Showing 21 - 30 of 75 annotations contributed by Ratzan, Richard M.

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Doctor Hanray, a PhD physicist, is an old man, apparently ill with radiation sickness, who visits his ancestral home in the present, or near past (post WWII and post atomic bomb development and detonation). He has to obtain permission from the guards who have turned his small village into a "reservation" in order to visit his parents' graves. He is greeted with military brusqueness at first until they realize who he is and then treat him with honor as one of the developers of the atomic bomb, an honor that makes him "wince" (his word) internally whenever this fact is mentioned.

While looking around and trying to get his childhood bearings, despite the absence of landmarks with all the new building and destruction of the old, Dr. Hanray spots a young lad - age 14 - coming up the road. It is he as his younger self. The younger Dr. Hanray takes him home where he meets his mother and physician father. He wishes to convince his younger self not to go into science, as his father says is his wish, clearly in order to sway the future development of the atomic bomb. He is met with a cold reception - but civil - by his mother, father and younger self until Doxy, their dog, comes in and recognizes the identity of Dr. Hanray elder with the boy. Doxy's warmth turns the mood around but in the end Dr. Hanray is unsuccessful in dissuading the boy and he leaves only to wake up on the ground outside his deserted home.    

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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

A Natural History of the Dead is a story in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. It is divided, by subject and style, into two parts, the first part of which reads like non-fiction and the second a short story, or the nidus of one.

The first section (4.5 pages) is a fairly grisly accounting of the title and describes different modes of dying and the dead, especially in war time, especially regarding WWI.The second section (2 pages) involves a medical unit with a field physician and several soldiers, none of them officers as high as the physician. They are discussing a terminally injured soldier who is dying of a devastating injury to the head. The physician does not want to waste any effort or, worse, his limited supply of morphine on a lost cause. Eventually there is verbal and even physical violence over this dispute.

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The Trapper's Last Shot

Yount, John

Last Updated: Dec-16-2011
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The Trapper’s Last Shot opens in 1960 when Beau Jim Early is returning home to Cocke County, Georgia, after 6 years in the U.S. Army. Beau Jim moves in with Dan, his brother, who is 15 years older and now a farmer, both of them survivors of a fire that killed their parents and drove them from North Carolina. Living with Dan in very straitened circumstances are his mean-spirited and child-abusing wife, Charlene, and Sheila, their thumb-sucking 7 year old who is about to repeat first grade, perhaps in part due to the literal pillow-smothering attacks at the hands of Charlene when she was still an infant, and assuredly in part due to the intellectually barren home life described.

Beau Jim realizes his immediate post-service dream of enrolling in college, nearby Senneca College, while learning to hustle pool with Claire, his high school classmate now mentor. Claire is a worldly wise alcoholic homosexual who has learned how to survive in the deep South as such while remaining just below the radar of his homophobic, racist white contemporaries. Somewhere amidst all this hubbub Beau Jim meets up with an old high school classmate, Yancey, and, a trifle improbably, becomes her beau as well as her Beau.

Although enjoying college and doing well, Beau Jim begins to doubt his intellectual fit as a college man, given his background and temperament. Shortly after, he and Claire suffer a beating at the hands of the stereotypically vicious local Deputy Sheriff Earl Wagner, a beating initiated by Claire’s homosexuality, which Jim had not suspected. This beating is the penultimate climactic event in the book: Jim quits college; Claire effectually disappears from view; and the focus now shifts to Dan and his struggling farm and family life.

Charlene, in a fit of pique over Dan’s decision to have her milk the cow to save money, sets the barn on fire (a fact never discovered by Dan), kills the cow and, in so doing, detonates the apocalyptic sequence of events that close this dark novel in an even more noir fashion. Dan snaps mentally, shooting to death an entire family of innocent blacks whom he knew and respected, as well as a stranger, a college student at Senneca.

The final pages, like the opening ones, provide a bookend (literally) of bleakness: we find Beau Jim working as a mason in  a new town with despicably mean white masons in a dead end job as he tries to establish a family life with Yancey and Sheila, whom Charlene is more than happy to be offloading on them. Unlike the initial pages, the ending offers a glimmer of the hope for an intact family life for Beau and Yancey and Sheila.

