Showing 211 - 220 of 878 annotations tagged with the keyword "Society"

Strangers on a Train

Highsmith, Patricia

Last Updated: Feb-13-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Up-and-coming architect, Guy Haines, is traveling to Texas to obtain a divorce from Miriam, pregnant with another man’s child. He has nothing but contempt for her and cannot wait to begin a new life with more sophisticated and loving Anne. On the train, he meets slender, disturbing Charles Bruno, who hates his father. With a lot of booze Bruno goads Guy into confessing his hatred for Miriam. Bruno then proposes a double murder plot, where each would kill the other’s problem.  Appalled, Guy leaves, forgetting his book of Plato.

Not ten days later while vacationing with Anne’s family in Mexico, Guy learns from his anxious mother that Miriam has been murdered. Increasingly tormented that the unstable character on the train may have actually done it, Guy finds his life unraveling as Bruno mails evidence that he is Miriam’s killer, threatens to expose Guy as the instigator, and leaves anonymous letters for Anne. Guy’s work suffers. He drinks heavily and slowly sinks into a state where he realizes his only salvation is to kill Bruno’s father according to the precise plans that have repeatedly been sent. He does.

Guy’s career seems to pick up. But Bruno cannot leave him alone. He turns up uninvited at Guy’s wedding and insinuates himself menacingly into his married life. Guy is miserable, but plays along, aware that he has an impulse to defend Bruno as well as himself. He tells many lies and is wracked with guilt. Anne is worried and suspicious. The two men are bound by their secret, which encompasses a kind of animal attraction rooted in the sensation of having taken a life.

Things could continue indefinitely but for Gerard, the persistent but clever detective who worked for Guy’s father. Having known Bruno for years, he already suspects him of his father’s murder; then he finds Guy’s Plato. To say any more would spoil the gripping conclusion.

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Summary:

The famous New York architect, Stanford White (1853-1906) died when he was shot in the face at point blank range by the vengeful husband of actress Evelyn Nesbitt. The author is White’s great grandaughter in a matrilineal line.

She seeks to explore the meaning for his descendants of this man’s violent end and his voracious appetite for luxury and sex. The family history emerges through detailed and sympathetic sketches of White’s widow, their daughter, her daughter and husband (the author’s father) who is a gifted musician. The author herself is one of many daughters. An uncle with severe mental illness is portrayed with sensitivity.

The salacious, sordid tale of Evelyn Nesbit and her angry husband is developed; she had been seduced by White as a teenager, and the belief that he had “ruined” her governed his assasin.

White’s numerous affairs and extravagances are juxtaposed to the pain brought to his widow and children by the media scrutiny after his death. The family home on the Hudson river designed by White is central to the story with nostalgic vignettes of its history, form, renovations, and contents.

The author and her niece embark on a tour of White’s architecture. They end in the remarkable opulence of the Bowery Savings Bank, a classical revival building in which she begins to sense the splendid motivation behind White’s genius.  At the same time a remarkable confession emerges from her sibship.

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Hotel du Lac

Brookner, Anita

Last Updated: Feb-12-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Pseudonymic writer of romantic novels, Edith arrives at her Swiss hotel on lac Leman. She had been sent by friends to extract her from a situation, which at first is not clear.  The month ahead looks bleak and long.

With a keen eye, she observes her fellow guests, almost all female: beautiful, slender Monica with an eating disorder masked as indulgence of her tiny dog; a deaf, lame dowager ousted from her own home by a churlish daughter-in-law; a narcissistic mother and daughter whose amiable but inane conversation slowly begins to engulf Edith. These encounters ought to be fodder for her writing and they lead Edith to contemplate her own relationships with parents, aunts, women, men, and love.

Part of the narrative is conveyed in detailed letters to “dearest David,” letters that, we later learn, are never sent. Edith and David must be lovers, but soon it emerges that he is married and intent on staying that way; their affair is secret – possibly even to David. Even later, the reader discovers that Edith was on the verge of marriage to sensible, kind, older Geoffrey. But at the last minute, she left him literally standing at the altar--to his horror and that of those friends who have since packed her off to Switzerland.

A well turned out, wealthy male guest appears on the scene, Phillip Neville. He guesses Edith’s identity and challenges her to be less romantic and more selfish. He points out the value of marriage in terms of career, social standing, and simple companionship. Then he startles her by proposing. No love exists between them, they both admit. Nevertheless, Edith is on the verge of accepting his offer and his crass, unromantic view of the world, when a tedious, banal observation changes everything. She opts for freedom in romantic solitude.

