Showing 131 - 140 of 571 annotations in the genre "Novel"

The Echo Maker

Powers, Richard

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Mark Schluter, a 27 year old beef-processing plant worker, becomes involved in a car crash outside Kearney, Nebraska, the locus of this novel. The car crash---on February 2, 2002, a date that the author wishes to impress the reader as one that seems too numerically mystical (02/02/02) to be co-incidental--clearly has mysterious elements about it since it occurred far outside town on desolate flat country roads and amidst the tire tracks of another car. Too, just after Mark is hospitalized, there appears an undecipherable note of anonymous provenance:

I am No One
but Tonight on North Line Road
GOD led me to you
so You could Live
and bring back someone else.

Mark has an initially troublesome route to recovery, including a temporary ventriculostomy to relieve the pressure in his head. Meanwhile his only sibling, Karin, 31, rushes to his side from Sioux City, a move that becomes permanent and costs her her job. Mark eventually awakens but with an unusual mis-identification syndrome, called the Capgras syndrome (more commonly encountered in patients with psychiatric condition), in which the patient fails to recognize those closest to him as such. For a Capgras patient, there is a disconnect between the visual ability to recognize their faces and emotional response to them as close relatives or friends. He recognizes the visual similarity but considers the significant other an impostor.

This rupture in the usual see-sister's-face-acknowledge-as-sister apparently occurs, in the Capgras syndrome, in connections between one's "primitive" or "reptilian" brain, including the amygdala, and the cortex. Much is made of this failure of neuronal circuits to connect, and reminds one of the parable in His Brother's Keeper (see database) about the Chinese Emperor and the failure of the transmission of a message to explain the pathophysiology of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. As Karin remembers the neurologic explanation, " 'His amygdala, she remembered. His amygdala can't talk with his cortex" [original italics] (80). This amygdala-cortex dichotomy becomes, in behavioral terms, feeling versus reason. As discussed by the two neurologists involved in Mark's case, "But no emotional ratification. Getting all the associations for a face without that gut feeling of familiarity. Pushed to a choice, cortex has to defer to amygdala"; "So it's not what you think you feel that wins out, it's what you feel you think" (131).

Out of desperation, Karin emails a request to Gerald Weber, a famous cognitive neurologist-author modeled primarily after Oliver Sacks but with a little A. R. Luria, whose "To find the soul it is necessary to lose it" is the epigraph of the novel. From the time Weber meets Mark and Karin, the book becomes an intricately entangled design of various metaphysical threads all of which, directly or indirectly, revolve around Mark's syndrome and identity--in fact the identity of all the characters. Karin becomes involved-- re-involved-- with two men from her earlier days in Kearney, Robert Karsh, a developer, and Daniel Riegel, a conservationist. Later the two men become ideologically more opposed than ever when Karsh tries to develop the annual nesting grounds of the cranes, Grus canadensis, who return to Kearney, thousands of them, every February. Barbara Gillespie, a guardian angel to Mark at the extended care rehab center, and Gerald Weber, until then a man happily married to a prototypically liberal intellectual woman, Sylvie Bolan, become romantically drawn to each other. Weber's own doubts about his work and his public image after unprecedentedly critical reviews of his latest book torment him and lead to concerns about his own identity as a physician who may be using, rather than trying to understand, his patients.

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Rembrandt's Whore

Matton, Sylvie

Last Updated: Nov-16-2009
Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

During  the Dutch Golden Age, religion and medical science were combined in people's minds to the extent that illness, especially plague, was seen as a punishment from God. In the minds of  many Dutch seventeenth-century Calvinists, God was vengeful and often angry with the sinner. As Matton shows in this fictional monologue of an illiterate peasant woman, Hendrickje Stoffels (1626-1663), when plague swept through the city of Amsterdam, the afflicted person had three ways of fighting the disease: prayer, folk remedies, and the ministrations of the plague doctors. But for Hendrickje, prayer held first place.Hendrickje Stoffels modeled for several Rembrandt works. She was one of the three most important women in the life of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669).

