Showing 111 - 120 of 207 annotations in the genre "Memoir"

The Drowned and the Saved

Levi, Primo

Last Updated: Dec-06-2006
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Primo Levi was imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. He survived the experience, probably in part because he was a trained chemist and as such, useful to the Nazis. Soon after the war ended, he wrote several books about his experience. The Drowned and the Saved, however, was written 40 years later and is the work of memory and reflection not only on the original events, but also on how the world has dealt with the Holocaust in the intervening years. Fundamental to his purpose is the fear that what happened once can happen (and in some respects, has happened) again.

Chapter 1, "The Memory of the Offense," dissects out the vagaries of memory, rejection of responsibility, denial of unacceptable trauma and out and out lying among those who were held to account by tribunals as well as among the victimized. Levi does not spare himself: "This very book is drenched in memory . . . it draws from a suspect source and must be protected against itself" (34). Even so, he insists, memory and the historical record are crucial to combating Nazi assumptions that their deeds would go unnoticed (they were destroying the evidence), or disbelieved.

In "The Gray Zone" (2) Levi challenges the tendency to over-simplify and gloss over unpleasant truths of the inmate hierarchy that inevitably developed in the camps, and that was exacerbated by the Nazi methodology of singling some out for special privileges. He outlines the coercive conditions that cause people to become so demoralized that they will harm each other just to survive. (And when they refused to collaborate, they were killed and immediately replaced.)

Chapter 3, " Shame," is, in my opinion, the most profound and moving section of the book. Levi begins it by discussing a phenomenon that occurred following liberation from the camps: many who had been incarcerated committed suicide or were profoundly depressed. This Levi attributes to shame and feelings of guilt. "Coming out of the darkness, one suffered because of the reacquired consciousness of having been diminished . . . Our moral yardstick had changed [while in the camps]" (75). Beyond that, there is the sense that "each one of us (but this time I say 'us' in a . . . universal sense) has usurped his neighbor's place and lived in his stead" (81-82).

In the concentration camp, says Levi, it was usually "the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the 'gray zone,' the spies" who survived ["the saved"] while the others did not ["the drowned"] (82). Only the drowned could know the totality of the concentration camp experience, but they cannot testify; hence, the saved must do their best to render it. Since Levi was one of those saved, he is "in permanent search of a justification . . . " and although he feels compelled to bear witness, he does not consider doing so sufficient justification for having survived. In this chapter Levi also discusses why inmates did not commit suicide during their incarceration:" . . . suicide is an act of man and not of the animal . . . because of the constant imminence of death there was no time to concentrate on the idea of death" (76).

"Communicating" (4) deals with the emotional and practical consequences of not being able to understand the German commands of the captors, or the conversation of the mostly German speaking prisoners (Levi was Italian but spoke some German). Levi also describes the additional suffering of those who were cut off from all communication with friends and family. "Useless Violence" (5) gives examples of how the Nazis tormented their prisoners with "stupid and symbolic violence."

In "The Intellectual in Auschwitz" (6) Levi speculates about how and in what circumstances being educated or cultured was a help or hindrance to coping with the situation. In this chapter he considers also whether religious belief was useful or comforting, concluding that believers "better resisted the seduction of power [resisted collaborating]" (145) and were less prone to despair. Levi, however, was never a believer, although he admits to having almost prayed for help once, but caught himself because "one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, not when you were losing" (146).

Chapter 7, "Stereotypes," addresses those who question why many concentration camp inmates or ghetto inhabitants did not attempt to escape or rebel, and why many German Jews remained in Germany during Hitler's ascendance. As in all the other chapters of his book, Levi discusses the complexity of these situations. "Letters from Germans" summarizes his correspondence with Germans who read his earlier books. The book ends ("Conclusion") with the exhortation that "It happened, therefore it can happen again . . . " (199).

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Black Boy

Wright, Richard

Last Updated: Dec-06-2006
Annotated by:
Woodcock, John

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This is American writer Richard Wright's story of his life as a black child in the American South (Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas) in the early decades of the 20th century. Black Boy opens with the disaster in which Richard at the age of four accidentally burns down his grandparents' house and is beaten nearly to death by his mother as punishment. The book ends with Richard's hopeful escape north to Chicago at the age of eighteen.

