Showing 11 - 20 of 790 Nonfiction annotations

Summary:

The Death of Innocents offers an unbelievable but true tale that fulfills the promise of its tagline: Murder, medicine, and high-stakes science. Following prosecutor Bill Fitzpatrick in Onondaga County, New York, journalists Richard Firstman and Jamie Talan unravel the tale of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, otherwise known as SIDS, in upstate New York in the 1970s. They first reveal the details of the case of Stephen Van Der Sluys, a father convicted of murdering his child for insurance money, establishing that parents don’t always have the best interests of their children at heart; this then lays the groundwork for the story of the successful prosecution of a mother whose children’s deaths had been considered as the basis for the theory of prolonged apnea as the cause of recurrent SIDS. With the prodding of Fitzpatrick, the prosecutor in nearby Tioga County then investigated and called in a slew of local and state investigators and national experts. Waneta Hoyt confessed to and was convicted of the murders, upending the research based on the prolonged sleep apnea theory, millions of dollars of NIH-funded research, and the careers of several research scientists. Although nurses and other pediatricians questioned Waneta’s maternal attachment and even suggested that the deaths were not natural, their voices went unheard. Politicians like Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan jumped onto a bandwagon led by parents angry that the federal government had not done more to find out why their babies had died without explanation. National conferences on SIDS were held where theories were expounded based on published cases starring the “H” children. And commercial interests entered the stage as apnea monitors, which had never been used at home, became an unproven (and lucrative) recommendation for parents to prevent SIDS.  

In addition to Waneta and Tim Hoyt and their five children (who ranged in age from 1 to 28 months) who were murdered between 1965-1971,  there is a cast of characters out of a Hollywood script. The leading player is Alfred Steinschneider, MD, PhD, a pediatrician and researcher at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. Others include Drs. Michael Baden, Milton Halpern, Janice Ophoven and Marie Valdes-Dapena. Pediatric luminaries such as Abe Bergman, Jerold Lucey, Frank Oski, and even T. Berry Brazelton played roles.

The book takes us through the story using court and medical records, interviews, television and audio recordings, conference notes, publications and other publically available information, some of which the authors painstakingly retrieved and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. We hear the sad story of Waneta and Tim, from high school sweethearts to life partners in rural poverty, and of their family members who tried to help but were often rebuffed. The story takes us to early pregnancy and early death, with inadequate evaluations, lack of autopsies or of more than cursory investigation, and wishes to not upset the Hoyts or their community with insinuations of murder. We hear about the years after the deaths, with the Hoyts’ attempts at adoption, mental health treatment and eventually their confession to heinous acts. We also hear about Steinschneider’s rise, fall and eventual ostracism by the medical community.

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Editing Humanity

Davies, Kevin

Last Updated: Jun-28-2022
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History of Medicine

Summary:

Editing Humanity explores the history, biology, sociology, and ethical import of CRISPR (“clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”), the major new DNA technology indicated in the book’s subtitle, “The CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing.”  Using CRISPR, researchers can manipulate the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. In particular, scientists now have the potential to customize the human genome.  

What is CRISPR? To quote Davies, “CRISPR is a small subsection of the bacterial genome that stores snippets of captured viral code for future reference, each viral fragment (or spacer) neatly separated by an identical repetitive DNA sequence.” (p. 23) When the cell is reattacked by a virus, an RNA copy of that virus’ stored “signature” forms a DNA-splitting complex that destroys the incoming virus. In 2012, Jennifer Doudna, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, of the Max Planck Institute, Berlin, demonstrated that CRISPR could be engineered to edit any gene. One could, for example, replace a disease-causing mutation in any DNA segment with the healthy variant, thus preventing genetic disease.  

The author, Kevin Davies is a geneticist and science writer whose previous books include Cracking the Genome and DNA: The Story of the Genetic Revolution.  In Editing Humanity, he discusses an array of actual and potential applications of CRISPR technology, including human disease prevention by altering susceptibility of animal vectors, improving farm productivity, and even resurrecting extinct species. However, the most powerful and controversial topic is genetic manipulation of the human embryo. Davies devotes several chapters to the cautionary tale of the young Chinese scientist He Jiankui who engineered the world’s first gene-edited babies, and the scandal and disgrace that followed. (He was convicted in China of “illegal medical practice” and sentenced to prison.)

