Showing 51 - 60 of 3431 annotations

Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


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


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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Hoffman, John; Tobias, Janet

Last Updated: Mar-14-2022
Annotated by:
Yin, Ellen
Salman, Akbar

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video — Secondary Category: Performing Arts /

Genre: Film


“The Jesuit philosophy is ‘Men for Others,’” states Dr. Fauci, the titular subject of the documentary Fauci, as he explains how his public school experiences informed his medical career. Indeed, it sets the tone for the rest of a film that traces the beginning of Dr. Fauci’s career as an infectious disease physician through to his role in the creation of PEPFAR, the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and his present day responsibilities in the current pandemic. The documentary bounces primarily between the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. In both, we see that Dr. Fauci stands as a figure of great controversy, and we are shown his thought process in navigating the court of public opinion.

The film starts off interviewing Dr. Fauci about his childhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn where he was exposed to the Jesuit philosophy that would dovetail with his choice to go into public health service when he was drafted into the Vietnam War. Though he began his medical career with aspirations for a private practice on Park Avenue, Dr. Fauci realized that his true calling lay in “trying to figure out diseases that people were dying from” at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases where he soon faced one of the greatest public health challenges of the 1980s – piecing together a way to combat a mysterious new disease that was killing more and more Americans. 

This, of course, sounds very familiar to the intended audience of the documentary. It is a parallel that Dr. Fauci himself is well aware of, stating that COVID-19 feels like a “diabolical repeat” of his experiences in the 1980s but that “the difference is [the] divisiveness dominating COVID-19 . . . we’re going to get through it in spite of this divisiveness and this politicization. We’re not going to get through it because of it.” The film leans heavily into this contrast, showcasing the evolving attitudes of many AIDS activists as Dr. Fauci went from “the enemy” to a man sitting in on ACT UP meetings and engaging in a dialogue that would culminate in a historic address at the 1990 International AIDS Conference – an address that highlighted the need for physician-scientists to incorporate the feedback of the individuals they were trying to help and reminded activists of the compassion that physician-scientists have for their patients. 

In the scenes taking place in 2020, we see an explosion of both positive and negative press coverage of Dr. Fauci as the COVID pandemic kicks into high gear. His inconsistencies regarding mask guidance, his direct challenging of President Trump, and his struggle to deal with increasing death threats against himself and his family are put on full display. The documentary does not shy away from showcasing Dr. Fauci’s vulnerability with multiple instances of a tearful Fauci recounting the deterioration of many of his AIDS patients and the “post-traumatic stress” that those experiences induced. These moments of vulnerability are threaded in with images of and commentary from his wife Christine Grady and his daughter Jennifer, a clear attempt to give us a sense of Anthony Fauci the human being and not just Dr. Fauci the public servant. 

As the film draws to a close, Fauci and his wife take a walk through the COVID-19 Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC. “When you're involved in a race to stop a horrible disease, you always feel like you’re not doing things quickly enough, or well enough,” he reflects. “One of the most mysterious aspects of our universe is how viruses have transformed our civilization . . . And the one thing I can hope for . . . is that emerging infections do not inevitably become pandemics . . . I am optimistic that the lessons that we’ve learned will prevent that from happening.” After watching this documentary, it is an optimism that is easy to share. 

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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


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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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


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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Seeing Red

Meruane, Lina

Last Updated: Jan-31-2022
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


Before it happened there was the dread of it. “They were brittle, those veins that sprouted from my retina and coiled and snaked through the transparent humor of my eye,” says Lina Meruane, the first-person narrator and main character. If those veins burst, Lina could go blind. All that can be done to prevent such a disaster she’s told, “is to keep watch day by day over its millimetric expansions...keep watch over the sinuous movement of the venous web advancing toward the center of my eye.” Adding to her dread are “impossible admonitions to follow.”
Stop smoking...don’t hold your breath, don’t cough, do not for any reason pick up heavy packages, boxes, suitcases. Never ever lean over, or dive headfirst into water. The carnal throes of passion were forbidden, because even an ardent kiss could cause my veins to burst. (p. 5)
And then, “it was happening. Right then, happening” (p. 3). She had only bent over to retrieve a syringe for her scheduled insulin injection. She’s paralyzed. “I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breath while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood (p. 4).

Lina is in the dissertation stage of a PhD degree at a New York City university. The story veers from this pursuit to one of restoring her eyesight. The other primary characters are Lina’s Galacian love interest and fellow academic, Ignacio, who shepherds her through this journey, her New York retinal specialist, Dr. Lekz, and her parents who are both physicians—her father a cardiologist, her mother a pediatrician—practicing in Lina’s native country, Chile.

Soon after the bleeding incident, Lekz tells Lina that at least a month would be needed for her eyes “to clear up so I can take a look at this mess” (p. 32). “Weren’t you going to go to Chile to see your family? Go to Chile. Take a vacation” (p. 33). The story relocates from New York to Santiago, and from Lina’s medical problems to her familial dynamics—“I never wanted you to be my doctor, it’s enough for you to be my father” (p. 50). The visit also becomes a time for Lina—and Ignacio—to see what life might be like if she never regained full sight, and to contemplate options for such an eventuality. She had become “an apprentice blind woman” (p. 20).

Lina and Ignacio return to New York city for the hoped-for reparative surgery. The procedure produces promising signs, but Lina must wait at least the four weeks it takes for Helium gas bubbles to dissipate so Lekz can see the results. During this period, Lina tries to keep her head position down and her spirits up. Often the opposite resulted. Before four weeks passes, however,
Blood, again, in my eye. A fine thread of blood that comes from I don’t know where...I’m watching as the eye watches its thread of blood, looking at everything without ceasing my cries: I’m bleeding I’m bleeding again. (p. 142)
Futility looms, “knowing they were going to operate on me but that no cure existed” (p. 113).  Lina and Lekz consider their options. After Lina’s initial bleeding incident, Lekz had “dropped the phrase transplants in experimental stages” (p. 5). The idea stuck with her. She had spoken about it separately with her mother and Ignacio. Both were fraught conversations. Nevertheless, Lina and Lekz return to the topic.

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Mysterious Medicine:  The Doctor-Scientist Tales of Hawthorne and Poe is one in a series of books called Literature and Medicine dedicated to the exploration and explication of the intersection of the two titled disciplines.  This volume, edited by L. Kerr Dunn, looks at the short stories (mostly—it includes one sonnet) of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe from the viewpoint of each author’s use of, and in some cases experiences with, doctors, diseases, and the medical profession.  The volume begins with an Introduction that situates the writings within the medical and social milieu of the period (the authors were contemporaneous) and illustrates the way in which the tales reflect the times.

The stories are grouped by author and arranged chronologically.  Among the nineteen entries included are “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle,” “The Birthmark,” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for Hawthorne, and “The Black Cat,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Berenice,” and “Some Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” for Poe; each entry is preceded by a brief introduction and followed by discussion questions.  An extensive list of scholarly references closes out the volume. 

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Davis, Cortney

Last Updated: Jan-17-2022
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)


Davis, a nurse practitioner, chronicles her daughter’s life, illness and death at age 54 from cancer. The book consists of three sections, with poems unevenly divided such that of the 30 poems, only one rests in section II. Titled Windmill, this poem forms a fulcrum between the relationship of mother and daughter to one of mother and ill daughter. The windmill is a small gift from her daughter – a reminder of Kansas where the daughter, her husband and children live, thousands of miles from Davis. The collection begins with her ‘soon-to-be born daughter’ (page 15) and ends with The Sacrament of Time, dated months before her daughter’s death from, at this point, a widely metastatic breast cancer. The final poem holds within it an entire world – the birth of the daughter, the fraught frantic mother-to-be pleading for help, the birth of a healthy baby girl, the wonder of the new addition to their family, the travel with the newborn to home, and a reflection on what poems can and cannot do. “Poems cannot // save us, Amichai said, but all I have are these poems” (page 58).  

If the first section details the many ways unconditional love for a child unfolds, through wonders of babyhood, delights of childhood, the harsh lessons of adolescence, and the successful launch, the final section underscores how deep that love runs. As the cancer illness progressed during the pandemic, issues of separation became more acute. Davis marks the numbers affected (illness and death) by coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19) during the pandemic, as her poems follow her daughter’s cancer. These numbers, along with brief quotations from her daughter’s scans and reports, lend a contrast to the evocative imagery and experience of illness in a loved one. Medical mistakes are chronicled as well (see What a Terrible Mistake).  

The collection is dedicated to Davis’ daughter and her daughter’s children. Even the title, Daughter, calls to her, as if addressing her daughter directly. The title also serves to universalize the parenting of a daughter, even as the particulars of this family are detailed.

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