Showing 11 - 20 of 690 Nonfiction annotations

Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

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

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


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

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The River of Consciousness

Sacks, Oliver

Last Updated: Mar-01-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Two weeks before his death in 2015, Sacks oversaw this collection of essays and charged Kate Edgar, Daniel Frank, and Bill Hayes to arrange its publication. The essays touch on various fields—evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts, and focus on major figures such as Darwin, Freud, and William James. The major theme—as indicated by the volume’s title—is how minds (of humans, chimps, even jellyfish) interpret and remember what the senses perceive in normal and in limited states. While we read in the Foreword that “a number” of the pieces originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, there are no citations for dates and places.  

“Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers”: Sacks describes Darwin’s research with flowers that support evolution; flowing plants display qualities of sensitivity to “contact, pressure moisture, chemical gradients, etc” (p. 19). Sacks recalls the pleasures of investigating flowers as a youth in his London garden.  

“Speed” : Drawing on personal experience and a wide variety of anecdotes (including his encephalitic patients described in Awakenings), Sacks muses about mental perceptions, slow and fast, normal and drug-enhanced, dreams, and our ability to imagine “all speeds, all time” (p. 59).  

“Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms”: Starting with Darwin and coming forward, Sacks discuss how worms, jellyfish, and even trees may be considered to exhibit “mind.” Near the end, we read, “if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of a significant and individual sort, one has to allow it for an octopus too” (p. 76).  
   
“The Other Road: Freud as Neurologist”: The opening paragraph ably sums up the essay. “Everyone knows Freud as the father of psychoanalysis, but relatively few know about the twenty years (from 1876 to 1896) when he was primarily a neurologist and anatomist; Freud himself rarely referred to them in later life. Yet his neurological life was the precursor to his psychoanalytic one, and perhaps an essential key to it (p. 79).   
   
The next three may be considered as a group because they deal with lapses or outright failures in perception, memory, or health. Because Sacks reports on his own life experience, these are the most personal.
“The Fallibility of Memory” describes Sacks’s memories of the bombing of London in the winter of 1940-41. It turns out that one memory, according to family members, is right, but the other is actually a version of a letter describing a bombing.

The essay continues to discuss such topics as false memories, auto-plagiarism, unconscious plagiarism, and fabulation. He concludes, “Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine” (p. 121). In a short piece, “Mishearings,” Sacks reports how his increasing deafness makes new (and sometimes hilarious) perceptions of spoken words.  

Surely the last written—and in many ways the most poignant—“A General Feeling of Disorder” discusses feelings of being ill. Sacks, at age 81, describes his metastatic liver cancer and, in detail, an arduous treatment. Although warned of weakness and pain, he writes of “a sort of negative orgasm of pain” and other disturbing side effects (pp. 155-59) in vivid detail.  

“The Creative Self” discusses forms of creativity including play, scholarship, unconscious borrowing, and subconscious insight. Sacks is less interested in a Freudian model than an evocation of “an entire hidden, creative self” (p. 144).            

The final two, “The River of Consciousness” and “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science” deal with theories of how the mind works and, more collectively, how scientific breakthroughs occur. The former essay explores cinematic models for perception in James and Bergson and much later models of the 100 billion neurons of the brain working on networks, coalitions, or populations. He finds that a specific mechanism is unlikely to be found and, “Even the highest powers of art—whether in film or theater, or literary narrative—can only convey the faintest intimation of what human consciousness is really like” (p. 174).

In “Scotoma” (or “memory hole”), he looks at discoveries that were over-looked for many years . Later they were rediscovered as important for understanding various phenomena: Tourette’s syndrome, phantom limbs, and, his specialty, migraines.

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Annotated by:
McClelland, Spencer

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

An extended essay on the experience of child immigrants woven around the forty questions that author Valeria Luiselli asks in her work as a translator for children seeking entry into the United States.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

The narrator tracks a hypothetical week in the life and work of a psychiatrist in a major Canadian hospital through the stories of individual patients, some of whom were willing to be identified by name.   

The book opens with “they are us” and the shocking discovery that a patient whose life has been ruined by mental illness is a medical school classmate.  

Other patients have been followed for many years—a woman with eating disorder, a man with bipolar disease, another with schizophrenia. A new patient with intractable depression finally agrees to electroshock therapy, and the first treatment is described. The painful duty of making an involuntary admission pales in contrast to the devastation of losing a patient to suicide.  

Goldbloom’s personal life, opinions, and worries are woven throughout with frank honesty. His mother’s metastatic brain tumor sparks the associated intimations of his own advancing age and mortality.  His genuine fascination with and appreciation of the effective modalities now available are matched by his frustration over how they are beyond reach of far too many because of the stigma that is still attached to mental illness and the lack of resources and political will to make them available.

