Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Humor Abuse

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

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Lorenzo Pisoni was just two years old when he created and presented his first act during into intermission in his family’s Pickle Circus. His performance was so compelling it cut significantly into concession sales. Lorenzo Pisoni was drafted into the performance itself.

Humor Abuse, Pisoni’s one-man show about his life in the circus and out, is a brilliant meditation on how a severely gifted person can be accidentally abused by his parents as they nurture a child’s gifts. The problem a gifted child with gifted parents faces is that when he gets into the family business, he sometimes finds himself also taking on his parents’ burdens.

Humor Abuse is a hilarious and sad and impressive tribute to hard work, circus, clowning, and family. The pratfalls scripted into the show echo the slips and trips that occur in life as parents and child learn to nurture their talents.

Today is the closing day of this run. Go!

Book review: Song of the Lark

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

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Author:Willa Cather
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:Fiction
Year of publication:1915

I am always blown away when a novel that is nearly 100 years old speaks to me as compellingly as Song of the Lark did. The story of Thea Kronborg, one of many children in a family

Recommended.

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Book review: The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

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Author:Irving Stone
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:Fiction, biography
Year of publication:1961

Reading this novelized biography of Michelangelo just now, after so recently reading the non-fictionalized Dancing To the Precipice was probably a mistake.

I did read The Agony and the Ecstasy to the end and found it mostly interesting, but -- so many unexplained wars, duplicate names, minor characters, changes of venue. Seems to me if you are going to fictionalize, you might want to streamline. If there are three characters named Ludovico, maybe rename one to be Vico?

I did learn a lot of facts, or at least I think they were facts, about Michelangelo's life and the history of the Papacy and the Italian city states. What I did not learn, and missed, was a bit more of an explanation about why this talented, obsessed artist allowed himself to be so taken advantage of? And why did the patrons who claimed to admire him so much abuse his gifts rather than help nurture them? I understand that they might need to use their enormous wealth to pay their armies, but -- Why the law suits? Why did so many popes ask the impossible when they clearly wanted Michelangelo to do great work for them?

The story felt to me like a history text, but because the text was labeled "fictionalized", I was never sure which parts were factual.

Seems like Irving Stone's message to us about Michelangelo is that his obsession with working marble led him to make foolish business decisions. But if he had not been so totally obsessed with working marble, would he have had the fortitude to keep on struggling given the financial strain he was under his entire life? On the other hand, maybe if he had refused to take on some projects until they were funded, he would have found himself under less financial strain?

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Book review: Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era

Friday, August 28th, 2009

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Author:Caroline Moorehead
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Sophisticated readers
Genre:non-fiction, history
Year of publication:2009

Lucie de la Tour du Pin was born into an aristocratic family, served as lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette in her early adulthood, then went on to marry for love (not common in those days), birth and lose many children, and survive the treacherous political turmoils that began with the French Revolution.

After reading this book, I was not certain I understood much more than I did before about the French Revolution, but I did empathize a great deal more than I had before with the French aristocracy of that time. For example, Moorehead continually implies that Talleyrand was evil (and was he so terrible compared to the many other participants of the Terror??!!!) but never quite tells us what awful things he did.


Starting in mid-life, Lucie began a memoir, not published until long after she died, and I assume that Moorehead used this document as the basis for much of her narrative.

Which probably explains why the author flits between levels of detail; there are weeks of Lucie's life described down to the taste of the food she ate but then whole years pass without much information. I came away convinced not that history is written by the victors (a quote attributed, but not definitively assigned to Winston Churchill), but instead that history is written by those who write things down.

Not a book for the sensitive reader, but a fascinating description of an "ordinary", if upperclass, women who played a small part in history and lived to tell us about it.
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If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era

Book review: Is God a Mathematician?

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

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Author:Mario Livio
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:Non-fiction, biography
Year of publication:2009

I never thought I'd get my fill of non-fiction books about mathematicians. And this is not really a bad one. Maybe it was the silly title and the author's transition from that religious question to the more chicken-and-egg question: Do humans invent mathematics or do they discover mathematical principles?

