Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rules for Old Men Waiting (2005)

by Peter Pouncey

This is a short, moving, elegiac novel that deals with grief, aging and facing death. I read it a few years back and plan to revisit it. We think that fiction, too, can be "pathography."

From Publisher Weekly: "From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Begun in 1981, this slender, unpretentious, lyrical and deeply moving novel by the president emeritus of Amherst College was more than two decades in the making. The year is 1987, and octogenarian Robert MacIver is alone, in failing health and debilitated with grief over his wife's recent death, hiding out in the dead of winter in a remote, unheated Cape Cod house "older than the Republic." Shocked into confronting the seriousness of his plight when the timbers of the front porch collapse under his weight, he retreats back inside the house and realizes that he wants to live out his remaining days—however few in number—with dignity. Thus resolved, he formulates his Ten Commandments for Old Men Waiting, the seventh of which is "Work every morning." And so he decides to write a short story about an infantry company in "No Man's Land" in WWI, which will draw on the interviews he conducted with victims of poison gas that he used for his first book, the well-received oral history Voices Through the Smoke. Pouncey's novel thus becomes a story within a novel; and MacIver's story is elegantly juxtaposed with his memories from his own long life. Pouncey's first book is proof that sometimes greatness comes slowly and in small packages. Agent, Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency. (Apr.)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Soul of Medicine (2009)

by Sherwin Nuland
In his essay Nurse and Patient, Osler wrote "To talk of disease is an Arabian Nights' entertainment." While, this book is not exactly a pathography, many of you will want to spend some time with it, since it's a great read and gives insight to both the illness experience and the mind-set of doctors.

For "The Soul of Medicine," Nuland has asked 16 physicians to tell the story of their most memorable patient and, with two of his own additions, cobbled them together into a modern-day version of "The Canterbury Tales." Here, Canterbury is the fictionalized name of the prestigious medical institution where our storytellers' practices intersect, and the tales themselves are delivered by specialty: The Urologist's Tale, The Pediatrician's Tale and so on.

The Soul of Medicine is comprised of 21 short "Illness Narratives," each told in the voice of a different medical specialist. Most are fascinating (at least to other physicians). One wonders if a similar book with chapters told by patients with different disorders might even be better. One thinks of Mandel and Spiro's When Doctors Get Sick (a memorable compendium) in this context.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person (2006)

A Memoir in Comics
by Miriam Engelberg
From Publishers Weekly: "Stricken with breast cancer at a disturbingly young age (43), Engelberg turned to cartooning to cope; the resulting work is both powerful and very funny. She starts at the very beginning, while awaiting her diagnosis. The story follows the cancer trail all the way through surgery, chemo, support groups, wigs, the distraction of cartooning, moving house while completely nauseated and the horror of a second diagnosis. In contrast to the heavy subject matter, Engelberg's artwork is na├»ve to the extreme, though it has some charm. The true strength of the book is its fusion of the deadly serious with the absurd, in the finest tradition of black humor. Engelberg's narrative is riveting. She traces the trajectory of both her diagnosis and her growing obsession with the crossword puzzle in the newspaper's TV guide—"must...avoid...inner...thought... processes," she announces. The reader discovers the author's difficulties in appreciating life's special moments, and witnesses the many compliments she receives on her post-chemo wig. We follow the way the medical profession communicates, the things people say when they don't know what to say and the utter incomprehensibility of not knowing if you're documenting your own slow death. It's extremely honest and extraordinarily powerful. (May) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved."

Also see: Cancer Vixen by Marissa Acocella Marchetto (another graphic cartoon pathography) You will need to scroll down for this post.

Lost in America (2003)

A Journey With My Father
by Sherwin Nuland

From Litt Med NYU Annotations: "Sherwin Nuland has had a distinguished career as a surgeon on the faculty at Yale University and as an author with interests in history of medicine, medical ethics, and medical humanism. In this memoir we become acquainted with a different side of Nuland, that of son to a widowed, immigrant father with whom the author had a complex and difficult relationship.


We learn also that Nuland has suffered from depression on and off since he was preadolescent, experiencing a major breakdown in midlife. This book attempts to make sense out of the family dynamics and the depression. At the same time, it describes the insular world of Russian Jewish immigrants living in New York City's Lower East Side and Bronx in the first half of the 20th century.

This is a well written, absorbing, and sometimes painful-to read-memoir. Nuland attempts to understand his difficult relationship with his father through an exploration of memory, cultural background, and by narrative reconstruction. He is often brutally frank about the fear, mortification, disdain inspired in him by his father. "Maniacal fury," "tormentor," "smothering power," "entangling shame" are terms he uses to describe his father's mood, behavior, and his own feelings about the man. Nuland understands, retrospectively, his own adolescent self-absorption and his near abandonment of Meyer as a young adult."

NY Times Review.

Available in book form, CD and cassette tapes (latter two read by the author) .

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Against Medical Advice (2008)

One Family's Struggle with an Agonizing Medical Mystery
by James Patterson, Hal Friedman and Cory Friedman
This is the true story of Cory Friedman and his family's decades-long battle for survival in the face of extraordinary difficulties and a maddening medical establishment. It is a heart-rending story of struggle and triumph with a climax as dramatic as any James Patterson thriller.
Cory woke up one morning when he was five years old with the uncontrollable urge to twitch his neck. From that day forward his life became a hell of irrepressible tics and involuntary utterances, and Cory embarked on an excruciating journey from specialist to specialist to discover the cause of his disease. Soon it became unclear what tics were symptoms of his disease and what were side effects of the countless combinations of drugs. The only certainty is that it kept getting worse. Simply put: Cory Friedman's life was a living hell.

DJE: This is a moving book. I listened to it from Audible.com. It is maddening to see what the medical establishment did to Cory, who had Tourette's syndrome. I have seen the same thing time and time again with psychiatric patients. It's easy to throw a cocktail of meds at a patient instead of trying to understand and work with him.