Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci: Reviewed and Recommended

Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read: lucidly edited and vividly written, it balances any and all aspects of such a work perfectly. I’ve been sharing excerpts from it with all of my students, and now we all eagerly await the much-ballyhooed film version starring Leonardo Dicaprio.

Besides the extremely riveting writing, the book has 150 full color illustrations and thick, heavy, glossy paper. I was wondering how such a luxurious volume could have a cover price of only $35, but found the answer as I progressed through the book–the publisher skimped on the binding, and pages started coming out in big chunks, as seen below. Deeply sad.

Other than that, every page was pure joy.

Some of my favorite passages follow:

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It would have been worth an extra twenty bucks to have better binding!

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On his obsession with observation

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On dissecting eyeballs

 

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On a historical meeting of three major figures

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A sobering lesson for our own lives as well, I hope–Isaacson does this plenty of times

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I also enjoy when Isaacson interrupts his narrative to ask readers to pause and ponder what’s going on

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On the Mona Lisa

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“He enjoyed the challenge of conception more than the chore of completion.” Great line.

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The moral of the story

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The Poetry of Donald Hall

I wrote recently of a goal to read a new poem every day for 40 days, and how the best thing I got out of it was discovering the work of Donald Hall, who had just passed away. I can’t recommend his Selected Poems highly enough. Two items will have to suffice here. First, the opening of “The Stump.”

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Second, here’s Hall briefly introducing a great work called “Names of Horses,” which he then reads. On YouTube, the text of the poem is in the description.

This is earthy, elemental, full bodied stuff, a meditation on the great details of basic life, appreciated fully. It’s not all nature and tools, though–his book also includes plenty of domestic and family life, as well as other aspects of existence. His ideas are open, and his mind is strong.

Another piece in his Selected Poems ends with the lines, “I will live in a steady joy. I will exult in the ecstasy of my concealment.” I want to read much more of his work.

The Nora Ephron Writing Rant

I’ve created an electronic version of one of my favorite lectures: the revision lesson based on sarcastically destroying a Nora Ephron essay. Former students, get ready for a quality stroll down amnesia lane!

40 Books and 40 Poems

I’ve now finished 40 books since my last birthday. Here they are:

  1. Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard (11.10, philosophy, Lowrie trans.)–A
  2. Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer (11.20, classic, Windeatt trans.)–D
  3. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman (11.22, biography)–A+
  4. Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche (11.23, philosophy, Kaufmann trans.)–C
  5. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual For Reading Plays, David Ball (11.25, literary criticism)–A+
  6. Candide, Voltaire (12.2, satire, classic)–A
  7. It’s All Relative, A.J. Jacobs (12.8, genealogy, humor)–B
  8. The Best American Short Stories 2017, Heidi Pitlor, ed. (12.16, literature)–B
  9. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, P.D. James (12.19, mystery)–B
  10. Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (12.21, satire, Leonard Tancock trans.)–C
  11. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1.20, fantasy)–A
  12. The Way Things Are, Lucretius (1.24, philosophy/poetry, Humphries trans)–C
  13. A Life Without Limits, Chrissie Wellington (2.9, memoir, sports)–A
  14. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (2.13, fantasy)–A+
  15. Praise of Folly, Erasmus (2.17, satire, Radice trans.)–B
  16. Lightning, Dean Koontz (3.2, suspense)–C
  17. I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring, Robert I. Eaton & Henry J. Eyring (3.5, biography)–A+
  18. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 1, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.10, history)–A+
  19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (3.20, fantasy)–A
  20. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 2, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.30, history)–A
  21. What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?, Robert Bly (4.5, poetry)–B
  22. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes, Adam Rutherford (4.20, science)–A
  23. Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, Robert Bly (4.20, poetry)–C
  24. Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary, Amit Majmudar (5.3, religion, poetry)–A+
  25. Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, Sue Townsend (5.14, humor)–A
  26. Dust Devils, Robert Laxalt (5.23, Western)–B
  27. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John Le Carre (5.28, fiction)–C
  28. Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness, Eric Metaxas (6.5, biography)–A+
  29. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Margareta Magnusson (6.8, living well)–B
  30. Educated, Tara Westover (6.18, memoir)–A+
  31. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (6.23, science fiction)–A+
  32. Things That Matter, Charles Krauthammer (6.28, commentary)–A
  33. Thomas Cole, Matthew Baigell (7.2, art history)–A
  34. Wonder, R.J. Palacio (7.4, young adult)–B
  35. The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, Donald Hall (7.6, poetry)–A+
  36. Between Planets, Robert Heinlein (7.6, science fiction)–B
  37. Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, Bobby Fischer (7.11, chess)–A
  38. The Annotated Mona Lisa, Carol Strickland (7.19, art history)–B
  39. Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (7.20, mystery)–A
  40. Art Explained, Robert Cumming (7.23, art)–A+
  41. Based on a True Story, Norm Macdonald (7.24, humor)–A

