Herman Wouk died today

Bestselling novelist Herman Wouk died today at age 103. Here’s a link to Herman Wouk’s obituary in today’s The New York Times.

The Wouk bestsellers reviewed at GreatPenformances are:
The Caine Mutiny (1951 bestseller #2)
Marjorie Morningstar (1955 bestseller #1)
Youngblood Hawke (1962 bestseller #4)
Don’t Stop the Carnival (1961 bestseller #10)
The Winds of War (1972 bestseller #7)
War and Remembrance (1978 bestseller #2)

War and Remembrance

Night bombing is symbolic dust jacket cover for  Herman Wouk's"War and Remembrance."
Night time bombings are memorable part of WWII.

Herman Wouk called War and Remembrance a historical romance, a description that barely touches what’s packed into its 3.5 pounds and 1,039 pages.

Wouk picks up the story of an American naval family—Commander Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, and their three adult children—whom he introduced seven years earlier in The Winds of War.

This novel follows them from the attack on Pearl Harbor through the end of World War II. Wouk uses their stories to transport readers into the wake of war around the globe.

Pug wins promotions, but spends most of his time trying to unsnarl problems abroad at the behest of Roosevelt.

Pug and Rhoda’s eldest son is killed in action, leaving behind a wife and son.

While son Byron serves on submarines in the Pacific, his Jewish wife and their infant son become trapped in Poland.

Rhoda takes a lover, considers divorce.

Pug falls in love; the war continually pulls Pug and Pamela in different directions.

Wouk says frankly his purpose is to show that war must end. He’s too talented a writer to need to preach: His stories preach for him.

To understand War and Remembrance you need not have read Winds but you’ll appreciate both more if you read them as a set.

War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk
Little, Brown, ©1978. 1042 p.
1978 bestseller #2. My grade: A+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Winds of War: WWII history in stories

Herman Wouk’s 1971 bestseller, The Winds of War, immerses readers in world history from 1939 to December 1941, showing great leaders as ordinary men and ordinary men as great leaders.

Dark clouds are background for title and author info
Winds of War bring storm clouds over Europe.

The story is told through the experiences of an American naval family — Commander Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, and their three children — and the people who matter to them: the sons’ wives and their families, the prominent people the daughter meets in her work for a popular national radio show.

Pug is sent at President Roosevelt’s behest to “observe” on behalf of the military in Berlin, England, and Russia. He meets Hitler, Churchill, Stalin.

When Germany invades Poland, one son, who was working in Europe, is trapped along with American Jewish woman with whom he’s fallen in love.

The other son, a navy pilot,marries the senate’s most outspoken opponent to American intervention in a European war. He’s at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bomb it.

Wouk lets all these characters take readers around the world to get a 360-degree view of what led each of the participants into World War II.

Amazingly, Wouk makes every character a believable human being.

The Winds of War is the reading you would have liked to have had in history class.

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
Little, Brown. [1971] 888 p.
1971 bestseller #7. My grade: A+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Traditional values triumph in Marjorie Morningstar

Marjorie Morningstar is a bittersweet novel of a beautiful Jewish teenager whose theatrical ambitions and moral principles collide.

Marjorie Morgenstern’s decision to be an actress is an act of adolescent rebellion.

Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk

Doubleday, 1955. 565 pages. 1955 bestseller #1. My grade: B.

At 15, Marjorie has good looks, enough talent to shine in amateur theatrics, and enough sense to avoid promiscuous sex.

Front Dust Jacket of Marjorie MorningstarShe hasn’t enough sense to see that Noel Airman, born Saul Ehrmann, is a loser: smart, talented, sexy, personable, but rootless.

For six years, Marjorie pursues Noel, who warns her he’s not the marrying kind, and the theater, which is equally unwilling to have her on any but sexual terms.

Marjorie isn’t willing to give up her virginity for an acting role, but to get Noel she might.

Herman Wouk sets Marjorie’s story between the Depression and World War II. Without preaching, Wouk makes clear that survival depends on maintaining traditional values—marriage, family, work, religion.

Although Wouk uses stock characters, the story works because Marjorie is so young.

Adults know what will happen to Marjorie, but she doesn’t.

She makes herself believe she is consumed by passion. In truth, she’s simply too embarrassed to admit a mistake.

Marjorie Morningstar is good reading—and highly recommended for parents and grandparents of teens.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My Picks of 1965 Bestsellers

I have two sets of favorites from the 1965 bestsellers, one serious and the other lighter.

The Source by James A. Michener and The Ambassador by Morris L. West are the best of the 1965 bestsellers. They engage readers in examining weighty topics without being dull or pedantic.

Front of dust jacket of The Source by James A Michener.Michener’s novel is about the history of an archeological dig in Israel. It remains  significant today because the Middle East is still being fought over by descendants of people who settled there in ages past.

Although the topic sounds dry and book is long, The Source can be read comfortably because of Michener’s unusual technique: He reveals significant developments and significant people in the site’s history in what is almost a series of novellas.

Cover of Morris L. West's novel "The Ambassador"The Ambassador is about another war zone: Vietnam.

West looks at American involvement in Indochina through the perspective of an American diplomat whose assignment to head the embassy in Saigon begins inauspiciously:  A monk burns himself to death as the official limousine passes.

In carrying out Washington policy, the ambassador has to do things that offend his sense of American principles.

Today, The Ambassador puts the Vietnam quagmire in historical and cultural context for readers who know little of that era.