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Crying in H Mart: A Memoir

Zauner, Michelle

Last Updated: Jun-23-2022
Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

While Michelle Zauner’s remarkable memoir is an expression of her profound grief after her mother died, her story simultaneously reflects on her complicated relationship with the woman she called Umma and with her own Korean-American identity. The H Mart of the title, an Asian grocery chain, provided the ingredients for the dishes that suffused their relationship, her identity, and her grief. Food and memory animate the memoir itself.  

Zauner was 25 when her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive late-stage, mid-life cancer. Also the only daughter of a white American father, Zauner was a rebellious child, resentful of Umma’s version of tough love. Growing up the lone Asian student in her Oregon community, she felt both othered at school and an outsider among her Seoul relatives. Just as she was beginning to appreciate her Korean heritage and understand her mother’s love, she learned about Umma’s diagnosis.  

The first half of the memoir exuberantly brings to life scenes from Zauner’s childhood and her brief post-college years in New York City, interrupted by her dedicated caregiving. Attempting to save her mother, Zauner at times overwhelmed her with her native foods. “I would radiate joy and positivity,” Zauner pledged. “I would learn to cook for her—all the things she loved to eat, and I would single-handedly keep her from withering away” (69). Her optimistic culinary efforts produce a poetry of exacting descriptions of the flavors and textures and preparation of those foods. It’s grimly ironic that the chemotherapy her mother endured wiped out her ability to taste or digest Zauner’s loving offerings of health.  

The second half turns from living with Umma to living without her. Wishing to sustain her bond with her mother as Zauner grieved, she continued to prepare her Korean family’s recipes. Walking down H Mart’s redolent isles generated “waves” of sorrow that mark the enduring ebb and flow of her grief. Unsuccessful with conventional therapy, she found cooking a preferable form of self-care. “Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory. Every scent and taste brought me back for a moment to an unravaged home. Knife-cut noodles in chicken broth took me back to lunch at Myeongdong Gyoja . . . The kalguksu so dense from the rich beef stock and starchy noodles it was nearly gelatinous. My mother ordering more and more refills of their famously garlic-heavy kimchi” (212-213). As if miraculously, a few years after Umma died, Zauner’s itinerant music career ignited. The band she has fronted, Japanese Breakfast, recorded an album, Psychopop (with a song she wrote about her mother, “In Heaven”). Then they toured the U.S. and South Korea. Although her mother was skeptical about a musical career, Zauner imagined that Umma would be “glad that I had finally found a place where I belonged” (233). 

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The Inkblots

Searls, Damion

Last Updated: Jun-14-2022
Annotated by:
Madsen, Danielle

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Damion Searls’ The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing is a comprehensive history of Rorschach’s life and an overview of the use and influence of his psychiatric test over the past century.

Rorschach grew up in Switzerland, the son of a widowed middle school art teacher who would die while Rorschach was a teenager after suffering from years from neurological disease caused by lead paint exposure. Rorschach debates whether to study drawing and become a teacher or attend medical school and pursue a career in neurology. The book follows his career across three countries after choosing to do the latter, until he becomes a practicing psychiatrist at a rural Swiss institution. It traces his psychiatric influences—Bleuler and then Jung as professors while at the University of Zurich and Freud via their influence—as well as his artistic ones—Ernst Haeckel, the pre-modernist galleries of Zurich, then Russian Futurism. It also provides an overview of the field of psychiatry at the time: schizophrenia was considered an unremittable condition named dementia praecox, psychiatric institutions included patients with tertiary syphilis, and increasing neurologic knowledge and psychiatric techniques improved diagnostics but not treatments.

The earliest inkblots of Rorschach’s are temporary creations made with a local schoolteacher and administered to patients and pupils, formulated as one of dozens of strategies to gain insight into people. Rorschach’s patients see much in these inkblots, but the schoolboys little, and the experiment is abandoned. He returns to the idea a decade later, with greater stress placed on the image. He requires that they look organic rather than made, imply movement, and have multiple foreground/background interpretations. After creating a set of ten products, he starts to categorize results. He codes whether the answers are seen in the whole image or a detail; whether they are based on form, color, or movement; whether the figures seen in the image are well- or poorly-defined; and how many and what category of answers are seen. The coded results enable Rorschach to give accurate blind diagnoses and he begins to gain traction in psychiatric community. However, he dies before his inkblots become popular.

