Showing 1 - 10 of 81 annotations tagged with the keyword "Urban Violence"

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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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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Summary:

This illuminating and disturbing book explores how various forms of white supremacy became expressed in policies, laws, and elected officials, such as Donald Trump. Physician and sociologist Metzl details social changes in Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas, where white Americans backed changes that, ironically, dramatically harmed them with gun suicides, school dropouts, worse healthcare, and shorter life spans. For Metzl, “Whiteness” refers not to skin color but to a political and economic system of white privilege.

Metzl's thesis that: “Trump supporters were willing to put their lives on the line in support of their political beliefs” was, in fact, a sort of “self-sabotage” (pp. 5-6). While a conservative political movement fostered white racial resentment, largely in lower-income communities, the mainstream GOP did its part by crafting policies against the Affordable Care Act, higher taxes, and restrictions on guns. An atmosphere of polarization and political stasis grew. Metzl writes: “Compromise, in many ways, coded as treason” (p. 11).  

Metzl focuses on the examples of Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas to “suggest how the racial system of American fails everyone” (pp. 16, 20). He visits each state, leading focus groups, interviewing formally and informally, reading newspapers, and inductively formulating concepts that seem to explain the nonsensical behavior of rejecting helpful programs. For example, because “risk” in Missouri has become a code name for possible attacks by black people, white people buy guns, especially when restrictions are removed. Many white men feel that a gun (or many guns) restores their privilege, but suicide of white males, often low-income, goes up. Metzl’s statistics and charts show contrasts with other states with stricter laws and lower suicide rates. He calls for preventive medicine to lower such deaths.  

For Tennessee, the Affordable Care Act offered many benefits to poor or middle-income people, but Republicans (and especially Trump) attacked it as big government over-reach, socialism, exorbitant cost, a program that would help minority people, for example “welfare queens.” “Cost” became a proxy for the “we don’t like it,” even when the economics would be favorable for good healthcare for all. Blacks were generally in favor of ACA, but white blue-collar men swore by their independence and autonomy. Neighboring Kentucky accepted ACA, and ten graphs included in the book clearly chart the better outcomes for Kentucky in such areas as insurance coverage, death rates, and seeing a doctor.  

Metzl returns to Kansas, where he grew up and recalls the pride Kansans had in their state. Republican Governor Sam Brownback enacted massive tax cuts with large reductions to state services and school funding, an “experiment” in “epic defunding.” The GOP, Tea Party, Koch brothers, and “trickle down” theories all played a part in benefiting the wealthy financially, while minority and lower-income groups paid more. Infrastructure, such as roads, suffered. Untested charter schools collected wealthy white students, while public schools plunged in funding, test scores, and graduation rates (see 17 graphs). Since education is a predictor of health, there are and will be long-term costs to Kansans, especially for minority groups.  

Metzl attacks the “Castle Doctrine” (“a man’s home is…”) as a symbol of narcissism, individualism, and as a risk for all citizens when social structures are abandoned. He closes with some hopeful examples of social change for the better.

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Exit West

Hamid, Mohsin

Last Updated: Oct-22-2018
Annotated by:
Redel-Traub, MD, Gabriel

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Exit West, a novel by Mohsin Hamid, follows two young lovers as their (unnamed) Middle Eastern city descends into war. The story is an intimate look into how quickly war can warp the quotidian routines of daily life. It begins by introducing us to its protagonists. Nadia is a fiercely independent and thoroughly modern woman; she lives alone, rides her vespa around and listens to jazz records. Saeed is perhaps a bit more traditional—he lives with his parents—but is still a typical university student (he brings a joint to one of his and Nadia’s early dates.) The city is a cosmopolitan one, if not a bit outdated. However, as Nadia and Saeed’s relationship deepens, the initial hints of insurgency become apparent: drones and helicopters buzz constantly overhead, a night curfew is implemented, the window with a nice view becomes a liability as gunfire breaks out. The city descends bit by bit into all out war. As this happens, rumors of magical doors that whisk people away to distant lands begin to circulate. Nadia is keen to find one of these doors; Saeed is hesitant to leave in part because his parents are unwilling to join them. Eventually with growing violence in the city, the couple decides to enter a door and together are transported to Mykonos where they join hundreds of other migrants and refugees from all over world who are living in makeshift homes. The second half of Hamid’s novel follows the couple’s life as refugees, traveling from Greece to England and eventually to the USA. Hamid portrays the psychological cost of exile, loss and dislocation—a cost which slowly drives Nadia and Saeed apart.

