Showing 71 - 80 of 114 annotations contributed by Belling, Catherine
Nan Shin was an American woman living as a Zen Buddhist nun in France. She is diagnosed with advanced uterine cancer, undergoes surgery and chemotherapy and, by the end of the book, it appears, is dying. Her account does not, however, take the conventional form of the illness narrative; in fact its form might be called anti-narrative, for its focus is not on the story of Shin's illness and dying, but rather on the "every day living" that is at the center of her Zen beliefs.
The book consists of several strands that recur in alternating sections. One strand describes, in minute detail, the course of a single day's devotions and activities in the life of a Zen nun. Another traces the author's travels in the United States with her sensei, an astonishing man whose perspective on American culture is both detached and hilariously insightful.
A third tells of the author's frequent horseback rides through the French countryside, with beautifully focused and precise descriptions of the natural surroundings. Finally, there is the illness, presented matter-of-factly but conveying powerfully the author's (not always wholly successful) efforts to put into practice, in such trying circumstances, all she has learnt as a practitioner of Zen.
Summary:Malcolm Vaughan, an architect, his wife, Sarah, a biochemist, and their five-year-old son, Harry, are driving home one evening. The driver of the car in front of them is acting strangely. Malcolm goes to investigate and the driver shoots him dead. The novel traces the effects of Malcolm's death from the alternating points of view of his wife and his best friend, Deckard Jones, a black Vietnam vet. Following different and often conflicting trajectories but linked by their love for Harry, both Sarah and Deck begin to move from traumatized shock to the beginnings of recovery.
At the age of 42, Barbara Rosenblum learns, after several misdiagnoses, that she has advanced breast cancer. This book, co-written by Rosenblum, a sociologist, and her lesbian partner, Sandra Butler, a feminist writer and activist, is a record of their lives together from the diagnosis until Rosenblum's death three years later. Early on, Rosenblum decides that her dying will be exemplary and self-conscious, and she and Butler use their writing as a way to create an illuminating examination of their lives over those three years.
The book's title is accurate; the writing takes the form of alternating meditations by two women, on the effects of cancer on their relationship, their work, their families, and their social, political, and spiritual beliefs. Especially significant are the differences between their voices, and the differences between the experience of the person who is dying and that of the person who is going to have to survive and grieve. The writers bravely explore the conflicts between them as well as their profound bonds.
After a mastectomy and eighteen months of chemotherapy, Rosenblum has a very brief respite, followed by liver and lung metastases, and prolonged further chemotherapy. A few months after ending treatment, she dies at home.
Joseph and Celice, a married couple in their fifties, both zoologists, return one day to the coastal dunes where, thirty years before, they had first made love. There they are attacked and beaten to death by a robber. From this starting point, the novel traces three trajectories: their married life, from their meeting as graduate students working at this beach; the course of their last day, traced backwards, or undone, until they are back in bed, asleep, that morning; and the first week of their death until they are found and taken away by the police. The changes that take place as their bodies decay are meticulously described. At the end of the novel, nine days after their death, the grass has recovered and there is no sign they were ever there.
This memoir begins in Africa, where Dr. Grim is with Médecins sans Frontières managing a meningitis outbreak in Nigeria. Conditions are appalling, but she has come here because of burnout: "so I won't be back home and in the ER" (11). Later in the book, she describes her other "escapes" from the Emergency Room, caring for war refugees in the Balkans.
The book centers, however, on life in an American emergency department, as Grim remembers it from the vantage point of Africa (where she does eventually become nostalgic for well-stocked supply cupboards and a more comprehensible chaos). She organizes her stories into a series of "Lessons in Emergency Medicine," in which she addresses the reader directly. After going through a step-by-step account of death in the ER, illustrated with several moving and alarming cases, she concludes: "Congratulations: you have successfully declared someone dead. Now, as an encore . . . you'll get to do it all over again" (28).
The ironic, even bitter, tone warns us of the difficulty of working in such perpetually crisis-ridden circumstances, but it does not conceal a vulnerability that seems necessary to doing the job well, such as when Grim has to tell a family that the father has died of the heart attack he had at his daughter's wedding: "you just stood there," she says, "looking at the corsage, the tuxedo and the pearls . . . You had no idea what to say and you don't really remember what you finally came out with" (26).
The stories are organized around several lessons: "How to deliver a baby," "How to crack a chest," "How to write a prescription" (which includes a discussion of addiction to prescription medication and a withering account of the doctor who overprescribes), and, as if it's as inevitable as the rest, "How to burn out."
By the book's final chapter, emergency medicine has merged, along with the vaccination of refugee children and the impossibility of treating tetanus in Nigeria, into the story of almost unreasonable determination in the face of endless frustration--but this, Grim shows in her final chapter, "Why I do what I do," is the point. Against this backdrop her final story, about the rescue of a child, makes its point: the feeling of saving a life explains all the rest.
Primary Category: Literature / Fiction
Genre: Short Story
Alison, 39 years old, is twice-divorced, with three children, on the verge of moving in with a man called Bobby. Her breast is sore and she is afraid it's cancer. Her mother tells her it's more likely she's pregnant. She says she uses contraceptives; her mother tells Alison that she was conceived when a condom broke.
Alison considers abortion, recalling her last pregnancy. Having given birth to a child with Down's Syndrome who died at three months, she had had amniocentesis and was told that she was carrying twin boys, both normal. When the twins were born, though, one turned out to be a girl. One twin, it seemed, had been tested twice. Although the female twin did not have Down's Syndrome, Alison began at that point to worry about luck and the uncertainty of medicine (and of life).