The book follows the test as it travels to America and gains acclaim with psychologists. It is used in clinic and hospitals and becomes a standard part of psychology training. The inkblots are part of military personnel assessments and scientific studies. They are referenced in criminal trials and family court. They are applied in anthropology and education. They show up on movie posters and in fashion shows and become a household name. As it details these broad applications, the book explains the battle over how the test should be given and whether analysis of the results should be open-ended interpretation or a standardized scoring method. It also details society’s constantly shifting belief as to whether psychological testing is a valid diagnostic tool.  

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Summary:

In this age of intellectual sub-sub-sub-specialization, it would be unfair to say that people have completely abandoned grand narratives in their discipline. There are still brave souls who are willing to take on the big picture and try to synthesize what is known in their field as well as allied areas into a cohesive all-encompassing story. Stephen Pinker is a prominent example of someone who has leveraged his expertise in psychology and linguistics to fashion upbeat histories of humanity. But it would be fair to say that it is unusual to encounter a book that takes on the world and confidently asserts, “I think you have it all wrong.” To possibly be correct in the claim would be rarer still. This book by Graeber and Wengrow falls squarely into that small category.

The book has a bittersweet back story that only adds to its appeal. It represents the result of a decade long collaboration between Graebner, an anthropologist, and Wengrow, an archeologist. It originally started as pure academic fun between two colleagues but quickly escalated into a serious dialogue that culminated in a book with 83 pages of notes and a 63-page bibliography. Sadly, Graeber died unexpectedly at age 59 of necrotizing pancreatitis shortly after completing the work and did not live to see its publication.

The book has attracted a great deal of attention because it takes on the accepted grand narrative of human development, namely, a linear evolution from a primordial state of innocence and equality to a society in which hierarchy and inequality are hard wired into existence. The key step in this transition is the move from small groups of hunter-gatherers to agriculture-based groups that gradually grew in size and became more centralized in structure. This resulted in the prioritization of private property and the consolidation of the population into cities that mandated top-down control. Regardless of whether you invoke Rousseau as your intellectual guide or Hobbes as your rationalization for a powerful sovereign state, the traditional view is that you will reach the same endpoint, the loss of equality. Graebner and Wengrow challenge this “myth.” Their operational method is to examine the scientifically sophisticated data that have been gathered by archeologists from prehistoric sites around the world. They conclude that the prevailing view shortchanges human inventiveness in framing how people have chosen to live and undermines our freedom to reconsider the way society is organized. As an example of the scope and originality of the book, in the second chapter, they argue that this Enlightenment notion of “noble savages” and steady linear progress may have arisen among the French intelligentsia in the 18th century in response to the interaction of North American Indians with the French in the New World. Heady stuff that you thought you would not have to think about after college.

The book is loaded with facts and details about burial grounds, temples, houses, and playing fields that archeologists and anthropologists use as the ground truth in their work. They document how there was great variability and fluidity in social structure over course of the year in prehistoric times, demonstrating that though men and women could not control their environment they could do their best to adapt by alternating between planting and food gathering before there were “farms.”  In contrast to the view that agricultural groups, with their need for defined plots of land, created the notion of private ownership, they cite real world evidence from places as far flung as Poverty Point in Louisiana to the Australian Western Desert that the sacred realm was the origin of individual possession. They contrast in great detail the lifestyles of communities living along the west coast of North America, in the region from Washington State to northern California. The evidence is clear that while the northern communities were hunter gatherers, patriarchal, more warlike, and more ostentatious, those in the south were characterized by a less showy land-based public sphere and a more peaceful demeanor that was reflected in a greater role of women in defining the activities of daily living and social structure. The communities were not isolated and had contact with one another, underscoring the fact that the ways of life were active choices and not passive default modes. The start of farming was gradual over thousands of years and was not a revolutionary change, and prehistoric communities could switch their mode of sustenance in the face of changing circumstances.

