Showing 11 - 20 of 44 annotations contributed by Carter, III, Albert Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


This short but complex book assesses the many, current risks to all life on earth and considers some avenues for repair that may provide hope for the future. E. O. Wilson, a distinguished scientist, describes how all life on earth is inter-related. With a long view to the past and a wide view of the present—from microscopic creatures to humans—Wilson praises our planet’s biodiversity and warns of the dangers that may cause it to collapse; these dangers are human-related. Humans are an apex predator, smarter than all other creatures, but we are also too numerous, using too many resources, and causing various pollutions, including global warming. The health of the world and the health of all its creatures—humans included— are, for better or worse, interlinked forever.   
A Prologue warns that we are playing an “end-game” with the earth. To avoid a point of no return from mass extinctions, Wilson proposes a bold plan of setting aside one-half of the earth in reserve in order to stabilize the survival of humans.  

Part I, “The Problem,” describes the damage to our planet, on a par with the Yucatan asteroid 65 millions years ago, the so-called Fifth Extinction. We live in a narrow biosphere threatened by dying species, invasive species, collapse of interdependency, pollution of air, land, and water, loss of the commons, overhunting, human population growth, and outright habitat destruction (including the many impacts of climate change). He states, “the Sixth Extinction is under way” and “human activity is its driving force” (p. 55).   

Average time for recovery from each of the five previous extinctions is 10 million years. 

Self-centered humans do not understand the vast complexity of nature, including the many species not yet studied. He imagines far-distant geologists observing, “What a terrible time it was for people, and for the rest of life” (p. 9).  

Part II, “The Real Living World,” criticizes some conservationists who see nature in service to humans. Wilson says we are not owners of nature but stewards. He describes the abundant life of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a typical seashore as well as the extinction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Wilson contacted “eighteen of the world’s senior naturalists,” asking for suggestions for the “best reserves” to shelter “plants, animals, and microorganisms” (p. 135). Fifteen pages lovingly describe their recommendations of 33 places around the world. He concludes that “a great deal of Earth’s biodiversity can still be saved!” (p. 136).  

Part III, “The Solution” states, “The only solution to the Sixth Extinction is to increase the area of inviolable natural reserves to half the surface of the Earth or greater” (p. 167). Wilson reviews crises of water and food, and he warns against “self-inflicted disaster” that could wipe out most species by the end of this century. He provides two examples of restoration projects, the long-leaf pine lands in Florida and Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. He believes the population bulge to ten billion people will be temporary.            

Wilson rejects geo-engineering of the oceans or the atmosphere as well as a proposed use of a passing asteroid. He argues that synthetic biology has promise for improving our brains for moral reasoning and ecological understanding. We need altruism (all working for all) and biophilia (deep love of nature).

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The Heart

de Kerangal, Maylis

Last Updated: Apr-25-2016

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


The story of The Heart is a simple, linear structure.  A car accident renders a young Frenchman, Simon, brain-dead. A medical team proposes harvesting organs, and his parents, after some turmoil, agree. That’s the first half of the book, the provenance of this specific heart. The second half describes its delivery for transplantation. Administrators find recipients, one of them a woman in Paris. Simon’s heart is transported there by plane and sewn into her chest. All this in 24 hours.  
The narration is complex, with flashbacks, overlapping times, and literary art that is compelling. There are 28 sections to the story but without numbers or chapter headings, and these are often broken up into half a dozen shorter sections. We have an impression of stroboscopic flashes on the action, with high intensity focus. These create a mosaic that we assemble into dramatic pictures. Even major characters arrive without names, and we soon figure them out.  

Simon.  He’s called the donor, although he had no choice in the matter. At 19 years of age he’s trying to find a path in life.  A Maori tattoo is a symbol for that search. He has a girlfriend, Juliette. He fades away as a character (except in others’ memories) and his heart takes center stage.  

Marianne and Sean, Simon’s parents.  Her emotions, as we would expect, range widely, especially during discussion of whether Simon’s organs can be transplanted. Father Sean has a Polynesian origin and cultural heritage.

