December 17, 2009


Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci. By Gene Barretta. Henry Holt. $16.99.

Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi. By Rachel Rodríguez. Illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Henry Holt. $16.99.

The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy. By James Cross Giblin. Clarion. $22.

     Whether well known or less so, whether heroes or villains, larger-than-life characters from the past make for fascinating reading – for young readers as well as adults. Neo Leo and Building on Nature are short books in oversize “picture book” format, but both pack a lot of information into a small number of pages. Gene Barretta’s story about Leonardo da Vinci’s many inventions is particularly cleverly done. The pages are set up to show “neo” ideas, such as the first contact lens (1887) and the first helicopter (1907), on left-hand pages – and Leonardo’s ideas from five centuries earlier on right-hand ones. So we find that Thomas Edison’s 1895 Kinetoscope was the forerunner of modern movie projectors – but Leonardo had already figured out “how to use light to project images through a lens.” James Starley created the forerunners of modern bicycles in 1870 – but Leonardo, although he may or may not have invented the bicycle itself (there is a dispute about it), did design gears, chains and other parts used in bikes. Making the “Leo” pages even more interesting is the backwards writing incorporated into them – a version of the writing that Leonardo himself did in his many notebooks (although he, of course, wrote in the Italian of his time, not in modern English). Some of the material here will likely be as fascinating to parents as to children, such as the fact that Leonardo not only designed but also constructed robots for court events. Equally intriguing is the information – given at the end of the book – that a number of Leonardo’s never-constructed inventions are actually being built today, and are turning out to work just as Leonardo said they would. Neo Leo is a simply wonderful introduction to the ideas of a thinker of astonishing genius.

     Antoni Gaudi is not as well known as Leonardo, but the 19th-century architect from Catalonia had an effect on building that can be seen in Barcelona, Spain today – and that is really quite remarkable. From childhood, Gaudi observed nature closely, eventually incorporating elements of it into exceptionally clever designs, such as a door knocker that squashes a built-in bedbug whenever it is used and a peephole that resembles a honeycomb. Curving ramps, hallways resembling underwater caverns, pillars shaped like animals’ feet, a mosaic lizard guarding a park – Gaudi created all these and more. Rachel Rodríguez tells the story of his work without giving too much information on him as a person – and while barely mentioning the intense controversies that some of his works caused. Still, for young readers, Building on Nature is a fascinating introduction to one of the world’s most creative architects. The design of the illustrations by Julie Paschkis helps give the book an even stronger effect: pictures float against white backgrounds instead of taking up whole pages or appearing in frames, and the sinuous lines of the art parallel and complement the work done by Gaudi himself.

     The work done by Senator Joseph McCarthy, in contrast, tore down rather than building up. Decades after the “red scare” that followed World War II – a time when fear of Communism ran rampant and politicians, including future president Richard Nixon, took great advantage of it – the name of Joe McCarthy and the movement he spawned and led, McCarthyism, continue to resonate, always identified with over-zealous and vicious smear campaigns designed to destroy political and personal enemies. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, used bullying, half-truths, guilt by association and outright lies in pursuit of the Communists who, he said, had infiltrated all levels of the United States government and were undermining the country with an eye toward handing it over to the Soviet Union. James Cross Giblin’s The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy puts the senator’s career in the context of the early years of the Cold War, enlivening what could be a straightforward history book by including plenty of photos and cartoons. Some of the pictures will be well known to adults of a certain age or a certain interest in history, such as the photo of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg at the time of their spy trial and the picture of McCarthy listening carefully to chief counsel Roy Cohn. But other photos will surely be unfamiliar: McCarthy almost buried in letters of support; McCarthy having breakfast at the home of friends Urban and Margery Van Susteren, parents of Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren; McCarthy on the bench as a circuit court judge; and many more. The cartoons can be at least as fascinating as the photos, such as Herblock’s panel showing the 1946 elections as a prizefight in which the cigar-smoking “The Campaign” smashes “Voter’s Intelligence” in the face. Giblin has a personal connection, of sorts, with McCarthyism: one of his college professors announced in class that he would not assign any studies of Marx or Marxism because of the nation’s political climate. In this book, Giblin details McCarthy’s rise, the climate of hysteria in which he flourished (and which he helped create), the famous Army-McCarthy hearings that helped bring him down, the hugely important role of famed journalist Edward R. Murrow in showing McCarthy for the demagogue that he was, and McCarthy’s eventual censure by the Senate. Although some young readers may have difficulty following the ins and outs of the political process and keeping all the names and relationships of the characters straight, all will be very well repaid for sticking with The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy to the end. For this is a book that shows, at the same time, how deeply flawed the American political process can be, and how it can manage – even at a time of grave national difficulty – to take a self-correcting course. McCarthy ruined a great many lives and careers, and there is no minimizing the pain he caused in so many ways large and small. But in the end, it did not require extra-legal methods like McCarthy’s own to pull him down – all that was needed was the rule of law, a fair-sized helping of political courage, and exposure through the work of some dedicated journalists. And all these, to a greater extent or a lesser, remain crucial to rooting out those who would succeed McCarthy even today.

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