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The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 by William Manchester

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book, second volume of a never-finished three volume biography of Winston Churchill, is simply the best biography I’ve ever read. That’s hardly a fitting review of the book, but it’s both true and a good place to start. I stumbled onto it completely by accident on vacation in Buenos Aires, already committed to another book to read. Serendipity works in odd ways; a year ago, I’d found Manchester’s engaging Death of a President on a bookshelf in Rio and couldn’t put it down. The same was to be true of this work, too.

In three layers, the book excels: it describes an unusual and amazing man, in extreme and unusual times, in unusually well-written language. The 689 pages just roll away. The first 34 pages — “The Lion Caged” — describes a typical day in the life of 60+ year old Churchill, and are unstoppable. Reading this day in the life account, you simply can’t put the book down. Churchill’s traits are revealed one by one as we learn how he spends his day (reading the papers in bed til noon, entertaining guests at lunch, feeding the goldfish, enjoying a 2 hour nap, then holding court at the grand dinner, and finally, after all guests have left, starting writing in his ancient study at 11, only to retire at 4 am).

The book would be worth it if it catalogued simple days at the end of a brilliant political career, but the start of volume 2 is 1932. Before a backdrop of war fatigue, economic depression, and the bitter peace of Versailles, Hitler is on the rise in Germany. Churchill’s incessant calls in the House of Commons to stop the rise of Nazism appear to a pacifist and Bolshevik-fearing country as war-mongering. Over 600 pages and 2 Governments, we learn of the many opportunities England (and France) had to stop Hitler’s rise, and how repeatedly the British Government appeased, conceded, and in some cases, colluded to avoid any confrontation with Nazi Germany. The book closes on May 10, 1940, the day Hitler invaded the Low Countries and Churchill was made Prime Minister.

All in all, it’s an amazing tour through the accomplishments, methods, techniques, speeches, views, and mistakes of Churchill during the years leading up to the Second World War. Sublime!

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