What to Read Next (No. 182): a classic Churchill bio + new Andy Weir
This week I’m bringing you two very different books. The first is a classic in the biography genre. William Manchester’s epic trilogy on Winston Churchill is usually compared only to Robert Caro in terms of scope, detail, and stirring prose. I can’t say I devoured volume one—it took me about 6 weeks—but I did enjoy every page. The second is Andy Weir’s third novel, which proved to be more like his outstanding debut than the lackluster follow-up.
One last thing. As loyal subscribers, I’ll also let you guys in on some big personal news: my last day with the Art of Manliness is on July 16th. On the 26th, I’ll be starting on as Managing Editor for Self-Publishing School! I’ve been with AoM for 9 years—what seems like an eternity in the modern world, especially when making a living on the internet. The new gig also lets me work remotely, and will allow me to fully take charge of a handful of writing/publishing blogs that bring in millions of visitors a year. I’ll pass along more details in the weeks to come. For now, I’ll just say how excited I am for this new opportunity, as well as a hearty thank you to the number of AoM readers who subscribe here.
As always, let me know what you’re reading! I love to hear.
The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 by William Manchester
Published: 1983 | Pages: 883
“They felt desperate; he felt challenged” —Manchester, on Churchill’s leadership in WWI
Among the great, modern biographers, there are a handful that stand above the rest: Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Walter Isaacson. One who doesn’t seem to get the same attention, but is certainly just as deserving, is William Manchester. Though he passed away in 2004, his work on John F. Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, and most impressively, Winston Churchill, will stand the test of time.
Coming in at around 900 dense pages of text, this first volume of Manchester’s Churchill trilogy is actually often listed among the great non-fiction works of all-time. I can’t help but agree, even given the superfluous details that pepper every single page. It’s these details, which don’t seem to add to the narrative, that give Churchill such vivid flavor in the hands of Manchester.
What really makes this book stand apart is the prose. Manchester isn’t just focused on conveying information, but on presenting it in a stirring, emotional, plot-driven way. The opening and closing of the book are as memorable as any individual chapters I’ve read. (Click here to check out a fun list of the most memorable chapters I’ve read in bios.)
When it comes to the content itself, it’s hard to nail down a highlight—it’s all so good! Churchill’s childhood is masterfully detailed, including his tumultuous, horrid relationships with his mother and father. His complicated wartime escapades are given a lot of attention, from India to South Africa to World War I—there’s no doubt that the man shined when blood was being shed on a battlefield.
Running throughout the entire narrative is Manchester’s assertion that Churchill was a 19th century man operating in the 20th century. It made the statesman seem both out of place and yet also the only person with the historic vision and sheer determination (which reminded me of Ulysses Grant) to defeat Hitler.
Manchester is obviously a bit partial to his subject—he does a lot to explain away the man’s deficiencies—but if you’re reading this book, you likely already know a lot about Churchill and can reach your own conclusions after having digested Manchester’s arguments.
Yes, this book, and series, takes a bit of endurance to get through, but it’s well worth the effort. Consider it a workout for the intellect—a little tough at times, but you’ll have gained a lot and feel great afterwards.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Published: 2021 | Pages: 476
“Human beings have a remarkable ability to accept the abnormal and make it normal.”
When The Martian was originally published in 2011, it hit exactly nobody’s radar. Weir self-published, which is always a hard route to go for major publicity action. But he priced it at 99 cents on Amazon (for the ebook) and it took off. A few years later, a “real” publisher bought the rights and it instantly hit the NYT bestseller list. It’s a story I’m fascinated by, apart from the amazing story contained within the book’s page.
That story was so successful because of its utter originality. It was science-heavy, but also vulgar, funny, thrilling, and entertaining as hell. Weir’s follow-up, Artemis, was okay, but didn’t nearly live up to the author’s debut. So when I heard the announcement about Weir’s third novel, I wondered which direction it would take. More like The Martian or more like Artemis?
Luckily, for sci-fi fans the world over, Project Hail Mary shares far more with Weir’s debut novel than his mediocre second attempt.
The opening of the book sucks you in right away: an astronaut wakes up in a mysterious spaceship with two dead crewmates next to him. He doesn’t know his name, his job, his mission . . . or why the heck he’s hurtling through space. That’s the first problem he needs to solve. The second problem is the astrophage. Those little buggers are sucking the life out of the sun, which threatens humanity’s existence.
Our astronaut, Ryland Grace, was once a humble middle school teacher. How did he end up as humanity’s hail mary attempt? How does he handle our species’ first contact with alien life? (Weir, as an author, handles it spectacularly.) What does he do when things inevitably go awry and he has to science—as a verb?
Project Hail Mary brings readers that element of uniqueness that made The Martian so enjoyable. Grace is a little too much like Mark Watney, but he’ so likable that it works just fine. And while alien life is ofter a caricature in literature, Weir makes it amazingly believable and fun. Why does every other sci-fi author think aliens will be vengeful creatures?
If you want a fun weekend read, look no further. Weir delivers in spades with his third novel.
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