Showing 81 - 90 of 124 annotations tagged with the keyword "Colonialism"

Oaxaca Journal

Sacks, Oliver

Last Updated: Nov-30-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This is the journal that Oliver Sacks kept during a "fern foray" in Oaxaca, Mexico. Sacks is a fern lover, even though he admits to an even greater passion for club mosses and horsetails. In 1993 John Mickel of the New York Botanical Gardens introduced Sacks to the New York chapter of the American Fern Society (AFS). Consisting mostly of amateur naturalists, AFS meetings were both congenial and passionate, unlike the cold competitiveness of professional meetings in neurology and neuroscience. The New York AFS folks arrange periodic trips to hot spots in the fern world to indulge their passion. In 1999 Oliver Sacks accompanied them on a trip to Oaxaca, which is a veritable paradise of ferns.

Though the trip is only 10 days long, Sacks packs a month’s worth of sights and sounds and meditations into his journal. We learn a lot about the hundreds of species of ferns that range from southern Mexico’s rain forests to the nooks and crannies of its arid central plateau. But the author’s curiosity roams freely and absorbs his new environment. We learn about the origin of chocolate, the history of tobacco, and the archeology of Monte Alban. We learn about the process of distilling mescal in one’s backyard. Most of all, we are introduced to nearly a dozen vivid characters, united in their enthusiasm for fieldwork and ferns.

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This haunting memoir by a South African surgeon who has witnessed tremendous suffering across the globe is best read as his story, and not a war chronicle as the subtitle would suggest, since large chunks of the book are not about war in the dressing station sense of the term. That said, however, the war that rages inside the author continues throughout the book and gives the reader glimpses of wisdom gained during Kaplan's remarkable journey of life amidst death. The book is culled from journals of writing and sketches that he kept throughout his travels.

Kaplan's first crisis occurs when he joins fellow medical students in an anti-apartheid demonstration in Cape Town and, following the lead of a more senior student, Stefan, tends to the wounded and frightened after riot police attacked the demonstrators. Kaplan then gets the call of not only medicine as service, but surgery as service, when, as a neophyte doctor, he saves the life of a youth shot in the liver by the police.

This feat should not be underestimated, though the author writes with humility. Indeed, in recounting later incidents in which patients die, the odds tremendously stacked against the patients surviving anyway (a woman with disseminated intravascular coagulopathy and multiple organ failure, or the Kurdish boy in a refugee camp with a great hemorrhaging, septic wound), the author's self-chastisement is a painful reminder of how the physician suffers with each loss.

After a beautifully written prologue which begins, "I am a surgeon, some of the time" (p. 1), the book proceeds chronologically, each chapter named for the location of the action. Kaplan leaves South Africa to avoid military service and the fate that befell Stefan, who becomes an opioid addict after euthanizing a torture victim in a horrible scene of police brutality and violence. Kaplan's post-graduate training in England and BTA (Been to America) research stint heighten his sense of cynicism about hierarchy in English society and capitalistic forces in American medical research.

Ever the outsider, Kaplan first returns to Africa (treating victims of poverty, deprivation and violence), then sets off to war zones in Kurdistan, Mozambique, Burma (Myanmar), and Eritrea. In between, he works not only as a surgeon, but also a documentary filmmaker and a cruise ship and flight doctor. He avoids the more established medical humanitarian relief efforts, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, and instead prefers to work where no other ex-pat physician will go--enemy territory, front lines, and poorly equipped dressing stations.

Along the way he decides the number of people he has helped as a surgeon, particularly in Kurdistan, has been small compared to the potential to intervene in broader public health measures (he meets a Swiss water treatment engineer) and occupational health exposés to help abused victims (e.g., of mercury poisoning in South Africa and Brazil). The book ends with Kaplan studying to become an expert in occupational medicine, though, incongruously, in the heart of London's financial district where he treats stress-related illness.

