Nora Roberts, St. Mary's, memory

Books of the Region

April 13, 2003|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

For a typical nonfiction book, not news-related, the first printing may be 5,000 copies. A novel by a known author could go, say, 20,000. Bringing out Birthright (465 pages, $25.95), the latest Nora Roberts novel, its publisher, Penguin Putnam, has ordered a press run of 500,000 copies.

Right now, Roberts is on tour, plugging her book. Rockville is her only listed Maryland stop; but Marylanders are already aware of her as a Maryland native and (Washington County) resident. And this time Maryland is her book's setting.

In an Antietam meadow, outside Woodsboro in Frederick County, a homebuilder's excavators have chanced upon human remains that carbon-date to 3,000 B.C. The world of archaeology is abuzz.

Roberts got her start doing romance fiction paperbacks, so the two scientists who set up camp headquarters with staff are young and handsome and (a twist) used to be a married couple. But one of them, Callie Dunbrook, is distracted by something more immediate -- her parentage has been challenged. And obscure villains would wreck her important dig to dissuade or prevent her from unraveling a puzzle only 30 years old.

Is this Roberts' best book yet? For valid judging, you'd have to brush up on about 150 book titles. What can be underlined is a few of her techniques: dialogue, page after page; sex, frequent and enthusiastic; no smoking; tell-offs a truck driver will want to memorize; rivers of coffee; no politics, religion or class distinctions; sudden, stealthy action; blessedly short sentences.

If Woodsboro could actually show off Callie's prehistoric-artwork find, wow.

A generation ago, St. Mary's Seminary was a girls' finishing school. Then it went public, co-ed and four-year college; with Renwick Jackson as president, it became the only nonprivate college in the country to grace the yearly 100-best lists of liberal arts colleges. Pretty good for a campus down where Potomac joins Chesapeake, hours from a city of any size.

And pretty strenuous, as Jackson recalls in The Golden Run: The Story of St. Mary's College of Maryland, 1968-1982 (McMullan, 536 pages, $29). He took over not just a budget in need of state support but also a staff and faculty in need of improvement. Hardly had he been inaugurated when many students and some professors went hippie -- booze, sex, drugs and passing marks for everyone.

Nowadays, 10 years is roughly the expectation for a college presidency. Jackson, previously a mid-Atlantic Presbyterian minister (with a Ph.D. and experience running a New York City college), brought resilience -- as trustees from traditionally slow-motion southern Maryland helped him survive double revolt: faculty and students.

Jackson tells all this (his office was trashed) vividly. He uses quotation marks throughout; it may be that some of his foes would word it differently. In the end, which included divorce and remarriage, he resigned. But, throughout those dozen years, Renwick Jackson (who introduced international studies) occupied the academic high ground. After reading such an account (named for a boat, at his watery campus), the one question is, who'd want to be a college president?

Alzheimer's disease, AIDS and cancer are slugging it out for the title of humanity's direst scourge -- or has my mind slipped and I'm forgetting heart disease? Well, say this for anyone reading Majid Fotuhi's new book, The Memory Cure: How to Protect Your Brain Against Memory Loss and Alzheimer's Disease (McGraw-Hill, 240 pages, $21.95): long live, and work, the hippocampus.

Dr. Fotuhi is a Johns Hopkins neurologist specializing in Alzheimer's -- and, it still being impossible to say flat out that any living person has it or hasn't -- in fortifying the memory. He's practical, bidding you in nine memory-building steps to pay attention, take notes, try hard, cultivate your emotions, avoid stress and fatigue, play mind games, imagine things, organize and (so as to forget the forgetting) go on, start the steps.

Memory Cure is an upbeat book. If you're able to worry about Alzheimer's, you probably don't have it -- yet. But how about those plaques and tangles inside the old noodle? Get started.

Forty years ago this month, Bill Moore, a Baltimore postal worker, went by bus to Chattanooga, Tenn. There he set out, via Georgia and Alabama, on a one-man, sign-bearing, 340-mile freedom march. His destination was the Mississippi of his boyhood. On the third evening, 97 miles out, just before his 36th birthday, the locals drove out and shot him dead.

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