Showing 1 - 10 of 2961 Literature annotations

Grief

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth

Last Updated: Jan-24-2023
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

Published in 1844, "Grief" is one of several sonnets Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB), the oldest of twelve children, wrote following the death of her 33 year old beloved brother and immediately younger sibling, Edward (nicknamed "Bro"), by drowning in 1840. (Another brother, Samuel, had also died, 5 months earlier at age 28, in Cinnamon Hill, the family's estate in Jamaica, from a fever.) The other sonnets reflecting the numbing grief EBB felt (as expressed in her letters) after Bro's death are "Tears" and "Substitution". All were published in her 1844 Poems.

"Grief" is a Petrarchan sonnet describing the distinction between the poet's "hopeless grief" and the grief of men "incredulous of despair". She further instructs "deep-hearted man" to adopt the poet's form of grief, to "express/Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death". This "silence like to death" reflects EBB's movement to speechlessness and silence following Bro's death. (ref = Billone)



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Demon Copperhead

Kingsolver, Barbara

Last Updated: Jan-24-2023
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This novel recasts Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield for modern day as a literary take on the opioid addiction crisis in the U.S. during the 1990s and 2000s with apparent connections to Beth Macy’s nonfiction book, Dopesick, and the eight-part TV miniseries of the same name it spawned. The author, Barbara Kingsolver, assures potential readers that having read David Copperfield is not a prerequisite for comprehending and appreciating Demon Copperhead.   

Demon Copperfield, a name that evolved naturally enough in early childhood from his birth name, Damon Fields, was born into entrenched poverty in the heart of Appalachia, Lee County, Virginia. He tells his story starting from when he drops out of his drug-addicted mother’s womb onto the floor of a rented trailer, to when as a young adult, he makes a last-chance effort at breaking loose from the life-threatening clutches of Lee County. In between, his stepfather frequently beats him bloody, his mother dies from a drug overdose, he enters foster care, attends school off and on, and works assorted jobs, many of which involve illegal, unethical, and dangerous activities. All the while he is variously abused, starved, and exploited. 
 

Demon shares his plight with many others in the community, and though they help each other as best they can, nearly all of them become ensnared in the same traps—drug addiction, alcoholism, unemployment, hazardous occupations, unfinished education, familial disintegration, and societal abandonment. For Demon, these conditions and experiences obliterated any vision of a future free of entrapments, let alone one of prosperity and happiness. “Here, all we can ever be is everything we’ve been. I came from a junkie mom and foster care,” is how he assessed his prospects (p. 461). 
 

Amidst all this suffering and bleakness, an observant and caring teacher discovers Demon’s talent in graphic arts, and he gets a peek at a path to commercial success. He has to first fight off what he knows of “Lee County being a place where you keep on living the life you were assigned” (p. 460). His story turns to this fight and onto this path. 

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Sinkhole

Patterson, Juliet

Last Updated: Jan-18-2023
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The first few pages of Sinkhole recount the final moments of the author’s father’s life, as the author imagines they occurred.  Slipping away from the bedroom where his wife sleeps, her father writes a note and leaves the house for the last time.  It is nearly zero degrees in Minneapolis as he proceeds to the park where he usually walks his dog. All of this has been methodically planned: “My father chooses to die on the north end of the bridge.  There, the canopy is so dense that, from the street, the structure appears to grow from the hill. In the dim light spreading from the railings, the crown of its arch bestows darkness” (p.4).
 
Immediately following her father’s suicide, author Juliet Patterson is, naturally, overcome.  After the initial shock, she begins to wonder about her father’s motivation.  She realizes she did not know him as well as she had thought.  Theirs is a family that “rarely talked about important things” (p.9).  One of those things is that both her father’s father and mother’s father had also taken their own lives.  She begins to ask questions: “Who were these men?  What led to these deaths in my family?  What did my family’s history of suicide imply?  And what did it mean for my own future?” (p.10) The remainder of Sinkhole tells the story of how the author investigates the death of her grandfathers, a quest that takes her back to her family’s ancestral home in Kansas.   

