Showing 41 - 50 of 75 annotations contributed by Ratzan, Richard M.

Summary:

Tracy Kidder met Paul Farmer in 1994 when the former was writing an article about Haiti. They next met again in 1999 but it was only when Kidder expressed an interest in Farmer and his oeuvre that Farmer emailed him back, writing "To see my oeuvre you have to come to Haiti" (17). Kidder did just that, following the peripatetic workaholic Farmer to Peru, Russia, Boston, and wherever Farmer flew, which is anywhere there is poverty and disease, especially infectious disease.

In Mountains Beyond Mountains (MBM), Kidder chronicles Farmer’s childhood, medical school years (almost a correspondence course with Farmer’s frequent trips to Haiti), his founding of Partners in Health (PIH) and the construction of the medical center in Cange, Haiti, where "Partners in Health" becomes Zanmi Lasante in Creole.

The story of Farmer’s crusade for a more rational anti-tuberculosis regimen for resistant TB; his political struggles to wrestle with drug manufacturers to lower the price of these and medicines for HIV; his charismatic establishment of a larger and larger cadre, then foundation of co-workers; the story of Jim Kim, a fellow Harvard infectious disease specialist; Farmer’s marathon house calls on foot in Haiti; endless global trips punctuated by massive email consultations from all over the world; and gift-buying in airports for family, friends and patients--these are fascinating reading. In the end one is as amazed and puzzled by the whirlwind that is Paul Farmer--surely a future Nobel Peace Prize laureate like Mother Teresa--as Tracy Kidder was and grateful to have the opportunity to read about it by such an intelligent writer.

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In the Springtime of the Year

Hill, Susan

Last Updated: May-18-2007
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In the Springtime of the Year opens with the death of Ben Bryce, a young man in his 20's whom we only get to know posthumously but one who has clearly left his imprint on all who knew him. Dying as a result of a freak accident--an apparently healthy tree suddenly falling on him--Ben, as a friend notes, "had been at one with things" (62). The death, happening so unexpectedly and to such a young man of promise, leaves his small rural English community eerily stunned. "People felt changed, as by war or earthquake or fire, even those who lived closest to death and knew its face" (56). As Moony, the same friend, remarks to himself, "it was no ordinary death" (63). Ruth--his young wife--she is 7 or 8 years younger--begins a grieving process that occupies the rest of the novel, beginning with the news of her husband's death in early March until the last page in December.

Although the attention the author pays to Ruth's grief is extraordinarily close, there are other events external to her grief that occupy her and the reader's gaze. Ben's family is equally devastated but hampered in their effort to perform grief work by an egoistically blinkered and unimaginative, selfish mother who has ruined her grown daughter's life, stultified her husband's, and only failed to affect her two sons, Ben and Jo, by dint of their physical and mental exodus, respectively, from the household. Jo, at fourteen (he was exactly half Ben's age at the time of the accident) is precociously generous, supportive of Ruth, and self-sufficient. Indeed, he is the most wise character in the book.

Ruth's attempt to make sense of her husband's tragic death; the usual small town happenings in the village; and Ruth's eventual emergence from her grief, partly as a result of her helping others suffering these small town hardships--all form a tightly knit story that centers around grief, tragedy, and humans' attempt to impose meaning on life's often unfairly dealt hand.

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Summary:

On Friday the 13th of October of 1972, a Fairchild F-227, a twin engine turbo prop carrying the Old Christians Rugby Club from Montevideo, Uruguay, to an exhibition match in Chile, crashed in the Andes with 45 people aboard, including the four crew members. The players were mostly young men in their early 20's accompanied by several adults, including the mother and sister of the author of Miracle in the Andes, Nando Parrado. They had the good fortune to have a relatively soft crash with 40 survivors after impact, which dwindled to 16 by the time of the dramatic rescue two months later. This book recounts the incredible tribulations of the survivors, the escape of two of them over the Andes with warm weather clothing to a small farm community in rural Chile, and the author's reflections on this experience.

The young men were quick to learn basic survival tricks at altitude including keeping each other warm, devising an apparatus to keep themselves hydrated, and trying to maintain optimistic spirits. Although they were sure of a rescue mission, as the days passed it became clear this was increasingly unlikely. They eventually came to the dilemma of all such cornered and secluded survivors, i.e., eat human flesh or die of starvation. Unlike the sailors in the story of the whaleship Essex, and more akin to the saga of the Donner Party, there were corpses available already refrigerated by nature with no need for drawing straws for sacrifice. Despite their staunch Catholicism - their team was, after all, a team sponsored by the Irish Christian Brothers of the Stella Maris School - all the survivors finally agreed it was necessary.

