Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category


Posted by nliakos on March 17, 2018

by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books 1977)

I’ve been wanting to read a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven for a long time; a friend lent me this one. Maynard Solomon divides the great composer’s life into four stages: his childhood and adolescence in Bonn; his early years in Vienna; his “heroic” period in Vienna, including the Napoleanic wars and his romance with Antonie Brentano, the “Immortal Beloved”; and the end of his life, post-Immortal Beloved.

Ludwig/Louis van Beethoven never had a real childhood. He was cruelly abused by his alcoholic father when he was very young; by the time he entered adolescence, he was the main breadwinner for the family and responsible for his two younger brothers.

In Vienna, where he went to study under Haydn, Beethoven was known to be eccentric, devoid of social skills, and lacking in normal manners, but his virtuosity at the pianoforte and later his skill as a composer enabled  people to overlook his many faults, and he became famous among musicians and the music-loving public. (This is not to say that everything he composed was marked by genius; he was not above appealing to the common concert-goer.) He seems to have been incapable of forming and maintaining a normal love relationship with a woman. He kept falling for unavailable women; Antonie Brantano, although she did love him in return, was married. Ending the affair forced Beethoven to recognize that he was never going to marry. Perhaps this is why he became so obsessed with wresting his nephew Karl from his mother’s care and acting as his parent (sadly, an abusive one; this was all he knew). It would be the closest he got to actual fatherhood.

The book is very detailed, meticulously researched and footnoted. However, Solomon tends to attribute emotions and motivations to Beethoven (and others) as if they were facts, rather than speculation. In some instances, he bases these pronouncements on the theories of Sigmund Freud, who may have been the God of psychoanalysis in the 1970s but has been largely discredited in the 21st century, making parts of the book seem dated (and less convincing that they probably were back when it was published). The dry, academic tone makes it slow going. I found The Teaching Company’s Great Masters: Beethoven–His Life and Music to be much more accessible and memorable. In fact, some of what I have said here may actually have come from this set of eight lectures taught by Prof. Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Greenberg refers often to the Solomon biography, and he credits him with being the first person to conclusively show that Antonie Brentano was the only woman who could have been the Immortal Beloved. But Greenberg takes the same material and presents it in a much more interesting way. Of course, it’s very helpful when one has the chance to listen to excerpts from the music being discussed, which a book cannot provide. Instead, Solomon finishes each of his four sections with a chapter titled “The Music”, in which he describes, analyzes, and gives the historical significance of the music Beethoven produced during that period. I found these chapters deadly boring. for the most part. I am not familiar with most of Beethoven’s oeuvre, and even when I know a piece well, I find it impossible to make sense of or appreciate a historical or musical analysis of it. I would much rather just listen to it. I don’t mind being told about the music (along with hearing it), but just reading about it is deadly. How glad I am that I did not major in music! I would have been forced to read stuff like that, and worse, write stuff like that.


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Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

Posted by nliakos on December 14, 2016

by Dava Sobel (Walker & Co. 1999; ISBN 0-8027-1343-2)

Having enjoyed Dava Sobel’s previous book, Longitude, I opened this biography of Galileo Galilei with high expectations, and it did not disappoint. In addition to the meticulous retelling of Galileo’s life, discoveries, and inventions, Sobel has chosen to shine a light on the special relationship between the great philosopher and his elder daughter Suor Maria Celeste (born Virginia Galilei), who spent most of her short life in the Convent of San Matteo, in the town of Arcetri, outside of Florence. Suor Maria Celeste had a fine intellect and was by all accounts a virtuous and kind young woman who adored her father above all else. Despite his difficulties with the Roman Inquisition, the banning of his books,  his detainment (first in Rome, then in Tuscany and finally in his own house in Arcetri), she never doubted his goodness or rightness about natural phenomena such as the Earth’s motion.

What sets Galileo’s Daughter apart from other biographies of Galileo is the inclusion of many of the letters which Suor Maria Celeste wrote to her father (his replies have been lost), which the author translated herself. In the letters, we read about the many services that she performed for her father (from sewing his lace collars to copying his manuscripts to managing his affairs when he was away), the many requests she made of him (for money and ingredients for preparing foods and medicines, often not for herself but for others–including him), and most of all the great love and respect that she bore him.

When Suor Maria Celeste died of dysentery at the age of only 34, Galileo, who was then 70 years old, was overwhelmed with grief. When he himself died eight years later, his student and companion Vincenzio Viviani, unable to bury Galileo as he wished due to papal decree, secretly buried him together with his beloved daughter. Eventually, both sets of remains were re-interred together in a grand monument in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence.

