Leonardo

51PHThzD-2L._AC_US218_Leonardo da Vinci is my new hero – with unfinished projects,  a stylish fashion sense, and insatiable curiosity about everything.  Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci is heavy, not only in the depth and span of its content but also in it actual weight.  Within almost 600 thick glossy pages, Leornardo, his paintings and drawings, as well as his curiosity and genius, come to life. I read them all, and I took notes.

Alexander Kafka’s review for the Washington Post in 2017 summarizes the book’s highlights – How to Unlock Your Inner Leonardo da Vinci – noting:

If Leonardo’s life reads like a wide-screen epic, that hasn’t escaped Hollywood’s attention. Paramount has bought the rights for a movie adaptation of Isaacson’s book with Leonardo DiCaprio playing his namesake. Here is Machiavelli… conniving overtime, working his connections with Cesare Borgia and Leonardo. Here’s Francis I, king of France… finally offering to the artist in his final years the no-strings-attached patronage he’s always sought… it’s a good story…

I look forward to the movie but glad I read the book first.  My notes will remind me of this great genius, a caricature I remember from his portrayal in the movie “Ever After.”  The movie seems to reference many of Isaacson’s notes, especially in Leonardo’s old age, but of course there was more to the artist than on the screen.

From my Notes while Reading, I will Remember:

Leonardo da Vinci was a vegetarian, left-handed, and wrote in mirror script (right to left with his letters backwards to avoid smearing the ink).

He was self-taught and excelled in geometry.

He was the illegitimate son of a notary, but his father acted as his patron into old age.

He was an idea man but his “execution did not go as well as his conception” – lots of unfinished projects.  He planned to write many books he never got around to publishing.

The fresco of “The Last Supper” had deteriorated badly after only twenty years because Leonardo changed the fresco technique into oils on dry plaster; it all flaked away.

Leonardo was a friend of Machiavelli, and his rival was Michelangelo.  When Leonardo was on the committee to approve Michelangelo’s “David”, da Vinci has “a garland made of brass and twenty-eight copper leaves…covering David’s genitalia.  It stayed that way for forty years.”  in the guise of decency.

He was a favorite of the kings of France and retired in the Loire Valley before he died at 67.

And my favorite line at the end of the biography:

“The best way to approach {Leonardo’s} life is the way he approached the world: filled with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation for its infinite wonders.”

In his last chapter, “Conclusions,” Isaacson draws together many of the observations he made throughout the book as he documented da Vinci’s life.  He leaves the reader with a set of maxims to live by.  Here are a few you may want to adopt to release your own genius:

  • Be curious, relentlessly curious
  • Seek knowledge for its own sake and create for yourself, not just for patrons
  • Retain a childlike sense of wonder; indulge fantasy
  • Observe; start with the details
  • Go down the rabbit holes
  • Get distracted
  • Let the perfect be the enemy of the good (don’t settle for good enough)
  • Let your reach exceed your grasp
  • Make lists
  • Be open to mystery
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Movie Tie-Ins

Want to read the book before the movie comes out?  Three books are soon to be in the movies:

      51f2c8bc-85bb-41ec-a73f-f3bc6417af96_1.f4decc4d6ffadbfeda9aaba4e2e5074d1. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

The first in the three book series is the story of an Asian-American girl, Rachel, accompanying her boyfriend, Nick, to Singapore for a wedding, only to learn about Nick’s family wealth and power. The book uses the opulent lives of Asia’s ultra-rich as its focus, with an all-Asian cast scheduled for release in August.

The novel is built on shopping expeditions and gossipy lunches hosted by scheming ladies with boundless amounts of time and money – a combination of the Shopoholic with The Mean Girls. Kwan poses his novel as a satire, using the the naive Rachel as the foil for glamorous and wealthy Asians.  Tash Aw, the author of “The Harmony Silk Factory” (2005), and winner of the Whitbread Book Award, reviewed the book for NPR, and recommends having a good time with the story.  I did, and went on to read all three books in the series.

:All that you need to know is that Charlie Wu, of the tech billionaire fortune, is in love with Astrid, the granddaughter of the Shang Su Yi, who is unhappy that her grandson Nicholas is not dating the Rachel Chu of the Taipei Plastics Chus, but they are all going to the wedding of Araminta Lee, of the luxury hotel Lees, and Colin Khoo, of the Khoo Teck Fong fortune and — alamak! — some big secrets might be revealed.” Tash Aw for NPR

51VSk1M187L._AC_US218_  2.  The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

Set in ravaged Germany after World War II, the story revolves around two families – one British and the other German – thrown into one house.  Brook’s 2013 book is set in Hamburg, Germany where Colonel Lewis Morgan has been charged with the rebuilding of the devastated city in the wake of World War II.  Morgan and his family have been offered a palace belonging to Stefan Lubert as their home. Instead of turning Lubert out as Morgan is expected to do, the officer suggests he, his wife, Rachael and their son, Edmund, share the house with Lubert, his daughter, Freda, and their servants.  Keira Knightly stars in the film,

I have not read the book, and the Washington Post gave it a lukewarm review in 2013 but the Boston Globe predicts the movie will be better than the book.

