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Poet and writer Jeanne Bryner has assembled 24 short stories to give us Eclipse, a wise and tender collection that reflects her blue-collar roots in Appalachia and industrial Ohio, and also her work as a registered nurse. These stories are about real human beings, flawed and graced, who, for the most part, care for one another, whether family or stranger, with compassion and the kind of acceptance that comes from living a hard life. Bryner's writing skills move these characters beyond easy stereotype and turn their actions--their anger over the death of a loved one or the cooking of a Sunday supper--into transformative metaphors that illuminate the sorrows and joys of everyday life.
The following stories might be of particular interest to those teaching or studying literature and medicine: "Sara's Daughters," in which a woman undergoes artificial insemination and, through her thoughts and her conversations with the nurse, perfectly reveals an infertile woman's humiliation, longing, and hope; "The Jaws of Life," in which a young woman takes her Aunt Mavis to visit Uncle Webster in a nursing home and there observes the poignant interactions of the well and the dying, the young and the old, moments infused with both charity and dread.
In addition: "Turn the Radio to a Gospel Station," in which two cleaning ladies in a hospital ER observe and philosophize about what goes on around them, the deaths and near-deaths, the kindness or mutinies of nurses, the doctors' mechanical repetition of questions, the lovers hiding in the linen closet; "The Gemini Sisters," in which a group of weight-watching women meet to shed pounds and talk about life; "Foxglove Canyon," in which a registered nurse with forty year's experience relates memories of her work, her family, and how things change when a writer comes to teach the staff and the patients about poetry, "the flower you stumble across growing near the barn, a purple bloom that nobody planted."
"Red Corvette" examines the intimacy that develops between family members, particularly when one is caregiver to the other. In this story a woman comes to visit her post-op sister and remembers, while watching her sister suffer in pain, their childhood, those moments of freedom and health she yearns for her sister to regain.
"The Feel of Flannel" is about a woman who, like her mother and grandmother, has breast cancer. She refuses to participate in a research project but instead barrels ahead into her uncertain future, planning to wear her nightgown to the grocery store and tattoo her husband's name "right here when this port comes out."
For more than fifteen years, Irish-born Grace Marks has been confined for the 1843 murder of housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, and her employer, Thomas Kinnear, at their home north of Toronto. Her convicted accomplice was hanged, accusing Grace with his last breath, but her sentence was commuted to life in prison at the last minute. Because of her amnesia and outbursts of rage and panic, she was held in the Lunatic Asylum before being sent to the Kingston [Ontario] Penitentiary.
Beautiful, intelligent, and strangely poised, Grace intrigues worthy townsfolk, spiritualists, and some of her jailers, who grant her the privilege of outside work, believe in her innocence, and strive for a pardon. In looking for medical approbation, they consult Dr. Simon Jordan, a young American doctor who is interested in insanity and memory loss. Without explaining his purpose, he brings her vegetables and other familiar objects, hoping to stimulate recollection of her life.
Interspersed with Jordan's own problems, Grace's story unfolds in her own words, from her poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland and the emigration voyage that killed her mother, leaving her and her younger siblings to a neglectful father, through her short life in service, to the dreadful events of autumn 1843. She has suffered many losses, including the death of her mother to ship fever, and that of her friend and fellow servant, Mary Whitney, from an illegally procured abortion. After many weeks, Jordan abandons his project in frustration and ambiguity. The novel ends years later with forty-six year-old Grace's discharge from prison in 1872, nearly thirty years after the crime.
Holy Fire's setting is America at the end of the 21st century. A gerontocracy is firmly in place and in many older persons are reaping the benefits of life-extending technology. Mia Ziemann, the protagonist of this "cybersuspense" novel, is a 94 year-old medical economist who has a life-altering visit with a dying ex-lover. Could she become the person she had wanted to become so many decades ago--someone much more adventuresome?
In order to do so, she needs to undergo an experimental treatment--NTDCD (Neo-telemeric Dissipative Cellular Detoxification)--that does not just halt the aging process, but reverses it. NTDCD involves numerous ordeals including clogging her digestive tract with a sterilizing putty, filling her lungs with a sterilizing oxygenating fluid, replacing her cerebrospinal fluid (producing profound unconsciousness), being fetally submerged in a gelatinous tank of support fluids where the bacteria in her body are removed, and then receiving DNA treatments. If she survives the treatment the question remains whether or not she'll be able to survive as a young person in a world that favors the old.
