4.27.2017

Ten More by Michener


Ten more Micheners to tell you about, starting with the one I didn't finish:

1.
(1991)

From its wiki: "A departure from Michener's better known historical fiction, The Novel is told from the viewpoints of four different characters involved in the life and work of a writer of historical novels based in a picturesque district in rural Pennsylvania."

I read about 100 pages of this one, but it's a slow burn. Not a bad book, and I was interested enough in the setting and some of the language to keep going, but I decided to pick it as my Rainy Day Michener * and keep it moving. Some of the ones left in the queue are over 1000 pages (Alaska, Texas) so I figure if my pace is slowing, best to pick a different book and circle back to it down the road. No need to dawdle.

* i.e. that one book of a (departed) author's catalog I hold in reserve so I won't have to inhabit a world with nothing "new" from them to read. 

Let's look at the rest in order of publication.

2.
(1950)

Originally I'd planned to cover this one along with the Gary Cooper movie of the same name (adapted from "Mr. Morgan," one of the nineteen vignettes in this collection.) But it's pretty unavailable - as is Until They Sail, adapted from a different story in here - so let's just look at the book. 

As the title suggests this is Michener's return to the South Pacific a few years after winning the Pulitzer for his wartime novel. It alternates between "local color" and invented stories (like "Mr. Morgan," an excellent tale of antiheroes in opposition) that illuminate some aspect of island lives. His insights and observations about the various islands in transition from colonial administration or military occupation are fascinating both for their raw look at a world in transition and for the candid worldview of Michener himself era (i.e. very progressive-liberal for his time, very politically incorrect and provincial for ours, but always committed to transmitting the native view).

It's more of the ironic detachment and sumptuous description from Tales of the South Pacific, though here the islands are in peacetime. The war continues to resonate, though, as do the centuries of white exploitation of Polynesia and Malaysia.  

3.
(1954)

In his autobiography The World Is My Home, Michener shakes his head over some of the covers designed for his paperback and foreign editions. This can certainly be seen with these covers above for Sayonara, an Anglo-Asian romantic tragedy that takes place during the US Occupation of Japan/ general atmosphere of institutionalized Orientalism. Neither are excessive fare for the era, just rather tone deaf for the story within.

Not that it particularly matters; To Kill a Mockingbird this is not. It's a quick read and its heart is in the right place, but to be honest, I just never bought into the romance. Kind of a novel-killer for a romantic tragedy. It's unfair, of course, to compare it to a later work, but I couldn't help thinking how much better this sort of thing was done in Clavell's Shogun. A totally different novel and unfair comparison like I say, but still. 

4.
(1957)

"You've got to learn that meaningless sympathy for the criminal elements who oppose the government is in itself a crime against the government."

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 Michener was on the other side of the bridge of the title (alongside RI's consummate statesman Claiborne Pell, RIP)
across the border in Austria, helping to resettle refugees. Out of that experience came this book.

It paints in rather broad strokes. Which suits me fine when it comes to the commies stuff - communism's all broad strokes, you red bastards. And as this was written when the smoke was still rising from what the Soviets left of Budapest, no one can fault anyone for some of the history that turned out to be wrong (i.e. John Foster Dulles did tell the Hungarians that the US would come to their aid if they rose up. He just lied to Eisenhower about it. Oops. At the time it was spun as a tragic misunderstanding on the part of the  Hungarian freedom fighters.)

Some unfortunate mid-20th-century homophobia masquerading as psychological insight in the chapter that pieces together the background of the typical AVO (the Hungarian secret police) man or woman. It is strongly implied that communism thrives on turning "deviants" (i.e. non-heteros) into truncheon-wielding fanatics. I mean, maybe it does - I don't recall that part in my copy of Lenin's State and Revolution, but hey maybe it's part of some secret protocol. More likely though, it's some "every gay is a potential recruit for Moscow..." dog whistling. Unremarkable for its era, nor do I single Michener out for any particular thoughtcrime or anything, just while we're here.

5.
(1965)

Plot: An American assists an international team of archaeologists in the excavation of Makor, a tell in the modern state of Israel. The past comes alive with each level they dig from the earth.

I thought this would be a slam dunk for me. I enjoy all the history involved (biblical, Roman, Crusader, modern Israeli, etc.) and thought the central device (using an archaeological site to explore 11,000 years of continuous habitation over many eras) was one of Michener's better ones. And yet I found it to be a misfire. Kirkus hit upon this in its review:

"Will (the author's) assiduous spadework and unquestionable sympathy meet an equivalent fortitude in a reader who is expecting a novel, which this is not? Is dubbed-in dialogue for the Greatest Story Ever Told a replacement for the Good Book which certainly said it better? How much of this can be assimilated in what is essentially a digest documentary presentation?"

