7.10.2017

The Best of James Michener: Fiction

We have reached the end of this James Michener readthrough. I can't believe I made it through the whole project without generating an official name for it; if I had, that first sentence would be cooler, something like "The lights are going out in Southeast Asia and soon a great silence will settle over the Ho Chi Michener Trail..." But, no snazzy-name, so no soap.

It was a hell of a project. Forty-one books, all told, most of which got up past six or seven hundred pages and plenty that went even higher. I bring this up not to boast, which would be pretty damn silly to boast about ("Watch me crush these page counts, bro!" Actually that'd be a funny persona for a wrestler - the Book-Wrangler or something) but to underscore the post-project disorientation such things bring. I was reading Alistair Maclean's South by Java Head on the commute in this morning and it felt so weird to be reading something a) outside the project, b) so light that my brain couldn't register the featherweight paperback in my hands was actually a book, and c) almost downright rude in its disinterest in the multi-generational historical record, techniques of farming, inner lives of animals, the US electoral process, Quakerism, or any of the other Michener leitmotifs. (It does, however, take place in the Pacific Theater of WW2, so there's that.)

Here then are the fruit of my reading labors - my favorites of Michener's fiction, ranked least-to-most.  

24.
(2007)

Coming in dead last is this oddity, published 10 years after the author's death and unlike anything else he wrote. The main characters (a mother and daughter) spend an awful lot of time talking out loud to themselves as well as apprising their own attractiveness or what they plan to wear and how men might regard it. There's also a conspicuous amount of time lounging around in "negligees," perhaps the unsexiest word in the English language when written by an old man. Maybe any man. Or woman. 

As described in more detail here, "Avenick tells us that Michener wanted him to make use of Matecumbe, that he remained friends with Michener to the end, and that (the novel) is a rescued and revealing gem, every word of it Michener's. Yet Avenick was instrumental in raising questions about Michener's authorship of his own works, and now stands to profit from a book he's publicly describing as a literary consequence of Michener's infidelity as a husband."


So yeah, kind of disingenuous on Avenick's part to pass it off any which way, and enough to raise an eyebrow on the authenticity of this. It may very well have been written by Michener, but it sure doesn't read like it.  

23.
(1954)

An Anglo-Asian romantic tragedy that takes place during the US Occupation of Japan/ atmosphere of institutionalized Orientalism. 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 James Clavell's Shogun. A totally different novel and unfair comparison like I say, but still. 

I haven't seen the movie. I should. (Sensei Khan??)

22.
(1987)

"(The Constitution) was written by rich men for the protection of their wealth Their manufactures are protected, and every article in the document favors them and oppresses us. The poor farmer gets no relief, so the Constitution by rich men for the rich should be rejected."

Scott D. Parker described this one as an extended civic lesson with walk-on characters, and I agree, As the reaction of a man of Michener's generation to Oliver North and the Iran-Contra hearings, it's definitely interesting; as the insights of an accomplished writer to a deeply embedded crisis in American history, it feels more like an outline than a fully-realized text.

It's amazing how cyclical American history is, though, isn't it? The same scandals, the same positions, the same fears and concerns. A fixed range of positions and counter-positions seem hard-wired into the American experiment, and we will likely always sway back and forth between them. 

21.
(1992)

Here's the most misnamed novel in Michener's bibliography. As this reviewer puts it, "(It's) a good read but tells very little about Mexico. Most of the characters treated in detail are actually Americans, or Spaniards, not Mexicans at all. I don’t understand why Michener felt it necessary to invent the Altomecs when the Aztecs would have made a truer story. Likewise, the invention of (General) Gurza when there were so many real characters of his type to draw from." 

Amen on these "Altomecs" - it's like writing a book on Plymouth Rock and inventing a composite tribe for all Native Americans. I understand that he probably felt he had more wiggle room with a fictional composite, but sometimes it's just confusing (such as when he creates new states like "Fremont" in Space), or conspicuously less interesting than the actual history (here, or in our next selection.) 

