One-Minute Book Reviews

April 18, 2009

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo! The Case for ‘Cinderella’ (Including, Yes, the Disney Version) — Classics Every Child Should Read

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The latest in a series of posts on classic children’s picture books

Walt Disney’s Cinderella: A Little Golden Book Classic. Story adapted by Jane Werner. Illustrated by Retta Scott Worcester. Golden Books, 24 pp., $2.99.

By Janice Harayda

For several decades, the story of Cinderella has been anything but a Cinderella story. Scholars have attacked it for promoting female passivity, for giving stepmothers a bad name, and for equating beauty with virtue: The pretty Cinderella is good and her ugly stepsisters are bad. I read a critique that accused it of promoting capitalist values because – at least in the Disney the version, the one most familiar today — Cinderella is rewarded for the hard work of scrubbing floors and churning butter, as though we’d want the kids to read books where characters were rewarded for sloth.

There’s some truth to the all complaints. Variations on Cinderella have existed for centuries or more, and they typically reflect ideals of an earlier time. But if I had children, I’d want them to know this tale of a mistreated girl who marries a king’s son, and not just because it’s a defining myth of our age. The case against Cinderella was stronger in the past. If the story is one of female passivity — that of a girl rescued by a prince — it used to reflect the expectations of society as a whole.

Those assumptions have changed. Girls today see more countervailing influences to Cinderella — the tortured marriage of Charles and Diana showed us all what can happen when you marry a prince — so there seems to be less harm in reading it. There are also more benefits when surveys of cultural literacy have shown that children are increasingly growing up without understanding the ideas that have shaped civilizations – not just fairy tales but myths, legends, fables, Bible stories, and more.

As a child, I loved an oversized tie-in edition to the 1950 animated Disney musical Cinderella — “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”! – and read it until its corrugated pop-up pumpkin fell off. A few weeks ago, I was startled to find Walt Disney’s Cinderella in a Little Golden Book Classic format in the new-children’s-books section of a good bookstore. No pop-up pumpkin, but everything else is identical. No less surprising is that the Little Golden Book Classic is better than many recent editions, including some others from Disney, in part because its cover shows Cinderella in rags near a brick fireplace, which makes the meaning of the title clear right away. Some versions have a princess on the cover that dilutes the message and make the book look like just another princess fantasy, instead of the mother lode.

I’m sure that at the age of seven, I liked my Disney version partly because its Cinderella has blond hair and blue-green eyes like me (which plays into stereotypes of the fair-haired as virtuous, given that one of her stepsisters has black hair and another red). But today you can find a United Nations of Cinderella stories at bookstores and libraries, and they have title characters of varied ancestry: Jewish, Persian, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Caribbean, Hispanic, Cambodian, Egyptian, Alaskan, Hmong. And if some of these still seem to be a font of stereotypes, they make clear it would be more accurate to call Cinderella something else: an archetype who has never lost her appeal.

Best line: Some modern versions of Cinderella don’t explain how the title character got her name. The Little Golden Book Classic does: “But alas! The kindly gentleman soon died. And his second wife was harsh and cold to her lovely stepdaughter. She cared only for her two ugly stepdaughters.

“Everyone called the stepdaughter Cinderella now since she sat by the cinders to keep warm as she worked hard, dressed only in rags.”

Worst line: Cinderella had “a puppy named Bruno” before her father died.  The name “Bruno” is odd in context. And the dog probably shouldn’t have a name at all, because it’s used only twice, and an old horse (which becomes a coachman) and the mice (which turn into horses) don’t have names.

Published: 1950

Listen to the song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Walt Disney’s Cinderella on a site that doesn’t include a film clip from the movie. You can also hear it on YouTube sites that include a clip, but these may not be legal.

Other classic picture books reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews include Millions of Cats, Madeline, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Where the Wild Things Are, The Backward Day, Horton Hatches the Egg, The Story of Ferdinand and Flat Stanley.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 5, 2009

A Fresh Look at ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ — Not Just for Students

A rape trial turns out to involve incest in a Pulitzer Prize–winner set in the South in the 1930s

A Book-of-the-Month Club survey once ranked To Kill a Mockingbird among the top five books “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives. And Claudia Durst Johnson, a former English professor at the University of Alabama, found that it appeared on secondary-school reading lists as often as any book in English.

