Showing 31 - 40 of 2888 Literature annotations

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

At 23 years of age, Caitlin Doughty went to work for a crematory in Oakland, California, and looked human mortality right in the eye. She reports on her first six years in the funeral industry, learning about it and also resolving to stay in it so that she can improve it. Her eye-witness account provides the basic narrative structure of this book. 

She makes house calls to gather up the dead and drive them to the crematory. She is fascinated by several specific bodies, giving us portraits of them and their past lives. Some of them are our least-well-off citizens, and these occasion touching prose.

Doughty realizes that her fear of death has roots of seeing, at eight years of age, a child dying from a fall in a two-story shopping mall. Her work with bodies helps her heal from her trauma. She imagines that her history may be a parallel for American society as a whole that now hides, covers up, and ignores the realities death and dying. She specifically envisions changes that will result in healthier attitudes and practices in the funeral industry. 

Doughty describes in detail how the dead are embalmed, made up to look “natural,” and presented to relatives at viewings. She criticizes these rituals as demeaning to the dead and causing unnecessary expense to their families. She describes Forest Lawn cemetery as the Disneyland of the Dead, recalling Jessica Mitford’s critical book, The American Way of Death (1963).
             

Having studied medieval history at the University of Chicago as an undergrad, Doughty brings many texts into her discussion, from history, anthropology, literature, philosophy, medico-legal discussions, religion, and social criticism. All societies have customs for dying, death, and burial; many of them, she feels, are healthier and more realistic than those of contemporary America.         

Finishing her time at the crematory, she decides to stay in the industry in order to improve it. She graduates from the Cypress College of Mortuary Science and passes exams to become a licensed funeral director in the state of California. She posts her essays and manifestos on the Internet under the name “The Order of the Good Death.” Many others join her in a movement against American “death dystopia” (p. 234).  

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Annotated by:
DiLeonardo, Olivia

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

Dr. Weaver-Hightower wrote, illustrated, and published this powerful graphic work in the Journal of Medical Humanities.  The comic itself is presented in a traditional paneled format, with a few exceptions, and rendered in a moody ink wash in black, white, and various shades of darker and lighter greys. The story is told in the authentic, sometimes faltering voice, of the father of Thomas and Ella, a pair of twin infants who died at 22 and 24 weeks into pregnancy. Beginning with their harrowing trip to the hospital, the comic describes the father and mother’s loss of Ella, shortly after she was born prematurely; their subsequent wait for Thomas to reach the “viable” age of 24 weeks; his stillbirth; and the couple’s sudden discharge from the hospital, going home with “empty arms”.  The story then transitions into “The Long After”, including the funeral and the phases of the parents’ grieving process.  The father describes his grief, frustrations, the couple’s differing ways of coping, and his ambivalence and anger toward religion as a source of comfort or deeper understanding.  On the last page, he recounts their hopes and fears as they enter into their second pregnancy, concluding with panels of the father wrestling with how to understand and process this loss.  The final panel is an image of the father in profile, expressionless, saying nothing, a fitting conclusion to a story for which words seem to fail. 

With this piece, the author introduces us to the genre of the “research comic”. The comic is followed by a methodological appendix, which explains the author’s process for choosing, capturing, and relating this history in words and illustrations, as well as his rationale for selecting a comic or graphic memoir format for the piece.  The author also elaborates upon the concept of the comic as a form of “rigorous, informative research” (226).  The appendix is very interesting and will satisfy the curiosity of readers asking the questions, “How did he do this?”, or “Why is this story a comic?”, but the piece stands on its own without the appendix, as well.  

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Beloved

Morrison, Toni

Last Updated: Aug-15-2020
Annotated by:
Brinker, Dustin

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Set in the 19th century United States, Beloved follows a formerly enslaved woman named Sethe and the lives of those closest to her. Sethe lives in a house known only as 124 outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. Not only is the house inhabited by Sethe and her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver, but it is also haunted by a poltergeist. 124 had been a gathering place for the area’s black community, led by the middle-aged Baby Suggs, another formerly enslaved woman. Prior to their move to Ohio, she and Sethe were held captive on the same Kentucky plantation called Sweet Home. Sethe was purchased for this plantation after Baby Suggs had been bought out by her son Halle who outsourced his labor in order to do so. Halle and Sethe were allowed to marry by the owners of the plantation, resulting in the birth of three children—two boys and a girl. In comparison to most other plantations, Sweet Home provided liberties rarely afforded to enslaved people, including choice of marriage, use of guns, lack of physical and humiliating punishment, input into work practices, and the aforementioned buy-out of Baby Suggs.

