Showing 1 - 10 of 609 annotations in the genre "Novel"

The King's Anatomist

Blumenfeld, Ron

Last Updated: Jan-03-2022
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Brussels mathematician Jan van den Bossche, (fictional), single, and fifty years old, is devasted to learn of the death of his lifelong friend, the brilliant (and very real) anatomist Andreas Vesalius.  Companions since childhood, shorter, sturdy Vesalius was the outgoing exuberant leader of the duo, snubbing authority, taking risks, and seizing every opportunity to explore the anatomical structure of animals and humans. He constantly dragged the quiet, shy Jan in his exploits.  

News of Vesalius’s death sends Jan in two directions. First, he wanders back through many memories: their lives and travels together to Paris, Leiden, Padua, Spain; the rise of Vesalius’s fame in anatomy, medicine, and surgery; and his odd departure from academe to serve foreign crowned heads in France and Spain. Second, it propels him forward on a journey to his friend’s grave on the Greek island of Zante (now Zakynthos), in an effort to comprehend why the notorious skeptic would have embarked on a religious pilgrimage in the first place. Jan realizes that he can forgive Vesalius almost everything, including the theft by marriage of his beloved Alice. But he is incapable of pardoning the bewildering manner of his death.

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Bewilderment

Powers, Richard

Last Updated: Dec-20-2021
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Science is a fundamental part of modern reality. It is used to explain the workings of the world around us and is instrumental in making that world a more hospitable place to live in. There are those who assert that there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion. They advocate considering science and religion as parallel but not intersecting ways to understand the place and purpose of human beings. What about science and art?  Or science and literature? Can they peacefully co-exist? Richard Powers is an author who has dedicated his literary career life to the proposition that they can.

In his latest book, Bewilderment, he examines the question whether neurobiology can help people achieve empathy, potentially even merge with another person. Theo is an astrobiologist, someone whose job is to explore the conditions on the many planets in the universe and to determine if they are able to support any form of life, but especially human life. The underlying premise is that there are bacteria, fungi, and animals that can live under very extreme circumstances on Earth. So even if other planets have different atmospheres, ambient temperature, water, or chemical elements, Earth should not be the only planet with life.

Theo’s wife, Alyssa, has recently died in a car accident and he is still grieving the loss. She was pregnant at the time, and the accident occurred when she lost control of her car when trying not to run over an animal on the road (more on this in a minute).  Theo has one son, Robin, who is very bright but on the autism spectrum with significant anger issues. The father and son are fiercely connected and share their lives; the early part of the book beautifully describes a camping trip that they take together. But Theo has his hands full with Robin. In order to avoid medicating his son, Theo enrolls him in an experimental program, Decoded Neurofeedback  (abbreviated DecNef, like any DARPA-sounding program). The experimental study will enable Robin to control his emotions better. This would be accomplished by capturing his mother’s brain waves in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The pattern of her neural activity, which reflected her intense love of animals and nature, would provide a template that could be channeled into her son using feedback methods. The objective of the experiment  is to convert Robin into a more sensitive child who is more attuned to the world around him. Robin is remarkably responsive to the sessions, more so than any other participant, and he becomes someone who has the same warmth and protective feelings towards animals and the environment as his mother. But funding for the project is terminated, Robin’s fMRI sessions stop, and he gradually reverts back to the child he was. There is a final twist. But I leave that to those who are motivated by this annotation to read the book.