He was first married to Saskia van Uylenburgh, who bore him 4 children. Only Titus,their son, survived. As Saskia lay dying of tuberculosis, Rembrandt hired Geertje Dircx  (c.1610-1656) as Titus's wetnurse. She became Rembrandt's lover. Hendrickje entered his household and began a relationship with the painter in the late 1640s. As Geertje was being forced out of the home, Rembrandt started paying her an annuity; later, she sued Rembrandt for breach of marriage contract. He had her removed to a prison/insane asylum. Hendrickje bore him a daughter, Cornelia (1654),the only one of his five children to survive their father.

The book begins when Hendrickje is 23 years old and Rembrandt 42. Matton's book cover shows Rembrandt's painting, Hendrickje Bathing (1655). This and several other paintings of his lover illustrates Rembrandt's passion for Henrickje who  devoted her life to the artist, to Titus, and Cornelia. We read the experiences articulated by the deeply religious Hendrickje as she moves around Rembrandt's home and studio, and the streets of Amsterdam. She thinks that  cats and dogs, not rats, carry the plague.  She notices wounded war veterans with open sores in the streets, lepers, and public whippings and executions. She is obsessed with the worms that live in the body and cause plague and death. Cherries also cause the plague.

In 1654, the City Fathers summon her, pregnant, accusing her of whoredom--hence the title of the book. She endures an admonition and is banished from the Lord's Supper. She becomes Rembrandt's common law wife. We witness the home birth of Cornelia and observe Hendrickje breastfeeding her. She watches Rembrandt and his pupils at work in the evil smelling studio where his assistants boil rabbit skins to make glue for the paints. Hendrickje composes medications she has learnt about  from a midwife in her home town of Bradevoort, but she cannot cure the plague. A comet streaks across the sky to announce an outbreak in Amsterdam. Rembrandt goes bankrupt, and Hendrickje feels Rembrandt's tears on her face as she suffers a horrific death from plague, clinically rendered by the author.

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The Pastures of Heaven

Steinbeck, John

Last Updated: Nov-07-2009
Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

One of Steinbeck's earliest published works, The Pastures of Heaven is a collection of stories about the inhabitants of a fertile valley in California, beginning with the Spanish corporal who first stumbles across the "long valley floored with green pasturage on which a herd of deer browsed" and concluding with the families living there during the first stages of the great depression.  Most of the stories take place in 1928-1929, although many are rooted in flashbacks and narratives that span the generations before.  

The novel consists of short stories that describe particular times and places within the valley, and collectively form multiple different perspectives on life there; they are linked by the valley but also by the relationships between the families, and in particular, the Munroes, whose pleasant, mild appearance in almost every story heralds disaster.

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Breath, Eyes, Memory

Danticat, Edwidge

Last Updated: Oct-26-2009
Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Set against the backdrop of the violent post-Duvalier years in Haiti, this novel traces the development of Sophie, the product of a violent rape. Having been raised lovingly by her aunt in a village near Port-au-Prince for 12 years, Sophie is suddenly sent for by her mother (who had immigrated to the United States as an asylum seeker). Living in New York, Sophie discovers that her mother is haunted by violent nightmares, a remnant of the trauma she had suffered before fleeing Haiti.

Part Two opens as Sophie, now 18, falls in love with her neighbor, a musician named Joseph. Her mother, upon finding out about Sophie's love interest, begins the humiliating tradition of her mother, "testing" Sophie's virginity by inserting a finger in her vagina to make sure the hymen was not broken. After several "tests," Sophie painfully breaks her own hymen with a pestle and immediately runs off with Joseph.

Part Three of the novel opens about a year later, when Sophie has left her husband and returns to Haiti with her baby daughter. Here, she begins learning about her mother's past as well as telling her aunt and grandmother about her own current sexual dysfunction and her bulimia. Sophie and her mother reunite and reconcile in Haiti and later return to the States where Sophie returns to Joseph and begins a kind of therapy that includes rituals from Haitian, African, and Chicana traditions.

Meanwhile, Sophie's mother becomes pregnant (by her long time lover and friend) and increasingly agitated, finally committing suicide. At the funeral, in Haiti, Sophie runs into the cane field where her mother had been raped some 20 years earlier. As she is screaming her grief and rage, she tears at the cane stalks. Rather than attempting to stop her, Sophie's aunt and grandmother watch her, finally asking, "are you free?" and then insisting, "You are free!" (p. 233)

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The Wall of the Plague

Brink, Andre

Last Updated: Aug-05-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

South Africans, Paul and Andrea, are lovers living in France. Paul is fiftyish and white; Andrea is thirty and “coloured.” He has just asked her to marry him. She travels to Provence ostensibly to research sites for a film to be based on Paul’s endlessly forthcoming novel about fourteenth-century plague. But the real reason for the journey is to test her feelings about his proposal—she is leaning to ‘yes.’

As five days roll by, she relives the trajectory of her life: her impoverished parents, her thwarted education, her angry, imprisoned brother, and the previous affair with Brian, a British historian with whom she was captured ‘in flagrante,’ sent to trial, found guilty, and offered prison or voluntary exile. Brian and Andrea left South Africa together, but their relationship eventually crumbled. She had trouble understanding his passion for the past and his love of detail.

In Provence, Andrea avoids places that Paul had wanted her to go, finding strength in solitude and independence. But that feeling is shattered when he asks her to rescue their penniless, black friend, Mandla, an anti-apartheid activist who has been betrayed by a comrade who turned out to be a spy.

Andrea doesn’t like Mandla, his sanctimonious accusations, arrogance, and probing. He is a racist and a male chauvinist, given to violence. But his constant questioning finally unleashes deeper memories of the shocking abuses of her life in apartheid South Africa—memories she has suppressed or attempted to blame on class struggle rather than racial intolerance. She tries to provoke his empathy with the terrible tragedy of the long ago plague. He resists, being concerned far more with the present, but he relents a little and begins to see racism as a plague and walls as feeble, futile attempts to exclude others.

Andrea falls for Mandla, makes love with him near the plague wall, and decides to refuse Paul and return to South Africa. But Mandla rejects a future with her because he wants no vulnerability in his struggle. He is killed in the night by a car. Was the death deliberate? accidental? suicide? Andrea leaves anyway.

In a short second part, Paul writes to Andrea of his own growing doubts about their future together despite his love.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In the 1527 sack of Rome, undiscplined troops of the Holy Roman Emperor rape, pillage, and destroy. The beautiful couresan Fiammetta Bianchini opens her house to the marauders, inviting them inside for food and comfort. The act gives her household a moment’s reprieve. Her golden tresses savagely shorn, she swallows her jewels and escapes north to her native Venice in the company of her servant and companion, the dwarf, Bucino Teodoldi.

Arriving with almost nothing, they set about establishing a reputation and securing backers. The small company is helped by Fiammetta’s friend and admirer the satirist and poet, Pietro Aretino. Her portrait is painted by his friend, Titian.

Clever and loyal to a fault, Bucino frets over finances and willingly engages in subterfuges that mesmerize their audiences. Fiammetta accepts the attentions of tedious but wealthy admirers in exchange for a house and status. She comes to rely on a blind woman healer, called La Draga who supplies medicine and cosmetics. Bucino is suspicious and jealous, but he tolerates the competition grudingly. He too has many ailments, including headaches and arthritis, because of his deformity.

Suspense swirls around a banned book, a Jewish shopkeeper, and La Draga’s mysterious origins in the glass-making town of Murano.

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Mr. Pip

Jones, Lloyd

Last Updated: Jul-05-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Thirteen-year-old Matilda lives on a south Pacific island with copper mines. Rebels and other more official warriors are tearing the place apart. A blockade has made resources scarce and communication impossible; fathers are absent at distant work. Along with everything else, the local school collapses. 

Mr. Watts, the only island white man, offers to take over the education of the children, but he has no experience, few materials and just one book: his treasured copy of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. He begins reading a few pages every day. Captivated by the story, the children repeat it to their mothers when they go home each night.  

Matilda believes that she loves Mr. Dickens more than anyone else and she is both bemused and irritated by her stern mother's suspicion of the strange, possibly godless, white man and her feigned disinterest in Pip. Parents are invited to the school to pass on their own expectations about learning. Students accept these moments with pride and embarrassment.

The political chaos deepens, homes are destroyed, and the book vanishes. But Watts (nicknamed Mr. Pip) turns the loss to advantage by helping the students to recover fragments in a lengthy effort of collective recollection.

The ever menacing warriors return. Little more than frightened children in an incomprehensible conflict, they indulge in senseless brutality and killing. With courage absorbed from her mother, Matilda escapes, rediscovers her father, and finds a scholarly future—a life she embraces because of Mr. Dickens and Mr. Pip.