So now, pregnant again, she asks her mother what she should do, and is told to "trust to luck." But she is afraid that her luck has run out and she must take control for herself. A scan shows that she is carrying twins again. Only now does her mother tell her that she is in fact a twin, that her sister had Down's Syndrome and died shortly after birth--in fact, her mother admits, the midwife "did away with" her. (The euphemism carries the senses both of euthanasia and of murder.)
Hearing this, Alison decides she wants to have an abortion right away. Her doctor, thinking the problem is that she wants only one child, gives her the option of selectively terminating one fetus and carrying the other one, but tells her she wouldn't be able to choose which to keep and which to abort. She rejects the idea, imagining how she'd tell the surviving twin about her decision later on, and decides instead to "have them both and trust to luck."
As she leaves the clinic, she begins to bleed and miscarries. Later her mother tells her that she, too, once miscarried twins, and tells Alison she'll have better luck next time, because of the bleeding: "Blood, " her mother says, "is the libation the God of Chance requires."
Frank is an emergency medic and ambulance driver working night shifts for Our Lady of Mercy hospital in Hell's Kitchen, New York City. The novel begins with Frank's resuscitation of an elderly man called Mr. Burke, who has had a heart attack, and ends a couple of days later with Mr. Burke's death in the hospital. Frank is haunted by the patients he has failed to save, some of whom inhabit his experience like kinds of ghosts.
Most insistent is a teenage girl called Rose who died during an asthma attack, in part because Frank was unable to intubate her in time. He is also unable to forget his marriage, which ended because of the deadening effects of his work. And now Frank is also haunted by doubts about the value of restoring life.
He has successfully started Mr. Burke's heart, but the man is brain dead. Frank thus watches as Mr. Burke's family is first given hope and then must learn that there is none. Frank almost falls in love with Mr. Burke's drug-addicted and disillusioned daughter, Mary, perhaps seeing in her an opportunity for a mutual restoration to health.
But when her father finally dies--when the attending realizes that the patient's struggle hasn't been the "survival instinct" but rather a "fight to die"--she blames Frank, who recognizes that his purpose is not simply to keep people alive (or to bring them back from the dead), but rather that "saving lives" means preserving their value, somehow, in his memory. He walks away from the hospital, and when he gets home, Rose--her ghost, and Frank's own symbol for all the patients he hasn't resurrected--is waiting there, to forgive him.
Primary Category: Literature / Plays
Hamlet's father, the King of Denmark, is dead and has been succeeded by his brother Claudius, who has married the old king's wife, Gertrude. The King's ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him, and makes Hamlet promise to avenge his death. The play traces the process by which Hamlet negotiates the conflict between his need to take violent action and his uncertainty about the rightness of doing so.
He pretends to be mad and contemplates suicide. He unintentionally murders Polonius, the new King's counselor, and violently confronts his mother for what he sees as an unfaithful and incestuous marriage to her brother-in-law. He also verbally abuses Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, whom Hamlet had loved before, contributing to her mental illness and eventual death.
Hamlet finally decides that he must submit to his fate--or his dramatically determined role as the hero of a revenge tragedy--and agrees to a fencing match with Ophelia's brother, Laertes. Arranged by Claudius, the match is rigged. Laertes's rapier is poisoned, and both Laertes and Hamlet are killed with it. Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine intended for Hamlet and dies. Hamlet's last action is to kill Claudius, but whether this counts as the successful culmination of a revenge plot is dubious. As a new order takes over in Denmark, and as the dying Hamlet asks that his story be remembered, we realize that his existential quandaries remain largely unresolved.
Primary Category: Literature / Plays
Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, is told by a trio of witches that he will soon be promoted to Thane of Cawdor, and later will be King of Scotland. When the first of their prophesies comes true, he tells his wife, who is filled with ambition and determines to ensure that the second is realized as well. She persuades her husband to murder King Duncan, and so Macbeth becomes King.
The rest of the play traces the couple's downfall as a result not only of the murder and hence the political injustice of Macbeth's reign, which leads to war in Scotland, but also because of the terrible psychological effects of guilt. Neither of them sleeps soundly again; Macbeth sees ghosts and appears to go mad; Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, endlessly washing her hands of the metaphysical blood that stains her, and eventually commits suicide. Macbeth dies when Macduff, rightful heir to the throne, besieges his castle and beheads him in battle.
The first chapter of this memoir consists of two words: "I exaggerate." The narrator then tells us the story of her childhood and early adult experiences as an epileptic. After having her first seizure, at the age of ten, she spends a month at a special Catholic school in Topeka, Kansas, where the nuns teach epileptic children to fall without hurting themselves. This falling may or may not be literal; it is certainly symbolically apt.
During adolescence, Lauren begins lying, stealing, and faking seizures to get attention. She reveals that she has developed Munchausen's Syndrome, whose sufferers are "makers of myths that are still somehow true, the illness a conduit to convey real pain" (88). A neurologist, Dr. Neu, performs surgery severing Lauren's corpus callosum, effectively dividing her brain in half and markedly alleviating the seizure disorder.
Later she attends a writer's workshop where she begins an affair with a married man, a writer much older than she. After it ends badly, she starts going to Alcoholics Anonymous (although she does not drink) and tells her story with such authenticity that when she later confesses that she is NOT an alcoholic, no-one believes her, dismissing her true story as denial. The memoir ends both with her recognition of the value of narrating and with a silent fall to the snowy ground, as the nuns taught her to do, in the knowledge that the sense of falling (rather than the material certainty of landing) is all that is finally, reliably, real.