Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

by Mike Lankford
Melville House

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Utterly odd and unique and stunningly beautiful—and not what they asked for at all. The monks hated it. Completely.”

In a time of enlightenment and brutal death, Leonardo da Vinci was truly brilliant. Artist, scientist, mathematician, inventor—he existed to solve problems great and small in the world, while envisioning a future that would not come to fruition until centuries after his death. He is a historical figure that cannot be completely known or spoken of enough. Perhaps the term “Renaissance man” was invented to describe him.

Anyone who has spent time with brilliant people knows three things: First, no matter how clever and successful we are, we are not brilliant. Second, the brilliant are not like us, instead given to bouts of introspection so deep that they seem disconnected from their very environment. Third, they are a mystery, so expansive that their depths cannot be plumbed by regular people. Brilliant people rarely give us what we ask for, but instead what we should have asked for. The natural result is to assume that they walk among the immortals. Leonardo da Vinci was one such man, and given his creative output, who could blame us for hoisting him above others?

In his latest biography, Lankford tackles the conundrum of a legendary man who died five hundred years ago. Employing historical records, as well as Leonardo’s creative works and notes, the author reconstructs the legend, breathing spirit into the person, his motivations, and the key moments of his life. He accomplishes this with charm, wit, and a deft hand at research, all the while warning us that no one could truly know da Vinci—not even in his time. The genius was constantly riddling problems, while stretching the boundaries of known technique and convention. Although his acclaim would eventually be wide, his circle of confidants was small, if he ever actually confided in anyone. Delving into Leonardo’s personality, one is left with the impression that he took each task very seriously, but appeared to harbor an inside joke never fully revealed to us. So how does one get inside da Vinci? Lankford’s approach is to imagine Leonardo by employing time, circumstance, and the know record.

An exemplary moment arrives during the creation of The Last Supper. It’s a masterpiece of perspective and art, employing untested technique, which frankly did not hold up well over time and was further insulted by near annihilation during World War II. Even the painting is now an imagined thing. Although it was last restored during the 19th century, it is better understood by its reproductions, than the crumbling original in a convent near Milan. But we have clues within a 16th century reproduction, and we know from the artist’s notes and materials that he was under pressure to perform against challenging conditions. The wall was damp and given to erosion, and Leonardo was no master of fresco, requiring him to think quickly rather than his preferred method of meditation and revision. He gambled with technique to counteract these issues, and so it’s easy to imagine the pressure placed on him by himself and others. Lankford realizes this event with requisite intrigue and light.

The honesty in which Lankford reimagines Leonardo da Vinci is refreshing. The author devotes space on the page to suppose alternative realities while drilling down toward the likeliest possibility. The truth is that da Vinci was still a man and his life wasn’t easy, especially during an age of short life expectancy and the oppressive demands of an economically unbalanced society. Leonardo was never wealthy, counted on the patronage of uninspired aristocracy, and skirted the various deaths of the time to live to an unusual sixty-seven years of age. Who knows how much of his vast brain power was spent just to survive? While no exact records of Leonardo’s struggles exist outside of notes in his own hand, there exists post facto reflections of contemporaries and a parade of admirers through the centuries. His legacy is one of an enduring artist, creator, and visionary, and clearly his passion for learning and understanding has transcended time. Lankford sets all of this in motion in this quirky and utterly enjoyable depiction of one of history’s greatest figures.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Note: Each year, the Eric Hoffer Book Award gives the da Vinci Eye to books with superior cover art.

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The Book Killers: Amateur Covers

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

In book selling basics, the author attracts the reader and the first page sells the book, but nothing allows a potential reader to disregard a book like an unprofessional cover. The US Review encounters poor book covers on a regular basis: drab, confusing, amateurish designs or some combination of the three. So let’s take a look at book cover basics.

1) The main title should be visible from twenty feet away. This is accomplished through a combination of font, size, and color contrast. A title that is viewable from a distance in a bookstore is as easily read when reduced in size for on-line sales.

2) Title visibility applies to the spine as well. For most of its commercial shelf life, a book will be placed spine out. The title should be as large and as high contrast as possible.

