Showing 1 - 4 of 4 annotations tagged with the keyword "Creativity"

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Historical Fiction

Summary:

When we think of genetics and pedigrees, we expect our traits and characteristics to be passed down in a predictable pattern from parents to children. In his book Far From the Tree , Andrew Solomon labels this transmission from one generation to the next as vertical identity. However, his book focuses on circumstances where inheritance follows what he calls a horizontal pattern. In these cases, the offspring have an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to their parents. They land far from the anticipated spot under the tree canopy and are dramatically different from their parents. He or she must acquire their identity from a peer group that is outside the parents’ experience. One chapter in Solomon’s book focuses on genius as seen through the lens of the violinist Joshua Bell and his family. Most of us would gratefully welcome a child of genius whether in science, architecture, or music and embrace the apple that landed far from the tree. Reading Benjamin Labatut’s riveting book might cause you to rethink this thought experiment.

Nothing will quite prepare you for the literary world that Labatut has invented. It is a unique blend of fact and fantasy, an incremental layering of fictional conceits on known historical details. A stream of people from history pass through the book, some deservedly famous and others more obscure. But all of them are possessed of genius. All of the characters lived through the turbulent first third of the 20th century when quantum mechanics revolutionized the traditional understanding of physics. They confronted the challenge that this new knowledge presented to the grand view that people had held about how the universe was designed and operated.

The book opens with Fritz Haber, whose research on nitrogen fixation chemical reactions provided the basis for the production of fertilizers, pesticides and explosives. Haber’s work had diametrically opposite effects on the course of history. On the one hand, he enabled dramatic increases in agricultural crop yields and prevented global hunger. At the same time, his discoveries increased the carnage in World War I and yielded compounds that led to innumerable deaths by asphyxiation in the trenches in no-man’s land and, later, in the Nazi death camps. There is Karl Schwarzschild who was able to solve Einstein’s equations in the general theory of relativity while fighting in the German front lines during World War I. He identified the potential existence of black holes, Schwarzschild singularities, long before Stephen Hawking made them famous. Alexander Grothendieck, considered the most influential mathematician of the last hundred years, also passes through the pages of Labatut’s book. After an extraordinarily creative career in which he totally upended established concepts in geometry and number theory and other mathematical fields, he ended up abandoning his life’s work. He devoted himself to Buddhism and, retreating to a secluded village in the Pyrenees, he lived out his last years alone and unrecognized. Erwin Schrodinger is forced to enter a Swiss sanatorium to convalesce from tuberculosis. While there, under the influence of a teenage girl similarly afflicted with tuberculosis, he derives his wave equation and the Psi function to explain the wave-particle duality of light and matter. Even Schrodinger is perplexed by this discovery. He cannot reconcile himself fully to the truths of quantum mechanics and spends the rest of his scientific life trying to unify it with Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Finally, towering over the narrative is Werner Heisenberg. He agonizes over the discrepancy between the Newtonian physics that he has learned in the university and what he is uncovering in his research into the subatomic realm. He is overcome in a semi-mystical vision and articulates the uncertainty principle. Heisenberg realized that his matrix mathematics put an end to the stable universe created by the Enlightenment in which everything is governed by rational laws of nature and observable cause and effect.

By focusing on these men (sadly, not a woman among them) of uncommon genius, Labatut vividly illustrates how the gift of deep insight drives intense scientific creativity but also agonizing psychic pain. It is as if the awareness of hidden truths is inextricably linked to human suffering. This summary may sound pedantic and unbearably heavy. Only if you enter into Labatut’s unique literary space will you appreciate the inventiveness and intelligence of this overpowering book, all 191 pages of it. It is well worth the trip.

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One Friday in April

Antrim, Donald

Last Updated: Feb-08-2022
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

As One Friday in April opens, we find Donald Antrim in an agitated state on the roof of his Brooklyn apartment building.  He paces, and alternately climbs down the fire escape, hangs from the railing, and lies on his stomach peering over the ledge.  Repeated outpatient courses of psychotropic medication and psychotherapy have done only so much for his deteriorating mental state, and the situation has come to a head. Disheveled and wild-looking, he manages to return home whereupon his friends take him to a psychiatric hospital.  

