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Three Poems by Felice Aull

Aull, Felice

Last Updated: Jul-12-2021
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Poet Felice Aull has three poems in "Lullabies & Confessions," an anthology of poems about parenting published by University Professors Press. In her poems, Aull often bravely sheds her professional mantle to reveal personal experiences, deeply observed.

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East West Street and Ratline

Sands, Philippe

Last Updated: Jun-28-2021
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

The literature on the Holocaust is vast and has been examined from every angle. One might think that nothing more could be written on the topic or that there could be no new perspectives on this horrific event that occurred less than 100 years ago. But Philippe Sands would prove you wrong. In these two linked books, he tells an extraordinary real life story that combines personal experience and world history into a narrative that is as powerful as any novel.

East West Street is the first in this unplanned sequence of books. It recounts how Sands received an invitation to an academic conference and traveled to Lemberg, Poland (modern-day Lviv, Ukraine), where his family came from. His seemingly clear-cut goal was to understand what happened to his relatives and why his grandfather Leo Buchholz was the only survivor. As he digs deeper into his family’s tragic story, he learns that two men, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, attended the same university in Lemberg as his grandfather and at about the same time after World War I.  The three men did not know each other and Lauterpacht and Lemkin are not household names. However, Sands underscores their importance in coming to grips with the Holocaust and skillfully weaves the two men’s stories together.

As his grandfather struggled to escape the ravages of the German occupation of Europe, Lauterpacht and Lemkin were already thinking about how to punish the Nazis for their wartime crimes. According to international law before these two men arrived on the legal scene, state sovereignty was uncontested and leaders could do whatever they wanted to their citizens without fear of external intervention. Lauterpacht coined the term “crimes against humanity” to provide an international framework to prosecute the Nazi leaders, and Lemkin devised the term “genocide” to create a new crime that transcended national boundaries. Sands describes how these two vastly different men struggled to get their terms incorporated into the formal charges against the Nazis by the team of lawyers that represented the victorious nations at the Nuremberg tribunal. In the course of his investigation, Sands meets Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, who supervised the extermination of the Jewish population in Lemberg and the surrounding area and who was one of the 23 defendants in the Nuremberg trial. Niklas is contrite and rejects his father because of his monstrous crimes. However, he introduces Sands to Horst Wachter, the son of Otto Wachter, Hans Frank’s chief deputy, who was primarily responsible for implementing the Final Solution on the ground.

This is where Ratline picks up the tale. In this sequel, Sands describes in more detail what happened to his own family, while Otto Wachter climbed higher in the Nazi hierarchy. Sands describes Wachter’s growing family and his infidelities. He documents how his wife ignored Otto’s behavior and military activity while benefiting from all the perks that came her way because of her husband’s efficiently murderous success. Wachter was forced to run for his life when the war ended and spent almost a year hiding out in the mountains of central Europe to escape capture. When it appeared safe, he traveled to Rome to take advantage of the “ratline” of the title to escape and find refuge in South America. Through the conniving of Vatican officials, American counterintelligence officers, and others he almost succeeded. But he died in mysterious circumstances before he could leave Rome. There is an extraordinary and logic-defying linkage between the families that comes to light because of Sands’ meticulous detective work, and it rivals anything a screenwriter could dream up.

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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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Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

John Barry’s The Great Influenza is a deep dive into the history of the influenza pandemic of 1918.  But it is not simply a deep dive into the purely medical aspects of that history—as no medical histories truly are—but is in addition an exploration of the social and political currents of the time that coexisted with and facilitated the pandemic. 

Although his story opens with the establishment of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1876, Barry immediately takes a detour into the history of medicine dating back to Hippocrates, and traces the history of medical/scientific thought from Ancient Greece to the end of the 19th century.  He then introduces a series of physicians, scientists, and medical researchers who will play their parts in the story of the pandemic (this first section is called “The Warriors”) and outlines their training, research, and interactions.

It isn’t until page 91 that he takes us to the rural Kansas county in which the story of the pandemic begins.  For although it was called the “Spanish Flu,” that was actually an eponym of convenience; in fact, the first cases of pandemic flu seem to have arisen on the American prairie.  However, newspaper reporting on the new pandemic was felt by the Allies and Central Powers alike to be contrary to the public interest (the war was still raging), so it was left to neutral Spain, whose king had come down with the disease, to publish the early reports.  In this section, “The Swarm”, Barry also briefly reviews the basic (not to worry, very basic) microbiology of viruses and the history of some prior pandemics.  He follows this with the section called “The Tinderbox,” in which he traces the events leading up to the entry of the United States into World War I, and the importance of that war and the political and social conditions surrounding it in the history of the pandemic.  From here on in the influenza itself takes center stage; in sections called “It Begins,” “Explosion,” “Pestilence,” “The Race,” and “The Tolling of the Bell,” the rapid and lethal course of the pandemic is described in gripping (no pun intended) detail.  The last two sections discuss the scientific advances (and some false starts) brought about by the cadre of researchers working day and night to tame the outbreak, and then Barry finally turns to the retreat of the virus and ultimate end of the pandemic.  The book ends as it began, returning to the stories of the individual men and women of science who engaged in the battle to beat the disease of which it had initially been said by many that “[t]his was, after all, only influenza.”  