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The Story of San Michele

Munthe, Axel

Last Updated: Nov-14-2011
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

The author takes us on a highly colorful autobiographical tour of his medical career - his personal life never enters this account - from a classical medical education in Paris as a young expatriate Swede (he remains expatriate the entire book) to his internal medicine practice in France, including a tour of Naples as a volunteer during the cholera epidemic of 1881 and his finally settling in Italy. There are also anecdotes - many of them side-splitting and told with uncommon skill - about conducting a corpse back to Sweden, a truly thrilling journey to Lapland,  encounters with the legendary Charcot, his return to San Michele whence the book begins with a mythopoetic retelling of his first visit there, and his last years at San Michele as patron of a community (both local and international) and as collector and explorer of the nearby Mediterranean.        

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Ape House

Gruen, Sara

Last Updated: Dec-16-2010
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Ape House is the fourth novel of Sara Gruen. It relates the story of a group of bonobos living in the Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas City under the immediate direction of scientist Isabel Duncan. These six apes are quite adept in using American Sign Language to express their thoughts, wishes and interactive relations with humans. When the Laboratory is the target of a violent explosion, apparently by animal rights activists, Isabel Duncan is severely injured. The six bonobos escape, soon resurfacing in New Mexico as the prime time stars of Ape House, a reality TV show produced by Ken Foulks, a stereotypically evil TV mogul. The bonobos and the show become a controversial hit and the immediate bane of a still recuperating Isabel.

Covering the Great Ape Language Lab pre-explosion as a feature story, print reporter John Thigpen follows them from their first home in the language lab to their TV residence. Meanwhile he is undergoing his own domestic turmoil with his wife Amanda, a frustrated novelist who is also less than happy with their marriage. The novel follows these twin threads - the trajectory of the bonobos from protected apes in a nourishing research environment to exploited animals, and the sturm und drang, both marital and career, of John and Amanda Thigpen. While millions of TV viewers watch the bonobos playing house and enjoying the "generous amounts of sex"? (as described by the book jacket), Isabel tries to regain ownership and protector status of her bonobos, whom she considers family.

Without divulging the denouement of the novel, suffice it to say that Isabel is successful in renewing her mater familias status of the apes, and John Thigpen gets a huge journalistic scoop as well. In the process, he and Isabel find true love and happiness, but not with each other, as coyly but falsely suggested earlier in the book. For everyone except Isabel's first love interest, Dr. Peter Benton, and Ken Foulks, the book ends on a very happy note.

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Lucy

Gonzales, Laurence

Last Updated: Sep-07-2010
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Lucy is a novel named for the female hybrid offspring born of a bonobo mother and human father, a creature called, at various times, a "humanzee" since the bonobo, a great ape found in the Congo in Africa, is occasionally referred to as a pygmy chimpanzee. The result of artificial insemination by her father, Donald Stone, a British anthropologist in the Congo with aims to improve the human species, Lucy is a very human looking 15 year old girl.

The novel begins in medias res when Jenny Lowe, an American primatologist whose camp is near Dr. Stone's, is awakened by the sound of gun fire from nearby insurgents.   She goes to Dr. Stone‘s camp, finds the anthropologist and an adult female bonobo lying on the ground, both dead from gun shot wounds. Near the two bodies is a living teen aged girl, Lucy, whom she rescues and manages to spirit back to her home base, Chicago, where Jenny‘s friend and lover, Harry Prendeville, a charismatic surgeon, awaits her. Lucy enrolls in high school, her genetic heritage kept secret from all save Jenny who discovers -- in one of several nods to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein -- Dr. Stone's notebooks.

Lucy meets and becomes best friends with Amanda Mather, a classmate (this relationship is far from clearly a strictly heterosexual one) and becomes the state wrestling champ because of her bonobo-inherited skill, strength and speed. When Lucy contracts a viral disease that bonobos, not humans, acquire and her secret is about to be exposed (Jenny, Amanda and Harry now all know), Lucy does what all 15 year olds would do in 2010 (the book is set in present time) - she outs herself on Facebook. (O tempora, O mores!)

The novel now enters the accelerated phase of denouement with expected and unexpected reactions from TV, the violent right (think Mickey the Gerund in Cast of Shadows in this database), Congress and the public. Without revealing too much plot as a spoiler, suffice it to say that a governmental scheme to abduct Lucy for the purpose of NHP (non-human primate) experimentation becomes a reality with devastating consequences that allow for a thrilling read with its share of tragedy and triumphs and ending with an unusual yet fulfilling conclusion satisfying for most concerned, especially Lucy and those who love her.

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Letters to a Stranger

James, Thomas

Last Updated: Jul-25-2010
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

Letters to a stranger is a slim volume of poems by Thomas James ((1946 - 1974) posthumously collected and published in 2008 by an admiring reader/ critic, Lucy Brock-Broido. James died by suicide in 1974.

