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Sea of Glass

Farrington, Carolyn

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This short novel tells the story of Renee and Michael Talbott and their son Evan, a young man "admitted to the hospital as a voluntary patient when he was no longer able to survive in the outside world." Evan's schizophrenia and recurrent institutionalizations, described from his mother's point of view, devastate his family and drive a wedge of guilt and resentment between his mother and step father.

The novel, although written in simple, straight-forward prose, suggests a Dickens-like expose' of social ills, human entanglement, and (perceived) medical mistakes. At the book's conclusion, Renee, sensitized to the fate of all who suffer from mental illness, finds no resolution even when Evan is, for a time, stable and independent.

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The Echo Maker

Powers, Richard

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Mark Schluter, a 27 year old beef-processing plant worker, becomes involved in a car crash outside Kearney, Nebraska, the locus of this novel. The car crash---on February 2, 2002, a date that the author wishes to impress the reader as one that seems too numerically mystical (02/02/02) to be co-incidental--clearly has mysterious elements about it since it occurred far outside town on desolate flat country roads and amidst the tire tracks of another car. Too, just after Mark is hospitalized, there appears an undecipherable note of anonymous provenance:

I am No One
but Tonight on North Line Road
GOD led me to you
so You could Live
and bring back someone else.

Mark has an initially troublesome route to recovery, including a temporary ventriculostomy to relieve the pressure in his head. Meanwhile his only sibling, Karin, 31, rushes to his side from Sioux City, a move that becomes permanent and costs her her job. Mark eventually awakens but with an unusual mis-identification syndrome, called the Capgras syndrome (more commonly encountered in patients with psychiatric condition), in which the patient fails to recognize those closest to him as such. For a Capgras patient, there is a disconnect between the visual ability to recognize their faces and emotional response to them as close relatives or friends. He recognizes the visual similarity but considers the significant other an impostor.

This rupture in the usual see-sister's-face-acknowledge-as-sister apparently occurs, in the Capgras syndrome, in connections between one's "primitive" or "reptilian" brain, including the amygdala, and the cortex. Much is made of this failure of neuronal circuits to connect, and reminds one of the parable in His Brother's Keeper (see database) about the Chinese Emperor and the failure of the transmission of a message to explain the pathophysiology of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. As Karin remembers the neurologic explanation, " 'His amygdala, she remembered. His amygdala can't talk with his cortex" [original italics] (80). This amygdala-cortex dichotomy becomes, in behavioral terms, feeling versus reason. As discussed by the two neurologists involved in Mark's case, "But no emotional ratification. Getting all the associations for a face without that gut feeling of familiarity. Pushed to a choice, cortex has to defer to amygdala"; "So it's not what you think you feel that wins out, it's what you feel you think" (131).

Out of desperation, Karin emails a request to Gerald Weber, a famous cognitive neurologist-author modeled primarily after Oliver Sacks but with a little A. R. Luria, whose "To find the soul it is necessary to lose it" is the epigraph of the novel. From the time Weber meets Mark and Karin, the book becomes an intricately entangled design of various metaphysical threads all of which, directly or indirectly, revolve around Mark's syndrome and identity--in fact the identity of all the characters. Karin becomes involved-- re-involved-- with two men from her earlier days in Kearney, Robert Karsh, a developer, and Daniel Riegel, a conservationist. Later the two men become ideologically more opposed than ever when Karsh tries to develop the annual nesting grounds of the cranes, Grus canadensis, who return to Kearney, thousands of them, every February. Barbara Gillespie, a guardian angel to Mark at the extended care rehab center, and Gerald Weber, until then a man happily married to a prototypically liberal intellectual woman, Sylvie Bolan, become romantically drawn to each other. Weber's own doubts about his work and his public image after unprecedentedly critical reviews of his latest book torment him and lead to concerns about his own identity as a physician who may be using, rather than trying to understand, his patients.

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Christ Among the Doctors

Dürer, Albrecht

Last Updated: Nov-17-2009
Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on wood

Summary:

The index finger of his left hand touching the thumb of his right, the young Jesus sadly debates a mob of arrogant, self-righteous scholars. The mood is ominous. The doctors are challenging him, thrusting their sacrosanct doctrines at the fresh pure voice of the youth. They are so cemented into dogma that Jesus's moral and ethical message is an affront to their hard-held authority. Citing their previous books as "gospel," they have completely ignored his message--that one must live by the spirit, rather than the letter of the law.

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Summary:

Written by a psychiatrist and historian, American Melancholy: Constructions of Depression in the Twentieth Century looks at how culture, politics and, in particular, gender have played a role in the development of a diagnosis.  Hirshbein moves between several different worlds, showing how they intercalate and, indeed, are very much part of the same world: psychiatric nosology and cultural attitudes to the gendered expression of emotion and feelings, medication trials and magazine advice to women about how they should deal with the blues, the relations between treatment paradigms and how society views suffering.

