Showing 21 - 30 of 3271 annotations

Summary:

Thomas De Quincey was a British writer—essayist, mostly—during the first half of the nineteenth century. He is best known for writing about his personal experiences with opium, which appeared in two sequential issues of London Magazine in 1921, and then published as this book in 1822. He would later write a sequel, and later still a more elaborated version of the original.  

De Quincey’s first encounter with opium was in 1804 when he was eighteen years old. Opium was freely available then and was often consumed for recreational purposes. De Quincey was not seeking it for pleasure, at first. Based on a friend’s recommendation, after suffering excruciating facial and head pain for twenty days, he tried opium to relieve the pain. De Quincey acquired opium in the form of an elixir (laudanum) from a local druggist (“unconscious minister of celestial pleasures!”) (p. 43). The book covers the subsequent eighteen years of his opium use, though he would use it until the end of his life at age seventy-four. 

De Quincey refers to opium as the “dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain” (p. 42). The book is organized accordingly. After describing his early years of straitened circumstances including near starvation, he divides the book into sections on “the pleasures of opium,” and “the pains of opium.” 
 

De Quincey found the pleasures of opium with his first dose in 1804, pleasures that extended past the pain relief it provided.

But I took it: – and in an hour, oh! Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished, was now a trifle in my eyes: – this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me – in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. (p. 44)

For more of these pleasures, De Quincey drank laudanum over the next ten years at a frequency he describes variously as “occasionally,” “at intervals,” and “seldom…more than once in three weeks: this was usually on a Tuesday or a Saturday night.” He learned that some time was needed between “several acts of indulgence in order to renew the pleasurable sensations,” a property of opioids pharmacologists would later call tolerance (pp. 8-9).

De Quincey eventually became familiar with the pains of opium when the return of severe intestinal pains he suffered in his “boyish days” made it necessary that his laudanum use become “an article of daily diet,” (p. 9) because he “could no longer resist,” and “could not have done otherwise” (p. 59). The amount of opium De Quincey consumed as a result was enough to cause severe reactions when he tried to reduce his dose: “It is a state of unutterable irritation of the stomach… accompanied by intense perspirations, and feeling such as I shall not attempt to describe without more space at my command” (p. 71).

Though relieving pain was the initial reason for his daily diet of laudanum, for most of the next eight years, avoiding withdrawal reactions became the more important motivation for De Quincey’s laudanum intake: “it was solely by the tortures connected with the attempt to abjure it, that it kept its hold” (p. 86). He eventually knew he had to quit when he realized:  “I must die if I continued the opium: I determined, therefore, if that should be required, to die in throwing if off” (p. 87). Throwing off opium was not easy for De Quincey as he experienced “torments of a man passing out of one mode of existence into another,” (p. 88) but he claims he was ultimately successful.

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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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Annotated by:
Perkins, Sam

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

 In Strange Relation, Rachel Hadas, poet, teacher and classicist, recounts the years just short of a decade of her husband’s descent – retreat is the word she’d prefer – into dementia. Although no definitive diagnosis emerges for George’s “spooky condition,” frontotemporal dementia possibly with Alzheimer’s disease in the frontal lobe seems the most likely. By Hadas’s reckoning, George’s symptoms began when he was in his late fifties—relatively young for dementia. Diagnosing any form of early onset dementia is extremely difficult, especially if memory loss is not among the symptoms, as was the case with George. Hadas noticed the symptoms — his silences and growing remoteness— and ascribed them to her husband’s loss of interest in life and their marriage. She writes, “Slowly and insidiously your partner changes from the person you married into someone else.” 

The book opens in 2004, just before his diagnosis in 2005 at the age of 61. George Edwards was a successful and celebrated composer of symphonies, chamber works and art songs, as well as a professor of music at Columbia University. Through flash-backs, Hadas fills in a portrait of a happy, mutually supportive marriage of two engaged, successful artists, a life that slowly melted away as George’s disease tightened its grip. She ends with George in a long-term care residence in 2009, the year Strange Relation was published and two years before his death in 2011.  

The core of the book, intertwined with the story of George’s dementia, is Hadas’s account of the comfort she sought and gained from reading and writing prose and poetry. “This ordeal has eloquently reminded me of the sustaining power of literature,” she writes. “These gifts of the imagination,” gave her strength. “They are not sufficient, but they are damn well necessary.”

Over seven decades of reading have given Hadas a vast store of literary references to draw on. George is Mr. Dick from David Copperfield, mentally scattered, shuffling his papers; he is King Lear, losing clarity and dignity and consumed with anger and humiliation as he feels his abilities fade. Like Penelope awaiting Ulysses’ return, Hadas sees herself living with George as “neither wife nor widow,” her husband a physical presence but spiritually gone. When she reads James Merrill’s “Days of 1964,” she identifies with the poet who “has gone so long without loving that I hardly knew what I was thinking.” The poem speaks to her as it captures, “The thirst, the loneliness, the habituation to emotional deprivation that marked the way I was living.”

 A recurrent theme that many will relate to is the loneliness she feels caring for someone who, because of his condition, hardly speaks or expresses emotion. Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” reminds her how quickly friends will turn away from death and illness and “make their way back to life.” Sickness, says Flannery O’Connor, is a country “where there’s no company, where no one can follow.” She sees her life reflected in Philip Larkin’s wry poem about a couple’s estrangement, “Talking in Bed,” – the couple’s growing estrangement is “this unique distance from isolation.” Hadas finds the clarity and the company of these works a huge comfort.

There are moments of uplift, too. When her college-age son, Jonathan, and his friends propose to take George on a two-week getaway of very rustic living in Vermont, she reluctantly agrees, certain that disaster or injury will ensue. The reader is as relieved as Hadas is when all goes off without a hitch. 

A recurrent theme of the book is the importance of the language used to describe a disease and its treatment. Metaphors and similes, of course, are staples of medical caregiving – “they help us see freshly,” says Hadas; they help her step outside the moment and understand George, whom she describes as retreating into a “walled garden” or behind a “frosted window”; his disease is a bath in which he’s immersed and can never escape; it is a malignant fluid his brain is stewing in.

Equally, using the wrong metaphors and similes can cause pain and guilt. A neurologist tells Hadas that she’s feeling depressed because Hadas has moved into a “new house” and is still living out of boxes, still in transition. “Make yourself at home,” the doctor advises, “I don’t think you’ve completely moved in yet.” This only makes Hadas feel inadequate and guilty. “Let’s at least find the right kind of house,” she writes. Caring for a person with dementia, as she sees it, is not a house but a prison in which the family caregiver is the voluntary inmate, “responsible for the daily care of a warden who has mysteriously changed into a ward.” 

By the end of the memoir, George has declined to the point that Hadas can no longer care for him and has found him a residence, which raises a new host of concerns. He fails out of the first home and she finds another. She visits George regularly and experiences a new kind of tethered freedom. Her divided self, composed of the Drudge and the Poet, dusts off their apartment to reclaim it from the associations of George’s illness, hoping to rescue her memories of twenty years of happiness before his illness began to take him. “It became my home in a new and different way.”  

Each phase of her journey is accompanied by poems, twenty-nine in all, that Hadas wrote to understand herself, clarify her feelings, cope with the loss of George. Never was Robert Frost’s dictum regarding the ingredient of a successful poem— “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” —more pertinent. Along with her reading, Hadas’s poems lead her to insights that comforted and sometimes surprised her—and will do the same for the reader.   

The book ends with George’s birthday party in 2009 at the long-term care residence where he finally settled. He died shortly after the book was published in 2011.   




