Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts – Book

Churchill book cover The Spectator

Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts – Book

Andrew Roberts, in his biography Churchill: Walking With Destinytells us that Churchill was not ubiquitously or universally beloved, until he was. As he tells it even Churchill’s detractors enjoyed his wit, his oratory, and his intelligence. Having just spent over a month in the company of Winston Churchill, and an enormous cast of famous cohorts, I am surprised and almost sorry to find myself back in the weird politics and tenuous peace of the 21 st century.

Churchill was born in Blenheim Palace into the family of the Duke of Marlborough, a family whose most famous member was known to have been an excellent military strategist. Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. Churchill seems to have been born with an interest in military matters. He studied what was known about his ancestor and he wrote a book about him. In fact, Churchill was a prodigious writer and authored many books now considered classics. He also studied the life and battles of Napoleon. He was in the cavalry for his own military service and, on a hiatus from politics he served in the trenches in France in the Great War (which we call WW I).

Churchill was born at the end of the Victorian Age and lived until the 1960’s. The changes in politics and wars were dizzying and many of his contemporaries held onto the “old rules” they learned as children. Churchill was an unruly child, a challenge for the schoolmasters at the very aristocratic schools he attended. Roberts suggests that Churchill was an original who had no problems with the changes he lived through because he was never a rule-follower. He further marshalls the facts of Churchill’s life in such a way as to suggest that Churchill was born to lead the UK into war against Hitler. Churchill believed that he was safe from harm because he was destined for some greatness which made him seem almost fearless. The author suggests that Churchill could never guess what moment he was destined for so he tried to be a great man all his life. This occasionally ticked everyone off, especially some in both the Conservative and the Labor parties in Parliament. Churchill did not want to serve in the House of Lords. He never worried about not being a Lord like his parent, and he never accepted the title, because he would not have been able to serve in the Commons as he wished.

Roberts’ book is close to 1,000 pages long, longer if you count the photo section, the footnotes, the bibliography and the index. By the time Roberts, a respected and prize-winning British historical writer, tackled Churchill’s biography he had access to documents previous biographers never had. He had official papers but also the diaries of almost everyone who had known Churchill. I found myself interested in how British politics differs somewhat from our democracy, interested in Churchill’s political ups and downs, in his political and military successes and failures. Along with the public side of Churchill’s life, the diaries of his contemporaries, his secretaries and aides, his wife Clementine, and even occasionally his children give Roberts and us access to the private side of his life, even some gossipy bits.

If Churchill was destined for any one time it was 1939-1945, the World War that we call World War II. Truly the entire world was involved in this terrible conflagration with Hitler and his Germans, and the Japanese as instigators, and Russia under Joe Stalin as our rather frightening ally. Roberts makes us understand what we owe Winston Churchill, who almost single-handedly encouraged his Brits to stay in the war, a war they only believed they could win because Churchill kept telling them so. He had faith that America would eventually have to come into the war and, although he hated Communism, he set that aside so Russia would also be an ally. Although Russia gave everyone big headaches after the war, if millions of Russians hadn’t died to beat back Hitler, Churchill and all the British people could not have held Hitler off long enough for America to come into the war. Without Churchill and, indeed, without Russia, World War II could have been a tragic turning point for democracy and humanity, and Andrew Roberts makes that very clear.

Churchill - AZ Quotes

I have barely scratched the surface and the depth of Churchill’s life, but Andrew Roberts does. I say “bravo”. I highly recommend that reader’s spend some time with Churchill : Walking with Destiny. I doubt if it will take a month. I was dealing with some other challenges at the time. This is one of those books that becomes a part of you. I will make my highlighting public, but I will warn you it is voluminous. It might be easier just to read the book.

Please find me on goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson and on www.tremr.comas brissioni and at https://nbrissonbookblog.com/

Photo Credits: From a Google Image Search – The Spectator, AZ Quotes

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson – Book

Leonardo horiz big the Malta Independent

If your eyes and heart were opened to a whole new world filled with oil paints, and tempura, gouache, symbolism, and the subject matter of artists you were probably in your first art history class. It was a revelation that you could watch slides and listen to a professor speak about them and come away with a head full of images that lit up your mind, slapped a smile on your face and made you long for the great museums of NYC and Paris.

This is the place that Walter Isaacson takes you to in his book Leonardo Da Vinci. He puts us back in that art history class as he walks us through the details of Da Vinci’s paintings. There are color plates (even on a Kindle).

However, Leonardo was not first and foremost a painter, although that is certainly one way we remember him. After all, he did paint the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. Leonardo, it seems, was not in love with painting and left many works unfinished. His mind saw all the components of the physical world that needed to be comprehended at great depth in order to make someone a great artist. He spent years dissecting cadavers and made exquisitely detailed anatomy drawings. He wanted to see inside eyes, brains, hearts and he drew very sophisticated conclusions about how bodies work. He studied rocks, birds (to learn about flight) and, in excruciating detail, the movements of water. He studied optics and perspective.

Yes, all of these things relate to art, but they relate even more to physics and engineering. I will leave it to Isaacson to tell you some of the other unique things Da Vinci wanted to know. Leonardo also loved theatrics and building machines for special dramatic effects. In this way he entertained kings and rulers and participated socially in the entertainments of the times, while always searching for a patron to help support his activities, his household, and the students who came to work in his workshop. He was not wealthy, being the illegitimate son of a notary.

