A History of the Present Illness
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A History of the Present Illness

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by Louise Aronson

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A History of the Present Illness takes readers into overlooked lives in the neighborhoods, hospitals, and nursing homes of San Francisco, offering a deeply humane and incisive portrait of health and illness in American today. An elderly Chinese immigrant sacrifices his demented wife's well-being to his son's authority. A busy Latina physician's eldest


A History of the Present Illness takes readers into overlooked lives in the neighborhoods, hospitals, and nursing homes of San Francisco, offering a deeply humane and incisive portrait of health and illness in American today. An elderly Chinese immigrant sacrifices his demented wife's well-being to his son's authority. A busy Latina physician's eldest daughter's need for more attention has disastrous consequences. A young veteran's injuries become a metaphor for the rest of his life. A gay doctor learns very different lessons about family from his life and his work, and a psychiatrist who advocates for the underserved may herself be crazy. Together, these honest and compassionate stories introduce a striking new literary voice and provide a view of what it means to be a doctor and a patient unlike anything we've read before.

In the tradition of Oliver Sacks and Abraham Verghese, Aronson's writing is based on personal experience and addresses topics of current social relevance. Masterfully told, A History of the Present Illness explores the role of stories in medicine and creates a world pulsating with life, speaking truths about what makes us human.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Dr. Aronson writes lovely, nuanced description.” —New York Times

A History of the Present Illness provides an intimate look into how the aging process affects real lives and a non-didactic take on the importance of health care.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“The ethical dilemmas that abound in medicine are prominent but never swamp the stories: these are tales about people, as insightfulas Lorrie Moore or Alice Munro.” —The Independent (UK)

“Aronson's examination of medical culture in stories, of the brutality and tenderness at home and hospital, is a gem. [Her] voice is tender and one from which I hope we'll hear more histories in the future.” —Washington Independent Review of Books

“Aronson effectively illustrates just how jumbled life can be. Hope is limping barely one step ahead of sadness. Human devotion and division, responsibility to self and others are only a smidgen of the subject matter examined by talented and knowledgeable Aronson.” —Booklist

“In A History of the Present Illness Louise Aronson invites us to bear witness as people--with very little fanfare, but with a profound sense of truth--to come to terms with what it really means to be a flawed, sick human being in a flawed, sick world. These stories are about medicine exactly in the way that medicine is about life: here hospitals contain whole worlds, physicians contain their patients, and the emotional and physical gestures of the urge to heal contain the whole fruitful and fruitless work of human connection.” —Chris Adrian

A History of the Present Illness is a collection of stories about doctors and their patients, and about the chronic and presenting situations that bring them to crisis. Eudora Welty described the work of another physician/story writer by saying that 'Chekhov's candor was exploratory and painstaking--he might have used it as the doctor in him would know how, treating the need for truth between human beings as an emergency,' words that seem to me to also apply here. Aronson's quest, too, is for that truth.” —Antonya Nelson

“Some of the most startling and memorable stories I've ever read. A History of the Present Illness is a fascinating study of our fragile human condition, both physical and emotional. Here is a writer--and a doctor--whose empathy for her people, her characters, springs forth on every page.” —Peter Orner

“In A History of the Present Illness, Louise Aronson reveals her remarkable range of voice, from bedwetting Cambodian girl to elderly Jewish man; from paralyzed Bad Boy to pampered ex-surgeon who drinks to forget her depression. If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the closed doors of the sick and the wounded--not on television or in movies but really--then this is the book for you. Compassionate and even anguished, though quietly, Dr. Aronson paints a dark, Rembrandtian portrait, where the faces are solemn, and the clothes and circumstances precisely fit to man, woman, and child. Fiction it may be, but it has the palette and the ring of truth.” —Victoria Sweet, author of God's Hotel

Kirkus Reviews
First-time author Aronson calls on her experience as a professor of medicine for this collection of short stories, which take place in and around a San Francisco hospital. But the stories are less concerned with medical details than with the inner lives of the characters and the psychological toll that health issues take on caregivers, patients and their families. The best story here, "Becoming a Doctor," is about an internship; its brief episodes give glimpses of the life-changing experiences a young doctor might encounter, from impulsive love affairs to the first sighting of medical horrors. Call it a less cute, more truthful version of Grey's Anatomy. In "Giving Good Death," a doctor serves prison time for malpractice, and Aronson focuses on his failed connection with the psychiatrist handling his case. "Vital Signs Stable" concerns a 98-year-old patient who does not die during the story; but the effect of her illness on her family makes the story haunting. At times, Aronson tweaks the narrative format to make a point: In "Blurred Boundary Disorder," the footnotes overwhelm the main text, illustrating the condition of the title. Some of these stories are stronger than others, and a few could use a more compelling plot: In "Heart Failure," a workaholic doctor fails to respond to her neglected daughter's increasingly urgent outbursts, but the final outcome feels anticlimactic. It's the tense atmospheres that Aronson creates, and her empathy for her characters, that make this a promising debut.

