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Thoreau's Laundry

Harleman, Ann

Last Updated: Jan-21-2010
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Celia has her hands full. The maxillofacial prosthetist is overwhelmed by the demands of caring for her ill husband at home. Her job - crafting replacement parts for people whose faces are damaged - is truly art but involves interacting with distraught patients and angry families. Her mother constantly telephones to offer unsolicited advice. Celia's husband, Simon, has multiple sclerosis. He has been treated in the emergency department many times and recently has been on a ventilator. Celia realizes that she unintentionally hurts Simon just by caring for him. She has never developed the knack of painlessly administering his injections. When she attaches the feeding pump to his G-tube (a feeding tube permanently set in the stomach), she induces pain by yanking too hard. Her mother, Bess, and best friend, Leslie, try to convince Celia that Simon would be better off in a nursing home, and her life would be less stressful. Although she has a lover, Celia cannot face losing her husband.

One of Celia's clients is an 8-year-old boy, Junius Jones. Most of his left ear was torn off after he was struck by a van. Celia constructs a silicone ear for the boy. She is deeply troubled when the boy's mother cancels his prosthetic fitting twice. Celia's mother is reading a biography of Henry David Thoreau and shares an inspiring quote by Thoreau with her daughter: "Live the life you've imagined" [p 120]. Perhaps Celia is incapable of imagining a hopeful future. Maybe Junius Jones and his mother are unable too.

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The Pearl Diver

Talarigo, Jeff

Last Updated: Jan-21-2010
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Leprosy looms large in this story about transformation and loss set in post World War II Japan. A nineteen-year-old pearl diver notices a numb red spot on her forearm. Later on, another blemish appears on her lower back. These two lesions are manifestations of a mild case of leprosy. Her infection will be arrested by medication and never get any worse. The girl is forcibly transported to the Nagashima Leprosarium, an island where she will spend the rest of her life except for a few brief excursions and one extended "escape" at the age of sixty-four.

Despite the introduction of new and effective drugs--Promin (sulphone) and dapsone--authorities still fear allowing the leprous patients to return to society. Inhabitants of the sanatorium are admonished on arrival that their past is erased. Each individual must begin a new life and select a new name. The protagonist chooses the moniker Miss Fuji. She is a kind and sensitive young woman who eventually functions as a nurse and caregiver for the other patients incarcerated in the sanatorium. As a punishment, Miss Fuji is required to attend abortions and dispose of the dead fetuses.

As the decades pass, conditions on the island improve. The number of residents with leprosy still living there dwindles from about two thousand people to six hundred. Even a bridge connecting Nagashima to the mainland is constructed. It no longer matters. Emotional and psychological barriers remain. When Miss Fuji has an opportunity to create a new life for herself away from the sanatorium, she still returns to the place and the people that have been her home and family for so many years.

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As I Live and Breathe

Weisman, Jamie

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Before Jamie Weisman went to medical school and became a physician she wanted to be a writer. As she struggled to make a career out of writing, she was forced to acknowledge that the obscure, life-threatening condition that had plagued her since adolescence could not be factored out of her plans. Writers don't have easy access to affordable health insurance and her monthly intravenous infusions of antibodies and interferon were very expensive. Yet they were essential to fend off infection, for she had an immune system malfunction.

Of course, finances were not the only reason that Weisman decided to go into medicine. As is often the case, her own experience of illness was an important motivating factor, as was the fact that her father, of whom she is very fond, was a physician. This memoir describes significant stages of Weisman's illness, her interaction with the physicians she consulted, and the issues she grapples with as she pursues her life as a physician, wife, and mother (she graduated from Emory University's school of medicine in 1998 and practices dermatology).

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The Tennis Partner

Verghese, Abraham

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A Doctor's Story of Friendship and Loss, this book is, in a sense, a sequel to Verghese's earlier memoir, My Own Country: A Doctor's Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS (see this database). The Tennis Partner tells the parallel stories of Verghese's disintegrating marriage as he establishes new roots in El Paso, Texas and of his new deep friendship with a (male) medical student who shares his passion for tennis. Both men are struggling to re-establish order in their personal lives: Verghese, in easing himself out of a dying marriage while trying to maintain a close relationship with his two sons; David (the tennis partner), in remaining drug-free and successfully completing medical training, which had been interrupted by his addiction.