On the lighter side, I recommend Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman and Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk.

Kaufman takes readers inside an inner city high school with a novice teacher.

Wouk takes readers to tropical paradise with a middle aged Manhattan publicist looking for a stress free life.

Both novels are funny, but their humor hugs reality closely enough to give readers something worth some serious consideration.

Don’t Stop the Carnival. It’s too much fun.

Chucking the workaday world for tropical beaches is a paradise most of us only dream about.

Norman Paperman tries it—and his inventor, novelist Herman Wouk, tells the tale.

Map of the imaginary island of Amerigo
Map of the imaginary Island of Amerigo

Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk

Doubleday, 1965. 395 pages. 1965 bestseller #10. My grade: B+.

Norm is bored with his work as Broadway publicity agent when a mild heart attack signals he needs a change of pace.

With encouragement from millionaire Lester Atlas, a hard-drinking slob he can’t stand, Norm buys the Gull Reef Club on the island of Amerigo, which Lester assures him will be a gold mine.

Lester gets the gold and Norm gets to do the heavy digging.

Norm knows nothing of the hospitality business.

He’s unprepared for the loonies and eccentrics on whom he must rely to make the hotel run.

In addition, he finds certain aspects of life in the West Indies—such as hurricanes, earthquakes, lack of drinking water—too far off Broadway for his liking.

Norm finally learns to put his managerial skills to work in the strange surroundings. He’s on the verge of a success of the hotel when a series of tragic accidents produce a shocking ending that upon closer examination appears entirely reasonable.

Wouk makes the boisterous story laugh-out-loud funny, but the guffaws cover some serious growing-up for the middle-aged non-hero.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Youngblood Hawke: Insiders’ peek into the book business

Thomas Wolfe House in Asheville, North Carolina
Thomas Wolfe House in Asheville, North Carolina

Youngblood Hawke is Herman Wouk’s contribution to the shelf of novels by novelists about novelists. The novel has the usual plot complications readers expect as the rube with the typewriter is taken on, taken in, and taken over by shysters.

The story opens with Arthur Youngblood Hawke’s sale of his first novel to Prince House. The novel is promising rather than good.

Art figures he needs to write about seven books before he’ll know his craft. He aims to be first a successful author, then a rich one, living off his investments while he writes great books.

Art invests the income from his books in enterprises from hog futures and commercial real estate to self-publishing. His financial successes and failures are spectacular, but they are never what’s important to him. His world is the pad of lined yellow paper that he fills hour after hour.

Like most other novels about novelists, Youngblood Hawke contrasts the mercenary publishing world with the world of the art. But Wouk’s cast of colorful characters makes clear that the profit motive operates throughout society: even artists have to eat.

And the most tenacious of the followers after fortune may be somebody’s mother.

[Herman Wouk based Youngblood Hawke  on the life of Thomas Wolfe.  The photo above shows the boarding house owned and operated by Wolfe’s mother where Wolfe lived until he went to college.]

Youngblood Hawke: a novel
Herman Wouk
Little, Brown (paper)
© 1962
783 pages
1962 bestseller #4
My grade B+


© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My top pics from the 1951 bestseller list

The 1951 bestseller list provides  slim pickings for anyone looking for enduring stories, let alone great writing.  A few months after having read the 1951 novels, I can recall little about any of them.

The best of the lot are The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk and Melville Goodwin, USA  by  John P. Marquand. Both these are stories that grew out of World War II, but neither is actually a war novel.

The Caine Mutiny is the story of a rebellion that grew out of  boredom and the “what would happen if” thinking of a writer in the crew.

Melville Goodwin, USA is novel about a general with too little to do when the war is over and his wife whose life has been devoted to furthering her husband’s career.

You might not recall much of the characters or plot six months after laying down either the Wouk or the Marquand books, but you won’t have to drag your way through the pages.

Unfortunately, the  threads that would make the novels universally memorable are buried in believable characters,  plausible plots, and precise prose.  You won’t come away from either book able to whistle its theme–which is a requirement of great fiction.

Linda Gorton Aragoni

Missing The Caine Mutiny would be a crime

Sixty years on, ‘s 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny remains a testament to the complexity and perversity of human nature.

Pleasant, bright but not brilliant, Willie Keith’s goal in life is to get away from his mother. When his draft number comes up, he joins the Navy.

Assigned to a Pacific minesweeper, Willie quakes, expecting a life where his life hangs by a thread every minute.

Reality is very different.

A floating rust bucket, the Caine ferrys supplies and hauls targets. Her scuzzy crew does their jobs offhandedly, ignoring Navy regulations. Willie is appalled.

Then Captain Queeg takes over the ship. He’s a by-the-book man. Willie initially applauds his attempts to enforce standards . Gradually, however, Queeg is revealed as a petty tyrant, a lousy seaman, and quite probably a coward.

Inevitably, Tom Keefer, an officer whose spare time is devoted to writing a novel, suggests that Queeg may be mentally unfit for duty. The “mutiny” grows from that seed.

As Willie realizes that Queeg’s judgment cannot entirely be trusted, readers realize that Willie’s judgment can’t always be trusted either. In all honesty, we have to see that, like Willie, we sometimes dislike people with too-little reason, and we like people whose behavior we should consider despicable.

The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II
by Herman Wouk
International Collectors Library, 1951
498 pages
#2 on the bestseller list in 1951 and 1952
My grade: A

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni