LEONARDO THE UNSOLVABLE

51PHThzD-2L._AC_US218_You would expect to find in a biography of a luminary on the scale of Da Vinci an enormous constellation of facts and insights and delights, and Walter Isaacson certainly provides those and then some. As with the two other Isaacson biographies I’ve reviewed in Carlrbrush.com–one of Benjamin Franklin (http://bit.ly/2CFj1zh) and the other of Albert Einstein (http://bit.ly/2CfgxM8)–I find Walter the most amenable of biographers. He’s not always the easiest to read, but he rewards a bit of effort more than, say, the more facile David McCulloch, whom I admit to enjoying as well.

So after exploring the intricacies of this archetypal Renaissance man’s life, what did I come away with? Perhaps the most amazing item was that he was no good at math. Never mastered long division or multiplication. It would seem as if a brain like that would find such mundane subjects–well–no-brainers. Of course, if he’d had calculus as a tool, he might have fared better, but he didn’t get around to inventing it, and Isaac Newton was still a few centuries in the future, so he did without. How? This is the most marvelous fact of all, and one I still don’t understand. When he had to solve a vexing puzzle of, say, perspective, he did it all geometrically. Same with learning to calculate the relative areas of a square and a circle, or the volumes of a sphere and a cube. Isaacson explains these operations in some detail, but read and re-read though I might, they are as beyond me as Einstein’s insights about the speed and shape of light.

Another thing. One of his most amazing paintings was in some sense a failure. He was an obsessive worker and reworker  materials and processes. So much did he insist on returning to his favorite works over and again that he couldn’t stand the thought of having to paint the fresco of The Last Supper on wet plaster and let the result stand. He painted on dry plaster, tried to find ways to make it fast. But it began to deteriorate quite soon. Thus, despite centuries of restorations, what we have is nowhere near the original.

What else? He and Michelangelo were pretty much enemies. Leonardo thought Mr. M. painted like a sculptor, all hard edges with no subtlety of line or texture. Michelangelo, on the other hand, had no respect for his elder.

So those are a few factoids to go along with what most of us know about this guy who could paint the Mona Lisa (whose smile was based on his observations about the muscles of face and lips gleaned from hours at the dissection table) with one hand (by the way, he was a southpaw) and draw fantasies of flying machines and submarines with the other, and stop along the way to give us the Vitruvian Man. One of the reasons, of course, was that he seems to have been totally ADHD, seldom able to concentrate on a single project for long at a time. So, of course, we want to beat that sort of thing out of our kids?

Go figure.

 

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WALTER ISAACSON

 

A BREATHTAKING RIDE ON THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

d0733422-e2eb-3165-9839-995f34e9327fI thought I knew a thing or two about the underground railroad, and I do. I didn’t, however, know that there were segments of actual rails with locomotives chugging along underground as they ferried their charges north. There are a lot of of “little known facts” scattered throughout Whitehead’s narrative, but it wouldn’t be a novel if that was all there was to it. In point of fact, there is far more than that, and far more than your conventional slave narrative in these pages. The heart of the book is Cora, raised in Georgia in the cruelest of slave conditions. The plantation owner has divided the land between his two sons, one a horrid martinet, the other a wastrel. Cora’s mother runs away, and Cora never sees her again (though we do) and she never forgives her for the abandonment. When Cora’s turn comes, she dithers, but finally goes ahead. In an old tale of cruelty masked as seductive kindness, we are treated to a Tuskegee experiment/eugenics community disguised as a betterment society for the colored. Then to a self-improvement society that allows escaped slaves and free colored to actually own and work their own land. You can probably guess how that all works out.

Thus does Cora’s journey to freedom mirror that of so many who have taken one form or another of the railroad only to find when they arrive that the station on their tickets have closed or been moved or blown up. Actually, this is not the bleak message I might make it sound like. There’s a lot of joy and hope here as well.

Furthermore, we needn’t despair, for the Orangeman has come to save us. Follow him. In his immortal words “What do you have to lose”?3289691d-3009-3ff6-8da9-6fc327abe590

 

ALL THE CLERICAL FURIES

th_id=OP.Ef8Qprt4Dw7opQ300C300&pid=21The delicious opening sentence of John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is among the best I’ve read. I repeat it here without apology for those who don’t like spoilers because it bears re- and rereading:

Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoloeague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore. 

Actually, the priest did a bit more than denounce, he kicked Catherine Goggin in the backside a couple of times as she headed out the church door. Thus does the narrator’s mother begin her journey to Dublin, where she ends up rooming with a couple of young homosexual men, a species even more despised than unwed mothers.

It’s a yeasty opening, and the narrative doesn’t let up in tension and pathos as we follow our young story teller through the narrative. We pick up his story in his boyhood, circa early 1950’s, having been adopted by a strange couple who receive him from a humpbacked nun. He is well cared for, though not particularly loved. His adoptive mother writes novels which she shies away from publishing for fear someone will read them. His adoptive father is a financier of sorts who plays fast and loose with money, both public and private and spends much of our hero’s  life in prison. Both of them never fail to describe him and themselves as “adoptive.”