Pierre Révol, Thomas Rémige, and Cordélia Owl are respectively the ICU physician, nurse, and the transplant coordinator. These are vividly drawn, with unusual qualities. Skilled professionals, they are the team the supplies the heart.  

Marthe Carrare, Claire Méjan, and Virgilio Breva are a national administrator, the recipient, and a surgeon. Described in memorable language, they are the receiving team.              

The characters’ names give hints of de Kerangal’s range. S
ince the 1789 Revolution Marianne has been a well-known French national symbol for common people and democracy, but Virgilio Breva is from Italy and Cordélia (recalling King Lear) Owl (as in wise?) has a grandmother from Bristol, England. We learn of personal habits regarding tobacco, peyote, sex, and singing. Medicine is part of a larger world of people of many sorts.              

Even minor characters, such as Simon’s girlfriend Juliette and other medical personnel are touching and memorable.

These characters animate the story with their passion, mystery, even heroism. While we don’t know the final outcome of the implanted heart, the text shows the professionalism of the medical team, the French national system that evidently works, sensitive care of patients and families, and in the last pages, rituals of affirmation for medical art and for patients.

There is richness in de Kerangal’s style. At times it is direct, reflecting the thoughts of characters. At times it is ornate, even baroque. She uses many images and metaphors, often with large, epic qualities. A very long sentence about the over-wrought parents describes them as “alone in the world, and exhaustion breaks over them like a tidal wave” (p. 141).  The style uses many similes, often with dramatic and unexpected comparisons. There are references to geology, astronomy, even American TV hospital drama. The style is at times lyric…we might say “operatic.”  One page about Cordélia is very, very funny.
In a different tone, the details of medicine, law, and ethics are carefully presented, and visual imagery puts us in the hospital rooms, the OR, and crowded streets around a soccer game. Throughout it appears that translator Sam Taylor has done an admirable job. 

The text invites us to consider large visions of wholeness. All the major characters seek some comprehensive unity to their lives, and they avoid orthodoxies such as religion, patriotism, and economic gain. Sean has his Polynesian heritage and boat-building passion, which he has shared with Simon. Cordélia, at 25, is an excellent nurse, wise beyond her years in some ways, but is as dazzled by a man as any teenaged girl. Nurse Rémige has his master’s in philosophy, loves the song of rare birds, and is, himself, a serious singer.  

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


Kozol tells a multilayered story about himself and his father, a distinguished physician who becomes increasingly demented by Alzheimer’s disease, starting at age 88. A neurologist, Dr. Harry Kozol is able to diagnose with great specificity his own disease.     
Son Kozol describes his father’s initial symptoms and the slow decline, a direction that is sadly and fatefully, clear. The son goes on walks with him, describes their conversations, arranges for paid companions, and puzzles about what must be “a life beneath the life” of his progressively inarticulate father.

Over the 14 years of this illness, there are some medical mishaps—including problems in continuity of care—depletion of the family’s money, and Jonathan’s hesitation to use a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order for his father or for his aging mother. He writes of his doubts, uncertainties, and mixed emotions. When his father is actively dying, Kozol dawdles elsewhere with lists and papers “obsessively.” He understands this, in retrospect, as denial. Nevertheless he arrives at the hospital and places his ear on his father’s chest, hearing breaths come slower and slower until death. Dr. Kozol dies in 2008 at the age of 102.

Alternating with this story are long passages about Dr. Kozol’s professional life, including his work with Eugene O’Neill and family, also Patty Hearst and Albert DeSalvo (“The Boston Strangler”). For the latter two, he is an expert witness in court cases. These passages illustrate his many skills, tenacity, and ideals.

A 25-page Epilogue written a half a dozen years later casts a different light on the father-son relationship. While the bulk of the book shows a loving, respectful relationship, the Epilogue describes tensions and disagreements between the two from Jonathan’s childhood to later years. The father criticizes what he perceives as failures, lack of ambition, poor choices, and the like. Kozol describes his own illustrious career, often in directions his father disapproves. In later years, however, Kozol accepts some of his father’s advice and understands their status more as equals. In another seven years, however, Dr. Kozol’s mind starts its difficult path, and the son becomes the caregiver to the father.  