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Annotated by:
Clark, Mark

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The title of this memoir derives from the Native American custom of bending a tree’s growth in order to indicate a direction of safe passage.  The custom represents a reverent cooperation with nature through which a compassionate communication is accomplished: a message to other journeying souls as to how they might find a way to their flourishing.  The title is exquisitely apt for this memoir, which echoes the gesture of the arrow tree, testifying to a safe passage through the wilderness of COVID.  The author, a first-rate, published Victorian scholar, contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 upon her return from a sabbatical at the University of Cambridge, which was cut short as a result of the pandemic. 

Weliver has suffered from symptoms ever since: hers is the experience of living with long COVID.  The condition warrants her taking a leave from her university, and she returns to her childhood home of Interlochen, in northern Michigan.  Her living in and engaging with the natural world there encourages her to undertake meditations about that world and her place in it as she lives with her illness.  The writing—the foundational means of her healing—inclines her, crucially, to think with the stories of the Odawa (Ottawa) and the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Anishinaabek ("Original Man") of the region, which she researches as a means of deepening her understanding of her home, her origins, and the nature of her identity.  Her quest for understanding turns not only to these stories, but to an integration of them with the wisdom of other guides in her life: authors of the Romantic and Victorian periods, poets and thinkers of Taoism and other ancient Eastern philosophies, mentors in her rich journey of studying both literature and music (she attended Interlochen Center for the Arts, Oberlin, where she double-degreed in English Literature and Voice (Music), Cambridge, and the University of Sussex), and her own family, particularly her mother.  Her prose is accessible and welcoming, not at all the erudite sort one might anticipate from a reputable scholar: it invites curiosity and encourages insight that is, at times, breathtaking and joyous.  This “arrow tree” memoir points its readers in the direction of a safe passage to the home of our natural world, where, in finding union with that world, we may experience healing not only from COVID but from habits of the heart that have left us more broken than we know.

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Hair

Corso, Gregory

Last Updated: Apr-25-2021
Annotated by:
Mahl, Evan

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

The poem, through an account of the narrator’s experiences with losing hair, explores issues such as aging, sexuality, and our impotence when faced with the vagaries of nature as it transforms our bodies. Ranging from ancient Egyptian lore to dime store pharmacies, Corso weaves a kaleidoscope of images about how humans treat and worry about their hair and how hair has been a mythopoetic vehicle for millennia.Much of the poem employs angry though humorous language whereby the narrator speaks to his hair and pleads with the gods to reverse his fate. Corso writes, "To lie in bed and be hairless is a blunder only God could allow--"; and later, "Damned be hair! . . . Hair that costs a dollar fifty to be murdered!" The poem ends with an angry diatribe against hair and an inspired denigration of its mythological power.

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Parenthesis

Durand, Élodie

Last Updated: Apr-23-2021
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

Judith, a French woman in her early twenties, experiences "spells" - episodes of shaking, staring, and sudden memory loss. These spells occur daily and her behavior becomes erratic. She visits a neurologist. He diagnoses epileptic seizures and prescribes medication. Yet the convulsions continue so Judith's drug dose is upped and an MRI of the brain is done.

The MRI scan finds a small tumor that appears inoperable. A brain biopsy reveals an astrocytoma. Judith's life now revolves around her illness and the medical monitoring of it. Time feels distorted, and she likens her seizures to "a little death." Everyday life becomes blurred. She is advised to see a neuropsychiatrist. Her parents worry about her constantly.

Eventually Judith is referred for Gamma Knife radiosurgery. Eighteen months after the procedure is completed, only a tiny scar at the site of the tumor remains. Three years following the treatment, the seizures are gone. She rediscovers the joy of life and embraces a hopeful future.

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Summary:

Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD, is a Black social psychiatrist with wide-ranging interests; her book analyzes factors that support or diminish the health of cities as places that sustain its citizens. Over many years, she has visited and studied 178 cities in 14 countries, and she draws on the work of experts from several disciplines to address the fundamental question: how may we best live together?  

Her discussion moves through five concepts for understanding the health of a city by describing a dozen cities ranging from Paris to Jersey City. Each features a “Scroll,” a two-page presentation of photos, graphics, and text. Her discussions give an inductive basis for her concepts that become criteria for assessing the health of any city.     