Conditions change once Sweet Home’s owner dies of a stroke and his widow brings in her brother-in-law and his young nephews to help run Sweet Home; the small liberties granted to the enslaved people are revoked by the new leadership, and cruelties ensue. The enslaved people, including Halle and a man named Paul D, plot to escape north; however, Sethe and her children are the only ones who succeed in doing so, only after she is violated by the nephews and brutally whipped by the brother-in-law for informing him of the assault. These events and Sethe’s flight are complicated by her near-full-term pregnancy. Approaching death from exhaustion and exposure, she is saved by a white girl who helps Sethe give birth. Her daughter is named Denver after the contextually benevolent white girl.

Carrying her newborn, Sethe arrives at 124, greeted by her other three children, into the care of Baby Suggs. The bittersweet happiness of her arrival without Halle is marred one month later by the arrival of a team intending to reclaim Sethe and her kids for Sweet Home. Rather than allow herself and her children to be forced back into slavery, Sethe intends to commit infanticide and suicide, succeeding in the murder of her older daughter. This action effectively prevents them from being taken, and Sethe is exonerated of her charges. Despite this, her act of desperation crushes her family, eventually leading to Baby Suggs’ death and to the flight of her sons from the household. Eighteen years later, Paul D arrives at 124. He begins a relationship with Sethe and manages to evict the poltergeist.

Soon thereafter, a strange woman arrives by the name of Beloved, the word Sethe had engraved on her child’s tombstone. Sethe is initially unaware of the stranger’s origins, and Paul D is effectively forced out by the new arrival. Once Beloved’s identity as the deceased child is understood, she, Sethe, and Denver become wrapped up in each other, blurring the lines of their identity. Sethe loses her job, but Denver manages to extricate herself to find work. Hearing of the family’s plight at the hands of the “unholy” Beloved, thirty black women of the area band together to purge 124 of her presence. Beloved leaves without a trace. Paul D eventually returns to 124, and memories of Beloved slowly fade into oblivion.

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Annotated by:
Donley, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

 Cortney Davis has divided this collection of her poetry into seven major sections which she calls “Voices.” The first and last sections are “Voices of Healing” which frame and wrap around the others: “Home,” “Desire,” “Suffering,” “Faith,” and “Letting Go and Holding On.” The sections include previously published poems as well as new ones.  Davis is known for her ability to see and understand what is going on and to express that in ways that help the reader “get it.”  This collection also shows her ability to hear the unique voices that express suffering, faith, desire—and to convey empathic understanding of the speaker.  Sometimes she gets angry with the speaker. The poems range through time, from her childhood, nursing training, nursing experiences, deaths of her parents, to more current experiences with grandchildren.  Throughout there is a consistent caring and compassion, mixed with many other feelings, many of them contradictory.

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Brave Story

Miyabe, Miyuki

Last Updated: Jul-20-2020
Annotated by:
Brinker, Dustin

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Wataru Mitani is an average fifth-grade student in east Tokyo. Rumors of ghosts in a deserted, semi-built edifice lead this young boy and his friend Katchan to investigate it on their own. The next school day, they learn of a new transfer student named Mitsuru, a mysterious, handsome young boy whose standoffishness and manner of speaking make others think he’s far older than a middle-schooler. He becomes a centerpiece of the ghost rumors when he seems to accidentally take a picture of one while on an art class outing near the building. Meanwhile, Wataru starts hearing a mysterious voice at his home. He convinces himself that it’s a fairy à la his favorite video game, pushing him to follow Mitsuru’s lead and take pictures around his room in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the voice’s owner.  

Trouble begins for Wataru during a visit from his paternal Uncle Lou when the two decide to investigate the abandoned building. After his uncle steps away to take a call, Wataru sees a golden door appear within the building, out from which steps Mitsuru. Both boys are shocked. Mitsuru immediately returns through the door, and Wataru attempts to follow him. Through the door, Wataru finds himself falling a great distance. He lands in a desert and shortly thereafter becomes surrounded by strange wolves with large, corkscrew mouths. He is saved by a wandering humanoid bird who reveals that he is known as a karulahkin and that the world they are in is known as Vision.  

