From Publishers Weekly
Combining science and personal anecdote is no easy task, and Callahan's ambitious look at the relationship between immunology and selfhood falls somewhat short of the mark. Callahan a poet, essayist and Colorado State University professor of immunology aims to show how the immune system literally and metaphorically forms the basis for our identity. Weaving together bits of memoir, case studies of unusual incidents like human combustion and virally transmitted insanity, and basic explanations of immunology, Callahan shows how the immune system's main function to distinguish between self and nonself, to defend the body from invaders not only determines the boundaries of the basic biological "self" but can metaphorically be applied to our psychological selves as well. Discussing the concept of immunological memory, for instance, Callahan writes, "Enveloped viruses... are so named because they carry with them an `envelope' of lipids and proteins taken from the host cell.... Each time we give the flu to our wives or our cold sores to our husbands, we also give them a little bit of ourselves." These metaphors unfortunately tend to be simplistic and pat. Those reading the book for straightforward scientific information or Oliver Sacks-style medical curiosities will probably be frustrated by the impressionistic prose and meandering narrative. While there are fascinating facts here, as well as some genuinely engaging recollections from Callahan's life, these are interspersed with self-indulgent whimsy. An unusual attempt at genre crossing, the book would have been better off as a traditional memoir without the popular science conceit. (Jan.)Forecast: Callahan is being marketed as a successor to Oliver Sacks, but he lacks Sacks's gift for engaging narrative. Not a comfortable fit in any category and unlikely to be a crossover hit.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Each of the dozen essays in this far-ranging collection could be expanded into a book. With one degree in protein chemistry and another in pathology, Callahan is an imaginative scientist, remarkably able to see connections between seemingly unrelated things and events. Uniting the intriguing life journey he traces is the theme encapsulated in his early observation, "We are individuals because we have immune systems." Each immune system works slightly differently from any other, which makes for individual uniqueness in body and emotions. Callahan explores historical and recent variations among individuals and cultures in life, disease, and death. "Watermarks" investigates the uses of water in humans and animals, for instance, while "The Flame Within" is virtually a detective story about the best-documented instance of human spontaneous combustion, which occurred in Florida in 1951. Analogizing to striking effect, Callahan conveys both science and sympathy. It is hard to think of a type of reader who wouldn't be intrigued by this fascinating book. William BeattyCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved