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The Anatomy Lesson

Siegal, Nina

Last Updated: Jul-31-2018
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


In 1632, at the age of only 26, Rembrandt finished a large (85.2 in × 66.7 in) oil painting that was destined to become one of his best known works and certainly one of the linchpins in the nexus between the graphic arts and the medical humanities. "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" depicts the dissection of the flexor tendons of the left arm of a cadaver by the eponymous doctor while an attentive audience of his peers, identifiable members of the medical and anatomical community of early 17th century Amsterdam, looks on. Nina Siegal's novel tells her imagined back story of this richly illustrated anatomy lesson which, once you read her captivating novel, will make you ask yourself, as I did, why no one has thought fit to do so heretofore.

Using multiple first person narrators, Siegal examines the characters (some historical, others wholly fictional) and events leading up to the anatomy lesson and Rembrandt's artistic rendering of it. Inventing a life for Aris Kindt (born Adriaen  Adriaenszoon), the historically real career criminal whose recently judicial hanging provides the body we see in the painting, Siegal provides him with Flora, a lover who is carrying his illegitimate child at the time of his public - and quite raucous - hanging. Growing up in Leiden, in the same neighborhood as Flora and Rembrandt himself, Kindt was the physically and emotionally abused son of a leather worker and, in Siegal's imagination, a petty but persistent thief hanged for his inveterate and irremediable life of crime. As was the custom of the day, his body was legally assigned to an anatomist for public dissection. With a non-linear narrative, organized into brief chapters entitled for body parts, Siegal traces the beginnings of three of the protagonists - Kindt, Flora, and Rembrandt. She constructs  how their lives intersect not only before, during and after the hanging, but also in more philosophical strokes, namely the medical, theological and artistic tapestry on which this image rests. There are several minor characters, like Tulp and his family; Jan Fetchet, the "famulus" responsible for securing and preparing Kindt's body immediately following the hanging; and even René Descartes, who seems to have been in town during this momentous occasion pursuing his own polymathic research, which included anatomy at the time.  Siegal adds a few reports dictated by a fictional modern- day conservator offering her interpretation of many of the details of Rembrandt's masterpiece, details that serve to highlight aspects of Siegal's narrative, such as the possible artistic re-implantation of Kindt's amputated right hand.

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In this remarkable anthology, 51 women and men describe their nursing school experiences, from initial fears and anxieties to increasing confidence and appreciation of the profession.  Jeanne Bryner, in her Introduction, explains how she and Cortney Davis deliberately sought a diverse group of nurse-writers, from recent nursing graduates in their twenties to seasoned veterans in their nineties.  Their collection includes different races, nationalities, social and economic classes, and education levels.  What the contributors have in common besides being nurses is that they are gifted writers able to capture in poetry or prose the transforming moments of their lives. Nursing students reading this anthology will recognize many kindred souls, struggling with the same uncertainties and apprehensions, wondering how they will ever accomplish all this, but also gaining command of the profession, relishing its special rewards, valuing patients as their ultimate teachers. All readers will understand what is so special about nursing .

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Haneke, Michael

Last Updated: Jul-10-2018
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film


The film enters late into the lives of Anne and Georges, a Parisian couple apparently in their 80s, apparently long married, and apparently retired music teachers. Maybe they still teach music, and maybe they still play, based on the important place a grand piano is given in the grand living room of their apartment. Their daughter, Eva, is a working musician and is married to one as well. When Georges and Anne sit together in the living room, the controls to the stereo system are never more than an arm’s length away. This family is serious about music; they love music. But, their love of music is not the love of the movie title, “Amour.” Amour is the love between Anne and Georges, and the forms this love takes. 

We first see the amour of Georges and Anne in their quotidian activities. They eat breakfast together at the small table in the cramped kitchen. They sit across from one another—or one of them lies down on the adjacent couch—and read to each other from the paper or talk about various subjects, like music. They have been doing this for decades, and probably would for decades more, but that isn’t likely, and we see why soon. 

While having their breakfast one morning, Anne becomes unresponsive to Georges while looking him straight in the eye. She eventually comes to and goes about her business as if nothing happened and doesn’t know what Georges is talking about when he describes the incident. She probably had a transient ischemic attack—a warning that a stroke may be coming—and as a result, had surgery to clear an occlusion from her carotid artery to prevent a stroke from actually occurring. However, something goes wrong in the hospital and Anne suffers a stroke there nevertheless. She returns home with some paralysis on her right side. The form of amour changes. Now the quotidian activities involve Georges administering care to Anne: he sees to her toilet, washes her hair, cuts her food, reads her newspaper articles, and helps her walk from one spot to another in the apartment when he’s not pushing her in a wheelchair. During a moment when Georges and Anne are in their customary chairs in the living room, Georges says to her, “I’m so pleased to have you back.” To which Anne responds, “Please never take me back to the hospital, promise?” 

