“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


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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