Showing 91 - 100 of 251 annotations contributed by Duffin, Jacalyn

Summary:

Born in 1921 in Belarus (White Russia), the author lost his father (a doctor) as a baby and was raised by his mother who worked as a surgical nurse and midwife. He excelled in school and was on the verge of entering medical school, but the political upheaval of World War II drew him away from studies.
 
Drafted to serve in the Polish army, the eighteen year-old became a sergeant in charge of a platoon by June 1939 fighting against Germany along its border with Poland. Three months later he was captured and imprisoned in cruel conditions. By November, he escaped and began a long walk home, helped by strangers, only to find that the Soviets had taken over. Arrested again, this time for being anti-Communist, he spent January to June 1941 in a Soviet prison, and narrowly avoided execution when the Russians retreated at the German invasion of Minsk. Another return home was met with the tragic news that his mother had been killed when German bombs hit the hospital in which she worked.

Enraged by the succession of destructive invaders, Ragula helped create a nationalist freedom army, the Eskradon, ironically with German support, and a Bulletin to inform citizens and lobby for better conditions. By the time World War II drew to an end he was married to Ludmila (in 1944) and on the move, seeking a medical education.

As refugees, the couple moved to Marburg, Germany in 1945, where Ragula began medical school. But money was always a problem and the post-war restructuring of Europe made them fearful. Hearing of a program for refugees in Louvain, Boris entered Belgium illegally in 1949 and finally completed his medical degree in 1951 at age thirty-one. In 1954, the couple settled in the medium-sized town of London Ontario, Canada. There Ragula interned and set up a family practice. He and Ludmila raised their family of four in peaceful security that contrasted starkly with their own upbringing.

Precocious in promoting health, Ragula campaigned tirelessly against smoking, inactivity, and overeating, and he worked in aboriginal communities, convinced that a doctor's role was to prevent disease as much as it was to treat it.  Here too he found enemies and friends.
 
In 1963, Ragula was involved in a non-related kidney donation between patients-a selfless act that touched him deeply. For him, it represented the pinnacle of scientific achievement and epitomized how humans should care for one another.

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Mr. Pip

Jones, Lloyd

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

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Thirteen-year-old Matilda lives on a south Pacific island with copper mines. Rebels and other more official warriors are tearing the place apart. A blockade has made resources scarce and communication impossible; fathers are absent at distant work. Along with everything else, the local school collapses. 

Mr. Watts, the only island white man, offers to take over the education of the children, but he has no experience, few materials and just one book: his treasured copy of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. He begins reading a few pages every day. Captivated by the story, the children repeat it to their mothers when they go home each night.  

Matilda believes that she loves Mr. Dickens more than anyone else and she is both bemused and irritated by her stern mother's suspicion of the strange, possibly godless, white man and her feigned disinterest in Pip. Parents are invited to the school to pass on their own expectations about learning. Students accept these moments with pride and embarrassment.

The political chaos deepens, homes are destroyed, and the book vanishes. But Watts (nicknamed Mr. Pip) turns the loss to advantage by helping the students to recover fragments in a lengthy effort of collective recollection.

The ever menacing warriors return. Little more than frightened children in an incomprehensible conflict, they indulge in senseless brutality and killing. With courage absorbed from her mother, Matilda escapes, rediscovers her father, and finds a scholarly future—a life she embraces because of Mr. Dickens and Mr. Pip.

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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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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Paul Ehrlich (Edward G. Robinson) works as a hospital dermatologist, but his two passions are his family and his independent research into dyes and stains. When he abandons his call-duty to attend a lecture by Robert Koch, hospital officials have all they need to dismiss the annoying Jew. Koch, however, engages him to develop dyes to enhance the visibility of the newly discovered tubercle bacillus.

Ehrlich's health is broken by the research, but one success leads to another. With Emil von Behring (Otto Kruger), he works on a serum to save children with diphtheria. Moved by the anxiety of the mothers, he refuses to maintain untreated controls. His superiors are furious, but the state is grateful and he is awarded his own institute.

Ehrlich turns his attention to finding a "magic bullet" to treat syphilis, but his relationship with von Behring founders. Arsenic derivatives are endlessly modified until success is reached in 1910 with agent 606. A few deaths in treated subjects prompt Ehrlich's enemies to arrange a formal inquiry, but he is completely exonerated and reconciled with von Behring.

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Strangers on a Train

Highsmith, Patricia

Last Updated: Feb-13-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Up-and-coming architect, Guy Haines, is traveling to Texas to obtain a divorce from Miriam, pregnant with another man’s child. He has nothing but contempt for her and cannot wait to begin a new life with more sophisticated and loving Anne. On the train, he meets slender, disturbing Charles Bruno, who hates his father. With a lot of booze Bruno goads Guy into confessing his hatred for Miriam. Bruno then proposes a double murder plot, where each would kill the other’s problem.  Appalled, Guy leaves, forgetting his book of Plato.

Not ten days later while vacationing with Anne’s family in Mexico, Guy learns from his anxious mother that Miriam has been murdered. Increasingly tormented that the unstable character on the train may have actually done it, Guy finds his life unraveling as Bruno mails evidence that he is Miriam’s killer, threatens to expose Guy as the instigator, and leaves anonymous letters for Anne. Guy’s work suffers. He drinks heavily and slowly sinks into a state where he realizes his only salvation is to kill Bruno’s father according to the precise plans that have repeatedly been sent. He does.

Guy’s career seems to pick up. But Bruno cannot leave him alone. He turns up uninvited at Guy’s wedding and insinuates himself menacingly into his married life. Guy is miserable, but plays along, aware that he has an impulse to defend Bruno as well as himself. He tells many lies and is wracked with guilt. Anne is worried and suspicious. The two men are bound by their secret, which encompasses a kind of animal attraction rooted in the sensation of having taken a life.

Things could continue indefinitely but for Gerard, the persistent but clever detective who worked for Guy’s father. Having known Bruno for years, he already suspects him of his father’s murder; then he finds Guy’s Plato. To say any more would spoil the gripping conclusion.

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Summary:

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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Hotel du Lac

Brookner, Anita

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

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Pseudonymic writer of romantic novels, Edith arrives at her Swiss hotel on lac Leman. She had been sent by friends to extract her from a situation, which at first is not clear.  The month ahead looks bleak and long.

With a keen eye, she observes her fellow guests, almost all female: beautiful, slender Monica with an eating disorder masked as indulgence of her tiny dog; a deaf, lame dowager ousted from her own home by a churlish daughter-in-law; a narcissistic mother and daughter whose amiable but inane conversation slowly begins to engulf Edith. These encounters ought to be fodder for her writing and they lead Edith to contemplate her own relationships with parents, aunts, women, men, and love.

Part of the narrative is conveyed in detailed letters to “dearest David,” letters that, we later learn, are never sent. Edith and David must be lovers, but soon it emerges that he is married and intent on staying that way; their affair is secret – possibly even to David. Even later, the reader discovers that Edith was on the verge of marriage to sensible, kind, older Geoffrey. But at the last minute, she left him literally standing at the altar--to his horror and that of those friends who have since packed her off to Switzerland.

A well turned out, wealthy male guest appears on the scene, Phillip Neville. He guesses Edith’s identity and challenges her to be less romantic and more selfish. He points out the value of marriage in terms of career, social standing, and simple companionship. Then he startles her by proposing. No love exists between them, they both admit. Nevertheless, Edith is on the verge of accepting his offer and his crass, unromantic view of the world, when a tedious, banal observation changes everything. She opts for freedom in romantic solitude.

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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:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Monica (Kay Francis) is a successful gynecologist about to open her own clinic, to be designed by Anna (Verree Teasdale), her architect friend. But she is desperate to have a baby and gravely disappointed to learn that a specialist cannot help. Her husband, John (Warren William), leaves for Europe having just decided to end a secret affair with their mutual friend, Mary (Jean Muir), an accomplished pilot. John does not know that Mary is pregnant.

Without revealing the name of her child's father, Mary appeals to Monica. At first, without ever mentioning the word, she asks for an abortion, which Monica firmly rejects, telling her that having a fatherless baby will be "lovely!" After a failed attempt at aborting herself through a deliberate riding accident, Mary accepts seclusion in a private clinic. Complications arise.

Just as Monica decides that she must perform a (never-to-be-explained) procedure to deliver the child, she overhears Mary calling for John and suddenly understands the situation. Like "a machine," she responds to Anna's slap and command that she fulfill her professional duties--yet she is cold to Mary and refuses to see the baby. She makes plans to go to Europe to prepare for her new clinic. But Mary leaves her baby on Monica's doorstep and flies her plane out over the Atlantic never to be seen again. With John's approval, Monica cancels her trip to adopt the infant; however, she does not tell her husband to whom the child was born.

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The Age of Grief

Smiley, Jane

Last Updated: Mar-15-2008
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novella

Summary:

At dental school. Dave pursued Dana, the amazing and only woman in his class. Now married, they share a high quality private practice and raise their three little girls: Lizzie, Stephanie, and Leah. The ordinary chaos in the office and home of a professional couple is constant, though not insurmountable, and they enjoy the dental dramas of their patients, the childrens’ distinctive personalities, and the challenges of parenting. For example, two year-old Leah suddenly decides Dave is the centre of her universe, she shrieks when her previous favorite, Dana, comes near. The parents handle it together calmly without jealousy.

But Dave notices his beautiful, moody wife is drifting away; more precisely, he thinks she is having an affair. To keep this fear out of the realm of reality and confrontation, he scrupulously directs all talk toward work and kids, until his life is bent around avoiding any serious conversation with her at all. The children are anxious. He grieves for the losses of little things in their shared lives.

But when the family is felled by flu, all other problems recede. In rapid succession, children and parents collapse with fever, chills, and misery. Dave is up several nights with Leah, then he is sick himself just as Stephanie and Dana fall even more seriously ill. Drunk with fatigue and terrified that Stephanie might die, he takes her to hospital. They all recover, and the world seems harmonious. Dave begins to think he had imagined his wife’s distraction until he is jolted back to his worry when Dana vanishes.

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