Showing 161 - 170 of 670 Nonfiction annotations

As I Live and Breathe

Weisman, Jamie

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Before Jamie Weisman went to medical school and became a physician she wanted to be a writer. As she struggled to make a career out of writing, she was forced to acknowledge that the obscure, life-threatening condition that had plagued her since adolescence could not be factored out of her plans. Writers don't have easy access to affordable health insurance and her monthly intravenous infusions of antibodies and interferon were very expensive. Yet they were essential to fend off infection, for she had an immune system malfunction.

Of course, finances were not the only reason that Weisman decided to go into medicine. As is often the case, her own experience of illness was an important motivating factor, as was the fact that her father, of whom she is very fond, was a physician. This memoir describes significant stages of Weisman's illness, her interaction with the physicians she consulted, and the issues she grapples with as she pursues her life as a physician, wife, and mother (she graduated from Emory University's school of medicine in 1998 and practices dermatology).

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A World of Light

Skloot, Floyd

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Poet and essayist Floyd Skloot gives us his third memoir; each of the three concerns a somewhat different facet of his attempt to recover from and live with mental and physical damage resulting from a viral illness that struck him in 1988. This book, written approximately 15 years after the initial insult, "is a memoir of the reassembled life" (ix). Life for Skloot is different than before, but a kind of order--Skloot calls it "harmony"--has been constructed out of memory loss, mental disorder and incoherence: "I have learned to savor the fragments themselves, and to live in the moment" (xi). A World of Light is perhaps more a collection of essays than a memoir.

Most of part one and some sections of parts two (Ch. 5, "1957") and three (Ch. 15, "Taking Stock") concern Skloot's interaction with his aged mother as she slides further and further into dementia. Anyone who wants an idea of what it is like to interact with a person who has Alzheimer's disease should read these sections. Skloot masterfully reproduces the often bizarre conversations that occur--the sometimes maddening repetition of comments during attempts at conversation.

Skloot's mother admires his wife, Beverly, and repeatedly instructs them to marry each other, no matter how often they assure her they are already married. She forgets their previous visits to her in the nursing home, although they visit regularly, and becomes anxious when they leave, even though she isn't certain who they are. Skloot writes about how receptive his mother is to music, which delights her, and how she sings snatches of old songs triggered by the words of any offhand comment--phenomena that have been noted in some other descriptions of Alzheimer's patients.

The essays in part two look back on Skloot's childhood, his family's background, and on his development as a writer. Part three centers on his current life with his wife, Beverly, whose home in rural Oregon provides a refuge for them both (although they are now in the market for different surroundings).

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A Civil Action

Harr, Jonathan

Last Updated: Jan-14-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism

Summary:

The author, who writes and teaches nonfiction writing, began research on the lawsuit that forms the fascinating subject of this book in February, 1986. While the book focuses on Jan Schlichtman, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, and on his strategy in the case, there is much here that is relevant for health care professionals.

The lawsuit, which lasted nine years, concerned the tragic consequences of exposure to toxic waste: deaths from childhood leukemia; skin rashes, nausea, burning eyes, and other ailments. It was brought by eight families who lived in Woburn, Massachusetts against two companies, W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods. The lawsuit claimed that these companies were liable for illnesses and deaths attributable to trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination of the water supply.

The story of how the families and the lawyers pieced together the fragments of the puzzle to determine cause and effect is gripping. One gains an appreciation for environmental epidemiology and the difficulty of reaching conclusions when only a small number of individuals are affected. Medical experts, public health specialists, geologists, civil engineers, government agencies, and the intelligence and driving motivation of the affected families and their lawyers were all necessary to establish the credibility of the claim.

In the end, however, the financial power and stonewalling of the companies, and the partiality of the presiding judge for one of the defense lawyers resulted in a verdict that favored the defense. Jan Schlichtman, the plaintiff's lawyer, was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Only when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to launch a clean-up and filed suit against W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods to pay a share of the cost, was any semblance of justice obtained. The EPA project will take 50 years, and even so, "all parties agree that it will prove impossible to rid the site of TCE and perc [tetrachloroethylene] completely . . . . " (Afterword; p. 494) Nevertheless, most of the families have not moved.

