“I recall Norman Mailer…” –Nov. 20, 2002

I recall Norman Mailer—who has been dumped into the dust bin of literary history by any number of upstarts, young turks and hired guns looking to make a name for themselves—was asked about his summer reading list. He scoffed at the concept, saying that he read all year around. I was trying to imagine what that summer reading idea was all about. The best I could come up with was the kind of reading one does at the summer place or at the beach carrying one’s reading materials in the canvas tote in between other socially approved activities. What I could not even come close to imagining was what the world would be like if one only read occasionally. Oh well…Sundays for me bring the joyous opportunity to gaze into the wonderfully original mind of Katherine Powers writing her “A Reading Life” column in the Boston Globe. Her November 17 offering on books on clothing and fashion has this conclusion on Paul Fussell’s Uniforms:

At other times, he reaches deep within himself to come up with an especially mysterious plum: ”If today any item of menswear could be posited as the opposite of the military uniform, it might be the sloppy bathrobe of terry cloth, worn unfastened and in need of ironing.” Forgive my apoplectic tendency, but what is he talking about? I’ll tell you what a sloppy bathrobe is and it’s ”Uniforms,” yes, it is—and I do not understand why the great and noble house of Houghton Mifflin allowed it out on the street. I just do not. No.

I say, "Go girl!" In other periodical literature the Japanese Lady of the New York Times was subjected to mildly interesting scrutiny when readers of MobyLives.com Peter Kunz, Matt Gross and then Michael Cader pin- balled some commentary that ended up in researching the frequency of her use of the word ‘limn’ in her reviews. It turns out that since 1996 TJLNYT has used ‘limn’ 21 times, 7 times last year and 4 so far this year. Then, of course Word Maven Safire weighed in, and—bingo—Dennis Loy Johnson has a tasty salad of ingredients for his “Limning Kakutani” column at MobyLives.com. Also in the NY Times on November 18 was Amy Bloom’s “Trading Fiction’s Comfort for a Chance to Look Life in the Eye” where she explains why, though she is normally a writer of fiction, she chose to write a non fiction book, Normal:

I didn’t know that exploring the truth of some people’s lives, and the stories they had to tell, would overturn my prejudices and my common sense and poke a sharp stick into the blind spots. I didn’t know that these real people’s complexities and poignancies and humor would move me to write a small book about them, putting aside my own stories for a while to write theirs…. I met heterosexual transsexual Jews and bisexual transsexual Buddhists. They all seemed to have the usual human assortment of baggage and defenses, plus the burden of childhoods spent in rather deeper alienation than even those of us who became writers.

Bloom’s writing here and in other places gives strong evidence that one might find interesting bon mots even in her grocery list. Which brings to mind Mark Winegardner’s mantra that he doesn’t care what a books about, that he’s just interested in good writing. Christopher Hitchens’, late of the Nation, homage to George Orwell, Why Orwell Matters, is a typically well-argued piece by the linguistically flamboyant contrarian. One only wishes that he would take Orwell’s guidance from “Politics and the English Language” and restrain his use of French and Latin phrases. By contrast, Christopher Hitchens takes 220 pages to reaffirm the rightful place of George Orwell in the pantheon of Immortals and a mere 1400 words to dispense with HL Mencken in his review of Terry Teachout’s new biography (NYTBR, Nov. 18) of the sage of Baltimore, “As this century gets under way, it appears to me suddenly to leave the figure of Mencken decidedly shrunken and localized.” Perhaps to counterbalance some of the intellectual heavy lifting that was occasioned by reading about HL Mencken and battles with FDR and his fawning over the Fuhrer and of Orwell and The Spanish Civil War and Stalinism and about ‘limning’ and such, I turned to Patricia Henley’s highly regarded novel, Hummingbird House. And though it took place in the charnel house of Guatemala in late ‘80s, it was a very satisfying book to read. Not a false note in this very harrowing but bittersweet story (except for a little confusion about the difference between the circumference and the diameter of the Earth on p 213). After having finished Gorgeous Lies by Martha McPhee, I have read 4 of the 6 finalists for the National Book Awards (The Heaven of Mercury by Brad Watson, Three Junes by Julia Glass, and Big If by Mark Costello) and I don’t know how someone selects one book out of this pack of fine novels. But I’m sure very glad it’s not my job.

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