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Every Note Played

Genova, Lisa

Last Updated: Apr-10-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


This is a dramatic and moving story about a concert pianist who, at 45 years of age, suddenly and inexplicably, has ALS, and also equally about his ex-wife Karina, who takes on his care throughout his slow, inevitable, and lethal decline. As many readers know, ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). or “Lou Gherig’s disease,” hardens the motor nerves so that, progressively, there is no more control of muscles throughout the body. Not many readers know, however, the difficult path such patients and their families must pursue. This sensitive and detailed novel takes readers powerfully into the world of ALS, a disease for which there is today no cure.                                                                                      

Obsessed with his musical career and international travel, Richard has paid little attention to Karina and their daughter, Grace, and he has had affairs with other women. Karina has deceived him about her inability to bear more children. Because of their move from New York City to Boston, Karina, also a gifted pianist, has lost a possible career in jazz and now gives piano lessons to unpromising students. 

The first several chapters alternate between Richard and Karina. Although divorced from him, she brings him, now an ALS patient, back into the home they once shared. Various nurses, doctors, and other specialists try to explain the difficult future that includes certain loss of body functions, but Richard and Karina are slow to comprehend these. Despite their denial, they are forced to come to terms with Richard’s progressive decline and, finally, death.     
Richard loses the ability to use his hands, then his arms. He needs a special machine to breathe at night. Soon he has paid caregivers for parts of the day; these include a cheery and admirable man named Bill. No longer able to eat, Richard has a feeding tube. Later he needs a hospital bed. Also a Head Mouse to work his computer. Also an elaborate wheelchair. With unresolved issues in the past, Richard and Karina are emotionally apart—even with feelings of hate and rage—even while she cares for him.  

Karina’s walking partner Elise, a teacher, helps her stay sane. Karina travels to New Orleans with Elise and her class and finds her interest in jazz reawakened. No longer able to breathe even with assistance, should Richard go on to mechanical ventilation that will require 24-hour care at enormous expense? A choice is made. Richard dies, with various resolutions before and after his death.  

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The Dark Flood Rises

Drabble, Margaret

Last Updated: Apr-09-2018
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


Fran, an aging but energetic expert on elder housing, drives around the English countryside visiting facilities and also friends and family.  She, herself, is not at all ready to go gentle into the good night so many others are facing.  But everywhere she encounters reminders of mortality--her son's fiancee suddenly dies; an old friend is dying a lingering death of cancer; others in her circle of family and friends are facing their own or others' mortality in various ways, including natural disasters like earthquake and flood.  The episodic story takes place in England and in the Canary Islands; the large cast of characters are linked by intersecting stories and by their mortality, of which they, and the reader, are recurrently reminded.    

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Farinelli and The King

van Kampen, Claire

Last Updated: Mar-21-2018
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Theater

Genre: Theater


Anyone walking through a theater district over the past several decades and even centuries ago would likely run into a mad king—Lear, Richard III, George III, Scar. As of 2015, there’s a new mad king to be found in theater districts—King Philippe of Spain in Farinelli and the King.  

The play opens with King Philippe of Spain sitting up in his bed talking to a goldfish swimming around in its bowl trying to avoid the hook at the end of the King’s little fishing pole: 

I was touched by the confidence with which you speak to me of your affairs; the cordiality of your offer to redress mine; the tender anxiety for my health—but I should tell you in the strictest confidence you understand…shh…here the body cares very little for the affairs of the mind. (Act 1, Scene 1)   

As the King’s mental illness progresses from this point and becomes a concern of his court, his wife, Queen Isabella is sent away so that the King cannot physically harm her as he had before. But, what’s to be done for him? It’s the year 1737. While attending an opera in London, the Queen thinks she may have discovered just what the King needs—the renowned castrato Farinelli: 

Then…he began. A long note, held; I must think it was beyond a minute. A swooping, soaring sound and the notes were above the tree-tops, bird-like, unimaginable. When the aria finished just now I couldn’t help my tears; I was unable to move; I just stared at the stage, where he had been…I couldn’t believe what I had seen and heard…I felt something had profoundly changed within me. …and then, —I knew…That I must hope somehow to bring Farinelli to Spain with me. (Act 1, Scene 3)    

The Queen finds a way to bring Farinelli back to Spain, and Farinelli begins to sooth the mad King with his voice from the heavens. The King becomes calmer yet when he moves with the Queen and Farinelli to a house in the forest, where he cuts a hole in the trees so he can hear the “hidden notes” of the spheres above. The King tells Farinelli, “you must sing to me; in the long hours of dark, when my mind is screaming in the silence, then that is when I need you to sing to me.” (Act 2, Scene 5)  

The Queen was sure Farinelli’s singing was effective:

And they say it was Farinelli that helped to restore the health of the King of Spain—just by hearing this wonderful singing voice the King rose out of his depression and wanted to live again! It was the only thing the King could bear in the end. The sound of Farinelli’s voice. (Act 2, Scene 5)  

In Farinelli’s own and immodest assessment: “He is decidedly better because of me, and in his lonely life I have become a song he now depends on.” (Act 2, Scene 1) And, in making his clinical assessment, the King’s doctor was “of the opinion that the King’s illness has turned." (Act 1, Scene 4)  

The utopian existence comes to an end when the King is called back to Madrid to take on an impending English invasion. He would not be seen again.  

This fanciful tale is not so fanciful; it’s drawn from the historical King Philippe of Spain. His grandfather, King Louis XIV of France placed him there, and there he reigned for almost 50 years. Indeed he was mad, and indeed his wife the Queen brought the renowned castrato Farinelli back to Spain where he served the King for 9 years and then the son who succeeded him until this son’s death. From there Farinelli retired to the Italian countryside instead of returning to the public stages in Europe.  

The current NY production  could not replicate Farinelli’s voice exactly now that castrati are not to be found anymore; however, a countertenor was able to produce a swooping and soaring sound. Though Farinelli’s voice could not be replicated perfectly, the staging of the play was replicated as the audience of the day would have seen it in the mid 1700s. The lighting was supplied by candlelight from chandeliers and sconces that were part of the sets. The musicians supporting Farinelli’s performances were also situated on the stage with him. And, as the theaters were arranged then, seats for the audience were available on both sides of the stage. 

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Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History


From the late 18th to mid-19th centuries a peculiar trend swept through European fashion. Through couture and cosmetics, this vogue emulated the physical ravages of a much-feared disease, tuberculosis, aestheticizing its symptoms as enviable qualities of physical beauty. Pale skin, stooped posture, white teeth, an emaciated figure, and a white complexion that evinced delicate blue veins were lauded by the era’s posh fashion journals. Carolyn A. Day aptly terms this craze a “tubercular moment,” a cultural phenomenon that elevated the grim realities of physical illness to a plane of desirable beauty. Medical discourses promoting the fragility and refinement of the “sensible” body were inspired by romanticized notions of morbidity, suffering, and illness. These discourses coincided with the the ideologies of Romanticism, a philosophical movement that was popularly understood to be a counter-discourse to the Enlightenment through its emphasis on emotion and imagination. Day cites the English poet, John Keats, whose legacy emphatically contributed to the cult of sensibility, as he embodied a living example of the refined tubercular body endowed with artistic genius but doomed to illness. The male artist was an example of a body too sensitive, too delicate to endure earthly life, but one whose intellect left an indelible imprint on culture.  

The romanticized construction of tuberculosis, however, waned in the 1830s and 1840s due to dominant Victorian views that emphasized the inherent biological weakness of the female body. This shift in rationalizing consumption was the direct result of understanding women as burdened with a surfeit of sensibility. By contrast, consumption was understood differently to be an emasculating illness that denoted male weakness and was therefore no longer popularly considered to be a portent of gifted creativity. During this period, a number of women’s fashions dictated the tastes of the middle and upper classes. Corsets, cosmetics, and the gossamer neoclassical style of dress were used to emulate the frail frames, drooping postures, narrow torsos, and pale complexions of the consumptive body. Thin fabrics, sandals, and hair pieces also contributed to styling the ‘gorgeously’ spectral image of the tubercular body. Dresses were contrived to feature the bony wing-like shoulder blades of the consumptive back, emphasizing an emaciated frame. Physicians and cultural pundits condemned the trappings of this fashionable dress because they were thought to impose health risks. Tight corsets, for example, were considered to harmfully compress the lungs, while diaphanous dresses and sandals exposed women to cold weather. Despite the stentorian warnings of physicians, the tubercular wardrobe continued to house articles that were thought to excite tuberculosis.  

By the 1850s, public health and sanitary reforms reshaped cultural discourses that associated tuberculosis with beauty. Tuberculosis was gradually viewed as a pernicious biological force that needed to be controlled. As a result, the Victorian model of womanhood—the weak and susceptible female body—gave way to a model of health and strength. Literature, as Day points out, contributed significantly to altering the consumptive chic discourse and the link between tuberculosis and ideal femininity. She references Alexandre Dumas fils, whose influential novel, La Dame aux Camélias, presents redemption for moral transgressions through tubercular suffering. Through popular literature, tuberculosis was gradually supplanted from the sphere of upper-class women and placed in association with ‘fallen’ women, an unsavory association that led the genteel public to change perspective. Literary influence was important, but the increased visibility of consumption in the lower classes was likely the most visceral reality that forced upper classes to distance themselves from fashions that beautified the illness.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


In 1869 in the remote northern Scottish village of Culduie, teenager Roderick (Roddy) Macrae brutally murders his neighbor, Lachlan “Broad’ Mackenzie, and two others. He readily admits to his crime, motivated, he says, by a desire to end the dreadful vendetta that Broad waged against his widowed father. The sympathetic defence lawyer, Andrew Simpson, urges him to write an account of the events leading up to the tragedy.  

