Showing 1 - 10 of 2768 Literature annotations

From Fish to Philosopher

Smith, Homer

Last Updated: May-17-2018
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Most students of biology are well aware of our humble beginnings as puny, single-celled lifeforms. The mechanism of our remarkable transformation was famously described by Charles Darwin in his groundbreaking text On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. In many respects, Darwin’s magnum opus was just the opening chapter of a much broader discussion of how we humans have taken our current form. Darwin elucidated only a general process of adaptation and evolution in the face of environmental pressures. He left his successors with the more onerous task of applying this rule to the tortuous history of human evolution.

Rising to the occasion nearly a full century later was Homer Smith, a prominent kidney physiologist who spent much of his life and career as the Director of Physiological Laboratories at the NYU School of Medicine. Dr. Smith shares his account of our evolutionary history in his 1953 book From Fish to Philosopher. In the book, he posits that organisms must have a system for maintaining a distinct “internal environment” in order to have any sense of freedom from the perennially dynamic external environment. He guides the reader through the various biological filtration devices that have come and gone over the eras, culminating with the fist-sized organs dangling next to our spines.


The book is often billed as a detailed treatise on how modern-day mammalian kidneys have arisen from their more primordial forms – a fair assessment, especially given the author’s background. But this book offers readers something much more ambitious in scope than a rehashing of his work in renal physiology. For example, the first chapter of the book, “Earth”, highlights geological milestones that molded the early environment of the first known lifeforms. In Dr. Smith’s words,

“the history of living organisms has been shaped at every turn by earth’s vicissitudes, because every geologic upheaval, by causing profound changes in the distribution of land and sea, has had profound effects on the climates of both, and hence of the patterns of life in both” (pp. 9).

By the final chapter, “Consciousness”, he has begun to ponder questions of metacognition and learning. He marvels at how our complex nervous system has allowed classical pianists to balance the rigidity required for technical prowess, and the fluidity required for creativity. This is not a textbook about our kidneys. From Fish to Philosopher is a story of mankind’s genesis, told through the existential musings of a physiologist who left no stone unturned.

View full annotation

Summary:

This is an important contribution that analyzes, critiques, and aims to correct structural inequalities (racism, sexism, capitalism) that influence contemporary medicine, with particular attention to the technical influences of computers, “big data,” and underlying values of neoliberalism, such as individualism, exceptionalism, capacity, and progress through innovation.  

Introduction: Theorizing Communicative Biocapitalism
Banner writes, “biocapitalism is comprised by the new economies and industries that generate value out of parts of human bodies” (p. 12). Parts include DNA, ova, and organs, but there’s also data from medical care, where patients are reduced to their physical bodies and/or to their “digital status” in medical records, research, even personal information volunteered on the Web, all which is indicated by the term “communicative.” As an example, Banner cites the large realm of patient on-line groups that are exploited by large companies as free labor, thus reducing the voice of the patients. Approaches of narrative medicine and medical humanities have not dealt with digital health, market forces, and the implied power relationships. Perhaps the new subfield of health humanities has promise to do so, if not also captive to “the logic of the market” (p. 17).   

Ch. 1. Structural Racism and Practices of Reading in the Medical Humanities
Banner writes, “Medical racism is a product of structural and institutional racism” (p. 25). She finds that current approaches from interpretive reading are insufficient because “the field’s whiteness has contoured its hermeneutics” (p. 25). Instead of the “reading-for-empathy” model, we should read for structures of racism, sexism, privilege, as well as economic and political inequality. She illustrates such reading with texts by Junot Dìaz, Audre Lourde, and Anatole Broyard.  

Ch. 2. The Voice of the Patient in Communicative Biocapitalism
 Patients have flocked to networking websites, voluntarily posting much personal information. Banner analyzes how technocapitalists mine these sites for data to use or sell. Patients’ information, given voluntarily, amounts to free labor and, even, work-arounds for companies that avoid expensive double-blind controlled studies. Rhetoric for these sites speak misleadingly of the “patient voice,” “stakeholder,” or “story sharing” and hide the exploitation involved. The chapter is specific for websites, drugs, and drug companies.  
Banner discusses (1) the “feminized labor” involved with sites for fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (both “contested diagnoses”) and (2), more abstractly, the medicalization of the clinical gaze on patients who participate in websites and yearn for “an imagined state of purity,” and/or “an ableist vision of norms and reparative medicine” (p. 61). Overall, the digitalized-patient voice is colonized by forces of whiteness and should be decolonized. She discusses writing by Octavia Butler and Linda Hogan, both women of color.

Ch. 3. Capacity and the Productive Subject of Digital Health
This fascinating chapter describes and critiques “digital self-tracking,” or the use of devices such as Fit-Bits that help create and maintain the so-called “Quantified Self” (or “QS”). Banner finds this fad within the tradition of the Enlightenment (Ben Franklin) so that “exact science” may “optimize” individuals by being “responsibilitized” in a “self-sovereign” way. QS users understand that “Everything is data” (p. 83). She argues that this trend emphasizes “masculine objectivity” while “disavowing debility” (p. 85). Collected data may contribute to a “worried well” status or conditions of “precarity” or “misfitting.” She writes, “QS practice remains an inscription of the self as a self-surveillor, engaged in masculinized practices of neoliberal self-management” (p. 91). She discusses the technologies of the devices Scanadu, Melon, and Scarab. She provides and interprets photos of visual arts representations by Laurie Frick, who is a “self-tracker.”  

Ch. 4. Algorithms, the Attention Economy, and the Breast Cancer Narrative
Banner discusses Google Analytics, later Alphabet, which includes Calico and Verily, which have partnered with pharmaceutical companies. Such combinations of algorithms, capitalism, and media aim to capture the public’s attention, especially online. Messaging about breast cancer becomes reductive, emphasizing medical solutions, not prevention, and it avoids discussion of causes such as environmental pollution. Some critics decry “pinkification” of breast cancer. Public stories, such as Angelina Jolie’s, emphasize individual empowerment, a “hegemonic construction of illness”’ (p. 112), and these are amplified by mass media, both print and electronic. More diverse messages would value “heterophily over homophily” (p.121).   

Ch. 5.  Against the Empathy Hypothesis
Drawing on several commentators, Banner critiques the notion of empathy as a goal for caregivers as condescending to the patient and suspect when allied with productivity and efficiency for institutions. Further, the notion of “resilience” (in a “bleed” of neoliberal rhetoric into health humanities) has been misused in applied literature, parallel to notions of self-help and self-management. Some hermeneutics still support values of “state and capitalism” and ignore writers of color. Banner discusses the work of African-American poet Claudia Rankine, some of whose work is “postlyric,” and J. M. W. Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” that illustrates “necropolitics.”  

Conclusion
Throughout the book Banner illustrates reading “for structure” in her interpretation of texts and visual images but also in medical institutions and practices and, still further, in the enormous and pervasive world of government forms and programs, big data, computers, and beyond. She finds structures of capitalism, sexism, and neoliberalism within existing “heteropatriarchal, ableist, and racist frameworks” (p. 154) despite claims of neutrality. She urges medicine and the humanities to develop new methods. She mentions specific collectives and communities that now challenge such norms (such as Gynepunk and CureTogether), and she calls for thinkers in many disciplines to confront demeaning technology and to “engender spaces in which care is more just, and more humane” (p. 156).      

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

Victorians Undone is no ordinary history book.  If you have ever felt dissatisfied by a sterile biography, wondering if its subject actually possessed bodily functions, look no further.  Here, British historian Kathryn Hughes undoes centuries of sheltering the reader from the unseemly by putting it on full display.  While the very term “Victorian” evokes an image of propriety, it was also a time of population displacement from the country to cities where “other people’s sneezes, bums, elbows, smells, snores, farts and breathy whistles were, quite literally, in your face”  (p. xi). The author seeks to rectify the imbalance by creating a history that puts “mouths, bellies and beards back into the nineteenth century“ (p. xiv), which she hopes will “add something to our understanding of what it meant to be a human animal“ (p. xv) during the Victorian Era.  

The book consists of five essays, each following a part of the body of an historical figure. In the first, entitled “Lady Flora’s Belly,” we learn about the tragic saga of Queen Victoria’s lady-in-waiting.  Did Flora’s protuberant abdomen conceal a tumor or a baby?  It was harder to find out than one might think.  Most women went through their lives without ever exposing their private parts to anyone but their husband.   Medical consultation when unavoidable might be conducted discretely, by post. 
 

Other essays focus on George Eliot’s hands, Fanny Cornforth’s (the lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter) sensual mouth, and the beard that Charles Darwin’s grew to hide his eczema.  The book concludes with the gruesome tale of the dismemberment of Fanny Adams, an early case study in forensic pathology. The term "Fanny Adams" soon came, in navy slang, to mean unpleasant meat rations.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Weeks after the birth of her child, the writer receives a phone call informing her that her mother, who has gone missing, has hanged herself.  This memoir, like others written in the aftermath of similar trauma, is an effort to make some sense of the mother’s mental illness and horrifying death. Unlike many others, though, it is the story of a family system—and to some extent a medical system—bewildered by an illness that, even if it carried known diagnostic labels, was hard to treat effectively and meaningfully.  The short chapters alternate three kinds of narrative:  in some the writer addresses her mother; in some she recalls scenes from her own childhood, plagued by a range of symptoms and illness, and her gradual awareness of her gifted mother’s pathological imagination; in some she reproduces the transcript of a video production her mother narrated entitled “The Art of Misdiagnosis” about her own and her daughters’ medical histories. Threaded among memories of her early life are those of her very present life with a husband, older children, a new baby, a beloved sister and a father who has also suffered the effects of the mother’s psychosis at close range.  

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

The Strand Magazine is a source for “unpublished works by literary masters.” The October-February (2017-2018) issue includes a Raymond Chandler short story that has never before been published. Chandler wrote crime fiction for the most part, and the stories usually involved the fictional detective Phillip Marlowe. This story, however, written between 1956 and 1958, centered on how American health care fails people who need it when they can’t pay for it or look like they can’t pay for it. 

In this story, a man who has been hit by a truck is brought into the emergency department at “General Hospital.” He arrives just before shift change and so the admitting clerk is already annoyed. The clerk checks the patient’s pockets for the required $50 deposit and finds nothing, so she could now send the patient to the county hospital, and that would be that. But, before she initiates the transfer, she asks a passing private attending physician to look at the patient. He sees that the patient is dirty, smells of alcohol, and would cost a lot to work up. Mindful of an admonition from a major donor that the “hospital is not run for charity,” the physician surmises the patient is “just drunk,” and agrees the patient should be moved to the county hospital. So off the patient goes.  

The next day, the same admitting clerk at General Hospital gets a call from the county hospital. She’s informed that the patient they transferred had a head injury requiring surgery, and that the patient had $4,000 in a money belt inside his undershirt. The patient couldn’t be saved, however, because of the delay involved in the transfer to the county hospital. It’s all right—he only died.



View full annotation

One Crimson Thread

O’Siadhail, Micheal

Last Updated: Apr-19-2018
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

This collection of 150 sonnets takes us through the journey from the writer’s wife’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s, eventually complicated by dementia and overmedication, to her death and his early days of grieving.  Married for over 40 years and close companions, their successive separations deal new blows as they happen: She goes into skilled nursing care, gets lost in delusions, and becomes more frail and erratic, finally succumbs after a fall and a short period in a coma.  The writer draws on biblical metaphors and threads memories of their earlier life together in fleeting images so that the reader is left to infer from glimpses a rich and happy marriage that, he reflects, prepared them—but not enough—for this going.  

