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The People in the Trees

Yanagihara, Hanya

Last Updated: Oct-10-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The novel takes the form of a memoir written from prison. The fictional author is Dr. Norton Perina who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering what caused some people on a remote Micronesian island to live for up to 250 years or longer. Dr. Ronald Kubodera, Perina’s long-time colleague, convinced him to write the memoir while he was in prison. Perina sent Kubodera a chapter at a time, which he would then “lightly edit” and add occasional footnotes to elaborate on a given section. 

Perina is in prison for being convicted on “two counts of sexual assault,” (p. 349) though we can believe he is guilty of many more counts. All of these transgressions involved children, many of whom were under his care as their adopted father. However, the bulk of the memoir is not about the behavior that lands him in prison. Instead, it tells of Perina’s successful scientific investigations of a hidden people in a secluded partition of an unknown island in Micronesia. He came to this place while stumbling around for a career direction after medical school, and then came to discover the hidden people when stumbling upon one lying on the forest floor.

Perina eventually linked the consumption of the meat of a particular turtle on this island to a prolongation of life measured in hundreds of years. Only the inhabitants who reached around 60 years were given the turtle meat and only during a ceremony to mark the milestone. While the bodies of these people remained as they were physically when they consumed the turtle meat, their minds did not. As they aged they became non compos mentis—“all they could do was jitter and babble and laugh at nothing, the neighing laughter of the brainless.” (p. 95) Perina’s published papers called attention to a possible fountain of youth and produced the expected rush among pharmaceutical companies to distill the turtle’s magic into a pill. All they managed to do instead was to destroy the island’s habitats,
corrupt its people, and hunt the turtles into extinction.
 

Very little is said in Perina’s memoir about any activities leading to his pedophilia conviction until the very end; however, occasional hints that Perina could be a pedophile appear before then. At one point in particular he describes an encounter with a 10-year old boy from the village that might have awakened any such tendencies that had been dormant. Another time he admits “some of the only comfort (and certainly the only amusement) I’d found had been with the village’s children.” (p. 267). During subsequent trips to the island over the next few decades, Perina adopted 43 island children and brought them home to raise as his own. He was drawn to children, but in not so innocent a manner. Only at the very end of book, and only in the postscript, do we get any details about how he preyed upon these children.

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Tell

Itani, Frances

Last Updated: Sep-22-2016
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Kenan Oak returns from World War I to a small Ontario town. He is virtually unable to speak and dares not venture from his home. Adopted by a reclusive uncle at an early age, he has no immediate family but his wife, Tressa, who loves him and accepts his disability with good grace. They have been trying to have a child without success, and the glimmers of Kenan’s recovery are dauntingly few and faint. Slowly with the help of his uncle Am, he begins to go out at night for walks in the woods and skating on the ice of the lake.  

Am and his wife Maggie have a strained marriage. She loves to sing and once aspired to a career in music, but instead she opted for Am and a farm—although now they live in town. Lukas, a gifted new musician arrives to direct the choir; he is a postwar immigrant from an unnamed European country, possibly Germany. He notices her talent and encourages her to sing solo at the upcoming New Year’s concert. Unused to the attention, she is captivated by him, his mystique, his appreciation of her, and the return of joy through song. They have an affair, which is discovered by Am.  

Well into the story, it emerges that Am and Maggie had lost two children to diphtheria, and this trauma is at the heart of their marital strife. It is why they left their farm and have grown apart.  But Maggie imposed an edict of silence on this exquisitely painful past. In contrast, Tressa slowly encourages her silent husband to tell—by inventing stories for him and letting him revise.  His adoptive uncle gives him a postage-stamp sized photograph of his nameless mother and grandmother; together they construct a story.
 

Maggie falls pregnant with Lukas’s baby. She goes away to have the child but Am cannot accept it. Compounding Maggie’s woe, she stays with Am—for all their strife, they are bound in their loss. She allows Tressa and Kenan to adopt her beloved baby.  

