Showing 11 - 20 of 1227 Fiction annotations

Spy of the First Person

Shepard, Sam

Last Updated: Jan-30-2018
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Spy of the First Person is a short semi-autobiographical narrative about a man with a debilitating condition.  He spends most of his time sitting in a wheelchair on his porch, goes for tests to the Arizona campus of the Mayo Clinic, and has a “handicapped sign hanging from the rearview mirror of his car” (p. 15). The man’s illness is unnamed, but we learn that his motor skills are grossly impaired: “His hands and arms don’t work much.  He uses his legs, his knees, his thighs, to bring his arms and hands to his face in order to be able to eat his cheese and crackers” (ibid).   

The story is told from various, shifting points of view.  At times we are in the head of the protagonist.  At other times, the perspective is that of a nosy neighbor who peers at the sick man through binoculars, hence the book’s title. There is a parallel narrative about an elderly couple and the wife’s gradual decline in health.  The Southwest plays such an important role here one might even say that it too is a character. 
 

There are also frequent shifts of tense.  It is not always clear whether we are in the past or present.  We alternate between the central character’s fantasies, memories, and observations. The effect of intertwining voices and tenses is reinforced by the brevity of the chapters, many no longer than a paragraph.  The overall impression is that while he may no longer have full control over his body, the man has retained an active (one might say overactive) mind.
 

Spy of the First Person
concludes as the man’s children take him to a Mexican restaurant.  The vivid description of a meal shared with his loved ones provides a sharp contrast to the inner thoughts that provide the bulk of this book.

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Hag-seed

Atwood, Margaret

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

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

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

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

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

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So Much For That

Shriver, Lionel

Last Updated: Jan-18-2018
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The book opens with Shep Knacker packing his bags for his long-dreamed of “Afterlife”—his word for retirement—in Pemba, an island off the coast of Tanzania. He plans to take his wife, Glynis, and his high school aged son, Zach. This plan is not unexpected because Shep and Glynis have made many “research” trips during their 26-year marriage to find the right place (though never to Pemba). But, there were always reasons not to act on their research. An intervention was needed. Glynis is not home while he is packing because she is at some “appointment.” When she gets home, Shep informs her of his plans for the three of them to leave for Pemba, and he further informs Glynis that he’s going whether she comes or not. In response, she informs him that she has cancer—a bad one (mesothelioma); he unpacks, so much for that.

What unfurls from there is more complicated than just the challenges Glynis’s disease produces, though these are monumental challenges. Other people, too, are in need of Shep’s attention. His father’s decrepitude is advancing, his sister is on the brink of homelessness, and his teenage son is detaching from him and life in general. Shep eventually loses his job as an employee at the handyman company he once owned (“Knack of All Trades”) then sold to fund his Afterlife. There’s more. 

Shep's best friend, Jackson, who also worked with him at Knack of All Trades has two girls, and one of them has familial dysautonomia. This progressive genetic disease of the nervous system produces a constellation of medical problems that are bizarre, intense, and serious, before it ultimately produces a tragic end. The trauma and tragedy this disease inflicts in this story (and in life) encompass the entire family, in spite of the heroic efforts of Jackson’s wife, Carol. 
 
The many plot lines in this novel at times proceed independently of one another, and at other times intersect. They concern serious illness experiences and the effects they have on families and also how the American health care system can place burdens on those who need it. Nevertheless, the two families, beaten down by illness, fatigued from encounters with doctors and hospitals, and exasperated from fights with insurance companies, rally enough to make it to Pemba. The trip becomes financially affordable as the result of some narrative gimmickry involving a financial settlement of $800,000 from the company that put asbestos in equipment Glynis had used years before. They would spend the rest of their lives there, longer for some than for others.   

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Patiently Waiting For…

Nisker, Jeffrey

Last Updated: Jan-17-2018
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

An artist, Ruth, lives with quadriplegia and manages to drive (and dance) with a special wheelchair that she controls with her chin. She also enjoys terrorizing doctors in the hospital corridors, where she is seen on a regular basis because of frequent bouts of infected bedsores. She has a new computer and is “patiently waiting for” a biomedical engineer to set it up to manage, like her chair, with her chin. She wants to write, to draw, to create. But the wait list is long, technicians scarce, and every candidate deserving.

