Showing 61 - 70 of 121 annotations contributed by Shafer, Audrey

Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Collection (Mixed Genres)

Summary:

This collection of nonfiction writings by fiction author Amy Tan includes multiple genres: essay, email, responses to journalist's questions, eulogy, love poem, university presentations, travel journal entries, and a commencement speech. Hence Tan terms the work "musings." Consonant with the multiple genres are multiple topics, ranging from memoirs of childhood and young adulthood, writing tips, fun portraying a dominatrix in a writers' rock-n-roll band, work on the film version of The Joy Luck Club, and past and present tragedies and struggles.

Much of the book, however, centers on medically-related themes. Prominent themes are: her diagnosis of neuroborreliosis--a form of late-stage Lyme disease--detailed in the final essay entitled "The Opposite of Fate"; her traumas such as the torture and murder of her best friend; the death of her father and brother from brain tumors; a car and a skiing accident; the cancer death of her editor and, woven throughout, the complicated psyche of her mother, Daisy Tan.

Daisy's extreme emotions ruled the family, and her behaviors, such as threatening not only suicide but also murder (she held a knife to Amy's throat), caused profound responses in her daughter. Probably one of the most adaptive responses was Amy Tan's use of their complex relationship in developing the nuanced mother-daughter relationships that characterize her fiction. Daisy's decline and death from Alzheimer's disease are also detailed here.

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Collection (Essays)

Summary:

This erudite collection of twelve essays by a physician-scientist weaves allegory, myth, clinical experience, science, and western history and religion (particularly Catholicism) with ruminations on the meaning of medicine and health. The author is the chair of the Department of Medicine at Jagiellonian University School of Medicine in Cracow, Poland – a university founded in 1364 and which counts Copernicus and Pope John Paul II as alumni. Hence it is with this sense of history that the author addresses such topics as cardiology, pain and its relief, genomics, critical care, infectious disease, health care financing. For instance, in Chapter VII “A Purifying Power” Szczeklik traces the word “katharsis” (the title of the book in the original Polish) to the Greek chorus, Pythagoras and Aristotle, then explores the interplay between music and medicine.

Some of the memorable clinical tales are of the reanimation of a frozen man and the resuscitation of a man who drags himself to the newly opened critical care unit and then very cooperatively codes. The narratives about research, such as the self-experimentation with prostacyclin just after its discovery in the 1970s, are also riveting.

The scope includes the realms of science and religion. For instance, Szczeklik mentions both the Papal Academy of Sciences session on evolution (Pope John Paul II: “The scientific theory of evolution is not at odds with any truth of the Christian faith.” p. 128) as well as religious overtones to metaphoric declarations about the power of the genome (“the language of God” p. 125).

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Robert Coles, Teacher

Goodman, Barak

Last Updated: Sep-07-2006
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Video

Summary:

This video depicts Robert Coles, noted author, psychiatrist, documentator and humanist, teaching his popular undergraduate course, "The Literature of Social Reflection," at Harvard University in 1990. The film begins with a bell tolling in a steeple and students entering the lecture hall. Excerpts from his lectures are presented in 4 parts: I: Ruby; II: Seeing--The Paintings of Edward Hopper and The Stories of Raymond Carver; III: Praying; and IV: Potato Chips and Tolstoy.

Some additional documentary clips are shown, such as footage of six-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted into a previously all-white New Orleans school amidst a screaming mob during forced integration of schools. In between segments, brief interviews of Coles’ students let the viewer know that his message is getting through: it matters how you live your life--it matters a great deal.

Coles teaches with stories and these stories are riveting. In 1960, while in the Air Force and assigned to a psychiatric detail, he befriends young Ruby after he witnesses her courage in entering the school building. He comes to know her family and teacher.

Several months later, during the morning escort, Ruby stops in front of the school and says something which makes the mob even more frenzied. Coles is asked by the teacher to tell Ruby not to do that again. Upon gentle questioning, it turns out that Ruby was not talking to the mob, but to God: "Please God, try to forgive those people because they don’t know what they’re doing."

It was a prayer she said every morning, usually a couple of blocks away from the school, but that morning she had forgotten to do it earlier. Coles discusses the remarkable gift of forgiveness instilled in this brave child by her parents, who despite poverty and lack of opportunity to advance in life, were able to love and teach their children values and grace.

