Best Books of 2016 – Chapter Two
In contrast to the shorter James Bond books that I read earlier in 2016, I spent a number of weeks in the spring reading one book that was over 975 pages long. It was my sister’s recommendation that prompted me to read Vincent Van Gogh’s extensively detailed biography entitled Van Gogh: The Life written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. I started this book well before my scheduled trip to Amsterdam in April hoping to finish it before visiting the Van Gogh Museum there.
Although I was only a little over half way through the book by the time I arrived at the museum in Amsterdam, having read much of the book tremendously enriched my experience in the museum. Over the 20+ years that I have been traveling to Amsterdam, I have been to the Van Gogh Museum many times. But none of those visits could compare to this most recent one.
It was truly amazing to me having seen so many of Van Gogh’s beautiful paintings that they could have been created by someone who for the most part led such an unhappy life. After numerous failed attempts of trying to find his way in the world from struggling to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a minister, to selling art like his brother Theo, it was very late in life that Vincent began to create his art. At first with pencil and pen and then later with paint, Vincent worked very hard to master this career.
Through reading this book, I learned that Theo’s support of his brother for these artistic endeavors was much more extensive and lengthy than I ever knew. And of all of the Impressionist artists that he studied with or worked with as he developed his own unique style, many were either names I recognized or their paintings were familiar ones I had seen in the museum. But above all, as I gazed at the long-familiar Van Gogh paintings, it was with all of the new background knowledge that I had gained that allowed me to make direct connections between the art and his life allowing me to see the painting in a whole new light.
Sadly much of his work was under appreciated in his lifetime with the first sale of his art not occurring until the year he died. And only after his death, did his work come into the prominence that we recognize it for today. Thanks to this book, I had a whole new appreciation for that.
A book I heard about on one of my podcasts was A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse by Theresa Levitt. And it was a very nice surprise to receive it as a Christmas gift from my oldest son and daughter-in-law since it was a book about building things, a type I thoroughly enjoy. Never having lived along a coast, I wasn’t very familiar with lighthouses and in fact I’ve only been up in one lighthouse, Point Reyes just north of San Francisco when we vacationed there one year.
I’ve always known the purpose of a lighthouse, to warn sailors against shallows and other hazards along a coastline, but nothing about how they came to be. I was actually surprised to learn that some of them in Europe dated all the way back to the 1500s. But it was the invention of the modern lens by Augustin Fresnel, a person I had never heard of, that vastly improved their functionality.
When we visited Point Reyes, I remember being intrigued by the shape of the lighthouse lens and wondering why it looked like louvered glass. Little did I know at the time that I was looking at a Fresnel lens. Turns out, Fresnel was actually quite an accomplished scientist and it was his precise use of prisms that refracted and focused the light to make a much brighter beam; thus the explanation for the louvered look.
Up until his death and then continued by his brother, Fresnel worked diligently to upgrade the lights in all of the lighthouses along the French coast with Fresnel lenses. The challenge at the time was that glass molding and polishing was required to form the prisms into precision optical devices. These demands exceeded the technical capabilities of glass companies at the time and so many lens parts were unacceptable and had to be remade.
Interestingly, once the French coast was complete, not a single Fresnel lens existed in any of the American lighthouses. This had predominantly occurred due to a federal government policy of saving money, rather than providing effective lighthouses. Eventually, a lighthouse board made up of naval and technical staff overcame the ineffective previous staff and began to upgrade the lighthouses in the US.
This effectively was completed just as the Civil War broke out and then the improved lenses were removed and hidden to make it more difficult for Union ships to navigate southern waters in the dark. In fact the darkened lighthouse at Cape Hatteras actually cost the Union more ships through groundings than through military battles.
The importance of Fresnel lenses continued up through the Second World War and was only made obsolete by the development of radar and later GPS. But for almost 100 years, it was the Fresnel lens that made safe the waters along the coasts globally saving thousands of lives and ships. Through reading this book, I now knew the story behind this remarkable invention.
I have enjoyed reading every one of Richard Russo’s books so when I found out he had written a memoir, Elsewhere; I immediately added it to my book wish list. I knew many of his books were drawn from the area in which he grew up so I was interested to read the nonfictional backstory that led to his fictional novels. I was not disappointed and several times during my reading, the narrative of his life events at the time he was writing made me want to go back and reread his novels fresh with these new knowledge. In particular, I learned that the last book of his I read and thoroughly enjoyed, That Old Cape Magic, was actually written during the time that both his daughters were getting married within 12 months of each other on two different continents. Although a fictional story, it was surprising how true to life many of the events in the book were.
But for me, probably the most surprising new learning in this story was how large an influence his mother had been in his life. Up until the time of her death, rarely did a day go by that he was not somehow interacting or care giving for his mother. While reading his memoir, I also heard a podcast interview about his newest book, Everybody’s Fool, where in addition to the new book, he talked about his mother’s lifelong medical condition, one for which she was never diagnosed, but one that he only fully began to understand once one of his daughters was diagnosed.
Overall, it is a great read, a story that several times gave me pause to reflect on how my relationship with my parents had influenced my own life.
To be continued…
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