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The Faraway Nearby

Solnit, Rebecca

Last Updated: Aug-09-2019
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Summary:

Solnit dares the reader to categorize her book. Autobiography, memoir, travelogue, story collection, history, meditations, and pathography could fit. Common to all the categories and subjects covered is storytelling. “It’s all in the telling… and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of the world,” Solnit says in book’s opening. Storytelling can bring what is geographically faraway emotionally nearby.  

Solnit’s first and last stories lay the foundation for the others in between. Both center on the hundred pounds of apricots she received from one of her brothers who was getting their mother’s house ready for sale when dementia made it impossible for her to live alone. Solnit saw “the apricots as an exhortation to tell of the time that began with their arrival, and so the stories concern the time from when they arrived onward” (p. 240). Solnit considers this time when her mother’s dementia is worsening, an “emergency,” but in this instance, she conceives emergency as “an accelerated phase of life, a point at which change is begotten, a little like a crisis” (p. 250). The book to her, she says, is “a history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then” (p. 249). 

The topics covered during this emergency are many and varied, related and unrelated. Just some of them are: her mother’s dementia, her cancer, her friend’s cancer, leprosy, Che Guevara as physician and revolutionary, Iceland, the Arctic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Buddhism, and cannibalism. In general terms, illness, pain, empathy, fairytales, and reading and writing are considered. Some of these topics are intertwined and some stand alone. 
 

The book is organized into thirteen numbered “stories.” Each has a one-word title. The titles of the first five stories are the same as the last five in reverse order, i.e., the first and last stories are both called “Apricots.” They are arranged on the table of contents page to form the shape of a bell curve that has been rotated 90 degrees with the apex of the rotated curve comprising the stories, “Wound,” Knot,” and “Unwound.” Threads run through the stories, and perhaps Solnit is telling us the story threads running through the first six stories are wound into a knot and then unwound in stories running through the last six of them. This structure may be more grist for people interested in how literature can be structured than for people interested in the insights into illness experiences literary nonfiction can provide.  
 

Not among the list of stories is one that is printed as a single line running along the bottom of each page in the book. It’s a story is about stories running along side the other stories. In an interview printed in the 8 August 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Solnit said she used this form in part to 
invite“readers to decide how to read a book that has two narratives running parallel to each other; the thread can be read before, during, or after.” 

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Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

About 20 Years ago, Linda Clarke, writer, professional storyteller and bioethics consultant was a neurosurgery patient of a colleague, Michael Cusimano at St. Michael's hospital in Toronto Canada. What was a distant relationship turned into one that was much closer. 10 years ago, Linda and Michael had a dialogue about recounting the story of her surgery and their relationship together. Linda became the "architect" of their project-- and they became co-authors in 2019 of In Two Voices: A Patient and a Neurosurgeon Tell their Story. The result is a lyrical co-memoir-- at times riveting, at other times sobering of their shared experience. What is probed goes much deeper than the facts, exposing the actors involved, their lives outside of their callings, their upbringing, and, most importantly, their differing interpretations of an important event during the surgery that only came to full light during the writing process. 

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

There are 46 poems in this volume (the author's first full-length collection), divided into three parts--the poems in the second section are in memory of women who have died of inflammatory breast cancer, the same disease that claimed the life of the author in August, 2018, when she was forty-nine-years old.  Diagnosed in 2004 during her pregnancy, Anya waited until after her son Noah was born to begin cancer treatment.  These poems, published in 2010, begin in images of her domestic life and her family, move forward to her cancer diagnosis (p. 17: "Biopsy"), and progress to examine, in poems that balance beauty and pain, what it is like to live with the knowledge of early death.  This awareness imparts a crystalline honesty and urgency to every poem. 

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Survivors

Pratt, Arthur

Last Updated: Jul-19-2019
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

For much of the western world, the Ebola crisis came and went without much fanfare. Perhaps we were jolted by the initial news stories, taken aback by the images from affected areas, and slightly unnerved by the travel advisories as we entered security lines at the airport. But for the most part, the Ebola outbreak was an abstract crisis affecting people on the other side of the world, multiple continents away. The closest that most Americans came to Ebola was to hear in the news about the four diagnosed cases in Texas and New York City. It is safe to say that most of the world remains unaware of the depths of this crisis in the West African hotspot countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, New Guinea, and Nigeria.  

