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How To Be Depressed

Scialabba, George

Last Updated: Nov-28-2021
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Collection (Essays)

Summary:

How To Be Depressed  is a book with a most unusual structure.  It is introduced by an essay entitled “Intake” that was previously published in a literary magazine.  The bulk of the book, “Documentia,” is taken up by an edited selection of the author’s psychiatric records from 1969 to 2016. It is rounded out by an interview with the author and by his “Tips for the Depressed.”   

Author George Scialabba ascribes his “exceptionally flimsy…shock absorbers” to his “constantly worried” parents (p.3).  While studying at Harvard he becomes involved with a strict religious organization. After leaving that group he undergoes a crisis of faith and his first episode of depression. Paralyzed by self-doubt, he drops out of graduate school and begins a cycle of clerical jobs that are beneath his intellectual capability. After many years he gradually wins distinction as a freelance essayist.  However, due to his incapacitating symptoms he never has a steady writing job and has difficulty attaining financial security.  

In his introduction, Scialabba tells us that “the pain of a severe clinical depression is the worst thing in the world.  To escape it, I would do anything” (p.1).  As attested to by the notes of his well-meaning psychiatrists and psychotherapists, he has diligently applied himself to a wide variety of treatments.  Sadly, if anything he gets worse over time, and eventually requires electroconvulsive therapy. 

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Summary:

1971 seems like a very long time ago. Richard Nixon was President, the Vietnam War was still raging, and China and Russia were the sworn enemies of the United States. Fifty years have passed, and at first blush, the world seems like a different place. Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they can stay the same.

One of the most horrifying events of that year was the prisoner revolt at the Attica State Prison in upstate New York in early September. I did not live in New York at the time and have only a vague recollection of reading the newspaper reports of what happened. But ask anyone living in New York who was at least 15 years old at the time and they will tell you that they have vivid memories of what transpired over the five days from September 9-13. In this extraordinary book, Heather Ann Thompson recounts in all its gory detail the prisoner uprising, the bloody retaking of the prison by state troopers, and the nearly thirty years of investigation and legal wrangling that occurred in its wake.

By the late summer of 1971, there had been prisoner rebellions in state penitentiaries across the country including a nearby high security facility in Auburn NY. There was increasing tension and escalating prisoner protests against the inhumane conditions in all prisons including overcrowded cells, limited access to food and fresh air, and routine brutal treatment at the hands of the correction officers. Finally, Attica prison erupted on September 9 after a minor skirmish between guards and prisoners. The prisoners took 38 hostages and over a thousand prisoners escaped their cells and crowded into the prison yard. They created a communal space to take care of each other that was equipped with meager resources. There was a central meeting area for the leaders of the uprising. They created a human shield around the hostages to protect them from harm.

Over the next four days, there were intense negotiations between prison officials and the prisoners. A team of observers including Tom Wicker was  bought in at the request of the  prisoners to serve as witnesses and act as potential mediators. Finally, after negotiations fell apart over the prisoner demand for amnesty, without warning, the troopers dropped tear gas cannisters from helicopters and stormed the yard. Tragically, when the  dust had settled, 32 prisoners and 11 hostages had been killed by bullets fired by the troopers. This terrifying sequence of events is described in the first third of the book. The remaining part details how prison wardens destroyed critical forensic evidence and collaborated with state politicians  up the chain to Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s office to portray the events as a successful suppression of a radical-supported attack against the state. They solicited false testimony and pursued a one-sided prosecution of the prisoners for the murder of one guard and several prisoners. There are too many villains in the story but also some true heroes – a coroner who refused to back down from his post-mortem examination showing that all the victims were killed by gunfire, knowing that only the state troopers had firearms. The prisoners who confronted the legal system, defense lawyers willing to take up the cause of the prisoners, a brave state lawyer who was an essential whistleblower, all were vital in the pursuit of truth. At the end, the justice system failed nearly everyone involved, and Attica Prison remained an important part of the New York State correction system. The only monument is a stone at the entrance to the prison memorializing the hostages who died.

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Imprimatur

Monaldi, Rita; Sorti, Francesco

Last Updated: Nov-03-2021
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In a future 2040, the church is considering the canonization of Pope Innocent XI. An unusual seventeenth-century manuscript is brought to the attention of the authorities and the bulk of the novel is its transcription in full.  

The manuscript is the diary of an intelligent, but inexperienced young orphan-apprentice who is working in a Roman hostel in September 1683. The Catholic Church is fighting the Ottoman Turks who have besieged Vienna. Tensions with France are high as that country and its king have long asserted their exemption from Church rule.

