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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The Sky is Falling on Two Percent

Ron Charles recently wrote in his Washington Post Book Club column – “Tom Perotta’s ‘The Leftovers’ might become U.S. policy,” reminding me of the 2011 novel about an apocalypse with two percent of the world’s population vanishing.

Charles points out the U.S. President has proposed tolerating the death of just one or two percent of us, as he urges the country to go back to work – Trump said: “We lose much more than that to automobile accidents…”

Perotta frames his story around the 98 percent who are left.  Two percent doesn’t seem so large a number; Emily St. John Mandel’s  “Station Eleven”  imagines that a flu kills off 99 percent of the world’s population. Yet, who would volunteer to be one of the millions who are sacrificed for the good of the economy in an election year?

I looked back to my review of The Leftovers in 2011 and am posting it here.  Chilling how fiction mirrors real life.

Review of The Leftovers

Trying Something New

When I first started this site over ten years, my purpose was to review books and timely articles, and I will continue – just more slowly.  I have a few books waiting to be read and I do plan to give my thoughts on them, but to keep writing in these precarious times I find I need a new venue that does not limit me to books.

A few years ago, I started a small site to preserve recipes, many from my mother, and to talk about anything of interest, a potpourri of ideas.  My favorite post was Ithaka, which may be appropriate in these times.

I plan to keep writing to keep my sanity, so I hope you will join me with your comments on Potpourri with Rosemarie.  Here is the link to my latest post at Potpourri with Rosemarie

And a link to Ithaka:

Ithaka

 

In Hibernation

Although I’ve found and shared suggestions from fellow writers about how to survive in this fearful time when pushing the elevator button is an act of bravery, the constant news of the escalating virus has me stunned.  For the first time, books have not come to the rescue.  Oh, I read but without interest; I write but without passion; I listen to stories but without attention.  I try to avoid the news but find it necessary.

The world is upside down but we still can communicate, with more zest than a century ago when the H1N1 flu pandemic lasted 15 months and was the deadliest disease outbreak in human history – until now.  Government officials keep teasing with 14 day quarantines, and work at home mandates for a month, but history and common sense predict this will be longer.  Although by nature I am happy to be on my own, and most times resist the ubiquitous social gatherings, I find I want to connect now, however I can – talking on the phone, writing lengthy emails, texting back and forth, writing now into the void of a blog post.

I am over zealous in following the social distancing mandate, and I have washed my hands into a rough dry state worthy of a Palmolive commercial.  I manage all my bills and correspondence electronically, and I’ve wondered if I should stop ordering from Amazon unless I can get more Clorox to wipe down the packaging. I’ve tried eating well with the requisite vegetables ( as long as they last); I’ve tried eating comfort food (cookies have a long shelf life); I’ve tried yoga (in bed), meditation (with a timer), and staring at water (ocean not tap).  I cook, I clean, I keep busy when I am not napping.  Yet, it doesn’t seem enough to calm my frayed sensibilities.

Music is good as are mindless movies for a while, but I want more.  I want what we all want – peace of mind – and immunity.

I have no suggestions, no clever quote or book to ease your mind.  My literary hero these days is Dr. Fauci. You know what to do: wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday, hold your breath in the elevator, stay home.  For now, I’m in hibernation – wake me up when this nightmare is over.

 

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…