Showing 11 - 20 of 1246 Fiction annotations

Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Anthony Marra’s debut novel (published in 2013) is set in Chechnya, the rebellious Caucasus republic that broke away from Russia in 1994, was in short order mired in two wars thereafter, and ultimately lost its independence and was re-incorporated into Russia as a semi-autonomous “federal subject” state.  Marra does not ease us into his story, but propels us headlong into it; it is 2004, and eight-year-old Havaa awakens to find that her father Dokka, suspected of aiding Chechen rebels, has been taken away by Russian troops, who have also burned her house to the ground.  She is alive only because Akhmed, her neighbor and her father’s friend, has spirited her out of her house in the middle of the night and hidden her in his.  Akhmed takes it upon himself to protect Havaa; he knows that the soldiers will be looking for her, because even though the official wars are over, Chechnya remains in the midst of a brutal battle for control, and the policy of the state is to “disappear” not only those it perceives as its enemies, but also their family members.  

Akhmed manages to get Havaa to the abandoned local hospital, where he believes she will be safe.  The hospital is staffed only by a smart, tough, and competent surgeon named Sonja, assisted by a nurse.  Sonja is an ethnic Russian from the area who trained in London and then returned to her homeland.  She agrees to shelter Havaa on the condition that Akhmed, who trained as a doctor but is painfully aware of his inadequacies in that profession (he wanted to be an artist), stay on also as her assistant surgeon.  Soldiers and civilians on both sides arrive in need of care in a hospital barely functioning, with little in the way of staff or supplies. 

Sonja meanwhile is searching for her sister who has disappeared into the chaos of the Chechen wars; she believes that Natasha is alive, but hasn’t heard of her, or from her, in years (we will, in the course of the novel, hear Natasha’s story and learn of another side of the underbelly of this war).  She comes to believe that Akhmed may hold a key to Natasha’s whereabouts, and Sonja of course holds the key to whatever measure of safety exists for Havaa—and thus for Akhmed as well.  Other locals, a local Chechen historian, his turncoat son, and various governmental and non-governmental functionaries round out the cast in the novel.   Akhmed must negotiate in a world where anyone could be an informer, and one person clearly is; where the price for falling into the wrong hands could be death or worse; where federal troops and rebels vie to outdo each other in brutality; and where the rest of the population spends every waking minute simply trying to survive in a lawless society and a landscape gutted by ongoing strife.   When the various narrative arcs ultimately link up the ending is a powerful one.




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The Little King

Rushdie, Salman

Last Updated: Dec-19-2019
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Dr. R. K. Smile, MD, founder of Smile Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (SPI), enjoys a sudden lurch into fortune and celebrity. Dubbed the ‘Little King’ by his Atlanta-based Indian community, Dr. Smile is a towering medical authority, philanderer and philanthropist, known to be both generous and avaricious. His pinnacle pharmaceutical coup, the patent that has earned him billionaire status, is InSmile™, a sublingual fentanyl spray designed for terminally ill cancer patients. Dr. Smile’s entrepreneurial vim, however, hardly stems from benevolent medical research, but rather an ‘excellent business model’ that he observed on a visit to India during which a Bombay ‘urchin’ handed him a business card that read, ‘Are you alcoholic? We can help. Call this number for liquor home delivery.’ The blunt practicality of building a market around sating addiction strikes the doctor as entirely sensible. Often wistful about India’s ‘old days,’ Dr. Smile fondly recounts the insouciance of neighborhood dispensary hawkers, their willingness to ‘hand out drugs without a doctor’s chit.’ Though admitting that ‘it was bad for [their] customers’ health but good for the health of the business,’ Dr. Smile yearns to replicate a similar culture of delinquent pharmacology, an unregulated market capable of profiting from supply-and-demand forces but indifferent to the wellbeing of its patrons. 

In the meantime, Dr. Smile’s wife, Mrs. Happy Smile, a simpering and daft socialite, envisions grand branding prospects that will globalize the Smile name through ostentatious publicity—inscribed name placards at the ‘Opera, art gallery, university, hospital […] your name will be so, so big.’ She refers to the worldwide reputation of the OxyContin family, the proliferation of the family’s name and esteemed place among prestigious cultural institutions: ‘So, so many wings they have,’ she says, ‘Metropolitan Museum wing named after them, Louvre wing also, London Royal Academy wing also. A bird with so, so many wings can fly so, so high.’ 

