Showing 21 - 30 of 725 Nonfiction annotations

His Favorites

Walbert, Kate

Last Updated: Mar-06-2019
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Kate Walbert’s recent book, His Favorites, is a compact 149 page novella that seems to be a direct outgrowth of the #MeToo movement, a work consciously addressed to women who have experienced sexual abuse from those in power over them. But linking the book to current events does an injustice to the artistry of this exquisitely constructed work. Ms. Walbert embeds her story of sexual exploitation in adolescence and focuses on a teenager who is abused by her popular English teacher in a prestigious boarding school.

Jo Hadley’s story begins abruptly. To outward appearances, she is a typical adolescent more concerned with how she looks, having a good time, and hanging out with friends than reading the Great Books. Suddenly, while driving a golf cart around the course on a lazy summer night, a close friend is violently thrown over side, strikes a tree head first, and dies instantaneously.
Only later do we learn about the profound impact this accident has had on Joy and her family. Joy is forced to transfer out of her neighborhood public school and enroll in the Hawthorne School. But Joy is clearly talented, adapts quickly to her new circumstances, and is placed in a special writing program for gifted students. There she falls under the tutelage of a charismatic 34-year old teacher, called Master. He has a reputation for running an irreverent, highly charged classroom and is always trailed by a legion of admiring young women from his advanced writing class.

Jo’s horrific s encounter with Master in his residential suite is followed by a failed effort to report Master’s behavior to the school leadership. We learn about Jo’s parents and the disintegration of her family after the accident. We meet her schoolmates. One is an attractive member of Master’s retinue who resurfaces several years after graduation in New York and who still seethes with resentment at her treatment by Master. A second classmate is musically gifted but far less stylish than the students in Master’s English seminar. She becomes the target of a cruel hazing prank that reverberates in Joy’s mind with the passage of time. As the book reaches its conclusion, the context in which Joy is relating her story is unexpectedly revealed, which casts all of her recollections in an entirely new light.  The storyline is disjointed and the vantage point shifts frequently. But the narrative is gripping and novella’s structure is exquisitely built on apt description and poignant allusions to other works in the literary canon including the novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles and The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

In That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health (subtitled “Disease, Death and Composers”), Jonathan Noble, a retired surgeon gives us the medical and psychiatric history of seventy classical music composers. Chapters are organized by illness, ranging from cancer to syphilis to alcoholism.  Famous composers such as Schubert and Shostakovich predominate, but many lesser-known composers, ranging from Jeremiah Clarke to Gerald Finzi, are also included.  

Mozart is one composer whose cause of death has long been the subject of controversy, and the various theories are comprehensively explored here. However, the author goes even further, developing a detailed medical case study of the composer beginning in childhood.  He examines the toll that Leopold Mozart’s exploitation took on his prodigy son’s constitution, what Wolfgang’s appearance in the surviving portraits has to say about his general health, and even whether he may have had Tourette’s Syndrome. Finally, the author ties all of this together, methodically refuting or confirming each diagnosis, offering far deeper analysis than one would expect to find in a standard biography.  

Another example, the case of Tchaikovsky, reads like a veritable whodunit. The composer’s activities during the last two months of his life are scrutinized, with the likely causes of death systematically disproven or confirmed.  

A list of composers who suffered accidental or violent deaths provides some surprises. You will learn that Lully accidentally stabbed himself with his conductor’s baton, and that Alkan may have been crushed to death by a bookcase upon pulling his Talmud off a shelf.

View full annotation

Heart: A History

Jauhar, Sandeep

Last Updated: Feb-05-2019
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

The author, Sandeep Jauhar, attributes his “obsession” with the human heart to family history, which includes fatal heart attacks that took both of his grandfathers from him, and to the beginnings of his own coronary artery disease revealed on screening tests. That he became a practicing cardiologist, though after first becoming a PhD-level theoretical physicist, is no surprise then.  

It was this obsession with the heart and his chosen profession that drove him to write this book, which he says, “is about what the heart is, how it has been handled by medicine, and how we can most wisely live with—as well as by—our hearts in the future.” (p. 10) In form, the book is a series of brief accounts of selected events in the history of medicine involving the human heart and circulatory system, interwoven with personal anecdotes and reflections. 
 

