Category Archives: Fiction

The Splendid and the Vile: I Spent Two Months Reading a Biography of Churchill

I can’t blame Erik Larson. The Splendid and the Vile is a page turner (even at 600 pages).

Though tell someone you’re reading a biography of Winston Churchill that covers just one year of his life and watch their eyes roll. It’s true. There are many more lesser-known figures worthy of 600 pages and two months of time* that I could have (should have?) devoted my energies to reading. But I’m glad I read this one and eagerly recommend it to you.

Not because of Churchill (though also because of Churchill – there’s a moment late in the book where he is hosted by Roosevelt, and opts to take the entire meeting spanning several hours naked with his cigar and you think okay, good – and because it does from this telling make a strong case that Churchill’s energy and capacity to rally and to appoint and keep strong colleagues fundamentally altered history) but because of the way Larson explores the fear of living in history.

And ummm… that’s an easy sentiment to get behind. Larson names the absolute particular ways the English were living each day in absolute uncertainty and – well, I was going to write ‘helplessness’ in the sense the ordinary person couldn’t do much to change the direction of a bomb or to influence the strategy of the war, but Larson avoids a portrait of helplessness. It’s more the sense of uncertainty and limitation – that there is So Much to Be Afraid Of and so the people carry on shopping and dancing and going to the park. And maybe it should be the opposite – maybe the better book for our moment should be the one where when there is So Much to Be Afraid Of we all take to the streets screaming for something different (and we should) but there is something of a mirror to the human instinct of just… carrying on (not, god forbid, that I reference *that trite keep calm poster).

I guess I should back up and say it’s a biography of Churchill from the day he’s named Prime Minister in 1940 to a year later in ’41. It cover the relentless onslaught of the German airforce, and the wartime preparations of the British government, but it is – so brilliantly – laced with the lives of Churchill’s immediate family, as well as his secretaries and ministers. To witness in one chapter the devastation of the attack on Coventry, to the marriage proposal of his daughter and her total twitterpation with her fiancee is to perfectly capture the way history operates at the levels of the national tragedy and the personal… what is it. I’m tempted to call it dissociation – but that human ability to completely ignore all the evidence of mounting calamity and the encompassing disaster, and to just continue to fret about a crush, or a party, or a ruined dress. Which I know nothing at all about.

And then it also offers insight into how the Germans were thinking and planning at this stage in the war and I found that totally fascinating. If you don’t know the story of Rudolf Hess, that alone would be sufficient reason to pick this one up.

So yes – I know you don’t need another WWII recommendation, or a suggestion to read a biography of the archetypal old white man. But really, it’s very, very good.

*to be fair, the two months owed to pressing life deadlines that are soon enough resolved and I am now reading a book of poetry, so that is short. OH and I started and got halfway though but didn’t finish Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians (not for any reason of the book but because I just couldn’t find my way through it and will try again next year) so perhaps it’s not quite as dire reading just one thing for five months. NOT THAT YOU’RE COUNTING. (I am counting).

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Beautiful World, Where Are You: No really, Where Are You

Back for more Sally Rooney. It’s because I’m so fancy. OR it’s because my S. suggested I read it. And she was right.

At one point early in the novel one of the women (Alice or Eileen) is writing to the other woman (they write a lot of letters back and forth) and observes that because human civilization is collapsing all that we can do, really, is focus on the small moments of our life and the relationships. And so goes the novel – this absorption with the intensity of the personal – all while the large (often captured in final sentences in the chapter to the pulsing of the universe etc) and the impending hovers just outside the frame.

It’s a relief, in some ways, to have a novel that lets you admit that the small and selfish is not only still relevant, but is worthy of absorption. Instead of (always) feeling guilty for not worrying about the climate catastrophe, or war, or the crumbling of democracy, or systemic racism, or the global pandemic, or or or or (always) feeling guilty for not doing more/anything about the same, the novel doesn’t abnegate responsibility, but affords space for both. You can be both filled with existential despair and obsessed with why your boyfriend hasn’t said I love you. You can be utterly exhausted by political ambition and greed and exhausted by your routine argument with your sister.

And, incredibly, you can also be happy.

One night while reading it just before bed (and perhaps a little compromised by my legally purchased and consumed cannabis product) I decided it was the book I’d like to have read aloud to me on my deathbed. And it’s not actually – it’s too mixed up in critique of capitalism, celebrity and catholics – but it is extremely beautiful. I mean, some of the writing, yes, but also the idea of the sustaining meaning through friendship and without giving away the ending, of something akin to hope.

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Conversations with Friends:

I’m going to start with a quote from a Vox article about Sally Rooney, because I think it captures pretty well my read and sometimes let professionals do their jobs:

The result is that it is now aspirational to be the kind of person who has read Sally Rooney. She is a signifier of a certain kind of literary chic: If you read Sally Rooney, the thinking seems to go, you’re smart, but you’re also fun — and you’re also cool enough to be suspicious of both “smart” and “fun” as general concepts.

Constance Grady, Vox, “The Cult of Sally Rooney” -

It doesn’t have to be aspirational. Conversations with Friends is short, totally absorbing and delightful. And the whole time you’ll find yourself asking ‘is this how novels normally sound?’ ‘am I high or is this how narrative reads’ etc Sometimes you may be high. And that’s fine! It reads even better this way. Not that I know.

