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Go Set A Watchman

Lee, Harper

Last Updated: Apr-25-2019
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Now 26 years old, Scout (Jeanne Louise) returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, where she encounters many changes. Her brother has died. Her heroic father, Atticus Finch, who defended the wrongly accused man in the earlier acclaimed novel (To Kill a Mockingbird) is still carrying on his legal practice and his role as a wise pillar of the community, despite his advancing age. He is approached to defend a black man who has killed a white man in a motor vehicle accident.

Scout renews contact with old friends, including Hank who still hopes that she will marry him. The old places spark memories told in 
deftly written flashbacks that beautifully evoke the atmosphere of a small southern town in the heat of summer. Some flashbacks– an imagined pregnancy following a chaste kiss and an escapade with falsies at a school dance-- are hilarious renditions of ‘tweenage’ angst, typical of any time or place.

But Scout is disgusted by the social spying, the rumors that easily build, and the latent racial hatred that lurks everywhere. The memories of her “color-blind” childhood make her confrontation with the cruel, racial tensions in the more recent time all the more upsetting. Even her beloved nanny, Calpurnia, is now alienated with distrust and repressed anger. The climax comes when she witnesses her father, as chair of a meeting, give the floor to a notorious racist. Scout confronts him and he launches into a long self-justifying and not entirely convincing defense of the need for free speech. The disquieting conclusion is ambiguous. 
 

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Maggie O’Farrell describes the book in a scene involving a casual conversation she has with her mother over tea.

As she lifts the pot to the table, she asks me what I’m working on at the moment, and, as I swallow my water, I tell her I’m trying to write a life, told only through near death experiences. She is silent for a moment, readjusting cosy, milk jug, cup handles. ‘Is it your life?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, a touch nervously. I have no idea how she’ll feel about this. ‘It’s not…it’s just…snatches of a life. A string of moments. Some chapters will be long. Others might be really short.’ (pp. 142-143)
This conversation is the only place in the book where O’Farrell describes her intentions in writing it. But, what O’Farrell describes to her mother is exactly what the book is, a memoir comprising seventeen “brushes with death,” as she calls these moments. There is no prologue, there are no interludes, there is no coda, just the seventeen stories.

Few people will experience any one of these events, and perhaps only O’Farrell has experienced all of the events she tells us about. She categorizes them based on the anatomy involved in a particular brush with death. For example, some of the chapter names are: “Lungs” (three times), “Neck” (twice), “Abdomen,” “Intestines,” “Cerebellum,” “Circulatory System,” “Whole Body.” The one exception is the chapter, “Daughter.”

Other ways of categorizing the near-death experiences O’Farrell covers could be based on whether they threatened O’Farrell herself or any of her children, whether they were the result of bad luck (e.g., illness) or bad judgment (e.g., near drowning), or whether the threat originated outside the body (e.g., accident) or within the body (e.g., illness, medical procedures). The brushes with death from outside the body involved violence (twice), decapitation (twice), drowning (three times), a plunging commercial airliner, and a knife throwing exhibition. From within her body, close calls involved encephalitis as a child, amoebic dysentery while traveling in a developing country, a Cesarean section gone awry, and a few missed miscarriages (i.e., when fetus dies but no signs or symptoms manifest and surgical procedures become necessary). A daughter was born with severe allergic conditions that caused the child misery pretty much all the time interspersed with episodes of life-threatening reactions. O’Farrell’s son was almost lost in one of her near drownings.

O’Farrell leaves it to the epigraph she placed at the beginning of the book to stitch together how these stories collectively reveal the possibility of the human spirit to get us through the most serious and persistent challenges to our being. For this epigraph, she takes a line from Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar:

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Esmé Weijun Wang is a novelist who has been diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder.  The Collected Schizophrenias is a book of personal essays that was the 2016 winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. 

A precocious young person on a track to success, Wang experiences a manic episode at Yale that leads to her first hospitalization.  After a second hospitalization, her college washes its hands of her.  Hitting roadblocks time and time again requires her to rebuild her life over and over.  This is not a conventional chronological autobiography but rather essays that provide different approaches to the author’s experience of mental illness.  The plural “schizophrenias” of the title encompasses the whole schizophrenic spectrum of disorders.  As Wang explains, her own diagnosis is “the fucked-up offspring of manic depression and schizophrenia” (p. 10).  

In an essay entitled “High-Functioning” we learn how the author, having been a fashion editor, knows how to pass for normal: “My makeup routine is minimal and consistent.  I can dress and daub when psychotic and when not psychotic.  I do it with zeal when manic.  If I’m depressed, I skip everything but the lipstick.  If I skip the lipstick, that means I haven’t even made it to the bathroom mirror” (p.44).  

