Lit Note:
Please Give
31 July 2018

How did my reading get so grim? Here’s how: I zip through all the fun stuff, while the spines of the gloomy books glower at me. They’re very much still there when the breeze dies down. Over the weekend, I swallowed James Chambers’ biography of Lord Palmerston, about whom I knew really quite little, except that he contrived to be in office, either as Foreign Secretary or as Prime Minister, for both Opium Wars, which were roughly twenty years apart. I discovered that he started out as Secretary at War in 1809, died as Prime Minister in 1865, and spent only about eight years of the almost inconceivably long intervening stretch in opposition. I also came to like him. At a distance, he has a Churchillian bold charm, or nonchalant recklessness if you prefer. And yet he was never associated with a disaster on the scale of Gallipoli. In fact, he was successful in nearly every undertaking, from billiards to staring down the Queen. Metternich hated him, which is certainly to his credit. 

I had gotten Globalists out of the way, but I’d ordered Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands along with Palmerston: The People’s Darling, and it was sitting on top of Steven Brill’s Tailspin. Oy. Doing the ironing promised to be more fun, especially if I put on a good movie. My choice of DVD was guided by a mini-profile, her-career-so-far piece about Nicole Holofcener. I settled on Please Give, one of two Holofcener movies in my library (the other being Friends With Money) because I couldn’t remember why Catherine Keener’s character was out on a fire escape. But that’s in another movie, A Late Quartet, which was made only a couple of years later and which is set in exactly the same neighborhood. Although Keener is versatile and not particularly metropolitan, there is a little something about her that embodies Upper West Side Woman — at least the women who migrate to the Upper West Side. Or who used to do. She can smile the most dispiriting smile in the world — something to be distinguished from Kristin Scott Thomas’s patented discouraging smile. Thomas would jump off a cliff if she felt the measureless despair that Keener seems to be at home with. But I’m thinking of Kristin Scott Thomas in English. In French, Thomas is pretty dispiriting, too. 

I’m almost done with Tailspin, which I bought because Brill covers many of the American problems that I’ve been complaining about at the other blog, and I was curious about his insights. Without being officially pessimistic, Brill is deeply troubled by the general lack of common cause that has allowed opportunists to unravel our political fabric. Indeed, he convinced me (without trying) that nothing short of a genuinely universal national service will pull the country together. The United States has problems enough with exceptionalism; the last thing it needs is exceptional Americans. 

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