Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson – Book


If your eyes and heart were opened to a whole new world filled with oil paints, and tempura, gouache, symbolism, and the subject matter of artists you were probably in your first art history class. It was a revelation that you could watch slides and listen to a professor speak about them and come away with a head full of images that lit up your mind, slapped a smile on your face and made you long for the great museums of NYC and Paris.

This is the place that Walter Isaacson takes you to in his book Leonardo Da Vinci. He puts us back in that art history class as he walks us through the details of Da Vinci’s paintings. There are color plates (even on a Kindle).

However, Leonardo was not first and foremost a painter, although that is certainly one way we remember him. After all, he did paint the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. Leonardo, it seems, was not in love with painting and left many works unfinished. His mind saw all the components of the physical world that needed to be comprehended at great depth in order to make someone a great artist. He spent years dissecting cadavers and made exquisitely detailed anatomy drawings. He wanted to see inside eyes, brains, hearts and he drew very sophisticated conclusions about how bodies work. He studied rocks, birds (to learn about flight) and, in excruciating detail, the movements of water. He studied optics and perspective.

Yes, all of these things relate to art, but they relate even more to physics and engineering. I will leave it to Isaacson to tell you some of the other unique things Da Vinci wanted to know. Leonardo also loved theatrics and building machines for special dramatic effects. In this way he entertained kings and rulers and participated socially in the entertainments of the times, while always searching for a patron to help support his activities, his household, and the students who came to work in his workshop. He was not wealthy, being the illegitimate son of a notary.

Sadly for us, Leonardo was so often enticed by ever newer areas of exploration that he never published his enormous treasure trove of notebooks and he left it to others to receive credit for his discoveries. Perhaps it was because he was left handed and all his notations were made in mirror writing (he wrote from right to left). The idea of ancient aliens who came to earth when men were still quite primitive is now the subject of the Ancient Aliens television series, but I remember running across it years ago. Several times as I read about Da Vinci I thought he might be a distant offspring of such a technologically advanced alien visitor. Walter Isaacson is a true academic though and he said no such thing. He does not deal in conjecture and gives attributions for almost every point he makes in a fairly extensive set of footnotes at the end to the text. There is also a useful index to take you back to sections you want to review.

Isaacson is both a biographer and an art critic, as well as a fan of Leonardo and his book is not at all difficult to read. He doesn’t get bogged down in academia and he clearly wants us to share his admiration for Leonardo Da Vinci. It is a book to read in quiet moments with a nice cup of something warm or on a park bench with your bottled water while taking a break in your daily walk. A chance to dawdle in the 14th and 15th century as Leonardo pursues his life and his art, while wandering Italian towns in his rose colored robes, is the gift that Walter Isaacson gives us.

Grant by Ron Chernow – Book


Grant by Ron Chernow is not a book; it is tome. He writes a very contemporary biography of Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps unclouded by the political passions and machinations of the 19th century. We often hear more that is negative about Grant than what was positive. We hear he was often drunk, that he headed one of the most corrupt governments in our history, that he was a gullible and simple man, without social graces or persuasive public speaking abilities. Writers in the past accepted, for the most part, that Grant had strong military successes, but opinions of his abilities range from a lazy leader to a military savant (which Chernow feels is much closer to the truth).

Prior to the Civil War, America was experiencing a time of great divisiveness (perhaps even worse that what we are seeing in the 21st century). Slavery and state’s rights were the issues that most passionately divided the nation (and they still are 151 years later). Strong abolitionist movements in the northern states enraged the South whose lifestyle and economy revolved around slave labor. The South claimed that the Federal government had no right to make laws in this matter. The verbal battles were bitter and the differences irreconcilable. Whatever you may feel is the reason for the Civil War (the GOP still cites the state’s rights issue; while Dems tend to cite the issue of keeping human beings as slaves), Grant evolved on the issue of slavery until he came to believe that it was an anathema and absolutely the point of the war. The Union considered the South to be traitors who wanted to dissolve the Republic. Although it may drive you crazy, you need to remember that in the 19th century Southerners were the Democrats and the abolitionists were Republicans.

