Book Review: Hot Milk

twitterlogoBRReview by Sarah E. Parker.

I have more of an ear for the language of symptoms and side effects, because that is my mother’s language. Perhaps it is my mother tongue. (135)

Neither a god nor my father is the major plot in my own life. I am anti the major plots. (143).

Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (Bloomsbury, 2016), shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, is a deliciously sensual novel that reads more like a sustained poem than a typical narrative. The protagonist is Sofia Papastergiadis, a 25-year-old woman who has abandoned her PhD in anthropology to take care of her ailing mother, Rose.

[Editor’s note: the following paragraph contains spoilers for plot elements. Some readers may wish to skip to the third paragraph and read to the end.] Continue reading “Book Review: Hot Milk”

Book Review: Self-Medication and Society

twitterlogoBRReview by David Kilgannon.

That familiar ache in your lower back makes you reach for the ibuprofen, while the watery eyes of allergies compels you to keep antihistamines nearby. In these small and normal (even boring) everyday actions an individual is actually engaging in the complex practice of self-medication. It has become part of our daily lives, as the influence of the pharmacy has played an increasing role in public health across the twentieth, and into the twenty-first, century. Yet, as Sylvie Fainzang demonstrates in her new book, Self-Medication and Society: Mirages of Autonomy (Routledge, 2016), an analysis of the underlying dynamics that shape the self-medication process is long overdue.

30557248Fainzang is a French medical anthropologist, who has demonstrated a long-standing interest in the involvement of non-medical actors within the medical sphere, having previously published books on the medical practices of the Bissa people of Burkina Faso (L’intérieur des choses: maladie, divination et reproduction sociale chez les Bisa du Burkina, 1986), the role of medicines in wider society (Médicaments et société. Le patient, le médecin et l’ordonnance, 2001) as well as popular efforts against alcoholism (Curar-se do álcool: antropologia de uma luta contra o alcoolismo, 2007). These studies have demonstrated the influence of groups of patients operating on the fringe of medical orthodoxy. In Self-Medication and Society, Fainzang examines a more nebulous grouping of such patients: those who have eschewed ‘traditional’ approaches towards disease in favor of a personalized treatment carried out without medical supervision. Continue reading “Book Review: Self-Medication and Society”

#SmallActs Toward Climate Justice

During this week leading up to the March for Science in Washington D.C.  we at MedHum | Daily Dose want to reaffirm the importance of rigorous, ongoing scientific research that informs and is informed by social justice action locally, nationally, and globally. In the past year, environmental catastrophes within the United States, such as the Flint water crisis and Dakota Access Pipeline, have highlighted the need for a movement toward environmental sustainability that centers the experiences and leadership of historically and currently marginalized populations who are often most vulnerable to the effects of pollution and climate change.

Below are a few links for those interested in further reading and opportunities for action. We encourage you to take five minutes, fifteen minutes, an hour, half a day — whatever you can spare — to learn something new about the ongoing struggle, and contribute where you can.

Learn about the work of the Indigenous Environmental Network and consider making a donation to support their ongoing efforts. In November 2016, WNYC’s On the Media spoke with IEN organizer Kandi Mossett about the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, and the episode is very much worth listening to.

We encourage you to read and sign the Indigenous Science March for Science Letter of Support, whether as a member of an indigenous community or as an ally.

The NAACP has an Environmental & Climate Justice program that you can learn about and contribute to here.

Learn about the role investigative journalism played in bringing national attention to the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Then read the Michigan Civil Rights Commission report on the water crisis as a manifestation of systemic racism.

If you are interested in joining a public protest over the next two weeks, but are not in the Washington, D.C. area, check out the March for Science (April 22) and People’s Climate March (April 29) websites for local opportunities to make your support for climate justice visible in the streets.

And finally, consider setting up an automatic monthly donation, if it is in your budget, to a climate justice organization — in addition to IEN and NAACP there is and the Union of Concerned Scientists both of which are working toward an equitable, sustainable future.

If you have other suggestions for where MedHum readers might learn more or contribute their time, money, or expertise, please share links below.

Book Review: Ill Composed

twitterlogoBRReview by Elisabeth Brander.

The matter of gender is an area in which medicine and culture are closely intertwined. In her debut monograph, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2015), Olivia Weisser sets out to examine how gender affected patients’ experiences of illness in 17th and 18th century England. On the whole, she succeeds admirably. Ill Composed is a fascinating read that uses a variety of contemporary sources such as diaries, correspondence, and petitions to illustrate how the cultural expectations placed on early modern men and women influenced their perceptions of illness.  

23360229While the book leads off with an overview of the early modern medical landscape, Weisser does not spend much time discussing the finer details of humoral theory or the various treatments available to the sick. Instead, she moves swiftly into investigating how societal norms and illness interacted. In some areas there is an obvious connection. For example, in the early modern period, women were seen as being less rational and more emotional than men; it is therefore not surprising that women had adverse physical responses to emotional disturbances such as the death of a relative or a child falling ill, while men responded to stresses arising from disruptions in their economic circumstances. In other areas, the relationship between the two is less evident. One of Weisser’s more interesting observations focuses on how early modern conceptions of illness were influenced by certain types of writing. She points out that in women’s writing, the authors often adopted a spiritual tone and emphasized the suffering of others as a way to portray themselves as pious and humble. This trait led them to contextualize their illnesses by using the illnesses of others as a point of comparison. In contrast, men were more likely to use their own bodies as points of reference. Their writing tended to focus on closely observing specific sets of circumstances – for example, changes in the natural world, or their business accounts – and this analytical approach is reflected in their descriptions of physical ailments.   

The majority of Weisser’s sources were created by members of the literate upper class, and she states outright that this does create a somewhat biased view of her subject matter. The last chapter, however, is dedicated to the experiences of the lower classes, and is based on the petitions the destitute submitted to their parishes in order to claim charitable support due to ill health. These petitions reveal the classist aspects of illness. While the wealthy could muse about the spiritual implications of their ill health, the poor often reduced it to economic terms – for example, a broken leg could impact their ability to work, and force them to seek financial aid. Many of these petitions also emphasized that their need was only temporary, and that they had always been productive members of the parish. The need for the poor to prove that they were deserving of parish support, and not simply idle, is a concern that remains distressingly relevant even today.

Ill Composed is certainly a work that can be classified as history of medicine, but it also sheds light on how many aspects of early modern life were entwined. Religious life, the history of reading and writing, and economic history are some of the threads woven into Weissler’s text. While it will ultimately hold the most appeal for historians of medicine and gender, it is also a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the early modern world.

Elisabeth Brander is the rare book librarian at the Bernard Becker Medical Library in St. Louis.  She enjoys the sense of wonder that working with rare books brings her.  They also provide an endless source of inspiration for her endeavors into creative writing, which often incorporate aspects of medical and print history.