Also, I revised an original goal to write 40 poems, which just seemed like a chore as I tried to start it, with reading poetry for 40 straight days, which made me smile as soon as I thought of it. I reflected on the point of the goal in the first place–what did I want to get out of it?–and realizing that the experience here was more important to me than creation, I decided to delve into appreciation a bit more.

I started mostly by using the poem in each day’s Prufrock email, supplemented with other sources I know and like. Most of them were OK, but rarely did one really grab me. During this time, though, the great poet Donald Hall died, and as I saw eulogies online, along with quotes from his work, I was intrigued and picked up his self-selected greatest hits, and it was perhaps the greatest book of poetry I’ve ever read. Absolutely amazing. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

After that, I tried bits and pieces of other books and authors I’ve liked, but nothing really stood up to Hall. One awesome new take away from a project like this is more than worth it, though!

  1. Richard O’Connell, “Prospero” 6/11
  2. Morri Creech, “The Sentence” 6/12
  3. Elizabeth Knapp, “After the Flood” 6/13
  4. Charlotte Mew, “The Farmer’s Bride” 6/14
  5. Joseph Mirra, “Who Are We Not to Judge?” 6/15
  6. Rachel A. Lott, “The Parting” 6/16
  7. Jason Guriel, “My Father’s Stamps” 6/17
  8. Richie Hofmann, “Pictures of Mozart” 6/18
  9. Edward Hirsch, “The Unveiling” 6/19
  10. Scott Cairns, “Adiáphora” 6/20, A+
  11. Dana Gioia, “The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves” 6/21, A
  12. Maryann Corbett, “Creed,” 6/22
  13. Rachel Hadas, “Cold Prose” 6/23
  14. Joshua Hren, “The Lesser Angels of Our Nature,” 6/24
  15. Donald Hall, “The Man in the Dead Machine,” 6/25, A
  16. Micheal O’Siadhail, “Conversation with Messiaen,” 6/26
  17. Donald Hall, “The Reasonable Nap,” 6/27
  18. Richard Wilbur, “On the Marginal Way,” 6/28
  19. Elizabeth Poreba, “Kenosis,” 6/29
  20. Eduardo C. Corral, “To the Angelbeast,” 6/30
  21. Derek Otsuji, “The Ditch Kids of the Maui Sugar Company,” 7/1
  22. Geoffrey Brock, “The Day,” 7/2
  23. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/3
  24. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/4
  25. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/5
  26. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/6
  27. Ernest Hilbert, “Until the Sea above Us Closed Again,” 7/7
  28. William W. Runyeon, “Church Bells,” 7/8
  29. David Yezzi, “Learning the Piano at 50,” 7/9
  30. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/10
  31. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/11
  32. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/12
  33. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/13
  34. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/14
  35. Sara Teasdale, “Afterwards,” 7/15
  36. Sara Teasdale, “The Answer,” 7/16
  37. Sara Teasdale, “Autumn Dusk,” 7/17
  38. Sara Teasdale, “Blue Squills,” 7/18
  39. William Wordsworth, The Essential Wordsworth, selected by Seamus Heaney, 7/19
  40. William Wordsworth, The Essential Wordsworth, selected by Seamus Heaney, 7/20

 

One-Star Reviews of Asimov’s Foundation

I have a policy about judging books based on reviews: a well written positive review is a good sign, and a badly written negative review is also a good sign. To put it another way, if an idiot hates a book, I’ll probably like it.