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Nervous System

Meruane, Lina

Last Updated: Dec-13-2021
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Ella needs time for finishing her doctoral dissertation on black holes she has been writing for years and thinks an illness could provide the time: “Just enough to take one semester off, to not have to teach all those planetary sciences classes to so many distracted students whom she had to instruct evaluate forget immediately (p. 6). Before she can decide which illness would best suit her purposes, a mysterious illness finds her.
 A sudden cramp shoots down the spine and then, stillness... (p. 9)
An unbearable stinging had settled into her shoulder neck ember... (p. 10)
She felt an invisible wound wrapping her up and suffocating her... (p.10)
A slight numbness that starts in the shoulder and extends along the arm to the elbow until it reaches the back of her right hand, the fingers where it all started. (p. 12)
Inflammatio. In flames. En llamas. Ardor without romance. (p. 10)
Quickly, then, the story shifts from Ella’s dissertation odyssey to her diagnostic odyssey. As she makes her way along this journey during the first chapter, other characters come into the picture: El, Ella’s long-term boyfriend and forensic scientist, is one. The others in her family history are “the Father,” “the Mother,” “the Brother,” and “the Twins”—none are ever named (neither, really, is Ella or El because they are “she” and “he,” respectively in Spanish). Except for the Twins, each of the subsequent four chapters center on one of these characters and how they figure into the family history. Just as in the first chapter, the stories are told through and around the health challenges each character faced; all harrowing, many life-threatening, and some metaphorical.

Ever present in these histories is the story of Ella’s birth mother,“genetic Mother”. She died giving birth to Ella. Ella’s stepmother, “the Mother,” is called at different times, “the volunteer Mother,” “the replacement Mother,” and “the living Mother.” The Brother, alternatively known as “the Firstborn,” shares with Ella her birth mother and was born nine years before her. The Twins, known separately as “the Boy Twin” and “the Girl Twin,” came after the Father remarried. Another dimension shaping the stories is both the Father and the replacement Mother work as practicing physicians. 

Ella’s prominence in each chapter makes her our witness to El’s recovery after an explosion rips through his mass grave excavation site, and his many surgeries for separate gastrointestinal troubles; the Mother’s aggressive and brutal breast cancer treatment; the Firstborn’s recurring bone fractures (an “osseous enigma”); and the Father’s bleeding ulcers and life-threatening hemorrhagic complications from prostate surgery. 

The author, Lina Meruane, structured the book in a somewhat unconventional form. She delineates sections within each chapter with asterisks centered on the page (“***”), and these sections rarely comprise more than two paragraphs. Dialog is neither separated from other text nor signaled with quotation marks. The text moves back in forth in time, from here to there in place (presumably somewhere in South America), and sometimes takes the form of pensées rather than plot narrative. But, overall, the book moves towards resolving some mysteries surrounding family history.

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Imprimatur

Monaldi, Rita; Sorti, Francesco

Last Updated: Nov-03-2021
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In a future 2040, the church is considering the canonization of Pope Innocent XI. An unusual seventeenth-century manuscript is brought to the attention of the authorities and the bulk of the novel is its transcription in full.  

The manuscript is the diary of an intelligent, but inexperienced young orphan-apprentice who is working in a Roman hostel in September 1683. The Catholic Church is fighting the Ottoman Turks who have besieged Vienna. Tensions with France are high as that country and its king have long asserted their exemption from Church rule.

 A hostel guest dies, and the authorities, suspecting plague, impose a quarantine. The apprentice falls under the influence of another confined guest, Atto Melani, a famous castrato and spy for King Louis XIV of France. Believing that the deceased guest was murdered, they venture out each night into subterranean Rome searching for clues to support their theory and leading them to investigate poisons, panaceas, and political plots. Meanwhile, a physician also confined to the hostel attempts all remedies to prevent plague, while another guest, besotted with astrology, strives to reveal the future, and yet another plays soothing music. 

Like a baroque Agatha Christie novel, plausible suspicion is cast upon every guest until the truth emerges and with it many doubts about the saintliness of Pope Innocent XI. The 2040 writer invites the Holy Office to consider the implications of the manuscript before proceeding with the canonization.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A murder mystery set in Harlem of the 1930s. The Conjure-Man, Frimbo, is a reclusive, highly educated soothsayer and fortune teller born in Africa. His Harlem dwelling is a popular destination for local people seeking direction for the decisions that they confront. He takes pains to conceal much about his identity.

One evening, Frimbo is found dead by a client, while a handful of people occupy his waiting room. Doctor Archer, who lives across the street, is summoned to pronounce the death, and the police come soon, led by detective Dart. Then the corpse disappears, and the Conjure-Man reappears alive to the amazement of all.

The investigators use recent technology, including blood typing, to establish that the corpse was not that of the Conjure-Man. Over just a few days, the doctor and the detective work their way through all the possible scenarios to establish the identity and motive of the killer. The ending is surprising.

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The Expendable Man

Hughes, Dorothy

Last Updated: Sep-14-2021
Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A young man, an intern at UCLA Medical Center, is heading out of Los Angeles on his way to his niece’s wedding in Phoenix.  He has signed out for the long weekend and he is eagerly anticipating some time with his family, which will include (though he doesn’t know this yet) his niece’s college roommate, an eligible young woman from a prominent Washington, DC, family, who will be at the wedding also.  Driving his mother’s late-model Cadillac, with his suitcase, medical bag, and his father’s golf clubs in the trunk, he is fifteen miles out of Indio and in the middle of nowhere when he spots a teenage girl by the side of the road.  She’s a bit disheveled and is carrying a small canvas travel bag and a white plastic handbag and nothing else; she looks to him like the girls his younger sisters refer to as “cheap.”  He pulls over and rolls down his window.  She is sullen and somewhat evasive in answering questions, and she happens to be going to Phoenix also.  Hugh feels that he can’t just leave her here, in the desert, where who knows who she might encounter, so he
offers a ride; he decides, however, that he will drop her off at the next town, where she can catch the bus. 

What could possibly go wrong, right?

This is the set-up of Dorothy Bridges’ The Expendable Man, and the answer is, of course, plenty.  It is not a big reveal to say that the girl’s motives seem dubious and she proves hard to be rid of, being dropped off and then showing up again, including showing up at Hugh’s Phoenix motel room, where he refuses to speak to her.  It is not even a big reveal to say that the morning after she shows up at his motel room her body is found in a canal on the outskirts of Phoenix, and the autopsy reveals her to have been pregnant—and aborted.  Nor is it a big reveal—indeed, it is only logical to assume—that the suspicion of the local police falls on Hugh, the last person—and conveniently, a physician—known to have seen her alive.   It will be up to Hugh to prove his innocence despite the damning circumstances.

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Cyril Wilkinson and his wife Kay make a pact. On Kay’s eightieth birthday, when Cyril is already eighty-one, they will commit suicide together. Cyril, a physician in the British National Health Service (NHS) secured a supply of secobarbital as the means to their end. It was 1991. They have planned well ahead; another twenty-nine years will pass before Kay’s eightieth in 2020. 

Motivating the pact was the death of Kay’s father after “a good four years of steady deterioration, followed by a solid ten of nothing but degradation” from dementia (p. 7). They had just arrived home from his funeral service, and were reflecting on what they had been through. At one point, Cyril says, “Your father frankly made me suicidal—or homicidal—or both. Half an hour in his presence passed like a mini ice age,” and then promises Kay, “I will do almost anything to keep the two of us from acceding to such a fate” (p. 12). But Kay is dubious. 

That’s what everyone says...Everyone looks at what happens to old people and vows that it will never happen to them...Somehow they’ll do something so their aging will proceed with dignity...Everyone thinks they have too much self-respect to allow a stranger to wash their private parts...Then it turns out that, lo and behold, they’re exactly like everyone else! And they fall apart like everyone else, and finish out their miserable end of their lives like everyone else. (pp. 12-13)
And so Kay dithers over the next few months whether to agree to the pact, but once her mother begins showing signs of dementia; “I’m all in,” she tells Cyril (p. 17).

Cyril and Kay proceed through the subsequent twenty-nine years, with Kay raising their three children, retiring, finding new work and passions; Cyril going on and on about politics, the NHS, old people; and both watching their remaining parents pass on, traveling to far-flung locations, becoming grandparents, aging. Then the day arrives; happy birthday, Kay? 

