“THE SONG OF THE CELL” BY SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE

Many reviewers of Siddhartha Mukherjee say that his writing is lyrical, poetic, and suspenseful and they are one hundred per cent correct. They are all those things, but to me (and probably many others) he makes the byzantine and perplexing nature of medicine and biology understandable to the average person.

I have sat in on many pre-med courses and was a faithful subscriber to “Scientific American” for over thirty years and yet I am lucky if I came away from the classes and the reading of the magazine understanding 25 per cent of what was discussed and I have probably retained one per cent of the material over the years.

Yet like his previous works, “The Emperor of All Maladies, and “The Gene” Mr. Mukherjee’s latest non-fiction book, “The Song Of The Cell,”is another mesmerizing, beautifully written, intensely researched, personal, and totally understandable book on the history and the functions of human cells. Whereas blood is often considered the lifeline of a living and functioning human being, it is the cells in humans, and in almost all living creatures, that are the protector, educator, and in the end the undertaker.

Mr. Mukherjee’s detailed analysis and functions of cells and the knowledge and the intense research into cells that is currently going on will very possibly lead to the future cures of diseases and viruses that have plagued humankind since the very beginning of time.

For anyone truly interested in medicine, biology, and the future treatments and survival of the human species, “The Song Of The Cell,” is a must read, as are his two previous books.

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A CURIOUS VIEW: “MY COUSIN CARMELA,” BY JOSEPH SCIUTO

A CURIOUS VIEW: MY COUSIN CARMELA

Sometimes a treasure chest that has intermittently passed before your unsuspecting eyes throughout most of your adult life suddenly catches your attention and when you unlock the door and look inside you discover the hidden pieces of a puzzle that you have unknowingly been looking for your entire life.

About six years ago I started writing a blog titled “A Curious View.” It was in response to the death of my aunt Rena, who was the last surviving member of the fifteen children my grandparents’ had on my mother’s side of the family. Of the fifteen children, four were boys and eleven were girls, and of all those children, my uncles, aunts, and a plenitude of cousins there was virtually no one left to carry on the name of my maternal grandparents, ‘Caggiano.’

My very first memory was of me, at about three years old, sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen with my grandmother and my aunt Jeanette and being fed all the chocolate my little heart desired.

Both my parents worked and my grandmother and aunt looked after me until my mother arrived home. My grandparents’ house in the Bronx was very large and they converted the top floor into a two-bedroom apartment where my parents, two brothers and I lived.

Throughout the day, my grandmothers’ kitchen had a steady stream of visitors, aunts, uncles, friends who lived on the same block, friends from the days when they lived in Harlem, and while they sat there drinking coffee and helping themselves to the best homemade bread I have ever tasted, I listened to the stories they told about their families, unconditional love, grief at the loss of children, and the hardships they encountered when they first arrived in this country.

Many of their stories I still remembered quite vividly and together with the interactions I had throughout my life with my grandmother, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and many friends of the family I figured I had quite a significant amount of material to do an everlasting tribute to this amazing family and hopefully keep the “Caggiano,” name from going extinct… yet it wasn’t long before I realized that I had remembered a lot less than I ever imagined.

The first blog was about my grandmother and the second about my aunt Jeanette. They both were received warmly by family members and a few of my friends. The one surprise was the feedback from by my cousin Carmela Greco. My cousin, who I thought of more as an aunt than cousin, because of the nearly twenty-five-year difference in our ages. Carmela was one of the first grandchildren born to my aunt Mary, one of the older children, and my mother, who was one of the last to be hatched, and didn’t start having children until my cousin was nearly twenty years old.

My cousin liked what I wrote but she asked, “Why didn’t you include this person, or that person? Surely, you spend a long enough time in your grandmother’s kitchen to remember Mrs. Bruno who lived in the house next door and went to visit your grandmother and aunt all the time?”