"A digest documentary presentation" is basically Michener's whole schtick - he studies the historical record and creates fictional analogs to present it in a different way to the reader. Sometimes it works pretty well; here, though, at least for this reader, not so much. I don't object to sampling or repurposing Old Testament personalities, events, or anecdotes, but at several points I wondered what the point of it all was. 

6.
(1968)

An exhaustive exploration of Spain as it existed in the mid-1960s, as well as a detailed and lavishly illustrated overview of Spanish history. With plenty of photographs. 

I did not reread this one in its entirety for this Michenerpalooza, having reread it only a couple of years ago (and over the years probably a couple of other times, as well.) It's an excellent resource for Spanish history and is probably my third favorite Iberian travelogue, behind Robert Hughes' Barcelona and Phil Ball's Morbo.

I've never been to Spain. One of these days. When I do, I'll definitely re-read this (and probably the two just mentioned) before I go. 

7.
(1969)

"On election day 1968 the United States once again played a reckless game with its destiny. Acting as if we were immune to catastrophe, we conducted one more presidential election in accordance with rules that are outmoded and inane. This time we were lucky. Next time we could wreck our country. (If the winner) of the popular vote were to be deprived of the Presidency by manipulations in either the Electoral College - that faceless group of electors beholden to no one - or the House, there could be large scale disaffection - or worse."

The inspiration for this came from something Michener realized as a Democrat elector from Pennsylvania in the '68 election: if a candidate does not get the required 270 electoral votes and if there is a third party candidate who has a number of electors per state that can throw the election to one or the other, that third party candidate can then cut a deal - any deal - and subvert the democratic process. (i.e. "What will you give me if I give you my electors?" A contested election decided in the House has different but equally dangerous pitfalls.)

Let me emphasize that the idea of a popular-vote winner not getting the Presidency isn't the constitutional crisis Michener spends time on here. That is a result of our electoral system, not the electoral college. A direct popular vote would do away with both, but most of the reforms people talk about have to do with the winner-takes-all-electoral-votes situation.

Anyway! All the pros and cons, historical exceptions, curiosities, and some constitutional anecdotes can all be found herein. And the full text of the Constitution appears in one of the appendices, raising the number of Michener books with the Constitution in the backpages to at least two. 

8.
(1978)

Here's another I reread relatively recently (well, in 2013) and at least two other times over the years. I enjoy it so originally I'd planned to read it one more time, what the hell, for this Michenerpalooza project, but after skimming through it, I realized I still remembered it pretty well. 

Of the Micheners that follow this sort of multi-generational-in-one-geographical-location sort of deal (Alaska, Hawaii, The Covenant, Centennial, Mexico, Caribbean, Poland - without looking at the list, I think that's all of them) it used to be one of my favorites. Looking at it now, though, I'm unsure if it really justifies itself. I mean, on one hand, it does everything a book has to do - i.e. it's a good companion for a solid stretch of time with characters you care about, events that are interesting, and emotion/ sweep you can relate to. On the other, though, is there anything unique to the Chesapeake Bay region here? There's a lot about the region, obviously, just the things covered about the environment, the American Revolution, slavery and abolition, and Quakers and WW2 all seemed like they could just as easily have taken place anywhere up and down the Atlantic Seaboard.

In The World Is My Home, Michener talks about how as a result of his living in the region for the years he did writing this, he became an honorary crab-cake judge and would travel back and forth across the bay, stepping ashore at one festival after another, getting schmoozed by all the cooks, stuffing his face with delicious Maryland bay crab fried dough. To me, that one anecdote says more to me about Chesapeake than any of the (admittedly very interesting) American history detailed here. 

Still an impressive achievement, of course, either way. 


9.
(1994)

From the dedication page: "Recessional: (def.) n., the hymn or other music played at the end of service as the congregation files out of the church." Nice touch, since this was the last novel Michener ever completed. He wrote it while living at a retirement home in St. Petersburg, FL, after his wife died, where he got a long close look at chemotherapy and the challenges of dementia and hospice care.

The plot is simple: Andy Zorn, a medical doctor forced into retirement through some shameful (but perfectly legal) maneuvering in court, is hired to turn a Florida nursing home into a profitable venture. On the drive down, he witnesses a multi-car pile-up, where he saves the life (but not the legs below the kneecap) of a young woman. She later goes to the nursing home/ rehabilitation center Zorn runs, and they fall in love. Along the way we get the lives and perspectives of the nursing home's clients. As well as some ambivalent reflection on the miracles of modern medicine:

"Nora ushered him into the room where, in a bed lined with many wires and transparent tubes running down from a complicated gantry, Mrs. Carlson, pallid and passive and tormented by bedsores, spent her unheeding existence. It was both a miracle and a travesty of modern medicine. She was kept alive without her brain or nervous system sending signals for the various brain functions; they were discharged according to the dictates of medicines or pumps or the slow drainage of chemicals into or out of her body." 

