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The Splendid and the Vile

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The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson is a nonfiction book,  taking place between May 10, 1940 through May 10, 1941 following Churchill and his political brinkmanship during London’s darkest hour. Mr. Larson is an award winning author and a writer who spent much time on the best sellers’ lists.

I have enjoyed several of Mr. Larson’s books, and I usually enjoy the type of historical stories which, while accurate, also has an eye towards rumors and how people saw it at the time, without the benefit of hindsight. In The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson the author tells of the critical year in London which would make or break Winston Churchill as an admired leader and politician.

At the time Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of England (1940), Hitler was already invading Holland, Belgium, and soon after France.  Hitler became focused on England, offering peace treaties and other promises to them. Churchill, to his credit, wouldn’t trust the Nazis and knew they were lying, trying to arm and build an army which, eventually, the English will not be able to beat.

As we know, not everyone were happy with the touch stance Mr. Churchill took, and he realized that he needed the support of the US if he wanted to have a chance beating Hitler. The US, headed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, was in isolationist mode and Churchill had to keep up appearances of not needing their help as he so desperately did.

As a fan of the author, I had high hopes for this book. His talent of for extracting relevant, accurate, entertaining and informative information from the annals of history is something which I envy. Not only does Mr. Larson knows how to research a story, he also knows how to tell it while keeping the reader engaged.

I feel that this book erred on the side of meticulous research, and somewhere the fascinating story the author was trying to tell got lost. There are details of who’s who, what clothes they were wearing, family relationships and roots, while the blitz takes a second seat to the gossip.

Just to be clear, I have not problems learning history through gossip and what people said and thought at the time, without hindsight. This time, though, I felt that it bogged down the narrative so much that it made this book a tough read, and not nearly as engaging as the author’s other books.
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Thank you for the opportunity to review "The Splendid and the Vile", the latest from Erik Larson. It's another fine work by Larson, who has a well-earned reputation for crafting well-written, historically accurate works. This one tells the tale of Churchill's London during WWII in a way that immediately draws the reader in, and then keeps them captive until the final page is turned. It's not a good fit for courses I teach, but I will certainly recommend it for those who enjoy historically-accurate work (and good writing).
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Larsen has written an intimate portrait of Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of Britain, undertaking his duties as Hitler and Germany resolve to break the island nation to their will. He writes of Churchill himself, his peculiarities, his resilience, his dogged determination to obtain assistance from Roosevelt and the United States. Additionally, he adds details from the viewpoints and the lives of Winston’s daughter, Mary, a somewhat starry-eyed eighteen year old, son Randolph, a married but philandering gambler, daughter-in-law Pamela, loving wife Clementine, and private secretary John Colville, among others. All of these people left trails of information behind, whether in diaries, letters, etc., that Larsen used in pursuit of his own approach to Churchill’s life.

Through this method, combining the very personal daily details with overall war strategy, we readers are allowed a close up view of the intensifying air war over Britain, the Blitz, the Battle of Britain. To counter that, we are also provided with some inkling of what is happening among German leadership.

I strongly recommend this book to all who enjoy history or just enjoy a true story of a dangerous time very well told. We know how it ended, but not how close the story came to a different ending. Here you will see a portrait of leadership at its strongest, a nation holding together in spite of horrific loss. Churchill is the linchpin who held everything and everyone together.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
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Larson wrote, yet again, a brilliant historical nonfiction account that is both dense with fact and conversational in tone. I teach every year about Churchill and these events that occurred during WWII and was amazed by how much new information I learned from his book. What I appreciate most about Larson's writing though is that it never feels overwhelming in facts and information because he does such a brilliant job including captivating dialogue to push the events forward. If you haven’t read any Erik Larson book before, I highly recommend them all! He is, by far, my favorite current nonfiction writer. ⁣
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A common formula for this author in his past books is to interleave two major storylines through alternating chapters. In this one, the major storyline he tackles is Churchill's first term as the British Prime Minister during WWII, leading up to and through the Battle of Britain. The second major storyline... well, I couldn't tell you, because at this point, the author deviates from his past books and divides the secondary portion of the book to too many additional storylines, instead of only one or two. This made the book tough for me to follow and keep my interest in throughout.

