Showing 1 - 10 of 728 Nonfiction annotations

Summary:

Michael Pollan, a journalist who is known for his work on food, takes on mind-altering drugs, or more specifically, psychedelics. According to Pollan, “after several decades of suppression and neglect, psychedelics are having a renaissance” (p. 3). His aim is to tell “the story of this renaissance” (p. 4). 

Pollan pegs the beginning of the renaissance to three events in 2006. The first was the symposium surrounding the one–hundredth birthday celebration of Albert Hoffman, who is credited with discovering LSD (he was in attendance and lived for another two years). The symposium put a spotlight on a few studies of psychedelics that inspired other researchers and practitioners to enter or stay in the field. The second event was a U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting importation of a banned psychedelic substance for religious purposes, which effectively reanimated federal government recognition of psychedelic drugs. The third event was the publication of a well-received study showing the psychological effects of certain psychedelic drugs, and in so doing, conferred some credibility and encouragement for further study (and use). Psychedelics were beginning to inch their way from counterculture to mainstream culture.

Before Pollan picks up on what happens after the eventful year of 2006, he goes back to the early 1950s when psychedelics first attracted attention as treatment for “addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and end-of life anxiety” (p. 141). He quotes researcher Stephen Ross, who asserts that during this time, “there had been forty thousand research participants and more than a thousand clinical papers!…Some of the best minds in psychiatry had seriously studied these compounds in therapeutic models, with government funding” (pp. 142-143). The trajectory towards therapeutic uses would come to an end in the 1960s when “a moral panic about LSD engulfed America, and virtually all psychedelic research and therapy were either halted or driven underground” (p. 185). Pollan identifies several contributing factors to the precipitous reversal in the status of psychedelics. Among them were their associations with Timothy Leary (“Turn on, tune in, drop out”) and with counterculture movements that were seen as threats to mainstream society in general. The era ends in 1970 when psychedelics were made illegal in the U.S., after which they were largely forgotten. They began to reappear in the 1990s, which rekindled an interest in them that would reach an inflection point in 2006.

Bridging the mid-twentieth-century history Pollan provides and the era commencing in 2006 he describes in detail later, is a chapter reporting on his own experiences with psychedelics. Pollan arranged three separate “trips” with three individual psychedelics: psilocybin, LSD, and the little-known 5-MeO-DMT, or “The Toad.” He carefully chose a tour guide for each one. Pollan experienced what he interpreted as a dissolution of his ego, which made more room for his consciousness: “I was present to reality but as something other than my self” (p. 264). He also reported spiritual and mystical experiences, which surprised him because he is not religious in much of any way, and he found others who had similar experiences.  
Even the most secular among them come away from their journeys convinced there exists something that transcends a material understanding of reality: some sort of a ‘Beyond.’ (p. 85)  
The term “spiritual” for Pollan became “a good name for some of the powerful mental phenomena that arise when the voice of the ego is muted or silenced” (p. 288). 

In another chapter bridging the past and the present, Pollan covers the neuroscience of psychedelics and the current understanding of how the brain works. The chapter will appeal mostly to neuroscientists, pharmacologists, and clinicians. It’s not required to appreciate what the book offers on the whole. 

Pollan devotes a chapter to ongoing investigations into clinical uses for psychedelics in near death, addiction, and depression. These investigations had moved into mainstream biomedical research institutions. Results were encouraging enough to generate additional studies, expand treatment programs, and motivate the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to push researchers for more information on depression in particular. Pollan also reports that “dozens of medical schools have asked to participate in future trials, and funders have stepped forward to underwrite those trials” (p. 350). 
 

In the final chapter, Pollan recognizes that despite the momentum behind mainstream biomedicine interest in psychedelics, established clinical and regulatory frameworks pose daunting challenges for broad-based adoption anytime soon. That aside, Pollan argues for the use of psychedelics in situations that are not limited to health problems per se, but also for “the betterment of well people,” which was also an interest of early researchers. To Pollan, the betterment comes from the effect of psychedelics to expand consciousness. 
Most of the time, it is normal waking consciousness that best serves the interests of survival—and is not adaptive. But there are moments in the life of an individual or a community when the imaginative novelties proposed by altered states of consciousness introduce exactly the sort off variation that can send a life, or a culture, down a new path. (p. 407) 
His conclusion is that without the assistance of psychedelics, the vastness of the mind and the mysteries of the world can never be known. Psychedelics for everyone! 

