Showing 11 - 20 of 566 annotations in the genre "Novel"

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.

View full annotation

Tell

Itani, Frances

Last Updated: Sep-22-2016
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Kenan Oak returns from World War I to a small Ontario town. He is virtually unable to speak and dares not venture from his home. Adopted by a reclusive uncle at an early age, he has no immediate family but his wife, Tressa, who loves him and accepts his disability with good grace. They have been trying to have a child without success, and the glimmers of Kenan’s recovery are dauntingly few and faint. Slowly with the help of his uncle Am, he begins to go out at night for walks in the woods and skating on the ice of the lake.  

Am and his wife Maggie have a strained marriage. She loves to sing and once aspired to a career in music, but instead she opted for Am and a farm—although now they live in town. Lukas, a gifted new musician arrives to direct the choir; he is a postwar immigrant from an unnamed European country, possibly Germany. He notices her talent and encourages her to sing solo at the upcoming New Year’s concert. Unused to the attention, she is captivated by him, his mystique, his appreciation of her, and the return of joy through song. They have an affair, which is discovered by Am.  

Well into the story, it emerges that Am and Maggie had lost two children to diphtheria, and this trauma is at the heart of their marital strife. It is why they left their farm and have grown apart.  But Maggie imposed an edict of silence on this exquisitely painful past. In contrast, Tressa slowly encourages her silent husband to tell—by inventing stories for him and letting him revise.  His adoptive uncle gives him a postage-stamp sized photograph of his nameless mother and grandmother; together they construct a story.
 

Maggie falls pregnant with Lukas’s baby. She goes away to have the child but Am cannot accept it. Compounding Maggie’s woe, she stays with Am—for all their strife, they are bound in their loss. She allows Tressa and Kenan to adopt her beloved baby.  

View full annotation

The Children Act

McEwan, Ian

Last Updated: Aug-09-2016
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.

View full annotation

Ordinary Grace

Krueger, William

Last Updated: Aug-02-2016
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Frank Drum, 13, and his younger brother Jake are catapulted into adulthood the summer of 1961 in their small Minnesota town as they become involved in investigation of a series of violent deaths.  Their father, a Methodist minister, and their mother, a singer and musician, can’t protect them from knowing more than children perhaps should know about suicide, mental illness, and unprovoked violence.  The story is Frank’s retrospective, 40 years later, on that summer and its lasting impact on their family, including what he and his brother learned about the complicated ways people are driven to violence and the equally complicated range of ways people respond to violence and loss—grief, anger, depression, and sometimes slow and discerning forgiveness.  

View full annotation

Deafening

Itani, Frances

Last Updated: Jul-24-2016
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Born in 1894, Grania becomes deaf following scarlet fever at the age of two. Her mother never quite recovers from misplaced guilt over this outcome and is withdrawn. But Grania is well loved by the whole family, who run a hotel in a small town. Her older sister and their Irish-born grandmother see the child's intelligence and find ways to communicate with her by signs and words; they urge the parents to send her to a special school.By age nine, Grania is sent to the famous School for the Deaf in Belleville Ontario, founded by Alexander Graham Bell. Although the school is only a short distance from her home on the north shore of Lake Ontario, the child is not allowed to return for nine long months. At first she is overwhelmed with homesickness, but soon she finds kindred spirits among the other students and teachers and adapts to the life of the institution.

By 1915, her studies complete, Grania works at the school. There, she meets her future husband, Jim, a hearing man who is assistant to the town doctor. They marry, but only two weeks later, Jim leaves to serve as a stretcher bearer in the war in Europe. Fear and death haunt the people at home and abroad for years. Jim writes what little he is allowed of the horror and danger around him, always promising to return. Grania waits and writes too, slowly growing hopeless and angry, as devastating telegrams arrive one after the other.Her sister copes with the return of a grievously disfigured husband, wounded more in mind than in body. In late 1918, Grania falls ill in the influenza epidemic and is delirious for weeks. When she recovers, frail and bald, she learns of the loss of her beloved grandmother who died of the fever caught by nursing her. At the same moment she hears of the war's end and begins to believe again in hope.

View full annotation

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.

View full annotation

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. 