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Augustown

Miller, Kei

Last Updated: Oct-03-2017
Annotated by:
McClelland, Spencer

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Set in the loosely fictionalized Jamaican town of Augustown (“loosely,” as it bears a strong resemblance to August Town, which was absorbed over time into the expansion of Kingston), the novel spans three generations of a single family.  The novel moves back and forth easily through different moments in time, from the birth of Rastafariansim in 1920 under British colonional rule, through the post-colonial division of the island and its citizens into turbulent threads, to the present day of 1982, where the same tensions run strong as ever.  

Ostensibly a family novel, the story centers on Ma Taffy, her niece Gina, and Gina’s son Kaia, and it boils down to several key moments in their lives.  But these moments are brief in the overall bulk of the novel, the majority of which is devoted to the fleshing out of the world that permits – and, as we ultimately realize, requires – that such moments come to pass.  There is the miracle of the preacher Alexander Bedward, who, as seen through the eyes of Ma Taffy, could have literally floated up to the Heavens; the comically doomed marriage and foiled aspirations of schoolteacher Emanuel Saint-Josephs; the errand run by Soft-Paw, a young gang member; the second chance that comes before the well-to-do Claudia Garrick; the friendship of Clarky and Bongo Moody, and their run-ins with the police.  As Miller moves between these characters, the forces pushing Ma Taffy, Gina, and Kaia to their conclusion become clearer and harder to resist.
 

Despite the complexity of the novel’s structure, Miller easily weaves all of the component parts together.  The result is absorbing and affecting, a novel that is as much a family drama as it is an exploration of the legacy of colonialism, religion, class conflict, and violence.

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Will Starling

Weir, Ian

Last Updated: Oct-16-2015
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In 1816 London, Napoleon has been defeated and troops have returned, including teenaged Will Starling, who survived the wars as assistant to the decent surgeon Alec Comrie. Will now serves Comrie in the city, still in strained circumstances.

Medical science has turned to the utility of anatomy, but material for research and teaching is scarce. Body-snatchers procure subjects from robbing graves—sometimes from murder—but they are not the only bad actors. Flamboyant, privileged Doctor Dionysius Atherton is trying to raise the dead by applying newly harnessed electricity to fresh cadavers.

From this ghoulish world of science and crime, young Will Starling tells his own tale, as your “Wery Umble Narrator.” Vivid scenes of wretched urban poverty, wanton cruelty, and selfless heroism march past to a grim ending.  

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Sông I Sing

Phi, Bao

Last Updated: Mar-12-2015
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Performance poet Bao Phi was born in Saigon; his parents emigrated to Minnesota, where he grew up and still lives. His poetry is rooted in Asian American immigrant experience, especially in Vietnamese American experiences, and speaks of racism, economic hardship, cultural difference, and the legacy of the Vietnam war. The collection is divided into four sections, each preceded by a quote from another (usually Asian American) writer. Four introductory poems set the tone for the poet's project of "refugeography" (from "You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me", p. 9): recognition and celebration of the variety of Asian American lives, and anger at exploitation - both economic and cultural: "They box our geography / And sell it in bougie boutiques / Our culture quite profitable / But can somebody tell me / How our culture can be hip / And yet our people remain invisible?" ("For Us", p. 1)

In section 2 (The Nguyens) 14 poems highlight the lives of a variety of unrelated individuals and families across the US who have the same family name. "They are one story for every Viet body, one song for every voice that sings or otherwise" (p. 17). Many are angry and bitter. There is the Sacramento girl who grows up, makes good, and wants now to get even with the white boy who pushed her down and called her "gook" in ninth grade: "where is your wheat- haired crown now, / where is your Made- in- America tongue: / a slide of spit to take me back to where I came from / now that I am ready to show you / show you / where I come from" ("Vu Nguyen's Revenge", p. 20). There is the chef who had once worked in the kitchen of a restaurant where the waitstaff was white only: "let me tell you that the white people / can choke to death on their lychee martinis" ("Fusion", p. 24). Others are reflective - such as the soldier in Iraq who meditates, "let me not tear apart a people, a country, causing Iraqi food to / become the nouvelle cuisine in 25 years back home" ("Mercy", p. 29).

