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The Heavenly Ladder is physician-poet Jack Coulehan's most recent chapbook, bringing together 48 poems, many of which have been published individually in various medical journals and literary magazines. The collection is divided into four sections.
Poems in the first section, "Medicine Stone," are written in the voice of patients or in the voice of the physician who treats them. The second section, "So Many Remedies," consists of five poems inspired by physician-author Chekhov. The poems of "The Illuminated Text" section reflect a wide-ranging interest in people who lived in distant times or in distant places. The final section, "Don't Be Afraid, Gringo," stays, for the most part, closer to home and includes a number of poems addressed to, or about, family members.
The story begins in New York as a young immigrant Scandinavian woman gives birth to a daughter: "She entered, as Venus from the sea, dripping. The air enclosed her, she felt it all over her, touching, waking her." The time is at the turn of the 20th century, the baby's name is Flossie, and she is the second child of Joe and Gurlie Stecher. Joe is a printer, who takes great pride in his craftsmanship. He had once been a union activist, but became disillusioned with union corruption and now works as a shop foreman. Gurlie's driving ambition is for she and her husband to strike it rich and make their mark in this new land, where the streets are paved in gold (for some people).
Flossie turns out to be a sickly baby. At first, she won't nurse at all and almost dies of malnutrition and infection. Later, she remains so scrawny that a doctor claims the only way to save her life is to take her to live in the country. Thus, Gurlie and her two children travel to upstate New York for the summer, where they board with an aged Norwegian couple. While there, the baby begins to thrive, and so does Gurlie, who had spent her early childhood on a farm in Scandinavia.
Soon after Flossie's birth, the printers' union calls a strike. Joe successfully holds the line and keeps the shop running, but his grateful employers are not grateful enough even to give him a raise. Toward the end of the book, he negotiates with another businessman to obtain the wherewithal to start his own printing company.
In this collection Richard Selzer brings together 25 stories from his previous books, along with two new stories, Avalanche (see this database) and "Angel, Tuning a Lute." The unifying theme is the world of medicine and healing, which Selzer explores with a keen eye and compassionate heart. These stories are firmly grounded in the foibles, suffering, and exultation of the human body.
In the Introduction Selzer sketches the path by which he became a surgeon-writer and he indicates the origin of some of the stories. Particularly interesting are the stories that do homage to literary and historical figures; for example, "Poe's Light-house," which grew out of a fragment Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his last delirium, and "The Black Swan," a re-writing of a Thomas Mann novella (Mann's The Black Swan is annotated in this database).
Likewise, the story of how "Avalanche" was written is an interesting tale in itself. Selzer's description of pruning the story from his journal reminds me of Michelangelo's comment that the sculpture already exists in the block of marble. The sculptor merely removes the unnecessary stone. The Doctor Stories contains many of Selzer's tales that have become part of the Literature and Medicine canon; these include, for example, "Tube Feeding," "Sarcophagus," Imelda, Mercy, Brute, and Four Appointments with the Discus Thrower. (See this database for annotations of the latter four.)
Molly Lane, restaurant critic and photographer, has died of a progressive neurological disease. She is survived by George, her husband, as well as by several past lovers, including Clive Linley, a famous composer, his old friend Vernon Halliday, editor of a London newspaper, and Julian Garmony, the British foreign secretary, rumored to be headed for Downing Street. After Molly's funeral, both Clive and Vernon experience odd neurological symptoms and make a mutual pact to help each other commit suicide in order to end suffering. The symptoms appear in both cases to have been psychosomatic, but the pact remains.
George has found career-destroying photographs of Julian Garmony (in drag) among Molly's things, and he gives them to Vernon for the newspaper. Vernon and Clive quarrel over the ethics of a decision each has made: Vernon's decision to publish the pictures, and over Clive's decision not to intervene when, while working on a crucial melody for his symphony during a walk in the country, he sees a woman being attacked by a man who turns out to be a serial rapist. When Vernon is fired and Clive's symphony is a failure, each blames the other and the suicide pact becomes a means of mutual revenge.
A subtext has been a running storyline in Vernon's paper about rumored abuse of the Netherlands's liberal euthanasia laws; the novel ends in Amsterdam, each man involuntarily euthanized by a physician paid by his friend. (Meantime, Garmony's career is in ruins. George has successfully destroyed all three of his wife's lovers.)
In this collection of 11 short stories, pediatrician-author Perri Klass primarily explores the world of women and their multiple and complex roles as mother, mother-to-be, friend, spouse, lover and professional. Parenthood--its glories, heartaches, tensions and mysteries--plays a prominent role in many of the stories. There is also a close look at woman-woman friendship--at what women say to their best friends and the nuances of the emotional responses to what is said or left unsaid.
Several stories feature single mothers: "For Women Everywhere" (a woman is helped through labor by her best friend), "Rainbow Mama" (a woman cares for her son during his diagnosis and initial treatment of leukemia), and "City Sidewalks" (a woman finds a baby on the sidewalk on Christmas Eve as she rushes to pick up her child from day care).
"In Necessary Risks," an anesthesiologist deals with work and her high energy preschool daughter while husband and easy-to-raise son head out to a dude ranch. In "The Trouble with Sophie," another high energy, dominant daughter wreaks havoc in kindergarten as well as with her concerned parents. In addition to the anesthesiologist, two other physician-mothers are featured in "Freedom Fighter" and "Love and Modern Medicine."
Parenting a newborn whilst handling other tasks is a theme featured in "Intimacy" (a high school biology teacher celebrates her first night of uninterrupted sleep as she both enjoys and envies her single friend's sex life) and in "Dedication" (a writer takes his stepson to a chess tournament while his biologist wife and newborn enjoy breastfeeding at home). Woman friendships are prominent in "For Women Everywhere," "Freedom Fighter," and "The Province of the Bearded Fathers." Grief and sudden infant death syndrome are themes of "Love and Modern Medicine."
