Candice Millard finds her real story, the demise of the death penalty, and Vietnam in fiction: newsletter, December 27, 2019

December 30, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,646) on Friday, December 27, 2019.


We are in the midst of the holiday season with plenty of song, food, beverage, and fellowship. I hope that we all (especially me) can take a few moments for those who aren’t so blessed. Actions on behalf of the poor, needy, and lonely multiply themselves in many ways.

An egregious error occurred in last week’s newsletter. I misspelled Martha Gellhorn’s name. I humbly and sincerely apologize.

Now that our Merry Christmases are done, it’s time for a Happy New Year or two. That’s what I wish for you all.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,649 subscribers and had a 25.5 percent open rate; 2 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.

Candice Millard, through her own struggle, finds her real story

When Candice Millard was researching and writing her best-selling River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, she had to navigate her own river of doubt, which eventually helped her better understand what her real story was.

When Millard was pregnant with her second child and working on the book in 2005, she got a phone call from her doctor saying something odd had turned up on her latest sonogram. Within 24 hours, her life had been turned upside down. Her daughter was born by an emergency Caesarian section and had a rare form of cancer.

The child went through two years and eight rounds of chemotherapy, and eventually the cancer was declared in remission.

As I sat in a seemingly endless series of hospital rooms, surrounded by blinking lights and beeping machines while my daughter endured eight rounds of chemotherapy, I realized that I was less interested in Roosevelt’s accomplishments than in his struggles. 

Roosevelt’s struggle — particularly the point where, on this journey through the Amazon forest, he contemplated suicide as a means of saving his son and the rest of his traveling party — was the real story she was trying to tell.

Over the years I had spent writing “The River of Doubt,” Roosevelt’s story had taught me that no life is immune to tragedy. Well before he had traveled to the Amazon, he had experienced as much grief in his life as great achievement. He had endured the painful death of a father whom he adored; the deaths, on the same day, of his mother and first wife; and a stunning and deeply humiliating defeat in his attempt to regain the presidency in the election of 1912. Each time, he had responded by fighting back, throwing himself into extreme physical challenges that tested his strength and his courage and helped him forget. Source: Candice Millard on the writing life – The Washington Post

Millard’s book hit the best-seller list when it was published and has been widely acclaimed. She has continued her writing with two more books on famous people and their supreme struggles: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President about the assassination of James Garfield; and Hero of the Empire: the Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill.

Millard’s books are exciting, well-written, and deeply researched. Each has a unique and important story to tell. Millard won the 2017 BIO award from the Biographers International Organization for her “major contribution to the art and craft and biography.”

The fight to save the apostrophe revives

Even though the brilliant, talented, and hard-working Anu Garg, creator of A Word A Day email, has declared “Death to the Apostrophe,” there may be another way forward for this much-misused punctuation mark.

Things looked pretty dark when John Richards, creator of the Apostrophe Protection Society, announced a few weeks ago that he was shutting down his website. The announcement apparently stirred apostrophe lovers everywhere to action:

Due to the recent decision made by John Richards (see below), has had a massive 600-fold increase in demand. This has resulted in our Server’s bandwidth being exceeded and, as a result, we have closed the full site until early January 2020. We apologise for disappointing you but do come back in the New Year! Source: APS Temp Page

Thus the fight to save the apostrophe continues.

Happy New Year!

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

The war in Vietnam as a springboard for fiction

Why has Vietnam (a.k.a. the war in Vietnam) produced so little good American fiction?

World War II, which lasted less than half as long and during which the country remained relatively unified in its purpose, produced plenty of titles that are familiar to us all: The Winds of War and The Caine Mutiny (Herman Wouk), The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer), Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), The Bridge Over the River Kwai(Pierre Boulle), The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak) — the list could go on for a while.

America was heavily involved in Vietnam for nearly a decade. Why isn’t there more fiction reflecting that involvement?

Andrew Nette takes on this question in an interesting article on CrimeReads:

But while Vietnam equipped numerous fictional characters with the skills to combat the Mafia, terrorists or various other threats, few books in the late 1960s and ’70s focused on the war and its consequences as anything more than a background or reason for why a character was as confused/damaged/homicidal as they were. Removing reportage and autobiographies, fewer still were actually set in Vietnam. Source: Blowback: Late 1960s and ’70s Pulp and Popular Fiction about the Vietnam War | CrimeReads

The article is an excerpt from the book Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980, edited by Nette and Iain McIntyre and published by PM Press.

Part of the problem with Vietnam is that we Americans remain terribly conflicted about it. Our purpose in being there was never clear and what we accomplished is open to many interpretations.


