“Hemingway’s Boat” best of 2012 reading list

I thought I knew almost everything about Hemingway, the macho-man writer whose short stories are among the very best prose I’ve ever read.  But during the course of reading the biographic “Hemingway’s Boat” last year, I made a startling discovery.  The Old Man, Papa, had transsexual fantasies and one of his sons, Gregory, lived out such a fantasy to its fullest.

Gregory, also known as Gigi, died in October 2001 as a transsexual by the name of Gloria in a women’s detention center in Miami.  He had a long history of arrests for appearing publicly in drag, according to the author, Paul Hendricksson.  Ernest himself, the author writes, sometimes dressed as a female, particularly in sexual episodes with his last wife, Mary.   Gigi was probably his father’s favorite child, and Hendricksson suggests it is the transsexual pattern that brought them so close.

Of the nine books I completed reading in 2012, “Hemingway’s Boat,” was the most engaging.  And certainly the best researched.  Hendricksson can drive you nuts with detail as he did in “Sons of Mississippi,” a look at the 1960s civil rights era as seen through the lives of a half dozen Mississippi sheriffs pictured in a famous Life magazine photo on the day James Meredith broke the university racial barrier at Ole Miss.

In “Hemingway’s Boat,” Hendricksson again takes a peripheral source, EH’s famed fishing boat the Pilar, to shine fresh light on Hemingway’s life.   He uses boat logs to bring out details of some famed passengers and their relationship with the writer.  And some not so famous.  For instance, Hendricksson ran down one of the “crew,” Walter Houck, in Los Angeles whose late wife had worked as Hemingway’s secretary in Cuba.

Although I had known of Hemingway’s health issues late in life, I was startled to learn he was a physical wreck at an early age, maybe by his mid 40s.  By 1951, a decade before he committed suicide in Idaho, he had diabetes, ringing ears, migraines, kidney problems, depression and paranoia and hypertension that would send his blood pressure soaring to dangerous levels.   And then there was the insomnia.

For the hiker, there are tidbits like EH carrying a pedometer as early as 1916.  And there is advice for the budding writer.

The rest of last year’s reading list, in order:

“Mockingbird:  A Portrait of Harper Lee.”  Charles J. Shields.  So far the definitive biography of the reclusive Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  I read “Mockingbird” primarily to understand why Lee has written only that one book.  I came away as confused as ever.  The biography did nothing to disrupt my suspicion that her cousin, Truman Capote, was actually the author of Lee’s acclaimed novel.

“Black Water.”  Joyce Carol Oates.  A lightly veiled novel that tries to unravel the psychology that led to the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne in the noted auto accident that involved the late senator, Ted Kennedy, in 1969 on Chappaquiddick.  The book left me feeling far less sympathetic for the victim, Kelly Kelleher (Kopechne) whom I believe must accept a majority of the responsibility for her death.

“Life Among the Apaches.” John C. Cremony.  This book, published in 1868, describes the first-hand travels and experiences of an Indian scout in the territories of Arizona and New Mexico.  His subjects are many:  Cochise, Mangas Colorado, the Oatman Massacre, Apache women as warriors, smoke signals, etc.  I was pleased as a caffeine addict to know that was “coveted of all rations” used by soldiers for that time.

“Dharma Bums.” Jack Kerouac.  One of the Beat writer’s early novels, 1958, and a second reading for me.  The narrator, Ray Smith, has a mission:  “To turn the wheel of the True Meaning, or Dharma, and gain merit for myself as a future Buddha (awakener) and as a future Hero in Paradise.”  For hikers, Kerouac’s failed attempt to summit Matterhorn Peak in the Sierras is a highlight.

“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”  Cheryl Strayed.  This unusual women’s adventure story covers the author’s long hike alone on parts of this popular trail through parts of the Sierras and other western ranges in California and Oregon.   Strayed (not her given name) is a decent writer but her angst over her mother’s death and the undisciplined life that followed seems somehow contrived.

“The Immortal.”  James E. Gunn.  A rare venture for me into sci-fi, spurred by the fact the author was my creative writing instructor at the University of Kansas.  Gunn is a well-respected writer in the field, and this story delves into the horrors faced by a man given the gift of eternal life through the makeup of his blood.

“Billionaires and Ballot Bandits.”  Greg Pallast.  The investigative reporter’s short book on how elections are stolen by rich people like the Koch Brothers and political deviates like Karl Rove.  I read this book just before the Election and it made me stew right up until the time it was announced that Ohio, with its history of corrupt ballot-counting, had gone for Obama.

“The Glass Room.”  Simon Mawer.  One of the latest works (2009) of my favorite living novelist.   It is a story of a wealthy Jewish carmaker and his family, living in Czechoslovakia during the rise of the Nazi movement and the beginning of World War II.  The betrayals and intrigues are illuminated by the lens of their architectural-marvel of a house and its “transparent” glass room.


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