Showing 81 - 90 of 209 annotations in the genre "Memoir"

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

On February 16, 2003, readers of The New York Times Magazine came upon Harriet McBryde Johnson's cover story, "Unspeakable Conversations," and a remarkable image of her gazing directly at those readers from her power wheelchair.  Her story memorably recounts her uncompromising, yet civil disagreements with Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer about nothing less than the value of her life.  That narrative essay is one of eleven stories published in Too Late to Die Young.

They make the case that philosophers and others have incorrectly imagined Johnson's life, and the lives of others with chronic and disabling conditions, as burdensome and not worth living.  Born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease, Johnson grew up in a family that appreciated her; she practiced law in her native Charleston, South Carolina, and became nationally known for her disability activism.  Still, she encountered a world filled with people who feared her condition.  Fear, she found, led them to assume that disability inevitably brings suffering and to use that assumption to justify acts that would prevent her birth.

Her stories, conversationally and often humorously, ask readers to question why they burden some people with calls to justify their lives or to assure the world that they experience pleasure.  Each story recounts an episode that reveals the pleasures Johnson experienced as an active agent in the world.  She ran for a county office, represented her state at a Democratic National Convention, stood her ground for free speech and against Secret Service tactics when President Reagan spoke at her law school, protested Labor Day Week-end telethons, traveled to Cuba to cover a disability conference for a magazine, advocated for clients in employment discrimination cases, and made many, many friends.

Feeling exhilarated rather than confined by her wheelchair, she bears witness, perhaps unexpectedly, to another pleasure:  "the simple delight of movement."  She writes of maneuvering around Charleston, "I zoom through chaotic swarms of tourists, zip around the raggedy sidewalks . . . loop around every inconveniently placed garbage can, with maximum speed and also with style and grace" (252).  But her stories also describe her wheelchair stumbling over incompatible surfaces, one of which sends her to an emergency room far from home.  This episode also brings moments of grace, this time with the ER staff.  After learning who she is, they Google her on-line profiles and writings.  Delighting in their patient with unpredictable needs, they place print-outs of her electronic portfolio in her chart.

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Triggered in part by a trip to the Galápagos Islands, the author interweaves two parallel narratives: Darwin's "journey toward evolution" along with the related work of Alfred Russel Wallace; and the author's own journey through life, partially disabled and dependent on the specially fitted shoes that help him to walk.  Together these two narratives develop "all I have come to understand about chance and change, fear and transformation, variation and cultural context, ideas about the body that question the definition and existence of difference in all of our lives" (xvii).

Born with an unnamed congenital condition in which his fibulae are absent along with other lower limb "abnormalities," Fries underwent five major reconstructive surgeries as a child, but after those, what helped him most were special shoes that were fitted to his special body, assisting him to walk.  As an adult, however, he begins to experience back pain and knee problems.  The memoir relates, both in flashback, and in the present day, Fries's quest for a proper pair of shoes that will help him avoid yet another surgery -- the shoes he has been wearing are 20 years old and no longer do the job.  We meet Dr. Mendotti, who treated him like a peculiar specimen and offered a pharmacologic way out of his pain; shoemaker Eneslow, in a dingy Union Square office, whose shoes not only fit Fries well, but were festive in appearance -- "I felt both normal and special" (17); other practitioners of orthotics who try but fail to construct shoes that relieve Fries's pain, and finally, the gifted, patient orthoticist, Tom Coburn, who persists until he is able to provide shoes that work.  The shoes have been adapted for Fries's body, just as man has constructed adaptations that allow him to live in a variety of climates and circumstances.  Conversely, Fries, convinced he "can adapt to the circumstances in which my body places me (169)," draws from Darwin, whom he quotes: "individual differences are highly important for us, as they afford materials for natural selection to accumulate" (169).
 
Darwinian connections are invoked throughout the narrative.  The peculiar configuration of Fries's feet and shoes help him to ascend a series of mountain ladders while his partner, Ian -- who usually has to assist Fries with such physical maneuvers -- suddenly becomes fearful of the height and exposure;  back problems might have developed even without his congenital abnormalities because evolution of the capacity to walk upright included the tendency toward back pain; the role of chance in natural selection and the role of chance in the physical fact of congenital conditions; the positive role that his partner Ian's attention deficit disorder (ADD) could have played in the days of hunter-gatherers and the cultural context in which ADD is now considered to be "abnormal."
 