Although there were a few initial attempts to escape, they were futile until the author and one of the three medical students, Roberto Canessa, were successful in climbing over the peaks, finally encountering peasant farmers after a ten day trek to Los Maitenes, a region in Colchagua, Chile. Helicopters then returned to the crash site and successfully rescued the remaining members of this small band of young men.

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Only Yesterday

Gloag, Julian

Last Updated: Feb-02-2007
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

When Rupert Darley, a twice married writer and teacher, shows up unannounced at his elderly parents’ home in rural Southeast England for a weekend, having just left his second wife, he has little reason to suspect that it will be the eventful weekend that it is. In only 170 pages, he is joined by his medical student daughter, Miranda (also called Milly), whose visit to her grandparents is expected by them but not by Rupert; he must come to grips with the harsh realities of aging, most especially that of his suddenly quite old and frail parents, whom he calls by their given names, Oliver and May; he and his daughter discuss for the first and most honest time their lives and those of their family; and they all must deal with the crisis of sudden unannounced illness.

Oliver is a well known architect who is stodgy and well aware of his eccentricities, tolerated but not allowed free range by May, his arthritic wife who is probably stronger in spirit than Oliver. The four of them discuss - jointly and in various permutations of groupings - a costly stair lift for May, Rupert's marriages and current (extended) mid-life crisis, Oliver's quixotic project to build a huge pyramid city complex, the vicissitudes of aging and approaching death (which is the elephant in the parlor in this book), health, illness and societal change.

Of interest to literature and medicine readers, Milly has frank conversations regarding end of life choices, to Rupert's initial dismay, with both grandparents individually and accompanies Oliver to the hospital in an ambulance when he has a heart attack at the end of the book.

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Trepov on the Dissecting Table

Csáth, Géza

Last Updated: Dec-04-2006
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Vanya and Uncle Nicolai, two orderlies in a morgue, are preparing for funeral the body of Trepov ("Known everywhere simply as Trepov" (63), a hated officer because of whom "more [Russian] people were murdered than absolutely necessary." Trepov is the pawn of "the Little Father" (64); both very well may be cruel administrators of an invading force, not necessarily Russians themselves, although this is not clear.

What is clear is that Vanya, the younger orderly, despises Trepov. After finishing the dressing of the cadaver in military finery, replete with "all those gilt-enameled medals" (64). Vanya suddenly closes the door, to Uncle Nicolai’s bewilderment. Even more surprising is Vanya’s determined slapping of Trepov’s face three times. With tacit approval from Uncle Nicolai, Vanya then kicks Trepov. Finally, Vanya slaps, with all his strength "the corpse’s face again. Now we can go, he stammered, his face flushed with the thrill of it." (65)

Vanya goes to bed thinking about the son his wife is expecting (since there was no ultrasound between 1908 and 1912 when Csáth most likely wrote this story, this detail remains mysterious) and how he will boast to him about "that day’s doings." And then he falls fast asleep, "breathing evenly, deeply, like all healthy people" (65).

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Was It Heaven? Or Hell?

Twain, Mark

Last Updated: Sep-13-2006
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Twain paints a picture of an all female family of four: Margaret Lester, widow; her 16 year old daughter, Helen; and Margaret’s extremely proper twin maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester Gray, aged 67. It is a household in which "a lie had no place. In it a lie was unthinkable. In it speech was restricted to absolute truth, iron-bound truth, implacable and uncompromising truth, let the resulting consequences be what they might." With this background, Twain sets up a perfect scenario of hide-bound morality only to turn it on its head, an iconoclastic trick for which he is deservedly well known.

The doctor caring for the mother and daughter, suffering from typhoid, cuts the aunts’ pietistic morality about lying to shreds, demonstrates the shallow logic and inconsistency of it and predicts they will lie in a greater fashion than they can imagine. True to form, Twain has the aunts go to great lengths to falsify the condition of the critically ill daughter to the mother to prevent the truth from worsening her condition. The title derives from the final lines of the story when an angel of the Lord comes to their house and delivers the judgment for all their lies, a judgment the reader is asked to guess: Was it Heaven? Or Hell?

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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This posthumously published short (132 pp) collection is by a former New York Times book reviewer and essayist who was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in 1989 and who died the following year. Broyard responded to his illness by writing about the experience. The book is comprised of six parts:

Part 1: Intoxicated by My Illness

Part 2: Toward a Literature of Illness

Part 3: The Patient Examines the Doctor

Part 4: A Style for Death: Journal Notes, May-September,1990

Part 5: The Literature of Death

Part 6: What the Cystoscope Said

Parts 1, 2 and 5 appeared in slightly different form in the New York Times between 1981 and 1990.

Parts 2 and 3 are in part from a talk Mr. Broyard gave at the Univ. of Chicago Medical School in April 1990. Part 6 is a short story written by Broyard in 1954 about his father’s death.

Mr. Broyard had long been fascinated with death and dying, before his prostatic cancer, publishing "What the Cystoscope Said" in 1954, some 35 years before his own diagnosis. It is as though he had been preparing for what he knew would be his finest work. Always an engaging essayist and reviewer, Mr. Broyard here offers what he did best--a discursive (in the best sense) soliloquy on disease, suffering, the majesty of the educated, reflective person with illness--all amplified with widely ranging withdrawals from the broad literary bank account one would expect of a professional reader and reviewer: one reads about personal fate vis-à-vis D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love; one reads, as one can read nowhere else, about illness, dying and sexuality and its relevance to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

Part 1, Intoxicated By My Illness, is a personal statement about the effect of this illness on Broyard’s attitude and is rich with his own and others’ literary sense of how he should and did react to it. Part 2, written later than Part 5, deals with literature and illness as opposed to the emphasis on death in Part 5. Within Part 2 are references to Susan Sontag, Norman Cousins and Siegel, among other students of this subject. It is interesting to compare the more powerful and personal and moving appeal of the later writings on illness (Part 2) to the more abstract, critical ruminations on death (Part 5) at a time when, in fact, Part 5 was a literary exercise. Part 2 is written with the pen of the heart.

Part 3 is a wonderful account of Broyard’s first meeting with his personal physician. While Broyard analyzes this man, he reflects on what he would like in his ideal doctor. Part 4 is a brief (7 pages) collection of short diary entries reminiscent of Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings. Part 5 includes essays on death and dying in literature and what these books, e.g., Robert Kastenbaum’s Between Life and Death and David Hendin’s Death as a Fact of Life and Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, have to offer us.

Part 6 is a short story about his father’s death, the son’s sexual escapades and the relationship between the two. Clearly sex, death and their nexus have long been on Broyard’s mind. This is a welcome reflection and is of interest more as it compares to Broyard’s later writings on the subject, especially in Part 2, than for its intrinsic worth as a short story.

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A Blue Ribbon Affair

Selzer, Richard

Last Updated: Aug-28-2006
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Bertie Shields, a second year college student, and Joyce Renfrew, a nurse, are conveying the body of a dead elderly woman to the morgue. After a brief lustful look at Joyce, whose plumpness does not go unnoticed or uncommented upon by either Selzer or Bertie, the latter averts his eyes to the leaner cadaver, going from "pubic woolgathering" to ribbon-spotting; for he notes with increasing meditative pleasure that the corpse is wearing a bright blue ribbon, tied in a small bow and sitting "at the side of her head like a butterfly." (p. 122)

Bertie waxes reflective, wondering who put the ribbon in her hair and when. Joyce, who looks thirty-five to Bertie and who has "heard about" Bertie from "one of the other girls", begins making verbal and then physical advances as they approach the morgue. Just as he has put the unnamed cadaver on her tray and is proleptically about to "slide the tray home," Bertie’s last sight of the cadaver as she is entering "the dark recess" is the "winky blue . . . "--a sight that goes unfinished as he feels Joyce’s hand on his buttocks. The inevitable happens, of course, on the now vacant stretcher.

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The Hasty Heart

Patrick, John

Last Updated: Aug-24-2006
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

Written in 1944 and first staged on January 3, 1945 with Richard Basehart and Anne Burr and Earl Jones as Basuto, The Hasty Heart grew out of the playwright’s experiences in an ambulance unit on the Burma front in World War II. The play was made into a movie in 1949 (with Richard Todd and Ronald Reagan) and was revived on Broadway in 1984.

The Hasty Heart concerns, initially, six characters in a British General Hospital in the rear of the Assam-Burma front: a nurse (Sister Margaret--"Sister" is a British term for a nurse; she is not a religious--and five Allied patients: Kiwi (a New Zealander), Tommy (a Brit), Digger (an Australian), Yank (an American), and Blossom (an indigenous Basuto) who understands and speaks no English, an important fact for later developments in the play.

Patrick introduces us to Sister Margaret and the five original patients who are, for all their good-natured bickering and nationally directed gibes, clearly a cohesive unit characterized by the camaraderie of an in-patient ward with residential patients. For instance, Tommy, who is chronically kidded about his obesity, claims to be proud of it and accuses Digger of being jealous about Sister Margaret’s giving Tommy therapeutic back rubs.

Enter Colonel "Cobwebs," the medical officer. He solicits the group’s help and cooperation in keeping a new patient "contented." It seems the Colonel has just successfully removed a patient’s kidney damaged by shrapnel only to discover that the soldier’s remaining kidney is "defective." The wounded soldier, Lachie, a Scottish Sergeant, will therefore die in only six weeks of uremic poisoning. The Colonel has "decided against telling him" since "[W]orry won’t help him."

The Colonel tells the men and Sister Margaret that "The only help anyone can give him now, [sic] will come from you." When Yank asks, "And he thinks he’s well, sir?" the Colonel replies, "In a sense--he is. But it would be criminal to release him just to collapse up forward. Do what you can to keep him contented--and happy."

With the arrival of Lachie, an incredibly difficult, abrasive and unfriendly Scot with pathological chips on both shoulders, the scene is set for "an archetypal story about friendship under fire." [Mell Gussow as quoted in a 1984 NY Times review in the obituary above, op. cit.] Despite all their earnest attempts at striking up a friendship, the other patients find themselves rebuffed, often quite rudely, by Lachie. Eventually, at the insistent urging of Sister Margaret, they are successful. A birthday gift of a complete Scottish highlander outfit touches Lachie who admits that he’s never had friends and is, to no reader’s deep surprise, a truly lonely man.

Near the end of the play, the Colonel, following orders, tells Lachie his diagnosis and prognosis, and his superiors’ desire for Lachie to return home, despite his wishes to remain with his friends, in order to become a military hero to be honored before his death. Lachie understandably retreats into a shell of resentment, blaming the men for treating him with pity instead of friendship. Eventually things right themselves and the play ends happily.

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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

The unnamed narrator recalls--he hesitates to use "this ghostly verb" (107) in the presence of Funes’s memory, in every sense of the word--the dialogue he had with Funes, a young man from Fray Bentos (in present day Uruguay), "a half century ago," (111) as an invited written dithyramb in his memory.

The narrator’s initial encounter with Funes, a tough living and working on a ranch, was to hear him give the time, in the middle of the afternoon, immediately and accurately as an innate skill. Later, when the narrator inquired what had become of Funes, he was told that the latter "had been thrown by a wild horse at the San Francisco ranch, and that he been hopelessly crippled" (109). It is at this point that the saga of Funes the memorious begins.

When the narrator visits Funes to recover some Latin texts the crippled and housebound Funes had requested, he enters to hear the autodidact Funes reciting from memory the section of Pliny’s Natural History relating to memory. For Funes, with only these texts and a dictionary, has learned Latin and memorized the texts. In fact, Funes, as a result of his injury, has learned to live in the present, a present that "was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories" (112).

His memory is so precise, so individual in detail that he develops a unique numbering system and that "in a very few days he had gone beyond twenty-four thousand" (113). Funes had ascribed to each number from 1 to 24,000 a unique name so that, "In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Perez [italicized in original]; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train [italicized in original]. . . . In lieu of five hundred, he would say nine [italicized in original]" (113). In mathematical terms, Funes had treated each number as a prime, a unique integer without relation to other unique integers.

The narrator points this out to Funes, i.e., that "this rhapsody of unconnected terms was precisely the contrary of a system of enumeration. . . . Funes did not understand me, or did not wish to understand me" (113). [The reader would do well to remember that the Spanish for "rhapsody" is "rapsodia" and thus suggests "rhapsode," a singer of the Homeric poems, poems written by a blind story-teller (like Borges), and poems that required prodigious memories to recite.]

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