518DrlH61lL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_ 3. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

This Man Booker Prize finalist tells the story of newlyweds Edward and Florence, both in their early 20s and also both virgins.  The novel focuses on the wedding night and their terrified preoccupation of the upcoming consummation of their marriage.  In reviewing the 2007 book for the New York Times, Jonathan Lethem succinctly summarizes the plot:

“Edward and Florence have retreated, on their wedding night, to a hotel suite overlooking Chesil Beach. Edward wants sex, Florence is sure she doesn’t. The situation is miniature and enormous, dire and pathetic, tender and irrevocable. “

When the book was published, I had forsworn reading any more of McEwan’s sad, depressing dramas, no matter how iconic or soul-searching, so I have not read this book.  McEwan adapted his novel for the screen, due to be released in May, and for lovers of Atonement (and I was one of both the book and the movie), the movie adaptation of On Chessil Beach might be worth seeing.

 

 

 

 

Rainy Day Reads – Dark and Difficult Tales

Although the stories are difficult to read, each leaves the reader with an understanding and some sympathy for the characters’ circumstances, and possibly a sense of shadenfraude.

514KmtX+MGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_  Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid focuses on the lives of two immigrants, Saeed and Nadia, whose country is bombarded by war and terror.  Saeed, the son of a university professor, works at an ad agency and lives with his family. Nadia lives alone, rides a motorcycle,  and wears a full black robe, not for religious deference but to discourage men’s interest in her.  Opposites attract; they meet in a college class on product branding and fall in love.

As the city becomes overrun with refugees and the terror escalates, many yearn to escape.  Hamid graphically documents what is it like to live in a war zone and the desperate lives of those who are collateral damage.

The novel veers into magical realism when Hamid creates mysterious doors opening to other places.  Unlike the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicle of Narnia, these portals lead to actual places – in this case, first to the island of Mykonos, then to the outskirts of London, and finally to San Francisco.  As  Saeed and Nadia escape through each set of doors, they find themselves among other refugees and subsist poorly.  Their lives are difficult, facing constant fear and roadblocks.  Hamid electrifies the refugee crisis as he melds the political and personal, and disconcertedly jumps between scenes of bombing and drones to starry skies and dreams of a future.

The novel ends with hope, but also emphasizes how experiences have affected the couple – even magical doors take a toll.   The story is difficult to read, not just for the misery and struggle but also for its truthful timeliness.

8f097af436887d7ef6a7422ab1e6e846-w204@1x  Stream System by Gerald Murnane

When I read Mark Binelli’s interview of Gerald Murnane in the Sunday New York Times – Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? my curiosity led me to Binelli’s recommendation for a place to start reading the author – his collection of short fiction, Stream System.

An obscure Australian writer, Murnane lives in a poor ramshackle space outside of Melbourne and would seem more eccentric than brilliant.  He prides himself on writing only what he knows within his small sphere – no travel and little patience with people.  His stories are set near Melbourne, are in part autobiographical, and focus on perceptions.  The canon of his work is extensive and his writing reflects a strange simplicity reminiscent of Hemingway.  The first story in his collection – “When the Mice Failed to Arrive” – jumps from introspection to problem-solving and left me not with a yearning for more but with a general unease.  You can read it – here – and decide for yourself.

180319154736-the-child-in-time-cumberbatch-exlarge-169  The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

McEwan’s stories are always compelling but with sad endings.  Although I have read many of McEwan’s books (Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Sweet Tooth, Nutshell) I had not read this earlier work – The Child in Time.  More for the actor Benedict Cumberbatch than for the story, I watched the PBS Masterpiece production.

The story shows Stephen, an author of children’s books, and his wife, as they deal with the kidnapping of their three-year-old daughter Kate.  A sense of magic as well as despair pervades their grief as Stephen has glimpses of his daughter after her abduction.  The ending offers a sense of hope but their overwhelming pain persists. The drama was compelling and worth seeing.  The story will stay with me, but I doubt I will read the book – enough.

