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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Winter

41qcSMwuA5L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_  After experiencing Hawaii’s near-miss apocalypse with the mistaken incoming ballistic missile  warning, the beginning of Ali Smith’s Winter was not as disconcerting as it might have been – her story starts with a floating head. Stranger things have happened. When the line on page 51 stared back with “…are we at the mercy of technology or is technology at the mercy of us?” – the fake alarm prompting phone alerts seemed timely.

Smith’s Winter is not easy to read.  The author has created a mess of madness, with strains of Charles Dickens and Shakespeare weaving through current politics and the state of the world – but perhaps the point is that the world is a mad mess.  References to the British Brexit and the American President Trump’s immigration policies somehow connect to Sophia and her family at Christmas in Cornwall.

The characters include: Sophia, an older woman living alone – except for the floating head who intermittently changes from the innocence of a child to an old man with greens growing out of its ears to a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth; her son Arthur who seems to be looking for the one opportunity to make his mark through his writing (on a blog) while he fastidiously works at a company responsible for identifying copyright infringement; Lux, Arthur’s Croatian substitute girlfriend – he picked her up at a bus stop to pose as his girlfriend when Charlotte unceremoniously dumps him before Christmas; and Iris, Sophia’s sister who in her seventies continues to demonstrate against all the ills of the world – and there are plenty to complain about.

They all meet up at Sophia’s many bedroom house in Cornwall (the floating head is already there).  When Arthur and Lux find Sophia sitting in an overheated kitchen, wrapped in coats and mittens, they promptly send her to bed and send for her estranged sister Iris, who arrives with the groceries.  No one really sleeps and each time the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, Sophia relives a past experience through her memories – Scrooge without the ghosts, revealing stormy protests, funerals, and family history.  When Christmas finally arrives, the family dinner is not pleasant.

Smith punctuates this stream of consciousness with asides pointedly critical of the state of the world, as it has become today:

“And now for our entertainment when we want humiliation we’ve got reality TV…and soon instead of reality TV we’ll have the President of the United States…”

“Me, me, me, Iris says,  It’s all your selfish generation can ever talk about…”

When all seems so despondent and coldly brutal – the title is Winter, after all  – Smith redeems the morase with some hope, but it is a long time coming.  Sophia and Iris are the political polar opposites, arguing with each other without convincing the other.  But, after they, the others, and perhaps the author, exhaust themselves with dire assessments of the world’s condition, they tell stories and reveal secrets. Reminiscing about the past seems to focus the present and provide some possibilities for “to-day” that will not all end miserably.

Unlike Autumn, the first in her series, this book never warms up (unless it is to signify the horrors of global warming), and it takes longer to connect to both the characters and their message.  Winter is a difficult book, and the New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner says – “…it’s slower to rake its themes into a coherent pile. My advice: Read it anyway…”  Maybe – or perhaps wait for the Spring thaw in her next book.

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

9780544639683_p0_v3_s192x300After reading Laura Holson’s New York Times article (..Beefcake Sells…), describing the motivation behind the covers of romance novels, the cover of Antonia Hodgson’s latest book – The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins – didn’t seem right.  Noted, the book is historical fiction as Hodgson goes to great lengths to document in her afterword, but the hero, Tom, is clearly ripped and lusty.  His bare chest on the cover might attract more readers, and the ripping bodice shenanigans in this story rival those in Catherine Coulter’s Regency romances.

Tom Hawkins returns from his debut in The Devil in the Marshalsea (see my review below) with a few familiar characters introduced in Hodgson’s first swashbuckling romance thriller.  This story has Tom on his way to be hanged for killing his neighbor, Joseph Burden, a horrible bully who tortures his children and rapes his housekeeper, while he is posing as a member of the “Society for the Reformation of Manners,” an eighteenth century group set up as a watchdog for English morals.  Who really killed Joseph Burden becomes a subplot in a tale of intrigue involving Queen Caroline and her husband’s mistress, Henrietta Howard.

According to Hodgson’s research, Howard’s husband was blackmailing the king to keep his mistress a secret.  When the king refused to pay, Howard threatened the queen, and eventually, struck a bargain.  Hodgson uses this obscure historical fact to weave a story around our hero, the rakish Tom Hawkins.  Asked to perform a favor for James Fleet, the “captain of the most powerful gang of thieves in St Giles,” Hawkins finds himself involved with Queen Caroline, who hires him to dispose of the troublesome husband of her lady-in-waiting, Henrietta Howard.   Things do not go according to plan, and Hawkins is telling his tale in his cell before he goes to the gallows – hoping for a last minute pardon from the Queen.  

The adventure is fast and furious, with historically correct descriptions of court intrigue, cock-fighting, brothels, executions, and female gladiators.

Review: The Devil in the Marshalsea 

The New Countess by Fay Weldon

9781250028037_p0_v2_s260x420Fay Weldon completes her trilogy of British upstairs/downstairs society in The New Countess.  All the familiar characters are back, but if you’ve forgotten their assorted scandals and peccadilloes, as I had, Weldon fills in the back story.  The new countess does not emerge until the last chapter, when an accidental shooting at a hunting party conveniently wraps up the lives and stories of the three-book saga.

Maybe my expectations were too high but this final book was not as gripping or as fun as the first two.  Although I enjoyed the machinations of the various lords and ladies and the downstairs staff interventions and gossip, the story seemed stale.

In a recent interview with Carole Burns, Weldon proclaims the novel as dead:

“…the novel has become just entertainment.  Fifty or 60 years ago, the novel was the only way you had of finding out what was in other people’s heads.  You didn’t know anything other than what you read in fiction about how lives were for other people.  But now we have film and television, and the novel as a source of understanding and information is no longer really necessary.”

Maybe that’s the reason –  television – Downton Abbey is being broadcast where I live now, but I read the first two novels in that slough of downtime, awaiting the return of the Dowager Duchess played by  Maggie Smith.  Maybe watching has become more entertaining.

Review of First Two Books in the Trilogy

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