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Summary:

This is a collection of stories from Dr. Remen’s own life and from her practice as a pediatrician and psychiatrist. She works with many cancer patients and others who are terminally ill as well as with the chronically ill. Her stories record patients and their families finding what is authentic and meaningful in their lives when they have been forced deeply into their own vulnerability. She also speaks from her lifelong struggle with Crohn’s disease.

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On Being a Cripple

Mairs, Nancy

Last Updated: Jan-14-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

In this superbly written essay, Nancy Mairs, a feminist writer who has multiple sclerosis, defines the terms in which she will interact with the world. She will name herself--a cripple--and not be named by others. She will choose a word that represents her reality, and if it makes people "wince," "[p]erhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates/gods/viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger" (9). She muses on the euphemisms that are used by others, concluding that they describe no one because "[s]ociety is no readier to accept crippledness than to accept death, war, sex, sweat, or wrinkles."

Mairs describes the uncertainty of a (correct) diagnosis early on, the kind of person she was before, and how that has changed and not changed since her illness. She discusses her need for assistance, but balances that by saying that there are many people around her willing to help; she describes her dependence on her family and how lucky she was to have a husband and children before she was taken ill. Nevertheless, there "always is the terror that people are kind to me only because I'm a cripple" (15).

Mairs has many astute comments to make about how disability does not fit well in our youth-oriented, physical-fitness-obsessed culture, and on how social expectations influence whether she adapts or fails to adapt. She also understands what is at stake for the medical professionals who care for her: "I may be frustrated, maddened, depressed by the incurability of my disease, but I am not diminished by it, and they are" (20).

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In short, episodic chapters that move unpredictably and unchronologically through the years between 1956 and 2003, Nick Flynn tells us about his father, Jonathan Flynn--a man of many trades, a writer, an alcoholic with a prison record, a homeless person--and of his own life, which sporadically interweaves with Jonathan's. When Nick was six months old, his 20-year-old mother left Nick's father and made a meager life for herself and her two young sons. A string of her live-in boyfriends and one more failed marriage wound their way through Nick's young life, which was in the seaside town of Scituate, Massachusetts, "the second most alcohol-consuming town . . . in the United States" (77).

At 12, Nick is drinking beer; at 17 he is drinking to get drunk, sometimes with his mother, and smoking marijuana (and later doing other drugs). For years Nick's father "had been manifest as an absence, a nonpresence, a name without a body" yet, "some part of me knew he would show up, that if I stood in one place long enough he would find me, like you're taught to do when you're lost. But they never taught us what to do if both of you are lost, and you both end up in the same place, waiting" (24).

The place where Nick and his father "end up" is the Pine Street homeless shelter in Boston where 27-year-old Nick is a caseworker and Jonathan Flynn appears, a few months after being evicted from his rooming house. Reluctantly, Nick gradually acknowledges his father's presence in the shelter, and gradually, during the next 15 years, reconstructs the lost years through conversations with his father and his father's acquaintances, letters, and manuscript excerpts. The title of the memoir is what Jonathan Flynn mutters at night, when he is looking for a place to sleep (205).

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Summary:

This story follows John and Aileen Crowley and their three children, the two youngest of whom have a rare "untreatable" genetic disease. Pompe disease gradually degenerates muscle until patients cannot breathe or sit up; it also dangerously enlarges the heart. Determined to try to save his children, John Crowley started up a biotech company to develop an enzyme that would replace the non-functioninging one in his children. Others researchers in other companies were trying different approaches. Everyone made mistakes and created problems along the way.

Finally, in "the mother of all experiments," the four promising drug developments were tested against each other in a double-blind trial. After five years of development, the "special medicine" was finally given to the Crowley children. Daughter Megan, a real fighter and outgoing personality, won over the hearts of the researchers. Interesting conflict of interest issues increase the tension in this race for a cure.