Emiko a child survivor of Hiroshima, is now a documentary filmmaker. She has horrific memories of August 1945 when she lost her parents and little brother, and of the years of painful operations and homesickness in America where she was sent to restore her mutilated face. She is hoping to interview Anton Böll, a scientist who had fled Germany to work on the Manhattan project.
Böll contends that he had been unaware of human rights abuses; he left Europe because the Nazi regime had cramped his scientific style. As a consequence, his mother was imprisoned and killed. During the war, he met his Austrian-born Jewish wife, Sophie, at a displaced persons camp in Canada. Sophie had lost her whole family, but she does not speak of them and he does not ask.
Briefly they knew happiness, but soon Böll left for work on the bomb and on to Hiroshima in its aftermath. Their marriage would never be the same. For the rest of his life, Böll justified his involvement as a "dream" turned "nightmare" emerging from the imperative demands of a virtuous science. When Emiko approaches him, he hesitates. He does not want to risk blame. But his dying wife knows that absolution for unacknowledged guilt is what he craves.
When Alice Sebold, author of the best-selling novel, The Lovely Bones (see this database), was completing her freshmen year at Syracuse University, she was assaulted and raped. Years after the fact, Sebold wrote this memoir about the rape and its aftermath. The book's title, "Lucky," is explained in the prologue: the police told Sebold that she was lucky to have escaped the fate of another girl who had been murdered and dismembered in the same spot. In point of fact, Sebold, a virgin before the rape, was in a sense murdered, since life as she had known it would never be the same: "My life was over; my life had just begun" (33).
In crisp, lively prose the author takes us relentlessly through the details of her rape and the police inquiry that followed. We learn also that the narrator had suffered from a poor body self-image, loved to spend her time reading, had day-dreams of becoming a poet. We learn about her family--a mother prone to severe panic attacks and a professorial father who hid behind his books, an older sister who helped Alice take care of their mother. The family was considered by neighbors to be "weird."
After the rape, Sebold felt even more isolated and "Other." She could not bring herself to tell her family, who tip-toed around her, all of the horrendous details of the assault. She realized that all who knew her were aware she had been raped and were uneasy in her presence. Her father could not understand how she could have been raped if the assailant's knife had dropped out of reach.
In spite of everything, Alice returns to Syracuse, taking poetry workshops with Tess Gallagher and a writing workshop with Tobias Wolff. Incredibly, she spots her assailant one day on the street near the college. The author notifies the police, the assailant is later arrested, and Alice agrees to press charges and to be a witness at the trial. Neither her father nor her mother have the stomach to come to the trial, but Tess Gallagher accompanies her. The account of the trial is detailed, agonizing, and fascinating.
The film opens with a bird's-eye sweep over the frieze of a post-engagement battlefield--mud, strewn with bodies and shards of machinery, all iron grey and relieved only by rare patches of crimson blood. Psychiatrist William Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) treats shell-shocked soldiers in the converted Craiglockhart Manor. He is obliged to admit the poet and decorated war hero, Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby), because his military superiors prefer to label the much-loved Sassoon's public criticism of the war as insanity rather than treason. Rivers is supposed to "cure" the very sane poet of his anti-war sentiments.
At the hospital, Sassoon meets another poet, Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), equally horrified by the war although he, like Sassoon, believes himself not to be a pacifist. A secondary plot is devoted to the mute officer Billy Pryor (Jonny Lee Miller) who recovers his speech, his memories, and a small portion of his self-respect through the patience of his doctor and his lover, Sarah (Tanya Allen). Vignettes of other personal horrors and the brutal psychological wounds they have caused are presented with riveting flashbacks to the ugly trenches. Sassoon, Owen, and Pryor return to active service. The film closes with a dismal scene of Owen's dead body lying in a trench.
