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Samaritan
Richard Price
Knopf, 377 pp., $25

Ray Mitchell's just got one problem: He's always trying to save something.

It's why he returned to gritty, fictitious Dempsy, N.J., after scoring big as a writer for television shows in Los Angeles, and why he shows up at Paulus Hook, his old high school, and revisits his old neighborhood, a low-income, inner-city housing project called Hopewell.

It's also why he's in neurointensive care at the start of Richard Price's new book Samaritan. After the opening flashbacks establish Price's dramatic vision, his keen eye for details and his gift at nailing the voices and insights of his characters, Samaritan starts off as a sensitively written crime novel whose central mystery is more whydoit than whodunit. Though detective Nareese Ammons--an old neighbor from the same projects who Mitchell once protected as a little girl--probes into the crime, Ray refuses to name his attacker.

But as jump-cut chapters reassemble memories, detail Ammons' ongoing investigation, and start to fill in clues for the reader, Price's little detective story heads for considerably deeper water.

It goes well beyond the factor of race, even though Mitchell's white and Jewish, Ammons is African-American, and most of the characters we meet are an ethnic mix.

Price's central concern instead is with the relationship between philanthropy, pathology--and several varieties of guilt. Liberal white guilt and survivor guilt both go under the microscope to varying degrees, as does that exquisite over-responsibility, the second nature that children from certain abusive homes understand.

Price's unblinking examination of the relationship between the pathological helper and the one being helped will likely make any reader who's ever done the right thing for the wrong reason squirm. His telling indictment of "good intentions" points out that short-term philanthropy is often no philanthropy at all, and that long-term problems are sometimes capable of physically demanding long-term solutions.

All of which makes Samaritan not only a good read as a crime novel, but an uncomfortably on-target work of social criticism as well. Recommended.

Born on a Rotten Day: Illuminating and Coping with the Dark Side of the Zodiac
by Hazel Dixon-Cooper
Fireside Books, 192 pp., $10

Astrology books? They're probably part of the reason I never really got into the zodiac in the first place. Those rare occasions I'd actually leaf through one, the writer invariably seemed to be wrestling with diplomacy; struggling to find the absolutely least offensive way of putting things. Clearly they knew more than they were saying, and just as clearly they'd already sized up their audience as unprepared to hear the worst. The results usually read something like an eternal bad job interview, the kind where the applicant has to offer up an individual weakness but then immediately "discovers" that the blot has actually been a well-hidden secret strength all along, one desirable enough to land the job on the spot. With wilted tact, they allowed for every sign having its own certainly peculiar strengths, and its own, um, unique challenges. Secrets of the universe? In that set of pulled punches?

Not with Hazel Dixon-Cooper. In Born on a Rotten Day, she purports to give the real low-down on each sign: the reasons each should be approached with caution, what you're really in for if you're in love with one, what family life with them is like, and what interoffice intrigues they're capable of dishing up. After a tough-love, lift-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-bucko inventory of your most serious character flaws, each section closes with something called "Quick Tips for Emergencies."

Of course the first section I flipped to was my own. I'm not about to admit that Dixon-Cooper came anywhere near a perfect score. OK, I have a reserved demeanor at work, and one of my favorite old-time TV shows is Dark Shadows. But my favorite book is decidedly not The Klingon Guide to Mercy, and my alleged dream job--judge, jury and executioner--obviously has nothing in common with my career as a theater critic, right?

Despite such shortcomings, other insights--and Dixon-Cooper's amusing, no-holds-barred writing style--made this the first astrology book I've come across where the writer wasn't unsuccessfully holding back the really bad news--and trying not to snicker at the same time.

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