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Hillel D. Braude, a physician and a philosopher, has written an important, albeit dense and narrowly circumscribed, study. While “Intuition in Medicine” is the main title, the subtitle, “A Philosophical Defense of Clinical Reasoning” is a more accurate description of the book, which originated as a doctoral dissertation.  While some of the prose will appeal only to specialists, there are important and thoughtful analyses of such topics as Evidence-Based Medicine, modern dehumanized medicine, the relation of beneficence and automony, and principalist ethics in general. Throughout, intuition is narrowly conceived and in the service of clinical reasoning, as it applies to standard, Western physicians and not to other healers (or nurses), and the emphasis is on interventive medicine to cure illness and relieve suffering more than on health promotion.
 
Braude writes in the introduction that intuition has long been understood to be “a direct perception of things,” but he resists a more precise definition: “Rather than defining and using a single concept of intuition—philosophical, practical, or neuroscientific—this study examines intuition as it occurs at different levels and in different contexts of clinical reasoning” (xviii).  Eight chapters explore these different levels in such topics as moral intuitionism, Aristotle’s phronesis (or practical reason), the rise of statistics (a basis for Evidence-Based Medicine), and C. S. Peirce’s notion of abduction. Braude’s careful analysis traces historical and theoretical developments in analytic philosophy and how these may be applied to clinical reasoning.  He uses an impressive range of thinkers: Achenwall, Albert, Allan, Andre, Ashcroft, Aristotle, Bacon, Barrow, Barton, Beauchamp, Bergson, Bernard, Bichat, Black, Bottero, Bourdieu, Brody, Browne—just to take names headed by A or B.  Throughout, Braude puts in dialectic two poles of a spectrum arguing that they both have contributions to make. He believes that between them is an “ethical space,” where discoveries and applications can be made.  One pole, which he clearly favors, includes the following qualities:  Aristotelian practical reasoning, naturalist approaches, primacy of beneficence, fact and value joined, case-based, individual patients, narrative experience, anthropocentric focus, and tacit/organic knowledge (Polanyi). The other pole, less desirable, includes Kantian abstraction, nonnaturalist approaches, primacy of autonomy, fact and value separated, Evidence-Based Medicine, large groups of patients, statistical correlations, mechanist/positivist foci, and Dualism (Descartes).

Braude believes intuition is a cognitive process but has other dimension, the corporeal and the social. While these provide a grounding, intuition for him is generally rational. He also argues for medical care at the personal, face-to-face level, not through applications of algorithms.   A brief conclusion, “Medical Ethics beyond Ontology” clarifies some of the arguments and sketches some valuable notions from Husserl and Levinas. He writes “intuition . . . does appear to be fundamental for human judgment” because “an intuition faculty” can “extract universals from the particular” (p. 170).  Drawing on Husserl, he defines phenomenological intuition as “the primary means through which objects are presented to consciousness.” This affirmation includes the basic human, which is also the focus for medicine. For Levinas (and my summary is much too brief), “interhuman solidarity” is a source for medical care, a form of responsibility that is different from Foucaultian power relationships, ethical rules and priniciples, or “an uncritical acceptance of medical authority” (p. 177).

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Leonardo da Vinci

Isaacson, Walter

Last Updated: Jan-09-2018
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Leonardo da Vinci – the name alone evokes images of an artistic virtuoso, the Renaissance man, the mind behind the Mona Lisa. Though known best as an artist, his work extended beyond paintings into a myriad of disciplines, with notebook entries documenting his studies of optics, bird flight, comparative anatomy, hydraulics, and countless others. And yet what has been obscured by the shadow cast by his prolific career are the details of how a young man from a town called Vinci became Leonardo da Vinci. What did he do every day? What did he eat? Who were his friends? Did he even have any? We tend to immortalize Leonardo as a god, and yet he was human after all, not unlike the rest of us. This realization should encourage us to study one of history’s most celebrated humans, and see if we ourselves might be able unlock our own inner genius.

Walter Isaacson aids us in this study with his thoroughly researched biography of Leonardo da Vinci. He adds this to his growing portfolio of biographies of history’s great minds, including Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. In this most recent biography, Isaacson takes us through the life and times of Leonardo, highlighting milestones of his career, while also underscoring some of the seemingly trivial habits that were signatures of Leonardo’s personality and worldview.

Born of illegitimacy and openly gay, Leonardo was no stranger to defying convention. In fact, many of his grandest discoveries were a result of his willingness to challenge commonly accepted wisdom. Yet his greatest asset was his relentless curiosity and unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a recurring theme of Isaacson’s biography and of Leonardo’s life. Intertwined with this curiosity was his tendency to draw connections across disciplines, blurring the lines between art and science. Everything that Leonardo produced – whether his sketches of war machines, his treatises on anatomy, or his timeless portraits – was a manifestation of his desire for unifying knowledge.

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Stitches

Small, David

Last Updated: Dec-28-2017
Annotated by:
Natter, Michael

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

Stitches is a beautifully crafted graphic novel by award winning writer and illustrator David Small. The memoir chronicles Smalls’ life with chronic illness, focusing on his experience as a child and adolescent with cancer in the setting of an abusive upbringing. We learn through the eyes of a child what being a patient is like, and how, despite all odds Small was able to use art as a way to make a normal life for himself. 