Roddy agrees. In a surprisingly articulate essay, the young crofter describes his motive, originating with his birth and escalating through the lad’s mercy killing of an injured sheep belonging to Broad (interpreted as wanton), Broad’s sexual torment of his sister and mother, and his abuse of power as a constable that strips the family of land, crops, and finally their home.  

Given Roddy’s passivity, intelligence, and previously clean record, Simpson prepares a defence of temporary insanity and brings two physicians to assess his client, one a purported expert in the new field of medical criminology.  

The jury trial proceeds with an almost verbatim transcript derived from newspaper sources. The reader is able to juxtapose Roderick’s account with that presented in court. To report the outcome here would reveal too much.

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The River of Consciousness

Sacks, Oliver

Last Updated: Mar-01-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay


Two weeks before his death in 2015, Sacks oversaw this collection of essays and charged Kate Edgar, Daniel Frank, and Bill Hayes to arrange its publication. The essays touch on various fields—evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts, and focus on major figures such as Darwin, Freud, and William James. The major theme—as indicated by the volume’s title—is how minds (of humans, chimps, even jellyfish) interpret and remember what the senses perceive in normal and in limited states. While we read in the Foreword that “a number” of the pieces originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, there are no citations for dates and places.  

“Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers”: Sacks describes Darwin’s research with flowers that support evolution; flowing plants display qualities of sensitivity to “contact, pressure moisture, chemical gradients, etc” (p. 19). Sacks recalls the pleasures of investigating flowers as a youth in his London garden.  

“Speed” : Drawing on personal experience and a wide variety of anecdotes (including his encephalitic patients described in Awakenings), Sacks muses about mental perceptions, slow and fast, normal and drug-enhanced, dreams, and our ability to imagine “all speeds, all time” (p. 59).  

“Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms”: Starting with Darwin and coming forward, Sacks discuss how worms, jellyfish, and even trees may be considered to exhibit “mind.” Near the end, we read, “if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of a significant and individual sort, one has to allow it for an octopus too” (p. 76).  
“The Other Road: Freud as Neurologist”: The opening paragraph ably sums up the essay. “Everyone knows Freud as the father of psychoanalysis, but relatively few know about the twenty years (from 1876 to 1896) when he was primarily a neurologist and anatomist; Freud himself rarely referred to them in later life. Yet his neurological life was the precursor to his psychoanalytic one, and perhaps an essential key to it (p. 79).   
The next three may be considered as a group because they deal with lapses or outright failures in perception, memory, or health. Because Sacks reports on his own life experience, these are the most personal.
“The Fallibility of Memory” describes Sacks’s memories of the bombing of London in the winter of 1940-41. It turns out that one memory, according to family members, is right, but the other is actually a version of a letter describing a bombing.

The essay continues to discuss such topics as false memories, auto-plagiarism, unconscious plagiarism, and fabulation. He concludes, “Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine” (p. 121). In a short piece, “Mishearings,” Sacks reports how his increasing deafness makes new (and sometimes hilarious) perceptions of spoken words.  

Surely the last written—and in many ways the most poignant—“A General Feeling of Disorder” discusses feelings of being ill. Sacks, at age 81, describes his metastatic liver cancer and, in detail, an arduous treatment. Although warned of weakness and pain, he writes of “a sort of negative orgasm of pain” and other disturbing side effects (pp. 155-59) in vivid detail.  

“The Creative Self” discusses forms of creativity including play, scholarship, unconscious borrowing, and subconscious insight. Sacks is less interested in a Freudian model than an evocation of “an entire hidden, creative self” (p. 144).            

The final two, “The River of Consciousness” and “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science” deal with theories of how the mind works and, more collectively, how scientific breakthroughs occur. The former essay explores cinematic models for perception in James and Bergson and much later models of the 100 billion neurons of the brain working on networks, coalitions, or populations. He finds that a specific mechanism is unlikely to be found and, “Even the highest powers of art—whether in film or theater, or literary narrative—can only convey the faintest intimation of what human consciousness is really like” (p. 174).

In “Scotoma” (or “memory hole”), he looks at discoveries that were over-looked for many years . Later they were rediscovered as important for understanding various phenomena: Tourette’s syndrome, phantom limbs, and, his specialty, migraines.