What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of Harper Lee’s only novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961? Certainly it tells a powerful story of an honorable lawyer, Atticus Finch, who accepts the near-hopeless task of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman in an Alabama town in the mid-1930s. It also has one of the most engaging child heroines in American fiction: Scout Finch, Atticus’s daughter, six years old when the story begins, who has an unselfconscious integrity as admirable as her father’s moral courage.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

But the novel has more going for it than a strong plot and memorable characters. To Kill a Mockingbird has at its core an idea at once simple and vital to civilization: When everyone else is doing the wrong thing, one person can still do the right thing.

Young as she is, Scout understands that her father stands all but alone in defending Tom Robinson. Why has he taken on a case in which, as she sees it, “most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong”?

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” Finch tells his daughter, who narrates the novel from the perspective of an adult looking back on the defining event of her childhood, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Some critics see Finch one-dimensional, too saintly to be credible. But much of the writing in the book is exquisitely subtle. Tom Robinson stands accused of raping the lonely Mayella Ewell, whose father has brought charges against him. And as the facts of the case emerge, it becomes clear that she was making advances to him and that her father caught her in the act. At his trial Robinson says that Mayella told him she had never kissed a grown man before: “She says what her papa do to her don’t count.”

“What her papa do to her don’t count.” Has any novel ever described sexual abuse with such delicacy? At that moment, we know that the crime in this novel is not rape but incest and that the motives of Mayella’s father, in accusing Robinson, went beyond racial prejudice.

Novels about such crimes abound today and often show only the worst of human nature. To Kill a Mockingbird is a tragedy, but shows good and evil, side by side. It tells us that when much of the world wears blinders, some people see clearly. If they have a vision of justice, their children – like Scout – will remember.

This is the fourth in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), and Greater Expectations (Wednesday).

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 3, 2009

George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ – Scenes From More Than a Marriage

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:06 am
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A young woman’s wish to be useful leads to a romantic mismatch in the first great multiplot novel in English.

By Janice Harayda

“Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy,” George Eliot writes in Middlemarch. And that line suggests one of many reasons to love her masterpiece: its sharp commentary on relations between the sexes.

Middlemarch tells the wonderful story of an intelligent young woman, Dorothea Brooke, whose desire to be useful leads her to wed to a repressed clergyman who lacks her passion for life. But the novel is far more than a portrait of mismatch. The action in Middlemarch unfolds against the backdrop of two great social upheavals: the coming of the Industrial Revolution to England and enactment of Reform Bill of 1832 that made Parliament more representative of ordinary people.

Eliot sets Dorothea’s private dramas against these cataclysms and shows, as she writes, “that there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” The external forces include a society treats women as an underclass. And part of Eliot’s genius is that she hasn’t written a broadside against injustice but a book often called the first great multiplot novel in English. Middlemarch is a brilliant portrait of both sexes, never more so than in famous coda: “ … the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to those who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. The full text of Middlemarch is available for free on Project Gutenberg . A good, six-part Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, available on video and DVD, starred Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 8, 2009

The Four Most Important Questions to Ask About Every Book – The Only Reader’s Guide You or Your Book Club Will Ever Need

Filed under: Classics,How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:01 pm
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A lot of reading group guides are worthless not because they’re unintelligent but because they’re irrelevant. They urge you to talk about everything except what a book is says and how well it says it. Some of their discussion questions aren’t questions but directions that might make you feel as though you’re taking an oral essay exam.

The new paperback edition of Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher (Griffin, 384 pp., $13.95), a novel about a high school teacher forced to use a curriculum she doesn’t support, comes with a guide that has as question No. 5 on a list of 14: “Discuss a time when you felt you had to sacrifice your beliefs or principles.” That might be an interesting topic. But to raise it before you’ve talked about other aspects of the novel – as this guide urges you do to – could only drag the conversation far away from the book at hand.

Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren offer better advice in their classic How to Read a Book (Touchstone, 426 pp., $16.99, paperback), still in print more than 60 years it first won fame as the best all-around guide to reading comprehension. The authors argue there are four main questions to ask about any book.