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Summary:

Responding to a shortage of doctors in rural areas in 2013, Dr. Virji, a Muslim, moved from the urban East coast to a small town in Minnesota.  Welcomed at first, he and his family began, after Trump's election in 2016, to experience withdrawal, suspicion, and outright racism in his own and neighboring towns, despite having established solid, trusting relationships with patients.  His children were being ostracized in school.  Discouraged, he took steps to accept a job in Dubai, but changed his mind after a local pastor invited him to speak in her church to correct common misconceptions about Muslims and to engage his neighbors in deeper dialogue about their differences and commonalities.  The lecture was so successful, he took it further into other towns and parts of the country.  He has stayed in Minnesota and witnessed change because of this invitation and his candid, open-hearted response. 

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A British physician-writer reflects on her topsy-turvy medical training emphasizing the mental and emotional burden of becoming a doctor. In 22 brief chapters with titles including "The Darkest Hour," "Buried," and "The Wrong Kind of Kindness," a struggle between hope and despair furiously plays out - in patients, hospital staff, and the narrator.

Dr. Jo (as one patient calls her) remembers interviewing for medical school admission, the difficulty dissecting a cadaver, starting lots of IV's, dutifully toting an almost always buzzing pager, and breaking bad news. She shares with readers her own serious car accident with resulting facial injuries. She comments on the underfunded UK National Health Service (NHS) that is "held together by the goodwill of those who work within it, but even then it will fracture" (p104).

Anecdotes of memorable encounters are scattered throughout the narrative: a fortyish woman in the emergency department who describes a fast pulse and sense of impending doom diagnosed as having an anxiety attack who ten minutes later suffers a cardiac arrest, a man with severe schizophrenia, a suicide, an elderly blind person, a young woman with metastatic breast cancer.

But the lessons that have stuck with her are primarily dark and somber ones. "Sacrifice and the surrender of the self are woven into the job" (p77). She realizes that "perhaps not all good doctors are good people" (p125) and that as wonderful and essential as the virtue of compassion is, "compassion will eat away at your sanity" (p16). She chooses psychiatry as a specialty where kindness, empathy, creating trust with patients, and careful listening work wonders for people. "I learned that saving a life often has nothing to do with a scalpel or a defibrillator" (pp13-14).

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Summary:

Richard Holmes refers to this book as his “account of the second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, and produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science” (p. xv). He pins the first scientific revolution to the seventeenth century and centers it on the work of Newton, Hooke, Locke, and Descartes. He brackets the second around 1768, when James Cook began his voyage circumnavigating the world, and 1831, when Charles Darwin began his voyage to the Galapagos islands. Holmes calls this period “The Age of Wonder.” 

Cook’s voyage carried Joseph Banks among its crew. Banks, a young man of great wealth and privilege, joined the expedition as a botanist to assist in the collection of botanical and zoological specimens from stops in the southern hemisphere. He was successful in this endeavor, and made observations about island life along the way (especially while on Tahiti). A few years after his return, he became the president of the Royal Society and would remain so for the next forty–two years.

The Society offered scientists (known then as “natural philosophers”) a place to publish papers, present findings, gain notoriety, receive funding, and develop networks. In his role as President, Banks was connected to many of the scientists included in the book. 

William Herschel and Humphrey Davy are the most prominent figures Holmes covers. Herschel was an accomplished musician and amateur astronomer before he built telescopes that helped him see, characterize, and record heavenly bodies never seen before. While conventional thinking of the time considered the universe to be static, placed by a divine hand, Herschel viewed it as continually evolving. Holmes also gives Herschel’s sister, Caroline, her just due as first his assistant and then as a noted astronomer in her own right.