That said, the corrida stuff is good; it's just not the right material on which to hang a novel called Mexico. Cut out give or six hundred pages and rename it Matador and you have a much better prospect.

20.
(1965)

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. 

I don't object to sampling or repurposing Old Testament personalities, events, or anecdotes for religious reasons, but at several points I wondered what the point of a lot of it was. Too much of the reading relies on imperfect facsimiles of the most basic elements of Judeo-Christian/ Roman-Greco civilization. Why reinvent the (literal) wheel? What's the point of writing the siege of Jerusalem by writing the siege of a fictional place but with the same personalities?

I did like the Antiochus IV ("tyrant of the Seleucid Empire") stuff, though. If a movie is to wrested from this, that'd be a very dramatic one. A Hoop Dreams for the Classical World!

19.
(1991)

Not a bad book, and I was interested enough in the setting and some of the language to keep going after the hundred pages I read, but I decided to pick it as my Rainy Day Michener * and keep it moving. So I didn't actually finish and probably shouldn't speculate, but I bet this is where it would place. I'll let you know when I get there, if Blogger's still indulging the Omnibus in whatever year I get to it.

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

18.
(1985)

In its review ("The Facts Without the Feelings of Texas," November 1985) The Harvard Crimson called this one "a Texas-sized database with a soap opera fairy tale grafted on." Ouch! It's more or less true, although Texas history and trivia, even in soap opera fairy tale broad strokes, is pretty damn readable. 

The various stories (Cabeza de Vaca, Coronado, the Missions, the Alamo, the birth of the Texas Rangers, the Klan, oil, the women of Dallas) have been fleshed out better in dozens of other places; here it's 50% the usual sort of observations you get from Michener from novel to novel/ place to place, 25% Texas Trivial Pursuit, and 25% Dallas

The sections covering the war with the Comanche were probably my favorite. As he did with the Sam Austin and Santa Anna section (lifting it into its own separate book, The Eagle and the Raven) that could easily have been expanded into its own book and been given even more room to breathe. 

17.
(1994)

"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." 

This tale of nursing home redemption and rattlesnake attacks is kind of a creaky book - more like a Disney TV movie from the 80s than a novel, 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 business. It's just missing Barrett Oliver or Haley Joel Osment.  

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.  

16.
(1974)

"In a society where a young man, to prove his manhood, is required to have sexual intercourse with a maximum number of young women, and where a brother is obligated to kill any man who violates his sister, there are bound to be disturbances on a Saturday night."

The history itself is fascinating, and Michener does a good job of making you care about the centuries-spanning cast of characters, particularly some of the earlier ones, for whom I felt pangs of anguish when they inevitably exited the stage as years or events overtook them. But somewhere around the 2/3ds mark I started skimming over some paragraphs. I sympathize with the amount of info he had to crunch into some of the later sections on irrigation and land use, etc., but my eyes kept crossing.  There's only so much topsoil-and-sugar-beets reading I have in me.


I don't quibble - it's all in keeping with his general take on history/ storytelling as a series of episodes and nothing more and I appreciate him for it - but just as an example, there are almost two hundred pages on the formation of the Rockies and subsequent evolution of the beaver, rattlesnake, buffalo, and horse. It's all very interesting ("Those lost two billion years lie upon the consciousness of man the way vague memories or ghosts survive in the recollections of childhood.") But seriously - two hundred pages? In a way I feel like some comments section wanker complaining that the Twin Peaks revival being "too surreal" but still - might've tightened that up a bit.

15.
(1971)

"Their program was simple: move into every disturbed situation, exacerbate it, allow it no time to stabilize, sponsor anarchy, and rely upon the resulting turmoil to radicalize the young people. When a sufficient cadre of able young people had been converted into dedicated revolutionaries, large mass movements would be initiated to tear down the social structure: banks would be discredited, the National Guard immobilized, universities destroyed, and the usefulness of social agencies like newspapers and television stations neutralized." 

