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The Father

Zeller, Florian

Last Updated: Apr-26-2021
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

The basic plot of The Father mirrors the all-too-common trajectory people with dementia follow: first they deny any problems; then they progressively need more in-home assistance; and then they require institutionalization. This scenario, however, gets obscured when watching the film’s main character—the father—wrestle with quotidian activities and familiar faces. The viewers wrestle with him, and become just as confused and rattled. Florian Zeller, the screenwriter and director, admits he wants viewers feeling what people with dementia feel. He succeeds in the movie as he succeeded in the Broadway play version preceding it.

The father, Anthony, lived in his London flat with help from hired caregivers and his daughter, Anne, who lived nearby. After Anthony banished several caregivers on grounds they were unnecessary, Anne moves him into her flat, and when he’s too much for her there, she moves him to a nursing home. We’re never quite sure, though. Zeller makes the two flats and the nursing home look almost identical. He changes Anne’s story at different times: she’s still married after ten years; she’s been divorced for five years; she’s relocating to Paris with a lover; she was never relocating to Paris; she relocated to Paris. Anne appears as a different person on occasion and the husband she may or may never had appears as different people. Zeller overlays these confusing surroundings and events by jumping forward and backward in time, and repeating some scenes with slight variations. Eventually, Anthony says, “strange things are going on around us.” Viewers will feel the same, and that’s the point.

The movie ends as Anthony awakes in his nursing home room. Just as we are lured into thinking we have returned to the common dementia trajectory at its end, we see his nurse is the person who had appeared as Anne before, and his room looks like the bedrooms in both his own and Anne’s flats. We wonder.

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Hair

Corso, Gregory

Last Updated: Apr-25-2021
Annotated by:
Mahl, Evan

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

The poem, through an account of the narrator’s experiences with losing hair, explores issues such as aging, sexuality, and our impotence when faced with the vagaries of nature as it transforms our bodies. Ranging from ancient Egyptian lore to dime store pharmacies, Corso weaves a kaleidoscope of images about how humans treat and worry about their hair and how hair has been a mythopoetic vehicle for millennia.Much of the poem employs angry though humorous language whereby the narrator speaks to his hair and pleads with the gods to reverse his fate. Corso writes, "To lie in bed and be hairless is a blunder only God could allow--"; and later, "Damned be hair! . . . Hair that costs a dollar fifty to be murdered!" The poem ends with an angry diatribe against hair and an inspired denigration of its mythological power.

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Parenthesis

Durand, Élodie

Last Updated: Apr-23-2021
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

Judith, a French woman in her early twenties, experiences "spells" - episodes of shaking, staring, and sudden memory loss. These spells occur daily and her behavior becomes erratic. She visits a neurologist. He diagnoses epileptic seizures and prescribes medication. Yet the convulsions continue so Judith's drug dose is upped and an MRI of the brain is done.

The MRI scan finds a small tumor that appears inoperable. A brain biopsy reveals an astrocytoma. Judith's life now revolves around her illness and the medical monitoring of it. Time feels distorted, and she likens her seizures to "a little death." Everyday life becomes blurred. She is advised to see a neuropsychiatrist. Her parents worry about her constantly.

Eventually Judith is referred for Gamma Knife radiosurgery. Eighteen months after the procedure is completed, only a tiny scar at the site of the tumor remains. Three years following the treatment, the seizures are gone. She rediscovers the joy of life and embraces a hopeful future.

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Summary:

Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD, is a Black social psychiatrist with wide-ranging interests; her book analyzes factors that support or diminish the health of cities as places that sustain its citizens. Over many years, she has visited and studied 178 cities in 14 countries, and she draws on the work of experts from several disciplines to address the fundamental question: how may we best live together?  

Her discussion moves through five concepts for understanding the health of a city by describing a dozen cities ranging from Paris to Jersey City. Each features a “Scroll,” a two-page presentation of photos, graphics, and text. Her discussions give an inductive basis for her concepts that become criteria for assessing the health of any city.     

(1) Box (“in all sizes and shapes”): the surrounding shape of buildings, street, and sky; it gives an identity to the city’s center with its useful assets such as stores, post office, bank, food, and entertainment.
(2) Circle: the larger area surrounding a Box—maybe a half a mile in radius. Its health requires ease of travel to and from the box.
(3) Line: usually the Main Street that runs through the box, therefore a central path to town. Good transportation is important, and the main street can be quite long, for example Palisades Avenue in Englewood, New Jersey.
(4) Tangle: a dense network of streets and highways that connect to main streets and the Box.
(5) Time: no city is static; as years go by, there are changes for good or ill.  

Fullilove mentions politics, capitalism, poverty, disincentives, tribalism, racism, highways, malls, interstates, and “urban renewal” that destroyed neighborhoods of minorities, as well as redlining against Blacks and gerrymandering school districts to segregate Black and white students. 

In “Naming and Framing the Problem,” she turns to a larger overview of challenges for cities in many places, but especially in the US:
(1) “deep structure of inequality” (p. 211), such as the legacies of slavery, lynching, the 3/5 Compromise, and the Trail of Tears, as well as white supremacy today (2) ecological damage, including industrial farming, deforestation, and global warming, and (3) the inertia of the status quo. 

Citing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Father Richard Rohr, Fullilove affirms love as the root  for social justice, political activism (p. 211) so that cities might become what Thomas Edison termed “factories of invention” that will support the mental health and well-being of all of its citizens. 
 

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Motherless Brooklyn

Lethem, Jonathan

Last Updated: Apr-12-2021
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Lionel Essrog is the narrator and main character of the novel, although when his Tourette syndrome kicks in, he might introduce himself as: “Liable Guesscog, Final Escrow, Ironic Pissclam, and so on” (p. 7). Tourette syndrome is a neurological condition causing involuntary, repetitive movements and vocal sounds (e.g., words, utterances, growls)—tics. 

Lionel lived at the Saint Vincent Orphanage in Brooklyn, New York until a local “penny-ante hood,” Frank Minna, recruited him and three other “white boys” to do his bidding as a “motley gang of high-school-dropout orphans.” (p. 291) Truck piracy was their first line of work, all the while oblivious about why they were moving boxes from one truck to another. Minna expanded his business into more lucrative and dangerous activities under the façade of a limousine service and private detective agency. He gets too close to the sun and is murdered. Lionel liked Minna, who became a father figure to him, accepted his Tourette quirkiness, and even conspired with him to throw their clients off balance when it served their purpose. Though Lionel admitted, “We were as much errand boys as detectives,” he recasts himself as a bona fide detective and makes finding the murderers his raison d’être. (p. 156) 

In typical murder-mystery fashion, Lionel must wend his way through complex relationships and find hidden clues to solve the case. In not-so-typical fashion, he contends with the Tourette syndrome accompanying him; Tourette is a major character in the book. Together, they find who murdered Frank Minna. 

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Collective

Nanau, Alexander

Last Updated: Mar-29-2021
Annotated by:
Bruell , MS, Lucy

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Colective was a popular nightclub in Bucharest, Romania.  In 2015, a fire broke out during a band performance killing 27 people and injuring 180. The public protests that erupted over the lack of fire exits in the club led to the resignations of government officials, including the Minister of Health.  Within four months of the fire, 37 of the critically burned died, not as originally thought from the burns they suffered, but from hospital- acquired infections.
 
The feature documentary follows Catalin Tolontan, an investigative journalist at a sports newspaper and his team as they track down the cause of the fatal infections.  They are aided by doctors from the hospital who come forward to voice their suspicion that the infection control agents used by the hospital were diluted to the point of being ineffective.  The journalists bring samples to a lab which verifies that the agents were diluted to 10% of their effective strength.  The owner of the company supplying the agents had been engaged in the practice for years.
 
We hear tragic stories from parents whose children died, prevented by “communication errors” from having them transferred to other, better equipped burn units in other European countries.  And we meet the survivors, among them, Tedy Ursuleanu, who, despite her disfigurement, bravely poses for photographs for an exhibit about the event.  The film returns to Tedy at several moments--- she is a reminder of the human tragedy that has caused so much suffering. And we listen to the despair of a doctor who says, “We’re doctors; but we are no longer human. All that matters is money,” as she describes how politics, bribery and greed have taken over the health system and made patients’ lives expendable.
 
This is a story without a happy ending.  Vlad Voiculescu, the newly appointed health minister who previously worked in patient advocacy tries to reform the system and install safeguards against hospital procedures that fall short of accreditation requirements.  But the system proves too strong.  This time political corruption wins over people’s health.


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Annotated by:
Zander, Devon

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds is Paul Farmer’s latest work exploring the connection between health and the social and historical structures that surround it.  Focusing on how and why Ebola spread in West Africa in 2014, the book is difficult to categorize — it is not only temporally expansive, ranging from the late 15th century to the present day, but it also combines elements of a memoir, an anthropological treatise, and an abbreviated historical text with powerful calls to action in over 500 pages.   

Stemming partially from a desire to fulfill a “personal penance for inaction” during the early days of the outbreak, Farmer chooses to learn about Ebola from “the personal histories of the Ebola dead, of survivors, and of their caregivers.”  Harking back to his days as a college anthropology major, many of the book’s themes, embodied in its title, are introduced via these in-depth interviews.  His two main subjects, Ibrahim and Yabom, are Ebola survivors who, after initially recovering from their illness, make it their work to support other Ebola survivors.  Through their words and narratives, we witness some of what it was like to experience the civil strife that predated the outbreak, see how Ebola expanded from isolated cases to clusters and communities, how family members sick with the disease were cared for, what it meant to survive Ebola, and now what it means to live with its sequelae.  Translation for Farmer was provided by Dr. Bailor Barrie, one of his former students, whose story as a medical student in Sierra Leone during its civil war soon becomes part of the narrative, as well.  Through the words of these three people, pieced together over many extensive conversations, a narrative is developed, allowing those most impacted by Ebola to tell its story. 

Farmer interweaves his first-person perspective with their stories, emphasizing his role in 2014 and how Partners in Health became involved in assisting in the outbreak.  While working in West Africa during the Ebola epidemic, late one night, Farmer mixes up Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Realizing how different their histories are, he vows to “make amends for my ignorance” and transitions from storytelling on the personal level to history-telling on the country level.  To ensure that he, and we, never mix them up again, Farmer traces the histories of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea in four chapters.  During this section, he refers back to the book’s title, taking on the effects of the rise of imperialism, colonization, the use of sanitation/Pasteurian principles, the impact of resource extraction, and much more on each of these nation’s stories and relationships with Ebola.  As he describes it, “if you want to understand the magnitude and dynamics of this Ebola epidemic, in other words, think in terms of fevers, feuds, and diamonds.” 

Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds is bookended with reflections on COVID-19 in the introduction and epilogue.  In the introduction, he reflects on the book’s “obvious implications for our response to COVID-19” and how COVID-19, though different in many ways, shares certain similarities with Ebola — among them, the speculative nature of its origins and the fact that it is a zoonosis.  Most importantly, according to Farmer, treating and managing it will require understanding many of the same “cultural complexities and... challenges” that treating Ebola required.  After taking us on a journey through West Africa and up to 2014, Farmer writes an epilogue reflecting on how the central crisis of Ebola was the prioritization of “containment over care” whereas COVID-19 has become a crisis of containment.  To him, writing this on April 10th, 2020, and to the reader reading it a year later, COVID-19 is seen as partially a disease of healthcare workers’ exposure, and partially a disease of social inequity, but completely a disease whose management, treatment, and eventual control will be defined by the “staff and stuff and spaces and systems” in place and who has access to them.  Even with this pandemic at the forefront of our minds, Farmer reminds us that Ebola should not be off our radar just because a new disease is on it— there continue to be outbreaks of Ebola in the Congo.  Ultimately, Farmer’s words leave you thinking — about this pandemic, about the past, and about the connections between them.  If only to prompt more thought, one of Farmer’s last comments is also his most powerful: “If there’s indeed a lesson to be learned from Ebola, it may be this one:  for everything we do, or say, in pandemic time, let’s keep asking the same question.  Might this help?