Guess my question is, "Why do I care?"

Anyway, I found Livio's discussion of the achievements and ideas of the Greeks, including Pythagoras, very interesting.

-- Emily
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Book review: The Invention of Air

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

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Author:Steven Johnson
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 8 and up
Genre:Non-fiction
Year of publication:2008

A lovely biography of Joseph Priestley, a scientist, theologian, and political thinker.

In these days when we are trying, finally, to get the politics out of science, this book argues that the reverse, having scientists care about politics is deeply ingrained in the fabric of the United States and Britain. Not that kings and princes always wish it so.

Note to sensitive readers: Priestley's experiments often involved the use of live animals and plants, some of which died in the absence of oxygen.


One of Priestley's great strengths was in his ability to create experiments and to note details that signaled where his results might be followed up by further experiments. Priestley was less adept at giving up on assumptions that he brought into the experiments to begin with.

Another great strength was his ability, in fact, his obsession, with exchanging information with other scientists.

This biography serves as a tribute to the scientific method (which Priestley did not really follow), Joseph Priestley, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and, in an interesting way, John Adams.

Highly recommended.

-- Emily
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If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Invention of Air, The

Book review: Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind

Monday, May 25th, 2009

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Author:Daniel Tammet
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Sophisticated readers
Genre:Non-fiction: Science
Year of publication:2009

Daniel Tammet is autistic, intellectually gifted, and synesthesic. This book, a follow-on to his autobiography, is billed as a
"...book about the mind -- its nature and abilities. It combines ... the latest neuroscientific research with [Tammet's] personal reflections and detailed descriptions of [his] abilities and experiences. [Tammet's] ... intention is to show that differently functioning brains ... are not so strange ... and that anyone can learn from them ... [and to] clear up many misconceptions about the nature of savant abilities and what it means to be intelligent or gifted."

Great intentions; I agree they are worthwhile. But, I fear, a disappointing execution.

Or, perhaps, I am not gifted enough to understand the arguments. But, really, to use the outcome of the US Presidential Election of 2000 to "prove" that the Electoral College works? Without mentioning that this election was decided by the Supreme Court and not really by the Electoral College? Seems to me that using the ideas of one person, even one admittedly highly gifted person, as a model for the prototypical smart person from whom we can all learn to think is -- misguided?

Well, anyway, I certainly admire and even envy many of Mr. Tammet's abilities and accomplishments. And, again, I sympathize deeply with his goal of helping others less gifted than he is learn to observe the world around them more intently and reason out their opinions rather than blindly accept "common wisdom", which is often not correct.

On the other hand, and this is something that both of my gifted daughters had figured out by the time they were 11, if not before, Just because someone is gifted, that doesn't mean they know all the answers.

Judging from the stated premise of this book and its execution, I am not sure that Tammet is actually as smart as my high school student.

If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind

Book review: Nobody’s Princess

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

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Author:Esther Friesner
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 8 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 8 and up
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2007

Kinda cute... the princess doesn't want to be girly, but wants to learn to fight and hunt and other things that only boys are allowed to do. The book is about Helen of Sparta before she was queen or beautiful.

Although it wasn't a very fresh idea for the plot of a book, i am going to read the sequel because i am wondering how Friesner is going to connect this story to the big myth and the Trojan war.

--Fizzy, age 14


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Short story: The Mathematician

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

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The Story Space radio program played BD Wong’s rendition of the Daniel Kehlmann short story, The Mathematician, last night. Listening, riveted, I was severely slowed in my dinner preparations.

Anyone who asked Professor Gauss about his early memories was told that such things didn’t exist. Memories, unlike engravings or letters, were undated. One came upon things in one’s memory that one sometimes was able, on reflection, to arrange in the right order.

