Showing 1 - 10 of 636 annotations tagged with the keyword "Survival"

From Fish to Philosopher

Smith, Homer

Last Updated: May-17-2018
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Most students of biology are well aware of our humble beginnings as puny, single-celled lifeforms. The mechanism of our remarkable transformation was famously described by Charles Darwin in his groundbreaking text On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. In many respects, Darwin’s magnum opus was just the opening chapter of a much broader discussion of how we humans have taken our current form. Darwin elucidated only a general process of adaptation and evolution in the face of environmental pressures. He left his successors with the more onerous task of applying this rule to the tortuous history of human evolution.

Rising to the occasion nearly a full century later was Homer Smith, a prominent kidney physiologist who spent much of his life and career as the Director of Physiological Laboratories at the NYU School of Medicine. Dr. Smith shares his account of our evolutionary history in his 1953 book From Fish to Philosopher. In the book, he posits that organisms must have a system for maintaining a distinct “internal environment” in order to have any sense of freedom from the perennially dynamic external environment. He guides the reader through the various biological filtration devices that have come and gone over the eras, culminating with the fist-sized organs dangling next to our spines.


The book is often billed as a detailed treatise on how modern-day mammalian kidneys have arisen from their more primordial forms – a fair assessment, especially given the author’s background. But this book offers readers something much more ambitious in scope than a rehashing of his work in renal physiology. For example, the first chapter of the book, “Earth”, highlights geological milestones that molded the early environment of the first known lifeforms. In Dr. Smith’s words,

“the history of living organisms has been shaped at every turn by earth’s vicissitudes, because every geologic upheaval, by causing profound changes in the distribution of land and sea, has had profound effects on the climates of both, and hence of the patterns of life in both” (pp. 9).

By the final chapter, “Consciousness”, he has begun to ponder questions of metacognition and learning. He marvels at how our complex nervous system has allowed classical pianists to balance the rigidity required for technical prowess, and the fluidity required for creativity. This is not a textbook about our kidneys. From Fish to Philosopher is a story of mankind’s genesis, told through the existential musings of a physiologist who left no stone unturned.

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Weeks after the birth of her child, the writer receives a phone call informing her that her mother, who has gone missing, has hanged herself.  This memoir, like others written in the aftermath of similar trauma, is an effort to make some sense of the mother’s mental illness and horrifying death. Unlike many others, though, it is the story of a family system—and to some extent a medical system—bewildered by an illness that, even if it carried known diagnostic labels, was hard to treat effectively and meaningfully.  The short chapters alternate three kinds of narrative:  in some the writer addresses her mother; in some she recalls scenes from her own childhood, plagued by a range of symptoms and illness, and her gradual awareness of her gifted mother’s pathological imagination; in some she reproduces the transcript of a video production her mother narrated entitled “The Art of Misdiagnosis” about her own and her daughters’ medical histories. Threaded among memories of her early life are those of her very present life with a husband, older children, a new baby, a beloved sister and a father who has also suffered the effects of the mother’s psychosis at close range.  

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

The narrator tracks a hypothetical week in the life and work of a psychiatrist in a major Canadian hospital through the stories of individual patients, some of whom were willing to be identified by name.   

The book opens with “they are us” and the shocking discovery that a patient whose life has been ruined by mental illness is a medical school classmate.  

Other patients have been followed for many years—a woman with eating disorder, a man with bipolar disease, another with schizophrenia. A new patient with intractable depression finally agrees to electroshock therapy, and the first treatment is described. The painful duty of making an involuntary admission pales in contrast to the devastation of losing a patient to suicide.  

Goldbloom’s personal life, opinions, and worries are woven throughout with frank honesty. His mother’s metastatic brain tumor sparks the associated intimations of his own advancing age and mortality.  His genuine fascination with and appreciation of the effective modalities now available are matched by his frustration over how they are beyond reach of far too many because of the stigma that is still attached to mental illness and the lack of resources and political will to make them available.

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Close But Not Touching

Sands, Jean

Last Updated: Jan-30-2018
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Jean Sands' second full-length poetry collection, "Close But Not Touching," was published a few months after her death in October, 2016.  Sands had been working on this volume for more than a year, a process slowed by debilitating illness.  This collection, like her first book, "Gandy Dancing," is autobiographical, raw, plainly written, and powerful.  Both books deal with sexual abuse, marital abuse, dysfunctional family dynamics, divorce, poverty, and a woman's struggle to survive.  And in Sands' case, to write about that survival.