The Drifters is filled with great insights into Western civilization, psychology, men, women, age, youth, and the simpler and more pleasurable things like sunsets, groovy tunes, and sex. And Spain, where such things always converge of their own accord. He wrote it to explain the younger generation to his own peers - and to us. If I quibble with some of his artistic choices/ characters, or even the wisdom of some of his conclusions, I remain in awe of his pure talent to convey information. But that's what makes Michener a great writer; he doesn't only hear what he wants to hear.

Some of this may be a little dated. But a) so are the 60s, any way you define them, and b) its datedness is kind of the point. I don't think the narrator character is all that logical - at no point do I find his presence in the plot to be at all realistic - but it at least sets up a proper compare/ contrast between men of Michener's generation and the kids of The Drifters. (Even moreso with the Harvey Hoyt character.)

14.
(1950)

Kind of a cheat - this is a fiction/ nonfiction hybrid. It should be on both lists but is only on this one. Which is funny as the nonfiction parts are the reason this places where it does. The fictional interludes (like "Mr. Morgan," an excellent tale of antiheroes in opposition) are fine and all, just it's the author's observations about the various islands in transition from colonial administration or military occupation that comprise the book's best reading. 

Michener was very progressive-liberal for his time, even if he identified as a Republican at the time of this book's writing, but there are stretches here that may trigger a modern audience. Not that he writes anything particularly offensive, only that modern audiences are so offended. ("When so and so says such and such, Michener says nothing. His silence tells you all you need to know about Return to Paradise." etc.) Regardless, he was committed to transmitting the native view first and his own opinions second (and sometimes third or fourth). 

13.
(1989)

I was looking for a broad strokes history of the Caribbean and this did the trick, mainly by illustrating how impossible a "broad strokes" history of the Caribbean actually is. Would it be a better book if he'd picked one single country (Haiti or Barbados, for example, two countries he returns to more than others in the narrative) and told the same story through that lens? Perhaps. 

Michener sometimes takes explicit pains to distinguish his stand-in characters from himself with irrelevant details. The effect can sometimes be like watching someone with an obvious disguise try to make it less obvious by adapting a fake-Dracula accent. The character of Michael Carmody gets the honors here, an Irish teacher on Trinidad who appears in two key chapters to glue other characters/ events together. 

12.
(1995)

Not being particularly enamored with bullfighting - although I like and know my Hemingway just fine - I didn't expect to enjoy this book too much but was pleasantly surprised. It takes place over the course of Holy Week in Spain and concerns an American writer who gets wrapped up in the quasi-mystical fortunes and faded glory of Spanish bullfighters, most specifically a family of breeders whose bulls no longer enjoy the reputation they once did.


Some fantastic illustrations by John Fulton, an old friend of the author's and one of the few American bullfighters to achieve success in Spain. Like Matecumbe, Miracle is an odd-book-out in Michener's catalog; unlike Matecumbe, this one actually reads like Michener and his collaborator doesn't cast casual aspersions on his old friend's character in an Afterword.

11.
(1980)

Is this Michener's best work? It might be, objectively. I think I may be ranking it too low. But I probably enjoyed reading the ten selections below a tad more. Nevertheless this is an admirable work and a great piece of writing. Prior to reading it, I understand virtually nothing about South Africa except it was the one place on Earth seemingly more racist (and for a lot longer) than the USA. After reading it, I realized a) how oversimplistic that summation was, and b) how little I actually knew about the pre-apartheid history of the nation. 

It's a shame this came out before the insanity of the apartheid era finished as it (or perhaps the World Cup victory, as both Nelson Mandella and Clint Eastwood thought) would have made a proper (and rather happy) ending. Except history is never over. Michener understood that and defended the sort of abrupt-fizzle of some of his endings that way. All I can say is, more than any book on this list, I fell in love with South Africa and South Africans, from Afrikaaner to Zulu and all the alphabet in-between. I'm rooting for them in the world, and it's Michener's doing. No small feat for some old white guy from Pennsylvania.

