Monday, July 21, 2014

1979: The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum

The Author:




Robert Ludlum (1927-2001) was born in New York City and attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After graduation, Ludlum served in the U.S. Marines.  After that, he held a career as a theater producer.  In 1960, he opened his own theater, Playhouse-on-the-Mall, in Paramus, New Jersey.  A decade later, he left the business to pursue a career in writing.  His first novel, The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), set the tone for the rest of his ouevre.  It was not long before Ludlum became one of the best-selling authors in the world.  Ludlum published 22 novels before his death, while five were published posthumously.  Of the thirty-six years from 1971 and 2006, only ten did not feature a new book by Robert Ludlum.  The Matarese Circle marks Ludlum's third book on the top ten annual bestsellers list.  Seven more appear on the top ten, yet none other take the number one spot.  

Ludlum's death is itself the focus of controversy and conspiracy.  A few weeks after changing his will to leave his second wife millions of dollars in cash and real estate, Ludlum caught fire in his home. Complications from his burns led to his death.  Ludlum's nephew has since launched an investigation into Ludlum's demise.

The Book:



Length: 601 pages
Subject/Genre: Conspiracy/Spy Thriller


The Matarese Circle centers on two of the world's top spies, America's Brandon Scofield and the Soviet Union's Vasili Taleniekov.  In addition to their bitter professional rivalries, Taleniekov had Scofield's wife killed, and Scofield killed Taleniekov's brother in retaliation.  But, when Taleniekov becomes aware of a threat to the continued survival of both nations, a secret organization composed of important figures from across the world bent on total domination, he and Scofield must put aside their differences and work together to save the world.    

I read several Ludlum novels when in high school, and they all follow the same basic formula, for everything including the title.  The title will start with the word "The" and be followed by a proper noun, either a last name (e.g. Matarese, Bourne, Ambler, Scarlatti) or something mythological (e.g. Icarus, Gemini, Apocalypse).  This will be followed by a non-object noun (e.g. Circle, Ultimatum, Identity, Covenant, etc.).  Of the twenty-four novels he published under his own name, only 1992's The Road to Omaha doesn't follow this naming structure.  

The novels themselves also follow the same general plot.  A man is in some way connected to an intelligence agency.  Said man is frequently, but not always, too old for this shit.  He discovers or is made aware of a secret cadre bent on some form of world domination.  With the help of  a beautiful woman who possesses some skill or background necessary to his success, the man manages to thwart the evil plot (winning the girl in the process, of course).  Ludlum doesn't break the mold at all in this novel, so you get exactly what you'd expect: a fun page-turner that really doesn't reward close reading.  

Ludlum is a popcorn novelist, plain and simple.  His plots are contrived at best, character motivations often don't hold up under close scrutiny.  The Matarese Circle, in particular, has some pacing problems.  Most of the first two hundred pages focuses on the main characters figuring out things the reader already knows, and the information about the conspiracy comes in spurts.  You'll get twenty pages of Scofield moping, twenty of things blowing up, then an info dump.    

It's interesting to compare and contrast Ludlum with le Carré.  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is by an actual MI-6 agent and deals with the moral bankruptcy and disillusionment of the Cold War from the perspective of someone who was honestly disillusioned by the Cold War.  The Materese Circle deals with the disillusionment in the way an action movie Hollywood studio executive would deal with it.  Scofield and Taleniekov have to deal with disillusionment and betrayal, but Ludlum trades depth for frequency.  It's just something for Scofield to dote on between the gunfights.  

The Matarese Circle itself is not a cultural touchstone and doesn't has already been lost to the realm of forgotten pop culture (although IMDB shows a film version in development).  However, like Zane Gray, Ludlum's influence is based on his entire oeuvre more than any particular work.  For one, Ludlum is one of the first trademarked dead authors.  While Fleming's Bond series still lives on through licensed sequels, the sheer number of Ludlum sequels since his death is impressive.  Since 2000, there have been twenty-three books marketed as "Robert Ludlum's..." where Ludlum's name is often bigger than the title.



While Tom Clancy has his own 'apostrophe series',  this is becoming more of a trend.  There are now four Sidney Sheldon apostrophe novels.  And of course we have to mention James Patterson, whose name has been on the cover of over one hundred novels since 1995.  The bestsellers list has been getting more and more homogeneous.  Looking at the annual top ten list for the 1910s, 52 different authors show up across the decade.  Looking at the 1970s, 59 different names show up.  Looking at 2000-2009, if we count things like "James Patterson with ____" as James Patterson, there are only 33 different authors over the 100 available slots.
   
I realize I've gone a bit off topic, but this is the point where the bestseller lists really starts to shift from the Michener/Uris/Hailey infotainment trifecta to the formulaic airport novel.  

Anyway, as far as The Matarese Circle goes, if you're looking for entertainment and nothing else, this will do just fine.



Bestsellers of 1979:

1. The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
2. Sophie's Choice by William Styron
3. Overload by Arthur Hailey
4. Memories of Another Day by Harold Robbins
5. Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
6. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
7. The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart
8. The Establishment by Howard Fast
9. The Third World War: August 1985 by John Hackett
10. Smiley's People by John le Carré

Also published in 1979:

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
if on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

Monday, July 14, 2014

1978: Chesapeake by James Michener

The Author: 



This is the third book by James Michener (1907-1997) to appear on my list.  He has four different books on the list, a total matched only by Stephen King and surpassed only by John Grisham.  As such, I hope you'll forgive me for copy/pasting most of the author bio from my review of The Source and Centennial.


James Michener (1907-1997) was adopted by a Quaker from Doylestown, Pennsylvania.  He attended Swarthmore college for English and psychology, graduating with honors in 1929.  After a couple years spent abroad, Michener returned to Pennsylvania to teach high school English.  In 1935, he married his first wife, Patti Koon, then earned his Masters and taught briefly at Harvard before becoming an editor for Macmillan Publishers.   

Michener served in the South Pacific during WWII.  His experiences there provided the basis for his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific (1947), which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1948 and was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the stage, under the title South Pacific.  In 1948, Michener divorced Koon and married Vange Nord.  Michener appeared in the top 10 annual bestsellers list twice in the 1950s, and fifteen times over the course of his life, taking the top spot four times.  In 1955, he divorced Nord and married Mari Sabusawa.  In 1977, Michener recieved the Presidential Medal of Freedom.   He died of kidney failure in 1997.     


The Book:



Length: 865 Pages
Subject/Genre: Chesapeake Bay Region/Historical Fiction

Chesapeake is, as the name suggests, a history of the Chesapeake Bay region.  The novel begins in 1583, focused on Native American inter-tribal relationships and history, followed by the arrival of Europeans and the foundation of Jamestown and the Chesapeake Bay Colony, the slave trade, the Civil War and Reconstruction, up through to the 1970s.       

As opposed to Michener's other works, Chesapeake is very focused.  Where as The Source covered several thousands of years of history and Centennial  spent a hundred pages explaining early earth geology and detailing the lives of prehistoric river mammals, Chesapeake's focus wavers less, leading to a whole that is more cohesive than the others I've previously reviewed.  Chesapeake's focuses on the usual suspects of American historical fiction, religion, race, class, and discrimination, e.g. the Quaker, pro-abolition family set at odds with the wealthy slave-owning family.  

Michener's modus operandi seems to be a wide-scope of an area's history, leading up to current social or political situations.  The Source leads to violence in the Middle East, Centennial to the modern Midwest, Chesapeake to the the modern South and Civil Rights movements, and The Covenant to apartheid era South Africa.  Michener attempts to draw a step by step diagram of how things got the way they are.  Such a diagram is going to be, at best, oversimplified. While his aim is admirable, compressing four hundred years of history into a single novel (even a long one) is going to require things to be painted in very broad strokes. Michener realizes this (as demonstrated by the notes at the chapter ends in Centennial), but the novel form is not greatly suited for this type of endeavor.  Michener tries to explain history from the perspective of those living it, and not just the heads of state or generals, but from the perspective of the average man.  However, the men and women in his novels are by no means average.  They must embody some particular archetype: the slave owner or the abolitionist.  Too much, the social forces of the time are embodied too literally, and everything seems teleological, as if it had to happen this way, a view that is true only in retrospect.  

I don't mean to imply that Michener is factually incorrect, or that he plays fast and loose with the facts.  Michener's novels are, if nothing else, well-researched.  Rather, it's his approach to history as a series of inevitabilities, a habit of viewing past events and decisions through the lens of their long-term results.  

That said, if you like long historical fiction, Chesapeake is for you.