That came back to mind yesterday. I’m reading Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic Foundation right now, and I wanted to get some other perspectives on it, so I looked it up on Amazon.

Pretty sure I’ll love it. Check out some of the Einsteins who gave it one star.

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“A sci-fi book on people who want to create an encyclopedia?” That sounds…awesome!

 

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“like reading dozens of books each with its own characters and new plot” Again…awesome.

 

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This was enlightening.

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Dwight: It is your birthday.

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I love reviews that downgrade a book because their copy fell apart.

Reviewed and Recommended: Educated, by Tara Westover

IMG_20180619_083551502As a teacher, I loved this book. Westover’s memoir of slowly growing into literacy despite coming from an abusive, rural, fundamentalist environment that harshly discouraged it is inspiring in many ways–it makes readers grateful for the lives we’re blessed with, it makes us grateful that Westover’s voice gets to be heard now, it gives us an example of determination and passion to follow–but for me, it mostly reminded me of just how much difference good teachers can make.

It reminded me that teachers have great power to shape minds by opening them and challenging them. That might be a cliché, but the proof is in the prose: consider this passage where Westover remembers early writing sessions with a great teacher. I wish that my students would look back on their writing development and credit me for this much concrete guidance!

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Beyond nuts and bolts, the teacher as mentor who helps students find their true selves is also given due time to shine:

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As a reader, I loved this book. Continue reading

Used Book Treasures At The Aliante Library

If you never browse the used book racks at this excellent library, you’re missing out on high quality, discount summer reading. Here’s just some of what I noticed a few days ago:

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The humor of Augusten Burroughs, the macho side of Elmore Leonard, a Faulkner classic, and a novel from a series that was made into movies where Sean Bean *doesn’t* die!

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Margaret Atwood is very popular right now, so this duo will likely go quickly.

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Another duo, this one from Fitzgerald

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And such variety! Here we see great looking copies of contemporary classic Bel Canto, the legendary One Hundred Years of Solitude, some stories of Fitzgerald, Crime and Punishment, and if you’re looking for recent genre fun, some of F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack stories. 

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Plenty more quality here! What do we see? Out front, it’s already hard to miss three classics: Madame Bovary, The Two Towers, and a comic masterpiece by Oscar Wilde. Behind those: the excellent memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, next to an older classic by Cormac McCarthy, a couple of titles away from McEwan’s magnum opus Atonement, a few more titles away from the first “Ladies Detective Agency” novel. Speaking of comedy, I just noticed in this picture that the row under these appears to have a book by Al Roker in it. 

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Reviewed and Recommended: Godsong, by Amit Majmudar

Amit Majmudar’s new translation of the Bhagavad-Gita is the third one I’ve read, and the second one I’ve loved. Overall, it’s the best of the three. It strikes the perfect balance between the first two: it has the strain of clear pragmatism with the idioms and images of the source culture (which I really liked in the first one), along with a direct, point-blank Western style that doesn’t try to impress with mysticism but which still retains the originally foreign flavor (unlike the second version I read, which just watered it down in trying to make it sound too American).

Majmudar’s poetry sometimes does go a bit too far into prosaic territory, I felt, such as when he liberally peppers a stanza with the prefix “meta” to describe cosmic concepts. There, his Millennial-ness shines through.

