Showing 1 - 10 of 620 annotations in the genre "Novel"

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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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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Station Eleven

Mandel, Emily

Last Updated: Oct-27-2022
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In the not-too-distant future, Arthur Leander, a famous actor, suddenly collapses and dies on a Toronto stage in the final act of King Lear.. That same night the deadly and highly contagious Georgian Flu reaches North America from Russia. Within days, civilization, as we know it, collapses: no electricity, no gasoline, no water, no travel, no Internet, no information, no medicine, and no escape. A handful of survivors hide in their separate lairs, until their resources are depleted and then they flee on foot, at first alone, stealing and foraging for food, trusting no one, and learning to kill. Surviving. The story takes place in Year 20 after the collapse with frequent visits to the past. 

Without realizing it, the protagonists are all connected to Arthur– his ex-wives, young son, best friend, a child actor, the paramedic who tried to resuscitate him at the theatre. Older people remember and mourn the “before time” and its marvels that are lost, perhaps forever. In oppressive heat, a troupe of musicians and actors, called the Traveling Symphony, moves from place-to-place around the Great Lakes, performing music and Shakespeare’s plays because “survival is insufficient.” Usually, they bring pleasure and diversion. But they must take care, as some villages are led by cult-like prophets, intent on control by theft, rape, and murder. Only at the end do they reach Severn City, where a fledging community has created a semblance of peace and respect in an abandoned airport with a museum devoted to all that is lost.

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Hurdy Gurdy

Wilson, Christopher

Last Updated: Oct-14-2022
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Brother Diggery, formerly called Jack Fox, tells us that he was given to the monastic order of St Odo at the age of seven in 1341. For another seven years, he is raised in innocence within the strict rules of the community, serving the brother healer, learning herbal remedies, and playing the hurdy gurdy.  

As plague arrives in 1349, he is assigned to help care for the anticipated sick – and immediately falls ill. The brothers seal him inside his cell, where he suffers greatly, narrowly escaping death; however, when he recovers and forces himself out of confinement, he discovers that everyone else has died or fled. After filling a mass grave with the remains of his brothers, he sets out on a picaresque series of adventures, blithely unaware that he and his fleas spread illness wherever they go.  

Like a fourteenth-century Candide, Brother Diggery’s gullibility and curiosity lead him to discover the wonders of good food, sex, and marriage, the cruelty of lies, theft, and wrongful imprisonment, and the corruption of the church (p. 164). He closes his account in 1352, age 18, already twice widowed, but set for life as a lay physician and father of a young boy whom he plans to give to the monastery of St Odo when he reaches age seven.



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The Way of All Flesh

Parry, Ambrose

Last Updated: Oct-04-2022
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Will Raven is a medical student beginning his apprenticeship with Dr James Young Simpson. He has been involved with a prostitute Evie whom he finds murdered. Simpson’s housemaid, Sarah Fisher, takes a dislike to him, not least because of his educational and social privileges. She is barred from such opportunities because of her gender and class, despite her greater intelligence. Sarah studies medicine on her own. Coming from poverty, Raven is nevertheless, pompous, chauvinistic, quick to fight, and desperate to earn money and status. 

Like Evie, other young girls are being brutally murdered in the Old Town of Edinburgh, and Raven and Sarah are separately motivated to find the killer. Their master, Simpson, is conducting experiments with anesthesia and suspicions are cast upon him. Although Raven and Sarah are part of his household, they find his behavior mysterious. Eventually they collaborate to solve both mysteries.

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Wayward: A Novel

Spiotta, Dana

Last Updated: Sep-29-2022
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Dana Spiotta is one of my favorite authors, so I was poised to read her latest novel, Wayward, when it was published last year. As expected, it captures the zeitgeist perfectly and is marked by Spiotta’s wide-ranging wisdom, versatile knowledge, and literary creativity.

The book takes place in Syracuse shortly after the election of 2016 (although Donald Trump is never mentioned by name). Sam, the central character in the novel, feels caught in an increasingly unsatisfying marriage. Triggered by her post-election anxiety, she abruptly decides to leave her husband  Matt and daughter Ally. On a whim, she purchases a rundown old-style house in a poor neighborhood in Syracuse and moves in to live as a 53-year-old woman on her own, intent on starting a new life. Matt is disconcertingly understanding and supportive, but Ally cannot abide her mother’s abandonment of the family. It is an unwanted distraction from her single-minded devotion to excel in high school and to go to a top-tier college.

Sam works as a volunteer near her new home at a historical site that is dedicated to Clara Loomis, a fictional woman who left her family (shades of Sam!) to join the Oneida community, an egalitarian retreat based on equality between the sexes but also fuzzy notions of eugenics and human breeding. Sam works her way through some edgy women’s groups in search of friendship. She tries to mingle with her neighbors, who are quite different than the people she encountered in her suburban environment. But Sam’s life is complicated. She realizes that her mother, a self-sufficient creative 80-year-old woman, is probably dying from an undisclosed illness. She feels increasingly distant from the daughter that she loves so intensely, a  problem that her defection to the inner city has only made worse. And Ally has her own precocious story, a secret life, which is told from her perspective, but which is tightly linked with her mother’s narrative of inner growth.

