Return to Paradise Is a Bad Idea

James A. Michener was a World War II aviator.  In 1949, convinced that America’s future was linked with Asia’s, he decided to return to the South Pacific  “to write a kind of book that . . . had never been tried before.”

The result is Return to Paradise, a collection of essays about the island nations of the South Pacific interspersed with short stories set in those countries.

Today it’s obvious why this kind of book hadn’t been tried before:  it just does not work.

Michener could make a bus schedule interesting. His essays mix tidbits of trivia with a broad historical perspective. But much of his commentary needs footnotes today: Was $2200 a year big money in 1948 or chicken feed?

The short stories, however, are timeless. Beautifully written, they plunge deep into human relationships.

“Until They Sail,” explores what happens to women when all the able-bodied mean are gone to war.  Another stunner is “The Jungle,”  which explores what American women want from their men through the unlikely lens of a vacation to Guadalcanal aboard a tramp steamer.

A historian might make a great book today from juxtaposing Michener’s essays with contemporary views of the same islands. Until such a historian comes along, stick to reading Michener’s short stories: they don’t date.

Return to Paradise
by James A. Michener
Random House, 1951
437 pages
My grade C—
1951 bestseller #8

© Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Ugly American Is Alive, Well, and Living Abroad

The Ugly American is less a novel than a series of related stories of Americans in Asia during the era of the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts.

William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick contrast the American foreign service staff in Asia with the Russian foreign service, basing their tale on actual people and events.  The novel’s goal isn’t entertainment, but persuasion.

America’s diplomatic core in Asia don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs, stick to themselves, never get outside the cities where their embassies are housed.

Worse, they reject advice from Americans whose language skills and willingness to interact with the locals give them expertise.

The Russians, by contrast, train their foreign service staff thoroughly before deploying them. As a result, the Russians win the hearts and minds of the people.  The Americans are despised.

The great — and horrific — thing  about The Ugly American is that it still feels real today. You have only to see newscasts of President George W. Bush shrugging off  the Iraqi shoe-thrower to see that Americans still have no appreciation of the cultures in which they have troops stationed. And post 9/11,we’ve seen how effective Mao’s embedded insurgents can be.

I hope you will read this novel— and that you won’t like what you read one bit.

The Ugly American
by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick
W. W. Norton, 1958
285 pages
My grade C+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni