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State of Wonder

Patchett, Ann

Last Updated: Nov-21-2019
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


Dr. Marina Singh, a pharmacologist and former obstetrician, is sent to a research site in the Amazonian jungle somewhere in Brazil that is operated by the company she works for, Vogel Pharmaceutical. The company chief executive officer, Mr. Fox, dispatches her there to check on the progress of the research and to get details on the reported death of her colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman, while he was there on a previous research trip. Eckman’s wife, uncertain that he was dead, asks Marina to find out what had happened to her husband. The plot centers on Marina’s dual missions at the Amazon jungle site. 

Marina’s trip reunites her with the legendary and imperious Dr. Annick Swenson, who is an obstetrician and the lead researcher at the site. Thirteen years before, Swenson was Marina’s supervisor during her obstetrics residency. A mistake Marina makes while she’s delivering a baby after disregarding Swenson’s advice drove her out of obstetrics and into pharmacology, and then eventually to Vogel. The company is supporting Swenson’s research hoping it will produce a blockbuster product. Mr. Fox is growing impatient having received only brief and vague communications from Swenson over the past five years. 

Decades earlier Swenson had followed her mentor to the jungle location where the Lakashi tribe lives, and after frequent visits over this time, resided there permanently to work on the research Vogel was funding. The research was based on observations Swenson and her mentor made about Lakashi women; they never go through menopause and they are fertile into their old age. Swenson’s project is to find out why, and provide the information to Vogel in order to develop a product that could give women the option to avoid menopause and to have babies much later in life. 

Swenson finds it is the bark of the (fictional) Martin trees when combined with excretions of the (fictional) Purple Martinet moth deposited in the bark Lakashi women ingest that extends their fertility after menopause. Trying it herself, Swenson becomes pregnant at age seventy–three. She also finds that the same bark protects the Lakashi women against malaria. Swenson eventually concludes that her research should not proceed to product development for fertility, but instead for prevention of malaria. Certain that no American pharmaceutical company would “foot the bill for Third World do-gooding,” Swenson decides to reallocate the fertility research funding to her malaria vaccine work without permission from the company (p. 289). A cat and mouse game ensues around the research funding, Swenson’s pregnancy ends, and the mystery of what happened to Anders Eckman is solved. Marina Singh’s life is changed, probably forever.

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry


There are 46 poems in this volume (the author's second full-length collection), divided into four sections.  The author's first book, "The Ninety-Third Name of God" , introduced us to her family and especially to her diagnosis--inflammatory breast cancer--the disease discovered in 2004 during her pregnancy, the disease that claimed that claimed her life in August, 2018, when she was forty-nine-years old.  This second collection continues Silver's illness narrative, poems that might serve as a journal of her journey through treatment, anger, despair, determination, and faith.

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The Father

Zeller, Florian; Hampton, Christopher

Last Updated: Nov-19-2019
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Plays — Secondary Category: Performing Arts / Theater

Genre: Play


This annotation is based on a live performance presented by the Manhattan Theater Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater  in New York City that ran between April and June of 2016. The play was nominated for a 2016 Tony Award for best play, and Frank Langella won the 2016 Tony Award for best performance by an actor in a leading role in a play. In supporting roles were Kathryn Erbe, Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell, and Kathleen McNenny.
The Father is the story of an older man with Alzheimer’s disease (André) and his progression through first living on his own, then living with his daughter (Anne), and finally living in a nursing home. Or, is it? It’s hard to tell, and that is the intention of the playwright, Florian Zeller, who told The Guardian (2015), “The Father is about an old man lost in the labyrinth of his mind.” The objective of the play is to bring audience members into the actual dementia experience so that rather than witnessing André’s disorientation they feel his disorientation.  

The director, Doug Hughes, creates the audience experience through an interplay among set designs, lighting effects, repeated scene sequences, and time loops as contexts for various symptom manifestations like memory loss, paranoia, anger, and lasciviousness. All the scenes take place in one room that serves at different times as André’s flat, Anne’s flat, and a nursing home room. The furnishings of the room change based on the supposed setting, but the walls are exactly the same for all of them. In different scenes, André is not always sure where he is, and neither is the audience.  

