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Book worm seeks apple [Outta GoodReads Prison]

I am a foreign resident of Netherlands who travels a lot, loves a good read (and a good talk about it) with passion, and has been doing technical writing for a living for over five years as part of computer science research. Besides traveling, my life is happily kept hectic by cheerful friends and me trying to keep myself busy; time-wise the latter takes the lion's share. I enjoy the occasional good wine (or Port) with an old cheese (and olives), I sigh whenever theater is only in Dutch, and often I wonder where all the mountains have gone. *** A note on the ratings. I care enough about the books listed in my profile that an objective grading is impossible. To address this issue, I tried to first rank the authors and only then the books of each; there are some exceptions, especially when an author has created something wonderful among more regular writings (such as Irving Stone's "The Agony and the Ecstasy"). ***

The Gathering Storm (The Second World War #1) by Winston Churchill

TODO: I cannot do justice to this review by completing it now, just after finishing the first volume of Sir Winston Churchill's six-volume The Second World War, but I will try to keep adding material to this. (The book was this good.) The Gathering Storm covers the longest period in the series, from the end of the First World War (1919) and the formation of the Churchill Government (May 10, 1940). The central theme of this volume, which is split into two books, is the lack of preparedness of Great Britain and France to face the growing threat of Nazi Germany.

Overall, this volume was so good that I have decided to start the second.

The book is not interesting only because it is a historical account of a capital historical event, written by a prominent historical figure of that moment (and of all time). The writing itself is very interesting and, at times, of the highest literary quality. Structurally, the two-part volume works well. The writing is very different in the two parts, with the first well-written and cursive, and the second mostly epistolary and thus overwhelming in detail and somewhat tedious to read. I was surprised by the modernity of Sir Winston Churchill's writing--at least the first part reads as some of the best journalism today. The use of archaisms is scarce and the turn of phrase is often elegant. The only drawbacks were, for me, the long epistles in part two and the abundant use of double negatives. The description of the Norwegian campaign, in epistles, is perhaps post-modern (so perhaps not to everyone's taste, including mine): the confusion of it all is easy to grasp from the letters.

Five things surprised me about Churchill. Firstly, his incredibly rich life prior to the start of the war. Many could have imagined him more the spoiled child of a rich father, clueless and warring. Instead, the son of a high class British official had numerous high positions in the service of the British Empire and was a man of the world, having conducted business the entire Earth. Secondly, his dogged, continuous fight with the Germans. After his humiliating removal from the circles of power---consequence of being judged to be responsible for the disaster in Gallipoli, Dardanelles---the safer move would have been to join the pacifist movements and be an MP, or simply to quit politics altogether. Instead, in the wake of the Second World War, he fights his own government to warn about the dangers of Germany, he is tirelessly meeting with people from all the relevant walks of power, gathering information here, helping with the formation of alliances there.
Thirdly, he is knowledgeable about an incredibly large amount of meaningful detail. I would have expected him to only be knowledgeable about the general balance of power in the world (the high-level numbers, the general war techniques, some detail from his past in the Navy). Instead, Churchill is an encyclopedic database of information relevant to the war, from abstract knowledge about the relative strengths of the British Navy, to detailed technical knowledge about how 11in guns operate and about effective measures on blocking estuaries from roaming U-boats; from high-tech Asdics (U-boat detectors), radars, and actuated mines, to to low-tech knowledge about the time it takes to consolidate and recondition various types of ships. Fourthly, he is continuously thinking new ways of attacking and destroying the Nazi Germany; even his pre-war letters reveal tens of ideas, many of which were to be implemented later. I would have expected him to have only a handful of ideas, of which, according to modern ideas of management, to focus all his energy on only one. Fifthly, perhaps derived from the fourth, he is attacking the enemy on numerous fronts at once. Compared with the indecisiveness of Chamberlain's cabinet, Churchill's exhibits a viral evolution of implemented ideas.

The historical events covered in this volume are too numerous to be listed here.

The first part covers the main reasons---the pro-peace sentiment after the First World War blinded people when looking at the possible thread of an arming Germany, incompetent and power-clinging democratic governments refused to accept the reality of a Germany breaking every contract and treaty, the poorly conceived international treaties accelerated the ascent of Nazi Germany, the ruthlessness of the Nazi party was not to be understood until too late. We see a Germany that breaks the treaties of Versailles and Locarno, occupying in the process the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia (where it also used poppet governments to lead the newly formed Czech and Slovak republics), and the Western side of Poland. We learn about the strategic import of each of these moves and about the monumental, criminal stupidity of the Governments of Great Britain and France. We also learn about the duplicity of Italy and Russia, who gain much without committing to war on either side, and of the neutrality of the USA. On the negative side, little is mentioned about Spain and about the plight of the Jewish people (the Holocaust was well under way, by this time).

The second covers mainly the preparation for war and mostly naval skirmishes, with the notable exception of the first scrap for territory between the Allies and Germany. The latter, fought in Norway and ended with the defeat of the Allies in the face of a new way of carrying out war (Churchill calls this "total war"), led to the fall of the Chamberlain Government and the formation of the Churchill Cabinet. Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart, a man with an incredible story---he lost his hand in the war, survived more than ten serious wounds and two plane crashes, yet commanded troops in important campaigns in both World Wars and survived long-term camp internment---makes an appearance in the Norway campaign; Churchill redeems de Wiart in this campaign after mentioning that the supreme British commandment did not inform de Wiart about the actual state of the supply and coordinated (lack of) movement of the British army.