On one of her admissions, Ruth meets the physician-narrator who is appalled by a medical resident’s lack of empathy in relating her case as if she were not present. Distressed by the encounter, the doctor is all the more disturbed when he notices that Ruth’s birth date is the same as his own.

He tries to make it up to her by withdrawing from her care in order to be her “friend,” one who tries to understand and will defend her strong desire to live despite her disability. Driven by curiosity about her past, her sharp wit, and how she faces each day, the doctor never quite achieves his goal and constantly feels guilty for letting her down as an advocate and a friend, and possibly also for being able-bodied himself.  He never visited her in her group home, and when she comes to hospital in florid sepsis, he is unable to prevent his colleagues from letting nature take its course. His own bout with severe illness, possibly MS—more likely a stroke--resonates with Ruth’s plight. Long after her death, he can imagine the acid remarks that she would make about his foibles.

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Life & Times of Michael K

Coetzee, J. M.

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

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

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

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

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

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

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Sutton's Law

Wright, Linda; Orient, Jane

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

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Intern, Maggie Altman, begins her postgraduate training in a large Texas hospital where a new computerized system has been implemented to improve service. She pours heart and soul into her work, but her admissions always seem to be the sickest patients who keep dying, sometimes inexplicably. Maggie becomes suspicious of her colleagues and of Dr. Milton Silber, an irrascible, retired clinician with no fondness for the new technology. Silber also happens to be a financial genius. Overhearing conversations and finding puzzling papers, Maggie imagines a scam, in which her supervisors may be eliminating dying patients to reduce costs, improve statistics, and siphon funds to their own pockets.

The bad outcomes for Maggie's patients are noticed and criticized, and she is pressured to drop out, switch hospitals, or go back into research. She senses that the perpetrators are aware of her suspicions and send her the worst patients in an effort to eliminate her. She trusts no one. These worries are compounded by her own illness and her accidental discovery in the morgue of a traffic in unclaimed bodies. With the help of excellent clinical skills, true friends, Dr. Silber, and a new love interest who is a budding financial genius, she survives physical and emotional violence and solves the mystery of patient homicides, poisonings, and fraud.

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The Children Act

McEwan, Ian

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

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

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

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The Anatomist's Apprentice

Harris, Tessa

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

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In 1780, Thomas Silkstone, a young American surgeon and anatomist, is invited by Lydia to establish the cause of death of her brother, Lord Crick, a dissolute who held the Oxfordshire estate that she will inherit. Her goal is to absolve her husband of the suspicion of murder; however, as the investigation proceeds, it increasingly seems that her husband is guilty after all.

 The earnest young doctor methodically examines each new lead—performing experiments on tissues and with various poisons in his effort to determine the cause of death – and in so doing solve a murder. Before long, another person is dead and Thomas is in love with Lydia, a scarcely concealed complication that calls his testimony into question.

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Another Country

Schoeman, Karel

Last Updated: Oct-24-2017
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In Karel Schoeman’s novel, Another Country, Versluis, an affluent and educated Dutchman diagnosed with tuberculosis, immigrates to Bloemfontein, South Africa, to convalesce. Bloemfontein in the 1870s, located within the remote interior of the Free State, is little more than a dusty outpost populated by first- and second-generation German, Dutch, and English inhabitants. As the novel quietly unfolds, Versluis’s tenuous recovery, and subsequent regression, are punctuated by his observations of the community’s struggle to both preserve and break from European culture to form a distinct South African identity.   Whereas Versluis cherishes his familiar Dutch customs and courtesies, here, in Bloemfontein, he must adapt to the community’s irregularities and gaucheries. Nevertheless, he is regularly astonished by the town’s culture of insouciance—a lack of punctuality, etiquette, and municipal orderliness; its sometimes frowzy fashions; disregard for conservatism; and ease among poverty, violence, and isolation. His observations, however, are not the mordancies of a snobbish European, but a wrestling with his sense of profound alienation as a precariously ill man living abroad in a strange country.   Informed that his case is terminal, Versluis resigns himself to the inescapable state of his life. With fresh sensibility, he embraces life in Bloemfontein, becoming more receptive to its people and daily life. Particularly, for Versluis, the veld—with its rocks, dust, succulents, and solitude—takes on a potent and portentous symbolism, as an immutable and implacable presence (and emptiness), much akin to the illness that is killing him. Within this ponderous flux of change, of a gradually evolving Africa, Versluis peacefully comes to terms with his imminent death.

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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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