(1) Box (“in all sizes and shapes”): the surrounding shape of buildings, street, and sky; it gives an identity to the city’s center with its useful assets such as stores, post office, bank, food, and entertainment.
(2) Circle: the larger area surrounding a Box—maybe a half a mile in radius. Its health requires ease of travel to and from the box.
(3) Line: usually the Main Street that runs through the box, therefore a central path to town. Good transportation is important, and the main street can be quite long, for example Palisades Avenue in Englewood, New Jersey.
(4) Tangle: a dense network of streets and highways that connect to main streets and the Box.
(5) Time: no city is static; as years go by, there are changes for good or ill.  

Fullilove mentions politics, capitalism, poverty, disincentives, tribalism, racism, highways, malls, interstates, and “urban renewal” that destroyed neighborhoods of minorities, as well as redlining against Blacks and gerrymandering school districts to segregate Black and white students. 

In “Naming and Framing the Problem,” she turns to a larger overview of challenges for cities in many places, but especially in the US:
(1) “deep structure of inequality” (p. 211), such as the legacies of slavery, lynching, the 3/5 Compromise, and the Trail of Tears, as well as white supremacy today (2) ecological damage, including industrial farming, deforestation, and global warming, and (3) the inertia of the status quo. 

Citing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Father Richard Rohr, Fullilove affirms love as the root  for social justice, political activism (p. 211) so that cities might become what Thomas Edison termed “factories of invention” that will support the mental health and well-being of all of its citizens. 
 

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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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Annotated by:
Zander, Devon

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds is Paul Farmer’s latest work exploring the connection between health and the social and historical structures that surround it.  Focusing on how and why Ebola spread in West Africa in 2014, the book is difficult to categorize — it is not only temporally expansive, ranging from the late 15th century to the present day, but it also combines elements of a memoir, an anthropological treatise, and an abbreviated historical text with powerful calls to action in over 500 pages.   

Stemming partially from a desire to fulfill a “personal penance for inaction” during the early days of the outbreak, Farmer chooses to learn about Ebola from “the personal histories of the Ebola dead, of survivors, and of their caregivers.”  Harking back to his days as a college anthropology major, many of the book’s themes, embodied in its title, are introduced via these in-depth interviews.  His two main subjects, Ibrahim and Yabom, are Ebola survivors who, after initially recovering from their illness, make it their work to support other Ebola survivors.  Through their words and narratives, we witness some of what it was like to experience the civil strife that predated the outbreak, see how Ebola expanded from isolated cases to clusters and communities, how family members sick with the disease were cared for, what it meant to survive Ebola, and now what it means to live with its sequelae.  Translation for Farmer was provided by Dr. Bailor Barrie, one of his former students, whose story as a medical student in Sierra Leone during its civil war soon becomes part of the narrative, as well.  Through the words of these three people, pieced together over many extensive conversations, a narrative is developed, allowing those most impacted by Ebola to tell its story. 

Farmer interweaves his first-person perspective with their stories, emphasizing his role in 2014 and how Partners in Health became involved in assisting in the outbreak.  While working in West Africa during the Ebola epidemic, late one night, Farmer mixes up Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Realizing how different their histories are, he vows to “make amends for my ignorance” and transitions from storytelling on the personal level to history-telling on the country level.  To ensure that he, and we, never mix them up again, Farmer traces the histories of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea in four chapters.  During this section, he refers back to the book’s title, taking on the effects of the rise of imperialism, colonization, the use of sanitation/Pasteurian principles, the impact of resource extraction, and much more on each of these nation’s stories and relationships with Ebola.  As he describes it, “if you want to understand the magnitude and dynamics of this Ebola epidemic, in other words, think in terms of fevers, feuds, and diamonds.” 

Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds is bookended with reflections on COVID-19 in the introduction and epilogue.  In the introduction, he reflects on the book’s “obvious implications for our response to COVID-19” and how COVID-19, though different in many ways, shares certain similarities with Ebola — among them, the speculative nature of its origins and the fact that it is a zoonosis.  Most importantly, according to Farmer, treating and managing it will require understanding many of the same “cultural complexities and... challenges” that treating Ebola required.  After taking us on a journey through West Africa and up to 2014, Farmer writes an epilogue reflecting on how the central crisis of Ebola was the prioritization of “containment over care” whereas COVID-19 has become a crisis of containment.  To him, writing this on April 10th, 2020, and to the reader reading it a year later, COVID-19 is seen as partially a disease of healthcare workers’ exposure, and partially a disease of social inequity, but completely a disease whose management, treatment, and eventual control will be defined by the “staff and stuff and spaces and systems” in place and who has access to them.  Even with this pandemic at the forefront of our minds, Farmer reminds us that Ebola should not be off our radar just because a new disease is on it— there continue to be outbreaks of Ebola in the Congo.  Ultimately, Farmer’s words leave you thinking — about this pandemic, about the past, and about the connections between them.  If only to prompt more thought, one of Farmer’s last comments is also his most powerful: “If there’s indeed a lesson to be learned from Ebola, it may be this one:  for everything we do, or say, in pandemic time, let’s keep asking the same question.  Might this help?







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