 A hostel guest dies, and the authorities, suspecting plague, impose a quarantine. The apprentice falls under the influence of another confined guest, Atto Melani, a famous castrato and spy for King Louis XIV of France. Believing that the deceased guest was murdered, they venture out each night into subterranean Rome searching for clues to support their theory and leading them to investigate poisons, panaceas, and political plots. Meanwhile, a physician also confined to the hostel attempts all remedies to prevent plague, while another guest, besotted with astrology, strives to reveal the future, and yet another plays soothing music. 

Like a baroque Agatha Christie novel, plausible suspicion is cast upon every guest until the truth emerges and with it many doubts about the saintliness of Pope Innocent XI. The 2040 writer invites the Holy Office to consider the implications of the manuscript before proceeding with the canonization.

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Practice

Berlin, Richard

Last Updated: Oct-26-2021
Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

Practice is Richard Berlin’s third book of poetry (two of which are chapbooks) in addition to two prose books. It contains 64 poems and is fronted by an essay, “Why Doctors Need Poetry”. A few pages of notes at the end helpfully explain the context for 15 of the poems. As Dr. Berlin explains at the beginning of his opening essay: “Most of the poems in this volume first appeared in my column, ‘Poetry of the Times,’ a feature of Psychiatric Times”, which, at the time of publication of this volume he had been writing for 16 years. This—and many more poems in other journals, anthologies, and books— all from a man who began writing poetry in “mid-life”. Evident in the poems in this collection is a person experiencing much more than medical/psychiatric practice, but a full cornucopia of life: his love of art, music, food, nature, and the people he shares this bounty with. The collection, presented in three sections, weaves through all of these rich encounters, with only the final section, the shortest of the three, having more of a focus on family, friends and late of the year poems.

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This is Your Mind on Plants

Pollan, Michael

Last Updated: Oct-21-2021
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism

Summary:

Michael Pollan is curious about human consciousness and how humans alter it using a variety of molecular compounds. This curiosity took him first to three mind-altering psychedelic drugs: psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and 5-MeO-DMT (“The Toad”). He reported his findings and personal experiences in a 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind. His curiosity yet untamed, Pollan expands his project to three mind-altering compounds found in plants: opium, caffeine, and mescaline in his latest book.

Pollan’s investigation is born of his vocation as a gardener “fascinated by our attraction to these powerful plants as well as by the equally powerful taboos and fraught feelings with which we surround them.” He’s further attracted to them for the way in which when “we take these plants into our bodies and let them change our minds, we are engaging with nature in one of the most profound ways possible” (p. 3). The sources he chooses are the opium poppy for opium; coffee and tea for caffeine; and peyote and San Pedro cacti for mescaline. 

Opium, caffeine, and mescaline represent the range of mind-altering properties available from plants of interest to Pollan. In opium he saw a sedative, in caffeine a stimulant, and in mescaline a hallucinogen, or as he characterizes them, the “downer, the upper, and the outer,” respectively (p. 4). Their effects on consciousness do not feature dissolution of the ego, as is the case with psychedelics, and indeed, they can solidify ego. Seemingly most important to his selection, however, was that,

Taken together, these three plant drugs cover much of the spectrum of the human experience of psychoactive substances, from the everyday use of caffeine, the most popular psychoactive drug on the planet; to the ceremonial use of mescaline by Indigenous peoples; to the age-old use of opiates to relieve pain. (p. 4)
The book comprises an introduction and a chapter each covering opium, caffeine, and mescaline. The introduction describes his dual interest in the ancient human drive to fool with consciousness, and in plants that produce mind-altering substances as evolutionary features. Pollan also touches on how civilizations, ancient and current, aid and combat the use of these substances, at times simultaneously. In the chapter on opium, Pollan updates his April, 1997 Harper’s Magazine article about his experience growing opium poppies as the war on drugs peaked in the mid-1990s; in this version he reconstitutes the section he left out for fear of arrest and conviction that has since abated. In the next two chapters, Pollan separately reports on how caffeine and mescaline affected his consciousness. Because he was already a heavy caffeine user, Pollan had to give up coffee and tea if he was to discern its mind-altering effects, but for mescaline’s mind-altering effects, he had to find a source, a setting, and a guide through the maze the Covid-19 pandemic created.

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Annotated by:
Zander, Devon

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

The Impatient Dr. Lange is a biography of Joseph “Joep” Lange, an HIV/AIDS researcher best known for his work in HIV transmission prevention and treatment, written by Seema Yasmin.  Yasmin is a journalist, doctor, and epidemiologist whose life path was forever altered by a run-in with Dr. Lange at age 17, when he said to her, “If you want to help people, first you need to learn how to take care of them.  Go to medical school.” (p. xiii).  The book’s narrative parallels that of the life of her inspiration, Lange; in addition, Yasmin details the evolution of HIV, how it came to spread around the globe, and a history of antiretrovirals.  

