March 2020 Book Reviews

My reading was all over the map in March. Each of these books packed a punch, albeit in vastly different ways. In the order in which I finished reading them, here are my thoughts.

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson is an extremely thorough account of Leonardo’s life. The organization is both chronological and thematic, meaning that Isaacson addresses a theme at a particular moment in Leonardo’s life and then might move on to another theme in the next chapter that overlaps in chronology with the chapter before.

I ended up completely overloaded with details, of which a few left a lasting impression.

  • Much of Leonardo’s work during his life was for grand theatrical performance and has been lost
  • He was a vegetarian
  • He rarely finished his work and carried some painting around for years while he slowly worked on applying thin layers of paint to them
  • He was the illegitimate son of a notary
  • He craved and delighted in intellectual sparring partners and asked the strangest of questions

Looking back on his work, we tend to frame it in finished products and projects, tangible results. But reading through Isaacson’s biography, Leonardo’s life was in fact all about the process. He was the ultimate life-long learner, endlessly curious, and uninterested in the categories of knowledge we often allow ourselves to feel bound by. To him, there was no difference between art and anatomy and geology. They all worked together and he synthesized as few before or after have ever managed. 

This is a dense piece, but rewarding to read. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a deep understanding of not only what Leonardo created but his personal drives.

We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Oh, I enjoyed this book. After seeing Chimamanda give a talk in Utrecht in January, I could hear her voice. Of course, if you want to hear what she sounds like reading this book, you can also go watch the TEDTalk that it’s based on. I read this in preparation for introducing the film Women for International Women’s Day. You can read the results here.

She’s working here on the idea that we put expectations and narratives on young girls’ lives that tell them they should not. They should not be loud, or be angry, or be feminist. They should not have their own voices or go against the grain. They should make themselves small and give way to others, especially men. Chimamanda disagrees and she laces her disagreement with lovely anecdotes of all the people who tried to dissuade her from being a feminist. 

This little book is a model of incorporating storytelling into a larger message and also an example of how a gentle voice can bring a powerful, powerful message.

Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This continues on the themes of We Should All be Feminists and is taken from a letter Chimamanda wrote for a friend upon the birth of the friend’s first child, a daughter. The suggestions are empowering and offered with love. Chimamanda didn’t have children herself when she wrote this book and it’s lovely to see her sensitivity to the fact that she isn’t a parent along with clear statements on right parenting.

One of my favorite quotes is a gift to all reading parents, aunts, uncles, and people who spend time around children,

Teach Chizalum to read. Teach her to love books. The best way is by casual example. If she sees you reading, she will understand that reading is valuable. If she were not to go to school, and merely just read books, she would arguably become more knowledgeable than a conventionally educated child.

These are wise words in a moment when our children are home and we parents can all see exactly what school work means and have a unique opportunity to have a say in what they do.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

There are two concepts at the heart of this book. The first is that habits matter more than goals. Habits are the thing we fall back on, we do them without thinking. Our habits shape our lives. So there’s a lot here about how to create habits that will stick.

The second concept is that little progress matters. In fact, consistently doing 1% better adds up to tremendous change. The thing is to never fall back and to keep moving forward.

Neither of these concepts are huge on their own, but together they offer an approach to personal change that focuses on always, and always, taking little steps and creating an environment where you do that without thinking. It’s relentlessness that moves mountains. Clear is all about helping you build relentless, mountain-moving habits.

Vele Hemels Boven de Zevende by Griet op de Beeck

This is a Flemish book and I don’t think it’s been translated to English – yet. The title translates to “Many Heavens above the Seventh.” It’s the story of five people. Four are from one family, two sisters, their father, and one of the sisters’ daughters. The fifth is an artist that one of the sisters knows and the other falls in love with. The story is told in five distinct voices. Each character gets a chapter at each point in time.

It took me a little while to understand the characters and their relationships with each other, but then the novel took off. It’s a careful dance, this novel, all subtlety and desire, less wild action and fulfillment. Each character struggles with themselves and themselves in the world. Sometimes they struggle with each other. You read about how they alternately see and fail to see each other. How they support and hurt each other. It’s beautifully put together with a twist at the end that will take your breath away.

Watch out for the translation or brush up on your Dutch/Flemish. It’s a worthwhile read.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

My friend loaned me Grief is the Thing with Feathers and while reading it I was struck by what an intimate exercise reading a book that someone has marked well can be.

I loved this book and I didn’t completely understand. I would have to read it again and again to penetrate all the layers of meaning and experience that are in it. It’s not a story and it isn’t poetry, but it’s something in-between. The form is as compelling as the fact that we don’t always know who’s talking or how the scene will change or who’s even in charge.

This book makes me think of the one other book I always think of when I think about grief, Joan Didion’s My Year of Magical Thinking. Didion takes us through her first year without her husband, who she lived, worked, and loved with for many decades. What is clear in both accounts is that grief is unpredictable, cruel, and merciless. It’s also clear that grief is something you learn to live with, that it never goes away, it is simply tamed and yet also always a beast threatening to escape its cage.

While I loved this book, I would only recommend it to someone who isn’t looking for answers, because they aren’t there. It’s an experience and its raw. It is also truly beautiful.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

I wanted so badly to love this book. My first introduction to Carter is her fairy tale collection, The Red Chamber. She resists calling them retellings and I agree, they are more like excavations. If you have any interest in fairy tales at all, you should absolutely read it.

Nights at the Circus is magical. It’s the story of a stage performer with real wings that can lift her from the stage to a trapeze and the journalist who interviews and falls in love with her. Only there is nothing straightforward about this novel at all. My literary training could see all the things going on, the magical realism, the stories inside of stories, the symbolism and imagery and even political commentary throughout. My COVID-19 drama-addled brain could not appreciate a single bit of it. It was hard work getting through this one.

It’s a book that Salmon Rushdie admires and I’d be willing to be that Colson Whitehead read it before he wrote The Underground Railroad. It’s got all the moving parts and leaps in reality that you expect from Toni Morrison or any magical realism novel. If I’d liked it more, if perhaps the characters caught my imagination, I’d plan to read it again sometime, but the truth is it wasn’t a great read for me. I ended up rereading too many parts because I didn’t understand what happened and also got tired of a couple of characters. I’m glad I’ve read it, but that’s truly from the standpoint of having added something to my literary knowledge and less because I had a good time doing it.


So that was my March in books. Have you read any of these or are you considering them? Did you read anything I should add to my list? Please, share with me in the comments!

Posted in Books.

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