Showing 1 - 10 of 605 annotations in the genre "Novel"

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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The City We Became

Jemisin, N.K.

Last Updated: Dec-07-2020
Annotated by:
McClelland, Spencer

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This is the first in an intended trilogy of speculative fiction (read: what we used to struggle to label as sci-fi or fantasy). by author N.K. Jemisin.  It tells the story of a world where cities can come alive, not in the corporeal sense, and not in this universe, but in a way that intersects nonetheless with our reality.  The trouble is, not all cities distinguish themselves enough to be born, and those that do often are interrupted in the process and suffer a stillbirth.  We are plopped down in New York City at the moment of its intended birth, in a struggle between the city, its six human avatars (one for each borough, and one for the city as a whole) and the otherworldly force that is trying to destroy it.  

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Hamnet

O'Farrell, Maggie

Last Updated: Oct-19-2020
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The underlying premise of this engrossing book is the well documented historical fact that William Shakespeare had a young son who died at age 11, relatively early in his father’s theatrical career. The son, named Hamnet, was one of twins born to William and Agnes Hathaway (O’Farrell refers to her as Agnes rather than Ann based on some public records) in 1585. The cause of death is unknown, but O’Farrell imagines that he fell victim to the plague. She weaves an electric narrative that begins with Shakespeare as an educated young man who is a teacher and private tutor to children in Stratford-on-Avon. His relationship with his glove maker father who has fallen on hard times is at a near break point. In the past, Shakespeare’s father had been an important town official but because of a mixture of misguided business deals and bad behaviors, he has become an object of public scorn. His rage at this reversal of fortune is directed at his bookish son. But then, Shakespeare meets Agnes Hathaway. She is 8 years older than William but entrances him with her unconventional personality and her exotic skillset including bee keeping and an uncanny ability to heal people with herbal remedies. They marry and have their first child 6 months later to be followed in short order by twins, Hamnet and Judith.

Agnes recognizes William’s unique potential and supports his choice to leave his family and head off to London to make his name in the theater world. Shakespeare rarely returns home to Stratford, and we only learn of his growing success indirectly. Agnes is forced to raise her children as a single parent and has to deal with her overwhelming grief when Hamnet dies. As she mourns the loss of her son, she is overcome with doubt about the fidelity of her absent husband, and her faith in their marriage is threatened. Ultimately, Agnes is given a playbill featuring the production of a new play written by her husband and she sets off on a trip to London to confront him on his own turf. She arrives uninvited at the Globe Theater in time to witness a performance of the play in which her husband has been able to channel his own grief at the loss of his son into one of the enduring literary works in the Western canon.

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Transcendent Kingdom

Gyasi, Yaa

Last Updated: Oct-12-2020
Annotated by:
Martel, Rachel

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Transcendent Kingdom opens with a reminder that the past rarely stays put. Gifty, a sixth year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University School of Medicine, is reckoning with a relapse of her mother’s depression. After years of remission, Gifty’s mother is unable to get out of bed, and Gifty decides that she should come stay with her in California. With her mother lying in her bed at home, Gifty’s work in the neuroscience lab is charged with a weight beyond that of a typical student trying to publish papers and make it to graduation. Her study of the neural circuits that underlie reward seeking behavior and addiction in mice not only applies to her mother’s disease, but also to the impetus for her mother’s first depressive episode—her cherished older brother Nana’s long struggle with opioid addiction and death by heroin overdose. As Gifty, long accustomed to keeping her emotions to herself and clutching her past close to the chest struggles to keep her mother afloat, she reflects on how her past continues to hold power and relevance.           

The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Gifty grew up in the predominantly white community of Huntsville, Alabama. Homesick and miserable amid a climate of overt racism and everyday micro-aggressions, Gifty’s father abandoned the family to return to Ghana, leaving four-year-old Gifty and 10-year-old Nana to be raised by their mother. Wryly referred to as “The Black Mamba” by Gifty, their mother, an enigmatic mix of deep tenderness and removed resolve, works long hours as a home health aide to make ends meet. A deeply religious woman, she finds solace in The First Assemblies of God Church, a Pentecostal congregation that, at times, seems to be the only thing keeping her afloat. Gifty, too, is deeply pious as a child. Continuously striving to be good and consumed by questions about God, she writes to God in her journal in an attempt to find religion in the everyday.            

