The Splendid and the Vile

I am reading Eric Larson’s brilliant book – The Splendid and the Vile – in small doses; Larsen’s writing makes it easy with short chapters and a conversational style to this nonfiction.   I am turning to Churchill to get me through the increasing count of the infected and the anxiety of sheltering in place.  I need Churchill to calm me and reassure me with his mastery of words and ideals, when the leadership of my own country fails to do so.  I hope if I read through the book slowly, the crisis would be over by the time I finish.  It is not working; I may have to read the book again.

I haven’t felt much like reading, writing, thinking – getting out of bed? – lately, but Churchill is an inspiration.  As Larsen documents the year before the Americans finally joined the war, he includes Churchill’s daily routine as well as his preparation for his decisions and his motivational speeches.  Churchill’s life and personality are so well intertwined with his decision-making, the whole picture of the man creates confidence and admiration – no wonder Goebel banned Churchill’s speeches from German radio.

Susan MacNeil, author of one of my favorite fictionalized Churchill books – Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, the first book in the Maggie Hope mystery series, notes from her research;

“Despite the alcohol, despite the naps, despite the baths, Winston Churchill was a work horse.   All accounts have him rising at eight, reading newspapers and attending to paperwork all morning from bed, taking the first bath of the day, then meetings and dictation, then luncheon. After lunch, a nap, then writing, second bath, dinner, and work often long, long past midnight. It was in this way that he was able to “… press a day and a half’s work into one,” as he’s quoted saying…a tenacious attitude…{with} an interesting balance — long hours of work, true, but balanced by rest and meals.”

In Larsen’s accounting, he notes famous decisions as well as behind the scenes dramas:   Larson draws from the diaries of Churchill’s wife, Clementine, and notes from their daughter to fill out private conversations at dinner meetings and with his staff; he notes the radio address with Churchill refusing to remove his cigar from his mouth as he speaks.  His close advisors’ personalities show through as Larson references their anxieties in letters and notes.  

I am still reading and I am still sheltering in place.  The book is a comfort in a strange way – if the world could come together before, surely it could do it again.  

As a regular subscriber to Robin Sloan’s (author of Sourdough) newsletter, I appreciated his sign off on his most recent email:

As you might have heard, the Federal Reserve recently released one (1) emergency Churchill quote to every American writer, a significant injection of liquidity and bombast.  I will use mine immediately:

Now, this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Here is my Churchill quote or rather a famous phrase attributed to Churchill:   “KPOKeep Plodding On.”   Churchill modeled how important it is to take care of yourself; then, back at it – every single day until it’s over.

So, KPO, everyone, and hopefully when this war is over, as Queen Elizabeth promised, …”we will meet again.”
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Lingering Library Books When You Are Not Sure How Long the Library Will Remain Closed

Library books don’t always make my cut. Lately, I had been discarding some after a few pages, but since the reopening of the library here is an unknown, I’ve given the books I checked out before the library closed a second look and determinedly read them. Here are three books I probably would not have finished if I were not sheltering in place, but they did pass the time.

 

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

A slow slog through a dysfunctional family whose patriarch is dying did not, at first, capture my interest; however, as I forced myself to continue into the saga, I found a strange connection to current repulsive men who are celebrated for their egregious lives. Vincent is a power-hungry real estate developer who cheats on his wife and sexually abuses her and others, including his daughter-in-law. As he gets richer, the misery he causes gets worse.  The author calls him a “bad man,” an understatement, whose wife has stuck by him through it all.

Through a day as he lay dying in the hospital, Atttenberg explores Victor’s influence on the lives of his wife and now grown children.  Each has a story increasingly miserable, and the book ends with Vincent’s body unceremoniously thrown into a common grave, as the others move on, their lives forever marked by him.  Not a happy story, and probably not one I would have read, but it does give insight into how the abused cope, sometimes surviving and sometimes even thriving.

 

Little by Edward Carey

As I read this book, published in 2018, I was sure I had read it before. Although  I had  no evidence, the story kept being familiar. I finally found the title in a list of library books I published in December, 2018, but no review.

