A Novel Exploding With Themes (and Some Grenades)

As regular readers of this literature blog know, my “modus operandi” is writing themed pieces rather than, say, book reviews. Almost every time I read a novel, it gives me an idea for a theme, and then I try to remember various other novels that also fit into that theme.

Well, I just read a book that reminded me of MANY themes I’ve written about in the past. So I thought I’d go with that this week.

The novel is Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, an author (recommended by several people credited in the comments section) I finally tried last month. Michener’s 1947 book checked off so many previously discussed themes that I decided to list ten of them, along with some other novels that fit those themes.

1. Tales is among a relatively small group of debut novels that became VERY popular bestsellers. A notable recent example: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (originally Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in England).

2. Michener is one of those authors whose first novel was published at a relatively advanced age — in his case, 40. But even that was several decades short of Harriet Doerr’s age (74) when her Stones for Ibarra debut came out.

3. Tales is among the many novels that are semi-autobiographical with a heavy dose of fictionalizing (Michener was a U.S. Navy man in the South Pacific during World War II). There have been countless other semi-autobiographical novels, but I’ll name just one: Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which I also read this month.

4. Michener’s book is one of those “fish out of water”/”culture shock” novels that place characters in unfamiliar settings — in this case, American soldiers based on South Pacific islands. Another of the numerous “fish out of water” novels is Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (Americans in North Africa).

5. Tales is among the war novels by military veterans who give readers a “you are there” feeling and don’t sugarcoat what warfare is like. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most obvious examples.

6. Michener’s book is among the famous novels that are edgier than many readers expect them to be. Also the case with Herman Melville’s Pierre.

7. Tales is a very multicultural book, surprisingly so for its time. A more recent novel with that welcome element: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

8. Tales is basically a collection of short stories that coalesce into a novel — an interesting sub-genre of fiction. Another example: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

9. Michener’s book is among the novels that have won the Pulitzer Prize. So many other excellent ones: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

10. Tales is among the fictional works that inspired a production more famous than the book itself. In this case, the Broadway musical South Pacific (based on just a couple sections of Tales) and two South Pacific movies (one theatrically released and the other created for TV). Daphne du Maurier’s short story “The Birds,” made into the iconic Hitchcock film, is among the other works somewhat overshadowed by subsequent adaptations.

What are some other novels that fit into the above ten categories? Any thoughts about Michener books you may have read, as well as his authorial abilities in general? As many of you know, Michener went on to write many more books — including long, heavily researched, often geographically specific novels such as Hawaii, The Source, Centennial, Chesapeake, Space, Texas, Alaska, and Mexico.

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I’ve finished writing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, which will probably be published during the first quarter of 2017. But I’m still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.