Some things I did not realize about Galileo:

  • He was in poor health for most of his life.
  • He lost his sight in his old age.
  • He remained a devout Catholic despite all that he suffered at the hands of the Church and despite realizing that the Pope was not infallible.
  • Many of his friends never deserted him despite his vilification by Pope Urban VIII and the Roman Inquisition.
  • Einstein considered him the father of modern experimental science (pg. 326, Note).

Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by nliakos on December 15, 2015

by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick (First Second 2011; ISBN 978-1-59643-259-8)

I’ve been a Richard Feynman fan since reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! many years ago, so when Ottaviani and Myrick’s Feynman came out a few years ago I decided I had to read it. It’s taken me a few years to get around to it, but recently, while cruising the biography shelves looking for (and not finding) Michael Faraday, I came upon this graphic biography and snapped it up. I was disappointed, however. There was not much that I had not already read in Surely You’re Joking…, What Do You Care What Other People Think? and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Anecdotes that had me laughing out loud when I read the original books seemed to be lifted directly from Feynman’s books into this one, but not entirely, with the action left in but the funny commentary missing, like the chapter on safe-cracking. Ottaviani (the writer) and Myrick (the illustrator) have organized the material chronologically, which is helpful, but otherwise I keep feeling that a Feynman aficionado would not learn anything new, whereas a reader new to Feynman would not be inspired to seek out Feynman’s own books and essays after reading this one. There simply was not enough room to include enough detail about Feynman’s funniest and most interesting escapades. They seemed a dull reflection of the originals (example: young Feynman cluelessly examining blueprints for the Oak Ridge TN nuclear plant and asking an inane question about something he doesn’t understand, prompting a horrified response from the engineers, who hurry off to redesign the offending part).

Ottaviani and Myrick finished off their book with an “(Almost Complete*) Bibliography and Early Sketches” section in which their affection for their subject shines through. The annotated bibliography of source materials written by and about Feynman and his fellow physicists lists several books, recordings, and collections that sound very worthwhile; I will put a few of those on my to-read list.

This is only the second graphic book I have read (the first being The Influencing Machine), and I must confess I don’t particularly like the format. In many cases, the illustrations obfuscate rather than clarify (I had a hard time figuring out who Feynman was in some illustrations, and all of the women look the same to me). Only the illustrations of physical principles are helpful, as in the sequence when Feynman is explaining his Nobel Prize-winning QED to a lay audience in New Zealand. (Nevertheless, I still did not understand QED.)  The graphic format may increase the appeal for younger and non-native speaking readers.

Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Leave a Comment »

Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor

Posted by nliakos on March 24, 2015

by Hali Felt (Henry Holt & Co. 2012; ISBN 987-0-8050-9215-8)

This was a serendipitous discovery I made when I was cruising along the Biography shelf in the library and just happened to notice this book, which has been on my To Read list ever since it was published. It did not disappoint!

Marie Tharp was instrumental in the acceptance of plate tectonics (then known as continental drift and disparaged by most of the world’s geologists). Tharp’s groundbreaking map of the Atlantic seafloor, based on soundings taken from ships crossing the ocean, clearly showed a ridge splitting the Mid-ocean Ridge (mountain range). Felt writes, She spent a lot of time looking closely at the ridge whose presence she’d confirmed, a wide bump where the ocean floor gained elevation. It was apparent on all six of the profiles, which meant that it was a range, not just one isolated mountain. And then something happened. ‘As I looked further at the detail, and tried to unravel it,’ she said, ‘I noticed that in each profile there was a deep notch near the crest of the ridge.’ A deep notch, a rift. This was something new. She kept studying it, checking the sounding records over and over again to make sure she hadn’t mis-plotted a depth. . . . They (Marie and her partner Bruce Heezen) both know that the existence of such a rift means continental drift. This was in 1952, when to espouse Alfred Wegener’s hypothesis that the earth’s crust was made up of giant pieces or plates that moved around on the earth’s surface was professional suicide. But what Marie saw could not be denied, and geology was changed by what she had found and brought to light with her map.

Still, for her entire career, Marie struggled against gender bias. She was marginalized and ignored by most of the people that she worked with and for. The fact that she never got her Ph.D. probably didn’t help, either. It is painful to read about how she struggled to get her work recognized by the scientific establishment. And when Bruce Heezen died unexpectedly at age 53, she lost not only a life partner but a longtime professional ally. Nevertheless, she soldiered on for about 30 years and managed to accomplish a great deal.