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Drinking: A Love Story

Knapp, Caroline

Last Updated: Jan-12-2010
Annotated by:
Donley, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Knapp describes how she gradually became an alcoholic, drinking more and more, until she couldn't live without alcohol. She found drinking to be the most important relationship in her life; she loved how it made her feel, how it coped with her fears and worries. When family and friends spoke to her about her drinking, she made promises to them she couldn't keep. Finally one time while drunk she was carrying two children accross the street when she fell. She could have killed them. Three months later she checked into rehab and gave up drinking. She used the support of Alcoholics Anonymous to help her stay sober and to gradually learn how to love people, instead of alcohol. Her need for protection and for escape, which alcohol gave her, had to be replaced with an honest facing of problems and with social skills. This memoir also describes her struggling with anorexia.

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Autobiography of a Face

Grealy, Lucy

Last Updated: Jan-09-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

Lucy Grealy, poet, tells the story of her childhood and young adulthood, a twenty year period of overwhelming physical and mental suffering. Yet the author is so resilient, so intelligent, so insightful, and such a good writer that her story transcends mere illness narrative. At age nine, first misdiagnosed and finally identified as having facial bone cancer (Ewing’s sarcoma), Lucy underwent several surgeries and more than two years of intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Pain and nausea, anxiety and fear of more pain and nausea were only part of the ordeal.

The young Lucy became aware of what it is to be severely, chronically ill. Her sisters behaved differently toward her: they were polite. "Suddenly I understood the term visiting. I was in one place, they were in another, and they were only pausing." Even her father felt uncomfortable at her hospital bedside, and Lucy was relieved that he came infrequently.

But being at home was worse: in the hospital the other patients and the staff expected little from her and she felt no guilt or shame; amidst her family, she blamed herself for the tension, arguments over money, and her mother’s depression, even though these elements had existed prior to her illness. Her hair fell out and she became dimly aware that people were staring at her face. Nevertheless, "I . . . was naturally adept at protecting myself from the hurt of their insults and felt a vague superiority . . . . "

Well enough to return to school, Lucy’s disfigured face drew taunts from classmates; she understood finally that she was perceived as ugly and that she would not be loved. Only on Halloween, when she could mask her face, did she feel free and joyful, unconcerned about her appearance, "normal." Her moods now alternated between despair, determination, and escapism. She became convinced that only facial reconstruction and a restored appearance would make life bearable.

During years of reconstructive surgery Lucy evolved complex rationalizations to give meaning to her suffering. Two anchors had stabilized her existence throughout the misery: a passionate adolescent love of horses, and an adult love of poetry. Eventually outward appearance and inner life became harmonious. "The journey back to my face was a long one."

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

The author, a scholar of autobiography and other forms of life writing, has expanded his scholarship to include what he calls "autopathography"--autobiographical narratives of illness and disability. This book is the result of an extensive study of such narratives. The works discussed are full-length and recently published--most were published in the 1980s and 1990s. Couser is particularly interested in issues of narrative authority, in how autopathography can be counterdiscursive to the prevailing biomedical narrative, and, especially, in how autopathography is counterdiscursive to the cultural stigmatization and marginalization that often accompany illness or disability ["insofar as autobiography is the literary expression of the self-determined life" (182)].

Since social/cultural counterdiscourse is of particular importance to Couser, he has focused on four specific illnesses/disabilities that have been associated with stigma: breast cancer, AIDS, paralysis, and deafness (182). His analysis of each condition is diachronic because he is searching for "the enrichment of the genre by successive writers who defy, complicate, or refine its conventions" (44). In addition, Couser asks, to what extent do authors "integrate illness narrative into a larger life narrative?" (14). He considers who narrates illness stories (biographer or autobiographer), how the stories are constructed, whether and how they achieve a "comic plot" and narrative closure.

The book's introduction (chapter 1, "Human Conditions--Illness, Disability, and Life Writing") provides a framework, relating what will follow to current issues in life writing, "identity politics," the culture of medicine, and illness experience, as well as to other work on illness narratives such as Anne Hunsaker Hawkins's Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography and Arthur Frank's The Wounded Storyteller (annotated in this database).

Chapter 2, "Medical Discourse and Subjectivity," develops further the questions of narrative authority, representation, and resistance to a dominant medical or cultural narrative. Each subsequent section--breast cancer, AIDS, paralysis, deafness--is prefaced by an informative discussion of the cultural and narrative issues that are relevant to the particular condition; the subsequent analyses of individual texts further elaborate these themes.

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