Showing 1 - 10 of 2711 Literature annotations

Blood

Aleixandre, Vicente

Last Updated: May-23-2017
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

"Blood" ("La Sangre") is a poem in Spanish by Vincente Aleixandre, a member of the Spanish intellectual group called "The Generation of '27" and the 1977 Noble Laureate for Literature. It first appeared in "En Un Vasto Dominio", a collection published in Madrid in 1962, consisting, in part, of "a series of poems on parts of the body." (page 264). The present volume is a bilingual edition with the Spanish text on the left page and facing English translations by 15 different translators (including Willis Barnstone, Robert Bly and W. S. Merwin) on the right. The editor, Lewis Hyde, is a poet, translator and teacher of creative writing. He has also furnished an introduction to Aleixandre's work and the selections in this volume in particular, based in part on his personal acquaintance with the poet. Tomás O'Leary translated this poem, the only translation of his in the book.  

"Blood" has no formal elements or rhyme scheme. In a curiously casual voice, it describes the cycle (a word never used in this poem) that the blood makes in its journey from oxygenation in the lungs to the heart - nor are these organs mentioned by name in the Spanish text of the poem - and thence to all the near and remote cells of the body in order to deliver this beneficial oxygen. Once the blood has delivered its cargo, it completes the cycle by returning as de-oxygenated venous blood to the heart, the origin of the cycle, only to begin it, and the sustenance of life, anew.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

In this book, Ivan Illich offers a harsh critique of health care as provided in western industrialized societies during the 1970s. However, he did not write this book as a health care expert. He was trained as a medieval historian and philosopher, and taught the history of friendship and the history of the art of suffering. Indeed, he admitted:  “I do not care about health.” (p. i) And yet, he could have written the same critique 40 years later.  

What brought Illich’s attention to health care was his broader interest in how modern responses to societal level challenges become counterproductive and even harmful:
The threat which current medicine represents to the health of populations is analogous to the threat which the volume and intensity of traffic represent to mobility, the threat which education and the media represent to learning, and the threat which urbanization represents to competence in homemaking. (p. 7)
Illich’s general thesis is that health care can work against the healing people seek from it, that health care can be as pathogenic as disease, and that health care can expropriate health. Health care is a nemesis to its subjects, he asserted, because it is “a social organization that set out to improve and equalize the opportunity for each man to cope in autonomy and ended by destroying it.” (p. 275)  

Illich builds his argument around the concept of iatrogenesis, which he differentiates into three categories: 1) clinical iatrogenesis, 2) social iatrogenesis, and 3) cultural iatrogenesis, each of which is given a separate section in the book.

Clinical iatrogenesis is the harm done to people as the result of actions taken to restore health or prevent illness, such as an adverse drug event, a hospital-acquired infection, or perforated bowel from a screening colonoscopy. Illich characterizes clinical iatrogenesis as it is understood and used in biomedical circles, but he brings a particular poignancy to it when he refers to “remedies, physicians, or hospitals [as] the pathogens, or ‘sickening’ agents” at work. (p. 27)  

With social iatrogenesis, Illich is referring to the harm societal arrangements for health care can inflict on people it’s meant to help. These arrangements comprise hospitals, physicians, health care product industries, insurers, and government agencies. The net effect of their actions is to standardize health care, and in Illich’s view, standardizing health care amounts to the “medicalization of life.” The more life is medicalized, the more people are forced to operate under the influence of organized health care, “when all suffering is ‘hospitalized’ and homes become inhospitable to birth, sickness, and death; when the language in which people could experience their bodies is turned into bureaucratic gobbledegook; or when suffering, mourning, and healing outside the patient role are labeled a form of deviance.”
(p. 41)  Harm results to people whose ideas of what constitutes illness and whose preferences in the management of their illnesses do not match up with standardized health care. They could be harmed by treatments they don’t think they need, such as drugs to blunt grief, or in the ways they do not prefer, such as in a hospital. Thus, in social iatrogenesis, the social arrangements of health care are the pathogens.  

