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Janet Frame: Autobiography

Frame, Janet

Last Updated: Nov-01-2001
Annotated by:
Sirridge, Marjorie

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

This autobiography by Janet Frame, a preeminent New Zealand writer, was originally published in three volumes in 1982, 1984, and 1985. The first volume is titled To the Is-land. In it the author tells the story of her early life "with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths." She describes her mother as a rememberer and a talker, partly exiled from her family through a marriage outside the family's faith and her father as having a strong sense of formal behavior that did not allow him the luxury of reminiscence. Her siblings (4 sisters and 1 brother) are described in equally perceptive language. The brother suffered from epilepsy which was poorly controlled and this had a strong influence on family dynamics.

Frame's writing is so descriptive and personal that it is easy to envision oneself as a family member. She was very early attracted to words and became a voracious reader. The family was poor and moved often but there was a firm family kinship. One older and one younger sister drowned when swimming which had a large impact and drew Janet much closer to the remaining younger sister. Janet was a good student and won many prizes; she writes that she "identified most easily with the stoical, solitary heroine suffering in silence."

The second volume, An Angel at My Table, concerns itself with Janet's experience as a student at Dunedin (Teacher)Training College and her subsequent breakdown and commitment to mental institutions. She was very lonely in college and retreated more and more into her own world of literature. At the end of her year of probationary teaching she walked out of the room during the visit of the school's inspector and disappeared.

After a suicide attempt she was eventually committed to Seacliff, a mental hospital. Her stay there, she writes, and later in another facility which eventually lasted most of seven years, was in a world she'd never known among people whose existences she never thought possible. She describes it as an intensive course in the horrors of insanity. She received multiple electric shock treatments and was scheduled for a lobotomy when it was learned that she had won a prestigious award for a book she had written.

Frame was discharged on probation and lived for a while in a small cottage owned by a well known writer who befriended her. After her book of prose and poems was accepted for publication she was awarded a grant that allowed her to travel abroad.

The third volume, The Envoy from Mirror City, is quite mystical and concerns itself with her life as a writer in England, Spain, and New Zealand after her return. She describes Mirror City as the saving world which sustains writers. She has continued writing and eventually learned that the diagnosis of schizophrenia, with which she had been burdened, was incorrect. With some life experience and wise psychotherapy she was able to write about her life in the mental institutions, among other things.

In all she has published eleven novels, four collections of short stories, a volume of poetry and a children's book.

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Inside the Halo and Beyond

Kumin, Maxine

Last Updated: Nov-01-2001
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In July 1998 the poet Maxine Kumin was thrown from her carriage when her horse bolted during a competition. The type of cervical (C1-C2) fracture that she sustained is fatal before reaching the hospital in 95% of cases, and if survived, usually results in quadriplegia. This book is a memoir written in the form of a journal that begins on the day of the accident. In fact, it was nearly a month after the accident that the poet's daughter brought writing materials to the rehab hospital, and Maxine began to dictate the journal, and the two of them filled in the temporal gaps.

The journal covers her experience in the acute care hospital, the rehab facility, and the following months of convalescence at home. It ends on April 23, 1999, when Maxine climbs a hill (unassisted) near her Vermont home, looks out over the early spring vista, and concludes, "I am letting myself believe I will heal."

The journal describes the poet's physical, emotional, and spiritual experiences as she struggles, first to survive, and then to live with the "halo vest" that for months she had to wear to stabilize her fractured neck bones, and finally to regain her function and equilibrium. Much of the story is about her family--husband, son, and daughters--who mobilize from various points around the world to support her. Comments about her doctors and the medical care she received constitute only a small, at times almost incidental, part of this narrative.

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Annotated by:
Woodcock, John

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Referring to Francis Bacon's 17th-century definition of modern science as the conquest of nature "for the relief of man's estate," Kass looks with concern at the ironic possibility that future advances in medical science and technology may lead to the significant diminishing of humankind. Thus he asks, what price will we wind up paying for medical progress? Kass is concerned about the disconnect between modern medicine, with its powers to extend our controls over life and death and over many human potentials, and, on the other hand, traditional social and individual values.

He argues particularly for serious consideration of values in three areas: (1) distributive justice (which for Kass is, finally, the question as to who shall do the distributing), (2) the "use and abuse of power" (in which he focuses on the process by which power over nature becomes turned into power of some humans over others), and (3) "voluntary self-degradation and dehumanization" (two major concerns being the concept of the optimum baby and the development of technologies of pleasure).

