One-Minute Book Reviews

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 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

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.

July 31, 2008

What! It’s My Birthday, AGAIN?

Filed under: Life — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:43 am
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Yes, there’s a mathematical explanation for why this one seems to have come around so fast: As you get older, each year becomes a small fraction of the whole. But that math takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?

One of my gifts was a trip with friends to the wonderful new Broadway production of South Pacific, and I’d hoped today to read and write about the book that inspired it, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. But that will have to wait wait until my toes stop tapping out all those great tunes — “Bali Ha’i,” “Honey Bun,” “Happy Talk,” “Bloody Mary,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and others. Even as the fractions get smaller, we can feel “Younger Than Springtime,” can’t we?

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 1, 2007

Does Research Kill Novels? Quote of the Day (James Michener)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:52 pm
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James Michener (1907–1997) was famous partly for the Herculean research he did for his novels, including Hawaii, The Source and Centennial. But he admitted that research will only take you so far:

“The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than the writer’s solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevski, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth …
“To praise a writer for having done research is like praising a bus driver for knowing how to shift gears; if he can’t perform that simple function, he has no right to climb into the bus …
“What research is done should be like the tip of the iceberg: one-tenth visible in the finished work, nine-tenths submerged, but available to give the whole stability and a sense of force.”

James Michener Literary Reflections: Michener on Michener, Hemingway, Capote & Others (State House Press, 1993)

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Some of the year’s most popular novels have drawn on extensive research, including Water for Elephants (review and reading group guide posted separately on Sept. 21) and Thirteen Moons. What novels have you read that have made effective use of historical research?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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