Marie Tharpe was unique. She made a remarkable achievement that has had enormous impact on both geology and cartography , and she did it against great odds. She was incredibly smart, talented, and stubborn. Like author Hali Felt, who is a living presence in the book and who at the end declares herself one of the “Tharpophiles”, I am very glad to know Marie’s extraordinary story. And if you are reading this post, you know it, too.


Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

I Was Number 87: A Deaf Woman’s Ordeal of Misdiagnosis, Institutionalization, and Abuse

Posted by nliakos on November 12, 2014

by Anne M. Bolander and Adair N. Renning ( Gallaudet University Press 2000)

The title says it all. Anne Bolander’s mother died when she was three, and her father remarried. Anne’s stepmother was either wicked, or mentally deranged, or both. She sent five-year-old Anne to an institution in Virginia called the Stoutamyer School, but it was not a school in any sense of the word, as there were no classes, no books, and no learning outside of the constant need to follow unarticulated and unpredictable rules which, if broken, caused the child to be beaten, isolated, or otherwise punished. Margie, the director of this evil place, seemed to take pleasure in administering the punishments, and would fire any staff who dared to be kind to the children. The children were not allowed to own anything (toys and teddy bears were confiscated and destroyed), speak to anyone, touch anyone, or witness another child’s punishment, even inadvertently. Punishment for infractions was swift and long and calculated to do damage. Several children died during the five years that Anne spent there. It was a living hell–kind of a combination of maximum security prison and the worst kind of slavery, but really more like your worst nightmare.

Occasionally, Anne was taken home to her family, where the abuse continued, her stepmother seeming to take the same pleasure in punishment that Margie did, her father going along with it and her six brothers turning a blind eye to it.

When she was about eleven, Anne spent some time at a convent-run school for children with special needs where for the first time, she experienced kindness and love, and her hearing problem was finally diagnosed. However, her parents refused to believe that she was hard of hearing (for some reasons preferring the diagnosis of mental retardation) and would not let her use her hearing aid at home. The blissful months at St. Mary’s soon over, the family moved to another state and Anne was re-institutionalized. And so went her childhood and adolescence–a combination of special “schools” and living at home in a dysfunctional, loveless family. She eventually learned to lipread, sign, speak and get along well enough in the world to make her living (amazing), but her starvation for love and friendship led her to overlook warning signs that her “friends” were only using her. Not until her forties (with the support of therapy) was she able to muster the self-esteem to assert herself, and writing the book is one of the ways that she has done this.

One would guess that the injustice, abuse, and cruelty described in this book had taken place in some distant time, but no; it was here in America, in the second half of the 20th century.

Everyone should read this book.

(Intermediate to advanced English language learners could probably understand the book without much trouble, as the language is simple and straightforward. (The co-author “translated” Anne’s deaf-English into standard English.)

Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Posted by nliakos on October 20, 2014

by Reza Aslan (Random House 2013)

This is the book I have wanted to read for many years: a book that puts the religious narrative(s) into a historical context. Jesus, Paul, James, Masada, the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire, the apostles, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Q material, the Bible, Pilate and Herod, and much, much more, all contextualized and explained clearly. Reza Aslan writes forcefully about what we know, what we can reasonably speculate about, what we might hazard a guess about, and what is pure fabrication. When the gospels contradict each other, he muses as to why that is and what it might mean. He cites numerous sources, some modern and others 2,000 years old, to back up his thesis: that the Jesus Christ worshipped by Christians today has little in common with Jesus of Nazareth–the former a god, the latter a man–an uneducated laborer, a revolutionary, and one of a plethora of failed messiahs that lived and died violent deaths around that time (but the only one, Aslan points out, that “would not be forgotten”). As I have long believed, it was Paul (a Jew who apparently came to hate Jews) who created and spread the Christian religion. (Aslan points out that “more than half of the twenty-seven books that now make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul.” p. 215) What Jesus preached, and what his brother James (the Just) preached after him, is completely different from what Paul preached–but Jesus and James were preaching to other Jews, whereas Paul preached to Gentiles, facilitating the spread of his doctrines among the majority of peoples who knew nothing of the Torah and Jewish laws and customs and so were unable to recognize that much of what Paul was preaching would have been anathema to Jesus.  Aslan also shows how Christian anti-Semitism was born after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and historical events were changed to absolve the Romans of responsibility for Jesus’ death–and cast the blame on the Jews. Aslan shows how absurd these allegations actually are.