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Best Boy

Gottlieb, Eli

Last Updated: Nov-09-2015

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


Best Boy is a novel about Todd Aaron, a 54-year-old autistic man who has lived for 40 years in a Payton LivingCenter (sic); he was involuntarily committed to this facility. Todd has been in five previous places for congregate living, but Payton seems to be the best for him, thanks in part to a loving caregiver, Raykene. Todd has accepted the institutional “Law” of Payton and takes his drugs right on schedule, including Risperdal, an antipsychotic that slows him down, making a “roof” over him and muffling, he says, “the voice in my brain.”  The story is told from Todd’s point of view, often with startling imagery:  he pictures his dead parents turning into giant cigars, a raindrop “explodes,” and, when upset, he rocks back and forth and feels “volts.”  Now and then he recalls that his mother called him her “best boy.”
Into this stable setting come three personified disruptions. The first two are fellow patients, Terry Doon (a pun on “doom”?), a brain-injured roommate who teases, torments, and bullies Todd, and Martine Calhoun. While Terry disrupts Todd’s living space, Martine is a siren who lures him to different parts of Payton’s campus; she is also a rebel who urges him to stop taking Risperdal and shows him how to hide the drug in his hand and get rid of it later.   

The third is Mike Hinton, a day staffer who lies, manipulates, and in general mistreats Todd. Todd understands Hinton as evil and entertains violence against him—but does not act. Hinton has sex with a female patient who dies, apparently a suicide, although the language of Payton’s staff, as reported by Todd, euphemistically hides the truth.

Todd has the “Idea” of escape and sets out, on foot, to go 744 miles to “home.” A state policeman soon returns him to Payton.

Now and then Todd’s younger brother Nate calls, often while drinking. Near the end of the book, Nate and his wife Beth take Todd to his childhood home, where he had been abused physically and mentally. In a moving scene, Todd enters the only unchanged area, a crawl space and feels the return he yearned for.            

All three tormentors leave Payton, and there is a surprising resolution for Todd.  The balance and harmony of Payton’s LivingCenter are restored, and Todd, reminded by Raykene, affirms that “Somebody always loved me.” 

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On the Move: A Life

Sacks, Oliver

Last Updated: Jun-22-2015

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography


On the Move:  A Life describes the extraordinary life of Oliver Sacks from his childhood during World War II to shortly before its 2015 publication.  Using his journals (“nearly a thousand,” he writes), correspondence, and memories—as well as his 14 or so books—Sacks has given himself free rein to describe and analyze his long, productive, and unusual life.

A dozen chapter headings nominally corral his wide variety of interests, adventures, and travels, including his medical career, his homosexuality, and diverse writing projects.

Sacks came from an English medical family, including some observant Jews, but not him. As a youth he loved (prophetically) writing and chemistry. He rode motorcycles then and for many years to come. He did poorly on his Oxford practical anatomy exam but immediately (and drunk on hard cider) sat for a competitive essay on anatomy and won a large prize.  Later, he was warned away from bench science and focused successfully on patient care, patient narratives, and personal essays of many sorts, including A Leg To Stand On, the account of his injured leg and recovery.

Sacks left England for Canada, then the US.  He quotes from some of the journals about his travels. In LA, he worked out at Muscle Beach (setting a California squat record) and did drugs, including amphetamines. A shy man, he thought of himself as Doppelganger: Dr. Sacks by day, a black-garbed biker by night. 

Fascinated by vision and photography, Sacks includes 58 photos from the ’50s to 2006; some black and white, some in color.  These are printed together on slick paper and well illustrate his text.   

Neurology training concluded, Sacks served various institutions in New York but read widely, ever eager to find theories of brain chemistry, anatomy, perception, behavior, and more. As readers of his books know, he enjoyed using his own interests in drugs, music, and travel, as well as personal medical experiences such as his injured leg and his lack of facial recognition. He describes his meetings with patients with unusual dilemmas: the postencephalics of Awakenings, as well as people with Tourette’s syndrome, deafness, colorblindness, autism, or migraines. He became fascinated—obsessed, one might say—with these and wrote so voluminously that cuts had to be made from his huge manuscripts to yield books.