Our protagonist then awakens in the home of the building’s owner with his Uncle Lou at hand. When Lou attempts to take Wataru back to his hotel for the night, the boy forces out the truth: his father had called when they were in the building to inform Lou that he has decided to leave the household, divorce Wataru’s mother, and start a new life with an old lover. The entire family is devastated. Soon thereafter, Mitsuru goes missing, and Wataru overhears his mother gossiping about the murder-suicide of Mitsuru’s family by his father. That night, Wataru is awoken by the appearance of Mitsuru, dressed as a sorcerer, who explains that he has been chosen as a Traveler to journey through Vision in the hopes of meeting the Goddess of Destiny and changing his fate. He gives Wataru a pendant that should allow him to do the same once he travels through the gate in the abandoned building. Mitsuru then disappears, leaving Wataru to begin his adventure to Vision.

Once back in Vision, Wataru again meets the wizard, and he explains that Wataru must collect five gemstones and place them in hilt of this sword to gain access to the Tower of Destiny and meet the Goddess. On the way to the nearest town, he meets the lizardman Kee Keema who transports Wataru to the city, explaining the political situation of Vision along the way. The world is divided between those who believe in the Goddess and those who believe in the Old God, a deity purported to surpass the Goddess in every way. Followers of the latter are mainly ankha, what is known in the real world as  human, and they espouse great intolerance to the world’s humanoid, animal inhabitants, known as beastkin. Kee Keema agrees to accompany Wataru on his journey. Over the course of the next few days, Wataru’s main party and alliances are established: Kee Keema and another beastkin named Meena will accompany him across Vision. As they get into various mishaps, the group encounters Mitsuru, now a powerful sorcerer with no concern for the death and destruction his magic causes. The boys come to learn that Vision is a reflection of their own imagination and understanding of life. It is further revealed that the appearance of two Travelers is an omen of a thousand-year sacrifice demanded by the Goddess: two people, one a citizen of Vision and the other a Traveler, are chosen to give their lives and act as the Barrier of Light to protect Vision and the real world.

A competition arises between the two boys from Japan, each thinking that the sacrifice will be the one who completes the journey last. Wataru is always one step behind Mitsuru in his collection of the gemstones, culminating in a final clash where Mitsuru destroys the entirety of an imperial capital, virtually eradicates all citizens, and unleashes a demon horde that had only been kept at bay by the final gemstone. Escaping the carnage, Wataru manages to gather four gemstones and is transported to the Tower of Destiny, the final trial from which only Wataru emerges alive. At the apex of the tower, he finally meets the Goddess. His wish is spent, not on himself, but on the salvation of Vision from the demon hordes. Returning to the real world, Wataru uses his knowledge and growth from Vision to handle the fallout of his home situation, supporting his mother as they transition into their new lives.  


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Annotated by:
Grogan, Katie

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In her memoir Ask Me About My Uterus, science writer Abby Norman tells two intertwined stories: one about her fraught relationship with her own chronically ill body, and another about the fraught relationship between women and medicine. Norman is a sophomore at her dream college when a sudden, unrelenting abdominal pain sends her to the emergency room—and into a revolving door of medical appointments for years to come. Thus begins her diagnostic odyssey, protracted by an infuriating obstacle: not only must she endure excruciating pain, she must convince doctors that it’s real.

Norman is eventually diagnosed with endometriosis but has several frustrating clinical encounters along the way. Her symptoms are repeatedly minimized or disbelieved by doctors of various identities and specialties. One actually says the words that have long been inferred to Norman and so many women before her: “This is all in your head.” Finally receiving an accurate diagnosis provides some measure of clarity about Norman’s pain but little in the way of relief. She learns firsthand that medical knowledge about endometriosis is desperately lacking—a troubling realization given its prevalence. A commonly cited statistic suggests one in ten women have endometriosis but, as Norman notes, most studies have excluded marginalized communities, so the incidence is likely higher. Norman ultimately becomes an expert on the condition, setting her on a path to advocate for herself and others with endometriosis—and to write about it.  