One day, on an impulse, the author locates her grandmother’s abandoned house.  Like other properties in this part of the country where there were formerly mines, it has fallen into a sinkhole.  She sees the “terrifying alien world of a sinkhole” (p.111) as a metaphor for “a realm that I could not enter,” as she struggles to make sense of her family’s past. Eventually she undergoes a transformation and comes to terms with her loss.  The least she can do to break the cycle is to be honest about her family history with her young son.     

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Summary:

Anna Gasperini builds on existing scholarship by examining how Victorian ‘penny blood’ literature depicted working-class readers’ anxieties concerning medical dissection following the 1832 Anatomy Act. Within the historical context of Britain, a dearth of cadavers spurred the rise of various crimes, including body-snatching, graverobbing, and murder. While the families of the middle- and upper-class dead could finance a funeral and secure a place of safe rest, such as in an ancestral vault or tomb, the poor were often buried in shallow or mass graves. These burial sites were often unearthed, and the bodies were sold to (knowing and unknowing) medical men for anatomical examination. To quell these crimes, government authorities instated the 1832 Anatomy Act, which was “a law that allowed anatomists to source dissection material from the pauper” (xii). More specifically, Gasperini explains, “[w]hen it was passed, the Anatomy Act imposed that the bodies of those who were too poor, or whose families were too poor, to afford a funeral were to be handed over to the anatomy schools for dissection” (xii). The Anatomy Act, disregarding pauper consent and personal wishes, effectively targeted impoverished people who relied on workhouse support and alms, exploiting poor bodies to supply medical schools and advance research. The fear and disgust for the law were widespread: “. . . for them [working-class penny blood readers] dissection, bodysnatching, and forfeiture of one’s body to the anatomists after 48 hours under the Anatomy Act were a terrifying reality” (xiii). This fear oddly presaged Count Dracula’s remark in Tod Browning’s 1931 film: “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.” In other words, the finality of death may be incomprehensible, but posthumous desecration of the body through dissection provokes a deeper sense of horror.

Exacerbating the act’s legal conditions was the fact that “semi-literate” working-class people, although vaguely aware of the law’s significance, could not fully interpret the dense legal argot that described the new regulations—an example of cruel political skullduggery—which obscured what would happen to their bodies following death (12–13). Far from being a benevolent political gesture, the act “. . . was an exercise in rhetoric, against which the pauper—semi-literate, socially powerless, and politically underrepresented—could not possibly win” (15). Popular fears that predated and intensified following the act concretized suspicion and anger directed at physicians, the medical sciences, and mortuary practices.

These apprehensions, Gasperini argues, found vivid expression in the pages of the penny blood, a genre “churned out by underpaid hack-writers” and obsessed with storylines “involving murder, betrayal, gender-shifting, and the occasional supernatural event (not to mention scantily clad damsels in distress)” (4). While the penny blood’s serialized melodramas were derided as tawdry sensationalism by middle- and upper-class readers, the genre reflected working-class preoccupations about the Anatomy Act and how the bodies of the impoverished dead were subject to the posthumous medical gaze (4). The penny blood embraced a “generally more violent and graphic concept of entertainment that was popular among lower class individuals. . . .” (4) and constructed plots that directly tapped into long-entrenched suspicions about medical cruelty and physical dismemberment. While the era’s educated readership disdained the recognizable tropes of the penny blood—murderous graverobbers, devious surgeons, vampires, eldritch cemeteries, and cadavers—the narratives in which they figured elucidated the virulent classism and exploitation perpetuated by the Anatomy Act. 