Before the social movements and transformations produced standardized health care, people of various cultures coped and adjusted in their own ways to the suffering they experienced. Illich’s cultural iatrogenesis occurs when societies capitulate to “professionally organized medicine [that] has come to function as a domineering moral enterprise that advertise industrial expansion as a war against all suffering.” (p. 127)  Illich is not saying that suffering is good and should be preserved, but rather that societies coming under the control of industrialized health care suffer more and suffer in ways they no longer have the authority or will to manage. Cultural iatrogenesis also manifests when professionally organized medicine supplants community responses to health problems people in that community experience: “The siren of one ambulance can destroy Samaritan attitudes in a whole Chilean town.”
(p. 8)  He elaborates on how cultural iatrogenesis works against people with examples involving treatment of pain, creating and eliminating diseases, and death and dying.  Illich’s thoughts on countering the counter productivity of industrial health care take up the last section of the book. He does not propose tearing down organized health care, but rather getting it to where “health is identical with the degree of lived freedom,” because “beyond a certain level of intensity, health care, however equitably distributed, will smother health-as-freedom.” (p. 242)  Illich is beseeching organized health care to leave life less medicalized so as to leave more room for people to decide themselves if their challenges are a matter of health or not, and how they would prefer to manage them when health care may have a role. To this end, he concentrated this section of the book mostly on the political responses required to restore “freedom and rights” people ought to have to manage their health.  

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Saleh, Mona

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Ethnography

Summary:

Written by successful Australian journalist Geraldine Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire recounts her experiences living among and working with Muslim women throughout her time as a correspondent in the Middle East. Brooks delves into topics as varied as non-marital sex, female genital mutilation, the different types of veiling (and the reasoning behind veiling at all), women’s participation in the Iranian military, the Qur’an, and the life and teachings of the Muslim Prophet, Muhammad. Brooks presents various perspectives and interpretations of certain Muslim practices, such as the wearing of the veil (hijab). She looks at the specific Qur’anic passage that prescribes the veil: “And when you [men] ask his [the Prophet’s] wives for anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain (hijab).” (p. 84)  Brooks intelligently analyzes, “What is so puzzling is why the revelation of seclusion [veiling], so clearly packaged here with instructions that apply only to the prophet, should ever have come to be seen as a rule that should apply to all Muslim women.” (p. 84)  It is often difficult to find alternative interpretations of Islamic requirements, but Brooks presents them here without filter and speculates why an apparently individually prescribed veil would become so widespread that it now practically symbolizes Islam. 

Brooks recalls several encounters that she had with fellow Westerners living in the Middle East for various reasons, from work to having married a Middle Easterner and re-located there. Some of the most sympathy-inducing moments are in these situations where Westerners are forced to live under the rules of strict, conservative, Muslim societies.  In one anecdote, Brooks relays the case of her friend, Margaret, an American woman who married an Iranian man. When Brooks asks Margaret why she does not go home to America to visit her family, Margaret replies, “My husband doesn’t want me to,” and Brooks then clarifies, “It was up to him to sign the papers that would allow her to leave the country.”
(p. 106)  This situation shows that being an American woman or an educated woman does not prevent one from being held to the same standards as local women in certain Muslim societies.

The final chapter is entitled, “Conclusion: Beware the Dogma” and serves to share Brooks’s personal opinions on the lives and faith that she had so objectively presented in journalist fashion until this point. Her opinion is summarized: 

“Today, the much more urgent and relevant task is to examine the way the faith [Islam] has proved such fertile ground for almost every antiwomen custom it encountered...When it found veils and seclusion in Persia, it absorbed them; when it found [female] genital mutilations in Egypt, it absorbed them; when it found societies in which women had never had a voice in public affairs, its own traditions of lively women’s participation withered.”
(p. 232)

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

James Rhodes is a British classical concert pianist who is known for his iconoclastic, pop-inspired performing style.  He is also an outspoken survivor of childhood sexual abuse who is equally frank about his struggles with severe mental illness. Rhodes’s memoir Instrumental is a tribute to the healing power of music.  Indeed, music quite literally saves the author’s life; it is only when a friend smuggles an iPod loaded with Bach into his psych ward that Rhodes regains the will to live.   

Rhodes does not mince words.  We learn that he was violently raped by a gym teacher on a regular basis for five years from the age of five. Left with severe internal injuries that produce wracking pain, he requires multiple surgeries.  He soon also develops dissociative symptoms, drug and alcohol addiction, self-injurious behaviors, and chronic suicidal ideation. Barely able to function, he endures many tumultuous years during which he abandons the piano.  The author’s subsequent journey from physical and emotional fragmentation to wholeness through music provides the substance of his book.
 

The preface to Instrumental is designated “Prelude,” and the ensuing twenty chapters, labeled “tracks,” all correspond to musical works.  (All twenty tracks may be listened to, for free, on Spotify.) In addition, as if to assure the reader he is in good company, Rhodes offers psychological profiles of famous composers.  We learn, for example, that Bruckner suffered from a morbid obsession with numbers, and that Schumann, after throwing himself in the Rhine, died in an asylum.  

View full annotation

Summary:

“Few hospitals are more deeply embedded in our popular culture” than Bellevue, David Oshinsky writes in the introduction to his new book Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital.  What follows, however, is not just an account of the (in)famous hospital, but a history of New York City, of disease and medicine and of America itself. Thus, the pages of Bellevue take us from Revolutionary War to Civil War, from Miasma Theory to Germ Theory, from the Spanish flu epidemic to the AIDS epidemic and from the disaster of 9/11 to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Along the way, the reader is introduced to giants of the medical and political world, many of whom were connected intimately to the hospital.  In Oshinsky’s telling, Bellevue is a hospital of firsts. The hospital with the first ambulance corps, first in-hospital medical school, first pathology lab. It is—at the same time—a hospital rooted in tradition. It is startling in reading Bellevue, for example, to realize that halfway through the book, the doctors who are being celebrated as central to the hospital’s longevity still subscribed to Miasma theory and could do little more for their patients than bleed them and give them alcohol.  Bellevue is also—and in Oshinsky’s eyes this seems most important—a hospital of immigrants. It was and is, a hospital where those for whom no one else would care could come, where no one would be turned away. Over the years, this has meant that Bellevue has opened its doors to Irish immigrants who were thought to be causing the Typhus epidemic, to Jews who were thought to be causing tuberculosis outbreaks and to homosexuals who were thought to be causing the AIDS epidemic. The demographic of patients who come to Bellevue has changed drastically throughout its history, but the underlying ethos of the hospital has been unwavering. 

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Saleh, Mona

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This memoir follows the journey of Nujood Ali, a young, Yemeni child bride from a rural village. She was later named Glamour's Woman of the Year in 2008. 

The memoir begins with Nujood’s escape from her husband’s house and how she made her way—alone—to a courthouse in the country’s capital where she was determined to win a divorce.

Nujood’s father pulled her of school when she was in the second grade and forced her to marry a man much older than she. At this time, the minimum legal age of marriage for girls was 15, but many families—especially in rural areas—continued to engage in marrying off daughters much younger than this. Nujood’s father’s reasoning (which echoes the reasoning of many others who engage in this practice) included having one less child to feed, preventing Nujood from being raped by strangers, and protecting her from becoming the victim of “evil rumors.” (p. 54) 

In a practice common in Yemen, her father moreover stipulated that Nujood’s husband would not have sex with her until she had begun to menstruate; the husband did not wait and instead raped Nujood after they were wed. 

Throughout the book, Ali and French journalist Delphine Minoui skillfully explain how women are not given choices in Nujood's part of Yemen: 

“In Khardji, the village where I [Nujood] was born, women are not taught how to make choices. When she was about sixteen, Shoya, my mother, married my father, Ali Mohammad al-Ahdel, without a word of protest. And when he decided four years later to enlarge his family by choosing a second wife, my mother obediently accepted his decision. It was with that same resignation that I at first agreed to my marriage, without realizing what was at stake. At my age, you don’t ask yourself many questions.”
(p. 23)

Ali was connected with her lawyer, Shada Nasser, at the courthouse, and her case garnered both international attention and outrage. After a hearing, Ali was granted her divorce and took trips out of Yemen, including to the United States, even meeting with then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The memoir ends on a happy note, with Nujood starting her education again, at a new school, and definitively deciding to become a lawyer who is committed to raising the legal age of marriage in Yemen. The authors even discuss two cases of girls who were granted divorces in Yemen after Nujood and were able to use her case as legal precedence. 

An article in the Huffington Post explains that while Nujood’s memoir ends on a happy and inspiring note, there is still much more work to be done. It points out that Nujood insisted on remaining in Yemen, while her American advocates believed it would be best for her and her future to remove her from her family. Nujood’s family put pressure on her to demand more and more financial compensation for her international fame. Even though her co-author and other advocates begged her to go to school, she did not complete her education. Her father used a (likely large) portion of her book proceedings to marry a third wife. The most recent update is that Nujood remarried (circumstances and consent unclear) and mothered two daughters of her own.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A rare patient narrative from 1812 describes a mastectomy performed before the introduction of anesthesia. This letter from Frances d'Arblay (1752-1840) (née Frances [Fanny] Burney), addressed to her older sister, Esther, details her operation in Paris by one of Napoleon's surgeons.In her childhood and youth, Fanny Burney moved in the best London society; she was a friend of Dr. Johnson who admired her. She served five years at the court of George III and Queen Charlotte as Second Keeper of the Royal Robes (1786-1791). Fanny Burney married Adjutant-General in the army of Louis XVI Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard d'Arblay in 1793. He had fled to England after the Revolution. They lived in England and spent ten years in France (1802-1812).Burney's mastectomy took place 30 September 1811. The patient wrote about her experience nine months later. She chronicles the origin of her tumor and her pain. She is constantly watched by "The most sympathising of Partners" (128), her husband, who arranges for her to see a doctor. She warns her sister and nieces not to wait as long as she did. At first resisting out of fear, the patient agrees to see Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey (1766-1842), First Surgeon to the Imperial Guard.He asks for her written consent to guide her treatment; her four doctors request her formal consent to the operation, and she makes arrangements to keep her son, Alex, and her husband, M. d'Arblay, away. Her husband arranges for linen and bandages, she makes her will, and writes farewell letters to her son and spouse. A doctor gives her a wine cordial, the only anesthetic she receives. Waiting for all the doctors to arrive causes her agony, but at three o'clock, "my room, without previous message, was entered by 7 Men in black" (136).She sees "the glitter of polished Steel" (138). The extreme pain of the surgery makes her scream; she feels the knife scraping her breastbone. The doctors lift her up to put her to bed "& I then saw my good Dr. Larry, pale nearly as myself, his face streaked with blood, & its expression depicting grief, apprehension, & almost horrour" (140).Her husband adds a few lines. These are followed by a medical report in French by Baron Larrey's 'Chief Pupil'. He states that the operation to remove the right breast at 3:45pm and that the patient showed "un Grand courage" (141). She lives another twenty-nine years. It is impossible to determine whether her tumor was malignant.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Saleh, Mona

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Dr. El Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist activist and a psychiatrist who originally published this book in Arabic in 1977. She has had a tumultuous relationship with the Egyptian government and was imprisoned after criticizing former President Anwar Sadat. During her career she worked at several universities in the United States. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World  has seamlessly incorporated elements of memoir and critical analysis of Arab culture and Islam. El Saadawi divides  the book into four sections: The Mutilated Half, Women in History, The Arab Woman, and Breaking Through. The book opens with Dr. El Saadawi recounting in the first-person her harrowing experience with female genital mutilation (a very common practice in her home country of Egypt) when she was 6 years old. She uses very descriptive, perhaps even graphic language, to describe the experience in all its horror. This early childhood memory sets the stage for the audience to bear witness to all the various types of misogyny that many Egyptian and Arab women inevitably experience. 

Dr. El Saadawi then skillfully relates memories of being told, for example, to not ask too many questions because she was a girl, and states that she has never heard the word “bint” (Arabic word for girl) used in a positive fashion. These nuggets of personal experiences are inserted into an overview of the complaints of stifled sexuality and associated sequelae with which her psychiatric patients struggled. She delves into the topics of Islam’s take on non-marital sex, illegitimate children, and prostitution thrown against the backdrop of her personal experiences seeing young, poor girls who work as maids being raped and impregnated by the men of the families who employ them and then being held as the sole accountable party.

After the first section, Dr. El Saadawi broadens her focus to include the status of women starting with Eve (whom the major monotheistic religions, including Islam, believe to be the first woman on Earth). Dr. El Saadawi investigates the historical designation of women as inferior in the Jewish faith and explains that as Christianity and Islam evolved against this backdrop, they also assigned women to a similar status. She insightfully points out how femininity did not evolve independently of society but rather that femininity and a woman’s place in society (all societies) are direct reflections of socioeconomic practices or goals of that society. 

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

Evan Hansen, an awkward, lonely high school senior, struggles with Social Anxiety Disorder. On the advice of his therapist, he pens supportive letters to himself: “Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why.  Because today all you have to do is be yourself. But also confident.”   

Connor, another loner student, picks up one of Evan’s letters and, several days later, commits suicide.  When Connor’s parents find the letter, they take it to be their son’s suicide note.  Instead of dissuading them, Evan concocts an account of a close friendship with the classmate he barely knew, creating an email trail. Connor’s family swallows the story.
 