The novel structure is simple or complex depending on how a reader approaches it. The first chapter sets up the pact. The second chapter leads up to the day of reckoning and becomes the first story telling what became of the Wilkinsons’ plan. The next eleven chapters envision alternative scenarios unfolding from choices Cyril and Kay make before and on their pre-determined end date. Some scenarios stem from one or both of them not going through with their pact. Some scenarios involve recognizable and available options today, and some are wholly futuristic and unattainable. Some scenarios are happy, some are sad, all are unsettling. These chapters can read as independent stories offering different choices and endings. But they can also be read as interdependent and collectively building toward a point of view on the question: Should we stay or should we go?   
 

The interdependence and complexity of the chapters arise from the through lines among them. From the third chapter on, for example, the first few sentences of each chapter are taken verbatim or slightly modified from some part of a preceding chapter. Other blocks of text appear in one or more chapters. One through line even extends beyond the book to another of Shriver’s novels (So Much For That). Kay and Cyril exhibit the same personalities and preferences, and express the same general hopes and desires through all the chapters. Other through lines are shared events or recurring arguments and debates; however, not always with the same outcomes.

The four years preceding Kay’s eightieth birthday overlap both the decision of the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (“Brexit”) and the Coivd-19 pandemic. Thus, during the time Cyril and Kay are deciding whether they will actually leave or remain on Earth, the UK is deciding whether to leave or remain in the European Union, and while Cyril and Kay are seemingly willing to die rather than fight the ravages of old age, millions of people are willing to fight the ravages of Covid-19 rather than die. These juxtapositions pop up often giving the Wilkinsons’ decision added poignancy.


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Transcendent Kingdom

Gyasi, Yaa

Last Updated: Jun-07-2021
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Can scientists be religious? Is Religion or Science best able to deal with the psychological problems that can arise over a lifetime? Yaa Gyasi’s powerful new book, Transcendent Kingdom, aims to answer these perennial questions. Gifty, the precocious daughter of two Ghanaian immigrants, is the narrator and the main character in this novel. She grows up in Huntsville, Alabama where her parents settled after moving to the United States. Her mother works as home health aide and her father is a manual laborer. Gifty’s older brother, Nana, is a talented athlete who excels in basketball and becomes the leading scorer and star of his high school team. Religion is a key element in the mother’s worldview, and she impresses this on Gifty.  The mother and daughter attend an evangelical church, and both are convinced that they can feel the presence of God, that he speaks to them, and helps guide their life. The father, called the Chin Chin Man, becomes homesick for Ghana and leaves the family to return his birthplace.

With the nuclear family reduced to three and her mother overworking to earn enough to care for her children, young Gifty assumes major responsibility for her older brother, Nana. He suffers an ankle injury during a basketball game. Unfortunately, playing out a common script, he is given a prescription for oxycodone to control the pain. The prescription is renewed and Nana, like so many others in similar situations, becomes addicted and ultimately succumbs to a heroin overdose. The family is now a twosome. In parallel with the family saga, Gifty is a graduate student in neuroscience at Stanford after a successful college career at Harvard. Her mother moves in with her because of extreme depression. Gifty is working on mice using state-of-the-art methods to map the neural pathways that control reward-seeking behavior.  Her research effort is motivated by an attempt to understand her mother, who has almost no reward- seeking behavior due to her depression, and her brother who could not suppress his reward-seeking activity. The story is filled with emotionally wrenching episodes that fill in the details of the main characters. The ending is surprising but provides a satisfying resolution to Gifty‘s approach to life and her challenges with her family members’ experience with overwhelming psychiatric disease.

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Motherless Brooklyn

Lethem, Jonathan

Last Updated: Apr-12-2021
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Lionel Essrog is the narrator and main character of the novel, although when his Tourette syndrome kicks in, he might introduce himself as: “Liable Guesscog, Final Escrow, Ironic Pissclam, and so on” (p. 7). Tourette syndrome is a neurological condition causing involuntary, repetitive movements and vocal sounds (e.g., words, utterances, growls)—tics. 

Lionel lived at the Saint Vincent Orphanage in Brooklyn, New York until a local “penny-ante hood,” Frank Minna, recruited him and three other “white boys” to do his bidding as a “motley gang of high-school-dropout orphans.” (p. 291) Truck piracy was their first line of work, all the while oblivious about why they were moving boxes from one truck to another. Minna expanded his business into more lucrative and dangerous activities under the façade of a limousine service and private detective agency. He gets too close to the sun and is murdered. Lionel liked Minna, who became a father figure to him, accepted his Tourette quirkiness, and even conspired with him to throw their clients off balance when it served their purpose. Though Lionel admitted, “We were as much errand boys as detectives,” he recasts himself as a bona fide detective and makes finding the murderers his raison d’être. (p. 156) 

In typical murder-mystery fashion, Lionel must wend his way through complex relationships and find hidden clues to solve the case. In not-so-typical fashion, he contends with the Tourette syndrome accompanying him; Tourette is a major character in the book. Together, they find who murdered Frank Minna. 

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The Flight Portfolio

Orringer, Julie

Last Updated: Jan-29-2021
Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

It’s 1940, and France has fallen to the Nazis, leaving the country divided between occupied France in the north, and so-called “Free France,” with its government at the spa town of Vichy, in the south.  The Vichy government is headed by Marshall Phillippe Petain, a collaborationist puppet of the Germans running a collaborationist puppet state.  But unlike the north, the south is still technically unoccupied, and people fleeing the Nazis from all over Europe make their way there in the hope of finding a way off the European continent, and so a kind of black market in emigration develops, centered in the port city of Marseille.

Among the groups working out of Marseille is the Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization set up by the journalist and editor Varian Fry and his friends, and with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt.  The ERC has sent Fry to Marseille with a list of names of people to be assisted to emigrate, and the list is a Who’s Who of the European cultural elite:  artists, writers, philosophers, and the like, many of whom are Jewish and/or have opposed the Nazis and are thus wanted by the Gestapo.  It is Fry’s job to shelter them, get them fake transit visas, and ultimately smuggle them out, usually to neutral Spain or Portugal, or even directly to the States.   The Vichy government, which has an agreement with Germany to surrender any identified fugitives, knows this is going on, and together with their German allies, is always hot on the trail of these now stateless refugees, and thus hot on Fry’s trail also. 

The Flight Portfolio is based on several of the thirteen months Fry spent in Marseille as the representative of the ERC.  Along with his staff, he “brings in” (and successfully gets out) Marc Chagall and his wife, Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, Max Ernst, Lion Feuchtwanger, a young Hannah Arendt (“Name?”  “Johanna Arendt.  My friends know me as Hannah”), and others.  All the while, he and his staff are but one step ahead of the agents of Vichy and the Gestapo. And during this time, Chagall has been compiling the flight portfolio, a collection of artworks which testify to the humanitarian crisis in Europe, to be smuggled out as a warning to the free world. 

Complicating the issue—and a major part of the story line—is the fact that Fry, whose wife Eileen had stayed behind in New York City, has reconnected with a Harvard classmate named Elliot Grant with whom he had been romantically involved as an undergraduate.  Grant has come to Marseille to be with Gregor Katznelson, a fellow Columbia University professor who has returned to Europe to find his son Tobias who has disappeared.  Tobias is a brilliant young Berlin physicist and is wanted at all costs by the Gestapo for his scientific acumen and his value to weapons development. Gregor is desperate to secure his safe passage to New York.  Fry promises Grant that he will get Katznelson’s son to safety.  When the elder Katznelson returns to the United States, Fry and Grant resume their relationship, and Varian finds himself becoming increasingly emotionally involved with Grant and distanced from Eileen, although he still loves her.  Ultimately Tobias shows up in Marseille; but there is another fugitive, a world-renowned and respected artist, who has been waiting, is in immediate danger, and needs to get out of Europe.  And only one can leave on the waiting ship.  

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