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The Kite Runner

Hosseini, Khaled

Last Updated: Apr-16-2009
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In his debut novel, Dr. Khaled Hosseini tells a tale that begins in his homeland, Afghanistan, and ends in his adopted country, the United States. Amir, son of a wealthy Pashtun merchant, narrates the story. Amir and his father, Baba, are attended by two Hazara servants, Ali and his hare-lipped son, Hassan. Amir and Hassan are friends, but Amir is troubled by a guilty conscience over multiple slights and sly insults aimed at Hassan. The burden of guilt intensifies over an incident at a kite-flying contest when Amir is twelve years old.

Kite flying in Afghanistan is an intricate affair involving glass-embedded string that contestants use to slice the strings of other kites. The winner is not only the one with the last kite flying, but also the one who catches the last cut kite--the kite runner. At the close of the contest, Amir witnesses the traumatization of his friend Hassan, the finest kite runner, at the hands of an evil youth, Assef. Too shamed to help Hassan, Amir is nearly swallowed by his cowardice: the rest of the story follows the consequences of his guilt.

Amir and Baba emigrate to the United States during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but Amir, as a young adult, returns during the Taliban regime in order to redeem himself and help Hassan's son. The story is filled with plot twists and revelations of secrets and hidden relationships, which enable Amir to confront some of his shortcomings. The oppression, torture, and murder of Afghanis by the Taliban are graphically depicted.

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Summary:

In the Introduction the editors describe the "day of reckoning" they each experienced at one point--the sudden realization that they were "fat." Prior to this insight, they had identified fatness with negative characteristics, like being funny or undesirable; the breakthrough came when they were able to experience fatness as simply factual and not value-laden. This freed them to enjoy their lives without looking over their shoulders, so to speak, to see how other people reacted to them. Their liberating insight led to this anthology, which consists of "works of notable literary merit...that illustrate the range of ’fat’ experience." (p. xiii)

A number of the stories and poems in Who Are You Looking At? have individual entries elsewhere in this database. These include: Andre Dubus, The Fat Girl; Stephen Dunn, Power; Jack Coulehan, The Six Hundred Pound Man; J. L. Haddaway, When Fat Girls Dream; Patricia Goedicke, Weight Bearing; Rawdon Toimlinson, Fat People at the Amusement Park; Monica Wood, Disappearing; and Raymond Carver, Fat (annotated by Carol Donley and also by Felice Aull and Irene Chen).

One of the outstanding pieces in the anthology is a long story by Junot Diaz entitled "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" (42 pages). Oscar is a Dominican boy who is both fat and a nerd. He is obsessed with girls, but none will have anything to do with him, until he meets Ana who becomes his (platonic) "best friend" until her boyfriend Manny returns from the Army.

As narrated by Oscar’s sister’s boyfriend, things go from bad to worse until Oscar spends a summer in Santo Domingo and meets Yvon, an older woman whose former boyfriend, the Captain, is a cop. When Oscar pursues Yvon, he first gets beat up and later the Captain kills him, but before the end he actually makes love to Yvon. In his last letter to his sister, Oscar writes, "So this is what everybody’s always talking about! Diablo! If only I’d known. The beauty! The beauty!"

Editor's note (4/14/09): The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was published as a full-length book in 2007 and won the Pulitzer Prize.

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Machine

Adolphsen, Peter

Last Updated: Apr-09-2009
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novella

Summary:

In the early Eocene period, a small horse (Eohippus) accidentally dies in the depths of a lake. Over time, the body of the mare decays. Heat and pressure convert the remains of the animal into oil. Thousands of feet beneath the surface of Utah and millions of years later, that oil is tapped. As it travels through a pipeline, a nearby worker is injured. As a result of the accident, the man loses part of his arm.

The worker, Djamolidine Hasanov, was born in Azerbaijan. Before coming to the United States, he changed his name to Jimmy Nash. As a boy, he loved to bicycle. As an adult in America, his pastimes include drinking beer and writing haiku. After he is injured at work, Jimmy becomes a drifter and lives off his disability benefits.

The oil derived from the matter of the prehistoric horse continues its journey through time and space. It is refined into gasoline and transported to a gas station in Austin, Texas. On June 23, 1975, some of that gasoline is pumped into the tank of a Ford Pinto. One drop of the fuel comes from the once-pumping heart of the ancient equine.

The car is driven by Clarissa Sanders, a college student who is enthralled by biology and genetics. Later that day, she picks up a hitchhiker on a highway leading to San Antonio. The man has an accent and is missing his lower right arm. Jimmy Nash shares some LSD with Clarissa. He even drives her automobile. On the same day, Clarissa inhales some soot particles emitted in the car's exhaust fumes. They contain a carcinogen - benzapyrene. Thirty years later, she is diagnosed with metastatic adenocarcinoma of the lung. Three months after receiving the diagnosis, Clarissa dies.

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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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Murder in Byzantium

Kristeva, Julia

Last Updated: Apr-05-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Clever, investigative journalist Stephanie Delacourt is sent from Paris to the mythical Santa Varvara to cover police inspector, Northrop Rilsky, in his quest to solve a series of high profile murders with political overtones. The back of each victim is “signed” with a carved figure 8 (or infinity?). At the same time, the distinguished historian Sebastian Chrest-Jones (CJ) disappears. Unbeknownst to everyone but the reader, he has just murdered his Chinese mistress, who is pregnant with his child.

