Showing 241 - 250 of 674 Nonfiction annotations

Cancer Vixen

Marchetto, Marisa

Last Updated: Apr-03-2008
Annotated by:
Holmes, Martha Stoddard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

Cancer Vixen is the graphic narrative of Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s eleven-month cancer experience in 2004. Marchetto, a successful forty-something cartoonist for Glamour magazine and the New Yorker, serialized Cancer Vixen in Glamour while undergoing treatment. As well as the narrative of Marchetto’s diagnosis, treatment, and remission, Cancer Vixen recounts the story of Marchetto’s romance and engagement to restaurateur Silvano Marchetto, a narrative embedded in the graphic novel despite preceding it in actual chronology. The narrative explores fears about the cancer's effect on the relationship and about the loss of the chance to be a biological mother, as well as developing the relationship between the engaged couple and between Marisa and her mother (or "(s)mother," as she calls her).

The culture of cancer is another focus, including the social dynamics of having hair during cancer treatment and thus leaving oneself open to critique for not undertaking a strong enough chemotherapy. While this New York story, full of cuisine, couture (including images of the specific shoes Marchetto wore to each chemo), and cappuccino may recall the episodes of the television show Sex in the City featuring cancer, the brightly colored frames of this “Cancer in the City” tale also engage political issues like environmental causes of cancer and the reduced survival rates of women with cancer and no insurance.

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Silvie's Life

Rogoff, Marianne

Last Updated: Apr-01-2008
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This book chronicles a tortured parenthood during the birth and brief life of a severely brain-damaged female infant, Silvie. Doctors predict that the child will live only a few days but instead she survives for seven months. The story is told in first person by the mother, beginning with her arduous labor during a home delivery in the presence of an experienced midwife and the family physician. The baby does not cry when she is born and turns blue even with oxygen that the doctor administers. An ambulance is summoned; "a bigger, better oxygen machine" restores the baby's color and she is brought to a hospital neonatal intensive care unit where she is artificially ventilated and fed.

In the hospital Silvie "fails" all the tests of normalcy. The doctors recommend removing artificial ventilation. "I feared, even more than I feared her death I think (and harder to admit), that they would remove the oxygen pump and the baby would live on and on and never be able to do anything at all" (14). Yet when the child does in fact breathe independently, "I took the fact that she could sustain her own breathing to mean that the baby wanted to live. It was all right to love her" (15). A few days later, however, the medical team concludes that there is nothing further they can do for the baby, that the parents should take the child home, where she will likely die within a couple of days. Upon being prodded, one physician suggests the parents give her an overdose of phenobarbital, which she is receiving for continual epileptic seizures.

At home, the parents feed Silvie by tube, medicate her, change her diapers, hold her, and learn from a friend how to swaddle her. The child never cries, does not focus her eyes on anything, rarely responds to sound or touch, and gains no weight. Whatever random responsiveness there seems to be gives the author a sense of motherhood: "I was able to survive because of my faith in these intermittent chance meetings, believing that Silvie did know when I was here and that I was holding her close in a way that meant love" (37). The parents brace themselves for Silvie's death. The husband's sister visits and councils them to actively put an end to Silvie's life, which they refuse to do. But they do not plan to take extra measures (CPR) if Silvie seems to be dying at home and when they articulate this to a social worker whom they consult to obtain respite care, it becomes clear that she would report them to Child Protective Services.

The husband quits his job as a residential counselor of emotionally disturbed teenagers to do part-time carpentry work -- he is too preoccupied to care about other people's problems. When a friend accidentally breaks the phenobarbital bottle, the parents together with the family physician decide to see how Silvie will get along without the drug. To their amazement, the baby appears slightly more alert and is able to suck from a bottle -- no more feeding tube required. But the husband reminds his wife, "The doctors warned us she might do this. This is the one and only thing she can ever learn. They said when this happened to other parents they started to believe that the baby was getting better" (59).

The parents live in limbo, attempt to live a "normal" life. When Silvie starts to lose weight at age 4 months, the doctor advises to resume tube feeding; they don't see the point, but when hospital physicians use the word, "murder," and threaten to "take over" Silvie's care, the parents relent. The baby lives but "it was the sameness of Silvie that drove you crazy . . . She slept and woke, but was awake that much different? She did not change, she did not change. Her sameness was a stone I wore, an emblem of failure, failed life" (96).