The memoir is organized chronologically, beginning with the onset of Norman’s symptoms about seven years prior to the book’s publication, with occasional flashbacks that draw connections between her current crisis and her difficult childhood. She opens several chapters with descriptions of famous case studies and experiments, situating her own experience within a long and disturbing lineage of women dismissed, misdiagnosed, and mistreated by medical professionals.  

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Dr. Futurity

Dick, Philip

Last Updated: Jun-29-2020
Annotated by:
Brinker, Dustin

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Jim Parsons is a physician living in an alternate 2012, one equipped with technology mildly superior to our own. While on his way to work, his car is abducted from the road and thrown off the natural path of life as we know it, both physically and temporally. Parsons finds himself in the distant future, roughly three centuries from his own, in a monoethnic society of young beings that resulted after generations of war led by people of color against the white domination of the A.D. era. The true ideology of the society is revealed when Parsons saves the life of a political radical, a proponent of the re-outlawed women’s suffrage. As he is taken into custody and processed for the crime of preserving life, the leader of the society, Al Stenog, describes the societal fetishization of death resulting from government-controlled population limits. Natural birth has been outlawed, enforced via early sterilization of males and a strictly monitored, equivalent exchange of deaths and births. Genetic material is selected via a tribal selection process based upon quantifiable measures of beauty and intelligence, whereby the fertile matriarch of the dominant tribe becomes the Mother Superior from whom eggs are harvested. The eugenic ideology extends into one’s conception of self—those currently living believe themselves to be genetically inferior to the zygotes housed in the government’s central repository. As a result, the society is described as being an amalgamation of all races of color whose average age is 15.

Stenog exiles Parsons to Mars, but his transport is intercepted by the masterminds behind his time travel. This group, now the genetically dominant tribe, explains their motive—the revival of their ideological patriarch. He has been cryogenically preserved for 35 years following an arrow to the heart. Parsons manages to save his life, but the patriarch is shortly thereafter found dead, his heart once again pierced with an arrow. It is revealed that the tribe intends to systematically eradicate all European colonization efforts in history, intending to halt centuries of white oppression; the patriarch had been stabbed during his attempt to begin the tribe’s crusade with the elimination of Sir Francis Drake in 1579. Returning to that time, Parsons discovers two startling facts: Stenog had traveled back to replace Drake, implying that all colonizers were from the future, and Parsons was the true killer of the patriarch, albeit accidentally. Despite the ensuing fallout involving much time travel, Parsons is returned to his own time, spared from temporal exile by his future children spawned from the impregnation of the Mother Superior.

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The Winter Soldier

Mason, Daniel

Last Updated: Jun-20-2020
Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

When The Winter Soldier opens, Lucius Kszelewski, youngest son of a patrician Polish family living in Vienna, is on a train bound in the dead of winter for a field hospital in the Carpathian Mountains.  It is 1915, and Austria-Hungary is at war with Russia.  Lucius, a medical student, has completed only six semesters of medical school, but World War I has intervened, and due to a shortage of physicians in the army the government has decreed that students may graduate early, become doctors, and immediately be commissioned.   Lucius has done so and is on his way to Lemnowice, a Galician village, where he believes he will work with other physicians and finally learn to be “a real doctor.” 

When he arrives, he finds that the hospital is an expropriated village church overrun by rats and ravaged by typhus, and he is the only physician.  The hospital is run by a nun, Sister Margarete, assisted only by orderlies, and the patient load runs the gamut from fractures and gunshot wounds to gangrenous legs and massive head trauma.  The front is only a few kilometers away, and the wounded arrive continuously; the quiet and formal Sister Margarete confidently and  surreptitiously guides him through rounds, surgeries, and battlefield medicine.  Lucius is initially wary of her, perhaps a bit awed by her, and ultimately falls in love with her.    

The transforming event is the arrival of the winter soldier, Jozsef Horvath, brought in from the snow mute and shell-shocked, but with no visible wounds.  Lucius is fascinated by diseases of the brain and mind, and this patient presents a tremendous challenge.  Lucius is sure that Horvath has “war neurosis,” what the British physicians of the time were calling shell shock and what we today would call PTSD, and he is determined to understand and heal him.  Lucius and Margarete make slow progress with their patient, but his attempts to care for Horvath have unintended effects, and Lucius must then deal with the consequences of his actions.  

