This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,617) on Friday, February 7, 2020.
One night this week, I foolishly counted the number of novels that I was reading simultaneously. It was five (count ’em, 5). A couple of them I have just started; another couple I’m well into and don’t feel like quitting yet. That five doesn’t count a couple that I have tried and have given up on and turned back into the library — more than a couple, actually. And then there are a couple of non-fiction tomes that I am pursuing.
What does this say about me as a reader? I’m not sure. I used to think that if I started a book, I had to finish it. I also thought I could only read one book at a time. But those attitudes have drifted away.
What’s your reading habit? Lots together or one at a time? Whatever it is, I hope you have a great weekend doing it.
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Chester Himes: detective fiction with a unique vision and voice
By the time he was 35 years old, Chester Himes had experienced enough tragedy and hardship for the lives of several people.
He had grown up in a middle-class black family that valued books and education, but that family was disrupted by the sudden blinding of a brother who was refused medical treatment because of his race. Himes had been expelled from Ohio State University for a prank, and he had served seven and a half years in prison for armed robbery. It was in prison that he began writing, and he managed to sell some short stories and work on his first novel.
Himes was paroled in 1936 and went to Los Angeles where he worked for a short time as a screenwriter. But he was fired from that job when the studio owner, Jack Warner, discovered that he was black.
Himes’ experience in Los Angeles, he wrote in his biography, was what finally pushed him into a bitterness that clouded the rest of his life:
Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate.
Himes continued to write and had some success in getting published, but the racism he encountered in America was spirit-crushing. His work was much better received in Europe than in America. Finally, in the mid-1950s, he moved to France joining other black ex-patriates such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Oliver Harrington.
France gave Himes a measure of peace and relief from the racism of America and a circle of friends with sympathetic ears and shared experiences. It also eventually provided him with a life-long companion. Lesley Packard, an Irish-English reporter for the International Herald Tribune, came to interview him a couple of years after he had arrived in Paris. They fell in love and were eventually married. Lesley became not only his wife and best friend but also his editor and closest adviser.
Another meeting with Marcel Duhamel in 1957 sparked the main portion of Himes’ modern legacy. Duhamel had translated and published an earlier novel of Himes and understood how much the French and Europeans liked detective stories. If Himes could create a black detective character, his writing would likely find a welcomed place in the market.
It took some doing, but Himes finally came up with Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, two black detectives in Harlem, both prone to violence against anyone — always against black people — who get in their own way as they stumble and bumble through police investigations. The first title, A Rage in Harlem, was a critical success and put Himes on the road to a full development of the characters. That book was followed by numerous titles, the most famous of which was Cotton Comes to Harlem in 1964, which was made into a movie in 1970.
Himes had indeed found a unique place in the genre of detective fiction and had brought with it a special voice.
Despite failing health, Himes continued to write through the 1960s. He and Lesley moved from Paris to the south of France late in the decade and then to Spain where they lived until he died in 1984. Himes’ work has been compared to that of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but Himes had a style and a point of view that were uniquely his.
Which books did you love, and which did you hate, when you were made to read them?
Maybe you hated Moby Dick by Herman Melville but loved To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
In any of these cases, you are not alone. Blogger and idea-man Daniel Frank has taken data from GoodReads and come up with a list of “classics” that people love and hate. His definition of a classic is a book that was published before 1970 (and one not targeted at children or part of a series) and that has gotten more than 100,000 ratings on GoodReads.
One of his purposes is to see if the books we are assigned to read in school or those recommended by a friend are the ones that we really enjoy.
These rankings matter because reading books you love is the gateway to a love of reading and reading books you hate is the gateway to a life without reading. Too often people are turned off from reading by being fed books they hate, either through school, or because the internet/friends make a certain book seem like it must be read.
Fundamentally, finding books you love is a forecasting challenge. What, out of all the books available, is the book you are most likely to love. When people consider assigning a classic novel in school, or recommending it to a friend, they should not think about how much they enjoyed that book or its literary merit, but based on all of the data and information available, how likely is that person to love the book. Source: The Most Loved and Hated Classic Novels According to Goodreads Users – Daniel Frank
Each of us has our own evaluation — the books that we loved and hated. In high school, I loved 1984 by George Orwell but really hated Heart of Darkness.
Take a look at the list and see where your favorites and not-so-favorites landed.
Below: The 10 classics with the most ratings:
If you look at the tables on Dan’s website, don’t miss the link that lists all of the books that received at least 100,000 ratings on GoodReads.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Christie’s greatest mystery keeps pulling us back in
The unsolved mystery of Agatha Christie’s 1926 disappearance continues to puzzle, confuse, and fascinate readers of the mystery genre. We can’t get enough. Like a drug to which we are addicted, we keep coming back.
