That picture is so adorable. Michener mentioned in his autobiography that wherever he went throughout his life (but particularly during WW2) he was usually mistaken for someone else and that this experience disabused him of any notions of being all that physically distinguishable from anyone else. Judging from this picture, though, it's clear that when the world gained a great novelist, it lost a fine iced tea model.
All right, so five more Micheners for you. Sorry about the vague title for this posts as well as the lack of a proper title for the ongoing project; if I had the latter, the former would be taken care of. Ah well. It's all leading up to the End Post that'll have everything properly sorted, so it'll be moot before we know it.
As before, presented in order of publication.
I decided not to pull any quotes from this one. Every other page had something memorable, so we would have been here all month. Michener was sent (by Life or Colliers or something - I didn't write it down and googling's no help) on a tour of Asia in 1950-1951 as it emerged from World War Two, in some places (Malaysia) peacefully, in others (Indonesia) violently. Through a series of interviews, personal reflections, observations, and history, Michener does his usual commendable job of presenting all sides pretty fairly, even while filtering it through the political understanding of a mid-20th-century white guy.
I certainly don't mean that dismissively, as too many might these days, just that he makes an effort to be self-aware in this specific regard - as he does throughout his work - and was undeniably ahead of his time while also being a man of his era: politically incorrect, imbued with what he described elsewhere as "the stamp of my education - automatic patriotism (and) faith in the ideals that were prevalent in 1932, and were proven so dreadfully wrong."
You'll have to read it yourself to see if it makes for the same fascinating crossroads of perspective I found it to be. Every country visited was in such a unique place in these years, and to have a writer / thinker / listener of Michener's vintage as our man on the scene gets a big 5 out of 5 stars from me. It's a wonderful companion to Return to Paradise, published the year before and which accomplishes the same for those South Pacific islands not covered here.
More Japanese art history! And a whole lot of it. Is it the equal of The Floating World, his first foray into this sort of thing? It's difficult for me to judge - I found both equally fascinating and wonderful to look at with each artist and process a revelation. But it's all completely new to me, so it's difficult to tell where these rank against similar overviews or introductions.
|Through the wonders of our exciting age we can have a look at some of the prints James and Mari Michener collected and donated to the Honolulu Academy of Arts at the end of his life.|
Overall I have nothing but praise and gratitude for the Chicago Public Library system, but there are some operational hiccups that puzzle me. Japanese Prints: From the Early to the Modern took months to get to me. True the city only had one copy, not at my local branch, but that's been the case for dozens of books I've dropped in my online queue. Why the big delay on this one? It's not just this one, though, hence the befuddlement. I like to imagine some art-minded yakuza hijacked the library truck and took it for a joyride before torching it and it's all an international cover-up.
Anyway a copy of your very own will set you back a few dozens of dollars if you want the slip case. (And why wouldn't you?) Rather than pull the trigger, I just added it to my used-bookstore-adventures-of-the-future pile.
"The first political speech I ever made was to the assembly of Swarthmore College in 1928 when I blasted hell out of a Quaker college which could profit from the religious freedom under which Quakerism flourished and at the same time overwhelmingly vote against Al Smith because he was a Catholic (...) When I was finished a classmate whispered 'You idiot - we're not voting against Al Smith because he's a Catholic. We're voting for Herbert Hoover because he's a Quaker.'"
Michener was part of Kennedy's election campaign in 1960 (along with Angie Dickinson, Stan Musial and some others) and a precinct chairman for the Democratic Party in Bucks County, PA. Here is his account of both experiences.
It's infuriatingly vague on a few things. Michener refers to speeches or letters received or remarks overheard and describes his often passionate reaction to them without giving any of their substance. I'd chalk this up to simply not knowing the contemporaneous references, in which case I'd just say an annotated edition would be helpful, but he makes a point of his being aloof, like it's a virtue not to pass any of it on. Why bring it up then? (shrugs)
He's specific enough on two counts, though:
- It's difficult to imagine a time in America when the idea of a Catholic President ("the Pope will overrule the Constitution - state secrets will be given in Confession," etc.) alarmed a sizable amount of otherwise reasonable folks. Michener spends a lot of time assuring these readers. Of course, this was the era where one phone call from the Catholic League of Decency could lead to a boycott of just about any movie, personality, or book of which it did not approve. Seems silly now, but maybe not so much - it's easy to see the same fears circulating (both reasonably and unreasonably) if a Muslim ran for President in our superwoke 21st century.
- During an unexpected pit stop at a country club in Boise, Idaho, the Kennedy Caravan met with some disapproval from the Nixon-supporting locals. When Michener overhears one of the ladies say of his group "They're the ones who want to take it all away from us," he reacts with such exaggerated shock and indignation that I had to laugh. It's a reminder of a more genteel time in American politics to be sure, but even so he comes across a tad precious. "I would be appalled at my own degeneration if I should ever come to look upon the representatives of a major American political party as we were looked upon that day. With such attitudes there can be no traffic." Oh you. He is right, though, or at least his way is infinitely preferable, but I think we'd have to dismantle the entire media/political circus to have a shot at getting there ever again. (And "degeneration" is certainly the right word.)
"These young people learn by means of a new synthesis of visual and oral sensation."
I figured I'd better learn about Kent State since the media-academe-Trump matrix is so hellbent on creating another one. Although I have a feeling that when Kent State 2.0 inevitably happens, having anything resembling actual facts about the events of early May 1970 will be little help in navigating whatever narrative forms on the subject. As someone once said "Facts all come with points of view / facts don't do what I want them to."