10.
(1988)

"The saga of Nome ground to a stumbling halt. The Golden Gate Hotel burned again and was rebuilt. The glacier of frozen urine filled the alleys once more in winter and melted into the sea in summer." 

Loved this one. Some fascinating history, memorable characters, epic landscape, and compelling questions for the future. I could've done without the lengthy sections from the salmon's POV, but hey. It's still too long - I think it'd have ended much more naturally at the vote for statehood, myself. That would only shorten it by 100 to 150 pages, but my aim is not to just make it shorter but to tighten it up a bit, to maximize its impact. The post-statehood parts are still great reading, but perhaps Michener should've done what he did with Journey: excise this section and expand it into its own novel. 

It works as one big saga, don't get me wrong, with a large cast of characters who criss-cross in surprising ways and well-chosen representative examples of Alaska's history and peoples. (And its geography). I just think it might have worked better as a collection of shorter Alaskan novels that expanded on each section. Or maybe shorten all of them and have published it as Tales of the North Pacific, for career symmetry.

9.
(1949)

"Now humans become shadows, as in a Shakespearean play, vague drifting things that tangled in one's heart." 

Here's another one I didn't expect to enjoy but ended up liking quite a bit. In Report of the County Chairman, Michener recounts how when he met then-Senator John Kennedy, the future President told him how much he enjoyed The Fires of Spring. When I read that, I thought perhaps JFK was just being a good politician - i.e. praising a lesser-known work of an author rather than the more visible one. But it occurred to me while reading that a man of JFK's generation could find an awful lot in Fires to relate to, even someone like Kennedy, whose upbringing and early manhood could not resemble Michener's/ David Harper (the main character)'s any less. 

Like JFK (though very much not like JFK) my own childhood was a far cry from Michener's, but the first stirrings of love and lust and English major-ness are probably more similar from person to person and generation to generation than we admit. 

8.
(1978)

This was the book that put Michener on my radar (thank you, Mrs. Charpentier, 12th Grade English) and is the one I compared his other multi-generational sagas to, until I read Hawaii, which edged it aside as my personal template.

One one hand, I'm unsure if it really justifies itself. 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. Is there anything unique to the Chesapeake Bay region here, though? 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.

On the other hand, it's a riveting read that brought at least the bay and its marshlands alive for me that no other book has. The Homicide episode "The Last of the Watermen" (one of my favorites) is almost like an epilogue to Chesapeake. I don't think it was designed that way, just a happy accident. 

7.
(1963)

"As a boy I had been fascinated by this city, ancient and famous even before the days of Darius. Could this be Balkh, this empty field of arid mounds where herd boys tended goats and wandering Kochis came to camp? This expanse of buried rubble with no plaques, no banners, not even a line of brick indicating where the great libraries had stood? I felt inconsolably lonely, as if I were lost in the paralyzing sweep of history, a shard left by time. (...) Many times I had crossed the path of Genghis Khan, merely one of the scourges and not necessarily the worst, and each time I had stood where he had erased a population. Perhaps a society cannot absorb such repeated punishments. Perhaps the scourging does something to the minds of men, converting citizens into frightened nomads who feel safe only when carrying their goods with them under their own surveillance. Perhaps it was Genghis Khan who explained why the Kochis and the Kizilbash and the Tajiks remained wanderers with no fixed civilization to sustain them."

If you like Michener, you'll love Caravans. It's not as polished as some of his other works, but it moves along at a great clip, paints some unforgettable pictures (particularly at the Caravanserai of Tongues), and contains his usual blend of sensitivity, keen insight into the psychology of both Americans and non-Americans, and remarkable facility for rendering a foreign landscape into three familiar dimensions.

6.
(1953)

"A communist's bullet no bigger than a man's thumb, fired at random by some ground defender of the dump, had blundered haphazardly into the turbine blades, which were then whirring at nearly 13,000 RPMs. Like the society which had conceived the engine, the turbine was of such advanced construction that even trivial disruption of one fundamental part endangered the entire structure."