Yet Gifty’s faith starts to fracture in early adolescence. Her brother Nana, a basketball star and hometown hero, becomes addicted to prescription opioids following an injury on the court. The ensuing years of conflict overwhelm Gifty with feelings of shame, and sometimes even hatred towards her brother. This, combined with increasing recognition that her religious community—so reverent of Nana when he was healthy and so quick to give up on him when he became ill—is not the bastion of morality she once idealized it to be, prompts Gifty to reevaluate her upbringing. When Nana dies and her mother sinks into a depression that culminates in a suicide attempt, Gifty gives up on religion altogether.              

As a college student at Harvard, Gifty continues to eschew overt religious affiliation. Still, she can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to be understood about the human experience. Call it the soul, call it the mind, call it the sub-conscious, Gifty longs to understand the neurologic underpinnings of the behavioral choices that make us who we are. She ultimately chooses to study neuroscience because its rigor appeals to her—if she can decipher which neurons control the behaviors that led to her brother’s addiction, then maybe those behaviors can be changed and controlled. But the more experiments she conducts the more she is forced to grapple with the fact that science can only take her so far. Reconciling her prior absolute belief in God with her current scientific practice isn’t as easy as switching one for the other. Maybe, transcending to a higher level of understanding requires a merging of the two, a recognition that understanding ourselves takes, and is in it of itself, an act of faith.      

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Blue Ticket

Mackintosh, Sophie

Last Updated: Sep-07-2020
Annotated by:
Martel, Rachel

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In Blue Ticket, Sophie Mackintosh constructs a dystopian vision of modern life for women. Ambiguously set in space and time (given the technology presented we know it takes place around the present day, and not much else), Mackintosh’s universe is one in which a girl’s destiny is set at the time of her first period, when she receives either a white ticket or a blue ticket from the government. These designations are supposedly based on intense scrutiny from the State, and they determine the path each woman will lead. White ticket women, as they’re called, are destined for motherhood, having been deemed worthy of childrearing. Blue ticket women, implanted with a permanent intrauterine device and forbidden from getting pregnant, are bound for the working world, bound for a "free" life that "could change at any time." Each girl must leave her family to start a new life after her ticket is drawn, and the white tickets and blue tickets immediately diverge. The white ticket girls are ferried safely to their destination cities, while the blue ticket girls must brave the open road on foot and alone, fighting for survival and the privilege of an adult life.            

We meet Calla, the narrator, as she teeters on the brink of menarche. One by one her female classmates have disappeared from around her, and she is one of only three girls left in school when her period finally arrives. She draws a blue ticket, and embarks on a new life as a chemist, initially living the free and unencumbered life that blue ticket women are supposed to lead. Yet desire for a child smolders inside her, a “dark” feeling that crawls under her skin until it is impossible to ignore. Desperate, Calla removes her IUD and finds a man, known only as R, to unwittingly father her child. When R learns what she has done he turns his back on her, disgusted by her aberrant behavior.            

Calla’s illicit pregnancy is communicated to the government by her doctor, known as Doctor A. In this world, citizens are required to meet with their doctor regularly, and the doctors, who act as a hybrid between therapist and primary care provider, report their patients’ thoughts and behaviors to the government. Doctor A offers to terminate the pregnancy with no consequences, but Calla refuses, a decision from which there is no coming back. Calla is provided with a backpack of basic survival tools and a map, and told that she must be prepared to flee to the border at any moment—the government will give her a head start to reward her years of loyal service, but even so, they’re sure to find her before she can cross.                  

The question of what will happen if she is caught haunts Calla as her pregnancy progresses and she awaits the signal to flee. When it finally arrives, in the form of government emissaries on her doorstep, Calla’s final view of her old life as she speeds away is of her neighbors destroying her home. On the road, Calla is once again alone and vulnerable. Strangers, eager to take advantage of a lone woman, pose a more immediate threat than the government. Yet Calla’s outlook takes a turn for the better when she meets Marisol, a self-assured blue ticket woman who is also pregnant and headed for the border. The two protect each other, and as time goes on they are joined by other blue ticket women on the run, and one white ticket woman, who fears returning to her husband after an illegal abortion. Determined to escape the lives chosen for them, their freedom rests not only on their individual tenacity, but also on their ability to help each other. Yet the question of who to trust looms large, and casts a shadow as they flee towards a new life.

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