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Archangel

Updike, John

Last Updated: Sep-13-2016
Annotated by:
Clark, Mark

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

The speaker of this dramatic monologue in prose is an archangel.  He attempts to tell his listeners—mortals, presumably—of the beauty to be treasured in the extraordinary ordinary of the everyday world.  The Archangel speaks in nothing less than glorious diction, baroque syntax, and enchanting rhythm: he labors, rhetorically, to communicate in a language congruent with the complex, extravagant beauty of the world he describes.  He pleads with his audience to listen to him and share in the profound aesthetic experience so readily available—but he pleads to no avail: his audience will not listen.  In response to his audience's attempted departure, the Archangel implores, “Wait.  Listen.  I will begin again.”

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

The therapeutic benefits of music are well known, but the theory that music might be harmful to our health, unless it is so obviously loud it injures our eardrums, comes as a surprise.  In this volume, historian of medicine James Kennaway traces the idea of pathological music from antiquity to the present.  The book’s introduction considers whether music really can create illness, whether it be of a physiological or a psychological nature.  We learn, for example, of arrhythmias and seizure disorders that are set off by music, not to mention the so-called Stendhal Syndrome, a psychosomatic reaction to great works of art.

The second chapter describes how, during the 18th century, disease was thought to result from excessive stimulation of the nerves, and how that created a theoretical framework for the “medical dangers of music” (p. 23) as being rooted in the nervous system. The example of the glass harmonica is given. This musical instrument, invented by Benjamin Franklin, had its status elevated when Mozart composed two pieces for it.  However, its success became its undoing, as it was feared the tones would “make women faint, send a dog into convulsions, [and] make a sleeping girl wake screaming through a chord of the diminished seventh” (p. 45). Special gloves were devised so that a performer might, by avoiding direct contact with the apparatus, spare his nerves. 

In the following chapter, Kennaway explores how Wagner dominated 19th-century discourse on pathological music in that his work’s eroticism and novel harmonies were thought to produce neurasthenia (a popular catch-all term for an array of anxiety disorders). Listeners were brought to an unhealthy state of ecstasy, and singers, being driven to the abyss, went insane. Women who had recklessly allowed themselves to become “Wagnerized” were punished with a “lack [of] children, or, in the most bearable cases, men” (p. 74).

Moving into the 20th century, the author describes how ideas about pathological music acquired a political connotation.  In Germany, the perceived threat of avant-garde Jewish composers (eg. Schoenberg) to public health culminated in the so-called Degenerate Music exhibition of 1938. And in  the United States, African American-influenced jazz was credited with the power to “change human physiology, damaging the medulla in the brain” (p. 121).

Finally, the book concludes in the present day with music for brainwashing (e.g. a consideration of whether subliminal messages hidden in rock songs could lead to suicide), and the use of painfully loud or abrasive music as sonic weapons in warfare, or for torture.  The author’s verdict is that the notion of music as bad for your health, though emerging in new forms, is more topical than ever.

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Lifeguard

Updike, John

Last Updated: Aug-17-2016
Annotated by:
Clark, Mark

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

The narrator of this story is a lifeguard who contemplates his identity and life-roles as he lounges in his lifeguard chair, elevated above the crowd of beachgoers.  In the winter months, he is a student of divinity; in the summer months, he ascends the throne marked with a red cross in the hopes of guarding the lives of those at play before him.  While he remains vigilant for calls of help, those calls never come, and the lifeguard confronts the troubling insight of the limited contributions he’s devoting his life to make.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This short but complex book assesses the many, current risks to all life on earth and considers some avenues for repair that may provide hope for the future. E. O. Wilson, a distinguished scientist, describes how all life on earth is inter-related. With a long view to the past and a wide view of the present—from microscopic creatures to humans—Wilson praises our planet’s biodiversity and warns of the dangers that may cause it to collapse; these dangers are human-related. Humans are an apex predator, smarter than all other creatures, but we are also too numerous, using too many resources, and causing various pollutions, including global warming. The health of the world and the health of all its creatures—humans included— are, for better or worse, interlinked forever.   
A Prologue warns that we are playing an “end-game” with the earth. To avoid a point of no return from mass extinctions, Wilson proposes a bold plan of setting aside one-half of the earth in reserve in order to stabilize the survival of humans.  

