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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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Secret Numbers

Morris, Winifred

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

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story for Young Adults

Summary:

The narrator, who has been a counselor at a summer camp, brings a friend home to meet her computer-wizard older brother, Eric, but finds him acting very strange--overprotective, defensive, and aggressive. Later his inexplicable behavior shows up at the dinner table. He is unreceptive to parents' inquiries. Readers learn some of the delusional thoughts from italicized passages interspersed with the narrative of a family recognizing mental illness and making treatment decisions.

Eric is hospitalized after an episode in which he threatens the family with a kitchen knife. He is released on medication in a matter of weeks, but continues to behave strangely if not dangerously--he asks his sister at one point if she knows any "secret numbers"--and she realizes his new condition is not simply going to go away, but has opened a whole new chapter in family life and requires new and careful adaptations.

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Summary:

This anthology is part of an emerging literature of HIV/AIDS in Africa. It offers individual stories about the impact of HIV/AIDS in Africa as a means of countering the mind-numbing statistics on infections and deaths. As the literature of the AIDS crisis in the United States in the 1980s and 90s brought to the general public the subjective experience of HIV/AIDS and thus strengthened the socio-political will to combat the virus, so this emerging literature of AIDS in Africa will deepen awareness about the crisis, engender sympathy for the individuals who suffer from it, and ideally help to shape an effective response to alleviate the devastation being wreaked by this epidemic.

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Alice in Bed

Sontag, Susan

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

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

This play in eight scenes presents the fictionalized character of Alice James, sister of Henry and William James, who after a sickly childhood, succumbed at 19 to a variety of vague and recurrent illnesses that made her a lifetime invalid. She died at 43 of breast cancer.

In a series of encounters (with her nurse; her father; her brother, Henry; several Victorian female figures: Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, and mythological figures from Victorian fantasy fiction and from Parsifal; and a burglar), as well as a long dramatic monologue, her various forms of internal conflict are hilariously and poignantly articulated. They converge on the implications of her recurrently deciding whether or not to get out of bed and do something, and her confusion, often discussed by biographers and critics, about her place in her brilliant family, her vocation as a woman, and her own desires.

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The Gift Nobody Wants

Brand, Paul

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

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

Dr. Paul Brand, who grew up son of English missionaries to South India, achieved world renown for his research on leprosy and related research on the dynamics of pain. This book, one of several of his reflections on physiology, combines autobiography, stories of research, and reflections on pain and pain management. The three topics roughly correspond to three discrete sections.

It opens with a story of the early death of a child with a rare neurological dysfunction that made her insensitive to pain. Brand's long work with victims of leprosy in India and then in Carville, Louisiana, gave him wide exposure to the consequences of life without adequate pain. Having spent 27 years in India, 25 years in England, and 27 years in the U.S. before writing this retrospective, many of his reflections include observations about cultural variables in perception of pain, how pain is communicated and managed, and how people deal philosophically with the problem of pain.

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Richard (Kenneth Branagh) is assigned alternative service as a consequence of a misdemeanor. A social worker connects him with the mother of a young woman, Jane (Helena Bonham Carter), who is suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Feeling reluctant and unequipped for such responsibility, he starts taking her on tame outings suggested by her mother. Initially she is hostile and resistant; gradually he gives way to her insistence on unpermitted activities: he takes her on a carnival ride, drives her around in his jeep, makes her dinner at his shabby rural cottage, about all of which the mother remains clueless.

Jane acknowledges that he is the only one who treats her like an adult. In a rare moment of vulnerability, she asks him to help her lose her virginity, not necessarily to "do the awful deed" himself, but to help her hire or find someone who will give her an experience of sex before she gets to the point where it’s impossible. He refuses, she won’t see him, and for a time her mother tries to find another caregiver--a hopeless failure--a woman who talks down to her.

Richard attempts other community service and runs into comic difficulties attempting to help old women, clean toilets, and finally retreats to his outpost where he is building a plane out of scrap metal and junk in a barn. He’s insolvent, but determined to carry through his project, if only, like the Wright brothers, to keep it aloft for 12 seconds. His landlord announces that he’s selling the place and Richard and his airplane will have to clear out within a month. This impels him to try his biplane.