Sacks describes interaction with editors, film crews, playwrights and others wishing to collaborate. His audiences grew as he became an intermediary to the non-medical public. We read about Peter Brook, W. H. Auden, Jonathan Miller, Bob Silvers (New York Review of Books), the cartoonist Al Capp (a cousin), Abba Eban (another cousin), Stephen Jay Gould, Temple Grandin, Francis Crick, and others. One striking passage describes taking Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams to see locked-in patients in preparation for the film version of Awakenings.

In his 70s, his robust health faded. He had a melanoma in his right eye, with more than three years of treatment before it became blind. Being Sacks, he observed interesting phenomena as his vision changed, “a fertile ground of enquiry” (p. 376). His left knee was replaced. He had sciatica.   

He fell in love again after 35 years of celibacy; he dedicates his book to his partner Billy Hayes.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is both ambitious and synthetic, qualities that well suit his difficult subject, death.  In Western culture, there are taboos against death because it fits neither into post-Enlightenment notions of progress and perfection nor into medical notions of control, even domination of human biology. A surgeon and an investigator, Gawande draws on his patients, his family, and travels to various hospitals and other caregiving places in order to confront death and see how approaches such as hospice and palliative care can improve our understanding, acceptance, and preparation for death.

Gawande has harsh words for contemporary medicine, the supposed caregiver for the dying and their families.  Relying heavily on technique and industrial models, it ignores the deep needs of the dying and provides, instead, versions of “warehoused oblivion” (p. 188), for example long, futile stays in ICUs.

As opposed to traditional societies like India, Westerners prize the independence of individuals, a status that is, of course, never permanent. In the chapter “Things Fall Apart,” Gawande describes how longer lives are now the norm but they include chronic illnesses and inevitable decline in vitality.  Our deaths are now routinely in hospitals, not at home, and often extended—sometimes brutally—by technical support and unwillingness of doctors and families to stop aggressive treatment.       
Also, sadly, there are fewer and fewer geriatricians at a time when there are more and more elderly.  A good geriatrician takes a long time with each patient, is not well paid, nor does s/he do income-generating procedures. Worse yet, some training programs are being discontinued.  

Gawande illustrates his ideas with case studies of patients and describes, from time to time in the book, the elderly journeys of his grandmother-in-law and his own father.  These passages make vivid the abstract ideas of the book. But it’s not just elderly patients who face death: health calamities can come to anyone, for example, a 34-year-old pregnant woman found to have a serious cancer. Various treatments are tried without success, but family and doctors act out “a modern tragedy replayed millions of times over” (p. 183) of a medically protracted death. Finally her mother calls a halt to treatment.
Family members often bear a heavy load in caring for a sick elder, but many nursing homes are often worse, designed for control, not support of the patients. 

The chapter “A Better Life” describes the first in a series of places that offer much improved settings for the elderly, with birds, animals, gardens, and, in general, richer lives that have a sense of purpose.  Gawande describes hospice care, palliative care, and advanced directives (including Do Not Resuscitate orders) as improvements needed to break the norms of “treat at all costs.” The old roles of Dr. Knows-Best and Dr. Informative need to give way to physicians and others who talk with patients and families about their values, their wishes for the last days, and their preparations for death. In short, aggressive treatment should no longer be the “default setting” for hospital care.     
The book ends with a dozen moving pages about the death of Gawande’s father. The “hard conversations” have clarified his wishes, and hospice care has provided “good enough” days.  Pain control has done well. Then, finally, “No more breaths came.” The family travels to India to spread his ashes on the Ganges. 