Part I, “The Problem,” describes the damage to our planet, on a par with the Yucatan asteroid 65 millions years ago, the so-called Fifth Extinction. We live in a narrow biosphere threatened by dying species, invasive species, collapse of interdependency, pollution of air, land, and water, loss of the commons, overhunting, human population growth, and outright habitat destruction (including the many impacts of climate change). He states, “the Sixth Extinction is under way” and “human activity is its driving force” (p. 55).   

Average time for recovery from each of the five previous extinctions is 10 million years. 

Self-centered humans do not understand the vast complexity of nature, including the many species not yet studied. He imagines far-distant geologists observing, “What a terrible time it was for people, and for the rest of life” (p. 9).  

Part II, “The Real Living World,” criticizes some conservationists who see nature in service to humans. Wilson says we are not owners of nature but stewards. He describes the abundant life of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a typical seashore as well as the extinction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Wilson contacted “eighteen of the world’s senior naturalists,” asking for suggestions for the “best reserves” to shelter “plants, animals, and microorganisms” (p. 135). Fifteen pages lovingly describe their recommendations of 33 places around the world. He concludes that “a great deal of Earth’s biodiversity can still be saved!” (p. 136).  

Part III, “The Solution” states, “The only solution to the Sixth Extinction is to increase the area of inviolable natural reserves to half the surface of the Earth or greater” (p. 167). Wilson reviews crises of water and food, and he warns against “self-inflicted disaster” that could wipe out most species by the end of this century. He provides two examples of restoration projects, the long-leaf pine lands in Florida and Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. He believes the population bulge to ten billion people will be temporary.            

Wilson rejects geo-engineering of the oceans or the atmosphere as well as a proposed use of a passing asteroid. He argues that synthetic biology has promise for improving our brains for moral reasoning and ecological understanding. We need altruism (all working for all) and biophilia (deep love of nature).

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Haematology

Swift, Graham

Last Updated: Aug-09-2016
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

On February 7, 1649 –one week after the execution by decapitation of Charles I, his royal physician, William Harvey (1578-1657), discoverer of the circulation of the blood, writes to his cousin, Edward Francis, a lawyer, once his friend but now firmly in the camp of Cromwell. Harvey muses on how his responsibilities as physician to the king must place him in the royalist camp. But as a doctor he will tend to anybody – Every Body—because all bodies are governed by the same natural laws. He wonders what his place will be in the new political order. And he wonders if his cousin noticed him when he stood by the king in battle – and if they will ever meet again in friendship.  

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The Children Act

McEwan, Ian

Last Updated: Aug-09-2016
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Approaching age 60 and childless, Fiona Maye is a family court judge who must decide if 17 year-old Adam has the right to refuse blood transfusions for his leukemia. He and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The Children Act does not allow a child to make this decision until age 18. Fiona is an atheist and her 35-year marriage to an academic is falling apart.  She takes the extraordinary step of visiting Adam to know him and understand his conviction. He is beautiful and gifted, he writes poetry and plays violin. Why would he not want to try to live? She makes her decision having no idea if it will be morally, legally or medically right. To say more would spoil it.

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Ordinary Grace

Krueger, William

Last Updated: Aug-02-2016
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Frank Drum, 13, and his younger brother Jake are catapulted into adulthood the summer of 1961 in their small Minnesota town as they become involved in investigation of a series of violent deaths.  Their father, a Methodist minister, and their mother, a singer and musician, can’t protect them from knowing more than children perhaps should know about suicide, mental illness, and unprovoked violence.  The story is Frank’s retrospective, 40 years later, on that summer and its lasting impact on their family, including what he and his brother learned about the complicated ways people are driven to violence and the equally complicated range of ways people respond to violence and loss—grief, anger, depression, and sometimes slow and discerning forgiveness.  

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Please Write

Robinson, Beth

Last Updated: Aug-02-2016
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In 1942, Beth Pierce was completing her internship in the new discipline of occupational therapy in a Baltimore hospital where she meets Jim, a conscientious objector who is training to become a medic. They share a love of poetry and the arts. He goes off to war and serves in the foxholes and trenches of the dreadful conditions at the front. She stays in North America serving in rehabilitation with the war wounded – young men damaged physically and mentally from the great trauma. Until 1945, they exchange a remarkable series of letters that describe the war, their parallel work with the war wounded, their hopes for the future, and gratitude for each other’s thoughts. The letters always close with “Please write.”

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