A MacArthur Fellow and author of several acclaimed novels, Antrim has previously published a memoir of his upbringing with his alcoholic mother.  In this new memoir, flashbacks of childhood neglect and chaos are juxtaposed with the present day as he takes the reader through the acute phase of his illness:  a lengthy hospitalization, a course of ECT, discharge from the hospital, rehospitalization, and eventual stabilization.   

The author considers his condition to be suicide, noting that “depression is a concavity, a sloping downward and a return.  Suicide, in my experience, is not that.  I believe that suicide is a natural history, a disease process, not an act or a choice, a decision or a wish…I will refer to suicide, not depression” (pp. 14-15).  

The book ends on a hopeful note. After several relationships that might be described as codependent, Antrim meets his current partner, whom he marries.  He sees the roof of his building through his window and remembers a certain Friday in April but is comforted by the sound of his wife playing Chopin and Bach on the piano.  

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Daughter

Davis, Cortney

Last Updated: Jan-17-2022
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

Davis, a nurse practitioner, chronicles her daughter’s life, illness and death at age 54 from cancer. The book consists of three sections, with poems unevenly divided such that of the 30 poems, only one rests in section II. Titled Windmill, this poem forms a fulcrum between the relationship of mother and daughter to one of mother and ill daughter. The windmill is a small gift from her daughter – a reminder of Kansas where the daughter, her husband and children live, thousands of miles from Davis. The collection begins with her ‘soon-to-be born daughter’ (page 15) and ends with The Sacrament of Time, dated months before her daughter’s death from, at this point, a widely metastatic breast cancer. The final poem holds within it an entire world – the birth of the daughter, the fraught frantic mother-to-be pleading for help, the birth of a healthy baby girl, the wonder of the new addition to their family, the travel with the newborn to home, and a reflection on what poems can and cannot do. “Poems cannot // save us, Amichai said, but all I have are these poems” (page 58).  

If the first section details the many ways unconditional love for a child unfolds, through wonders of babyhood, delights of childhood, the harsh lessons of adolescence, and the successful launch, the final section underscores how deep that love runs. As the cancer illness progressed during the pandemic, issues of separation became more acute. Davis marks the numbers affected (illness and death) by coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19) during the pandemic, as her poems follow her daughter’s cancer. These numbers, along with brief quotations from her daughter’s scans and reports, lend a contrast to the evocative imagery and experience of illness in a loved one. Medical mistakes are chronicled as well (see What a Terrible Mistake).  

The collection is dedicated to Davis’ daughter and her daughter’s children. Even the title, Daughter, calls to her, as if addressing her daughter directly. The title also serves to universalize the parenting of a daughter, even as the particulars of this family are detailed.

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How To Be Depressed

Scialabba, George

Last Updated: Nov-28-2021
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Collection (Essays)

Summary:

How To Be Depressed  is a book with a most unusual structure.  It is introduced by an essay entitled “Intake” that was previously published in a literary magazine.  The bulk of the book, “Documentia,” is taken up by an edited selection of the author’s psychiatric records from 1969 to 2016. It is rounded out by an interview with the author and by his “Tips for the Depressed.”   

Author George Scialabba ascribes his “exceptionally flimsy…shock absorbers” to his “constantly worried” parents (p.3).  While studying at Harvard he becomes involved with a strict religious organization. After leaving that group he undergoes a crisis of faith and his first episode of depression. Paralyzed by self-doubt, he drops out of graduate school and begins a cycle of clerical jobs that are beneath his intellectual capability. After many years he gradually wins distinction as a freelance essayist.  However, due to his incapacitating symptoms he never has a steady writing job and has difficulty attaining financial security.  

In his introduction, Scialabba tells us that “the pain of a severe clinical depression is the worst thing in the world.  To escape it, I would do anything” (p.1).  As attested to by the notes of his well-meaning psychiatrists and psychotherapists, he has diligently applied himself to a wide variety of treatments.  Sadly, if anything he gets worse over time, and eventually requires electroconvulsive therapy. 

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