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Faith, Madness and Spontaneous Human Combustion Paperback – April 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

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.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

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 Beatty
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley (April 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0425188523
  • ISBN-13: 978-0425188521
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,344,379 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Since leaving graduate school in 1974, the author has pursued biomedical research, first as part of a Nobel Prize-winning team at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, and since 1984 in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology at Colorado State University. All of this research focuses on the workings of human immune and nervous systems and the nature of human selves. In 2004, in recognition of his literary contributions to popular scientific literature, Dr. Callahan received a joint appointment in the Department of English at CSU and between 2011 and 2013 served as the director of the Graduate Creative Nonfiction program in that department. During his career, he has published more than 50 scientific papers in respected scientific journals and more than 70 poems and essays in literary journals as well as four popular-science books. He has received numerous awards for his science, his writing, and his teaching. These include three National Research Service Awards, designation as a Leukemia Society of America Scholar, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship, nomination for a Pulitzer Prize, and the Outstanding Science Faculty Award in 2012. Because of his literary accomplishments, Dr. Callahan is also the Director of the Creative Nonfiction Graduate Program in the Department of English at CSU. Dr. Callahan and his work have been featured in or on, among others: National Geographic Television, ABC Evening News, the Los Angeles Times,, the Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio, Minnesota Public Radio, Talk Radio Europe - Spain, Ms. Magazine, the New Scientist, Discover Magazine, USA Today, the Vancouver Sun, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Georgia Straight, the Rocky Mountain News, ESPN, Publisher's Weekly, Semana Magazine - Columbia, and EPOCA magazine - Brazil.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Ron Iverson on February 24, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I measure a book by my own reaction to it. When I have finished the last page, if the thoughts within the work compel me to look at the world around me--or within me--in a new and different way, it is a good book. Rare are authors who are capable of opening new doors upon this experience we call life. Gerry Callahan is one such author.
Using the immune system as a basis for analogy, he describes the fascinating tasks the human body's immune system must perform in distinguishing "self" from "not self" in order to keep our bodies from being consumed by the microbial world. But this is not a dry text about immunology. It is a personal and philosophical story about the beauty and elegance of life. It is a story about lymphocytes and mitochondria, but it is far more a story about Gerry L. Callahan, his perceptions, his joy, his pain, his truths, and his lies. Equally, it is about all members of the human species.
"It isn't nature that abhors a vacuum, it's humans. We humans don't believe in the limits of human knowledge, even temporary limits. We don't accept the spaces between what we know and what is. So we lie. We lie to fill in those spaces and smooth the fabric of reality. Otherwise this universe, this life, would be unmanageable, overpowering, and terrifying. We lie to make it manageable-all of us."
This book is about Gerry L Callahan filling in the spaces to smooth the fabric of reality. For me, it opened another door.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Red Hood on February 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I call "Faith, Madness..." scientific poetry. It is a work of humanity, written in earnest, baring its flaws and uncertainty to reveal a possible truth about WHY and maybe more importantly HOW we are what we are. Callahan weaves snippets of insightful, passionate prose with personal ancedote to illustrate his theory that our immune systems help to define our individuality. I have been touched by this book. Not only does it speak to my thirst for scientific understanding but it lightly stroked my sense of spirituality. Science books like this don't come around very often.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on March 18, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Callahan is that genre of author I like to describe as "scientifically based mystic." Scientist in that, true to his craft, he primarily uses the scientific method to probe the answers to life in the biological sense. Mystic in that he recognizes that science can provide many wonderful answers and statistics, but seldom the "meta" answers man has yearned for since we can remember.

"Who am I?" and "What is my place in the universe?" are questions seldom answered satisfactorily by science, and more comfortably by religion. Using his considerable experience and knowledge in the science of immunology, Callahan tackles these questions in a much different way then most scientists would, yet without an appeal to religiosity. Always with a healthy respect for the unknown, unseen and unknowable, Callahan deftly explores the hidden relationships between ourselvs, our parents and every other living thing comprising life.

He'll make you think in ways you possibly haven't thought before, and even tug at your heartstrings while recounting intensly personal stories experienced by us all. Highly recommended.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 2, 2003
Format: Paperback
The book was like doing mental calisthenics. Every chapter was fresh, with a new view on life.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys delightful writing that stimulates their mind. Not your general book. Very unique. Written for veteran readers.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By M. J. Martin on July 13, 2006
Format: Paperback
This book, written in a beautiful, almost poetic prose, is engrossing, informative, and covered commonalities of the immune system, human behavior, genetics, family relations, faith, reason and science. I particularly liked the parallels between paranoia and immune system. In paranoia, the mind views almost everything as a threat, and may even inflict damage on innocent parties. In the latter the body attacks itself and other non-threats, causing injury to itself. Also, the details on how the immune system "remembers" and how the various organs police the system was fascinating. Not all of the personal family story snippets tied strongly to the central theme, but all were excellent writing and emotionally powerful. Anyone wanting to expand their horizons and view the world from a unique viewpoint could do well to read Callahan's fine book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Laura Pritchett on July 8, 2006
Format: Paperback
I didn't know a darn thing about the immune system, and it wasn't high on my list of must-research material, but this book is the best one I've read this year. What an amazing book! Absolutely fascinating -- and not just for science minded folks.
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