Showing 91 - 100 of 258 annotations contributed by Duffin, Jacalyn

Bottle Talk

Rivard, Ken

Last Updated: Dec-10-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Dramatic Monologue

Summary:

A series of approximately 175 short fictional monologues or "postcards," each less than a page, in the voice of an alcoholic--the view from "the bottle"--describing the obsession, rationalization, pain, dissolution, and toll that alcoholism takes on career, body, friends and family. Each "postcard" is written in a different voice: sometimes old, sometimes young; male or female; reformed or not. In few words, they capture intense moments that vividly evoke the misery and folly in the rest of alcoholic existence. There is humour and despair.

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HA! A Self Murder Mystery

Sheppard, Gordon

Last Updated: Dec-10-2009
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

On 15 March 1977, the acclaimed Quebec writer, Hubert Aquin (HA) born 1929, blew out his brains on the grounds of Montreal's Villa Maria, a convent girls' school, where his first wife had been educated and only steps from the Westmount home that he shared with his psychiatrist partner, Andrée Yanacopoulu (herself now a writer of medical history) and their nine-year old son, Emmanuel. Yanacopoulo had known of the suicide plan well in advance and, as part of a pact, had agreed not to stop it.

Through a series of interviews with family, ex-family, friends, lovers, colleagues, secretaries, students, and cleaning ladies, mostly between 1977 and 1983, Sheppard conducts an "investigation" to determine why Aquin ended his life at that time and in that way; and why his partner allowed it. Only a single interview seems to have been conducted after 1985. Each chapter is preceded by an extensive citation from one of Aquin's four novels, followed by stage direction notes for music, sound effects, and mood, and comprised of situated testimony written as dialogue for a film script.

Just as many explanations for Aquin's suicide emerge from this inquiry as there are witnesses. The causes range from the political, through the physical, psychological, social, symbolic, and emotional, to the spiritual. For each witness, they are the truth. They include 1. the failure of the recently elected separatist government to declare Quebec to be a sovereign nation; 2. Aquin's much publicized dismissal from a newspaper job, which he had counted on for a prominent editorial opportunity; 3. the failure of one (or several) love affair(s); 4. the collapse of two marriages; 5. estrangement from the two sons of his first marriage; 6. chronic ill health due to alcoholic epilepsy; 7. unresolved conflicts with his parents; 8. the result of his own writing which displayed a longstanding fascination with sex, death, violence, and suicide; 9. the result of writer's block; 10. a "classic" capitulation of a "québécois" male to the tyranny of women, either a "québécoise" mother or--(take your choice)-- a non-québécoise lover; 11. a covenant with 9 year-old boys crossing several generations; 12. the destiny of a man with a death wish, a chronic predisposition to self killing, who, according to one engaging friend (Jacques Languirand), had probably already committed suicide in a previous life as a late Antique Roman, and would likely do again--perhaps already has.

Sheppard dedicates his book to more than one hundred suicides from Sappho to Kurt Cobain. He shapes the responses of his subjects by his pointed questions and the juxtaposition of their answers to advance his overriding theory that Aquin's suicide was his finest work of art. All the varying explanations co-exist peacefully within Aquin's immortality, which resides in the minds of those who remember and grieve for him. No single interpretation is more plausible than another. Sheppard explicitly links these multiple "truths" to the early film work of Kurosawa; we are also reminded of Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio (see this database).

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

In September 1796, 32-year-old Mary Lamb (1764-1847), stabbed her mother to death with a carving knife during an incoherent frenzy. Almost immediately, she became calm and was sent to a madhouse, remaining away from home for months until her grieving and unforgiving father had died. Mary was released into the care of her much younger brother, Charles (1775-1834), soon to be known for his poetry and essays. She never went to prison, but would return to the madhouse many times over the next fifty years. As a result, this life is an interesting exploration of chronic mental disturbance in the early nineteenth century.

Neither Charles nor Mary ever married; they always lived together and professed to be each other's dearest friend. Obliged to eke out a middle class income--she (until her crime) at dressmaking, he in an office--they turned to writing, often together. The Lambs' famous Tales from Shakespear [sic] was written mostly by Mary, but their friend William Godwin under Charles's name as sole author first published it. Mary's other books, edifying texts for young female readers, were published anonymously.

Letters to their many friends reveal Mary's vexation with Charles's drinking and smoking and his concerns over her multiple relapses, which were triggered by being obliged to move house. Charles predeceased his older sister by ten years and she spent the rest of her life in chronic care of a private couple, visiting his grave almost every day.

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Summary:

Thirty, three-line haiku poems, each set in a large clear font on its own page in a small booklet (approx 4 “ X 6”). The cover is a tender watercolor of a spring scene by an artist identified as Jackie.

Like all haiku, the evocative phrases celebrate ordinary life, seasonal wonder, and memories of family, gardens and home cooking: “rain on the window / happy smiles / and home made cookies.” The juxtaposition of some fragments produces a startling resonance: “last kiss / takes in a lot of territory / even in Saskatchewan.” Humour and wisdom are keenly felt: “tom boy / town boy / luxury farmer”.

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Summary:

In four parts this book uses a wide variety of images--caricatures in newspapers, comic books, advertisements, and photojournalism of Life magazine--to explore attitudes to physicians and medical progress in the mass media from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Each section centers on a specific type of image and the analysis addresses change in perception of doctors and their achievements by privileging crucial moments of newsworthy events and discoveries.