Early in the play, André hears Anne tell him she’s relocating from Paris to London with her lover, but she is present to him in most of the scenes thereafter and until the end of the play when he’s told by a nurse that Anne had moved to London some time ago. Had she really left Paris and was never actually there in all those other scenes? He wonders and so does the audience. In other scenes, the way characters from the past and present enter and exit distorts time for André, and so while audience members know the linear trajectory of the disease course, they can’t be sure of where they are in that course during a given scene. With the last scene taking place in André’s nursing home room with the same walls seen in his flat and Anne’s flat, the audience can’t be faulted for wondering whether all that came before was just one of André’s hallucinations.  

The play does not keep audience members in a perpetual state of confusion and despondency. Farcical elements are peppered throughout that produce occasional laughs, such as when Anne contests André’s account of a previous conversation, he suggests it’s she who has the memory problem: “You’ve forgotten. Listen, Anne, I have a feeling you sometimes suffer from memory loss. You do, I’m telling you. It’s worrying me. Haven’t you noticed?”

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See You On the Other Side

Wong, Matthew

Last Updated: Nov-04-2019
Annotated by:
Lam, MD, Gretl

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Painting


A tiny figure sits alone, looking back at a building in the distance. The building looks like a one-story home, the rudimentary kind you learn to draw in kindergarten, with a triangle roof and a blocky rectangular body, embedded with smaller rectangles to signify the door and windows. The figure in the foreground and the house in the background are the same size, and this scale emphasizes the depth of the landscape – the figure and the house are separated by a vast white space. And yet they are clearly connected, not only because the house is centered in the figure’s line of vision, but also because they share the same teal colors.  

The house sits at the foot of a spring-green mountain, painted over with long cascading strokes of darker green, giving the impression of a verdant and peaceful setting. Contrast this to the brown ridge where the figure is sitting, huddled in a long sleeve jacket, hands tucked into pockets. The ridge is barren except for a single tree that is mostly bare branches with sparse pale-pink leaves.

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Michael Pollan, a journalist who is known for his work on food, takes on mind-altering drugs, or more specifically, psychedelics. According to Pollan, “after several decades of suppression and neglect, psychedelics are having a renaissance” (p. 3). His aim is to tell “the story of this renaissance” (p. 4). 

Pollan pegs the beginning of the renaissance to three events in 2006. The first was the symposium surrounding the one–hundredth birthday celebration of Albert Hoffman, who is credited with discovering LSD (he was in attendance and lived for another two years). The symposium put a spotlight on a few studies of psychedelics that inspired other researchers and practitioners to enter or stay in the field. The second event was a U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting importation of a banned psychedelic substance for religious purposes, which effectively reanimated federal government recognition of psychedelic drugs. The third event was the publication of a well-received study showing the psychological effects of certain psychedelic drugs, and in so doing, conferred some credibility and encouragement for further study (and use). Psychedelics were beginning to inch their way from counterculture to mainstream culture.

Before Pollan picks up on what happens after the eventful year of 2006, he goes back to the early 1950s when psychedelics first attracted attention as treatment for “addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and end-of life anxiety” (p. 141). He quotes researcher Stephen Ross, who asserts that during this time, “there had been forty thousand research participants and more than a thousand clinical papers!…Some of the best minds in psychiatry had seriously studied these compounds in therapeutic models, with government funding” (pp. 142-143). The trajectory towards therapeutic uses would come to an end in the 1960s when “a moral panic about LSD engulfed America, and virtually all psychedelic research and therapy were either halted or driven underground” (p. 185). Pollan identifies several contributing factors to the precipitous reversal in the status of psychedelics. Among them were their associations with Timothy Leary (“Turn on, tune in, drop out”) and with counterculture movements that were seen as threats to mainstream society in general. The era ends in 1970 when psychedelics were made illegal in the U.S., after which they were largely forgotten. They began to reappear in the 1990s, which rekindled an interest in them that would reach an inflection point in 2006.

