Showing 1 - 10 of 589 annotations in the genre "Novel"

The Ballad of Typhoid Mary

Federspiel, J. F.

Last Updated: Apr-07-2020
Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The novel's narrator is a widowed 58-year-old Swiss-born physician, Howard J. Rageet, who lives in New York City. His son is a pediatrician, his daughter a medical student. Rageet himself is terminally ill. He is writing a "little biography," of Mary Mallon, the infamous "healthy carrier" also known as Typhoid Mary. Rageet's grandfather, also a doctor, had kept a journal about Mary and his rivalry with his friend, (the real) George A. Soper, whose life's work became tracking Mary and proving that she was responsible for the typhoid outbreaks. Elaborating on the journal, Rageet recounts Mary's life in America.

Born Maria Anna Caduff in the same part of Switzerland as Rageet's ancestors, she arrives in New York Harbor in 1868, aged 13, on a crowded immigrant ship, a fifth of whose passengers had died en route from Europe. The dead include Mary's family. She had been taken care of by the ship's cook, who evidently both taught her to cook and used her for sex. When the ship docks, Mary tries to jump overboard, but is stopped by a physician, Dorfheimer, who smuggles her through Ellis Island and takes her home with him. He is also a pedophile, and he has sex with her. Rageet calls this kidnapping a "humane, benevolent crime." Not long after, Dorfheimer dies of typhoid fever.

Rageet's "ballad" then traces Mary's various positions as a cook (and, often, sexual object), most of which end quickly when the household is infected. She has two relationships that do not lead to the disease. One is with a small girl who has Down Syndrome. Once her connection to typhoid is suspected, the child's family hire Mary to live alone with the child and care for her, hoping the child will be infected and die. The child never becomes ill. The other is with a disillusioned anarchist, Chris Cramer. She lives with him and falls in love with him, but he is not sexually interested in her.

Soper encounters Mary when he is asked by a wealthy Oyster Bay family, her former employers, to investigate a typhoid outbreak in their household. He manages to track her down and eventually, after much resistance, she is arrested, tested, and quarantined. She escapes and continues to work as a cook until her re-arrest. Promising to try and imagine Mary's motives, Rageet breaks off his narrative. He is dying. The novel ends with a postscript written by Rageet's daughter. Implying that her father committed suicide, she tells of Mary's stroke and the last years of her life as a paraplegic, and she provides a final document, the menu for one of the very elaborate meals Mary would have cooked.

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Weather

Offill, Jenny

Last Updated: Apr-03-2020

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Weather is a strange, disturbing, and important book. Offill uses fragments of prose—typically a few lines or half a page—to present a small group of characters in New York City who experience dread, unhealthy behaviors, and many difficult choices. The fragments jump from topic to topic and points of view, suggesting chaos in the characters, in much of modern life, and even in the structure of this novel. “Weather” suggests “whether”: whether humans can survive not only from one day to the next but also in the long term that includes the climate crisis threatening our earth. 

The cast of characters is small and carefully arranged. Lizzie (our main focus) is married to Ben; they have a son Eli. Lizzie’s brother Henry is married to Catherine, and they have a baby girl, Iris; Ben and Lizzie have problematic mothers. A genogram of these and other related characters looks like the cast of a Restoration comedy, full of harmony and good will, but in Weather conflicts swirl and grow chaotically. Catherine divorces Henry. Ben suddenly goes on a three-week trip. Widespread complications include street drugs, alcohol, diet abnormalities, sleep deprivation. There are also mental problems such as confusion, hallucination, loneliness, delusions, and panic, as well as economic difficulties. Only Catherine has a career path, but, at the end of the book, she appears to be “tilting into the abyss too” (p. 179), according to Lizzie. 