In between are years of heart-stopping survival stories, as Richard, an intelligent and willful child who tries to resist many of the demands of his strongly segregated environment, runs head-on into the hatred of racists and the deep poverty, hunger, and oppression that so often were the lot of the system's victims. (On the subject of hunger, one of the book's working titles was American Hunger, and Wright was chronically hungry all these years. He gets so used to extreme hunger that at one point late in the book after a short interlude with regular meals he is surprised to discover that he can suddenly read faster!)

Black Boy, originally published by Harper & Bros. in 1945, is only the first half of Wright's original manuscript. After production had begun on the complete manuscript, Wright accepted an offer from the Book-of -the-Month Club to make his book one of their selections if only the first half were published. The second half was first published in its entirety by Harper & Row as American Hunger in 1977. The 1993 edition titled Black Boy (American Hunger) brings both halves together for the first time. The second volume describes Wright's experiences in Chicago from 1926 to 1936, including his frustrating attempt to work with the Communist Party as a way of supporting unemployed workers during the Great Depression.

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My Body Politic

Linton, Simi

Last Updated: Dec-06-2006
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Simi Linton, a major voice in disability rights activism, has written the story of her journey from car accident "victim" to college professor, disability studies scholar, and political activist. Her memoir of personal experience is interwoven with the evolution of her thinking about disability as social construct and the development of the disability studies movement and political engagement.

In 1971, Linton was a young married hippie--a college dropout hitchhiking her way to a protest march against the Vietnam War, together with her husband and best friend. Suddenly there was a car crash: her husband and best friend were killed and Simi sustained a spinal cord injury that left her legs paralyzed. There followed a year of hospitalization, surgeries, and in-house rehabilitation.

Although forced to be a recipient of attention and care, Linton even then was not inclined to play a passive role. "Even in this forest of overseers, where every move I made was scheduled . . . I had opinions. . . . Doctors . . . had saved me, and saved all my new friends, but I was outraged when they spoke for me or spoke down to a nurse I liked" (15). While still institutionalized, Linton took on the cause of petitioning the medical staff to educate patients like her about leading a sexual life as a disabled person. She determined to return to college as a psychology major so that she could eventually implement sexuality programs in rehab centers.

Linton details the activities of daily life that she had to adjust to and the strategies she adapted to maneuver, with her wheelchair, in her home, to go shopping, to travel, to attend classes. Family and friends and some social services were helpful but everywhere, life was designed for the abled body. This was a "fact of life"--"I had a feeling it could be different, but didn't know where to begin. I was having enough trouble just getting around" (28). She kept from thinking too much about her situation and her losses by staying busy and trying to be as independent as possible, but eventually needed the support of a therapist "who could bear my weight" (37).

It was in 1975 that Linton's disability rights "consciousness" was first stirred. On her own, she left her New York apartment to live in Berkeley, California for awhile. There she discovered "The Center for Independent Living" where the employees and volunteers were themselves disabled and whose goal was to assist disabled individuals to find ways of living independently. "I had been so tentative about my disability, and had, up to now, only ascribed a very personal meaning to it--this is what happened to me, this is the effect on me--that their forthright ownership of disability and their drive to take action based on the collective experience set my mind racing" (53).

Another defining moment came when Linton took a course on the psychology of women at Barnard College. "We examined the myths inherent in the so-called objective knowledge base" (64). Simi drew a parallel between knowledge generated from the male perspective and knowledge presented from the perspective of the abled body. "Unlike the [classroom] readings . . . which challenged traditional conceptualizations of women's roles and framed issues from an insider's perspective, the rehab literature recounted clinicians' views about disabled women's needs and experiences that seemed far removed from the way that I and the disabled women I had been meeting actually felt. It looked at us, and, it felt, through us, and I mistrusted all of it" (64).

The memoir continues with Linton's decision to work outside the realm of institutional medicine, her co-organizing the National Coalition of Sexuality in Disability, her falling in love with and marrying the man who is her (second) husband, her growing awareness of the silence surrounding disability and questions of access, and her dedication to change individual and society's discriminatory practices and to bring awareness of what we now call "the social construction of disability."