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Dr. Monika Renz’s work with dying patients is unusual if not unique in the way she appropriates and applies insights from Jungian depth psychology, practices available in patients’ faith traditions, and musically guided meditation to invite and support the spiritual experiences that so often come, bidden or unbidden, near the end of life.  An experienced oncologist, Dr. Renz offers carefully amassed data to support her advocacy of focused practices of spiritual care as a dimension of palliative care, but is also quite comfortable with the fact that “neither the frequency nor the visible effects of experiences of the transcendent prove that such experience is an expression of grace” because “unverifiability is intrinsic to grace.”  Still, her long experience leads her to assert not only that “grace” can be a useful, practical, operative word for what professional caregivers may witness and mediate but also that affirmation and support of patients’ spiritual, religious, or transcendent experiences in the course of dying can amplify and multiply moments of grace, which manifest as sudden, deep peace in the very midst of pain, profound acceptance, openness to reconciliations, or significant awakenings from torpor that allow needed moments of closure with loved ones.  Describing herself as “an open-minded religious person and a practicing Christian,” she reminds readers that God is a loanword, whose basic form in Germanic was gaudam, a neutral participle.  Depending on the Indo-Germanic root, the word means “the called upon” or “the one sacrificed to . . . .”  Openness to the divine in both patients and caregivers, Dr. Renz argues, can and does make end-of-life care a shared journey of discovery and offer everyone involved a valuable reminder that medicine is practiced, always, at the threshold of mystery.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Victoria Sweet describes her training in medical school, residency, and work in various clinics and hospitals. From all of these she forms her own sense of what medical care should include: “Slow Medicine” that uses, ironically, the best aspects of today’s “Fast” medicine.   

Her dramatic “Introduction: Medicine Without a Soul” describes poor—even dangerous—care given to her elderly father at a hospital. An experienced physician, she calls Hospice and saves him from a “Death Express” the hospital has “quality-assured” (pp. 6, 8). 
 
The book continues with 16 chapters in chronological order. The first ten describe Sweet from a late ‘60s Stanford undergrad and “a sort of hippie” (p.14), next a learner of “facts” in preclinical studies at Harvard, plus the clinical rotations (including Psychiatry, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, and electives), then an internship as a doctor and her work in various clinics and hospitals. Throughout she’s collecting skills, concepts, even philosophies (Jung, feminism, Chinese chi, value of stories). She also describes particular patients important to her learning. She dislikes “just good enough” medicine at the VA (p. 95), “unapologetic budgetarianism” (p 141), medicine that is reductive and uncaring, and futile care for dying patients.  

Halfway through, we find an “Intermission: In which Fast Medicine and Slow Medicine Come Together.” With a year off, Sweet signs on as physician for a trekking group headed for Nepal. Unexpectedly, she treats an Englishman in the Himalayas. Returning home, she treats a man whose pulse is declining and rides a helicopter with him to a hospital. She realizes that she can take on the full responsibility of being a doctor, including when to use Fast medicine and when to use Slow.  

The following chapters deal with the 1980s emergence of AIDS, a hand injury to Sweet (she sees herself as “a wounded healer,” p. 182), her new understanding of medicine as “A Craft, A Science, and an Art” (Chapter 12) and conflicts between medical care and economics-driven medicine (“checked boxes,” administrators, quality assurance, even outright corruption).  She scorns use of the labels “health-care providers” and “health-care consumers” (p. 211) and discovers Hildegard of Bingen’s medieval vision of medicine. She works for 20 years at Laguna Honda, the topic of her earlier book God’s Hotel (2012). Chapter 16 closes the book with “A Slow Medicine Manifesto.”  

Sweet pays tribute to her teachers, both in a dedication to the book, and throughout the pages: professors, preceptors, nurses—especially a series of Irish Kathleens—and patients. There are some 20 case studies of patients throughout the book, their medical dilemmas, their personalities, and Sweet’s Slow Medicine that involves creating a healing relationship with them, finding the right path for treatment, even watching and waiting.

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In this follow-up to his masterful memoir Do No Harm, British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh must deal with old age and retirement after nearly four decades as a doctor. Stepping down engenders mixed feelings, and he confesses to "longing to retire, to escape all the human misery that I have had to witness for so many years, and yet dreading my departure as well" (p17).

Marsh keeps busy by spending time in Nepal training young doctors and operating. He also makes visits to the Ukraine to perform surgery and teach. He has a fondness for creating things and purchases a fixer upper cottage that he struggles to repair. Marsh recounts previous neurosurgical cases, mostly patients with brain tumors. He remembers the distress at being sued by patients. He reveals his own admission to a psychiatric hospital as a young man. Regrets, both personal and professional, are confessed.

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