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Assassination Vacation

Vowell, Sarah

Last Updated: Feb-12-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism

Summary:

Obsessed with the history of presidential assassinations and captivated by the power of places and objects to evoke the past, the author writes about her travels to the sites commemorating the lives, illnesses, deaths, and burials of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley and of their murderers. The greatest attention is given to Lincoln.

The context of the killings is presented in atmospheric detail and goes well beyond the individual deaths to the political tensions in which they occurred: slavery, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, partisan manipulation, economic strife. Special attention is given to wounds and body parts and to chattels, pus, and bits of bone.

The quirky research method of inveigling a sister and several long-suffering acquaintances (invariably introduced as “my friend XXX”) to drive the author to her desired destinations generates a counterpoint. Perhaps, the spiciest commentary on her investigations comes from the ever reliable insights of Owen, a four-year-old nephew.

This past is also about the physical objects--guns, tombs, statues, letters, plaques, buildings, furniture, and clothing--that memorialize and are fetishized by their contact with greatness. And it is about the people who care for it in the present--the curators, volunteers, collectors, and writers.

An encounter with the marvelous, stunningly beautiful (but now late) Gretchen Worden, curator of Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, as she speculates on the future of her own corpse, will be a poignant surprise for those who knew her in person or through her many appearances on the Letterman Show (p. 93-99). As Vowell wrote in her acknowledgements (p. 258): “The world is a little less interesting without her in it.” Indeed.

The result is a highly readable set of interconnected chapters that blends extensive knowledge of American history with a fanatic’s zeal to get at the true story, sense, and emotions, especially those investing objects and places with what is called—"wie es eigenlicht gewesen [ist]"--as it really was.

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The Good Physician

Harrington, Kent

Last Updated: Feb-05-2009
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Spoiler Alert: The ending of this thriller is revealed in the final paragraph of the summary. The threat of terrorism and the moral code of a physician place Dr. Collin Reeves in a very difficult position. The young American doctor is a specialist in parasitology and tropical diseases. He has trained and worked around the world - London, Kuwait, Brazil, and Africa. He presently practices in Mexico City. The U.S. Embassy refers sick American tourists to him. Dr. Reeves is also a CIA operative who enlisted after 9/11 to fight terrorism. After two years as an employee of the U.S. Intelligenge Service, he is disenchanted and wants out. Dr. Reeves is appalled by the brutal handling of terrorist suspects. It is his job to treat them and keep them alive long enough to obtain information or a confession.

Dr. Reeves loves Mexico, painting, and living day to day. He hates arrogance, disease, and human misery. His boss, Alex Law, is the chief of the CIA station in Mexico. He and his pal, Butch Nickels, have been in the spy business a very long time. Law is an alcoholic. His wife finds a lump in her breast that proves to be malignant. Dr. Reeves and his father (a surgeon practicing in San Francisco) arrange treatment for the woman in California where she undergoes a double masectomy.

Law has some clues that a group of al Qaeda in Mexico are plannning an attack. He worries they intend to bomb a city in California. Law's intuition is pretty good. A husband (Mohammad) and wife (Fatima) from Baghdad are set on revenge. Their young son was killed by an American bomb in Iraq. The husband, a physician, was mutilated by the same bomb. Unaware of her true background and her mission of destruction, Dr. Reeves falls in love with the beautiful woman who calls herself Dolores Rios. At one point, he kills a policeman and wounds another to rescue the woman. When her husband is bitten by scorpions, Dr. Reeves saves his life.

Members of the al Qaeda cell eventually capture Dr. Reeves and some of his friends. They plan to crash a stolen airplane into a California city. Dolores has a change of heart, but her husband is intent on revenge and becoming a martyr. Dr. Reeves offers to accompany the terrorists in exchange for Dolores being left behind. Still recovering from the effects of the scorpion bites, Mohammad figures it might be wise to have some medical expertise readily available. Shortly after take-off, Dr. Reeves manages to crash the plane but he is killed by gunfire in the process. The terrorist attack is averted. When Alex Law locates Dolores, he allows her to go free and start a new life. The doctor would have wanted it that way and Law allows him that much.

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Half-Nelson

Fleck, Ryan; Gosling, Ryan; Epps, Shareeka

Last Updated: Jan-16-2009
Annotated by:
Jones, Therese

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Screenwriter and director Ryan Fleck expanded his award-winning short film--Gowanus, Brooklyn-- into the 2007 feature-length drama, Half-Nelson.  The central character of the film is Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) an eighth-grade history teacher struggling to make the subject relevant to his students at a troubled school in the heart of poverty-stricken, crime-ridden Brooklyn.  His creativity in the classroom and his commitment to the students, predominately African-American and Latino teens, is real, without pretense or condescension.  Rather than relying on canned curricula and traditional methodologies such as recounting battles and memorizing dates, he tries to inspire his students with the ideology of Karl Marx, the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the film footage of Mario Savio, student leader of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s.

However, Dan's idealism and energy begin to wane, and he easily justifies anesthetizing himself in order to escape his growing recognition that he will likely make little or no difference in the world.  As his drug use intensifies, Dan's connections with friends, family, colleagues, and eventually, students completely unravel.  But his downward spiral into addiction is intertwined with and counterpointed by a complex and subtle relationship that develops between him and thirteen-year old, Drey (Shareeka Epps) when she discovers her teacher, Mr. Dunne, slumped nearly unconscious in the bathroom stall of the school gym, a crack pipe still in his hand.  

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The Bridge

Steel, Eric

Last Updated: Jan-16-2009
Annotated by:
Jones, Therese

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

After reading Tad Friend's article, "Jumpers: The Fatal Grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge" in an October 2003 issue of The New Yorker, filmmaker Eric Steel became so fascinated by the mystery of the final, dark moments of a human being who makes the long journey across the bridge to his or her death that he finagled $100,000 worth of equipment and moved from New York to San Francisco.  At 5:00 AM on a rainy New Year's Day in 2004, Steel and his ragtag crew set up their cameras, beginning a strange year-long vigil.  Training telephoto lenses on the mid-span of the bridge, they peered intently from dawn to dusk, watching for "suspicious behavior" or a "sense of despair" among the crowds passing back and forth.  During that year of filming, twenty-two people ended their lives, some caught on tape and some not; however, six attempts were thwarted by the film crew who became quite adept at indentifying potential victims and alerting the Bridge Patrol. 

Photographed from multiple perspectives, at all times of day, and in all kinds of weather, the Golden Gate Bridge is the main character of this documentary film.  It is formidable; it is magnificent; it is ominous; it is alluring.  According to the film:  "More people have chosen to end their lives [here] than anywhere else in the world."  The sublime images not only capture the many facets and features of the structure, but they also illustrate the emotions and represent the psychology of the other narratives intertwined in the film:  the stories of seven individuals who jumped from the bridge during the course of that year.

There is thirty-four year-old Gene, a haunting figure dressed all in black whose story begins and ends the documentary.  Like the film crew, we watch him prowl the bridge day after day, his long dark hair whipping in the wind until he makes that final leap, a dramatic backward dive.  There is forty-four year-old Lisa, who has suffered throughout her adult life with schizophrenia and who disappears off the bridge on Easter Sunday afternoon.  And there is twenty-two year-old Philip whose parents relate the history of their son's struggle with mental illness.

In addition to using footage of the bridge being obscured by fog as an evocative image of the progressive suffocation of self, the filmmaker employs long shots of the island of Alcatraz to symbolize the prison of mental illness.  Indeed, Philip's father describes his son's leap from the bridge as a release, "the only way he could get free."

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Summary:

The film opens with the discovery of Dr. Victor Frankenstein's will in his Transylvanian village. A skeleton, presumably Dr. Frankenstein's, and a man wrestle for the box holding the will. The man wins, takes it to a town meeting where the will is read and calls for the transfer of the property to the dead scientist's grandson, Frederick. Following this scene we meet the grandson, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), a surgeon who is busy instructing medical students in clinical neuroanatomy (comparing the brain to a cauliflower). When asked about his grandfather by a medical student, Freddy, who pronounces the family name "Fron kon steen", declares that Victor was "a cuckoo". The student is relentless in pursuing the family ties, exasperating Freddy, who finally plunges a scalpel into his thigh, a sight gag paying homage to Peter Sellers' stabbing himself with a letter opener in A Shot in the Dark (1964). When the courier from Transylvania arrives, he persuades Freddy to return to his ancestral castle for the execution of the will. A hilarious railroad platform scene in which Freddy bids goodbye to his "beautiful, flat-chested" (as described in the online original etext of the script by Gene Wilder) fiancée, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), only highlights the incredibly neurotic natures of the two lovers -- Wilder as a possessed but wacky scientist and Kahn as a narcissistic and apparently remote and shallow woman.