Bridging the mid-twentieth-century history Pollan provides and the era commencing in 2006 he describes in detail later, is a chapter reporting on his own experiences with psychedelics. Pollan arranged three separate “trips” with three individual psychedelics: psilocybin, LSD, and the little-known 5-MeO-DMT, or “The Toad.” He carefully chose a tour guide for each one. Pollan experienced what he interpreted as a dissolution of his ego, which made more room for his consciousness: “I was present to reality but as something other than my self” (p. 264). He also reported spiritual and mystical experiences, which surprised him because he is not religious in much of any way, and he found others who had similar experiences.  
Even the most secular among them come away from their journeys convinced there exists something that transcends a material understanding of reality: some sort of a ‘Beyond.’ (p. 85)  
The term “spiritual” for Pollan became “a good name for some of the powerful mental phenomena that arise when the voice of the ego is muted or silenced” (p. 288). 

In another chapter bridging the past and the present, Pollan covers the neuroscience of psychedelics and the current understanding of how the brain works. The chapter will appeal mostly to neuroscientists, pharmacologists, and clinicians. It’s not required to appreciate what the book offers on the whole. 

Pollan devotes a chapter to ongoing investigations into clinical uses for psychedelics in near death, addiction, and depression. These investigations had moved into mainstream biomedical research institutions. Results were encouraging enough to generate additional studies, expand treatment programs, and motivate the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to push researchers for more information on depression in particular. Pollan also reports that “dozens of medical schools have asked to participate in future trials, and funders have stepped forward to underwrite those trials” (p. 350). 

In the final chapter, Pollan recognizes that despite the momentum behind mainstream biomedicine interest in psychedelics, established clinical and regulatory frameworks pose daunting challenges for broad-based adoption anytime soon. That aside, Pollan argues for the use of psychedelics in situations that are not limited to health problems per se, but also for “the betterment of well people,” which was also an interest of early researchers. To Pollan, the betterment comes from the effect of psychedelics to expand consciousness. 
Most of the time, it is normal waking consciousness that best serves the interests of survival—and is not adaptive. But there are moments in the life of an individual or a community when the imaginative novelties proposed by altered states of consciousness introduce exactly the sort off variation that can send a life, or a culture, down a new path. (p. 407) 
His conclusion is that without the assistance of psychedelics, the vastness of the mind and the mysteries of the world can never be known. Psychedelics for everyone! 

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Responding to a shortage of doctors in rural areas in 2013, Dr. Virji, a Muslim, moved from the urban East coast to a small town in Minnesota.  Welcomed at first, he and his family began, after Trump's election in 2016, to experience withdrawal, suspicion, and outright racism in his own and neighboring towns, despite having established solid, trusting relationships with patients.  His children were being ostracized in school.  Discouraged, he took steps to accept a job in Dubai, but changed his mind after a local pastor invited him to speak in her church to correct common misconceptions about Muslims and to engage his neighbors in deeper dialogue about their differences and commonalities.  The lecture was so successful, he took it further into other towns and parts of the country.  He has stayed in Minnesota and witnessed change because of this invitation and his candid, open-hearted response. 

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


A British physician-writer reflects on her topsy-turvy medical training emphasizing the mental and emotional burden of becoming a doctor. In 22 brief chapters with titles including "The Darkest Hour," "Buried," and "The Wrong Kind of Kindness," a struggle between hope and despair furiously plays out - in patients, hospital staff, and the narrator.

Dr. Jo (as one patient calls her) remembers interviewing for medical school admission, the difficulty dissecting a cadaver, starting lots of IV's, dutifully toting an almost always buzzing pager, and breaking bad news. She shares with readers her own serious car accident with resulting facial injuries. She comments on the underfunded UK National Health Service (NHS) that is "held together by the goodwill of those who work within it, but even then it will fracture" (p104).

Anecdotes of memorable encounters are scattered throughout the narrative: a fortyish woman in the emergency department who describes a fast pulse and sense of impending doom diagnosed as having an anxiety attack who ten minutes later suffers a cardiac arrest, a man with severe schizophrenia, a suicide, an elderly blind person, a young woman with metastatic breast cancer.

But the lessons that have stuck with her are primarily dark and somber ones. "Sacrifice and the surrender of the self are woven into the job" (p77). She realizes that "perhaps not all good doctors are good people" (p125) and that as wonderful and essential as the virtue of compassion is, "compassion will eat away at your sanity" (p16). She chooses psychiatry as a specialty where kindness, empathy, creating trust with patients, and careful listening work wonders for people. "I learned that saving a life often has nothing to do with a scalpel or a defibrillator" (pp13-14).

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Richard Holmes refers to this book as his “account of the second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, and produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science” (p. xv). He pins the first scientific revolution to the seventeenth century and centers it on the work of Newton, Hooke, Locke, and Descartes. He brackets the second around 1768, when James Cook began his voyage circumnavigating the world, and 1831, when Charles Darwin began his voyage to the Galapagos islands. Holmes calls this period “The Age of Wonder.” 

Cook’s voyage carried Joseph Banks among its crew. Banks, a young man of great wealth and privilege, joined the expedition as a botanist to assist in the collection of botanical and zoological specimens from stops in the southern hemisphere. He was successful in this endeavor, and made observations about island life along the way (especially while on Tahiti). A few years after his return, he became the president of the Royal Society and would remain so for the next forty–two years.

The Society offered scientists (known then as “natural philosophers”) a place to publish papers, present findings, gain notoriety, receive funding, and develop networks. In his role as President, Banks was connected to many of the scientists included in the book. 

William Herschel and Humphrey Davy are the most prominent figures Holmes covers. Herschel was an accomplished musician and amateur astronomer before he built telescopes that helped him see, characterize, and record heavenly bodies never seen before. While conventional thinking of the time considered the universe to be static, placed by a divine hand, Herschel viewed it as continually evolving. Holmes also gives Herschel’s sister, Caroline, her just due as first his assistant and then as a noted astronomer in her own right.

Holmes focuses on Davy’s more well-known advances in chemistry: finding new elements; analyzing human effects of gasses comprising “common air” and “factitious airs” (e.g., nitrous oxide); inventing a safety lamp for miners; and applying the voltaic battery to chemical analysis. Holmes also details Davy’s role as a popularizer of science through well-received public lectures.

Aside from a chapter on Mungo Park’s ill-fated expedition to Africa, the other chapters have less focus on individuals and more on notable events. One concerns the first flights of hot air balloons, and another on the speculations of electricity as a life force that led to Mary Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. The final two chapters are in the service of Holmes’s view that “Science is truly a relay race, with each discovery handed on to the next generation” (p.468). He identifies the next generation of scientists and pays particular attention to William Herschel’s son, John, and to Davy’s protégé, Michael Faraday. Both went on to accomplished and celebrated careers. 

Holmes embeds the historical scientific developments and legendary figures into the ordinary daily life and human follies of the time. He describes how scientists and explorers sought public and private funding, and how they collaborated with one other on some occasions and competed with one another on others. We read of court intrigues, societal jostling, courtships and marriages, extramarital affairs (chaste and tawdry), and family relationships (devoted and fractious).  

A broader context Holmes provides involves the interplay among the scientists and explorers he covers and some of the important figures in literature, poetry, and art of Romantic era. Samuel Coleridge, William Cowper, John Keats, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, and Joseph Wright of Derby among others make appearances in the stories Holmes tells. He details the friendships between them and the influences they had on each other.

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This illuminating and disturbing book explores how various forms of white supremacy became expressed in policies, laws, and elected officials, such as Donald Trump. Physician and sociologist Metzl details social changes in Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas, where white Americans backed changes that, ironically, dramatically harmed them with gun suicides, school dropouts, worse healthcare, and shorter life spans. For Metzl, “Whiteness” refers not to skin color but to a political and economic system of white privilege.

Metzl's thesis that: “Trump supporters were willing to put their lives on the line in support of their political beliefs” was, in fact, a sort of “self-sabotage” (pp. 5-6). While a conservative political movement fostered white racial resentment, largely in lower-income communities, the mainstream GOP did its part by crafting policies against the Affordable Care Act, higher taxes, and restrictions on guns. An atmosphere of polarization and political stasis grew. Metzl writes: “Compromise, in many ways, coded as treason” (p. 11).  