In the meantime, Jane searches internet dating agencies, advertising herself as a "hideously crippled woman" seeking sex, but gives it up. Missing her, Richard finally comes to her home and consents to take her to "get shagged" if she won’t blame him for any of the consequences. They go to London and seek agencies for the disabled that are willing to help her experience sex. The only positive response she encounters is at a nightclub specially for the disabled. She’s horrified.

They go upscale, to a hotel where "gigolos" might be available. Richard hilariously serves as her go-between. He finds one who, alas, charges 2000 pounds. Finally she says, "Okay, then, you’ll have to do it, Richard." This brings him to acknowledge that he’s "a cripple," meaning that he’s been impotent for some time. Instead of offering her himself, he offers to rob a bank. He doesn’t, however, go through with the robbery, but returns to take Jane home with him where she remains as she’s dying.

Ultimately, Jane and Richard both discover that love and friendship are what matter. He takes her up for the one flight his plane is capable of: a few glorious minutes over the sheepfields. The experience caps her life and seems to promise a beginning of his. She tells him, "You have a future, Richard. Either take it or switch bodies with me." She leaves him a final message on the voice machine which is the only way she can communicate, encouraging him to claim his life, and reflecting, "The only life you can have is the one that is available to you."

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Madness

Hornbacher, Marya

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

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This memoir of a lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder, complicated by eating disorders and alcoholism, records the internal experiences of mania, confusion, depression, delusion, anxiety, terror, wild impatience, discouragement, and at times clarity and resolve that alternate in her life of recurrent struggle.  Diagnosed somewhat belatedly as rapid cycling type 1 bipolar disorder, her disease drove her to one disastrous coping strategy after another until she was hospitalized for her eating disorder and for cutting herself.  After years of intermittent hospitalizations and encounters with several incompetent psychiatrists as well as a few who were consistently helpful, she has come to understand exactly the kind of help she needs-at times trusting others' assessments of her condition more than her own, accepting supervision, abstaining from all alcohol-a critical factor in avoiding psychosis.

Her doctors continue to recalibrate her complicated drug therapies, and her moods and control remain precarious, but she has learned to live with a disease that seems still to be poorly understood, accept the limits it imposes, and handle it with intelligence, humility, and even at times a wry note of humor.  She has learned to accept help from the husband whose love survives recurrent unintentional abuse, and from parents and friends who remain supportive.  She ends the memoir on this note of acceptance, appending to it a list of facts and statistics about bipolar disorder designed to help situate it for the reader relative to other diseases and disorders.

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The Great Mysterious

Landvik, Lorna

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

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Geneva Jordan, a successful stage actress in New York, reluctantly agrees to stay for a month with her thirteen-year-old nephew who has Down syndrome so that his parents can take a long-postponed and much-needed vacation. She is unmarried and has no children herself, has always found herself a little intimidated about close interaction with the boy, and leads a complicated personal and professional life in New York which the requisite month in Minnesota will interrupt.

Nevertheless, she takes on the job and gradually finds herself adapting to rural life, substitute parenthood, and the special needs of her nephew. She makes friends with the mother of Rich's best (and only real) friend, Conrad, who has cerebral palsy. After the month is over, she returns to New York, only to realize that her life lacks a dimension that caregiving gave it.

She also realizes she left a good man behind in Minnesota--a local divorced father who has become an unsought love interest. Nevertheless, she remains on stage and in the city until the death of her nephew's friend calls her back to Minnesota, and to the man with whom she can finally imagine taking on a family life of her own.

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The Woman Who Can't Forget

Price, Jill

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

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This memoir, written with the help of Bart Davis, was published two years after the publication of a study that documented Price's "hyperthymestic syndrome"--the exceptional comprehensive memory of the details of daily life that dates back to her early adolescence.  Price tells of the relief and fascination she felt in working with researchers at U.C. Irvine to arrive at a diagnosis of her rare, and in some ways unprecedented, condition.  The narrative includes both her own account of the testing she underwent for purposes of diagnosis and brain mapping, and her story of growing up with an exceptional, and in some ways burdensome capacity to remember with detailed accuracy everything that happened, by date, including vivid replication of the emotions and sense experiences of the remembered moment.  Her story includes a particularly thoughtful chapter on losing her husband suddenly and the role of memory in mourning.

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