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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Hemingway at Eighteen

After reconnecting with an old friend today in Kansas City, of course our conversation meandered toward books. Her most recent read is a book set in Kansas City about one of my favorite authors. The local bookstore is, not surprisingly, sold out, so I’ve downloaded the ebook. What better book to read in Kansas City than Steve Paul’s Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year That Launched a Legend – Hemingway’s year as a journalist for the Kansas City Star.

The Chicago Review Press Overview:

“In the summer of 1917, Ernest Hemingway was an eighteen-year-old high school graduate unsure of his future. The American entry into the Great War stirred thoughts of joining the army. While many of his friends in Oak Park, Illinois, were heading to college, Hemingway couldn’t make up his mind and eventually chose to begin a career in writing and journalism at the Kansas City Star, one of the great newspapers of its day. In six and a half months at the Star, Hemingway experienced a compressed, streetwise alternative to a college education that opened his eyes to urban violence, the power of literature, the hard work of writing, and a constantly swirling stage of human comedy and drama. The Kansas City experience led Hemingway into the Red Cross ambulance service in Italy, where, two weeks before his nineteenth birthday, he was dangerously wounded at the front.Award-winning writer Steve Paul takes a measure of this pivotal year when Hemingway’s self-invention and transformation began—from a “modest, rather shy and diffident boy” to a confident writer who aimed to find and record the truth throughout his life. Hemingway at Eighteen provides a fresh perspective on Hemingway’s writing, sheds new light on this young man bound for greatness, and introduces anew a legendary American writer at the very beginning of his journey.”

A Welcoming Life – The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook

Before reading Ashley Warlick’s new biographical novel of M.F.K. Fisher in The Arrangement, I needed to know more about Fisher – more than a quick google search.  51c96z1df6l-_sx258_bo1204203200_  Dominique Gioia’s combination of prose and pictures in A Welcoming Life: The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook provided an easy entree to the author’s complicated life and prolific work.

Composed as though it were a family album, the one hundred ten pages offer captioned photographs of Fisher, marking her life from a young beauty to the old woman who died in her “Last House” in California.  Gioia inserts pages of prose, transitioning Fisher from young girl to bride and mother, to author and finally grande dame among the elite of food writers.

It’s impossible to think of Fisher without associating her with France, and Gioia dedicates a number of pages to Fisher’s epiphany when she moved from the United States to Dijon, France as a young bride with her first husband, Al, and in Aix-en-Provence where she relocated with her two daughters. Later she was a guest at the Provence home of Julia Child.

Although not as comprehensive as Joan Reardon’s biography of M.F.K. Fisher – Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher, the Fisher Scrapbook condenses Fisher’s complicated life into a quick overview, leaving the reader wanting more.  Laura Shapiro in reviewing Reardon’s biography for the New York Times called  Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher “a lifelong series of contradictions.”

To capture a moment in Fisher’s life in The Arrangement, Warlick admittedly read all she could find about the author.  Pictures in The Scrapbook document Mary Frances’s life with Al and her love affair with Dillwyn Parrish (Tim) – the focus of Warlick’s The Arrangement.

Discovering more about Fisher can be contagious and satisfying.  I found Fisher’s The Art of Eating in an electronic version from my local library, and delightedly scanned through pages of many of the books mentioned in The ScrapbookAn Alphabet for Gourmets (A is for dining Alone; G is for Gluttony…), Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, and of course her 1943 memoir, The Gastronomical Me:

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking?..They ask it accusingly…The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry…It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.  So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…”

I have Reardon’s Celebrating the Pleasure of the Table yet to read, with her combination of Mary Frances, Julia Child, and Alice Waters waiting for me in France.  And Gioia’s The Measure of Her Powers: An M.F.K. Fisher Reader is on my stack of books; Ruth Reichl’s introduction promises to be entertaining and Gioia has included many of Fisher’s journal articles published between books.

Fisher’s first novel – The Theoretical Foot written in 1939 – was recently discovered and published.  In his comparison of Fisher’s novel to Warlick’s recent novel The Arrangement, Corby Kummer in the New York Times  called The Arrangement, “a proficient, earnest and livelier book than Fisher’s.”  I may have to place my exploration of M.F.K. Fisher’s real life on hold and divert back to historical fiction in Warlick’s novel.

