First Chapter: Exploring the mysteries of the human heart

ANNE CUNNINGHAM

It’s all non-fiction this week, with something for everyone, from a renewed quest for the 'fisher king' to the science of happiness and the practice of meditation. The heart is a lonely hunter but it’s also the centre of our emotions, according to an eminent German heart surgeon, and the shocking memoir of a childhood spent in the care of the state would break a heart of stone.

Renowned heart surgeon Dr Reinhard Friedl explores the mysteries of the human heart in 'The Beat of Life' (Hero €18.99), a book full of surprises. Did you know that every heart is different, just like our fingerprints? Or that the brain doesn’t feel anything and pain is felt only by its membrane? Friedl begins by acknowledging what is already known; that despite the very best efforts of neuroscientists, they haven’t found the root of consciousness. He suggests they never will, until they accept the old-fashioned concept of the heart – not the head – being the crucible of our inner lives. That’s a very crudely compacted synopsis of a book which is a wonder to read, devoid of the laziness of technical medical jargon, very readable with no hint that it’s actually a translation from its original German. This book, heresy or not, makes a persuasive argument.

‘The Spirit of the River’ by Declan Murphy (Lilliput €18) follows the acclaimed naturalist on his search for the kingfisher in the Avoca valley. His previous book, 'A Life in the Trees', focused on following the great spotted woodpecker, though his books are about much than birdwatching. The entire natural world is celebrated here, with allusions to mythology, literature, art and history. He writes fluidly about his own past experiences, right back to childhood, and returns again and again to the lietmotif of King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail. It’s a lucid and lyrical book, full of reverence for the wonders of nature, a paean to the enchantment we can find on the banks of our waterways, just beyond our doorstep.

If it’s a deeper level of consciousness you’re after, then Dermot Whelan’s 'Mind Full' (Gill €16.99) is just the ticket. Broadcaster, funnyman, writer and teacher, Whelan has written a refreshing, illuminating book on the practice of meditation. “Why does the ‘spiritual’ community take itself so seriously?” he asks. And it’s a valid question. Why do they? Whelan believes it’s not only unnecessary but makes meditation an unappealing activity for many. And so he sets about establishing some balance. Don’t be fooled, though, Whelan takes his meditation teaching very seriously. But life is funny. And meditation is meant to be a life-enhancing experience, so there’s fun on almost every page of this marvellous, practical, no-nonsense guide. No smelly candles or woo-woo either.

John Cameron somehow survived a childhood in the care of the state in the 1930s and 40s. His memoir, 'Boy 11963' (Hachette €16.99), is a story of savage beatings, sexual assault and witnessing schoolmates literally beaten to death in the care of the good Christian Brothers in Artane Industrial School, financed by the good Irish state. Now in his eighties, he tells of how he discovered siblings in later life and his research into the catalogue of his parents’ misadventures reads at times like a thriller. These parents abandoned all of their children to the state. The state abandoned them to the barbarity of the church and a religious order that received a ‘headage’ payment for every child they starved, neglected and abused. Despite all this, Cameron went on to be a teacher, marry, raise a family and finally publish his compelling story. A must-read.

Author of 'The Doctor Who Sat for a Year', Brendan Kelly is searching for happiness. Or at least in his latest book, ‘The Science of Happiness’ (Gill €17.99), he has trawled through myriad reports and publications to establish if happiness is quantifiable. What makes us happy? What, indeed, is happiness? And what is it we need to make us happy? His answers are too numerous for this review, but through applying certain strategies, Kelly concludes we can be much happier than we are. This reader is so tired of the ‘science’ of Covid and lockdowns and isolation blah blah blah that any scientist (which is what Kelly is) who’s encouraging us to transcend our current quagmire of angst will most certainly get my vote. And a book that’s heartily endorsed by media superstar Professor Luke O’Neill, sure what more could you want? A vaccine? Ah, go way outa that!

Footnotes...

Dublin’s International Literature Festival takes place from 20th to 30th May. Full details are online now, check out their website at ilfdublin.com.

'Towers and Tall Tales', the Lismore Story Festival for children, is happening 30th April and 1st May, with a full interactive online programme. Check out their website towersandtales.ie for details.

The Strokestown Poetry Festival is online this year, from 29th April to 2nd May. Check their website strokestownpoetry.org for the full programme.

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