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Rembrandt's Whore

Matton, Sylvie

Last Updated: Nov-16-2009
Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

During  the Dutch Golden Age, religion and medical science were combined in people's minds to the extent that illness, especially plague, was seen as a punishment from God. In the minds of  many Dutch seventeenth-century Calvinists, God was vengeful and often angry with the sinner. As Matton shows in this fictional monologue of an illiterate peasant woman, Hendrickje Stoffels (1626-1663), when plague swept through the city of Amsterdam, the afflicted person had three ways of fighting the disease: prayer, folk remedies, and the ministrations of the plague doctors. But for Hendrickje, prayer held first place.Hendrickje Stoffels modeled for several Rembrandt works. She was one of the three most important women in the life of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669).

He was first married to Saskia van Uylenburgh, who bore him 4 children. Only Titus,their son, survived. As Saskia lay dying of tuberculosis, Rembrandt hired Geertje Dircx  (c.1610-1656) as Titus's wetnurse. She became Rembrandt's lover. Hendrickje entered his household and began a relationship with the painter in the late 1640s. As Geertje was being forced out of the home, Rembrandt started paying her an annuity; later, she sued Rembrandt for breach of marriage contract. He had her removed to a prison/insane asylum. Hendrickje bore him a daughter, Cornelia (1654),the only one of his five children to survive their father.

The book begins when Hendrickje is 23 years old and Rembrandt 42. Matton's book cover shows Rembrandt's painting, Hendrickje Bathing (1655). This and several other paintings of his lover illustrates Rembrandt's passion for Henrickje who  devoted her life to the artist, to Titus, and Cornelia. We read the experiences articulated by the deeply religious Hendrickje as she moves around Rembrandt's home and studio, and the streets of Amsterdam. She thinks that  cats and dogs, not rats, carry the plague.  She notices wounded war veterans with open sores in the streets, lepers, and public whippings and executions. She is obsessed with the worms that live in the body and cause plague and death. Cherries also cause the plague.

In 1654, the City Fathers summon her, pregnant, accusing her of whoredom--hence the title of the book. She endures an admonition and is banished from the Lord's Supper. She becomes Rembrandt's common law wife. We witness the home birth of Cornelia and observe Hendrickje breastfeeding her. She watches Rembrandt and his pupils at work in the evil smelling studio where his assistants boil rabbit skins to make glue for the paints. Hendrickje composes medications she has learnt about  from a midwife in her home town of Bradevoort, but she cannot cure the plague. A comet streaks across the sky to announce an outbreak in Amsterdam. Rembrandt goes bankrupt, and Hendrickje feels Rembrandt's tears on her face as she suffers a horrific death from plague, clinically rendered by the author.

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The Oath

Baiev, Khassan

Last Updated: Nov-15-2009
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Baiev’s chronicle of medical life in wartime is full of incident—tragic, touching, and repeatedly traumatic:  his own life was threatened repeatedly by Russians who suspected him and Chechens who resented him for treating Russians.  Members of his extended family were killed and his father’s home was destroyed.  He straddled other boundaries:  trained in Russia, he fully appreciated how modern medicine may bring relief not available even in the hands of the most respected traditional healers, but he mentions traditional ways with the reverence of a good son of devout Muslims.  His perspective is both thoughtfully nationalistic and international.

Finally coming to the States where he couldn’t at first practice the medicine he had honed to exceptional versatility under fire, he lives with a mix of gratitude for the privilege of safety and a longing for the people he served, whose suffering was his daily work for years that might for most of us have seemed nearly unlivable.  Before writing the book, he struggled with his own post-traumatic stress, and continues to testify to the futility of force as a way of settling disputes.  Medicine is his diplomacy as well as his gift to his own people, and the Hippocratic Oath a commitment that sustained him in the midst of ethical complexities unlike any one would be likely to face in peacetime practice.

 

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Titicut Follies

Wiseman, Frederick

Last Updated: Nov-12-2009
Annotated by:
Jones, Therese

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Titicut Follies is the first major, full-length documentary by Frederick Wiseman, generally considered to be the most successful independent filmmaker in the United States.  Titicut Follies (the title of the film is taken from an annual talent show produced by inmates and staff) was filmed at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, a sprawling facility of four divisions with four distinct populations.  Of the two thousand men warehoused there in the 1960s, only fifteen percent had ever been convicted of a crime, yet the institution was administered by the Department of Corrections rather than the Department of Mental Health--units representing very different and contradictory goals.  At the time of the filming, there were only two psychiatrists and one trainee caring for the six hundred men in the hospital section. 