That being said, the accounts of Londoners and other British folks awaiting an invasion were revealing. The author does an excellent job of recapping the emotions felt and describing in vivid (sometimes gruesome) detail how different individuals reacted to German bombs landing on their soil. The aerial battles over British soil were a very different kind of war than most of WWII, and the author captures extremely well the screeching sounds of the Luftwaffe, the disorienting effects of ducking for cover, and the devastation of out-of-nowhere direct hits. The storytelling here is riveting.

Perhaps I have a preference for a good WWII politics book more than the human story behind lesser unknown individuals witnessing the faces of history. Perhaps the author's style of narrative history doesn't work well for me when there are many storylines, and I prefer a definitive biography or a history volume/tome in such cases. Churchill's children and their love affairs just were not compelling to me. 

More interesting were the German point of view towards the Battle of Britain. And although the author does touch on the American view for some of the book, much lacking in my opinion was more in-depth analysis of the pre-Pearl Harbor isolationist Americans and FDR's jostling with Congress to send American aid in the war. There's only so much I can read about Churchill wanting and needing and calling on his American counterparts to help out in the war, and not receiving the same balanced reaction and analysis from the American point of view. 

The book does go into rich narrative on Churchill's leadership and his administration. His famous speeches, resolve, and courage are well-documented. His management and relationship with different ministers, secretaries, and typists are interesting as well. The fear of France falling, it actually happening, and the resolve to never surrender - Churchill's line of thinking is responded with Hitler, Göring (the Luftwaffe), Goebbels (the propagandist), and their line of thinking with regards to a British invasion. Goebbels' diary logging his changing views of Churchill was especially compelling.

Still, having too many storylines led to the author jumping in between what seemed like 3-4 different scenes within each chapter, without so much as a common thread, particularly because of the romantic pursuits of Churchill's children and staff. It was hard to keep track of where a character left off and begins again. There is a lot of good intention with telling multiple stories at once within the context of a major historical world event, zooming in specifically at 10 Downing in London and Chequers. But there's only so many storylines that made sense for me to keep track of before I started forgetting the point of some of them. 

Unlike in previous books, I think in this case, the author tries to capture too much at once. It makes sense that he intends to make copious use of the diaries of secondary characters such as daughter Mary Churchill, private secretary John/Jock Colville, and the Mass-Observation diaries in order to tell stories around WWII Churchill often left out. But it does a disservice to and watering-down of the main storyline of the British and Americans vs. Nazi Germany.
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I've read every Erik Larson book and like his writing and how he makes history accessible to the average reader. He makes historical events come alive with well crafted characterizations, suspenseful writing, and humorous anecdotes that bring a "humanness" to those bigger than life characters like Churchill and Hitler. I was intrigued by the story of increasingly dangerous life in 1940s Europe and the increasing threats to Great Britain from the German Reich. This is Churchill and Hitler in all their bluster. 

I read about half of this book and, frankly, became bored. I was interested in the topic, but Larson seems to drag out every moment, elaborating on the smallest details. This is something that appealed to me in his other books, but just didn't capture my attention in this one. Certainly a "must read" for history buffs, but just a shrug for me. Perhaps I've just been reading too much about the era, since there seems to be a plethora of WWII books (fiction & non-fiction) lately. I'll pick it up again at a later date.
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I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book from Crown Publicity through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.  

This book is written in true Erik Larson form – superb!  I highly recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed Mr. Larson’s previous books or likes World War II non-fiction or information about Churchill.  The primary focus of the book is around Britain’s fight for survival under Germany’s attacks.  Churchill’s critical efforts that helped Britain’s people’s moral, world communication, courage, and constant efforts were instrumental in Britain surviving until the United States joined the war.  

