Category Archives: nonfiction

The Vanishing Velázquez 

l54j4lkjWhen Laura Cumming described seeing Velázquez’s famous Las Meninas in the Prada museum in Madrid in The Vanishing Velázquez, I immediately connected with her epiphany.  Copies of the famous scene do not compare to seeing the life-sized scene in person. As I listened to the docent’s information about the seventeenth century picture when I visited, I experienced those same feelings as Cumming of being in the room with the infanta and imagining she was staring back at me.

9781476762180_p0_v3_s192x300 Cumming, the art critic for The Observer, follows nineteenth century bookseller John Snare’s obsession with a long lost portrait of King Charles I by renowned Spanish artist Velázquez.  As she documents the bookseller’s journey from discovery to disgrace, she includes short lectures on Velázquez, and carefully analyzes not only the characters in Las Meninas but  also many of Velázquez’s other paintings. With a storytelling style making the facts seem like fiction, she inserts historical anecdotes taking the reader inside the portraits’ lives.

Cumming cleverly inserts her lessons on Spanish history and on Velázquez’s art, painlessly informing the reader in alternate chapters while maintaining the motivation to know more about the one particular painting discovered by the bookseller.  Although I impatiently kept looking for the next chapter about John Snare, I never skipped Cumming’s chapters about art history.  If anything, she has motivated me to return to the Prada to see the art again in the light of her review.

As much an analysis of the artist’s work as a quest for finding the missing portrait, the book draws the reader into a fascinating glimpse of the seventeenth century with tales of King Philip’s Baroque court and the characters who became the focus of Velázquez’s art.  Under commission from the king, Velázquez painted at the king’s request and his art adorned the walls of the Alcázar  palace before it burned down. Most of his work remains in Spain today at the Prada museum.

As I read the intervening chapters digressing from the hunt for the missing Velázquez, Cumming’s descriptions of the Spanish court had me stopping to investigate the royal Spanish family.  Just like the royal line of Britain, Spain’s order of succession was full of wars, intermarriage, and heirless kings.  Philip IV,  Velázquez’s patron, had a difficult reign and was succeeded by the last of the Hapsburgs.  With careful attention to many of Velázquez’s portraits and scenes, Cumming notes how he recorded the lives and interactions at court – almost the way a photographer would do today. Through Velázquez, the era comes alive, and unlike his contemporaries who sketched drafts before the final production, his paintings capture the moment in one take with no preliminaries or revisions.  His paintings captured the moments – revealing and sustaining the history through his genius.

The search for the missing portrait of Charles remains the focal point of the book.  Cumming sustains the suspense about the missing portrait as she follows Snare from respected bookseller in Reading, England to his court battles in Scotland, and his final journey with the painting to New York City.  Despite the cost he pays, both personal and financial, Snare never sells the painting.  The big mystery, however, is never solved.  Where is the painting today?

Sadly, no copy of the missing portrait exists and no recent  descendants of Snare can be found.  Nevertheless, Cumming ends on a hopeful note with a tribute – and a graceful unspoken nod to her father, whose death inspired her to research and write the story:

“The figures of the past keep looking into our moment. Everything in Las Meninas is designed to keep this connection alive forever.  The dead are with us, and so are the living consoled. We live in each other’s eyes and our stories need not end.”

Although reading The Vanishing Velázquez requires patience and a slow and careful read, the reward is a better appreciation of art history and an exciting adventure into the art world rivaling any fictional tale.

Related ReviewThe Art Forger

Mary Astor’s Purple Diary – The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

9781631490248_p0_v4_s192x300Whenever I watch old movies, I cannot resist looking up the background of the players, wondering what their lives were really like.  Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary was satisfyingly short and funny – with pictures – and  Woody Allen’s review in the New York Times piqued my interest.  Maybe he’ll turn the book into a movie?

Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary focuses on a long forgotten scandal involving the movie star well known to old movie fans for playing the deceiving foil to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and the wise mother in Meet Me in Saint Louis and Little Women. At a time when movie moguls used the casting couch for plum roles but concealed their movie stars’ indiscretions to gain approval from the “legion of decency,” Mary Astor’s love life was front page news when her diary was discovered.  Her descriptions of her many lovers became fodder for a real-life courtroom drama that could have been right out of the movies.

Sorel is well known for his political caricatures and his “unauthorized portraits”  of the famous.  No modern president or president-elect has escaped his fervor to “attack hypocrisy in high places.”  His style is easily recognized on covers for The New Yorker.

