This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2, 491) on Friday, August 12, 2022.
The idea of young adults doing some kind of national service has been around for decades. When I was growing up, it was the Selective Service, what we commonly termed “the draft.” It was military service, and it applied only to males. Some of us were caught up in the draft, and others managed to avoid it.
Modern national service, however, is something different, and the idea has recently been given voice by Jay Caspian Kang, an opinion writer for the New York Times. He writes this in a recent column:
Among the elite classes, the idea of service has mostly been reduced down to a line item on a college application. The much-discussed divides in this country, whether economic, racial or educational, cannot be solved through some feat of wonkery or through pretty speeches by politicians. What needs to exist is some place that can pool a lot of different young people together. College will never accomplish any of that in the way that two years of service — hopefully eventually two mandatory years of service — could. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/04/opinion/mandatory-national-service.html
Kang makes a reasonable pitch for easing us into a rational and beneficial program of national service. One of the great benefits, as Kang points out, is getting young people into a different environment where they can experience people who come from different cultures and who have outlooks on life that vary from their own.
The idea of mandatory national service is probably not politically viable at present, but it is certainly worth considering and discussing.
Have a great and literate weekend.
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P.D. James and the importance of place
When author P.D. James began writing her first novel in the mid-1950s, she wrote later, “it never occurred to me to make a start with anything other than a detective story.”
James had been reading mystery novels for many years, and she believed that she could write one that would be good enough to find a publisher.
“I have always been fascinated by structure in the novel, and detective fiction presented a number of technical problems, mainly how to construct a plot which was both credible and exciting with a setting which came alive for the readers, in characters who were believable men and women faced with the trauma of a police investigation into murder.
I therefore saw the detective story as an ideal apprenticeship for someone setting out with small hope of making a fortune but with ambitions to be regarded eventually as a good and serious novelist.”
James certainly reached her goal to be regarded as a good and serial novelist. During the latter half of the 20th century, she became one of the most widely known and widely read of all detective story authors.
One of the things that distinguishes her novels is the intricate exploration of their settings, which can be as wide-ranging as a nuclear power plant, an Anglican church, or a London law firm.
“My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character; an example is Devices and Desires, which had its genesis while I was on a visit of exploration in East Anglia, standing on a deserted shingle beach. There were a few wooden boats drawn up on the beach, a couple of brown nets slung between poles and drying in the wind, and, looking out over the sullen and dangerous North Sea, I could imagine myself in the same place hundreds of years ago with the taste of salt on my lips and the constant hiss and withdrawing rattle of the tide. Then, turning my eyes to the south, I saw the great outline of Sizewell nuclear power station and immediately knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.”
James was born in 1920 in Oxford. Because her mother had to be committed to a mental hospital when she was in her mid-teens, James had to leave school at the age of 16 to take care of her younger siblings. In August 1941, after Great Britain had been at war for two years, she married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an army doctor.
White returned from World War II mentally and emotionally shaken and had to be institutionalized. James became interested in hospital administration and beginning in 1949 worked for a hospital board in London for nearly 20 years.
In the 1950s, while seeing after her husband and their two children, James began writing her first novel. Its protagonist was Adam Dalgliesh, a Scotland Yard detective. The novel was Cover Her Face, and it was published in 1962. Two years later, her husband died, and James felt free to change jobs. She worked as a bureaucrat within the British Home Office until her retirement in 1979.
She wrote and published novels on a regular basis from that time on. Fourteen of them featured Dalgliesh as the detective. Two of them centered around a female detective named Cordelia Gray. Three other novels, which did not feature either of these two characters, were also published.
Many of her novels were adapted for radio, television, and film, and the novels and their adaptations continue to attract a large and avid audience. James received many awards and honors for her writing, including a life peerage.
One of the few non-fiction works that she wrote is a small book titled Talking About Detective Fiction, which was published in 2009. It is an extended and learned essay from a master of the genre. (The quotations above are taken from the book.)
James died in 2014 at the age of 94.
Bill Russell, dominating on and off the basketball court
No player, before or since, has dominated the basketball court like Bill Russell did. Russell dominated his life in the same way.
Russell did more than use his physique and his physical talents, which were immense. He was 6-feet 10-inches tall, but his tree trunk like figure made him seem much taller, particularly if he was between you and the basketball goal.
He could jump like no other player, but he had the uncanny ability to know when to jump and to know when an opponent was likely to push the ball toward the goal. If he couldn’t get between the ball and the goal, which he often did, then he knew where the ball was going and where it was likely to bounce off the goal or the backboard.
That made him the greatest rebounder the game has ever seen. He collected more than 21,000 rebounds during his playing days.
As he approached the last days of his playing career, he became the player-coach for the Celtics, the first Black coach in the history of the National Basketball Association. As such, he guided his teams to additional NBA championships.
Once he left the court, he became a giant in another field, civil rights. He took part in the 1963 March on Washington and was in the front row when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech. Soon thereafter, he was in Mississippi helping to organize an integrated basketball camp in Jackson. He supported Muhammad Ali when the boxer refused induction in the armed services.
His commitment to the rights of the individual and the dignity of all men and women never wavered. In 2017, when players for the National Football League were coming under intense criticism for kneeling during the national anthem, Russell posted a photo of himself taking a knee and holding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which President Barack Obama had awarded to him in 2011.
Russell was a complex man, one who was proud, dignified, and cared little for the adulation of the crowd. He knew who he was, and he was determined, no matter what, to be who he was.
Russell died on July 31, 2022. He was 88 years old. The world could do with a few more like him.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
From the archives: John Pendleton Kennedy: Edgar Allan Poe’s literary guardian angel
John Pendleton Kennedy was a man who lived in the 1830s in Baltimore, and chances are, you have never heard of him. That’s okay, but without Kennedy, who acted as a lifeline—a literary guardian angel, if you will—you might never have heard of Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe lived a scant 40 years (1809-1849), and for most of that time he was unwell, usually physically and sometimes mentally. He was also poverty-stricken, constantly asking friends and family for support and constantly unable to lift himself out of his penurious state. And he constantly complained about it.
His life, in other words, was not a happy one; it was, rather, a series of low points.
One of those low points was in 1834 when Poe found himself in Baltimore but, as usual, without money or means. Poe was trying to make a living with his writing and having little success. He had managed to win a prize from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for his story “MS. Found in a Bottle.” One of the editors of the publication was John P. Kennedy, who took an interest in the young writer and invited him to dinner.
Poe declined—for the very good reason that he had nothing to wear. He had one dark suit that he wore for all occasions, and that was the extent of his wardrobe. When Kennedy found this out, he sent him clothing and expanded his invitation. Poe could come to his house and dine at any time. Kennedy, a man of means, even lent Poe a horse so he could get around and exercise.
Kennedy took his kindness to another important level. He wrote Poe a letter of introduction to Thomas Willis White, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia, and recommended that he accept Poe’s articles. Poe sent White a story, which he promptly accepted. Thereupon, White and Poe entered a correspondence that so impressed White that he offered Poe a job as assistant editor of the journal in June 1835. Poe accepted and moved to Richmond.
Poe’s time in Richmond was not altogether a happy period for him, but his job did give him the stability and support to continue his writing. He later credited Kennedy with saving his life.
Kennedy got involved in politics and carved out a distinguished career for himself. He served as both a representative and senator in the U.S. Congress and as Secretary of the Navy under President Millard Filmore. He led the effort to end slavery in Maryland and was instrumental in founding some of Maryland’s most important and longstanding institutions, such as St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the Peabody Library and the Conservatory of Music (now part of Johns Hopkins University).
While in Congress in the 1840s, Kennedy was a strong advocate for the U.S. government investing in the telegraph and his efforts led to a $30,00 grant for its development.
In addition to his political and public service pursuits, Kennedy was also a novelist. His most famous work is Horse-Shoe Robinson, published in 1835, which delighted Washington Irving so much that he read parts of it aloud to his friends. Kennedy had a wide circle of literary friends that included Irving, Poe, William Makepeace Thackeray, and James Fennimore Cooper.
This remarkable man has been largely forgotten, but a new biography by Andrew Black (John Pendleton Kennedy: Early American Novelist, Whig Statesman, and Ardent Nationalist) has been published by the LSU Press. Let’s hope this gives him the attention he deserves.
Group giveaways for August
Each of these giveaways includes more than 20 books of various sub-genres. You can download any or all of them in exchange for your email address. The email address will be shared among all authors participating in the giveaway. The purpose of these giveaways is to get books into the hands of readers and to increase email lists for the authors.
It helps me a great deal if you use these links to take a look at the offerings even if you don’t select any of these books. Many thanks.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Dashiell Hammett (caricature)
Best quote of the week:
It was my shame, and now it is my boast, That I have loved you rather more than most. Hilaire Belloc, writer and poet (1870-1953)
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
If you are interested in reading scripture, either the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both, you might be interested in the videos, commentary, and podcast of the BibleProject.com. The people who work on this site have done some deep and thoughtful reading of the Bible, and the videos they have produced (generally shorter than 10 minutes) are both entertaining and enlightening. They view the Bible as a single entity with a single purpose, and their approach is both delightful and refreshing.
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — 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: Helen Kirkpatrick, Bookshop.org, Paul Revere’s long ride, and the short digit of the engineer: newsletter, August 5, 2022
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