With the Memorial Day weekend just over, the summer season is officially here. Hopefully you’ll have an opportunity to take some time off in the next few months—even a real planned vacation. And with time off, there’s never a better opportunity to catch up on a bit of reading. Here are half-dozen suggestions for summer reads. All are guaranteed to pique interest and provoke thought. At least one has no other purpose than just a fun read.

Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci is a superbly written work on the greatest genius of all time. It’s also the best book I’ve read this year–and it’s not even June. Isaacson’s book survey’s Leonardo’s life chronologically in surprising detail, from birth and early childhood all the way to his final journey to France. Many of the chapters are devoted to single works of painting or sculpture as well as various aspects of his never-ending research into the properties of water, human anatomy, and more.

Isaacson vividly portrays Da Vinci’s curiosity about the world around him as boundless, compulsive, and astonishing–only matched by his otherworldly powers of observation. Many of Leonardo’s ideas, findings, and theories predated scientific discoveries by two or more centuries—and all were accomplished without any true formal education (!). Regrettably, many projects in his lifetime went unfinished and several of his paintings were lost. However, over 6,000-plus pages of notebooks have survived and will remain a treasure trove for the ages.

Many times when reading Leonardo, I literally put the book down, smiled, and shook my head in astonishment at the range and depth of Da Vinci’s genius. He was–and is–like no other. Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci gets my highest recommendation; it’s a must read.

*Side note: if by chance you find yourself in the Albuquerque area between now and the end of July, you would do well to visit the Museum of Science and History. Once inside, you’ll stroll past the skeleton of a huge dinosaur only to find a world-class exhibit on Leonardo. Somehow, some way, the gods deigned to put the exhibit not in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, but in Albuquerque. I’m thrilled–but still trying to figure out how. Regardless, half the exhibit is dedicated to the Mona Lisa. One of the major take-aways there is that the painting we know today is actually the fourth image that Leonardo drew and/or painted on the surface. Through LAN micro-scanning technology, we can actually see the other images including the third, which is a completed painting (see my photo above). Beyond the Mona Lisa, the exhibit features more than 50 of Leonardo’s inventions, which have been constructed from wood. Many are designed to be used/manipulated to demonstrate their function, and children of all ages delight in doing just that.  
What She Ate, by Laura Shapiro

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” is the often-heard Brillat-Savarin quote. In her new book, What She Ate, author Laura Shapiro takes that idea further. Shapiro tracks six famous–even infamous–women to learn how food played a role in their lives. The author’s cast of characters includes Dorothy Wordsworth (sister of famed English poet William Wordsworth), English chef Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, British novelist Barbara Pym, and Cosmopolitan Magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown. Using personal notes, diaries, and other published works, Shapiro is able to glean new understandings of their complex personalities. And who knew that even in the day, the FDR administration was known for serving the worst food in the history of the White House. What She Ate is well-written and definitely recommended. 

Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen

I have five trips booked next month and will be spending lots of time in airports and on planes. No surprise that airplane books will be a priority. Carl Hiaasen to the rescue. He’s become my favorite author of airplane books. Earlier this year, Carla tried to get me to read one of his novels. I initially resisted but finally took the plunge and read Star Island. The book was hilarious, outrageous, and cleverly written with a plot and characters so bizarre that they were almost believable.

Hiaasen is based in South Florida, and his books are set there to take full advantage of the climate, the alligators, the seamy lowlife, and more. Skinny Dip is no exception. The book starts off with a bang on the very first page: a couple on a romantic cruise is on deck enjoying the moonlight. Suddenly, the wife is pushed over the side by her semi-evil plotting husband. She somehow survives the fall and open waters only to be rescued. The rest of Hiaasen’s novel is a twisted revenge story complete with a cast of tragically flawed characters and multiple bizarre plot twists and turns. Skinny Dip is the very essence of a summer novel. Check it out. You’ll be glad you did.   

On Color, by David Scott Kastan and Stephen Farthing

On Color is the result of ten-plus years of collaboration and conversations between David Scott Kastan, a Professor of English at Yale, and Stephen Farthing, a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Kastan and Farthing approach color through multiple lenses: cultural, political, scientific, literary, historical, and more. Each of the book’s ten chapters chooses a different color as a point of departure and then illustrates how that specific color has come to influence our language, thinking, and experience. On Color is a beautifully produced and superbly written book. 

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey

On a hot Sunday afternoon in July 2007, author Mason Currey sat in front of his computer procrastinating on an article due the next day. Currey, a self-admitted morning person, always did the bulk of his work before lunch and struggled to get anything done in the afternoon. That got him thinking about the work habits of other writers. Did they share his affliction? To find out, he spent the next several hours googling famous writers trying to discover their work habits and daily schedules.

That afternoon session became an obsession. Currey started a blog called Daily Routines that quickly gained a considerable following. Over time, he expanded his survey to include artists, scientists, and other historic notables. The results are his book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Daily Rituals is quintessential summer reading. The chapters are short and one can easily breeze through several or settle into a comfy chair with a chilled beverage and read for an extended period. The book’s subjects include the likes of Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Agatha Christie, Pablo Picasso, and many more. Reading, one discovers Eric Satie’s penchant for velvet suits and daily long walks or George Balanchine’s habit of working while ironing.

Speaking of daily rituals, mine are few: two double espresso macchiatos in the morning and a Negroni or Americano at 6:00 PM. In between, everything can go completely off the rails. But knowing that I have good coffee in the morning and a good cocktail in the evening makes it somehow easier to rein it all in. Remember, adulthood is all about balancing stimulants and depressants. 

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa, by Haruki Murakami

Years ago, I met famed conductor Seiji Ozawa while in graduate school at a reception given by Armando Ghitalla, my trumpet professor. At the time, Ozawa was the music director of the Boston Symphony. Ghitalla had just retired a few years before as the orchestra’s principal trumpet. The two were long-time colleagues and friends, no small feat given the often-contentious relationship between a conductor and principal trumpet player. That night Ozawa was gracious, friendly, and appreciative of all my compliments about the program that he and the orchestra had just performed. He also provided thoughtful answers to my questions about tempi and phrasings in the Beethoven and Stravinsky that made up that night’s program.

Fast-forward to the holiday season last year. My brother Terry’s gift was a copy of the Haruki Murakami book, Absolutely on Music. Aside from being one of Japan’s most respected writers, Murakami is also an absolute fanatic about classical music and recordings—and a long-time friend of Ozawa’s. The book is a transcription of several extended interviews/conversations between the two recorded over the course of several years. Even if you’re not a classical music fan, Absolutely on Music is a wonderful read with a wealth of insights into conducting, classical music, writing, and so much more. Highly recommended.