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Posted at 11:53 AM ET, 10/24/2009

The secrecy of Pynchon, the giraffe's blue tongue and other things I learned this week

By Valerie Strauss

1) The author Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. is so secretive that people have been guessing about his whereabouts since the 1960s.

This is in the category of "Things I Probably Should Have Known But Didn't" until, that is, I asked someone who was carrying Pynchon’s new book “Inherent Vice” whether he liked it.

This serious Pynchon fan launched into chapter and verse about his professional history and his unusual personal preference to stay entirely out of the public eye. His novels have won numerous awards since the first was published in 1963, but he never picks them up. In fact sometimes he rejects them.

I decided to check out the story (reporters are always suspicious) and here’s what I found:

“Gravity’s Rainbow,” his best known work, shared the 1974 National Book Awards with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s, and in 1975 won the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, given every five years.

Pynchon declined it in a letter: "The Howells Medal is a great honor, and, being gold, probably a good hedge against inflation, too. But I don’t want it. Please don’t impose on me something I don’t want. It makes the Academy look arbitrary and me look rude. . . . I know I should behave with more class, but there appears to be only one way to say no, and that’s no."

My teacher of all things Pynchon said that a few people claim to have snapped pictures of him in New York, but nobody is sure they have the right man.

2) The confidential telegrams British ambassadors had sent back home after their stints--made public by the BCC--are sometimes wildly insulting and often hilarious.

In case you missed it, Roger Pinsent, Britain’s outgoing ambassador to Nicaragua, was scathing in his criticism in 1967: "There is, I fear, no question that the average Nicaraguan is one of the most dishonest, unreliable, violent and alcoholic of the Latin Americans."

I went to the BBC website, which has put on line copies of the actual reports, and found more:

Robin Renwick, ambassador to the United States for four years, wrote in 1995 about of the first President George Bush:

“He is highly intelligent, pragmatic to the core, a good debater and has been personally very friendly to us. But there are few fixed points on his compass.”

What do you think he meant?

3) The standard delivery for a newborn giraffe is a 6-foot headfirst drop to the ground.

The Virginia Zoo in Norfolk has a baby giraffe, and the zoo’s executive director, Greg Bockheim, told the AP that the fall stimulates breathing so the newborn can breathe on its own.

Two other interesting facts about giraffes: They are the only mammals to have horns at
birth, and an adult’s 18-inch tongue are often distinctly blue

4) The man credited with coining the phrase “popular culture” and pioneering its study was a university professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Ray Browne died this week at 87 after writing and editing more than 70 books on popular culture, the AP reported today.

He developed the first academic department devoted to studying what he called the “people’s culture” at Bowling Green in 1973. Browne wrote and edited more than 70 books on popular culture — including “The Guide to United States Popular Culture,” published in 2001.

His interests ranged from Western cowboy movies to wallpaper.

5) I stumbled on these statistics about the differences in wages between men and women, and saw that the biggest problem is for women who most need help.
Single women with no children working full time make 96 cents for every $1 earned by a similarly situated man.

A married woman with children working full time earns only 69 cents for every $1 earned by her male counterpart.

And a single mother working full time earns 58 cents on every $1 earned by a married man with children.

6) The National Cathedral is the sixth largest cathedral in the world, but, oddly, there isn’t a consensus on the largest.

I had known that there was a moon rock embedded in a stained glass window of the National Cathedral, and that there is a Darth Vader gargoyle built on the side. But I saw a press release from the cathedral in Northwest Washington is the sixth largest in the world.

The largest: There are different cathedrals that top different lists, apparently because some include in the space count not only the cathedral but the chapter house, the cloisters and other parts of the complex.

But often said to be the largest is the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York and is 121,000 square feet, or the size of two football fields.

The moon rock, by the way, is in the Space Window, which commemorates mankind’s 20th-century leap into space, brought back by an Apollo 11 astronaut.

As for Darth Vader: Back in the 1980s while the west towers were under construction, the cathedral held a decorative sculpture competition for children. One of the winners drew Darth Vader, and now the head resides on the northwest tower of the cathedral. It is hard to see without binoculars but here’s a picture.

By Valerie Strauss  | October 24, 2009; 11:53 AM ET
Tags:  Things I Learned This Week  
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