Sam witnesses a police shooting of a Black adolescent, an immigrant from Somalia, while walking near her house during a restless night. While Sam struggles to find a way to articulate what she saw and help achieve some degree of justice for the victim, she experiences an unexpected “assault.” No spoiler alert, except to say that the ending gathers the narrative stands together and is quite satisfying. It is grand in scope and affirms the value of simple human endurance.

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Barefoot Doctor: A Novel

Xue, Can

Last Updated: Sep-06-2022
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Yun Village, China is a remote town near the mountains. Its 2,438 inhabitants are mostly poor but remarkably optimistic and stoic. Ancestors from the spirit realm visit the hamlet and roam the mountainside. The living and the dead appear to communicate with relative ease. Mrs. Yi (Chunxiu), more than fifty years old, is the village's vibrant "barefoot doctor" - an essentially self-taught healthcare provider with only six months of formal medical training under her belt. Yi's husband is quite supportive of her work. Their only child died at age two.

Yi is revered for her knowledge, patience, and compassion. Most afflictions she treats are chronic diseases, but Yi also delivers babies, cares for children with measles, and counsels a woman who attempted suicide. The therapeutic benefit of attentive, concerned listening along with reassurance are evident in her interactions with patients.

Traditional Chinese herbs, acupuncture, and Western medicine are all in the healer's armamentarium. Yi cultivates herbs and also forages on the mountain for other useful plants. She supposes, "Sickness and herbs are lovers" (p244). As Yi grows older, the need for a successor - a devoted, younger barefoot doctor - is always on her mind. She successfully identifies candidates, then inspires and mentors them.


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Behold the Dreamers

Mbue, Imbolo

Last Updated: Jul-05-2022
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In the basement of the apartment building where I live, down the hall from the small exercise room, there are two plain wooden bookcases. Each one has five shelves, and they are filled to overflowing with books that people have finished reading and that are now available for the taking. The books cover the gamut of fiction to history to self-help and everything in between. Under pressure to unclutter our apartment, I have added about 30 books to this library. The books do not come with any recommendation and so there is no way to know if the original owners liked the book or got rid of it because they could not get passed the first chapter. I am a frequent borrower. About two weeks ago, I scanned the shelves again and on one of the lower shelves, I noticed this book by Imbolo Mbue. I remembered that one of her books had been selected by the editors of the New York Times as one of the Best Books of the year 2021 so I picked up this earlier book. Two weeks later, I am here to report that I am glad I did.

The novel is a moving story of two families whose fates get intertwined in the year 2008. One family is a couple, Jende and Neni Jonga, with their 6-year-old son. They have recently come to the United States from Cameroon. They chose to try their luck in New York in the hope of escaping the dreary life that they see in their future if they stayed where they were. The other family, Clark and Cindy Edwards, is a wealthy couple living in a posh apartment on the upper East Side of Manhattan. They seem to have it all -- health , wealth, and the freedom to do whatever they want. Clark is a high-level executive at Lehman Brothers, and he interviews Jende for a job as his chauffeur in the opening chapter. Jende gets the job, and it is a game changer for the Jongas. It gives Jende the self-confidence that he is a traditional provider for his family and allows Neni to enroll in school and actualize her goal of becoming a pharmacist. For both of them, they can feel more comfortable with the idea of a growing family. They have received their ticket to the American dream.

However, while the Edwards are the picture of success to all who see them at the glamorous parties and fund raisers they host and attend, there are cracks beneath the surface of their dream life. Clark is working 16-hour days to try to stave off the imminent bankruptcy of Lehman and the financial collapse that will follow in its wake. Cindy is a psychologically traumatized person who struggles to keep her family whole and provide a loving and safe haven for her two sons. Ultimately, Clark is forced to leave Lehman and take up a job at Barclays Bank. His wife suspecting infidelity ultimately succumbs to drug and alcohol abuse. The Jendes lose their financial footing and are forced to confront the question -- where will they be best able to live wholesome lives of meaning and self-worth? They have to decide whether to persevere and try to make things work in New York or whether to return to their native country, Cameroon. The book ends with a question from the Jongas’ older son to his parents, “Home?” Mbue artfully asks this same question to  her readers.

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Wild Boy

Dawson, Jill

Last Updated: Jun-15-2022
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Young doctor Jean-Marc Itard is serving in the Paris home for deaf-mute children. When a “wild boy” without speech is found near a village in Aveyron, France, Itard accepts the challenge of educating him. Many senior colleagues, including Philippe Pinel, opine that it will be impossible, even when Itard determines that the boy is not deaf. The lad, now named Victor, seems to be about ten years old, but his small size owing to malnutrition may be deceptive; he quickly reaches puberty. Helped by the care and empathy of the home’s housekeeper, Madame Guérin, and Julie, her daughter, Victor learns to perform several domestic tasks but manages to speak only a few words.

 His situation is a mystery. Caregivers marvel at how he had been able to survive alone in the woods for several years. They wonder if he ran away from an abusive home, or if he was deliberately abandoned because of his disability. A crisis emerges when a woman appears claiming to be his relative. Itard eventually abandons the effort to educate Victor, but he is allowed to continue living with the Guérins.

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