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Annotated by:
Woodcock, John

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Seeking redemption in the bloody business of surgery, Selzer's narrator tells several medical stories that humbled his surgeon's pride and refers approvingly to an atheist priest in a story by Unamuno who carried on for the sake of his congregation because "their need is greater than his sacrifice." Selzer finally tells us that it is in writing, if anywhere, that the elusive soul can be represented.

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

The Exact Location of the Soul is a collection of 26 essays along with an introduction titled "The Making of a Doctor/Writer." Most of these essays are reprinted from Selzer's earlier books (especially Mortal Lessons and Letters to a Young Doctor). Six pieces are new and include a commentary on the problem of AIDS in Haiti ("A Mask on the Face of Death"), musings on organ donation ("Brain Death: A Hesitation"), a conversation between a mother and son ("Of Nazareth and New Haven"), and the suicide of a college student ("Phantom Vision").

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Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A physician seeks solace at the South Pole. Her planned one year stay there is cut short when she discovers a lump in her breast. The attempts to care for her at the South Pole (with telecommunicated help from the U.S.) prove insufficient and a plan to rescue her is successful.

There's more than the drama of illness in a remote location in this book, however. Intertwined with this story of illness is the story of the author's troubled marriage (to her physician-husband), the eventual estrangement from her children, the support of her family of origin, and most fascinatingly the daily rhythms of living (and doctoring) at the South Pole. Scattered throughout the memoir are occasional critiques of "corporate" medicine and poems that inspired the author throughout her ordeal.

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Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

At the age of 42, Barbara Rosenblum learns, after several misdiagnoses, that she has advanced breast cancer. This book, co-written by Rosenblum, a sociologist, and her lesbian partner, Sandra Butler, a feminist writer and activist, is a record of their lives together from the diagnosis until Rosenblum's death three years later. Early on, Rosenblum decides that her dying will be exemplary and self-conscious, and she and Butler use their writing as a way to create an illuminating examination of their lives over those three years.

The book's title is accurate; the writing takes the form of alternating meditations by two women, on the effects of cancer on their relationship, their work, their families, and their social, political, and spiritual beliefs. Especially significant are the differences between their voices, and the differences between the experience of the person who is dying and that of the person who is going to have to survive and grieve. The writers bravely explore the conflicts between them as well as their profound bonds.

After a mastectomy and eighteen months of chemotherapy, Rosenblum has a very brief respite, followed by liver and lung metastases, and prolonged further chemotherapy. A few months after ending treatment, she dies at home.

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Annotated by:
Woodcock, John

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This essay provides a rich and detailed critique of the medical view of women in 19th-century America. As the keywords suggest, the authors cover many topics. To mention a few: the coming of male dominance in medicine; the patronizing and disabling characterization of women as "weak, dependent, diseased," and naturally patients; S. (Silas) Weir Mitchell and his treatment of Charlotte Perkins Gilman; the social role of female invalidism in upper middle class culture; the "scientific" view of woman as evolutionarily devolved; and what the authors call "the expert-woman relationship."

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

This brief autobiography, written when Schweitzer was mid-50's, summarizes his life and thought up to 1931. He presents illustrative factoids and incidents from his childhood and student years, then briskly covers his development as a minister, philosopher, biblical scholar, musician, and musicologist, all before he reaches Chapter 9 (p. 102), which is entitled, "I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor." He greatly enjoyed his life as a scholar, yet was plagued by "the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it." (p. 103)

He was particularly struck by the fact that so many people in the world were "denied that happiness by their material circumstances or their health." At around this time (1904), Schweitzer came across a publication of the Paris Missionary Society, which described the needs of their Congo mission. This article changed his life. In 1905, at the age of 30, he enrolled in medical school at the University of Strasburg. (Thus, Schweitzer became a forerunner of today's nontraditional applicants who leave other promising careers to enter medicine.)

Schweitzer and his wife began their work at Lambaréné in Gabon, West Africa, in 1913. As a result of the Great War in late 1917, they were sent back to France and detained as enemy aliens until mid-1918. They returned to Lambaréné and rebuilt the hospital in 1924. Between then and 1931 when Out of My Life and Thought was written, Schweitzer devoted most of his time (as he would for the rest of his life) to doctoring at his hospital in Gabon.

This memoir also includes brief intellectual asides describing many of Schweitzer's famous works, such as The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), J. S. Bach (1908), On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1920), Philosophy of Civilization (1923), and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930).

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Manhattan, When I Was Young

Cantwell, Mary

Last Updated: Aug-17-2001
Annotated by:
Dittrich, Lisa

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In the second volume of her trilogy of memoirs (which begins with American Girl and ends with Speaking with Strangers), Mary Cantwell, a former fashion magazine editor and writer, describes her marriage, the birth of her two daughters, her career advancements, and her divorce, with Manhattan in the 1950s as the backdrop.

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