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Summary:

Headcase explores themes of mental health, mental illness, and the experience of mental health care services by members of the LGBTQ community. The editors state, “We initially conceptualized Headcase in 2014 as a curated collection of personal pieces including essays, poems, illustrations, and photographs by writers and artists both established and new.” (p. xxviii) They further decided to include a broad array of patient, provider, social, racial, and ethnic perspectives to “present a broader, more in depth, and balanced conversation.” (p. xxviii)  
 
Schroeder and Theophano divide their anthology into five topical sections: (1) conversations about health and illness, (2) stories of survival, (3) encounters of a mad kind, (4) pushing boundaries, and (5) the poetics of mental health and wellness. Among pieces in the first section, Arlene Istar Lev’s “Queer Affirmative Therapy” (p. 12) introduces a concept that appears repeatedly throughout the book. Unlike traditional conversion therapy, which tries to “cure” gay persons, or even the more neutral DSM V approaches, queer affirmative therapy not only accepts LGBTQ identities, but considers them normal healthy variants. Fidelindo Lim’s and Donald Brown’s more personal essay, “Sa Kanyan Saring Mga Salita” (p. 38), explores the gay experience in Filipino culture. Among the sad stories in section two, Chana Williams tells the tale of her mother’s lobotomy as a treatment for depression and lesbian relationships. Lobotomy also appears in “Fix Me Please, I’m Gay” (section three, p. 169), where psychologist Guy Albert discusses the era of conversion therapy.  

In addition to essays, the conversation in Headcase includes poems, artwork (see, for example, Gabrielle Jordan Stein’s “This Work Is About Digested Socks,” p. 156), a suite of black-and-white images), a series of glyphs, and even a graphic story about J.R. Sullivan Voss’ attempts to fit into society as a trans-man, “Sisyphus (Or: Rocks Fall and Everyone Dies.” (p. 88) In the final section, Guy Glass presents an excerpt of his play, “Doctor Anonymous,” about the 1972 American Psychiatric Association meeting in which a closeted gay psychiatrist wearing a mask  asserted the normality of gay identity. (p. 260) To contemporary viewers, the most shocking revelation in the play is the fact that at that time homosexuality was considered a mental disorder and conversion therapy was a standard practice.
 




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Waverly Gallery

Lonergan, Kenneth

Last Updated: May-02-2019
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Theater — Secondary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Theater

Summary:

The play is set between 1989 and 1991, the last two years of the life of Gladys Green, an 85 year old woman who runs a small art gallery in New York's Greenwich Village. She lives on her own near the gallery, but she is watched over by an adoring grandson (Daniel) who lives in the same building, and by a doting daughter (Ellen) and son-in-law (Howard), who live uptown from her. Gladys can’t hear very well and she has diabetes, but otherwise she is doing well enough. 

From this point we watch Gladys gradually lose some of her mental capabilities, mostly memory. Our attention is directed to how the family responds and comes to grips with her deterioration. Aware of Gladys’ past before she opened her gallery as an activist lawyer with a frenetic lifestyle, Daniel lays out a strategy the family adopts: “she’s got to have something to do.” Their chief tactic is to keep Gladys in the gallery where she could mix with people, keying off what she said keeps her sane: “Everyone needs someone to talk to, otherwise you’d just go nutty. I love to talk to people.” 
 

This approach works for a while, and mainly through permitting a young artist (Don), who has never before sold a painting, to exhibit his work in the gallery. Don keeps Gladys company and talks to her. He thinks he notices her hearing problem worsening, but Howard tells him, "I’m afraid that’s more her memory than her hearing aid.” What speeds up her deterioration, however, is the gallery losing its lease when the owner of the space decides to turn it into a cafe. 
 

A path ensues that is familiar to many people who have been close to a person losing memory and other mental functions with age. The family desperately wants to keep Gladys as independent as possible, but they need more help as time passes. She can stay in her own apartment for awhile with visiting nurses and aides, but eventually she needs to move in with Ellen and Howard; they never liked the idea of putting her in a nursing home, and they never did. In an aside directed at the audience, Daniel describes what his mother did for Gladys thereafter: she “took care of her, dressed her and cleaned her up and fed her and watched her fall apart, day in and day out with nothing to stop it and no relief in sight.” It did end, though, two months later when Gladys died in Ellen’s home.