Holmes focuses on Davy’s more well-known advances in chemistry: finding new elements; analyzing human effects of gasses comprising “common air” and “factitious airs” (e.g., nitrous oxide); inventing a safety lamp for miners; and applying the voltaic battery to chemical analysis. Holmes also details Davy’s role as a popularizer of science through well-received public lectures.

Aside from a chapter on Mungo Park’s ill-fated expedition to Africa, the other chapters have less focus on individuals and more on notable events. One concerns the first flights of hot air balloons, and another on the speculations of electricity as a life force that led to Mary Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. The final two chapters are in the service of Holmes’s view that “Science is truly a relay race, with each discovery handed on to the next generation” (p.468). He identifies the next generation of scientists and pays particular attention to William Herschel’s son, John, and to Davy’s protégé, Michael Faraday. Both went on to accomplished and celebrated careers. 

Holmes embeds the historical scientific developments and legendary figures into the ordinary daily life and human follies of the time. He describes how scientists and explorers sought public and private funding, and how they collaborated with one other on some occasions and competed with one another on others. We read of court intrigues, societal jostling, courtships and marriages, extramarital affairs (chaste and tawdry), and family relationships (devoted and fractious).  

A broader context Holmes provides involves the interplay among the scientists and explorers he covers and some of the important figures in literature, poetry, and art of Romantic era. Samuel Coleridge, William Cowper, John Keats, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, and Joseph Wright of Derby among others make appearances in the stories Holmes tells. He details the friendships between them and the influences they had on each other.

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Summary:

This illuminating and disturbing book explores how various forms of white supremacy became expressed in policies, laws, and elected officials, such as Donald Trump. Physician and sociologist Metzl details social changes in Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas, where white Americans backed changes that, ironically, dramatically harmed them with gun suicides, school dropouts, worse healthcare, and shorter life spans. For Metzl, “Whiteness” refers not to skin color but to a political and economic system of white privilege.

Metzl's thesis that: “Trump supporters were willing to put their lives on the line in support of their political beliefs” was, in fact, a sort of “self-sabotage” (pp. 5-6). While a conservative political movement fostered white racial resentment, largely in lower-income communities, the mainstream GOP did its part by crafting policies against the Affordable Care Act, higher taxes, and restrictions on guns. An atmosphere of polarization and political stasis grew. Metzl writes: “Compromise, in many ways, coded as treason” (p. 11).  

Metzl focuses on the examples of Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas to “suggest how the racial system of American fails everyone” (pp. 16, 20). He visits each state, leading focus groups, interviewing formally and informally, reading newspapers, and inductively formulating concepts that seem to explain the nonsensical behavior of rejecting helpful programs. For example, because “risk” in Missouri has become a code name for possible attacks by black people, white people buy guns, especially when restrictions are removed. Many white men feel that a gun (or many guns) restores their privilege, but suicide of white males, often low-income, goes up. Metzl’s statistics and charts show contrasts with other states with stricter laws and lower suicide rates. He calls for preventive medicine to lower such deaths.  

For Tennessee, the Affordable Care Act offered many benefits to poor or middle-income people, but Republicans (and especially Trump) attacked it as big government over-reach, socialism, exorbitant cost, a program that would help minority people, for example “welfare queens.” “Cost” became a proxy for the “we don’t like it,” even when the economics would be favorable for good healthcare for all. Blacks were generally in favor of ACA, but white blue-collar men swore by their independence and autonomy. Neighboring Kentucky accepted ACA, and ten graphs included in the book clearly chart the better outcomes for Kentucky in such areas as insurance coverage, death rates, and seeing a doctor.  

Metzl returns to Kansas, where he grew up and recalls the pride Kansans had in their state. Republican Governor Sam Brownback enacted massive tax cuts with large reductions to state services and school funding, an “experiment” in “epic defunding.” The GOP, Tea Party, Koch brothers, and “trickle down” theories all played a part in benefiting the wealthy financially, while minority and lower-income groups paid more. Infrastructure, such as roads, suffered. Untested charter schools collected wealthy white students, while public schools plunged in funding, test scores, and graduation rates (see 17 graphs). Since education is a predictor of health, there are and will be long-term costs to Kansans, especially for minority groups.  

