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Book Reviews

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   The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough. (Oxford University Press, paperback, $19.99). Ursula Goodenough’s father started out as a Methodist preacher, but became obsessed with the need to find out why people were religious. He became a professor of the history of religion.  His daughter, who went on to become one of  America’s leading cell biologists, was confronted with the opposite question: Why am I not religious? She wrote this book in answer to her own question. For Ursula, a Lutheran, the question morphed into “What is being religious, anyway? What about the way I feel about how cells work or creatures evolve? Doesn’t that feel the same as when I’m listening to St. Matthew or standing in the nave of the Notre Dame Cathedral?” This book illustrates how it is possible to feel such religious emotions in the context of a fully modern understanding of nature. Written in the form of a devotional, each chapter—beginning with a biologist’s explanation of how things came to be and how they all come together—is followed by reflections on the wonder of it all. In some cases, these musings draw on the Judeo-Christian traditions so familiar to the author, but for the most part, they describe the feelings of awe when she comes face-to-face with particular facets of the evolutionary story. Her approach, which she calls religious naturalism, may yet prove to be the foundation for a worldview and a common religious orientation that may just save us from ourselves.—David J. Fleming

    Nothing Was the Same by Kay Redfield Jamison. (Knopf, $25). On a winter’s day when Mother Nature teases Chicagoans with the promise of a spring to come (but never soon enough), it’s a rare moment when I rue arriving at my CTA bus stop. But I did today. How could I put down Kay Redfield Jamison’s latest book? Dr. Jamison sums up her story of grief and depression simply. “It has been said that grief is a kind of madness. I disagree. There is sanity to grief, in its just proportion of emotion to cause, that madness does not have…I knew madness well, but I understood little of grief, and I was not always certain which was grief and which was madness. Grief, as it transpires, has its own territory.” Her knowledge of depression and madness isn’t just the secondhand knowledge of a clinician and academic. Diagnosed with bipolar disease, formerly called manic depression, Dr. Jamison’s riveting book, An Unquiet Mind, unblinkingly details her personal battle with the illness. A life-altering book, it brings into focus what madness is and isn’t. One thing it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, is fodder for laughter. In this book, Dr. Jamison details the road she took to write such a professionally risky and personally painful memoir—a road aided by the support and encouragement of her husband Richard Wyatt, M.D. “Silence about mental illness bred a quiet ugliness and set in place the conditions for unnecessary suffering and death…. I had studied and written about depression and bipolar illness for twenty years… My illness had been under good control for many years. If I couldn’t be public about it, it was scarcely reasonable to hope that others would.” Perhaps one day illness—whether mental or physical—will not blame the
victim. After all, no one blames someone for being allergic, or having RA or ALS, but somehow in our not-so-civilized world,
mental illness still has a stigma that Kay Redfield Jamison’s books step forward to end.—Candace Drimmer

   The Hebrew Tutor of Bel Air by Alan Appel. (Coffee House Press, $14.95) The book starts quickly and grabs your attention, making you want to find out why Norman went from being a rabbi-in-training to an open-road biker with no home. This is a coming-of-age tale about Norman’s past. When he gets a job as a Hebrew tutor from his rabbi, he learns about whom to trust in life and where he comes from. His tutee is a loose cannon bent on destroying her family’s fortune and reputation. After learning he is getting paid much more than the agreed $12 dollars a session, Norman finds himself stuck between the recklessness of his love for his student and doing what he knows is the right thing. Highways, motorbikes, money, guns, young love and gambling all blow up in Norman’s face as he tries to keep everything from falling apart between him and his student on their open-road adventure. The title of this book might give the impression of pressing religious beliefs on the reader, but it’s quite the opposite. The book is told without one quotation mark, as if the text is a direct transcription of a tape recording of Norman telling the story. It’s straightforward and linear without awkward time jumps. You get sucked in against your will and finish the book long before you expect. This book is perfect for fans of voice-driven literature—an enjoyable read that will stick in your mind long after you close the book.—Ian Richard Jones

We welcome your review. If we publish it, we will send you a gift certificate for dinner. E-mail to editorial@chicagolife.net or mail to Chicago Life Reviews, P.O. Box 11131, Chicago IL 60611-0311.

Published: April 09, 2010
Issue: 2010 Spring Green Issue