“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson

leanardo

In a series of best-selling biographies of Renaissance men (Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin), Walter Isaacson tackles the original Renaissance man himself: Leonardo da Vinci.  Leonardo’s interests were wide, vast, and deep: the arts (theater, painting, music), the sciences (optics, biology, anatomy, hydraulics, aviation, geology), and engineering (mechanics, civil, architecture, city design).  The challenge for Isaacson was source material.  His previous genius subjects left piles of material in their wakes – Da Vinci left 7200 pages of notebooks.  The notebooks are rich with doodles, maps, schemes for new machines, ideas for new weapons, city designs, anatomical drawings, grocery lists, and scientific studies to work out solutions to experimental problems.  They contained very limited autobiographical or inner musings.  Thus, Isaacson concedes the book is more about Leonardo’s output and contributions than “intimate personal revelations”.

The astounding detail about Da Vinci was his approach to learning.  Other than attending an abacus school for math, Leonardo was self-taught.    He eschewed dogma and rote learning, going directly to the source:  experience and experimentation.  He was exceedingly curious – a two-year old that never stopped asking why and how.  Why is the sky blue?  How does a bird fly?  How do muscles in the face express emotion?   He saw patterns across different fields of study:  branches of trees, rivers and tributaries, and veins in the body; how eddies and swirls in water work the same as in air to keep birds in flight – and the same patterns can be used to paint curls on a portrait’s head.  His inquisitiveness led him to discover things long before they became common knowledge.  He intuited the first and third laws of motion 200 years ahead of Newton. He determined how the aortic valve worked 450 years before the medical establishment did.  He let science inform his art:  he dissected more than 20 cadavers to create detailed anatomical drawings – especially interesting is his dissection of the face and lips to get to the source of facial expressions.  There is a reason Mona Lisa’s smile is so captivating.

 

 

Da Vinci could have written dozens of books on his subjects of interest that would have likely been used for teaching in the academies for centuries.  He had little interest in studying passed-down knowledge, therefore he probably did not even consider publishing and passing down what he discovered. He was learning for the sake of learning to satisfy an unbound personal curiosity.

 

Leonardo was the ultimate character: “illegitimate, left-handed, gay, vegetarian, easily distracted, and at times heretical.” Unlike Michelangelo, Leonardo was strikingly handsome, well adjusted, gregarious, and self-expressed.  He had many friends, wore pinks and purples, and in accordance with letting experience rather than dogma dictate, he had an openly gay relationship with a long-time companion.

He was notorious for procrastinating on commissions, and, more times than not, he just abandoned projects altogether.  He eloquently defends procrastination: “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”  One of his famous abandoned projects was his Gran Cavallo commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482.  It was intended to be the largest equestrian statue in the world.  Leonardo did extensive preparatory work and produced a clay model, but eventually abandoned the venture. The project was picked up again 500 years later.  Now named “The American Horse,” one of two full-size casts is on permanent display at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids.

 

In our age, where an education is a diploma earned by memorizing and regurgitating handed-down information, all “knowledge” is a mere internet search away, and most experience is virtual, Leonardo’s example beckons us to put the books and gadgets down to interact physically with the real world and everyday sensory experience – and, most importantly, to always stay curious.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 4.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, December 6 to discuss Leonardo Da Vinci at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Wolf’s Mouth” by John Smolens

wolfsmouthJohn Smolens’ novel Wolf’s Mouth, Winner of a 2017 Michigan Notable Book Award, has been chosen as the novel for the first “One Book, One Community” event in the White Lake area by the Friends of the Montague Library and Friends of the White Lake Community Library. The “One Book, One Community” program encourages communities to read the same book and to come together to discuss it in a variety of settings (see below for a schedule of events). Dozens of similar programs have been sponsored nationwide.

The book is an excellent choice for a community-wide read because it offers something for everyone. Do you like suspense? Love stories? Historical fiction? War stories? Check, check, check, and check. And to top it off, it takes place in Michigan and by a Michigan author.