View full annotation

Frankenstein in Baghdad

Saadawi, Ahmed

Last Updated: Apr-19-2018
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Hadi, a junk dealer and storyteller of Baghdad’s Bataween neighborhood, scans the scene of a suicide car bombing. Hadi collects more than rubbish: amongst the smoke, dust, and the bloody debris of human bodies, he stoops to pluck the remnants of a nose from the wreckage, wraps it in a canvas sheet, and leaves the scene. Curating the remains of human bodies blasted asunder by suicide bombs, Hadi sutures bloody remnants to form a complete corpse, stowed away in his crumbling flat.

Necromania is far from the reason Hadi pursues his gory task: “I made it [the corpse] complete so that it wouldn’t be treated as trash, so it would be treated like other dead people and given a proper burial” (27). The nose from that day’s bombing was the crowning remnant that perfected the corpse. The corpse comes alive and exacts a series of perverse murders. It is rumored throughout the city that the mysterious corpse—or the “Whatsitsname” or “Criminal X,” as it is dubbed by the Iraqi Tracking and Pursuit Department—is a ruthless superhuman. Hadi’s Frankenstein stalks the streets of Baghdad to slaughter the murderer responsible for each limb comprising its body, justifying the killing spree as a “noble mission.” It realizes that, before it can destroy its final victims, the organs and limbs of its putrid body begin to rot.

Requiring new hands and eyeballs, the Baghdad Frankenstein must obliterate more people for fresh parts. The Whatsitsname realizes the corporeal conditions of his bloody mission: “My list of people to seek revenge grew longer as my body parts fell off and my assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would never end” (153). To survive, the corpse becomes entangled in an ever-widening web of killings.

View full annotation

Every Note Played

Genova, Lisa

Last Updated: Apr-10-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This is a dramatic and moving story about a concert pianist who, at 45 years of age, suddenly and inexplicably, has ALS, and also equally about his ex-wife Karina, who takes on his care throughout his slow, inevitable, and lethal decline. As many readers know, ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). or “Lou Gherig’s disease,” hardens the motor nerves so that, progressively, there is no more control of muscles throughout the body. Not many readers know, however, the difficult path such patients and their families must pursue. This sensitive and detailed novel takes readers powerfully into the world of ALS, a disease for which there is today no cure.                                                                                      

Obsessed with his musical career and international travel, Richard has paid little attention to Karina and their daughter, Grace, and he has had affairs with other women. Karina has deceived him about her inability to bear more children. Because of their move from New York City to Boston, Karina, also a gifted pianist, has lost a possible career in jazz and now gives piano lessons to unpromising students. 

The first several chapters alternate between Richard and Karina. Although divorced from him, she brings him, now an ALS patient, back into the home they once shared. Various nurses, doctors, and other specialists try to explain the difficult future that includes certain loss of body functions, but Richard and Karina are slow to comprehend these. Despite their denial, they are forced to come to terms with Richard’s progressive decline and, finally, death.     
          
Richard loses the ability to use his hands, then his arms. He needs a special machine to breathe at night. Soon he has paid caregivers for parts of the day; these include a cheery and admirable man named Bill. No longer able to eat, Richard has a feeding tube. Later he needs a hospital bed. Also a Head Mouse to work his computer. Also an elaborate wheelchair. With unresolved issues in the past, Richard and Karina are emotionally apart—even with feelings of hate and rage—even while she cares for him.  

Karina’s walking partner Elise, a teacher, helps her stay sane. Karina travels to New Orleans with Elise and her class and finds her interest in jazz reawakened. No longer able to breathe even with assistance, should Richard go on to mechanical ventilation that will require 24-hour care at enormous expense? A choice is made. Richard dies, with various resolutions before and after his death.  