Coming of age professionally in the early 1980s, Joep Lange had a career defined by HIV and the advances to manage it.  Early on, he trained as a physician before pursuing a PhD.  During his PhD, he was a prolific researcher, producing “eleven papers on AIDS in his first years,” including an early case study on the appearance of acute HIV and the way in which the body’s antibody response changes in response to continued infection.  His commitment to rigorous scientific inquiry continued as a professional research scientist.  Most noted for his early trials about the use of antiretrovirals and their role in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, he was intimately involved with much of the science used to treat and prevent HIV today.  Outside of research, he was an ardent advocate of health equity, starting the PharmAccess Initiative, a group initially developed to expand access to antiretrovirals in developing countries.  

Ultimately, the book is about how a life of great potential, drive, and success was tragically cut short.  Shadowing the narrative of the book is the specter of Lange’s unfortunate end on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a plane that was mistakenly shot down over the Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists, while he was en route to the twentieth International AIDS Conference in Melbourne.  The penultimate chapter reflects on all that was unfinished - projects on three continents, advising the next generation of PhDs, a novel - and ends with a prescient quote from Lange, in regard to mandatory retirement in the Netherlands at the age of 65:  that even if he had 10-15 more years, he declares “that is still not enough time” (p. 174).

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Everything is Fine

Granata, Vince

Last Updated: Oct-03-2021
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Vince Granata, the author of Everything is Fine, remembers feeling at the age of 4 that the day his triplet siblings were brought to their suburban Connecticut home from the hospital was the best day of his life.  For many years, to all appearances, his was the perfect family.   

Then, while in college, his brother Tim develops a psychotic disorder.  Refusing treatment, he becomes more and more delusional.  He speaks frequently about killing himself and is convinced his mother has raped him.  Announcing that “demons are everywhere” (p.115) he enters his parents’ bedroom and throws salt at them as they sleep. His mother, though trained as an emergency physician, dismisses the idea he could become violent: “Everything is fine” (p.122).  

When Vince receives a phone call that his brother has killed his mother, he rushes home from teaching abroad to find yellow tape surrounding the house.  The immediate, surrealistic concern is to have a company clean the traces of his mother from the rug.   

Over the next few years, Tim is treated to restore him to competency so he can stand trial.  Vince and his father visit Tim faithfully in a facility while two other siblings cannot bring themselves to face him.  A friend insightfully prophesies “I hope you will eventually be able to find some peace and feel whole again…though that might be your life’s work” (p. 149). Indeed, while his brother recuperates, Vince goes through his own healing process. He dedicates himself to understanding schizophrenia and the shortcomings in our mental health care system, and, finally, writes this book.  

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A murder mystery set in Harlem of the 1930s. The Conjure-Man, Frimbo, is a reclusive, highly educated soothsayer and fortune teller born in Africa. His Harlem dwelling is a popular destination for local people seeking direction for the decisions that they confront. He takes pains to conceal much about his identity.

One evening, Frimbo is found dead by a client, while a handful of people occupy his waiting room. Doctor Archer, who lives across the street, is summoned to pronounce the death, and the police come soon, led by detective Dart. Then the corpse disappears, and the Conjure-Man reappears alive to the amazement of all.

The investigators use recent technology, including blood typing, to establish that the corpse was not that of the Conjure-Man. Over just a few days, the doctor and the detective work their way through all the possible scenarios to establish the identity and motive of the killer. The ending is surprising.

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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

This is a poem by one physician-poet, Richard M Berlin, a well published psychiatrist in Massachusetts, that celebrates the life and work of another physician-poet, John Stone, and recounts the effects of the latter’s poetry on Dr. Berlin over thirty years. The poem was published twice, once in JAMA in 2006 and again in Psychiatric Times in August 2008, shortly before John Stone died in his sleep of cancer in November.

The poem is 24 lines in free verse with no stanza breaks. As the title indicates, it is an occasional poem. The occasion? Poet A reading the admired work of Poet B, like Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”. In his poem Berlin commemorates the occasion of his having just read Stone’s 2004 volume of poetry, Music from Apartment 8. The title of Stone’s volume derives from Stone’s mother’s address in Decatur, Georgia. Consisting of five sentences, the poem begins with an account of his reading Stone’s poetry as “a hiker” who stops to “admire the view of snow-capped peaks.” The second sentence records the Berlin’s reflections “three decades later” of Stone and the premature death of Berlin's father. Following this thought, the poet compares Stone’s poetry to the compass his father would have been had he lived longer, Stone’s compass directing him to the possibility of his writing poetry as well, a poetry originating with our patients’ heartbeats. The penultimate sentence is a prayer that Stone is “drinking deep from whatever stream brings you to your knees.” Berlin ends with the further hope that Stone will be able to hear Berlin’s “boots striding behind” Stone’s, “both soles still strong.” There is no published record that I could find that Stone read Berlin’s poem.

