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Pandemic Haiku

Bordowitz, Gregg

Last Updated: Dec-06-2021
Annotated by:
Zander, Devon

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

Pandemic Haiku is a collection of 52 haiku poems written by Gregg Bordowitz during the COVID-19 pandemic.  In this collection, he attempts to encapsulate some of what his experience was like during the events of 2020 in the traditional 5-7-5 syllable format.  

Bordowitz is best known as an artist and activist devoted to documenting the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic.  His voice in this collection is amplified by his long-term work devoted to understanding contagion, illness, and identity, and he uses the reflections formulated over his three-decade career to inform how to process, survive, and reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

In a 1976 Archives of Neurology essay, the neurologist Robert Katzman successfully argued for relabeling “senility” as “Alzheimer’s disease.” He urged rejecting various forms of dementia and senility as common consequences of aging, and accepting them as a disease requiring all the attention any other important disease deserves. Now medicine and society had a problem—"The Problem of Dementia,” the famed physician Lewis Thomas called it in a 1981 essay published by the popular magazine Discover, and he noted that, suddenly, “a disease of the century” had arisen (p. 3).

Forty years on, Jason Karlawish thinks there is still a problem, but in keeping with Katzman’s call, he refers to “The Problem with Alzheimer’s.” Based on the history he covers and the experiences he shares in this book, nothing of much significance has occurred since “The Problem of Dementia” became the “The Problem of Alzheimer’s.”

Karlawish is a physician who cares for people with Alzheimer’s and a researcher delving into “issues at the intersections of care, ethics, and policy” (p. 5).  He draws on his experiences in this book, which he describes as “the story of how once upon a time, Alzheimer’s disease was a rare disease, and then it became common, and then it turned into a crisis.” Karlawish wants to answer why during the time between Thomas’ essay and the year 2010, “nothing really changed,” and how that could be the case in “the richest and most powerful nation.” (p. 6) He tells this story in four parts.

The first part concentrates on efforts clinicians and researchers were making following Thomas’ call to distinguish Alzheimer’s disease from normal aging, other dementia types (e.g., frontotemporal, Lewy body), and precursor syndromes (e.g., minimal cognitive impairment). They were looking for definitive clinical patterns, imaging studies, diagnostic tests, and pathologic markers for the disease. 

In the second part, Karlawish goes back in time to when Alois Alzheimer first found what are known today as “plaques” in the brain of a patient who had an early onset of severe, progressive dementia. He traces the attention this finding drew to eventual advances in imaging and biochemistry aimed at diagnosis. Karlawish also covers how a cascade of events over the decades following Alois Alzheimer’s finding disrupted the pursuit of a pathophysiological basis for dementia. These events included the rise and dominance of Freudian psychology; followed by two world wars; the cold war; the overshadowing of AIDS; Medicare political and funding constraints; tussles among patient advocacy groups; loss of asylums where care and research had coexisted; clinical failure of the first drug; and the continued debate over whether dementia is a consequence of aging or is a disease. 

Karlawish moves on in the third and fourth parts to cover what “we will have to learn to live with the disease so as to improve the lives of persons...to provide the care they need to live well at home...and repair the broken system” (p. 171). Success in his view requires integrated biological, psychological, and social components. He reports the progress on each of these three fronts: some failed approaches continue to fail (such as drugs targeting amyloid); some psychological interventions show promise (though at times causing moral tension); some of the social configurations engineered for Alzheimer’s patients, families, caregivers, and society have produced triumphs and some disasters. He has much to say about why and how this search must go on, but with some much-needed course corrections. 

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How To Be Depressed

Scialabba, George

Last Updated: Nov-28-2021
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Collection (Essays)

Summary:

How To Be Depressed  is a book with a most unusual structure.  It is introduced by an essay entitled “Intake” that was previously published in a literary magazine.  The bulk of the book, “Documentia,” is taken up by an edited selection of the author’s psychiatric records from 1969 to 2016. It is rounded out by an interview with the author and by his “Tips for the Depressed.”   

Author George Scialabba ascribes his “exceptionally flimsy…shock absorbers” to his “constantly worried” parents (p.3).  While studying at Harvard he becomes involved with a strict religious organization. After leaving that group he undergoes a crisis of faith and his first episode of depression. Paralyzed by self-doubt, he drops out of graduate school and begins a cycle of clerical jobs that are beneath his intellectual capability. After many years he gradually wins distinction as a freelance essayist.  However, due to his incapacitating symptoms he never has a steady writing job and has difficulty attaining financial security.  

In his introduction, Scialabba tells us that “the pain of a severe clinical depression is the worst thing in the world.  To escape it, I would do anything” (p.1).  As attested to by the notes of his well-meaning psychiatrists and psychotherapists, he has diligently applied himself to a wide variety of treatments.  Sadly, if anything he gets worse over time, and eventually requires electroconvulsive therapy. 

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Summary:

1971 seems like a very long time ago. Richard Nixon was President, the Vietnam War was still raging, and China and Russia were the sworn enemies of the United States. Fifty years have passed, and at first blush, the world seems like a different place. Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they can stay the same.

One of the most horrifying events of that year was the prisoner revolt at the Attica State Prison in upstate New York in early September. I did not live in New York at the time and have only a vague recollection of reading the newspaper reports of what happened. But ask anyone living in New York who was at least 15 years old at the time and they will tell you that they have vivid memories of what transpired over the five days from September 9-13. In this extraordinary book, Heather Ann Thompson recounts in all its gory detail the prisoner uprising, the bloody retaking of the prison by state troopers, and the nearly thirty years of investigation and legal wrangling that occurred in its wake.

By the late summer of 1971, there had been prisoner rebellions in state penitentiaries across the country including a nearby high security facility in Auburn NY. There was increasing tension and escalating prisoner protests against the inhumane conditions in all prisons including overcrowded cells, limited access to food and fresh air, and routine brutal treatment at the hands of the correction officers. Finally, Attica prison erupted on September 9 after a minor skirmish between guards and prisoners. The prisoners took 38 hostages and over a thousand prisoners escaped their cells and crowded into the prison yard. They created a communal space to take care of each other that was equipped with meager resources. There was a central meeting area for the leaders of the uprising. They created a human shield around the hostages to protect them from harm.

Over the next four days, there were intense negotiations between prison officials and the prisoners. A team of observers including Tom Wicker was  bought in at the request of the  prisoners to serve as witnesses and act as potential mediators. Finally, after negotiations fell apart over the prisoner demand for amnesty, without warning, the troopers dropped tear gas cannisters from helicopters and stormed the yard. Tragically, when the  dust had settled, 32 prisoners and 11 hostages had been killed by bullets fired by the troopers. This terrifying sequence of events is described in the first third of the book. The remaining part details how prison wardens destroyed critical forensic evidence and collaborated with state politicians  up the chain to Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s office to portray the events as a successful suppression of a radical-supported attack against the state. They solicited false testimony and pursued a one-sided prosecution of the prisoners for the murder of one guard and several prisoners. There are too many villains in the story but also some true heroes – a coroner who refused to back down from his post-mortem examination showing that all the victims were killed by gunfire, knowing that only the state troopers had firearms. The prisoners who confronted the legal system, defense lawyers willing to take up the cause of the prisoners, a brave state lawyer who was an essential whistleblower, all were vital in the pursuit of truth. At the end, the justice system failed nearly everyone involved, and Attica Prison remained an important part of the New York State correction system. The only monument is a stone at the entrance to the prison memorializing the hostages who died.

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Imprimatur

Monaldi, Rita; Sorti, Francesco

Last Updated: Nov-03-2021
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In a future 2040, the church is considering the canonization of Pope Innocent XI. An unusual seventeenth-century manuscript is brought to the attention of the authorities and the bulk of the novel is its transcription in full.  

The manuscript is the diary of an intelligent, but inexperienced young orphan-apprentice who is working in a Roman hostel in September 1683. The Catholic Church is fighting the Ottoman Turks who have besieged Vienna. Tensions with France are high as that country and its king have long asserted their exemption from Church rule.

 A hostel guest dies, and the authorities, suspecting plague, impose a quarantine. The apprentice falls under the influence of another confined guest, Atto Melani, a famous castrato and spy for King Louis XIV of France. Believing that the deceased guest was murdered, they venture out each night into subterranean Rome searching for clues to support their theory and leading them to investigate poisons, panaceas, and political plots. Meanwhile, a physician also confined to the hostel attempts all remedies to prevent plague, while another guest, besotted with astrology, strives to reveal the future, and yet another plays soothing music. 

Like a baroque Agatha Christie novel, plausible suspicion is cast upon every guest until the truth emerges and with it many doubts about the saintliness of Pope Innocent XI. The 2040 writer invites the Holy Office to consider the implications of the manuscript before proceeding with the canonization.

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Practice

Berlin, Richard

Last Updated: Oct-26-2021
Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

Practice is Richard Berlin’s third book of poetry (two of which are chapbooks) in addition to two prose books. It contains 64 poems and is fronted by an essay, “Why Doctors Need Poetry”. A few pages of notes at the end helpfully explain the context for 15 of the poems. As Dr. Berlin explains at the beginning of his opening essay: “Most of the poems in this volume first appeared in my column, ‘Poetry of the Times,’ a feature of Psychiatric Times”, which, at the time of publication of this volume he had been writing for 16 years. This—and many more poems in other journals, anthologies, and books— all from a man who began writing poetry in “mid-life”. Evident in the poems in this collection is a person experiencing much more than medical/psychiatric practice, but a full cornucopia of life: his love of art, music, food, nature, and the people he shares this bounty with. The collection, presented in three sections, weaves through all of these rich encounters, with only the final section, the shortest of the three, having more of a focus on family, friends and late of the year poems.

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This is Your Mind on Plants

Pollan, Michael

Last Updated: Oct-21-2021
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism

Summary:

Michael Pollan is curious about human consciousness and how humans alter it using a variety of molecular compounds. This curiosity took him first to three mind-altering psychedelic drugs: psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and 5-MeO-DMT (“The Toad”). He reported his findings and personal experiences in a 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind. His curiosity yet untamed, Pollan expands his project to three mind-altering compounds found in plants: opium, caffeine, and mescaline in his latest book.

Pollan’s investigation is born of his vocation as a gardener “fascinated by our attraction to these powerful plants as well as by the equally powerful taboos and fraught feelings with which we surround them.” He’s further attracted to them for the way in which when “we take these plants into our bodies and let them change our minds, we are engaging with nature in one of the most profound ways possible” (p. 3). The sources he chooses are the opium poppy for opium; coffee and tea for caffeine; and peyote and San Pedro cacti for mescaline. 

Opium, caffeine, and mescaline represent the range of mind-altering properties available from plants of interest to Pollan. In opium he saw a sedative, in caffeine a stimulant, and in mescaline a hallucinogen, or as he characterizes them, the “downer, the upper, and the outer,” respectively (p. 4). Their effects on consciousness do not feature dissolution of the ego, as is the case with psychedelics, and indeed, they can solidify ego. Seemingly most important to his selection, however, was that,

Taken together, these three plant drugs cover much of the spectrum of the human experience of psychoactive substances, from the everyday use of caffeine, the most popular psychoactive drug on the planet; to the ceremonial use of mescaline by Indigenous peoples; to the age-old use of opiates to relieve pain. (p. 4)
The book comprises an introduction and a chapter each covering opium, caffeine, and mescaline. The introduction describes his dual interest in the ancient human drive to fool with consciousness, and in plants that produce mind-altering substances as evolutionary features. Pollan also touches on how civilizations, ancient and current, aid and combat the use of these substances, at times simultaneously. In the chapter on opium, Pollan updates his April, 1997 Harper’s Magazine article about his experience growing opium poppies as the war on drugs peaked in the mid-1990s; in this version he reconstitutes the section he left out for fear of arrest and conviction that has since abated. In the next two chapters, Pollan separately reports on how caffeine and mescaline affected his consciousness. Because he was already a heavy caffeine user, Pollan had to give up coffee and tea if he was to discern its mind-altering effects, but for mescaline’s mind-altering effects, he had to find a source, a setting, and a guide through the maze the Covid-19 pandemic created.