InSmile™ sales drive Dr. Smile’s burgeoning drug trade, as his prescription becomes preferred to conventional OxyContin highs due to its ‘instant gratification’ in the form of an oral spray. While SPI fulfills special house-calls for American celebrities and customers in ‘gated communities from Minneapolis to Beverly Hills,’ it also ships millions of opioid products to places such as Kermit and Mount Gay, West Virginia—communities, outside fictional contexts, that bear real-world vestiges of the opioid epidemic (West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdose in the United States). Through a lecture series scheme, Dr. Smile bribes respected doctors to publicize and prescribe the medication, further entrenching the dangerous drug in medical circles.

As the SPI empire collapses following a SWAT-led arrest of his wife, Dr. Smile muses indignantly on his reputation and the ingratitude of his clients. Tugged again by nostalgia for the old country, he justifies his drug trafficking by likening it to quotidian misdemeanors, instances when one could circumvent the inconveniences of India’s law by knowing how to pull the venal strings of corrupt systems—like cutting a long ticket queue at the rail station, he says, by paying a little extra at a backyard office; or bribing government officers to stamp customs papers required to ship restricted antiques abroad—‘We know what is the oil that greases the wheels.’ With this deleterious mindset, combining nostalgia and entrepreneurial greed, Dr. Smile’s future is uncertain, but he is resolved to return—after all, he says, ‘I have lawyers.’

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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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State of Wonder

Patchett, Ann

Last Updated: Nov-21-2019
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Dr. Marina Singh, a pharmacologist and former obstetrician, is sent to a research site in the Amazonian jungle somewhere in Brazil that is operated by the company she works for, Vogel Pharmaceutical. The company chief executive officer, Mr. Fox, dispatches her there to check on the progress of the research and to get details on the reported death of her colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman, while he was there on a previous research trip. Eckman’s wife, uncertain that he was dead, asks Marina to find out what had happened to her husband. The plot centers on Marina’s dual missions at the Amazon jungle site. 

Marina’s trip reunites her with the legendary and imperious Dr. Annick Swenson, who is an obstetrician and the lead researcher at the site. Thirteen years before, Swenson was Marina’s supervisor during her obstetrics residency. A mistake Marina makes while she’s delivering a baby after disregarding Swenson’s advice drove her out of obstetrics and into pharmacology, and then eventually to Vogel. The company is supporting Swenson’s research hoping it will produce a blockbuster product. Mr. Fox is growing impatient having received only brief and vague communications from Swenson over the past five years. 
 

Decades earlier Swenson had followed her mentor to the jungle location where the Lakashi tribe lives, and after frequent visits over this time, resided there permanently to work on the research Vogel was funding. The research was based on observations Swenson and her mentor made about Lakashi women; they never go through menopause and they are fertile into their old age. Swenson’s project is to find out why, and provide the information to Vogel in order to develop a product that could give women the option to avoid menopause and to have babies much later in life. 

Swenson finds it is the bark of the (fictional) Martin trees when combined with excretions of the (fictional) Purple Martinet moth deposited in the bark Lakashi women ingest that extends their fertility after menopause. Trying it herself, Swenson becomes pregnant at age seventy–three. She also finds that the same bark protects the Lakashi women against malaria. Swenson eventually concludes that her research should not proceed to product development for fertility, but instead for prevention of malaria. Certain that no American pharmaceutical company would “foot the bill for Third World do-gooding,” Swenson decides to reallocate the fertility research funding to her malaria vaccine work without permission from the company (p. 289). A cat and mouse game ensues around the research funding, Swenson’s pregnancy ends, and the mystery of what happened to Anders Eckman is solved. Marina Singh’s life is changed, probably forever.