“1. WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT AS A WHOLE? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential or subordinate themes or topics.

“2. WHAT IS BEING SAID IN DETAIL, AND HOW? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.

“3. IS THE BOOK TRUE, IN WHOLE OR IN PART? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated , if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.”

“4. WHAT OF IT? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important that you know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, or what is further implied or suggested.”

The tone of this passage is didactic by today’s standards. But the advice is as good as ever (and developed at length it in later chapters, which deal with topics such as how to understand what a book is “about”). And although the authors focus on nonfiction, their questions apply also to (or can be adapted for) fiction. Among their greatest strengths is that they keep their focus on asking thoughtful questions – the kind that will help you make a book your own – instead of buying into a publisher’s point of view.

Other quotes from How to Read a Book appear in the Nov. 2007 post on this site, “How Are Reading and Writing Related?,” which dealt with the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. An excerpt appears on the Touchstone site.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 7, 2008

Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ – A Masterwork for Its Time or for the Ages?

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:46 pm
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Would critics hail Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a masterpiece if it appeared today under the name of a little-known author? Do people revere it because it uses stream-of-consciousness techniques well or because it was among the first to use them at all (and can you separate the two)?

These questions came to mind last week at a meeting of a book club that had read the novel. Among the comments: “You can’t always tell who is speaking or thinking.” “The writing is so beautiful, but you get lost in the middle of some of the sentences.” “This may be a male point of view, but I found parts of this novel almost completely inaccessible.”

The club members had a point. Woolf darts in and out of the minds of characters in a way that critics often fault in the work of lesser writers. Deaths occur that aren’t prefigured. And the novel is almost plotless, taking as its subject with the daily life of a well-off English family on a Scottish island with a view of lighthouse.

So why do many critics consider it Woolf’s masterwork? To the Lighthouse is moving partly because “it is an account not of a brilliantly successful marriage nor of an incandescently failed one, but of an adequate one, in which struggles and little compromises are daily enacted,” the critic James Wood rightly notes in How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).

But the novel is far from timid in its portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their eight children. Contemporary writers tend to reduce the departure of children from home to a cliché – “the empty nest.” Woolf offers a more complex portrait of a sensitive mother who is 50 years old when the novel begins.

Mrs. Ramsay knows what she will face when her young children, James and Cam, leave home: “Nothing made up for that loss.” And Woolf doesn’t sugarcoat this – as a contemporary novelist might do — by suggesting that the future happiness of Mrs. Ramsay or her children will offset the loss. Quite the opposite. Woolf adds a chilling note of a sort rarely found in recent novels: Mrs. Ramsay wants her children to stay young for their sake as well as hers: “They were happier now than they would ever be again.” Or, as Mrs. Ramsay puts it, “A tenpenny tea set made Cam happy for days.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 10, 2008

‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ – Winifred Watson’s Rediscovered Classic

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:23 am
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A meek and virginal 40-year-old governess stumbles into a glamorous 1930s world of cocktails and evening gowns

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. By Winifred Watson. Illustrations by Mary Thomson. Foreword by Henrietta Twycross-Martin. Persephone Classics, 234 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This sparkling comedy is something rare: an intelligent fairy tale. Henrietta Twycross-Martin rightly compares it to a Fred Astaire movie. But Guinevere Pettigrew hardly resembles the heroines of those films. She’s no gamine Audrey Hepburn, seduced by Astaire’s sophistication, in Funny Face: She’s a virginal 40-year-old curate’s daughter, without family or friends, who gets so little work as a governess that she is facing eviction for nonpayment of rent.

Then her employment agency sends her, mistakenly, to the home of a nightclub singer instead of family of untamed children. Over the next 24 hours her life changes in ways that are near-magical yet believable.

Winifred Watson describes the upheavals on an hour-by-hour basis that invests her novel with a voyeuristic allure-by-proxy: Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is like reading a diary kept not by its owner by an amused and lighthearted observer. That structure works partly Guinevere’s character remains solidly drawn through all the changes: She is meek but open-hearted, susceptible to change but not a fool, and free of self-pity yet touchingly grateful for her good fortune.