Quite an agreeable read. A traditional war novel (made into what sounds and looks like a rather traditional war movie - I haven't seen it, though) whose setting the author returned to years later in a memorable stretch of Space

Not much to say about this one. It's a pretty straightforward tale. While he was in Korea embedded with the troops at the 38th parallel, he was visited by a courier from Life's Tokyo office, bearing the galleys for Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Life prevailed upon Michener to give an advance read of these top-secret pages, which Michener, after overcoming his surprise at the request in the context it was made, was happy to do. He subsequently learned he was one of dozens of people around the globe entrusted with these pages. This has nothing to do with The Bridges at Toko-Ri, I just like the anecdote. (Later, Herman Wouk would find himself in a similar position with Toko-Ri itself, which is how "'His eyes have seen the glory!' - Herman Wouk" ended up as the blurb on the front cover of the edition I read.

5.
(1983)

I was really swept up in this one from the very beginning ("The summer of 1240 was a bleak one for the Polish people" is a sentence designed to hook Dog Star Omnibus) to the very end, where Chalubinski (a dastardly commie) sorts his color-coded index cards, marking the "good" Poles (i.e. those who aid the Soviets and make no trouble) from "undesirable."

This idea - not just the color-coded cards, which specifically recall the gestapo organization of an earlier chapter ("The Terror") but the whole idea of occupying powers (some of them from the same bloodline, the Von Eshls of Prussia) determining the worth, life, and death of Poles in their own country - is a motif of the novel. Like The Covenant, it's unfortunate that it was published before subsequent real-world events could provide a more dramatic resolution. Nevertheless, as both an overview and a stirring portrait of a vital (and essential to Europe's survival) people and culture, it's a first-rate affair. 


4.
(1959)

This book is a revelation of fascinating history, human drama and passion (and incest and intrigue) and all sorts of American and Pacific history. It might lose a little at the end - Michener can sometimes hit a bumpy patch in the last bit as he ties together many generations of plotlines, but he lands the plane. 

This was the book that explained to me how the feds hold native lands - in Hawaii just as they do in the continental US - in trust and what that means. If for only that reason, this book is Michener at his most subversive.

I praised this book on facebook not too long ago and a friend wrote he didn't think there was enough about native Hawaiians in it. I was surprised by this, but perhaps my friend's right. Nevertheless, I found it a sensitive, sympathetic, and well-detailed (and shocking in places) affair. 

3.
(1982)

In my original review of this one I wrote: "If you like the Michener approach, you'll like Space. Even if you don't like his approach, you'll probably like Space, though the author's motive in creating the fictional US state of Fremont for a work of otherwise realistic fiction with real-life characters like Werner Von Braun and LBJ making appearances will not make any sense until the last hundred pages. (And and even then, not much.) I loved it, although I wish someone would publish annotated versions of these books. I like to know who people are based on. John Pope is clearly modeled on John Glenn, for example (which made his recent passing only a few days after I finished Space all the sadder) but who is the real world analog for Cynthia Rhee? And so many others?"

I still wonder and I renew my desire for annotated editions, but I suspect there's no one-to-one analogs, really, only composites of many people. If you're curious, Michener created the fictional state of Fremont because one of the characters in the novel is a Senator from this state and Michener didn't want to alienate anyone or disparage any actual Senators. Reasonable, but combined with the novel depicting an equally fictional Apollo mission to the Far Side ("not the dark! Don't call it the dark!" object many of the novel's scientists) of the moon, it almost qualifies Space as science fiction rather than the science fact it was assembled to be.  

For this reason, someone should add "A space adventure of Earth in a different dimension!" to the cover. One depressingly similar in all other aspects.

2.
(1982)

Originally cut from Alasksa and published as this standalone story, you'd be forgiven for thinking this isn't a substantial work, but actually this is one of Michener's best. All of the themes in which he specialized coalesce wonderfully here. And if you're looking for another Michener specialty - writing about bastards in an engaging and sympathetic way, so much so that you barely even notice the author's contempt for the personalities and/or behavior he's describing until it's all over - look no further.

