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the word on the street

John Mitzel’s Calamus Bookstore newsletter a local gem

John Horne Burns on the cover of Saturday Review of Literature, February 14, 1948, taken from “Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns” by David Margolick.

John Horne Burns on the cover of Saturday Review of Literature, February 14, 1948, taken from “Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns” by David Margolick.

Font of knowledge

Before the fall literary season shifts into high gear, it’s a good time to point out local literary gems that shouldn’t be overlooked. In this category, Exhibit A might be bookseller John Mitzel’s monthly e-mail newsletter (available at www.calamusbooks.com). That’s where you’ll tap into his knowledge of gay literature, history and culture, and his unmistakable way with words. He reads widely and is as likely to extol the virtues of a book from an academic press as he is the latest celebrity tell-all.

Before opening Calamus Bookstore near South Station 13 years ago, Mitzel worked for years at the now-defunct Glad Day Bookshop in the South End. He knows gay history, in part, because he’s lived it. In 1971 he cofounded the radical newspaper Fag Rag, and in 1978 he helped organize a gay rights fund-raiser at which Gore Vidal spoke.

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In a recent newsletter, Mitzel talked up “A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart” (Simon & Schuster) by Gary Marmorstein: “Hart and Rodgers made an odd team. Richard Rodgers was precise, punctual, heterosexual, handsome; he was eager to be accepted by Society. Hart — not so much. He was barely five feet tall, alcoholic, homosexual and more comfortable in a bar or a restaurant than cavorting with The Swells. He was fearful of being lonely, thus his affinity for throwing parties and then picking up the tab. Here was a man who never had a romantic relationship in his life and yet wrote some of the most romantic lyrics in the first half of the 20th Century.”

Here’s Mitzel on a new book, from Other Press, about John Horne Burns, a Massachusetts native and World War II veteran who wrote “The Gallery,” a 1947 bestseller that some critics regard as the best novel about war: “If I had a Pulitzer Prize to give out — which I do not — I would promptly wrap it up and send it off to David Margolick for his remarkable biography, ‘Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns.’ ”

He is quick to note the toll of the AIDS epidemic. In an e-mail, he wrote, “Had all the writers swept away by the plague remained alive — had we not had a pandemic! — we would have a whole vital generation of writers, poetic voices, playwrights, essayists, now in their late 50s and early 60s. It would be a formidable cultural scene.”

Coming up on Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. is a chance to watch Mitzel in action at the bookstore. The come-on from his newsletter: “One of Boston’s most delightful raconteurs, George Mansour, since the 1950s, has built a reputation as one of the finest film bookers in the Boston area and throughout New England. . . . This will be an evening of nostalgia and hilarity — and telling many tales out of school. John Mitzel will lob the easy questions; George will take us to where the bodies are!”

Coming out

 “Daughter of Empire: My Life as a Mountbatten” by Lady Pamela Hicks (Simon & Schuster)

 “Dick Francis’s Refusal”by Felix Francis (Putnam)

 “Never Go Back” by Lee Child (Delacorte)

Pick of the Week

Jaime Clarke of Newtonville Books in Newton Centre recommends “The Affairs of Others” by Amy Grace Loyd (Picador): “With elements of Alfred Hitchcock and Ian McEwan, this gorgeously written novel unfolds with stunning momentum. Celia, the young widow who keeps careful tabs on her Brooklyn apartment building, is drawn deeply into her tenants’ lives after the sensuous Hope takes a sublet.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.
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