The 47 poems in "Close But Not Touching" are divided into four sections.  The first examines Sands' childhood.  Her mother, born in Hungary, as a child terrified of German soldiers, is failing. In  the book's opening poem, "When Mother Stopped Remembering," Sands introduces her themes of human rights, sexual and physical abuses, and the need to speak out against them. The poem closes with Sands'  mother forgetting words, growing silent, and giving up books.
"In Germany, they emptied the shelves, /  burned the books, the men, the women, the children." (pp 4-5).  Sands' response to the loss of words, of power, is her poetry.

In "Becoming Helen" (pp 7-9), Sands pays tribute to an older woman writer who became a mentor. "Forty years later the keyboard clicks under my fingers, / unseen hands hover above mine." The specter of sexual abuse is raised in "The Peach Farmer's Daughter" (p 15).  Abused by her father, even after his death the daughter can't forget "his liquor breath, his fingers inside." In other poems in this section, Sands addresses aggression ("Pigs" p 16), loss of innocence ("Plum" p 17), humiliation ("The Music Lesson" p 18), and desire ("Danbury Fair" p 19).

The second section takes a loving and yet brutally forthright look at Sands'  four sons and how her marriages and divorces affected them.  She doesn't spare herself--her poor choices--or the sons' fathers.  Especially strong poems include "Night Sounds," "Suicide," "Swimmer," "The Policeman Is Your Friend," and "Father Poem" (pp 26-30).

The poems in section three chronicle the author's divorce from her abusive second husband, specifically, but also her hard-to-shake feelings of entrapment and helplessness in the face first of childhood sexual abuse and then of marital physical abuse.  In "Car Ride" she writes "I can't do this anymore, // I can't do this, // I can't" (pp 38-39).  Forced from her home by police pounding at her door in the dark, she writes "You set me up / ex-husband with greed on your mind. / Money hungry at anybody's expense but your own" (p 40).  Divorce leads to poverty for the author.  "Divorce Settlement," "Working in a Discount Store after the Divorce,"  and "Saving the Universe" will ring true for many who must struggle for subsistence from day to day (pp 46-48).

Section Four brings this collection full circle, offering hope and resolution.  The author has met another man, a good man.  In poems such as "Rain" (p 60) and "As Evening Comes" (p 64) there is a softening, a willingness to open to this new life and new love.  In perhaps the most moving poem in the collection, "At the Vet's Office" (p 65-66), Sands looks back at her marriages ("The first one was a hitter-- / open palms, threatening fists . . . The second one, worse.  A handsome man / with no past.  I should have known / his clamming up was covering up") and compares her past with her present: "I am overwhelmed with gratitude / for the sweet man who will pick up the cat / and pay the bill without a word" (p 66).   This "sweet man" was married to Sands for more than 25 years, became her writing partner, a father to her four sons, and served as her caretaker through many years of her  illness.

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Hag-seed

Atwood, Margaret

Last Updated: Jan-22-2018
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Haunted by grief over the loss of his young daughter, Felix is a gifted director at a theatre festival. He plans an inspired interpretation of The Tempest, but is unfairly ousted from his beloved position by a jealous and inadequate rival.

As his fortunes dwindle, he accepts a position to promote literacy in a local prison—and hits upon the idea of using his newfound but incarcerated protégés to mount his long-planned Tempest. The project encounters financial difficulties that begin to seem insurmountable as his hostile rival assumes an influential government position.
 

The result exceeds all expectations, helps to heal his grief, and with its unorthodox staging, provides a delicious revenge.

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Life & Times of Michael K

Coetzee, J. M.

Last Updated: Jan-09-2018
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A civil war rages inexorably in J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Life & Times of Michael K. Details of the war are vague, but the fighting will determine whether “minorities will have a say in their destinies” (Coetzee 157). Riots splinter communities, peoples are displaced, the military patrols and slaughters, and prison camps are erected. The novel’s first half introduces an unlikely protagonist at the center of the bloody tumult: Michael K, a municipal gardener—a gentle “simpleton” with a harelip “curled like a snail’s foot”—who cares for his ailing mother in Cape Town (3). Sick and unable to work, K’s mother resolves to return to her birthplace and girlhood home, Prince Albert, a far-flung cluster of homesteads in the Karoo, where she hopes to convalesce peacefully. Their migration permits, however, never arrive, likely lost in the abyss of State bureaucracy. Gathering his mother and their few possessions in a makeshift wheelbarrow, K attempts the arduous journey anyway but the passage is thwarted by a government checkpoint. As his mother’s condition deteriorates, she is hospitalized and dies, her body cremated before K gives hospital officials consent.  