The mention of Vietnam gives me a chance to tout one of the publications of the Blount County Friends of the Library, Vietnam Voices: Stories of East Tennesseans Who Served in Vietnam, 1965-1975. We have the book in softcover on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and we now have a hardcover on Barnes and Noble. All of the profits from the book go to the BCFOL, which supports the programming of the library.

The ‘withering’ of the death penalty in America

One of the few overtly political statements that I am willing to make in this newsletter is that I am against the death penalty. Relatively few countries in the world still use the death penalty in their legal system, and I fail to see why the United States is one of them.

That’s why the recent report of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty group, was good news:

In its annual year-end report released Tuesday, the Center noted that, with the decision this year by New Hampshire to abolish the death penalty and the declaration of a moratorium in California, “half of all U.S. states have abolished the death penalty or now prohibit executions, and no state in New England authorizes capital punishment at all.”
The Center said the decline shows that “capital punishment continued to wither across the U.S. in 2019, disappearing completely in some regions and significantly eroding in others.” Source: Capital Punishment Continues to ‘Wither’ Across the U.S.: Report | The Crime Report

The death penalty is gone completely from New England and is used mainly by Southern states. There is also a move by the Federal government to revive the death penalty at the Federal level.


Susan W.: You thought it surprising that “crawdad” was a frequent dictionary search this year. The tasty critters are called by different names in different parts of the country, which could be confusing and send one to the dictionary. I’m guessing the immense popularity of WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING is the biggest factor in the jump in lookups. I’ve been on the Kindle waiting list at BCPL since June!

Now I’m going to risk being labeled a crotchety old woman … but “they” becoming an acceptable singular pronoun?! Ugh! It just sounds so wrong to my ear and goes against many, many decades of training and writing and speaking. Reporters are using it fluidly on cable news, and I cringe. I haven’t seen it in writing yet, but I expect I’ll want to whip out a red pen. I spent too many years with “he” supposedly including females, and so I welcomed the use of “he/she” or “he and she.” Many people fought the change, of course, because they found it awkward. I did also, to be honest, and before too long I was reworking sentences and paragraphs to be plural so that use of “they” was appropriate. It soon became second nature, and I enjoyed showing colleagues how to do it. Language style and word meanings are constantly changing, so I suppose you and I will become accustomed to the singular “they.” But I don’t have to like it.
Thanks for your newsletter. I always enjoy it You introduce me to new things every week or expand (or correct!) my accumulated knowledge. I often end up googling to learn more. And your sketches are delightful.

Jean T.: You mentioned Mary Beard last week.  We were listening to Broadcasting House this morning on BBC Radio 4. Paddy O’Connell, the presenter, confessed he mixed Mary Beard with Mary Berry (a much-loved TV cook and baker) when attributing a report on the roman eruption of Vesuvius. One of the listeners suggested getting Mary Beard’s baking tips – so she gave them this morning. How to bake a Christmas Cake.  

She said she only bakes once a year. Soak a lot of dried fruit in a lot of brandy overnight, add some other stuff the next day, mix it up and put it in the oven till it looks cooked. She said she took the Roman approach to recipes – add some of “whatever” till it looks good. 
Cindi: I love your newsletters! I read every one of them, start to finish. Your stories are so interesting and informative and I love that I learn something new every week. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and talent! 
Mike P.: Your report on Martha Gelhorn was right on the money her bravery and fortitude knew no bounds she refused to be pigeon-holed as one of Ernest Hemingway’s wives and she lived to cover news even if the conflicts were a danger to herself she is a woman that young girls should be proud to emulate if they know about her life. 
Frank C.: Not good news about libraries in the UK: nearly 800 branch closures in this decade.
I am sure that the decline in stables in London was lamented in its time as cars took over. Perhaps the future of books lies in on-line libraries rather than in bricks and mortar libraries, in digital books rather than paper books. This would reduce cost, increase access and reduce wasteful use of paper. It is better to concentrate on the creation of the future rather than deploring the passage of the past.

Vince V.: In 2001 I visited an exquisitely small library outside of Bath, England, where, to my amazement, the cards in the card catalogue were all hand-printed in one of the smallest and finest calligraphic hands I had ever seen. I asked the lone librarian if one person created the cards and she said it was done by one family over several generations. Several years ago I did an Internet search and found the library had closed. I couldn’t find out what happened to the individual cards. I stood ready to purchase a card, any card, for a ridiculous amount of money, but I came up empty.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Sullivan’s, downtown Maryville

Best quote of the week:

Everything you add to the truth subtracts from the truth. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, novelist, Nobel laureate (1918-2008)

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: Martha Gellhorn and the wars of the 20th century, parkour considered, and plenty of reader reaction: newsletter, December 20, 2019



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