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Ethan Frome

Wharton, Edith

Last Updated: Feb-22-2010
Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novella

Summary:

Sometimes overlooked by those attracted to Wharton's longer, more ironic novels, this novella is one of stark simplicity set against a bleak New England countryside at the beginning of the 20th century. With characteristic economy, Wharton tells a compelling story about the human need for passion and affection in a situation where only abject coldness exists.

Ethan Frome is introduced by the narrator in this way: "It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starksfield, though he was but the ruin of a man" (3). Determined to learn more about Ethan, while temporarily located in an appropriately-named village, the narrator manages to gather pieces of information about the figure who seemed an "incarnation of frozen woe in the melancholy landscape" (11).

The spark of hope that might have led young Ethan toward education and escape expired when care for his chronically-ill mother fell first to him and then to a cousin named Zenobia. Unable to abandon his mother and their needy homestead, he was easily attracted to Zenobia, the kindly young woman who assisted in his mother's care. They married, the mother died, and Zenobia inexplicably assumed a sick-role that would make Ethan's life loveless and tragic. Permanently stuck in Starksfield, his years become emotionally and economically depressed. Barely able to eke out a living hauling lumber and subjected to his bed-ridden wife's petty and constant demands, Ethan's impoverishment seems unending.

Miraculously, a third person, Mattie, enters the narrative. A distant cousin with no resources, she has been summoned by Ethan's increasingly mean-spirited wife to do chores within the house. The scene is set for two lonely and isolated people, despite age differences, to discover small bits of warmth in stolen moments together. Walks through the snow or gentle kindnesses in the dull household routine sustain the otherwise desolate pair of innocent lovers. An unexpected turn of events transforms a hopeless set of circumstances into permanent desolation and trauma. The conclusion is one of unimaginable horror.

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Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

This unusual story, beautiful and overwhelmingly sad, is set in Sicily on the craggy and barren island of Lampadusa surrounded by the bluest of seas. Everyone in the small fishing and canning village may be related; certainly, this is a place where secrets are not possible. Grazia (Varria Golino) appears to be the loveliest and most loving mother and wife, although her carefree, even childlike behavior is foreboding. The camera loves her and so do viewers who are ravished by her beauty and innocence.

With children positioned on the back of her Vespa, she and they escape to a deserted beach where she swims topless with her children; later, she releases hundreds of howling stray dogs from their inhumane confinement. Not surprisingly, spied-upon actions such as these produce critical response from more conservative neighbors whose norms are less capricious.

When signs of instability and manic depression become apparent, the community joins together to suggest hospitalization to her very supportive and heart-broken husband (Vincenzo Amato). She, like the caged-up dogs, seems to deserve the kind of freedom epitomized by her trips to the beach and will not, we sense, survive medical "imprisonment."

At this juncture, just as her wings are to be clipped, the story’s unexpected turn forces the mourning village to wonder about human frailty and reality. The ending, ultimately unclear and haunting, is a celebration of imaginative madness and ephemeral beauty. Visually stunning.

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Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

The story is based on an actual 1950's trip by two university friends, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna). Guevara is studying medicine, Granado biochemistry. They plan to travel from Buenos Aires across the Andes Mountains to Chile, Peru, and, then, to Venezuela. Before too many miles their derelict 1939 motorcycle fails, and the two young men continue by whatever means is available. The journey intent is one of adventure--drinking, meeting women, seeing the world.

The young men do discover South America's impressive natural beauty but more strikingly, their eyes and sensibilities are directed to abject poverty and shocking injustices. These blatant inequities, as well as an extended period of time in a leper colony, contribute to the reframing of their original happy-go-lucky adventure and explain, in part, the impulses that eventually would shape Guevara's role in the Cuban Revolution.

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Leaning Together in the Storm

Smith, Larry

Last Updated: Feb-22-2010
Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

Summary: This very welcome poem concerns "twelve older men in shirt sleeves," a group of men with prostate cancer. The narrator, one of the men in this "private brotherhood" suggests the difficulty and reluctance of many men to recognize out-loud their mutual circumstances: "Ever notice how no one parks / in the Cancer Center zone." This line sets the tone; the men are vulnerable and afraid. From time to time they gather for support from one another and from the meeting's scheduled speaker. The reader has little difficulty imagining the collective angst and the grasping of hope shared by the participants leaning together in their mutual storm.

Any expectation of supportive discourse is shattered by this evening's guest speaker, a careless surgeon, who strides confidently into the room with his tray of slides. The remainder of the poem demonstrates a worst-case scenario:

I interrupt his gay delivery,
"What about orgasm...?"
"Forget orgasm," he grins,
"You don't have a prostate."

Some smile nervously and bravely ask questions that really matter. Each time the physician exhibits his caustic brand of insensitivity. The narrator, surely expressing the feelings of his colleagues, wants only to "drive / this witch doctor from the room."

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The Incalculable Life Gesture

Lasdun, James

Last Updated: Feb-16-2010
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Richard Timmerman doesn't see eye-to-eye with his sister, Ellen. After their parents die, the siblings inherit the house. Richard wants to sell his share of it, but Ellen won't budge. She and her son continue to live in the home. As an elementary school principal in upstate New York, Richard already has a lot on his mind.

He notices a swelling under his chin. Three weeks later, the lump is still there. He visits Dr. Taubman, but the family physician is uncertain of the diagnosis. It might be a benign enlarged lymph node but a lymphoma cannot be ruled out. Richard focuses only on the possibility of cancer. A CAT scan is scheduled along with a referral to an ENT specialist for a biopsy.