The novel’s lulling elliptical cycle pushes K along the currents of departure and circumvention, to capture and escape. Pressing on to Prince Albert where he will deliver his mother’s remains, K is arrested and incarcerated in a railcar where he and other prisoners remove landslide rubble from a remote part of the rail line. Released after finishing the labor, K arrives to Prince Albert where he settles on the property of the ramshackle homestead and begins contentedly scavenging. Far from the tremors of war, he hunts birds, nibbles roots and bulbs, turns over rocks for grubs, drinks from streams, and, in a fit of wild hunger, drowns and slaughters a wild goat. All the while he finds a package of pumpkin and melon seeds that for the rest of his time on the property he will sedulously plant and water— “[t]his was the beginning of his life as a cultivator” (59). Immersed in this blanched world, at the center of its arid winds and mineral expanses, K devotedly coaxes his mean crop to life. But the war encroaches on K’s hiding place and he absconds to a mountain cave where he hides, and nearly starves.  

The stillness, silence, and sunlight of the Karoo seep into K’s bones: “If I were cut, he thought, holding his wrists out, looking at his wrists, the blood would no longer gush from me but seep, and after a little seeping dry and heal. I am becoming smaller and harder and drier every day” (67). Imperceptibly, K becomes the ephemeral ‘stuff’ of this harsh land: “He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything as a speck upon the surface on an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust” (97). K is shortly captured by the military and forced into a resettlement camp. Through the elliptical current of the novel, he escapes and returns to the Prince Albert homestead, where he finds his crop trampled. He nourishes the vines back to life and, in a moment of lonely exaltation, grills pumpkin flesh: “All that remains is to be a tender of the soil. […] He chewed with tears of joy in his eyes” (113). What K seeks, or what is seeking him, is a life of solitude, remote from peril and unrest, living in quiet reciprocity with the earth, exercising simple cultivation—a skill conspicuously anachronistic (but universally essential) in an age marked by the depravities of war.  

Wringing nourishment from veld-grown pumpkins, however, leaves K famished, and winds and squalls gut his makeshift shanty. Soon K is picked up, again, by a military patrol (he is suspected of abetting rebels camping in the mountains) that consigns him to a government hospital. The novel’s latter half is narrated by the hospital’s medical officer, a caring man who, doubtful of the war’s objectives, takes special interest in K’s recovery. By now, severely malnourished, K resembles “someone out of Dachau” (146). The medical officer is baffled by K, not for his uncooperative responses nor refusal to eat hospital food, but because of his status as a kind of ahistorical oddity in a time of modern warfare: “a human soul above and beneath classification, a soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history, a soul stirring its wings within that stiff sarcophagus […] a creature left over from an earlier age, like a coelacanth or the last man to speak Yaqui” (151). The medical officer realizes K’s condition lies beyond simple diagnosis; rather, K’s body craves “a different kind of food, food that no camp could supply” (163). Sometime in the night, K vanishes from the hospital with his packet of pumpkin seeds, moving toward another remote patch of earth to cultivate.

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The Children Act

McEwan, Ian

Last Updated: Jan-05-2018
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Approaching age 60 and childless, Fiona Maye is a family court judge who must decide if 17 year-old Adam has the right to refuse blood transfusions for his leukemia. He and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The Children Act does not allow a child to make this decision until age 18. Fiona is an atheist and her 35-year marriage to an academic is falling apart.  She takes the extraordinary step of visiting Adam to know him and understand his conviction. He is beautiful and gifted, he writes poetry and plays violin. Why would he not want to try to live? She makes her decision having no idea if it will be morally, legally or medically right. To say more would spoil it.