Early in this history, the media portrayed doctors as frock-coat wearing fops.  Medical metaphors used in a political context proclaimed these attitudes well. The story of four little boys, bitten by a dog in 1885 and sent to Pasteur in Paris for the newly invented rabies vaccination, is used as a pivot point for a transition in perceptions of medicine: from a clumsy, suspicious craft to a useful, progressive science.

The third section is devoted to the public fascination with the history of medicine in the period from 1920 to 1950, Films, newspaper articles, and comic books chart the insatiable taste for scientific success and medical progress. The last section studies images of progress in Life and other magazines through a meticulous analysis of health-related articles. In this section, Hansen shows how the media participated in educating the public to a definition of science that enjoyed an enthusiastically optimistic spin.

An appendix lists American radio dramas about medical history from 1935 to 1953. A wealth of sources are documented in the notes and the whole is completed with an intelligent index.

 

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The Wall of the Plague

Brink, Andre

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

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

South Africans, Paul and Andrea, are lovers living in France. Paul is fiftyish and white; Andrea is thirty and “coloured.” He has just asked her to marry him. She travels to Provence ostensibly to research sites for a film to be based on Paul’s endlessly forthcoming novel about fourteenth-century plague. But the real reason for the journey is to test her feelings about his proposal—she is leaning to ‘yes.’

As five days roll by, she relives the trajectory of her life: her impoverished parents, her thwarted education, her angry, imprisoned brother, and the previous affair with Brian, a British historian with whom she was captured ‘in flagrante,’ sent to trial, found guilty, and offered prison or voluntary exile. Brian and Andrea left South Africa together, but their relationship eventually crumbled. She had trouble understanding his passion for the past and his love of detail.

In Provence, Andrea avoids places that Paul had wanted her to go, finding strength in solitude and independence. But that feeling is shattered when he asks her to rescue their penniless, black friend, Mandla, an anti-apartheid activist who has been betrayed by a comrade who turned out to be a spy.

Andrea doesn’t like Mandla, his sanctimonious accusations, arrogance, and probing. He is a racist and a male chauvinist, given to violence. But his constant questioning finally unleashes deeper memories of the shocking abuses of her life in apartheid South Africa—memories she has suppressed or attempted to blame on class struggle rather than racial intolerance. She tries to provoke his empathy with the terrible tragedy of the long ago plague. He resists, being concerned far more with the present, but he relents a little and begins to see racism as a plague and walls as feeble, futile attempts to exclude others.

Andrea falls for Mandla, makes love with him near the plague wall, and decides to refuse Paul and return to South Africa. But Mandla rejects a future with her because he wants no vulnerability in his struggle. He is killed in the night by a car. Was the death deliberate? accidental? suicide? Andrea leaves anyway.

In a short second part, Paul writes to Andrea of his own growing doubts about their future together despite his love.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Late in the twentieth century, the young doctor Goodheart fails in a city practice and accepts a salaried position in the country.  Even there his difficulties persist. A challenging patient—the Reverend Pastor--refuses a tiny muscle biopsy that would not only confirm the diagnosis of trichinosis, but establish the doctor’s reputation. “I would rather die than let myself be skewered alive!” the pastor shouts (p. 11).

Deeply discouraged Goodheart wanders into the country at twilight, sighing, “If only there were a means of making the human body as transparent as jelly fish” (p. 13). Suddenly a woman appears in a blaze of light. She is “Electra the spirit of the twentieth century” (p. 15). She gives the astonished doctor a box and bids him open the lid. The nearby tree immediately becomes “as transparent as a jelly fish” (p.17). Next the box, judiciously aimed, illuminates the inner workings of a frog.

Goodheart applies his box to the ailing pastor and sees parasites teaming throughout his body. Then he effects a dramatic cure with helminthotoxin made from the worms themselves—a treatment that had been invented sometime during the century.

The box proves to be a simple electrical device, easily replicated. Declining financial recognition, to the vexation of his wife, Goodheart communicates the workings of the box to the world with no mention of Electra. But fame and riches flow his way and he dies in old age an honored man.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In the 1527 sack of Rome, undiscplined troops of the Holy Roman Emperor rape, pillage, and destroy. The beautiful couresan Fiammetta Bianchini opens her house to the marauders, inviting them inside for food and comfort. The act gives her household a moment’s reprieve. Her golden tresses savagely shorn, she swallows her jewels and escapes north to her native Venice in the company of her servant and companion, the dwarf, Bucino Teodoldi.

Arriving with almost nothing, they set about establishing a reputation and securing backers. The small company is helped by Fiammetta’s friend and admirer the satirist and poet, Pietro Aretino. Her portrait is painted by his friend, Titian.

Clever and loyal to a fault, Bucino frets over finances and willingly engages in subterfuges that mesmerize their audiences. Fiammetta accepts the attentions of tedious but wealthy admirers in exchange for a house and status. She comes to rely on a blind woman healer, called La Draga who supplies medicine and cosmetics. Bucino is suspicious and jealous, but he tolerates the competition grudingly. He too has many ailments, including headaches and arthritis, because of his deformity.

Suspense swirls around a banned book, a Jewish shopkeeper, and La Draga’s mysterious origins in the glass-making town of Murano.

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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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