Showing 1 - 10 of 906 annotations tagged with the keyword "Empathy"

Annotated by:
Perkins, Sam

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

 In Strange Relation, Rachel Hadas, poet, teacher and classicist, recounts the years just short of a decade of her husband’s descent – retreat is the word she’d prefer – into dementia. Although no definitive diagnosis emerges for George’s “spooky condition,” frontotemporal dementia possibly with Alzheimer’s disease in the frontal lobe seems the most likely. By Hadas’s reckoning, George’s symptoms began when he was in his late fifties—relatively young for dementia. Diagnosing any form of early onset dementia is extremely difficult, especially if memory loss is not among the symptoms, as was the case with George. Hadas noticed the symptoms — his silences and growing remoteness— and ascribed them to her husband’s loss of interest in life and their marriage. She writes, “Slowly and insidiously your partner changes from the person you married into someone else.” 

The book opens in 2004, just before his diagnosis in 2005 at the age of 61. George Edwards was a successful and celebrated composer of symphonies, chamber works and art songs, as well as a professor of music at Columbia University. Through flash-backs, Hadas fills in a portrait of a happy, mutually supportive marriage of two engaged, successful artists, a life that slowly melted away as George’s disease tightened its grip. She ends with George in a long-term care residence in 2009, the year Strange Relation was published and two years before his death in 2011.  

The core of the book, intertwined with the story of George’s dementia, is Hadas’s account of the comfort she sought and gained from reading and writing prose and poetry. “This ordeal has eloquently reminded me of the sustaining power of literature,” she writes. “These gifts of the imagination,” gave her strength. “They are not sufficient, but they are damn well necessary.”

Over seven decades of reading have given Hadas a vast store of literary references to draw on. George is Mr. Dick from David Copperfield, mentally scattered, shuffling his papers; he is King Lear, losing clarity and dignity and consumed with anger and humiliation as he feels his abilities fade. Like Penelope awaiting Ulysses’ return, Hadas sees herself living with George as “neither wife nor widow,” her husband a physical presence but spiritually gone. When she reads James Merrill’s “Days of 1964,” she identifies with the poet who “has gone so long without loving that I hardly knew what I was thinking.” The poem speaks to her as it captures, “The thirst, the loneliness, the habituation to emotional deprivation that marked the way I was living.”

 A recurrent theme that many will relate to is the loneliness she feels caring for someone who, because of his condition, hardly speaks or expresses emotion. Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” reminds her how quickly friends will turn away from death and illness and “make their way back to life.” Sickness, says Flannery O’Connor, is a country “where there’s no company, where no one can follow.” She sees her life reflected in Philip Larkin’s wry poem about a couple’s estrangement, “Talking in Bed,” – the couple’s growing estrangement is “this unique distance from isolation.” Hadas finds the clarity and the company of these works a huge comfort.

There are moments of uplift, too. When her college-age son, Jonathan, and his friends propose to take George on a two-week getaway of very rustic living in Vermont, she reluctantly agrees, certain that disaster or injury will ensue. The reader is as relieved as Hadas is when all goes off without a hitch. 

A recurrent theme of the book is the importance of the language used to describe a disease and its treatment. Metaphors and similes, of course, are staples of medical caregiving – “they help us see freshly,” says Hadas; they help her step outside the moment and understand George, whom she describes as retreating into a “walled garden” or behind a “frosted window”; his disease is a bath in which he’s immersed and can never escape; it is a malignant fluid his brain is stewing in.

Equally, using the wrong metaphors and similes can cause pain and guilt. A neurologist tells Hadas that she’s feeling depressed because Hadas has moved into a “new house” and is still living out of boxes, still in transition. “Make yourself at home,” the doctor advises, “I don’t think you’ve completely moved in yet.” This only makes Hadas feel inadequate and guilty. “Let’s at least find the right kind of house,” she writes. Caring for a person with dementia, as she sees it, is not a house but a prison in which the family caregiver is the voluntary inmate, “responsible for the daily care of a warden who has mysteriously changed into a ward.” 

By the end of the memoir, George has declined to the point that Hadas can no longer care for him and has found him a residence, which raises a new host of concerns. He fails out of the first home and she finds another. She visits George regularly and experiences a new kind of tethered freedom. Her divided self, composed of the Drudge and the Poet, dusts off their apartment to reclaim it from the associations of George’s illness, hoping to rescue her memories of twenty years of happiness before his illness began to take him. “It became my home in a new and different way.”  