While some fragments describe thoughts and actions of the characters, others present a giant whirlpool of cultural, environmental, and historical topics, including doomsday preppers, Rapturists, and the end of civilization, also gun rights, multicultural frictions, popular religion, a need for a strongman to govern, noticeably sick people and loss of medical services. Other topics touched on include hate literature, mob rule, suicide, torture, as well as references to Fukushima, the Holocaust, and 9/11. Many of these worry our characters; others are simply mentioned as “the surround” for all people around the world. Our characters have fantasies of hope but usually feel panic, dread, loneliness, guilt, or despair. Sylvia (Lizzie’s former professor and sometime boss) is an academic who appears to understand climate change and the need to warn people, but she gives up, saying “there’s no hope” (p. 133).  

The first 127 pages swirl around the characters with little progression of story. The next section (4) accelerates the craziness among them all. The last two sections seem more “stable,” but with no actual resolutions. Lizzie says “I will die early and ignobly” (p. 187). In the very last pages, she takes the boy Eli (the only normal major character) to a playground. Later she kneels by her bed and prays for “Mercy” (p. 197). Following the last page, we see only a one-line URL: www.obligatorynoteofhope.com. Is this part of the novel? Do we click on it? 


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Man's 4th Best Hospital

Shem, Samuel

Last Updated: Feb-28-2020
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Most of the group are reunited in this sequel to the 1978 blockbuster, The House of God: narrator Dr. Roy Basch and his girlfriend (now wife) Berry, former fellow interns (Eat My Dust Eddie, Hyper Hooper, the Runt, Chuck), surgeon Gath, the two articulate police officers (Gilheeny and Quick), and the Fat Man (a brilliant, larger-than-life former teaching resident). As interns, Basch and his comrades were a crazy, exhausted, cynical crew just trying to survive their brutal internship. Years later, the midlife doctors have changed but remain emotionally scarred.

The Fat Man (“Fats”), now a wealthy California internist who is beginning a biotech company targeting memory restoration, is recruited to reestablish the fortunes – financial and prestige – of Man’s Best Hospital which has slipped to 4th place in the annual hospital rankings. He calls on his former protégés to assist him in an honorable mission, “To put the human back in health care” (p34). Fats enlists other physicians (Drs. Naidoo and Humbo) along with a promising medical student (Mo Ahern) to staff his new Future of Medicine Clinic (FMC), an oasis of empathic medical care that strives to be with the patient.

Every great story needs a villain. Here the main bad guys are hospital president Jared Krashinsky, evil senior resident Jack Rowk Junior, and CEO of the BUDDIES hospital conglomerate Pat Flambeau. The electronic medical records system dubbed HEAL is a major antagonist, and the FMC docs wage war against it and the “screens.”

Poor Roy Basch works long hours, deals with family problems, has trouble paying bills, and experiences health issues (a bout of atrial fibrillation, a grand mal seizure, and alcohol use). Fats has warned of a “tipping point when medical care could go one way or another, either toward humane care or toward money and screens” (p8). Alas, the computers and cash appear victorious. A major character is killed. Many of the doctors working in the FMC including Basch leave the clinic. And fittingly, Man’s Best Hospital plummets in the latest rankings from 4th to 19th place.

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Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Anthony Marra’s debut novel (published in 2013) is set in Chechnya, the rebellious Caucasus republic that broke away from Russia in 1994, was in short order mired in two wars thereafter, and ultimately lost its independence and was re-incorporated into Russia as a semi-autonomous “federal subject” state.  Marra does not ease us into his story, but propels us headlong into it; it is 2004, and eight-year-old Havaa awakens to find that her father Dokka, suspected of aiding Chechen rebels, has been taken away by Russian troops, who have also burned her house to the ground.  She is alive only because Akhmed, her neighbor and her father’s friend, has spirited her out of her house in the middle of the night and hidden her in his.  Akhmed takes it upon himself to protect Havaa; he knows that the soldiers will be looking for her, because even though the official wars are over, Chechnya remains in the midst of a brutal battle for control, and the policy of the state is to “disappear” not only those it perceives as its enemies, but also their family members.  