Sorel punctuates this book with a few hilarious scenes of Mary Astor as she negotiates her scandal. unknown-3 In a sideways tale of Astor’s life, Sorel includes facts about her family and background, but in his imaginary interview with the dead actress, he manages to include a funny perspective on her lovers – names old movie fans will recognize, including John Barrymore and George S. Kauffman.  At times, Sorel’s irreverent style and his tangents into his own marriages reflect a Woody Allen style with wry observations and self-deprecating humor.

I cannot imagine why Mary Astor kept an incendiary diary about her lovers; somehow written secrets always find their way out. But thanks to Sorel, it made for fun reading – like flipping through that Entertainment Weekly or People magazine in the doctor’s office.

Related Article: Woody Allen Reviews a Graphic Tale of a Scandalous Starlet

Books Not Just to Inspire Girls – Hidden Figures and Glass Universe

The promotion of women in math and science has long been a target for organizations like AAUW (American Association of University Women), STEM proponents(science, technology, engineering, math), and others – now two new books explain how women have been there all along, just without getting credit – Hidden Figures and Glass Universe.

9780062363602_p0_v2_s192x300  Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley was recently made into a movie.  I confess – I have not yet read the book, but after seeing the movie, I have it on my library reserve list – waiting with 84 prospective readers before me.  Based on the lives of real women who worked at NASA during the exciting birth of space travel, the story also reveals the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement and the indignities suffered by women today admired as geniuses.

I recently listened to a discussion by a group of women about the definition of “genius,” and sadly observed the term still seems to designate the talents of established white men.  Literature and the arts were also omitted as candidates. In Hidden Figures, the geniuses were not only women, they were black women.

9780670016952_p0_v2_s192x300The title of Glass Universe – How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars reminds me of the glass ceiling women have yet to crack in the United States – in politics anyway – and the disparity in salaries – mentioned in both books.  Dave Sobel’s book focuses on the women working under Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory and their groundbreaking work in astronomy.  Only six readers are ahead of me on this wait list – the advantage of not having the movie made yet.

Have you read these books yet?

The Wright Brothers

After someone berated me for publishing a negative review of a book being discussed the next day at one of my book clubs, I decided never to again.  In this case, I am waiting to publish after I hear what others, who may be more likely to connect with nonfiction, have to say about David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers.  To be fair to myself, I needed to write what I thought first.

Reading nonfiction often feels like reading a textbook, with dates and facts clogging the forward motion. The eerie feeling of being tested always lurked in my mind, as I blithely skipped over mathematical formula and engineering theory, intruding on McCullough’s easy storytelling style.  Overcoming the urge to stop reading several times, I did finish the book, and was glad of it.

9781476728759_p0_v3_s192x300  The history of flight and the Wright brothers clear claim to overcoming man’s resistance to air are well documented.  I too have visited the site of flight in North Carolina and wondered at the sand dunes where Wilbur may have fallen over and over until he captured the magic.  With McCullough’s version, the brothers’ story became human and relatable, and their genius revealed – creating the engineering marvel of an airplane without a degree in physics or mechanical engineering.

Avoiding their personal stories until the Epilogue, McCullough focuses on their difficulties and successes and reveals the same obstacles many overcome when  they imagine a new idea:  someone else tried to take credit, the government would not provide backing until a foreign agent became interested, money was tight and trust outside their inner circle was nonexistent.  The year in France and their contemporary and rival Alexander Bell were surprises to me, as was Wilbur’s death at a young age, and Katherine’s late marriage.

Orville died in 1948 – not so long ago – and lived to see their invention become a weapon in wars, but not long enough to witness the evolution to jets and rockets. Perhaps someday we will not even need a mechanical contraption to get us where we want to go – Star Trek’s “beam me up” facility is always a possibility.

McCullough captured the moments of innovation and creativity and grounded them with realistic sweat and problem-solving to give the Wright brothers their rightful due.  I look forward to someone writing historical fiction about Wilbur’s year in Paris.

End of the Year Review – Books of 2016

Seven is a lucky number and the Chinese promise the Year of the Rooster in 2017 will be an improvement over 2016’s Year of the Monkey.  Yesterday, a rooster ran across the road in front of my car; thankfully I did not hit it as it happily hobbled off into the woods – must be a good sign.images

Looking back over what I was reading in 2016 helped jog my memory of what I was doing over the year.  As for the over 100 books, I usually forget them almost as soon as I’ve finished reading.

Have you read any of these books?  Can you find my favorite?  Click on the title to read my review.

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Books Read and Reviewed in 2016

January, 2016

February, 2016 

March, 2016

April, 2016

May, 2016

June, 2016

July, 2016

August, 2016

September, 2016

October, 2016

November, 2016

December, 2016