Chernow does not sidestep graphic descriptions of the terrible tragedy of human destruction left in the wake of every victory and every defeat in the brutal Civil War. Grant, who seemed unable to be a successful businessman, proved to have a genius for warfare, a focus that seemed to appear only when battle loomed, and a broad and long view of the overall geography, scope, and strategy involved in any given battle. Since Grant was educated at West Point, he knew many of the officers on both sides in the Civil War and he had personal insight into how they would behave. Try not to read about these battles while eating.

I can never cover all of the information imparted in this biography. It is minutely comprehensive and still, somehow, eminently readable. It is long but well worth the investment in time. What I appreciated most about Ron Chernow’s tome is the attention he gave to what happened in the South after the war. Perhaps Grant was too sympathetic to the officers and men when the war ended at Appomattox. He did nothing to humiliate them. He let them lay down their weapons and leave without persecution to go home to their land and families. But perhaps this allowed the South to keep too much of its pride and they secretly kept alive the resentments that had caused the rift to begin with. Chernow does not skirt the details of the ways Southern slave owners took out their anger on freed Americans of African Descent.

According to Chernow and his exhaustive research Ku Klux Klan activity was far more prevalent and deadly in those years of Reconstruction than represented in the stories we tell ourselves today (and in our school history classes). Current events teach us that those feelings kept alive in the South and imported to the North still inform our politics, and the feelings of white supremacy that seem to have been resurrected, but which never actually left us. Grant earned the lasting respect of black folks by sending troops to try to stop the carnage and the total unwillingness of slave owners to accept the freedom of their former slaves. He supported programs to educate former slaves and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed while he was President. Frederick Douglas remained a loyal acquaintance of Grant and expressed his gratitude again and again for the support Grant provided to back up freedom for all Americans. If Grant accomplished nothing else, what he accomplished in the arena of freedom and equality for formerly enslaved Americans should move him far above the rank he held until now in the pantheon of American presidents. He deplored the fact that Reconstruction did not end racial hatred in Southern whites.

Mr. Chernow does not buy the tales that make drunkenness a key trait in Grant’s life. He finds a pattern to Grant’s binges and gives him credit for fighting against the hold alcohol had for him when he was without the comforts of his family (as soldiers often are). He admits that Grant was connected to a number of corrupt schemes while he was President and later when he resided in NYC. But if you follow the money you find that Grant never was at all corrupt himself. He was guilty of being unable to see through people, especially when they were friends. Since many people had been his fellow soldiers he tended to give them credit for being loyal friends when they were actually involved in collecting payoffs in scams such as the whisky ring, and the Indian ring, and other scandals of the Gilded Age. Juicy, interesting, and deplorable stuff. Many government rules were different than they are today and corruption was easy if you valued money over morals. Probably a number of rules and protections in our current government were passed to fight the human impulse to corruption which exists, of course, to this day.

It’s a wonderful biography, well researched and full of quotes from primary sources and although it may put a crimp in your accounting of the number of books you get to read this year it will offer such in-depth quality that you will not mind the hit you take in terms of the quantity of books you get to read.