Sadly for us, Leonardo was so often enticed by ever newer areas of exploration that he never published his enormous treasure trove of notebooks and he left it to others to receive credit for his discoveries. Perhaps it was because he was left handed and all his notations were made in mirror writing (he wrote from right to left). The idea of ancient aliens who came to earth when men were still quite primitive is now the subject of the Ancient Aliens television series, but I remember running across it years ago. Several times as I read about Da Vinci I thought he might be a distant offspring of such a technologically advanced alien visitor. Walter Isaacson is a true academic though and he said no such thing. He does not deal in conjecture and gives attributions for almost every point he makes in a fairly extensive set of footnotes at the end to the text. There is also a useful index to take you back to sections you want to review.

Isaacson is both a biographer and an art critic, as well as a fan of Leonardo and his book is not at all difficult to read. He doesn’t get bogged down in academia and he clearly wants us to share his admiration for Leonardo Da Vinci. It is a book to read in quiet moments with a nice cup of something warm or on a park bench with your bottled water while taking a break in your daily walk. A chance to dawdle in the 14th and 15th century as Leonardo pursues his life and his art, while wandering Italian towns in his rose colored robes, is the gift that Walter Isaacson gives us.

Grant by Ron Chernow – Book

 

Grant by Ron Chernow is not a book; it is tome. He writes a very contemporary biography of Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps unclouded by the political passions and machinations of the 19th century. We often hear more that is negative about Grant than what was positive. We hear he was often drunk, that he headed one of the most corrupt governments in our history, that he was a gullible and simple man, without social graces or persuasive public speaking abilities. Writers in the past accepted, for the most part, that Grant had strong military successes, but opinions of his abilities range from a lazy leader to a military savant (which Chernow feels is much closer to the truth).

Prior to the Civil War, America was experiencing a time of great divisiveness (perhaps even worse that what we are seeing in the 21st century). Slavery and state’s rights were the issues that most passionately divided the nation (and they still are 151 years later). Strong abolitionist movements in the northern states enraged the South whose lifestyle and economy revolved around slave labor. The South claimed that the Federal government had no right to make laws in this matter. The verbal battles were bitter and the differences irreconcilable. Whatever you may feel is the reason for the Civil War (the GOP still cites the state’s rights issue; while Dems tend to cite the issue of keeping human beings as slaves), Grant evolved on the issue of slavery until he came to believe that it was an anathema and absolutely the point of the war. The Union considered the South to be traitors who wanted to dissolve the Republic. Although it may drive you crazy, you need to remember that in the 19th century Southerners were the Democrats and the abolitionists were Republicans.

Chernow does not sidestep graphic descriptions of the terrible tragedy of human destruction left in the wake of every victory and every defeat in the brutal Civil War. Grant, who seemed unable to be a successful businessman, proved to have a genius for warfare, a focus that seemed to appear only when battle loomed, and a broad and long view of the overall geography, scope, and strategy involved in any given battle. Since Grant was educated at West Point, he knew many of the officers on both sides in the Civil War and he had personal insight into how they would behave. Try not to read about these battles while eating.

I can never cover all of the information imparted in this biography. It is minutely comprehensive and still, somehow, eminently readable. It is long but well worth the investment in time. What I appreciated most about Ron Chernow’s tome is the attention he gave to what happened in the South after the war. Perhaps Grant was too sympathetic to the officers and men when the war ended at Appomattox. He did nothing to humiliate them. He let them lay down their weapons and leave without persecution to go home to their land and families. But perhaps this allowed the South to keep too much of its pride and they secretly kept alive the resentments that had caused the rift to begin with. Chernow does not skirt the details of the ways Southern slave owners took out their anger on freed Americans of African Descent.

According to Chernow and his exhaustive research Ku Klux Klan activity was far more prevalent and deadly in those years of Reconstruction than represented in the stories we tell ourselves today (and in our school history classes). Current events teach us that those feelings kept alive in the South and imported to the North still inform our politics, and the feelings of white supremacy that seem to have been resurrected, but which never actually left us. Grant earned the lasting respect of black folks by sending troops to try to stop the carnage and the total unwillingness of slave owners to accept the freedom of their former slaves. He supported programs to educate former slaves and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed while he was President. Frederick Douglas remained a loyal acquaintance of Grant and expressed his gratitude again and again for the support Grant provided to back up freedom for all Americans. If Grant accomplished nothing else, what he accomplished in the arena of freedom and equality for formerly enslaved Americans should move him far above the rank he held until now in the pantheon of American presidents. He deplored the fact that Reconstruction did not end racial hatred in Southern whites.

Mr. Chernow does not buy the tales that make drunkenness a key trait in Grant’s life. He finds a pattern to Grant’s binges and gives him credit for fighting against the hold alcohol had for him when he was without the comforts of his family (as soldiers often are). He admits that Grant was connected to a number of corrupt schemes while he was President and later when he resided in NYC. But if you follow the money you find that Grant never was at all corrupt himself. He was guilty of being unable to see through people, especially when they were friends. Since many people had been his fellow soldiers he tended to give them credit for being loyal friends when they were actually involved in collecting payoffs in scams such as the whisky ring, and the Indian ring, and other scandals of the Gilded Age. Juicy, interesting, and deplorable stuff. Many government rules were different than they are today and corruption was easy if you valued money over morals. Probably a number of rules and protections in our current government were passed to fight the human impulse to corruption which exists, of course, to this day.

It’s a wonderful biography, well researched and full of quotes from primary sources and although it may put a crimp in your accounting of the number of books you get to read this year it will offer such in-depth quality that you will not mind the hit you take in terms of the quantity of books you get to read.