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Deaf Sentence

Lodge, David

Last Updated: Jun-08-2009
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics who lives with his second wife, "Fred," in a "northern" British town. He is becoming increasingly deaf, and, although he wears hearing aids (except when he doesn't), his social interactions--even those with Fred--are fraught with difficulty and occasional hilarious misunderstandings. His deafness is at the center of the novel, providing the title of this work of fiction, but also serving as an extended, often funny, but ultimately serious impetus to riff on aging, disability, and mortality. "Deafness is a kind of pre-death, a drawn-out introduction to the long silence into which we will all eventually lapse" (19).

Bates is at loose ends. His wife is busy with her successful interior decorating business, his adult children live elsewhere. He considers himself a "house husband" and does not really enjoy it. His aged, widowed father insists on living alone in London although he cannot be trusted to take care of himself without endangering his life (such as starting a fire in the kitchen during meal preparation). Bates visits him dutifully once a month with a mixture of dread, obligation, and guilty relief when it is over.

Desmond's hearing difficulty and boredom set him up for an encounter with a female graduate student and its unexpected complications. She is working on a thesis about suicide. Their interaction is threaded throughout the book and drives the "plot," but the details of life with hearing impairment, loss of professional involvement and purpose, and coping with an old, stubborn parent who is slipping into dementia are the main events of this clever, well-written, entertaining novel. And along the way are witty commentaries on contemporary life. The link between the narrator's profession of linguistics and his difficulty hearing the spoken word are also significant.

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The Kite Runner

Hosseini, Khaled

Last Updated: Apr-16-2009
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In his debut novel, Dr. Khaled Hosseini tells a tale that begins in his homeland, Afghanistan, and ends in his adopted country, the United States. Amir, son of a wealthy Pashtun merchant, narrates the story. Amir and his father, Baba, are attended by two Hazara servants, Ali and his hare-lipped son, Hassan. Amir and Hassan are friends, but Amir is troubled by a guilty conscience over multiple slights and sly insults aimed at Hassan. The burden of guilt intensifies over an incident at a kite-flying contest when Amir is twelve years old.

Kite flying in Afghanistan is an intricate affair involving glass-embedded string that contestants use to slice the strings of other kites. The winner is not only the one with the last kite flying, but also the one who catches the last cut kite--the kite runner. At the close of the contest, Amir witnesses the traumatization of his friend Hassan, the finest kite runner, at the hands of an evil youth, Assef. Too shamed to help Hassan, Amir is nearly swallowed by his cowardice: the rest of the story follows the consequences of his guilt.

Amir and Baba emigrate to the United States during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but Amir, as a young adult, returns during the Taliban regime in order to redeem himself and help Hassan's son. The story is filled with plot twists and revelations of secrets and hidden relationships, which enable Amir to confront some of his shortcomings. The oppression, torture, and murder of Afghanis by the Taliban are graphically depicted.

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Murder in Byzantium

Kristeva, Julia

Last Updated: Apr-05-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Clever, investigative journalist Stephanie Delacourt is sent from Paris to the mythical Santa Varvara to cover police inspector, Northrop Rilsky, in his quest to solve a series of high profile murders with political overtones. The back of each victim is “signed” with a carved figure 8 (or infinity?). At the same time, the distinguished historian Sebastian Chrest-Jones (CJ) disappears. Unbeknownst to everyone but the reader, he has just murdered his Chinese mistress, who is pregnant with his child.

Anxious that CJ has come to harm, his wife appeals to Rilksy, drawing on the connection that he is a step-relation of the missing man. She has been conducting an affair with CJ’s assistant who soon becomes another corpse signed with an 8. Suspicions fall on CJ.

Distracted from the murders she was to cover, Stephanie becomes increasingly involved in CJ’s historical research on the first crusade and the twelfth-century Anna Comnena, considered Europe’s first woman historian. In tracing the connections that CJ has drawn between Anna Comnena and one of his own (and Rilsky’s) ancestors she “derives” his obsessions and his likely whereabouts.

Late discovery of mistress’s corpse offers bizarre genetic clues about the identity of the serial killer and the paternity of the child, again tying the two mysteries into one. A thrilling climax is set in monastery of Notre Dame du Puy en Velay.

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