Mattie, recently divorced from Nick, the father of her two children, is coping with the aftermath of divorce, functioning as a single parent, feeling ambivalence toward Nick who still shows up and sometimes stays the night, and becoming aware of her own attraction to other men. Her mother, an aging social activist, lives nearby with her lover and companion who copes with the mother’s insistent personality and mood swings better than Mattie. Her brother, Al, also lives nearby and fills in some of the father functions for Mattie’s children.
In the background is the story of Mattie’s father, now dead, much loved by both Mattie and Al, who, as it turns out, fathered a child now living in the community by a young girl about Mattie’s age. The mother of the child lives in the squalor of near homelessness at the edge of town. This disclosure, Mattie’s blossoming friendship and eventual romance with the man who comes to repair her house, and Mattie’s mother’s descent into dementia are the three main threads of plot in this story of pain, forgiveness, and healing in family life.
This is a story of a day in the life of 12-year-old Albert Abrams in Brownsville, Brooklyn, during the Depression summer of 1934. Albert’s father is an irascible middle-aged general practitioner whose practice is getting smaller and smaller. Most of his patients can’t pay; and many have left Dr. Abrams to go to younger doctors, or to specialists. Albert’s mother is a refined literary-type lady who never complains about their life in the deteriorating neighborhood, even though all of their middle-class friends have moved elsewhere.
Albert is a brilliant young man ("the highest IQ in the school"), but his greatest desire is to be "one of the boys." He is small, skinny, and poor at sports. The other kids make fun of him because of his "rich" father. The novel describes a long day of verbal and physical harassment; its highlights are a critical punchball game between the white kids, mostly Jewish, and black kids of Longview Avenue, and a fistfight in which Albert actually "beats" one of his perennial nemeses. In the evening there is a fire in which Yussel Melnick, an old Talmudic scholar, is burned to death.
Peeking out from behind his son’s story is the image of Dr. Abrams, a man who once was the star of his medical school class, but whose career long ago failed to "take off" because of his bluntness, bad-temper, and general difficulty getting along with other professionals. He is portrayed as a man truly committed to his patients, but also prone to yelling at them and hounding them for payment. As the day progresses, it becomes evident that Dr. Abrams has been losing his grip; he has episodes of confusion and appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In the end, stimulated by love for his son, he rouses himself from suicidal ruminations.
This quiet little story has two parts. In the first section, the narrator remembers an incident that occurred when he was a high school boy. He was traveling with his grandfather in the Ukraine and they stopped to rest at the home of an Armenian family. The boy was virtually struck dumb by the beauty of the young woman who served them tea. While his grandfather slept, he stood outside in the yard and watched the exquisite young woman do her chores.
In the second section, he remembers an incident from somewhat later, when he was a university student. His train was stopped at a station, and he had gone out to stretch his legs on the platform. He noticed a carelessly dressed young woman, who was standing outside a train window, speaking to one of the passengers.
Once again, he was "suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling I had once experienced in the Armenian village." The narrator also notices the battered and ugly telegraph operator staring at the girl with "a look of tenderness and of the deepest sadness, as though in that girl he saw happiness, his own youth, soberness, purity, wife, children . . . " A bell rang, and the train moved off.
Lieutenant General von Rabbek hosts a party for members of the regiment in his magnificent home. Of all the attendees, the most awkward is Ryabovitch, "a little officer in spectacles, with sloping shoulders and whiskers like a lynx's." He considers himself the shyest, most undistinguished officer in the whole brigade. While wondering through the mansion, trying to avoid talking to people, he stumbles into a dark room, whereupon a woman rushes up to him, whispering, "At last!" She throws her arms around his neck and kisses him. At once, however, she realizes her mistake, runs from the room, and is lost in the crowd.
Ryabovitch's passion awakes! He feels that his life is beginning anew. For the rest of the evening, he searches in vain for the woman who kissed him. The next day his regiment departs for another area, but some time later, when he returns to the same town, Ryabovitch continues his obsession with the kiss he experienced that night, and still hopes to discover who the woman in the dark room was.
If only he could communicate with General von Rabbek--but no, Rabbek doesn't respond. In the end he stands on the riverbank: "Now that he expected nothing, the incident of the kiss, his impatience, his vague hopes and disappointment, presented themselves in a clear light . . . And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to Ryabovitch an unintelligible, aimless jest . . . "