In Part II, Coles uses paintings by Edward Hopper, a poem by Raymond Carver ("What the Doctor Said" (annotated by Felice Aull and Irene Chen, also annotated by James Terry) and Carver short story (Cathedral) to illustrate how difficult it can be to truly communicate with and know another person. And how magical the moments are when we do.

In Part III, Coles shows some of the children’s drawings that he has collected during his documentary work. Coles delights in describing what the children said about their drawings at the time they created them. He clearly respects them and their ideas.

The last part ends with the story of the death of Coles’s mother at Massachusetts General Hospital. In her dying days she befriended an African-American woman, whose job was at the bottom of the hierarchy of the hospital: an orderly. After Coles’s mother died, it was this woman--not any doctor or nurse--who taught Coles how to take the time and be with his mother, rather than rush off as he was preparing to do. Coles asks, "Who was the doctor, the healer, the wise person?"

He notes that these twists are characteristic of many stories, such as those by Flannery O’Connor. He then concludes before a standing ovation: "Let us be good to one another, live on behalf of one another . . . . We are lucky to have these writers . . . and to have the lives that can include them."

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Journal

Summary:

Anne Lamott, a writer, recovered alcoholic, former addict and impassioned Republican-hater, finds herself pregnant in her mid-thirties, and decides to have the baby. This journal is a chronicle of her son Sam’s first year. She is fiercely self-deprecatory and funny and unafraid to talk about the dark side of parenting an infant: the fear, exhaustion, anger, emotional swings; that 4 a.m. inability to cope with the crying neediness of the baby.

She is a single parent barely able to pay the bills, but she has a tremendous support network of family, friends, and the people of her church--all of whom clearly love Sam and love her. And then, when Sam is 7 months old, crawling "like a Komodo dragon," the author’s best friend Pammy is diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. The author, who discovers the depth and resonance of love because of the gift of Sam, must now learn loss. She questions her faith, which she cannot justify on a cerebral level, but still hopes that God loves and guides her the way a parent loves and guides a child.

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Medicine: The Art of Healing

Nuland, Sherwin

Last Updated: Sep-01-2006
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Art with Commentary

Summary:

The author selected 48 works of art, famous and obscure, which are presented in chronological order as full-page color plates. On the facing page of each piece is a brief essay which includes information such as artist, date and current location of the work. The essays, as well as the introduction by the author, are insightful, well-written, and demonstrate the author’s vast knowledge as a medical historian. Selections include the "Oath of Hippocrates", Studies of the Fetus by da Vinci, The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt, The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra by Velazquez, "Muscle-Man from Vesalius" by van Calcar, and First Operation Under Ether by Hinckley (see art annotation in this database).

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Holiday

Porter, Katherine Anne

Last Updated: Aug-29-2006
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

The narrator needs a break from her unnamed troubles, so, on the recommendation of a friend, travels to a Texas farm to live with a German-American family for the month of March. The Muller extended family members are hard-working folk, at times gruff and laconic, but who clearly care for and love one another. The narrator is intrigued by the servant girl, Ottilie, who although disabled, disfigured and mute, cooks and serves meals for the twenty members of the household.

Ottilie later shows the narrator a photograph from her childhood, and the narrator (and reader) is startled to find out that not only was Ottilie a normal child, but she is also the eldest daughter of the matriarch and patriarch. Many of life’s milestones are encapsulated in the month, including a wedding, a birth, a natural disaster, and finally the death of Mother Muller. The family continues to ignore Ottilie and her suffering; in the end, only the narrator reaches out to aid Ottilie in her grief.

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Horizontal Woman

Berger, Suzanne

Last Updated: Aug-29-2006
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

This book is an autobiographical account of an abrupt and painful injury that completely transforms the author’s life. Berger in 1985 was a healthy woman who enjoyed ice skating and canoeing, a published poet, wife, and mother of a toddler. She bent over one day to pick up her daughter and felt a tearing "within the thickness of flesh, moving in seconds across the base of the spine." No longer able to run, walk, or even sit, she is forced into a life spent lying down.

