Showing 11 - 20 of 1277 Fiction annotations

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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The End of Days

MacLaverty, Bernard

Last Updated: Feb-28-2022
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Autumn in Vienna, 1918. Menace circulated in the air itself and fear was rampant as a global pandemic and a World War raged. Egon, an artist, and his wife Edi, six months pregnant, had enough money to live on but hardly any opportunities to spend it. Shortages of coal for heat and flour for bread were continuous. Edi has suddenly become very ill - trouble breathing, loss of appetite, exhaustion, fever, and explosive coughing that produces blood. It is the Spanish flu and pneumonia.

Egon devotedly cares for his sick wife despite her warning, "You will get it from me" (p111). Soon she is unresponsive. As Egon listens for a heartbeat with his ear against Edi's motionless chest, he can only auscultate the distant, faint beat of his unborn child's heart that is quickly silent. He tragically describes Edi's corpse: "Her body being both cradle and coffin, within a minute" (p128). Egon feels compelled to make multiple sketches of his dead wife.

Before long, Egon experiences harsh bouts of coughing, fever, and chills. He becomes remorseful about the drawings he made of Edi and burns them in the kitchen stove. Egon gazes at the fire, knowing he too will die shortly but aware that he will be survived by all his other artwork.

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Seeing Red

Meruane, Lina

Last Updated: Jan-31-2022
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Before it happened there was the dread of it. “They were brittle, those veins that sprouted from my retina and coiled and snaked through the transparent humor of my eye,” says Lina Meruane, the first-person narrator and main character. If those veins burst, Lina could go blind. All that can be done to prevent such a disaster she’s told, “is to keep watch day by day over its millimetric expansions...keep watch over the sinuous movement of the venous web advancing toward the center of my eye.” Adding to her dread are “impossible admonitions to follow.”
Stop smoking...don’t hold your breath, don’t cough, do not for any reason pick up heavy packages, boxes, suitcases. Never ever lean over, or dive headfirst into water. The carnal throes of passion were forbidden, because even an ardent kiss could cause my veins to burst. (p. 5)
And then, “it was happening. Right then, happening” (p. 3). She had only bent over to retrieve a syringe for her scheduled insulin injection. She’s paralyzed. “I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breath while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood (p. 4).

Lina is in the dissertation stage of a PhD degree at a New York City university. The story veers from this pursuit to one of restoring her eyesight. The other primary characters are Lina’s Galacian love interest and fellow academic, Ignacio, who shepherds her through this journey, her New York retinal specialist, Dr. Lekz, and her parents who are both physicians—her father a cardiologist, her mother a pediatrician—practicing in Lina’s native country, Chile.

Soon after the bleeding incident, Lekz tells Lina that at least a month would be needed for her eyes “to clear up so I can take a look at this mess” (p. 32). “Weren’t you going to go to Chile to see your family? Go to Chile. Take a vacation” (p. 33). The story relocates from New York to Santiago, and from Lina’s medical problems to her familial dynamics—“I never wanted you to be my doctor, it’s enough for you to be my father” (p. 50). The visit also becomes a time for Lina—and Ignacio—to see what life might be like if she never regained full sight, and to contemplate options for such an eventuality. She had become “an apprentice blind woman” (p. 20).

Lina and Ignacio return to New York city for the hoped-for reparative surgery. The procedure produces promising signs, but Lina must wait at least the four weeks it takes for Helium gas bubbles to dissipate so Lekz can see the results. During this period, Lina tries to keep her head position down and her spirits up. Often the opposite resulted. Before four weeks passes, however,
Blood, again, in my eye. A fine thread of blood that comes from I don’t know where...I’m watching as the eye watches its thread of blood, looking at everything without ceasing my cries: I’m bleeding I’m bleeding again. (p. 142)
Futility looms, “knowing they were going to operate on me but that no cure existed” (p. 113).  Lina and Lekz consider their options. After Lina’s initial bleeding incident, Lekz had “dropped the phrase transplants in experimental stages” (p. 5). The idea stuck with her. She had spoken about it separately with her mother and Ignacio. Both were fraught conversations. Nevertheless, Lina and Lekz return to the topic.

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Summary:

Mysterious Medicine:  The Doctor-Scientist Tales of Hawthorne and Poe is one in a series of books called Literature and Medicine dedicated to the exploration and explication of the intersection of the two titled disciplines.  This volume, edited by L. Kerr Dunn, looks at the short stories (mostly—it includes one sonnet) of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe from the viewpoint of each author’s use of, and in some cases experiences with, doctors, diseases, and the medical profession.  The volume begins with an Introduction that situates the writings within the medical and social milieu of the period (the authors were contemporaneous) and illustrates the way in which the tales reflect the times.

