

 

For years, I had little knowledge of William James and was instead an enthusiast of his younger brother Henry. It still mystifies me how two such extraordinary minds could have come from the same family. I first read Henry James in college and was soon a fan of his late work. I loved his complex style and subtle if wrong-headed heroines (with whom I identified).

Only much later did I… More…

I think my wife is losing her mind. She kept calling me by the wrong name all weekend, and when we were out yesterday, she dug through the garbage can near the bus stop and double-checked all the discarded lottery tickets. And she recently started doing other odd things (alphabetizing our books and DVDs, ordering take out from a Mexican restaurant when she hates Mexican food). What should I do?

– V.D.

I’m afraid I need a little more information here. If she’s at the target age for senility, then maybe this is something you should tell her doctor. If she’s middle-aged, she may be having a mild mid-life crisis. If she’s pregnant, pregnancy forgetfulness and the nesting instinct may be kicking in. But I have to say that these things seem pretty innocuous to me. I mean, my husband keeps an eye out for discarded lottery tickets, too. I… More…

I think we are entering a new Freudian era. This struck me as I was recently reading some stories in the New York Times science section: Depressive disorders may have a beneficial mechanism behind them; dreams may be meaningful after all; and hysteria — now called conversion disorders, and by which they mean the physical expression of emotional trauma — may actually exist. This may not totally redeem Freud from his sex-obsessed cokehead crackpot reputation, but this is his territory.

The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves by Siri Hustvedt. 224 pages. Henry Holt and Co. $23.00

For decades, Freud has been slowly discredited until his name is more a punchline than a scientific reference. But the more science wades into the murky territory of the mind, the more we see… More…

Poor Saint Augustine. For years now people have drawn the source of the memoir back to his Confessions. As if because of that book, Augustine’s hands now bear the ink stains of James Frey, tales of addiction, incest and mental illness, the word “momoir,” and a dozen Holocaust survivor fakers. Just like Jane Austen, who occasionally bears the blame for the candy-coated chick lit aisle of your local bookstore, Augustine deserves a better legacy.

Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda. 304 pages. Riverhead. $25.95.

Even Ben Yagoda accuses Augustine of the crime of inventing the memoir in his new book Memoir: A History. It’s a long road from Confessions — written around 400 A.D. — to the memoir’s current dominance in the publishing scene, although the template hasn’t changed much in all of those centuries: I have done some… More…

Back in junior high school health class, we were told that the brain has two different hemispheres — the left and the right. The left brain, the textbook stated, is responsible for language, math, and science, logic and rationality. The right brain was the artistic one, the creative half of the brain. But that’s not quite true. Neuroimaging and experiments on patients with split brains and brain damage to only one hemisphere have allowed a much more detailed, and fascinating, accounting of how the two parts interact with the world, and how they combine to become a unified consciousness (and, in some cases of mental disorders, how they occasionally don’t). Iain McGilchrist has combined scientific research with cultural history in his new book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World to examine how the evolution of the brain influenced our society, and… More…

Maybe one of the greatest gifts moving overseas has given me is distance from the absolutely batshit health care debate going on in the United States. Before I left, I could barely stomach the yelling, the sign waving, and the pundits’ pronouncements that “the United States has the best health care system in the world!” Ten minutes of the nightly news was enough to bring me to the brink of a coronary incident.

Danger to Self: On the Front Line with an ER Psychiatrist by Paul Linde. 280 pages. University of California Press. $24.95. Doctoring the Mind: Is Our Current Treatment of Mental Illness Really Any Good? by Richard P. Bentall. 384 pages. NYU Press. $29.95. Healing the Broken Mind: Transforming America’s Failed Mental Health System by Timothy Kelly. 193 pages. NYU Press. $25.95. The Sixties by Jenny Diski. 160 pages. Picador…. More…