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Daughter

Davis, Cortney

Last Updated: Jan-17-2022
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

Davis, a nurse practitioner, chronicles her daughter’s life, illness and death at age 54 from cancer. The book consists of three sections, with poems unevenly divided such that of the 30 poems, only one rests in section II. Titled Windmill, this poem forms a fulcrum between the relationship of mother and daughter to one of mother and ill daughter. The windmill is a small gift from her daughter – a reminder of Kansas where the daughter, her husband and children live, thousands of miles from Davis. The collection begins with her ‘soon-to-be born daughter’ (page 15) and ends with The Sacrament of Time, dated months before her daughter’s death from, at this point, a widely metastatic breast cancer. The final poem holds within it an entire world – the birth of the daughter, the fraught frantic mother-to-be pleading for help, the birth of a healthy baby girl, the wonder of the new addition to their family, the travel with the newborn to home, and a reflection on what poems can and cannot do. “Poems cannot // save us, Amichai said, but all I have are these poems” (page 58).  

If the first section details the many ways unconditional love for a child unfolds, through wonders of babyhood, delights of childhood, the harsh lessons of adolescence, and the successful launch, the final section underscores how deep that love runs. As the cancer illness progressed during the pandemic, issues of separation became more acute. Davis marks the numbers affected (illness and death) by coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19) during the pandemic, as her poems follow her daughter’s cancer. These numbers, along with brief quotations from her daughter’s scans and reports, lend a contrast to the evocative imagery and experience of illness in a loved one. Medical mistakes are chronicled as well (see What a Terrible Mistake).  

The collection is dedicated to Davis’ daughter and her daughter’s children. Even the title, Daughter, calls to her, as if addressing her daughter directly. The title also serves to universalize the parenting of a daughter, even as the particulars of this family are detailed.

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Dopesick

Strong, Danny

Last Updated: Jan-12-2022
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: TV Program

Summary:

The eight-part TV miniseries, Dopesick, is a nonfiction, scripted drama inspired by Beth Macy’s nonfiction book of the same title. The creator, Danny Strong, was a writer of all but one episode, director of two, and an executive producer of them all. Beth Macy served as an executive producer and contributed to the writing and updated the reporting. 

In a Kaiser Health News (KHN) panel discussion about the series with Danny Strong, Beth Macy, and three KHN staff members, Strong said his original goal “was to dramatize all this, was to create a clear record of what Purdue Pharma did.” But when Macy joined, his goal expanded “to show the victims and to hopefully redefine the stereotype of addiction...[and] ultimately our goal was to show a path forward.”

The miniseries conforms to these goals. Across the eight episodes, the drama mostly swirls around the direct connections among Purdue Pharma, one physician, one particular patient (and family), one small town in coal mining country, a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) investigator, and a U.S. Attorney (Western District of Virginia). In hewing to Strong’s original goal of portraying Purdue Pharma’s responsibility for igniting and fanning addiction to its product OxyContin® (oxycodone HCl), the drama reaches its climax when the company agrees to criminal charges for named executives and a financial settlement in 2007. 

Different episodes touch on other goals about the stigma associated with addiction and access to medication-assisted treatments. While Strong met his goals, he acknowledges the real-life drama didn’t end with the 2007 settlement. He previews what was to come: Purdue Pharma redoubling its sales efforts, the addiction crisis worsening over the subsequent fourteen years, and the continuing efforts to bring Purdue Pharma and its owners (the Sackler family) to their knees.

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The King's Anatomist

Blumenfeld, Ron

Last Updated: Jan-03-2022
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Brussels mathematician Jan van den Bossche, (fictional), single, and fifty years old, is devasted to learn of the death of his lifelong friend, the brilliant (and very real) anatomist Andreas Vesalius.  Companions since childhood, shorter, sturdy Vesalius was the outgoing exuberant leader of the duo, snubbing authority, taking risks, and seizing every opportunity to explore the anatomical structure of animals and humans. He constantly dragged the quiet, shy Jan in his exploits.  

News of Vesalius’s death sends Jan in two directions. First, he wanders back through many memories: their lives and travels together to Paris, Leiden, Padua, Spain; the rise of Vesalius’s fame in anatomy, medicine, and surgery; and his odd departure from academe to serve foreign crowned heads in France and Spain. Second, it propels him forward on a journey to his friend’s grave on the Greek island of Zante (now Zakynthos), in an effort to comprehend why the notorious skeptic would have embarked on a religious pilgrimage in the first place. Jan realizes that he can forgive Vesalius almost everything, including the theft by marriage of his beloved Alice. But he is incapable of pardoning the bewildering manner of his death.