It is 1944, and Captain Francesco Verdi, an officer in the Italian army, has just been captured by the Allies and sent to Camp Au Train, a POW camp in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Braving the unfamiliar cold, he is assigned to chopping down trees with civilians and serving as captain of the camp’s soccer team. Verdi is one of few non-German POWs at the camp. Most of the Germans are happy to be away from the war front enjoying comfortable lodging, a good day’s work, and nutritious food. However, some of the captured Germans are die-hard Nazis who try to retain control even in captivity – epitomized in the story by the ruthless Kommandant Vogel. Under Vogel’s direction, some co-prisoners are tortured and even killed. When Vogel holds a mock trial and sentences Verdi to death, Verdi knows he can either choose to face his deadly fate or escape. With the help of a sympathizing Italian mother and daughter in town, he chooses the latter. By 1956, Verdi, now living undercover as Frank Green (Verdi is Italian for Green), is happily married to Claire (the daughter) and enjoying a middle-class life with his own business in Detroit. Later, an INS agent, who has been following Verdi, comes to warn him that Vogel is still at large and reeking revenge on those defectors from the Nazi cause in the past.

This sweeping story offers evocative settings: from the stark Upper Peninsula to bustling, heyday Detroit – with stops in Italy and Berlin. Wolf’s Mouth is a plot-driven novel that winds and weaves, covering a wide range of historical, geographical, and emotional ground. The book offers many themes to discuss: along with the obvious romance and violence there are the experiences of immigrants, survivors, and soldiers in peacetime; fate and the role an individual’s past plays in determining his future; revenge; and POW camps in Michigan. I found the latter eye-opening as the existence of POW camps in Michigan was something that was not taught in any history class I took growing up in Michigan. In fact, there were 6,000 POWs in Michigan during World War II with about 1,000 stationed in five camps the Upper Peninsula and the others located throughout the Lower Peninsula in camps as close as Allegan, Hart, and Sparta. Camp Au Train, featured in the story, actually was a camp.

Author John Smolens lives in Marquette, and is the director of Northern Michigan University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. He is an acclaimed author of one collection of stories and three novels.

The One Book, One Community events scheduled are:
• 7pm Wednesday, October 25 – Historical Presentation and White Lake Reminiscences, a presentation about WWII POW camps in the area by the Oceana Historical Society followed by local residents’ stories and reminiscences about life in the area during that era – at the Montague Library Lower Level
• 6pm Wednesday, November 1 – Book Discussion at The Book Nook & Java Shop
• 2-4pm Saturday, November 4 – Book Signing with Author John Smolens at The Book Nook & Java Shop
• 5pm Sunday, November 5 – Community Potluck followed by John Smolens presentation at 6:30 at Ferry Memorial Church

Copies of the Wolf’s Mouth are on sale for 20% off at The Book Nook & Java Shop all month. The Book Nook & Java Shop book club meets at 6pm the first Wednesday of every month and is open to everyone: wine, snacks, camaraderie and book discussions – a great combination all year long.

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“Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters

undergroundairlinesWith current headlines of NFL players kneeling for the national anthem and the continued momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, we in this country are confronted with old wounds from slavery that are far from healed. In Underground Airlines, Ben Winters paints a picture of modern America the same as it is today, save for one detail: slavery is legal in four states. In the history leading up to his story, Lincoln was shot before his inauguration and the Civil War never happened. To solve the dispute over slavery, a treaty was entered that allowed four Southern states to uphold the institution of forced servitude or, as it is euphemistically called, “People Bound by Labor.” They had the practice baked into the Constitution – forever protected. And, the slaves of the 21st century get an upgrade: they are corporate property, with the logos of the corporations branded onto their skin, marking their ownership.

The main character, Victor, is a bounty hunter who tracks fugitives for the United States Marshals Service. The people he’s chasing are escaped slaves. He has a complicated past: he also was an escaped slave who, when caught, was given the Faustian deal to exchange his soul for his freedom. The book reads like a noir mystery detective thriller. Victor is a cynical, private loner who reports his daily progress by telephone to a shadowy, yet ever-looming Mr. Bridge whom he has never met. Victor, who uses being black and a prior slave to his benefit, turns out to be a pro at his job – he has racked up more than 200 captures. On the current case, he infiltrates an abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines, but something about the case-file details seem off. The further he delves, the more irregularities he uncovers and the less he can trust the stakeholders around him. The case gets under his skin and starts to chip away at the thin veneer of indifference Victor has built up to shield himself from his conscience. He soon is haunted by visions of his youth in a Carolina slaughterhouse plantation along with the ghosts of the many run-aways he helped the Feds to catch. Mr. Bridge makes it known that his freedom depends on continuing to perform his duties – and a tracking device implanted in his spine makes the idea of escape impossible.