Later, in “The Choice of Children,” volunteering at a camp for bipolar children makes Wang think about what it would be like to inflict her diagnosis on her own offspring.  In “Reality, On-Screen” she attempts to convey the sensation of decompensating to psychosis.  And in “Yale Will Not Save You” she considers the failure of universities to accommodate mentally ill students. 

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The House on Lippincott

Burstow, Bonnie

Last Updated: Apr-03-2019
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Miriam Himmelfarb is the middle of three daughters of holocaust survivors Rachael and Daniel, who are secular Jews born in Europe.  Safe in the house on Lippincott in an immigrant neighborhood of Toronto, Sondra, Miriam and Esther grow up hearing their parents’ nightmare screams every night. They bask in genuine affection and learn to respect the horrific history of their elders whose needs come to dominate their own. Their father angers at the slightest provocation, and every tiny domestic issue is a reminder of Auschwitz. 

These conditions become their own form of trauma. Daniel allows his child-abusing younger brother into the home where he secretly molests Sondra. The girl flees to live on the street in prostitution and addiction. Esther turns to religion and marries within the faith, finding comfort in traditions. Following in the footsteps of her professor mother, Miriam becomes a philosopher. She briefly moves out during her studies to live in the avant-garde Rochdale College, but she is unable to build a life outside the parental home and returns, denying herself independence and love.
The loss of her mother by carefully planned suicide is terrifying.

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Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Jolted awake by a ringing telephone, the narrator (assumed to be Mukherjee) listens to his mother give a tearful report of his 83-year-old father’s waning health. Telling her that he will book the next flight from New York to New Delhi, Mukherjee’s mother wavers, regretting that her call now spurs him to purchase expensive airfare. In a tone of knowing sarcasm, Mukherjee writes, “The frugality of her generation had congealed into frank superstition: if I caught a flight now, I might dare the disaster into being.” Arriving in “sweltering, smog-choked Delhi,” Mukherjee joins his mother in a hospital’s I.C.U. A physician himself, Mukherjee notes the facility’s piteously tumbledown conditions, its crumbling floors and exposed utilities, jibing that, if one were to trip on the concrete rubble, “a neurologist would be waiting conveniently for you around the corner.” No doubt accustomed to the comfortable amenities of American hospitals, Mukherjee magnifies the miserable disarray of the Delhi facility—a defective heartrate monitor, a fractured suction catheter, a hospital bed with cracked wheels, a delivery van used as an improvised ambulance. This world, far from New York, is mired in seemingly eternal disrepair: “Delhi had landed upside down. The city was broken. This hospital was broken. My father was broken.”

These would seem to be the smug observations of a dismayed tourist were it not for Mukherjee’s thoughts on the intricate and noiseless machinery of homeostasis, the cohesive force that sustains internal constancy. “There’s a glassy transparency to things around us that work,” he writes, “made visible only when the glass is cracked and fissured. […] To dwell inside a well-functioning machine is to be largely unaware of its functioning.” As Mukherjee witnesses the spiraling decline of his father’s health within a deteriorating, dismally ill-equipped healthcare system, he focuses on the regularities of equilibrium by juxtaposing the homeostasis of healthcare institutions and human bodies. Mukherjee relates a memorable story from his early career when he staffed nightshifts at an urban clinic, where his colleague, an older nurse, stacked oxygen masks, oiled oxygen valves, and arranged beds. He belittled the nurse’s exacting preparations as an “obsessive absurdity” but, when his first patient arrived with an asthma spasm, he realized how critical the clinic’s flawless order was to his life-saving efforts: “The knob of the oxygen turned effortlessly—who would have noticed that it had just been oiled?—and, when I reached for an I.V. line, a butterfly needle, just the right size and calibre, appeared exactly when I needed it so that I could keep my eyes trained on the thin purplish vein in the crook of the elbow.” Had these things not been prepared, had they not been finely tuned for use, had an instrument been misplaced, would Mukherjee’s patient have lived? He experienced an example of institutional homeostasis, conducive to optimum medical care, which facilitated essential processes to occur successfully without mishap.  

