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2021 L&H DISCUSSION SCHEDULE - Facilitator Notes

Wed, Dec 8 via    zoom

Book:  The Vanishing Half  by Britt Bennett

Facilitator: Maureen Mathison, PhD

In her book, The Vanishing Half, author Brit Bennett weaves the story of twins Stella and Desiree, who at sixteen leave their hometown in search of identity. Growing up the twins are inseparable, yet unique. They have each internalized the early trauma of their lives but experience it differently in their search for self in a racialized world. Bennett beautifully addresses issues of race, family, and identity in her novel. Issues she raises are especially pertinent today as society continues to struggle with race and its legacy in our history.    


Wed, Nov 10 via zoom

Book: A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War by Susan Griffin

Facilitator: Jenny Cochrane, MA

Susan Griffin's A Chorus of Stones is, all at once, a historical narrative and memoir. Her prose weaves the story of global history into the lives of those who lived it--famous and inconspicuous alike--including the lives of her and her family. Much as stones carry the scars of the events of their environment, Griffin explores the idea that the trauma we carry is not ours alone but is a tapestry of pain past and present that we will, in turn, pass on to the future. She examines the toll that personal and global traumas take on our individual psyches--how they blur the lines of traditional gender roles, sex, health, safety, well-being, and sanity. Paragraph by paragraph, Griffin pulls the macrocosm of myriad historical events into the microcosm of identity and proves that we truly are products of all that is and all that has gone before. 


Wed, Oct 6


via zoom

Book: The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts by Tessa Fontaine

Facilitator: Rachel Borup, PhD

Tessa Fontaine’s relationship with her mother was difficult to begin with.  Then her mother’s devastating hemorrhagic stroke put Tessa in the complicated position of caring for a mother who had done a less-than-perfect job of caring for her.  To escape the stress and ongoing emotional trauma of her mother’s health crisis, Tessa learned to eat fire and joined the travelling World of Wonders sideshow, where she performed as Electra, the Electric Woman.  Her memoir alternates between scenes at her mother’s bedside, flashbacks to her difficult childhood, and scenes of adventure with her adopted carnie family.  Tessa is an amazingly gifted writer who studied in the University of Utah’s creative writing program.   Her memoir is sure to spark discussion about the ways in which atypical bodies have been exoticized and vilified by sideshows, the therapeutic benefits of performance art, how outsiders often form alternative communities, difficult mother-daughter relationships, caregiving, and complicated grief.  


Wed, Sept 8 via zoom

Book: The Plague by Albert Camus

Facilitator: Mark Matheson, DPhil

In his novel The Plague (1947), Albert Camus offers a compelling fictional account of an epidemic in a North African city.  The central character is a physician, Dr. Bernard Rieux, who is very active in the town of Oran before the plague and who becomes a leading figure in dealing with its catastrophic effects.  The novel offers a perceptively sequenced presentation of the outbreak, progress, and abatement of the plague.  Living as we still are with the COVID pandemic, we can appreciate Camus’s insight into the consequences of the plague for individuals and institutions.  In both the novel and our current reality, mass infection reveals a great deal about the character of human beings, as it does about organizations—medical, civic, ecclesiastical, and commercial.  One of the real interests for us in reading the novel will be comparing the responses to plague in Camus’s fictional city with those in 21st-century America.  One initial observation: while the narrator is aware that the plague raises political issues in Oran, there is an absence of the politicization of the epidemic along ideological lines that we’ve witnessed in the U.S. since March 2020.  There is also the question of how a physician—and how the medical establishment—deals with this kind of disaster.  Dr. Rieux is persistently stoic, but he faces exhaustion, numbness, and existential philosophical and spiritual quandaries.  The effects of the epidemic on Dr. Rieux—of human suffering on a scale he has never experienced, and about which he can do almost nothing—will be a rich topic of discussion when we gather in September.


Wed, Aug 11


via zoom

Book: Hidden Valley Road:  Inside the Mind of An American Family by Robert Kolker

Facilitator: Gretchen Case, PhD, MA

Hidden Valley Road is frequently described as a “medical mystery” or “medical detective story,” but it is not fiction. Robert Kolker wrote this book about the very real Galvin family and their lives in 20th century Colorado. Of the twelve children in the Galvin family, ten were boys, and six of those boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Their situation was so compelling and unusual that the family was studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. This is a book about the unknowns of mental illness, about a family coping with trauma and hoping for better, and all the ways that medicine is still trying to fully understand the human condition. 

Wed, July 14  via zoom

Book: The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern Life by Matthew J. Wolfe-Meyer

Facilitator: Maureen Mathison, PhD

Sleep is often a topic of conversation—mostly when we haven’t slept enough. Many often think of sleep as a luxury. While eight hours of sleep is desired, it is primarily aspirational for many Americans. The pace of modern life has overwhelmed our days to the point where something has to go, usually restful slumber. Others, suffering from various ailments, rarely have satisfying sleep patterns. The past year especially has highlighted our sleep habits as they have shifted with our lifestyles during the time of COVID. Sleep today embodies cultural, medical and economic issues that saturate our society.

In The Slumbering Masses, Matthew Wolf-Meyer undertakes American sleep, an unusual topic, from an anthropological perspective. As an outsider looking in, he critically examines American views about sleep habits, and challenges us to think about them within the context of history and culture, including that of medicine. His book provides insights into sleep disorders and how they are treated based on three years of fieldwork in a sleep clinic.


Wed, June 9 via zoom

Book: What Are You Going Through: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez

Facilitator: Susan Sample, PhD, MFA

After visiting her friend who is hospitalized with cancer, the narrator in Sigrid Nunez’s novel, What Are You Going Through, reflects on her friend’s troubled relationship with her adult daughter and thinks: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The narrator, like her wry friend, is an unnamed middle-aged woman, yet she is quick to name a movie, a musical, another story “the saddest” of all time. So, it is surprising that the novel, which revolves around her friend’s plan to end her own life and the narrator’s acquiescence to help, is not itself sad. Rather, it is an insightful, compassionate, and often humorous story about relationships, the meaning of life, love, and the limits of language.  It is, as the narrator says of a movie, “a beautifully told story [that] lifts you up.”

Wed, May 12 via zoom

Book: Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science by Shauna Devine

Facilitator: Mark Matheson, DPhil

Next month we’ll discuss Shauna Devine’s Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science (2014).  Devine understands that we typically wince at the subject of the wounded in the Civil War and the medical treatment they received.  But she also makes the case that American medicine advanced enormously during the conflict.  This progress took many forms: a more pervasive knowledge of anatomy, the use of experimental methods to treat injury and disease, and the development of medical research and specialization.  Devine’s study provides a fascinating historical perspective on 19th-Century medicine in this country, including the rise of medical education.  I’m confident the book will be of genuine interest to our group of engaged medical readers.

In considering Devine’s book, I’ve thought often about the poet Walt Whitman’s
service in Civil War hospitals.  In addition to discussing Devine’s work when we get
together, I hope to talk just a bit about Whitman’s accounts of his experience.  When
the War was over, Whitman wrote a prose work called Democratic Vistas, a passionate
vision of the transformative future he believed American Democracy could achieve. 
He notes that it was his experience in the hospitals of the Union Army that led him to
write the book: “I know not whether I shall be understood, but I realize that it is finally
from what I learn’d personally mixing in such scenes that I am now penning these pages.”
He goes on: “One night in the gloomiest period of the war, in the Patent office hospital in
Washington city, as I stood by the bedside of a Pennsylvania soldier, who lay, conscious of
quick approaching death, yet perfectly calm, and with noble, spiritual manner, the veteran
surgeon, turning aside, said to me, that though he had witness’d many, many deaths of
soldiers, and had been a worker at Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, &c., he had not seen
yet the first case of a man or boy that met the approach of dissolution with cowardly qualms
or terror.  My own observation fully bears out the remark.” 

“Let no tongue ever speak in disparagement” of the American people, Whitman declares
at the end of this passage, “to one who has been through the war in the great army hospitals.”


Wed, April 14 via zoom

Book: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Facilitator: Hailey Haffey, PhD

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is a Harlem Renaissance classic rich with insight for present-day analysis of the interplay between gender, class, race, religion, psychology, and bodies. Key for our conversation will be Hurston’s use of storytelling as it relates to the health and wellness of the self and the community. Published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God follows the life story of Janie Crawford, an African American woman who recounts coming of age in rural Florida. Through both first-person and third-person narration, Hurston reveals Janie’s histories of trauma involving illness, death, racism, and gendered violence. In Janie’s relationships with men, with her community, and in the development of her own voice as a narrator, we see the necessity of storytelling as a device of reflection, self-knowledge, and healing in the face of suffering. Further, our discussion will also be framed by a conversation about the ways Hurston’s fiction employs ritual to make meaning through an  introduction to her work as a pioneering anthropologist who personally documented the symbolism and folk medicine of Voodoo culture in the Southern United States, Haiti, and Jamaica.


March 10


Book: A Cross-Genre Selection of Writings about COVID-19

Facilitator: Rachel Borup, PhD

For March’s selection, Rachel Borup has put together a "COVID Reader."  The  pandemic has dominated every aspect of our lives for about a year now and will probably be the greatest health crisis of our generation.  In these short stories and personal essays, some of our greatest writers respond to this moment of great loss and social change with their  talent and creative vision.

The COVID Reader:**
Lorrie Moore, "Face Time"                Jesmyn Ward, "On Witness and Respair"
Charles Wu, "Systems"                       Edwidge Danticat, "One Thing"
"Recipe for Connection"                   Don't Stop Believin" by Shana Mahaffey
by Jennifer Rosner

**for pdfs in the COVID Reader, contact


Wed, February 10


Book: Every Last Breath: A Memoir of Two Illnesses by Joanne Jacobson 

Facilitator: Gretchen Case, PhD

Joanne Jacobson’s memoir Every Last Breath addresses in tandem her own rare blood disorder and her mother’s chronic respiratory condition, exploring themes of hope, loss, remembrance, and resilience. Jacobson combines aspects of poetry and prose in a series of essays on illness and wellness, concepts which take on new meaning when her memoir is read during the pandemic, a time of uncertain health for all of us. Her writing is lyrical and rich in both meaning and metaphors; her attention to detail, keen and resonant, transporting readers into the emotional core of the story. Dr. Joanne Jacobson will join us as a special guest and begin our discussion with a short reading from Every Last Breath.


Wed, January 13 via

Book: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

Facilitator: Susan Sampe, PhD, MFA

Martin Arrowsmith has for generations inspired readers.  His tumultuous journey as a medical student, clinical practitioner, public health officer, and researcher captures conflicts many physicians experience:  medicine vs. science, altruism vs. commerce, medical ethics vs. scientific fraud. Like many classics, however, Sinclair Lewis’1925 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Arrowsmith, can be read from multiple perspectives.  Recently, critical attention has been drawn to the depiction of public health.  As one physician-reviewer noted, “rather than seeming dated, public health aspects of the story can be viewed in the context of modern deadly viral infections and antibiotic resistant bacterial diseases.”  With COVID-19, Arrowsmith takes on new meaning.  We’ll begin our discussion with chapter 31 in which the protagonist, now working for a private research institute, is sent to a Caribbean island to study the effects of a serum he developed on the bubonic plague. The parallels are fascinating as well as uncanny.