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This anthology is a sequel to Pulse: The First Year (2010). Both anthologies are comprised of postings to the website “Pulse: voices from the heart of medicine,” an online publication that sends out short poems and prose pieces every Friday. As the website subtitle suggests, the topics are from the medical world, the writing is personal (not scientific), and the writers give voice to feelings and perceptions from their direct experience as care-givers, patients, or family members of patients. All the pieces are short (typically one to five pages), usually with a tight subject focus. For example, in "Touched," Karen Myers reports how massage has helped her muscular dystrophy. 

The postings in the second anthology originally appeared from April 2009 through December of 2010. Because the 87 pieces appear in the order they were published, they don’t have linear coherence. Therefore the editors of have thoughtfully provided four indices in the back of the book: by author, by title with summaries, by healthcare role, and by subject/theme.

Prose pieces vary widely in style and technique. The poems are almost all free verse, although some poets have used regular stanzas. “Depression Session,” (p. 157) is an 18-line poem by a physician about a difficult mental patient. Many of the pieces explore the intensity of medical subjects with impacts on doctor, patient, and/or family. Some of them show limits of medicine. “Pearls before swine” (p. 191) relates the experience of a third-year medical student in a rotation at the office of a racist and sexist physician. “Babel: the Voice of Medical Trauma” (p. 158) dramatically tells the story of a poorly handled birth at a hospital.  

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


Linden, a professor of neuroscience, has written a book for a general audience on the subject of touch. A synthetic thinker, he combines insights from science, anatomy, neurophysiology, psychology, and social behavior. He argues that touch pervades much of human experience: “From consumer choice to sexual intercourse, from tool use to chronic pain to the process of healing, the genes, cells, and neural circuits involved in the sense of touch have been crucial to creating our unique human experience” (p. 5). Case studies of medical oddities enliven his account.

Chapter One, “The Skin is a Social Organ,” draws on a wide range of examples, from NBA players to vampire bats. Touch is especially important to the development of human newborns. Lab experiments have shown that the attitude of the toucher can influence the experience of the touched. English and American cultures are touch aversive.

Chapter Two discusses the neurophysiology of touch, the sensory nerves and the neurons that link to the spinal cord or to the brain. Lively examples include string players, 1900-era women with “underwear-shaped numbness,” and the Braille writing system for the blind. 

In Chapter Three, “The Anatomy of a Caress,” Linden explores further the tactile fibers that relay touch. “A caress communicates that you are safe,” he writes, and the C-tactile system is the main route from skin to the brain.

Chapter Four, “Sexual Touch,” moves beyond caress all the way to orgasm, detailing the roles of touch receptors and brain activity as well as the wide variety of personal and social contexts.

Chapter Five looks at nerve endings of human skin that detect chili peppers as hot and mint as cool. Vampire bats have another version that detect heat, useful for locating blood vessels on “donors.”

Chapter Six, “Pain and Emotion,” opens with Pakistani children who do not feel pain; they have a genetic mutation that influences a sodium channel in neurons. Pain itself varies with people’s emotions, experience, and expectations. Some mindfulness practices (yoga, Tai Chi, meditation) can lessen chronic pain.

Chapter Seven, “The Itchy and Scratchy Show,” discusses river blindness and shingles, among other topics.

Chapter Eight, “Illusion and Transcendence,” provides a helpful overview of sensory nerves and their connection to various parts of the brain. Some stimuli activate the “emotional-affective-cognitive portions,” while others activate “sensory-discriminative centers.” Touch, in general, often has strong social meanings but does not, for Linden, imply any supernatural dimensions.  

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A Little Something

Haddaway, Richard

Last Updated: May-13-2014

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


A Little Something is a story of a medical catastrophe for a family: at a baseball game, 10-year-old Justin is struck in the face by a foul ball. He seems OK initially, but he has a loose tooth. His father takes him to a dentist, where, left unattended, he has a drug reaction and loses consciousness. Paramedics take him to a hospital, but he does not wake up. He becomes the still center of the book; three circles form around him.  The closest circle includes the attending neurologist Dr. Goldstein and, of course, his parents. His mother Kath is a pediatric physician; she follows closely the medicine involved and knows well the hospital where Justin is being treated. His father Sam is an introverted financial man; he measures everything in numbers. Their marriage is stressed even before the accident. Kath’s nurse at her clinic, Jonesie, is a steady support. Granny, a Licensed Vocational Nurse, comes to watch over Justin. In a moving scene, she bathes the unconscious boy.

