Reynolds Price has long been one of America's most acclaimed and accomplished men of letters -- the author of novels, stories, poems, essays, plays, and a memoir. In A Whole New Life, however, he steps from behind that roster of achievements to present us with a more personal story, a narrative as intimate and compelling as any work of the imagination.
In 1984, a large cancer was discovered in his spinal cord ("The tumor was pencil-thick and gray-colored, ten inches long from my neck-hair downward"). Here, for the first time, Price recounts without self-pity what became a long struggle to withstand and recover from this appalling, if all too common, affliction (one American in three will experience some from of cancer). He charts the first puzzling symptoms; the urgent surgery that fails to remove the growth and the radiation that temporarily arrests it (but hurries his loss of control of his lower body); the occasionally comic trials of rehab; the steady rise of severe pain and reliance on drugs; two further radical surgeries; the sustaining force of a certain religious vision; an eventual discovery of help from biofeedback and hypnosis; and the miraculous return of his powers as a writer in a new, active life.
Beyond the particulars of pain and mortal illness, larger concerns surface here -- a determination to get on with the human interaction that is so much a part of this writer's much-loved work, the gratitude he feels toward kin and friends and some (though by no means all) doctors, the return to his prolific work, and the "now appalling, now astonishing grace of God."
A Whole New Life offers more than the portrait of one brave person in tribulation; it offers honest insight, realistic encouragement and inspiration to others who suffer the bafflement of catastrophic illness or who know someone who does or will.
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Price's account of the medical community is often devastating, while differentiating the care provided by physicians from that of nurses and other therapists. Why are many physicians unable to respond to their patients in a human way?
Does knowledge of the various stages of the grief process actually help when you are grieving? How can we use this knowledge to better help us deal with crises?
How do we deal with both the physical and psychological pain in our lives? Is pain and suffering the result of some wrongdoing on the part of the sufferer?
The author attempted to control the pain of cancer through the use of metaphors or pictorial language. How important do you think Price's ability to describe his condition was to his eventual recovery?
The "whole new life" that Reynolds Price built was an aesthetic creation consisting of literature, poetry, music, art, humor and laughter. Do you think of these aesthetics as luxuries or as basic necessities of life? How can the aesthetic play a greater part in our own daily lives?
Dreaming was crucial to Price's recovery. How do our dreams affect our lives? How can we learn to listen and respect our day dreams as well?
Like the author, we all must rebuild our lives after tragedy strikes. How do we go about this process? What do we need to be told and by whom? What support do we need?
Throughout his ordeal, Price is sustained by faith. How does his relationship with God change, if at all, as a result of his illness?
Price would not press his doctors about the details of his illness, acknowledging that "on balance I think the choice of a high degree of ignorance proved good for me." Do you agree with his approach? How might the outcome have differed if he had more information? What would your preference be?
Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.
Booklist Even about disease and pain, Price speaks beautifully. A special book.
Chicago Tribune An achingly eloquent account...By turns stirring and funny, anguished and joyful.
Daily News (New York) Price writes sincerely and openly, without a trace of self-pity... a clear-eyed book that is as realistic as a sawed-off shotgun. It is wise, and humbling, and it bears reading before it is needed.
Los Angeles Times Book Review The man who emerges from these pages is feisty, gritty, angry...and most appealing.