View full annotation

The Heart

de Kerangal, Maylis

Last Updated: Apr-25-2016

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The story of The Heart is a simple, linear structure.  A car accident renders a young Frenchman, Simon, brain-dead. A medical team proposes harvesting organs, and his parents, after some turmoil, agree. That’s the first half of the book, the provenance of this specific heart. The second half describes its delivery for transplantation. Administrators find recipients, one of them a woman in Paris. Simon’s heart is transported there by plane and sewn into her chest. All this in 24 hours.  
            
The narration is complex, with flashbacks, overlapping times, and literary art that is compelling. There are 28 sections to the story but without numbers or chapter headings, and these are often broken up into half a dozen shorter sections. We have an impression of stroboscopic flashes on the action, with high intensity focus. These create a mosaic that we assemble into dramatic pictures. Even major characters arrive without names, and we soon figure them out.  
 

Simon.  He’s called the donor, although he had no choice in the matter. At 19 years of age he’s trying to find a path in life.  A Maori tattoo is a symbol for that search. He has a girlfriend, Juliette. He fades away as a character (except in others’ memories) and his heart takes center stage.  

Marianne and Sean, Simon’s parents.  Her emotions, as we would expect, range widely, especially during discussion of whether Simon’s organs can be transplanted. Father Sean has a Polynesian origin and cultural heritage.


Pierre Révol, Thomas Rémige, and Cordélia Owl are respectively the ICU physician, nurse, and the transplant coordinator. These are vividly drawn, with unusual qualities. Skilled professionals, they are the team the supplies the heart.  

Marthe Carrare, Claire Méjan, and Virgilio Breva are a national administrator, the recipient, and a surgeon. Described in memorable language, they are the receiving team.              

The characters’ names give hints of de Kerangal’s range. S
ince the 1789 Revolution Marianne has been a well-known French national symbol for common people and democracy, but Virgilio Breva is from Italy and Cordélia (recalling King Lear) Owl (as in wise?) has a grandmother from Bristol, England. We learn of personal habits regarding tobacco, peyote, sex, and singing. Medicine is part of a larger world of people of many sorts.              

Even minor characters, such as Simon’s girlfriend Juliette and other medical personnel are touching and memorable.
             

These characters animate the story with their passion, mystery, even heroism. While we don’t know the final outcome of the implanted heart, the text shows the professionalism of the medical team, the French national system that evidently works, sensitive care of patients and families, and in the last pages, rituals of affirmation for medical art and for patients.
             

There is richness in de Kerangal’s style. At times it is direct, reflecting the thoughts of characters. At times it is ornate, even baroque. She uses many images and metaphors, often with large, epic qualities. A very long sentence about the over-wrought parents describes them as “alone in the world, and exhaustion breaks over them like a tidal wave” (p. 141).  The style uses many similes, often with dramatic and unexpected comparisons. There are references to geology, astronomy, even American TV hospital drama. The style is at times lyric…we might say “operatic.”  One page about Cordélia is very, very funny.
        
  
In a different tone, the details of medicine, law, and ethics are carefully presented, and visual imagery puts us in the hospital rooms, the OR, and crowded streets around a soccer game. Throughout it appears that translator Sam Taylor has done an admirable job. 
             

The text invites us to consider large visions of wholeness. All the major characters seek some comprehensive unity to their lives, and they avoid orthodoxies such as religion, patriotism, and economic gain. Sean has his Polynesian heritage and boat-building passion, which he has shared with Simon. Cordélia, at 25, is an excellent nurse, wise beyond her years in some ways, but is as dazzled by a man as any teenaged girl. Nurse Rémige has his master’s in philosophy, loves the song of rare birds, and is, himself, a serious singer.  

View full annotation

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.

View full annotation

Side Effects May Vary

Murphy, Julie

Last Updated: Jan-07-2016
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

At 16, Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, and is given a dire prognosis.  Assuming she has months to live, she undergoes chemotherapy with the support of her lifelong friend, Harvey, whose frank and deepening love she is uncertain about returning.  On days when she has enough energy and the nausea abates, she works on a "bucket list" with Harvey's sometimes reluctant help, since the list includes revenge on two classmates who have hurt and humiliated her.  When, months into treatment, she goes into unexpected full remission, Alice has to come to terms with the consequences of some of her revenge strategies and reassess the depth of a relationship with Harvey that may last far longer than she thought she had.  Given an opportunity to choose life on new terms, she considers those new terms in a more adult way, chastened, focused, and grateful for a chance to make new choices.

View full annotation