Akhmed manages to get Havaa to the abandoned local hospital, where he believes she will be safe.  The hospital is staffed only by a smart, tough, and competent surgeon named Sonja, assisted by a nurse.  Sonja is an ethnic Russian from the area who trained in London and then returned to her homeland.  She agrees to shelter Havaa on the condition that Akhmed, who trained as a doctor but is painfully aware of his inadequacies in that profession (he wanted to be an artist), stay on also as her assistant surgeon.  Soldiers and civilians on both sides arrive in need of care in a hospital barely functioning, with little in the way of staff or supplies. 

Sonja meanwhile is searching for her sister who has disappeared into the chaos of the Chechen wars; she believes that Natasha is alive, but hasn’t heard of her, or from her, in years (we will, in the course of the novel, hear Natasha’s story and learn of another side of the underbelly of this war).  She comes to believe that Akhmed may hold a key to Natasha’s whereabouts, and Sonja of course holds the key to whatever measure of safety exists for Havaa—and thus for Akhmed as well.  Other locals, a local Chechen historian, his turncoat son, and various governmental and non-governmental functionaries round out the cast in the novel.   Akhmed must negotiate in a world where anyone could be an informer, and one person clearly is; where the price for falling into the wrong hands could be death or worse; where federal troops and rebels vie to outdo each other in brutality; and where the rest of the population spends every waking minute simply trying to survive in a lawless society and a landscape gutted by ongoing strife.   When the various narrative arcs ultimately link up the ending is a powerful one.




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The Bridge in the Jungle

Traven, B.

Last Updated: Dec-12-2019
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The Bridge in the Jungle is a novel about the tragic death of Carlos, an 8 or 9 year old (no age is given) hyperactive Mexican boy, and the aftermath of his mother's overwhelming grief for him, sometime in the early 20th Century in a very poor village deep in the jungle. (The lack of specific details are intentional, as I shall discuss below.) The narrator is an American man staying in the village while looking for alligator skins and bird feathers to sell in the U.S.. He observes the little boy's brother, who works in the oil industry in Texas and has just returned for the weekend, give his little brother brand new shoes. Carlos is overjoyed to wear them since all the villagers but the pump master's wife wear threadbare rags for clothes. This is the little boy's first pair of shoes, much less shiny new American ones. While sitting outside in the village with his host, both waiting for an outdoor party, the narrator hears an ominous splash that is Carlos falling to his death off the treacherous bridge, a bridge that has no railings. The remainder of the novel depicts the grief of the young mother - a grief that reaches the suffocating proportions of Greek tragedy - and her villagers' genuine support.

Described in minute detail by the narrator, the villagers - who have turned over every stone in the woods, dived many times in the river, and ridden to nearby villages to find Carlos - turn to an old man who requests a perfectly flat piece of wood and a stout candle. He then meticulously fastens the candle to the wood and carefully launches this raft of mystical exploration and recovery on the river. Every villager watches this ceremony with rapt attention. It is truly a riveting passage, for the raft travels under its own power from the river bank against the current, meandering slowly towards the bridge where it finally stops, despite the current, under the bridge, the only place no diver has yet looked:
"The board in the meanwhile has wandered farther under the bridge, but always in a right angle to the fifth post. Now it is under the middle of the bridge. From here it sails towards the fourth post, though only for about a foot. And here it stops as if it were nailed to the water. It does not mind the current nor the light breeze that sweeps softly across the surface of the river. The manner in which the board has halted is entirely different from that in which it stopped before. Now and then it trembles slightly, as if something were breathing against it from below. But it no longer whirls. ... The board begins softly to dance as if impatient. It seems that it wants to be relieved of its torture. It wriggles, swings about itself, though it does not move as much as two inches. One might think it is trying to go down to the bottom."
(page 110-1)
A villager dives and retrieves Carlos and hands his body to his mother:
"With an indescribable nobility and solemnity, and in his eyes that pitiful sad look which only animals and primitive people possess, he steps slowly forward. And Perez, the man whose daily task it is to fell the hard trees of the jungle and convert them into charcoal, lays that little water-soaked body in the outstretched arms of the mother with a tenderness that makes one think of glass so thin and fragile that a single soft breath could break it."
(page 113)
The villagers, in a procession that is tragicomic, take Carlos' body to the graveyard where a well respected teacher, now drunk from all the mescal others have offered him, gives an eulogy that suggests Christ's Sermon on the Mount. However, with inverted symbolism, this sermon is for, not by, Jesus and is delivered by a drunken priest-figure who is so drunk he falls into the open grave. To Traven's credit he introduces this farcical moment to emphasize how none of the villagers, much less the author, and, consequently, the reader, laughs at a decent man trying his best to honor Carlos. It is truly a most moving finale to a most moving book.