Arthur Pratt is a Sierra Leonian pastor and filmmaker, and he witnessed firsthand the invisible enemy that threatened to destroy his country, the communities, and the families that lived there. Despite the human cost that this disease extracted from the West African people, Pratt was inspired by how the people in Sierra Leone rose up to defend their country from a viral invasion that was attacking “the fabric of what it means to be African.” He felt it necessary to tell the world the story of Sierra Leone’s unsung heroes, and so he created a documentary titled Survivors, which focused on the work done by the ambulance drivers and nurses, interwoven with personal stories of children, mothers, fathers, and communities touched by the disease. Survivors gets up close and personal to the 21-month battle against Ebola in West Africa, and shows how the common people of Sierra Leone risked everything to come together and fight back against an existential threat.

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Summary:

Bodies of Truth gathers twenty-five essays about experiencing illnesses and disabilities from the perspectives of patients, healthcare professionals, and families. These personal stories join the growing company of narratives that reflect on the inner experience of illness or caring for the ill and on the social circumstances that influence those experiences. In addition to the diversity of perspectives, the editors have selected pieces about an exceptionally wide range of health conditions: multiple sclerosis, brain damage, deafness, drug addiction, Down syndrome, pain, cancer, infertility, depression, trauma, HIV, diabetes, food allergies, asthma. They also include essays on the death of a child and an attempted suicide.  

The essays resist easy categorization. In their Preface, the editors explain that they took “a more nuanced approach” to organizing the contributions loosely by themes so that they would “speak to each other as much as they speak to readers.” For example, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke’s spirited “Rendered Mute” calls out the OB-GYN who refused to remove his mask during delivery to allow this deaf mother-in-the-making to read his lips to exchange vital communications. Her essay is followed by Michael Bérubé’s “Jamie’s Place.” In it the father recounts the emotionally and logistically complicated path he and his son with Down syndrome navigate as they seek a place for him to live as independently as possible as an adult. This sequence invites readers to listen to two stories about disability from differing parental perspectives and circumstances. But perhaps readers can also to find commonalities in ways social attitudes toward disability fold themselves into the most intimate moments of the families’ lives.  

Several of the essays take readers into a professional caregiver’s medical and moral struggles. In “Confession” nurse Diane Kraynak writes sensitively about a newborn in intensive care who distressed her conscience. She was troubled by both the extensive medical interventions he was given “because we can” and their failure to save him. When Matthew S. Smith was an exhausted neurology resident, he ignored a stroke patient who inexplicably handed him a crumpled paper. Scribbled on it was a ragged, ungrammatical, and urgently expressive poem, which he read only years later, admonishing himself “to cherish the moments of practice” that could “change your life forever (“One Little Mind, Our Lie, Dr. Lie”). Madaline Harrison’s “Days of the Giants” recounts “the sometimes brutal initiation” of her early medical training decades ago. Narrating those struggles has led her to “compassion: for my patients, for myself as a young doctor, and for the students and residents coming behind me.” 

Overall, the essays range widely across medical encounters. After attending her husband’s death, Meredith Davies Hadaway (“Overtones”) became a Certified Music Practitioner who plays the harp to calm hospice patients. Dr. Taison Bell graciously thanks a pharmacist that he regards as a full partner in his treatment of patients (“A Tribute to the Pharmacist”). Tenley Lozano (“Submerged”), a Coast Guard veteran, was traumatized first by the various abuses of male supervisors, once nearly drowning, and then by her struggle to receive psychiatric care.  

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The Presentation on Egypt

Bordas, Camille

Last Updated: Jul-15-2019
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

‘It wasn’t his job to explain it over and over, to sit the families down and say, “The husband/the brother/the son you knew is no more, it’s only machines breathing for him now, and you wouldn’t be letting him go, because he’s already gone."’ These are the frustrated musings of Paul, a wearily disillusioned brain surgeon who struggles with the emotional aftermath of delivering grim prognoses to his patients’ families. After comforting a patient’s wife who has decided to remove her husband from life support, Paul hangs himself in his family’s laundry room, leaving neither a note nor trace of what compelled him to take his own life. 

Career burnout, perhaps even a nagging sense of futility, would seem to be among the issues behind Paul’s mysterious suicide—in one conversation with a patient, he alludes gnomically to bad dreams that leave him either flummoxed or exhausted. Whatever the cause, Paul’s death leaves gaping lacunae in the lives of his family—his wife, Anna, and daughter, Danielle—that they struggle to patch and, in their own ways, comprehend. It is Anna who finds Paul, hanging, in the laundry room, though ‘she didn’t scream. She didn’t believe what she saw…' In that moment of speechlessness, of disbelief, Anna devises a ‘cold plan’ to keep secret the true circumstances of Paul’s death. Concealing the truth from her daughter, Anna creates a scaffolding of lies, false impressions, garbled half-truths that shape both Danielle’s and her own perception of the past. 

Years later, in a moment of introspection, Danielle intuits, not likely for the first time, that her 'mother was lying about her father’s death. […] Anna insisted that the heart attack hadn’t woken him, but that didn’t make any sense to Danielle, who could be woken up by the smell of toast.’ Danielle dimly senses that her father had ‘woken up and suffered,’ but cannot grasp the facts that her mother withholds.

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I AM

Clare, John

Last Updated: Jun-24-2019
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

"I AM" is a poem by John Clare with three sestets in iambic pentameter with an ABABAB rhyming pattern unique to each sestet. In it the poet affirms his identity, his sorrows to date and ends with the expressed longing for a happier life in the presence of God and the solitude of Nature. Due to his disorderly life, unconcern for conventional spelling, and transcriptions of his poems by others, there are often multiple versions extant for an individual poem. This is true for "I AM", which Jonathan Bate, the author of a magisterial biography of the poet, states was written in a psychiatric institution about 1846. (1, page 505) For this annotation I have used what many consider to be the most authoritative edition of his poems. The poem also exists in several reliable sites on the internet.

The poet was a troubled man born near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England, in 1793, in meager circumstances and remaining so throughout his entire life. Save for a five month period in 1841, Clare spent the last 27 of his 71 years in psychiatric institutions. He wrote his poetry, which primarily celebrates the natural world he spent so much time in alone, before and during his hospitalizations. His reputation as a poet has burgeoned significantly in the last 100 years.


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Summary:

A psychiatrist and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) specialist, Dr. Shaili Jain has written a book on PTSD and its many angles, from diagnosis to treatment to a larger perspective on cultural and historic influences on the development of traumatic stress. She weaves the story of her own family’s experience with the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, particularly its effect on her father and grandparents, as a way to consider the effect of trauma on family, but also how those traumas become ‘unspeakable.’  

A brief but effective introduction outlines the seven parts of the book:
1. Discovering Traumatic Stress: historical perspective and the changing language to describe the effects of trauma.
2. The Brain: the physiologic and psychological underpinnings of PTSD, including effects on memory formation and retrieval.
3. The Body:  such as addiction, cardiac effects and concerns at different stages of life.
4. Quality of Life: domestic and sexual violence, socioeconomic factors.
5. Treating Traumatic Stress: programs, treatment strategies and psychopharmacology.
6. Our World on Trauma: global health, large scale tragedy, terror and war.
7. A New Era: An Ounce of Prevention: resilience, accessibility of care including early and preventative care. 

Additionally, almost 100 pages of notes, glossary, resources and an index provide an easy way to further explore, to use the book to look up specific topics, and underscore the heavily researched nature of the text.   The book is eminently readable, with numerous, well-placed stories of patient encounters and particular experiences and manifestations of PTSD.  These stories are illustrative of the concepts Jain ably explains. However, they also provide an insider’s view of what happens in the consulting room.  In the prologue, Jain describes a young Afghanistan War veteran, who has been hospitalized after a violent outbreak at a birthday party: “Josh’s PTSD was fresh, florid, and untreated…. His earlier poise caves in to reality, and his face falls to anguish.” (p. xvi) We are in the room, listening to the patient, witnessing the tears of the medical student, glimpsing the attending psychiatrist’s response, and relating to Jain, as a psychiatry chief resident, as she understands that the individual before her, even as he shows classic signs of traumatic stress, remains an individual, a person in need of care.   

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The Scar is a powerful, thoughtful, and moving book, part memoir about the author’s illness across some 30 years, part history of depression and its treatment and part essay to evoke cultural and personal values about sickness, suffering, health, and death. Cregan, a gifted stylist herself, draws on literature that deals with human suffering, mortality, and wisdom.  She frankly describes her sorrows and hopes, the death of her baby, her attempts to kill herself, and her survival today with many blessings.   
           
The title refers to a scar on her neck, a result of her effort to cut her throat with a piece of glass so that she would die. This attempt, in a hospital, reflects the depth of her illness and the failure of her caregivers to prevent it. Her book explores the complexity and variety of mental patients and the range of medical responses—some useful, some not—to  treat them. Writing as a survivor, she draws on her journal, hospital records, emails, interviews, and more; she is part journalist, detective, archivist, and forensic pathologist—as if doing an autopsy on the suicide she attempted.
 
Ch. 1
What Happened describes the birth and immediate death of her daughter Anna and her descent into depression and initial hospitalization.

Ch. 2
What Happened Next discusses mental hospitals and her perceptions of being a patient in one. A dramatic paragraph describes her cutting her throat (p. 51).

Ch. 3
How to Save a Life presents electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), from the jarring images of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to her own experience of some 17 treatments; she reports that these helped in recovery.

Ch. 4
The Paradise of Bedlams gives a history of mental hospitals. She is hospitalized three months, “a prisoner,” in her term.

Ch. 5
Where Do the Dead Go? explores the dilemmas of the living as they mourn the deaths of people they love, including approaches from Judaism and Christianity. Mary has nightmares about her lost baby. She discusses Freud, Rilke, T. S. Eliot and others. She buries Anna’s ashes.

Ch. 6
Early Blues discusses modern attempts of science and the pharmaceutical industry to create drugs for mental illnesses, with influences from psychodynamic and biological concepts.

Ch. 7
The Promise of Prozac discusses that famous (notorious?) drug; she takes it on and off while working on her PhD, then other drugs as they became available.

Ch. 8
No Feeling Is Final sums up many themes.  She’s in her late 30s, remarried, and trying to conceive. After IVF, she’s pregnant. Baby Luke is born. She understands that the scar on her neck has an analogue with Odysseus’ scar on his leg: a symbol of survival through hard, even desperate times, for her a “double trauma: the loss of my child, the loss of myself”  (p. 243).  

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Summary:

The subtitle of this collection explicitly states its purpose and implies its audience. The content includes essays on teaching, as well as a number of canonical stories taught in medical humanities courses. The first section consists of key texts that present a rationale for teaching narrative literature to medical and other health professions students. This is followed by five sections, each of which covers an aspect of that rationale, i.e. narrative exploration of  professional boundaries, empathy and respect, authority and duty, stigma, and truth-telling and communication.  

Within each section, several essays describe teaching considerations or techniques, often focusing on a specific story or novel. For example, in “A Novel Approach to Narrative Based Professionalism: The Literature Classroom in Medical Education” by Pamela Schaff and Erika Wright (p. 72), the authors describe how Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration stimulates discussion of doctor-patient antipathy, doctor-patient intimacy, and interprofessional communication. From Reading to Healing also includes the full text of many stories relevant to the essays; for example, “Toenails” (Richard Selzer),“The Most Beautiful Woman in Town” (Charles Bukowski), “The Speckled Rash” (Mikhail Bulgakov), “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (Leo Tolstoy), “The Use of Force” (William Carlos Williams) and “The Birthmark” (Nathaniel Hawthorne). 
 

In addition to stories and novels, From Reading to Healing presents essays on teaching with film, religious literature, and even comics, cf. “Assisting Students in the Creation of a Class Oath Using Comics,” by Michael Redinger, Cheryl Dickson, and Elizabeth Lorbeer (p. 217)

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