He remembered that he had started to count before he could talk. Once his father had made an error when he was counting out his monthly pay, and this had made Gauss start to cry. As soon as his father caught the mistake, he immediately fell quiet again.


Most of his later memories were of slowness. For a long time he had believed that people were acting or following some ritual that always obliged them to pause before they spoke or did anything. Sometimes he managed to accommodate himself to them, but then it became unendurable again. Only gradually did he come to understand that they needed these pauses. Why did they think so slowly, so laboriously and hard? As if their thoughts were issuing from some machine that first had to be cranked and then put into gear, instead of being living things that moved of their own accord. He noticed that people got angry when he didn’t stop himself. He did his best, but often it didn’t work.

The story goes on to describe how, at 8 years old, Gauss was discovered by his elementary school teacher to be — a genius — and transferred to high school, where Gauss discovered that students don’t think notably faster than in elementary.

The story reminded me of a recent conversation between two of my friends. One is a college student. The other has become \”certifiably crazy\” (CC), a ward of the state. The college student moaned, \”There are so many stupid people at school. SO many.\” \”Remember,\” responded CC. \”Fifty-percent of all people are of below average intelligence.\” \”And that’s why,\” CC added, \”I had to go crazy. I really can’t cope with all those very slow people.\”

I’m going to present both M and CC with a copy of Daniel Kehlmann’s book, Measuring the World.

Book review: 1776

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

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Author:David McCullough
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:non-fiction

Sometimes, I'll be reading a novel and get to some worrisome plot twist. The characters I've come to love are in jeopardy, and -- the tension is too great for me. I put the book down and call someone I trust who can reassure me that I should keep on reading anyway. Sometimes, they don't reassure me. "Yeah, that book is simply not worth the time." So then I go read something else.

When I chose to read 1776, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to have to worry about the plot. After all, here we all are seven years after 9-11. Or, most of us at least...

Obviously, I remembered that there had been an American Revolution, which was a war. And that people fought and died to create our nation. But the number 1776 had always had very positive associations for me. Declaration of Independence. "Give me liberty or give me death." Etc. etc.

I tried to persuade my very sensitive 13 year old to read 1776 with me. "I think it might be pretty depressing," she said. She was right. Depressing. Harrowing in fact. But well worth reading.

And come to think of it, on this the seventh anniversary of 9-11, I'm not actually certain that the American Story has a happy ending. That we are actively dealing with the very Real Problems we Americans face. Reality is harrowing. Still. And needs to be faced even when there is a woman who shoots moose from airplanes and arbitrarily fires those who cross her running for election as vice president of the United States.

The happiest thing I took away from 1776 was the stories of the famous and not-so-famous men who led the American and British troops. All of whom, leaders and troops, suffered and learned from their terrible mistakes, if they survived.

I was very impressed with how certain these guys, on both sides, were of the importance of their cause. In particular, I was astonished by the Americans, who, even before the Declaration of Independence was published, thought of themselves as Americans. Believed that they needed to establish a democracy, even though no country of this type had ever existed on Earth before. Believed that they and those they lead needed to fight and possibly die for a concept that had never been tried in the world before.

McCullough plunks us into the mind of George Washington just as he has become Commander of the American army. We don't learn much about how he came to be in this position. We only learn that the Continental Congress seemed to place great trust in him, but that there was simply not money enough for them to pay for the army he needed. And that others felt that Washington was not the right choice.

As for Washington himself, he seems to have felt qualified for the task he'd undertaken, but very aware of the terrible consequences of the mistakes he made. That death and disease, starvation and freezing, rape and pillage, of both troops and American non-combatants were the necessary accompaniments to war were always on his mind. And yet he fought on.

McCullough is also very, very good at describing the military implications of the geography, topography, and troop configurations prevailing before each military encounter. He's fantastic at signaling us early on when a general is about to make a grave mistake. Makes it easier for a reader like me who may get overwhelmed by worry to prepare for bad news.

This is not a book for the sensitive reader. But I am so glad that I read it.

-- Emily
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If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: 1776