I had to admit to myself that my cousin was right. Mrs. Bruno was there all the time but of all the people I mentioned in the blog about my grandmother and aunt I had somehow forgotten to mention her and she had a tendency to tell some really wacky stories. Not only that, but her husband Mr. Bruno would sit every night on the stoop with my grandfather and exchange stories while his dog, a lovely German Shepherd who was as laid back as any dog I have ever seen, would sit beside them.

I thanked my cousin for reminding me of Mrs. Bruno and promised that sometime in the next batch of stories I was planning to write I would bring her up. I kept my promise and wrote about her in a story about my aunt Angelina who died at the age of thirteen from an appendicitis many years before I was born but whose birthday and day of death were imprinted on my grandmother’s brain. My aunt Jeanette would always remind me the day before about the anniversary of her sister’s birth or death, and that I shouldn’t take my grandmother’s silence as a reflection on me.

My cousin Carmela was overjoyed that I wrote about my deceased thirteen-year-old aunt because she was fairly sure that many people had forgotten about her since it had been so many years since she passed away, and then she asked, “Why didn’t you mention your mother who almost died a couple of weeks later from an appendicitis but was miraculously healed after a visitation from Saint Joseph? Surely, you know the story and that’s the reason she named you Joseph after Saint Joseph.”

Of course I knew the story, and it should have been included. Both stories were always told in conjunction with one another. Maybe, I did drink one too many beers as a teenager and the damage to my brain was more substantial than I could have ever imagined.

My cousin really did enjoy the stories I wrote about the family and in a very real sense she became my biggest fan and her encyclopedia type memory allowed me to give a much fuller picture of the ‘Caggiano’ family than I ever could have hoped for.

During a short hiatus from my blog, “A Curious View,” my cousin wrote to me  and asked me if I had given up writing? I laughed and replied, “That I was simply taking a break so I could finish a novel I was writing.”

She said, “My God, I would love to read it. You need to send me a copy once it’s finished.”

I replied, “I certainly would but it probably wouldn’t be published for at least three months,” but before she could lodge a complaint about how long it was going to take I remarked, “I have six other novels which have already been published and I could send them to you if you like.”

“Yes, Yes,” She remarked and over the next couple of years she read all my novels and from what she told me she loved them, and not only had she read them all but she had given the books to one of her neighbors who simply loved my writing style.

The next to last novel I sent her was called, “The Ninth Sphere.” The title of the book was taken from Dante’s trilogy titled “The Divine Comedy.” Considered one of the great literary masterpieces ever written, the writer travels through his vision of hell/The Inferno, Purgatory/and Paradiso/Heaven.

It is when he enters the sphere of Heaven that the lovely Beatrice acts as his guide. When they enter Heaven’s final sphere, “The Ninth Sphere,” Beatrice leaves him and as he watches her and the other angels go to sleep inside the large petals of glistening roses the blessing of the Almighty is sprinkled down upon the sleeping children.

When he turns an all-encompassing light rises before him and it is inside this radiant, pure, and brilliant bubble of light that the Almighty welcomes Dante.

My novel, “The Ninth Sphere,” is the most personal novel I have ever written. It is an unbiased recollection of my life, including my many mistakes, my failure to live up to expectations, and how very lucky and fortunate I am to have been raised in a family whose love and support was unconditional and always available.

Needless to say, my cousin Carmela loved it and whereas I might not have mentioned every one of my relatives in the novel I have no doubt she understood that the point of the novel was the importance of family, and how our once merry army of relatives and friends had quickly diminished and that to remember them was the most important thing we could do.

Today is the first day in over 60 years that my cousin’s apartment in the Bronx, where she and her husband raised their two children, is empty.

She passed away after a relatively short illness, but I have no doubt as I write this that she is being welcomed by God into that radiant, pure, and brilliant bubble that Dante walked through. She is once again reunited with her husband who passed away nearly 45 years ago and by her sister, Grace, who was the only member of all our relatives to become a Catholic nun.