3) Make the subtitle informative. While I’m not a fan of employing subtitles, except for nonfiction, book series, or very short main titles, the subtitle should be essential to the book’s message. Overall, the title and subtitle combination should not be overlong. The best titles are brief—something a typical person can remember and tell another.

4) Don’t forget the back matter. The back of the book is where business takes place. Most retailers won’t sell your book without a standard bar code in the lower right corner or a clearly visible price and genre designation.

5) Keep the book summary to 100 words or less. It’s true. A book can be explained in one short sentence. The New York Times Bestseller List bestseller list has been doing this for decades. Avoid putting a book on the back of a book. (FYI, the author bio is not a back cover essential. While it must be included in the book, it’s easily located on either the last page, inside flap, or back cover.)

6) Gather authoritative endorsements. People want to read quotes regarding the book, but not from the author, publisher, or author’s friends. Build authority for the book with commentary from recognizable experts (i.e. known authors, celebrities, or subject-related practitioners), as well as feedback from professional book review publications.

7) Employ thematic artwork. Artwork that definitively relates to the content describes the book in advance. There is a reason why romances feature a rapturous women and science fiction titles present glossy hi-tech images on their covers. The correct audience is subconsciously drawn to it. Furthermore, the color palette used evokes different emotions. Horror titles make good use of black and red. Young adult romances paint the cover in virginal white and pink. Also, men and women are attracted to different colors for different genres. The psychology of color is an advanced science, which leads us to the final element of cover design.

8) Hire a professional. Most authors are not visual artists, but a professional book designer or even a talented artist should have an innate or trained sense of image and color. Book designers can be contacted through the Internet. At the very least, struggling artists can be found locally. Check their portfolios to see if their work matches the sensibilities of the prospective book. Fees will range from nominal to pricey, but a good cover is worth it. Photoshop’ed self-made covers constructed on the cheap (and often like kindergarten artwork) are easier to spot than a title from twenty feet away, and they will debase the entire book.

The much-used aphorism “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is philosophically correct, but in reality, more people do this than don’t. A great cover sells the book as well as the author sells the book. When considering a cover design, visit a bookstore for trends and ideas within the genre. Taking the time, as well as hiring a professional, gives a book that likely took months if not years to write the jacket and marketing potential it deserves.

Next in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice

Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of a Revolution

by Tom Shachtman
St. Martin’s Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Conclusions that appear inevitable often require the most time and effort to make happen.”

Early in the American Revolution, a French emissary for Louis XVI, a king who fancied replacing the British handhold on America with his own, secretly visited the colonies to both measure the resistance and consider future prospects. The emissary was impressed, if not startled, by America’s resolve to achieve independence. France’s expectations needed to be adjusted. Their best hopes were to weaken and humiliate England by assisting the rebels. However, given the tentative truce in Europe, this needed to be launched under cover for as long as possible. Thus begins Tom Shachtman’s unique perspective of how a rebellion succeeded.

For more than two hundred years, the American Revolution has been characterized as a colonial uprising by brave upstarts against an underestimating motherland that eventually found itself worn out and overwhelmed. This legend is typically recited in history classes across the United States, but that’s only part of the story. The first half of the revolution can be classified as a series of blunders, misfortunes, and narrow escapes from utter defeat. If it weren’t for the timely aide in the form of supplies and experience from the French, the foolhardy resilience of the Americans, and the constant political maneuvering on the part of both, the colonial campaign against the British would have collapsed.

George Washington, as documented in his letters and pleas to congress, staff, and just about anyone who would listen, understood the plight and urgency of the revolt as well as anyone. Not only did he overcome his own miscues, he learned to expect nothing to go as planned. His military officers coveted their own agendas, supplies and reinforcements showed up days or weeks late, and his troops were woefully unprepared. Although the troops were never perfect, France may have been the key factor in helping Washington’s army to act like one.

Eventually, Europe recognized more opportunity in America than opposition, and the tide of war turned. Together the colonists and France marched to Yorktown where Washington laid siege and finished the war, or at least this phase of America’s birth. The country was still a mostly unknown continent to form over decades with liens against it from various foreign factions that needed to be resolved by guile and force. Here, at the midpoint of Shachtman’s unique and studied contribution to U.S. history, the book pivots to further expand France’s role in securing America’s foothold after victory.