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The Shadow Man

Gordon, Mary

Last Updated: Dec-05-2006
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Subtitled "A Daughter's Search for Her Father," this memoir chronicles author Mary Gordon's quest to recapture the essence that was her father, a man she idolized and adored while he was alive--and long after his death when she was only seven years old. This death she saw as the single most defining event of her life. Identification with her father was essential to the conception of self, both as a creative writer, and as a worthwhile person. So she "entered the cave of memory" but found that memory was discordant with the facts.

Gordon's father was a writer, and a convert from Judaism to Catholicism. His persona was that of an intellectual, a graduate of Harvard, a frequenter of literary circles in Oxford and Paris. He claimed to be an only child, born in Ohio. As Gordon explores her memory and the historical record, forcing herself to confront her father's political opinions--opinions which are repugnant to her, and which she had earlier chosen to ignore--she uncovers a charade.

Her father, it turns out, was an immigrant from Vilna (in Eastern Europe) and had never finished high school. He had two sisters whom he never acknowledged to his family--one spent years in a mental institution where she ultimately died. Among his published writings are pornography and political diatribe (he was an anti-Semite and a facist); his writing was stylistically flawed.

This memoir is Mary Gordon's attempt to come to terms with what she learned about her father. It is the narrative deconstruction and reconstruction of the author's self; it is both biography and autobiography; a reflection on loss and recovery.

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Annotated by:
Holmes, Martha Stoddard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Peter Selwyn spent the first ten years out of medical school at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, caring for HIV-positive patients--mostly intravenous drug users and their families--in the early years of the AIDS crisis. As he worked with dying young men and women and their families, Selwyn returned to his own unexplored pain surrounding the loss of his father, who fell or (more likely) jumped from a 23-story building when Selwyn was a toddler. Mirroring their function in Selwyn’s life, the stories of the five patients who most affected him serve in this book as the threshold to the narrative of how Selwyn investigated, mourned, and commemorated his father’s death, finally revaluing it as central to the person and doctor he became.

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Annotated by:
Jones, Therese

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly thirty-one percent of the American public is obese; obesity accounts for 300,000 deaths a year, making it the second-most common preventable cause of death after cigarette smoking; individuals who are obese have a fifty to one-hundred percent increased risk of premature death from all causes.  On the opposite end of the scale, so to speak, is anorexia, which, as one of the deadliest of psychiatric diseases, claims up to fifteen percent of its sufferers who either die of suicide or complications related to starvation; about one-third spend their lives dominated by their obsession with food, and almost half never marry. 

How can we ever understand the psychological, physical, emotional, cultural and spiritual complexity of eating disorders, whether they result in morbid obesity or in a starving body digesting itself?  Ann Pai's memoir opens a window to reveal the inner world of a food obsession, her own, and holds up a mirror to reflect the outer experience of a dying, five hundred fifty pound woman, her sister.

The narrative weaves together three strands:  the sweet but unsentimental history of two sisters growing up in the midwest--Joyce, the elder of the two, and Ann, younger by almost five years; the detailed and horrific account of Joyce's sudden hospitalization on September 11, 2001, and her inexorable decline through multiple, undiagnosable and fatal illnesses as the result of her obesity; and the stream-of-conscious and raw monologue of Ann's own struggle to manage a compulsive eating disorder.

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Angela's Ashes

McCourt, Frank

Last Updated: Dec-01-2006
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This absorbing, sad, humorous evocation of an impoverished Irish Catholic childhood describes the first nineteen years of Frank McCourt’s life--from his birth in Brooklyn, New York; through the family’s emigration four years later to his mother’s roots in the slums of Limerick, Ireland--and ends with McCourt’s return migration to America, a young man on his own. McCourt sets the scene in his first lines: "When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. . . the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters . . . . "

Born during the Great Depression, the author leads us in lilting present-tense narrative through the struggle and occasional small joys of daily life with siblings, school friends, and the adults who circumscribe his life. He is an alien in his parental homeland, the oldest child of a father whose background in "the North" engenders continual suspicion, and a mother (Angela of the book’s title) who had never known her father and whose own mother is as miserly with her affections as with offers of economic assistance.

