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.

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

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.

After Reading The Book of Mormon Again

fd445fc55ad1517bb03f62e79b2441de--count-to-readI started this year by reading the Book of Mormon in 40 days, using this schedule. I really enjoyed it this way, because that schedule breaks the text into big but natural narrative chunks–all the Abinadi chapters in one day, all the Ammonihah chapters in one day, etc. The stories made a lot of sense, and the connections from day to day were clear.

The biggest take away from this reading is just how eventful the Book of Mormon is. I’ve read it many times, but I still found myself saying, almost every day, “Oh, yeah, that’s right! I forgot all about this awesome part!” Those moments just kept piling up. Hardly a day passed without some major, deep, impressive section making me pause and think. The mere fact of the book’s density of originality and quality would be enough alone to make me love it!

I was really overwhelmed with how strongly I was drawn to Helaman 7, until that reaction rang a bell and I checked this blog, to find that I’d had the exact same reaction just last year. To that entry’s love for Helaman 7 and 3 Nephi 5, I now need to add Ether 4: I never realized until now just how special and powerful that obscure little chapter is–the Savior starts speaking in verse 6, but verse 13 begins a direct plea from Him to the latter-day readers of the book, that lasts for the rest of the chapter. That’s a pretty big deal!

 

 

2017: My Year In Reading

I finished 30 books in 2017. It was a good year for reading–nine perfect scores, including three in a row! The biggest development was getting new glasses over the summer–after suffering headaches that slowed me down for far too long, I finally took care of this, and I got much more done after. On the downside, I now see some big holes: no poetry, no science fiction or fantasy, not nearly enough of what I started the year wanting to read. Alas. Still, a great time.

  1. Eliza, Keith and Ann Terry (1.8, biography)–B
  2. Where Love Is, There God Is Also, Leo Tolstoy (1.14, literature, Dole trans. / Jordan intro)–A
  3. Eclogues & Georgics, Virgil (1.21, poetry, Mackail trans.)–C
  4. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (2.11, classics, poetry, Neville Coghill trans.)–A+
  5. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (3.11, literature)–B
  6. A Walk Among the Tombstones, Lawrence Block (3.20, mystery)–B
  7. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher (3.27, biography)–A+
  8. The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher (5.29, religion, politics)–A
  9. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank (6.23, history)–A
  10. Born Fighting, James Webb (6.27, history)–A
  11. Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov (7.1, drama)–C
  12. Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw (7.27, drama)–A
  13. Everything That Remains, The Minimalists (7.27, memoir)–A+
  14. Purgatory, Dante (7.29, poetry, classic, Anthony Esolen trans.)–A
  15. The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera (8.22, fiction)–B
  16. Nightworld, F. Paul Wilson (8.26, horror)–A+
  17. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (9.17, satire)–A
  18. Paradise, Dante (10.17, poetry, classic, Anthony Esolen trans.)–A+
  19. How Dante Can Save Your Life, Rod Dreher (10.23, literary criticism, memoir)–A+
  20. Speak To The Earth, Rachel Peden (10.31, nature, memoir)–A+
  21. Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard (11.10, philosophy, Lowrie trans.)–A
  22. Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer (11.20, classic, Windeatt trans.)–D
  23. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman (11.22, biography)–A+
  24. Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche (11.23, philosophy, Kaufmann trans.)–C
  25. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual For Reading Plays, David Ball (11.25, literary criticism)–A+
  26. Candide, Voltaire (12.2, satire, classic)–A
  27. It’s All Relative, A.J. Jacobs (12.8, genealogy, humor)–B
  28. The Best American Short Stories 2017, Heidi Pitlor, ed. (12.16, literature)–B
  29. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, P.D. James (12.19, mystery)–B
  30. Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (12.21, satire, Leonard Tancock trans.)–C

C.H. Spurgeon, Rachel Peden, Katrina Kenison, and Me

bassThis is the story of an invisible community, where one voice at a time leads us to connect with others, in a chain back in time.

It starts with Katrina Kenison, who edited the annual Best American Short Stories series in the 90’s and early 2000’s. I love the essays she’d write as a foreword to each volume–usually loving little slices of the literate life, crisp and juicy together. For example, consider the paragraph from her essay in the 2001 volume, below. Isn’t it perfect?