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Bewilderment

Powers, Richard

Last Updated: Dec-20-2021
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Science is a fundamental part of modern reality. It is used to explain the workings of the world around us and is instrumental in making that world a more hospitable place to live in. There are those who assert that there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion. They advocate considering science and religion as parallel but not intersecting ways to understand the place and purpose of human beings. What about science and art?  Or science and literature? Can they peacefully co-exist? Richard Powers is an author who has dedicated his literary career life to the proposition that they can.

In his latest book, Bewilderment, he examines the question whether neurobiology can help people achieve empathy, potentially even merge with another person. Theo is an astrobiologist, someone whose job is to explore the conditions on the many planets in the universe and to determine if they are able to support any form of life, but especially human life. The underlying premise is that there are bacteria, fungi, and animals that can live under very extreme circumstances on Earth. So even if other planets have different atmospheres, ambient temperature, water, or chemical elements, Earth should not be the only planet with life.

Theo’s wife, Alyssa, has recently died in a car accident and he is still grieving the loss. She was pregnant at the time, and the accident occurred when she lost control of her car when trying not to run over an animal on the road (more on this in a minute).  Theo has one son, Robin, who is very bright but on the autism spectrum with significant anger issues. The father and son are fiercely connected and share their lives; the early part of the book beautifully describes a camping trip that they take together. But Theo has his hands full with Robin. In order to avoid medicating his son, Theo enrolls him in an experimental program, Decoded Neurofeedback  (abbreviated DecNef, like any DARPA-sounding program). The experimental study will enable Robin to control his emotions better. This would be accomplished by capturing his mother’s brain waves in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The pattern of her neural activity, which reflected her intense love of animals and nature, would provide a template that could be channeled into her son using feedback methods. The objective of the experiment  is to convert Robin into a more sensitive child who is more attuned to the world around him. Robin is remarkably responsive to the sessions, more so than any other participant, and he becomes someone who has the same warmth and protective feelings towards animals and the environment as his mother. But funding for the project is terminated, Robin’s fMRI sessions stop, and he gradually reverts back to the child he was. There is a final twist. But I leave that to those who are motivated by this annotation to read the book.

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Nervous System

Meruane, Lina

Last Updated: Dec-13-2021
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Ella needs time for finishing her doctoral dissertation on black holes she has been writing for years and thinks an illness could provide the time: “Just enough to take one semester off, to not have to teach all those planetary sciences classes to so many distracted students whom she had to instruct evaluate forget immediately (p. 6). Before she can decide which illness would best suit her purposes, a mysterious illness finds her.
 A sudden cramp shoots down the spine and then, stillness... (p. 9)
An unbearable stinging had settled into her shoulder neck ember... (p. 10)
She felt an invisible wound wrapping her up and suffocating her... (p.10)
A slight numbness that starts in the shoulder and extends along the arm to the elbow until it reaches the back of her right hand, the fingers where it all started. (p. 12)
Inflammatio. In flames. En llamas. Ardor without romance. (p. 10)
Quickly, then, the story shifts from Ella’s dissertation odyssey to her diagnostic odyssey. As she makes her way along this journey during the first chapter, other characters come into the picture: El, Ella’s long-term boyfriend and forensic scientist, is one. The others in her family history are “the Father,” “the Mother,” “the Brother,” and “the Twins”—none are ever named (neither, really, is Ella or El because they are “she” and “he,” respectively in Spanish). Except for the Twins, each of the subsequent four chapters center on one of these characters and how they figure into the family history. Just as in the first chapter, the stories are told through and around the health challenges each character faced; all harrowing, many life-threatening, and some metaphorical.

Ever present in these histories is the story of Ella’s birth mother,“genetic Mother”. She died giving birth to Ella. Ella’s stepmother, “the Mother,” is called at different times, “the volunteer Mother,” “the replacement Mother,” and “the living Mother.” The Brother, alternatively known as “the Firstborn,” shares with Ella her birth mother and was born nine years before her. The Twins, known separately as “the Boy Twin” and “the Girl Twin,” came after the Father remarried. Another dimension shaping the stories is both the Father and the replacement Mother work as practicing physicians. 

Ella’s prominence in each chapter makes her our witness to El’s recovery after an explosion rips through his mass grave excavation site, and his many surgeries for separate gastrointestinal troubles; the Mother’s aggressive and brutal breast cancer treatment; the Firstborn’s recurring bone fractures (an “osseous enigma”); and the Father’s bleeding ulcers and life-threatening hemorrhagic complications from prostate surgery. 

The author, Lina Meruane, structured the book in a somewhat unconventional form. She delineates sections within each chapter with asterisks centered on the page (“***”), and these sections rarely comprise more than two paragraphs. Dialog is neither separated from other text nor signaled with quotation marks. The text moves back in forth in time, from here to there in place (presumably somewhere in South America), and sometimes takes the form of pensées rather than plot narrative. But, overall, the book moves towards resolving some mysteries surrounding family history.

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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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