The final act for Silvie begins when the author's mother-in-law is dying of cancer in New York and a decision is made to leave the baby at home in California for several days in the care of a retired nurse. The nurse has been shown how to do the tube feeding, but while the parents are in New York she experiments with spoon feeding, then discontinues tube feeding for three days before the parents return. The parents see that Silvie has deteriorated in their absence and resume tube feeding. For the remaining couple of months the parents wait, investigate institutionalizing Silvie, and finally determine that "the way we loved Silvie meant we loved her enough to let her die" at home, with "a certain amount of fluid and nourishment for comfort, but a gradual withdrawal of excessive food. Replaced with a lot of touching and holding, stroking and whispering" (122). Silvie dies and the author is four months pregnant with the baby she and her husband have decided not to abort.

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A woman is pregnant. She is a nurse married to a physician, Jeff, and they have a young son, Willie. The couple is pregnant with their second child. Long before her due date, the woman--author Susan LaScala--begins experiencing signs of premature labor. Because she is a nurse, because she is married to a doctor who takes call, she doesn't want to over-react or bother her obstetrician unnecessarily. But when vague aches turn into cramps, the author enters, as a patient, the world she had known, until then, only as a caregiver.

It is impossible, in a brief annotation, to describe fully the richness of this memoir. Because the author is a nurse, she brings to the story of the premature birth and survival of her daughter, Sarah, a wonderful double vision: LaScala tells this tale not only as a mother and a patient but also as a clinician able to explain, in simple language, the complex technologies used to sustain the life of her one pound nine ounce baby. The author's rendering of the bells and whistles of neonatal medicine, whether describing the process of intubating a preemie (p. 23) or ultrasounding a baby determined to survive (p. 182-3) are precise and haunting.

Equally compelling (and instructive for caregivers) are the author's candid revelations of how it feels to be a patient. She takes to "grading" the doctors and nurses--an "A" for the staff that lets her see her newborn girl (p. 3), and a "C" for a nurse with "No kind words. No warmth" (p.11). She describes her own bodily sensations in language both lovely and informing: the pushing and tugging she feels during her C-Section is a "quiet violence" (p.21); standing beside her daughter during the ventilator weaning process she feels "a witch's brew of fear and panic mixing and growing inside" (p. 225).

In an introduction, physician Barbara Wolk Stechenberg, describes the "gift" that the author has given by writing this memoir. The author has allowed Dr. Stechenberg, who was part of the team that saved Sarah, "a rare glimpse into two worlds" (p. xii). One was the world of intensive care nurses and how "they truly are the primary caregivers" (p. xii). The other world was that of physicians, who "may feel we are empathic and caring, but we really have no idea of the emotional roller coaster many of our parents are riding" (p. xii).

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Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

A brooding book that sounds the death knell for optimistic views on humanity's progress through civilization, Civilization and its Discontents begins with a recapitulation of Freud's disdainful views on religion as a psychological salve and then goes on to challenge enduring platitudes about human society: that civilization has emerged as a simple marker of progress of mankind over nature, protects us against suffering, and guards our liberties and happinesses. Comparing the development of civilization to the development of individual psychologies, he sees in both an essential conflict between eros and thanatos, between the desire to be with other people and the violence committed (or wished upon) other people.

Given that civilization is a process of negotiating and structuring communities, it must also be a way of controlling and repressing both violent and libidinous instincts; it does so not only through its laws but by infiltrating our own psychologies, which Freud discusses through the filter of his structural theory (where the instinctual, unconscious drives of the id are reined in by the ego under the fierce supervision of the inwardly aggressive superego). Freud's psychological perspective is to try to make sense of individual guilt, conscience, and remorse in the broadest social context as the products of this compromise between eros and thanatos, between the individual and the group, and between satisfying one's own instinctual drives and a broader community's needs. While some of his views are redolent of turn-of-the-century anthropology, his focus on guilt, aggression, and the murderous instincts towards extermination are very much prescient, charting the next decade and a half's fall into civilization's darkest hour.

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Summary:

This book chronicles four meals, tracked from the production of the food through to the preparation and consumption of the meals themselves. The first is a fast food meal eaten in the car, the quintessential American meal consisting entirely of industrially farmed produce. Pollan then goes on to have an industrial-organic meal, an organic pasture-grown meal, and finally a meal containing only products that he foraged, hunted, and cultivated himself. Throughout, he looks closely at how economic and commercial values have supplanted ecological ones in the cultivation and production of the food we ingest. In addition to attending to the social and political dimensions of the American diet, Pollan also notes the effects of this diet on public health, from rising levels of obesity through to the antibiotic resistances developing in herds of cattle living in pens in their own manure.

