The Risks And Rewards Of Book Recommendations

Recently JV strongly recommended Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  I like biographies, so I got a copy of the book from the library, read it, and concluded that JV was absolutely right:  it’s a terrific, thought-provoking book about a fascinating, almost unbelievable genius that is well worth reading.

61acccc4wwl-_sx330_bo1204203200_JV’s review, though, got me to thinking about the act of making book recommendation to your friends.  When you think about it, it takes a certain amount of trust and courage to do it, because you’re exposing a bit of your inner self in doing so.  If you read a book and give it a rave review to your friends, there’s a risk that they will read it and think it’s not exactly the bee’s knees.  What you think is a deeply moving tale they might find to be banal and superficial, and what you think is a fascinating bit of history they might conclude is a long, boring slog.  And, through the prism of the book and your review of it, they might just revise their perception of you, too.

It’s a chance you take whenever you give a hearty thumbs-up or a crushing thumbs-down to any piece of popular culture, be it a book, a movie, or a TV series.  People have different interests and will find different things appealing, or off-putting.  The risk that people will disagree, though, probably causes some vulnerable people to shy away from talking about their reactions to books, movies, and the like.  If so, that’s a shame.  Anything that might discourage people from talking about books is a bad thing.

I like getting book recommendations from friends and family, precisely because they do give you some insight into the personality and preferences of the recommender.  And, too, I find that their real-world reviews tend to be a lot more reliable than some lofty, self-consciously intellectual review written by a literature professor in the New York Times book review section.

Say Hello To Your New Organ

Scientists have determined that there is officially a new organ in the human body, which now will be enshrined within our starting lineup of stomach, lungs, heart, kidneys, and the other slimy, wriggly bags of glop pulsing along inside our skin suits.

mesentery-0The new organ — called the mesentery — isn’t “new” in the sense that it only popped into the human body in 2016.  It’s always been there, between your intestines and your abdomen, helping to advance the human digestive system.  In fact, Leonardo da Vinci, who found time to weigh in on anatomy between completing paintings and designing machines that never got built, considered it to be an organ, but later medical types decided that the mesentery instead should be viewed as a number of distinct structures.  However, recent tests confirmed that the distinct structures function together, which means that old Leo was right and puts the mesentery squarely into the “organ” category.  Gray’s Anatomy, the ultimate medical textbook, has had to be amended to make sure that the mesentery is properly categorized, and scientists and doctors hope that the changed classification will allow the mesentery to be more fully studied and, perhaps, lead to the development of better surgical approaches and treatments of disease.

The mesentery may be an ugly conglomeration of tissue that looks like something that has washed up on a beach and sat there for a while, but it performs two important functions.  First, it provides a conduit for blood vessels, nerves, and the lymphatic system to reach from the rest of the human body down to the intestines.  And second, it allows the intestines to be linked to the abdominal wall without being directly attached to the wall.

As one doctor noted, in describing this second function:  “It is unlikely that [the intestine] would be able to contract and relax along its entire length if it were directly in contact [with the abdominal wall]. [The mesentery] maintains the intestine in a particular conformation, ‘hitched up,’ so that when you stand up or walk about, it doesn’t collapse into the pelvis and not function.”

An important function?  I’ll say!  Given the role of the intestines, we obviously all should be gratefully thanking the mesentery for allowing us to answer nature’s call without having to “hitch up” and rearrange our innards afterwards.  I’m glad the mesentery is finally getting its just acknowledgement.

We All Scream For “The Scream”

Not many pieces of artwork become iconic.  Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa obviously is one; Michelangelo’s David is another.  I would put Edvard Munch’s The Scream in that category.

Munch painted four versions of The Scream in 1895.  Three are in museums in Norway, Munch’s native land.  The fourth is being auctioned tonight.  It is expected to be sold for at least $80 million, and if it fetches more than $106.5 million — the current record — before the auction is gavelled to a close, The Scream would become the most expensive painting ever sold.

It’s not hard to see why The Scream has become an instantly recognizable image in modern culture.  The mindless horror evoked by the image of a screaming man on a bridge under a lurid sky can be used to capture our reaction to things as diverse as the futility of daily life, senseless crimes, and the Holocaust.  I’m sure that more than one Norwegian dealing with the mass murder committed by home-grown madman Anders Breivik thought of The Scream when they read about Breivik’s unpardonable crimes.

It would be fitting if a painting that is so accessible, and so aptly related to modern life in so many respects, became the most expensive painting ever sold.

Mona Ghoulish

Obviously, some people wonder about who Mona Lisa really was — but is it really worth digging up the remains of some woman who has been buried for centuries in the potentially forlorn hope that you can figure it out?

Italian authorities apparently have answered that question in the affirmative.  An art historian named Silvano Vinceti thinks that the model for Mona Lisa was a woman named Lisa Gherardini who died in 1542 and is buried in a convent in Florence.  He is going to start excavating at the convent Saint Orsola, searching for Ms. Gherardini’s bones.  When he finds her skull, he hopes to extract DNA that will allow him to “rebuild her face” using “scientific techniques.”  There is some skepticism that the results of the effort will be conclusive.  (No kidding!)

I’m all for science, but doesn’t anybody else think this effort is disturbing and ghoulish?  Ms. Gherardini was laid to rest more than 550 years ago.  Why should her bones be disturbed and used in some dubious science experiment in an effort to satisfy the idle curiosity of the art historians who want to know the subject of the world’s most famous painting?  Have we lost all notions of respect for the dignity of the dead?  And isn’t part of the allure of the Mona Lisa its enigmatic quality, anyway?

If The Mona Lisa Could Speak . . .

she might be able to explain how Leonardo da Vinci was able to produce such a richly shaded depiction of her human face, without apparent brushstrokes, thumbprints, or other evidence of human creation.  Until she speaks, however, we will leave it to science to gather evidence — which is what happened when a form of x-ray technology was applied to the world’s most famous painting and other creations of Leonardo.  The study suggests that the great master painstakingly and repeatedly applied amazingly thin coats of glaze to his paintings to achieve the effect.

Leonardo’s technique, called sfumato, apparently has been lost to the mists of time.  It is hard to believe that a method capable of producing such effects would not have been carefully handed down, from master to student, through the centuries.  It makes you wonder that what other techniques that produced artistic masterpieces, astonishing architectural triumphs, or other ancient wonders have unfortunately been lost to the ready universe of human knowledge.

A Pretty Good Investment

The newly discovered Da Vinci painting

The normally separate worlds of modern technology and Renaissance art intersected recently, and the result was confirmation that a heretofore obscure painting was the work of Leonardo da Vinci.  Multispectral images of a painting thought to be that of a 19th century German painter has allowed art historians to determine that a fingerprint on the painting matched that of the great Leonardo, who apparently frequently used his hands in creating his masterpieces.

What does it mean for the owner of the piece?  Well, he bought the painting two years ago for $19,000, and now it is estimated to be worth more than $100 million.  For the mathematically challenged, that means the value of the investment increased 5,000 times in just two years.

Russell, be sure to leave a few telltale fingerprints on your artwork!