Some Books Off the Beaten Path
Touched by Fire: Manic Depression Illness and the Artistic Temperament,
The author, a psychiatrist who has also written of her own struggle with manic depression in An Unquiet Mind (1997), here takes on the challenge of trying to identify the roles manic-depression plays in the creation of works of art, particularly literature. The early part of the book is devoted mostly to studies and research that establish a causal relationship between this illness and the artistic temperament. Not every artist is manic depressive, but an unusually large number of some of the best are. Among the "artists" Jamison cites and comments on (and she provides a list of well-known probable manic-depressives in an appendix), she gives extended attention to Lord Byron. I developed a new attitude toward Byron, one more compassionate and empathetic than my response to him in high school literature class. The most intriguing questions which Jamison asks concern the effects which modern drug therapy for manic-depression may have on stifling inspiration. While grateful for and supportive of the success of some drugs in reducing the number of suicides which occur all too frequently among manic-depressives, she hopes that further drug research and more judicious regulation of dosages may minimize the suffering of this disease without numbing the gifts of inspiration and genius that it so often calls forth. She concedes, however, that the mystery of the link between suffering and authentic, creative, artistic work will not be readily solved by science.
An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood,
by Jimmy Carter (2000)
I probably would not have read this book if Jimmy Carter had not been coming to our bookstore for a signing. I did not get to see him the day of the signing (too crowded, my shift ended before he arrived, and I would have just got a glimpse anyhow) but I'm sure glad I decided to read this memoir. Besides including a large amount of interesting historical detail about conditions in Georgia as he grew up, this former president is very candid about both himself, his family, and the segregated society in which he grew up, among other things. In a story that takes him up to the time of his entrance into Annapolis, he reveals the forces and influences which shaped his personality and outlook. After reading this story, we can better understand and appreciate the energy and altruism that has characterized the post-presidential life of this remarkable man.
Feasting the Heart: Fifty-Two Commentaries for the Air,
by Reynolds Price (2000)
In 1995, Reynolds Price - poet, novelist, essayist, playwright - became one of the "All Things Considered" commentators on National Public Radio. This book includes all of these commentaries plus a few that were never broadcast. In almost every essay, Price meets the challenge of saying something significant briefly and well. My first experience with Reynolds Price the writer was A Whole New Life, the story of his battle with the spinal cancer that has confined him to a wheelchair existence. I was, therefore, particularly intrigued by the essays in which he shared his experiences as a disabled person - "Wheelchair Travel," "Eye Level to a Wheelchair," and "MRI Time." I found much additional food for thought in most of the other essays, particularly those that dealt with his writing and his years of teaching at Duke University, two activities that he hopes to continue doing as long as he is physically able. Although the fifty-two pieces that make up this book cannot compare in depth and intensity to some of his other non-fiction works, e.g. Three Gospels and Letter to a Man in the Fire, they can well serve as a quick and enticing introduction to a remarkable man and writer.
by Reynolds Price (1998)
After reading the previous book, I felt I ought to give one of Price's novels a try. I chose his latest, a "memoir" narrated by a 94 year old North Carolina woman whose life was extraordinary even in its ordinariness. In Roxanna Slade, Price has created a character of real flesh and blood who shares the joys and tragedies, the mistakes and achievements of an existence centered almost entirely in one small rural setting. When I closed the book for the last time, I knew I would still go on hearing (in the words of another reader - and Cold Mountain author - Charles Frazier) her "wise, strong voice talk in [my] mind...about the profound consequences of ordinary lives."
10,000,000 Steps: The Incredible Journey of Paul Reese,
by Paul Reese and Joe Henderson (1993)
The rest of the subtitle captures the essence of this remarkable narrative: "who ran across America a marathon a day for 124 days at age 73." Although this story will appeal especially to dedicated runners, it will, I believe, captivate many others. It is written in a day-by-day form from the daily log Paul kept during this journey. Giving that 400 + page manuscript to Runner's World writer Joe Henderson to polish up was a great decision. I joined Paul and his wife Elaine (who accompanied him at the wheel of their RV) with some questions about the worthwhileness of this endeavor but I was soon so caught up in their adventures and Paul's determination, along with his one-day-at-a-time focus, that my initial skepticism melted away. Paul is no self-centered jock just trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. One of his goals was to help give the lie to the myth that advancing age and athleticism just don't mix. He and his wife were also determined not just to "RUNXUSA," as Paul's t-shirt proclaimed, but to see, learn about and enjoy the sights and people along the way. There is much, too, for readers to enjoy and marvel at as they are drawn into the daily modus operandi, the encountes with critters, weather and people, and the physical, psychological and spiritual qualities that enabled both Paul and Elaine to complete this adventure which became, for them, "a play with 124 acts."
The Camel Knows the Way,
A Journey by Lorna Kelly (1998)
The title of this memoir of Lorna Kellyıs life and her relationship with Mother Teresa refers to an incident which happened to her on a trip to Israel. While in the Red Sea area she decided to rent a camel and guide to take her a few miles across the desert to an historical site. A half-hour into the journey, the guide handed her the reins, jumped from his seat on the camel and started walking back to the market from which they had departed. When Lorna protested this abandonment, the guide shouted back: "The camel knows the way." And it did! This story sets the tone for the spiritual journey which the author shares with us, one which begins when this English-born and glamorous New York Sotheby's auctioneer is given a book about Mother Teresa and decides, in March of 1981, to spend three weeks working with her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. This somewhat impetuous decision leads to a deep personal relationship with Mother Theresa and a renewed relationship with God that turns her life upside down. Lorna's candidness and honesty keep her from coming across as a born-again saint-in-the-making, while Mother Theresa emerges as a saint with very human feelings and foibles. I have read elsewhere about the work with the poor, the orphans, the lepers, the sick and the dying which the Missionaries of Charity do, but Lorna's recounting of the suffering and service encompassed in this ministry is remarkably real and moving. This is a passionate story with twists and turns that are far from predictable. When the last page was finished, I felt a kinship and communion with both Lorna and Mother Teresa that I hope will stay with me as I continue my spiritual journey.
Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist,
by Brother Guy Consolmagno (2000)
There are some, I am sure, who would label the appellation "Vatican scientist" an oxymoron. For these victims of a secular cynicism, this book is a perfect remedy. Guy Consolmago is an astronomer (Ph.D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona) who taught at MIT and spent two years in Africa in the Peace Corps before joining the Jesuit Order in 1989. Assigned to the Vatican Observatory, he serves at the curator of their remarkable meteorite collection. Along with his scientific expertise, he brings to this story a writing style that is exciting and entertaining as well as enlightening. His use of the word "adventures" in the subtitle is not an exaggeration. Those adventures range from the existential (the life decisions that led to his vocation as both a scientist and a Jesuit), to the intellectual (reconciling the seemingly discordant music of science and religion), to the physical (surviving a six week scientific expedition to the Antarctic to collect meteorites). Even if you are not a secular cynic, even if you are, like Brother Guy himself, a seeker after truth who has at the same time made a commitment to a God who created the universe that he seeks to understand, this book is for you.
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