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Camouflage

Nisker, Jeffrey

Last Updated: Mar-19-2021
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

This short play has three characters: a woman, a man in camouflage, and a second man who turns out to be a doctor. The camouflage man talks on the phone with his unseen wife; he is angry and suspicious of what she has been doing during his absence. The doctor overhears – and thinks about confronting him, but lets it go. The woman is a victim of coercive sex in marriage. She has two places where she can take refuge, if only in her mind:  her garden and an imaginary elephant. The woman’s description of the elephant tells us that she is seeing the elephant as a reflection of herself, and it also reflects her traumatized awareness of the physical changes in her husband’s body as he helps himself to hers.

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Born to Be

Cypriano, Tania

Last Updated: Feb-26-2021
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Born to Be is a documentary about the trailblazing work being done at the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery.   

The film’s central figure is Jess Ting, a plastic surgeon who studied music at Juilliard before making a career switch to medicine.   Scenes of him with patients are interspersed with domestic clips where he is at home with his children and playing the double bass.  Just a few years ago Ting had never even performed a single gender-affirming surgery.  He is the first to admit that he did not expect his career to take this turn: “Essentially, they just asked everyone else, and everyone said no except for me.  Everyone thought I was nuts.”  Be that as it may, Ting appears to have found his calling.  In a short time, he has performed well over a thousand gender-affirming surgeries, pioneered new procedures, and helped to start a fellowship training program.  

The stories of several of the Center’s patients are interwoven with that of Dr. Ting.  One client, Cashmere, is a retired sex worker.  Years of botched silicone injections have left her face chronically swollen.   Now in her 50’s, she hopes to have the effects reversed, and to finally undergo the vaginoplasty she has been dreaming of her entire life.  Another patient, Devin, 22, goes through a transition during the course of the film, renaming herself Garnet.  Not withstanding strong family support, years of bullying in school have taken their toll as she struggles with depression. 

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Summary:

In this collection of autobiographical essays, Koven contemplates some unique challenges confronting female physicians: discrimination, sexism, lower annual salary on average than male counterparts, possible pregnancy and motherhood. She recalls her medical school and residency experience, describes her internal medicine practice, and highlights her role as a daughter, spouse, and mother.

Worry is a theme that works its way into many phases of Koven's life and chapters of this book. The opening one, "Letter to a Young Female Physician," introduces self-doubt and concerns of inadequacy regarding her clinical competence. "Imposter syndrome" is the term she assigns to this fear of fraudulence (that she is pretending to be a genuine, qualified doctor). She worries about her elderly parents, her children, patients, and herself. Over time, she learns to cope with the insecurity that plagues both her professional and personal life.

Some of these essays are especially emotional. "We Have a Body" dwells on the difficult subject of dying, spotlighting a 27-year-old woman who is 27 weeks pregnant and diagnosed with adenocarcinoma of the lung. "Mom at Bedside, Appears Calm" chronicles the author's terror when her young son experiences grand mal seizures and undergoes multiple brain surgeries for the tumor causing them.

Listening emerges as the most important part of a doctor's job. Koven encourages all doctors to utilize their "own personal armamentarium" which might include gentleness, exemplary communication skills, a light sense of humor, or unwavering patience. She fully endorses a concept articulated by another physician-writer, Gavin Francis: "Medicine is an alliance of science and kindness" (p228).

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