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5 out of 5 starsHeart In Hand

Reviewer: Harold Sokolsky from Burlington, NJ      December 9, 1999

If one has trepidations about mortality, then Dr. Donald Miller may assuage his and her misgivings. His book, Heart In Hand, however, is not just about death and dying, it is about life and living. Indeed, Dr. Miller traces the beginning of life to the one-celled amoeba and carries it forward to man in its highest form, most notably, as defined by Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard Wagner, and Woody Allen. He also makes several references to himself, his family, his friends, and his patients.

He no doubt has spent sleepless nights in Seattle as a heart surgeon, and in the process, has much time to think about six facets of life, each one represented by a chapter in his book. While it may be unusual for one to cross the divide between Schopenhauer and Allen, one sees where the two are not far apart, except by 147 years between birth, and the book is filled with quotations of both, which are treats, and saves one from the tedium of heavy reading, especially Schopenhauer; all of this in just 213 pages of text, with additional endnotes, reading and film selections.

Dr. Miller's explanation of evolution has condensed the so-called theory into very interesting and coherent facts, and could be a primer for teachers. There are also many other facts that could be described as interesting trivia. And his explanation of sex, and indeed, compassion, touches the sensibilities. His chapters, "Searching for God," and the "Metaphysics of Music" are engrossing. But the chapter "Confronting Death" should get to core of everyone's being. Of course, death is inevitable, and when one is born, every day he and she creeps one day closer. But knowing it doesn't help. And for many, it is a perplexing and often debilitating experience. Dr. Miller enlightens us with one quotation from Schopenhauer, "Where was I before my birth?" "For it is irrefutably certain that non-existence after death cannot be different from non-existence before birth..." If one is hesitant to confront any of the volumes that have been written to assuage our fear of death, this chapter is enough. It takes us there without cringing, and with a simple but plausible explanation.

It is Schopenhauer and Woody Allen who are the main players in this book. Unless one has read the older philosopher, probably in his most important work, "The World as Will and Representation," and "Essays and Aphorisms," a compilation selected and translated by R. J.. Hollingdale, much has been missed about his views about compassion, living and dying. Likewise, unless one has analyzed the films of Woody Allen, and assumes that he is more than a comedian, then Dr. Miller shows where he is a deep thinker, and very preoccupied with death, which is made light through his comedy, but has a very serious and obvious cognizance. Dr. Miller is generous in his observations about Schopenhauer, Allen, and finally Richard Wagner, who was immensely influenced by the philosopher and his above mentioned book, and his chapter, "The Metaphysics of Music" is one that will inspire all music lovers, especially Wagnerians. The good doctor again reminds us about the soothing effects of music on our health.

So here we have a small volume packed with much to think about. It is a quick read, engrossing, and one which the reader will no doubt absorb in one sitting, and feel good about it.