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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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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This engaging and informative book describes the latest scientific understanding of the brain, primarily in humans, but also in other animals. The author, a leading brain researcher, writes clearly and often with humor. 

As Barrett explores the deep history of brains, she emphasizes that as much as some humans may prize thinking, the brain’s central task is not thinking but monitoring and guiding—day and night—the many systems of the body. Brains of all creatures manage a “budget” for various factors such as water, salt, glucose, blood gases, etc., to create an on-going fitness against any future threats.

Our brains and bodies are interlinked, interactive, and unified, not the “triune” brain Carl Sagan popularized in 1977. All animal brains have similar neurons, and all mammals share a “single manufacturing plan” for brain development after birth. Babies’ brains develop according to their genes and in response to their environment, especially to their caregivers. Human brains have flexible networks much like the global air-travel system and can vary from person to person and, individually, over time because of brain plasticity.           

Our individual brains influence—even create—our perceptions and relate to brains of other people through family, language, gesture, culture, and more. Barrett concludes, “Social reality is a superpower that emerges from an ensemble of human brains. It gives us the possibility to chart our own destiny and even influence the evolution of our species” (p. 123). 

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Holding the Man

Armfield, Neil

Last Updated: Jan-10-2021
Annotated by:
Brinker, Dustin

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

This film chronicles the short lives of two Australian gay men from their teenage years into the AIDS epidemic. Following the perspective of Timothy Conigrave (Ryan Corr), the audience witnesses the beginning of his relationship with John Caleo (Craig Scott) at an all-boys school in Melbourne during the 1970s. The two lead distinctly different lives: Timothy is a typical, sexually charged teenager involved in theatre, while John is a subdued, Catholic rugby player. With the help of three female friends, Tim finds himself kissing John at a private dinner party, beginning a stereotypically endearing teenage romance. Alas, their idyll dissolves with John’s father’s discovery of a love letter. He forbids the two from seeing each other, but being typical teenagers, the two disregard his wishes. They continue to date into college. While John is content with their relationship, Timothy expresses his desire to branch out, both in his romantic and professional lives. He applies to and is accepted by NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) and asks John for a separation while there. Tim, now unencumbered by a relationship, sleeps around in a montage of homoerotic encounters. Eventually Tim and John get back together, but their relationship, like those of most other homosexual men at that time, has become haunted by an insidious illness: HIV. On a seemingly routine check in 1985, both men are diagnosed positive. They assume that John was infected first given his worse lab values; however, Tim returns to his parents’ place for a wedding a few years later only to discover from the Red Cross that he was likely positive in 1981. Tim and John spend roughly the next decade in and out of the hospital, John’s condition being markedly worse than Tim’s. John dies in 1992. Tim is acknowledged as a “friend” in the funeral to appease John’s religious family despite their 15-year-long relationship. Having worked as a writer and activist since leaving NIDA, Tim makes use of his skill to write a memoir with John as the subject. Tim completes the memoir in 1994 Italy and dies ten days later.

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Carlo Cipolla chronicles the 1630 bubonic plague outbreak in Northern Italy. At various places in the text, he refers to his compact volume as an “essay,” a “tale,” and a “book.” Readers during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic could call it a “prologue,” a “warning,” or a “horror story foretold.”  

The plague ravaged much of Northern Italy from 1630 to 1631. Cipolla focuses on a particular village, Monte Lupo, because “so exceptionally rich is the documentation of [its] story that it allows the historian to recapture emotions, attitudes, and behavior of common people.” The documentation led him to uncommon detail “on the relationship between Faith and Reason, Church and State at a social level” (p. ix). 

Reading like an historical essay, Cipolla first sets up the tensions arising between the Church and State Church during the plague epidemic. The “scientific revolution” had advanced enough by 1630 that regional Health Magistrates acted based on experience rather than faith. Most clergy and their followers still “preferred to believe rather than observe…[and] had not the slightest doubt: processions and similar ceremonies were the only way to placate divine wrath and put an end to the scourge” (p. 7). But, the divide between Church and State in this case is not so clear as that, Cipolla notes, because some of the senior Health Magistrates served as high-ranking church leaders themselves. 

