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

I recall Norman Mailer—who has been dumpedinto the dust bin of literary history by any number of upstarts,young turks and hired guns looking to make a name for themselves—wasasked about his summer reading list. He scoffed at the concept,saying that he read all year around. I was trying to imagine whatthat summer reading idea was all about. The best I could come upwith was the kind of reading one does at the summer place or atthe beach carrying one’s reading materials in the canvas totein between other socially approved activities. What I could noteven come close to imagining was what the world would be like ifone only read occasionally. Oh well…Sundays for me bring thejoyous opportunity to gaze into the wonderfully original mind ofKatherine Powers writing her “A Reading Life” column inthe Boston Globe. Her November 17 offering on books on clothingand fashion has this conclusion on Paul Fussell’s Uniforms:

At other times, he reaches deep within himselfto come up with an especially mysterious plum: ''If today anyitem of menswear could be posited as the opposite of the militaryuniform, it might be the sloppy bathrobe of terry cloth, wornunfastened and in need of ironing.'' Forgive my apoplectic tendency,but what is he talking about? I'll tell you what a sloppybathrobe is and it's ''Uniforms,'' yes, it is—and I do notunderstand why the great and noble house of Houghton Mifflin allowedit out on the street. I just do not. No.

I say, "Go girl!" In other periodicalliterature the Japanese Lady of the New York Times was subjectedto mildly interesting scrutiny when readers of MobyLives.com PeterKunz, Matt Gross and then Michael Cader pin- balled some commentarythat ended up in researching the frequency of her use of the word‘limn’ in her reviews. It turns out that since 1996 TJLNYThas used ‘limn’ 21 times, 7 times last year and 4 so farthis year. Then, of course Word Maven Safire weighed in, and—bingo—DennisLoy Johnson has a tasty salad of ingredients for his “LimningKakutani” column at MobyLives.com. Also in the NY Timeson November 18 was Amy Bloom’s“Trading Fiction's Comfort for a Chance to Look Life in theEye” where she explains why, though she is normally a writerof fiction, she chose to write a non fiction book, Normal:

I didn't know that exploring thetruth of some people's lives, and the stories they had to tell,would overturn my prejudices and my common sense and poke a sharpstick into the blind spots. I didn't know that these real people'scomplexities and poignancies and humor would move me to writea small book about them, putting aside my own stories for a whileto write theirs…. I met heterosexual transsexual Jews andbisexual transsexual Buddhists. They all seemed to have the usualhuman assortment of baggage and defenses, plus the burden of childhoodsspent in rather deeper alienation than even those of us who becamewriters.

Bloom’s writing here and in other places givesstrong evidence that one might find interesting bon mots even inher grocery list. Which brings to mind MarkWinegardner’s mantra that he doesn’t care what a booksabout, that he’s just interested in good writing. ChristopherHitchens’, late of the Nation, homage to GeorgeOrwell, Why Orwell Matters, is a typically well-argued pieceby the linguistically flamboyant contrarian. One only wishes thathe would take Orwell’s guidance from “Politics and theEnglish Language” and restrain his use of French and Latinphrases. By contrast, Christopher Hitchens takes 220 pages to reaffirmthe rightful place of George Orwell in the pantheon of Immortalsand a mere 1400 words to dispense with HL Mencken in his reviewof Terry Teachout’s new biography (NYTBR, Nov. 18) of the sageof Baltimore, “As this century gets under way, it appears tome suddenly to leave the figure of Mencken decidedly shrunken andlocalized.” Perhaps to counterbalance some of the intellectualheavy lifting that was occasioned by reading about HL Mencken andbattles with FDR and his fawning over the Fuhrer and of Orwell andThe 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 charnelhouse of Guatemala in late ‘80s, it was a very satisfying bookto read. Not a false note in this very harrowing but bittersweetstory (except for a little confusion about the difference betweenthe circumference and the diameter of the Earth on p 213). Afterhaving finished Gorgeous Lies by Martha McPhee, I have read4 of the 6 finalists for the National Book Awards (The Heavenof Mercury by BradWatson, Three Junes by Julia Glass, and Big Ifby MarkCostello) and I don’t know how someone selects one bookout of this pack of fine novels. But I’m sure very glad it’snot my job.

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