Some wrestle with generational misunderstanding: Dotty from Dallas whose mother "hid the food stamps by holding [her] hand out like a fan of shame at the checkout line" and later kicked her out of the family, accusing her of being a "Commie" (p. 45). There is tongue in cheek irony, such as in "The Nguyen Twins Find Adoration in the Poetry World" (p. 40), about two vastly different poets - Joan, who has an Anglo boyfriend, publishes in respected traditional literary journals, includes in her work Vietnamese sentences "she never fails to translate" and who won the "safe ethnic poet award"; and Jesus, whose poems are "system fascist overthrow racism working class" performed on Def Poetry Jam where he mispronounces all three of the only Vietnamese words he uses in his poetry.

Numerous poems in sections 3 and 4 address racism. "Reverse Racism" (p. 59) imagines the tables being turned on whites: schools that teach only Asian-American history and suspend any student who questions it; jobs that "stick white men in middle -management hell, then put them on a pedestal as an example of how whites can be successful", and "when white men form their own groups to protect themselves, I'll accuse them of being separatists and reverse racists". "Dear Senator McCain" (p. 65) begins with a quote from the year 2000 in which the senator (who had been imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam war) says, "I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live." The poem issues a challenge: "I am that gook waiting in your nightmare jungle / that gook in front of you with 17 items in the 10 items or less lane at the supermarket / that gook born with a grenade in his head / that gook that got a better grade than you in shop class" and ends, "Senator / what's the difference / between an Asian /and a gook / to you".

Another poem ("8 [9]", p. 93) is based on the 2006 killing of a 19-year-old Hmong American by a white policeman in Minneapolis. There is despair ("For Colored Boys in Danger of Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome and All the Rest for Whom Considering Suicide Is Not Enuf ", p. 82 ). There are also poems of self-awareness, for example, of the dichotomy of an earlier ghetto life and a later "fancy college" experience ("Called [An Open Letter to Myself]", p. 76); intra-ethnic suspicion and misunderstanding ("Everyday People", p. 99); energy and pride ("Yellowbrown Babies for the Revolution", p. 86).

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Summary:

Five Days at Memorial is the book length expansion  of the New York Times Sunday Magazine article that the author, a Pulitzer Prize-winning physician-journalist, published in 2009. The book, the result of years of research and literally hundreds of interviews, chronicles the five days (August 28 to September 1, 2005) during which the medical staff remaining at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans tried to care for the patients -- over a hundred of them stranded, like the staff, in a hospital without water or electricity --following the flooding wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

After an 8 page prologue, the book is divided into two sections, "Deadly Choices" (228pp, the narrative of those five days) and "Reckoning" (256pp, the legal battles over the injections of midazolam (a sedative) and morphine by some of those staff and prosecuted as homicide -- what others called "euthanasia.") "Deadly Choices" relates almost hourly the five days inside Memorial from the viewpoint of patients, patients' relatives, physicians, nurses, administrators of Memorial, Tenet (the holding company owning and running Memorial) and LifeCare -- the long-term care area within Memorial devoted to the care of terminally ill and debilitated patients -- owned by a separate company. Ethical and legal questions of triage, DNR, record-keeping, accountability, communication (primarily the failure thereof) and leadership are on almost every page. At the heart of this book, however, is the mystery of the unexplained deaths of so many patients during those five days. (On September 11, 2005, a disaster mortuary team recovered 45 bodies from many different places in Memorial, page 234). The crux of the mystery of these deaths is the manner in which nine in particular died in the beleaguered hospital on the fifth and last day when, paradoxically, relief had become real and effective and inclusive, seemingly obviating such injections.

The final pages of "Reckoning" deal with the fallout - historical, ethical, political and medical -- and current events relevant to these five days and the almost two years following. (The final verdict of not guilty -- the actual wording was "Not a true bill" since it was a grand jury declining to indict the one physician, Anna Pou, and the two nurses, Cheri Landry and Lori Budo -- was rendered on July 24, 2007). There are a map of Memorial Hospital and a cast of characters at the front of the book and extensive notes, bibliography and index at the end.

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Up in Smoke

Pennie, Ross

Last Updated: Feb-28-2014
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The third novel in the series of Zol Szabo, who is a public-health doctor for the Hamilton Ontario region. He is also a single parent to ten year-old, Max, because his unstable wife, Francine, could not deal with Max’s mild physical disability. His partner in life and work is now Colleen, an attractive woman detective whom he met in the first novel and who looks "like Cameron Diaz in a ponytail” (p. 140).