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Annotated by:
Clark, Stephanie Brown

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Brown, anthropologist and Professor of Anthropology of Religion at Drew University, describes the life, religion and healing practices of Marie Therese Alourdes Macena Margaux Kowalski, also known as Alourdes or Moma Lola, a priestess of Voodou, who emigrated to the U.S. from Port-au-Prince in Haiti at the age of 24. What began as an ethnographic research project on immigrant Haitians, turned into a deep personal friendship between Moma Lola and Brown, and a privileged look at the practices and patients of a priestess, and at the socio-cultural lifeworlds of the Haitian community in Brooklyn and in Haiti between 1978 and 1986.

The book presents an intimate description of an alternative healing tradition through a number of perspectives. Brown alternates between a personal, an analytical, and a descriptive narrative of Moma Lola’s own history and her encounters with patients. In some chapters, Brown fictionally reconstructs the patient’s stories, so that the book is part traditional ethnography, and part fiction.

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The Piano Tuner

Mason, Daniel

Last Updated: Nov-28-2006
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Edgar Drake, a forty-one-year-old English piano tuner, accepts a commission from the 1886 British War Office to tune an Erard grand piano located in a colonial military outpost in Mae Lwin commanded by Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll. Edgar leaves the squalor, fog and drizzle of London, as well as his middle class life and his wife Katherine, childless for eighteen years, for a journey by boat, train, carriage and horse to the exotic, intoxicating beauty of Burma.

En route, Edgar is surrounded by stories--a tale by the deaf Man With One Story, rumors about the legendary, eccentric Carroll's peace-making with the local Shan via music and cultural exchange, and socio-historical treatises about the Burmese, internecine wars, and British imperialism. The journey becomes a search for the meaning of home and purpose in Edgar's life. It is an adventure far beyond his prior imaginings and dreams.

The clash of cultures, British and Burmese, civilian and military, wealthy and poor, rule-bound and individualistic, is explored throughout the text. For example, a tiger hunt led by several British officials ends in disaster. Edgar meets Burmese culture on both grand and personal scales: street theatre; appealing, poverty-stricken children; the garb and cosmetics of various tribes; and, ultimately, the allure of Khin Myo, an educated Burmese woman who guides him to Mae Lwin and Carroll.

Carroll, a renaissance physician with a Victorian fervor for botanical and medicinal classifications and investigations, asks Edgar to assist him in his clinic. Common infectious diseases are diagnosed and treated by this forward-thinking physician, and he also performs finger amputations on the mangled hand of a boy without benefit of anesthetic. Other maladies are treated with local remedies and prayer. Meanwhile the delirium of malarial fever descends on Edgar.

Edgar does finally meet and treat the ailing, badly out-of-tune Erard piano. Edgar's expertise is required--his aural excellence and perfect pitch, his delicate yet callused hands, and his willingness to be innovative in the repair of a bullet hole. But what Edgar cannot be prepared for--intrigue and deceptions, fascination with the lush beauty of Burma, and his own shifting priorities and secret longings--is ultimately what sets his fate.

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Gulliver's Travels

Swift, Jonathan

Last Updated: Nov-28-2006
Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Gulliver's Travels consists of four voyages, each of which involves Gulliver ending up on a distant shore where he encounters its strange and wonderful inhabitants. The first voyage finds Gulliver stranded on Lilliput after a shipwreck. Here, he is neatly captured by the famous Lilliputians, "human Creature[s] not six inches high" (5). Gulliver is a source of fear and awe to them, and participates somewhat helpfully in the Lilliputian war against Blefuscu, a lengthy conflict that has arisen between the big-enders and little-enders (depending upon which side of a boiled egg one must crack in order to eat it). Court intrigue and resentments, including the accusation of adultery with a Lilliputian, soon require of him that he escape an assassination attempt.

He returns to England, only to set off again on another voyage. A storm, a longboat journey to fetch water, and abandonment by a terrified crew, leaves him in Brobdingnag where he is captured by giants "as Tall as an ordinary Spire-steeple." (65). Gulliver becomes something of a pet, amusing and entertaining the Brobdingnagians with his exploits and size, competing with the royal dwarf and endearing himself to these massive people. While in transit to the Frontiers, a giant eagle captures him in his travel-box (imagine a carrier with holes punctured in the top to transport a small pet) and drops him into the ocean, where he is rescued by more familiarly-sized humans.

The third voyage finds Gulliver captaining a ship until conquered by pirates, who set him off on a longboat, where he makes his way to Laputa, Balnibari, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg and Japan. He encounters the flying island of Laputa, the never-dying Struldbrugs (who nevertheless age and become decrepit), and the Academy of Lagado, with its - to use modern vernacular - "fringe scientists". After returning to England by way of Japan, and somehow still restless, he commences a fourth voyage, again as a captain but this time a mutinous crew abandons him in the Land of the Houyhnhnms, populated by the rational race of horses and the putrid yahoos.

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Island

Huxley, Aldous

Last Updated: Aug-29-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Will Farnaby, reporter and underground agent for an oil magnate, is shipwrecked on the island of Pala, where for 120 years an ideal society has flourished. In the mid 19th century, a Scottish doctor successfully treated the enlightened Raja of Pala and settled on the island. These two men then designed a perfect society in which (according to the book jacket's description), "sex lives are unabashed; children are carefully conditioned from infancy and none is at the mercy of one set of parents; jobs are assigned according to physique and temperament," and everyone uses "moksha medicine," a drug that sharpens and deepens powers of consciousness.

The Palinese also practice hypnosis, eugenics, and a form of sexual yoga that leads to virtually perfect sexual experience. While Pala has enormous oil reserves, the people are uninterested in developing them because they are happy with their way of life and do not feel the need to become wealthier or more Westernized. Pala's companion island of Rendang is ruled by a ruthless dictator, Colonel Dipa, who plans to develop its oil resources and industrialize the island, while, at the same time, enriching himself.

After his shipwreck, Farnaby is injured climbing a cliff from the beach. He spends time recuperating, during which he meets a number of Palinese people, including Dr. MacPhail (descended from the original Scottish physician) and Murugan, the young man who will soon become the new Raja of Pala. As he learns more about the society, Farnaby comes to respect it and turns away from his plans to promote oil development on the island.

However, Murugan (who was raised largely in Switzerland by a fanatic mother who runs a fundamentalist Christian movement) frowns upon the sexual freedom, drug use, and general lack of "ambition" among his countrymen. He secretly conspires with Colonel Dipa to sell-out Pala. At the end of the book, the army of Rendang has invaded Pala and declared a joint kingdom of Rendang and Pala with Murugan as king and Colonel Dipa as Prime Minister.

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

It is difficult to characterize this book, which consists of a series of roughly chronological chapters, each of which deals with a person or an event important in shaping (or representative of) "the American grain." Williams begins with Red Eric (Eric the Red), whose son Leif Ericsson "discovered" the North American continent, and continues with chapters on Columbus, Cortez, Ponce de Leon, De Soto, Walter Raleigh, the Pilgrims, Champlain, Cotton Mather, Daniel Boone, George Washington, and so forth.

In each case the focus is on character and impact--not so much "impact" on the historical panorama, but "impact" on the emerging and evolving American character (or grain). In that sense the book might be considered an impressionistic biography of the childhood and adolescence of the American spirit.

About halfway through the book in a chapter entitled "Père Sebastian Rasles" (p. 105), Williams steps into the narrative as a first person narrator describing events that occurred during "my six weeks in Paris." Here he connects the development of American literature, as exemplified by Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, H. D. and other expatriates, to American cultural history, in this case the evolving conflict between the New England puritan culture and a Catholic influence that filtered down from Quebec (personalized in the form of the Jesuit priest for whom the chapter is named).

The clearest statement of the American grain occurs in a chapter called "Jacataqua." Consider this: "The United States without self-seeking has given more of material help to Europe and to the world . . . than have all other nations of the world put together in the entire history of mankind." (p. 175) "It is this which makes us the flaming terror of the world . . . with hatred barking at us from every sea." (p. 176) "America adores violence, yes. It thrills at big fires and explosions." (p. 177) And so forth. Williams’s observations remain pretty much on target in 2003, nearly 80 years after he wrote them.