The war, and the hospital routine, go on.  One day, while Lucius and Margarete are relaxing in the woods, Lucius asks her to marry him.  Margarete runs off, and Lucius returns to the village, but Margarete is not there.  While Lucius and the staff search for her, Lucius gets lost; he stumbles onto a battlefield and is dragooned into service with a regiment of the Austrian infantry.  He escapes and tries to make his way back to the field hospital, and to Margarete, but Lemnowice has fallen to the Russians.  The hospital has been evacuated—and Margarete has disappeared.   Lucius’ search for her will take him across the war-torn remnant of the Empire.

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Hidden Valley Road

Kolker, Robert

Last Updated: Jun-15-2020
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

The Galvins of Hidden Valley Road, just outside Colorado Springs, appear to be the kind of wholesome, all-American family that others might envy.  The tragic fact is that six of the twelve children go on to develop schizophrenia, a situation that is practically unprecedented.  In Hidden Valley Road, journalist Robert Kolker gives us the tale of the deterioration of six afflicted children and the traumatization of six healthy ones in an improbable, bucolic setting.  As one after the other reaches young adulthood in this “funhouse-mirror reflection of the American dream” (p. xxi) and inexorably succumbs to madness, the family struggles to cope.   

In their search for answers, the Galvins’s extraordinary circumstances come to the attention of researchers.  Ultimately, although there is no cure, the family makes a contribution through their genes to our understanding of schizophrenia, as a mutation is discovered that is shared by the afflicted children.   

Hidden Valley Road follows the travails of this “multiplex schizophrenia” family over so many years that there is a sea change in our understanding of the disease’s origins.  At first, it is taken for granted to be the result of a faulty upbringing at the hands of “schizophrenogenic” parents.  Later, biological explanations prevail.  Finally, a more balanced view is attained, with nature and nurture each thought to play a role.  

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Pain Studies

Olstein, Lisa

Last Updated: Jun-10-2020

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

“All pain is simple” reads the opening sentence of this unusual and striking book. The next sentence reads, “And all pain is complex.” These two sentences foreshadow many puzzles to come: how do we live between chaos and control? Why can’t doctors figure migraines out? Why don’t they agree on a treatment for a particular patient? Olstein is a poet and long-term migraine sufferer. Her book offers many observations about pain, and her attempts to define it, describe it, and plumb its nature through language. There is no linear narrative or argument, rather 38 very brief chapters—usually three to five pages—and many of these could be read in a different order. 

Olstein uses the terms “studies” and “research” for her efforts to capture pain, to explain it, and to understand the cause(s) of her disease. Her mother had migraines; women have three times the rate of men; she had a childhood head injury. Do any of these factors explain her disease? No. And what treatments work? She lists some 50 drugs/supplements/activities she has tried to deal with her illness. None of these have worked in a definitive way. Further, she lists some 30 side-effects she has experienced from these various treatments (pp. 74-75). She has had multiple migraines, one lasting three months, but she also says drugs keep pain at bay: “mostly the medication does work” (p 90).

Some disparate figures help her focus her inquiry: Joan of Arc (possibly a migraine sufferer), the TV character Dr. Gregory House (racked with chronic pain, he is an opioid addict), Virginia Woolf, and Hildegard of Bingen (possibly a migraine sufferer). Also ancient writers such as Lucretius, Pliny the Elder, and Antiphon the Sophist, and contemporaries from different fields, such as mathematics and neurology. Also she refers to poems by Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and C. D. Wright, as well as to an article on gendered literature by Siri Hustvedt. 

Largely written during a writing residency, these are incisive notes plus associations as she plumbs not only her illness but also her responses—as poet, as thinker, as searcher for healing—to the bizarre, long, difficult path of her migraines. (We have only brief mentions of her personal and family life.) While she refers to some scientific literature, it is more often that her insights come from artistic fields such a literature, sculpture, drama, and popular music. She writes that her work with a therapist over a dozen years has been helpful to her.

There is no conclusion…nor can there be. Her illness, treatment, and writing are all works in progress. Patients are different; doctors are different; science evolves. In their many forms and presentations, migraines are mysterious and complex, as this book creatively and powerfully shows. Olstein writes, “The beauty, the love, is in what we perceive” (p. 144). We may take this observation as the guiding principle for the book.   

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