Bestselling Novels of 1978:

1. Chesapeake by James Michener
2. War and Remembrance  by Herman Wouk
3. Fools Die by Mario Puzo
4. Bloodline by Sidney Sheldon
5. Scruples by Judith Krantz
6. Evergreen by Belva Plain
7. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach
8. The Holcroft Covenant by Robert Ludlum
9. Second Generation by Howard Fast
10. Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

Also Published in 1978:

The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever
The World According to Garp by John Irving
The Stand by Stephen King
Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby, Jr. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Cast of the Hobbit Reads The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins

On Monday, I included a video of Leonard Nimoy's performance of The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.  As it so happens, this little nugget of madness was given a dramatic reading by the film cast of The Hobbit, proving, if nothing else, that Benedict Cumberbatch can do a spot-on Ian McKellan impersonation.



Monday, July 7, 2014

1977: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Author:



J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) was born in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State (later a province of South Africa) where his father worked as a banker. At the age of three John Ronald Reuel Tolkein, his mother Mabel and his younger brother Hilary moved to England.  His father died of rheumatic fever in South Africa, leaving his family destitute. The Tolkiens lived by the aid of Mabel's family.  However, Mabel's family cut off financial support after she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1900.  In 1904, Mabel died of diabetes.  Guardianship of the twelve year old Tolkien and his brother was given to Father Francis Xavier Morgan of Birmingham.

In 1911, Tolkien began attending Oxford college, graduating with honors in English Language and Literature in 1915. In 1913, after a five year, interrupted courtship, Tolkien and Edith Bratt became engaged.  The two married in March 1916, a few months before Tolkien shipped out for service in World War One.  He was sent back to England in October of that year after contracting trench fever.  While recovering in England, Tolkien began work on The Book of Lost Tales.  After the war, Tolkien worked compiling the Oxford English Dictionary, then was a professor at the University of Leeds where he worked on translations as well as teaching.  In 1925, he began teaching at Oxford University, where he taught until his retirement in 1959.  In 1936, Tolkien published The Hobbit, which sold well enough for his publishers to request a sequel.  This wish was fulfilled by The Lord of the Rings, the three volumes published in 1954 and 1955.  The books ended up becoming popular enough to allow Tolkien and his wife to retire in comfort.

In 1972, the queen appointed Tolkien a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and was given an honorary doctorate from Oxford.


The Book:

1st edition cover


Length: 458 pages
Subject/Genre: Middle Earth/Fantasy

The Silmarillion was the first of Tolkien's works about Middle Earth to be published since The Lord of the Rings.  Published after his death, The Silmarillion was edited by J.R.R.'s son, Christopher.  The Silmarillion is a history of Middle Earth, comprised of legend, folklore, and 'official' histories.  It starts with the creation of the Earth (one that is very Judeo-Christian inspired), and the creation of the elves, dwarves, men, and other great and terrible creatures that roamed Middle Earth.    

Before I speak more about the content of The Silmarillion, I should point out the oddity of it being the single bestselling novel of the year.  The Silmarillion is a very dense, frequently dry book that I can only see as being of interest to those who are already fans of The Lord of the Rings.  While some sci-fi and horror are on the list in the coming decades, this is the only fantasy novel that made it, and it's not a very accessible novel at that.  Add to that that it was published more than two decades after the books that made it popular, The Silmarillion would seem to have a lot going against it.  However, in the sixties and seventies, Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings received massive popularity within the U.S. counter culture.  Between the publication of TLOR and The Silmarillion, bands like Led Zeppelin, Rush, and Genesis, wrote songs explicitly and allusively about Middle Earth, and that's ignoring the bands that have since faded into obscurity, or details like T. Rex's drummer changing his name to Stephen Peregrin Took and whatever the hell this thing Leonard Nimoy made is:



All this is a way of saying that Middle Earth had gone from cult status to cultural trend, leading to bestseller status of this week's subject.    

While those who have read The Lord of the Rings know that it's full of names, dates, geography, history, and myth, in terms of density it falls far short of The Silmarillion.  Of the novels 458 pages, over 15% comprise glossaries, family trees, and indices.  In fact, the Index of Names alone takes up 54 pages.  The fact is, Tolkien wrote a history book; Its main function is to deliver information, fictional though it may be.  

And so we get the thousands of years of the history of Middle Earth preceding the events of The Hobbit, which tells of the evil Melkor, the creation of the elvish kingdoms, the rise of Suaron and the arrival of men in Middle Earth.  

If you haven't read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I can't recommend The Silmarillion.  If you have, and have a strong desire to know more about the world it takes place in, then this is a great place to start.