Gasperini provides close readings of a range of penny blood texts, including Manuscripts from the Diary of a Physician (1840s), Varney the Vampyre; or: the Feast of Blood (1840s), The String of Pearls (1840s, popularly referred to as Sweeny Todd, The Demon-Barber of Fleet Street), and The Mysteries of London (1840s). Not all narratives have explicitly medical themes or characters who are physicians or anatomists, nor do the stories make overt reference to the Anatomy Act. Instead, as Gasperini’s analyses demonstrate, they all confront larger working-class anxieties concerning mortality and what might be regarded as the social afterlife of a human corpse, whether that be posthumous dissection, cannibalism, necrophagy, or some other horrific desecration of the body. Fundamentally, while the stories vary, they share a general preoccupation with the corpse’s “bodily integrity” (16), asking what forces act upon the body (or have the authority to) following death and expressing fear over the individuals and institutions that presume to disturb the repose of the dead. Indeed, for all the penny blood’s grotesquery, there is a tacit insistence on the sanctity of the corpse; however, as Gasperini illustrates, the genre does not flinch from revealing the grim consequences of disturbing this repose in the interests of greed and medical progress.

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What She Left Behind

Wiseman, Ellen

Last Updated: Jan-03-2023
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Izzy is a teenager who has been in foster care for a decade since the age of 7 when her mother was imprisoned and judged insane for having killed her father. She struggles with a desire to cut herself. Her current foster parents, Harry and Peg, seem kindly and engage Izzy in their task to catalogue artifacts from the nearby state asylum that has recently closed. 

Izzy is given the journal of Clara, a patient who, at age 18 in 1929, was pregnant by her Italian lover, Bruno. She was committed to the asylum by her angry father.  Clara gave birth, but her baby girl was taken from her. She observed how the brutality of the hospital damaged those who did not belong there, eventually provoking the mental illness it purported to treat. With the help of a gravedigger, Bruno planned an escape, but their plan was uncovered, and Bruno died.

Izzy’s own story unfolds as she works her way through the journal, subjected to bullying and tormented by her anxieties. Peg kindly arranges to take Izzy to see her dying birth mother in prison, where she learns that the murder of her father was to prevent him from abusing young Izzy.  

Spoiler alert! Izzy learns from an elderly nurse that the asylum director took Clara’s baby for himself and that Clara is still alive. She reunites the mother and child, who is now a grown woman. Izzy joyfully learns that Peg and Harry will formally adopt her.

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Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Among the many binaries that can be used to describe people, an easily observable one is how seriously they take the games they play. There are those who play basketball or Scrabble to simply relax and enjoy the camaraderie of their playmates. And then there are others for whom games are invested with considerably more significance, where winning in rotisserie baseball or a golf match becomes a statement about their core values, the meaning of life itself. Gabrielle Zevin’s wonderfully engaging novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, is dedicated to those who proudly include themselves in the latter category.

The novel spans nearly thirty years and centers on three exquisitely drawn characters who are brilliant and appealing and whose raison d’etre is to design and promote the best computer games. Sam and Sadie are intellectual outliers from vastly different backgrounds. Sam’s Korean single parent mother is an actress wannabe, and he is actually raised by loving grandparents who own a pizza store in Koreatown in Los Angeles, while Sadie grows up in a supportive family of high achieving professionals.  They meet by chance while Sadie is in junior high school. As part of her required community service, she visits Sam while he is hospitalized to treat a horrific leg injury (I am leaving out crucial details about how that happened). Sadie is drawn to Sam – her  more than 900 hours of visits break the record of service time donated – and he in turn is able to overcome the chronic pain he endures and to open himself up to someone else.

A genuine bond is forged between the young adolescents that resurfaces a few years later when they bump into each other unexpectedly in a Cambridge subway station. Sam is a student at Harvard and Sadie is studying at MIT. They are both computer geniuses and in the early 1990s there is no better way to leverage their knowledge than to design innovative and complicated computer games. They are able to program games that combine literary structure, musical background, and state-of-the-art color graphics in the service of a narrative environment that  challenges the intelligence and sustains the interest of the player. Joined by a common friend, Marx Watanabe, Sam’s roommate at Harvard, who becomes their devoted and creative producer, they develop a game called Ichigo, a tale of a child lost at sea who must find his/her (a key part of the game) way home. The game is based on the famous wood block print, “The Great Wave” by Hokusai and becomes an international bestseller. They are vaulted into the world of the rich and famous.