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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Meet the Author

Louise Aronson has an MFA from Warren Wilson College and an MD from Harvard. She has received the Sonora Review prize, the New Millennium short fiction award, and three Pushcart nominations. Her fiction has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review and the Literary Review, among other publications. She is an associate professor of medicine at UCSF, where she cares for older patients and directs the Northern California Geriatrics Education Center and UCSF Medical Humanities. She lives in San Francisco.

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A History of the Present Illness 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Louise Aronson is an exceptional writer. Although her new collection contains many "doctor stories" in the tradition of another great physician-writer, William Carlos Williams, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole them as such. These are stories about human beings facing difficult situations -- illness and death but also bad marriages, rebellious children and loneliness. The characters come from a variety of backgrounds, white middle class Americans to first generation immigrants, gulf war veterans and transvestites. And true-to-life, they don't find easy answers to their problems. We as readers watch them struggle to navigate and make sense of life's murkiness and can't help but sympathize. Aronson's style is simple and direct. It is powerful in an understated and unsentimental way. She also likes to play with form - one story is told via the description of a series of snapshots, for example, another in the form of list of things a character knows about her mother-in-law. These innovative forms are both refreshing as well as insightful and clearly not done just for the sake of experimentation. Louise Aronson is as good as Williams, Lahiri and Munro too. I bet many of these stories end up as staples in the best anthologies.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"History of the Present Illness" is a superb story collection. This is not the standard medical memoir: "here's what happened to me in the ER today." No, this is spell-binding fiction a la John Cheever or Alice Munroe. The stories are surprising, eclectic, engaging, and edifying. The characters are fully drawn and so alive on the page. There is not another book like this in the literary medical world. Once you start it, you will not put it down. Easily once of the best books I've read in a long time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a series of fascinating, 'lightly-linked' fictional short stories that all take place in the neighborhoods and hospitals of San Francisco, and all relate to medicine as it is actually practiced in the U.S. today. I call the stories 'lightly-linked' because the reader needs to pay attention to notice some of the connections and common characters deftly interwoven throughout. Although the linkages didn't really further the plot, they added an element of spice to the stories when I suddenly made the connections among the characters. This book isn't exactly light reading. There's a lot of grim and sad material in here. I found tears in my eyes more than once, and finished the book with a heavy heart. It really reinforces how our health care system is failing for so many people - immigrants, children, veterans, the elderly, and also the doctors. So don't buy this expecting some kind of TV version of a medical soap opera; this book is gritty, real, and uncompromising. Dr. Aronson astonishes in her ability to inhabit such a wide array of characters with such compassionate authenticity -- the elderly Chinese man who doesn't speak English and visits his demented wife daily; the recently returned Iraq war veteran; the mentally-disturbed psychiatrist; the child deeply traumatized by his mother's death -- all of these people and many more come alive in deftly-constructed prose. Sometimes Aronson's carefully-constructed prose is a bit too noticeable, as she experiments with a wide range of styles and voices throughout the book, but sometimes her prose is simply delicious, to the point that a single paragraph bears reading and re-reading. As with many story collections, I had my favorites, and others that I didn't like as much, and I'm guessing that these faves will differ for different readers. Overall, I give this book a full five stars, mostly because I know enough about the field of medicine to know that the author has completely nailed it in this collection - she has written a book of such authenticity that it doesn't matter if it's fiction or non-fiction - it's simply the truth.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished reading this book for the second time. Shortly after the first time I read this compilation of sixteen fictional medical stories, the powerful video "Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care" from the Cleveland Clinic went viral, and I thought "This video is the perfect visualization of Dr. Aronson's stories." Her writing shows the thoughts and motivations of each character, even those "just passing through." For example, this passage from "Snapshots From an Institution": "With the tidy chrome machine hidden beneath his lap blanket, he wheeled himself down to the Total Care Unit kitchen, where he sold it at one third its retail value to a woman who smelled of garlic and dirty dishwasher and barely spoke English but knew her kids needed computers if they were going to avoid ending up like the young man from whom she bought the computer. (page 8)" My first read of this book was to just "inhale" the story plots and swallow them whole. During the second read-through, I spent time savoring the perfectly-chosen language Aronson uses to describe the difficult decisions of health care professionals and the complex life circumstances of patients. What I appreciated most was her variety of storytelling formats. In "Becoming a Doctor," Aronson uses the titles of classic works of feminist literature (The Second Sex, The Yellow Wallpaper) as subtitles for short snapshots of the medical training of a young female doctor. In "Twenty-Five Things I Know About My Husband's Mother" Aronson uses a simple numbered list to expertly craft a story of the life and death of a woman the narrator has never even met. Each story offers the reader a chance to reflect on their own interactions with the health care system and reconsider the lives in which patients and doctors are situated. There is a lot more room for understanding on both sides. Note: A few months after I first read this book, Dr. Aronson, the author, was awarded a prestigious Gold Foundation Professorship from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation where I work. I am excited for the opportunity to work more closely with such a talented and thoughtful writer!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Many of the episodes described seemed contrived and be designed to deliver messages about life style. One longer story recalled the story in early American literature of Ethan Frome. A man tries to end an unhappy triangle by committing suicide by running a sled into a tree with his new love. He is punished by his survival and her being rendered and invalid for whom he and his wife then have to care. It felt like fiction.