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books in brief

Three recent nonfiction titles

The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th-Century Bookseller’s Obsession With a Lost


Laura Cumming

(Scribner, 304 pages, $28)

When John Snare, a provincial bookseller from Reading, England, bought a painting of unknown origin at an estate auction in 1845, he fell in love. The portrait, clearly of a young King Charles I, seemed to him miraculous, magical — and not, as the catalog described it, a “supposed Van-Dyke.” Snare felt certain that the painting was instead the work of Diego Velázquez, painted in Madrid in 1623, during the then-prince of Wales’s attempt to romance the Spanish king’s younger sister, Maria Anna. He bought it for 8 pounds. “The price was low,” Laura Cumming writes, “not much more than the cost of a horse in Victorian England.”


In the enchanting “Vanishing Velázquez,” about a man and his painting, art critic and journalist Cumming unspools a story that travels from the royal court in Spain’s Alcázar, where Velázquez painted some of the world’s most admired pictures, to New York’s bustling Broadway, where Snare fled to escape legal woes and poverty back home. (In New York, Snare lived and worked at Dr. Abbott’s Famous Egyptian Museum, a private emporium visited more than 20 times by budding poet Walt Whitman.) A few years after Snare’s death, the painting vanished, never to be seen again. Along with this wide lens (which also takes in centuries of European warfare and revolution), Cumming brings us close, looking at the art made by Velázquez, a painter of both technical brilliance and an abiding humanity, somehow both startlingly modern yet essential, timeless.

Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space

Shuttle Columbia and the Men Who Flew Her

Rowland White

(Touchstone, 464 pages, $29.99)

The takeoff was violent and intense on the space shuttle’s 1981 debut mission, but all seemed well at first. The ship, Columbia, was performing like a dream. Then pilot Bob Crippen noticed something he showed to his commander, John Young: a swath of the silica tiles that knitted together to form a heat shield was missing. NASA scientists scrambled to diagnose the damage — trying to get a clear image of the missing tiles involved coordinating with secret government agencies and arranging for satellites to intersect with Columbia in one of “three crossroads in the sky” — and figure out how likely it was that the shuttle and its two-man crew could return safely.


Rowland White’s “Into the Black” chronicles efforts in an intense, genuinely gripping narrative — that starts a good 250 pages into the book. Readers not already enamored of aviation and space exploration may find the book’s first two-thirds a bit slow going. It would be unfair to compare White’s book to Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” — seldom has anyone written with more delirious passion about the American landscape and characters that took us into space — but one wishes White were able to coax a little more energy out of the taciturn pilots and engineers at the heart of his tale. Instead, White offers a sober (and sometimes sobering) look behind the lesser-known space programs, including classified projects that would have had us conducting stratospheric warfare. And by time we climb on board Columbia with Crippen and Young, he gives us what astronaut Richard Truly hails in his foreword as “a bang-up flying story.”


Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World

By Susan Silverman

Da Capo, 256 pp., $24.99

It may come as a shock to learn that comedian Sarah Silverman’s sister is a rabbi. It won’t surprise anyone, however, that Rabbi Susan Silverman matches her sister’s sharp wit, foul mouth, and incongruously soft heart. Her intimate, quirky memoir, “Casting Lots,” covers a lot of territory, from growing up in a household presided over by warring parents and haunted by a brother who died in infancy to becoming a rabbi (a move that surprised everyone, including her father, who joked that “we didn’t even know she was Jewish!”), to forming her own family, a brood that grew to contain five children, two adopted from Ethiopia.

Much of the book centers on those adoptions. Recalling life after giving birth to her first two daughters, Silverman notes that her most important talisman at the time was an adoption application she and her husband had filled out — “a symbol of my truest self,” she writes, “part of the constellation of the Jewish symbols, rituals and stories that composed, and deepened, our lives.” That deep religious connection leads them to pursue adoption from Ethiopia; despite the defensive tone that creeps into an author’s note at book’s end, in which Silverman dismisses concerns about the loss of cultural heritage, it is mostly a story of sensitivity and love.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.