Showing 91 - 100 of 661 Nonfiction annotations

This Far and No More

Malcolm, Andrew

Last Updated: Sep-12-2012
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Emily Bauer, mother of two small children, psychotherapist and teacher, social, smart, athletic, and strong-willed, finds, after a curious series of falls and other accidents, that she has ALS, "Lou Gehrig's Disease," a disease that involves slow atrophy of all muscular control, leading to complete paralysis and then death.  The disease is relentless, and treatments palliative at best. 

First in handwriting and later by means of a tape on which she can type, letter by letter, by moving her head to press a button as a cursor cruises through the alphabet, she keeps a diary up until just days before her death.  The diary, a remarkable record of her physical and emotional fluctuations, includes stories she laboriously writes for her daughters that gently mirror the confusions they encounter coming to see a profoundly disabled mother who can no longer hold them or speak to them.  The story culminates in Emily's plea for someone to turn off the ventilator that is keeping her alive, and the efforts her husband makes with the help of a meticulous and sympathetic lawyer and a courageous doctor to arrange for a voluntary death.  

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Summary:

Jerome Lowenstein is a nephrologist, author, and founder of the Bellevue Literary Press and the Humanistic Aspects of Medicine Education seminar program at the NYU School of Medicine.  In this thoughtful and illuminating book of essays he explores the patient/physician relationship in a world where medicine has embraced technology and scientific advances in the laboratory at the risk of neglecting the humanistic underpinnings of the field.

Dr. Lowenstein graduated from medical school at NYU in the late 1950s and spent nearly his entire professional career at NYU Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital. When he was a resident, long before work hour limits were instituted, the house staff gathered in the cafeteria at midnight to dine on the days’ leftovers.  This communal meal “provided a fine opportunity to communicate with colleagues directly, rather than by beeper and phone, about many of the days ‘medical leftovers,’ ” (1) sharing information as well as the frustrations and rewards of caring for patients.  “The Midnight Meal” poses the challenge of retaining the core of relationships, both between patient and physician and among colleagues in the rapidly changing world of medicine today.

In the essay, “Can You Teach Compassion,” Dr. Lowenstein tells his readers about the student who responded to the question with “I don’t know if you can teach compassion, but you surely can teach the opposite.” (13) The student was referring to how students become “desensitized” during their clinical years to the suffering of their patients, sometimes to the point of using derogatory terms to describe them. Dr. Lowenstein argues that teaching attendings can and should encourage students to learn about their patients. He writes how he once interrupted an intern who began to present a case by stating: “This is the first hospital admission of this thirty-five year old IVDA.”  Dr. Lowenstein asks: “Would our thinking or care be different if you began your history by telling us that this is a thirty-five-year-old Marine veteran who has been addicted to drugs since he served with valor, in Vietnam?” (17) Learning about the lives of their patients, Lowenstein emphasizes, does not detract from the clinical picture, but rather enhances it.  

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For the Love of Babies

Last Updated: Aug-30-2012
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Collection (Case Studies)

Summary:

In this collection of "clinical tales," to use Oliver Sacks' term, Sue Hall, an experienced neonatologist who spent some years as a social worker before medical school, tells a remarkable range of stories about newborns in the NICU and their parents.  As memoir, the stories record moments in a life full of other people's traumas, disappointments, anxieties, and hard-won triumphs where her job has been to hold steady, find a balance point between professionalism and empathy as young parents go through one of the hardest kinds of loss.  Each story is told with clarity and grace, sketching the characters deftly and offering useful medical information along the way on the assumption that many who read the book will do so because they are facing similar challenges and decisions.  Each story is followed by a two- to three-page "Note" giving more precise medical background and offering further resources for those who have particular interest in the kind of case it was. 

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This remarkable memoir/natural history chronicles the author's observation of a snail that occupies the flower pot at her bedside during a long immobilization due to chronic fatigue syndrome.  For months of relative isolation, she observes the habits of the snail and begins to research the lives, habits, species, and idiosyncrasies of snails by way of getting to know this one in greater specificity.  As she puts it, "When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound...," (p. 5) and her mind certainly does.  Peering into poetry and story as well as biology, she discovers both facts and lore about the lives of snails to complement her intimate curiosity about the life of this snail.  Along the way, and very much by the way, she reflects on the nature of her own complex illness, the likely brevity of life she has now to expect, and how to learn from another species how to live in time differently. 

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Mortal Embrace

Dreuilhe, Alain

Last Updated: Aug-27-2012
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Journal

Summary:

Where many writers about illness have raised questions about the widespread and often unexamined appropriation of military metaphors to describe how doctors and patients have "struggled with," "combatted," "fought," or "defeated" illness, Dreuilhe embraces it and plays it out to the far reaches of its logic.  Part of the brilliance of this AIDS narrative lies in the way it brings new dimensions of meaning to a metaphor that has become so conventional as to be cliché or so imbedded in the language of illness and treatment, it simply fails to be recognized as metaphor.  Beginning with the "simple skirmishes at the frontier garrisons," Dreuilhe chronicles the progression of his own illness with the sharp eye of a good war reporter who sees through the chaos of the battlefield to the strategies being played out.  "Whenever I take an experimental drug," Dreulhe writes, "and people fight desperately to be among those privileged to risk their livesI feel as though I belong to a unit of shock troops parachuted behind enemy lines: already written off as a casualty, I'm entrusted with the task of spearheading the advance."

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The Ghost Map

Johnson, Steven

Last Updated: Aug-23-2012
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

Parts of medical history read like detective novels.  The discovery of the source of cholera by Dr. John Snow in London in 1854 is one of those episodes.  The Ghost Map tells the story of Snow's pioneering work in what have now become standard epidemiological methods.  Tracing a cholera outbreak to a local pump in a poor section of London involved many door-to-door visits working with people who weren't always cooperative, incurring the suspicion and/or ridicule of both them and the medical professionals with whom he worked.  In the course of the story the author offers reflections on the organization of cities and on public hygiene.  Snow, an out-of-the-box thinker, also helped develop surgical anesthesia. 

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Illness as Narrative

Jurecic, Ann

Last Updated: Jul-03-2012
Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

In Illness as Narrative, Ann Jurecic thoughtfully examines the unruly questions that personal accounts of illness pose to literary studies: What is the role of criticism in responding to literature about suffering?  Does the shared vulnerability of living in a body, which stories of illness intimately expose, justify empathic readings?   What is the place of skepticism in responding to stories of suffering?  Does whether or how we read illness narratives matter?  Jurecic's questions entice discussion at an interesting cultural moment.  The numbers of memoirs and essays about illnessand their inclusion in medical school and other humanities coursesmultiplied from the later decades of the 20th century to the present.   However, their increase, and their potential to encourage empathic readings, coincided with dominant literary theories that advocated vigorously skeptical, error-seeking responses to texts and their authors.  Jurecic reminds us that Paul Ricoeur called such responses "the hermeneutics of suspicion" (3). 

Jurecic's astutely researched, nuanced answers to those questions propose a corrective to the extreme skepticism of "disembodied criticism." Such criticism, she claims, dismisses testimonial writing from "a position of distance and privilege."  But her answers also affirm that intellectually "rigorous" responses to texts are central to the critical humanities (15).  To further her position, she offers attentive readings of accounts of illness by Virginia Woolf, Reynolds Price, and Jean-Dominique Bauby, as well as the theoretical writing of literary and other scholars.  For instance, Jurecic speculates that the condition of a reader's body aligns with his or her responses to texts.  In a chapter called "Theory's Aging Body," she observes that as skeptical scholarly readers ageStephen Greenblatt, Michel Foucault, Judith Butlerthey have turned their attention to "illness, vulnerability, and mortality" (93).  Jurecic also suggests that a function of criticism is to uncover the cultural conditions that memoirs and essays about illness respond to.  Living "at risk" is a recent one.  In stories of living with the risk of experiencing a particular illness in the future, potential patients create narratives of uncertainty to discover the "personal meaning of the impersonal statistics" that medical research now regularly delivers (18). 

 Jurecic also reflects on the ways theorists have understood the possibilities of representing and responding to pain in the varied approaches of philosophers Elaine Scarry, Martha Nussbaum, and Richard Rorty and of anthropologists Jean E. Jackson, Byron Good, and Veena Das.  In an exceptionally comprehensive and nuanced reading of Susan Sontag's theoretical, fictional, and journal writing about suffering, Jurecic uncovers Sontag's inconsistent, yet revelatory positions on the human capacity for responding to representations of pain.  The chapter on Sontag is enriched by Jurecic's reading of Annie Lebovitz's and David Reiff's responses to Sontag's suffering: in Lebovitz's controversial photographs of Sontag's final days (included in A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005) and Reiff's memoir about his mother's illnesses (Swimming in a Sea of Death). 

Illness as Narrative closes with examples of what Jurecic calls reparative writing and reading practices.  In the first instance, ill writers such as Jean-Dominique Bauby (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) both recreate "a more coherent sense of themselves" and dislodge "fixed ideas and narratives" about illness (109).  In the second instance, Jurecic outlines the limits of two competing readings of Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.  One assumes that readers will by nature empathically imagine those who are culturally different from themselves.  The other looks skeptically at the assumption that what medical educators call cultural competence can be acquired by reading a book.  Jurecic suggests that strategies for reading and teaching informed by Janelle S. Taylor, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Rita Felski can encourage more complex habits of response, such as Taylor's "'empathic curiosity'" (quoted 122).

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

Margaret Price, a university professor with expertise in disability studies and rhetoric, alerts us to rhetorical and institutional strategies that marginalize or exclude from academic life people regarded as mentally disabled.  Her term "mental disability" subsumes an array of cognitive and psychological conditions--autism, attention deficit disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulties processing spoken language or speaking in a group, among others--that are generally identified as falling outside definitions of normative cognitive or psychological functioning.  Whether a student or a teacher, manifesting such conditions can label one unfit for school.  Price asks us (1) to consider whether such conditions rightly disqualify one from academic life, (2) to question the validity of some assumed criteria for academic success, and (3) to design institutional infrastructures that accommodate neurodiversity. 

Price's analysis and her insights into forms of exclusion point to an underappreciated relationship between academia and medicine, which after all generates diagnoses of mental illness or fitness and the presumed teachability of students.  Price's book thereby engages the wider culture, which can deem the "unteachable" unfit for society.       

Probably the most startling chapter, titled "Assaults on the Ivory Tower: Representations of Madness in the Discourse of U.S. School Shootings," analyzes the rhetoric of the stories told within academia and throughout print and televised media about two campus shootings: the ones at Virginia Polytechnic and Northern Illinois Universities in 2007 and 2008.  The chapter uncovers the easy acceptance of stereotypes about mental disability and of the presumed, but unsubstantiated link between mental disability and violence that these stories insistently repeat.             

Three chapters have direct bearing on pedagogic and professional practices and assumptions.  Chapter 2 scrutinizes typical classroom practices and Chapter 3 questions criteria for professional excellence in academia, such as collegiality and productivity, from a disability perspective.  Both chapters uncover the often hidden problems that those with mental disabilities have meeting what Price views as a limited range of academic expectations and practices.  Together the chapters propose ways that academia can become more accommodating and ask what it might lose by not doing so.  In Chapter 6 Price interviews disabled independent scholars Cal Montgomery, Tynan Power, and Leah (Phinnia) Merridith.  Questioning the "rhetoric of ‘choice'" that infuses discussions of the institutionally unaffiliated or marginally affiliated, Price asks to what extent disabled scholars become independent by default.  By interviewing people she knows and who share her experience of living with a mental disability, Price also challenges models of research that assume that disengagement with its subjects generates the most valid knowledge.    

Another chapter examines three examples of autobiographical writing about mental disability:  Susanne Antonetta's A Mind ApartLauren Slater's Lying , and Wendy Thompson's essay "Her Reckoning."  Price finds "transgressive power" in autopathographies written by those "who are not (conventionally) ‘articulate'" (178).  Part of that power, Price proposes, arises from the narrators' unconventional use of pronouns (Who is "I"?) and ways of "refiguring the rational" (195).  

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Out the Window

Hall, Donald

Last Updated: Mar-02-2012
Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

The writer Donald Hall gives us a lyrical armchair view through the windows of his house not only of the New Hampshire landscape, but also of his and his anscestors lives lived in that landscape. His honest and moving account from his 83rd year  is captured in the following: "I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two [the ages his wife Jane Kenyon died and his father died]. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It's better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch the birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do" (p.41).

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA is the biography of the scientist whose research James Watson and Francis Crick needed to elucidate the structure of the DNA molecule.  Even though the discovery has had profound implications for modern medicine, Franklin's contribution to it almost remained obscure.

In 1968 Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) became visible to the world beyond a small circle of scientists when Watson published The Double Helix (1968), his "personal account" of puzzling out DNA.  If not for Watson's self-incriminating candor about stealing glances at Franklin's research, we might not know how crucial her lucid x-ray diffractions of hydrated DNA were to him and Francis Crick.  However, the account that indirectly acknowledged Franklin's contribution to their work represented her in a patronizing caricature.  Since ovarian cancer took her life a decade before Watson's memoir appeared, others have been left to respond to his version of the DNA story and representation of his female colleague.  Among Franklin's defenders, Brenda Maddox offers the most complete and insightful restoration of the scientist, her research, and her life. 

Maddox's biography draws from not only the many scientific archives and personal papers of scientists Franklin worked with in England, Europe, and America, but also from previously undisclosed letters written by Franklin, her friends, and her family.  Maddox also interviewed Franklin's relatives.  Doing so allowed her to position Franklin's life within the history of her close, extended Anglo-Jewish family, generations of wealthy London publishers and bankers who experienced discrimination.  This history does more than belie some of Watson's hasty assumptions about Franklin's background.  It creates a biography of a complex woman who negotiated biases as a citizen and a scientist.     

The biography is divided into three parts.  The first narrates the story of Franklin's childhood, rigorous education, and successful career before accepting the fateful research post at King's College, London.  She's known for thinking skeptically and working mathematically.  Yet early on she showed an aptitude for three-dimensional thinking and for understanding crystalline structures.   As an undergraduate at Cambridge she speculated about a "'Geometrical basis for inheritance'" (56).

The second section concentrates on the 27 months at King's when she worked uneasily with Maurice Wilkins, who showed her revelatory x-rays of DNA to Watson.   This balanced account of a controversial episode in the history of science offers evidence that Franklin was close to drawing the same conclusion about the structure of DNA that Watson and Crick rushed into print.  This section also accessibly explains the molecular biology of her day and the painstaking physical and intellectual intricacies of making and interpreting x-rays of crystalline molecules. 

The third section reminds us that Franklin had a very productive, though short career after leaving DNA to others.  She directed research programs for the study of plant viruses, and she investigated the polio virus shortly before she died.  Respected scientists, including Crick, praised her research.   Many, unlike Wilkins, liked working with her.  More than 40 years after viewing what's known as Franklin's Photograph 51, Watson publicly acknowledged that seeing it "'was the key event'" in understanding the geometry of DNA (316).  (See the note on Photo 51 below.)        

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