Through the remarkably skillful use of intimate diaries as well as public documents, some newly released, Larson has transformed the well-known record of 12 turbulent months, stretching from May of 1940 through May of 1941, into a book that is fresh, fast and deeply moving ... These small, forgotten stories, which Larson uses to such moving effect, make it possible for us to understand, even 80 years later, what made hearts race and break, and are best told by the people who experienced them, not only in a war room surrounded by military advisers but also in a London walk-up, alone ... The Blitz — its tense, terror-filled days, the horrors it inflicted — is palpable throughout this book, often by way of the kind of wrenching, carefully chosen facts that not only bring a story to life but also make a reader stop, look up and say to whoever happens to be nearby, 'Listen to this.'
There are countless books about World War II, but there's only one Erik Larson ... Over his career, he has developed a reputation for being able to write about disparate subjects with intelligence, wit and beautiful prose ... Fans of Larson will be happy to hear that his latest book, The Splendid and the Vile, is no exception. It's a sprawling, gripping account of Winston Churchill's first year as prime minister of the United Kingdom, and it's nearly impossible to put down ... Larson's decision to focus on a wide group of people is a wise one. While Churchill is clearly the main character, Larson's profiles of his aides and colleagues add valuable context to the prime minister's role in the war. Many books have been written about Churchill, obviously, but by expanding the scope of his book, Larson provides an even deeper understanding of the legendary politician ... And although he doesn't at all neglect Churchill's actions and policies, he also paints a vivid portrait of the politician's personality .. There are many things to admire about The Splendid and the Vile, but chief among them is Larson's electric writing. The book reads like a novel, and even though everyone (hopefully) knows how the war ultimately ended, he keeps the reader turning the pages with his gripping prose. It's a more than worthy addition to the long list of books about World War II and a bravura performance by one of America's greatest storytellers.
...spectacular ... Larson, as America’s most compelling popular historian, is at his best in this fast-moving, immensely readable, and even warmhearted account of the battle to save Britain ... Along with Churchill himself, a pair of dashing young people give this book its heart: Mary Churchill, the fun-loving but somewhat naive teenage daughter of the prime minister, and John 'Jock' Colville, a private secretary. Both individuals leave deeply revealing diaries that capture their refusal to put their personal lives on hold for queen and country ... Should we care about privileged people who find time for love and cats while a nation faces oblivion? Absolutely. As Churchill and his nation demonstrated, leadership and resilience don’t require a grim determination or even an always-stiff upper lip.
Larson has done it again ... he hugely best-selling author has once more captured an iconic historical moment and brought it vividly to life in near-novelistic prose, yet without inventing a single thing. Dry-as-dust historians, often in the Academy, have a great deal to learn from writers such as Larson, who are introducing the public to the splendor and terror of the past in vast numbers without compromising one iota on fact ... Larson makes excellent use of the diary of Mary Soames ... Larson does fine work in countering many revisionist myths about Churchill ... For however zippy is Mr. Larson’s prose—there are 101 chapters in 608 pages—facts are sacrosanct to him ... As I read this book, I kept wondering what the swelling of powerful emotion was that I felt, sometimes in an almost physical sense. (I’m a naturally undemonstrative Englishman, rarely moved by words on a printed page.) Then I realized that, as a Londoner, it was a feeling of overwhelming pride in my poor, brave, battered old city, which stood up to the very worst that Hitler could throw at it for months on end, while still somehow keeping its dignity, cheerfulness, and iron resolve not to surrender.
Far from the dusty doorstop of a book you might expect, The Splendid and the Vile is an example of Larson at his best. Meticulously, exhaustively researched and told with Larson’s usual deftness of prose, this account of Churchill’s first year...is an intense close-read of the man’s life ... Thanks to Larson’s deep and thorough dive, he (and hence we) are privy to a wealth of first-hand accounts of what it was like in the room with Churchill ... a vivid and compelling look at the realities of the Blitz and the hard choices Churchill and his compatriots had to make in order to hold off the looming German threat ... The book hits the usual high points too, of course, the moments ... but they don’t receive the same sort of focus that they have in other past works ... And that’s a good thing ... Larson’s aptitude for quality storytelling is what sets him apart and makes his work so accessible—the facts are right and the research is thorough, but they work in service to the narrative rather than despite it. The result is a fascinating and electrifying read that belies its 600-plus page count; Larson hits the ground running and pulls you along. It’s not often you come across a book this big that practically demands to be read ... Larson has provided a valuable and worthwhile addition to the Churchillian canon.