Chapters share Germany’s perspective as well as interesting aspects of Hitler and his underlings, such as Goring, Goebbels, and a Luftwaffe pilot, Galland.  The author does a great job enlightening the reader of the human nature of all characters – British and German.  There is a social aspect with dancing, partying and enjoying life while bombing is going on.  One minute a young person may be dancing and the next minute dead.  Bombing blackouts made “life easier for the pickpockets who frequented train stations and for the looters who plucked valuables.”  

Honestly, this book is much more than about Churchill.  There are stories that get left out of many of Churchill’s biographies.  You learn details about the lives of Churchill’s family, friends, staff including his inner circle.  His lodgings at Chequers, Ditchley, and 10 Downing Street.  His efforts to influence Roosevelt for American assistance is a constant.  There are frequent Churchill “nuggets” that I didn’t know before reading this book such as “Churchill would wander the halls wearing a red dressing gown, a helmet, and slippers with pom-poms.”  “Churchill … idiosyncrasies, including his penchant for wearing pink silk underwear, working in the bathtub, and drinking throughout the day.”  By the conclusion of the book, I felt like I had an entirely new insight into Churchill’s idiosyncrasies.  With the heaviness of the topic, Larson was able to find humor with tidbits of nuggets.  The Britain bombings are descriptive with details on bombs and German attacks.  

The Epilogue gives us the “rest of the story” of characters.  This is not “just another WWII” book.  Very well done!
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This is the captivating tale of how Winston Churchill, London and all of England survived the first year of World War II and the relentless bombing raids Hitler and the Nazis inflicted in order to break their spirit. Larsen uses quotes from diaries and letters to elevate the story above the facts and figures and dates and make it personal, populated with well-rounded personalities acting and reacting to events impossible to comprehend. He even almost succeeds at making Churchill himself into someone anyone can identify with. Yet the apparent reality of Churchill defies the attempt and he remains larger-than-life. This is a must-read for anyone interested in this period of history.
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Another stunner from Erik Larson, this time surrounding London and Churchill during the beginning of WWII. I'm a history nerd to begin with, but Larson has a way of captivating me no matter what he writes about. The attention to small detail amazes me and makes me truly feel immersed in the story- the information is so fleshed out and specific while still remaining accessible to the masses.

I read this one during the great COVID pandemic of 2020, and it also helped to put life into perspective. Tough times come and tough times go, just need to remain resilient through it all. If you have any interest in WWII, London, or Churchill, I recommend this book (and any others by Larson, for that matter).
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When I say that The Splendid and the Vile a fantastic book, I am not exaggerating. It felt like I was reading a superb fiction novel- it was so engrossing, captivating, and I learned so much about not only Winston Churchill and his family, but also so much about Britain and Churchill's time as prime minister. I was disappointed when this book ended, and I already can't wait for Erik Larson's next masterpiece!
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No one writes history like Erik Larson. There is both a cinematic and intimate nature to his books, they read like the best fiction yet they are filled with details and facts you only get from a deeply researched piece of non-fiction. I felt like I was in the room with Churchill and his generals during the Blitz. This is my first 5 star read of 2020. I can't recommend this high enough.
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You can appreciate the amount of research that Larson puts into this book. The book focuses on Churchill's leadership throughout the bombing of London during World War II. The book is well-researched, however, I found it difficult to get through and wasn't able to completely finish the book. I've read two other books by Larson and will read more in the future but the topic of Churchill couldn't captivate me as much as his other topics. I do recommend it for any history fan, though.
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This magnificent testament to leadership and courage is a very readable account of Churchill's first year as prime minister.  While much has been written about him, the author focuses on this one small portion of time that showed the Prime Minister's skill at inspiring courage among citizens under siege.  Uplifting and important.
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“The Splendid and the Vile” was the story of the first y¬¬ear Winston Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) first days in office, beginning in May 10, 1940 through May 10, 1941, just when Hitler was rising into power and England needed a leader amidst the evil on the rise. I enjoy a non-fiction read and loved seeing the minute details of Churchill’s life as a snapshot of over a year, and what a year it was. As Britain’s leader, he was responsible in gathering allies including Roosevelt to become victors against Hitler. 

