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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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.

 

New Books to Read in 2020

Some of my favorite authors have new books this year:

  1. Sophie Hannah – Perfect Little Children
  2. Chris Bohjalian – The Red Lotus
  3. Hilary Mantel – The Mirror and the Light
  4. Donna Leon – Trace Elements
  5. Carol Goodman – The Sea of Lost Girls
  6. Anne Tyler – The Redhead by the Side of the Road
  7. Isabel Allende – A Long Petal in the Sea
  8. Lisa Gardner – When You See Me

 

  1. Sophie Hannah (Author of The Nightingale and How to Hold a Grudge) has a new suspense mystery coming in February – Perfect Little Children:

” Beth hasn’t seen Flora for twelve years. She doesn’t want to see her today—or ever again. But she can’t resist. She parks outside the open gates of Newnham House, watches from across the road as Flora arrives and calls to her children Thomas and Emily to get out of the car.

There’s something terribly wrong. Flora looks the same, only older. Twelve years ago, Thomas and Emily were five and three years old. Today, they look precisely as they did then. They are Thomas and Emily without a doubt, but they haven’t changed at all. They are no taller, no older. Why haven’t they grown? How is it possible that they haven’t grown up?”

 

2. If you need more suspense, Chris Bohjalian (The Flight Attendant) has The Red Lotus coming in March:

” an American man vanishes on a rural road in Vietnam, and his girlfriend, an emergency room doctor trained to ask questions, follows a path that leads her home to the very hospital where they met.”

3. For fans of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel is finally delivering the third book in the trilogy in March – The Mirror and the Light:

“With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision.”

4. Need a taste of Italy?  Donna Leon returns with a new Guido Brunetti mystery in Trace Elements, March 2020:

“When a dying hospice patient gasps that her husband was murdered over “bad money,” Commissario Brunetti softly promises he and his colleague, Claudia Griffoni, will look into what initially appears to be a private family tragedy. They discover that the man had worked in the field, collecting samples of contamination for a company that measures the cleanliness of Venice’s water supply, and that he had recently died in a mysterious motorcycle accident. Piecing together the tangled threads, Brunetti comes to realize the perilous meaning in the woman’s accusation and the threat it reveals to the health of the entire region. But justice in this case proves to be ambiguous, as Brunetti is reminded it can be when he reads Aeschylus’s classic play The Eumenides.”

5. Carol Goodman (The Lake of Dead Languages) has a new romantic mystery coming in March – The Sea of Lost Girls:

“Tess has worked hard to keep her past buried, where it belongs. Now she’s the wife to a respected professor at an elite boarding school, where she also teaches. Her seventeen-year-old son, Rudy, whose dark moods and complicated behavior she’s long worried about, seems to be thriving: he has a lead role in the school play and a smart and ambitious girlfriend. Tess tries not to think about the mistakes she made eighteen years ago, and mostly, she succeeds.

And then one more morning she gets a text at 2:50 AM: it’s Rudy, asking for help. When Tess picks him up she finds him drenched and shivering, with a dark stain on his sweatshirt. Four hours later, Tess gets a phone call from the Haywood school headmistress: Lila Zeller, Rudy’s girlfriend, has been found dead on the beach, not far from where Tess found Rudy just hours before. The more Tess learns about Haywood’s fabled history, the more she realizes that not all skeletons will stay safely locked in the closet.

6. And Anne Tyler, one of my favorite authors, has a new book in April: The Redhead by the Side of the Road:

“about misperception, second chances, and the sometimes elusive power of human connection…”

Can’t Wait?  These are coming in January:

7. Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal in the Sea

“From the New York Times bestselling author of The House of the Spirits, this epic novel spanning decades and crossing continents follows two young people as they flee the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in search of a place.”

8. Lisa Gardner’s When You See Me

Detective D. D. Warren, Flora Dane, and Kimberly Quincy—in a twisty new thriller, as they investigate a mysterious murder from the past…which points to a dangerous and chilling present-day crime.”

 

Little Women – from book to movie

One of the three remaining sisters has a line in Greta Gerwig’s movie version of Little Women, saying Aunt March would probably roll over in her grave if she knew Jo had turned the old woman’s fine mansion into a school.  Another sister comments Aunt March would maybe only turn slightly, not completely roll over.  Maybe Louisa May Alcott’s dead body would also only make a slight turn at the changes made to her classic tale.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the many movie versions of Little Women, from Katherine Hepburn to June Allyson to Winona Ryder, the nonlinear story line and Saoirse Ronan as Jo in the 2019 film will not bother you with comparisons.  If you are a purist and don’t like modern versions of old stories (I always have trouble with the Hawaiian versions of Shakespeare and the Nutcracker), you can draw from your memory to connect the plot lines, as you wait breathlessly hoping those key elements and famous lines made the movie cut.  They did, and when you hear Jo holding Professor Bhaer’s hands in the rain, saying “They are not empty now,”  you will be relieved.

Despite the changes, Gerwig steadfastly retains the most important pieces of the novel, and despite my trepidation, I liked the movie.  At times. I almost thought Gerwig’s version was an improvement on the book as she refreshingly drew out the adult lives of the sisters.

On my trip to Bath long ago, someone on my tour asked who was Jane Austen, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some had never heard of Louisa May Alcott or Little Women, but certainly none among you, dear readers.  If you were completely oblivious to the classic, Gerwig’s movie version would provide enough sound material to give you the flavor and theme of the story about four sisters in the nineteenth century but might be a problem if you were trying to see the movie instead of reading the book for a discussion or a book report.  Wouldn’t it be fun to include this classic in a book club, comparing notes from book to movie?   Marissa Martinelli gives a detailed comparison of book to movie, character by character, in Slate.

If you are fan of PBS’s Grantchester, you might recognize Mr. Brook (John Norton) as the minister detective from the first series.  Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame plays Meg, and other familiar faces will nudge you but you may not be able to quite place them – Chris Cooper as Mr. Lawrence and Tracy Letts as the publisher – and, of course, there is Meryl Streep as Aunt March.

The book recently celebrated its 150th anniversary and its characters still have a universal appeal.  Many readers identify with Jo, the feisty writer, tomboy, adventurer, or maybe many just wish to have her gumption.  As for me, I like Amy best.

Should you see the movie? Yes.  Should you read the book (again)? Yes.  Do you need to know the book to enjoy the movie?  No.