Metzl focuses on the examples of Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas to “suggest how the racial system of American fails everyone” (pp. 16, 20). He visits each state, leading focus groups, interviewing formally and informally, reading newspapers, and inductively formulating concepts that seem to explain the nonsensical behavior of rejecting helpful programs. For example, because “risk” in Missouri has become a code name for possible attacks by black people, white people buy guns, especially when restrictions are removed. Many white men feel that a gun (or many guns) restores their privilege, but suicide of white males, often low-income, goes up. Metzl’s statistics and charts show contrasts with other states with stricter laws and lower suicide rates. He calls for preventive medicine to lower such deaths.  

For Tennessee, the Affordable Care Act offered many benefits to poor or middle-income people, but Republicans (and especially Trump) attacked it as big government over-reach, socialism, exorbitant cost, a program that would help minority people, for example “welfare queens.” “Cost” became a proxy for the “we don’t like it,” even when the economics would be favorable for good healthcare for all. Blacks were generally in favor of ACA, but white blue-collar men swore by their independence and autonomy. Neighboring Kentucky accepted ACA, and ten graphs included in the book clearly chart the better outcomes for Kentucky in such areas as insurance coverage, death rates, and seeing a doctor.  

Metzl returns to Kansas, where he grew up and recalls the pride Kansans had in their state. Republican Governor Sam Brownback enacted massive tax cuts with large reductions to state services and school funding, an “experiment” in “epic defunding.” The GOP, Tea Party, Koch brothers, and “trickle down” theories all played a part in benefiting the wealthy financially, while minority and lower-income groups paid more. Infrastructure, such as roads, suffered. Untested charter schools collected wealthy white students, while public schools plunged in funding, test scores, and graduation rates (see 17 graphs). Since education is a predictor of health, there are and will be long-term costs to Kansans, especially for minority groups.  

Metzl attacks the “Castle Doctrine” (“a man’s home is…”) as a symbol of narcissism, individualism, and as a risk for all citizens when social structures are abandoned. He closes with some hopeful examples of social change for the better.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Treatise


Louise Aronson, a geriatrician, argues that we should create Elderhood as the third era of human aging, joining the earlier Childhood and Adulthood. This new concept will allow us to re-evaluate the richness of this later time, its challenges as body systems decline, and, of course, the choices of managing death. This important and valuable book is a polemic against modern medicine’s limits, its reductive focus, and structural violence against both patients and physicians. She argues for a wider vision of care that emphasizes well-being and health maintenance for not only elders but for every stage of life.   
Aronson argues that contemporary society favors youth and values of action, speed, and ambition, while it ignores—even dislikes—aging, older people, and the elderly. She says ageism is more powerful than sexism or racism—as bad as those are. Medical schools ignore the elderly, focusing on younger patients, especially men, and medical students perceive geriatrics as boring, sad, and poorly paid. Primary care, in general, seems routine and dull. By contrast, medical treatments, especially high-tech, are exciting and lucrative. In medical schools a “hidden curriculum” focuses on pathophysiology, organ systems, and drugs, ignoring patients’ variability as well as their suffering and pathos. Further, business and industrial models make “healthcare” a commodity, and nowadays “doctors treat computers, not people” (p. 237). Aging has become “medicalized” as a disease. Medicine fights death as an enemy, often with futile treatment that may extend a dying process.
Instead, Aronson says we need to bring back the human element, putting care of people at the center, not science. She calls for a new paradigm with ten assumptions (p. 378). Number 2 reads: “Health matters more to both individuals and society than medicine.” Number 9 claims, “As an institution, medicine should prioritize the interests of the people over its own.”  
Many practical changes would follow, from redesigned “child-proof” drug containers to buildings and public spaces that are more congenial to older people—and, in fact, to everyone else. We should change our attitudes about old age. For example, we might use the adjective “silver” for a medical facility that is friendly to and usable by older people. Changing our attitudes about aging can help all of us imagine more positive futures for each one of us and for all of our society.

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