But first, I plan to follow Fisher’s advice and bake some bread…images-1

“…there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation…that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread…” from The Art of Eating

 

Pretending and Believing

Unknown   The Muppets and Sesame Street saved me as a young mother.  If I nodded off from exhaustion with a toddler in my grasp, I knew friendly Grover would always be there to demand and get her undivided attention.   Although their creator, Jim Henson, died suddenly in 1990, he seems to be still around.  Miss Piggy still shakes her curls, the Count still guffaws,  Cookie Monster still devours – even Kermit, who was voiced and operated by Henson himself, still philosphizes.  In his biography – Jim Henson –  Brian Jay Jones reintroduces Jim Henson with all his quirks and weaknesses, as well as his extraordinary talent and playful way of looking at life that changed the world for many of us.

Being a little preoccupied with death lately, I started with the last chapter titled “Just One Person, 1990,” addressing Henson’s short illness, and including a memorial service he had outlined in a letter to his children four years earlier.  His trademark whimsy permeated the grief.

Backtracking to  Chapter One, I followed Jones’s easy conversational writing about Henson’s childhood and the beginning of his career in his college days at the University of Maryland, the Muppets’ big break on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show,  and the first Muppet commercial – for coffee.  Henson’s “ridiculous optimism” was catching; it was impossible not to like him.

Henson was more than Sesame Street, yet educational television eventually defined his art, as he eschewed commercials  to focus on the show that would make his Muppets household names.  Jones follows the family brood – Henson had five children – as they moved into bigger houses and followed the patriarch’s dream, but he follows the Muppet family more closely, outlining in detail how each puppet was created and evolved.  Each success and failure is carefully documented, from Fraggle Rock to Labyrinth.   Only the two sets of pictures inserted in the narrative give some relief from the exhausting details, but the few personal glimpses behind Henson’s calm demeanor were worthwhile.  When his success allowed him to wear bespoke suits so his pants would be long enough to hide his calves when he crossed his legs in a television interview, he became even more endearing.

Jones focuses on Henson’s creative life more than his personal; his separation from his wife has only a paragraph in the book, and his later relationship with Mary Ann Cleary was given scant attention.  Jones affirms his view of Henson as a family man – with five children and dogs, even after his marriage fell apart – and his family of Muppets.

Kermit’s words from The Muppet Movie reflected Jim Henson’s life:

“…I’ve got a dream, too.  But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy.  That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well…I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream.  And it kind of makes us like a family.”

A wonderful testament to the Kermit inside the man, Jones’ biography includes a picture of Henson as he manipulates Ernie.  Even then, it’s hard to believe Ernie is only an extension of Henson’s arm.  The muppets always seem so real.

Unknown-3   Life’s like a movie, write your own ending.

Keep believing, keep pretending.

On the Road with Mark Twain and Others

9780385536448_p0_v2_s192x300  If real travel is not possible, vicariously circling the globe with Mark Twain might be the next best thing.  In Richard Zacks’ Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the World Comedy Tour, I found a way to improve my humor and satisfy my yearning to visit new places.

At fifty-nine years old, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) had a magnificent mansion in Connecticut he could not afford to live in, was renowned as a humorist and author, and had made so many bad investments in quick rich schemes he had lost his heiress wife’s fortune and was seriously in debt.  The typesetting machine he had hoped would revolutionize publishing and secure his fortune was having problems, so he decided to go on tour to recoup his losses.

Through letters, diaries, journals, newspaper articles, and quotes from Twain himself,  Zacks captures the three year tour of the soft-spoken white-haired author in an evening suit, who travelled in luxury at the expense of his sponsors and never cracked a smile as he entertained the world.  Fans of Mark Twain will appreciate learning more about the author and enjoy his perspective on the world and life.  Samuel Clemens lived life large.

I am reading the book slowly and savoring… 

Also Reading:  The Life of the World to Come

9781511371186_p0_v2_s192x300   When someone you’ve known for a while dies unexpectedly, the tendency may be to ponder your own mortality or perhaps broaden your thinking into the universe at large. Dan Cluchey’s The Life of the World to Come is feeding my mind’s meanderings as I think about a friend who died recently. Sometimes a book comes to you – a love story mingled with thoughts about the afterlife

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