Each phase of her journey is accompanied by poems, twenty-nine in all, that Hadas wrote to understand herself, clarify her feelings, cope with the loss of George. Never was Robert Frost’s dictum regarding the ingredient of a successful poem— “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” —more pertinent. Along with her reading, Hadas’s poems lead her to insights that comforted and sometimes surprised her—and will do the same for the reader.   

The book ends with George’s birthday party in 2009 at the long-term care residence where he finally settled. He died shortly after the book was published in 2011.   




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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:
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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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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Summary:

In 2006, Emergency medicine trainee, Damon, and his wife, Trisha, have two boys, Thai (age 4) and Callum (age 2.5).  All is well in their lives until Callum begins vomiting for no apparent reason.  He is found to have medulloblastoma, an aggressive brain tumour, for which the only possible hope for a cure comes from surgery and six cycles of ever more arduous chemotherapy with stem cell recovery at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The little family moves to Toronto and commits to supporting Callum as best they can, ensuring that he is never alone even during his long weeks of reverse isolation. They also try to keep Thai nearby, involved and aware, with the help of a local school and grandparents. But Callum dies during the last cycle of treatment.  

Saddened, exhausted, and bereaved, Damon and Trisha go back to their home town and try to (re)construct their lives, slowly returning to studies and work. They find meaning in creating tangible and intangible memorials to their lost son, and they find purpose in the more difficult task of moving forward, never losing the pain of grief. They adopt a little girl. Damon knows that Callum is always with him and the experience of his illness and death has dramatically infused his work as a physician.

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Comfort Measures Only

Campo, Rafael

Last Updated: Nov-26-2018
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Physician Rafael Campo's collection of new and selected poems is a lovely look back (selected poems are from 1994 to 2016) and an exciting look at thirty-one new poems that continue his trademark use of a variety of poetic forms (the title poem "Comfort Measures Only" is a Villanelle, pg 135) and the moving and personal examination of his interactions with patients.   This collection begins with Campo's excellent introductory essay, "Illness as Muse" (pgs 1-9).  

As the essay opens, an audience member tells Campo that his poems are "really depressing." Even Campo's spouse advises him to lighten things up, a counsel I hope the poet never heeds--for it is precisely Campo's unwavering examination of sorrow, regret, death, and despair that set his poems apart from poems that find "butterflies or snowflakes or flowers as more suitable." Campo responds: "Try as I might to take all of this concern to heart . . . I keep finding myself drawn to write about illness" (pg 1).


Campo recalls how singing and praying consoled his grandmother and seemed to lessen her physical ills: "No wonder I have come to believe in the power of the imagination if not to cure, then to heal" (pg 4).  On page five he notes "To write about illness, to heed this terrible muse, is to reject distancing and to embrace empathy, for which there is no reward or claim on greatness other than perhaps the perverse joy of recognizing oneself as being susceptible to the same foibles and neuroses as anyone."  Indeed it is this vulnerability--the ability to see physician and patient on the same plane, as equal players in a moment in time--that has become another hallmark of Campo's poetry.
Selected poems from previously published collections follow the essay: nine poems from "The Other Man Was Me" (1994); eight poems from "What the Body Told" (1997); nine poems from "Diva" (200); five poems from "Landscape with Human Figure" (2002); seven poems from "The Enemy" (2007); and twenty poems from "Alternative Medicine" (2013).  Of these collections, all but "Landscape with Human Figure" and "The Enemy" have been reviewed in the database.

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Exit West

Hamid, Mohsin

Last Updated: Oct-22-2018
Annotated by:
Redel-Traub, 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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Sky the Oar

Nigliazzo, Stacy

Last Updated: Oct-16-2018
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

"Sky the Oar," Stacy Nigliazzo's second full-length poetry collection, contains 52 poems in four sections. These poems are gems--and gem-like, each poem has been created by a compression of words into unique forms.  Nigliazzo's poems wander along the page, floating in white space as margins move in and out. In the three "Triptych" poems, pages 36, 46, and 61, Nigliazzo uses an article written in 2015, the report of a woman's murder, as a pale background. By choosing words to highlight, the poet creates spare poems that emerge as commentary on this crime--"Triptych III" offers only 6 highlighted words (pages 61-62). Nigliazzo has abandoned the more common narrative form--long or short lines that tell a story--and instead gives the reader hints, sign posts along the way. These poems are not meant to be read quickly. It is only by pondering them, allowing the imagination and intellect to fill in, so to speak, the white space around the words, that the impact and complexity of these stunning, impressionistic poems becomes evident. 

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