Bestselling novels of 1977:

1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
3. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach
4. The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré
5. Oliver's Story by Erich Segal
6. Dreams Die First by Harold Robbins
7. Beggarman, Thief by Irwin Shaw
8. How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong
9. Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin
10. Daniel Martin by John Fowles


Also Published in 1977:

The Public Burning by Robert Coover
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
The Shining by Stephen King
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Sources:

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. 1977. New York: Ballantine, 1984. Print.

Monday, June 30, 2014

1976: Trinity by Leon Uris

The Author:





Leon Uris (1924-2003) appears one other time on the annual best-seller list, for 1959's Exodus.    Leon Uris (1924-2003) was born in Baltimore, Maryland.  His parents were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe.  Uris never finished high school, opting to drop out and enlist in the Marine Corps during his senior year.  He served in combat in Guadalcanal.  After the war, Uris moved to San Francisco with his wife, also a former Marine.  While there, he worked for a local newspaper.  In 1953, his first novel, Battle Cry, was published to huge popular success.  From there he was given a job in the story department of Warner Brothers Studios.

      In 1955, he released his second novel, The Angry Hills and, in 1956, penned the screenplay for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  In 1958, he published Exodus, which became a runaway success, becoming the first of two annual bestsellers on this list and earning him a considerable fan following. In 1961, Uris released Mila 18.  Trinity was published in 1976, and was inspired by a trip Uris and his third wife took to photograph modern Ireland.  Uris kept writing until his death in 2003.  He was married three times over the course of his life and had five children.  He died of renal failure.

The Book:


1st edition cover



Length: 817 pages
Subject/Genre: Irish history/historical fiction

Trinity primarily follows Conor Larkin, a poor Irish Catholic living in mid-to-late 19th century Ireland.  Much of the beginning of the novel is spent detailing the wretched conditions the Irish were forced to live in at the hands of the British, the local culture of small town Irishmen, and the history of attempted rebellion against the British.  Conor's story is the typical hero's journey of the historical fiction of an oppressed people.  Through personal strength and courage, Conor rises to fight the British rule as a leader of men.    

Published in 1976, and detailing a time period over a hundred years past, Trinity was still topical when it was written.  The period between the late 1960s and 1998 in Northern Ireland is referred to as The Troubles.  Violent attacks and acts of retribution were frequent between Irish Republican Army (IRA) splinter groups and British occupation forces, and between different splinter groups as well. The basis of the groups' attacks was the continued occupation of Northern Ireland by the British and a desire for Irish self-rule.  The conflict was a major subject in the news for decades.  The violence hit it's height in the 1970s, around the time Trinity was written and published.  

The novel puts the modern conflict in its historical context, as part of the Irish's centuries long attempt at overthrowing their colonizers.  When researching Uris, claims that he was merely a propagandist pop up frequently, mainly pointing to the one-sided good vs. evil, freedom vs. tyranny approach to the stories.  While I agree that Trinity is certainly one-sided, I don't think it would be propaganda inasmuch as it is an attempt to merely demonstrate the opposite side's view.  Trinity is also a product of the time it was written in, and functions as an attempt to explain and understand the perspective and history of the bad guys (i.e. IRA sects).

As far as the book itself goes, I feel Uris, like Michener and Hailey, gets too bogged down in detail.  Uris tries to function almost as a documentarian of 19th century Ireland, and the balance between providing mountains of information and storytelling is difficult to maintain for extended periods of time, leading to a narrative that moves in spurts.     

That said, if you are the type of person who likes your historical fiction long, winding, and full of detail, you'll probably like Trinity.  If you like Trinity, Uris wrote a sequel to it 1995, titled Redemption.

Bestsellers of 1976:

1. Trinity by Leon Uris
2. Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
3. Dolores by Jacqueline Susann
4. Storm Warning by Jack Higgins
5. The Deep by Peter Benchley
6. 1876 by Gore Vidal
7. Slapstick or Lonesome No More! by Kurt Vonnegut
8. The Lovely Lady by Harold Robbins
9. Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
10. A Stranger in the Mirror by Sidney Sheldon

Also published in 1976:

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please by Raymond Carver
Ordinary People by Judith Guest
Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley

Sources:

"Leon Uris." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center
     Web.

Uris, Leon. Trinity. 1976. New York: Bantam, 1977. Print.

