Showing 31 - 40 of 2954 Literature annotations

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Historical Fiction

Summary:

When we think of genetics and pedigrees, we expect our traits and characteristics to be passed down in a predictable pattern from parents to children. In his book Far From the Tree , Andrew Solomon labels this transmission from one generation to the next as vertical identity. However, his book focuses on circumstances where inheritance follows what he calls a horizontal pattern. In these cases, the offspring have an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to their parents. They land far from the anticipated spot under the tree canopy and are dramatically different from their parents. He or she must acquire their identity from a peer group that is outside the parents’ experience. One chapter in Solomon’s book focuses on genius as seen through the lens of the violinist Joshua Bell and his family. Most of us would gratefully welcome a child of genius whether in science, architecture, or music and embrace the apple that landed far from the tree. Reading Benjamin Labatut’s riveting book might cause you to rethink this thought experiment.

Nothing will quite prepare you for the literary world that Labatut has invented. It is a unique blend of fact and fantasy, an incremental layering of fictional conceits on known historical details. A stream of people from history pass through the book, some deservedly famous and others more obscure. But all of them are possessed of genius. All of the characters lived through the turbulent first third of the 20th century when quantum mechanics revolutionized the traditional understanding of physics. They confronted the challenge that this new knowledge presented to the grand view that people had held about how the universe was designed and operated.

The book opens with Fritz Haber, whose research on nitrogen fixation chemical reactions provided the basis for the production of fertilizers, pesticides and explosives. Haber’s work had diametrically opposite effects on the course of history. On the one hand, he enabled dramatic increases in agricultural crop yields and prevented global hunger. At the same time, his discoveries increased the carnage in World War I and yielded compounds that led to innumerable deaths by asphyxiation in the trenches in no-man’s land and, later, in the Nazi death camps. There is Karl Schwarzschild who was able to solve Einstein’s equations in the general theory of relativity while fighting in the German front lines during World War I. He identified the potential existence of black holes, Schwarzschild singularities, long before Stephen Hawking made them famous. Alexander Grothendieck, considered the most influential mathematician of the last hundred years, also passes through the pages of Labatut’s book. After an extraordinarily creative career in which he totally upended established concepts in geometry and number theory and other mathematical fields, he ended up abandoning his life’s work. He devoted himself to Buddhism and, retreating to a secluded village in the Pyrenees, he lived out his last years alone and unrecognized. Erwin Schrodinger is forced to enter a Swiss sanatorium to convalesce from tuberculosis. While there, under the influence of a teenage girl similarly afflicted with tuberculosis, he derives his wave equation and the Psi function to explain the wave-particle duality of light and matter. Even Schrodinger is perplexed by this discovery. He cannot reconcile himself fully to the truths of quantum mechanics and spends the rest of his scientific life trying to unify it with Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Finally, towering over the narrative is Werner Heisenberg. He agonizes over the discrepancy between the Newtonian physics that he has learned in the university and what he is uncovering in his research into the subatomic realm. He is overcome in a semi-mystical vision and articulates the uncertainty principle. Heisenberg realized that his matrix mathematics put an end to the stable universe created by the Enlightenment in which everything is governed by rational laws of nature and observable cause and effect.

By focusing on these men (sadly, not a woman among them) of uncommon genius, Labatut vividly illustrates how the gift of deep insight drives intense scientific creativity but also agonizing psychic pain. It is as if the awareness of hidden truths is inextricably linked to human suffering. This summary may sound pedantic and unbearably heavy. Only if you enter into Labatut’s unique literary space will you appreciate the inventiveness and intelligence of this overpowering book, all 191 pages of it. It is well worth the trip.

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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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Ward Rounds

Beernink, K. D. (Kenneth Dale)

Last Updated: Apr-25-2022
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

This is a collection of poems about patients, written by a young physician in the late 1960s. The book is organized around the theme of a hospital ward. Each poem is named for a patient and has the patient’s disease as its subtitle. The poet composed these poems during his own illness when, as he says in the original Introduction, “my patients reappeared to me, and I lived again in my mind all the many emotions we experienced together.” K. Dale Beernick died of chronic myelocytic leukemia at the age of 31 in 1969. In Ward Rounds he recounts his experiences as a medical student and house officer. He uses a variety of forms and techniques, including rhyme, blank verse, haiku, and even one villanelle. The poems vary in quality and impact. Among the best are "Penny Brown" (rheumatic heart disease), "Theodosus Bull" (delirium tremens), "Anonymous" (spontaneous abortion), and "Minnie Freeme" (post-necrotic cirrhosis).  

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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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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In the opening dialog, the author, Samantha Harvey, tells a friend what this book is about. 
Friend:    What are you writing?
Me:         Not sure, some essays. Not really essays. Not essays at all. Some things. 
Friend:    About what?
Me:         Not sure. This and that. About not sleeping, mainly. But death keeps creeping in. (p. 1)
That’s as good a description of the book as could otherwise be offered.

As unstructured as the book’s content is, so is the book’s format. The only breaks in the text are distinguished by infinity signs. Time stamps are placed within the text between some of these breaks. The times are sequenced during a night (or a composite of nights) when Harvey is awake between midnight and 7:30 am. Texts following the time stamps describe the acute effects of insomnia on her at those particular moments and could be read as diary or journal entries. 

Harvey’s insomnia came suddenly at the age of forty-three and morphed into an unrelenting assault that at times made her wonder if the only sleep available to her is the sleep of the dead. 
When I don’t sleep and don’t sleep and don’t sleep, I don’t want my life; neither do I have in me the propulsion (courage? know-how?) to take it. So I have to endure my life when it’s unendurable, and this is an impasse. (p. 33)

Can I escape this? The sword hangs. There is nothing to put my mind at rest – every day presents a new threat: the night. Every night is a battle, most often lost, and any victory is one day long, until its challenger comes along: the next night. I understand why people kill themselves, or break down. (p. 82)
Throughout the book, across all the text sections, and following all the time stamps, Harvey details what insomnia does to her physically, psychologically, and existentially. She desperately explores the possible causes such as menopause, fear, traffic noise, and Brexit among others, and heartbreakingly tells of all she has done to get sleep such as seeing doctors, smiling more, counting blessings, and changing behaviors. None come to any effect, as she reports to her unhelpful doctor. 
I do these things, they don’t help.
Over time they will.
Over time they haven’t.
I feel unhelpable.
Nobody is unhelpable.
I am.
Nobody is. (p. 139)
Just as Harvey had informed her friend, she takes up other topics in other forms that directly or indirectly relate to her insomnia, and sometimes do not relate at all. Among the various forms are vignettes; thoughts and obsessions; meditations; and a short story. Topics include deaths in the family (including a dog’s); peculiarities of different languages; why so many TV shows have the word “secret” in their titles (she spends “nights spent thinking about this”) (p. 67); what fuels insomnia; how worry, anxiety, and fear differ from one another; writing; time; and the relationships between science and religion, and between reason and faith. Harvey’s  background in philosophy shows. 

A year on, Harvey discerns a cure for insomnia. Using a metaphor involving swimming against waves and currents or with waves and currents, the cure is to be derived from the “wisdom in knowing that we are sometimes the cause and influencer of our own currents and tides, which we make in otherwise still waters.” She further elaborates on this idea and how it leads to a moment when “you’ll drop each night into sleep without knowing how you once found it impossible” (p. 175).


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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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The End of Days

MacLaverty, Bernard

Last Updated: Feb-28-2022
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Autumn in Vienna, 1918. Menace circulated in the air itself and fear was rampant as a global pandemic and a World War raged. Egon, an artist, and his wife Edi, six months pregnant, had enough money to live on but hardly any opportunities to spend it. Shortages of coal for heat and flour for bread were continuous. Edi has suddenly become very ill - trouble breathing, loss of appetite, exhaustion, fever, and explosive coughing that produces blood. It is the Spanish flu and pneumonia.

Egon devotedly cares for his sick wife despite her warning, "You will get it from me" (p111). Soon she is unresponsive. As Egon listens for a heartbeat with his ear against Edi's motionless chest, he can only auscultate the distant, faint beat of his unborn child's heart that is quickly silent. He tragically describes Edi's corpse: "Her body being both cradle and coffin, within a minute" (p128). Egon feels compelled to make multiple sketches of his dead wife.

Before long, Egon experiences harsh bouts of coughing, fever, and chills. He becomes remorseful about the drawings he made of Edi and burns them in the kitchen stove. Egon gazes at the fire, knowing he too will die shortly but aware that he will be survived by all his other artwork.

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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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