The novel chronicles their professional struggles over the following decade to maintain the same high level of creativity and mass appeal. Conflicts arise about assigning credit for their creations and dividing up the public accolades and recognition. There are the expected strains that are bound to develop in such a closely knit team of creative collaborators who are working 24-hour days to meet unrealistic production deadlines. And of course, there are complicated interpersonal relationships that develop that in such a high-pressure workplace. There is true joy, but it is always mixed with intense feelings of envy and nostalgia for simpler times. Other partners and love interests enter the story. But among this intriguing cast of characters, Sam is singularly complex, and his leg  injury and chronic disability are crucial elements in the plot; he suffers from severe phantom limb pain and ultimately he is forced to have his damaged lower leg amputated. How he copes with his disability, real and imagined, alters the arc of the story to a significant degree. Sam cannot escape his feelings of being an outsider, even as he feels himself drawn to Sadie. The imaginary computer game world leaks into reality. Violence dramatically intervenes in the story and ineradicably alters the course of events (no spoiler alert). The novel that focuses on the creation of a virtual reality has a lived-in texture and fullness. I anticipate that most readers will find the ending to be satisfying, an exquisite expression of the complexity of human fate and interpersonal relationships.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Through ten short chapters, family doctor Susan Boron explains the origin of her neologism, “tokothanatology,” the study of common practices that surround both birth and death, events that “bookend” our existence. Daughter of an obstetrician who pioneered family-centered birth and spouse of a man who worked in palliative care, Boron noticed the tremendous similarities in the gestures, rituals, and obligations of dealing with both the beginning and the end of life. The obligations extend to the loved ones in the sphere of patients in care--a practice, she writes, “from pre-cradle to post-grave.” 

One chapter reviews the rituals emerging from many different cultures and religions; another examines portrayals of birthing and dying in image and word; yet another addresses the impact of sudden and unanticipated outcomes. Ethical and legal dilemmas and the contingencies imposed by time and place are discussed frankly.  

Recognizing the advantages of medical technologies, she is nevertheless skeptical of their utility in every case and includes practical advice for dealing with pain, showing that midwifery techniques could enhance palliation. Throughout, she acknowledges that things have changed, are changing, and will change again. Sources are referenced in footnotes. 

In the end, the repeated message is one we’ve heard many times before, offered in a refreshing way: the importance of empathy and of listening to the patient's wishes in birthing and in dying. 

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Summary:

In Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, Owens argues that the emergence, practice, and professionalization of American gynecology in the 19th century were inextricably enmeshed with the institution of slavery and discourses of biological racism. “Modern American gynecology,” writes Owens, “could certainly exist without slavery, but slavery’s existence allowed for the rapid development of this branch of medicine, and especially of gynecological surgery” (6). As she shows, gynecology developed as quickly as it did only because white American physicians had access to women’s bodies marked as racially inferior. That gynecology’s maturation accelerated in the American South is no indication that its practitioners had a humane interest in enslaved women’s health (66). On the contrary. Owens argues that slave owners were invested in maintaining the reproductive health of enslaved women in the interest of increasing the size of their population: “Thus the repair of any medical condition that could render an otherwise healthy slave woman incapable of bearing children further strengthened the institution of slavery” (39). Additionally, there were broader implications, as medical research using enslaved women’s bodies produced knowledge about how to treat, in turn, white women: “Black lives mattered medically because they made white lives healthier and better” (107).