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Annotated by:
Zander, Devon

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

The Impatient Dr. Lange is a biography of Joseph “Joep” Lange, an HIV/AIDS researcher best known for his work in HIV transmission prevention and treatment, written by Seema Yasmin.  Yasmin is a journalist, doctor, and epidemiologist whose life path was forever altered by a run-in with Dr. Lange at age 17, when he said to her, “If you want to help people, first you need to learn how to take care of them.  Go to medical school.” (p. xiii).  The book’s narrative parallels that of the life of her inspiration, Lange; in addition, Yasmin details the evolution of HIV, how it came to spread around the globe, and a history of antiretrovirals.  

Coming of age professionally in the early 1980s, Joep Lange had a career defined by HIV and the advances to manage it.  Early on, he trained as a physician before pursuing a PhD.  During his PhD, he was a prolific researcher, producing “eleven papers on AIDS in his first years,” including an early case study on the appearance of acute HIV and the way in which the body’s antibody response changes in response to continued infection.  His commitment to rigorous scientific inquiry continued as a professional research scientist.  Most noted for his early trials about the use of antiretrovirals and their role in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, he was intimately involved with much of the science used to treat and prevent HIV today.  Outside of research, he was an ardent advocate of health equity, starting the PharmAccess Initiative, a group initially developed to expand access to antiretrovirals in developing countries.  

Ultimately, the book is about how a life of great potential, drive, and success was tragically cut short.  Shadowing the narrative of the book is the specter of Lange’s unfortunate end on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a plane that was mistakenly shot down over the Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists, while he was en route to the twentieth International AIDS Conference in Melbourne.  The penultimate chapter reflects on all that was unfinished - projects on three continents, advising the next generation of PhDs, a novel - and ends with a prescient quote from Lange, in regard to mandatory retirement in the Netherlands at the age of 65:  that even if he had 10-15 more years, he declares “that is still not enough time” (p. 174).

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Everything is Fine

Granata, Vince

Last Updated: Oct-03-2021
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Vince Granata, the author of Everything is Fine, remembers feeling at the age of 4 that the day his triplet siblings were brought to their suburban Connecticut home from the hospital was the best day of his life.  For many years, to all appearances, his was the perfect family.   

Then, while in college, his brother Tim develops a psychotic disorder.  Refusing treatment, he becomes more and more delusional.  He speaks frequently about killing himself and is convinced his mother has raped him.  Announcing that “demons are everywhere” (p.115) he enters his parents’ bedroom and throws salt at them as they sleep. His mother, though trained as an emergency physician, dismisses the idea he could become violent: “Everything is fine” (p.122).  

When Vince receives a phone call that his brother has killed his mother, he rushes home from teaching abroad to find yellow tape surrounding the house.  The immediate, surrealistic concern is to have a company clean the traces of his mother from the rug.   

Over the next few years, Tim is treated to restore him to competency so he can stand trial.  Vince and his father visit Tim faithfully in a facility while two other siblings cannot bring themselves to face him.  A friend insightfully prophesies “I hope you will eventually be able to find some peace and feel whole again…though that might be your life’s work” (p. 149). Indeed, while his brother recuperates, Vince goes through his own healing process. He dedicates himself to understanding schizophrenia and the shortcomings in our mental health care system, and, finally, writes this book.  

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A murder mystery set in Harlem of the 1930s. The Conjure-Man, Frimbo, is a reclusive, highly educated soothsayer and fortune teller born in Africa. His Harlem dwelling is a popular destination for local people seeking direction for the decisions that they confront. He takes pains to conceal much about his identity.

One evening, Frimbo is found dead by a client, while a handful of people occupy his waiting room. Doctor Archer, who lives across the street, is summoned to pronounce the death, and the police come soon, led by detective Dart. Then the corpse disappears, and the Conjure-Man reappears alive to the amazement of all.

The investigators use recent technology, including blood typing, to establish that the corpse was not that of the Conjure-Man. Over just a few days, the doctor and the detective work their way through all the possible scenarios to establish the identity and motive of the killer. The ending is surprising.

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