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What I'm Reading (No. 43): a Colorado novel + a new Churchill bio
I finally finished the massive new Churchill biography that I'd been working on for over a month. It was good overall, but mostly for history nerds. I also finished a lovely Colorado-set novel that thankfully was just the first in a trilogy. Let's do it.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
The first thing you'll notice about Plainsong is that no quotation marks are used in the dialogue. That was initially a real bummer for me. I sort of get why an author would do it, but it's still a little distracting. In other novels where that's been the case, I've had a hard time getting past it. With Plainsong though, after about 1/3 of the book, I actually stopped noticing that the quote marks weren't there, and then it didn't bother me in the least. So, know that fact at the outset, and please don't let it stop you. It might be a little distracting at first, but push through.
Okay — to the story. In a small town in the eastern plains of Colorado, a teen girl is pregnant, and kicked out of her home. A combination of townspeople take her in and care for her through her junior year of high school. Meanwhile, a pair of young boys — the children of a high school teacher — are trying to figure out how to cope with a distant mother, and learning the growing pains of adolescence.
It took me a bit to get into it rather than being drawn in all at once, but when I hit that point, I couldn't put Plainsong down. And really, it wasn't a dramatic, twisty plot that kept it going, as is usually the case with fast-reading books. Haruf's writing is just so captivating.
It seemed like a really beautiful combination of Cormac McCarthy in its sparseness, Marilynne Robinson, and Gilead specifically, in its poetic prose, and Wendell Berry in its beautiful, striking portrayal of a rural community.
I read this book on the recommendation of a good friend whose stamps of approval I trust. It had been on my radar due to its being set in Colorado, but I just had too much other stuff on my overloaded shelves. I saw it at a used bookstore, though, and decided to just jump in. By the end, I was in love with the characters, and I didn't want it to end. Thankfully, Plainsong is the first in a trilogy, so I of course went out and bought the next two: Eventide and Benediction. We'll see if i get to them before the end of the year, but I'm sure hoping to.
Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts
Pages: 1,151 pages
Winston Churchill has more scholarship and words written about him than perhaps any other figure of the 20th century. And he's also chock-full of controversy — from supposedly racist views to war crimes to his seemingly self-serving WWII decision-making.
No matter your thoughts on the man, though, there is little denying that had he not been England's leader during the war, Germany's chances of invading England, and eventually the US, would have been exponentially greater. The Man in the High Castle would possibly hit a lot closer to home without Churchill at the helm.
As noted above, the dude has a million books out there about him, covering even minor aspects of his life and work. (One of my favorite reads of 2017 was Candace Millard's Destiny of the Republic.) William Manchester's The Last Lion trilogy is supposed to be one the greatest biographies of all-time. So where does Roberts' new 1,000-page bio fit in?
Based on my reading, I'd say it's likely to become the definitive single-volume biography. There are plenty of multi-volume bios of Churchill, but comprehensive works contained within just one set of covers are a little harder to come by.
This wasn't always an easy read. I slogged through the last few hundred pages. Perhaps that's assumed since it runs into four digits of pages, but some long bios read fairly effortlessly (the new Frederick Douglass bio is a good example of that, I think). Don't get me wrong: Churchill was perhaps one of the most interesting people to ever live. But, he was a British politician through and through — a system of government that most Americans (myself included) have no clue about. So election stuff and cabinet re-assignments and Prime Minister shuffling went a bit over my head. As did the hundreds of pages of detailed WWII info — Roberts is in fact most well known for his history of the war. Those inclusions were necessary, though, because of what a micromanager Churchill was during the war.
Those complaints aside, Roberts does convincing work dispelling (or at least addressing) a lot of the critiques about Churchill. And again, the man just did so damn much in his life that 1,000 pages seems appropriate. There were legitimately single paragraphs where I thought, "For other people, this would be expanded into an entire book and it would be their defining life story." Ultimately, Walking With Destiny was a great book, particularly for a history nerd like myself. But I'm not sure I could recommend it unless you're very into history. It's definitely not a bio for the masses (like Unbroken or any of Doris Kearns Goodwin's books, which are long but very readable).
That's all for me this week. What are you all reading? I'd love to hear.