Metzl attacks the “Castle Doctrine” (“a man’s home is…”) as a symbol of narcissism, individualism, and as a risk for all citizens when social structures are abandoned. He closes with some hopeful examples of social change for the better.

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

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Louise Aronson, a geriatrician, argues that we should create Elderhood as the third era of human aging, joining the earlier Childhood and Adulthood. This new concept will allow us to re-evaluate the richness of this later time, its challenges as body systems decline, and, of course, the choices of managing death. This important and valuable book is a polemic against modern medicine’s limits, its reductive focus, and structural violence against both patients and physicians. She argues for a wider vision of care that emphasizes well-being and health maintenance for not only elders but for every stage of life.   
          
Aronson argues that contemporary society favors youth and values of action, speed, and ambition, while it ignores—even dislikes—aging, older people, and the elderly. She says ageism is more powerful than sexism or racism—as bad as those are. Medical schools ignore the elderly, focusing on younger patients, especially men, and medical students perceive geriatrics as boring, sad, and poorly paid. Primary care, in general, seems routine and dull. By contrast, medical treatments, especially high-tech, are exciting and lucrative. In medical schools a “hidden curriculum” focuses on pathophysiology, organ systems, and drugs, ignoring patients’ variability as well as their suffering and pathos. Further, business and industrial models make “healthcare” a commodity, and nowadays “doctors treat computers, not people” (p. 237). Aging has become “medicalized” as a disease. Medicine fights death as an enemy, often with futile treatment that may extend a dying process.
        
Instead, Aronson says we need to bring back the human element, putting care of people at the center, not science. She calls for a new paradigm with ten assumptions (p. 378). Number 2 reads: “Health matters more to both individuals and society than medicine.” Number 9 claims, “As an institution, medicine should prioritize the interests of the people over its own.”  
      
Many practical changes would follow, from redesigned “child-proof” drug containers to buildings and public spaces that are more congenial to older people—and, in fact, to everyone else. We should change our attitudes about old age. For example, we might use the adjective “silver” for a medical facility that is friendly to and usable by older people. Changing our attitudes about aging can help all of us imagine more positive futures for each one of us and for all of our society.

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Marrow: A Love Story

Lesser, Elizabeth

Last Updated: Sep-25-2019
Annotated by:
Burke, Katherine

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Elizabeth (Liz) Lesser receives a call from her sister Maggie, telling her that she has had a relapse of lymphoma. Maggie’s best chance of survival is a bone marrow transplant; of the three other Lesser sisters, Liz is Maggie’s perfect match. In an effort to bolster the stem cells’ chance to be successfully grown, harvested, and transplanted, Maggie and Liz embark on a process to do a “soul marrow transplant;” with the help of a therapist and through many difficult conversations, the sisters resolve sibling rivalries, explore their family history, and forgive each other for old assumptions and judgments. Through the journey they learn to live with vulnerability and authenticity, and as the poet Rumi writes, meet each other in the field “beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.”  

Eventually, Maggie’s body begins to succumb to the cancer, and the entire family prepares for her inevitable death. Maggie, an artist who works with dried and pressed botanicals, strives to complete a formidable exhibition entitled “Gone to Seed,” an exploration of life and mortality. Liz seeks forgiveness and reconciliation with their other two sisters. Finally, Maggie and her family wrestle with the decision to end standard treatment, begin palliative care, and consider physician aid in dying.




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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In Ladysitting, novelist and memoirist Lorene Carey writes candidly and reflectively about the year and a half she cared for her century-old, ferociously independent paternal grandmother. The experience became a critical moment for personal and familial discovery. Carey’s intensive caregiving began when Nana Jackson could not be discharged from the hospital to the house where, for decades, she had lived by herself. Growing up, Carey enjoyed enchanted weekends of indulgence in Nana’s sunlit suburban home in South Jersey, a respite from her family’s life in urban West Philadelphia. Partly in gratitude for those weekends, partly from a sense of duty, Carey made physical, emotional, and spiritual space for Nana in the home she shared with her husband, a minister, and their teenage daughter. Along with Carey’s own artistic, community, and professional commitments, she also maintained the property management business that her grandmother ran until her confinement. Carey’s decision to become Nana’s primary caregiver brought momentary satisfactions along with overwhelming frustrations.  

