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Category Archives: non-fiction

Leonardo da Vinci

We’re fortunate to have Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. Thank God they weren’t destroyed by fire or flood in the 500 some years ago. However, we don’t have a diary or narrative of da Vinci (1452 – 1519) so biographer Walter Isaacson can’t be expected to provide with certainty the details he presented to readers of his Steve Jobs or Einstein books.

It’s not that we don’t learn about Leonardo’s status as an illegitimate birth, his relationships with older painter Verrocchio, patrons de Medici and Borgia, rival Michelangelo, and assistant cum lover Salaì. But the experiences and information are presented more or less chronologically, but it’s something of a patchwork rather than a woven tapestry akin to a narrative.

The real facts of Leonardo’s life experiences are foggy at best so Isaacson focusses on the notebooks, which contain his plans for inventions, his musings, his expenses, and his musings. Isaacson also includes long descriptions of Leonardo’s artwork with comments from art historians from long ago and today. I listened to this book on CD from the library. There is a PDF that the narrator refers to throughout the

I would have preferred a narrative, but I did find the book fascinating; I did learn more about this fascinating man, who was a great artist who hated painting, who was an engineer whose inventions more often than not didn’t work, who procrastinated, daydreamed and dabbled.

I learned how fathers could acknowledge the lineage of children born out of wedlock, though Leonardo’s father didn’t acknowledge him. It was interesting that in that culture people illegitimacy wasn’t so harsh. Leonardo’s father did support him and had a relationship with Leonardo, albeit a challenging one. I did learn that Leonardo’s mother did marry and had children.

I enjoyed learning a little about how the Renaissance art workshops worked, how apprentices learned, how different painters sometimes worked on a painting. I wonder what modern art would be like if we had that.

I did sometimes tire of the long descriptions of the paintings from Isaacson’s point of view. I would rather get more from Leonardo, but there just aren’t many primary sources available.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2022 in non-fiction

 

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Peter Schweizer’s Red-Handed

Peter Schweizer’s Red-Handed, How American Elites Get Rich Helping China Win explains how powerful government, business and academic leaders cash in with big pay offs from China. I already knew about many of the examples, like the NBA, the Bushes, Mitch McConnell and the Bidens. I also knew that American colleges will sweep problems under the rug to continue lucrative deals with China. (I could write a book on that.) 

However, I wasn’t aware of how Former Secretaries of State, Kissinger and Albright cashed in on their relationships formed when in office as they opened up consulting firms focused on China. They made fortunes bowing to China’s best interests.

Because I worked in higher education the bulk of my teaching career and spent more time teaching in China for an American college, I was most interested in the chapter on academics. I was saddened to learn that though Yale admitted Hong Kong dissident Nathan Law when he was in danger in China, they tried their best to keep him quiet on campus since their donors from China only wanted the party line discussed. Other colleges try to protect China and it’s propaganda by limited what speakers and guests come to campus. Many won’t invite the Dali Lama because China doesn’t want him to. (Hats off to my alma mater Loyola University Chicago who did have the Dali Lama speak on campus in 2012.)

Red-Handed is thoroughly researched with scores of citations. While it’s not exactly a quick read, it’s not a slog either. It’s a good book for anyone who wants to understand the somewhat sordid world of international business and foreign affairs. These folks are in it for themselves. “The system ain’t broken; it’s fixed” as the adage goes.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2022 in contemporary, non-fiction

 

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False Alarm!

In False Alarm! How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor and Fails to Fix the Planet, Bjørn Lomborg describes the problems and misinformation surrounding many of the climate change strategies, such as the Green New Deal. Throughout the book Lomborg used solid data from the UN, 

From the start Lomborg states that the climate is changing. We do have a problem, however he proceeds to explain the problem we face and how it’s likely to change in time while persuasively debunking the alarmist predictions such as how the world will end in less than 12 years. One of his most convincing arguments is how humans are good at adaptation and predictions that don’t take that into account. Moreover, time and time again the predictions are way off base and don’t pan out. (See: https://medium.com/discourse/a-brief-history-of-incorrect-climate-change-predictions-3664e4054ee6.) 

The book includes several graphs that clearly present Lomborg’s points illustrating how various remedies impact the poor and how effective a particular initiative is likely to be. 

Lomborg describes how Third Generation Nuclear power is a good, safe source of energy 

We absolutely must address climate change, but we should do so rationally in a way that makes sense. Washington tends to like to throw money around on programs that are costly and don’t do what they promised. Whether it’s a scam or not, the world needs results not waste. 

Innovations on the horizon include improving storing wind and sun energy and air capture, i.e. machinery that sucks excessive COfrom the air. Note: CO2 is mainly good and has increased the amount of plants on earth. Air capture is more efficient than planting more trees, which is a consequence of increased CO2.

I recommend False Alarm to anyone who wants to round out his view of the climate change issue. You might want to read it twice and then find more books from all sides of the issue. 

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2021 in non-fiction

 

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Bambi vs. Godzilla

recommended

I enjoy books that go behind the scenes of Hollywood and explain show business and David Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business. does that beautifully. Writer, director Mamet, as you’d expect, provides trenchant on a variety of movie making topics including auditions, producers, corruption, writing for women. 

Like William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, this book should be required for reading for anyone interested in working in Hollywood. Not only do you get information, and stories of experiences, but you get Mamet’s wisdom. 

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2021 in non-fiction

 

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Journey into the Whirlwind

The best book, definitely the best memoir, that I’ve read in years, The Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg chronicles her experience of imprisonment in USSR during the Stalin era. Since she saw no evidence against her colleague, Ginzburg refused to wrongly condemn him as a Trotskyite. Thus she was imprisoned for over a decade.

A poet and writer, Ginzburg writes of how she was torn from her husband and two young children and imprisoned in 1937 for over a decade. Ginzburg was a faithful Communist, but that didn’t matter. Stalin’s henchmen would imprison millions, many of whom agreed with him.  

I was astonished by Ginzburg’s bravery. She stood her ground when pressured with the threat of torture unless she signed documents that falsely charged her with terrorism and other crimes. Her refusal saved her life since admitting to those crimes would allow the Soviet government to execute her. Even when interrogated in marathon sessions, Ginzburg stuck to her principles. 

To communicate, Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners ingeniously devised codes consisting of taps on the walls and songs. This was how they shared news of the outside and changes in the  prison. Prisoners were allowed to write home, but their letters were censored. Ginzburg eventually developed a code with her mother so rather than using her own name or her family members’ names, using fictitious names of imaginary children. So rather than asking about her husband, she’d make up a little boy’s name and ask if he’s back from camp to find out if her husband had been released from prison. The codes were quite clever and worked. 

Conditions in the prison, train to the work camp and work camp were horrific and Ginzburg described them vividly, but the dignity and bravery she showed throughout the book, elevated her writing so that I could keep reading. She also provided astute observations about the people she was imprisoned with. Some retained their haughty airs, while others banded together and sacrificed to help a sick woman who needed food or who needed information on how the system worked. 

This was a period that knew about at a textbook level of generalities and read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which I now want to reread. Ginzburg’s book made this chapter of history crystal clear. There is a 2009 movie but I doubt I could watch it. If the torture and injustice are accurately depicted, it’s probably too much for me and if they aren’t I’d be upset by the cherry-coating.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2021 in book review, memoir, non-fiction

 

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The Emperors of Chocolate

Joël Glenn Brenner’s The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars is a Willie Wonka’s Chocolate history for adults. She begins with a look at international marketing and selling chocolate in the Middle East and then presents a history starting in the 19th Century when Milton S. Hershey and Frank Mars began making candy. As the story by Roald Dahl suggested, the candy industry is highly secretive. Spies were known to be sent to work in competitors’ factories. Some companies foiled these efforts by only allowing the most trusted employees into the inner sancta of their factories. 

Brenner continues through the 19th and 20th centuries as Mar’s descendants and Hershey’s appointees* passed the baton to later generations. I learned a lot about the chemical make up of chocolate and how tricky it was to invent milk chocolate. There are about 1200 chemicals in cocoa so it’s especially hard to create a fake chocolate that actually tastes like real chocolate. Also, some of those chemicals are poisonous. Arsenic and the like are in small quantities, but a food company can’t use them as ingredients. 

Reading The Emperors of Chocolate I learned a lot about the management style of Forest Mars, Sr, and his children who took over after after him. All were difficult to work with, but did pay their employees extremely well so many employees did stick around and were loyal as they saw that the company was successful. I’m amazed they would put up with getting dressed down in front of all their peers for every mistake. I did appreciate how Mars is a very egalitarian company. Employees got bonuses for coming to work on time. Even the CEO has to punch a clock and fly coach. There’s no difference in treatment between the factory workers and the executives.