Michener's justifiably skeptical about the complex web of bureaucracy, actuarial policy, and local and religious politics that determine how these things are handled. Along the way, too, the reader gets a sense of those in-the-headlines things that were impacting a man of Michener's age, namely AIDS.

All of the above combines to makes this kind of a creaky book, more like a sentimental Disney TV movie or something, with the old guys at the home building an airplane and taking it out for a spin, plus all the family drama and the doctor/ patient love story. I liked parts of it - and Michener's love of animals is evident in the generous sections on pelicans, rattlesnakes, and manatees - but it's no Cocoon.

Two quick things: (1) Michener puts in a wry comment on the work that made him famous. When Judge Noble, an African-American WW2 Navy vet, is asked about South Pacific, he snorts. "They took me to see South Pacific, but I walked out. That wasn't the South Pacific I saw. I was belowdecks, hoisting ammo and wondering when ours was going to get blown sky high." And (2) The novel opens with Andy making his way across Chicago for the meeting that will get him the job at the Palms. This passage confused the heck out of me: 

"Michigan Boulevard was the official name of the spacious promenade, but early Chicagoans, deeming their city the equal of any in Europe, had informally christened their major street Boul Mich in the French style and the name had stuck." 

Uhh, what? I've lived in Chicago for almost 15 years and worked off Michigan Avenue for half of that. I've never heard this "Boul Mich" before. Turns out, though, this actually is a thing, just a rather dated thing. At first I thought he was trying to pull some kind of fast one... first making up a whole new state in Space (albeit for legal reasons) and now this! But nope, just betraying his Class of 1932 sensibilities.

Whatever he calls it, though, he's absolutely right - you take your life in your damn hands walking through it when Lake Michigan is storming over.
 


10.
(1992)

This is the story of how in the 1960s Michener abandoned the novel that later became Mexico based on the criticism of Bennett Cerf, Random House's publisher and "notable New Yorker." (Michener had included analogs for Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in one of the bullfight chapters, as they had joined Michener and his entourage during one of the corridas. Cerf objected to it as too fake, which dismantled Michener's confidence / forced him to realize the novel had gotten away from him.)

Michener repurposed some of the material for Caribbean, Centennial, and Texas. The rest he boxed up and sent (or so he thought) to the Library of Congress, as they had selected him as an author to solicit material from for their ongoing project of preserving American artists. (A sidenote - Michener died 20 years ago this October; by the terms of his original deal with the L of C, as reported here, whatever they choose to publish or make public will begin in 2022. I wonder what all's in there?) What actually happened, though, was Michener boxed up the material, but for some reason it was never mailed. An assistant found it in his Pennsylvania home and mailed it to him him Texas (where he was living at the time) and voila, instant "new" book, to be added to Michener's other flurry of writing in the last 15 years of his life. 

Most of this (slim) book is photocopies of his notes and original outlines, i.e. not extremely interesting. I mean, the behind-the-scenes process of how a novel's put together, the forces that shape, derail, or sustain it, etc - all of that is interesting enough, but it probably didn't need to be its own book. 

Towards the end, though, two things worth mentioning: (1) when Random House was sold in the 80s, Michener joined some of his fellow writers on their roster in protesting the new management. A different set of buyers ended up taking over, making it all moot, but when it looked like they'd be stuck with owners they didn't respect, Michener had his agent shop his forthcoming autobiography and a few of his new books (such as The Novel and Alaska, in various stages of completion) to rival publishers, even offering a discount since it was for a principle he believed in. Whereupon he discovered - no one wanted them! Humbling, especially at his late age, but this was the New York publishing scene of the 80s and Michener's star had very much faded. He reflects on this a little in My Lost Mexico. (He also reflects that a few years down the road, the rejected work generated substantial profits and not a little acclaim, and he wondered at the wisdom of their passing on it.) 

And (2) Towards the end, he mentions with some shock and awe the then-current revelations that Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain slept with thousands of women. You can almost see him falling out of his laz-e-boy, the can of peaches spilling from his hand, as A Current Affair or Sportscenter scrolled that info while he was working on this manuscript. Too funny. It comes out of nowhere and is just such a great "I'm old and there are wolves after me - THEY DID WHAT NOW?!" moment. 

See you next time with a look at The World Is My Home.



~

4 comments:

  1. (1) "The Novel" is a bold title for a novel. It's be an even bolder title for, like, a collection of essays or something. I fully support your rainy-day-book efforts, but I've never had that sort of self-control, personally. So I find yours to be admirable!