Anxious that CJ has come to harm, his wife appeals to Rilksy, drawing on the connection that he is a step-relation of the missing man. She has been conducting an affair with CJ’s assistant who soon becomes another corpse signed with an 8. Suspicions fall on CJ.

Distracted from the murders she was to cover, Stephanie becomes increasingly involved in CJ’s historical research on the first crusade and the twelfth-century Anna Comnena, considered Europe’s first woman historian. In tracing the connections that CJ has drawn between Anna Comnena and one of his own (and Rilsky’s) ancestors she “derives” his obsessions and his likely whereabouts.

Late discovery of mistress’s corpse offers bizarre genetic clues about the identity of the serial killer and the paternity of the child, again tying the two mysteries into one. A thrilling climax is set in monastery of Notre Dame du Puy en Velay.

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The Good Priest's Son

Price, Reynolds

Last Updated: Mar-23-2009
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Mabry Kincaid, a New York art conservator is flying home on September 11, 2001, when news comes to him on the plane of the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Unable to return to his apartment in the city, he decides to visit his aging father, an Episcopal priest, in his boyhood home in North Carolina. There he meets Audrey, an African-American seminary student in her forties, who has moved in to care for his disabled father.  In the ensuing weeks Mabry is led to reflect deeply not only on the fate of the country and of his career, but on how his father's apparently final illness compels him to come to new terms with their constrained relationship. The death of the brother Mabry always believed to be the favorite has left a painful chasm between father and son, made more so by his father's own admission of favoritism.

At the same time Mabry is coming to terms with his own diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and with the grief he continues to process since his wife's death from cancer.  Audrey and her son bring a new dimension to the life of the household and a widened sense of family to the two men as they struggle to lay the past to rest and to accept the radical uncertainties of the personal and national future. One interesting subplot involves Mabry's discovery of what is reputed to be a minor, uncatalogued Van Gogh painting, covered by the work of another artist, that he has brought home for his employer, now dead, and his musings about what to do with this undocumented treasure.  The question remains open for symbolic reflection as he leaves it behind in North Carolina and returns to New York for a very different kind of life than the one he left. 

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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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Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

Testifying to its author's "fascination with death" (324), this scholarly and abundantly illustrated work focuses on the history of the American idea of the Good Death as this concept took shape during the Civil War. Frederic Law Olmstead used the phrase "republic of suffering" to describe the many wounded and dying soldiers being treated at Union hospital ships on the Virginia Peninsula. Faust argues that the task of dealing with more than half a million dead during the War motivated Americans in the North and South to discover cultural and physical measures of interpreting and coping with the suffering and loss that occurred in thousands of families.

The scale of this War was unprecedented due to rifles and railroads; however, Gilpin Faust reminds us that twice as many soldiers died of disease as died of wounds suffered in the conflict. The illnesses were epidemics of measles, mumps and smallpox, then diarrhea and dysentery, typhoid and malaria. Medical care was inadequate; consequently, soldiers and their families turned to spiritual consolation. The Good Death was identified as sacrificing your life for the cause; many  believed in the Christian idea of resurrection and the afterlife. Killing became work,  as African American soldiers fought for "God, race and country" (53), where  Southerners fought to preserve the status quo, including slavery.

Because of the War, public cemeteries and ceremonies, and government's identifying and counting the dead are now taken for granted. Because of the Civil War, bodies of the dead military are today brought back from foreign lands and honored with decent burial: "We still seek to use our deaths to create meaning where we are not sure any exists" (271).

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Deenie

Blume, Judy

Last Updated: Mar-14-2009
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel for Young Adults

Summary:

Deenie is an attractive seventh-grader whose mother, determined that her good looks not be wasted, is pushing her toward modeling. When she tries out for the cheerleading team, however, Deenie's gym teacher notices her slightly crooked posture and refers her to an orthopedist who diagnoses adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. Both Deenie and her mother are horrified. Deenie decides an operation to "fix it" is the lesser of two evils when the alternative is to wear a brace for four years, but the doctor assures her the brace is the appropriate treatment.

Wearing the brace, initially merely a source of embarrassment, frustration, and anger, gradually makes Deenie aware of other kids with whom she has avoided contact because of various "handicaps." Her relationships within the family and among friends shift because of this new self-awareness and of others' varied capacities to accommodate to her new limitations.

The most gratifying discovery for her is that the boy with whom she has been developing a first romance does not find the brace a barrier either to friendship or to the tentative intimacies of early love. The subtheme of developing sexuality complements the novel's focus on body image as a crucial aspect of adolescent psychology.

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Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Video

Summary:

Filmed at Shands (teaching) Hospital in Florida, this documentary validates the importance of the arts and expressive therapies in all aspects of health care, including medical education. Pediatric oncologist John Graham-Pole and poetry therapist John Fox -often as a team- work with patients of all ages in groups and at the bedside.   Other physicians including a neuroscientist provide rational explanations of the release of endorphins and brain changes resulting from creative activities.  Though the healing process initiated by the reflective act of writing poetry is ostensibly the focus of the film, the documentary is permeated with the transforming effects of dance and art therapies in their ability to lessen physical and emotional pain; the importance of healing environments, not just paintings in lobbies, but in patient created ceiling tiles and wall installations; and especially the warmth, intimacy and humanity generated by exemplary physician communication skills.

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