 

 

the movie “Arrival” based on the short story – “The Story of Your Life”

51zipo22i7l-_sx322_bo1204203200_  Not until I found the short story by Ted Chiang, “The Story of Your Life,” in his collection of short stories – Stories of Your Life and Others – did I understand the movie Arrival with Amy Adams.  Now I get its message on the importance of language and cooperation, buried in a science fiction drama reminiscent of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  

Someone told me to watch carefully as the story unfolds, and it is good advice – but I may have to watch it again anyway.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks’ encounter with aliens, and her attempt to learn their language is mixed up with her own life and the trauma of her marriage and daughter’s death.  The differences between the written story and the movie had me admiring the screenwriter’s adaptation of the complex linguistic and mathematical theories Chiang uses in his short story; however, Chiang’s explanation of Fermat’s physics Principal of Least Time would have be helpful in understanding Dr. Banks’ flashes of memory. Unfortunately, it was not included in the movie – maybe to keep the viewer guessing until the explanation of events at the end.

In another Chiang short story – Babylon – in the same collection, Chiang theorizes about the notion of time.  As he describes the building of the tower of Babel to reach heaven,  the main character, Hillalum, discovers the same truth as Dr. Louise Banks – “Men imagined heaven and earth as being at the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.”  Chiang envisions time in a circular continuum.

In his short story about the aliens landing on several sites across the Earth, including China, Russia, Pakistan, the United States and Europe, Chiang focuses on the importance of immersion in someone else’s culture to fully understand it, with the scientists and linguists working together to solve the puzzle of the aliens’ visit.  Their purpose for coming is difficult to understand without language.

In the movie, someone at one of the sites gets nervous and shoots first. The aliens are forgiving, and thankfully, the movie stays true to the communication theme and avoids becoming Star Wars.  Instead, nations come together to do something that seems more like science fiction today than ever – they work together.

arrival_movie_poster   If you have not yet seen the movie, you might want to read the short story first, and try not to get lost in some of the technical jargon.  The story of Dr. Louise Banks is at the core of both; just remember to look forward, not back.  And consider what you would do if you could see your whole life, from beginning to end – would you make the same decisions?

Although I’m not a big fan of science fiction in books, I am enjoying Chiang’s collection of thought-provoking short stories.  At the end of the book, Chiang offers “Story Notes,” explaining his inspiration for each -for “Story of Your Life,” Chiang notes his interest in telling a story “about a person’s response to the inevitable.”   Chiang quotes Kurt Vonnegut in his introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future…. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now…To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, ‘Be patient.  Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dot who knows and loves you no matter what you are.'”

The future will get here, no matter what we do.

Squirrels to the Nuts – Cluny Brown on Margery Sharp Day

clunybrown-1My journey to author Margery Sharp – whose birthday it is today – was complicated.  After reading about her on a fellow reader’s website (Beyond Eden Rock), I tried to find her books but only one consistently appeared in the library and from online booksellers – The Rescuers, known to modern audiences through the Disney animated movie. Her other books were out of print or relegated to rare book collections.

Suddenly, Early Bird Books offered one of her books online for $2.99.  Then, a late night movie on Starz – She’s Funny That Way with Jennifer Aniston – cited the storyline (“squirrels to the nuts”) as being stolen from an old Charles Boyer movie titled Cluny Brown, based on the 1944 book of the same title by Sharp.  Margery Sharp, the forgotten prolific writer,  was making a comeback. Today she would be 111 years old.

Cluny Brown is a charming novel about a young woman in Britain in the late 1930’s who is sent off to be a housemaid at a country estate “to find her place.”  With the same upstairs/downstairs formula as Downton Abbey, the film story used the theme of Margery Sharp’s character in its plot – but I could not find the quote “squirrels to the nuts” in her book.

“Nobody can tell you where your place is…Wherever you’re happy, that’s your place, And happiness is a matter of purely personal adjustment to your environment.  You’re the sole judge. In Hyde Park for instance. Some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels.  But if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?”  Charles Boyer in director Ernst Lubitsch’s rendition of Cluny Brown

In the book, Cluny Brown scandalizes her uncle when she goes to tea at the Ritz by herself – just for the experience. She tries to stay in bed for a whole day, eating oranges because it’s good for her energy.   She defies convention and asks so many questions, and her uncle is fearful of her future.  unknownSo he sends her off to the country to be a housemaid to a clueless old wealthy couple.

Although her uncle had hoped learning how to clean and serve would sober her, Cluny, of course, brings her zest and curiosity with her – and changes the lives of everyone around her, including a few gentlemen who are not prepared for her influence – one in particular.  Of course, the ending is happily ever after – but with a surprising twist.

unknown-1I spent an afternoon eating oranges and happily immersed in Cluny’s outlook on life; now I am a fan, and have found another of her charming books available through iBooks to read.  I wonder if I have enough oranges.