Travelling for work as much as I do means I get to spend time reading on airplanes but makes keeping up this blog a challenge. In the last week I've finished 3 books - one an audio book - and started on two more. Two of those books have left me in the middle of major wars a mere six centuries apart.
The Winds of War is an amazingly easy read. Wouk has an ear for dialogue and an ability to impart facts and philosophy usually without appearing to do so. Once in a while he falters, like when he had pilot Warren Henry explain Russian history to the crew of an aircraft carrier, but it's almost endearing how hard he tries to have it make sense. It's also not easy to have one character just happen to be on the spot for the Battle of Britain, the first Roosevelt-Churchill meeting, the Battle of Moscow and in the vicinity for Pearl Harbor. It's even harder to have said characters sons be on the scene for the other major events of the pre-war, Poland and Pearl Harbor, but Wouk goes for the proverbial gusto. He's promised the reader a panoramic view of the beginnings of World War II and he's not going to let a little thing like odds put him off.
Bully for him. I'm willing to forgive the occasional stretch of likeliness for a good and honest story which Wouk more than delivers. It helps that Wouk creates very believable characters, I was especially surprised by his strong female characters. No one is perfect in this book although Captain Victor Henry sometimes seems a close to it. He's more married to the navy than his wife, FDR takes a shine to him and invites him over for cocktails and dinner, he meets Hitler, Stalin and Churchill, a beautiful young woman falls in love with him, etc. I can't quite believe that I didn't hate this guy. Wouk shows Victor's insecurities, his failings, his weakness, his ambition, and his inability to communicate with his children despite loving him dearly. He also has the other characters in the book appraise Victor with results that are far from perfect. Finally, Victor admits that he's just a pawn to FDR, that the world leaders he's encountered considered him an errand boy at best, that he's put his career ahead of his family, and best of all, he drinks himself into a stupor when his wife writes him a Dear John letter. Oh yes, and the battleship command he's all but lusted for his entire career sort of ... sinks out of his reach. And none of this is presented as "poor saintly Victor and his trials." It's just life.
A few words about Natalie, Wouk's stand in for American Jews during the war. She did get on my nerves on occasion. So much that I skipped a few of her scenes. It's hard to accept that it would take a grown woman 2 years to get out of Europe even with all her uncle's visa challenges. I went along with it, increasingly grudgingly though. I understand what Wouk is trying to do here but it's one of his balder efforts.
All in all, The Winds of War is a great book. Is it the American equivalent of War and Peace? Will I be hunted down and burned at the stake for even writing that sentence? In my humble opinion, it's in that territory. For the modern reader it's certainly more accessible not simply because the history is more recent but because where Tolstoy can't resist would spend 100 pages telling the reader what it all meant, Wouk is more restrained. Don't get me wrong, I loved War and Peace, it is truly a timeless book. But it's hard to read it without thinking what a pompous old Count Leo must have been. Wouk, on the other hand, seems like a decent dinner companion. If you want to learn about World War II without tackling a major history, The Winds of War is for you.
Trial by Fire, on the other hand, is not for the casual reader. If you think Tolstoy and Wouk love their battle scenes I promise you they have nothing on Jonathan Sumption. No one has anything on Jonathan Sumption when it comes to detailed descriptions of battles. I'm not a fan of battle scenes but you have to admire what Sumption does. With precious few original sources he comes as close to "You Are There" as possible. He also has an eye for character and intrigue that kept me interested. Unlike Barbara Tuchman, Sumption couldn't care less about chivalry or courtly love. He's a cold-eyed realist with an unbeatable ability to assess character. This is a fine book and I'm glad I've read it, I just doubt I'll ever reread it.
I'll cover the third book, My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart in another post. Yes, there's a war angle in that one too but let's not push it.