Why did she leave her husband and daughter? What’s with the car, found the next day with headlights still on? Was all this a set-up — a massive publicity stunt or a way of putting her philandering husband into a murder frame?
Christie answered none of these questions in her subsequent autobiography — which only deepens the mystery.
Kate Weinberg, author of the recently published first novel The Truants, goes over all of this ground and more in a recent article on CrimeReads.com:
Stories without endings are hard to pull off. Readers can feel cheated, and understandably so. After such a long courtship—of teasing, bluffing and misdirection—a satisfying pay-off seems to be the only fair way to end the night. But in the case of Agatha Christie’s disappearance, what pulls me back time and again to the facts of the story is not what can be solved, but what cannot. Certain facts shimmer. Christie signed in to the hotel register as Ms. Theresa Neele—using the surname of the woman that her husband had just revealed as his lover. She used the same name to post an advert in The Times of London, asking for relatives to get in touch. She vanished on the heels of writing arguably her best book, in which the narrator itself is not to be trusted. She danced in the evenings in the hotel bar like a woman very far from heartbroken. Source: Agatha Christie’s Greatest Mystery Was Left Unsolved | CrimeReads
Surely somebody somewhere — besides Christie herself — knew all the answers. Did that person write them down and, in true mystery genre fashion, leave them in a place that is so obvious that it’s been overlooked for all these years? We can only hope.
Who has the right to tell a story?
Who gets to tell a story?
I admit that I am puzzled by the question — not by the answers but by the questions itself. Authors, I thought, should choose their own stories and should choose the voices in which they tell them.
The controversy surrounding the recently-published and highly-touted novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins informs me that not everyone thinks as I do. Cummins’ book is about a Mexican mother who flees to the U.S. with her son to escape a vengeful drug cartel.
But some critics are offended because Cummins is not Latinx, and some of those who are Latinx believe her voice to be inauthentic. One critic accused her of “appropriating a story that could have, and should have, been voiced by someone of Mexican heritage.”
Maybe, but the demand that she should not have crossed ethnic lines to write her novel strikes as arrogant and out of bounds.
Cummins has not helped her cause by appearing apologetic for what she has done.
Cummins acknowledged from the start that her decision to tell this story raised questions, writing in an author’s note of her concern that “as a non-immigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants”, and adding that she “wished someone slightly browner than me would write it”. Source: Publishers defend American Dirt as claims of cultural appropriation grow | Books | The Guardian
What are the ethnic, cultural, racial, or class identities that should not be crossed? I confess I do not know and am highly suspicious of those who would try to tell me.
Alice K.: I enjoyed the discussion on split infinitives and other infractions, as well as Churchill’s comment on ending a sentence with a preposition. Are you acquainted with Edwin Newman’s books on the English language? They were written in the 1970s and 80s. Here are the titles: Strictly Speaking; A Civil Tongue; and I Must Say.
My favorite of his books is I Must Say. He humorously points out the misuse of the English language by everyone from politicians to sports stars to royalty. For those of us who remember the 1980s, it is especially enjoyable.
Montzalee W.: My mom loved the Kingston Trio! She had their songs playing every day when I came home from school! Of course, I wanted to play my own albums, but she usually won! I don’t know if she followed the music or the men behind it.
I sure did! I was into David Bowie and Prince and each of these she told me would be a “flash in the pan.” That turned out to be a pretty big flash! Lol! I followed my singers’ lives through the years until the end. I had lots of enjoyment from their music, and I felt I knew them from following them and their songs, which is absurd. But the feelings were real. A very sad time for me.
Thanks for your newsletter and the memories.
Dan C.: Did you know there was a semi-pro football team in Richmond, Virginia named the Virginia Ravens more than ten years before there was a team in Baltimore? They were in the same league as the team I owned in Newport News, VA, the Peninsula Poseidons.
Kitty G.: I grew up listening to The Kingston Trio as my daddy was a big fan of theirs. As I am 71, he must have enjoyed a long life.
Finally . . .
Best quote of the week:
“Fiction is Truth’s elder sister. Obviously. No one in the world knew what truth was till someone had told a story.” Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) Nobel Laureate British journalist, novelist, short-story writer, and poet.
Helping those in need
Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: Science fiction’s first Hugo, assassinating the PM Mantel-style, Stephen Fry’s podcast, and reader reaction: newsletter, January 31, 2020
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