Blogging for a Good Book
As my history on this blog will attest, I have a perennial reading interest in books about the giant dorm full of crazy spendthrift aristocrats that was Versailles. This illustrated history of the palace gardens, while shelved with books on garden design, actually has a great deal to offer in the way of history and personality in addition to its details about landscape architecture.
It opens with a party hosted by Louis XIV’s finance minister, Fouquet, to show off his newly completed chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Fouquet hoped to impress the young king (Louis was 23) with his wealth and good taste: gold plates, a play by Moliere, a ballet by Lully, and finally a fireworks display, highlighted by a mechanical whale that belched fire as it “swam” up the garden’s Grand Canal. Louis was a little too impressed. Three weeks later he had Fouquet arrested for embezzlement and imprisoned for the rest of his life in the Alps. Louis then swooped into Vaux and appropriated the house furnishings, the orange trees, the architect, the interior decorator, and the gardener. These three men would be the force behind one of history’s greatest home makeovers—the transformation of a remote hunting lodge into a showpiece of French wealth and power.
Gardener is probably not the correct term for the work done by Andre le Notre. Piping in the water for Versailles’ fountains alone required engineering and hydraulic feats of gargantuan proportions, with soldiers drafted to do the work in lieu of bulldozers. A third of Versailles’ building costs went to water supply (Thompson notes that there was better plumbing in the gardens than in the apartments), but there still wasn’t water pressure to run all of the fountains at once. Instead, a fountaineer was kept on constant standby, in case the king should suddenly decide to take a stroll. His boys would run around behind the hedges, switching the fountain jets on as the king approached and off again when he had passed.
Louis XIV was my kind of gardener, if operating with a very different budget. He liked instant gratification, flowers blooming all the time, no matter the season. Mature trees were transplanted from the forests around Versailles, to save all those tedious decades of waiting, and plantings were set into the ground in ceramic pots and changed out as necessary. On one occasion, visitors to the Trianon noticed that the color scheme of the surrounding flowers changed entirely while they were inside.
Illustrations show the formal style in favor at the time, with box hedges and yew trees trained and clipped into unnatural, geometric topiary shapes. Hedge-edged pathways called parterres were laid out in curlicue patterns, like embroidery, and bosquet served as outdoor rooms for dancing and intrigues. Most of the book focuses on the era of Louis XIV, but it concludes with the changes to the gardens in the more bankrupt era of Marie Antoinette, including the gardens as the backdrop to the “diamond necklace affair,” a public relations fiasco involving the queen, a cardinal, a fake comtesse, and 647 diamonds.
You’ll enjoy this book if you’d like a different lens through which to view the life of Louis XIV, or if you’d just like to daydream about how you would “garden” with an unlimited budget, 1,890 acres, and an army.
Check the WRL catalog for The Sun King’s Garden.
I imagined it differently. I pictured a warm shallow pool under a friendly blue sky, overseen by a kindly shining sun and gently stirred by a breeze. And in the pool, my far distant slime-mold ancestors were busily evolving into my grandfather. Miracle Planet shows a past that is far more savage and chaotic than my imaginings.
Miracle Planet is a five-part documentary made by a joint Canadian and Japanese team. The first two parts, “The Violent Past” and “Snowball Earth” assert that in the far distant past the entire earth was frozen solid two miles deep all the way to the equator, probably twice. The friendly blue sky that I imagined was, at some points, actually red from the high concentration of methane and then dark from debris from massive volcanic eruptions. And a meteor hit the earth millions of years before the well-known one causing the dinosaur extinction and made the planet so hot that the rocks boiled and melted miles deep. The documentary explains the timing of these events, which were millions of years apart, but I find geologic time hard to keep track of, since the time spans are so unimaginably huge.
But the most amazing part of the documentary (and perhaps the most amazing thing ever) is that life persisted! Scientists used to think that the freezing and boiling catastrophes sterilized the earth and destroyed all life on earth. Then they thought life evolved again. But now they think that bacteria could have survived, because they know bacteria survive miles deep in diamond mines in South Africa.
I learned many other things such as the greatest volcanic eruption ever in the history of the earth occurred in what is now Siberia and made ninety-five percent of the existing species extinct. Also that dinosaurs were very bird-like, in that they were better at oxygen exchange than the early mammals because they had air sacs. The series moves up in time to early humans.
I came across this series when I created a display on “The End of the World” and it will fascinate buffs of apocalyptic scenarios. Even if I can accept my personal mortality (and less readily the mortality of my loved ones), the extinction of our species is still horrible to contemplate, let alone the extinction of all life on earth.
Miracle Planet has wonderful images and graphics and I also recommend it for those interested in science. The library owns a lot of great science documentaries and I love them because, at their best, they bring an immediacy to a subject that a book can lack, because sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
Check the WRL catalog for Miracle Planet.
What are the odds that one author could capture two important elements of American life in two books, each of which is under two hundred pages? If you’re Stewart O’Nan, they are 1 in 1. The first is Last Night at the Lobster (blogged here by Connie), a 147-page story of a restaurant manager whose life and identity are invested in his job, despite the way he’s casually dismissed by both customers and corporate hatchetmen. The second is 2012′s The Odds, in which a long-married couple makes a last-gasp getaway before divorcing and declaring bankruptcy. Its 179 pages encompass the silent recriminations, miscommunications, deceptions, and uncomfortable blend of inside jokes and familiarity-bred contempt of a man and woman who may have been mismatched from the start.
Marion and Art Fowler are retracing their honeymoon on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, but this time packing thousands of dollars in a canvas bag. Right from the start we know that they are going to be divorced when this weekend is over, but Art thinks it’s only a maneuver to protect their few remaining assets. He is full of other schemes to minimize the damage from their certain bankruptcy: planning to default on the credit card bill for their extravagant weekend, buying Marion jewelry that is just under the asset level for seizure, and above all, using a solid system to beat the roulette wheel in the hotel casino then smuggle his cash winnings back into the US.
What he doesn’t know is that Marion intends their divorce to be more than a legal fiction. As Art has struggled with their finances, Marion has found a life of her own. She’s impatient with his neediness, practices maneuvers to deflect his affections, and withholds an enormous secret from him. That’s not to say Art is a saint—he can be indecisive, a poor planner (who doesn’t think a Valentine’s Day weekend in Niagara Falls would be crowded?), blind to her tastes, and overly optimistic about the risky venture they’re on.
For all the lows that are finally weighing their marriage down, there are some bright points, especially centered on their children as they begin to make lives of their own. There are moments of intimacy springing from thirty years of living together, familiar rhythms and mutual memories that knit them together and that will never fray. Those moments, small as they sometimes are, lend the story a sweetness that offsets the soured relationship and the desperation of their finances. Like the Ripley’s 3-D movie Art and Marion see, O’Nan puts his readers in a barrel, has them pass jagged rocks and beautiful scenery on their inexorable way to the fall—but he ends the story just as the barrel launches into the mist, leaving us to create our own landing.
(And, ahem, Pulitzer people: you may not be able to make a decision, but I hope dismissing O’Nan’s polished works as novellas isn’t in your catalogue of other sins.)
Check the WRL catalogue for The Odds