There are 54 poems in all. Forty-one of them were first published in 1973 as James's only published book of verse, Letters to a Stranger. Ms Brock-Broido has collected 13 more from various small magazines. Most have a faint formalistic ring to them with rhymed triplets (a-x-a) predominating.   Preceding the poems is an introduction by Ms Brock-Broido, an introduction that can only be called unusually confessional. (In his characteristically succinct diction, series editor Mark Doty calls it "a love letter, a biography and exorcism all at once".) For subjects, the bulk of the poems have, as we call a type of educational conference in medicine, morbidity and mortality. Indeed, the book might perhaps have been more appropriately entitled "Intimations of morbidity and mortality". Many of the poems are graphic.

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The Twin

Bakker, Gerbrand

Last Updated: Dec-18-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The twin of the title is Helmer van Wonderen. He is a 54 year old dairy farmer in Noord-Holland, the northwest peninsula of the Netherlands and the year is 2002, 35 years after his only sibling, his twin brother Henk, died. Henk was the front seat passenger of a car driven by Henk's fiancée, Riet, when the car plunged into lake Ijssel. Riet lived; Henk drowned. Helmer's life immediately changed from that of a 19 year old university student in Dutch linguistics to a farmer and successor to their father, a tyrannical and distinctly unlovable man. Henk had been the father's clear favorite, if we accept Helmer's and the narrator's viewpoints. Helmer stays a bachelor and maintains the farm into the present, the time of the novel. His father is elderly and confined to the upstairs. Helmer treats him with disdain; he feeds and bathes him with barely disguised contempt awaiting his death with a vague sense of hope, symbolized by Helmer's re-organizing and painting the interior of their house at the beginning of the book.

Abruptly Riet, a recently widowed mother of three, re-enters the van Wonderen world with a letter requesting Helmer to allow her youngest child, an 18 year old son, also named Henk, to live with Helmer as a farmhand. Riet wants her son Henk to learn farming and discipline and receive the parental (read "fatherly") direction she feels he needs and she cannot supply. Helmer consents. Henk comes to live with him, working desultorily as a hired hand.

Riet and Helmer become estranged over the latter's lying to her that his father was dead when in fact he was upstairs at the time of her only visit to their home since her fiancé's death. One day Henk saves Helmer's life when the latter becomes pinned by a sheep in a ditch. Henk leaves soon thereafter; the father dies; and a Frisian farmhand from Helmer's youth re-appears at the time of the father's funeral. He and Helmer take off, after Helmer sells the farm, to Denmark, a much vaunted Shangri-La for Dutch farmers in this novel.

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Migraine

Pastan, Linda

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

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

The poet describes the suffering associated with a migraine headache.

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Summary:

One day in the 1920’s, a newspaper reporter walked into the laboratory of Russian psychologist A. R. Luria and asked him to test his memory, which he recently had been told was unusual. It was not unusual. It was uniquely and astoundingly retentive. Luria gave him very long strings of numbers, words, nonsense syllables and could not detect any limit to his ability to recall them, generally without mistake, even years later. (Luria studied S., as he identifies him, for thirty years.)

Luria discovers that the man had some interesting characteristics to his memory. He experienced synesthesia, i.e., the blending of sensations: a voice was a "crumbly, yellow voice." (p.24) S.’s memory was highly eidetic, i.e., visual, a characteristic not unique to him but which he used as a technique to memorize lists and details. (He had become a performing mnemonist.) It was also auditory. He had trouble remembering a word if its sound did not fit its meaning. The remainder of the section on his memory involves fascinating aspects of his having to learn how to forget and his methods of problem solving.

The remainder of the book is equally interesting since it relates the epiphenomena of S.’s prodigious memory: how he mentally saw everything in his past memory; how he was virtually paralyzed when it came to understanding poetry since metaphorical thinking was almost impossible for him, a mnemonist who lived in a world of unique particulars! As Luria wrote, "S. found that when he tried to read poetry the obstacles to his understanding were overwhelming: each expression gave rise to an image; this, in turn, would conflict with another image that had been evoked." (p. 120)

S. could control his vital signs by his memory and, last but not least, this human experiment of nature had such a vivid imagination that, probably more than the most creative of us, he engaged in "magical thinking": "To me there’s no great difference between the things I imagine and what exists in reality. Often, if I imagine something is going to happen, it does. Take the time I began arguing with a friend that the cashier in the store was sure to give me too much change. I imagined it to myself in detail, and she actually did give me too much--change of 20 rubles instead of 10. Of course I realize it’s just chance, coincidence, but deep down I also think it’s because I saw it that way." (p. 146)

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