The plot is simple enough: a British aristocrat (Lord Luton) assembles some relations and a crew and sets out for the Yukon, planning to get there via the Mackenzie river then cutting across the divide and floating downstream to Dawson. Luton's plan has the advantage of a shorter distance than other routes, and, by avoiding any crossing over into the United States, no import/export fees to surrender. But after spending two brutal winters in the Arctic Circle and losing all but one man (the Irishman Matt Murphy, who plays a pivotal role in Alaska and whose appearance in the six or seven hundred page mark of that novel brought a cheer from me based solely on the events of Journey) Luton realizes his own arrogance is responsible for all their hardships. An epilogue shows Luton as a hardened minister of rations in World War One. ("What do you know of real hardship?" he asks any who complain.)


Hard to believe a work as perfect and compact as this one was almost just a section of another book. Definitely the right move promoting it to its own spot in the Michener ouevre. Not the greatest title, though, is it? Unless he was secretly hoping for a soundtrack from the band.

1.
(1947)

Here we are. I always feel like I'm doing a disservice to an author when I choose his first work as my favorite, but what can I say? This one is pivotal. And entertaining as all hell. 

These covers are not quite in the spirit of things, but neither's the musical that brought more Michener more enduring fame (and wealth) than even the Pulitzer,

My original review: "History is the nightmare fuel that keeps giving, muddying even that most sacred of narratives (i.e. the greatest generation defeating fascism.) Tales of the South Pacific manages many such feats. WW2 was the Punic War of our time and in the same way they're still making movies about Rome and Carthage, people in the year 3017 will be reading and watching the Allies storm the beaches at Normandy and Iwo Jima. Books like this will be as indispensable (and hopefully just as accessible) then as now. Surreal, tragic, heroic, moving, just about everything - this is a genuine and well-deserved American classic."

I'll end with this excerpt from a great review that also doubles as some parting thoughts on Michener's whole career: "Easily more than the sum of its parts, this collection of stories is an eye-opening account of life in wartime: not the horrors of war (though there’s a bit of that), but the waiting, the selfless heroism, the bottled-up passion, the thankless endless toil, the vast logistics of a campaign, the suddenness of death and loss and love. The omission of this work from the academic canon is utterly incomprehensible to me; it’s everything that All Quiet on the Western Front is said to be, and more. Michener is far more than a captivating storyteller, collector of colorful characters, painter of vivid natural imagery, and chronicler of the orchestrations of world warfare. Each of the "tales" comprising his carefully-constructed epic narrative is at once thematically and stylistically related to the other smaller narratives and at the same time artistically whole in itself. While he does have poetic phrases at his command, what he can say without saying it – a subtly omitted word or a hint - is breathtaking."

"I was brought up in the great tradition of the late nineteenth century: that a writer never complains, never explains and never disdains."

1907 - 1997

~
For my list of nonfiction favorites, click here.
For expanded reviews of the above: Caravans; Centennial; The Drifters; The Bridges of Toko-Ri, Caribbean, The Covenant, Hawaii, Journey, Legacy, Tales of the South Pacific - here; Chesapeake, The Novel, Recessional, Return to Paradise, Sayonara, The Source - here; Matecumbe, Miracle of Seville - here; Poland - here.

Thanks for reading, friends and neighbors! 

2 comments:

  1. "Ho Chi Michener Trail" is pretty great. I've got "Don't Michener It" (which sends the total wrong message), "Michener-ary Positions," and "Michener?!? I Barely Knew Her!"

    I am a bit awed by the speed and dexterity with which you seem to have made it through this project. All I can do is send a salute and some jealousy your way. Plus, apparently, some lame project titles.

    Great quotes here, throughout; I especially like that one from "Centennial," though.

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    Replies
    1. "Michener?!? I Barely Knew Her!" is good enough for me to consider going back and editing all of these! Nice.

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