Showing 1 - 10 of 690 Nonfiction annotations

Annotated by:
Perkins, Sam

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Longform journalism

Summary:

Olivia Laing, a British novelist and writer on cultural and social issues, tackles the phenomenon of loneliness as a pervasive condition that is both a symptom and a cause of malaise, dysphoria and depression. The book is thoroughly referenced and has an extensive, useful bibliography. Laing begins by describing her own loneliness when she moved to New York City. Somewhat reclusive by nature, she spent hours in her apartment, connected to  the outside world through social media, email and Skype. This leads her to examine the nature of loneliness, its causes and impact on the individual. She then turns to the lives and works of artists who specifically dealt with their own loneliness -- as inspiration, subject matter and personal burden: Edward Hopper; Andy Warhol and his assailant Valerie Solanas; the artist and AIDS activist, David Wojnarowicz; outsider artist, Henry Darger; singers Klaus Nomi and Billie Holliday; tech entrepreneur, Josh Harris, and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Laing weaves in pertinent research (Klein, Harlow, Bowlby, Ainsworth, Weiss, Turkel) and expertly ties their findings to her subjects’ creative lives. Her section on Josh Harris’ radical social media experiments is a pertinent reminder of technology’s role in fostering loneliness. A recurrent theme is that social isolation “leads to a decline in social sophistication which itself leads to further episodes of rejection.” Among the results, she says, are that lonely people are more susceptible to sickness and more likely to die before their time.  


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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

When poet and writer Amy Nawrocki was nineteen years old, a college student returning home after her freshmen year, she suffered a sudden and mysterious illness.  She was transformed, in an eye-blink, from an active young woman to a bed bound and comatose patient.  "There is nothing to embellish--I got sick, I fell into a deep sleep, I woke up.  No fairy tale" (page 3).  Months of her life went missing: this brief and lovely memoir is her attempt to reconstruct those hours and those experiences.  She begins with reflections on journal entries written before her illness began, giving the reader (and herself) a persona, a personality, a living breathing young woman who already writes, who lives in her head, and who always felt "totally comfortable" in her body (page 3). Then we lose her, as she lost herself.  She re-visions the story of her months of suffering and recovering from encephalitic coma through the various medical records and family memories she gathers in order to reconstruct the missing pieces of her life. "The coma girl has detached herself from me. I have to dream her up or rely on what others saw, eye witnesses who had to detach themselves in a different way" (page 21). Coming back into life after a serious illness is a strange and often prolonged journey.  Nawrocki writes, "Waking up took as long as sleeping" (page 33).  And in this waking up time, she begins to see who she was (or how she looked to others) during those blank months. "The images still frighten me. My face was a mess; hair cropped short, puffed up without styling, ragged, like I just woke up. My eyes seemed empty but weirdly wild" (page 35). During her recovery, the author begins journaling again. "In my college notes, I focused on the art of reflection; after the illness, I wanted mainly to observe" (page 42).  And in recovery, she begins to build memories once again. She lists her recollections during weeks in rehab, and she remembers "the final trip home, a cake decorated with blue and yellow icing waiting for me" (page 45).

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In this remarkable anthology, 51 women and men describe their nursing school experiences, from initial fears and anxieties to increasing confidence and appreciation of the profession.  Jeanne Bryner, in her Introduction, explains how she and Cortney Davis deliberately sought a diverse group of nurse-writers, from recent nursing graduates in their twenties to seasoned veterans in their nineties.  Their collection includes different races, nationalities, social and economic classes, and education levels.  What the contributors have in common besides being nurses is that they are gifted writers able to capture in poetry or prose the transforming moments of their lives. Nursing students reading this anthology will recognize many kindred souls, struggling with the same uncertainties and apprehensions, wondering how they will ever accomplish all this, but also gaining command of the profession, relishing its special rewards, valuing patients as their ultimate teachers. All readers will understand what is so special about nursing .




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This entertaining and wide-ranging book discusses the importance of the human foot and many related topics. There are five alliteratively named chapters.  

1. Destiny

Drawing on anthropological research, Rinzler discusses the deep history of humans and their primate ancestors. Our bipedalism—our upright stance—preceded our large brain, making possible a larger diet and working well with our bodies as they evolved away from other primates. She discusses the idealized ratios of Leonardo’s Vitruvian man. Leonardo considered our foot as “a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art” (p. 6).  

2. Disability
Rinzler discusses historical senses of disability, notably clubfoot. She mentions various people with a clubfoot:  Joseph Goebbels, Sir Walter Scott, King Tut, Cludius I, Dudly Moore, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Mia Hamm; the last are two successful athletes. Rinzler reviews the history of surgical approaches, many of which were harmful. X-ray and sonography provided new insights, and genetics may have further promise, given that families and ethnic groups often have higher instances of clubfoot.  

3. Difference
This chapter describes the anatomy of the foot, bones, arches, tendons, and on as well as artistic representations and, of course, ballet and other forms of dance. A footprint is as individual as the much-used fingerprint. In Nazism and the American south, a flat foot was discriminated against as Jewish or Negro. Various treatments have been proposed for flat feet.  

4. Diet
Gout has been known since antiquity, but only in modern times has the underlying biochemistry and, now, genetic heritage been understood. The chapter mentions many famous names of people who suffered from gout. rheumatism, or corns. The closing pages discuss pharmaceutical approaches.  

5. Desire
The foot as sexual symbol: Rinzler discuss folklore (Cinderella’s slipper), pheromones, and Biblical topics: God’s feet, footwashing, and feet as symbols for sex and urination. Foot fetishism can be understood in terms of the lavish sensory innervation that links to our brain. Discussion mentions the bound feet of China, the folktale The Red Shoes, also Fifty Shades of Grey, Sex and the City, and Judy Garland’s red shoes in The Wizard of Oz

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Citing numerous studies that might be surprising to both lay and professional readers, Dr. Rakel makes a compelling case for the efficacy of empathic, compassionate, connective behavior in medical care.  Words, touch, body language, and open-ended questions are some of the ways caregivers communicate compassion, and they have been shown repeatedly to make significant differences in the rate of healing. The first half of the book develops the implications of these claims; the second half offers instruction and insight about how physicians and other caregivers can cultivate practices of compassion that make them better at what they do.  

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The author is a pediatric oncologist who grew up in the United States, went to medical school in Israel, returned to the United States for fellowship and to begin practice, and then, feeling unsettled both personally and professionally, moved to Israel for a “dream job” opportunity and out of a deep sense of belonging.  The twelve chapters of this book catalogue Dr. Waldman’s journey along both domains, the personal and the professional.  We get to meet his patients, children drawn from the various constituent populations of Israel:  Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, religious and secular. 

Each chapter tells the story of a patient (or two), framed within a brief narrative of the history, religious aspects, and geopolitical vagaries of the city of Jerusalem as well as the nation.   The simultaneous and chronologically coherent narrative thread of the book is the author’s growth into his job, his interactions with the realities of present-day Israeli government and society, his exposure to and subsequent decision to devote himself to pediatric palliative care, and ultimately the career decisions he has to make.  

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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.

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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).      

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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.

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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.  

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