I so wish I had found the book as interesting as I found Ricks' cogent observations on the pickle our nation and world is in.
Ricks' two biographical subjects, British Conservative WWII Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the socialist-inclined writer George Orwell, are joined for him because, in the desperate era (roughly 1930-1948) when fascism or totalitarian communism seemed European humanity's only choices ...
If you are unacquainted with the history of Europe in the inter-world war years, this is a good introduction to figures whose intellectual courage grasped that civilization's predicaments with a clarity not shared by their fellows.
His writings -- Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and 1984 -- still raise vital ethical questions for people committed to active work for liberation today.
Meanwhile Churchill's exhortations and energy led Britain to stand alone against Hitler until the United States and Russia came in to win World War II, setting the stage for the world order we have known until recently.
Neither man seems particularly likable to me. Churchill took advantage of his social position to demand space for himself which no accomplishments prior to 1939 seemed to justify. He was often a blowhard and a bit of a drunk.
Orwell became something of a disappointed recluse toward the end of his life (he died in 1950, before achieving literary fame.) I find it easier to have empathetic feelings toward him than toward Churchill; he fought and almost died for his socialist hopes in the Spanish Civil War -- and was then nearly killed by Soviet Communism's betrayal of those dreams in that same war. The courage that carried him to the battlefield was turned to telling the truth as he saw it about totalitarianisms of both the right and left. Orwell chose a lonely, friendless ground to stand on; that's hard.
If this intrigues, read the book. Or google "thomas ricks radio" for a bonanza of recent discussions with this fascinating author. Ricks follows his subjects' example by refusing to sugarcoat the extremity of our own terrible time while also pointing to values worth fighting for.
UPDATE: For a smidgen of Ricks, see this biting blog entry from today.