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2016 L&H DISCUSSION SCHEDULE - Facilitator Notes



Wed, Dec 14 UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book: Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson

Facilitator: Mark Matheson, D.Phil.

In Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter (2015), Kate Clifford Larson tells the story of a special-needs child in a famous American family. The third child and first daughter of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Rosemary experienced serious developmental and intellectual delays, and this set her apart among her high-achieving siblings. Larson sketches the cultural milieu that influenced how the Kennedy parents attempted to deal with Rosemary’s needs. These include the Catholic Church, Irish Boston politics, and various early twentieth-century efforts to understand and address the problems faced by children with disabilities. Larson explores the complicated dynamics of the Kennedy family, including the marriage of Joe and Rose and the very high parental expectations they imposed on their children. The book is a portrait of an American family of great consequence, and Larson offers a thought-provoking exploration of the evolving medical and educational responses to special-needs children during the twentieth century.

Wed, Nov 9 UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book: We are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel by Karen Joy Fowler

Facilitator: Rachel Borup, PhD

Rosemary Cooke and her twin sister Fern had a happy childhood until they were five years old and Fern was mysteriously sent away from the family, a loss that devastated young Rosemary.  What readers of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves soon learn is that, while Rosemary is human, her “sister” is a chimpanzee and their unusual living arrangement has been orchestrated as a scientific experiment by her father, an animal behavior researcher.  Inspired by similar experiments in the 1970s, Fowler’s novel explores ethical dilemmas in scientific research and the complex relationship between humans and other animals.  By turns outrageously comic and deeply sad, the novel reveals the surprising impact of Fern on Rosemary and the way grief can act on a family.    

Wed, Oct 12 UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book: Your Face in Mine: A Novel by Jess Row

Facilitator: Susan Sample, MFA

Plastic surgery has "a racial or ethnic component," according to Jess Row, whose provocative and acclaimed novel, Your Face in Mine, could be read as a support for his claim.  The book begins when Kelly Thorndike, a scholar who returns to his hometown of Baltimore after the death of his Chinese wife and their daughter in a car accident, happens to encounter a man who looks eerily familiar.  Only when the man addresses him does Kelly realize that the stranger was one of his closest friends:  Martin Lipkin, then a white Jewish teen who played in their punk trio.  Now he is Martin Wilkinson, a community leader and businessman, and he is black.  After suffering psychologically most of life from "racial dysphoria," Martin underwent racial reassignment surgery in Bangkok; even his wife, a black attorney, is unaware of his past. Martin's revelation launches the novel into a fascinating exploration of identity, race, and culture.  It focuses less on "passing" than on the impact others' identity has on our own personal history and sense of self. Additionally, the novel raises ethical questions surrounding medicine, including the ends of plastic surgery. As the author is quoted, "I wanted people to ask, 'If I could have the surgery, would I?'" 

Wed, Sept 14 UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book: On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

Facilitator: Rachel Borup, PhD 

 Oliver Sacks has been called “the poet laureate of medicine” and “the bard of brain disorders.”  Not an uncontroversial figure, he is one of the pioneers in narrative medicine, or the idea that listening to patients’ unique stories is a key part of diagnosing and treating their diseases.  In his 2015 memoir, On the Move:  A Life, the neurologist who famously found his patients’ compulsions so fascinating turns his analytic gaze on himself, examining, among other things, his early obsession with motorcycles and weight lifting, his experimentation and addiction to drugs, and his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality and find intimate companionship.  Sacks died in 2015 and many call this last book his most revealing.    

Wed, Aug 10

UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book: The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks

Facilitator: Gretchen Case, PhD

In The Center Cannot Hold, Elyn Saks eloquently describes schizophrenia from the perspective of someone who has actually lived with its varying manifestations.  Saks brings impressive scholarship in the areas of law and psychoanalysis to bear on her own life experiences, elevating this book from simply a well-written memoir to a compelling study of what it means to be mentally ill, and how institutions and laws created to help people just as often limit and stigmatize them.  Saks’ writing urges the reader to reconsider many assumptions about schizophrenia and its treatment and to think deeply about ingrained concepts like normal, successful, or stable.  

Wed, July 13 UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book: Paula: A Memoir by Isabel Allende

Facilitator: Gretchen Case, PhD

Allende is best known for writing fiction, and particularly for the magical realism of her novels.  But Paula is not fiction; rather, it is Allende’s searingly personal account of her daughter’s slow death from porphyria, a rare blood disease.  This memoir is written to Paula, in a coma in the months leading up to her death, but draws on family stories from times past.

Wed, June 8 UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book: The Professor and the President by Stephen Hess

Facilitator: Mark Matheson, D.Phil.

The Professor and the President (2015), by Stephen Hess, offers a brief but focused account of the relationship between President Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  They were certainly an odd pair: a career conservative politician and a liberal Sociology professor from Harvard.  On being elected President in 1968, Nixon invited Moynihan to join the White House as his chief advisor for urban affairs.  Moynihan accepted, and he served Nixon for the two-year period covered in this book.   Hess provides a lucid account of the policy-making process that ensued, which was informed by Moynihan’s wit and vibrant intellectual life, and the book as a whole evokes quite powerfully the tumultuous years 1969 and 1970, an era of race riots in the inner cities, the Vietnam War, and campus protests.  It also returns us to a time when the two major political parties were capable of working together productively, as exemplified by the Nixon-Moynihan alliance, in a manner that seems impossible today.  Stephen Hess was Moynihan’s deputy at the time, and over the decades he served many Presidents as a moderate Republican.  Of course this quaint political identity makes him a rara avis in the current environment, and therein lies much of the book’s interest.  We are fortunate to have in our group a stray individual of this species, Dr. David Sundwall, who is no stranger to the work of crafting social policies that advance the health and well being of whole populations.  I look forward to getting responses from Dr. Sundwall and from all of you to Hess’s provocative presentation of the politics of another time.

Wed, May 11 UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book: Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflection on Race and Medicine by Damon Tweedy

Facilitator: Gretchen Case, PhD

Black Man in A White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflection on Race and Medicine. Physician Damon Tweedy’s memoir about his training and practice includes stories from top medical centers and remote rural clinics.  All of his stories are infused with his perspective as an African-American man in a field that has a troubled history with black patients and black providers.  He offers first-person experiences as the subject of bias and discrimination, but also lets readers see his own assumptions and prejudices.  This book opens an important discussion on how and why race matters to medicine in the United States.  

Wed, April 13 UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book: Lasting: Poems on Aging, Edited by Meg Files 

Facilitator: Susan Sample, MFA

This unique anthology encompasses work by more than 100 respected poets who describe in language vivid and poignant, profound and downright funny, different facets of the aging, a topic that has been requested by discussion group participants. The authors keenly observe the bodies of parents and recollect grandparents' storied lives.  They translate complaints of old friends into warnings and wisdom; they imagine the lives of strangers with empathy and hope. The writers also turn inward, reflecting on their own identities as they move into and out of their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.  What emerges is a prism of the aging process that shows the inevitability of death but more exquisitely, refracts time into myriad small, rich moments of lived experience that endure.  This is an anthology about the lasting quality of life.

Even if poetry is not your favorite genre, I encourage you to read through this collection with impunity.  If you don't like a particular poem, turn the page; find a different writer giving voice to a different perspective.  I think you'll find these poems accessible and provocative, providing topics for discussion that all may join in.  For example, the anticipation of loss and the relationship between words, memory, and loss are addressed respectively in "A Brief History of Fathers" and "Living Room."  Other poems in the book's first section I'd suggest reading include: "Zahkia," "The Elders" and "Elegy, Kahuku."  In the second section, which centers on first-hand experience of aging, we'll discuss: "Silent Heart Attack," "That's Not Me," "The Lost Garden," "The Art of French Cooking," "From Hafiz on Aging…," "The Bookshelf," "Old Man," "A Woman Like Yourself," and "Fana Al-Fana."  In the last section on mortality and the finality of aging, we'll consider:  "Burial Rites," "Station," "Hawksbane," and "Out Here."

March 9

UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book:  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Facilitator: Rachel Borup, PhD

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah tells the story of a young Nigerian couple, Ifemelu and Obinze, who leave their home country and painfully part ways to pursue their separate academic and professional dreams in the U.S. and England.  Adichie, a Nigerian-born Princeton-educated writer who continues to split her time between the U.S. and Nigeria, has a keen eye for the difficult and even ridiculous ways in which immigrants and people of color must navigate the complex issue of race.  Ifemelu never felt “black” until she came to America;  her blog posts, which form part of the novel, offer her frank and sometimes funny observations on the way race comes up in everyday interactions in the U.S.  The story comes full circle when Ifemelu and Obinze return to Nigeria and try to reconcile who they once were with all that they’ve become.

Wed, February 10

UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book: Do No Harm:  Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

Facilitator: Susan Sample, MFA, PhD

Henry Marsh is recognized as one of Britain's leading neurosurgeons and his memoir is ranked among the top 100 books for 2015 by the New York Times.  It is a "frank and absorbing account [that] combines biography, descriptions of operations and considerations of policy."  Each chapter begins with a definition of the medical term that serves as the title.  Many are commonly known—"Aneurysm" and "Glioblastoma"; others--"Angor anima"--not so much.  The stories that follow, however, are unique, as the 65-year-old surgeon describes not only technical difficulties of operations in intimate detail but the emotional predicaments.  "The surgeon is now a villain and perpetrator, or at best, incompetent, no longer heroic and all-powerful," he writes after visiting a patient he "damaged."  What sets Marsh's memoir apart is the candor of his reflections.  As he notes in "Hubris," "this was the time when I became a little sadder but, I would like to think, much wiser."  Whether physicians, other health-care professionals, or the public, readers certainly benefit from Marsh's honesty and insight.  For our discussion, I suggest we focus on the chapters:  "Melodrama," "Tic douloureux," "Hubris," Photopsia," and "Tyrosine kinase."    

Wed, January 6 UU Hosp Large Conf Rm W1220

Book:  Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of talk in the Digital Age by Sherry Turkle

Facilitator: Mark Matheson, D. Phil

Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age (2015) asks us to evaluate the effects of technology on our fundamental human interactions.   Her thesis is that digital technology is undermining our capacity for conversation, and with it the opportunity for developing our capacities for self-reflection and empathy.   The book takes its place, for our group, in quite a long history of reading about human conversation, including Montaigne’s celebration of the creativity of talk from the 16th century and the recent Difficult Conversations.   We’ve also had many discussions over the years about speaking and listening in the context of health care relationships.  Turkle’s book raises an important cultural question for our time, and I look forward to hearing and discussing our responses.  Clearly the Medicine and Literature Discussion Group is one antidote to the problem diagnosed in Turkle’s work!