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Spring

Smith, Ali

Last Updated: Dec-02-2019
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Ali Smith is a Scottish writer. If she lived in the U.S., hopefully (a word I will come back to at the end) she would be a household name. She is 75% through a quartet of novels that are named for the seasons. Each captures the beauty and lightness of Vivaldi’s famous concerto and the heft of T.S. Eliot’s poetic quartets. Spring seamlessly blends brutal reality and a dream-like state. Anchored in the current world, it unfolds in a Brexit obsessed United Kingdom, and yet it incorporates artists, live and dead, ranging from Katherine Mansfield to Rainer Maria Rilke to Tacita Dean. The scope and inventiveness of the writing are staggering.

The plot will sound very odd in a brief summary. Like many modern novels, it incorporates two separate narrative strands that come together somewhat unexpectedly but satisfactorily in the climactic scenes. In the opening pages, we are introduced to Richard Lease, a modestly famous filmmaker who produced some well-regarded highbrow TV shows in the 1970s and 80s. He is considering an offer for a new film project about an imaginary crossing of paths by Rilke and Mansfield in Switzerland in 1922. But Richard is unable to rouse his enthusiasm partly because of misgivings about who he would have to work with. More importantly, he is still not over the recent death of his screenwriter, Patricia Neal or Paddy, who was more than just his artistic partner for four decades. Richard mulls over memories of their work and life together, reliving conversations and episodes that invoke Charlie Chaplin, Beethoven and Shakespeare. He aimlessly boards a train to Scotland. There, in an act of despair, he lowers himself onto the train track in an attempted suicide .

Richard is saved by a magical 12-year old girl, Florence. Although the description is scant, she is preternaturally bright, articulate, and endowed with an inexplicable power to move people to do what she wants. She supposedly was able to enter a restricted Immigrant Retention Center unaccompanied and persuade the supervisor to order a cleanup of the bathrooms for all the detainees. One morning, Florence encounters Brittany Hall, who is on her way to work as a security guard in one of the notorious British detention centers. Her dehumanizing work with the inmates is grinding her down, the degrading surroundings are destroying her soul.  Florence and Brittany end up at a train station and in an impulsive act, Brittany follows Florence onto a departing that is heading off to Scotland. The warm interaction with Florence on the ride awakens Brittany’s submerged feelings of humanity. They end up at the same destination as Richard, and there Florence persuades him to climb back on to the platform and saves his life.  A reinvigorated Richard, Florence and Brittany meet up with another mysterious character, a woman operating a mobile refreshment stand. The four travel in her crowded truck to Culloden, the site of the disastrous clash during the Jacobite Rebellion in 1746 when the Scots were annihilated by the English army. There the story reaches its climax which I will not divulge in full. But simply said, in full sight of all the tourists attracted to the Culloden battlefield site, it does not end up well for Florence or her mother who suddenly appears on the scene.