    (2) "very progressive-liberal for his time, very politically incorrect and provincial for ours, but always committed to transmitting the native view" -- The baby has mostly been thrown out with the bathwater when it comes to that sort of thing in the modern world. Maybe that's for the best, but it's a shame for Michener's efforts to be somewhat swept away in the tide of modernity. Those things tend to go in cycles, of course, so who knows what the future may bring.

    (3) I kinda dig those covers for "Sayonara." Not sure why. Might be the bosoms, but I don't want to commit to anything. This is another of the novels of his that always attracted my eye, by the way -- and it was this cover (http://images.gr-assets.com/books/1386921885l/42956.jpg) that did it. And, funnily enough, it was precisely because of the "Shogun" comparison that I was intrigued by it. Sad to hear the Clavell novel is handily the better. No surprise, though; that's a very good novel, as you well know.

    (4) "communism's all broad strokes, you red bastards" -- Just so you know, I mentally read this in a Shatner-in-Search-for-Spock voice. It worked quite well.

    (5) Regarding "The Source," my guess is the point was for Michener to find a way to get paid to do some stuff that interested him for a while. Can't fault him for that, but it's too bad it didn't result in a better book.

    (6) How much of "Iberia" is about the Basques? A former boss of mine had family from Spain, and he was talking to me about the Basques one day. He realized that I had no clue what he was talking about, and was aghast at my lack of knowledge. Now, any time Spain is mentioned, this is what I think of: my general know-nothingness.

    (7) "Presidential Lottery" sounds well worth my time. So do pretty much all of these, but when and if I ever begin a Michener binge, that might be where I start.

    (8) I don't know one becomes an honorary crab-cake judge, but it seems like a good position to aspire to.

    (9) "Recessional" intrigues me. There's something enviable about Michener's seeming proclivity toward experiencing as much of the world as humanly possible, and not just keeping all that experience for himself, but processing and filtering it and sending it out into the world, to be vicariously experienced by people who are either too timid or too lazy or too disadvantaged or (in some cases) too lucky to experience it for themselves. My feeling is that it's probably hard to be too down on the guy's less-inspired work, simply for the amount of effort it took to fail at that level.

    (10) "My Lost Mexico" sounds like something that would be intensely interesting to hardcore Michener fans, and therefore I support its existence fully. Not sure that'll ever be me, but I AM sure that if it does become me, I will want to read a book like that one.

    Also: to be fair, reacting with amazement to the lothariotic (I may have just invented a word!) achievements of Johnson and Chamberlain is always the right reaction. It's all the rest of us who are getting it wrong! Well ... maybe not Gene Simmons. HIS reaction is appropriate, too, whatever it may be.

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  2. (2) In general, I find people that love to go on and on about how so-called liberals of the past are actually racist, provincial, orientalist, yadda yadda to not just throw the baby out with the bathwater but to deliberately drown said baby. Mean-spirited, confused, stupid, short-sighted people with no desire for empathy, no curiosity beyond their spoonfed BS - and somehow proud of all of this! It blows my mind. I have nothing but contempt for this demographic, and the day the universities and media are liberated from their myopic, regressive regime and memory-holing and general reign of terror, I will consider a holy day and celebrate for the rest of time.

    (3) Nice cover - I missed that one in my google searching.

    (4) Heh. Nice. Shatner-voice (like Arnold-voice) rarely fails to improve or modify any situation to my liking.

    (5) Undoubtedly. I think maybe, too, it's that I've read so much other Israel/ Middle East stuff over the past few years and this one seemed kind of fluff compared to them. For as well-researched as it is and as fascinating as all the history is - but that kind of works against it, too, i.e. reading about fictional analogs of better-known events and personalities just seemed like an odd exercise.

    (6) Not a whole lot, actually - it's a failing of the book, perhaps. I agree the Basques are fascinating. I didn't spend the time on this entry as I should have, but Iberia is one of my favorite things to read, ever. Spanish history itself is fascinating, too, so that helps. I don't have a book to recommend on the Basques, but Phil Ball's Morbo gives some interesting insights. Also rather timely: http://www.football-espana.net/58466/la-liga-facing-basque-takeover

    (8) I'll have some crabcake, please. I imagine Alabama has its share of seafood delicacies, but man do I miss easy access to Atlantic seaboard treats, from Maine lobster to Maryland bay crab to RI quahogs and all else. Perhaps this explains why if Chesapeake was rewritten to exclusively be about this crabcake judging and criss-crossing the bay to accomplish it, I'd have been delighted.

    (9) Hear hear!

    (10) That goes for all this, as well.

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  3. ""The Novel" is a bold title for a novel. It's be an even bolder title for, like, a collection of essays or something."

    Delayed reaction to this joke - that would be great. I hope someone does that one of these days (if it hasn't already happened.)

    Reminds me of those fantastic POLICE SQUAD openings, where the narrator would read a different title than the one on screen.

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