Malcolm Gladwell talks books, banned books, Beatles books, and the godmother of forensic science: newsletter, September 20, 2019

September 23, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, newsletter, watercolor, writers, writing.

American Watercolor, an e-zine begun by Kelly Kane, has a short feature on my watercolors — thanks in great part to you, my faithful newsletter readers. I was named ambassador of the week and got into the running for that title because, several weeks ago, I asked those of you who were interested to sign up for their free newsletter. The requisite number of you did that, and they have named me an ambassador and featured some of my paintings.

Take a look at the article here: Ambassador of the Week: Jim Stovall – American Watercolor

Thank you. I am honored and humbled.

I hope you have a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,660 subscribers and had a 29.8 percent open rate; 4 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.

Malcolm Gladwell talks books and more books

Malcolm Gladwell (The OutliersThe Tipping PointDavid and Goliath) is an author who has achieved fame — and a good bit of success — by examining parts of society that don’t often get attention or by casting a new light on things we thought were familiar.

He’s just published a new book titled Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know. It’s about why we go wrong when we interact with strangers and is described as a “classically Gladwellian intellectual adventure.” Gladwell always seems to be attacking the common wisdom about things and revealing a new way of looking at them.

The Guardian has a brief but wide-ranging Q and A with Gladwell in which he talks about the books he has read. Here’s one part of it:

The book that changed my life:
Oh man, where to start? There are probably 100 titles that I could mention here. But how about an early one: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I was 12 or so when I read it. I will never forget the sheer delicious shock of that ending, and realising – maybe for the first time – that it was possible to tell a story in a way that made the reader gasp. I’ve been chasing that same result (not nearly as successfully) ever since. Source: Malcolm Gladwell: ‘A book that changed my life? Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ | Books | The Guardian

The article isn’t that long, but it’s insightful and fun.

Refining and visualizing Joseph Campbell’s “A Hero’s Journey”

Jennifer S., my good friend, valued colleague, and fellow reader and writer, responded to an item in last week’s newsletter about Joseph Campbell’s concept of “A Hero’s Journey” with this:

I enjoyed encountering the wonderful Joseph Campbell within the virtual pages of your newsletter! Campbell’s work was very eye-opening to me as a young reader, and his books (including _The Power of Myth_, the companion to that wonderful PBS series) greatly inspired me to look at the world in a new (old?) way. I later found out that my Mother-in-Law had had, in her own youth, something of an epiphany around her first encounter with Campbell — proof that I had joined up with the right family!
More recently, I have been intrigued by the articulation of Campbell’s theory of narrative by Dan Harmon (best known as a TV scriptwriter). It’s generally called Harmon’s “Story Circle,” and I highly recommend taking a look, as it’s a wonderfully concise and cogent expression of some of the narrative archetypes. I have used Harmon’s circular revision a lot in my own writing; I suppose the visual nature appeals to my particular learning style. Here’s one article about it, but there are many dozens of websites, blogs and videos about it:
I followed Jennifer’s link and found a short article about Harmon’s work and a terrific video that visualized it. This one I highly recommend, with a large measure of gratitude directed at Jennifer. Many thanks.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Mark Lewisohn: A life devoted mostly to researching and writing about the Beatles

When Mark Lewisohn published the first volume, Tune In, of his trilogy about the Beatles (The Beatles: All These Years) six years ago, it turned out to be massive: 390,000 words, which is about four times the length of a good mystery novel and at least twice as long as most nonfiction books.

It took him 10 years to get that book together. And all it did was take the Fab Four up to the time right before they had their first big hit in 1963.

Lewisohn has been writing about the transformative rock and roll group for more than 30 years, and he has published several books about them already: A Hard Day’s NightThe Beatles’ LondonThe Complete Beatles Chronicle: The Definitive Day-by-Day Guide to the Beatles’ Entire Career , etc. He has written about other subjects, but there is probably very little to be known about the Beatles that he doesn’t know.

So, when will volume two appear?

Constant demands to know when Turn On (covering 1963-66) and Drop Out (1967-69) might appear are met with a sigh: “I’m 61, and I’ve got 14 or 15 years left on these books. I’ll be in my mid-70s when I finish.” Time is of the essence, he adds, perhaps thinking of the late John Richardson’s uncompleted multi-volume Picasso biography.

The Guardian has a story on Lewisohn and his latest discovery about the Beatles, which is significant. You can read it here: ‘This tape rewrites everything we knew about the Beatles’ | Music | The Guardian

Banned Books Week, Sept. 22-28, 2019: Keep the Light On

We’re coming up on the annual Banned Books Week, a celebration of intellectual freedom sponsored by the American Library Association. This year’s theme is Keep the Light On.

If your local library is having an event, be supportive and take part. If not and you have other means of promoting this idea (a website or Facebook page, for instance), consider doing that.

Here’s how the whole thing started back in the 1980s, according to the ALA website:

Banned books were showcased at the 1982 American Booksellers Association (ABA) BookExpo America trade show in Anaheim, California. At the entrance to the convention center towered large, padlocked metal cages, with some 500 challenged books stacked inside and a large overhead sign cautioning that some people considered these books dangerous.

Drawing on the success of the exhibit, ABA invited OIF Director Judith Krug to join a new initiative called Banned Books Week, along with the National Association of College Stores. The three organizations scrambled to put something together by the September show date and ended up distributing a news release and a publicity kit, hoping that with their combined membership of 50,000 people, they could continue to spark a conversation about banned books.

The initiative took off. Institutions and stores hosted read-outs, and window displays morphed into literary graveyards or mysterious collections of brown-bagged books. Major news outlets such as PBS and the New York Times covered the event, and mayors and governors issued proclamations affirming the week. Source: Banned Books Week (September 22-28, 2019) | Advocacy, Legislation & Issues

And here’s a good graphic that you can use in your promotion. There are others of this type on the ALA website.

Frances Glessner Lee, the godmother of modern forensic science

Like so many females born in the 19th century, Frances Glessner was denied an education and the opportunity to pursue her interest. Daughter of an industrialist who eventually owned much of the International Harvester company and an eventual heir, Glessner was confined by an overbearing father — her “jailer,” she once said — to a life inside what was then known as the woman’s sphere.

But she desperately wanted more than that, and eventually — after her father died — she achieved it. And we are all the beneficiaries of what she did.

Frances was born in 1878 in Chicago and, along with an older brother, educated at home. She learned the “feminine arts”: needlework, embroidery, and interior design. Her brother went to Harvard Medical School, but she was married to law professor Blewitt Lee. They had three children but eventually divorced.

During that time, Frances developed a strong friendship with one of her brother’s classmates, George Burgess Magrath, who became a medical examiner in Boston. Magrath told Frances a great deal about his work, and she was fascinated. She began to see the possibilities of solving crimes through a close examination of the crime scene and through the gathering of what we call forensic evidence.

When her father died in 1936, she inherited his vast wealth (her brother had died several years previously). She was free to do what she wanted with her resources and her talents. She did two things:

— She endowed the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University with a $250,000 gift.

— She put her artistic and needlework talents to work by constructing miniatures of crime scenes. She built 20 of these in all. They were produced on a scale of one inch to one foot, and everything in them in genuine — down to the half-smoked cigarettes that some contained. Frances sewed all of the clothes for the models and made all of the other items in the scene.

During her seminars on crime scene investigation, she would allow students 90 minutes to study a scene. Students would come away from these scenes with a new appreciation for examining the environmental evidence of a crime. Collectively, these scenes are called Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths.

When Frances died in 1963, Harvard stopped using her Nutshell scenes, and they were put into storage. They might have been lost completely if not for an alert professor, who persuaded Frances’ estate to donate them to the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Today they are on permanent display in that office. They are still used for training seminars.

Without Frances Glassner Lee, forensic science would not be where it is today (and he wouldn’t have the many endless CSI series). She is rightly called the “godmother of forensic science.”

Frances’ Nutshell studies are the subject of Corinne May Botz’s book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Take a look here for some close-up photos of her Nutshell scenes:

Verse and Vision

An updated list of all of the Verse and Vision videos can be found at this link on I have not produced one for a couple of weeks now but will try to gear up again soon.

In addition . . .

In the first iteration of last week’s newsletter, I neglected to include the source for the illustration (right) I used in the F.O.C. Darley piece. It was Darley’s frontispiece for Washington Irving‘s Diedrich Knickerbocker’s A History of New-York.



Marcia D.: Thanks for the recommendation (of novelist Alan Furst). I enjoy reading Alan Furst’s books. 
I’m planning to say a little more about Alan Furst next week.

Kitty G.: I always look forward to your newsletters because I know that they will have something new that I need to learn. I have always been a lover of mythology, folklore, and romance. Really enjoyed what you shared with us. Have a blessed weekend.

Freida M.: Thanks for the great letter this week. I am definitely going to watch Bill Moyer’s interview with Joseph Campbell. I just added it to my Netflix list.

Vince V.Re: Illustrators: Lest we forget the illustrator for dozens of James Whitcomb Riley books, Will Vawter, a distant relative. Right: one of his illustrations from Farm Rhymes.

Dan C.: Tell Marcia D. that she should visit Las Vegas. It is the middle of September and we are expecting 100*+ this weekend.

Vince V.: Recommendation: Every now and then I go off the rails and read something that everybody else is reading. I just finished Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, a guilty pleasure. The novel is a pure page-turner but it has going for it some outstanding nature writing. Owens is a zoologist and animal behaviorist. It takes place in the marshlands of the North Carolina coast. Its surprise ending was well done and satisfying.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Slide!

In honor of the article about me in American Watercolor (see above) and the September baseball excitement, I’m running a watercolor that appeared in that article and showed up in this newsletter many months ago.

Best quote of the week:

There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth. Leo Tolstoy, novelist and philosopher (1828-1910)

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 ( 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.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The Hero’s Journey, romance has a history, and the “Father of American illustration”; newsletter, September 13, 2019



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