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Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

The book is split into three parts, the Analytic Part, the Synthetic Part and the Theoretical Part. The Analytic Part begins with an excellent synopsis of earlier theories of comedy, joking and wit, followed by a meticulous psychological taxonomy of jokes based on such features as wordplay, brevity, and double meanings, richly illustrated with examples. This section ends with Freud's famous distinction about the "tendencies" of a joke, in which he attempts to separate those jokes that have tendencies towards hidden meanings or with a specific hidden or partly hidden purpose, from the "abstract" or "non-tendentious" jokes, which are completely innocuous. He struggles to provide any examples of the latter. In the midst of his first example, he suddenly admits that he begins "to doubt whether I am right in claiming that this is an un-tendentious joke"(89) and his next example is a joke that he claims is non-tendentious, but which he elsewhere studies quite intensely for its tendencies. Freud uses this to springboard into an exploration of how a joke involves an arrangement of people - a joketeller, an audience/listener, and a butt, often involving two (the jokester and the listener) against one, who is often a scapegoat. He describes how jokes may be sexual, "stripping" that person, and then turns towards how jokes package hostility or cynicism.

The synthetic part is an attempt to bring together the structure of the joke and the pleasurable tendencies of the joke. Why is it that jokes are pleasurable? Freud's answer is that there is a pleasure to be obtained from the saving of psychic energy: dangerous feelings of hostility, aggression, cynicism or sexuality are expressed, bypassing the internal and external censors, and thus enjoyed. He considers other possible sources of pleasure, including recognition, remembering, appreciating topicality, relief from tension, and the pleasures of nonsense and of play. Then, in a move that would either baffle his critics or is ignored by them, Freud turns to jokes as a "social process", recognizing that jokes may say more about social life at a particular time than about particular people; he turns this into an investigation of why people joke together, expanding on his economical psychic perspectives with discussions of social cohesion and social aggression.

In the third part, Freud connects his theories of joking with his dream theories in order to explain some of the more baffling aspects of joking (including how jokes seem to come from nowhere; how we usually get the joke so very quickly, even when it expresses very complicated social phenomena; and why we get a particular type of pleasure from an act of communication). He ends with an examination of some of these themes in other varieties of the comic, such as physical comedy and caricature.

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Sandeep Jauhar, M.D., Ph.D. is currently director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York. Thus, one can assume that he is an accomplished cardiologist and administrator. It was not always so. This memoir flashes back to 10-15 years earlier when the author was casting about for a career, finally settling on medicine almost by default; it follows him to medical school (at Washington University in St. Louis) and then centers on his first year of residency training at Cornell's New York Hospital in Manhattan -- the internship year.

We learn in the introduction to the book that the author will speak freely of self-doubt about career choice, constant anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, exhaustion, and disillusionment. Which indeed he does. But Jauhar first discusses his family background: born in India and emigrating with his family to the USA at age 8; father holding a Ph.D. in plant genetics, now writing academic textbooks and still regretting that he had not been able to afford his dream of becoming a doctor; mother helping to support the family as a lab technician; older brother, Rajiv, a mentor and competitor, charming, self-assured, and unquestioningly headed for a medical career; sister, Suneeta. Sandeep (the author) undertakes graduate work in theoretical physics but as he nears completion of his doctoral degree, realizes that he probably does not have what it takes to be successful in the field. When his girlfriend, Lisa, becomes seriously ill, he begins to (re)consider medicine as a career. Against the advice of his parents who are now convinced he is a dilettante, he applies to medical school and is accepted.

Disillusionment began during the first two years of medical school: "In graduate school I had never learned to memorize . . . But now I couldn't rely on logic and reasoning; I had to commit huge swaths of material to memory" (32). He considered quitting to become a journalist, a profession that had always intrigued him, but which had been discouraged: "my father made it clear that journalism and writing were never to be considered career options because they offered no security" (33). Yet, amazingly, he was awarded a summer fellowship just before starting medical school that placed him in the Washington, DC office of Time magazine; the contacts he made then allowed him to work as a student reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during medical school and led ultimately to his ongoing and current position as a contributing medical essayist for the New York Times.

Internship for Jauhar unfolds as a series of anxiety-provoking encounters with patients and humiliating encounters with his physician superiors. Feeling inept and inadequate, he stumbles along and worries that he is harming patients. There is too much to keep track of, too many "little things that I find burdensome" (91). "Having so much to do was bad enough, but not knowing why you were doing what you were doing was terrifying . . . Patients were needy, their demands overwhelming . . . Everyone seemed to know how the place worked except me . . . The ecology on the wards was hostile; interactions were hard-bitten, fast paced" (112-113). He is in constant doubt and conflict about his career choice. Even his private life is affected -- his girlfriend Sonia, still a medical student, comes from a medical family, is strongly motivated and secure in her career choice, which aggravates his own sense of insecurity. (Reader, he married her.)