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The Florida Project

Baker, Sean

Last Updated: Apr-30-2019
Annotated by:
Jiang, Joshua

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Free-spirited six-year-old Moonee and her young mother Halley live in a motel on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida. In contrast to the families vacationing at nearby Walt Disney World, Moonee occupies her summer days by helping her mother hawk bootlegged goods to unsuspecting tourists and making trouble with other motel-dwelling children. With a ragtag and often burnt-out cast of characters, The Florida Project portrays the challenges of American poverty, the frustrations of familial (ir)responsibility, and the limits of a child’s ability to make the best of broken circumstances.

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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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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Maggie O’Farrell describes the book in a scene involving a casual conversation she has with her mother over tea.

As she lifts the pot to the table, she asks me what I’m working on at the moment, and, as I swallow my water, I tell her I’m trying to write a life, told only through near death experiences. She is silent for a moment, readjusting cosy, milk jug, cup handles. ‘Is it your life?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, a touch nervously. I have no idea how she’ll feel about this. ‘It’s not…it’s just…snatches of a life. A string of moments. Some chapters will be long. Others might be really short.’ (pp. 142-143)
This conversation is the only place in the book where O’Farrell describes her intentions in writing it. But, what O’Farrell describes to her mother is exactly what the book is, a memoir comprising seventeen “brushes with death,” as she calls these moments. There is no prologue, there are no interludes, there is no coda, just the seventeen stories.

Few people will experience any one of these events, and perhaps only O’Farrell has experienced all of the events she tells us about. She categorizes them based on the anatomy involved in a particular brush with death. For example, some of the chapter names are: “Lungs” (three times), “Neck” (twice), “Abdomen,” “Intestines,” “Cerebellum,” “Circulatory System,” “Whole Body.” The one exception is the chapter, “Daughter.”

Other ways of categorizing the near-death experiences O’Farrell covers could be based on whether they threatened O’Farrell herself or any of her children, whether they were the result of bad luck (e.g., illness) or bad judgment (e.g., near drowning), or whether the threat originated outside the body (e.g., accident) or within the body (e.g., illness, medical procedures). The brushes with death from outside the body involved violence (twice), decapitation (twice), drowning (three times), a plunging commercial airliner, and a knife throwing exhibition. From within her body, close calls involved encephalitis as a child, amoebic dysentery while traveling in a developing country, a Cesarean section gone awry, and a few missed miscarriages (i.e., when fetus dies but no signs or symptoms manifest and surgical procedures become necessary). A daughter was born with severe allergic conditions that caused the child misery pretty much all the time interspersed with episodes of life-threatening reactions. O’Farrell’s son was almost lost in one of her near drownings.

O’Farrell leaves it to the epigraph she placed at the beginning of the book to stitch together how these stories collectively reveal the possibility of the human spirit to get us through the most serious and persistent challenges to our being. For this epigraph, she takes a line from Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar:

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Esmé Weijun Wang is a novelist who has been diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder.  The Collected Schizophrenias is a book of personal essays that was the 2016 winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. 

A precocious young person on a track to success, Wang experiences a manic episode at Yale that leads to her first hospitalization.  After a second hospitalization, her college washes its hands of her.  Hitting roadblocks time and time again requires her to rebuild her life over and over.  This is not a conventional chronological autobiography but rather essays that provide different approaches to the author’s experience of mental illness.  The plural “schizophrenias” of the title encompasses the whole schizophrenic spectrum of disorders.  As Wang explains, her own diagnosis is “the fucked-up offspring of manic depression and schizophrenia” (p. 10).  

In an essay entitled “High-Functioning” we learn how the author, having been a fashion editor, knows how to pass for normal: “My makeup routine is minimal and consistent.  I can dress and daub when psychotic and when not psychotic.  I do it with zeal when manic.  If I’m depressed, I skip everything but the lipstick.  If I skip the lipstick, that means I haven’t even made it to the bathroom mirror” (p.44).  

Later, in “The Choice of Children,” volunteering at a camp for bipolar children makes Wang think about what it would be like to inflict her diagnosis on her own offspring.  In “Reality, On-Screen” she attempts to convey the sensation of decompensating to psychosis.  And in “Yale Will Not Save You” she considers the failure of universities to accommodate mentally ill students. 

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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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