View full annotation

The Dark Flood Rises

Drabble, Margaret

Last Updated: Apr-09-2018
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Fran, an aging but energetic expert on elder housing, drives around the English countryside visiting facilities and also friends and family.  She, herself, is not at all ready to go gentle into the good night so many others are facing.  But everywhere she encounters reminders of mortality--her son's fiancee suddenly dies; an old friend is dying a lingering death of cancer; others in her circle of family and friends are facing their own or others' mortality in various ways, including natural disasters like earthquake and flood.  The episodic story takes place in England and in the Canary Islands; the large cast of characters are linked by intersecting stories and by their mortality, of which they, and the reader, are recurrently reminded.    

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

From the late 18th to mid-19th centuries a peculiar trend swept through European fashion. Through couture and cosmetics, this vogue emulated the physical ravages of a much-feared disease, tuberculosis, aestheticizing its symptoms as enviable qualities of physical beauty. Pale skin, stooped posture, white teeth, an emaciated figure, and a white complexion that evinced delicate blue veins were lauded by the era’s posh fashion journals. Carolyn A. Day aptly terms this craze a “tubercular moment,” a cultural phenomenon that elevated the grim realities of physical illness to a plane of desirable beauty. Medical discourses promoting the fragility and refinement of the “sensible” body were inspired by romanticized notions of morbidity, suffering, and illness. These discourses coincided with the the ideologies of Romanticism, a philosophical movement that was popularly understood to be a counter-discourse to the Enlightenment through its emphasis on emotion and imagination. Day cites the English poet, John Keats, whose legacy emphatically contributed to the cult of sensibility, as he embodied a living example of the refined tubercular body endowed with artistic genius but doomed to illness. The male artist was an example of a body too sensitive, too delicate to endure earthly life, but one whose intellect left an indelible imprint on culture.  

The romanticized construction of tuberculosis, however, waned in the 1830s and 1840s due to dominant Victorian views that emphasized the inherent biological weakness of the female body. This shift in rationalizing consumption was the direct result of understanding women as burdened with a surfeit of sensibility. By contrast, consumption was understood differently to be an emasculating illness that denoted male weakness and was therefore no longer popularly considered to be a portent of gifted creativity. During this period, a number of women’s fashions dictated the tastes of the middle and upper classes. Corsets, cosmetics, and the gossamer neoclassical style of dress were used to emulate the frail frames, drooping postures, narrow torsos, and pale complexions of the consumptive body. Thin fabrics, sandals, and hair pieces also contributed to styling the ‘gorgeously’ spectral image of the tubercular body. Dresses were contrived to feature the bony wing-like shoulder blades of the consumptive back, emphasizing an emaciated frame. Physicians and cultural pundits condemned the trappings of this fashionable dress because they were thought to impose health risks. Tight corsets, for example, were considered to harmfully compress the lungs, while diaphanous dresses and sandals exposed women to cold weather. Despite the stentorian warnings of physicians, the tubercular wardrobe continued to house articles that were thought to excite tuberculosis.  


By the 1850s, public health and sanitary reforms reshaped cultural discourses that associated tuberculosis with beauty. Tuberculosis was gradually viewed as a pernicious biological force that needed to be controlled. As a result, the Victorian model of womanhood—the weak and susceptible female body—gave way to a model of health and strength. Literature, as Day points out, contributed significantly to altering the consumptive chic discourse and the link between tuberculosis and ideal femininity. She references Alexandre Dumas fils, whose influential novel, La Dame aux Camélias, presents redemption for moral transgressions through tubercular suffering. Through popular literature, tuberculosis was gradually supplanted from the sphere of upper-class women and placed in association with ‘fallen’ women, an unsavory association that led the genteel public to change perspective. Literary influence was important, but the increased visibility of consumption in the lower classes was likely the most visceral reality that forced upper classes to distance themselves from fashions that beautified the illness.

View full annotation