What is amazing to me reading this book by Larson is that it read like a fiction story. It was amazing how much detailed information was gathered to write this well researched biography. I know of Churchill but did not know Churchill and his children, the people that surrounded him in his administration, nor his idiosyncrasies, habits and quirkiness. He is indeed a very unique historical figure. Despite all that, he was a gentleman that was brilliant, had a huge heart and what the country and the world needed during the time of challenge.
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An intriguing look at the life of Winston Churchill during one of the most trying eras in history. Faced with war, this story is about how Churchill brought his country together under the direst of circumstances.
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This is a long book on a subject I’ve read from other authors, but I was captivated by Erik Larson’s compelling focus on Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister and the people who were close to him .  He said in his afterword, “As I’ve discovered with prior books, when you look at the past through a fresh lens, you invariably see the world differently and find new material and insights even along well-trodden paths.” 

I knew about Mary’s willfulness, I knew about Pamela’s disastrous marriage to Randolph and her affair with Harriman, and Randolph’s debauchery, but this is Winston’s book.  He had a quirky habit of conducting business from the bathtub and sometimes while butt naked, even with President Roosevelt.  His secretary John Coville found it endearing that he wasn’t encumbered by personal vanity.  (We watch our infant granddaughter two days a week and I’ve been reading this book to her at nap times.  It knocks her right out but I keep reading because research says this is good for a baby’s brain.)

It was the incidental things that kept me picking this book up after a break every now and then, because that first year was so bloody bloody. “Between September 7, 1940, when the first large-scale attack on central London occurred, and Sunday morning, May 11, 1941, when the Blitz came to an end, nearly 29,000 of its citizens were killed, and 28,556 seriously injured.”  That’s just one year!

Larson fleshed out his narrative with events like a moving gesture after the war had ended. Jubilant Londoners poured into the streets “and searchlight operators aimed their lights at the space in the air just above the cross that topped the dome to St Paul’s Cathedral and held them there, to form a shining cross of light.”  Or new tidbits, like Hitler declared war on America on December 11th - and then we reciprocated.  I thought it was the other way around.

But always, it was Winston’s story, his determination, his work habits taking him into the wee hours of the morning, his boyishness.  A teenage boy was setting up a train set for his grandson, making sure it all worked, and the next thing he knew, the PM was on the floor with him, testing, trying.  “NOW, let’s have a crash!”  What a remarkable man, one in a million.
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Well written and thoroughly researched, The Splendid and the Vile is a great book if you are looking to read more about Winston Churchill and his life during the war. I found the ending a bit abrupt, and at times it was dry, although the author did do a great job of breaking it up with anecdotes from people who lived during this troubling time. Unfortunately I didn't find it as good as some of his other works, although if I was a bit more interested in the subject I can see how this book could be well liked.
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An incredible account from the Churchill perspective during WWII. This book gives a unique perspective that I didn't have as an American. I think readers of Larson's other books will not be disappointed.
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Larson shines a light on the vast cast of characters who helped drive Britain to victory in World War 2. I didn’t find this as compelling as Dead Wake or Devil in the White City, but I appreciated the exhaustive research combined with deft prose. Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.
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This isn’t the first book I’ve read on Churchill (and it’s not likely to be the last). I think my favorite part about this one is that Larson does an excellent job capturing his many eccentricities; from Churchill climbing up on the roof to watch the bombs falling on London, to the excerpt about walking around stark naked in front of Roosevelt.

I got an advance copy of this book and it took me about a month to read. The chapters are short and jump around to key players in England, Germany, and the US with the bulk of the narrative of course following Churchill and his family. There probably isn’t anything new here if you’ve read a lot about WWII, but if you’re looking for more of a social history I would highly recommend this.

I felt so empathetic for Churchill trying to get the US to enter the war over and over. It’s really remarkable that the UK was able to hold on for so long. I was annoyed and amused that he wouldn’t let his colleagues resign. I was shocked to learn that Rudolf Hess flew on a solo mission to Scotland to allegedly negotiate peace talks. Apparently this is still somewhat of a mystery all these years later.
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