This leads Owens to argue why enslaved women should be esteemed as the maternal counterparts to the oft-celebrated white ‘fathers’ of American gynecology: “. . . black women, especially those who were enslaved, can arguably be called the ‘mothers’ of this branch of medicine because of the medical roles they played as patients, plantation nurses, and midwives. Their bodies enabled the research that yielded the data for white doctors to write medical articles about gynecological illnesses, pharmacology, treatments, and cures” (25). This is especially true, as she points out, when examining the medical research of the lauded gynecologist, James Marion Sims, who opened and operated a “sick house” for enslaved women suffering from gynecological ailments (36). Sims operated this clinic to devise a surgical solution to a serious and commonplace gynecological issue among enslaved women, vesico-vaginal fistulae. As an enterprising young physician, Sims took advantage of enslaved women’s bodies to conduct his surgical trials. Eventually, he triumphed and cured an enslaved woman, and published the results in a respected medical journal, thus enshrining his reputation (39). The point, Owen emphasizes, is that “[t]hanks in large part to his experimentation on enslaved black women, Sims had established himself as one of the country’s preeminent gynecological surgeons less than a decade after he began his gynecological career” (39). Medical Bondage thus strives, in part, to restore the lives and contributions of these enslaved women to the story of American gynecology’s genesis.

Owens’ study takes a surprising turn, arguing that “. . . the later development of modern American gynecology can no more be disentangled from Irish immigration than it can be separated from its roots in slavery” (90). This shift in racial and geographic focus parallels the similar roles of enslaved black women of the South and poor, immigrant Irish women of the urban North in the development of gynecology. Owens shows how racial alterity was “mapped onto” poor Irish immigrant women living in major urban centers, such as New York City (20). As many Irish immigrant women suffered poverty, inadequate (if any) medical care, sexual assault, and were drawn into prostitution (and the attendant onslaught of venereal diseases), they became ideal medical subjects for gynecologists. Physicians eventually published their Irish patient case studies, which “. . . helped to create the foundation for the racist laws that colored the Irish as not quite white and sometimes placed them alongside black people as biological models for racial inferiority” (90). Just as Southern gynecologists had access to enslaved women’s bodies, their Northern counterparts treated and experimented on racially othered immigrant women. In this way, Owens argues, “[t]he scientific and medical beliefs that doctors held about Irish women were nearly indistinguishable to [sic] those they held about African women” (115). Overall, Medical Bondage articulates a well-researched and sobering retelling of the dominant accounts of American gynecology.

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The Last Strawberry

Swan, Rita

Last Updated: Nov-14-2022

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In her memoir, The Last Strawberry, Rita Swan describes the illness and death of her sixteen-month-old son, Matthew. As practicing Christian Scientists, Swan and her husband observe their son’s sudden symptoms and unusual behavior but do not visit a pediatrician because their church prohibits medical treatment. Instead, they hire Christian Science “practitioners” whose goal is to effect a cure through prayer. These prayers, however, fail, and Matthew’s condition quickly deteriorates. After days of unsuccessful faith-based treatment, Swan decides, in desperation and opposition to church doctrine, to bring her son to a hospital, where he is diagnosed with advanced spinal meningitis. Dismayed by her decision “to resort to materia medica,” the practitioners refuse the family further spiritual support (35). Swan recalls, “We brought our Christian Science books to our comatose child in the intensive care unit. We read, whispered, prayed, and cried over him for hours every day, whether our Church believed it was right or not” (37). Matthew eventually died in the hospital in July 1977.

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Summary:

Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, edited by Shelton Rubenfeld and Daniel Sulmasy, is an unusual collection of scholarly essays in that it combines essays about Nazi euthanasia with others that deal with contemporary PAD (Physician Aid in Dying) and questions whether there might be a relationship between the two. This perspective is understandable, given the book’s origin. The Center for Medicine after the Holocaust, an organization with the mission “to challenge doctors, nurses, and bioethicists to personally confront the medical ethics of the Holocaust and to apply that knowledge to contemporary practice and research,” invited a group of North American and Israeli palliative care specialists and medical ethicists in 2018 to visit German sites associated with Third Reich euthanasia programs.  The intensive discussions that followed resulted in this provocative collection of papers.  

Dr. Timothy Quill is among the writers supporting the moral probity and legalization of PAD, while Drs. Diane Meier and Daniel Sulmasy present strong arguments against the practice.

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