Book Review: Phenomenology of Illness

twitterlogoBRReview by Niclas Hundahl.

When we think about the human body, what role does illness play? Should it be awarded only minor attention, given that it can be considered an “irregular” state, something that is out of the ordinary? No, argues Havi Carel in Phenomenology of Illness (Oxford University Press, 2016), we must study illness and the particular embodied experience it brings to those who fall ill. For “the experience of illness is a universal and substantial part of human existence” (1). She makes a distinction between disease, the scientific understanding of physiological dysfunction, and illness, how disease is experienced by the individual.  

30211747Havi Carel is professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol. Having examined illness in much of her previous research, she wanted to bring the full force of phenomenology to bear on the concept, because scientific inquiry is not enough. To fully understand illness, we must see and examine it as lived experience. And what better method to use than phenomenology, the philosophy method most specialized in studying lived experience. Carel focuses on severe, chronic and life-changing ill health, because these have the ability to permanently change how we experience the world, and therefore can reveal much about how we experience the world before illness. Continue reading “Book Review: Phenomenology of Illness”

Book Review: Are You Here For What I’m Here For?

twitterlogoBRReview by Lisa Spieker.

Brian Booker’s debut novel, Are You Here For What I’m Here For? (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016), leaves the reader with a feeling of vague unease. In seven stories, dislocated and troubled characters suffer from rare illnesses, illnesses that remain mostly unnamed and are quite possibly imagined. Even the most mundane of these afflictions are transformed in the characters’ minds until they take on the uncanny quality and significance that everyday objects acquire in fever dreams: Warts on the hands may evolve into rudimentary eyes. Sneezing will have you put into quarantine, possibly for several years. Unrelenting rain causes moods to fester and “a perilous loosening in the delicate structures of the mind” (190).

27135745Booker’s stories are populated by characters and are set in places that at first seem realistic, but turn out to be just a little off; not much, just enough to set you on edge. There are tramps obsessed with the numerology of dreams, a resort guest with “the air of a ruined southern belle” (87), and an obnoxious harbinger of doom. Some stories are set in spaces of otherness, heterotopias that exist in parallel or on the fringes of society and reality. In “Love Trip,” a teenage boy is sent to a boarding school with all the trappings of a New Age cult inspired by the antipsychiatry movement. Pressured to reveal the secret motivations for mentally unbalanced acts he never quite committed, to give up “the lie behind the lie” (241), the boy elaborately describes an invented childhood trauma but becomes increasingly unsure whether he really made it all up. In the story, “A Drowning Accident,” a boy is send to recover from a mysterious sleeping sickness in an East Coast resort reminiscent of the run-down Coney Island freak show in Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things. There, “twice daily in the summer [a deep-sea] net was raised from “The Living Gulfs of Doom,” and whatever cold-blooded monstrosities chanced to have been trapped in that abysmal region were dumped on the planks[…], displayed for all to see” (58). Continue reading “Book Review: Are You Here For What I’m Here For?”

Book Review: Re-Membering

twitterlogoBRReview by Sandra G. Weems

An artist, scholar, and now memoirist, Ann Millett-Gallant casts her personal narrative in collage-like form, assembling a collection of vignettes both textual and visual that invites the reader to step in a bit closer, interpret the disparate elements, and draw larger meaning from the whole. In Re-Membering:  Putting Mind and Body Back Together Following Traumatic Brain Injury (Wisdom House Books, 2016), the author recounts her experiences following the accident that nearly claimed her life, particularly the struggle to piece together her fractured memory. Asserting that her “personal history will never be, and could never be, contained by a linear narrative,” Millett-Gallant has chosen to construct her story in the way she approaches some of her art and conceives of her memory: as a composition of words and images that represent “my ongoing process of integrating the past with present, as well as synthesizing my mental, emotional, and corporeal transformations” (x-xi). Thus, rather than a sustained and closely detailed narrative, the book provides a myriad of glimpses. It comprises four main chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, each juxtaposing accounts of the author’s recovery with color reproductions and interpretations of her art, discussions of other people’s memoirs, artwork, and scholarly texts, as well as excerpts from journals, emails, medical records, art therapy projects, and other bits of text that, together, provide an alternate view of her life.

32283934The rippling implications of the title, Re-Membering, help Millett-Gallant build her narratorial collage in several ways. First, she must “remember” who she is. Because her accident has damaged her memory, she has struggled to remember vital aspects of her personal and professional identity. Second, Millett-Gallant describes how, as a congenital amputee with unique physical needs, she endured the excruciating musculoskeletal responses that often follow brain injury. Learning again to effectively use her members required extensive physical therapy, multiple refittings of prostheses, and a coming-to-terms with the strength and beauty inherent in her disabled body. A third implied, triumphant meaning in the title is that, as the author contends with these obstacles to her recovery, she discovers newfound strength in old relationships and forges new ones. For example, she overcomes feelings of guilt that help her re-member with her family; she proposes to her boyfriend and becomes a member of a happily married couple. In essence, after prolonged isolation and much hard work, Millett-Gallant emerges into society an altered, but altogether stronger, wiser member who recognizes and embraces her agency. Continue reading “Book Review: Re-Membering”

Book Review: Taking Turns

twitterlogoBRReview by Julia Brown

As a reader who enjoys both narrative medicine and graphic memoirs, I could not put down Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 (Penn State University Press, 2017). MK Czerwiec takes her readers for an emotional journey through the height of the 1994 Chicago AIDS epidemic. Czerwiec, a nurse, artist, author and co-curator of GraphicMedicine.org, writes a raw and honest story on the hardships of care (both for the caretakers and patients) that brought me to the brink of tears several times, but never left me feeling hopeless. Information about the AIDS virus and the history of the epidemic, is intertwined with a narrative of personal growth and coping, allowing Taking Turns to both educate and enrapture its readers.

32509945Using her personal experiences in Unit 371, Czerwiec sets out to humanize those with the stigmatized HIV/AIDS virus and to demonstrate the ways in which the act of creating art can be a device for coping with the unmanageable aspects of working or living with an incurable disease. In Unit 371, Czerwiec describes the art room, where patients were able to partake in art therapy:“The art room can offer all of us an alternative emotional vocabulary” (51). Each page of this graphic memoir succeeds in being part of this art therapy practice, providing an alternative emotional vocabulary to the traditional textual narrative. Most panels contain a mixture of words and images that build upon each other’s meaning; some panels only contain a powerful image where words are unnecessary, and others only contain artfully crafted words that paint their own picture. Continue reading “Book Review: Taking Turns”