Verghese, an experienced physician trained in infectious disease and an expert on AIDS treatment, relishes his role as David's mentor; David, a former tennis "pro," enjoys teaching Verghese how to play better. Playing tennis together for the sheer joy of it, each finds release. Tennis becomes the route through which each can unburden himself to the other, seeking solace in a difficult time. Through it "we found a third arena outside of the defined boundaries of hospital and tennis court . . . at a time in both our lives when friendship was an important way to reclaim that which had been lost." (339)

While the reader suspects that David must have a drug problem because the Prologue to the book, narrated in the third person, describes a "young doctor from El Paso" in drug treatment, Verghese the biographer has no inkling of the problem until one-third into his first person narrative. He is shocked, but in some ways the bonds of their friendship are strengthened. Each has only the other as a confidant.

David, however, has another addiction: women. The friendship becomes increasingly complicated as Verghese tries to remain both supportive and objective. Eventually David resumes "using" and Verghese must decide how to respond, both professionally and on a personal level. The turmoil in both lives ends tragically for David and causes profound grief in Verghese.

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In a Dark Time

Roethke, Theodore

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

This beautiful poem appears in a section called "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical." It is a penetrating rendering, at one and the same time, of "pure despair" and of transcendence; of the curse and simultaneous exaltation of heightened awareness; of the personal experience of "madness," "my shadow pinned against a sweating wall," "the edge is what I have," and of a more profound soul-searching that contemplates union with nature and with God: "I climb out of my fear / The mind enters itself, and God the mind, / And one is One, free in the tearing wind."

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Meditation in Hydrotherapy

Roethke, Theodore

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

This short poem appears chronologically just before another poem entitled "Lines Upon Leaving a Sanitarium." The narrator describes a treatment he is undergoing for suicidal depression--soaking in a warm bath for hours each day. Rhyming couplets chillingly (in contrast to the water temperature) relate how the treatment is supposed to work to "refit" him for life. But the narrator is numb: "I do not laugh; I do not cry; / I'm sweating out the will to die."

He notes in ending, the paradox of mental illness: that recovery requires disposing of the past. But how can one dispose of that which is a part of the self? What does it mean to "be myself again"? Is it possible to be yourself if you lose your past? In another poem, In a Dark Time, Roethke asks, "Which I is I?" (see this database).

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A Book of Reasons

Vernon, John

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In his dedication to the book, the author addresses his sons: "The secret to life? Clean your room." The meaning of this becomes clear as Vernon traces the story of his brother, Paul, with whose death the book begins. Paul was 15 years older than the author and had been only a shadowy presence in his life. When Paul died, John Vernon had to exercise his duties as executor of Paul's "estate," an estate that turned out to be a festering, stinking nightmare of a house.

The house was filled with 20 years worth of trash that represented 20 years of Paul's life as a recluse. This memoir is an attempt to imagine Paul's life and to understand the reasons for the course it took. It is also an attempt to "bear painful news" and to reflect on his own reactions to what he discovers and to Paul's death.

In order to do this, Vernon calls on history, interweaving his memories and what was revealed of Paul's life after his death with discussions of the beliefs and discoveries of past eras. Finding himself nailing a thermometer to the outside of Paul's house, the author describes the development of thermometers, and the nature of heat ("Heat"). What, he asks, is meant by "normal" atmospheric pressure? How abnormal was his brother? After all, he bought nursing-home insurance a year before he died. And how normal is he, John Vernon, affixing a thermometer to this wreckage?

As he builds a primitive set of steps to the house, the author explores the history of tool making and speculates about what distinguishes humans from animals; did Cain murder Abel with a hammer, and is he, John Vernon, his brother's keeper? ("Tools") Similar expositions and speculations interdigitate in subsequent sections entitled "Body," "Corpse," "House," "Origins." [At the end of the book, there is a bibliography of references for each section.]