So in this one it’s a love quadrangle focused on Francis and Nick having an affair, but Francis really loves Bobbi, but Bobbi has a thing for Melissa, Nick’s wife, who he also loves. It’s pretty simple to keep track of in the book because they’re usually in the same room/house and almost always talking explicitly and plainly about what they are thinking or feeling about themselves and the others.

[It’s so refreshing for a character to just be like: this is what I’m thinking! Forget ‘show don’t tell’! Just tell us! It’s a joy!]

And there’s such great stuff on age/coming of age, maternity/parenting and the distance between ideals about not needing money and actually… needing money.

And oh my god the sex scenes are very well written. (sorry, mum!)

In sum: even if you don’t want to be fancy pretentious reader you can read this one because it is just great. And if you do have aspirations for what to talk about at a cocktail party, because those are happening again, read on! (Even though it was written ages ago. Whatever! Some of us arrive late).

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Cloud Cuckoo Land: Finally a book to make you feel good about the end of humanity

There are books readers like because they make them feel good about being a reader (think Shadow of the Wind or the recently reviewed Last Chance Library) . Books that stroke the ego –you are okay because you spend time thinking about things, going slowly through the pages of fat novels, valuing ideas and argument. Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is one of these books, but more than that it’s a book that tries to assure the reader that, while all evidence points to the imminent collapse of humanity (and the book doesn’t skirt this point), people are okay or will be okay because there are books. It is an extremely soothing thing to read in 2022.

Let me explain. [Spoilers abound, as they do in all my reviews, so do what you want]

The novel has three competing temporal settings – the semi-near future of a technological and climate apocalypse; the almost immediate present of the time just before the pandemic* like so almost immediate as to be literally February 2020 (an important point on pre- and post- pandemic novels I want to return to); and the past of the 1500s with the fall of Constantinople. Oh and a little detour to the Korean war.

And five narrators. Konstance, our futuristic child trapped [or is she] on a spaceship (aptly named the Argos) searching for a new planet after the ecological devastation of Earth renders it uninhabitable; Zeno the Korean war vet turned snow plow driver turned Greek translator turned children’s theatre producer who was always gay and in his last moments acknowledges it and maybe that matters but probably it doesn’t; Seymour, the autistic – or is he just sensitive to noise – climate activist who genuinely believes blowing up a housing development office is going to bring about global systemic change; Anna the Greek child who was never going to fit in as an embroidress because she is too Impish and Adventurous, but then is somehow okay to spend her life milking cows; and finally Omeir who loves animals, isn’t as fond of long city sieges and how does having a cleft palate in 1500 make him the man he becomes, or more, how do the reactions of people around us/trauma – in this case chased from their village with torches – make you the person you become.

So yes. Three time frames, five narrators, all brought together through repeated themes of environmental protection/sensitivity to animals, the risks and dangers of technology (whether that be the introduction of the first cannon or the threat of Google maps), the possibility of redemption through singular acts of sacrifice and, of course, through books and reading.

[Small detour to say this description might make the book sound daunting. And after my mum described it to me and I got it from the library it sat for a few days gathering dust (especially bad as it was a 7 day loan and 500 pages). We’d just learned we had the ‘vid, and could I really summon the energy to Read A Big Book That Sounded Very Complicated? Yes. You can. It is incredibly ‘readable,’ written for its movie adaptation but also to be churned through. Make it through the prologue and the first six pages and you’re set to finish it in… well, not seven days if you’re working full-time, homeschooling and sick, but you know, at least 14.]

Each chapter and within each part we brush up against the fictionalized Greek comedy Cloud Cuckoo Land in which our protagonist yearns to reach the impossible land in the sky, Cloud Cuckoo Land, where he will be transformed and finally free of suffering. On reaching the Land he discovers that while this blissful place contains all that could be known and promises no shortage of satisfactions, he would instead prefer to be on earth, just as it is. Or at least, maybe that’s the ending. The great scheme of the novel is to continually ask – because of the degradation of the text over time [but really because of metafiction] – whether this could be the ending, or whether instead he stays in Cloud Cuckoo Land and that we will never know, we must decide the ending for ourselves.

Even while Konstance, Zeno, Seymour, Anna and Omeir in their own ways all ultimately decide that it is this life, this earth that they will choose.

So why is this a book about feeling okay about the climate apocalypse? Well that part about deciding the ending for ourselves, about making individual choices about where we will compromise and how we will sacrifice. But its the thing about books that made me think Doerr was trying to be outlandishly hopeful. That in making the argument that some books survive he’s saying humanity is going to be okay. If books can survive all kinds of calamities and impossibilities (even the all-seeing-repository of the Argos didn’t hold it! but it was still recovered!) – that these stories arrive in our libraries and on our tablets is so improbable, so genuinely miraculous, that there must be a similar hope that 2000 years from now our books will find their way to whatever remains.

That humanity lives on in story is as staid a theme in literature as one can find, but still, here and in this particular now it brought this reader some kind of comfort.

And that’s where I’d return to this as a post-pandemic novel. It couldn’t have been set in March 2020 because the world it is trying to capture in February 2020 is one where climate can be centre, and where collective energies can also be imagined. One where we are not all So Sad and So Tired that we can’t imagine going to a children’s play staged in a small town library if only because it would mean putting on hard pants, but really because it would mean summoning the kind of belief that these tiny acts of optimism are worth applauding, and indeed, contributing to.

So while the hope is faint, the likelihood all but impossible, Doerr asks us to stay on this earth. To read, to sacrifice, to pet animals and to be kind.

It is not, I think, the worst book I have read about the end of humanity.

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