Monday, June 23, 2014

1975: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

The Author:




Edgar Lawrence Doctorow (1931-      ) was born in the Bronx.  He later studied philosophy at Kenyon College and briefly attended Columbia University for graduate studies in English drama before being drafted into the military, where he served from 1953-1955.  While overseas, he met and married Helen Setzer.  Upon returning the the U.S., he worked as a manuscript reader for Columbia Pictures, then as an editor for the New American Library from 1959-64.  In 1960, he published his first novel, a western titled Welcome to Hard Times.  In 1964, Doctorow became the editor-in-chief of Dial Press and in 1966 published his second novel, this time sci-fi, called Big as Life.  It wasn't until 1971 that Doctorow wrote his first historical fiction novel, The Book of Daniel, about the Rosenberg trial.  The book was a critical success and was a finalist for the National Book Award.  In 1975, Doctorow published Ragtime, his most popular book, which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award.   Since then, Doctorow has published eight novels, three short story collections, and two books of essays.  is most recent novel, Andrew's Brain, was published earlier this year.

The Book:




Length: 334 pages
Genre/Subject: Historical fiction/Early 20th Century New York

Ragtime takes place over the course of the opening decade and a half of the twentieth century.  It focuses on three main fictional groups, the unnamed upper middle class white family living the American dream (named simply Father, Mother, and Mother's Younger Brother), a poor Jewish immigrant (Tateh) and his daughter, and a black musician from Harlem named Coalhouse Walker.  But what's remarkable about Ragtime is the extent to which real historical personages appear in the story, most notably socialite Evelyn Nesbit, anarchist Emma Goldman, magician Harry Houdini, and industrialist J. P. Morgan.  This puts aside the brief appearances by everyone from Archduke Franz Ferdinand to Henry Ford to Theodore Dreiser.  At one point, Freud and Jung take a boat through the Tunnel of Love on Coney Island.

Doctorow raises all the standard but relevant social issues.  Nesbit and Goldman discuss gender, while Coalhouse and Mother's Younger Brother consider race, and Tateh ponders class in American society.  Yet despite the prevalence of these themes in American literature, Doctorow makes them seem fresh, at least in presentation.  One of the most memorable scenes in the novel takes place between Ford and Morgan, sitting down to discuss reincarnation and the idea of Great Men.  Such a meeting almost certainly never happened, and is just one instance of the mixing of the historical and fictional.  However, Doctorow has said:

     "I'm under the illusion that all of my inventions are quite true. For instance, in Ragtime, I'm
     satisfied that everything I made up about Morgan and Ford is true, whether it happened or not.
     Perhaps truer because it didn't happen."    

I think Ragtime is the first postmodern novel on the list.  While novels like Elmer Gantry or Valley of the Dolls can be seen as Roman á clef's, Doctorow makes a concerted effort to make reality and fiction indistinguishable, to draw a line between truth and fact.  It wasn't merely Doctorow that was making massive changes to historical fiction and the fact/truth divide, rather we can see Ragtime as a more accessible example of what was going on.  On the one hand, you had the continued rise of New Journalism.  Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 was called "the least factual, but most accurate account" of the election.  Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow pushes the border between psychological and  magical realism, all in the historical context of World War II.  Ragtime only slightly precedes Robert Coover's The Public Burning, a novel about the Rosenberg trial narrated by Richard Nixon.  While Modernism is usually tied to disillusionment, postmodernism could (in my opinion) be tied to hysteria, that is to say, disillusionment to the point of humor or madness. Note that this is not a negative judgment.

Ragtime was adapted to the screen in 1981.



The film starred James Cagney but had a strangely eclectic cast, with an uncredited appearance by Jack Nicholson, a role filled by The Naked and the Dead author Norman Mailer, and before-they-were-famous performances by Jeff Daniels and Samuel L. Jackson.
In 1998, Ragtime was adapted to the stage.  The musical was nominated for thirteen Tony awards, and won four, losing Best Musical to The Lion King.

Unlike many books so far on the list, Ragtime has maintained much of its popularity.  It was placed at #86 on Modern Library's list of the 100 best books of the 20th century, as well as TIME's 100 best novels since 1923.

Ragtime is definitely worth reading if you like historical fiction, or even if you're just lukewarm on the genre.  It doesn't tread much new ground with on social issues, but it comes at them from a new angle.




Bestselling novels of 1975:

1. Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
2. The Moneychangers by Arthur Hailey
3. Curtain by Agatha Christie
4. Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner
5. The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh
6. The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins
7. The Greek Treasure by Irving Stone
8. The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
9. Shōgun by James Clavell
10. Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow

Also Published in 1975:
The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges
J R by William Gaddis

Sources:

Doctorow, E. L. Ragtime. 1975. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1990. Print.