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Balancing Acts

Schwartz, Lynne Sharon

Last Updated: Aug-15-2006
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Max, who has lost his wife after a long life and career together as circus acrobats, reluctantly retires to an assisted living home. There he finds unexpected friendship first in his neighbor, Lettie, a widow who has a gift for uncomplicated kindness, and Alison, a thirteen-year-old he meets when he gives juggling and stunt lessons at the local junior high. The unhealed ache of his wife's slow death from cancer makes Max skittish about opening his heart to either of them, though Lettie offers him patient companionship and Alison, full of adolescent restlessness, unfocused intelligence, and need, desperately wants something of the grandfatherly good humor and wit she finds in Max.

Alison's mother is pregnant with a long-delayed second child and the distance she feels from her parents drive her to lengthy novel-writing and to rather pushy efforts to make Max her special friend. For him, she learns to juggle. She cuts class to visit him, and to go out for sodas with Lettie. Alienated from peers she finds silly, the old people touch a place in her that needs love. After a heart attack, Max comes home with newly raised defenses, and retreats from the budding friendship with both women.

But when Alison runs away to a circus he refused to attend with her, and then to Penn Station, Max goes with her parents and finds her on a hunch. Found, she clings to him like a small child, and he finds himself full of a long-resisted love. On the way home, however, he succumbs to a heart attack. In the final chapter, Lettie helps Alison begin the long, difficult process of accepting mortality, grief, and the possibility of eventual healing from a loss of a kind she finds herself still unable fully to articulate to anyone she believes will understand.

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Paris Requiem

Appignanesi, Lisa

Last Updated: May-17-2006
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

James Norton travels from Boston to Paris at his domineering mother's urging to bring home his fragile sister, Ellie, and their journalist brother, Rafael. He discovers Rafael devastated by the death of his Jewish lover, Olympe. Suicide, accident, or murder? Ellie is confined to a wheelchair owing to an unexplained paralysis. James is drawn into finding solutions to both problems and his investigations lead him to seedy brothels, the bureau of a hypnotist, the morgue of aspiring neurologists, and the wards of la Salpetrière, the famous neuropsychiatric hospital for women. The autopsy reveals that Olympe had been pregnant and the questions about her death multiply. The exoneration and return to France of Dreyfus plays as a backdrop.

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To a Distant Island

McConkey, James

Last Updated: Jan-31-2005
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

During a sabbatical year in Florence, English professor and writer James McConkey immersed himself in reading Anton Chekhov’s works, as well as biographies of the Russian writer. He began to feel a particular affinity for Chekhov’s crisis of 1889-1890 and his resolution of that crisis by traveling alone to Sakhalin Island off the eastern coast of Siberia to investigate conditions in the penal colonies that the Russian government had established in that distant region. Perhaps because McConkey himself was recovering from a series of traumatic experiences in his own life, he felt a kinship to this depressed young Russian author and his search for a new direction in life.

McConkey responded to this feeling of kinship by writing To a Distant Island, which is partly biographical, in that it retells the story of Chekhov’s six month long journey to Sakhalin Island in 1890; and partly a memoir, in that McConkey relates Chekhov’s life events to the feelings and events of his own life at the time. McConkey establishes this perspective from the beginning, when he explains why he refers to Chekhov throughout the book as "T": "I honor the man too much to call him by name throughout an account, which. . . is bound to be a fiction of my own" (8).

To a Distant Island dwells especially on the motivation for Chekhov’s journey to Sakhalin, a question scholars have debated for a hundred years now. Of the many contributing reasons for the trip, McConkey chooses to highlight and fictionalize "the suicidal tendency that surfaced again a decade later in the marriage his health simply couldn’t afford" (26). McConkey refines this to "T. wants to escape--he wants out, at whatever the personal cost" (27). It is in this state of mind (or soul) that the brilliant and sensitive T. begins his journey to the end of the earth.

Perhaps as a metaphor that characterizes any human quest, McConkey devotes most of the writing and energy to T’s justification, preparation, and outward-bound journey. Only 37 pages remain for the story of what happens to his hero once the goal is achieved; and less than 6 pages for the homeward trek (or homeward "sail" in this case). [This is a technique, come to think of it, quite the opposite of Homer’s in "The Odyssey"!]

The conclusion? "Sakhalin, then, gave to T. nothing he hadn’t known all along. . . Perhaps despair--that absence of hope--is a requisite for any deepened understanding of a universal hope for something never to be found in the present time or place" (82).

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