This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,617) on Friday, February 14, 2020.
Two forces overwhelmed me at the end of last week. The good one was a higher-than-usual number of emails from you readers that I always find enlightening, fascinating, and thoughtful. Some of them were fairly lengthy, and that’s a good thing, too.
The second force was not so good: a massive cold that put me down for the count for several days. I am getting over the cold, but I still haven’t responded to all of the emails in the way I would like, so bear with me, if you will.
Meanwhile, have a cold-free and pleasant weekend.
Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,625 subscribers and had a 28.5 percent open rate; 8 people unsubscribed.
Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.
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 few years earlier she was diagnosed with Gardner’s syndrome, a fatal cancer, and had been told she could expect a short life span.
Her personal history wasn’t going to get published, she decided. She needed write something that would.
So, she created Marti MacAlister, a black female detective on her own with two children. MacAlister had been in Chicago but had been transferred to the town of Lincoln Prairie, a city modeled after Waukegan.
In doing all that, Bland created something that few writers, especially African-American female authors had tried: a black female detective. Getting published then was no small task, but that finally happened in 1992 with the publication of Dead Time. That book was followed by a dozen other titles, the ability to quit her job and write full time, and active membership in Sisters in Crime and the Mystery Writers of America. Today, 10 years after her death in 2010, Sisters in Crime makes an annual award named after her.
“Her prose was just like velvet, simple, concise and straightforward,” said Chicago mystery writer Libby Hellmann, who in 1995 got a manuscript of her first mystery into Mrs. Bland’s hands. “You could read it forever.”
Her advice was direct but always supportive. “Eyes don’t drop,” she told Hellmann, who had used the phrase in the piece she gave Mrs. Bland. “Who’s going to pick them up?” (Chicago Tribune obituary, June 8, 2010)
Bland won readers with her stories, her characters, and her prose. She was a pioneer and set a high standard for the writers who followed.
The firing of Dorothy Parker
Imagine, if you can, being editor of a widely-circulated national magazine just after World War I in New York City. You have on your staff Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Robert Sherwood. All of them are young and have yet to make names for themselves, but eventually they would be some of the leading literary lights of the day:
— Parker would be a noted poet, essayist, critic, scriptwriter, and political activist.
— Benchley would be a humorist and well-known comedian.
— Sherwood would win four Pulitzer Prizes for his plays and books and be a speechwriter for Franklin Roosevelt.
But there is a problem. Parker has written a review that has angered one of your major advertisers. The publisher demands that she be replaced as theater critic. You accede to his wishes, but then Benchley and Sherwood resign out of solidarity.
That’s the position that Frank Crowninshield found himself in during January 1920. Fortunately for Crowninshielf, his reputation didn’t suffer much for that action, but what happened to Parker, Benchley, and Sherwood makes for a fascinating story. That’s the story that New York City historian Jonathan Goldman tells in this article in the Public Domain Review: When Dorothy Parker Got Fired from Vanity Fair – The Public Domain Review
Goldman has an excellent website that tells all sorts of stories about New York City in the 1920s: https://www.ny1920.com/
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Elizabeth Blackwell, 18th-century illustrator of medical plants
Elizabeth Blackwell’s husband, Alexander, was not to be trusted, especially with money. He tried to skirt the law, with little or no thought to his income, his wife, his family, or his own circumstances.
They had come to London from Aberdeen sometime in the 1730s, he with medical experience and lots of prospects. He set up a printing shop in London, even though he had not served an apprenticeship and was not licensed to do so. That put him at odds with trade regulations and earned him a hefty fine. Unable to pay it, he was hauled off to debtors prison.
Elizabeth’s prospects were bleak, with starvation a real possibility.
She did, however, have one skill. She could draw.
And from what her husband had told her about the state of 18th-century medicine, she determined that there was what we would call in the modern terms “a gap in the market.”
At that time, medicine depended on plants for relief and cures of medical ailments. A book that cataloged these plants was called a herbal, but no herbal had yet been produced that listed the many new plants being brought in from North and South America. That’s when things started to happen for her:
She determined to produce a new herbal, making the illustrations herself and enlisting her imprisoned husband to use his medical knowledge to write the texts to accompany them. Elizabeth’s project received the support of the Society of Apothecaries and several leading doctors. She took rooms in Swan Walk next to the Chelsea Physic Garden, which had been established in 1673 as a garden for teaching apprentice apothecaries to identify plants and was now cultivating the exotic new plants from the Americas.
With the support of the Isaac Rand, curator at the Chelsea Physic Garden’s, Elizabeth began drawing the plants from life. She took the drawings to her husband in prison, who identified them and provided their names in several different languages. Elizabeth then engraved the copper plates for printing. Finally, she hand-coloured each of the printed images. This great accomplishment would usually have taken at least three different artists and craftsmen. Source: A Curious Herbal – The British Library
During the next two years, she produced four plates a week. Her completed work included more than 500 illustrations and was published in two volumes as A Curious Herbal containing five hundred cuts of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physick, to which is added a short description of ye plants and their common uses in physick.
The book eventually raised enough money to keep the family together and to spring Alexander from prison. Unfortunately, his confinement didn’t teach him much. He got involved in more ill-advised business ventures, and Elizabeth had to sell some of the publication rights to bail him out. In 1842, he went to Sweden, leaving the family behind in London. There, he talked his way into the king’s court as the king’s physician. Elizabeth continued to send him money regularly from the profits from her book.
When the royal succession became an issue, Alexander found himself on the losing side. That resulted in a charge of treason and a trip to the gallows in 1748.
What happened to Elizabeth after that is unclear, but we know that she died 10 years later in 1758.
What she left behind in A Curious Herbal stands as a beautiful record of her life.
Note: This Elizabeth Blackwell should not be confused with Elizabeth Blackwell, who in the 19th century was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.
Illustration: A dandelion and it medical uses from A Curious Herbal.
Barbara H.: I read ARCs, some on my laptop, others on the Kindle Fire, or the Kindle Paperwhite, and then I have the accumulated paper and hardbacks. The two Kindles and paperbacks can travel with me for those times when I do not have to interact with people (when I DO have to interact I knit or crochet). I think, at the moment, Goodreads lists me as currently reading 50, but I am actively reading one at a time depending on whether I am on the kitchen laptop or on the road, currently with a Kindle. Now that I have the Kindles, the paperback stack is just piling up. the only drawback to reading a Kindle in bed is it HURTS when it lands on my nose.
Cindi K.: In 11th grade AP English we had a crazy teacher that made us read some books that I’m sure most other teachers for that same course would not have. One, in particular, was ‘The Running Man’. He even made us watch the freaking movie. He was later fired that year after laying his hands on me in anger. So he clearly had some issues!
Amy C.: Thoughts that came quickly to mind regarding Agatha Christie’s disappearance lead me to think we (the general public) know so little of mental health digressions and with her mind still on her book just finished on top of the knew details of her personal life going awry her poetic mind took her to play with what she had and use her tricks to work out her confusion and whatever other issues that it triggered. So in all likelihood, she did all the things we conjecture in order to work through her mental anguish.
On the matter of Cummins writing in another culture than her own, so many authors write of a world they imagine, or visit or research. Readers find something to love/hate no matter who tells the story or how its conveyed. I think in this particular case maybe it will trigger those within the culture of the story she told will step up and write a story or even that story from their perspective and cultural viewpoint and it will be a totally new story because of the author’s angle this time around. There’s always an audience that will connect to it just not maybe the same audience for each version.
Carolyn M.: I am truly enjoying the freedom of time to get to read more. Typically, I am reading a novel before bed and listening to another novel while out driving. I usually keep one or two non-fiction books nearby for additional enjoyment. I have only recently given myself permission not to finish a book. I realized that there are too many good books out there to waste time on something I’m not enjoying.
Finally . . .
Best quote of the week:
A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against its government. Edward Abbey, naturalist and author (1927-1989)
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: Chester Himes and his mysteries, the books you love and hate, and Agatha’s greatest story: newsletter, February 7, 2020
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