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The setting for "The Shadow Box" is three cottages on the grounds of a large hospital. Here, three tales unfold, at first serially, and then towards the end of each of the play’s two acts, simultaneously. Each tale features a person who is dying. Each person is surrounded by loved ones. All are trying to face and make sense of death.
The first family we meet is the most conventional. Joe, a working class husband and father, is joined at the cottage by his wife Maggie, who, in denial of Joe’s impending death is afraid to enter the cottage. Their son, Stephen, age 14, has not yet been told of his father’s terminal condition. The second family consists of Brian, who is brutally forthright about his demise; Mark, his doting lover; and Beverly, Brian’s wild ex-wife who comes to visit them. The third family is a feisty, blind, and wheelchair-bound mother, Felicity, and her dutiful daughter, Agnes. An off-stage character, "the interviewer," pops in and out of the scenes, offering insight into the various characters through questioning.
In this complex poetry collection (divided into three sections, "Body," "Home," and "World"), the author moves from the specifics of the individual diseased or dying body to the more universal realm of suffering and politics. Not so much a poet of narratives as a conjurer of images, Levin writes from changing points of view: first as a man, then as a woman; as a surgeon, then a patient.
Poet Louise Glück's introduction states that the book's power "derives from ambiguity: the raised scalpel-healing that looks like assault," and Levin's raw imagery is indeed both challenging and celebratory. In the opening poem, "Lenin's Bath," we watch with Dr. Sergei Debov as Lenin's corpse is tenderly submerged in a vat of embalming fluid. Debov imagines the germs that crawl along the cadaver "seeking a way in."
In the next poem, "Eyeless Baby," the reader becomes a caregiver searching a deformed infant's face that is nothing but a single nostril and a cleft palate. In "Bathhouse, 1980," we see (as the blind baby cannot) through a young homosexual man's eyes both the human longing for passion and the viral "scourge" that, again, seeks entrance. The angels that gather in the bathhouse's corner become nurses ("The Nurse") who swarm like moths over a hospitalized patient's body.
This interweaving of place and point of view continues throughout, creating a magical, disturbing world in which a reader can be both body ("The Baby on the Table") and healer ("In the Surgical Theatre"). Other powerful poems include "Personal History," "The Beautiful Names" (in which a young boy learns to name the sexual organs and so discovers their beauty), and "Witness."
Ten-year-old Becky Zaslow is diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) just before her class talent show. The sudden changes in her world include a hospital roommate whose experience with chemotherapy has left her rude and embittered; a lively nurse who levels with her; and parents who react strongly and differently to her illness. Even though the treatments leave her bald and weakened, she shows up at the talent show just before her bone marrow transplant, to the acclaim of all but one of her classmates.
A key coping strategy for Becky is an increasingly vivid fantasy life in which she finds friends among a herd of zebras and one monkey. Holding her stuffed zebra, she "travels" to Africa to escape the pain and trauma of treatments. Gradually she loses ground; as her body gives way, her mind and spirit move increasingly to the other world where an old zebra offers wisdom and help for the crossing she is about to make. She dies, leaving behind a journal that becomes her younger brother's incentive to learn to read, a task he has been resisting.
The title story, "In the Gloaming," recounts a mother's final weeks with her 33 year old son who is dying from AIDS. Janet realizes that "the enemy was part of Laird, and neither he nor she nor any of the doctors or experts or ministers could separate the two." (p. 29) He dies at home with his mother next to him.
"Home" depicts the struggle of an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer's dementia who is being coerced by her family to live in a nursing home. She immediately understands that living there would essentially kill her.
In "Watch the Animals," Diana Frick is a wealthy animal lover who has no interest in human relationships. After being diagnosed with lung cancer, she refuses conventional treatment and continues to smoke cigarettes. Surrounded by her pets, she commits suicide by drug overdose but not before she has arranged new homes for all her animals.
When Ruth's unfaithful and unappreciative husband Bobbo calls her a she-devil, she decides to appropriate that identity with a vengeance and take a different spot in the power relations of the world. She wants revenge, power, money, and "to be loved and not love in return"(49). Specifically, Ruth wants to bring about the downfall of her husband's lover, Mary Fisher, a pretty, blonde romance novelist who lives in a tower by the sea and lacks for neither love nor money nor power.
Ruth commences her elaborate revenge by burning down her own home and dumping her surly children with Mary and Bobbo. She continues on a literally shape-shifting quest in which she changes identities; gains skill, power, and money; and explores and critiques key sites of power and powerlessness in contemporary society, including the church, the law, the geriatric institution, the family home, and (above all) the bedroom.
By the end of the novel, Ruth achieves all four of her goals in abundance. Her success, however, raises complex ethical questions, not only because she uses the same strategies of manipulation and cruelty of which she was a victim, but also because of the painful physical reconstruction of her body that is the tool of her victory.
Alois Burda loves money. He is a wealthy owner of a car dealership who has many acquaintances but no true friends. He has been married twice and has three children but is uninterested in his family. Prior to his sixtieth birthday, he experiences weight loss, abdominal pain, and night sweats. Burda is diagnosed with inoperable metastatic cancer of the pancreas.
He seems worried most about what to do with his property and money. Before entering the hospital, he hides his money in some old slippers until he can decide what to do with it. He is comforted by a young nurse, Vera, whose voice reminds him of his mother's. After he dies, Burda's wife discards her husband's belongings into a heap of rubbish, unaware of the fortune hidden in his slippers.
Denny and Susan McCready are a young couple whose newborn son has cystic fibrosis. They take him home to the farm, where they live with Denny's father. For several months Denny can barely bring himself to touch the baby, because he is afraid to develop too close a relationship with a child condemned to an early death.