I will not have to take a final examination on the book so I cannot say that I can repeat the names of all the Amerindian communities living in middle America along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers or recount the details of all the artifacts of and rites performed by the Mesoamerican civilizations. Graebner and Wengrow discuss an incredible number and variety of archeological sites throughout Eurasia and Africa, in addition to those in the New World, so I have to take the authors’ recitation of the facts on faith. I am sure that some of their interpretation is open to question by experts in the fields. But Graebner and Wengrow will certainly get you thinking.

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

After 65 years of marriage, two life-partners face the prospect of final separation, as one of them develops multiple myeloma. This is the crisis that led Irvin Yalom, eminent psychiatrist, novelist, and pioneer of existential psychotherapy, and his wife Marilyn, acclaimed feminist author and historian, to collaborate in writing the story of their journey through Marilyn’s final months of life. In the resulting book, Irvin and Marilyn write alternating chapters until Marilyn becomes unable to write. After her death, Irvin continues with the story of his bereavement.  

Marilyn’s chapters include reflections on love and illness, ranging from Emily Dickinson and Henry James to Paul the Apostle. She frequently expresses her gratitude: “I can still talk, read, and answer my emails. I am surrounded by loving people in a comfortable and attractive home.” (p. 20) Most of all, she is thankful for her husband, “the most loving of caretakers.” (p. 15) Yet, as her disease progresses, she comes “to the understanding that I would never be the same again—that I would pass through days of unspeakable misery while my body would decline and weaken.” (p. 76) She decides to pursue the option of physician-assisted suicide, which is legal in California, when her suffering becomes overwhelming.  

In his chapters, Irvin resists this decision, maintaining hope for additional “good” life, despite all evidence to the contrary. Near the end, Marilyn’s pain and other symptoms become so severe that she cries out, “It’s time, Irv. It’s time. No more, please. No more.” (p. 139) Her physician arrives, confirms her intention, and surrounded by her whole family, Marilyn sucks the liquid through a straw and quietly passes away.

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Summary:

In Sweden, hundreds of children lie unconscious for months or even years in their homes or hospitals. Full neurologic evaluation, including MRIs, EEGs, and other studies reveal no abnormalities.  None of these children are Swedish. They are immigrants from the Near East or former Soviet republics, whose families are seeking permanent asylum in Sweden. If asylum is granted, the children gradually recover. Neurologists have named this mysterious illness “resignation syndrome” and classified it a functional neurological disorder.  

Suzanne O’Sullivan, an Irish neurologist, set out in 2018 to study children suffering from resignation syndrome, a project that led her to investigate other outbreaks of mysterious illness around the world. In The Sleeping Beauties, O’Sullivan discusses many such disorders, ranging from grisi siknis in Nicaragua (convulsions and visual hallucinations) to a form of sleeping sickness in Kazakhstan. These disorders have several features in common: absence of findings on medical and psychiatric tests, contagiousness (i.e. they seem to spread rapidly among populations in close contact), and significant morbidity.  

Dr. O’Sullivan notes “there is a disconnect between the way mass psychogenic disease is defined and discussed by the small number of experts who study it and how it is understood outside those circles.” (p. 257) The public finds reports of such illnesses difficult to believe. In the United States, we tend to believe that such illness, if it exists at all, occurs only in “backward” cultures and not in our enlightened society. On the contrary, the author presents “Havana syndrome,” as a case of mass psychogenic disease that first appeared among American diplomats in the Cuban capital in 2016. No consistent brain abnormalities have ever been found, and extensive study has ruled-out the possibility of a sonic weapon.  Dr. O’Sullivan believes that Havana syndrome is very likely a functional neurologic disorder occurring against “a background of chronic tensions within a close-knit community.” (p. 257)

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History of Medicine

Summary:

The Invention of Medicine is both a scholarly history of early Greek medicine and a compelling mystery story. The “From Homer to Hippocrates” discussion (about 70 pages) is merely a prelude to the author’s main project, which is a careful analysis of the books attributed to Hippocrates of Cos. As a group, they have been associated with Hippocrates at least since the scholar Baccheios of Alexandra, writing in the 280s BCE, attributed them to him. The Roman physician Galen (about 170 CE) considered them products of a Hippocratic “school,” but believed they were written by many different authors, including in some cases, the great Hippocrates himself.  

