Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of November 19th, 2007

My copy of The Naked and the Dead is a battered hardcover put out by Rhinehart nearly 60 years ago. I bought it second- or maybe third-hand in a bookstore in Ohio. It apparently belonged to one Art Limbach, who signed his name with a flourish in bright blue ink and added the date: June 1951. The flaps of the jacket are adorned with blurbs proclaiming Norman Mailer a major talent and his debut a great war novel. On the back is a handsome, very posed photograph of the author in a heavy tweed suit, looking stern, almost tragic, with surprisingly luscious lips. In his right hand is a lit cigarette. Only one ear is visible, and it doesn’t seem inordinately large. Under the photo comes this bold bio: “Brooklyn, Harvard, Leyte, Japan; soda-jerk, usher, flat-painter, rifleman; Story Magazine, Cross Section, a first novel—Mr. Mailer’s itinerary, literary and otherwise, reads like the traditional background for the novelist. But this twenty-five-year-old author bids fair, with the publication of The Naked and the Dead, to establish a literary tradition of his own.” As predictions go, not bad. Ciao, Norman.

DON’T TRY READING The Best of Ogden Nash (Ivan R. Dee, $28.95) if there’s anybody else in the room. You’ll end up trying, and failing, to stifle your laughter—or else you’ll offer, every few minutes, to share a particularly hilarious couplet. In this selection of 548 poems, chosen by Linell Nash Smith, Nash’s daughter, you’ll meet up with old favorites (“The Bronx?/ No thonx!”) and make plenty of irresistible new friends, including this wonderfully timely fragment Nash scribbled on a notepad: “Who to Blame?/ Leaders who are followers/ Or followers who are swallowers.” Has there ever been a more perfect poem than this? “The cow is of the bovine ilk;/ One end is moo, the other, milk.”

TRANSLATION ISN’T THE only topic rattling around in Umberto Eco’s famously big brain (see page 17). In fact, he’s having some seriously skanky thoughts, to judge from his other book out this month, On Ugliness (Rizzoli, $45), a sumptuously illustrated volume dedicated to the exploration of the hideous in art from antiquity to present. Would you be surprised to learn that in this follow-up to his History of Beauty, Mr. Eco warns us to heed the words of the witches in Macbeth, “Fair is foul and foul is fair”?