Shachtman is a detailed researcher, who is both a historian’s and biographer’s dream. With books such as Rumspringa, Whoever Fights Monsters, and American Iconoclast, he delves into the parts that others overlook to form a complete picture. He goes for the extra third of information, the deep research that leaves little debate regarding events. One of his greatest strengths is that his opinion rarely bleeds onto the pages, yet he still interjects unique observational skills and the occasional takeaway line. He becomes fascinated with the subject, not arbiter of it as many modern biographers tend to be.

How the French Saved America follows the mode of Dumas Malone’s classic study of Jefferson, where the story is unearthed through the discovery of fact. The book is heavily annotated and indexed, leaning toward scholarly but eminently readable. Since history has reduced much of France’s involvement in the American Revolution to exchanges between Washington and Lafayette, Shachtman’s new accounting reveals the enormous contribution France made in blood, treasure, and political capital to secure America’s independence.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Poor Structure

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Keeping organized is a challenge for many artists, writers included. Order is not intuitive for creative people attempting to push boundaries, but clear structure, even in a work of fiction, provides a recognizable thought process for the reader. As always, the goal is for the reader to understand the writer’s words, not for the writer to confuse or make a stumbling attempt to impress. The human mind seeks order, and a book’s structure is essentially the map of its narrative. The easier it is to read the map, the easier it will be for the writer to deliver even complex details or the high art of fine writing.

For nonfiction writers, the need for structure should be obvious. Nonfiction books attempt to teach certain subjects. The very best of these simultaneously entertain. Regardless, a book’s organization forms the lesson plan, each section building upon the next. While tools like the table of contents, index, and appendixes make the information more accessible, the narrative should assume a sequence and stick to it throughout the book. This allows the reader to not only rely on its direction but anticipate the flow, even if the details are surprising or unpredictable. Various methods of order include alphabetic/numeric (by letters and numbers), chronologic (by occurrences in time), geographic (by locations on the globe), hierarchic (by structures of authority), and thematic (by relevant concepts).

With this in mind, it’s easy to see that fiction assumes a structure and creates a rhythm that moves subconsciously through the reader’s mind. For example, books that shift in time tend to reveal a pattern: two chapters in the present, followed by one in the past, and so on. The same holds true for shifting points of view, where characters A, B, and C rotate through the narrative in a recognizable pattern, even if character A dominates the text.

When it’s working, structure is received subconsciously, because the pattern is clear and therefore the reader doesn’t have to think about it. If the organization is haphazard, the reader will direct focus away from the content and onto decoding the structure or, in this case, figuring out the writer’s mishandling of basic technique. Of course there will always be exceptions. Twelve Monkeys randomly skips through time to make the reader feel the chaos of time travel, but, for most books, this is an unnecessary conceit.

Albert Einstein blew out the chaos theorists by realizing that what appeared to be disorganized—the big bang theory, a chemical reaction, or even a kindergarten class at play—was merely a pattern that we hadn’t recognized yet. Most people aren’t Einstein. Readers will abandon a poorly or chaotically organized book. It will not be received as clever or brilliant, but as pretentious and undisciplined.

Some emerging artists think of structure as restrictive, but skilled writers know that structure is the cornerstone upon which true change and enlightenment can be built. When a book inhabits a mind with a recognizable pattern, the ability to make the reader think and feel is limitless.

Next in The Book Killers series: Amateur Covers

Previously in The Book Killers series: Bad Grammar

Milk Street

Milk Street: The New Home Cooking

by Christopher Kimball

Little, Brown and Company

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“There is no ‘ethnic’ cooking. It’s a myth. It’s just dinner and lunch served somewhere else in the world.”

Christopher Kimball and his famous Milk Street team of cooks and editors want to change your mind about home cooking. Specifically, they wish you’d quit thinking of your recipe choices as traditional American—if that truly exists any longer—versus ethnic dishes (i.e. not American). The crumbling of borders hasn’t been smooth in all cases, but it shines in the kitchen. The array of once exotic ingredients and different techniques, especially with recent market accessibility and a return to authentic dishes, that are available to the average person will not only change the way you think about food, but it will expand and elevate your palate in intriguing new ways.

