Today it’s the stories of a painting, a lunar module, and a swamp.
The first book is called Strapless by Deborah Davis. You’ve all seen the painting whether you know it or not, a voluptuous redhead in a black dress with a plunging neckline. It was Paris, where else, in the 1880s, the time known as La Belle Epoque, the beautiful era, a period of peace and prosperity in Western Europe, and a flourishing time for the arts. In Paris there dwelt two ex-patriate Americans, a young wife determined to use her beauty to become a leader of Parisian society, and a young painter determined to use her beauty to make his name in his profession.
She was Amelie Gautreau, he was John Singer Sargent, and the painting was “The Portrait of Madame X.” Displayed for the first time at the Paris Exhibition in 1884, it so scandalized Parisian society that it almost ruined him. It did ruin her.
Strapless is not only the story of a portrait, though, it is itself a portrait of a time and a place and the people who lived there. Opening the book is like stepping into a time machine. The portrait, which Singer had to buy back from the outraged husband, sat in Singer’s studio for thirty years, and now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. After reading this book, I had to go see it again.
Chariots for Apollo by Charles Pelligrino and Joshua Stoff is the story of the making of the lunar module, that section of the Apollo spaceship that landed on the moon, and it’s one of the best books ever written about the Apollo program. It begins with a brief history of man’s journey into space which includes social commentary, as in this passage on students in New York being instructed in nuclear holocaust avoidance: “…duck and cover…duck and cover…Who is laughing over there? Be quiet?...We must always remember that: no laughing during a nuclear holocaust…There, on the floor, at age eight, many children were beginning the believe that grown-ups were a little bit nuts. In a few years they would begin to say as much.”
The pride of the engineers who built the ten lunar modules shines through on every page, and their pride is fully justified when the ill-fated mission of Apollo 13 cannibalizes the lunar module to get home. Written with insider knowledge and wry humor, Chariots for Apollo also offers up life lessons like, “Never, never tap a fully loaded rocket with a screwdriver.” In 1960, sixty rocket scientists died in Russia when someone did.
The Swamp by Michael Grunwald is a history of how first we dried out the Everglades and are now desperately trying to wet it down again to a reasonable facsimile of its former self. Grunwald has a gift for simile (“It had the panoramic sweep of a desert, except flooded, or a tundra, except melted, or a wheat field, except wild.”) and a good reporter’s nose for the political boondoggling, pork bellying and backroom dealing that form the Everglades’ prime crops, including what really happened in Florida in the 2000 election. Grunwald is an advocate for restoration, no doubt, but his eye is clear, his pen is sharp and he takes no prisoners. He’s not very nice to the Army Corps of Engineers, either, which, since I’m from Seldovia, makes me like him all the more.
In la Belle Epoque Paris people lined up for art exhibitions the way we do today for blockbuster movies. In this case John Singer Sergeant caused a scandal by painting something that was much more than just a portrait of a beautiful woman, and Paris didn't like it. It almost ruined him, it did ruin his model, and I still want to ask him why he put the strap back up. Go here to see the portrait and then go read the book.