Milton Hershey’s tinkering with recipes and self-taught techniques are described in detail. He seemed like such a kind man and a bit of a absent-minded professor. That dreaminess did hold the company back because in the 1960s and 70s they had a lot of catching up to do as they had no marketing plan at all. They were comfortable with their chocolate pretty much selling itself. I knew a little about the Milton Hershey School, but the book goes deeper into it. Since the Hershey’s didn’t have children, they built and funded a school for orphans. With a mission to see that The school not only educates the students, but provides job training, sports and an array of extra curricular activities. When he was alive Hershey would eat with the kids and aimed to be a genuine part of their lives. 

The two companies were rivals and the competition was often fierce. There are stories about how Mars turned down the opportunity to place M&Ms in the film E.T. Hershey’s Reece’s Pieces took the risk and their investment really paid off, much to Mars’ chagrin. 

The book is filled with fascinating stories of the history of America’s biggest candy makers. I recommend it for anyone who’s likes history.

*Milton Hershey had no children.

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2021 in history, non-fiction

 

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Education Report

The 1776 Commission Report

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2021 in history, non-fiction

 

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Up from Slavery

Dr Carol Swain

A thoughtful discussion on Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. I’ve put this at the top of my TBR list.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2020 in African American Lit, non-fiction

 

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Getting the Best Care

getting best careMargaret Fitzpatrick’s book Getting the Best Care: Rescue your loved one from the healthcare conveyor belt is a must read for every adult. Fitzpatrick is a nurse who’s written a great guide for everyone who need to get clarity on options for patients who’re at the end of life. The book contains lots of facts and options with examples of actual stories of people at the end of their lives.

As we age, particularly after age 65 every time we go to the hospital we’re likely to come out diminished. Hospital visits are particularly confusing and troubling as the average person doesn’t know what questions to ask or how to realistically evaluate the outcomes of various treatments. Fitzpatrick shows us how to talk about healthcare with older relatives and with healthcare workers. There are two different worlds, the hospital world and the world we live in, and there needs to be an adjustment in our view of what to ask and how to communicate so that older relatives and eventually ourselves have conversations that honor our wishes and don’t result in a lot of tests and treatments that do more harm than good.

Much of the book covers Fitzpatrick’s mother’s desire to never go into the hsopital. The mother of 9, who died after her  99th birthday, Fitzpatrick’s mother Alma. Alma never wanted to be hospitalized as she got older. As Fitzpatrick shows, that’s not a bad outlook as most of the elderly diminish in mental acuity and physical health with each hospitalization. While Alma did go to the hospital for a broken hip, because her daughter and other children understood Alma’s beliefs on autonomy and quality of life they were able to minimize the time spent in the hospital and able to see that she died as she wished, at home, in peace surrounded by loved ones after a rich life. In addition, Fitzpatrick uses stories of her patients, her brother and ex husband to provide context to how hospitalization effects older patients and how family or advocates can get better communicate to get the right kind of care and to manage expectations.

In a hospital patients are likely to be cared for by dozens of professionals and are often given several tests even when they have a diagnosis for a condition that has no cure anyway. Fitzpatrick’s book gave me the right way to ask the right questions. She also showed me that I should ask what the likely outcome can be, if there’s no cure or the treatment will cause more harm than good.

Chapters cover individual healthcare goals, codes in hospitals, setting realistic healthcare goals, testing, asking the right questions, advocating for loved ones with dementia, palliative care and hospice, nursing homes, and more. The book does not advocate against all hospitalization or to just cut grandma off from medical help, it just shows readers what they can do to better insure that loved one’s care is what they really want.

 

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2020 in non-fiction

 

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Dangerous Jane

Dangerous-Jane-263x300With muted watercolor illustrations,Suzanne Slade’s  Dangerous Jane offers a biography of Jane Addams that teaches children of Addams childhood and her main accomplishments including her European travels, her bringing the idea of a settlement house to Chicago where she opened Hull House, to her speaking up for peace and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Alice Ratterree’s illustrations convey a gentle past era, which doesn’t quite jive with the dire poverty and horrors of WWI, but it’s a children’s book so I understand the choice..

This short biography will acquaint children with a great woman.

Good for ages 4 to 7

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2020 in abuse, Children's Lit, fiction, non-fiction

 

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