The book’s highpoint is the author’s carefully reasoned hypothesis that the historical Hippocrates wrote the texts we now know as books 1 and 3 of the Epidemics, based on his practice experience in Thasos between 471 and 467 BCE. Other parts of the Epidemics were written by physicians up to several generations later who emulated Hippocrates’ naturalistic approach. The works identified as the “Hippocratic corpus” were grouped together as early as the 280s BCE as representing the school of Hippocrates because of their naturalistic, pragmatic, and ethical contents,  

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The Urge: Our History of Addiction, by Carl Erik Fisher, a psychiatrist, is really two books in one.  It is a comprehensive history of addiction from ancient times to the present day.  It is also a memoir of the author’s own struggle with addiction and an attempt “to understand how I went from being a newly minted physician in a psychiatry residency program…to a psychiatric patient” (p.ix).  

Fisher has grown up with two alcoholic parents.  Even as his mother’s drinking “suppresses her blood counts and causes her to miss the chemo sessions I have worked so hard to arrange” (p. 294), she does not stop.  Fisher’s own first drink, in high school, is a revelation.  He blows his interview for his first-choice college when he shows up late and hung over. His intelligence enables him to get by, but eventually the problem catches up with him as he begins to use Adderall and marijuana to counteract the effects of alcohol.  After sleeping through and missing his residency orientation, he is under scrutiny.  Finally, he has a drug-induced manic episode that results in his being tasered by the police, and he is forced into treatment.    

In the historical sequences of the book, we discover that one of the oldest known examples of addiction is found as far back as the Rig Veda (1000 BC).  From there we move through time, learning how Native American populations were devastated by alcohol, how Alcoholics Anonymous achieved prominence, and about the multiple challenges that persist to the present day. 

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Five years into writing about her mother’s slow decline from a respiratory illness, Joanne Jacobson was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening blood disease. That discovery dissolved the illusion that she and her mother had separate fates. “How could I continue writing about my mother as though I were observing her from outside the circle of Illness?” Jacobson asks (27). She can’t. And Every Last Breath becomes, as its subtitle discloses, “A Memoir of Two Illnesses.” Doubling its concern, Jacobson’s memoir in essays becomes a richer, more urgent, and ironic revision of her original project.  

With writerly attentiveness, perceptive intelligence, and some impatience, the four opening essays witness the negotiations that Florence Jacobson makes with her body, her environment, and her psyche. From a distanced perspective, Jacobson wonders at her mother’s courage and stubborn animal will to go on. Her mother’s slow pace and reluctance to let go—of her possessions, her habits, her life—initially frustrate and puzzle Jacobson. She even expresses impatience with the constant sound of her mother’s oxygen pump filling the apartment, the inconvenient bulk of the oxygen canister, the tangles of tubing connecting the machine with her mother’s nostrils. 

 As Jacobson’s diagnosis closes the distance she perceived between herself and her mother, it ignites the memoir’s transformative insight. It’s first articulated at the end of the essay titled “Mirror Writing” and it sustains the rest of the memoir. Realizing that her mother might outlive her, Jacobson writes: “. . . I can no longer pretend that the ragged approach of death is likely to be smoothed by nature’s grace, or by the natural order. So long as I believed I was writing about my mother, I was able to hold mortality at a distance . . . Now in the mirror of my mother’s aging face I see myself” (29). In “Dead Reckoning,” when Jacobson learns that her blood is starved for oxygen, she hears her “own lungs fall into the thrumming motor’s pulse” of her mother’s respirator. Revising her response to the technology, she writes that it is “the sound of death being pushed mechanically away that is audible to me now—steadily asserting its nearness . . .” (63-4). Jacobson’s descriptions of her hospitalizations and treatments (“Written in Blood,” “If My Disease Were an Animal”) take her on solo flights toward her new understanding of herself and the “call to the imagination” that her experience issues (59). Jacobson’s elegant and vulnerable rendering of her efforts to survive pain, uncertainty, and terrifying treatments register her own courage and will to go on.  

The final essays bring the shared destinies of daughter and mother together. Jacobson thinks of them as “invisibly entwined, cellular,” as she recalls that mothers’ bodies can absorb their fetuses’ cells (88). In “Book of Names,” Jacobson’s closing essay, she and her mother read out the names in Florence’s heavily edited address book, tracking the alterations in the circumstances of those whose lives she’s shared. It invokes the lists in Genesis. Begotten. Then gone.

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