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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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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

This is a poem by one physician-poet, Richard M Berlin, a well published psychiatrist in Massachusetts, that celebrates the life and work of another physician-poet, John Stone, and recounts the effects of the latter’s poetry on Dr. Berlin over thirty years. The poem was published twice, once in JAMA in 2006 and again in Psychiatric Times in August 2008, shortly before John Stone died in his sleep of cancer in November.

The poem is 24 lines in free verse with no stanza breaks. As the title indicates, it is an occasional poem. The occasion? Poet A reading the admired work of Poet B, like Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”. In his poem Berlin commemorates the occasion of his having just read Stone’s 2004 volume of poetry, Music from Apartment 8. The title of Stone’s volume derives from Stone’s mother’s address in Decatur, Georgia. Consisting of five sentences, the poem begins with an account of his reading Stone’s poetry as “a hiker” who stops to “admire the view of snow-capped peaks.” The second sentence records the Berlin’s reflections “three decades later” of Stone and the premature death of Berlin's father. Following this thought, the poet compares Stone’s poetry to the compass his father would have been had he lived longer, Stone’s compass directing him to the possibility of his writing poetry as well, a poetry originating with our patients’ heartbeats. The penultimate sentence is a prayer that Stone is “drinking deep from whatever stream brings you to your knees.” Berlin ends with the further hope that Stone will be able to hear Berlin’s “boots striding behind” Stone’s, “both soles still strong.” There is no published record that I could find that Stone read Berlin’s poem.

In a subsequent essay, Berlin discusses this poem and the history of his relationship to Stone and the latter’s poetry. (1)

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Queen of the Sugarhouse

Studer, Constance

Last Updated: Sep-14-2021
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Summary:

Constance Studer's engaging "Queen of the Sugarhouse" contains nine short stories ranging in length from 9 to 21 pages, each story complete in itself.  Her nursing expertise is evident in several stories, including "Mercy" (page 3), "Shift" (page 77), "The Isolation Room" (page 95), "Testament" (page 112), "Special Needs" (page 122), and the title story, "Queen of the Sugarhouse" (page 138). 

While many of the stories specifically revolve around medicine or nursing, others examine a variety of issues, often with healthcare peripherally involved. 

In "Shelter" (page 21), a homeless vet who served in the Gulf War struggles with PTSD, the difficulty of obtaining permanent disability, the inability to find work or a suitable living space, and his quest to find treatment for his many physical problems after chemical exposure during Desert Storm.  He sees a different doctor at each appointment and no one truly helps him. "Finding today's meal or bed or beer takes all my energy, leaving me nothing left over for thinking about next week.  I am a veteran and can no longer vote because I have no home" (page 27).  Studer takes us into this man's life and struggles with clarity and empathy.


"Think Beauty" (page 37) questions what makes a woman beautiful (or believe she is beautiful) against a back story examining friendship and all that entails.  "This Middle Kingdom" (page 58) tells a story that encompasses both the heroics of a ski team that saves skiers in distress and how difficult it can be to feel compassion for those who end up in trouble because they flaunt the rules or advice of the experts--a theme quite relevant for our times. 

The book's opening story, "Mercy" (page 3) explores a nurse's various reactions after she makes an error while dispensing medication. As in every story in the collection, multiple themes weave in and out, driven by a character's decision or dilemma.  In "Mercy," we see how medical personnel can truly care for and worry about their patients; how even a small error may cause a nurse deep distress, both for her patient and for her future; how the nursing shortage leads to burnout; and how "real life" continues on in the background, in this case, a passionate love affair that leads both to marriage and to grief.  "Grief is a train that doesn't run on anyone else's schedule" (page 15).

"Shift" (page 76) tells of a physician who is devoted to his work and his patients in the ER ("His white coat flaps, stethoscope bounces as the doctor runs, its weight a comfort, like a rosary for a priest" page 76) while his wife feels neglected.  The story moves between the chaos of the ER and the story of his marriage, a love that began when the doctor was in medical school.  After his wife leaves him, the doctor sleeps with the lights on, hoping she will return.  But whenever he closes his eyes, he only sees scenes from the ER.  The story ends with words the doctor has said so often to a patient: "Please sir, lie still.  I'm going to numb you now.  Hang on, man.  Soon the pain will be gone" (page 93). 

"The Isolation Room" (page 94) follows a woman, a writer, who has been, she believes, placed unnecessarily and mistakenly in a psychiatric ward.  As we read, we wonder if this woman is truly afflicted with a mental disorder or if she is simply extremely imaginative, perhaps betrayed by her husband who arranged for her admission. The main character is likeable, often seemingly sensible, perhaps incredibly but differently talented: "Maybe to be out of her mind meant she'd finally make the leap from logical to intuitive, into her true skin, a room all her own ... a writer, that teller of lies, pursuer of truth by means other than logical, that follower of breadcrumbs through the scary forest wherever they lead?" (page 97).


"Testament" (page 112) follows a student nurse in her first month of training and touches on the care of difficult patients, their various religious beliefs, and how healthcare providers' families are not immune to illness. "Special Needs" (page 121) follows Maria, a waitress with an unexpected pregnancy and wheelchair confined brother. The title story, "Queen of the Sugarhouse" (page 137) is a poignant examination of breast cancer; the terrible trial of chemo and radiation; the complex relationship between the suffering mother and her daughter, a nurse; and how life changes when the drama of uneasy but genuine love and relationship ends.  "I think I hear Mama's voice, then
realize it's only the sound of water over rocks.  Tears are this river carrying me forward" (page 153).


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The Expendable Man

Hughes, Dorothy

Last Updated: Sep-14-2021
Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A young man, an intern at UCLA Medical Center, is heading out of Los Angeles on his way to his niece’s wedding in Phoenix.  He has signed out for the long weekend and he is eagerly anticipating some time with his family, which will include (though he doesn’t know this yet) his niece’s college roommate, an eligible young woman from a prominent Washington, DC, family, who will be at the wedding also.  Driving his mother’s late-model Cadillac, with his suitcase, medical bag, and his father’s golf clubs in the trunk, he is fifteen miles out of Indio and in the middle of nowhere when he spots a teenage girl by the side of the road.  She’s a bit disheveled and is carrying a small canvas travel bag and a white plastic handbag and nothing else; she looks to him like the girls his younger sisters refer to as “cheap.”  He pulls over and rolls down his window.  She is sullen and somewhat evasive in answering questions, and she happens to be going to Phoenix also.  Hugh feels that he can’t just leave her here, in the desert, where who knows who she might encounter, so he
offers a ride; he decides, however, that he will drop her off at the next town, where she can catch the bus. 

What could possibly go wrong, right?

This is the set-up of Dorothy Bridges’ The Expendable Man, and the answer is, of course, plenty.  It is not a big reveal to say that the girl’s motives seem dubious and she proves hard to be rid of, being dropped off and then showing up again, including showing up at Hugh’s Phoenix motel room, where he refuses to speak to her.  It is not even a big reveal to say that the morning after she shows up at his motel room her body is found in a canal on the outskirts of Phoenix, and the autopsy reveals her to have been pregnant—and aborted.  Nor is it a big reveal—indeed, it is only logical to assume—that the suspicion of the local police falls on Hugh, the last person—and conveniently, a physician—known to have seen her alive.   It will be up to Hugh to prove his innocence despite the damning circumstances.

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Cyril Wilkinson and his wife Kay make a pact. On Kay’s eightieth birthday, when Cyril is already eighty-one, they will commit suicide together. Cyril, a physician in the British National Health Service (NHS) secured a supply of secobarbital as the means to their end. It was 1991. They have planned well ahead; another twenty-nine years will pass before Kay’s eightieth in 2020. 

Motivating the pact was the death of Kay’s father after “a good four years of steady deterioration, followed by a solid ten of nothing but degradation” from dementia (p. 7). They had just arrived home from his funeral service, and were reflecting on what they had been through. At one point, Cyril says, “Your father frankly made me suicidal—or homicidal—or both. Half an hour in his presence passed like a mini ice age,” and then promises Kay, “I will do almost anything to keep the two of us from acceding to such a fate” (p. 12). But Kay is dubious. 

That’s what everyone says...Everyone looks at what happens to old people and vows that it will never happen to them...Somehow they’ll do something so their aging will proceed with dignity...Everyone thinks they have too much self-respect to allow a stranger to wash their private parts...Then it turns out that, lo and behold, they’re exactly like everyone else! And they fall apart like everyone else, and finish out their miserable end of their lives like everyone else. (pp. 12-13)
And so Kay dithers over the next few months whether to agree to the pact, but once her mother begins showing signs of dementia; “I’m all in,” she tells Cyril (p. 17).

Cyril and Kay proceed through the subsequent twenty-nine years, with Kay raising their three children, retiring, finding new work and passions; Cyril going on and on about politics, the NHS, old people; and both watching their remaining parents pass on, traveling to far-flung locations, becoming grandparents, aging. Then the day arrives; happy birthday, Kay? 

The novel structure is simple or complex depending on how a reader approaches it. The first chapter sets up the pact. The second chapter leads up to the day of reckoning and becomes the first story telling what became of the Wilkinsons’ plan. The next eleven chapters envision alternative scenarios unfolding from choices Cyril and Kay make before and on their pre-determined end date. Some scenarios stem from one or both of them not going through with their pact. Some scenarios involve recognizable and available options today, and some are wholly futuristic and unattainable. Some scenarios are happy, some are sad, all are unsettling. These chapters can read as independent stories offering different choices and endings. But they can also be read as interdependent and collectively building toward a point of view on the question: Should we stay or should we go?   
 

The interdependence and complexity of the chapters arise from the through lines among them. From the third chapter on, for example, the first few sentences of each chapter are taken verbatim or slightly modified from some part of a preceding chapter. Other blocks of text appear in one or more chapters. One through line even extends beyond the book to another of Shriver’s novels (So Much For That). Kay and Cyril exhibit the same personalities and preferences, and express the same general hopes and desires through all the chapters. Other through lines are shared events or recurring arguments and debates; however, not always with the same outcomes.

The four years preceding Kay’s eightieth birthday overlap both the decision of the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (“Brexit”) and the Coivd-19 pandemic. Thus, during the time Cyril and Kay are deciding whether they will actually leave or remain on Earth, the UK is deciding whether to leave or remain in the European Union, and while Cyril and Kay are seemingly willing to die rather than fight the ravages of old age, millions of people are willing to fight the ravages of Covid-19 rather than die. These juxtapositions pop up often giving the Wilkinsons’ decision added poignancy.


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Freud on My Couch

Berlin, Richard

Last Updated: Aug-11-2021
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

Richard Berlin is the author of two poetry chapbooks and three full-length poetry collections.  "Freud on My Couch," Berlin's fourth full-length collection, consists of 46 poems divided into six sections, and a "Notes" section at the end.  As in his previous collections, Berlin writes as a physician, husband, father, friend, lover of music--and as a man who understands that he and his patients share a common and fragile humanity.

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An Enemy of the People

Ray, Satyajit

Last Updated: Aug-09-2021
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

In this 1989 Bengali-language film, the director and screenwriter Satyajit Ray presents an arresting contemporary reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People. In Chandipur, India, Dr. Ashoke Gupta treats an increasing number of patients with hepatitis and jaundice. After some patients die, Dr. Gupta fears that the town could succumb to an epidemic. A water quality report reveals that bacteria contaminate local sources, and that the pollution lies in the town’s most populous area. Further complicating the crisis is Dr. Gupta’s determination that the holy water distributed at a new Hindu temple is culpable for sickening visitors. Eager to publish the findings in a local newspaper and advocate for the closure of the temple (a major pilgrimage destination) until the contamination is abated, Dr. Gupta must contend with his younger brother, Nisith, and other municipal bureaucrats and journalists who suppress his findings to protect the tourism revenue. The physician struggles to communicate medical information to a population deluded by religious superstition and deceived by avaricious leaders.

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