I will greatly miss her but I have a strong feeling that our story is far from finished and I could still hear her asking, “What? Are you through with writing?”

“No!”

“Well, then get to it.”

Love, Joe and Melissa.

“THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS,” BY DORIS KERNS GOODWIN.

I have read quite a few books on the Kennedys but, in my opinion, nothing compares to Ms. Goodwin’s, “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.” It is a project that took her nine years to complete. The writing, insights, analysis, and the totality of the book is truly amazing which shouldn’t surprise me since Ms. Goodwin is one of the great historians of our time and her biographies on Lincoln, LBJ and Theodore Roosevelt are among my favorite biographies.

The biography begins with the Fitzgerald family arriving from Ireland in the 1850’s and settling in the North End of Boston where conditions were so bad that thirty five out of every one hundred children died before the age of five and the prejudice against Catholics and Irish immigrants was despicable, as was the prejudice against the Italians, Blacks, and Jews.

The Fitzgerald’s moved up in Boston society as a result of John Fitzgerald, Rose’s father, who became an employee of one of the big bosses in the district and who oversaw the young Fitzgerald’s gradual climb up the ladder of politics and eventually becoming the mayor of the city.

Rose would eventually marry Joseph Kennedy whose ambition was insatiable and whose business successes and wealth would make his family’s name synonymous with those of J.P. Morgan and the Rockefeller’s. The details that Ms. Goodwin’s many characters, especially of the Kennedy family and their children, is done with such clarity and personal recollections that by the end of the biography you feel like you have a personal relationship with all of them.

In the truest sense this is a biography of the immigrants who arrived on the shores of America and were treated, in many ways, in such a manner that one could only describe it as inhumane, and by the time Jack Kennedy becomes president these same immigrant groups would become the foundation that built the greatest industrial nation on earth.

Ms. Goodwin toward the end of the book quotes Melville who said, “We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and people are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as the old hearthstone in (an American) Eden … The seed is sown and the harvest must come.”

ALICE HOFFMAN’S, “ANGEL LANDING.”

“Angel Landing,” By Alice Hoffman is the first book I have read by this magnificent writer that I did not like, and I have read at least ten previous books by her. I did not hate it, and at times it really seemed promising but in the end it just wasn’t the home run her other books were for me. The supporting characters were great and the descriptions of Long Island were wonderful and occasionally the dialogue was great, but the love story between Natalie, an attractive therapist and Michael, a recluse whose conversations at times consist of a few words and prefers to be alone was torturous for this reader and hard to believe. Maybe if I looked at their relationship through the theory of psychoanalysis I might be able able to see the attraction, but at the moment I just don’t have the time for that.

ALICE HOFFMAN’S, “FORTUNE’S DAUGHTER.”

An early gem, published in 1985, from this prolific, amazingly gifted novelist. A juxtaposition between the lives of two ladies: Rae, a young, unmarried woman, with an off again, on again relationship with her boyfriend, who has once again deserted her when he finds out she is pregnant with his baby, and Lila, a middled-aged, married lady who still regrets the baby she was forced to give up for adoption when she was eighteen years old.

Full with an abundance of nature and its relationship to human behavior, a heavy touch of the supernatural and the reading of fortunes through tea leaves, and at its center an amazingly powerful story of the love between a child and its mother and how the lost (death) of a child is a sorrow that a mother never gets over. Beautifully written!!!!!!!

“THE SISTERS OF AUSCHWITZ,” BY ROXAND VAN IPEREN.

I have read numerous books on the Holocaust, seen a few good movies about the Holocaust, and had extensive talks with a dear friend of mine who recently passed away who spend a good deal of his childhood in Auschwitz…not to mention other Holocaust survivors who I have talked to and learned their stories.

You might think after so much exposure to this era in history that I might be somewhat immune to new stories about the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews, and other groups such as the Gypsies, and Communist; and yet the last thing I am is immune. If anything I have become more embittered and disgusted by the actions of the Germans…about the inhumanity they showed they were capable of against fellow human beings.