The hardships in Limerick are so profound that starvation is a way of life. "Consumption," pneumonia, and typhoid are rampant; children go to school barefoot or in pieces of flopping rubber; stealing is a necessity. Frank’s tiny sister and twin brothers die. Above all, there is "the drink"--the endemic disease of Irish fathers who spend their weeks’ wages in the pub on Friday night.

Frank leaves school to earn money for the family (his father had joined the war-time wave of work in England, but continued to drink his earnings away), and to save for a return to America. Blessed with verbal skills and stamina, through stealth, charm and struggle he manages to save what is needed to book ship’s passage to America. As the Hudson River flows by en route to Albany, the ship’s Wireless Officer says to Frank, "My God, . . . isn’t this a great country altogether?" Answers Frank in the single phrase comprising the last chapter, " ’T. is."

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Annotated by:
Donley, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The text explores the experiences of a nurse practitioner in an inner city OB-GYN (Obstetrics & Gynecology) clinic and four of her women patients, from a fifteen-year-old homeless pregnant child to a mature woman struggling with cancer. Another of her patients is pregnant and drug addicted; a fourth suffers from pains that come from buried memories of sexual abuse. The stories of all four patients weave in and out of the narrator's own stories about herself, her own health and illness experiences, her own respectful appreciation of the female body.

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The Private Life of Islam

Young, Ian

Last Updated: Nov-30-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Ian Young spent the summer of 1970 as a medical student working at a hospital in the province of Kabylia in Algeria. He was assigned to the Maternity department, where he worked primarily with two Bulgarian doctors. Most foreign medical personnel in Algeria at the time came from Eastern bloc countries, as "Islamic Socialism" was the official political system in the newly independent (1962) North African country. According to Young, obstetrical care for the mostly Berber women of the area was brutal, disorganized, antiquated, and dangerous.

Dr. Vasilev, the head of the department, is a passive and indecisive man, who spends most of his day reading the newspaper. Once roused from his lethargy, which doesn't happen very often, he demonstrates competence and concern for his patients. His colleague, Dr. Kostov, is an aggressively brutal man who introduces himself to pregnant patients by shoving his fist into their vaginas.

Both doctors excuse their behavior by saying, "We just can't do it here they way we do it in Bulgaria." For the most part, they do not use sterile technique, and although anesthetics are available, neither Kostov nor Vasilev typically use them. The Algerian nursing staff provides at least a modicum of organization and care in this dreadful environment.

At first Young approaches the situation with disbelief and anger. He then attempts to improve the quality of care, first by introducing a flow sheet for obstetrical care, and later by submitting a report on the poor conditions to the hospital director.

Mild-mannered Dr. Vasilev supports him, but no one uses the new flow sheets, and the Director considers the report a personal (and political) affront. Meanwhile, Ian Young presents the reader with a seemingly endless series of fascinating patient cases and interesting stories about hospital personnel, as well as about his excursions to various parts of Kabylia.

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Oaxaca Journal

Sacks, Oliver

Last Updated: Nov-30-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This is the journal that Oliver Sacks kept during a "fern foray" in Oaxaca, Mexico. Sacks is a fern lover, even though he admits to an even greater passion for club mosses and horsetails. In 1993 John Mickel of the New York Botanical Gardens introduced Sacks to the New York chapter of the American Fern Society (AFS). Consisting mostly of amateur naturalists, AFS meetings were both congenial and passionate, unlike the cold competitiveness of professional meetings in neurology and neuroscience. The New York AFS folks arrange periodic trips to hot spots in the fern world to indulge their passion. In 1999 Oliver Sacks accompanied them on a trip to Oaxaca, which is a veritable paradise of ferns.

Though the trip is only 10 days long, Sacks packs a month’s worth of sights and sounds and meditations into his journal. We learn a lot about the hundreds of species of ferns that range from southern Mexico’s rain forests to the nooks and crannies of its arid central plateau. But the author’s curiosity roams freely and absorbs his new environment. We learn about the origin of chocolate, the history of tobacco, and the archeology of Monte Alban. We learn about the process of distilling mescal in one’s backyard. Most of all, we are introduced to nearly a dozen vivid characters, united in their enthusiasm for fieldwork and ferns.

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