Showing 11 - 19 of 19 annotations contributed by Teagarden, J. Russell

The Wilderness

Harvey, Samantha

Last Updated: Dec-13-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Jake Jameson is an architect who came of age in immediate post World War II London. He grew up in “the wilderness” of the English moors and peat bogs far from London. He returns to this wilderness with a wife and an infant son, and to where his mother, a childhood friend, and many memories still live. We read about his successful career, his Jewish mother and her flight from her native Austria, his marriage to Helen and her unexpected death after about 30 years of marriage, his infidelities, his son’s incarceration in a prison he designed, his daughter’s death as a young child, and how eventually the wilderness he lived in moved from the moors to his brain. We don’t learn all of this easily because it comes in one form through Jake’s damaged memory and in another form through the tellings of more reliable witnesses. We are left in our own confused state about certain parts of story until the corrections and clarifications come later in the book. For example, we can go far into the novel thinking that Helen could have died from falling from a cherry tree until we learn near the very end that she died from a stroke, probably.

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

As the movie opens, the married artists Einar and Gerda Wegener are working out of their apartment in Copenhagen. The year is around 1908 and they have been married for just a few years. They do not have children as yet, but they have hopes that they would soon.  

Einar is a painter of Scandinavian landscapes and Gerda is a figurative painter. When the model for a painting Gerda is working on fails to appear one day, she asks Einar to take the model’s place. Einar would need to pose with the model’s dress and assume a feminine posture. In posing as a woman, Einar's simmering desire to become a woman comes to a boil.

At first Gerda finds Einar’s interest in posing as a woman an interesting diversion and as a means to have some fun at various social events. But, Einar becomes more and more serious about his interest in transitioning to a woman in more than just wardrobe and affect. As an early step in that direction, he takes on the name Lili Elbe and the pronoun "she."  She gives up painting and becomes Gerda’s primary model. Gerda’s paintings become highly sought after with her new model.  

Lili’s quest to become a woman intensified over the subsequent years and extended to hoping to acquire a uterus so that she could give birth. With Gerda’s help, Lili eventually finds a surgeon in Germany who is willing to perform a series of risky procedures that will make her into a woman. After the operations, Lili was transformed into the woman she wanted to be, but without the availability of anti-rejection drugs and antibiotics, she died in the hospital with Gerda at her side.

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The Sick Child

Munch, Edvard

Last Updated: Nov-08-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Painting

Summary:

Edvard Munch’s painting, The Sick Child, hanging in the Tate in London, England is his fourth version of the painting. This version is done in oil on canvas and was completed in 1907. The first version was painted in 1885.  

As we come upon this painting, we quickly realize we are standing at the end of a bed intruding upon a poignant moment. In this impressionistic painting, we can discern an adolescent girl propped up in bed. She is facing an older woman sitting at her side. We don’t see this woman’s face because her chin is on her chest in a way that makes her look distraught. We can easily conclude that she is the girl’s mother and that the girl is sick, very sick.
 

When we look around the room with the view Munch gives us, we see little in the way of medical supplies or equipment. There is only a bottle on a nightstand that might be some potion and a glass of water on a dresser. Nothing more is to be done for this child. She seems to know it and so she tries to comfort the woman who is attending her. The painting reminds the viewer that often those who are dying offer comfort to the ones attending them as well.

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The People in the Trees

Yanagihara, Hanya

Last Updated: Oct-10-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The novel takes the form of a memoir written from prison. The fictional author is Dr. Norton Perina who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering what caused some people on a remote Micronesian island to live for up to 250 years or longer. Dr. Ronald Kubodera, Perina’s long-time colleague, convinced him to write the memoir while he was in prison. Perina sent Kubodera a chapter at a time, which he would then “lightly edit” and add occasional footnotes to elaborate on a given section. 

Perina is in prison for being convicted on “two counts of sexual assault,” (p. 349) though we can believe he is guilty of many more counts. All of these transgressions involved children, many of whom were under his care as their adopted father. However, the bulk of the memoir is not about the behavior that lands him in prison. Instead, it tells of Perina’s successful scientific investigations of a hidden people in a secluded partition of an unknown island in Micronesia. He came to this place while stumbling around for a career direction after medical school, and then came to discover the hidden people when stumbling upon one lying on the forest floor.

Perina eventually linked the consumption of the meat of a particular turtle on this island to a prolongation of life measured in hundreds of years. Only the inhabitants who reached around 60 years were given the turtle meat and only during a ceremony to mark the milestone. While the bodies of these people remained as they were physically when they consumed the turtle meat, their minds did not. As they aged they became non compos mentis—“all they could do was jitter and babble and laugh at nothing, the neighing laughter of the brainless.” (p. 95) Perina’s published papers called attention to a possible fountain of youth and produced the expected rush among pharmaceutical companies to distill the turtle’s magic into a pill. All they managed to do instead was to destroy the island’s habitats,
corrupt its people, and hunt the turtles into extinction.
 

Very little is said in Perina’s memoir about any activities leading to his pedophilia conviction until the very end; however, occasional hints that Perina could be a pedophile appear before then. At one point in particular he describes an encounter with a 10-year old boy from the village that might have awakened any such tendencies that had been dormant. Another time he admits “some of the only comfort (and certainly the only amusement) I’d found had been with the village’s children.” (p. 267). During subsequent trips to the island over the next few decades, Perina adopted 43 island children and brought them home to raise as his own. He was drawn to children, but in not so innocent a manner. Only at the very end of book, and only in the postscript, do we get any details about how he preyed upon these children.

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The Father

Zeller, Florian; Hampton, Christopher

Last Updated: Jul-12-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Plays — Secondary Category: Performing Arts / Theater

Genre: Play

Summary:

This annotation is based on a live performance presented by the Manhattan Theater Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater  in New York City that ran between April and June of 2016. The play was nominated for a 2016 Tony Award for best play, and Frank Langella won the 2016 Tony Award for best performance by an actor in a leading role in a play. In supporting roles were Kathryn Erbe, Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell, and Kathleen McNenny.
 
The Father is the story of an older man with Alzheimer’s disease (André) and his progression through first living on his own, then living with his daughter (Anne), and finally living in a nursing home. Or, is it? It’s hard to tell, and that is the intention of the playwright, Florian Zeller, who told The Guardian (2015), “The Father is about an old man lost in the labyrinth of his mind.” The objective of the play is to bring audience members into the actual dementia experience so that rather than witnessing André’s disorientation they feel his disorientation.  

The director, Doug Hughes, creates the audience experience through an interplay among set designs, lighting effects, repeated scene sequences, and time loops as contexts for various symptom manifestations like memory loss, paranoia, anger, and lasciviousness. All the scenes take place in one room that serves at different times as André’s flat, Anne’s flat, and a nursing home room. The furnishings of the room change based on the supposed setting, but the walls are exactly the same for all of them. In different scenes, André is not always sure where he is, and neither is the audience.  

Early in the play, André hears Anne tell him she’s relocating from Paris to London with her lover, but she is present to him in most of the scenes thereafter and until the end of the play when he’s told by a nurse that Anne had moved to London some time ago. Had she really left Paris and was never actually there in all those other scenes? He wonders and so does the audience. In other scenes, the way characters from the past and present enter and exit distorts time for André, and so while audience members know the linear trajectory of the disease course, they can’t be sure of where they are in that course during a given scene. With the last scene taking place in André’s nursing home room with the same walls seen in his flat and Anne’s flat, the audience can’t be faulted for wondering whether all that came before was just one of André’s hallucinations.  

The play does not keep audience members in a perpetual state of confusion and despondency. Farcical elements are peppered throughout that produce occasional laughs, such as when Anne contests André’s account of a previous conversation, he suggests it’s she who has the memory problem: “You’ve forgotten. Listen, Anne, I have a feeling you sometimes suffer from memory loss. You do, I’m telling you. It’s worrying me. Haven’t you noticed?”

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We Are Not Ourselves

Thomas, Matthew

Last Updated: Jun-20-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In 1951, Eileen Tumulty, the novel’s main character, was nine years old and living with her Irish immigrant parents in the Woodside section of Queens, New York. The novel follows Eileen straight through the next 60 years, but concentrates on the years covering the time of her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease.    

