Showing 71 - 80 of 297 annotations tagged with the keyword "Obsession"

Assassination Vacation

Vowell, Sarah

Last Updated: Feb-12-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism

Summary:

Obsessed with the history of presidential assassinations and captivated by the power of places and objects to evoke the past, the author writes about her travels to the sites commemorating the lives, illnesses, deaths, and burials of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley and of their murderers. The greatest attention is given to Lincoln.

The context of the killings is presented in atmospheric detail and goes well beyond the individual deaths to the political tensions in which they occurred: slavery, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, partisan manipulation, economic strife. Special attention is given to wounds and body parts and to chattels, pus, and bits of bone.

The quirky research method of inveigling a sister and several long-suffering acquaintances (invariably introduced as “my friend XXX”) to drive the author to her desired destinations generates a counterpoint. Perhaps, the spiciest commentary on her investigations comes from the ever reliable insights of Owen, a four-year-old nephew.

This past is also about the physical objects--guns, tombs, statues, letters, plaques, buildings, furniture, and clothing--that memorialize and are fetishized by their contact with greatness. And it is about the people who care for it in the present--the curators, volunteers, collectors, and writers.

An encounter with the marvelous, stunningly beautiful (but now late) Gretchen Worden, curator of Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, as she speculates on the future of her own corpse, will be a poignant surprise for those who knew her in person or through her many appearances on the Letterman Show (p. 93-99). As Vowell wrote in her acknowledgements (p. 258): “The world is a little less interesting without her in it.” Indeed.

The result is a highly readable set of interconnected chapters that blends extensive knowledge of American history with a fanatic’s zeal to get at the true story, sense, and emotions, especially those investing objects and places with what is called—"wie es eigenlicht gewesen [ist]"--as it really was.

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Summary:

New York is the setting for thirteen linked stories that profile a long line of curious and sometimes loony doctors who are passionate about medical science but often lack common sense and good judgment. Beginning with Dr. Olaf van Schuler in the seventeenth century and continuing over more than 300 years with generations of his descendants (the Steenwycks), missteps and madness loom large in this inquisitive and peculiar medical family.

Most of these doctors share common goals: They strive to eliminate pain. They attempt to expand the scope of medical knowledge. They seek the soul. In their quest for cures and enlightenment, many of these physician-scientists, their relatives, and patients embrace off-beat diagnostic techniques or unproven remedies: phrenology, magnetism, bloodletting, hypnosis, radium-emitting apparatus, electrical shocks, and lobotomy.

In "The Siblings," a doctor performs a lobotomy on his sister. She dies a few months after the operation. In "The Story of Her Breasts," a woman develops rheumatoid arthritis that may or may not be caused by her silicone breast implants. She also experiences guilt and worry after encouraging her 18-year-old daughter to undergo breast augmentation. In "The Baquet," hope is undeniable and a miracle cure is mesmerizing. In the book's final story, "The Doctors," two physicians - a father and his daughter - grapple with their strained relationship and the man's progressive deterioration that might be due to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

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Summary:

When Jamie Heywood, the eldest of three brothers in a tight New England family of engineers, learns that his middle brother Stephen (they all are in their 20’s at the outset of this drama which begins, for them, in early 1998) has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he has just assumed the position of entrepreneur in technology transfer at Gerald Edelman’s Neurosciences Institute, the prestigious think tank of the 1972 Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine, in La Jolla, California.

Jamie quickly announces his resignation and simultaneously his decision to devote his life to helping his brother in the only way he can--as manager, CEO, COO and staff of, initially, a loosely organized team effort to develop a cure for ALS, an insidious wasting disease of the nervous system that progressively leaves the person with the merest remnants of voluntary motor function.

Jamie’s resignation and his move from the West to East coast is but the mildest of changes in the weather for what becomes a perfect storm of technology recruiting, fund-raising, career-rebuilding and the emotional equivalents of El Niño, profoundly affecting at least four families, three of them Heywoods: Stephen Heywood, the strapping carpenter/house-restorer with ALS, and his wife, Wendy; Jamie, and Melinda, his belly-dancing wife with a PhD in medieval French literature; the brothers’ mother, Peggy, and father, John; and, lastly, the author and his father, Jerome, and mother, Ponnie (a Polish diminutive).

Concomitant with Stephen’s development of ALS, Ponnie begins to evidence the dementia of Steele-Richardson-Olszewski syndrome, also known as progressive supranuclear palsy, a form of brain decay uncannily similar to ALS. (Fortunately for the Heywoods, ALS involves only the motor nerves, not the cognitive apparatus.)

