Monday, December 31, 2007

North River by Pete Hamill

PLOT: Dr James Delaney treats everyone in his old neighborhood, even when they can't pay him or if they are dangerous. It's 1934, and most of his patients cannot afford his compassionate care, but Delaney's commitment to his community is firm. These are his people - the gangsters, the wife beaters, the prostitutes, and the alcoholics. He cares for all of them. The place - New York City - is part of his being, the deep roots of his identity. He loves his wife Molly, but she disappeared months before and Delaney doesn't know if she's even alive. His daughter, Grace, left home to follow revolutionary dreams, and in the bleak New York winter, Delaney is alone. He is a grey man in a grey world, burdened by regret, loneliness and sorrow. Two events are poised to change his life. First, Delaney is yanked out of a dream of ice and loss by the sound of his gate bell; his old friend Eddie Corso, now a gangster, needs his attention. Then, upon his return, Delaney finds that his daughter Grace has literally dumped her three-year-old son on his doorstep on her way to Europe to search for her husband. Delaney hires the Sicilian Rose (who has a past touched by violence) to take care of the child and cook, and in spite of being on Frankie Botts' hitlist for treating Corso and being watched by the FBI who want to find his daughter, colour and light slowly seep into his world.
QUOTE: "He would try as hard as he could to ease their pain. To bring them sleep. To give them another day, another week, another year. The reason was simple. Here all sins were forgiven. Even the sins of James Finbar Delaney."
COMMENT: The unequivocal star of North River is the city. Hamill puts the reader right into old NewYork - so much that you smell Italian sausages cooking and feel the dirty snow under your feet. He creates a neighborhood and its people with vibrant detail. Unlike Chevalier's Burning Bright, whose setting completely overshadows the plot and characters are just shadow puppets on a backdrop of old London, here the characters and the plot are well developed and three dimensional.
Even though there is danger in North River, the danger does not eclipse Delaney's love story or Hamill's song of New York. Recommended. A lovely read.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

COMMENT: I enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen's Union so much that I had to read this one. I wasn't disappointed. Chabon knows how to write with POW! His dialogue is never boring; his characters are well drawn and his plots have great twists and surprises.

PLOT: Gentlemen is set in 10th century Khazaria, a Jewish state bordered by the Kievan Rus, the Byzantine Empire, and Azerbaijan. It is a great adventure - a totally entertaining yarn of two mismatched "gentlemen" con artists and wanderers who are as good in battle as they are with a scam. Amram, a giant Abyssinian ex-soldier, and the pale Jewish doctor Zelikman, a wraith who can fight like a warrior, travel together without plans or maps through the Caucasus Mountains. After a particularly successful evening of separating gullible inn patrons from their money, Amram and Zelikman find themselves the unwillingly protectors and guardians of a deposed and hunted young prince of the legendary Khazar Empire who stubbornly insists on returning to his homeland to avenge the murders of his family members. With this change of plan, our gentlemen and the reader are off and running (riding) headlong into excitement and a story that never slows down. Their way is littered with bodies, marauding Vikings, bloody battles, elephants, and intrigue. In the entertaining Afterword, Chabon explains that his original title was Jews with Swords. Highly recommended - great fun (with some historical interest too)!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Family That Couldn't Sleep - D T Max

Until recently, a "prion" was a bird, a small petrel to be exact. But, in 1982, "prion" gained a new meaning - "proteinaceous infectious particle," rogue proteins that can cause devastating diseases in humans and animals. Prions are proteins that fold, setting off a cascade of folding proteins that destroy surrounding cells. They are not living and cannot be killed by antibiotics or high heat or by any other way we use to treat and contain viruses or bacteria. A book about prion diseases is not going to be a light read, but D.T. Max makes the science comprehensible and the researchers three dimensional, fleshing out their personalities, rivalries and genius.
Max brings the science down to the personal with his study of an Italian family that for generations has been afflicted with "FFI" or fatal familial insomnia. Seemingly at random, family members in each generation have stopped sleeping, begun sweating, become disoriented, agitated, profoundly demented and died. Prions ravage their brains leaving behind plaques and holes. This family's story runs throughout the entire book, giving a glimpse at prion-caused devastation.
Prions first grabbed public attention with mad cow disease, but they've been around for a while. Animal prion diseases include scrapie in sheep and chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wildlife like elk and deer. Humans suffer from BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy - aka mad cow), GSS (Gerstmann-Sträussler syndrome), kuru, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but as Max implies, these conditions could just be the tip of the iceberg. As he points out, one of the characteristics of prion diseases is the presence of amyloid plaques in the brains of infected individuals - plaques very much like those found in Alzheimer's victims.
Comment: Max shows how modern agricultural practices (breeding and feed) have contributed to the spread of prion diseases in both animals and humans. (Cow "cake" - you don't want to know what's in it!) I give The Family That Couldn't Sleep 4 stars for content and clear, uncomplicated delivery.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Playing for Pizza - John Grisham

A completely charming love song to Italy and to football. Now, I must admit that knowing something about football really enhanced my enjoyment of this book. Instead of a football-playing boy, my father got me - a bookish girl, but, off we would go every Friday night (high school) and Saturday (college) to see games and provide me with a proper education in case I should ever meet a football-playing boy I might want to snag and bring home. (It was the South in the 50s.) By the age of ten, I could discuss strategy and plays.

PLOT: Rick Dockery wakes up in the hospital with a nasty concussion (his third) and the news that he has single-handedly defeated the Cleveland Browns in the AFC championship game. Unfortunately, he was playing for the Browns. With quarterbacks 1 and 2 injured, third stringer Rick got his chance to play in the final minutes as the Browns held a secure lead. Not secure enough. With an angry mob storming the hospital and no visitors except his agent, Dockery flees the ignominy to Italy, heaped with scorn and shame from everyone, including his parents. The Parma Panthers are thrilled to have a real, professional quarterback help them fulfill the dream of finally defeating the Bergamo Lions and winning the Italian Football League Super Bowl. The Panthers actually love the game and play for love of the game. By the last page, Rick re-evaluates both his life and the real importance of football.

COMMENT: OK, so some passages read like a travelogue - it's Italy! And, in this ode to la bella vita, what's not to love! The food is described in yummy detail; the people are exuberant, warm and passionate about their football and life; the country is beautiful. Playing for Pizza has an endearing underdog protagonist (we all innately pull for the underdog, don't we), a great setting, and a light, fluffy plot line - molto bene!