Walter Isaacson’s biography of ‘Leonardo da Vinci’

The interesting and robust biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson takes a look into the history of the man, as much as possible, based on the notebooks and contemporary sources of information as could be done by a scholar publishing a work on the influential painter, inventor, and polymath. The book Leonardo da Vinci was published in hardback form in the fall of 2017.

Leonardo da VInci 2 - Walter Isaacson(Leonardo da Vinci biographer Walter Isaacson)

My journey into reading Leonardo da Vinci began with the awareness that he was an Italian Renaissance painter influential largely from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century famous for such paintings as the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. I had some sense for his larger influence into more scientific inquiries, which led to the Vitruvian Man drawing, though not much else.

Leonardo da VInci 3 - Mona Lisa(The Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci)

Isaacson takes us into a review of Leonardo da Vinci  that explores not only the facts and relevance of the man, but as much as possible into how he thought and experienced the world. The portrait of the man comes through, likely as much as is possible from roughly 525-years after much of the history for the man began.

Leonardo da VInci 4 - The Last Supper(The Last Supper painting by Leonardo da Vinci)

Da Vinci, as an illegitimate son of a Florence legal notary. Da Vinci largely self-taught in early life, having also been alienated from much of the legitimate offspring of his father for much of his adult life. That the influences for becoming a Renaissance painter was less about returning to past forms of high art in his time through an appreciation of the past was largely an accident. The patronage opportunities and shifting sense of timing and loyalty shifts for da Vinci were parts of his genius.

Leonardo da VInci 5 - Vitruvian Man(The Vitruvian Man drawing by Leonardo da Vinci)

Independent wealth was never a largely comfortable proposition for Leonardo da Vinci, though he did find ways to have intimate relationships through his adult life. One of the earlier known relationships was with an that later became an intimate named Salai. Salai was the name used throughout the Isaacson biography, though the name itself was a nickname that loosely to thief, liar, glutton, and other less than flattering terms. Upon death, half of Leonardo da Vinci‘s estate was passed to Salai.

Leonardo da VInci 6 - Salai(A Salai drawing by Leonardo da Vinci)

Much of the further biography delves into how Leonardo da Vinci explored curiosities to the point of obsession. Much of the knowledge that da Vinci explored could have made the man significant and memorable in its own right, even if the heavily famous and significant paintings included within this review never occurred. In part, the fame of da Vinci owes itself to these obsessions and their expression in the painting Mona Lisa.

Leonardo da VInci 7(Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson)

The innovation of the polymath da Vinci were well expressed and clearly understood to me as I read this biography of the man. The level of detail probably isn’t for everyone, though I personally took no exception to the investigation and analysis. I feel that I am the better informed and more appreciative for this experience. I recommend the reading of the book Leonardo da Vinci.

My overall rating is 4.0-stars-out-of-5.

Matt – Sunday, September 9, 2018


Vision Overcomes Hardship in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor E. Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning introduced me to the writing of Viktor E. Frankl, a 20th century psychiatrist and holocaust survivor. In the mood for seeking larger meaning, vision, and an inspiration for a recent testimonial for overcoming adversity with psychological strength, I was drawn to Frankl‘s best-selling work.

I found the reminders and echoing of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the treatment of Frankl‘s Man’s Search for Meaning reassuring. Frankl builds his logotherapy with an awareness of Kierkegaard‘s will to meaning. That Frankl further counterpoints Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler by arguing not for drives of pleasure or power but for meaning strikes me as a truly remarkable accomplishment.

Mans Search for Meaning 2(Viktor E. Frankl)

The book itself starts first with not so much of Frankl‘s experiences in the concentration camps throughout Europe during World War II as an exploration of some of the personality profiles of those that experienced the concentration camps. The editorial consideration here was not as much to downplay personal narratives of those that had come. The decision was to offer something different.

Man’s Search for Meaning then introduced the psychiatry of logotherapy. The edition that I was reading was a later version that aimed to make modifications based on the learning and growth within this branch of psychiatry, which again advanced upon focusing on meaning rather than “not the drive to sex or pleasure, as Freud theorized, or power, as Nietzsche and Adler argued” (

Friedrich Nitezsche was a philosopher in his own right that focused in no small part on human drives and passions as central to a meaningful human experience.

Mans Search for Meaning 3(People define meaning!)

A powerful aid and benefit that I took from Man’s Search for Meaning came with the exploration of logotherapy. In discussing self-actualization and experiencing meaning, Frankl mentioned three different ways to discover meaning:

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed.
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone.
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

The first of those is self-explanatory. Offering the world a new thing like a smartphone, or a best-selling book, or the means for two friends that later become husband and wife, are examples.

The second could involve experiencing the goodness of an act of kindness, the truth of an uplifting statement of gratitude, or the beauty of the autumn colors as leaves change from green to golden, brown, or red. Loving another person offers meaning and connection of its own.

When facing circumstances that you cannot change and which cause tangible pain, anxiety, or both, your approach to that pain can transform the experience of suffering into bearing witness to that pain and transforming it into a human achievement. The example Frankl offered on this score was that of an aging medical doctor who had been suffering greatly after his deceased had died. There was comforted when he realized that his wife’s passing first meant she would not suffer the grief that he was feeling.

I came away with the reward of new insight and encouragement. Viktor E. Frankl further rewarded me with a deeper structural understanding of psychiatry along with distinctions between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  I give Man’s Search for Meaning 4-stars out of 5.

Matt – Sunday, October 15, 2017

Elie Wiesel’s “Night” is psychologically graphic and necessary

Elie Wiesel’s Night was an emotionally difficult book to read. The psychological torture of Wiesel’s experience, and so many others like him that had it as bad or worse (not sure what might be worse … American slavery seems at least similar in context and cruelty). That this happened during the lifetime of people I grew up loving brings this particular account and atrocity closer to home; that is likely about anchoring.

The legitimate nightmare and anguish of Elie Wiesel’s experience is psychologically graphic and horrifying. Descriptions including psychologically graphic and horrifying make this book both a necessary and compelling reading. It’s a bit disappointing that my seventh-grade class had us read Seth McEvoy’s Batteries Not Included. This isn’t to diminish McEvoy’s effort; my point is that seventh grade seems like a reasonable time to expose children to questions involving historical and emotional literacy.

For illuminating something for scrutiny that needs to be seen, this book earns 4.5-stars. That the brutality indicated by Wiesel in Night occurred really spells out the crime of what Erik Larson wrote about in his book In the Garden of Beasts.

Matt – Monday, February 6, 2017

Positive feedback for Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

In In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Erik Larson recounts the career of the American Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, particularly the years 1933 to 1937 when he and his family, including his daughter Martha, lived in Berlin. The book draws out the tension and intrigue of place and period well, including the romances of Martha.

Similar in appeal to the writing of Michael Lewis (see my recent review of The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds), Larson focused on individual people in drawing out a bigger sense of the core subject matter. Unlike Lewis’ accomplishments that lacked a sense of place but had a clear sense of people, In the Garden of Beasts succeeded on both accounts. Place and people were seen in full color in their humanity.

William Dodd earned his Ph.D. in Leipzig many, many years in advance of his ambassadorship. While Dodd clearly hoped to influence Germany’s new Nazi government to take a comparatively more moderate path than it did, the truth is that he saw firsthand persecution of Jews during his stay; he took no effective steps to foment opposition to that persecution during his stay. Some have argued that Dodd was a bit too fond of his youthful memories from Leipzig, which in turn played a hand in his inability to see clear warning signs of impending peril earlier.

Martha, separated from her husband and in the process of divorce, became caught up in the glamor and excitement of Berlin’s social scene. Her romantic affairs were front and center, including a relationship with Soviet attaché and secret agent Boris Vinogradov. She defended the Soviet regime to her skeptical friends. After William Dodd returned to America and took ill with the condition that would take his life early during World War Two, it was Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels who would use this and other romantic endeavors by Martha to attack the service of her father.

The assessments of Dodd’s effectiveness during the build-up of the Nazi war machine are largely poor. Larson takes largely this view in sharing this story and level-setting early on that Dodd was no hero in the larger affairs. U.S. Consul to Berlin alongside Dodd seeks to take some of the sting out of the valid criticism leveled at the former ambassador; that he is compared unfavorably to similar ambassadors to Germany from France and England, while not explicitly stated by Larson, is clearly implied by the tone of this book.

In demonstrating the feel and time of Berlin from 1933 to 1937 so well, my sense is that Larson did well to demonstrate how basically no one believed that Adolf Hitler would last long as a German leader. The relative ease with which he gained that leadership and reformed the form of Germany’s government with the tacit approval of the German populace is skillfully done. That the first maybe forty percent of the book is used to lay the groundwork of a very human telling to one family’s perspective on the Nazi buildup may be off putting for some readers. My recommendation is to stick with the book.