Some of the historical events and developments include how the heart and circulatory system work, and the methods used to assess how well they are working such as echocardiography and coronary catheterization. How heart-lung bypass, first person to person then mechanical, made cardiac surgery possible is described, as are many of the surgical procedures it enabled to treat coronary artery disease and to replace malfunctioning valves. Nonsurgical procedures Jauhar explains encompass those for intervening during acute heart attacks (e.g., angioplasty, stents, thrombolysis), managing life-threatening heart rhythm disturbances (e.g., external and implantable pacemakers and defibrillators, radio-frequency ablation), and replacing parts or all of the heart (e.g., coronary artery bypass, heart valve replacement, left ventricular assist devices, heart transplant). Little mention is made about the use of drugs despite having contributed to both important advances and surprising failures in heart disease. 
 

Topics related to the heart indirectly include the effects of emotions and psychological problems (e.g., stress), social determinants of disease (e.g., social economic status), and wellness concepts (e.g., diet, exercise). Some history of heart disease and the reduction of deaths from it over the past several decades are also touched upon. Parts of the book take the form of memoir, which add to his previous two books (Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation and Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician).

View full annotation

Summary:

Geoffrey West sounds like the perfect dinner guest. He has lived a fascinating life and his professional persona has evolved over time from theoretical physicist to global scientist. He is a distinguished professor at the Santa Fe Institute and is one of those rare people who knows something interesting and worthwhile about just about everything.

In Scale, West examines networks that provide the basis for complex systems: biological systems like the human circulatory system, coastal ecosystems, and man-made systems like urban communities and global corporations. He identifies three defining features shared by each. First, the networks serve the entire system and fill the entire space that is available. Second the terminal units in the networks share common design features and are essentially the same, whether they are the capillaries that provide nutrients and oxygen to peripheral tissues or the electrical outlets that enable access to the grid for home appliances.First, the networks serve the entire system and fill the entire space that is available. Second the terminal units in the networks share common design features and are essentially the same, whether they are the capillaries that provide nutrients and oxygen to peripheral tissues or the electrical outlets that enable access to the grid for home appliances. Finally, there is a natural selection process at work that is constantly optimizing the network function. West emphasizes that these defining features of complex systems are present in biological systems like the human circulatory system, coastal ecosystems, and man-made systems like urban communities and global corporations.

These common features enable West to identify fairly simple mathematical formulas that predict the relationship between changes in size and efficiency of complex systems. In general, in biological systems size and energy consumption are scaled sublinearly, i.e., metabolic rate does not increase to the same extent as size. The limits to growth occur because of the increased demands for maintenance of the system. What makes Scale an innovative work is West’s effort to apply the scaling laws derived from observations in nature to man-made complex systems such as cities and companies. He identifies two distinct components in these human systems, the materials that constitute the infrastructure and the creative work that is produced. West then demonstrates that while the physical demands of these complex human systems, such as roads, electricity, and water supply, which mirror the metabolic requirements of biological  systems, increase sublinearly, the productive output  like wages, theaters, and patent activity, which have no parallel in non-human biological systems, increase supralinearly. Moreover, this inventive works requires a proportionately increasing input of resources as size increases. West tries to draw lessons about the rational limits to growth by extrapolating from the scaling laws that underlie biological complex systems to the two components of the artificial systems created by mankind. West cautions against blind reliance on “big data” alone to solve the pressing social problems confronting mankind. Instead, he advocates for delineation of underlying mathematical principles to guide the analysis of the growth of cities and companies and rational future planning.

View full annotation

Summary:

In 2006, Emergency medicine trainee, Damon, and his wife, Trisha, have two boys, Thai (age 4) and Callum (age 2.5).  All is well in their lives until Callum begins vomiting for no apparent reason.  He is found to have medulloblastoma, an aggressive brain tumour, for which the only possible hope for a cure comes from surgery and six cycles of ever more arduous chemotherapy with stem cell recovery at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The little family moves to Toronto and commits to supporting Callum as best they can, ensuring that he is never alone even during his long weeks of reverse isolation. They also try to keep Thai nearby, involved and aware, with the help of a local school and grandparents. But Callum dies during the last cycle of treatment.  