Cipolla points to public health measures taken in Northern Italy before the 1630 plague outbreak that might have, ironically, heightened tensions, even though they were born from the terror and suffering epidemics caused during the previous two centuries. The changes that resulted were, in Cipolla’s view, “a strange mixture of brilliant intuition, sound common sense, and absurd prejudice” (p. 12). However rational these measures seemed, “they caused great misery and severe privations [through] the segregation of entire families in their homes, the separation of kindred in the horror of the pesthouses, the closing of markets and trade, the consequent lack of work and wide-spread unemployment, the burning of furnishings and goods” (p. 13). By the time the plague took hold in 1630, necessary public health measures were already unpopular.
 

Cipolla uses the walled-village Monte Lupo as his case study. Around 150 families lived inside its walls when the plague struck during the summer of 1630. He details how Health Magistrates struggled to gain control of the outbreak while facing open rebellion fueled by “ignorance, egoism, avarice, and bullying” (p. 14). He names and profiles key figures and describes various events. 

The central event in Cipolla’s tale is a “procession” in Monte Lupo featuring a crucifix people believed had “miraculous properties” (p. 41). The Health Magistracy took aggressive actions to prevent and then stop the procession. Alas, Cipolla reports: “All this was in vain. It was like preaching to the wind: the church was soon packed with men and women, boys and girls, who had come to gaze at and adore the crucifix,” (p. 47). Festivities carried into the evening and on to a neighboring town (San Miniatello). Mayhem, illness, and death ensued. 
 

The last death in Monte Lupo occurred on August 11. Cipolla follows the subsequent investigations searching for people encouraging exposure to a lethal, contagious disease, and for people who became infected and died as a result. He reflects on the juxtaposition of epidemiological methods used to stop the epidemic and the fight religious leaders and followers waged against them. He muses about “emotions, attitudes, and behavior of all segments of a society in a period distant in many ways from our own” (p. 85). Written in 1977, the objects of his musing were only four decades distant from becoming evident again. 

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Global Healing

Thornber, Karen

Last Updated: Dec-14-2020
Annotated by:
Bruell , MS, Lucy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Karen Thornber is the Harry Tuchman Levin Professor in Literature and Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. In this expansive nearly 700 page book, she draws on work from global literature to explore the many ways societies view illness, stigma and healing.  She defines global literature as “narratives that grapple with challenges and crises that have global implications or counterparts globally, whether at present, in the past, or likely in the future” (p.10). 

The book is divided into three sections: Shattering Stigmas, in which she looks at Leprosy, AIDS, and Alzheimer’s disease; Humanizing Healthcare; and Prioritizing Partnerships.  Among the topics she addresses are patient-focused care as an imperative, the need to advance partnerships in caregiving, and support that extends beyond family and friends to the patient’s relationships with health professionals.  Healing, she notes, involves “changing the circumstances that exacerbate or even trigger a health condition, enabling the individual to obtain long-term wellbeing liberated from as much distress, if not disease, as possible.” (P331).

Thornber has selected literature that addresses the illness experience and the need to reduce suffering and promote healing, which she places within three interwoven  frameworks:  “Societies/communities, healthcare settings, and families/ friendships” (p.583).  She looks at both positive approaches to care as well as the negative impact of suffering, whether from stigma, inaccessibility to care, or dehumanized care. The book considers literary works from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania, many that will be new to readers.  

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Annotated by:
Zander, Devon

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

House on Fire:  The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox is a memoir written by William H. Foege, the physician best known for developing the strategy of ring-vaccination in the eradication of smallpox.  Concisely put by New Scientist, his book is “a mixture of memoir, dry public health guide, and riveting tale of an all-consuming mission.”   

Though a brief read, House on Fire is comprehensive on each of these fronts.  Foege walks us through his life, starting first with his upbringing in Washington state and ending with his role in India as part of the smallpox eradication team there.  Notably, the book’s narrative ends before Foege’s tenure as CDC Director in the late 1970s and early 1980s, focusing explicitly on his involvement in combating smallpox.  Using his career in public health as a framework, he details how he became involved in global health and how each deployment around the world, whether for the CDC, WHO, or Peace Corps, added to his understanding of contagious disease and of how to better approach smallpox containment.  Ever the epidemiologist, Foege does not shy away from including graphs and charts to emphasize his points, especially as they relate to public health data collection.  He takes the reader behind the scenes of conferences, regular meetings, and everyday discussions to show the collaboration necessary for global health work, the planning needed, and the good-natured humor and guile it often requires.  At times, his interactions seem like a who’s who of American public health:  throughout his career, he works with D.A. Henderson, Alexander Langmuir, David Sencer (who also writes the book’s foreword), and Don Francis.  