Fries discusses his fears -- both rational and irrational -- as well as his awareness of stigma, difference, and sameness.  The context of these discussions is usually a reminiscence about vacations in far-flung countries (Thailand, the Galápagos, Bali, Alaska, the Canadian Rockies) and physically challenging domestic locales (a Colorado River raft trip, the Beehive Mountain in Acadia National Park).  He  occasionally brings into the discussion his homosexuality, especially as his physical deformity affected sexual encounters.  The relationship between Fries and Ian is woven throughout the memoir as one of understanding, mutual need and benefit.  As the memoir ends, Fries worries about the likelihood he will need a wheelchair, but is at the same time gathering confidence in his ability to ride the Easy Flyer bicycle that Ian has discovered at the local bike shop.

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Author Jennifer Culkin has been involved, for all of her nursing career, in high stakes, heart stopping, instant-decision-making areas of critical care.  After years working in Neonatal Intensive Care, she became a flight nurse--and giving intensive care to trauma victims while trying to maintain balance and sterile technique in a wind-buffeted helicopter has to be one of the most difficult tasks a nurse might undertake.  Her memoir, A Final Arc of Sky, opens with such a scene.  The patient, Doug, is soon crashing, and the nursing team, Jennifer and her partner, have to make a series of tough decisions (pp. 8-12).  From this scene on, the action rarely wavers.  And although Culkin keeps the pace moving, she is not always, or even most often, telling us about similar traumas.  She deftly weaves her personal narrative--husband and sons and dying parents--in and out of scenes from her nursing career, braiding the plot lines of her life in chapters both moving and compelling. 

In those chapters that deal with the often dangerous helicopter transports Culkin has flown, we learn (and we feel) just what it's like to be a flight nurse crammed in-between patient and helicopter door, juggling instruments that too often slip to the floor and trying to save patients that too often want to die.  In those pages that deal with family, we are privy to Culkin's internal debate about how to separate family from nursing (what she calls "the great neuronal divide between my work and my life" (p.136), and we see that she sometimes doesn't have much energy left at the end of the day to draw close to those she loves.  Part of what makes this memoir difficult to put down is the persona of the narrator herself: Culkin comes across as an honest, often irreverent risk taker, a woman who likes to ride her bike down dangerous hills at breakneck speed and allows her son to do the same (see chapter six, p. 57); a woman who loves the dangerous drama of flight nursing and doesn't worry about crashing (p. 80)--in fact she enjoys strapping herself "into the eye of a maelstrom" (p. 80). 

This memoir entertains, and it provides a glimpse into how some caregivers not only risk their lives to save the lives of others but also shoulder the responsibility of making split second decisions upon which a patient's life might depend.  And there is a surprise in this memoir, one that I can't too fully divulge because to do so would be to rob potential readers of their own discovery.  Suffice it to say that near the end, Culkin reveals something about her own health, an illness she has fought against in every chapter.  When we learn the details of her own illness narrative, we look again, with new understanding, at her fascinating career and her interactions with her loved ones.   

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In this candid chronicle of what many would call a prolonged depression occasioned in part by her husband's illness and death, Norris, a popular memoirist and essayist, seeks carefully to distinguish the psychological or psycho-medical category of "depression" from the spiritual state of "acedia" or, more bluntly, "sloth," in its oldest and most precise sense.  In doing so she raises important questions about widespread and often imprecise use of categories derived from clinical psychology, an imprecision that may muddy the distinction between spiritual and psychopathological experience.

"Acedia" she defines as a failure of will, signifying a need for spiritual guidance and prayer, whereas "depression" requires medical treatment.  Going beyond the confessional, Norris suggests that acedia may be an endemic condition among middle-class Americans, over-busy but spiritually slothful.  The book is loosely organized, often characteristically lyrical, and more invitational than diagnostic.  Her purpose, finally, seems to be to inspire readers to embrace simple life-giving spiritual disciplines like reading the Psalms as a stay against excessive self-preoccupation and actual depression as well as spiritual depletion.  

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Body Language

Studer, Constance

Last Updated: Mar-10-2009
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Body Language, a beautifully crafted and expansive memoir by retired nurse Constance Studer, spans a range of issues within the narrative of the author's life: a childhood marred by a medical procedure--a hasty frontal lobotomy that left her father incarcerated in a mental institute-- and, in later years, by her own illness, one caused by the Hepatitis B vaccine.  These two events are the bookends that frame Body Language, a memoir that examines family life, nursing, medicine, medical ethics, personal survival and illness in language that is poetic and compelling.  Studer, a writer as well as a nurse, intersperses her own story--which is novel-like in its intensity--with literary allusions, research material and knowledge culled from her years as a nurse in Intensive Care.  In her memoir, she writes not only with the authority of one who has been on both sides of the bed, as professional caregiver and as suffering patient, but also as a family member who has witnessed how unwise and unchallenged medical decisions might affect generations. 

What I especially admire about this memoir is that it is not simply a "telling about."  Instead Studer brings us into the action of the narrative, for example giving us imagery and dialogue as her father prepares for the surgery that he doesn't know will deprive him of memory and sense ("Holy Socks" p. 21).  She also intertwines many narrative strands, giving us the fullness of her family history and her professional adventures, so that when we reach the narrative of her own illness we have a sense of a life, a full life, that has been forever altered.

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The famous New York architect, Stanford White (1853-1906) died when he was shot in the face at point blank range by the vengeful husband of actress Evelyn Nesbitt. The author is White’s great grandaughter in a matrilineal line.

She seeks to explore the meaning for his descendants of this man’s violent end and his voracious appetite for luxury and sex. The family history emerges through detailed and sympathetic sketches of White’s widow, their daughter, her daughter and husband (the author’s father) who is a gifted musician. The author herself is one of many daughters. An uncle with severe mental illness is portrayed with sensitivity.

The salacious, sordid tale of Evelyn Nesbit and her angry husband is developed; she had been seduced by White as a teenager, and the belief that he had “ruined” her governed his assasin.

White’s numerous affairs and extravagances are juxtaposed to the pain brought to his widow and children by the media scrutiny after his death. The family home on the Hudson river designed by White is central to the story with nostalgic vignettes of its history, form, renovations, and contents.

The author and her niece embark on a tour of White’s architecture. They end in the remarkable opulence of the Bowery Savings Bank, a classical revival building in which she begins to sense the splendid motivation behind White’s genius.  At the same time a remarkable confession emerges from her sibship.

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Dr. Lois Ramondetta was a fellow in gynecologic oncology at M. D. Anderson Hospital in 1998 when she met Deborah Rose Sills, a professor of comparative religion, who had undergone surgery for ovarian cancer the year before and was re-admitted for small bowel obstruction. Ramondetta and Sills "clicked," and their relationship developed over several years from doctor-and-patient to close friendship and eventually co-authorship of this memoir. The women tell separate stories (Sills's are in italics), which interact more and more as the relationship progresses. Ramondetta writes about marriage to a medical classmate, its rapid unraveling under the stresses of residency, her infant daughter, and the complexities of her life as a single mother. Sills' sections tell of a highly regarded professor accepting a life with cancer, but struggling against reinterpreting herself as sick. Some of their interactions take place at MD Anderson Hospital, as Sills returns for a bone marrow transplant and later for management of recurrences and complications.

Their friendship also blossoms at their respective homes in Houston and Santa Barbara. Among the stories they share is that of Ramondetta's courtship and marriage to a local disk jockey, and the rock-solid support of Sills's family.  In addition, they begin to collaborate, first on a lecture and then on an academic paper about spirituality and ovarian cancer. This dialogue eventually leads to the book itself, completed only after Sills's death in 2006.