Now in the New Delhi hospital, Mukherjee notes that its medical staff has “to settle for a miserable equilibrium. Amid scraps and gaps and shortages, they had managed to stabilize [my father].” He arrives at another stark realization, “I had versed myself in the reasons that my father had ended up in the hospital. It took me longer to ask the opposite question: What had kept my father, for so long, from acute decline?” Recollecting his father’s life at home in between hospitalizations, Mukherjee references a different kind of homeostasis that helped to prolong his life. For example, when his father was unable to go to the local market to haggle for fish and cauliflower, the vendors came to his home for usual business— “The little rituals saved him. They […] restored his dignity, his need for constancy.” Mukherjee accentuates the protean workings of homeostasis, its variegated forms that sustain the patterns of normalcy that give regularity and meaning to human life—indeed, equilibrium is not only an infinitude of minute chemical and biological factors, but familiar ease in a world that one knows and loves. Equilibrium, however rigorously maintained, succumbs to decay. Mukherjee aptly quotes Philip Larkin’s poem, “The Old Fools”: “At death you break up: the bits that were you / Start speeding away from each other for ever / With no one to see.” Mukherjee notes that the experience of his father’s decline was not so much observing him disintegrate into a similar kind of molecular dust, as imaged in Larkin’s verse, as it was his solidity upheld by homeostatic forces, a steady chugging of biological gears that made intricate compromises to sustain his deteriorating body.

After his father emerges from the coma, Mukherjee enlists curious pedestrians to help lift him into a makeshift ambulance. His father’s jostled body resembles a “botched Indian knockoff of an ecstatic Bernini.” The thematic kernel of Mukherjee’s narrative, homeostasis, draws scrutiny not only to the experiences of individual bodies but the systems and institutions that heal them, to the material environments in which fragile bodies are cared for, repaired, and rehabilitated. “The hospitals that work, the ambulances that lift patients smoothly off the ground: we neglect the small revolutions that maintain these functions,” reflects Mukherjee, “but when things fall apart we are suddenly alert to the chasms left behind.”
 

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Summary:

This is a gripping, informative, and well-researched book about human blood. An accomplished journalist, Rose George, covers a variety of topics, largely in the U.S., Britain, and Canada but also in Nepal, India, and South Africa. She describes many current issues, provides historical background, and speculates on future technologies, such as replacement of blood by other fluids. There are nine sections:

 “My Pint”  While the book’s title refers to the author's volume of blood, this chapter’s title refers to a single pint she is donating. We read about blood supply (donated and stored blood) in the U.S. and—by contrast—in India.

“The Most Singular and Valuable Reptile” refers to the leech. This arresting chapter describes both historical and  modern uses of leeches to gather blood from humans. She visits a company called Biopharm in Wales where leeches are raised and prepared for shipment to medical clinics and hospitals.  

 “Janet and Percy” is a historical chapter focusing on Dame Janet Maria Vaughan, a central figure in creating the Blood Transfusion Service in England during WWII and Percy Oliver, who guided its predecessor, the London Blood Transfusion Service.  

“Blood Borne.”  This chapter describes Khayelitsha, South Africa, “the ugly backside of Cape Town” (p. 100): a place of poverty, crime, rape, sexual predation, and HIV. While rich nations provide assessment and treatment for people with HIV, poor nations have many citizens infected with the virus and, over time, rising rates of infection. 

 “The Yellow Stuff” describes the plasma portion of blood; it can be frozen (as FFP) and used as a filler for bleeding or trauma patients. Unlike blood—which can only be given without payment—plasma can be collected from paid donors. It is a largely traded commodity, part of a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. Plasma carries Factor VIII, a crucial protein for clotting blood; hemophiliacs lack this and are at risk for death by bleeding externally or internally. Some plasma has been tainted, for example by HIV.

“Rotting Pickles.”  In Western Nepal (and other places), menstruation is taboo. George writes, “We are in a minority among species, and among mammals, to bleed every month.” She reviews historical views of women’s periods, mostly negative. Worldwide, there are many taboos, but also some educational efforts for public health that are helpful in impoverished areas.  

 “Nasty Cloths.” This tells the unusual story of an Indian man named Muruga, “a poorly educated workshop helper” who became a leader in creating sanitary protection for menstruating women. Worldwide, the feminine hygiene industry is some $23 billion. George also reviews related history, including Toxic Shock Syndrome from tampons.  

 “Code Red.” Bleeding is often a fatal factor in trauma, even with the best efforts to transfuse blood into the patient, unit after unit. George observes open chest techniques at a resuscitation. She reviews breakthroughs in blood typing, component therapy, and “buddy transfusions.”  

“Blood like Guinness: The Future.” George starts with images from the past: vampires, human drinkers of blood, past and, even, present. She interviews a purveyor of the concept that “young blood” is healthier than older blood. Can there be, discovered or created, blood substitutes that also save lives? 

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The Slap

Tsiolkas, Christos

Last Updated: Mar-12-2019
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In Melbourne, Australia, Hector and Aisha are hosting a big barbecue for their families and friends who come with several children. Hector’s somewhat controlling Greek parents appear too, bringing along too much food and their chronic disapproval of his non-Greek wife despite the two healthy grandkids and her success as a veterinarian. Aisha’s less-well-off friends, Rosie and Gary, arrive with their cherubic-looking son, Hugo, who at age three, is still breastfed and being raised according to a hippie parenting style that manages to be both sheltering and permissive. Hugo has a meltdown over a cricket game, which the older kids have let him join.  He raises a bat to strike another child, when Hector’s cousin, Harry, intervenes to protect his own son. Hugo kicks Harry who slaps him. Rosie and Gary call it child abuse and notify the police. 