Eileen was forced to learn how to manage a household at a very young age when first her mother was kept in a hospital for 8 months after a hysterectomy, and then again when her mother became incapacitated by alcoholism. Eileen had reason to think this life was her destiny until she accompanied her father to a better part of Queens. There she saw “places…that contained more happiness than ordinary places did.” She concluded, “unless you knew that such places existed, you might be content to stay where you were.” (pp. 15-16) Eileen’s ambition was ignited. While continuing to manage the household and care for her mother, she does well in school, becomes a nurse, and eventually moves up the nursing management at various hospitals.  

Eileen’s ambitions encompassed ideas on her eventual mate. She chooses Ed Leary despite hoping for someone who was not quite so Irish and not quite so much of the same place. Ed was a promising neuroscience graduate student who she thought could be a high achiever with the right motivation: “If there was anything she could help him with, it was thinking big.” (p. 97) Her motivation was not enough and neither were the many offers he received from life science companies. He became a professor at a local community college. He had a passion for teaching students who attend community colleges and he could never see himself anywhere else—for love or money. Ed’s intransigence frustrated Eileen, but she accepted it and plowed ahead. She studied the possible ways of escaping the old neighborhood and also delivered a son she thought she’d never have after years of futile efforts.  

It doesn’t go smoothly. While she is getting surer of where they would go, Ed begins to exhibit disconcerting behaviors. For them to live in Bronxville, Eileen will have to accept a house that needs a lot of money and attention to rehabilitate. The remainder of the story is about how Eileen simultaneously manages Ed’s rapid deterioration from what eventually is diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease, her job requirements, and a son progressing from adolescence through college.  

We Are Not Ourselves
touches on many of the aspects involved in prolonged illness including the daily struggles managing the care of someone with progressive dementia, complexities of health care delivery systems, frustrations with byzantine health care coverage, and threats to relationships among the individual family members with one another, and the grace that can manifest during the bleakest moments. The author does not dwell on all these issues, but gives them enough attention so that their effects will be recognizable to many readers who have experienced them. In doing so, he was able to draw from his own experiences with his father who was stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

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A Little Life

Yanagihara, Hanya

Last Updated: May-17-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

After first meeting as college roommates, Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm make their way through college and then onto New York City to pursue career interests. We follow them through the subsequent decades as Jude becomes a highly effective attorney, Willem a famous actor, JB an acclaimed artist, and Malcolm a prize-winning architect.  

What starts as a cluster of four eventually separates into an orbit of Willem, JB, and Malcolm around Jude at the center. The gravitational force pulling the three others towards Jude is the fidelity that can form among college roommates and a love that has bonded them together even more. But, there is also a strong sense among the three that Jude needs them for both physical and emotional support. At first, and for a good long time, it’s just a sense, but they later come to learn that their intuitions are right, that Jude does indeed need them and why. Over the years covered in the novel, a second orbit forms around Jude comprising a surgeon-cum-close friend, adoptive parents, a work colleague, and a neighbor. They, too, know Jude needs them, but only learn why late into their relationships. Until then, they are alternatively and often simultaneously worried, angry, flummoxed, and stymied about what’s at the root of his ambulatory limitations and severe leg pains, and why he cuts himself with terrifying frequency.  

Through a fractured narrative sprinkled with artfully-constructed subliminal hints, Yanagihara reveals Jude’s life before he arrived at college. She tells of Jude’s beginnings as a foundling taken in at a monastery. This hopeful start for Jude, however, becomes a childhood and adolescence of unrelenting, horrific, sexual assault and torture—when at the monastery, when on the road after being kidnapped by a monastery brother, when in protective custody, and even when he is able to escape. He arrives at college bearing the psychological and physical consequences of these experiences, but not openly displayed to a degree that yields more than a few hints of a traumatic past. With the support of the people surrounding him in  his adult life, he is able to become a highly accomplished attorney, and to achieve some measure of ease and happiness from time to time. The support he receives, however, is not enough to protect him from the consequences of further psychological and physical assaults, including his self-mutilation practices, and tragic losses. Ultimately, Jude engineers his own final tragedy.
 

