Wouk's American version of "War and Peace" is perhaps not as profound as Tolstoy, but it is entertaining and informative and much more intelligent than the kind of pot-boiler stuff that historical fiction has mostly become since this was written. Things do not come together perfectly in the end, and maybe Mr. Wouk is showing a bit of fatigue (understandably,) but the overall achievement is still pretty remarkable. I will definitely be listening to this and "Winds of War" again in a couple of years. Now, if Audible will only add "The Caine Mutiny" to its holdings, I will be perfectly satisfied!
I was not careful when I ordered this book, so I had a mistaken idea about it. I assumed it would be a work by Robert Graves discussing David Copperfield in some way. I love Dickens, and especially David Copperfield, which I have read a couple of times, and I have listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Vance twice. So,when I realized that this was Robert Graves's "improved" version of the novel itself, I was pretty skeptical. I listened to the first couple of chapters, and it "fixed" all of the errors Graves believes Dickens is guilty of - repetitious, prolix prose, obscurities, lack of clear direction, etc. But it also sucked the life out of the story. It is like reading a straightforward version of Hamlet without all of those bothersome soliloquies. Perhaps it is a "better" telling of the facts of the story, but that is not why we read Shakespeare. Same with Dickens - the language and style are an organic thing which cannot be dissected, unless you don't like Dickens to begin with.
I am interested in the way the brain is wired and how that affects things like happiness or self-control or behavior modification. This book sounded like it was right up my alley. And there was a bit about how the brain has evolved to react to threats and rewards, etc. But then it is all couched in godawful new age claptrap. Lots of "be in the moment" kind of talk that just gets on my nerves. And, perhaps unfairly, this was exacerbated by the author/reader's wimpy therapist voice. I didn't make it even halfway. Maybe it gets a lot better in the second half, but I'll never know.
I am sort of a sucker for anything by Herman Wouk. As an aficionado of his WWII books, I expected this one (when I first read it a million years ago) to be too girlish for me; and it is certainly more soap-opera-like than the war books; but I think it is better than that implies. Wouk is attempting to get inside the mind of a mid-20th-century American as a way of exploring some big ideas. He is particularly concerned with the place of traditional moral values in a modern setting. His conclusions are seen by many as being bourgeois or reactionary, but I think that is going too far. He certainly favors traditional morality as a way to get through life, but he doesn't do it in the snide, condemnatory way that so many right-wingers use today. Bestselling novels just don't engage the kind of ideas that are in this book anymore.
And as a child of the rural midwest, this book was one I used to live vicariously in New York in its golden years. It is so evocative of a different era! And the characters are pretty well-drawn. Noel is exactly right as the seemingly super-accomplished yet really inadequate "genius" type; and Marjorie herself is an unusual heroine. I usually half fall in love with the heroines in Dickens or Trollope of whoever. Marjorie remained interesting and attractive without ever being the embodiment of perfection we usually get with such females.
The narration could have been better -- someone with a bit more sophistication and sureness -- and who could pronounce things a bit better -- would have been good. But well worth a listen, overall.
I am pretty committed to the principles embraced in this work, and Mr. Pollan has done some good homework and marshaled his facts. I don't like his writing style. He comes across as pretentious and effete. The facts are the facts, but people are also influenced by presentation.
I have a real appreciation of the works of Herman Wouk. He was one of the first "grownup" authors I read, devouring "The Caine Mutiny" as a 14-year-old, and then a couple of years later reading this work. I was in college when "War and Remembrance" finally came out, and I remember going to the mall to buy a much-needed pair of pants and instead buying the book! Over the years I developed a taste for English literature, particularly 19th-Century stuff -- Austen, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot -- the usual suspects. And Herman Wouk was always mentioned as an almost quintessential second-rate writer. Perhaps because of my youthful awakening under his spell, I have never thought of him like that. When people say he writes soap operas and wooden dialog, I don't see it. I think his characters are well-drawn, his plots full of interest, and his style very straightforward and middle-American (in a good way!) Maybe it's because one of his themes is the value of the seemingly boring, day-to-day doers who get most of the jobs in the world done. Pug Henry in "The Winds of War" is that sort of person. His other books don't make heroes out of these plodders -- lots of them in the role of the behind-the-scenes fathers, providing the wherewithal for the more interesting lives of the younger generations.
"The Winds of War" seems to me to be written as part English novel of manners and part a great, long complicated work of Dickens. There are lots of characters who are drawn realistically, but they are put in situations requiring strange coincidences and improbable virtues. Victor Henry is the chief example of this. He is a convincingly-portrayed career naval officer thrust into a minor diplomatic post against his will. But then he displays a level of acumen and presence of mind to rival the the greatest of statesmen. He always seems to come up with the perfect thing to say, earning him the surprised respect of the big shots of the era (Big big-shots, like Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.) He is perhaps just a bit too perceptive and unfailingly correct to be quite believable, but he overall feels like a real person we are following around the globe. His rocky relationships with his children seem real enough, and his personal traits are well-drawn and always interesting.
The real model for this work and the sequel is the great "War and Peace" -- the mixture of personal stories with world events, the encounters with real historical personages, and the mixing of historical narratives with the story line. This works successfully as a plan for the two books, I think, despite the great chutzpah it took to try it. I don't claim that Wouk is the writer Tolstoy is, but WWII is a theme that can at least deserve the same kind of treatment. The brief interlude that the hero and his love interest spend at Tolstoy's estate accompanied by a moment of dejavu make this treatment explicit.
Finally, this very entertaining and even (I would argue) profound story is beautifully narrated by Kevin Pariseau. He does the usual different voices that all the good narrators pull off but he also does accents, and even impersonations when necessary (e.g., Roosevelt and Churchill.) I am very much looking forward to his rendition of "War and Remembrance", assuming that will be following soon.
I listened to this book because of a positive review I read, and I am glad I did. I am always skeptical of the "7 Habits" kind of stuff about making improvements, so I was a little concerned about where this book might be going. But the authors aren't really pretending to change your life with extravagant claims. They lay out some of the science behind how self-control works in human beings in an accessible but not fluffy way, and they make a few practical suggestions about how you might make use of that knowledge. You could change your life considerably, but it is mostly up to you. This was an entertaining, practical look at something we all have experience with but about which most of us (until now) haven't understood very much.
I think a good title might have been "A Political History of Western Christianity", because this seems to be a pretty good version of that. It does seem a little odd to present a history of Christianity without discussing in more than an offhand way the impact of its spirituality, its theology, or its truth claims for the masses over the centuries. The disputes between kings and popes and monks is all very grimy and interesting, but there is very little about the efficacy of Christianity as an actual experience or set of principles in the lives of people. Perhaps those things are not to be found in the usual kinds of sources and so they are more speculative. So, if you go in expecting something about what Christianity is, you'll get some of that in the first part when he discusses Christ and the early church. But after that, it's all lying,cheating, stealing -- the usual (unfortunately!)
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