As Evan gains the attention he has always craved and comes out of his shell, he finds that he cannot stop himself.   He founds the “Connor Project,” an organization dedicated to preserving his “friend’s” memory where he shares his musings on social media:  “Have you ever felt like nobody was there?  Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?  Have you ever felt like you could disappear?  Like you could fall, and no one would hear? ...Well, let that lonely feeling wash away…Lift your head and look around.  You will be found.  You will be found.”  Once Evan’s postings go viral, the Connor Project becomes a veritable industry, with a budget, and fans who look to it for inspiration.  As the stakes rise, the Project can flourish only by being fed more lies. 

View full annotation

Infidel

Hirsi, Ayaan

Last Updated: Apr-13-2017
Annotated by:
Saleh, Mona

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

This is an autobiographical work that describes the remarkable life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The book begins in Somalia, where Hirsi Ali was born and spent the early part of her childhood. It is here that Hirsi Ali discusses the second-class status of girls and the harrowing practice of female genital cutting, which she describes as it happened to her and her younger sister. Although her parents were against the practice, Hirsi Ali undergoes female genital cutting by the arrangement of her maternal grandmother, who states that if the clitoris is not cut, it will grow and end up dangling between the knees of the girl. This situation speaks to the variety of immediate reasons why different cultures engage in female genital cutting. They all revolve, however, around the disempowerment of girls and women and denying their basic human right to bodily integrity and sexuality. 

Due to civil unrest, Hirsi Ali and her family move around quite a bit while she is growing up, in places as distant as Saudi Arabia (where Hirsi Ali describes her childhood horror at seeing women clad in all black from head to toe), Ethiopia, and Kenya. Throughout her travels as a child and then a teenager, Hirsi Ali vacillates between being a staunch believer in Islam to questioning her faith, all while experiencing emotional, verbal, and savage physical abuse at the hands of her mother and, at one point, her Qur’an teacher. 

The action quickens at an incredible pace when Hirsi Ali’s father and community arrange for her to marry a Somali man who lives in Canada, even though Hirsi Ali does not consent to the marriage. It is telling when, on the day of her wedding ceremony, Hirsi Ali has a normal day at home while her father, her new husband, and the other men in her community have a celebration without her. In the Islamic ceremony, the bride only needs to be represented by a male guardian (father, brother, uncle, grandfather, etc) and does not physically need to be present. Hirsi Ali’s husband goes back to Canada and sends for her to join him. Rather than meeting her husband in Canada, Hirsi Ali manages to make her way to Amsterdam and apply for asylum. It is here that the reader watches Hirsi Ali confront a great amount of cognitive dissonance between what her Islamic upbringing has taught her about right and wrong versus what she personally experiences in the Netherlands, 

“The next morning, I decided to stage an experiment. I would walk out of the door without a headscarf. I was in my long green skirt and a long tunic, and I had my scarf in a bag with me in case of trouble, but I would not cover my hair. I planned to see what would happen...Absolutely nothing happened. The gardeners kept trimming the hedges. Nobody went into a fit...Nobody looked at me. If anything, I attracted less attention than when I was covering my head. Not one man went into a frenzy” (p. 195). 

Hirsi Ali is forthcoming about having lied on her asylum application to make her more likely to be approved. In the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali works as a Somali interpreter and, against all odds, goes on to attend college and obtain a degree in political science. While all of this is happening, Hirsi Ali is repeatedly impressed by Dutch society in their social order and equality between the sexes. She sees a glaring contrast between Dutch society and the lives of immigrant and refugee communities in the Netherlands. The Dutch, in an effort to be tolerant of immigrants and engage in multiculturalism, allowed Islamic religious schools to be established. Hirsi Ali, however, sees this as a way to sanction the systematic oppression of women in a democratic country. 

Hirsi Ali becomes politically active and becomes elected to the Dutch Parliament where she rails against this Dutch practice of allowing old-world religious edicts to coexist in a democratic land. As part of her fight against the sanctioning of hard-line Islam, Hirsi Ali writes a short film entitled Submission (which is the translation of the Arabic word “Islam”) that is produced by filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. The film speaks directly to the oppression of women in Islam.  At what is the climax of an already exciting book, Van Gogh is killed by a Muslim man who is clearly insulted by the film. Now, a publicly recognizable figure, Hirsi Ali’s life is in grave and immediate danger, and the Dutch parliament moves her from secure location to secure location (at one point, even as far as Boston) to protect her life. She is temporarily stripped of her Dutch citizenship on the basis of having lied on her asylum application, which effectively ends her political career in the Netherlands.  Hirsi Ali then re-locates to the United States. 

View full annotation