I learned so much from reading this book! I am looking forward to reading more of Reza Aslan, like Muslims and Jews in America, Beyond Fundamentalism, and No god but God.

Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

Posted by nliakos on May 6, 2014

by Lesley Hazelton (Riverhead Books 2013)

Like many people, my knowledge of the life of the Prophet of Islam was limited to a few very vague bits: I knew he had married an independent businesswoman for whom he worked, and I knew that there had been a “flight” from Mecca to Medina. So I was ripe for this biography of Muhammad from veteran journalist and writer Lesley Hazelton. Hazelton wrote the book with people like me in mind: not Muslims, not even believers, necessarily. She makes very clear what is fact, what is historical/cultural background, and what is conjecture about the life of this man who actually changed the world. Drawing on the histories of ibn-Ishaq and al-Tabari as well as the Quran itself as her primary sources, Hazelton weaves the story of Muhammad’s life from conception to death. I learned about his early years as a goatherd, the diverse society in which he lived, the pre-Islamic beliefs and practices which became incorporated into Islam, his transformation from outsider to ultimate insider, and much more. Many thanks to my student Munerah for giving me this book!

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Helen Keller

Posted by nliakos on April 26, 2012

by Dorothy Herrmann (1998, Knopf)

Like most people, I saw The Miracle Worker  but knew little beyond that about the most famous disabled person of the 20th century. When I read Lies My Teacher Told Me, an example of a lie by omission was that of Helen Keller, who lived an active life until she was 87, writing and lecturing about her views of a variety of topics but whose adult life most people are totally ignorant of because (in the author’s view) of her radical politics and unpopular views. Ever since then, I’ve been planning to find out more.

I found Herrmann’s biography very interesting, if sometimes too detailed and somewhat repetitive (she incorporates the life stories of practically everyone in the book; for example, does the reader need to know the tragic details of Samuel Clemens’ life in a biography of Helen Keller? pp. 104-106).  She devotes many pages to the unique relationship between Helen and Annie Sullivan, her “Teacher”, who both controlled her and was controlled by her. Numerous people have argued over which of these women was the more intelligent. Were Helen’s ideas and literary output truly hers? Or were they Annie Sullivan’s. Sullivan guarded her charge against even family members who sought to come between them. According to Herrmann, Annie Sullivan was the only person Helen ever truly loved. (Nevertheless, once when Sullivan was away recuperating from an illness, Helen fell in love with a young man who wished to elope with her, but their plans were foiled and he was prevented from seeing her again. Was the brevity of this affair such that Helen could not be said to have trule loved Peter Fagan?)

Herrmann devotes many pages to Keller’s relationships with other people in her life. She quotes extensively from her books, poems, and letters. The book features numerous photographs of Keller at different ages and with different people (and dogs–she was a great dog lover). Herrmann decries the tight control under which Helen Keller lived all of her life. Her “handlers” (as we would call them now, including her family) wanted to present her to the world as a pure and innocent being uncorrupted by normal human emotions and desires. As a result, she was never allowed normal friendships or love affairs and learned to always present herself as serene, capable, and accepting of her disabilities. She did not permit herself, or was not permitted, to show anger, to make mistakes (Annie Sullivan used to make her retype everything she wrote until it was perfect) or (God forbid) to have sexual feelings for a man. Part of this was the time in which Helen Keller lived (1880 – 1968), and part of it was everyone’s revulsion of disabled people who actually looked disabled. (Helen Keller and her handlers placed great emphasis on looking and dressing very well; for much of her life Keller was photographed only in profile so that people would not see her left eye, which protruded and looked obviously blind.) All of these things made me feel very sorry for Helen Keller. But she was a pioneer, and disabled people today have benefited from her life and work–especially hearing- and/or sight-impaired people.

Interestingly, according to Herrmann, Keller considered her one true disability to be her voice, which throughout her life was unattractive  and difficult to understand, despite her continuous efforts to improve it. Her blindness and deafness were surmountable obstacles in comparison; she did not remember being able to hear or see, but her  “tinny, robotic, and grotesque” voice (( p. 180) prevented her from expressing herself.

Reading this biography has inspired me to read some of Keller’s own works, notably The World I Live In (1908), in which she describes what it is like to be deaf and blind, and to visit the Chapel of Saint Joseph of Arimathea in the National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C, where lie the ashes of Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan Macy, and Polly Thomson, companion to Keller after the death of Mrs. Macy.

Posted in Biography, Non-fiction | 1 Comment »