A Short Thought on a Book I Do Not Plan to Read

shopping   I prefer Tom Clancy to James Patterson when I am looking for a thrill through espionage, and I would rather see the movie than read the book – “Hunt for Red October” leading the list.  James Patterson’s prolific turnout leaves me cold, despite the heroic Alex Cross, so my expectations were low for his collaboration with a former President.

But then I saw the tantalizing interview with Bill Clinton exonerating himself from the MeToo movement, and then I read Anthony Lane’s sarcastic take on “Bill Cinton and James Patterson’s Concussive Collaboration” in the New Yorker.  Although the book is a thriller, Lane offers excerpts guaranteed to provoke laughter in the context of his analysis.

Has any of this convinced me to read the Patterson/Clinton book?  No, but I am more determined than ever to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s book imagining how Hillary’s life would have been like if she had not married Bill, planned for publication in 2019.  There’s a thriller worth anticipating.

In the meantime, I am desperately looking for a good book to read – any ideas?

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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

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

51C4xxzWsHL._AC_US218_A fortune for a fortune teller? Ruth Ware returns with another mystery thriller to keep you reading through the night in The Death of Mrs. Westaway.

Hal’s life has been most unfortunate with the hit and run death of her mother and the loan sharks threatening to knock out her teeth if she cannot make more money reading tarot cards on the pier. Suddenly, her luck changes when she becomes heir to her grandmother’s fortune. But wait; it’s not really her grandmother – or is it?

Ware weaves a page turning adventure within a Gothic setting. As the interloper in a family of brothers who had expected to inherit the estate, Hal finds herself in the middle of family drama and resentments, and the deceased Mrs. Westaway seems to be stirring the pot beyond the grave. The housekeeper, Mrs. Warren, is the Mrs. Danvers character right out of du Maurier’s Rebecca – cold, creepy, and tyrranical, and the perfect foil to Hal’s timid second Mrs. de Winter who finally finds her courage.

Although the resolution is obvious long before the ending, and the villain is not a total surprise, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is great fun for fans of Ruth Ware. I enjoyed the distraction.

My Name is Victoria

51CcJuhIa1L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  Lucy Worsley describes herself “by day Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and by night a writer of history books.” I first met her as the narrator of a BBC documentary about the wives of Henry VIII as she whispered commentary behind the scenes of the royal trysts.  Dressed as a maid servant in the series, her short blonde bob and posh accent gave her an air of the friendly yet knowledgable expert in British royal history.  With PBS Masterpiece Theater about to launch the third season of “Victoria,” her children’s book about an overlooked chapter in Queen Victoria’s young life is tantalizing.

As I read, I checked Worsley’s facts.  She didn’t make it all up; her historical novel fictionalizes a relationship between young Victoria and John Conroy’s daughter that did exist, and marks the introduction of Victoria’s beloved spaniel Dash into court life.

Kensington Palace may hold the upscale apartments of Princes William and Harry today, but Victoria felt trapped inside its dreary walls when she was a young girl, waiting to be queen.  John Conroy, the villain Irish comptroller and lover to her mother the Duchess of Kent, imposes rules restricting Victoria’s access and keeping her under constant guard, not only to keep her safe from her relatives who would kill her to get themselves closer to the throne but also to control her.  To offer some respite from the hostile environment of his Kensington System, Conroy brings his young daughter and her dog Dash to live as companions and playmates.  His daughter, Miss V, also named Victoria is also expected to spy on the young princess.

Historical references to Queen Victoria’s diaries have Miss V as a despised and suspicious tool of her father, but Worsley discounts those descriptions and has the two girls as friends growing up together.  The famous dolls are featured as are Victoria’s temper tantrums and her resistance to handing over regency power to the ambitious Sir John.  Handsome Prince Albert makes an appearance later in the book.

Worsely deftly educates the reader while offering some tantalizing possibilities about Victoria’s personality.  Her surprise ending actually has some creditability, feeding on the nineteenth century rumor of Victoria’s illegitimacy noted in A.N. Wilson’s biography Victoria: A Life.   It was still a surprise,and I loved it.

Never again will readers think of Queen Victoria as the overweight matron in black.  Worsley reminds us – like everyone who grows old, she once had a life.

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

930857You might be reading Shakespeare without knowing it.  Hogarth Press commissioned a series of novels by famous novelists to retell and modernize tales from Shakespeare.  You can read them as tragedies or comedies without knowing the original plays, but comparing the modern action to a Shakespearean plot lends the story more panache and certainly proves Shakespeare’s universality and timeliness.

If you are not up to rereading the plays in the original verse ( not a bad idea), you could try two other sources for quick background reading. In 1807 Charles and Mary Lamb tried to make the Bard more accessible to children by writing their summaries of plots in Tales from Shakespeare for young readers.  Their book is available online for free. And in 2004 Tina Packer, the President and Artistic Director of Shakespeare and Company, summarized Shakespeare’s plots and characterizations in another book for young readers.  Unlike the Lamb book, Packer inserts dialogue from the plays with the effect of giving the reader the pleasure of some of the play’s most memorable lines, and making the original works more approachable and understandable.

Adam Gopnik in his 2016 essay for The New Yorker, says “the authors in the Hogarth series…aren’t so much reimagining the stories as reacting to the plays.  They’ve taken on not the tale itself but the twists in the tale that produced the Shakespearean themes we still debate” anti-Semitism, the subjugation of women, art and isolation…if Shakespeare is our contemporary, it is not because he shares our attitudes but because he shares our agonies.”

Hogarth’s list includes:

  • Howard Jacobson modernizing “The Merchant of Venice” in Shylock is My Name
  • Anne Tyler updating “Taming of the Shrew” in Vinegar Girl
  • Margaret Atwood doing “Tempest” in Hag Seed
  • Jo Nesbo retelling Macbeth.
  • Jeanette Winterson has “The Winter’s Tale” set in 2008 London in The Gap of Time
  • Tracy Chevalier places “Othello” in a 1970’s schoolyard in New Boy.
  • Edward St. Aubyn recreates “King Lear” in Dunbar.

I’ve read two books in the series and enjoyed them both, but maybe because they were based on two of my favorite Shakespearean plays.  I’ve included the reviews below – and highly recommend them – an easy way to get a little Shakespeare into  your reading.

  1. Review of Vinegar Girl
  2. Review of Dunbar