A "dual biography of Winston Churchill and George Orwell, with a focus on the pivotal years from the mid-1930s through the 1940s, when their farsighted vision and inspired action in the face of the threat of fascism and communism helped preserve democracy for the world"--
This was an almost perfect read for me. It is concise and insightful and well written. It loses half a star because Ricks at times overstated his case. I loved the format which alternated chapters between these two very different men who have both left behind a legacy that is especially relevant in today's political climate. Ricks starts with a brief history of each man and then follows them into and through WWII. What is especially interesting is that Orwell kept a diary throughout his life, and so he commented on Churchill often. In fact:
"The last article George Orwell would ever complete and publish was a review of the second volume of Churchill's war memoirs, Their Finest Hour. He was appreciative of the politician, despite the vast difference in their political views:
"The political reminiscences which he has published from time to time have always been a great deal above average, in frankness as well as in literary quality. Churchill is among other things a journalist, with a real if not very discriminating feeling for literature, and he also has a restless, enquiring mind, interested in both concrete facts and in the analysis of motives, sometimes including his own motives. In general, Churchill's writings are more like those of a human being than of a public figure."
My favorite parts of the book were those that focused on Orwell, but then I have a thing for Orwell, and I have read a lot of his writing. Ricks does an excellent job of showing how Orwell'w writing grew with his life's experiences, and how Spain was a turning point for him:
"What he saw in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 would inform all his subsequent work. There is a direct line from the streets of Barcelona in 1937 to the torture chambers of 1984....Orwell, arriving home, had become the writer we know today from Animal Farm and 1984. Burma had made him an anti-imperialist, but it was his time in Spain that developed his political vision and with it the determination to criticize right and left with equal vigor. Before Spain, he had been a fairly conventional leftist, arguing that fascism and capitalism were essentially the same. Until this point, Orwell still clung to some of the views of the 1930s left. He would leave Spain resolved to oppose the abuse of power at both ends of the political spectrum."
The book is a mere 339 pages (with the last 60 of these being the notes and acknowledgements), but it packs a punch. Well worth your time if you are at all interested in the subject. Ricks has put together a unique and very interesting narrative that will pull you right into its pages.
When the National Review, a conservative magazine, compiled a list of the most significant non-fiction books of the 20th century, Homage to Catalonia and The Collected Essays were in the top ten, Orwell being the only author to achieve the honour of having two books listed in the group. At the top of the list was Churchill's WWII memoirs. Ricks intentionally includes this significant information twice, at the beginning and again near the end.
Ricks, an American, is able to take an objective, cosmopolitan view of the two Britons, and writes with clarity and frankness - a style of which both his subjects would approve. Whether the reader is familiar with either man or not, it's an intensely interesting book and in fact difficult to put down. Highly recommended.