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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Comfort in Crisis – Read a Book

Are books contagious?  Could the virus now circling the globe be hiding in the pages of a library book?  Librarians strongly advise not trying to wash down the pages of your library books with Purell, but the Library of Congress has closed and Ron Charles of the Washington Post notes books returned to the library may have to be quarantined.  He writes about the Great Books Scare in the eighteenth century when books were sterilized by fire, and advises us to “…stay alert to what might ignite such paranoia again.”

When customers are fighting over the last ream of toilet paper, and breathing seems optional or even dangerous, a book can be as comforting as chocolate.  Fiction can take you somewhere else for a while.  I have a friend who does not check out books from the library, preferring to order audible or ebooks, sometimes buying one new.  I do have two books from the library:

  1. All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
  2. A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

It is somewhat reassuring that I am the first to check them out.

But my savior may be Eric Larson’s new nonfiction book, The Splendid and the Vile, which I pre-ordered and received in the mail in its spanking new condition.  There’s a different aroma from a new book, and it’s comforting to turn crisp clean pages, but despite Larson’s subject matter, his story may be reassuring.  As Larson describes Churchill’s calm  leadership dealing with the escalation of World War II in Britain in the year before America joined the fray, the story evolves like fiction.  Yet it is not.  It’s a good reminder; the worst happens again and again, and somehow we manage.

What are you reading?