The aftermath of the slap is told in several fulsome chapters, each devoted to a different individual’s perspective: among them, Hector, Aisha, Harry, Rosie, Hector’s father, and the teenaged babysitter Connie. Harry is rendered miserable by Rosie and Gary’s aggressive lawsuit against him. Connie believes she is in love with a philandering, substance-abusing Hector who in turn has unscrupulously led her on. Recognizing its alienation of her friends, Rosie sticks to her legal pursuit of Harry although she worries about the drain on their meagre finances, the exposure of Gary's drinking, and the anticipated criticism of their parenting style. Aisha is fed up with her husband’s edginess and submission to his parents, and she flirts with escape in the form of a handsome stranger at a conference. 

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Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

First published in 1898, Chekhov’s “A Doctor’s Visit”  has been ably adapted as a short play by physician-playwright, Guy Fredrick Glass. In addition to the original characters, in his adaptation Glass has added a new character, a medical student, Boris, as a foil and interlocutor for the work’s main character, Dr. Korolyov. Staging directions and scene setting also add dramatic dimensions to the story, as do elaborations of conversations including  comedic encounters with the governess, Christina Dmitryevna, and a display of "compassionate solidarity" (see Coulehan annotation ) with the doctor’s patient, Liza. The primary theme of the story stays true in this adaptation—Korolyov’s impressions of the patient viewed from a cold objective stance are changed as he develops personal insights into the social and political nature of her (and his) malaise.

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His Favorites

Walbert, Kate

Last Updated: Mar-06-2019
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Kate Walbert’s recent book, His Favorites, is a compact 149 page novella that seems to be a direct outgrowth of the #MeToo movement, a work consciously addressed to women who have experienced sexual abuse from those in power over them. But linking the book to current events does an injustice to the artistry of this exquisitely constructed work. Ms. Walbert embeds her story of sexual exploitation in adolescence and focuses on a teenager who is abused by her popular English teacher in a prestigious boarding school.

Jo Hadley’s story begins abruptly. To outward appearances, she is a typical adolescent more concerned with how she looks, having a good time, and hanging out with friends than reading the Great Books. Suddenly, while driving a golf cart around the course on a lazy summer night, a close friend is violently thrown over side, strikes a tree head first, and dies instantaneously.
Only later do we learn about the profound impact this accident has had on Joy and her family. Joy is forced to transfer out of her neighborhood public school and enroll in the Hawthorne School. But Joy is clearly talented, adapts quickly to her new circumstances, and is placed in a special writing program for gifted students. There she falls under the tutelage of a charismatic 34-year old teacher, called Master. He has a reputation for running an irreverent, highly charged classroom and is always trailed by a legion of admiring young women from his advanced writing class.

Jo’s horrific s encounter with Master in his residential suite is followed by a failed effort to report Master’s behavior to the school leadership. We learn about Jo’s parents and the disintegration of her family after the accident. We meet her schoolmates. One is an attractive member of Master’s retinue who resurfaces several years after graduation in New York and who still seethes with resentment at her treatment by Master. A second classmate is musically gifted but far less stylish than the students in Master’s English seminar. She becomes the target of a cruel hazing prank that reverberates in Joy’s mind with the passage of time. As the book reaches its conclusion, the context in which Joy is relating her story is unexpectedly revealed, which casts all of her recollections in an entirely new light.  The storyline is disjointed and the vantage point shifts frequently. But the narrative is gripping and novella’s structure is exquisitely built on apt description and poignant allusions to other works in the literary canon including the novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles and The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe.

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Eighth Grade

Burnham, Bo

Last Updated: Feb-26-2019
Annotated by:
Jiang, Joshua

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

A coming-of-age tale told in the parlance of Generation Z, Eighth Grade depicts the last week of Kayla Day’s middle school career. The path has not been easy: Kayla struggles with social anxiety and doesn’t have many friends. She’s voted “most quiet” by her class, but despite her outward reality, Kayla contends on her personal YouTube channel that, in fact, she is humorous and cool and talkative, if only her classmates took the time to get to know her. Her assertions are put to the test in the following week, during which Kayla goes to a pool party hosted by Kennedy Graves (voted “best eyes”), attempts to kindle a spark with her crush, and attends a high school shadowing program. These experiences challenge Kayla to embody the advice she so readily espouses on her YouTube channel, and though she isn’t miraculously transformed into the most popular girl at school in time for graduation, she learns something of being herself.  

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