After the boy dies, the grief-stricken Susan drifts away from her husband, finally leaving the farm and moving into town. Denny, too, is lost. He buys a small boat--something his father always objected to--and cruises on the river. One day Susan returns. "I want to come home," she says. (p. 196) "I sometimes think that all of us out here just gave up a little early." (p. 204) They endure.
Raina is 17, living alternately on the streets with a boyfriend addicted to hard drugs and at home with an abusive mother, also an addict. She has been victimized by a succession of her mother's live-in boyfriends and lost a young brother to an accidental overdose: he swallowed some of his mother's pills while the mother slept and seven-year-old Raina was watching him.
Margaret Johnson is 45, Raina's teacher at an underfunded, overcrowded public school where Raina's life of squalor is more typical than not. Her own story is told in chapters that alternate with Raina's story and with the texts of autobiographical compositions Raina gives her but refuses to discuss. Only when Raina finds herself pregnant, shortly after her boyfriend has been killed in a drug-related accident, does she take Ms. Johnson up on her repeated offers of help.
She lives at the teacher's home for awhile, runs away to her own home, unused to kind treatment and afraid she'll disappoint the teacher and be thrown out, goes to a shelter, has her baby, and finally returns, having nowhere to go. Ms. Johnson, with some hesitation, takes her and the baby in and the three begin to work out a life together, knowing it will involve difficult change, but willing to bet on love against the odds.
Gottlieb, nearing thirty years old, discovered her childhood diaries in a closet in her parents' home as she searched for some chemistry notes to aid in her quest to attend medical school. This book is "based on diaries" she wrote when she was diagnosed with and underwent treatment for anorexia nervosa. It is the writing of a precocious, strong-willed preteen who enjoys chess, being unique, writing, and getting straight A's in school, yet who is lonely and desperate to fit in and be popular.
Lori is eleven years old, lives in Beverly Hills, California with her fashion-conscious, loves-to-shop mother, her somewhat distant stockbroker father, her older brother David who now is into music and friends and not-Lori, and her best friend Chrissy, a pet parakeet. Lori's diary entries are filled with astute observations of adults (teachers, parents, relatives, medical personnel, even a television star she meets, Jaclyn Smith) and classmates.
She is wry and witty. An early entry gives an English essay she rewrote to get an "A". These "power paragraphs" are generously and hilariously sprinkled with "proper transitions" such as "to begin with", "moreover", and "on the other hand" that her teacher insists are necessary for readability. This essay provides telling insights about Lori's perceptions of her family, particularly (note transition word) her mother's superficiality.
Lori is surrounded by messages of the glories of thinness for women. Every female she encounters, from peer to adult, is on a diet, counts calories, avoids desserts and gossips about how other women and girls look. The culture is not only anti-obesity, but pro-superthinness. Hence it is logical that Lori, angry about being taken from school to go on a family trip to Washington, D.C., begins her rebellion and search for control by skipping meals and dieting.
She gets the attention she craves from her parents. Her schoolmates ask her for diet advice and admire her weight loss. Self-denial, obsession with calories (that she believes can even be gained by breathing), and secret exercising lead to an alarming weight loss in this already skinny kid.
Her mother takes her to the pediatrician, who prescribes whole milk which Lori refuses. He refers her to a psychiatrist, who eventually hospitalizes her for behavior modification, observation, and a possible feeding tube. At the hospital, Lori meets medical students, nurses and fellow patients, but becomes progressively more depressed, dehydrated and lonely. She attempts to run away and makes a suicide gesture. Finally, she sees herself for what she has become--an emaciated stick figure.
The author, a Canadian physician-historian-educator, blows the dust off the shelves of medical history with this fascinating text designed for medical students, educators, and those with an interest in history of medicine. Duffin begins this survey of the history of Western medicine with a glimpse at a pedagogical tool designed to spark the interest of even the most tunnel visioned medical students: a game of heroes and villains. In the game, students choose a figure from a cast of characters selected from a gallery of names in the history of medicine.
Using primary and secondary sources, the students decide whether the figures were villains or heroes. The winner of the game is the student who first recognizes that whether a person is a villain or hero depends on how you look at it. This philosophy imbues the entire book, as this treatise is not a tired litany of dates, names and discoveries, but rather a cultural history of the various times in which medical events occurred.
The book is organized by topics which roughly follow a medical school curriculum: anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, health care delivery systems, epidemiology, hematology, physical diagnosis and technology, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, pediatrics, and family medicine. The last chapter, entitled "Sleuthing and Science: How to Research a Question in Medical History," gives guidance to formulating a research question and searching for source material. Fifty-five black and white illustrations are sprinkled throughout the book, as well as 16 tables.
Direct quotes from historical figures, such as Galen and Laennec, as well as excerpts from writings of eyewitnesses of events, anecdotes and suggestions for discussion, appear in boxes within the chapters. Many of the chapters contain discussion about the formation of professional societies. Each chapter ends with several pages of suggested readings and the third appendix delineates educational objectives for the book and individual chapters. The other two appendices list the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and tools for further study, including titles of library catalogues, and resources in print and on-line.
Although the book is a survey covering multiple eras and topics, each chapter contains choice tidbits of detail. For instance, the chapter on obstetrics and gynecology includes the story and photograph of Dr. James Miranda Barry, the mid-nineteenth century physician, surgeon and British military officer, who was discovered to be a woman at the time of her death. The impact of the stethoscope on the practice of medicine is explored in depth in the chapter, "Technology and Disease: The Stethoscope and Physical Diagnosis."