Anyone interested in such fruitless endeavor, though, should look no further than this comprehensive account of the shootings. Perhaps a tad too comprehensive - this sucker is pretty hefty. It's Michener we're talking about, so that's nothing new, but is there too much info? I think so. For one thing, it becomes completely obvious after only a few dozen pages that every student, grad student, TA, and professional agitator sent by SDS to provoke the confrontation is completely insane or irresponsible to the point of criminality. You could have cut out at least fifty pages and just bullet-pointed the Marxist cliches in an appendix.
I don't suggest removing such things altogether, of course, or censoring them; I speak only of redundancy. Too much time is spent giving us the SDS/Yippie rationale, and brother, the last thing that stuff needs is too much repetition. After the fourth or fifth reiteration of Hanoi-Jane-speak, I was wondering if the National Guard could be coaxed into showing up a little sooner. There was sensible opposition to Vietnam / Nixon / American "values" like Jim Crow, etc. And then, mutually exclusive to those things, there was the SDS movement as it was in 1970 - let no one be confused: these guys were the worst combination of everything.
On the other side of things, I was struck dumb with the irresponsibility of Kent State administrators. Not only did they capitulate to inane demands, thus emboldening professional agitators (I deem you a professional if you receive paid training to do it, if you refer to yourself as a "field commander," and if you travel from campus to campus grabbing big bags of money ("field dues") to take back to HQ) sent to campus to specifically exploit such gestures, but they also - right up to the moment bodies started actually dropping - told students the National Guard only had blanks in their rifles. Staggering. The criminal stupidity and cravenly conduct of college administrators is still with us, of course (and how), but good lord: the failure of leadership from top to bottom was disgraceful.
I finished this book disgusted with everyone from Nixon to the school officials to the students to the Marxist agitators to the Guardsmen. (And Bill Ayers all over again.) And I think "Ohio" by CSNY is forever ruined for me, which is too bad.
"Finished! Amazing story. The Poles saved all of Europe (three times!) against amazing odds and gave us Chopin and all those great pastries. And lots more. Their thanks? A thousand years of Tartars, Prussians, brutal homegrown magnates, Nazis, and Soviets.
That the Soviet Union has never had to account for any of its crimes in the Baltic, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe has got to be one of the greatest (and most murderous) sleight-of-hand tricks in history.
Speaking of, does this sound at all familiar? 'Chalubinski saw society as an organized effort in which those who understood the great revolutionary forces of history made carefully studied decisions for the welfare of all others. He could not accept that it had been the faulty judgment of his social technocrats that had brought Poland to its present crisis. He blamed it on last year's floods, on the cupidity of foreign bankers, on the intrusion into the government process by men like Lech Walesa (Solidarity architect and later President), and the sentimental interruptions of the damned Polish pope.'
Commies and their enablers never change, only the fashions. (And sometimes not even those.) Na zdrowie!"
That guy mentioned up there ("Chalubinski") is not a real person, just one of the many well-drawn composites in this novel. And what a novel it is - 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 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 Chapter 9 ("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 (end of apartheid in The Covenant; Soviets go home in Poland) could provide more dramatic resolutions. 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.
Michener's love of Chopin and the Polish language (and the pronunciation difficulties in presents to Americans; the Polish town of "Lancut," for example, is pronounced "wine-sooth") comes through loud and clear. Less sensible to me are some of his historical compartmentalizations. Let's look at the most egregious example: "the Battle of Zamość."
|Painting on the right by Wojciech Kossak, who may or may not have named it "Slash the Bloody Bolshevik Scum!" Can't tell.|
At least three times in Poland's history can it be said that they saved Europe from invading hordes from the eat: the Tartar invasions of the 13th century, the Battle of Vienna where the Poles under Jan Sobieski defeated the unstoppable Ottoman hordes, and the Battles of Warsaw and Komarów in the Polish-Soviet War. The hero of these latter battles was a guy with the (awesome) name of Pilsudski, who guided the ship of state until his death in 1935 and tirelessly advocated the one idea that might have slowed the deadly Nazi/Soviet annihilation of Poland 4 years after his death in 1935: a strong defensive pact between Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine, specifically to protect these fledgling states from the historical oppression of their bigger (and forever land-covetous) neighbors.
Yet while Michener references Warsaw and Komarów, he moves the decisive action to "the Battle of Zamość", and while he includes Pilsudski in the narrative, he assigns most of his character traits and alliance ambitions to his own fictional composite, Count Lubonski. Why? It adds layers of confusion that don't need to be there.
This aside, this book is great. I learned a lot and enjoyed doing so and was left with a deepened respect for Poland's contributions to European and world history.
Some housekeeping: last time I mentioned two books in my still-to-read pile that I have since removed: Three Great Novels of World War II and A Century of Sonnets. I don't know why the former is listed in his bibliography, as it's simply an anthology that features Tales of the South Pacific as one of the 3 novels (along with Battle Cry by Leon Uris and Mr. Roberts by Thomas Heggen) of the title. So, no need to read that one. As for Sonnets, I'll just put that one (a collection of sonnets he wrote over his lifetime) in the Rainy Day Michener pile along with The Novel, as the library doesn't have it. I'd likely have struggled with it, anyway, as poetry isn't my thing, and 260 pages of sonnets not written by Shakespeare is a tough sell, particularly as I near the end of this project.
That leaves Alaska, Texas, Mexico, This Noble Land, Sports in America, and (JFK's personal favorite) The Fires of Spring. We'll look at these last three next time around - thanks for reading.