But when Anne has another stroke, Georges takes her back to the hospital. She returns home having lost most of her ability to move at all, she can only eat or drink with considerable difficulty even with assistance, she can’t communicate verbally to any extent, and she wets herself. Georges adds feeding her and exercising her arms and legs to his established routines of bathing her, reading to her, and telling her stories. Amour has taken the shape of getting her through the days with great effort and later with help from nurses. 

Anne wants no more of her life despite Georges’ efforts and pleas. His daughter argues with him about the care her mother needs. The nurses can’t administer care to Anne in a way he expects. Anne does not want her daughter to see her as she is. She cries out for her own mother. She won’t take water or food. She is in pain. Georges is left with only options that test the extreme boundaries of amour.

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This entertaining and wide-ranging book discusses the importance of the human foot and many related topics. There are five alliteratively named chapters.  

1. Destiny

Drawing on anthropological research, Rinzler discusses the deep history of humans and their primate ancestors. Our bipedalism—our upright stance—preceded our large brain, making possible a larger diet and working well with our bodies as they evolved away from other primates. She discusses the idealized ratios of Leonardo’s Vitruvian man. Leonardo considered our foot as “a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art” (p. 6).  

2. Disability
Rinzler discusses historical senses of disability, notably clubfoot. She mentions various people with a clubfoot:  Joseph Goebbels, Sir Walter Scott, King Tut, Cludius I, Dudly Moore, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Mia Hamm; the last are two successful athletes. Rinzler reviews the history of surgical approaches, many of which were harmful. X-ray and sonography provided new insights, and genetics may have further promise, given that families and ethnic groups often have higher instances of clubfoot.  

3. Difference
This chapter describes the anatomy of the foot, bones, arches, tendons, and on as well as artistic representations and, of course, ballet and other forms of dance. A footprint is as individual as the much-used fingerprint. In Nazism and the American south, a flat foot was discriminated against as Jewish or Negro. Various treatments have been proposed for flat feet.  

4. Diet
Gout has been known since antiquity, but only in modern times has the underlying biochemistry and, now, genetic heritage been understood. The chapter mentions many famous names of people who suffered from gout. rheumatism, or corns. The closing pages discuss pharmaceutical approaches.  

5. Desire
The foot as sexual symbol: Rinzler discuss folklore (Cinderella’s slipper), pheromones, and Biblical topics: God’s feet, footwashing, and feet as symbols for sex and urination. Foot fetishism can be understood in terms of the lavish sensory innervation that links to our brain. Discussion mentions the bound feet of China, the folktale The Red Shoes, also Fifty Shades of Grey, Sex and the City, and Judy Garland’s red shoes in The Wizard of Oz

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Citing numerous studies that might be surprising to both lay and professional readers, Dr. Rakel makes a compelling case for the efficacy of empathic, compassionate, connective behavior in medical care.  Words, touch, body language, and open-ended questions are some of the ways caregivers communicate compassion, and they have been shown repeatedly to make significant differences in the rate of healing. The first half of the book develops the implications of these claims; the second half offers instruction and insight about how physicians and other caregivers can cultivate practices of compassion that make them better at what they do.  

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joy: 100 poems

Wiman, Christian

Last Updated: Jun-12-2018
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Anthology (Mixed Genres)


"joy: 100 poems," edited by poet and editor Christian Wiman, is a collection of 100 poems that examine, in various ways, the state of consciousness we call "joy."  The poets represented here are for the most part well known, as are many of their poems.  But, happily, there are poems here that seem new, especially when viewed through the lens of "joy." 

A brief list of the poets, chosen at random, includes Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, Lucille Clifton, Josephine Miles, Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, Sharon Olds, Wallace Stevens, Yehuda Amichai, W.B. Yeats, Stanley Kunitz, and Thom Gunn.  Poems, again chosen at random, include "Plumbing" (Ruth Stone), "Tractor" (Ted Hughes), Laundromat" (Lorine Niedecker), and "Unrelenting Flood" (William Matthews)--titles that at first glance might not suggest "joy."

The book begins with an excellent twenty-eight page introduction by Wiman in which he discusses the various shades of joy we might encounter in our lives, examines closely some of the poems represented, and briefly comments on his selection process. 

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Alpha: Abidjan to Paris


Last Updated: Jun-04-2018
Annotated by:
Natter, Michael

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Graphic Memoir


Alpha is part graphic novel, part heartbreaking memoir of cabinetmaker Alpha Coulibaly. It chronicles the story of a man on a journey to find his family and a better life, but his story could easily apply to the tens of thousands others who are seeking refuge. This is the painful tale of the refugee journey.

Alpha is from Cote d’Ivoire, Africa. The book is written in first person, in a manner as if the reader and Alpha are sitting together at a coffeeshop, as a family member or dear friend would recant their trials and tribulations to a trusted confidant. The text is blunt, matter of fact, but also painfully deep and poetic.

We learn about Alpha’s desire to reconnect with his family, whom he believes made it to Paris and to his sister-in-laws salon. He explains the futile process of attempting to go through the government sanctioned means of gaining access to other countries, which proves to be impossible. The only remaining option is to attempt to steal away by paying smugglers to help him cross border after border. This means long trips in overcrowded vans, treks by foot, and even precarious watercrafts. The journey is harrowing, and soul crushing. Death is looming around every bend, whether by illness, dehydration during these long, crowded desert drives, or by the hand of crooked armed border guards. Days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and eventually years. Many perish in their journey, but Alpha remains steadfast in his commitment to find his child and wife despite the unfavorable odds. He endures death of fellow refugees, friends, and children. He is forced to live in slums in each new country he enters and work laborious odd jobs to pay off smuggler after shady smuggler at each never ending leg of his journey. This is a tale of the many who are treated like unwanted pieces of trash, balled up and thrown into slums, labeled as “illegal immigrants,” and all so they can have the chance of a better life for them, and for their families.

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Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry


The Cardiologist's Daughter offers readers a mélange of memories, retelling through poetry how the poet's mixed heritage (East Indian and Dutch) fused into her unique identity-- as a naturopath daughter of an M.D. father and R.N. mother. The strongest poems in this collection are about her relationship with her father-- as the title suggests. But other poems about her interest in science, growing up in the southern states of the United States, and other relationships-- with teachers, friends, other relatives, nicely fill out this collection.

The opening poem, The Cardiologist's Daughter Returns Home, recounts her father's heart attack, ending with these lines: "The bypass cannot/be bypassed and in returning/life, there will be death and/with it, tissue upon/tissue blooming/the rows as rose/a garden of flesh/raising a bed/of stitches (11)."  Later in the volume, she recalls how, in Once, a father, the crook of his arm,  her father plays with her after work: "After the heart patients clear, he swaps stethoscope/for the necklace of his daughter, stocking legs/looping his throat, as she, on his shoulders/steals second supper: curry potatoes,/basmati rice, cucumber yogurt from his plate (27)."  In How We Sketch the Departed, a poem about the death of her Dutch grandfather who " commanded thousands/of conifers for his Dutch nursery (47)", she recounts first the death of a butterfly: "That night the butterfly scorched /in the woodstove due to inattention, mine/and the butterfly's. Flame sputtered as smoke/formed a pillow for the insect's final sleep-- black/smearing the azure that lined its wings (45)."

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The author is a pediatric oncologist who grew up in the United States, went to medical school in Israel, returned to the United States for fellowship and to begin practice, and then, feeling unsettled both personally and professionally, moved to Israel for a “dream job” opportunity and out of a deep sense of belonging.  The twelve chapters of this book catalogue Dr. Waldman’s journey along both domains, the personal and the professional.  We get to meet his patients, children drawn from the various constituent populations of Israel:  Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, religious and secular. 

Each chapter tells the story of a patient (or two), framed within a brief narrative of the history, religious aspects, and geopolitical vagaries of the city of Jerusalem as well as the nation.   The simultaneous and chronologically coherent narrative thread of the book is the author’s growth into his job, his interactions with the realities of present-day Israeli government and society, his exposure to and subsequent decision to devote himself to pediatric palliative care, and ultimately the career decisions he has to make.  

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From Fish to Philosopher

Smith, Homer

Last Updated: May-17-2018
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


Most students of biology are well aware of our humble beginnings as puny, single-celled lifeforms. The mechanism of our remarkable transformation was famously described by Charles Darwin in his groundbreaking text On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. In many respects, Darwin’s magnum opus was just the opening chapter of a much broader discussion of how we humans have taken our current form. Darwin elucidated only a general process of adaptation and evolution in the face of environmental pressures. He left his successors with the more onerous task of applying this rule to the tortuous history of human evolution.

Rising to the occasion nearly a full century later was Homer Smith, a prominent kidney physiologist who spent much of his life and career as the Director of Physiological Laboratories at the NYU School of Medicine. Dr. Smith shares his account of our evolutionary history in his 1953 book From Fish to Philosopher. In the book, he posits that organisms must have a system for maintaining a distinct “internal environment” in order to have any sense of freedom from the perennially dynamic external environment. He guides the reader through the various biological filtration devices that have come and gone over the eras, culminating with the fist-sized organs dangling next to our spines.

The book is often billed as a detailed treatise on how modern-day mammalian kidneys have arisen from their more primordial forms – a fair assessment, especially given the author’s background. But this book offers readers something much more ambitious in scope than a rehashing of his work in renal physiology. For example, the first chapter of the book, “Earth”, highlights geological milestones that molded the early environment of the first known lifeforms. In Dr. Smith’s words,

“the history of living organisms has been shaped at every turn by earth’s vicissitudes, because every geologic upheaval, by causing profound changes in the distribution of land and sea, has had profound effects on the climates of both, and hence of the patterns of life in both” (pp. 9).

By the final chapter, “Consciousness”, he has begun to ponder questions of metacognition and learning. He marvels at how our complex nervous system has allowed classical pianists to balance the rigidity required for technical prowess, and the fluidity required for creativity. This is not a textbook about our kidneys. From Fish to Philosopher is a story of mankind’s genesis, told through the existential musings of a physiologist who left no stone unturned.

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