Wiseman believed that public awareness of the terrible conditions at Bridgewater would create a demand for reform and improvement, and he gained unlimited access to the facility by representing the project to administration and staff as educational.   The result is a bitterly critical, shockingly brutal documentary account of the prison hospital, and despite giving Wiseman permission to make the film, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts quickly moved to ban its release.  In September 1967, just days before it was scheduled to be screened at the New York Film Festival, the attorney general filed an injunction that would permanently forbid Wiseman from showing the documentary to any audience.  In 1969, the Massachusetts Supreme Court permitted limited use for doctors, lawyers, health-care professionals, social workers and students, and in 1991, the courts finally allowed its release to the general public.  Titicut Follies is the only American film whose use has had court-imposed restrictions for reasons other than obscenity or national security.

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The Pastures of Heaven

Steinbeck, John

Last Updated: Nov-07-2009
Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

One of Steinbeck's earliest published works, The Pastures of Heaven is a collection of stories about the inhabitants of a fertile valley in California, beginning with the Spanish corporal who first stumbles across the "long valley floored with green pasturage on which a herd of deer browsed" and concluding with the families living there during the first stages of the great depression.  Most of the stories take place in 1928-1929, although many are rooted in flashbacks and narratives that span the generations before.  

The novel consists of short stories that describe particular times and places within the valley, and collectively form multiple different perspectives on life there; they are linked by the valley but also by the relationships between the families, and in particular, the Munroes, whose pleasant, mild appearance in almost every story heralds disaster.

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Breath, Eyes, Memory

Danticat, Edwidge

Last Updated: Oct-26-2009
Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Set against the backdrop of the violent post-Duvalier years in Haiti, this novel traces the development of Sophie, the product of a violent rape. Having been raised lovingly by her aunt in a village near Port-au-Prince for 12 years, Sophie is suddenly sent for by her mother (who had immigrated to the United States as an asylum seeker). Living in New York, Sophie discovers that her mother is haunted by violent nightmares, a remnant of the trauma she had suffered before fleeing Haiti.

Part Two opens as Sophie, now 18, falls in love with her neighbor, a musician named Joseph. Her mother, upon finding out about Sophie's love interest, begins the humiliating tradition of her mother, "testing" Sophie's virginity by inserting a finger in her vagina to make sure the hymen was not broken. After several "tests," Sophie painfully breaks her own hymen with a pestle and immediately runs off with Joseph.

Part Three of the novel opens about a year later, when Sophie has left her husband and returns to Haiti with her baby daughter. Here, she begins learning about her mother's past as well as telling her aunt and grandmother about her own current sexual dysfunction and her bulimia. Sophie and her mother reunite and reconcile in Haiti and later return to the States where Sophie returns to Joseph and begins a kind of therapy that includes rituals from Haitian, African, and Chicana traditions.

Meanwhile, Sophie's mother becomes pregnant (by her long time lover and friend) and increasingly agitated, finally committing suicide. At the funeral, in Haiti, Sophie runs into the cane field where her mother had been raped some 20 years earlier. As she is screaming her grief and rage, she tears at the cane stalks. Rather than attempting to stop her, Sophie's aunt and grandmother watch her, finally asking, "are you free?" and then insisting, "You are free!" (p. 233)

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Annotated by:
Spiegel, Maura

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: TV Program

Summary:

This three-part BBC television miniseries centers on the large weekend reunion of a prosperous Anglo-Jewish family at a luxurious West End hotel.  Various family members discover one another and uncover family stories and secrets that reorient them in their lives.  Writer-Director Stephen Poliakoff does not adhere to a conventional story structure, and this wandering tale is full of unexpected and rewarding narrative dips and turns.
 
Two family clusters are followed most closely in the story, although we are given glimpses, through flashback, of other compelling characters’ intricate wartime histories.   One branch of the family is made up of Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) and his parents, Raymond and Esther Symon (Michael Gambon and Jill Baker) who have grown distant from the larger family circle following a well-intentioned but failed business venture that cost Raymond his share of the family wealth.  Daniel, intrigued by his glamorous relatives, is drawn more and more deeply into a relationship with his seductive and mysterious cousin Rebecca (Claire Skinner) and her dashing brother Charles (Toby Stephens).  In the course of the weekend, crusty but endearing Raymond suffers a minor stroke, and we learn of the recent death of Rebecca and Charles’ eldest brother following his descent into mental illness.

The most meaningful connections, however, belong to the past, and are brought to light in stages, effectively engaging our curiosity.  The stories behind two captivating photographs, one of Raymond’s father dancing fancifully and uncharacteristically on a lawn, and one of Daniel at age three, unaccountably dressed as an Italian Prince, are eventually uncovered to reveal a secret history that holds quite different meanings for Daniel and his father. 
 

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