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Something for the Pain

Austin, Paul

Last Updated: Sep-29-2008
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

After several years as a firefighter, Paul Austin decided to return to school and become a doctor.  Both his training as firefighter and a somewhat late start at medical school gave him an unusual perspective on his selected specialty-emergency medicine.  The book chronicles a wide variety of surprises, learning moments, and challenges from his years in the emergency room.  These are interspersed with vignettes about the interrupted home life of an emergency physician rotating into night duty three to four times a month.  The pace is lively and the stories confessional in the best sense-rich with reflection on what he has learned, often at great cost to his resilient wife and three children, one with Down syndrome.  A strong theme in the book is the importance of developing strategies for sustaining humanity and compassion even under intense pressure to be quick, clinical, and detached. 

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Body of Work is a cleverly crafted memoir - or, rather, the first chapter of a memoir - of the author's medical school experience at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, Rhode Island. Ms Montross relates the chronological course of her team's dissection of a female cadaver with no discernible umbilicus and whom they therefore name Eve. (She neglects to comment on Eve's ribs and whether she has the normal complement or a supernumerary, more masculine, rib.) As she and her team of four (later three as one student drops out of school) proceed with the orderly dismantling of Eve, bone by bone, nerve by nerve and blood vessel by blood vessel, she uses this experience as a springboard to analyze her and her team's emotional reactions to the often unnatural process of deconstructing, literally (at times with a saw), a former person now cadaver, as well as the gradual, almost imperceptible acculturation that transmogrifies medical students into doctors. In fact, she devotes the final pages to this metamorphosis and what it means to the person undergoing the transition from caring student to detached physician, and whether one can retain enough caring, while remaining sufficiently detached to function as one must as a clinician, to become both a whole person and competent physician: "How much of becoming a doctor demands releasing the well-known and well-loved parts of my self?" (page 209)

Although it primarily revolves about the axis of her gross anatomy (cadaver dissection) course, the author's narrative includes tangents that have variably relevant relationships to this course, e.g., a trip to Italy to inspect first hand the anatomy theater of Vesalius in Padua and the Basilica of St. Anthony; another trip to the anatomical wax sculptures museum in Bologna, where the author also observes the "incorrupt corpse of Santa Caterina" in a "small church called Corpus Domini" (pages 223-224); interspersed histories of the traffic of corpses for dissection, including the infamous Burke and Hare story; some flash-forwards to her second and third years; and a prolonged narration of the final illnesses of her grandmother and grandfather. This last bit of family history is worth the price of the book alone. Despite the apparently incongruous collection of such asides, the author makes it work smoothly, if not seamlessly.

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A Step From Death

Woiwode, Larry

Last Updated: Apr-25-2008
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In A Step from Death a profusion of memories radiate from a near-fatal accident on Larry Woiwoide's farm in western North Dakota. Woiwode, a novelist and poet of America's heartland, had just finished baling hay when his denim jacket got caught in the tractor's power take-off, "a geared stub at the rear of the tractor that spins at 500 rpm." (p. 9) Caught in the powerful machine with no one around to hear his cries for help, Woiwode could easily have died, but survived by using his pocket knife to free himself from the jacket.

In a sense A Step from Death takes up where the author's previous memoir, What I Think I Did, leaves off. The earlier book focuses on surviving North Dakota's outrageously bitter winter of 1996-97. The current memoir ranges far and wide over nearly 40 years of Woiwode's life as a writer who chooses a difficult but fulfilling life for himself and his family on the land. The memoir is addressed to Woiwode's only son Joseph (the second of four children), with whom he shares his fatherly failures, as well as the strengths of their relationship. The reader soon learns that accidents were no strangers to their life on the northern plains. Woiwode and his wife and older daughter had survived a serious car accident on an icy road in one of their early Dakota winters. Joseph, too, sustained severe injuries as a child when he fell off a horse and again later in a tractor accident. On another occasion, Joseph and his sisters are responsible for accidentally causing a fire that burned down the family barn.

Now, however, Joseph is a married man, a helicopter pilot, with two children of his own. The recollections and wisdom that his father shares with him (and us) flow freely, creating a free associational, rather than linear, narrative. Woiwode explores the deep network of connections that bind him to the land and his family, as well as to the community of creative writers and especially William Maxwell, his long-time editor at The New Yorker, mentor, and father figure. Woiwode explores as well the strong pull of loss in his life-his parents' deaths and eventually that of Maxwell-but A Step from Death is ultimately a celebration of survival.

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