Midway through internship Jauhar suffers a herniated disk. He tries to tough it out without taking time off but his stint as "night float" at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital, which specializes in treating cancer patients, proves too difficult-- up all night trying to tend to the severely ill and "taking care of patients about whom you knew next to nothing" (154). He takes a brief leave followed by a reduced schedule. He recognizes that his problems are emotional as well as physical -- he is depressed. But gradually, as his neck problem improves, as he recognizes that medical professionals are actually able to help patients feel better -- his neurologist and physical therapist had "provided hope and comfort to me at a vulnerable time" (181)--, as he makes a house call to a dying patient, as his essays are published in the New York Times, and as the season moves to Spring, his depression lifts and he looks forward to his work.

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The author's mission is to investigate, understand, explain, describe, and puzzle over the nature of phobias -- his own, and that of other sufferers. Allen Shawn is a composer, pianist, and teacher, and is a member of a gifted family: his brother, Wallace Shawn, is a playwright and actor; his father was William Shawn, for many years editor of the New Yorker Magazine. As a musician and academic, Allen Shawn is "successful." And yet, his life is severely limited by agoraphobia, "a restriction of activities brought about by a fear of having panic symptoms in situations in which one is far from help or escape is perceived to be difficult" (13). The author interweaves sections that summarize his extensive readings on the fight-flight reaction, evolution, brain and mind, Freud's theories on phobia--with his personal history, especially as he believes it relates to his phobia.

Shawn's descriptions of how he experiences agoraphobia are vivid and informative, detailing the situations that trigger his physiologic symptoms of panic and disconnectedness: driving on unfamiliar roads, any kind of travel that is unfamiliar, walking across or on the edge of open spaces, traveling across long bridges, being in enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). The agoraphobe, he writes, "feels at risk, as if at risk of sudden death or madness" (14). Shawn tells about what he must do in order to strike out on unfamiliar trips, that is, when he gathers up the courage to take them. He must venture up to the point where panic sets in, turn back, then on another occasion repeat the process but attempt to go further, pushing through the panic, until, one day, he can make the entire journey without turning back. Sometimes he never makes it to the desired goal.

The author points to several different factors that seem to predispose people to phobias: heredity, unconscious imitation of a phobic parent, upbringing. In his own case, in retrospect, his father showed symptoms of agoraphobia. Shawn discusses the underlying repression that was pervasive in his household -- his father carried on a long-term relationship with a woman while remaining married. Shawn's mother knew about the relationship from early on but any discussion of it was forbidden, even after it became common knowledge.

Perhaps more important in Allen Shawn's perception of repression is what happened to his twin sister, Mary, who was born with what is now considered to be autism, and mental retardation. Allen felt close to this girl, even though her behavior was unpredictable and baffling. When he was about eight years old, his parents sent her away to a special boarding school without warning Allen, or offering explanations. From then on he rarely saw her; 10 years later she was institutionalized. The family did not speak much about her and her "'exile' . . . added yet another layer of mystification to an already really mystifying atmosphere. It turned out that even in our temperate environment something extremely violent could occur" (177). Not long after that, Allen began to experience severe anxiety in certain situations.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This is another wonderful book from Dr. Sacks. The subtitle, “Tales of Music and the Brain,” is accurate: we have a charming and informative mixture of stories of patients and the neurophysiology that interprets how music is processed and performed. The book is synthetic in combining cases from his practice, other clinical reports, letters from correspondents, references to medical literature, and even Sacks’s own personal experiences with music.

Sacks finds that humans have a “propensity to music,” something “innate” in human nature, perhaps like E. O. Wilson’s biophilia. “Our auditory systems, our nervous systems,” he writes, “are indeed exquisitely tuned for music” (xi). Although humans have been involved with music for millennia, it is only in the last few decades that medical imaging (functional MRI, PET) has shown what areas of the brain are active when music is heard.

While humans routinely enjoy music, the book emphasizes unusual events and neurological patients, in short, departures from the norm. Sacks—himself a lover of music—reports on his own experiences with hallucinatory music and anhedonia (loss of pleasure) in hearing music. He describes going to hear the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau but finding that he could not, on that day, perceive the beauty of the music. Another condition “amusia,” or loss of musical ability, can be chronic, acquired, or temporary.

Some patients have had injuries or diseases of the brain that change how music is perceived. A man hit by lightning is suddenly obsessed with piano music. Another man (who survived a brain infection) has amnesia about many things but can still make and conduct music at a professional level. The concert pianist Leon Fleisher visits Sacks to discuss his dystonia, or loss of muscle function in one hand (with implications for the brain). Rolfing and Botox helped him heal and he returned to two-handed performances.

Sacks discusses other phenomena that involve brain structures, for example, perfect pitch; persons with this ability have “exaggerated asymmetry between the volumes of the right and left planum temporale” (128). People who experience synesthesia (perceiving notes as colors) have cross activation of neurons in different areas of the brain. Professional musicians (and patients with Tourette’s) demonstrate cortical plasticity, that is they have expanded areas of the brain for particular uses. Children with Williams syndrome have brains influenced by a microdeletion of genes on one chromosome; they have some cognitive deficits and also a great responsiveness to music. For some conditions, the brain determines all; for others, behavior components are also important.


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Summary:

Janis Caldwell, who practiced emergency medicine for five years before getting her Ph.D. in English, examines the philosophy and practice of nineteenth-century British literature and medicine in this book. In an erudite introduction, she explains what she means by the "double vision" of "Romantic materialism," "Romantic because [physicians and authors] were concerned with consciousness and self-expression, and materialist because they placed a particularly high value on what natural philosophy was telling them about the material world" (1). These writers' intellectual context, influenced by natural theology, was dualist, including both the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. Their methodology "tacked back and forth between physical evidence and inner, imaginative understanding" (1), giving rise to the two-part "history and physical exam" familiar to physicians today.

The book examines this dual hermeneutic in six influential sites over the course of the century. In Chapter Two, Caldwell reads early-nineteenth-century debates over vitalism in the context of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, arguing against the materialist-spiritualist divide so often cited in that period. She also brings readings of the novel into line with contemporary theories of physiologic sympathy. Next, she turns to the enormously influential sage Thomas Carlyle, arguing that he broadens the body/soul model to include both natural and supernatural aspects of the world. Again rejecting the notion of a philosophical dualism that prohibits mixing differing approaches, she argues, both Carlyle and the anatomist Richard Owen enthusiastically endorse a more heterodox vision of the world, in which we learn from both natural and spiritual enquiry.

The fourth chapter reads Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights in the context of contemporary popular treatises on children's health and child-rearing. Caldwell argues that Brontë's image of the Romantic child, as emblematized in Cathy and Heathcliff, and characterized as "a more social, empirical, physical, literal version of childhood," derives in part from the "domestic medical texts which function as a sort of secular scripture in the Brontë household" (74). She suggests that the dualist language of natural theology, which combined spiritual and natural interpretation, and which was well-known in the Bronte household, influenced Emily's mixture of religious and medical concepts in her portrait of Romantic childhood.

Chapter Five contrasts Emily Brontë's version of childhood to that of her sister, Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre and Villette. Charlotte Brontë, argues Caldwell, inclines more to the professional version of medicine, less suspicious of physician authority and more likely to experiment (in her fiction) with alternative medical theories such as phrenology. In an extended discussion of theories of literalization and metaphor, using Ricoeur to argue that the literalization of a metaphor returns us to the fact but also reinvigorates the metaphor through its dissonance with the fact. Caldwell proposes that the supposed "coarseness" of Brontë's novels is linked to her use of literalization.

A chapter on Darwin posits that "Darwin's thought arises directly out of ... Romantic materialism" (117). Although by the end of his life Darwin had renounced literary reading, the "dialectic of Romantic materialism" (shaped by Romantic literature as well as science) appears in "Darwin's preferred scientific method," in his rhetoric, and in the narrative structure of his scientific autobiography (123-24).

Caldwell's final chapter provides a significant new reading of the genre of the medical case history, by studying George Eliot's Middlemarch in the light of the bipartite structure of "the patient's narrative and the physical exam" (143). Emphasizing the negotiations between doctors and patients in the mid-nineteenth century, and calling for similar negotiations today, Caldwell navigates the differing critical positions on George Eliot's novel, weighing whether the narrator "participates in the systematic, totalizing knowledge of the pathologist" or undercuts that knowledge (156). Caldwell concludes that the narrator of Middlemarch practices a "hermeneutic circling" that shuttles back and forth between incommensurate perspectives, part and whole, nature and spirit, seeking "a partial and provisional, rather than absolute or positive, knowledge" (160). The book ends with a call to return the term "clinical" to its full meaning, not just of detachment, but of engaged practice.

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