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Dixon, Melvin

Last Updated: Mar-01-2018
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry


Melvin Dixon’s poem, “Heartbeats,” portrays the steady atrophy of someone suffering a fatal disease. The anonymous narrator first appears as healthy and vigorous:

“Work out. Ten Laps.
Chin ups. Look good.
Steam room.
Dress warm.
Call home.
Fresh air.
Eat right.
Rest well.
Sweetheart. Safe sex.”

An undisclosed illness takes hold and the narrator copes with the impacts of a life-threatening disease:

“Test blood.
Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.”

S/he calls home, diets, tries to calmly recuperate, and focuses on maintaining peace of mind, “Breathe in. Breathe out.” The reality of death, or “It,” cannot be ignored, “Today? Tonight? / It waits. For me.” Dixon uses wordplay for “sweetheart” to bookend the poem.
In the third stanza, the narrator affectionately addresses his/her lover as “Sweetheart”; but, through battling the illness and experiencing its withering effects, Dixon cleaves the word in two in the final stanza, imploring the body to withstand the disease: “Sweet heart. / Don’t stop.”

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Catullus 101

Catullus, Gaius Valerius

Last Updated: Feb-27-2018
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry



Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

(See reference)


Brother, I come o'er many seas and lands
To the sad rite which pious love ordains, 
To pay thee the last gift that death demands ;
And oft, though vain, invoke thy mute remains : 
Since death has ravish'd half myself in thee,
Oh wretched brother, sadly torn from me ! 

And now ere fate our souls shall re-unite,
To give me back all it hath snatch'd away, 
Receive the gifts, our fathers' ancient rite
To shades departed still was wont to pay ;
Gifts wet with tears of heartfelt grief that tell,
And ever, brother, bless thee, and farewell!

Catullus, G. V., & Lamb, G. (1821). The poems of Caius Valerius Catullus. London: J. Murray. Vol. II: page 94.

Catullus 101 is a 10 line elegy that Catullus, a Roman lyric poet (84 - 54? BCE), wrote upon the occasion of his visiting the tomb (probably as part of his trip to Bithynia in 57 BCE) of his brother, who had recently died in the Troad. We do not know much about his brother, whom he mentions several times (also in poems 65 and 68) in his 116 poems, but it is clear from this beautiful threnody that he loved him a great deal.

Written in elegiac couplets (comprising a two line sequence of a 6 foot line followed by a 5 foot one), this poem has justly become famous for its depth of emotion and its stylistic elegance, all neatly fitting into a 10 line jewel of poetry. Unlike the bulk of Catullus's oeuvre, which has for its most common subjects love and sex, in all their heights and depths - from marriage hymns to scurrilous poems more appropriately adorning subway walls as graffiti - this poem simply expresses the poet's sadness in profoundly solemn tones, invoking, in almost ritualistic manner, the Roman funeral rites ("inferias" in the original) due the dead by family. Some scholars feel that it might have been inscribed on the tomb. The gifts mentioned would have been modest ones, e.g., wine, lentils, honey and flowers.

Although the translation above is antiquated, it nicely renders the Latin. Others abound, including the three I also prefer, listed below.

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Annotated by:
McClelland, Spencer

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay


An extended essay on the experience of child immigrants woven around the forty questions that author Valeria Luiselli asks in her work as a translator for children seeking entry into the United States.

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The Black Monk

Tibaldo-Bongiorno, Marylou

Last Updated: Feb-20-2018
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film


As the film opens, George Anderson tells us he has been advised to treat his anxiety by going “to some island to rest.” We see him arrive by ferry in Staten Island where he has arranged to spend several weeks at the beautiful home of his father’s best friend.  There, he renews his friendship with the friend’s daughter, Maggie.  We discover that George, a filmmaker, dropped out of medical school, and that Maggie is now a doctor.  We learn from the start that, though they have not seen each other for ten years, there is a longstanding mutual romantic attraction.   

One day, while walking around the house’s lush gardens, George suddenly and improbably sees a monk.  We are made to understand this is not the first time this has occurred, although at this stage George still recognizes it as a “mirage.” However, when the monk foretells a “grand brilliant future” for George and entrusts him with a divine mission, George is inspired.  He becomes obsessed with attending church, and we learn he has not been sleeping.  In his religious fervor he calls Maggie “disgusting” because she performs abortions.

Maggie becomes aware that something is not quite right.  We learn too that George enlisted in the army and resigned under suspicious circumstances. Other details about his past are mysterious.  The relationship between George and Maggie intensifies. Meanwhile, a friend warns Maggie that she has witnessed George saying peculiar things about a monk and smiling inappropriately.  Finally, in Maggie’s bedroom, George has a full-fledged psychotic episode as he hallucinates the monk in front of her.  She accuses him of “becoming schizophrenic,” and begs him to see a psychiatrist.  He responds by accusing her of trying to drain him of his inspiration, packs up his belongings, and, despite her entreaties, leaves.    

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