Week 2 of the Wars

I try not to read the reviews on Amazon before I've read the book itself. Once I've committed to reading a book, and it is a commitment, I want to form my own impressions. I do read the reviews when I'm trying to decide whether to buy a book. After decades of "collecting" books (that's my story and I'm sticking to it), I'm running a little short on space so even buying a book involves a commitment of ever decreasing shelf space.

One reviewers comment on The Winds of War has stuck in my mind. It said, roughly, how annoying it is that main character Captain Victor Henry is always right. No doubt about it, that is exactly the sort of thing that would piss me off. So I've been on the lookout for signs that Capt VH is just too perfect to be suffered. It's a fine and somewhat unfair line. I can be as unforgiving of a perpetual screw up as I am of the too perfect. A character can be right without being insufferable. It's just not easy to do.

A good example, especially since it's top of mind for me, is Stuart Redman from Stephen King's The Stand. Stu is one of the few survivors of the super flu. He becomes the spokesman for the "good" survivors. He could easily become unwelcome but King keeps Stu human. He doesn't preach, he's often right but never perfect. He stays rootable.

So far, Wouk is keeping Victor Henry rootable. I'm amazed at that when I tally up his credentials: he's a faithful husband, a committed Christian, he's argues with the Nazis about the alleged Jewish conspiracy, he's right about the importance of radar, he tells Goering to shove it, he's right about the ability of the British to hold out against the Nazis, he hangs with Churchill, he resists the advances of a young woman, he's FDR's pen pal, etc. And he has a nickname. Pug. He's called Pug by most of the characters in the book. And he doesn't mind.

I should hate ol' Pug by now, page 526 to be exact. Even with all his virtues and his luck at being at the very crux of history nearly every day, Victor Henry is still good company. Same with headstrong, aka always doing something monumentally stupid, Natalie Jastrow. It helps greatly that neither character is present as being "always right" or universally adored. Pug may be sipping martinis with FDR but deep down he thinks his naval career is going nowhere. Natalie may be soliciting her ex-lover's help, mere days after her wedding, but she's constantly manipulated by her Uncle Aaron.

Wouk does an amazing job of not presenting any of his characters as entirely good or wholly bad. Not even the Nazis. His narrative powers continue to impress as well. Some have accused Wouk of writing soap opera and in a way he has, if soap opera means the daily life of common people. Is Rhoda going to leave Pug for Palmer? Will Natalie cheat with Leslie Slote? These questions are sandwiched between events we know will happen: Germany will invade the USSR and Japan will bomb Pearl Harbor. In this Wouk is covering the same ground as Tolstoy in War and Peace. Everyday lives in extraordinary times. The main difference is that Wouk assumes no prior knowledge by his readers, which makes his work all the more accessible.

Meanwhile, back in 14th Century Europe, Jonathan Sumption is still leading the most detailed tour of the Hundred Years War ever. I had it wrong when I said I couldn't get passed the Truce of Calais with Tuchman, apparently I've made it passed the Battle of Poiters. I know this because Poiters is still in the future in Trial By Fire and still I'm riveted. Sumption's ruminations on what made John II of France such a lousy king belong in a MBA management course. "Like many weak men, John II found it difficult to work closely with those who were not his friends." Ain't it the truth, girls. Even better: "They pressed their opinions on him with the determination of men who had learned to despise him." This sums up every senior management team meeting at my office last year. Minus any hint of chivalry.

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