Saddened, exhausted, and bereaved, Damon and Trisha go back to their home town and try to (re)construct their lives, slowly returning to studies and work. They find meaning in creating tangible and intangible memorials to their lost son, and they find purpose in the more difficult task of moving forward, never losing the pain of grief. They adopt a little girl. Damon knows that Callum is always with him and the experience of his illness and death has dramatically infused his work as a physician.

View full annotation

A Mind Unraveled: A Memoir

Eichenwald, Kurt

Last Updated: Jan-02-2019
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Kurt Eichenwald shares his experiences living with epilepsy in an electrifying narrative. Beginning with staring spells as a child and then later on generalized convulsions with loss of consciousness, he experiences as many as 4 seizures a week between the ages of 18 to 30. After that, the seizures become milder and less frequent. Coincidentally, his wife, father, and older brother are physicians and his mother a nurse.

Eichenwald describes his encounters with multiple neurologists, the best of them being Dr. Naarden. Unfortunately, other health professionals are portrayed as incompetent, careless, lacking empathy, or even unscrupulous. Multiple mishaps with prescribed anticonvulsant medications are chronicled – drug side effects, toxic levels of medicines, and a bout of bone marrow suppression. He suffers broken ribs, cuts and wounds, burns, and is even blanketed by deep snow due to seizures.

Eichenwald acknowledges the toll that epilepsy exacts on roommates, friends, and family. He admits to lots of fear and guilt. At one point, he seriously considers suicide by overdosing. Everyday life is hardly ever ordinary: “Now I was scared every day, checking where I stood for dangers, wondering when consciousness would disappear” (p157). A large section of his account details the discrimination he encounters at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the early 1980’s. The school dismisses him because of his uncontrolled epilepsy. He successfully fights their decision and returns to graduate. Obtaining and holding a job is complicated by his illness, but Eichenwald becomes a journalist who works for the New York Times.




View full annotation

Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling book “Sapiens” is subtitled “A Brief History of Humankind.”  While this may seem to bespeak a bit of hubris—it would seem that 414 pages might be, despite the modifying adjective of the subtitle, a little too condensed to cover 2.5 million years (albeit only the last 70,000 or so in any kind of detail)—the impression after finishing is that he may have done it, or at least, done the effort proud.  Mustering a combination of data and insights from the domains of history, archeology, genetics, biology, paleobiology, economics, and sociology, among others, Harari weaves an organized narrative that attempts to answer the questions of who we are and how we got here.

He divides the story into four assigned landmark periods in human history: The Cognitive Revolution (the earliest organization of humans into groups which evidence the use of tools and the beginnings of culture), The Agricultural Revolution (the impact of the learned ability to cultivate the land, with its shift from hunters and gatherers to farmers, and by necessity, from nomadic to settled tribes, and the beginnings of towns), The Unification of Humankind (the aggregation of people into larger groups and the emergence of money (and the earliest capitalism), religion, social expansion and conquest), and The Scientific Revolution (the development of science and the incredibly rapid acceleration of knowledge in the last five or six hundred years).  The titles of the periods are, however, only guideposts, for the sections are broader in scope than simply farming or science. The section on the scientific revolution, for example, interweaves scientific progress with economics and imperialism (which are themselves interwoven, after all), religion, and philosophy. And that same section leads Harari to speculate, at the end, as to where the digital revolution and the development of artificial intelligence might be leading us and what we might say about our future as a species.  




View full annotation

Summary:

Beth Macy has been a newspaper reporter in the Roanoke, Virginia area for three decades. In this book, she provides extensive reporting on the opioid crisis, how it developed and wreaked havoc in Appalachia, and how it grew into a national crisis across the United States.  