According to Ben Winters, in the Fall of 2013 he was searching for his next project. He kept thinking about Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was fatally shot in Florida by George Zimmerman and other incidents of police violence against African-Americans. “Our country is still dealing with the legacy of slavery,” Mr. Winters said. “As I researched the subject, I realized I wanted to take this figurative idea that slavery is still with us, and make it literal.”

The novel was a finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize, the 2017 Southern Book Prize, the 2017 International Thriller Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. The book won the 2016 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.

Winters has written the pilot script for a television adaptation in the works.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, October 2. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 4 to discuss Underground Airlines at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Book That Matters Most” by Ann Hood

bookthatmattersmost

Ava is shocked to discover a text on the phone of her husband of 25 years that leads to his confession that he is in love with his mistress and is leaving. Their two adult children live overseas. A close friend invites Ava to join her book club and out of desperation for human contact and love of reading, Ava accepts. This book club creates a theme each year about which members select a book. The theme for the current year is “The Book That Matters Most” – a book that has had the most profound effect on your life. The members go around the circle and announce their picks: Pride and Prejudice, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and others – all well-known, predictable classics. Now its Ava’s turn, she realizes that most of her reading is escapist – she picks books that purposely don’t matter. The only book she could honestly say meant something is a book from her childhood: From Clare to Here. It was a book she read over and over as therapy for the major traumas in her life: the accidental death of her sister Lily and her mother’s suicide a year later.

As a break from the heavy topics of grief and loss, there is some humor – for instance, when Ava, instead of bothering to read Pride and Prejudice, guiltily watches the movie version with Keira Knightley and tries to make weighty comments at the book club and gets caught when the group points out that the what happens in the movie is different from the book. Another instance of levity is her short-lived clumsy affair with a much younger man from the book club.

 

 

The book Ava selected is out of print and unavailable. Ava’s mission to find the book and its enigmatic author takes her on a quest that proves to the be main plot line as it unravels the secrets of her past.

Alternating with Ava’s story is that of her troubled daughter Maggie, who (without telling her parents) drops out of an art history program in Florence and follows a boy to Paris. She develops a taste for drinks and drugs and ends up in a destructive relationship with an older man. The details and desperation depicted by Maggie’s addiction seems excruciatingly true to life. Her will to escape and struggle to start over leads her to find work and create a relationship with a renowned bookstore owner. As promoted in a travel guide to Paris: “Don’t miss Ganymede’s Books, a quirky cluttered bookshop in the hip Marais section. The American owner, who goes simply by Madame, is a mercurial dragon who opens and closes the shop at her whim. Ask her a question and she’s just as likely to bite you as help you. But that’s part of the fun. And her eclectic selection of books is worth the trip.”

The denouement pushes the envelope of plausibility, but would make a great ending to a movie of the “chick flick” genre – just a bit too neatly and spontaneously tied up.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 5. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, September 6 to discuss The Book That Matters Most at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

 

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“Spill Simmer Falter Wither” by Sara Baume

spillsimmerSpill Simmer Falter Wither, set in a small seaside town in Ireland, is the story of two outcasts: a socially misfit man and a one-eyed dog, who find — and bring comfort to — each other. The title is a descriptive word play on the four seasons during which the story takes place, and it sets the novel’s sad tone.

The book opens with a dog’s perspective: running wild, his left eye dangling from “some gristly tether.” And then we are inside the head of a man, peering in the window of a junk shop, noticing an ad from the local shelter seeking a compassionate and tolerant owner. The narrator, Ray, describes himself as a hulking man who lives alone in his recently deceased father’s house. He proceeds to describe his world and tell his story in first person present to the dog he adopts and names “One Eye.”

Author Sara Baume grew up wanting to be an artist, she studied art in college, and worked in an art gallery.  It was when she started writing about art that she realized that writing came easily to her and was favorably recognized by others.  And “Spill Simmer Falter Wither”, her first novel, is a work of art.  Baume combines literature, music, and art in her writing.     The sentences are meticulously and poetically crafted to evoke a certain lyrical musicality – a rhythm and sustaining cadence.  Ray’s descriptions of his surroundings are like painting a still life in real time.  Here is a simple, yet beautiful description of One Eye’s dish: “[n]ow the food bowl is the epicenter, to which the house is attached and everything beyond radiates from, like sun beams, like stingers of winged and boneless sharks…”

Ray’s outer self is gruff, disheveled, and anti-social, while his inner self is intellectual, compassionate, and sensitive.  His house is full of stacks of books that he has spent his insular life reading.  He notices everything from details about his surroundings to being curious about the motivations and thoughts of his dog and other people.

