Bach’s letter of application, the challenge of new words, Handel washed up, and more on Ida Tarbell; newsletter, April 3, 2020

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,592) on Friday, April 3, 2020.   During the last couple of years, sometime before Easter, I have included in this newsletter a post about George Frederick Handel and the condition of his life just before he wrote his most famous oratorio, The Messiah. I have included that […]

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Notes on the pandemic: American Samoa escaped the Spanish flu with no deaths

The last pandemic to sweep the world was that known as the Spanish flu, which killed people everywhere from 1918 through 1920 — everywhere except American Samoa. That’s because of its governor, John Martin Poyer, a Naval officer who had retired because of ill health but was called back to service in 1915 to serve […]

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Podcast recommendations: My Favorite Murder, The Murder Squad, and My Death Row Pen Pal

My Favorite Murder is hosted by a couple of young women, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, whose language may not be suitable for your grandchildren (or you). That stuff gets old pretty quick, but they may mature into a style that is more in keeping with the seriousness of their subjects. On the other hand, they […]

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William Styron and cultural appropriation

Amid all the other overwhelming news, the controversy over Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt seems to be dying down, but the issue still exists: can an author cross ethnic or cultural lines (and maybe gender and age lines — as well as others) to tell a story. My answer was contained in a post I […]

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William Roughead, founder of modern true-crime books

No one that I know of has the title of Founder of Modern True-Crime Literature (or some such), but if such a title existed, the leading candidate would be a guy you have probably never heard of — a Scottish lawyer named William Roughead (pronounced ruff-head). Roughead (1872-1950) was a lawyer in Edinburgh and, by […]

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A founder of modern true-crime writing, the poison pen in real life, more on Ida Tarbell, and podcast recommendations: newsletter, March 27, 2020

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,597) on Friday, March 27, 2020.   I’ve quoted Shane Parish of the Farnam Street blog several times over the past few weeks, but I couldn’t let this pass by without sharing it with you: We’ve aged a generation in the past three weeks. What matters has sharply come […]

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Ida Tarbell: Madame Roland, Napoleon, and Abraham Lincoln (part 2)

Ida Tarbell might have stayed in France for a very long time if it hadn’t been for Abraham Lincoln. Tarbell had moved to Paris in 1891 when she was 34 years old. She gave up a secure job as an editor of The Chatauguan in New York and went to France with the idea of […]

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Ida Tarbell — the sharp, powerful arrow of her words (part 1)

When Ida Tarbell fired an arrow of words at a target, she aimed with the accuracy and power of a book full of facts. John D. Rockefeller, probably the richest man in the world at the time, was “the oldest man in the world — a living mummy,” a “hypocrite” who was “money-mad.” She concluded, […]

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The sharp words of Ida Tarbell, the dilemma of Woody Allen, more on cultural appropriation, and reader reaction: newsletter, March 20, 2020

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,597) on Friday, March 20, 2020. The magnitude and rapidity with which the world has changed in the last week lies beyond our complete understanding. Those things that we could confidently predict — high school graduations, opening day of the baseball season, the church service […]

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Whither Woody Allen, his family, his publisher, his reputation, etc.

In the case of Woody Allen, what are we to think? Hachette Book Group recently announced that it is canceling a contract with film director Woody Allen to publish his autobiography. In the last few years, Allen’s reputation has gone from amusing to benign to toxic because of allegations that he molested his daughter, Dylan […]

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The Hellman-McCarthy suit, apostrophes again, and an easy-to-use thesaurus: newsletter, March 13, 2020

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,601) on Friday, March 13, 2020.     The threat of the coronavirus that is now spreading through the United States and other western nations brings to mind other contagions that have plagued human beings throughout our history. Sometimes they have colorful names; sometimes they […]

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Good advice for editors from Jane Friedman

One of my favorite people from the world of independent publishing is Jane Friedman, a wide-ranging consultant and author of the weekly newsletter Electric Speed, which is consistently full of good tips and advice. The introduction to her newsletter this week struck me as especially enlightening. It’s a special message to those who would be […]

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Dorothy Thompson’s spectacular climb to the top of European journalism

Dorothy Thompson knew from a fairly early age that she wanted to do something significant. In her early twenties, she realized that journalism was the tool to do just that. Born in 1893 to a Methodist minister and his wife in upstate New York, Thompson’s mother died at a fairly early age, and her father […]

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Dorothy Thompson, America’s leading voice denouncing Nazism in the 1930s

Winston Churchill is rightly remembered as the lonely voice of 1930s Britain who recognized the dangers of Nazism and loudly and regularly denounced Adolph Hitler and his thugs while his nation was sleepwalking through the decade. America had a similar voice, but unfortunately, we hardly have any memory of her. The voice was that of […]

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Jack Higgins, aka Harry Patterson

When The Eagle Has Landed was published in 1975, it was an immediate and huge hit for its author Harry Patterson, who was writing under the pen name of Jack Higgins. The fast-paced and gripping narrative captured the imagination of readers and the attention of filmmakers, who quickly purchased the movie rights and almost as […]

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The thrillers of Jack Higgins, the rise of Dorothy Thompson, plus some March literary madness: newsletter, March 6, 2020

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,602) on Friday, March 6, 2020.   The tornados that roared through Nashville and Middle Tennessee earlier this week left death and destruction in their wake and broke more than a few hearts — one of them being mine. I grew up in east Nashville […]

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March literary madness: Hilary Mantel and Erik Larson

Two major literary events of the season are occurring this month: the release of new books by Hilary Mantel (The Mirror and the Light, due out March 10) and Erik Larson (The Splendid and the Vile, available now). Mantel caused a sensation with her Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy of historical novels that […]

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CP-Greywacke Arch

The 20th-century’s top female journalist, good advice to editors, and more fodder for the spy novelist: newsletter, February 28, 2020

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,604) on Friday, February 28, 2020.     As February rolls into March, I am impressed by three items of “too much” during the last two months: too much warm weather (I know, but it is winter), too much rain (just like last year), and too much political news (with much of it uniformly awful). If […]

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Chester Himes and the burden of being an African-American author

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. […]

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Eleanor Taylor Bland, a pioneer in African-American mystery fiction

In the mid-1980s, Eleanor Taylor Bland had to feel as though her life was falling apart. She was divorced from her husband of 31 years. Living in Waukegan, Illinois, she was half a country away from where she grew up in Massachusetts. She had a job that was less than inspiring. Worst of all, a […]

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