Actually, her very best such essay was the one that started off the 2004 volume. I’ve used that essay a number of times with students, as a model of style and form–it seamlessly weaves a meditation on books with an illustrative anecdote, written in a way that creates comfort while it also demands engagement and action. I don’t have a copy handy just now, so I can’t provide a quote, nor is it anywhere online that I can find, but this book–along with all the volumes she edited–is worth tracking down just for her essays alone.

(She’s written other books, but I wish she’d compile one just collecting all these essays. What a treat that would be!)

 

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In the 2004 edition essay, however, Kenison mentions several older books that she’d found in a used book shop that was about to close. She tosses off titles with brief reveries about the contents–tiny taglines meant to offer whisps of joy found between those covers–and I’ve long wanted to find some of them myself.

This year I finally did. One in particular stood out to me, Rachel Peden’s Speak to the Earth. As I recall, Kenison called Peden “a naturalist of the first order.” Sounded good to me.

No library in southern Nevada had a copy, so I used the interlibrary loan program available at the university where I work part time to borrow a copy from whomever had one to share. Continue reading

Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!

 

Written English As a Foreign Language to Native Speakers

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ELL students–English Language Learners (also known as ESL, or English as a Second Language). They have a certain set of needs in writing instruction. In fact, students have slightly differing sets of needs depending on what their first language is: some language backgrounds make learning to use plurals harder; others create a tough time with verb conjugation, for example.

This has nothing to do with anyone’s intelligence–it’s just a matter of learning to think and communicate those thoughts in a new way. What shocks me, though, is just how often I see native English speakers make the same kinds of mistakes in writing that foreign language students make. What accounts for this?

For a young American today, written English is practically a foreign language. Students very likely have little more engagement with written English than they would with any other world language, and it shows in the kinds of errors they make in writing.

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Reviewed and Recommended: F. Paul Wilson’s Nightworld

7957849I recently had such a great reading experience! So many of the books I read are deep, or classics, or deep classics–this time I just wanted something fun. Because of that, I spent a few days in a row staying up late so I could keep reading. That hasn’t happened in a while.

Nightworld is the final book in a series that begins with Wilson’s classic The Keep. (Yes, I skipped to the end of a series just so I could get to the gripping, white-knuckled conclusion. Fight me.) Like all great horror novels, the plot is as elemental as any dark fairy tale: a powerful evil entity is making each day on Earth shorter than the one before, and at night hungry creatures come out of the ground to ravage the world. Each night is longer than the one before, and each night brings larger and more aggressive monsters. Soon, the world will be kept in permanent night, ruled by this demon and his army of monster minions. And only a small rag-tag band of human heroes can come together to stop him.

Pretty awesome. Wilson delivers. Why isn’t there a movie of this? Tons of fun. Highly recommended.

 

Quote About Reading Great Books, From a Great Book I Once Read

Winston stopped reading for a moment. Somewhere in remote distance a rocket bomb thundered. The blissful feeling of being alone with the forbidden book, in a room with no telescreen, had not worn off. Solitude and safety were physical sensations, mixed up somehow with the tiredness of his body, the softness of the chair, the touch of the faint breeze from the window that played upon his cheek. The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden. The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.

–George Orwell, 1984, Part II, chapter 9

 

Strategies For Reading and Relationships

In relationships, never give up on people. Stick it out, make it work.

In reading…just the opposite. A book should always be a perfect ten. If your connection to a book ever cools off, feel free to kick it to the curb and find another one. Plenty of fish in the sea, plenty of books in the library. Life is short and you deserve the best.

Just don’t get these two ideas confused. Your life will be fun for others to watch, but frustrating for you.

Comparing Three Translations of Les Miserables

I recently started reading Les Miserables. I’m up to Part III and–no surprise–it’s amazing so far.

It had a rocky start, though. I researched translations and couldn’t find one that stood out, so I figured I’d just try the old original standard translation from the 19th century, the Wilbour translation.

I only got a few pages in before getting tired of the pretentious contortion of it all. I decided to find a copy of Denny’s translation from the 70’s. My local library district actually didn’t have that one, but do you know who did? The library at the school where I work! How great is that?

And from page one I loved it. I don’t know how well it reflects the French, but this English version hums and sings for me with pitch-perfect tone.

Here are two passages I really like so far, compared between three popular versions: Wilbour’s, Denny’s, and the recent Julie Rose translation.

This is the end of Part II, chapter 8:

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Denny

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Wilbour

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Rose

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