To wrap your head around this approach, Milk Street: The New Home Cooking is organized by the way we go about meal preparation (i.e. dinners, desserts, etc.), yet also by the way we actually eat (i.e. breads, small sweets, etc.). The recipes tend toward an exciting way to cook a main ingredient, while prepared with easy to follow techniques and global seasonings. The palette is the entire world, and there are many fusion moments contained within, further demonstrating the modern kitchen as holding no boundaries.

The book begins with a brief discussion of pantry staples (i.e. fats, acids, spices, etc.), while taking the time to discuss specific choices within in each category. One of the most crippling aspects of attempting new meals is not having a prepared pantry. This forces you into an unlikely impromptu shopping trip, while probably resulting in falling back on routine recipes. Having even half of Kimball’s suggested pantry exposes you to a wide array of new recipes. And there is simply no excuse, if you consider yourself even a journeyman home chef, to not have a decent set of basic implements. The author touches on those with his legendary aplomb.

Throughout its pages, Milk Street brings a high-end presentation with gorgeous photographs of each finished recipe and stout single-page organization. Who doesn’t initially browse a cookbook by the picture, while hoping to recreate something similar? This book gives you the confidence that you can. Whether it’s as simple as the Skirt Steak Salad or Skillet-Charred Brussels Sprouts—this reviewer already won the day with that recipe—or as scrumptious as the Sticky Toffee Pudding or Curry Braised Eggs, you won’t be intimidated to stretch your muscles. And that’s a lot of what Kimble does; he brings foreign seasonings into familiar stead.

If you’ve ever listened to Kimball’s weekly Milk Street radio program on NPR, you’ll be taken in by his charm, sincerity, and understated wit. The show presents an array of ingredients, techniques, and recipes, as well as the overarching discussion of what’s on the menu tonight. It makes you hungry and more importantly changes your mind. This cookbook does the same. The recipes are patiently explained, with the same important tips you receive during his broadcast.

Surprisingly, this is Milk Street’s first cookbook. It should be shelved at the ready beside The Joy of Cooking, the more perfunctory but essential bible for the novice in the kitchen. Instead, Kimball’s offering brings home cooking into, not only the modern world, but the whole world. We’re glad he and his team had the requisite time and patience to make this important statement about the contemporary kitchen.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Bad Grammar

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

The first mistake that sells out a new writer is bad grammar. Misspelled and misconjugated words, incomplete and malformed sentences, and confusing syntax are the hallmarks of poor editing. The book could be a great concept, but will be considered a fumbling error. For example, a common mistake is to label the foreword section as “Forward” in the heading. An even bigger mistake is to not work with an editor.

Technically speaking, grammar is a set of rules that governs the composition of words and phrases in a language, but, linguistically speaking, proper grammar and its related syntax allow the reader to understand the words on the page. Many emerging writers bend grammar to their own cadence of thought. This is fine for draft work, but it’s a rookie mistake to expect a reader to decode the writer’s thought process. The whole point of reading is to reproduce the writer’s information, imagery, and energy inside the reader’s mind with some semblance of the original thought. The shared rules of grammar and style facilitate this for the widest possible audience. When the reader is forced to decipher the language—most often demonstrated by having to recycle over words and phrases—the reader will likely close the book and move on. A good editor brings another pair of eyes that will identify these deadly mistakes.

Fiction writers are given some elbowroom to stretch the language, but this is best done, and most powerfully so, as an exception to the rule. Nonfiction writers have less leeway. Not only must they write to strict grammar conventions, they must write to the style of the publication, which is a discussion for another time. The US Review of Books, like most publishers of books and articles, uses The Chicago Manual of Style as its standard. The AP Stylebook is used exclusively for article writing, although it is mostly a subset of Chicago. Professional writers have both and use them often. (Tip: The previous edition of both style guides can be purchased at a fraction of the current edition’s cost.) Don’t rely on your editor to catch every detail. The cleaner the manuscript, the more an editor can focus on bigger issues like structure, tone, and overall content.