Carey’s narrative agilely transitions between present encounters with Nana Jackson and the past: her own past and her African- and Caribbean-American relations’. By doing so, Carey tries to make sense of the complicated woman in her care, herself, and relationships within her family. She discovered generations of mostly “free-people-of-color,” several financially and politically successful, whose ambitions confronted Reconstruction, the Jim Crow South, the migration north, and the “lynchings [that] made sure that every gain would be paid for in blood and money, if not by [her family], then by other black people, somewhere.” How might that history, Carey asks, help her understand her family’s generations of divorces (including her own), alcoholism, deceptions, estrangements, and the elusive efforts of one generation to build on the accomplishments of the others?   

It took Carey ten years to research and reflect on that question. And then to write, hoping “to clear away the rage, uncover the simple grief, stored in the muscles that seized up then and cannot remember how they were before, and to convince us both, Nana and myself, that she has left this plane. And to forgive.”  

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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Strange Relation is a memoir of the terminal illness of George Edwards, a composer and professor of music at Columbia University, written by Rachel Hadas, his wife, a well- known poet and herself a professor of English at Rutgers University. Hadas begins with the insidious onset of Edwards's dementia, which is eventually diagnosed as frontotemporal dementia, a slow neurodegenerative disease characterized by a progressive paucity - and then absence - of communication, especially speech. She then continues with their meetings with physicians, especially neurologists, social workers, support groups and eventually nursing home personnel, recording, often in the form of her poems, her thoughts and reactions at the time.

The book consists of short chapters, more or less chronological, with occasional flashbacks to earlier periods in her life or their marriage. In addition to her poems, there are ubiquitous references to literature, many of them familiar, as well as not so familiar illness narratives by patients and relatives, especially those involving dementia and bereavement. George died in 2011, the year of the publication of this book, after 33 years of marriage to Ms. Hadas.




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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Mallory Smith died of complications following a double-lung transplant for cystic fibrosis (CF). She was twenty-five years old and kept an extensive journal on her computer for 10 years. Salt in My Soul: An Unfinished Life is her memoir, edited by her mother, Diane Shader Smith, from the 2,500 pages of notes, observations and reflections which Mallory Smith wrote. The title refers to the intimate relationship of salt imbalance in cystic fibrosis, and the fact that Mallory felt her most well while swimming in the sea. Diagnosed at age three, she spent much of her days and nights treating the disease with medication, nutrition, chest percussive treatments, breathing treatments, adequate sleep, and aggressive treatment of infections. Unfortunately, while still a child her lungs were colonized with B. cepacia, a resistant bacteria ‘superbug’ which makes transplantation highly risky and hence leads to most centers to not accept CF patients onto their wait lists. Ultimately, University of Pittsburgh does accept Mallory as a transplant candidate, although her health insurance puts up every road block possible to her receiving care. 

Mallory Smith was extraordinarily accomplished – she graduated from Stanford University Phi Beta Kappa, and became an editor and freelance writer. She was also deeply engaged with life and others; she was grateful for her loving, devoted family, and she developed close, fierce friendships within the CF community, among classmates, and eventually, she fell in love. 

She resists being called ‘an inspiration.’ She writes: “I’m not an inspiration. I’m just a person, grounded in compassion, striving to achieve empathy and wanting to make my way with goodness and grace.” (p. 171) She marvels at the miracle of life: “Our existence is the result of stars exploding, solar systems forming. Our Earth having an environment hospitable to life, and then, finally, millions of highly improvable events accumulating over millions of years to bring us, a capable and conscious bag of stardust, to the here and now.” (p 111) Her memoir is a story of living and dying from CF, but it is also an inside look at the brief life of young gifted writer.

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