The opening introduces the narrator, Anne Marie Grosholtz — known as Little for her small stature.  The book includes black and white illustrations throughout and the first is of Marie’s mother’s strong nose and her father’s upturned chin, combined not as attractively into their young daughter.  Both die when she is six years old, and little Marie is sent to live as an apprentice to Curtius, a gruff sculpturor who creates Marie’s face in wax.

Carey continues with the narrator’s description of their lives in Paris, creating wax heads of famous nobleman and dressing them in the period attire to display in the window.  Marie continues her story as she grows into Madame Tussaud during the French Revolution.

I skipped through some of the more vivid descriptions of the war; Carey mingles history with the growth and popularity of Tussaud as she uses decapitated heads for her models.  She eventually lands in prison awaiting the dreaded guillotine but regains her freedom and the story ends with an eighty-nine year Marie in business in London.

The historical facts are grim and Tussaud’s life is a sad one.  I probably returned this book to the library the first time unfinished.

 

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

When the book was described in a review as a coming of age novel about Zelda, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, I decided to research exactly what the term means.  Zelda had alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, causing learning and behavior problems, including difficulties with memory or attention, and impulse control and judgment – the reason she could not be responsible for herself at twenty-one, and lived with her brother. Although I did not read the extensive research available, I understood the premise and started to read this young adult novel, written in the voice of a girl whose life and mind at first seem limited and juvenile.

I stopped not long after, not because I’m a prude, but sex started to pervade the story; the foul language and double entendres were irritating and distracting from Zelda’s quest for independence. I made it through to the end as Zelda conquers her fears, becomes self-assured and independent, despite her difficult beginning.

The title refers to Zelda’s obsession with Vikings and her need to have structure and rules  to cope.  Her bible is a book by a retired professor outlining the history and culture of the Vikings, and she uses it to organize her life and to make life-altering decisions. Sadly, the insertion of sexual language and actions, many of which Zelda did not always seem to understand, seemed exploitive and did not add to the story.

 

Only one library book left before I delve into my own stash.   I have high expectations for Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea.  Have you read it yet?

 

Three Hours

I found Rosamund Lupton in Heathrow airport during a long layover, and devoured her debut novel Sister before I boarded the plane.  Since then I have anxiously waited for her novels to travel across the pond; but Three Hours was too long to wait.  I still have not seen it in stores here but I found it through the Book Depository and escaped into its world, reading through it in one day.  I love it when a book captures me; it’s been a while since a story has been so compelling.

Three Hours reminded me of the first of Ann Patchett’s novels, Bel Canto, with its theme of hostages, terror, lives intersecting and morphing into positive and negative influences, with a well constructed plot leading to surprises at the end. Lupton updates her characters to students in a liberal British school, unknowingly infiltrated by a psychopath who has connected with a hate filled group.  Students tweet and send messages through all the current social media and learn how to make bombs and adapt machine guns on the internet; they are more adept than their teachers and parents, of course.  Two Syrian refugees, one who proves to be a hero, provide the fulcrum as the story unravels through three hours of terror in the school.

So much happens, the three hours could have been weeks, as the reader watches students, teachers, parents, and the attackers through the lens of innocence and bias.  Macbeth plays a pivotal role on the story, and as someone who has read and taught the play, I was impressed by how Lupton integrates Shakespeare’s universal themes into today’s world.  As their fellow students are held hostage in the library, barricaded by books, and in a small pottery shed, making clay animals, the seniors rehearse the play in the seemingly foolproof theater.  The play’s murders and the infamous witches are suddenly relevant to the horror around them, and Birnam Wood will never be the same.

A fast paced thriller with not so subtle implications for today’s world, Three Hours is another of Lupton’s amazing rides.

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Sister

 

 

 

American Dirt

I was inclined to not like this book with so much going against it  – Oprah picked it for her book club and several literary reviewers were critical of the author’s credentials to write about the topic. From the moment I started reading American Dirt, I could not put it down.  Jeanine Cummins does not have the easy style of  Isabel Allende or Sandra Cisneros nor the entrancing wording of Zafon or the magic of Marquez, but she knows how to tell a story.

American Dirt is the tale of a mother and her son trying to escape from a Mexican drug cartel after they witnessed the brutal murder of everyone they loved, including their grandmother, at a family barbecue. Luca is the brave intelligent eight year old with a penchant for memorizing geographical details; his mother, Lydia, is the college educated book store owner. Her husband Sebastian was the investigative journalist whose inflammatory articles precipitated the slaughter.