But not only are his lines generally clear, gripping, and clever, but his short personal notes on each chapter are genuinely insightful and enjoyable. It’s not too often that one reads an old classic and finds translator’s notes that equal the beauty and power of the work itself. I think the last time that happened was when I read Anthony Esolen’s version of the Divine Comedy of Dante.

This new Bhagavad-Gita complements the literature and religion of the West both when it’s similar and when it’s different–either way, it’s so thoughtful that it makes you think., too. The magic of Majmudar’s work is that it can’t be clear if that’s mostly due to the translator’s subconscious or the text’s original ethos…probably some of both.

 

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Reading Update

I’ve finished eleven books so far in 2018. Here they are:

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1.20, fantasy)–A. One of my goals for the year is to read this whole series–to the constant consternation of my students and my own children, I never have. This first entry was enjoyable and solid.
2. The Way Things Are, Lucretius (1.24, philosophy/poetry, Humphries trans)–C. This is a Roman item from the Great Works of the Western World, and it was so-so. Some interesting procedures in its progress, but ultimately I just didn’t care about most of what it had to say.
3. A Life Without Limits, Chrissie Wellington (2.9, memoir, sports)–A. A fantastic, important, inspiring story. A student (who happens to be a female athlete) saw it on my desk, so I summarized it and she seemed interested. I hope a movie gets made of this one, so more people will get exposed to Chrissie’s awesome story.
4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (2.13, fantasy)–A+. The best of the three I’ve read so far–several plot strains weave together at the end quite organically. The suspense builds in increasing episodes throughout the book.
5. Praise of Folly, Erasmus (2.17, satire, Radice trans.)–B. This bit of cheeky caricaturing of life and society’s foibles was surprisingly accessible, for a satire written 500 years ago.
6. Lightning, Dean Koontz (3.2, suspense)–C. Ugh. What a predictable, stale bore. I’ve liked some of his books, and this is highly rated by fans, but I rolled my eyes several times, the writing was so bad.
7. I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring, Robert I. Eaton & Henry J. Eyring (3.5, biography)–A+. An amazing life story! The method here is not hagiographic, but quite plainly presents Eyring’s life as a series of growth experiences, where he humbly learned and tried to improve. The narratives rooted in his journal entries are gripping. A great read.
8. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 1, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.10, history)–A+. Thoughts and notes here.
9. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (3.20, fantasy)–A. Meh. The writing and characters, etc., are all fine and good, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that not much was at stake here. Much ado about nothing. Plot wise, Rowling also seems in a bit of a rut, with a third book that follows a template that’s pretty familiar by now. Fans I’ve mentioned this to say that she really shakes up the series with book four, so I’m looking forward to that.
10. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 2, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.30, history)–A. Notes here.
11. What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?, Robert Bly (4.5, poetry)–B. Never read anything like this before–Bly writes prose poems. I enjoyed his subjects, style, and approach…mostly. He loves wildly juxtaposed comparisons, and often they work, but sometimes they really don’t. The final section was much weaker, to me, than the rest of the book. Still, I plan to read another of his collections soon.

12 Great Adult Books That Teens Always Love

I’ve seen a lot lately about using YA (Young Adult) literature to help get students more interested in reading. I have mixed feelings about that–I primarily teach juniors, and my mindset is that I should be preparing them to be adults, not preparing them to be children. After all (as I often remind them when they’re being immature), in less than two years, they’ll actually be adults. Why not guide students to read things that will introduce them to the world they’ll soon be entering and living in for the rest of their life, instead of pandering to what is currently comfortable but which will be obsolete in a matter of months?

I’ve tried many different strategies for engaging young people with worthwhile literature over the years. While most of the stuff I offer fails big time (Alas, I’m looking at you, Stranger In A Strange Land, Catch-22, and A Farewell To Arms), some titles tend to make solid connections year after year. Here are twelve perennial winners:

  1. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I’m continually surprised by how many high schoolers haven’t even heard of this. It always scores a new fan, though.
  2. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Even before the Hulu series, this one was a big hit, especially with feminist students. Two years ago, when one student was researching things about the book for a presentation after finishing it, and she learned that a trailer for the upcoming series has just been released, she made us all watch it. She smiled from ear to ear. That’s an extreme example, but still, kids who read this tend to dig it.
  3. Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes. This dark nostalgia-fest is easier going for those who struggle with reading. The details and the themes tend to resonate.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night. Everyone reads Gatsby in class and everyone loves it, but time and again, when students pick this one for other reading projects, they universally tell me how much they enjoyed it.
  5. Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. While some teens are disappointed by the lack of gore, most of them get the creepy psychological vibe here, and it’s a quick, easy read. Never had a kid read this and regret it.
  6. Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men and/or The Road. Man, kids like Cormac McCarthy. I’ve had several good conversations comparing and contrasting the book and movie versions of these with teens. They don’t always get the deeper ideas he wants to impress, but the violent plots do certainly get them ready to think about them.
  7. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye. Probably the easiest of Morrison’s works, this is still timely in regards to race and sex issues.
  8. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita. Like other titles here, this one uses its scandalous appeal to communicate wonderfully deep ideas and style. The shocking sensationalism is always a hit; students may not even know that they’ve been educated by a classic!
  9. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood. Like McCarthy in that her style brings deeper ideas to pop consciousness, but even more than being violent, kids just find her attractively weird. In a good way.
  10. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. What teen won’t relate to this, in some way, sometime? Bonus: if you’re expecting to see Catcher in the Rye in this list, forget it: you might be surprised by how many teens hate it, seeing Holden himself as a phony. The Bell Jar is where it’s at.
  11. Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels. Generally, this one is favored by young men who want to avoid anything too soft or fancy in their reading–ROTC types always love it. As with every title on this list, I’m happy to connect every type of student to something worthwhile for them to study, enjoy, and be enriched by.
  12. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five. Ditto from the last entry. The multi-genre weirdness of this one tends to rock readers a bit, but it’s a worthy and rewarding ride!

The Happy Days / Scarlet Letter Crossover You Never Knew You Needed

At the end of major reading units, I often have students do a series of small creative tasks to demonstrate understanding by extending or reinterpreting material in various ways. This pivotal scene from The Scarlet Letter has been combined with a classic TV reference. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Several months ago, the same student who did this drew the courthouse scene in The Crucible with Sesame Street‘s Big Bird sitting in the rafters. Very clever.

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Romanticism PowerPoint

I did up this presentation to start off our current unit in American Lit. I started with this Powerpoint I found online, and gussied it up a bit. Students filled in these notes while we discussed the slides:

Romanticism Notes

As always, my pop culture and arts references are meant to spur further connections in the minds of students–I try to draw these out from them while we talk. Each piece we read and analyze in this unit includes a discussion of which elements of Romanticism are present in the text and where: this leads to some very natural compare/contrast exercises.

How To Use Turnitin.com and Why

I’m a big fan of the website Turnitin.com, which assists in grading written work and in checking for plagiarism. If you’re a teacher and your school doesn’t subscribe, bug your admin until they get it for you.

It streamlines the writing process, collects all documents and communication electronically, simplifies feedback, and even reveals nearly any kind of cheating a student writer may have done (it was even once used to demonstrate that a professor at UNLV was a serial plagiarist and got him fired!).

It’s thanks to things like this that I don’t carry around boxes of papers to grade any more–all I need is a computer–and it even goes faster, since I don’t have to laboriously scribble my sorry handwriting on each paper. And everything is automatically documented! (More than once, I’ve had a parent insist that their perfect angel turned in an assignment that I’ve marked missing, and where I used to only have my word to go on, I can now take a screen shot of the empty submission page and send it to the parent.)

Last year I put together this quick illustrated user guide for teachers. In case it might be useful for any of you out there in Internet Land, here it is. I also hope you enjoy looking for the little jokes I worked in.

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