The story doesn’t have much of a plot, save for a dog fight that forces Ray and One Eye to flee town and embark on an aimless road trip and a slow unraveling of Ray’s history – how he was raised and how that affected him.  The book seems to ask the question – what is a life?  Is it outer focused: your achievements, the length and substance of your obituary, how others perceive you? Or is it inner focused and more existential: what goes on in your head, what you notice and pay attention to?

If you like gripping plot-based page-turners, this book is probably not for you.  However, if you enjoy beautifully crafted sentences, a journey for a while inside someone else’s head and the healing companionship of a dog – I highly recommend this book.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 7.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, August 2 to discuss Spill Simmer Falter Wither at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Fante Bukowski TWO” by Noah Van Sciver

Fante-Bukowski-COVERIndieBound BOOKNOOK Staff Pick

Fante Bukowski TWO by noah van sciver

Review by A.K.

“Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.”-George S. Patton

“Fante Bukowski is an up and coming literary star. His work has been featured in the FIRE WATER JOURNAL. You would be blessed to meet him.”-Author Bio Found on Back Of His Zine, 6 Poems

The author of the sequel to FANTE BUKOWSKI ONE has created something special here. An updated pseudo prototype of Charles Bukowski’s fictional character found in his novels such as POST OFFICE and FACTOTUM, has influenced the make-up of the protagonist of Fante. The physical book itself, as a product, looks like it was published by Black Sparrow Press, the publisher of the real Bukowski, with its thick pages and cardboard cover, and could be placed in multiple sections of the bookstore. It’s part graphic novel, literary scene critique, but mostly, it’s simply a comedic (often tragic) story of a writer who’s not very good at writing rubbing-up against other mainstream authors,  and then somehow finding out that they share common interests in the sleazy alleys of downtown Columbus Ohio. Fante Bukowski believes he is the most brilliant American writer of his generation. But he just can’t catch a break. He’s living in a motel after running away from his life in Denver, and to make things worse, his parents have turned off his credit cards. The plot of the graphic novel follows three characters, and eventually brings them together, with some lude twists printed on every single page of this one hundred and twenty-page Moby Dick of a stylized masterpiece. Other Than Fante, you have Noah Van Sciver,“a major cartoonist”, and Audrey Catron, an old fling of Fante’s who recently became a household name with her novel. Audrey is on a national tour, and she’s meeting with agents and Hollywood executives and New York Times literary reporters, and so on. These three have their own narratives in-between the struggle of the hero, Fante Bukowski. Call it whatever you want, But FANTE BUKOWSKI TWO is one of the best books of this or of any year a book has been released. It is a testament to the trials and tribulations of an artist living their life, trying to get their stolen coat back from junkies, all while trying to sell their zine to new age poets who no longer believe in the two eternal friends of the writer, cigarettes and alcohol. It’s a book about finding the best dive bar in town and so much more. Fante Bukowski is truly the second coming. (Please note: Both the book and the review of this book use the same laugh track.)

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“Pond” by Claire Louise Bennett

pondStaff Indiebound pick – A.K. Mini Review:

“Enforced remembrance is, I think, a most stultifying thing.”

Bennett has control over the English language that would make one think this is the work of a much older writer. Her prose style has been described as elegant, ardent, eccentric and obsessive compulsive, which isn’t a bad thing, and in Pond we have a writer who loves to write about the inner thinking of the human mind trapped in a society.  A woman recently removed from the university begins a sorta fresh start in a small village on the coast. She talks about the past but as the narrative develops she’s more concerned with talking about the shadows and the sounds under a tree as she winks and then naps. Whole pages and paragraphs devoted to eating bananas with coffee and the growth of potato plants and a theory of an organized life found in Spanish Oranges. Pond reminds me of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the confessional narrative found in Albert Camus’s The Fall; throw in some absurd comedy and the fondness of watching plants grow on your windowsill, and you have one of the best books released this year. It’s about the big day and being able to find innocent adventures in adult life in a world covered in signs saying pretty much how everything can kill you. It is a novel about wanting a bike that can go up hills…

“I had a bike but I needed a new one, a different one, one with gears, one that could go up hills, one that could go up hills and carry shopping, one that felt sturdy and safe at night along roads where there is no light, one that could go up hills.”


Andrew H. Kuharevicz

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