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If you could achieve immortality, would you do it? What would you do with that gift? Follow your dreams? Travel to exotic places? Or perhaps, protect civilization from an evil immortal hell-bent on taking over the world?
Those are some of the themes explored by David J. Castello in his interesting debut novel, The Diary of an Immortal (1945-1959) (Book Baby; paperback; $17.99; 307 pages).
This book would fit in the category of magical realism (think The Green Mile by Stephen King), and Castello has done his homework to present an improbable — but plausible — story line. If you use your imagination, this book will be an entertaining read.
That’s what Castello did.
“The novel came to me in a series of dreams,” he said. “I couldn’t place the genre to what I’d written until I saw The Green Mile and thought to myself, ‘Whatever genre that movie is, mine is too.’”
Castello tells the story of Steven Ronson, an Army combat medic during World War II who had seen more than his share of death. He has seen 19-year-old soldiers believe they were invincible, even immortal — until their faces are transformed into utter disbelief as bullets cut them down and they realize they are dying.
When Ronson’s outfit liberates the notorious concentration camp at Dachau in April 1945, the young medic makes an incredible discovery — a box of bottled pills that is a 50-year supply of an immortality formula intended for Adolf Hitler.
Ronson takes the pills, consumes them and then embarks on a journey to find himself. He returns to his Florida home after the war ends but soon travels to New York. Suddenly comfortable among the jazz elite in Manhattan, Ronson excels on the saxophone, playing notes that even established stars like Charlie Parker are astounded to hear. He becomes friends with a former British missionary who talks about Buddhist monks in China who have guarded the original immortality formula for centuries. Ronson has a casual interest in that, but is much more enthralled by the missionary’s adopted niece.
More on the story line in a minute. Here is some background on the author.
I have known Castello for more than 40 years, as we both attended junior high and high school together in South Florida. He graduated a year ahead of me and I was in the same class as his younger brother, Michael. The brothers put together a band during those high school years and were pretty good. They really became successful during the 1990s when the dot-com era emerged, as they bought some key domains, sold a few and maintain some now. Castello is the editor-in-chief and chief operating officer at CCIN (Castello Cities Internet Network); Michael is the CEO and president.
Castello is now based in Nashville and plays drums for Bree, a three-member rock ’n’ roll band named for his wife, who is the group’s lead singer.
The musical subplot in Diary of an Immortal shows Castello’s knowledge of the industry and is an informative read. Sharp-eyed readers might chuckle at the use of Ronson as a last name for the main character, as it appears to be a nod toward the late English guitarist Mick Ronson, who worked with David Bowie during the 1970s.
But “I’ve been writing longer than I’ve been playing drums,” Castello said.
What is striking about Diary of an Immortal is the character development. Steven Ronson is a believable figure, and so are his supporting characters. Jennifer Harrison is a beautiful, sassy, petulant woman who drives her uncle Albert to distraction but has Ronson charmed. Hines Winston is a brassy impresario who wants to hit it big with a band and sees Ronson as his meal ticket.
The characters Ronson encounters in China are interesting, too. A pair of immortals, Chow Li and Chang Sou, provides the tension in the second half of the book. Chow Li is the pacifist teacher, while Chang Sou seeks to dominate the world.
How does one defeat an immortal? Castello presents an interesting scenario, filled with tension and sadness. But the final twist of the book, which is foreshadowed in the opening chapters, is a satisfying finish.
Castello’s research is solid and he presents the reader with some good history about China’s struggles during the 1940s and ’50s.
“I did tons of historical research, almost to the point of obsession,” Castello said.
It pays off in Diary of an Immortal. Castello starts off slowly and picks up the pace as the book moves forward. There are some key moments where the reader might stop and think, “Whoa …” — but that’s the mark of a good writer.
Immortality can be a gift, or it could be a curse. Castello shows the reader both sides of that eternal equation.
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Sometimes, the best biographies are the ones that have no input from the subject. That forces the author to dig, probe and sift through information and digest the views of third parties. The great moments can be tempered by the embarrassing ones, and the author can write about good and bad with clarity and impartiality.
That’s what makes Jeff Pearlman’s biography about Brett Favre so compelling. He interviewed 573 people for Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; hardback; $28; 432 pages), and Favre was not among them. It doesn’t matter. Favre’s family was more than cooperative, and Pearlman coaxed some great anecdotes out of them about his youth.
“I’m not saying Brett’s mean now,” Pearlman quotes his sister, Brandi. “But long ago … God.”
Pearlman then gives the reader more, noting that “a pause follows, one that suggests Brandi is asking herself, Am I revealing too much? Then, more words.”
That’s great stuff. The casual reader knows about Favre and his magnificent career in the NFL. They know he threw for 508 touchdown passes and 71,838 yards, and that he led the Green Bay Packers to two Super Bowls and one championship. They know he was The Associated Press’ most valuable player three years in a row.
It’s what they don’t know that makes Gunslinger compelling, because in his seventh book, Pearlman unearths the qualities that made Favre alternately great, annoying, unbearable and beloved.
Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer, a former ESPN.com columnist and a former staff writer for Newsday and The Tennessean in Nashville. Several of his books have focused on people or teams with bad boy images — the 1986 New York Mets, the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1990s, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. He also has written about the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bears great Walter Payton. His time at Sports Illustrated included a memorable 1999 story about John Rocker that saw the Atlanta Braves closer trash New York, Mets fans and take shots at gays, foreigners and single mothers, to name a few.
So Pearlman is no stranger to controversy and does not dodge it in Gunslinger. He searches for the truth about Favre and doesn't mince words.
Favre was addicted to painkillers during the 1990s, and that is no secret. Pearlman does reveal, however, that Favre was a heavy drinker and a womanizer who thought nothing of hanging out at bars and parties.
“There was soooo much out there,” Pearlman writes. “So much alcohol. So many women. So many nights on the town, where the shots flowed and the midriffs were exposed and the 20-something groupies hovered around their new football god.”
Favre’s longtime girlfriend (now wife) Deanna put a stop to the drinking in the late 1990s when she threatened to leave him, and that had a calming result — sort of.
By now, it’s obvious that Pearlman is balancing the good with the bad of Favre’s life. Sure, there were the exciting plays and victories and exhibitions of steel nerve and toughness on the field. But there also were stories of a player who played hard on and off the field; Packers fans might wince, but Pearlman plays it straight down the middle.
One of the better chapters in the book is Favre’s rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons. Despite a strong college career at Southern Miss, Favre wasn’t held in high esteem by coach Jerry Glanville and was seen as an afterthought on the roster. Nationally he did not cause many ripples; among the indignities he suffered was having his name spelled incorrectly (as Farve) on the front of his 1991 Topps Stadium Club football rookie card.
Glanville saw that Favre was cocky, and while he relished bravado, the coach did not like seeing it from rookies, Pearlman writes. Glanville was quoted as saying that “we gotta have two plane wrecks and four quarterbacks go down” before Favre would see action. Neither scenario happened, and Favre made a humble debut on Oct. 27, 1991, handing off three straight times in a game the Falcons had in hand against the Los Angeles Rams.
Favre was traded to Green Bay after the 1991 season, where he could “turn over a new leaf” for his career.
Boy, did he ever, even after his first complete in the NFL was to himself. Tampa Bay’s Ray Seals batted a Favre pass back to the quarterback, who managed to run 2 yards before being tackled. So Favre caught one pass for minus-7 yards during a 31-3 loss to the Buccaneers at Tampa Stadium on Sept. 13, 1992.
Favre steadily improved his game and became a respected quarterback. He reveled in taunts with defensive stars like Tampa Bay’s Warren Sapp and wasn’t afraid to congratulate an opponent for a “good play.” Favre was hit hard many times during his career, but he always bounced back up, ready for the next play.
The reason defensive standout Reggie White spurned other free agency offers and signed with Green Bay was because of the team’s tradition — and not because the Packers’ brass took him to dinner at a local Red Lobster.
But Favre also was a factor without even making a pitch. “White couldn’t shake Brett Favre from his mind,” Pearlman writes. “The cockiness. The spunk. The toughness.”
Pearlman devotes plenty of attention to Favre’s father, Irv, who coached his son and never took advantage of the boy’s rocket-like arm, preferring instead to run the ball. The elder Favre was a tough customer who believed in hard work and no excuses. Sympathy was not in his vocabulary. When Irv died in 2003, Favre played the game of his life in his father’s memory.
Pearlman also chronicles the testy relationship between Favre and the man who replaced him, Aaron Rodgers, and writes about Favre’s traumatic post-Packers career.
“In many ways, a biography is a search for definition of character,” Pearlman writes in his prologue, explaining that it is futile to know what someone is thinking at a particular time in his career. He’s right; it’s impossible. “What you can do is understand what causes a person to tick, and how he became who he ultimately became, and what he did to make the world a better, or worse, or more interesting place.”
Favre was a hell-raiser, a womanizer, a beer-drinker and a flawed person. He made some brilliant plays and executed some dumb moves in life. But he also excited millions of fans with his go-for-broke playing style, and always had time for children in need. His is a complicated life, and Pearlman does a nice job of presenting all sides of this Hall of Fame quarterback.
I love to blog about sports books and give my opinion. Baseball books are my favorites, but I read and review all kinds of books.