In a subsequent essay, Berlin discusses this poem and the history of his relationship to Stone and the latter’s poetry. (1)

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Queen of the Sugarhouse

Studer, Constance

Last Updated: Sep-14-2021
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Summary:

Constance Studer's engaging "Queen of the Sugarhouse" contains nine short stories ranging in length from 9 to 21 pages, each story complete in itself.  Her nursing expertise is evident in several stories, including "Mercy" (page 3), "Shift" (page 77), "The Isolation Room" (page 95), "Testament" (page 112), "Special Needs" (page 122), and the title story, "Queen of the Sugarhouse" (page 138). 

While many of the stories specifically revolve around medicine or nursing, others examine a variety of issues, often with healthcare peripherally involved. 

In "Shelter" (page 21), a homeless vet who served in the Gulf War struggles with PTSD, the difficulty of obtaining permanent disability, the inability to find work or a suitable living space, and his quest to find treatment for his many physical problems after chemical exposure during Desert Storm.  He sees a different doctor at each appointment and no one truly helps him. "Finding today's meal or bed or beer takes all my energy, leaving me nothing left over for thinking about next week.  I am a veteran and can no longer vote because I have no home" (page 27).  Studer takes us into this man's life and struggles with clarity and empathy.


"Think Beauty" (page 37) questions what makes a woman beautiful (or believe she is beautiful) against a back story examining friendship and all that entails.  "This Middle Kingdom" (page 58) tells a story that encompasses both the heroics of a ski team that saves skiers in distress and how difficult it can be to feel compassion for those who end up in trouble because they flaunt the rules or advice of the experts--a theme quite relevant for our times. 

The book's opening story, "Mercy" (page 3) explores a nurse's various reactions after she makes an error while dispensing medication. As in every story in the collection, multiple themes weave in and out, driven by a character's decision or dilemma.  In "Mercy," we see how medical personnel can truly care for and worry about their patients; how even a small error may cause a nurse deep distress, both for her patient and for her future; how the nursing shortage leads to burnout; and how "real life" continues on in the background, in this case, a passionate love affair that leads both to marriage and to grief.  "Grief is a train that doesn't run on anyone else's schedule" (page 15).

"Shift" (page 76) tells of a physician who is devoted to his work and his patients in the ER ("His white coat flaps, stethoscope bounces as the doctor runs, its weight a comfort, like a rosary for a priest" page 76) while his wife feels neglected.  The story moves between the chaos of the ER and the story of his marriage, a love that began when the doctor was in medical school.  After his wife leaves him, the doctor sleeps with the lights on, hoping she will return.  But whenever he closes his eyes, he only sees scenes from the ER.  The story ends with words the doctor has said so often to a patient: "Please sir, lie still.  I'm going to numb you now.  Hang on, man.  Soon the pain will be gone" (page 93). 

"The Isolation Room" (page 94) follows a woman, a writer, who has been, she believes, placed unnecessarily and mistakenly in a psychiatric ward.  As we read, we wonder if this woman is truly afflicted with a mental disorder or if she is simply extremely imaginative, perhaps betrayed by her husband who arranged for her admission. The main character is likeable, often seemingly sensible, perhaps incredibly but differently talented: "Maybe to be out of her mind meant she'd finally make the leap from logical to intuitive, into her true skin, a room all her own ... a writer, that teller of lies, pursuer of truth by means other than logical, that follower of breadcrumbs through the scary forest wherever they lead?" (page 97).


"Testament" (page 112) follows a student nurse in her first month of training and touches on the care of difficult patients, their various religious beliefs, and how healthcare providers' families are not immune to illness. "Special Needs" (page 121) follows Maria, a waitress with an unexpected pregnancy and wheelchair confined brother. The title story, "Queen of the Sugarhouse" (page 137) is a poignant examination of breast cancer; the terrible trial of chemo and radiation; the complex relationship between the suffering mother and her daughter, a nurse; and how life changes when the drama of uneasy but genuine love and relationship ends.  "I think I hear Mama's voice, then
realize it's only the sound of water over rocks.  Tears are this river carrying me forward" (page 153).


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