Hers is now a world of boundaries and barriers--physical, psychological, and societal. The book chronicles her struggle to parent her child (they make gingerbread creatures lying down on the kitchen floor), to relate to her husband (she has to deal with the constant feeling of being the recipient of his care), to live with pain, and to regain her mobility.

Because hers is not a visible injury and because she must frequently lie down in public places or use her carry-along lawn chair, she suffers the stares and scrutiny of people who cannot pigeon-hole her into a tidy handicapped-wheelchair category. After seven years of physical therapy (she calls her therapists "angels of attempted repair ") she is able to walk and drive, though she is still limited in activity and lives in fear of re-injury.

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Hard Laughter

Lamott, Anne

Last Updated: Aug-23-2006
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The narrator, Jennifer, is a young, eccentric, struggling writer who lives in a small northern California coastal town full of even more eccentric individuals. Her father, Wallace, a kind and generous intellectual, is diagnosed with a brain tumor and has to undergo surgery and postoperative radiation therapy. It is a story of a family dealing with the rage, grief, anxiety and sudden changes in everyone’s lives when a family member has a serious illness. This is a family knit well with love, tenderness, alcohol, and lots of humor (often black and exceedingly funny)--the diagnosis brings the family and small circle of friends even closer together.

The writing shifts easily between the specifics of observed details to general philosophizing about life and death. Despite the horror and uncertainty, Wallace notes: "I still believe that life is supposed to be good, and my life as a cancer patient can be good, lived one day at a time, and at some point it may be determined that I am no longer a cancer patient, and my life will be better for this scare we’re having. We’re all on borrowed time anyway, and it’s good to be reminded."

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Gassed

Sargent, John Singer

Last Updated: Jul-10-2006
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Summary:

John Singer Sargent was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to paint a work for the Hall of Remembrance. Sargent visited a casualty clearing station at Le Bac-de-Sud in France, which provided the inspiration for this vast work (7x20 feet) painted in 1918.

Mustard gas (yperite, or bis(2-chloroethyl)sulfide) causes terrible pain by blistering skin and mucous membranes, by blinding and choking its victims. Used during World War I, it caused intense suffering; dying could take weeks. In the painting, soldiers who were blinded by mustard gas, are being led to a dressing tent. The foreground of the painting has a jumble of bodies, soldiers in various poses lying on the ground. The colors are muted, the soldiers appear subdued. These elements, combined with the huge size, make the painting reminiscent of ancient Greek or Roman sculptural friezes.

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First Operation Under Ether

Hinckley, Robert

Last Updated: Jun-30-2006
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Summary:

The dentist, William Thomas Green Morton, gave the first successful public demonstration of anesthesia on October 16, 1846 at the Massachusetts General Hospital. This painting depicts the patient, Gilbert Abbot, sitting in a chair in the surgical amphitheater, eyes closed and neck exposed for the excision of a small vascular tumor of the jaw.

The surgeon, John Collins Warren, a distinguished Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School is leaning slightly forward, delicately holding a surgical tool vertically at the hidden point of incision. Morton holds his specially designed glass apparatus used to contain the anesthetic agent, ether.

Eleven other men watch the proceedings from the floor of the amphitheater, with varying levels of surprise and concentration. One is rising, as if in amazement, from a chair, and another steps up on a chair to see better. Two attend the patient: one holds his head and the other holds the right hand and checks the pulse at the wrist. Numerous men are seated in the gallery, and are painted with less and less detail, the higher the row.

The men are all dressed formally in dark suits, some with fur lapels, except for the patient, who is in white shirt with tan pants and dark shoes. This operation occurred before antisepsis and germ theory were discovered.

Hinckley used light and line to focus attention on the surgery. A strong diagonal line from the side wall of the gallery ends at Warren’s head. Light reflects off Morton’s ether inhaler, such that one can even see the sponge inside. The white of the patient’s shirt and the cloth and bowl on the instrument table in the foreground also serve to direct attention to the operation. Light glints off the surgeon’s head, although not as dramatically as in Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (see this database). Warren’s pronouncement at the end of the surgery, "Gentlemen, this is no humbug," paved the way for the rapid acceptance of anesthesia for surgery.

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