... fascinating and accessible ... It’s a broad panorama, encompassing everything from Churchill’s lavish personal spending habits to the squalor of bomb shelters in the London Underground to the fast-paced development of military technology ... The entire book comes at the reader with breakneck speed. So much happened so quickly in those 12 months, yet Larson deftly weaves all the strands of his tale into a coherent and compelling whole ... We know how things turned out, of course. The Brits survived the Blitz, the Americans eventually joined the fray and Hitler wound up killing himself in a Berlin bunker ... But that first year, when Britain was staggering on the ropes, only to gather itself and push on, makes for a lively and urgent read.
... a book as courageous, in its own way, as its larger-than-life subject ... [Larson's] cinematic flair brings every scene and every character to life. This is history up-close and personal — vivid, immersive and presented with real-time pacing and urgency ... The narrative is peppered with the telling details that Larson’s readers have come to expect ... Larson never allows the experiences of the privileged few to obscure the horrors faced by the many.
Larson, a neophyte when it comes to British history, falls victim to entrenched English propaganda. His book, which chronicles the period from May 1940 to May 1941, when Churchill supposedly saved .England,. is firmly rooted in that green and pleasant land, conveniently ignoring those dark satanic mills ... Larson, sadly, falls for the old propaganda, rendering this a rather old-fashioned book. He carelessly uses England and Britain interchangeably, never bothering to learn the subtle but important semantics of a diverse kingdom. He writes of Hitler’s bombing campaign against England, as if Welsh and Scottish cities were not also attacked ... It’s well to remember that England is not just a place but an idea, and that idea is alien and offensive to many outlanders ... Larson is a superb storyteller who cleverly weaves together the colossal and the mundane ... fascinating and entertaining, but it’s not remotely the real story ... reveals the dangers of an author parachuting into a dramatic moment of British history without a full understanding of the context ... The Battle of Britain was won in the factories, not in English country houses. We don’t really need another paean to Churchill, nor to that green and pleasant land. The real story is one of pork pies, warm beer and gritty working-class pluck.
[Larson] is a master of popular history ... Larson also humanizes the prime minister through stories of his teenage daughter, Mary, struggling to make the awkward transition into adulthood in the midst of war’s chaos, and his son Randolph, whose marriage was crumbling under the weight of a gambling addiction ... Enlivened by Larson’s effective use of primary sources and, above all, by his vibrant storytelling, The Splendid and the Vile brings a fresh eye to a familiar story of courage, determination and hope.
Throughout the book, Larson focuses on individual human dramas ... Larson does not neglect the German side ... The Splendid and the Vile is a tale of courage, perseverance, sacrifice, fear, tragedy, human drama, and ultimately, inspiration for free peoples everywhere. In the end, Larson’s book further confirms historian John Lukacs’ observation that in the most extreme of circumstances—alone against a ruthless, horrible totalitarian onslaught—Churchill and the British people saved Western Civilization.
Erik Larson provides an intimate look that succeeds admirably in bringing Churchill and his family members to life. Like his past works...The Splendid and the Vile reads like fiction. But Larson’s meticulous footnotes show the depth of his research and reassure the reader that his story is very much rooted in fact ... One thing that sets The Splendid and the Vile apart from previous histories of the era is the serious attention Larson gives to other prominent members of the Churchill retinue, notably his immediate family members. This gives the book a human element that adds significantly to our appreciation of the period ... ultimately a refreshing reminder of immensely important events in the not too distant past. At a time when political and personal wisdom and courage are greatly needed but in short supply, it is exhilarating to see an era when they were not only apparent, but critical to the success of a country, if not a civilization, in peril.
What it’s lacking, alas, is drama ... This sounds absurd given the months being covered; there was no end to the real-life terror and upheaval experienced by millions during that time. But the gift of retrospect — and the knowledge of how certain events ultimately played out — can undermine a narrative’s urgency, and that’s what too often happens here ... the author, if he’s intent on mirroring his usual style, must try to generate interest where otherwise there is none, even if it means flooding the zone with minutiae. ... it’s the reader’s decision whether to hang in there for all 500-plus pages. If you do, you won’t be gripped by a pulse-pounding story, but you will earn smaller rewards: glimpses of daily life at 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace; reminders of Churchill’s penchant for bathtub work sessions and gaudy dressing gowns; notes from Joseph Goebbels lamenting his own fatigue ... a worthwhile read, if not a riveting one. For students of Churchill and the Blitz, the sheer number of snippets from journals, memos, official documents, and private letters will seem impressively exhaustive. For more casual readers, though, it may just feel exhausting.
Why review it, if it doesn’t provide a new angle on a well-trodden corner of British history? Because it also happens to be a particularly gripping read, written with bounce and brio. Larson pulls together vivid vignettes — some moving, some amusing, a few grim — to create a collage of what it was like to be alive in Britain at this time, and especially what it was like to be around Churchill ... Larson has a good eye for a stunning visual image, an evocative quote ... Although a dab hand at novelistic flourishes and clearly an admirer of Churchill’s grandiloquence and bigness of spirit, Larson also knows the power of understatement.
The Splendid and the Vile tells of a resonant time when a ship-of-state flounders through chartless seas with a feckless harlequin on the bridge while citizen-passengers argue and anguish ... Mr. Larson’s track record will boost this book’s success, of course ... Mr. Larson’s forte is to follow oblique avenues into intersections of history, then reveal both his focused subject and its awesome context with clarity, complexity and verve. So be it here ... Mr. Larson salts his copiously researched recap with choice details ... Regrettably, like its central subject, the volume is overweight. Approaching 600 pages, the count would be 100 less but for the spaced-out headings, dividers, blanks and other design gimmicks. Like a lazy sophomore padding a term paper, Random House chose to make a bigger book, to fill a 10-pound bag with nine pounds of goods — albeit pretty good goods.
... a page-turning achievement in nonfiction storytelling ... Larson created an intimate story, not just of Churchill, but the world around him, both public and private. From complicated family relationships to dedicated private secretaries and the many Lord ministers that surrounded him, Churchill’s world is repopulated and restored with all of its highs and lows ... The Splendid and the Vile is a passport into Churchill’s intimate world for one years’ time; and perhaps by entering it, our own resolve will be stiffened by witnessing the endurance of a great man and a great nation.
Larson’s whole oeuvre is built on subverting the familiar, and though Churchill’s life has already been dutifully recorded in multiple biographies and autobiographies, Larson can still surprise us with his tender insights ... Larson invites us to take another look at the statesman we thought we knew. He remains, as always, unerringly faithful to history, and still he manages to puncture the hagiography to create a fresh portrait of this courageous and complicated leader.
Erik Larson’s latest book, The Splendid and the Vile, contains an optimistic message for today’s anxiety-challenged readers ... The book is hefty enough to last through a two-week quarantine and is peppered with enough new facts, including the tonnage of marmalade destroyed by Nazi bombs, to make the pages turn rapidly ... Readers will discover a trove of equally unfamiliar facts and incidents described by Larson, who drew extensively from the diaries kept by many of his book’s subjects ... he has provided a uniquely Anglophilic book ... This book showcases the marvelous ability of the human species to adapt to stress ... Larson’s book becomes the perfect panacea to alleviate our present society’s angst.
... captivating, distinctive ... What makes The Splendid and the Vile a welcome addition to the canon of Churchill biographies is the plethora of new sources including recently released declassified files, intelligence reports and personal journals, all previously unknown information. In addition, Larson reports from diaries written by common citizens at the government’s directive to gauge public morale during the blitz ... Churchill’s amusing idiosyncrasies are on display ... The book has a fast, energetic pace; Larson’s writing is electrifying. Set aside plenty of time to read this book and to savor the in-depth, multilayered, intimate exploration of one year in the life of Winston Churchill and those close to him.
Throughout the narrative the author deftly weaves known interactions the prime minister had with other wartime souls ... Larson also presents the confident Churchill of familiar lore, the man who believed he was 'walking with destiny' when objective appraisals labeled his task hopeless. Yet we also see the beleaguered leader, pensive as he admits all he has to offer the 'poor people' of Britain is death and devastation.
... illuminating ... The picture he paints unearths the intimate details of Churchill's family and cabinet, leadership style, personality, and idiosyncrasies, all of which laid the foundation for his determination to unite Britain during this national emergency while also navigating the monumental task of keeping the United States and President Roosevelt close at hand ... Blending a gripping narrative and a well-researched examination of personal and news archives, Larson’s distinctive history of Britain's 'darkest hour' offers a new angle for those already familiar with this era, while attracting readers who wish to learn more about the notable leader.
What Larson brilliantly provides are the finer details of the effects on England as he focuses on the family and home of its dynamic, idiosyncratic, and indefatigable leader ... Larson’s skill at integrating vast research and talent for capturing compelling human dramas culminate in an inspirational portrait of one of history’s finest, most fearless leaders.
Bookshelves groan with histories of Britain’s finest hour, but Larson employs a mildly unique strategy, combining an intense, almost day-to-day account of Churchill’s actions with those of his family, two of his officials, and staff ... even history buffs will welcome Larson’s attention to their four children, especially Mary, a perky adolescent and his favorite ... A captivating history of Churchill’s heroic year, with more than the usual emphasis on his intimates.