The author’s decision to include his family’s ordeal is wise, generous and instructive. The Heywoods and Weiners are both engineering families with an academic engineer as the pater familias and both are trying their best to cope with a deteriorating illness that dismantles the center of all cerebral engineering activity, the brain. The comparison of the diseases and the responses of all the players involved are culturally and psychologically dissected with the author’s trademark precision and kindness. But this book, as the title indicates, is more about the keeper than the brother.

Within minutes of his learning of Stephen’s diagnosis, Jamie becomes a man possessed. He moves quickly, as though by intuition and almost a fated skill, from technology transfer to technology-bricolage; genetic therapy on the fly; and people-, funding- and support-transfer. In fact, when there is no transfer involved, Jamie creates in order to transfer.

Like Gregor Samsa, in the short story by Franz Kafk, from whom Weiner also deftly borrows another parable, "An Imperial Message," (to illustrate, metaphorically, the pathophysiology of ALS as a disease in which neural messages, like the Imperial Message, go awry), Jamie undergoes a metamorphosis, albeit admittedly much less drastic than Gregor’s. He molts his undergraduate degree in engineering at MIT to emerge as a self-appointed manager of any and all ALS research and gene therapy in the U.S. that might help retard the progress of his brother’s illness.

Recruiting, petitioning, nourishing, cajoling, funding, and courting researchers and clinicians alike, Jamie meets, entertains, enlists and co-ordinates the efforts of gene therapy researchers and other medical scientists. He becomes a fund-raiser with the help of Melinda and her family of belly dancers, raising $240,000 as a result of the First Annual Belly Dance Extravaganza. His efforts involve the Heywood and Weiner family members, as epicentric waves of activity inevitably affect them all.

We watch, through Weiner’s eyes (and the diaries of Wendy and Melinda, whom he cites with permission), as the four families experience the predictable mood shifts that accompany a devastating illness and the great adventure of a risky attempt to work a miracle (a miracle that Jerome E. Groopman grumpily and stuffily bemoans in a cited Wall Street Journal editorial): excitement when a genetically engineered ALS mouse outlives its cohorts and money starts to flow; and disillusionment, when Stephen’s disease relentlessly progresses, Jamie’s marriage dissolves for a lack of boundaries, as Melinda, Jamie’s wife, records in her diary, and the author’s mother slips deeper into a dementia that Lucretius, Weiner’s authorial inspiration of the book, would easily recognize as part of the world explored in his famous treatise De Rerum Natura.

By the end of the book, there is an air of exhaustion yet surprising calm--perhaps the calm after the storm--as we witness the normalcy of Stephen, in his motorized wheelchair, playing with his son. As Stephen repeatedly affirms to Weiner, now a family friend and no longer merely a reporter, "I’m fine."

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Safe

Wigfall, Clare

Last Updated: Jul-30-2008
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Babies in Great Britain are vanishing - from homes, the park, and even a moving car. There is no explanation for the disappearances. The count of missing babies reaches 83 and still not a single body has been found.

Lella follows the news closely and is quite worried about her own baby. The mother clings to her daughter. One day, Lella spots mouse droppings in the kitchen. She telephones an exterminator but they are too busy to come to the house for at least one month. She next sees a large rat in the living room. Then Lella finds a nest of rodents and flushes it down the toilet.

The distraught mother becomes a recluse. She cannot sleep and has no energy. The doctor evaluates her. He prescribes some blue pills. He notes that "her hormones are still unsettled and her body weak" (107). She only pretends to swallow the medicine. Lella's husband takes a leave from work to care for her.

A tired Lella puts her baby in a cradle and later notices a rat next to it. She picks up a butter knife on the bedside table and is poised to stab the rat. Her husband enters the room, grasps Lella's wrist, and tells his wife it is only her imagination. He is correct. There is neither a rat nor a baby in the cradle, only a folded blanket.

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A Spot of Bother

Haddon, Mark

Last Updated: Jun-12-2008
Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

George Hall has recently retired when he discovers a lesion on his hip which he takes to be skin cancer. Even though his doctor tells him that it is simply eczema, George is not reassured for long. His worry gradually becomes panic. He learns that his wife, Jean, is having an affair with an old friend of his, that his daughter, divorced single mother Katie, is going to marry a man he disapproves of, and that his son, Jamie, intends to bring his gay lover to the wedding. At this point his hypochondria becomes distinctly pathological. He attempts to excise the lesion himself with kitchen scissors and ends up in hospital.

With the help of antidepressants and psychotherapy, he begins to recover, and then, finding other marks on his skin, relapses. Things come to a climax at Katie's chaotic and (for the reader) very funny wedding, where George, on a risky mixture of valium and alcohol, makes an overly confessional speech and then physically attacks his wife's lover. Order is restored with the help of Jamie and Ray, the groom, who turns out to be heroically kind and efficient (and whose working-class status is then forgiven by George and Jean), and the novel ends with happy reconcilations. George's health anxiety has not, though, entirely disappeared and the novel ends with a clear sense of the mental effort required, especially as we age, not to give in to our fears of disease and death.

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The author's mission is to investigate, understand, explain, describe, and puzzle over the nature of phobias -- his own, and that of other sufferers. Allen Shawn is a composer, pianist, and teacher, and is a member of a gifted family: his brother, Wallace Shawn, is a playwright and actor; his father was William Shawn, for many years editor of the New Yorker Magazine. As a musician and academic, Allen Shawn is "successful." And yet, his life is severely limited by agoraphobia, "a restriction of activities brought about by a fear of having panic symptoms in situations in which one is far from help or escape is perceived to be difficult" (13). The author interweaves sections that summarize his extensive readings on the fight-flight reaction, evolution, brain and mind, Freud's theories on phobia--with his personal history, especially as he believes it relates to his phobia.

Shawn's descriptions of how he experiences agoraphobia are vivid and informative, detailing the situations that trigger his physiologic symptoms of panic and disconnectedness: driving on unfamiliar roads, any kind of travel that is unfamiliar, walking across or on the edge of open spaces, traveling across long bridges, being in enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). The agoraphobe, he writes, "feels at risk, as if at risk of sudden death or madness" (14). Shawn tells about what he must do in order to strike out on unfamiliar trips, that is, when he gathers up the courage to take them. He must venture up to the point where panic sets in, turn back, then on another occasion repeat the process but attempt to go further, pushing through the panic, until, one day, he can make the entire journey without turning back. Sometimes he never makes it to the desired goal.

The author points to several different factors that seem to predispose people to phobias: heredity, unconscious imitation of a phobic parent, upbringing. In his own case, in retrospect, his father showed symptoms of agoraphobia. Shawn discusses the underlying repression that was pervasive in his household -- his father carried on a long-term relationship with a woman while remaining married. Shawn's mother knew about the relationship from early on but any discussion of it was forbidden, even after it became common knowledge.

Perhaps more important in Allen Shawn's perception of repression is what happened to his twin sister, Mary, who was born with what is now considered to be autism, and mental retardation. Allen felt close to this girl, even though her behavior was unpredictable and baffling. When he was about eight years old, his parents sent her away to a special boarding school without warning Allen, or offering explanations. From then on he rarely saw her; 10 years later she was institutionalized. The family did not speak much about her and her "'exile' . . . added yet another layer of mystification to an already really mystifying atmosphere. It turned out that even in our temperate environment something extremely violent could occur" (177). Not long after that, Allen began to experience severe anxiety in certain situations.

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Consumption

Patterson, Kevin

Last Updated: Mar-04-2008
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In the Arctic, winter goes on for ten months every year. The cold temperatures penetrate every aspect of human life. Existence is a struggle. In the Canadian community of Rankin Inlet, an Inuit woman finds personal tragedy as abundant as the snow. Victoria is diagnosed with tuberculosis (puvaluq) as a child and sent to a sanatorium far south of home. Following treatment with medication and a thoracoplasty, she returns to her town years later. Victoria's experience has changed her view of the world but she quickly discovers that in her absence, the people and locale have transformed too.

She marries an outsider, John Robertson, who is a British businessman. His success and local influence allow him to arrange for a foreign-owned diamond mine to open in the area, and with it, a new hospital for the territory. The couple have three children - a son, Pauloosie, along with two daughters, Justine and Marie.

Victoria seems a magnet for misfortune. At age 16, she has a miscarriage. A fourth child dies during a complicated delivery. Her marriage is increasingly strained beyond repair. Victoria's father suffers a stroke and becomes demented. Her mother dies of lung cancer. Husband John is murdered - someone slits his throat. Marie commits suicide. Pauloosie leaves home and sails to the South Pacific.

The Robertson family frequently interacts with the American primary care physician stationed in the isolated region. Dr. Keith Balthazar is a middle-aged atheist who has toiled in the Arctic for more than 20 years and abuses morphine. He keeps a journal of his experiences and meditations and commiserates with the local priest, Father Bernard.

Escape appears to be the best chance at happiness. For Victoria and most everyone else living in this harsh and beautiful land, survival - both physical and emotional - is hard. Personal choices are confusing. Nature doesn't seem to care one way or another.