A second circle includes other family and friends, the clientele of Kath’s pediatric clinic, the children, and their parents. These are largely Latino, underserved in Fort Worth, Texas, of 2001. (Kath has chosen a medical specialty that earns less money than other fields—in contrast to her money-grubbing mother, who is satirically portrayed.) Next door to the clinic is a firehouse, where Justin has visited and made friends. The blue-collar firemen are public servants who help make a community work.

A third circle is less defined but contextual for the novel: country folks, like Granny, who are not intellectual but practical. They believe in keeping going no matter what, a folk wisdom of realistic, durable hope.

For three-quarters of the novel there’s suspense about Justin’s recovery. At one brief moment, Sam is sure of a turnaround when he sees (or thinks he sees) a smile on Justin’s face. For nine days Sam and Kath experience hope, anger, exhaustion, expressed rage, confusion, and continuous uncertainty.

Finally there is “the meeting,” a gathering of the doctor, the family, Kath’s faithful clinic nurse Jonesie, and Father Red, a Catholic priest from Justin’s school.  Dr. Goldstein says there is no hope for recovery and gives the medical details of Justin’s brain death, which has both anatomical and legal certainty.

Kath and Sam decide to disconnect Justin from life support and allow organ donation. When Justin must be transferred from the children’s hospital to the neighboring one, Sam carries him in his arms. A surprise ritual is an honor guard of firemen who line the path of the procession.

We read the specifics of disconnecting the vent tube, watching the heart race on the monitor, then the flat line of the still heart. Father Red reads from the Book of Common Prayer. An hour later, a helicopter takes off from the hospital with Justin’s donated heart.

An Epilogue six months later describes a Thanksgiving dinner at the firehouse. Sam and Kath are closer now, and he plans for them a trip to Hawaii. There’s has been, however, no easy “closure,” and the couple combines memories with mourning. 


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Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)


This collection of 16 short stories focuses on doctors and patients in San Francisco, where a wide variety of wealth and culture impact the delivery of medical care.  Further, there are many restrictions—financial, bureaucratic, ethical, and legal —that limit what doctors can do, especially in cases of patients near death.

The author, Louise Aronson, is a geriatrician who knows this terrain very well, having trained in San Francisco and worked as a physician there. A skilled writer and close observer, she has created dramatic and often funny stories that reveal social and bioethical complexity. About half the stories describe end-of-life issues for the aged and the dilemmas for their physicians and families.

In ‘The Promise,” Dr. Westphall orders comfort care only for an elderly patient who has suffered a massive stroke, but a hospital gives full treatment because there was no advance directive and the daughter told the attending to do “what he thought best.”

When Dr. Westphall sees this barely functioning patient in a skilled nursing facility seven months later, he tenderly washes her face and hair—although the text teases us that he might have been prepared to kill her.

In “Giving Good Death,” a doctor is in jail charged with murder; he has fulfilled the request of Consuela, a Parkinson’s patient, to help her die. When it appears that she may have died for other reasons, he is released, his life “ruined.” He leaves San Francisco, and, we surmise, medicine. In three other stories, doctors also leave the profession: the cumulative stresses of work and family and/or a sense that it’s not the right path bring them to that choice.

On the other hand, one of the longer pieces “Becoming a Doctor” celebrates the profession, despite all the rigors of training including sexism against women. 

The stories bring multicultural insights; we read of people from China, Cambodia, Latin America, India, Russia, and the Philippines. Some are African-American; some Jewish, some gay. These different backgrounds color notions of health, death, and medical care. There are also pervasive issues of poverty and, at another extreme, professionalism that is hyper-rational and heartless.

Indeed, a recurring theme is care and love for people, no matter their background or current health status. A surgeon realizes (regrettably too late) that the secret of medical care is “caring for the patient—for anyone—just a little. Enough, but not too much” (p. 135). 

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