Young Eliot by Robert Crawford – Book

T. S. Eliot was a poet that I fell in love with the very
first time I read his poem The Love Song
of J. Alfred Prufrock
, a poem with images and rhythms which did not exist
in the sonnets and odes from our text, Norton’s
Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1
(which had many poems I also
enjoyed). Recently I saw that a new book had been published by Robert Crawford
with the title Young Eliot: from St.
Louis to The Waste Land
. This book
did not turn out to be an easy read. It is an academic book. It seems that
Robert Crawford is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British
Academy. He is a Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of
St. Andrews, a scholar and a poet. Although this does not have the permissions
necessary to be an official biography it is quite scholarly with plenty of
attributions. In fact the chapters offer so many numbered footnote references
that you must learn to filter them out so that you can follow the details of
Eliot’s life.
Since T. S. Eliot destroyed almost all correspondence from
his first marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood most biographies devote very few pages
to Eliot’s life before he reached his twenties. Crawford, however, following
exhaustive research at the many repositories which hold Eliot memorabilia and
with the permission of Eliot’s second wife who was still alive, begins at the
beginning in St. Louis, Missouri which he credits with the jazz-like rhythms of
Eliot’s poetry (not his exact language). “Eliot’s formative years were exactly
that. Their importance is greater than most readers have realized. Young Eliot presents this crucial
period in much more detail. ‘Home is where we start from’”, says Crawford.
“…St. Louis – that French-named city of ragtime, racial tensions, ancient
civilisations, riverboats and (in Eliot’s words) the real start of the Wild
Another important early influence on T. S. Eliot is added in
his early teens when his “time [is] divided between education in Missouri and
summering in Gloucester, Massachusetts” where he learns to sail. T. S. Eliot,
once he leaves to go to Harvard, never goes home to St. Louis, although he
still summers in New England. 
Crawford spends much time on Eliot’s life with Vivien and the
dysfunctional nature of their marriage. Vivien is quoted as saying, “I love Tom
in a way that destroys us both.” They seem to have sexual difficulties but
apparently there is not enough remaining information to tell us the true nature
of these difficulties. Crawford blames both of them for the tensions in the
marriage.  The Eliots live in England
(Vivien is English) and they both spend a lot of time being ill, but they also
socialize with the important literary figures of their age, both in England and
in Paris, e.g. Virginia Woolf, Mary Hutchinson, Conrad Aiken, James Joyce, Ezra
Pound and Bertrand Russell. Tom reads voraciously in Eastern philosophy and religion,
anthropology, Western philosophy and religion, psychology, literary criticism,
and literature including drama, novels, and poetry from the classics to his
contemporaries. He says about himself that he is “…in different places and
circumstances a professor, a journalist, a banker, a philosopher, a Parisian flâneur
and also something much wilder.”
Despite the plethora of attributions Crawford still is left
to conjecture about how much of Tom’s possible sexual difficulties and his
buttoned-down formal persona (which he could discard when he was with male
companions) informs the poem that this book ends with, The Waste Land. I am not sure that all of Crawford’s research gave
him anything definitive to add to our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s poetry,
but we do get to know Thomas Stearns Eliot as a person with all his brilliance,
his humor, his gloom, and his flaws. There are still enough things we probably
don’t know about Young Eliot to
leave some mysteries that might be solved in the future. Crawford plans to
follow up with a second volume but it will pick up after the publication of The Waste Land.
By Nancy Brisson

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max – Book


It is unusual to read a biography of a famous person and
then notice how your life is similar to theirs but there are certain geographic
parallels between my life and David Foster Wallace’s life that were difficult
to ignore. And, of course I have been obsessed with David Foster Wallace since
reading The Pale King. This is his
last published book and it happened to be the first DFW book that I read so I
have, in fact, pretty much experienced David Foster Wallace backwards in time.
I was so pleasantly surprised by The
Pale King
. David’s unfinished manuscript for this book was organized by a
colleague who, even now, is unsure if he got this posthumous manuscript right.
DFW’s genius still shines through. To write a witty book about the IRS seems
next to impossible, to make the quirky characters, some given personal traits
of the author, so engrossing, to add humor to this unlikely mix, and to make
even boring IRS architecture come to life would a) not occur to any other
author and b) could not have been accomplished by any other author. So I wanted
to read more. I read a book of DFW’s non-fiction essays Like Flesh, but Not which gets its title from an article about
Roger Federer.

Then I just had to tackle the major opus, Infinite Jest, and it was even more
wondrous an experience than I anticipated, although I could see that it might
not appeal to everyone. And finally, after working backwards, I had to read
about David Foster Wallace’s life from the fairly recent biography about him, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by
D.T. Max (who never met David Wallace). In this case, being informed about
Wallace’s life helps in trying to parse his books, however the works stand
alone and you don’t have to know DFW’s life to appreciate and be amazed by his
writing and his talent.

David Foster Wallace was born almost in my backyard in Ithaca,
NY just as I was graduating from high school. We lived in many of the same
places, but our paths never crossed (the only place they could have crossed was
in Syracuse, NY in 1992-93, the year of the great blizzard. DFW and I also
spent time in Boston, Mass and in Tucson, Arizona. We may have been in Boston
at the same time when David was at undergraduate school at Amherst, but I was
not traveling in academic circles at that time. There is no significance to
this other than that it is a weird coincidence and it may have increased my
interest in Wallace’s books. However, it is his audacious writing that I love.

I have no connection to the Midwest and Dave’s childhood in
Bloomington, Illinois. Later David returned to the Midwest to teach and write
for a while. He was a pretty normal kid who was sometimes mean to his little
sister Amy. He was not always happy with certain aspects of himself; he felt he
sweated too much and he was not good at team sports. But he did have great
success with tennis until late puberty when others overtook him. He played a
thoughtful game which made him too slow. Tennis looms large in DFW’s writing,
especially in Infinite Jest.

David Foster Wallace came to Syracuse, NY because he was in
love with a married poet, Mary Karr, who was older than him. He knew she was having
problems with her husband so he followed her and her husband and son to
Syracuse and he finally won her after patient stalking and after she and her
husband were divorced. Although he won her, it was a very short relationship
and they soon split up; she had a child and David was too self-absorbed.

When David was 8 or 9 he had his first intimation that he
might have a mental disorder but he did not have an episode of full-blown
depression until his sophomore year at Amherst. He eventually was prescribed
Nardil which he took for many years. When newer drugs finally came along, and
when David thought his medication might be preventing his writing, his doctors
began to try him on a number of drugs with which he was very unhappy. These
shifts in medication and the onset of a really serious episode of depression
led him to attempt suicide several times until he successfully hanged himself
when his wife, Karen Green a painter (who was not part of the problem) left to
get groceries. He was much too young to die.

Two more Syracuse notes – DFW wrote some of the manuscript
for Infinite Jest while living in
Syracuse and the dumping ground designated in Infinite Jest by President Gentle to collect American waste (once
Gentle realizes he cannot afford to send it into space) begins at Syracuse,
which he came to call Drearacuse and extends to the Canadian border. The bad
rap Syracuse gets is due to his ill-fated relationship with Mary Karr, which
began and ended in this city.

David has better associations with Tucson, whose climate
and natural beauties he obviously appreciated. His two spies or government
agents, one American, one Canadian, in Infinite
, chose the top of a small mountain in Tucson as the location for their
top secret strategy session. I went to graduate school in Tucson, but Wallace
was in Boston then, I believe. He taught at the University of Arizona in the
Creative Writing Department. I was in the graduate program in the Reading

I must say that I was surprised that our lives each took
place, in part, in these three cities, but that Midwest part is strong and we
don’t have that in common. I am sorry that the city of my birth made such a
poor impression on Wallace. I am sorry he had his heart broken here.

Enough of the geography – read D.T. Max’s book if you want
more David Foster Wallace. There is lots more to tell, including several more
romances and some famous authors and lots of writer’s block and writer’s angst.
I haven’t even covered David’s love for words and the deep grasp of grammar
which may have started with his mom (if you read his books, watch what he does
with possessives). I haven’t covered his brilliance or discussed why genius and
mental illness are often found together. I haven’t discussed how the fact that
his mom left his dad just as David was experiencing that first episode of
full-out depression had a huge effect on the female figures in his writing
(check our Avril Incandenza in Infinite
). This is a multilayered human and I am enriched (hokey, I know) by
getting to know David Foster Wallace and his writing.  Max, his biographer, also explores the
themes in each of Wallace’s books and short stories and gives insight into
Wallace’s complicated and evolving ideas about the nature of fiction so if you
want the literary criticism aspects they are also in this biography.

I will say good-bye to DFW for now and go back to reading a
variety of other authors, although his books continue to engage my brain.  I understand he was one of the last great
letter writers and that his letters have been collected in one place, so
perhaps we will eventually have a published edition of those letters. He
corresponded with the women in his life but he also corresponded with several
other authors who are also important contemporary writers; something to look
forward to.