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Mandatory Evacuation Zone

Aull, Felice

Last Updated: Jan-02-2018
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

In "Mandatory Evacuation Zone," Felice Aull has gathered 63 beautifully crafted poems in which she examines the intricacies of language and loss, of grief and healing.  Each of the book's five sections considers these themes in slightly different ways, always in language that is understated, vivid, and exact.  In Section I, we read poems that focus on the author's complicated family history and her early loss of homeland.  In "Tracings" (page 15), an unknown relative (thanks to online genealogy searches) reaches the narrator and wants to meet her.  She, however, only wishes to learn ". . . how my parents / and my infant self / made our tortuous way out . . . . " Brought in infancy from Germany to America, the author suffers the loss of both native homeland and native language ("Notes from an Alpine Vacation" page 16).  She searches photos of her mother and ponders museum note cards illustrated by Holocaust survivors ("Museum Notecards" page 18), imagining what she can't quite know and yet can't quite forget.  

Section II finds the narrator as a young woman in American, awakening to sexuality ("Gay Blades," "Camp Counselors Make Out,"  "On the Staircase" pages 29-31), becoming a wife and mother, and then a grandmother.  A grandchild's birth is both joyful and yet another "slipping toward / the edge of separation" ("Daughter in her Eighth Month" page 37). 

In Section III, the author turns her gaze to observations of the world around her, around us, aware of how many come to loss and death.  "Be prepare to mourn," she tells us in "Disaster in October" (page 49), and in the moving poem, "I Saw the Smoke," re-visions September 11th in words stripped of sentimentality and therefore made more powerful. 

Sections IV and V confront bodily loss through aging and illness, noting how, in so many ways, we try both to capture and to let go: "You snap photo upon photo / hoping to grasp and preserve / what cannot be grasped" (Capturing Alaska" page 66).  We learn of the most personal losses in poems of biopsies, surgeries, and chemotherapy.  When facing the unknown, every event might seem to hold a prediction.  In "Stunning Blows," a doorman stuns a mouse, claims that it's dead.  But the narrator, aware of the wages of time, writes, "But I still see it, like death, / moving toward me" (page 81).  At the book's end, we return to language, how it too can leave us ("Forget That" page 90).  Yet in the collection's final, gentle poems, the poet is "able, finally / to walk past the park's redbud tree / without weeping" ("Immunity" page 96).

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Stitches

Small, David

Last Updated: Dec-28-2017
Annotated by:
Natter, Michael

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

Stitches is a beautifully crafted graphic novel by award winning writer and illustrator David Small. The memoir chronicles Smalls’ life with chronic illness, focusing on his experience as a child and adolescent with cancer in the setting of an abusive upbringing. We learn through the eyes of a child what being a patient is like, and how, despite all odds Small was able to use art as a way to make a normal life for himself. 

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

In-Between Days: A Memoir about Living with Cancer is an accurate and suggestive title. At 37, Teva Harrison was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer with metastases to her bones. She lives between hopes for new treatments allowing a useful life but also fears about debility—some already caused by her treatments—and death. An artist, she has created a hybrid of a graphic novel with comic-book style drawing on the left page and traditional prose facing on the right, with variations of this format now and then.     
       
The imaginative world of the book ranges widely in mood, topic, and subject matter, and there is a helpful organization to group the material.
Her Preface tells us how drawing helped her gain some power over “the bogeyman that is my cancer” (p. 1). In her Prologue, she tells of “living in the shadows,” or “liminal spaces,” but choosing to occupy these as best she can (p. 3).            

Part One lays out the medical facts and dilemmas. The sections are Diagnosis, Treatment, and Side Effects. The author describes the turmoil of being sick with no clear cause, the emotional impact of the serious diagnosis on her and her family, also nausea, loss of fertility, dilemmas of pain management, and many side effects of treatment, including weight loss as well as sudden and torturous menopause.
  
Part Two explains her social status, her marriage, her “mixed-bag inheritance” (including high-risk Ashkenazi genes), and social aspects, including feeling invisible as a patient, accepting help from friends, being in a support group, and what does a likely “early demise” mean for her, an atheist?
         

Part Three explores the many emotions in sections for hope (using clinical trials, for example), gratitudes (“At least I’m wasting, not bloating”), wishes, fears, and “Managing Anxiety at Home” (pictures of yoga, gardening, long walks, house cleaning), self-blame, and—nonetheless—dreams. The final section “Incurable” names her current status: “In treatment for the rest of my life,” but the facing picture shows her as a large powerful bird flying among dramatic clouds with the words “I mean what do I have to lose?” Her prose affirms: “Live like a tornado, when I can.” 

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