In Transylvania, Freddy and the viewers meet the remainder of the major characters. Inga (Teri Garr), a bosomy and mindless but beautiful and dedicated blonde, escorts him to the castle, where he meets the hunchback Igor, played by the incomparable Marty Feldman, who instructs Freddy, with one of the lines all Young Frankenstein addicts love to quote, to "walk this way", by which he means with a limp and a cane, not directions to anywhere at all. After remarking that the huge castle doors have huge knockers (which they do) -- which Teri Garr winsomely mistakes for a compliment on her equally huge knockers -- Freddy and his entourage enter the castle and meet Frau Blücher (played magnificently by Cloris Leachman), the spinster who keeps the castle, nourishing an undying flame for Freddy's dead grandfather. Soon Freddy and Inga discover, by means of a secret passageway behind a  -- surprise! surprise! -- revolving bookcase wall in Freddy's room, his grandfather's hidden subterranean laboratory (Brooks used the same electrical apparatus as the 1931 Frankenstein film) and scientific journals. With the materials and methods now at hand, Freddy undergoes a spiritual transformation, embracing his forebear's obsession with creating life from dead bodies, rejecting his earlier rejection of Victor's work as "Doo-Doo!".

At this juncture we move into the scientific creation mode and of course meet the Monster, exuberantly portrayed by the talented Peter Boyle. When Igor tries to steal a brain from a neighboring morgue there occurs the infamous mix-up of an "Abnormal" brain (labelled "DO NOT USE THIS BRAIN!") for the intended brain of H. Delbrück ("the finest natural philosopher, internal medicine diagnostician and chemical therapist of this century" and also the author of 17 cookbooks) making at least this viewer wonder if Mel Brooks had in mind a real scientific genius, Max Delbrück, who had received, only 5 years before, a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1969 for his work on bacteriophages.

The predicted spoofs ensue: the actual process of transforming the very large corpse of Peter Boyle into the very large body of the living Monster (with Inga remarking, after Freddy states that for the experiment to be a success, the monster must have enlarged body parts, that he "vould have an enormous schwanzstucker" -- a pseudo-German/Yiddish word that everyone in the audience immediately comprehends); the inclusion of Gene Wilder's rendition of the legendary exclamation, "It's alive!" by Colin Clive in the 1931 Frankenstein; the monster's mercurial disposition; the wildly comic scene with the Monster meeting the Blind Man (Gene Hackman); the Monster's fascination with music and antipathy to fire -- they all give rise to set pieces of Brooks's unique mix of lowbrow comedy with intellectual puns, Yiddish asides and the ubiquitous combination of visual and physical jokes.

After Elizabeth unexpectedly arrives in Transylvania we witness an apparently unlikely, and therefore uproariously believable, liaison with the Monster outside the castle, with Madeline Kahn eventually taking on the classic Marge Simpson type hairdo of Elsa Lanchester in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. The last important scene before the ending involves Freddy nostalgically summoning the Monster back to his natal castle for a transference of Freddy's calm brain to the Monster's. The ending, with the Monster a fully acculturated and now sophisticated man about town, and with Freddy and Inga still in love in Transylvania, is a brilliant win-win result for Freddy, Inga, Elizabeth and the Monster, although hardly predictable. Without giving away too much of the denouement, suffice it to say that the movie ends on a high note transforming, as it were, a linguistic pun into a musical one.

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Unaccustomed Earth

Lahiri, Jhumpa

Last Updated: Jan-06-2009
Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Summary:

The unusual title is borrowed from Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, "The Custom House," to suggest a shift in fortune when immigrants "strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."  Set almost entirely in the United States (the unaccustomed earth), eight separate stories are connected most obviously by cultural dissonances affecting characters who are Indian or have Indian parents.  Three of the stories, however, are linked by a strong narrative connection that is unexpected, profound, and unforgettable.

For Indian readers, the narratives describe complexities about migration patterns, cultural issues, alienation, and generational differences. The stories deal with well-educated children of immigrants who become offspring their parents barely recognize.  For other readers, the stories reveal situations about families and customs that are strangely familiar, especially those stories dealing with relationships between parents and children.
 
The forces of globalization have created and accelerated shifts that can seem staggering to all parents intent on preserving cultural patterns and traditions. Whether Indian or not, most parents experience a sense of alienation while watching their children flourish in a world that increasingly appears unfamiliar and foreign.

Not surprisingly, the stories concern strains and challenges affecting mixed relationships and/or mixed marriages and stresses on disapproving and disappointed parents, while others focus on children succumbing to drugs and alcohol(for the latter, see annotation of "Only Goodness").  All deal with some kind of emotional loss, but provide connections to feelings experienced by children and their parents in life's quiet and more kinetic negotiations.
 
