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Book Review
Sunday, July 14, 2013
Rymes With Peppery: The Problem-Solving Doctor of Nantucket

"Island Practice" by Pam Belluck (PublicAffairs, $25.99)

The quintessential New England character is well known: fiercely independent, outspoken, often crusty and the very model of moral rectitude. Nowhere is this more evident than on Massachusett's "Grey Lady," Nantucket.

Thirty miles out to sea, subject to smothering fog, violent storms and, at times, near complete isolation, Nantucket turns inward. Known as a summer destination for the rich and famous, the island out of season is home to 10,000 year-round residents, many of whom derive their livelihood from serving their well-heeled summer neighbors. While the island's isolation provides solace and a sense of remove from the chaos of "America" (as Nantucketers refer to the mainland), it also presents special challenges.

Chief among those is competent medical care. Nantucket Cottage Hospital has been serving the medical needs of the community since 1911. And since 1983 it has been command central to Dr. Tim Lepore (appropriately enough rhymes with "peppery"), a brilliant, albeit mostly self-taught surgeon, contrarian, Libertarian, card-carrying member of NRA (he often reports to work in a hunting vest), curmudgeon and caring, if exasperating father figure.

Born on the Massachu-setts mainland, son of a highly-respected physician and himself a Harvard and Tufts Medical School graduate, Dr. Lepore today is a dedicated physician with a young family on the island who quickly established a reputation as an original problem solver.

Observing the benefits cannabis provides to patients in cancer treatment, Dr. Lepore encouraged his pothead friend Henry to bake therapeutic cookies for those so suffering. While medical marijua- na is not yet legal in Massa-chusetts, Nantucketers can avail themselves of medicinal weed thanks to this unusual collaboration.

A nonconforming political conservative, Dr. Lepore nevertheless performs abortions. He is the acknowledged world expert in tick-borne diseases, an island scourge. He also collects roadkill for Alex, his red-tailed hawk, often leaving the meals throughout his house. One of his daughter's friends was startled to find frozen mice in the ice cube tray. "Mousicles" deadpanned Lepore.

Pam Belluck's "Island Practice," published last year, has created considerable buzz throughout Cape Cod and the islands. Her portrait of one of the last of the great iconoclasts is riveting. The good doctor is a maverick by anyone's definition, one who might be declared insane on the mainland but in abnormal-tolerant Nantucket, he is simply "eccentric," a trait that endears him to the locals.

As the little island hospital now merges with the corporate Massachusetts General Hospital, the chief administrator worries: "How do you replace a guy like that? There probably isn't another Tim Lepore in the whole country."

-- Reviewed

by George Fontana

"SATCHMO" By Gary Giddins (Doubleday $24.95)

"I loved and respected Louis Armstrong. He was born poor, died rich and never hurt anyone along the way," said Duke Ellington.

That simple but eloquent tribute is a tidy summation of the life of one of the 20th century's foremost jazz musicians, entertainers and personalities. Using previously unavailable personal manuscripts and photographs -- and all capital letters for the title -- Gary Giddins has captured the aura and greatness of the man known to many as Satchmo.

Perhaps the most unexpected revelation in the book is Armstrong's talent as a writer, and a rather prolific writer at that. He wrote more than two dozen magazine articles, a monthly column for the Harlem Tattler, his self-penned (albeit heavily edited) autobiography "Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans," and a book review of Alan Lomax's "Mr. Jelly Roll" for the New York Times Book Review. Impressive for a man who picked up what little formal education he received at the Colored Waifs' Home for Boys.

Much has been written about Armstrong's childhood in New Orleans. The grinding poverty, his years at the Waifs' Home and his mother's likely profession as a prostitute have all been grist for the well-oiled biography mill. But in this latest biography we have the man's own words, his own insights. He's forthright in discussing his mother: "Whether Maryann was selling fish" (meaning hustling) "I could not say. If she was, she certainly kept it out of sight." Resourceful and ambitious, Louis did whatever he could to keep the family solvent. He cleaned graves for "a nice little taste (tips)," sang on the street in a vocal quartet for pennies and sold rags. Later, to defer military duty, he drove a coal wagon.

We learn the names of some of Armstrong's street-smart neighbors on the mean streets of New Orleans' Third Ward: Black Benny, Yellow Lugene, Dirty Dog, Long Head Willie Logan, Hobo Crookit, Cocaine Buddy, Lips the Camel, Big Sore Dick and Nasty Slim were among them. And let's not forget the ladies: Mary Meat Market, Funky Stella, Cross-eyed Louise, Big Vi Green and Foote Mama. Fair to assume they were not among the ladies who lunch.

Armstrong was introduced to music at the Waifs' Home. There's a sweet photo of a very young Louis as a member of the home's brass band. Peter Davis, who taught music at the home, first allowed Louis "to play tambourine, then alto horn, bugle and finally cornet." Davis immediately recognized his student as musically gifted and encouraged him, sometimes taking Louis home to play duets and sing with his niece who played piano. He proved an apt student.

Armstrong's musical apprenticeship was in the dance halls whose names evoke the early rise of jazz. Economy, Co-Operators, Winter Garden, Sans Souci, Pythian Temple, Pete LaLa's Cabaret and Perseverance Hall all figure prominently in the birth of the blues and ragtime and ultimately jazz.

But his first important gig was with Joe "King" Oliver and his Chicago band, playing at Lincoln Gardens. It was during his time with Oliver that Armstrong came into his own as a first-rate jazz musician. Soon he was getting noticed and then invited to New York City by the noted bandleader Fletcher Henderson. "Armstrong taught New York to swing," asserts Giddins. Initially regarded as a rube by his bandmates, Armstrong's brilliant improvisations soon had them "busy overhauling their styles to match the rube's heady rhythms, blues sensibility and incomparable sense of proportion." Lil, his wife, coaxed Louis back to Chicago where his career as a headliner soared. The recordings he made between 1925 and 1928 for Okeh Records still hold up today and validate Armstrong's reputation as "the single most creative and innovative force in jazz history."

Louis Armstrong's career propelled him around the world, through four wives and such disparate venues as royal palaces and White Only clubs and hotels. His work ethic never flagged despite his international fame and considerable wealth. Until shortly before his death, he was still performing one-night stands with his signature energy and brilliance. Although he could afford a more opulent lifestyle, Louis and Lucille (his fourth wife) purchased a modest home in Corona, Queens, in 1943. He remained there until his death in 1971. That said, Armstrong enjoyed life with the same verve he invested in his music. "He was a sensualist who smoked pot daily, devoured rich, simple food, drank heartily, and enjoyed the company of countless women," notes Giddins admiringly.

This is an affectionate but clear-eyed biography of a great American original.

-- Reviewed

by George Fontana