The stories are grouped by author and arranged chronologically.  Among the nineteen entries included are “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle,” “The Birthmark,” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for Hawthorne, and “The Black Cat,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Berenice,” and “Some Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” for Poe; each entry is preceded by a brief introduction and followed by discussion questions.  An extensive list of scholarly references closes out the volume. 

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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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Queen of the Sugarhouse

Studer, Constance

Last Updated: Sep-14-2021
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Summary:

Constance Studer's engaging "Queen of the Sugarhouse" contains nine short stories ranging in length from 9 to 21 pages, each story complete in itself.  Her nursing expertise is evident in several stories, including "Mercy" (page 3), "Shift" (page 77), "The Isolation Room" (page 95), "Testament" (page 112), "Special Needs" (page 122), and the title story, "Queen of the Sugarhouse" (page 138). 

While many of the stories specifically revolve around medicine or nursing, others examine a variety of issues, often with healthcare peripherally involved. 

In "Shelter" (page 21), a homeless vet who served in the Gulf War struggles with PTSD, the difficulty of obtaining permanent disability, the inability to find work or a suitable living space, and his quest to find treatment for his many physical problems after chemical exposure during Desert Storm.  He sees a different doctor at each appointment and no one truly helps him. "Finding today's meal or bed or beer takes all my energy, leaving me nothing left over for thinking about next week.  I am a veteran and can no longer vote because I have no home" (page 27).  Studer takes us into this man's life and struggles with clarity and empathy.


"Think Beauty" (page 37) questions what makes a woman beautiful (or believe she is beautiful) against a back story examining friendship and all that entails.  "This Middle Kingdom" (page 58) tells a story that encompasses both the heroics of a ski team that saves skiers in distress and how difficult it can be to feel compassion for those who end up in trouble because they flaunt the rules or advice of the experts--a theme quite relevant for our times. 

The book's opening story, "Mercy" (page 3) explores a nurse's various reactions after she makes an error while dispensing medication. As in every story in the collection, multiple themes weave in and out, driven by a character's decision or dilemma.  In "Mercy," we see how medical personnel can truly care for and worry about their patients; how even a small error may cause a nurse deep distress, both for her patient and for her future; how the nursing shortage leads to burnout; and how "real life" continues on in the background, in this case, a passionate love affair that leads both to marriage and to grief.  "Grief is a train that doesn't run on anyone else's schedule" (page 15).

"Shift" (page 76) tells of a physician who is devoted to his work and his patients in the ER ("His white coat flaps, stethoscope bounces as the doctor runs, its weight a comfort, like a rosary for a priest" page 76) while his wife feels neglected.  The story moves between the chaos of the ER and the story of his marriage, a love that began when the doctor was in medical school.  After his wife leaves him, the doctor sleeps with the lights on, hoping she will return.  But whenever he closes his eyes, he only sees scenes from the ER.  The story ends with words the doctor has said so often to a patient: "Please sir, lie still.  I'm going to numb you now.  Hang on, man.  Soon the pain will be gone" (page 93). 

"The Isolation Room" (page 94) follows a woman, a writer, who has been, she believes, placed unnecessarily and mistakenly in a psychiatric ward.  As we read, we wonder if this woman is truly afflicted with a mental disorder or if she is simply extremely imaginative, perhaps betrayed by her husband who arranged for her admission. The main character is likeable, often seemingly sensible, perhaps incredibly but differently talented: "Maybe to be out of her mind meant she'd finally make the leap from logical to intuitive, into her true skin, a room all her own ... a writer, that teller of lies, pursuer of truth by means other than logical, that follower of breadcrumbs through the scary forest wherever they lead?" (page 97).


"Testament" (page 112) follows a student nurse in her first month of training and touches on the care of difficult patients, their various religious beliefs, and how healthcare providers' families are not immune to illness. "Special Needs" (page 121) follows Maria, a waitress with an unexpected pregnancy and wheelchair confined brother. The title story, "Queen of the Sugarhouse" (page 137) is a poignant examination of breast cancer; the terrible trial of chemo and radiation; the complex relationship between the suffering mother and her daughter, a nurse; and how life changes when the drama of uneasy but genuine love and relationship ends.  "I think I hear Mama's voice, then
realize it's only the sound of water over rocks.  Tears are this river carrying me forward" (page 153).


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