Showing 31 - 40 of 50 annotations contributed by Carter, III, Albert Howard

Remedies

Ledger, Kate

Last Updated: Apr-30-2012

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Simon Bear is a hard-charging physician; his wife Emily is a successful public relations executive, now a senior partner in her firm. Although they have a lavish house, a teen-aged daughter, and much wealth, their marriage is troubled, in large part because they have never fully mourned the death of their baby Caleb.

The title “Remedies” fits well with the long struggle for how to heal their grief. The remedies that clearly have not worked are obsessions with career, professionalism, rationalism, and the trappings of American materialism.

Simon has two obsessions about his practice. The first is that he is a rescuer, the perfect doctor who listens to his patients and gives them what they want. As a self-appointed expert on pain, he is free and easy about prescribing opiates. When his father-in-law feels no pain after a car accident, Simon is sure that a drug that the man is taking is, in fact, the Holy Grail of pain medications. Simon becomes obsessed with this “discovery,” promoting it to his patients, without a scientific study or consideration of ethical implications. When he flies to a national medical meeting to trumpet the news of this remedy, no one will listen to him.

While Simon is the point of view for Parts One, Three, and Five, Emily—structurally separated—is the voice and focus of Parts Two and Four. She is troubled by her distance from Simon and, increasingly, her 13-year-old daughter, who is sullen and rebellious. When she meets Will, a former lover, she seeks another kind of remedy in an affair with him, even prospects of marriage. Contrasting with her strategic, rational approach to life, Will is an open, easy-going man, conveniently separated from his wife.

A series of crises rock Emily, then Simon. Emily begins to understand her anger; she has a breakthrough with her daughter. Simon has several setbacks, including humiliations, but he is not crushed. Although ordinarily a secular Jew, Simon attends the Kol Nidre service the evening service before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In a powerful and moving passage, he finds healing, relief, and a new direction for his life—a true remedy.   

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This is a huge and wonderful book about cancer, the collection of diseases that sickens people all over the globe and kills many of them. An epigraph to the book states, “A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer,” but the book also describes medical advances that now heal, prevent, or palliate most forms of cancer.

Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, has several strong themes. He sees cancer as an affliction with a long history, a story worthy of a biography; indeed recent discoveries show it to be rooted in our genes (although external factors such as viruses, asbestos, and tobacco smoke can cause genetic disruption). The story of cancer implies a surrounding triangle, the stories of sick people, treating physicians, and biological researchers, all of which Mukherjee artfully weaves across 472 pages. Cancer has Rohrschach blot qualities: depending on time, place, and role in life, humans have perceived different attributes of cancer. As the book ends, however, there is a coalescence of scientific understanding that is satisfying—although there is certainly more to be learned and we are all still vulnerable to genetic errors and, of course, we are intractably mortal.

Another strand is the nature of stories themselves, their twists and turns, presumed early solutions, and personal and social values embedded in them. Mukherjee threads throughout the book the case of a contemporary kindergarten teacher, Carla Reed, who has a leukemia. He bookends his text with ancient Persian Queen Atossa with (presumably) breast cancer. Reed, healed by the end of the book, was Mukherjee’s patient; Atossa was described by Herodotus: both suffered emotional turmoil because of their disease.  Mukherjee understands the affective dimensions of disease for patients and caregivers alike; literature represents these in various ways, and he quotes in his chapter epigraphs and in his prose many writers who describe human experience deeply: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Susan Sontag, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann, William Carlos Williams, Carlo Levi, and Italo Calvino, to name a few.

The primary story, however, is the interplay of cancer and a large cast of observers, investigators, doctors, scientists, activists, and government officials. Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker dominate the first 100 pages with their two-decade war against cancer. While surgery—historically dramatic and disfiguring—had been a mainstay for treatment of cancer, Farber pursued a biochemical route, which elaborated into chemotherapy, the second major approach of the late 20th century.

Mukherjee also explains ancient views, Hippocrates’, Galen’s humors, Vasealius’ anatomy, Hunter’s stages, Lister’s antisepsis, and Röntgen’s X-rays, which became the third major approach. By 1980, however, the American “War on Cancer” had not been won.

Further advances in cellular biology and genetics would be needed to make targeted molecular therapy possible.  Mukherjee tells this complicated story clearly and engagingly, showing the human investigators to be personable and dogged in their pursuits.  

Another important approach is prevention. The biostatistical work of Doll and Hill, for example, showed the links between tobacco and lung cancer. Screening, such as Pap smears and mammograms, also saved lives, but the basic cellular understanding still eluded investigators.

The final 150 pages explain the search for and discovery of genetic factors, specifically oncogenes. Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop were the leaders, winning a Nobel Prize in 1989. Bert Vogelstein, Judah Folkman, Robert Weinberg and Douglas Hanahan took the work further, opening the doors for such drugs as Herceptin, Gleevec, and Avastin. 

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This short, gripping book describes Taylor's massive stroke, a burst blood vessel in the left side of her brain. Ironically, she was at 37, a neuroanatomist at Harvard, well versed in the anatomy and function of the brain. Her knowledge allowed her to understand from the inside her rapid loss of mental function and, with treatment, her very long (some eight years) recovery to health and, once again, professional activity.

Taylor presents an overview of brain structure and function, emphasizing the different roles of the left and right hemispheres. Since her left hemisphere was damaged and needed to be "rebuilt," in her term (learning to read, to dress herself, to drive a car, to think), she had plenty of time to explore her right brain and understand its wisdom and peace. This is her insight: our culture prizes the admirable but often frantic work of the left brain, putting us in stressed, competitive modes of thinking and acting, often aggressive and argumentative. "My stroke of insight," she writes, "is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace" (page 133). Both sides of the brain have their strengths and uses, but she especially enjoys the spiritual and humane aspects of the right brain and, by extension, invites her readers to consider these resources for themselves and for the larger society.

Taylor credits her mother's care for much of the recovery, although it is clear between the lines that Taylor herself worked hard with various therapists (speech, massage, acupuncture). Despite the severity of her injury and the surgery, she appears to have returned to professional work at a high level, fully recovered and very grateful.

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This is a collection of four stories and a novella with pervasive themes of death, loss, grieving, mourning, and anger; the characters live in rural parts of the upper midwest, and there is much unhappiness in their lives.

In "Catch and Release," we accompany Danny, a talented fishing guide "not quite thirty," as he floats down a stream he knows well. He and his siblings have divided his father's ashes, his portion now in a thermos. His father died suddenly, absurdly on a bathroom floor. Although Danny knows nature well (and loves it), he is angry and heartsick. Nor is religion a comfort. Bit by bit he scatters the ashes, but there is no healing ritual.

In "Bloodsport" a young man murders is wife and then kills himself. The town funeral director feels this is "utterly incomprehensible" but provides his professional services to the family and all who  come to the service and burial. He knew the young woman, Elena, and found her attractive; now he embalms her. Twenty years later he feels a "sense of shame" that men "let her down badly."

"Hunter's Moon" presents Harold, a casket salesman. Retired, he goes on long walks, trying to make sense of is life and loves. He likes naming things. His first wife left him for another woman. His daughter (pregnant and drunk) was killed by a train. His second wife left him. His third wife died of cancer. He abuses antidepressants and liquor. Sitting on his front porch, he slumps over. All night a dog keeps watch over, we assume, his dead body.

In "Matineé de Septembre" we find a reworking of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice." In both stories, a literary figure escapes ordinary time, falling in love with a young person of the opposite sex, and falling into decadent gestures in the hope of recapturing youth. Both efforts end in failure and death. In Mann's story, the person is an older man of much literary accomplishment. In Lynch's retelling, the person is a professor and "poet of note," although not really of international fame. Actually she's a woman of inherited wealth, a wealthy snob, a narcissist, a survivor of a "perfectly bargained marriage." Her one child was stillborn. A dozen hints at her headaches suggest that she is doomed, and she dies in the last paragraph, without (as in the Mann story) the notice of the literary world.

After these grim tales comes the satiric (and also grim) novella, "Apparition." We follow one Adrian Littlefield (the last name is symbolic) who was a strait-laced pastor, then (after his wife left him) a self-help author who urged post-divorce people to live it up. The satire is trenchant. Adrian's big book is "Good Riddance." A church fundraiser with gambling allows "otherwise devout people to wallow in sin for a worthy cause." Adrian has girlfriends and one-nighters. He's an expensive speaker. Fortunately one Mary De Dona provides him with gratuitous sex, and he is saved. Now 50+, he visits the empty house where his wife once lived, learning little; his tour guide, one "Gloria" is in her 70s, married for 58 years, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He wishes he could have had such a life and feels "a wave of sadness." 

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Echoes of War

Brown, S., H., ed.

Last Updated: Feb-23-2010

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Anthology (Mixed Genres)

Summary:

This is an anthology of 32 pieces, many directly relating to war and its aftermath, or, in general, kinds of violence humans inflict upon each other and the ensuing suffering: hence the title, "echoes of war." The pieces include short fiction, essay, a dozen poems, and a photo collection. Since none are lengthy, this is a good reader to supplement other longer texts or to serve as an anthology for a reading group. A short essay, "Suggested Longer Readers," mentions some three dozen pivotal topics, including "homecoming" and "sense of identity." 

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Suzanne Poirier has studied over 40 book-length memoirs describing medical training in the United States. These texts vary in format from published books to internet blogs, in time (ranging from 1965 to 2005), and in immediacy, some reporting during medical school or residency while others were written later--sometimes many years later.

A literary scholar and cultural critic, Poirier analyzes these texts thematically and stylistically, finding pervasive and regrettable (even tragic) weaknesses in medical education. Her three major points are these: such training (1) ignores the embodiment of future doctors, (2) is insensitive to the power relationships that oppress them, and (3) makes it difficult to create a nurturing relationship--especially by tacitly promoting the image of the lone, heroic physician.

While some of these repressive features have improved in the last decade or so--in contrast to the momentous scientific progress--there is a general failure to deal with the emotional needs of persons in training as they confront difficult patients, brutal work schedules, and mortality, both in others and in themselves.

In her conclusion, Poirier describes some contemporary efforts to help medical students write about their feelings, but she also sees the negative consequences of "an educational environrment that is inherently hostile to such exercises" (169).  Her challenge is this: " "Emotional honesty is a project for all health professionals, administrators, and professional leaders" (170).

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This book in large-format (11 1/8  x  8 3/4 in.) is made up primarily of wonderful illustrations but there is also clear and clever text; both media clearly explain the structures and systems of the human body.  Although nominally listed as “Juvenile Literature,” The Way We Work is sophisticated and detailed enough to educate and entertain adult readers, without losing the interest of intelligent young readers.

The drawings, in pencil and watercolor, are dazzling: large, colorful, with a variety of layouts and perspectives. Many go across double-page spreads, and many include a witty image of one or more small observers. In “Mapping the Cortex,” for example (pp. 158-159), an enormous, multicolored brain takes up most of two pages; it is partially exploded into 11 areas, labeled by name and function, and coded (sensory, motor, or association). A tiny (one-inch) man below with a question mark over his head looks at a dangling rope (I think) hanging from the brain. A small text block fits in the lower left-hand corner.

The book is organized by seven chapters, each for a body system, such as “Let’s Eat” (digestive system), “Who’s in Charge Here?” (nervous system), and “Battle Stations” (immune system). While the parts of the body (anatomy) are clearly shown, the book stresses biological process (physiology), truly “the way we work,” and in considerable detail. In “Let’s Eat,” for example, there are 50 pages, starting from what foods we eat, our sense of smell, taste receptors, teeth, chewing muscles, salivary glands and saliva, the entire alimentary canal, including biochemical and molecular activity, the roles of pancreas, liver, and kidney, and urinary and fecal outputs.

Children of all ages will enjoy “Journey’s End,” which shows a gigantic rectum miraculously suspended over a cityscape, with dump trucks arriving below it to receive stupendous loads.  Indeed, there is much humor in the book, both in the drawings and in the text blocks. 

 

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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:

This is a gripping and poignant account of newsman Bob Woodruff’s brain injury and recovery. He was injured in Iraq by a roadside bomb on January 29, 2006, shortly after being named co-anchor for ABC’s World News Tonight. A public figure—even a celebrity—his injury and recovery were well publicized, bringing to light the injuries of many kinds suffered by soldiers (not to mention civilians) in war-torn Iraq. Woodruff received every benefit American military medicine could offer and had impressive support of ABC and various luminaries. He made a spectacular recovery against all odds.

The book is mostly told by Lee Woodruff, Bob’s wife, who flew to Germany on a moment’s notice to see him at the Landstuhl Military Hospital, who waited 36 days for him to wake up, who saw the CT scan with rocks embedded in his head, who managed their four children and household during the long recovery time, and who writes vividly and personably. There are also flashbacks about the lives of Lee and Bob, truly a remarkable couple: their courtship, their time in China and London, their decision to use a surrogate mother to have their second two children.

Bob himself contributes pages, before and long after the accident. Thirty-one photos, both black and white and in color, enliven the text. One photo shows the interior of a critical Care Air Transport Team, a C-17 cargo plane outfitted like an ICU to transport wounded soldiers.  Throughout, the costs of warfare on people, society, materials, and land (not to mention dollars) is dramatically evident.

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The Village Watchman

Williams, Terry Tempest

Last Updated: Aug-14-2007

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This is a short piece, a scant twelve pages, in which Williams remembers Alan, an uncle who had mental deficits. During his breech birth, Alan’s brain was starved of oxygen. In the dominant American culture, Alan is called “retarded, handicapped, mentally disabled or challenged.” Williams concludes, “We see them for who they are not, rather than for who they are.” (p. 29) The title of the work refers to an Alaskan totem pole figure whose expression reminds her of Alan. In Tlingit culture, there’s a story of a kidnapped boy who lived with the Salmon People. When he returned twenty years later, he was seen as a holy man, not an “abnormal.”

To the young Terry Tempest, Alan demonstrated enthusiasm and spontaneity, for example bowling with reckless glee, regardless of where the ball went. When she asked him how he was feeling, he said, “very happy and very sad,” explaining that “both require each other’s company.” (p. 31) She liked his direct answers, those of a person we sometimes call a wise fool. Later, he lived in a “training school,” a joyless, ugly, and smelly place where abnormal children in Utah were sent and warehoused. Suffering from epilepsy, he wore a football helmet to protect him from sudden falls.

At age 22, Alan made the choice to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Williams describes the ceremony and how the family supported him through it (including yet another violent epileptic episode). When Alan died at age 28, Williams was 18. Looking at the totem pole, she remembers Alan, seeing him for who he truly was.

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