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A World of Light

Skloot, Floyd

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Poet and essayist Floyd Skloot gives us his third memoir; each of the three concerns a somewhat different facet of his attempt to recover from and live with mental and physical damage resulting from a viral illness that struck him in 1988. This book, written approximately 15 years after the initial insult, "is a memoir of the reassembled life" (ix). Life for Skloot is different than before, but a kind of order--Skloot calls it "harmony"--has been constructed out of memory loss, mental disorder and incoherence: "I have learned to savor the fragments themselves, and to live in the moment" (xi). A World of Light is perhaps more a collection of essays than a memoir.

Most of part one and some sections of parts two (Ch. 5, "1957") and three (Ch. 15, "Taking Stock") concern Skloot's interaction with his aged mother as she slides further and further into dementia. Anyone who wants an idea of what it is like to interact with a person who has Alzheimer's disease should read these sections. Skloot masterfully reproduces the often bizarre conversations that occur--the sometimes maddening repetition of comments during attempts at conversation.

Skloot's mother admires his wife, Beverly, and repeatedly instructs them to marry each other, no matter how often they assure her they are already married. She forgets their previous visits to her in the nursing home, although they visit regularly, and becomes anxious when they leave, even though she isn't certain who they are. Skloot writes about how receptive his mother is to music, which delights her, and how she sings snatches of old songs triggered by the words of any offhand comment--phenomena that have been noted in some other descriptions of Alzheimer's patients.

The essays in part two look back on Skloot's childhood, his family's background, and on his development as a writer. Part three centers on his current life with his wife, Beverly, whose home in rural Oregon provides a refuge for them both (although they are now in the market for different surroundings).

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The Body Silent

Murphy, Robert

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

Robert Murphy was a professor of anthropology at Columbia University when he became progressively paralyzed by an inoperable spinal cord tumor. His book is a personal journey through profound physical disability, an exploration of the self, and a study of the social construction of disability ["Disability is defined by society and given meaning by culture; it is a social malady" (4)]. As he writes The Body Silent he is virtually quadriplegic, hitting the keys of his computer with the eraser end of a pencil held in place by a 'universal cuff' wrapped around his palm. He is still traveling to Columbia to teach his classes.

Murphy applies the metaphor of an anthropological field trip to his experience: "This book was conceived in the realization that my long illness with a disease of the spinal cord has been a kind of extended anthropological field trip, for through it I have sojourned in a social world no less strange to me at first than those of the Amazon forests. And since it is the duty of all anthropologists to report on their travels . . . this is my accounting" (ix). Drawing not only on his own experience but also on research for which he received funding, Murphy instructs his audience in the metaphysics of his situation, and in the social as well as physical challenges of disability.

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To Suffer a Sea Change

Phelan, Peggy

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Professor of performance studies at New York University, Peggy Phelan narrates the story of a vision disorder that began when she was 23 years old, caused by "open-angle glaucoma," a difficult-to-treat condition in which the vessels draining ocular fluid periodically constrict. The episodes are excruciatingly painful and disorienting: "I feel a staggering push behind my right eye. The right upper half of my face is on fire: I am certain that my eye has fallen out of its socket . . . " (508).

Phelan resists patienthood, beginning with her first visit to the doctor, in which she underplays what has happened to her. Rejecting surgery, coping with side effects of the drugs she must take, and concerned about her ability to continue as a visual arts scholar, she muddles through for several years. Then she experiences a frightening, vividly described episode of temporary blindness, which is followed by a migraine headache. Six months later she agrees to have surgery.

During the surgery, under local anesthesia, "my eye, which is frozen, can still see things as they pass over it . . . colors I have never seen before . . . I am seeing the roof of my own eye from the interior side. It is utterly breath stopping. I cannot speak" (521-522). Enabled to see her eye from a perspective that was not available to the physician, and grateful for this "visionary experience," Phelan finally accepts her situation. She is not cured, although her condition improves. "My story is finally the same as those of all the other patients . . . The only difference between me and them comes from the words I’ve suffered to find and the words I’ve suffered to flee" (525).

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