Richard questions the radiologist supervising the scan about the results. She will not tell him. He suspects that she is holding back the truth. He next sees Dr. Jameson, the ENT specialist. The young physician examines Richard and then reviews Richard's CAT scan. The doctor's verdict is a salivary gland stone (sialolithiasis) that will likely pass on its own.

At first, Richard is angry with his family physician for not making the correct diagnosis. Soon his irritation gives way to relief. Richard has received a medical reprieve. There is no lymphoma. No treatment is necessary. Life is suddenly glorious. Richard's joy is transient. He telephones his sister to announce the good news and to patch things up with her. Ellen is unimpressed by Richard's recent scare and his magnanimity. The phone call leaves Richard uncertain and fearful about his future.

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Because of Anya

Haddix, Margaret Peterson

Last Updated: Feb-12-2010
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel for Young Adults

Summary:

Keely, whose three "best friends" are a dominant clique in their class, notices that a classmate, Anya, appears to be wearing a wig. The girls confer about it at lunchtime, wonder whether to ask about it, and theorize that she may have cancer and be undergoing chemotherapy. Stef, long the most aggressive among the four friends, suggests that Keely talk with Anya and find a way to determine whether it is a wig, but Keely refuses, recognizing in Anya, whom she rarely notices, a quality of loneliness she hadn’t seen before.

Their curiosity is satisfied when Anya’s wig comes off during a gym exercise and she runs out and remains absent for several days. Keely decides to visit Anya and learns that she has a rare disease, alopecia areata, which is painless and otherwise harmless, but causes hair to fall out, sometimes all over the body. When she asks if she can help, Anya replies, "Not unless you want to give me your hair."

Keely researches the disease for class and finds that there is a foundation that collects long hair for wigs for patients suffering from Anya’s condition, so she cuts off her own long hair and encourages classmates to do the same in a gesture of solidarity with Anya, in the process defining a new independence from the clique of friends who have too long shaped and confined her judgments of others.

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The Resurrectionist

McCann, Richard

Last Updated: Feb-12-2010
Annotated by:
Garden, Rebecca

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

McCann’s essay is an account of his experience of liver transplantation. It describes his physical and psychic experience of liver failure while waiting on the list for an available organ, his experience in the hospital when the procedure was done, and the aftermath, in which he makes conceptual and emotional adjustments.

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Souls Raised from the Dead

Betts, Doris

Last Updated: Feb-12-2010
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This story details several months in the life of a thirteen-year-old with incurable kidney disease and of her extended family--the policeman father who has cared for her since her mother ran off, the mother who reappears in time to learn she is the most likely donor, two sets of grandparents and several of the father's close friends. Two women in the father's life find their romantic attachments to him complicated by his role as his daughter's caretaker.

As Mary Grace's health deteriorates, her maturing accelerates. Each of the principal characters has to come to terms not only with impending loss, but with how this crisis reconfigures old patterns of family conflict and dependency. The story continues after her death as focus shifts to the father's grief, mourning, and new empathy with victims of accident and loss.

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The Distinguished Guest

Miller, Sue

Last Updated: Feb-12-2010
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

At the age of 72, Lily Maynard finds herself suddenly famous for a memoir she has published about the disintegration of her marriage years before at the height of the civil rights movement, the women's movements, and the religious shifts of the 1960's. The book brings two young women into her life: one a journalist who wants to do a story on her, the other an African-American historian who takes an interest in the connections between her personal history and the pressures of the civil rights conflicts.

Simultaneous with her cresting notoriety is an exacerbation of the Parkinson's disease which makes it necessary for Lily to move in temporarily with her son and his wife while awaiting a place in a retirement home. Half her face is paralyzed; she has difficulty feeding herself; and her extreme fatigue makes it hard to conduct interviews without dissolving into a fog of incommunicable feeling.

Each of the younger people involved in her life is driven to come to terms with his or her own life in new ways, especially her son, who finds complex feelings surfacing after years of emotional estrangement. Ultimately, her story told, Lily quietly exits the family before relocation to a home by committing suicide with an overdose of medication. In the aftermath Alan's grief gives him a new understanding of his mother's life and his own.

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Sugar Isn't Everything

Roberts, Willo Davis

Last Updated: Feb-12-2010
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel for Young Adults

Summary:

Eleven-year-old Amy has been hiding cookies beneath her bed, drinking gallons of liquid to slake her thirst, getting headaches, feeling irritable, and failing to grow though she's been eating huge meals for months by the time she faints and is taken to the hospital. There she is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Though she feels disoriented and angry, she is immediately put into a training group with other kids around her age who have been recently diagnosed.

She has to learn how to maintain a carefully balanced diet and how to give herself insulin injections. The male nurse who teaches them is himself a diabetic as well as a competent, cheerful young man who takes the edge off the experience. He makes it clear to Amy and the others that the primary responsibility for their health maintenance routines lies with them personally.

After release from the hospital, Amy begins to deal with the social adjustments her disease demands. Her brother and parents are helpful, but uncertain about how much to change their own eating habits to accommodate her. Her younger sister finds the accommodations trying and unfair. Amy's friends also have learning to do.

It helps her that she knows a few other diabetic kids, including Coby, a boy who has struggled with his own resentment and the consequences of sloppy monitoring of his condition, but has learned how to control his diet for the sake of staying on the baseball team where he's a star player. Their friendship helps Amy transition into "normal" life hopefully.

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