Like all good fairy-tale heroines, Guinevere can think on her feet. She is hardly knows what to say when she arrives at the home of singer Delysia LaFosse and finds her wearing “the kind of foamy robe, no mere dressing gown, worn by the most famous of stars in seduction scenes in the films.” Yet she finds the right words, telling Miss LaFosse shyly: “You look so lovely in that … that article of clothing.”

Dazzled as she is, Guinevere helps her new acquaintance sort through romantic entanglements that have elements of a classic bedroom farce. Miss LaFosse repays her by showing her a world of cocktails, evening gowns and men who never knew her as a failed governess. Miss Pettigrew, though sheltered and naïve, never comes across as vapid or ridiculous. Without being stuffy, she has self-respect.

All of this alone might set this novel apart from much of the more recent fiction aimed at women. But Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day also has sparkling repartee, bright scenes of London nightlife, and whimsical pen-and-ink drawings retained from the first edition. In 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Meg Jensen writes aptly that this novel reminds us that “it is never too late to live.” It doesn’t hurt that this book lacks a stereotypical pink cover, either.

Best line: “Terrified, aghast, thrilled, Miss Pettigrew stared at the innocent-looking white powder. Drugs, the White Slave trade, wicked dives of iniquity, typified in Miss Pettigrew’s mind by red plush and gilt and men with sinister black moustaches, roamed in wild array through her mind. What dangerous den of vice had she discovered? She must fly before she had lost her virtue. Then her common sense reminded her that no one, now, would care to deprive her of that possession.

Worst line:” ‘And yes,’ thought Miss Pettigrew; ‘somewhere in his ancestry there had been a Jew.’”

Recommendation? Manna for book clubs. Smart, funny, short enough that everybody can finish it.

Published: 1938 (first edition), 2008 (Persephone Classics edition).

Movie link: For more on the 2008 movie version, visit www.imdb.com/title/tt0970468/.

Furthermore: Watson’s obituary in the Independent is posted at www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/winifred-watson-640426.html.

About Persephone Books: Persephone publishes “neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women” that are “neither too literary nor too commercial.” www.persephonebooks.co.uk

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 2, 2008

Two Classics of Environmentalism and Nature Writing – Aldo Leopold’s ‘A Sand County Almanac’ and John Muir’s ‘My First Summer in the Sierra’

On Thursday I wrote about 100 One-Night Reads, a collection of 100 essays on short books — a volume I liked partly for its variety. David and John Major don’t pander to book clubs by focusing on recent bestsellers or other popular choices. They cover many kinds of good fiction and nonfiction – travel, humor, science, memoirs, mystery, fantasy, history, public affairs – though they favor 20th century classics.

Here are excepts from their comments on two books that have helped to shaped the modern environmental movement, A Sand County Almanac and My First Summer in the Sierra:

On Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:

“Aldo Leopold is one of the heroes of modern environmentalism, and A Sand County Almanac is one of the movement’s classics. In the half century since it was published, this book has inspired readers with its impassioned call for radical change in human attitudes toward the planet that sustains us. …

“The first part of the book is the almanac proper: observations from the Leopolds’ family retreat arranged seasonally. The writing here is memorable; many books remain in one’s consciousness only in general terms, but after reading A Sand County Almanac you will find yourself startled by the immediacy of the author’s vision. … a chorus of sound in the middle distance might bring to mind Leopold’s precise comments on ‘the proceedings of the convention in the marsh’ (March) or the virtues of the songs of the more elusive birds (September).

“The second part of the book, ‘Sketches Here and There,’ collects some of Leopold’s essays written about regions in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, describing perspectives and incidents that contributed to the formulation of his mature views.” www.aldoleopold.org/books/Default.asp

On John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra

“After explorations that included a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf Coast, [John Muir] traveled to California, arriving in San Francisco in 1868. In the summer of 1869, he book a job with a rancher acquaintance, overseeing the movement of flocks to mountain pastures.
“As a supervisor of the enterprise, Muir assembled a crew of two – a shepherd named Billy and a borrowed St. Bernard dog, Carlo – to go on the trip. Able to rely on their expert work in dealing with the sheep, Muir found himself with time to indulge his passion for the explorations of nature. My First Summer in the Sierra, based on his contemporary journal (though not published until 1911), is the record of that extraordinary time. Although Muir was in the Sierra that summer for less than four months, we come away from the book feeling that his time there was much longer, and in some sense permanent.”

