Showing 11 - 20 of 779 Nonfiction annotations

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

The Graduate is a movie classic from what seems like a bygone era. It is accompanied by great music by Simon and Garfunkel and has one of the most famous one-word lines in cinema history. When Benjamin Braddock is wandering aimlessly around the pool at a graduation party thrown in his honor, a friend of his parents asks him what he plans to do with his post-collegiate life. Another family friend jumps in and volunteers, “Plastics.” There are many who will also give a one-word answer to any medical school graduate searching for a career – Genetics.

In this important new book,  Kathryn Harden provides staunch support for the key role of genetics in health, disease, and in human well-being. She provides a remarkably clear primer on genetics in accessible language. Harden begins with statistical issues like the normal distribution and Bayesian priors. In her capable intellectual hands, she uses analogies that effectively move the teaching agenda forward. With recipes as a framing image for genetics, she demonstrates the relationship between the coding material in the DNA nucleotide sequence and the actual building blocks, namely the proteins that do the heavy lifting inside cells. Concepts like genetic recombination, linkage disequilibrium, and monogenic versus polygenic disorders are introduced and make perfect sense. She then builds on this foundation to consider genome-wide association studies (GWAS) which represent the powerful tool that has been introduced to explore the relationship between genetic endowment and health. That is where things start getting complicated.

When people think of medical genetics, they usually have classical Mendelian disorders in mind. They are caused by mutations in a single gene that disrupts a protein pivotal to normal health. Examples are sickle cell disease, hemophilia A, or muscular dystrophy. However, many health problems like hypertension that are associated with significant global disease burden are polygenic. This means that they are caused by less dramatic mutations in a number of genes that in the aggregate lead to the disease.  Harden details how quantitative assessment of the contribution of these minor variations in a large array of discrete genes enables the formulation of polygenic risk scores (PRS) for these conditions. These measures provide estimates of susceptibility to developing other polygenic conditions like obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

As a psychologist, Harden’s work focuses on the application of PRS to non-medical aspects of human behavior such as impulsivity, attentiveness, job satisfaction, and executive function. The waters remain relatively calm until Harden’s fellow psychologists venture into the realm of educational achievement and lifetime income status. Harden methodically reviews relevant studies that have been done with siblings, twins, adoptees, and family trios. She dissects them and highlights when investigators have misinterpreted their data. There is a steady drumbeat of data, almost too much at times. But the overall consensus that emerges is that PRS and other measures of heritability continue to show a genetic component for these psychosocial outcomes in large population studies. The challenge that Harden raises is how to incorporate this knowledge about genetics into a better understanding of these aspects of human behavior and if and how to address abnormal manifestations.

Questions remain concerning how genetics “causes” these changes and how to interpret the findings. What is determinative? Is it genetics i.e., nature, or is it all environment i.e., nurture? There are those, like Harden, who advocate for thoughtful analysis and utilization of all the GWAS data. She highlights the difference between use of PRS to assess outcomes within populations versus between populations. In sharp contrast, there are others who resist  the introduction of genetics into psychology. Pointing to the sordid history of eugenics and its degeneration into the creation of racial hierarchies, the opponents of the Harden’s work dismiss it as unscientific at best and destructive at worst. Harden makes a compelling case for the validity of the science and a spirited defense of the thoughtful use of genetics dismiss it as unscientific at best and morally repugnant at worst.

Harden provides a strong defense of the science and statistical methods and offers a spirited argument that without acknowledging the role of genetics in human achievement, society will be unable to thoughtfully address inequalities and restore balance. Her work touches on many other pressing issues including human autonomy, agency, freewill and the role of government intervention. She outlines a social agenda that acknowledges the importance of genetics as a contributing factor. But it incorporates a recognition that its distribution in the population is solely a matter of luck and does not serve as the basis for a hierarchy of human worth. I leave it to readers to judge for themselves the validity of her proposals, but her commitment to making this world a better place is not in question.

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Summary:

Sarah Leavitt’s graphic memoir, Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, narrates and vividly illustrates the pain and difficulty of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Leavitt’s memoir shares her family’s experiences nursing their mother, Midge Leavitt, for six years following her diagnosis at the early age of 52. “I created this book,” Leavitt explains, “to remember her as she was before she got sick, but also to remember her as she was during her illness, the ways in which she was transformed and the way in which parts of her endured” (Leavitt 1). The memoir’s spare, black-and-white panels trace her mother’s deterioration from the first, seemingly innocuous symptoms (such as misremembering conversations and forgetting to unplug an iron) to the debilitating and tragic manifestations of Alzheimer’s, such as confusion, behavioral changes, aphasia, and ultimately, the inability to recognize loved ones. As greatly painful as these experiences were for Leavitt, she singles out from the murk and monotony of caregiving moments that inspire laughter, introspection, and gratitude. Early one morning, Leavitt’s mother wakes her to admire a fresh, “glittering” snowfall (86). On another occasion, Leavitt illustrates a rainstorm. Instead of keeping dry, her mother wants to stand in the downpour: “So finally we let go of her. She stuck out her tongue to taste the rain” (78). For Leavitt, humor brings, if not understanding, comfort when the stifling presence of her mother’s suffering goes momentarily unfelt. Caregiving also stirs recollections about her mother’s personality. Leavitt remembers, for instance, her mother’s love of Granny Smith apples: “She ate the core and stem and everything, crunching loudly” (23). She remembers her mother’s love of nature, “. . . plants, worms, rocks, soil. She did not seem separate from it as most people did” (93). Her mother also adores the poetry of E. E. Cummings and Robert Frost and Aretha Franklin’s music. Leavitt does not allow suffering to efface her mother’s personality, providing a poignantly moving account of how caregiving shapes memory and deepens family love in unexpected ways.