Some of the people left behind suffer from more than Jude’s loss. His friend the surgeon wonders whether he enabled Jude’s self-cutting by always patching him up and never committing him to an inpatient psychiatric unit. Jude’s adoptive father relives the loss of his first son at a very young age to a rare, degenerative, neurological disease. Nearly all the figures in this novel experience suffering in some form or another, but this is more the story of Jude; how the people around him tried to get him past the horrors of his childhood and adolescence, but eventually and sadly to no avail. 

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My Father's Brain

Franzen, Jonathan

Last Updated: Apr-12-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Jonathan Franzen tells the story of his father’s slow and inexorable decline from Alzheimer’s disease. His story is a familiar one, and one that millions of people can now tell: at first the initial odd behaviors and memory failures attributed to various causes other than dementia, then the diagnosis and medical interventions to stem the inevitable, and finally the inevitable. While Franzen also describes the toll his father’s dementia exacts on the immediate family—as well as some truths it uncovers about his parents’ marriage—he does not put a significant emphasis on family effects.  

Interwoven in Franzen’s recounting of his father’s plight are a few digressions on Alzheimer’s disease. In one he wonders, as many others have, about whether Alzheimer’s disease is more a medicalization of certain behaviors than the result of brain pathology, or otherwise just “ordinary mental illness being trendily misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s.” (p. 19) In others, he briefly summarizes the well-known theory involving plaques and neurofibril tangles as a cause of Alzheimer’s, and thoughts on how memories form and work in the brain. In yet one other digression, Franzen reminds us that Alzheimer’s disease as originally described in 1906 was a rare type of dementia characterized by early onset in middle age and rapid progression. He further notes that it was not until the latter part of the 20th century when Alzheimer’s disease was tagged as the fifth leading cause of death and the disease of the century, and only through the efforts of a coalition comprising clinical scientists, politicians, and patient advocates. 

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The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

Mosley, Walter

Last Updated: Mar-07-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Walter Mosley writes in various genres but is probably best known for his mysteries. His 2010 novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, could be considered another one of his mysteries, but the mystery plot takes a secondary role. Featured more prominently is the struggle the main character, Ptolemy Grey, has with dementia.   

The reader first encounters Ptolemy Grey when he is 91 years old and living alone in an apartment he has inhabited in South Central LA for more than 60 years. Both he and the apartment are in appalling shape. The apartment is cluttered, disorganized, and dysfunctional—as is his aging brain. He knows his mind is failing and seems to him as if it “had fallen in on itself like an old barn left unmended and untended through too many seasons.” (p.153)

Throughout the novel, Mosley presents aspects of dementia and some of its oddities. For example, while Ptolemy is riding on a bus through his town, certain sights trigger clear memories from his childhood 80 years before. At the same time he is unsure where he is going or why. Mosley also shows how people can possibly realize they are slipping into dementia, for example, when Ptolemy stops talking to a friend once “he could see in her eyes he wasn’t making sense.” (p. 122)

Ptolemy’s great-grandnephew Reggie provides him with the assistance he needs to barely maintain his lonely existence in squalid conditions. When Reggie dies, a new person comes into his life. Robyn, a 17-year-old orphan living with Ptolemy’s grandniece, begins to straighten out his apartment and then his mind.    

As Robyn gets Ptolemy’s apartment more organized and functional, Ptolemy’s mind starts to get more organized and functional as well, but only a bit more. Unsatisfied with his progress, Robyn takes Ptolemy to a physician who has an experimental drug for dementia. Ptolemy is told that if he takes the drug he will regain his mental acuity but probably not live more than a few weeks, or months, at best. Without hesitation he takes the drug—“I wanna make it so I could think good for just a couple a mont’s, Doc” (p. 126)—and rapidly regains many memories and mental capacities. During the time he has with his newfound mental agility, Ptolemy is able to make good on a commitment from his childhood and to solve the mystery of Reggie’s death. While the experimental drug enables Ptolemy to wrap up his business, it also produces a rather violent end to his life.

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