“Dopesick” is the colloquial term people who are addicted and addiction medicine specialists use to describe the constellation of wrenching and violent symptoms opioid withdrawal causes. As one of Macy’s subjects describes it:

You’re throwing up.You have diarrhea. You ache so bad and you’re so irritable that you can’t stand to be touched. Your legs shake so bad you can’t sleep. You’re as ill as one hornet could ever be. And believe me, you’ll do anything to make the pain go away.” (p. 41)
As a result, not long after a person is addicted to opioids, drug seeking behaviors are not motivated by the urge for the next and best high, but instead are driven “to avoid dopesickness at any cost” (p. 9). 

Macy divides her reporting into three major parts: 1) the ways Purdue Pharma fueled the explosion of opioid addiction beginning with the introduction of its product Oxycontin in 1996; 2) the ways in which people get addicted to opioids and how they get their supplies; and 3) the ways the U.S. health care system, criminal justice system, Congress, state legislatures, and regulatory agencies have failed in preventing and fixing the addiction crisis. 
 

As a journalist, Macy weaves the stories of individuals into the larger story of the opioid addiction crisis: people who became addicted to opioids and the effect it had on their families, and the stories of health care professionals who pulled alarms about the rapidly rising rate of opioid addiction and tried as best they could to treat addicted patients and protect the public. We read about the Purdue Pharma executives who were blamed and prosecuted for the marketing campaigns that turned localized opioid addiction patterns into a national opioid addiction epidemic. And we read about individual sheriffs, investigators, prosecutors, judges, and community activists who were trying to stem the tide of addition and death. These stories intersect throughout the book.

Embedded among the individual story lines are digressions Macy uses to elaborate on certain aspects of the opioid addiction crisis. She provides historical perspectives on drug addiction, and how this crisis differs from those of the past. She puts an emphasis on how trends in medical practice to liberalize the use of opioids in the management of all types of pain—minor and major, acute and chronic—converged with Purdue Pharma marketing campaigns for its proprietary opioid products. She cites statistics to show how fast the epidemic was worsening, how widely it was spreading across the United States, and how deadly it had become with mortality rates exceeding those of AIDs mortality at its peak. Other digressions cover how illicit opioid supply chains are created and maintained, and how different levels of governments reacted to the crisis. 

View full annotation

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This intelligent and compelling book invites us to evaluate the losses pertaining to “modern death” and to consider better ways—whether from the past or in the future—to care for the dying, their families, and all care-givers.   
            
Some chapters, such as “How Life (and Death) Were Prolonged,” are historical, describing changes in inoculations, living conditions, and medical care that extended the human life span but also changes in dying, now often prolonged by technology. Another chapter, “How We Learned Not to Resuscitate,” relates how CPR, initially lauded and popularized, is now widely understood as futile care, especially in older people. Warraich discusses various attempts to define death (brain-based, heart-based, American Bar Association, Harvard Criteria, Uniform Determination of Death Act, even NASA) and some of the issues that still remain. 
 

Other chapters are more physiological:  “How Cells Die” explains natural processes of cell death (necrosis, autophagy, and apoptosis). Most non-medical readers haven’t heard of these and perhaps some medical personnel as well. Unaware of them as regular and usual processes, we resolutely expect people to live some four-score and ten, perhaps even more. The next-to-last chapter, “When the Plug is Pulled” discusses “terminal sedation” (a legal dosage that eases pain but is not strictly speaking euthanasia or murder) and statutes that allow for assisted death and removal of life-sustaining machines. The Nancy Cruzan case and others illustrate many difficulties. (Cruzan was in a persistent vegetative state and supported by a feeding tube. A 1990 U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision allowed the removal of the tube.) Warraich argues further for “patients’ right to demand and acquire the means to end their suffering with the aid of a physician” (p. 263).              

Lack of resolution of these difficulties leads to problems for families of the dying and all medical personnel attending them, especially in ICU situations. Living wills are often of no help and “the end of life has become a battleground” (p. 211).
He argues that surrogate roles for decisions at the end of a life often do not represent what the patient actually wanted because the surrogate's values may be different from the patient's and family members may not reach agreement on decisions. He concludes, “All in all, overinvolved family and underinvolved doctors unsurprisingly make for a particularly caustic combo” (p.214).                      

In “When Death Transcends” we read that spiritual and religious matters are often ignored in medical settings. Such resources, however, “may be the only means that patients have of finding comfort” (p. 148). Warraich surveys various religions, including his own, Islam. This is one of the longest chapters in the book and carefully considers the wide range of faiths people have and the regrettable lack of training for doctors in this area.
           

Warraich concludes, “Death needs to be closer to home, preceded by lesser disability and less isolation” (p. 278). For deaths to be “truly modern,” we need to push past taboos and misunderstandings about death. 

View full annotation

Summary:

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway examine the successful efforts of a few scientists to jam the spokes in the wheel of science, delaying needed mitigations (e.g., regulations) to protect individuals, vulnerable populations, nations, and the earth.

The authors chose the well-known and controversial debates around second hand tobacco smoke, acid rain, the strategic defense initiative, the ozone hole, global warming, and the pesticide DDT as the substrate for their investigation. Each issue involves a large accumulation of evidence of the dangers it presents to humans. And each provoked skepticism and opposition from related industries, contrarian scientists, and anti-regulation politicians and institutes. Industry opposes regulations that could threaten their businesses. Free market ideologists do not want regulations that could threaten capitalism and accelerate a slide into socialism. 

Faced with mounting scientific evidence and general agreement amongst credible researchers, those whose interests were threatened needed a strategy to win that didn’t rely on scientific evidence. The tobacco industry led the way by hiring “a public relations firm to challenge the scientific evidence that smoking could kill you,” (p. 15) and to ensure that “scientific doubts must remain.” (p. 16) The authors drew from publicly available documents to best convey this idea:

‘Doubt is our product,’ ran the infamous memo written by one tobacco industry executive in 1969, ‘since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.’ (p. 34)

The industry realized, however, that renowned scientists would be needed “to merchandize doubt,” (p. 33) and so they recruited some. First among them was Frederick Seitz. He was a physicist who had been involved in the atomic bomb program during World War II and later in Cold War weapons programs. He knew next to nothing about the science showing the harm of tobacco smoke. However, his time as president of the National Academy of Sciences and as president of Rockefeller University accorded him credibility on all matters of science, at least to constituencies outside of science. His attacks on the science showing the harms of tobacco smoke had a lot to do with the decades it took before governments and the public took meaningful actions.

This became the approach opponents took against of science-based initiatives they wanted to scuttle. Seitz was recruited for other campaigns, but so were other physicists with similar backgrounds to form what Oreskes and Conway call a “small network of doubt mongers.” (p. 213) They make a point that this network only threw darts—poisonous darts—at the science they targeted and never once contributed their own original research to support their opposition to any scientific findings or consensus.

Oreskes and Conway tie the motives of these scientists primarily to their fierce devotion to liberty, which then meant fighting Communism and any other forms of socialism. They suggest that some degree of curmudgeonry and contrarianism is involved as well, but they focus more on political ideologies as the primary drivers for these people:

they were working to ‘secure the blessings of liberty’…if science was being used against those blessings—in ways that challenged the freedom of free enterprise—then they would fight it as they would fight any enemy. For indeed, science was starting to show that certain kinds of liberties are not sustainable—like the liberty to pollute.” (p. 238-239)

The authors hold the news media responsible for much of what the doubt mongers accomplished, specifically faulting them for applying the “fairness doctrine”—each side of an argument will get equal time—to the point of absurdity.

it especially does not make sense to dismiss the consensus of experts if the dissenter is superannuated, disgruntled, a habitual contrarian, or in the pay of a group with an obvious ideological agenda or vested political or economic interest. Or in some cases, all of the above. (p. 272-273)

The news media, they assert, are the gatekeepers and should be able to distinguish charlatans and snake oil salesmen from legitimate scientists. In this role, they failed as far at the authors are concerned. There can be no network of doubt mongers without a news media that either can’t or won’t call them out.

In contrast, the authors give the scientists who didn’t call out the doubt mongers a more forgiving critique. For the most part, they say, scientists facing a fight will retreat to their labs and concentrate on their work—they’re discovers, not fighters. On them, “intimidation works.” (p. 265)

View full annotation