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State of Wonder

Patchett, Ann

Last Updated: Nov-21-2019
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Dr. Marina Singh, a pharmacologist and former obstetrician, is sent to a research site in the Amazonian jungle somewhere in Brazil that is operated by the company she works for, Vogel Pharmaceutical. The company chief executive officer, Mr. Fox, dispatches her there to check on the progress of the research and to get details on the reported death of her colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman, while he was there on a previous research trip. Eckman’s wife, uncertain that he was dead, asks Marina to find out what had happened to her husband. The plot centers on Marina’s dual missions at the Amazon jungle site. 

Marina’s trip reunites her with the legendary and imperious Dr. Annick Swenson, who is an obstetrician and the lead researcher at the site. Thirteen years before, Swenson was Marina’s supervisor during her obstetrics residency. A mistake Marina makes while she’s delivering a baby after disregarding Swenson’s advice drove her out of obstetrics and into pharmacology, and then eventually to Vogel. The company is supporting Swenson’s research hoping it will produce a blockbuster product. Mr. Fox is growing impatient having received only brief and vague communications from Swenson over the past five years. 
 

Decades earlier Swenson had followed her mentor to the jungle location where the Lakashi tribe lives, and after frequent visits over this time, resided there permanently to work on the research Vogel was funding. The research was based on observations Swenson and her mentor made about Lakashi women; they never go through menopause and they are fertile into their old age. Swenson’s project is to find out why, and provide the information to Vogel in order to develop a product that could give women the option to avoid menopause and to have babies much later in life. 

Swenson finds it is the bark of the (fictional) Martin trees when combined with excretions of the (fictional) Purple Martinet moth deposited in the bark Lakashi women ingest that extends their fertility after menopause. Trying it herself, Swenson becomes pregnant at age seventy–three. She also finds that the same bark protects the Lakashi women against malaria. Swenson eventually concludes that her research should not proceed to product development for fertility, but instead for prevention of malaria. Certain that no American pharmaceutical company would “foot the bill for Third World do-gooding,” Swenson decides to reallocate the fertility research funding to her malaria vaccine work without permission from the company (p. 289). A cat and mouse game ensues around the research funding, Swenson’s pregnancy ends, and the mystery of what happened to Anders Eckman is solved. Marina Singh’s life is changed, probably forever.

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The Great Believers

Makkai, Rebecca

Last Updated: May-26-2019
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The subject of Rebecca Makkai's engaging book, The Great Believers is the AIDS epidemic. Her narrative unfolds in two eras separated by 40 years. It opens in the mid-1980s with the funeral of Nico, one of HIV’s first victims when the epidemic exploded in the gay community living in Chicago. In the second chapter, the time frame abruptly switches to 2015 and introduces Fiona Marcus, Nico’s sister. She was part of the gay scene in Chicago in the 1980s, grew attached to the men, and provided the care and comfort that many of the families were unable to offer when their sons were dying of AIDS.

In the earlier time period, Makkai's main protagonist is Yale Tishman, the director of development at an art gallery affiliated with a prominent unnamed university in the Chicago area. He is working with a small group of colleagues, including a young man uncertain of his gender identity, to acquire a batch of paintings from Nora Marcus Lerner. She is an elderly woman who happens to be Fiona and Nico’s aunt. and who was part of the avant-garde social circle surrounding the modern artists living in Paris in the wake of the First World War. As Nora reaches the end of her long life, she desperately wants to preserve the artistic memory of her lover who died as a young man. As Yale works to finalize the acquisition, his relationship with his lover, Charlie, falters and triggers a series of untimely deaths in Yale’s close circle of friends. Ultimately, Yale also succumbs to the HIV virus.

In 2015, Fiona has engaged a private investigator to locate her estranged daughter, Claire, who is living in Paris and has rebuffed numerous efforts in the past to reconnect with her mother. Ultimately, Fiona is able to move past the intensity of her caregiving role to gay men in the 1980s and to reconnect and reestablish a tentative relationship with her daughter. There is hope that with a renewed bond with her daughter she can restore a reason to live that will be as strong as the work she did to support and sustain her gay friends through the agonies of AIDS.

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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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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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