Read the first chapter of My First Summer in the Sierra at www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/my_first_summer_in_the_sierra/chapter_1.html

To read the review of 100 One-Night Reads, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/10/30/ .

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 16, 2008

Ring Lardner’s Baseball Stories for All Ages, ‘You Know Me Al’

Classic tales of an overconfident White Sox rookie are still print in different editions for adults and children

An egocentric pitcher. A coach fed up with his player’s excuses. A team that can’t win on the road. And — to spice things up — a little girl trouble in the background.

Sound like a team in the 2008 playoffs? Actually it’s what you’ll find in Ring Lardner’s collection of humorous short stories about baseball, You Know Me Al (Book Jungle, 248, $16.95, paperback), written for adults but likely also to appeal to many teenagers.

First published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914, these tales are a masterpiece of tone. They take the form of rambling, misspelled and ungrammatical letters written by a rookie White Sox pitcher named Jack Keefe to his friend Al while traveling with his team during the baseball season. Jack has a comically misplaced self-confidence that feeds a low-grade persecution complex. (“I hit good on the training trip and he must of knew they had no chance to score off me in the innings they had left while they were liable to murder his other pitchers.”) Lardner’s stories about his anti-hero remain entertaining partly because they deal with emotions that still exist in any locker room.

But a little of Jack’s bombast goes a long way, and young readers may prefer an anthologized excerpt from You Know Me Al. One of the best for tweens and teenagers appears in Alan Durant’s outstanding Score! Sports Stories (Roaring Brook, 264 pp., 264 pp., ages 9 and up), a collection of 21 modern and classic sports stories just out in a new paperback edition. Durant’s brief introduction suggests why young readers may enjoy excerpt: “The story is full of jokes – mainly at the teller’s expense, as Keefe constantly gets on the wrong side of coach Callahan with his often idiotic remarks.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 1, 2008

A Few Comments on Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ on Broadway and in Print

It’s remarkable how a well-staged Broadway production can transcend the defects of a play. Last weekend I saw All My Sons in previews at the Schoenfeld Theatre, and the time flew by.

You hardly noticed how prosaic Arthur Miller’s writing can be because the production had so much going for it, including brisk direction by Simon McBurney and a glossy cast: John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Katie Holmes.

After I got home, it seemed to me that All My Sons stands up to rereading both better and worse than some of the other plays that appeared in decade after World War II. It holds up better partly because Miller is dealing here with issues that have fresh relevance in the age of Haliburton and Enron: the evils of war profiteering and the moral duty of individuals to resist the soulless influence of American business. It holds up worse because Miller can use language as blunt instrument instead of a precision tool (as in Linda Loman’s famous defense of her husband, Willy: “ … attention must be paid”). That liability is perhaps more noticeable today than it was before videos and DVDs expanded the availability of more elegantly written plays from Hamlet to A Streetcar Named Desire.

I wondered if others shared my view, so I picked up Arthur Miller (Chelsea House, 148 pp., $35), part of the “Bloom’s BioCritiques” series edited and introduced by the distinguished critic Harold Bloom. (The volume on Miller in the “Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations” series is instead shown above.) Bloom says:

“Miller is by no means a bad writer, but he is scarcely an eloquent master of the language.”

Exactly. The appeal Miller’s plays — which remains high — comes from virtues other than unparalleled phrase-turning, including their craftsmanship, moral courage and passionate exploration of the intersection of social and psychological forces in American lives.

A few comments on the Sept. 26 preview: Kate Holmes (Ann Deever) is easy on the eyes and, given that producers must be strafing her with scripts for romantic comedies, has made a statement about how she wants to be perceived by taking on this role. John Lithgow (Joe Keller) gives an energetic performance in a tough role that requires him to undergo a transformation that, as Miller wrote it, isn’t fully believable. Patrick Wilson (Chris Keller) grows into his part. None of those actors can touch Dianne Wiest (Kate Keller), whose portrayal of a mother unable to accept the death of her son in World War II must be one of the best recent portrayals of mental illness in any medium.

All My Sons officially opens Oct. 16 on Broadway. You can read about that production and buy tickets at www.allmysonsonbroadway.com. You’ll find more on Arthur Miller (1915-2005) at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Miller.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept books from editors, publishers, authors or agents. It also does not accept free tickets to plays mentioned on the site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 7, 2008

You Don’t Need to Be a Cockeyed Optimist to Enjoy James Michener’s ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific’

Filed under: Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:06 am
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Bali-ha’i is calling to a new generation of readers and theatergoers

Tales of the South Pacific. By James Michener. Fawcett, 384 pp., $7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

By the end of his career James Michener was writing books so gassy and bloated, critics joked that you didn’t review them – you weighed them on a freight scale. But it wasn’t always so.

Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for Tales of the South Pacific, his first work of fiction, which shows a flair for storytelling that ebbed later in his life. Inspired by Michener’s work as a naval officer in World War II, the book is perhaps best known as the inspiration for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific.

But Tales of the South Pacific stands on its own and has a surprising lightness next to behemoths like Texas, Alaska and Centennial. It gathers 19 related tales about U. S. servicemen and –women and others trying to fend off alternating terror and tedium on beautiful coral islands as Japanese bombers fly overhead.

One plotline describes efforts by Ensign Nellie Forbush to resist her attraction to the French planter Emile de Beque (who in South Pacific courts her with “Some Enchanted Evening,” which she soon counters with “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”). A second and darker narrative thread follows a Tonkinese woman known as Bloody Mary who, when not selling shrunken human heads to sailors, offers her nubile daughter to a Marine for trysts on Bali-ha’i.

Both romances involve people of different backgrounds, and some critics have called Tales of the South Pacific a plea for tolerance. It’s a fair assessment but one that may owe less to Michener than to Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” which says that people learn how to hate. And you don’t read Michener, even at his best, for theme: You read him for a sense of a time and place and, above all, for story.

Michener delivers all those in Tales of the South Pacific, a book especially memorable for its glimpses of rank-and-file members of the armed forces. You know exactly what he means when he says that “It was sort of nice to think that your outfit had a guy stupid enough to pay fifty dollars for a human head … It gave you something to talk about.” His servicemen embrace distractions, however ironic, from thoughts of the death and what faithless girlfriends might be doing back home.

Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, also set on a Pacific island during World War II, stands taller with critics than Michener’s more enjoyable book. But South Pacific has helped to keep Tales of the South Pacific in print. All the more reason, then, to welcome the wonderful first-ever Broadway revival of the musical now playing the Vivian Beaumont. You don’t have to be – as Nellie Forbush sings – a cockeyed optimist to expect to find pleasure in Michener at his best.

Best line: “In Albuquerque Harbison married the daughter of a wealthy family. She was a Vassar graduate and found Bill a fine combination of dashing Western manhood and modest cultural attainment. He at least knew what the Atlantic Monthly was.”

Worst line: In the last few pages Michener sounds as though he’s channeling Mammy in Gone With the Wind when he brings on a black caretaker at a cemetery, who speaks this way: “Me ’n’ Denis, we is bof’ cullud. He f’um Geo’gia. I f’um Mississippi.”

Quote: On why islands like Bali-ha’i seemed magical: “It is a miracle of the South Pacific that islands which are relatively only a few miles away are rarely seen. Hot air, rising constantly from steaming jungles, makes omnipresent clouds hover above each island. So dense are they that usually they obscure and often they completely hide the islands they attend. So it is that an island like Vanicoro, only 16 miles away, might rarely be seen, and then only after torrential rains had swept the sky clear of all but high rain clouds, equalizing temperatures over the entire vast sea. Then, for a few hours, islands far distant might be seen.”

Published: 1947 (first edition), 1984 (Fawcett reprint).

Furthermore: Michener www.cnn.com/US/9710/16/michener.obit/won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Tales of the South Pacific, which Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted for South Pacific. The first-ever Broadway revival of the musical opened in April theater2.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/theater/reviews/04paci.html.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who wrote the novels The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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