Back in the 80’s when I still had grand plans about visiting as many countries in the world as possible, the only three countries I said I would never visit were Germany, Japan, and Italy. The atrocities they committed against fellow human beings I could never forgive.

When people would ask me that if I was German or Japanese, and put into the same circumstances, do I actually think I wouldn’t have followed the orders to kill? My answer was always the same, “That one never knows but I would hope to God that I would have the courage to say ‘no,’ and let them take my life before I killed innocent women and children.”

The idea that all German and Japanese citizens were not complicit in the actions of their country men and leaders does not fly with me. Unless you were among the resistance groups against these heartless bastards you were most certainly complicit.

As I got older my stance against these countries softened because I didn’t think the younger generations should have to pay for the crimes committed by their ancestors. And another factor was my advance knowledge of world history during the last 120 years. Sadly, the atrocities committed by the Germans and Japanese were not isolated. There was Turkey’s Holocaust against the Armenians, Stalin’s Holocaust against his own people and the Ukrainians and the Poles. Russia and Syria’s atrocities against Syrian dissenters and innocent children, women, and the elderly, and of course the European colonization of Africa as so brilliantly written about in “Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad.

And of course, America’s embrace of slavery that lead to a Civil War, and even after emancipation the prejudice and murder of blacks across the south and the introduction of the “Jim Crow Laws,” that limited blacks from voting and attending the same schools as whites.

Finally, a word about Roxane Van Iperen’s novel, “The Sisters of Auschwitz,” which in my opinion is one of the best books I have read about the Holocaust. It centers around two sisters, Janny and Lein Brilleslijper and their families and friends who form a network of resistance against the occupying Nazis who have invaded the Netherlands.

The book is an extensive look at how families are split up in the hope of surviving, children living apart from their mothers and fathers, friends of the resistance hiding out in different houses trying to escape the Nazis’ brutality. The hope that the Brilleslijper family and Jews throughout the country put into the Allied liberation of their country which seems like it might never come, and finally the deportation of the family and friends to Auschwitz. The scenes in the concentration camps are so real and horrifying that even this veteran of Holocaust history simply cringed with disgust and pity.

Ms. Iperen also shed’s light on Ann Frank’s family and how her and her sister died in the Bergen-Belsen camp, and how Janny and Lein were their friends and witnessed their deaths. The novel is based totally on facts, documents, letters, and interviews with the sisters and surviving members of their families and the resistance. Sadly, that is the saddest thing about this novel…that its story actually happened.

“WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR SISTER?” BY DENNIS J. TURNER

“What did you Do In The War, Sister,” By Dennis J. Turner is a novel based on letters and documents written by Catholic Sisters, mainly living in Belgium and Italy during World War 2.

The story is told by a fictionalized Belgium nun, Sister Christina, who was born and raised in America and was stationed in a Belgium Convent and School before the war, and given the choice to leave and go back to America when the Germans first invaded she decided to stay.

She tells the story of a courageous and faithful group of nuns who hide many Jews who would have been victims of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution,’ who spy on the Germans and report their findings back to the allies, and who commit acts of sabotage.

Mr. Turner has written an engrossing and moving novel that gives us an inside look on what went on in many Catholic convents during the war. The women, sisters, are an example of many of the unsung heroes during the war, risking their lives and occasionally breaking their vows, to help the unfortunate and innocent.

ALICE HOFFMAN’S, “THE STORY SISTERS.”

What can I say? Ms. Hoffman is such an amazingly talented and accomplished novelist that where I am in awe of her ability, I always come away from reading her books somewhat in a stupor, mystified, and challenged.

“The Story Sisters,” is one of the best books I have read about a devoiced mother raising her three daughters, Meg, Claire, and the oldest Elv. The three sisters are just a few years apart and as young girls are very close, even making up their own language to speak to one another.

The transformation from childhood, to teenagers, to young adults is truly a depiction of the female mind that at times is so true that it is frightening.

Elv is a character that is so complicated yet fully realized that it is going to take me a while to put her aside.

Like everything I have read by Ms. Hoffman, I highly recommend this novel.

ANN HOFFMAN’S, “THE RED GARDEN.”

Ms. Hoffman’s, “The Red Garden,” is a series of short stories that span three hundred years, all connected, in one way or other, to the charming, mystical town of Blackwell, Massachusetts.

The town, foundered in 1750, by a courageous and brave woman, Hallie Brady, who was originally from England and had no fear of bears or deadly blizzards and passed over the treacherous Hightop Mountain with her companions and landed on the other side, disconnected from the rest of Massachusetts by the mountain, and found the town of Blackwell…which was originally named Bearsville.

The founding of Blackwell is the first story in the collection and the next thirteen stories, which take place in sequential order, ends at just about the turn of twenty-first century. The stories are seamlessly weaved together, with recurrent characters and descendants of these characters, leaving the reader in awe and hoping there was no end to the stories.

Ms. Hoffman is a prolific writer and I have read a lot of her books, and never once was I even the least bit dissatisfied with any of her novels. She possesses an acute knowledge of history and animal behavior and her characters are usually nothing short of fascinating. She, like the wonderful Ann Patchett, has a beautifully crafted writing style that young, aspiring writers could learn quite a bit from. “The Red Garden,” is very simply another stunning piece of writing from this superbly gifted writer.

“AND THERE WAS LIGHT,” BY JON MEACHAM

Review “In 1908, in a wild and remote area of the North Caucasus, Leo Tolstoy, the greatest writer of the age, was the guest of a tribal chief “living far away from civilized life in the mountains.” Gathering his family and neighbors, the chief asked Tolstoy to tell stories about the famous men of history. Tolstoy told how he entertained the eager crowd for hours with tales of Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon. When he was winding to a close, the chief stood and said, “But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock….His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.”

The above quote is taken from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s, “Team of Rivals:The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” In my opinion one of the greatest biographies on the Sixteen President of the United States. It is telling tale of how famous President Lincoln had become, but unlike the other men Tolstoy told the chief about, Lincoln’s “deeds were strong as the rock.”

Jon Meacham’s “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle,” is more like a memoir, a diary, written by this flawed but greatest of all presidents. It is so personal, that it left me shaken and next to tears. The research that went into this book is a testimony to Mr. Meacham’s love and awe of this one of a kind president, leader, and commander. 260 pages of this book are simply reference and index notes.

Unlike any book I have read on Lincoln, this book explores the inner workings and beliefs of Lincoln. He possessed a moral compass that might sway occasionally, but in the end it always landed on the righteous and virtuous nature of the man… righteous and virtuous nature we wish in all our leaders and find in so, so few. That is not to say that Lincoln was not an acute politician and depending on the audience swayed from some of his profound beliefs. He understood politics as well as anyone.

He was a man profoundly influenced by the Bible and Christianity, and often quoted from the Bible when making speeches, yet one could not for a fact say that he believed in a God, yet it was passages from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence that formed the foundation of his humanity: That all men are created equal, and in the eyes of a all forgiven God that all men regardless of race, religion, and education deserved to be treated the same and should never to be shackled and involuntarily detained as property.

When greeting the famous, once enslaved, Frederick Douglass at the White House, Mr Douglass said, “That President Lincoln stood up and shook my hand as an equal.”

While reading this great biography, I seriously wondered if any presidents of the United States even came close to the moral convictions of President Lincoln, or was he simply one of a kind like Babe Ruth. The only presidents that I could think of that even came close to Mr. Lincoln, were Presidents Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Joe Biden. Sadly, nearly 160 years after the death of President Lincoln, President Biden is facing a nation divided and like President Lincoln he believes that our country is strongest as a ‘united country’ not as a ‘divided one.’