The narrator, Latimer, begins the story with a vision of his death, which he attributes to a heart attack. He explains that, always sensitive after a childhood eye affliction and his mother's death, the further shock of a "severe illness" while at school in Geneva enabled him to see the future, and to hear others' thoughts--an experience which he describes as oppressive. He is fascinated by his brother's fiancée, Bertha, the only human whose thoughts are hidden from him, and whom he marries after his brother dies in a fall.
The marriage falters after Latimer eventually discerns Bertha's cold and manipulative nature through a temporary increase in his telepathy. When Latimer's childhood friend, the scientist Charles Meunier, performs an experimental transfusion between himself and Bertha's just-dead maid, the maid briefly revives and accuses Bertha of plotting to poison Latimer. Bertha moves out, and Latimer dies as foretold.
In the "free love" context of the nineteen-sixties, Harriet and David Lovatt are throwbacks to a more conservative, traditional, and family-oriented decade. Their life dream is to have a big house in the country filled with children, and it seems that they will succeed. After bearing four young children, however, Harriet is feeling the strain of years of childbearing, sleeplessness, money trouble, and her parents' and in-laws' disapproval of her fecundity.
Her fifth pregnancy is not only unplanned, but also unusually painful and disruptive. Harriet's doctor prescribes sedatives but finds nothing abnormal in her situation. When Ben is born, Harriet jokes that he is like "a troll or a goblin," but no one responds well to this unusually hairy and physically vigorous baby, who in turn does not respond to anything but his own desires and fears.
As he grows older, family pets and other children seem to be in physical danger. Health care professionals do not confirm the couple's conviction that Ben is not normal, but neither do they obstruct the decision to send Ben to a private institution, a removal that leaves the family temporarily happy until Harriet visits Ben and recognizes the institution for what it is, a place where all manner of "different" children are sent to live heavily medicated, physically restrained, and foreshortened lives away from families who do not want them.
Harriet brings Ben home, where he grows up amid what remains of the Lovatts' domestic fantasy, and finds community in a gang of thuggish older boys whom Harriet suspects are involved in various criminal acts. As the story closes, Ben has left home and Harriet imagines him in another country, "searching the faces in the crowd for another of his own kind" (133).
A physician is summoned to make a housecall on a family with whom he has had no prior contact. He quickly sizes up the situation: the household is poor but clean; the patient is a female child whose parents are nervously concerned, dependent on, yet distrustful of the doctor. The child's beauty and penetrating stare make an immediate impression on him.
Concerned that diphtheria may be the cause of illness, he uses his customary professional manner to determine whether or not the child has a sore throat. But the child will have none of it and "clawed instinctively for my eyes." The attempt at an examination rapidly escalates into a physical "battle" as the physician, convinced that it is crucial to see the child's throat "and feeling that I must get a diagnosis now or never," becomes ever more enraged and forceful while the girl continues to resist with all her strength, and the parents are in an agony of fear for her health and embarrassment over her behavior.
This is no longer a professional encounter. The doctor admits at the beginning of the struggle to having "fallen in love with the savage brat" and recognizes that he is behaving irrationally. The closing sequence could as easily be depicting a rape as a forced throat examination.
Philip Carey, the central character of this early 20th century Bildungsroman, is both an orphan and afflicted with a club foot. He is sent at age nine, after the death of his mother, to live with a childless uncle--a deeply religious Vicar--and his submissive aunt. They have no idea how to be parents, so send Philip away to a boys' boarding school where the child begins to learn what it means to be less than physically "perfect." The remainder of Philip's development is cast in this light.
He roams about looking for himself and his place--to Germany to learn languages, to London to learn a trade, to Paris to study art, and finally, as a last resort, a default decision to follow in the steps of his father the physician. A major part of Philip's maturation is based in making decisions about women and about sensual love. The most painful portions of his story are those that evolve around his stumbling and frequently failed attempts to find security in his personal relationships.
The story begins in London as Lilia, the young widow of Charles Herriton departs for an extended tour of Italy, taking with her a companion (Caroline Abbott), who is supposed to keep her our of trouble. Lilia leaves her 8-year-old daughter Irma home with the Herritons. The Herritons are a snobbish upper middle class family ruled by an iron-willed matriarch, who has never approved of her daughter-in-law's unassuming and spontaneous nature.
The trouble begins when word arrives from the small town of Monteriano that Lilia has gotten engaged to an Italian man. Mrs. Herriton sends her son Philip to buy off the "wretched Italian" and bring Lilia home. But he arrives too late. The 32-year-old Lilia has already married Gino Carella, who is the unemployed son of a dentist and a decade younger than she is. Gino is charming and seems guileless, although he has no intention of adopting an English attitude toward marriage. Indeed, he has married Lilia for her money and expects her to become a proper Italian wife.
Later, Lilia dies in childbirth, but the baby survives. At first the Herritons intend to sever contact and not acknowledge the child. However, nudged by Miss Abbott, the unsuccessful chaperone, they decide to "save" the child from becoming an Italian. Once again, Philip goes to Italy to buy off Gino and bring the boy to England. Once again, he fails.
But this time, his aggressive sister Harriet intervenes; when all else fails, she steals the baby. Unfortunately, a mishap occurs, and the baby dies. Meanwhile, Philip has fallen in love with Miss Abbott who, in turn, has fallen for the recently remarried Gino. In the end it looks like Phillip and Miss Abbott will become "just good friends."