He lands a job as a civil servant and manages to make a decent living, all the while battling, mostly unsuccessfully against his innate homosexuality. It’s a battle worth fighting, hopeless though it might be, since the law prescribes prison as the penalty for it. It is hard to imagine the terror these folks must have felt every day during those decades, but Boyne makes the pain vivid indeed.

Along the way, we meet our narrator’s mother, watch him become somewhat acquainted with her. It’s a great Dickensian device, but handled with such skill here that one never feels manipulated.th

WHEN CHARON IS YOUR FRIEND

51q8rf09vul-_sx331_bo1204203200_In the opening pages of Guarding Charon  we meet Grace Adams, who is one miserable girl. She’s trapped in a town and a family that have her future mapped out for her. A future she can’t bear to imagine.  She’s meant to marry the rich, brutal, and controlling Bruce Davis, whose family makes the rules for just about everyone and everything in town. Grace can’t keep a job because the Davis’s pressure employers to fire her, then spread the rumor that she quit. Bruce figures if he makes it impossible for Grace to become independent, she will eventually see him as her only alternative. Her family is enthusiastic about the prospect of their daughter marrying into money. Complicating factor: Bruce is a cop, so he’s got a badge and gun to back up his efforts. Thus, if Grace tries to leave town, he, and his father, the chief, can use police resources to track her down.

searchThus, Kate Marie Collins in a few pages has placed her protagonist in as ugly a situation as one can imagine, and we readers feel Grace’s despair. Then, Mr. Dixon drops in with news.

Dixon delivers the news that Grace has a long lost great aunt in Maine. Lost because she and her mother are estranged (to put it mildly), and her name has not been mentioned  in the house ever before. The aunt’s name is Amanda Cross. She is getting on in years and is ready to drop her legacy in a place where it will be treated properly. That somewhere is in the care of Grace Adams.

I’m not quite sure how Collins pulls it off, but she makes it completely believable that Grace would  step out the door of her childhood home and fly away with a total stranger on his word that great things await her. I guess it’s the fact we can’t conceive of anything but torture for her if she stays put.

I won’t go too far into the rest of the plot of Guarding Charon because I don’t want to mar the delicious experience of discovery that Collins has created when we land in Cavendish, Maine, meet Amanda, and see Grace build a new life with a new name to keep Bruce from following. It is enough, I think, to say that Amanda is a practicing Wiccan, and Grace becomes immersed in the religion as she gets acquainted with the estate she is to inherit. The paranormal elements of the novel are not here merely to shock or amaze, but are so grounded in the plot that we become as convinced of the appearance of Charon and the River Styx and other supernatural phenomena as Grace herself.

With Guarding Charon Collins has made an exciting and admirable addition to her canon of such triumphs as Daughter of Hauk and the rest of the Raven Chronicles. I know we can look forward to more that’s wonderful from her.

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WELSH’S THE TRUTH LIES BURIED–GUEST POSTS

 

 

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What we have here are two reviews of a super new crime novel, The Truth Lies Buried,  by Lesley Welsh.

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LESLEY WELSH

You can read my own take on the book at http://bit.ly/29BEPxJ  Add these commentaries all up and you know there’ll be a big hole in your life if you don’t rush to it immediately.

 

 

REVIEW THE FIRST:

Reading this ten days ago I thought it was wonderful. Now that my better half has read it and we’ve done all the post-mortems and compared our clinical notes, we rank it as outstanding.

The style is nuanced, sly, wry, and fiercely intelligent, without a superfluous word. Cultural allusions and quotable quotes abound, with two already established in our domestic lexicon.

You know from the get-go that a beautiful terror is born, and the joyride just keeps getting better. It’s all down to feisty, complex Monica, whose heart must have been forged from some mercury-tungsten amalgam. Her love and lust lead to chaos, lunacy, muddle and mayhem, carving up turf, inheritances and physiognomies, with unassailable logic and inevitability.

To sum up: a riveting crime novel that twists, turns, wrings and wrenches its way through a mesmerising cast of sentient psychopaths, a hitlist of great characters – most gone far too soon – but, I guess, c’est la morte. But then again who ever said that death was fair? And why can’t I find an English word for noir?’

REVIEW THE SECOND:
‘Sam Riley, the protagonist, is an ex-hitwoman, ex-soldier, ex-bouncer, and guardian of the innocent. The antagonists are legion and not one-dimensionally evil or cartoonish. Lesley Welsh, the writer, is truly gifted: she is a storyteller who can set up a noir-ish scene, with noir-ish dialog, and noir-ish characters without any plodding digressions. This book has been the best surprise out of amazon’s kindle unlimited since I joined, and probably the best action/crime novel I’ve read this year. I’m looking forward to more from Lesley Welsh.’