Mchugh, Frank K. "Doctorow, E.L. (1931- )." Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American 
     Literature. George B. Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Phillip Leininger. Vol. 1. New York: 
     HarperCollins, 1991. 266. Literature Resource Center. Web.


Monday, June 16, 2014

1974: Centennial by James Michener

The Author:



James Michener (1907-1997) has already appeared on this blog for 1965's The Source.  Michere was adopted by a Quaker from Doylestown, Pennsylvania.  He later attended Swarthmore college, studying English and Psychology, graduating with honors in 1929.  After spending a couple abroad, Michener returned to Pennsylvania to teach high school English.  In 1935, he married his first wife, Patti Koon, then earned his Masters and taught briefly at Harvard before becoming an editor for Macmillan Publishers.   

Michener served in the South Pacific during WWII.  His experiences there provided the basis for his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific (1947), which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1948 and was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the stage, under the title South Pacific.  In 1948, Michener divorced Koon and married Vange Nord.  Michener appeared in the top 10 annual bestsellers list fifteen times between 1951 and 1992, taking the top spot four times.  In 1955, he divorced Nord and married Mari Sabusawa.  In 1977, Michener received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.   He died of kidney failure in 1997. 

The Book:



Length: 1086 pages
Genre/Subject: Historical Fiction/The American Midwest


Centennial is about the eponymous fictional small town in Colorado.  The first part tells us the framing device: a major magazine is doing a piece on the typical American small town, and they've asked a historian to do his own investigation for the purposes of fact checking.  As such, each chapter ends with a note to the editors, clearing up any possibly incorrect or speculative historical elements of the preceding chapter.  In true Michener fashion, this story of a small town doesn't start with the town's naming in 1876, or the history of the Native Americans living in the area before that, or even with the dinosaurs that roamed the Earth millions of years ago.  Michener starts the story of Centennial, Colorado with the formation of the Earth's crust.     

This is one of my issues with Michener, and it's largely a matter of personal taste.  After a brief introduction to the concept of the book, he spends over a hundred pages on geology and evolutionary biology.  Do we really need what is essentially a short story depicting the life of a particular buffalo living hundreds of thousands of years before its species had contact with humans?  On the one hand, horses, buffalo, beavers (and, yes, even the giant Diplodocus), and the unique landscape of the area are of great importance to the history of the area and the story itself, but is this too much? I'm a big fan of going on tangents, but you have the tangent before you have the thing it's tangential to.   

In my review of Hailey's Wheels, I compared Hailey, Michener, and Uris. During my research for that post, I came across a review from The New Republic which I think holds true to Michener as well.

     [His] most devoted readers, one senses, are the sort who don't read novels except those 
     certified as “informative” and “educational”; whose highest praise for the novels they really 
     cherish is that they are “very educational.”

While today we tend to think of historical fiction as factually dubious at best (thanks, Dan Brown), people like Michener treated the genre as a means to popularize history.  Being informative was at least as important as being entertaining, and the goal was to give you as complete an understanding of the subject as possible. Personally, I've always been of the opinion that if I want to read a book about history, I'd pick up a history book.  This isn't to say that novels can't be informative or have a significant non-fiction component (cf. In Cold Blood).  The problem is that an attempt to tell us everything can weigh the work down.  But once again, the historical meandering just isn't the kind of thing I like, and there's no accounting for taste.

Due to it's popularity, NBC made Centennial into a twelve-part miniseries in 1979, starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Carrera, as well as Andy Griffith and pre-James Bond Timothy Dalton. 


Like I've said, Michener goes to great lengths to be as historically accurate as possible.  If you like historical fiction and very long books, Michener would be a good fit.


Bestselling Novels of 1974:

1. Centennial by James Michener
2. Watership Down by Richard Adams
3. Jaws by Peter Benchley
4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
5. Something Happened by Joseph Heller
6. The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth
7. The Pirate by Harold Robbins
8. I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven
9. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer
10. The Fan Club by Irving Wallace

Also Published in 1974:

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll
Enderby's End by Anthony Burgess
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Sources:

Maloff, Saul. "Troubadour of Free Enterprise." The New Republic 165.17 (23 Oct. 1971): 21-22. 
     Rpt. in Literature Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2014. Literature Resource Center. Web.

Michener, James. Centennial. 1974. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1989.