Self-awareness is a bridge a writer crosses on the way to success. At some point, a writer recognizes his or her flaws and strengths without the prompting of a mentor. Successful writers revise in cycles, ending the process with a close examination of the actual words and phrases, as well as focusing on habitual errors. We are the sum of our vices. It seems that when we conquer one bad habit in our prose, another emerges to take its place. This can change from year to year, book to book, and even article to article. While writing, build a checklist for editing, and end revisions with a review of this list.

With so many books being published each year (i.e. approximately one million annually in the U.S. alone), it’s difficult to bring attention to a single book. Bad grammar is the great crippler at the starting gate for many self-published and first-time authors. Remember to learn the rules of grammar, have a reference guide at the ready, be wary of bad habits, work with an experienced editor, and give your manuscript one last review.

Next in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

Sheep No More: The Art of Awareness and Attack Survival

by Jonathan R. Gilliam

Post Hill Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Despite what some security ‘experts’ may say, fear is not a gift.”

Former Navy SEAL and FBI Special Agent Jonathan T. Gilliam takes a decidedly philosophical approach to self-defense: Each of us are potential targets of crime and violence to various degrees depending on our experience, education, and exposure. Throughout the book, Gilliam reverses the perspective to that of the attacker—albeit military, criminal, mass murderer, or terrorist—so that we better understand how potential targets are formed and how we become the target.

Some of this is common sense, such as targets are selected to minimize the attacker’s exposure and maximize results. For example, military operations often strike before dawn in enemy strongholds, a mass murderer selects a crowded venue with weak security, and a criminal, if not emotionally driven, identifies a singular target in the most secluded area. All attackers do surveillance prior to striking, and they have a goal in mind. Even an emotionally driven attacker allows a few seconds to convince himself that he can hurt his target, identifying how and where he will strike.

Much of what an attacker does is size up potential vulnerabilities. He’s identifying a target and looking for a way in. All too often, we make ourselves vulnerable through ignorance and complacency. Sure, we might know of danger, but either don’t know where to look or even look at all. While the safest method is to flee from trouble, including the choice to avoid trouble areas in advance, this is not always a realistic approach in today’s world.

To better protect yourself, Gilliam suggests that you assess yourself as a target. Divide your life into sectors and then sub-sectors based on routine and activities. Within each sector are critical assets, critical areas, and critical times. Using comprehensive sector identification, critical areas of vulnerability will emerge along with potential avenues of approach for attackers. He finishes off this evaluation with a target equation that helps measure who, why, where, how, and when an attack will occur. If done thoroughly, it won’t just be one type of attacker identified. This analysis can be applied to every sector/locale within your life.

Knowing your areas of vulnerability will help you close avenues of approach, but you’ll never be able to eliminate them all. Eventually you’ll have to assume a defender’s mindset or what to do when an attack is underway. Here, pre-planning inspires a mindset that ultimately becomes instinctive, as opposed to making up a plan in the moment which is virtually useless.

Much of what Gilliam purports is developing the habit of situational awareness, especially in highly vulnerable areas such as moving freely through unfamiliar areas or pausing inside contained public areas, but even familiar situations and places become vulnerable based on the available avenues of approach and the time of day. For example, different types of home-related criminals strike the target at different times of day. Gilliam stresses a healthy dose of “what-if,” which inspires confidence and wards off fear.

The author uses many examples, both famous and personal to reinforce his dual-think approach (i.e. imagining the attacker and planning a defense against vulnerable targets). This method is at the core of his call for self-defense through awareness, which will help you evade an attack if you haven’t first avoided it through planning. As Gilliam says, freezing up or panicking during an attack, which is exactly what the overwhelming majority will do because they have no plan, may in fact seal your fate. At the very least, fear reduces your options and their effectiveness.

Gilliam’s overall approach to self-defense is built from years in the military and law enforcement and tempered by the reality of current events. His multifaceted experience brings unique insight, cutting past the charlatans. Most of us are never going to be Zen masters of self-defense, but we can increase our odds considerably by following Gilliam’s suggestions. He reminds us that as individuals we can keep walking about the planet either remaining paranoid of potential events (ignorance), naively hoping for the best outcome (complacency), or becoming educated about the sources and methods of potential attackers (awareness) and thereby increasing our odds of success and/or avoiding trouble altogether.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review