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The Presentation on Egypt

Bordas, Camille

Last Updated: Jul-15-2019
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

‘It wasn’t his job to explain it over and over, to sit the families down and say, “The husband/the brother/the son you knew is no more, it’s only machines breathing for him now, and you wouldn’t be letting him go, because he’s already gone."’ These are the frustrated musings of Paul, a wearily disillusioned brain surgeon who struggles with the emotional aftermath of delivering grim prognoses to his patients’ families. After comforting a patient’s wife who has decided to remove her husband from life support, Paul hangs himself in his family’s laundry room, leaving neither a note nor trace of what compelled him to take his own life. 

Career burnout, perhaps even a nagging sense of futility, would seem to be among the issues behind Paul’s mysterious suicide—in one conversation with a patient, he alludes gnomically to bad dreams that leave him either flummoxed or exhausted. Whatever the cause, Paul’s death leaves gaping lacunae in the lives of his family—his wife, Anna, and daughter, Danielle—that they struggle to patch and, in their own ways, comprehend. It is Anna who finds Paul, hanging, in the laundry room, though ‘she didn’t scream. She didn’t believe what she saw…' In that moment of speechlessness, of disbelief, Anna devises a ‘cold plan’ to keep secret the true circumstances of Paul’s death. Concealing the truth from her daughter, Anna creates a scaffolding of lies, false impressions, garbled half-truths that shape both Danielle’s and her own perception of the past. 

Years later, in a moment of introspection, Danielle intuits, not likely for the first time, that her 'mother was lying about her father’s death. […] Anna insisted that the heart attack hadn’t woken him, but that didn’t make any sense to Danielle, who could be woken up by the smell of toast.’ Danielle dimly senses that her father had ‘woken up and suffered,’ but cannot grasp the facts that her mother withholds.

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The Great Believers

Makkai, Rebecca

Last Updated: May-26-2019
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The subject of Rebecca Makkai's engaging book, The Great Believers is the AIDS epidemic. Her narrative unfolds in two eras separated by 40 years. It opens in the mid-1980s with the funeral of Nico, one of HIV’s first victims when the epidemic exploded in the gay community living in Chicago. In the second chapter, the time frame abruptly switches to 2015 and introduces Fiona Marcus, Nico’s sister. She was part of the gay scene in Chicago in the 1980s, grew attached to the men, and provided the care and comfort that many of the families were unable to offer when their sons were dying of AIDS.

In the earlier time period, Makkai's main protagonist is Yale Tishman, the director of development at an art gallery affiliated with a prominent unnamed university in the Chicago area. He is working with a small group of colleagues, including a young man uncertain of his gender identity, to acquire a batch of paintings from Nora Marcus Lerner. She is an elderly woman who happens to be Fiona and Nico’s aunt. and who was part of the avant-garde social circle surrounding the modern artists living in Paris in the wake of the First World War. As Nora reaches the end of her long life, she desperately wants to preserve the artistic memory of her lover who died as a young man. As Yale works to finalize the acquisition, his relationship with his lover, Charlie, falters and triggers a series of untimely deaths in Yale’s close circle of friends. Ultimately, Yale also succumbs to the HIV virus.

In 2015, Fiona has engaged a private investigator to locate her estranged daughter, Claire, who is living in Paris and has rebuffed numerous efforts in the past to reconnect with her mother. Ultimately, Fiona is able to move past the intensity of her caregiving role to gay men in the 1980s and to reconnect and reestablish a tentative relationship with her daughter. There is hope that with a renewed bond with her daughter she can restore a reason to live that will be as strong as the work she did to support and sustain her gay friends through the agonies of AIDS.

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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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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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Code Blues

Yuan-Innes, Melissa; Yi, Melissa

Last Updated: Dec-10-2018
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Hope Sze is a resident in family medicine aiming to qualify for the extra year in emergency medicine training. She has just moved from her medical school in London, Ontario, to begin residency in St. Joseph’s Hospital, Montreal. Her furniture and clothing have not yet arrived.

On orientation day, she meets her resident colleagues and takes a shine to Alex who clearly likes her too. But the excitement and anticipation of this new chapter in their lives is disrupted when the body of one of the attending physicians is found lying in the locker room. 

A “whodunnit” with medicine, romance, and suspense in which Hope makes a few mistakes but manages to identify the murderer and the motives.

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