Following  Lydia and Luca as they narrowly escape through roadblocks, walk miles in the scorching heat, and hoist themselves onto the tops of cargo trains, creates a thrilling and breathless image of migrants trying to escape. Their flight to the North, as they leave behind their home, their language and culture, and their lifetime friends is depicted as their the only choice to be able to survive.

Cummins sometimes reverts to flowery descriptions, perhaps trying to balance the horrors, and sprinkles Spanish idioms and words into conversations, perhaps to offer authenticity. Both can be annoying distractions.  As the story develops, the journey is harrowing and fearful, with the tenseness of a thriller and the expectation and hope that all will be well in the end.  Cummins’ characters reveal the best and worst of themselves and of humanity.

The book ends on a hopeful note, with room for speculation about what new challenges the future will bring, but Cummins adds fifteen pages in her notes and acknowledgements at the end, explaining the purpose of the book, how she wrote it, and why she hopes reading it will change readers’ view of migrants and border policy – perhaps stirring the controversy she now finds in some of the reactions to the book.

The story is a thrilling page-turner.  Although the characters and scenes may be stereotypical, the historical notes are disturbing and timely.  As far as whether or not Cummins had the right to write the book, Leon Krauze noted in Slate:

“There is no reason, literary or otherwise, to challenge an author’s legitimacy to tackle any topic, much less based on her ethnicity or nationality. In both literature and journalism, examples abound of brilliant authors who have illuminated countries and themes that were, initially, outside their familiar milieu…”

However, he goes on to say Cummins’ main characters are frauds.  Migrants fleeing to the North ” are escaping poverty, not financially stable family lives. They do not run bookshops with a hidden section of favorite authors, but work in the fields, often struggling to feed their families. They are often fleeing drunk, abusive, or absent husbands, not an awkward love triangle with a smitten narco dandy.”  And, he notes, leaders of drug cartels could never be Bill Gates in this or any life, as the author suggests in describing her villain, Javier, the handsome aspiring poet who loves to read “Love in the Time of Cholera” (another Oprah pick).

Right, this is fiction, isn’t it?  Not a documentary.  Is the danger that some readers will forget?  Maybe…

Dear Edward

After reading Ann Napolitano’s essay ” Dear Me ” in the Sunday New York Times, I was intrigued by her idea to write letters to her future self.  Since her new novel has the salutation Dear Edward, I expected one of the characters in the novel to do the same – write letters to himself to be read in the future. i was wrong; letters do play a prominent role in the novel but from others to the main character, Edward.

In her novel, now on the bestseller list, Napolitano examines the coming of age of a twelve year old boy who is the lone survivor of an airplane crash.  All other passengers (191) including his parents and older brother die.  In her afterward, the author explains how she was inspired by a real story of a commercial flight from South Africa to London crashing in Libya in 2010 with only a nine year old boy surviving.  Her survivor is Edward who is relocating with his parents from New York City to Los Angeles.  Jane, his mother, is sitting in first class to finish the script of a movie she has been hired to edit, while Eddie is with his father and teenage brother in the back of the plane; Eddie has the window seat.

The reader knows early in the story about the crash and the author deftly maneuvers between the countdown to the inevitable in the plane cabin and Eddie’s new life with his aunt and uncle.  Watching Eddie  through his physical recovery, his metal anguish and survivor’s guilt, and his adjustment to his new life is not always easy but getting to know the passengers in first class with Eddie’s mother and in coach with his family has its merits, as long as you can forget they are all about to die. Eddie’s interaction with them is superfluous and fleeting yet their lives have a significant impact later when he receives letters from their relatives and friends.

Napolitano notes her writing is about “how we can make a meaningful life in the face of a devastating loss.”   Her scenario is extreme but we probably all can relate to someone who has managed to survive the unexpected and carry on successfully with the new normal in their lives.

I still like Napolitano’s idea of writing to herself in the future; letters can be powerful in a world where they have been replaced by faster electronic communication.  I may write a letter to my future self; I just hope I can remember where it is in five years.