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The Wizard of West Orange

Millhauser, Steven

Last Updated: Feb-23-2008
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

The haptograph - an experimental device that mimicks ordinary feelings on the skin and stimulates previously unknown tactile sensations - sits in a locked room in the basement of a renowned scientific institution. It is 1889, and the reasearch facility is headed by the Wizard. He is a brilliant inventor who is cognizant of the importance of patents and profits. Multiple projects are ongoing, and the Wizard supervises all of them. One of his aims is to mechanically replicate each of the human senses.

The Wizard has many assistants. Kistenmacher, an electrical experimenter, is one of the best. His pet project is the haptograph. The machine consists of a body suit (covered by a network of wires, brass caps, and miniature electromagnets), battery, and unit containing replaceable cylinders. Two test subjects are enlisted. The research librarian (who tells the story in the form of diary entries) is a willing volunteer. Earnshaw, a stockroom clerk, is an unwilling participant.

Inside the suit, the librarian is impressed by a variety of familiar feelings of touch. When strange sensations - a total body caress, regeneration, an out-of-body event, and a sense of being suspended in air - are provoked, a new world is revealed to him. He experiences bliss. With ten times more funding and three additional researchers assigned to the venture, the haptograph could be commercially available in three years.

Dreams are smashed when Earnshaw deliberately wrecks the apparatus. The Wizard terminates the project and reassigns Kistenmacher to a more menial task. The librarian ponders the Wizard's motives in halting the development of the haptograph. Perhaps the gadget is too dangerous and even heretical. Possibly the public is not ready for it. Maybe the Wizard figures he cannot turn a profit from it.

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Therese Raquin

Zola, Emile

Last Updated: Jan-28-2008
Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Madame Raquin, a widowed haberdasher, lives with her son, Camille, who has a history of poor health and is weak and uneducated, and her niece, Thérèse, conceived in Algeria by Madame’s soldier brother and a “native woman,” both of whom are now dead. Raised by her aunt as companion to the invalid Camille, Thérèse is a model of repression. When Thérèse turns twenty-one, she and Camille marry, and the three move from the country to Paris. One day Camille brings home an old friend, Laurent. He and Thérèse become lovers and decide to murder Camille so they can marry. On an outing they go boating and Laurent drowns Camille.

The murder replaces their mutual passion with guilt, remorse, and evenutally, hatred. The two must wait before they can marry without arousing suspicion; they are both increasingly haunted by memories of Camille and visions of his corpse. When the aging and still-bereft Madame Raquin actually helps arrange for them to marry (to ensure that they will take care of her), they torture each other with their proximity, and they torture Madame Raquin, now immobilized and silenced by a stroke, by allowing her to learn that her trusted caregivers killed her son. The three live in torment until, finally, Thérèse and Laurent kill each other.

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Second Language

Wineberg, Ronna

Last Updated: Sep-25-2007
Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Summary:

Summary: All thirteen short stories in this collection draw readers into the quietly compelling lives of disparate and very ordinary characters who function and suffer in unsettling ways. We are like them and not like them, but their circumstances, while sometimes disturbing, are familiar--and strangely magnetic. The opening lines of "The Lapse" illustrate this power of attraction:

I married Joanne during a lapse. A religious lapse. I don't display my beliefs like a gold medallion, though, as many whom I know do. I prefer to observe in private. After all, any intimate relationship belongs only to the entities or people involved. (p. 35)

Who can bypass an invitation to enter into announced intimacies, however private, that must be revealed in a matter of pages. What lapse and who is Joanne?!

"Bad News," centers around Sheila Powers, a psychologist, whose disruptive marital break-up is compounded by her mother's recent diagnosis of cancer and a subsequent flow of memories about her mother, her father, and herself. She is "between worlds...between life zones." (p. 113) Aspects of the future, at least her mother's, may be somewhat predictable, but the complex depths of the past mix with the present to generate sticky threads that belong to the story and to the readers as well who will recognize bits and pieces of their own family lives.

In a fourteen page story with a decidedly off-putting title, "The Encyclopedia," Wineberg zeroes in on Doris who, after a dissolved relationship, decides to sell the thirty volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica-"the macro-edition, the micro-edition and the year books" purchased by the former couple. Not about remote bits of history or dinosaurs, we discover, but a story about separation, a series of lovers, benign conversation with a fellow worker who claims to be similarly tired of men, a possible buyer for the unwanted encyclopedia, a relationship with the married buyer, an end to the relationship, and a decision to keep the books after all. Her life, we might decide, is encyclopedic, a litany of minutiae that does, indeed, provide information about conditions of existence.

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