The first story is about Ruma, a well-educated woman who lives in Seattle with her work-alcoholic American husband, and child, Akash.  Generational and cultural contrasts are revealed in overt and more subtle ways when her recently widowed father arrives for a short visit. Even though Ruma's complete assimilation into her non-Indian home as well as her on-going worries about her father's loneliness are major considerations, another story thread is spun, one that quietly reveals the father's thoughts about himself and a new relationship made recently during a vacation in Europe. Ruma's assumptions about her father, his loneliness, his possible dependency on her, and the Seattle vacation as a possible signal for relocating to her household turn out to be entirely wrong. 
 
The last three stories follow a boy, Kaushik, and girl, Hema, into adulthood.  In the first story, "Once in a Lifetime," Hema recalls her first memory of Kaushik when he was 9 and she was 6. The occasion was a farewell party for Kaushik's parents who were returning from the United States to live in Calcutta. The mothers, who grew up in Calcutta, but met in Cambridge, Massachusetts had become very close and were saddened by this separation.

Seven years pass before Kaushik‘s parents return to the Boston area and stay with Hema's family. Hema found the now 16-year old young man appealing, but brooding and totally uninterested in her. Even though Hema expected Kaushik to be Indian-like in behavior, he was more Americanized than she was. That the family had flown first-class shocked Hema's conservative family as did their new smoking and moderate drinking habits.

After a long search, and to the relief of Hema's parents, Kaushik's family found a  modern house on the North Shore.  Before they moved to their new home, Kaushik surprised Hema with confidential information-- his family had left India to seek treatment in Boston for his mother's breast cancer.  All medical efforts had been unsuccessful and his mother had only a short time to live.  Hema promised to keep this disclosure secret and grieved for the woman she had come to admire and love.
 
The second story in the link, "Year's End," is narrated by Kaushik.  With the opening line, "I did not attend my father's wedding," readers know that Kaushik‘s mother has died.  His father, in Calcutta for a visit, had married Chitra, a woman with two young daughters, and all would be returning to the North Shore house to live. Most of the chapter recounts the ordeal of the mother‘s dying, Kaushik‘s tremendous sense of loss, and the loneliness experienced by him at Swarthmore College.  No mention is made of Hema by the desolate narrator except to remember he had hated every day spent under her parents' roof, but later had come to think of that time with nostalgia.  

"Going Ashore" brings Hema and Kaushik together in Rome where she has a study grant and a visiting lectureship and he is on vacation from his work as an award-winning photo journalist.  Hema's parents have arranged for her to marry Navin in Calcutta.  Navin has accepted a teaching position at MIT. Until her unexpected reunion with Kaushik and the intense love affair that follows, neither had experienced any real connection with another person.  The story about them in Rome seems to represent an independence from the cultural forces that have shaped their lives, but this independence is short lived.  Ultimately, she is unable to set aside the expectations imposed by her parents.  The consequences of their final separation are more than any reader might imagine.

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The Human Stain

Roth, Philip

Last Updated: Dec-04-2008
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The Human Stain is the third of Philip Roth's trilogy of novels that explore the relationship between public and private life in America during the second half of the 20th century. As in American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998), Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's favorite alter ego, serves as the narrator. After a prostate operation rendered him impotent, Zuckerman has retired from the world to become writer in residence at idyllic Athena College.

There he meets Coleman Silk, a former dean and classics professor who was forced to resign because of a supposed racial slur, in which he asked whether two students who had registered for his course but never attended a lecture were "spooks." They were African-Americans. Hence, political correctness dictated that Silk's academic career was history.

Zuckerman enters the scene a couple of years later, when the septuagenarian Silk is having an affair with an illiterate college janitor. This liaison has revitalized the old professor, whose wife died during the period of disgrace after his "racism" was exposed. However, Silk's enemies at the college, led by a bitterly proper young deconstructionist, have gone on the warpath again, this time condemning him for exploiting the young janitor.

The real story, though, lies deep in Coleman Silk's past. We eventually learn that Silk is a light skinned African-American who gradually drifted across the American racial divide and for 50 years has successfully passed as a white Jew. The irony in this situation is complex. A black man thought by the world to be Jewish is publicly disgraced for uttering the word "spook" in its correct denotation. (This is reminiscent of a case a few years ago in which a public official in the United States was chastised for using the word "niggardly" with reference to an inadequate budget allocation.)

The situation is doubly ironic because Silk has chosen to live his life as a white man, thereby in a sense establishing his own racism. Silk's original goal had been to live as an individual, and not as a representative of his race, but in choosing to deny his roots, perhaps Coleman Silk's guilt is deeper and more complex than his pursuers at Athena College realize.

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