Outside of his own history, Foege acknowledges that in order to understand smallpox and to understand the mission of eradication it is necessary to understand the disease’s complex history.  He begins the book with the history of smallpox and details the development of the vaccine from its crude precursor, variolation, to Edward Jenner’s early version derived from cowpox.  As he progresses through his story, he notes important historical moments in the battle against smallpox:  the development of the jet injector and bifurcated needle as ways to better administer the vaccine, the elimination of the virus first from countries and then whole continents, and, most poignantly, the final cases of smallpox ever recorded.  

Though the book necessitates some level of public health knowledge, or at least a comfort with viral disease and baseline public health interventions, it consolidates its role as a basic public health guide at the appendix.  In the last pages, Foege reflects on what to do if there were ever a bioterror attack with smallpox, complete with a diagram on how to administer the smallpox vaccine.  

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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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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

The author, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, says his book title “is a terrible question” (p. 1), because “it is not possible to select the best health care system overall.” However, he continues, “it is possible and reasonable to make judgments about better and worse systems” (p. 351), such as considering “which country has the best consumer choice,…the most innovative health care system,…or best addresses the needs of chronically ill patients” (p. 7). And, that’s what he does.

Emanuel and his research partners compare eleven, high-income countries: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, France, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, and China. They examine eight content areas: history; coverage; financing; payment; the delivery of care; prescription drug regulation; human resources; and future challenges. These content areas serve as the subject headings for the chapters covering each country. In the penultimate chapter, “Who’s the Best?,” Emanuel assesses and judges each content area across countries. (Spoiler alert: the United States does not fare well.) The concluding chapter is built around “six lessons for improving the US health care system” (p. 385), followed by a coda where Emanuel considers how his findings relate to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Beautiful Boy

van Groeningen, Felix

Last Updated: Nov-30-2020
Annotated by:
Brinker, Dustin

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

David Sheff (Steve Carell) and Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) never had a stereotypical father-son relationship, one moment sharing a joint by a Volvo 240, another speaking Klingon in a small-town café in California. The fallout of divorce proceedings and long-distance shared custody seemed to solidify their relationship further; only Nic’s summer and holiday stays in LA with his mother could separate him from his journalist father–that is, until he starts experimenting with drugs. Beginning with marijuana and alcohol, Nic eventually finds himself using meth in his teens, his intellectual precocity feeding an existential need to escape. His substance use disorder, with meth at the forefront, takes hold of his life. Over the course of roughly five years, Nic fluctuates between relapse and sobriety, resulting in two failed attempts at college, multiple instances of theft and deceit, a car chase, and a hospital admission, supposedly at Bellevue Hospital. David Sheff is all the while present to varying degrees, supporting his son in his efforts at rehabilitation while being decimated by anxiety over his child’s well-being and multiple disappearances. His concern often undermines his other responsibilities, namely being fully present in the lives of his current wife, Karen, and his two young children, Jasper and Daisy. This tension reaches its climax when Nic’s mom calls David imploring for help in getting Nic treatment. David, having reached a breaking point, refuses, saying, “I don’t think you can save people” [01:42:33]. Soon thereafter, Nic graphically overdoses for the second time and miraculously survives. The film ends with David and Nic embracing in the courtyard of a rehab facility while the second movement of Górecki's Symphony no. 3 plays in the background. Before the credits, the audience learns that, at the time of the film’s final production, Nic had been sober for 8 years.  

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Funeral Mass

PK, Page

Last Updated: Nov-16-2020
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

"Funeral Mass" is a 23- line poem consisting of 11 couplets and one single line (line 8) - all in free verse, unrhymed. It describes a church funeral service for an infant with both parents and family/friends in supportive attendance. Its primary focus is the contrast between the parents' reactions to this death and the behavior of the officiating priests representatives of a Christian denomination, most likely the Roman Catholic Church, since the priests are wearing stoles "embroidered by nuns".

P. K. Page was a Canadian poet and painter who had an intense interest in the mundane aspects of life which, through her microscopic observation and terse but rich style, converted into lapidary poetic gems.






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