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Summary:

Inspired by Stephen J. Gould’s study of Samuel Morton in The Mismeasure of Man, Christa Kuljian’s Darwin’s Hunch traces the story of the search for human origins while apartheid was taking hold of South Africa in the mid 20th century. Following the work of Charles Darwin, biologists and anthropologists of the 19th and 20th centuries were captivated by comparative anatomy, human classification, and the origins of mankind. Kuljian begins her book with the very origin of racialized thought in science: the distinction between monogenism and polygenism. These two schools of thought in the 18th and 19th centuries sought to explain the existence of human difference; the former arguing that all races stemmed from a single ancestor and the latter arguing that different races emanated from different species. Physicians and scientists were at the center of this discourse, creating names for different racial categories while debating whether races were different species in and of themselves. Eventually, well-known physicians and anthropologists created tools to measure anatomical differences between racial groups. Kuljian centers her book on the studies of the physicians and scientists who contributed to academic discourse, including Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Robert Bloom, Raymond Dart, Hertha DeVilliers, and Phillip Tobias among others.   

In the search for the “missing link” between man and animal, South Africa became a living laboratory. Paleontologists, physicians, anthropologists and the like began a search for living fossils after the discovery of the Taung Skull by Raymond Dart. This discovery birthed the search for human origins in South Africa. For many scientists at the time, the living fossil was not only physical evidence of human evolution, but also supporting evidence for presupposed ideas about racial difference, and so “the most interesting specimens [became] the natives”. South African researchers like Robert Broom, Raymond Dart, and Phillip Tobias, among many others, began projects to study the anatomies of the Bantu, Khoikhoi, and other native people of South Africa. Some researchers embarked on expeditions to Bantustans, reserves that segregated the native population, and measured living native communities, others studied “skeletons from graves”, and still others examined “unclaimed bodies from South African hospitals”. 

The focus of this work in many ways was also a search for a pure racial type. These studies aimed to quantify racial differences by measuring the “brain size, skull shape, facial features, skin colour, hair texture and bone length” of native people. Other studies were reminiscent of previous investigations of difference, such as the objectification of Sarah Baartman, in that “Dart gave special attention to the external genitalia… and the accumulation of fat on many of the females’ buttocks”.  

Kuljian also traces the political history that coincides with this race for human origins by discussing the progression of the apartheid state of South Africa. Jan Smuts, who would later become Prime Minister of South Africa during the time of Dart’s early investigations, was also the president of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science which institutionally funded and supported the search for human origins. He continued supporting this research into his prime ministry, as increasingly “race [became] a national neurosis in South Africa”. 
 

In this captivating look at the personal stories of researchers, their sociopolitical context, as well as the stories of the people they studied, Kuljian dives into the tension between personal beliefs and scientific practice. She examines how bias, politics, and institutions shaped investigations into the search for human origins. 

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One Friday in April

Antrim, Donald

Last Updated: Feb-08-2022
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

As One Friday in April opens, we find Donald Antrim in an agitated state on the roof of his Brooklyn apartment building.  He paces, and alternately climbs down the fire escape, hangs from the railing, and lies on his stomach peering over the ledge.  Repeated outpatient courses of psychotropic medication and psychotherapy have done only so much for his deteriorating mental state, and the situation has come to a head. Disheveled and wild-looking, he manages to return home whereupon his friends take him to a psychiatric hospital.  

A MacArthur Fellow and author of several acclaimed novels, Antrim has previously published a memoir of his upbringing with his alcoholic mother.  In this new memoir, flashbacks of childhood neglect and chaos are juxtaposed with the present day as he takes the reader through the acute phase of his illness:  a lengthy hospitalization, a course of ECT, discharge from the hospital, rehospitalization, and eventual stabilization.   

The author considers his condition to be suicide, noting that “depression is a concavity, a sloping downward and a return.  Suicide, in my experience, is not that.  I believe that suicide is a natural history, a disease process, not an act or a choice, a decision or a wish…I will refer to suicide, not depression” (pp. 14-15).  

The book ends on a hopeful note. After several relationships that might be described as codependent, Antrim meets his current partner, whom he marries.  He sees the roof of his building through his window and remembers a certain Friday in April but is comforted by the sound of his wife playing Chopin and Bach on the piano.  

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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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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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