My recommendation is to read this book; I further feel that readers under the age of 30, especially if not married or not parents, would be less inclined to enjoy this book than some one that fits one or both descriptions. My rating is 4-stars out of five.

Matt – Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Undoing Project proves imminently readable…for adults

Set outside of any real sense of constant place, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis is a nonfiction telling of how Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman went about identifying previously unrecognized patterns of systematic human irrationality. In the conventional style, Lewis imbues his telling of the revelation of that style with the real character and drama that you might expect in a highly strung, highly private, highly steeped in Israeli cultural reference that you might expect In the platonic though marriage-like relationship that these two men had.

Lewis is compelling in sharing the rules of thumb, or “heuristics,” that the human mind inserts into decision-making when confronting uncertainty. Expect to see things like “representativeness,” “anchoring,” “availability,” “halo effect,” and so forth as central themes to the somewhat heavy subject matter. In addition to words like heuristic, words like Gestalt theory or utilitarianism might scare some readers away. While the terms come up, they are not central points in an attempt to give you an academic textbook on psychology, philosophy, or medicine for that matter.

I found The Undoing Project accessible and readable. The close collaboration and ability to work together for Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, a pronounced extrovert paired with a pronounced introvert, is an understandably unique characteristic of this book. To have that pairing work with little outside understanding for the dynamics for what made the relationship work, is part of the clarity that Lewis brought out well in this book. I say that Lewis brought clarity in explaining the relationship; I’ll say that calling their relationship love might be wrong. I’ll at least say that if love is the right term, it is something in a professional, friendship-driven, almost brotherly “sharing of minds and vulnerability” kind of way.

The book gives shorter shrift to the actual subject matter of “The Undoing Project,” which I think worked for the narrative in that “undoing” failed to bear fruit for Tversky and Kahneman, though the men’s relationship came undone. It was also Tversky’s undoing that paved the way for Kahneman to come out from Tversky’s shadow.

I disagreed with the editorial decision to bring a discussion of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game into The Undoing Project, as the content and context for using that wasn’t relevant to any of the Tversky and Kahnerman story. Disposing of the sports subject matter altogether in The Undoing Project probably would have made sense.

Given all this as preface, my rating for The Undoing Project is 3.5-stars out of five. In my opinion, many high school kids would have trouble reading along with this book.

Matt – Friday, January 6, 2017

The Year in Reading 2016 Part 2 – Nonfiction

Continuing with the example of the New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks on Twitter), this reading list for 2016 includes works of non-fiction read this past year.

  • “Colonel Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris on 9/12/16 – 4/5 stars.

With The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, Colonel Roosevelt completed a satisfying 3-volume look at the life of the 26th president of the United States.

A man of his time, the colorful, multifaceted, military progressive leader was a proponent of projecting military power with a well-read personality. Looking at Roosevelt 100-years later, I see an embodiment of the contradiction of a country wherein he was macho trending to misogyny, a man-of-the-world trending toward racist / antagonist of “hyphenated-Americans,” a naturalist / conservationist that liked to hunt / kill for food, sport, death, and trophy. He also was well-read yet anti-dielectic, progressive yet conservative, insightful about male human nature yet bullying.

As argued in the book, Theodore Roosevelt quite possibly was the most interesting American of his time. The narrative of this three-book biography told an interesting, human story of Roosevelt the man, the leader, the servant, the husband, the father, and the rest. The volumes worked. I recommend them should you be inclined to read them.

  • “Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff on 11/08/16 – 4/5 stars.

Quality biography of a time, place, and sensibility of a world, woman, and the circles of a queen that are largely unknowable due to time and tellings lost to the principle that “history is told by the victors.”

The life that can be gleaned is remarkable and presented in today’s terms quite fairly, in my opinion. That a Pulitzer Prize winning woman, Stacy Schiff, tells this story helps the quality of the narrative, in my opinion. Certainly there is context I would have struggled to bring out. Schiff also is talking to an American audience that can appreciate how certain analogies were placed in a context informed by Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of Cleopatra.

Some reviews on Goodreads mention finding the writing style somewhat verbose. Taking that further, the decision to not separate paragraphs more was mentioned. I disagree.

4-stars out of five.


Matt – Wednesday, December 21, 2016