Teenagers at a private religious school begin to sicken and some die of a mysterious liver ailment. School authorities categorically deny any use of drugs, tobacco, or alcohol—but Szabo’s team quickly discovers that not only do the kids smoke, they prefer a cheaper form of cigarette that is manufactured and sold at cut rates by the local native community.

In the background of this stressful situation, Zol’s mother is dying of cancer, his ex-wife is threatening to visit, and Zol is caught up in a violent break-in at a Toronto museum that resulted in the theft of a precious native artifact.

The team unravels a series of epidemiological clues that point to the interaction of pesticide-tainted tobacco reacting with liver cells to produce the dangerous disease. He must then convince the unscrupulous cigarette manufacturer to stop production before the problem spreads widely. Their methods are unorthodox because they lack support from the bosses who are afraid of public and political opinion. Using clandestine photography they prove that the owner has been lying about his distribution methods.

The investigation helps to solve the older murder of a native woman scientist who had uncovered the problem and been brutally silenced.

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Townie

Dubus III, Andre

Last Updated: Oct-13-2011
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This memoir spins out in detail the despair and violence that emerges from a childhood of poverty and parental absence. When Dubus was preadolescent, his writer father of the same name (see Andre Dubus), took up with a student of his, and the parents divorced. Andre's mother became a social worker, working full-time with no support system, exhausted. Although Andre's father lived nearby and paid child support, it was never enough to keep the four children and their mother out of poverty. They moved frequently, always to the rough sections of depressed Massachusetts towns on or near the Merrimack River. The memoir describes vividly the smells of the polluted river; garbage strewn lawns; smoky, raucous bars; afternoons and evenings spent aimlessly watching television and, in adolescence, neighborhood kids and punks doing drugs and sex in Andre's home - before his mother arrived back from work each evening  .

At school, in bars, and around the neighborhood, kids and adults beat each other up - violence was a constant. Andre was slight and fearful but also drawn to watch the frequent fights. He avoided direct involvement when he could, was beaten up when he couldn't, and loathed himself in either case. He felt like a non-person: "There was the non-feeling that I had no body, that I had no name, no past and no future, that I simply was not. I was not here" (78). Finally, after being unable to help his brother during a fight, Andre resolved to build himself up physically--lifting barbells, bench pressing, and eventually taking boxing lessons.

Now when there was the threat of a fight, he plunged in quickly, inflicting damage. He could defend himself and those he cared about. But always there was the need for vigilance and the need - frequently actualized - to explode in rage. Later, he came to realize that being quick to jump into fights was a way "to get out what was inside him. Like pus from a wound, it was how [I] expressed what had to be expressed" (191). Gradually Andre came to think there might be other ways "to express a wound."

In the second part of the memoir, Dubus writes of how that other way evolved into creative writing. Training for physical prowess had imposed some discipline in his life, which meant being able to concentrate in school, do homework, and read. There were stints in and out of college (eventually he graduated from the University of Texas in Austin), making ends meet as a gas station attendant, construction worker, fast food manager, bartender, and later-- halfway house counselor. At the local Massachusetts college he attended for a while, he overheard himself being called a "townie." He navigated at the interface of the old neighborhood where he still lived and the life of the more privileged. He became more self-aware, more interior, and at the same time, more interested in the larger world. Threaded throughout this period is a developing relationship with his father, whose writing he admired and whose approval he craved.

In spite of the author's ambivalence toward his father - "where were you when I needed you?" (333)--one probably cannot overestimate the role that the senior Dubus played as a writer model for his son. Dubus read and admired his father's stories. He saw the discipline required to write, even though Dubus senior's weekends were often spent unwinding in bars (sometimes with the younger Dubus). Andre met his father's academic colleagues, met other writers, met writers who had stable relationships with a spouse.

He even learned that a writer can be a sports fan (Boston Red Sox), and avid sports participant (jogger). One of the most moving chapters in the book describes the first baseball game Dubus ever attended or watched - at age 13 - (with two tickets from his father), to see the Red Sox play the Yankees in Boston. Dubus went with a friend who explained the game to him as it unfolded. Dubus was stunned: "Every time one of them walked up to home plate with his bat, hundreds of men and boys would yell insults at him I couldn't quite make out, just the tone, which I knew well, but it wasn't directed at me or anyone I would have to try to protect, and I felt relieved of everything, part of something far larger than I was, just one of thousands and thousands of people united in wanting the same thing, for those men from our team to beat the men from the other team, and how strange that they did this by playing, that one beat the other by playing a game" (161-162).

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