The name we should know besides Stradivarius, the fascination of the garden, “tartan noir,” and more: newsletter, June 12, 2020

June 13, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: beekeeping, journalism, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,569) on Friday, June 12, 2020.


We are well into the garden season, and tomatoes are appearing on the vines and blooms on the bean plants. Potatoes, sometimes, produce a single, beautiful blossom late in the life of the plant. I say “sometimes” because it doesn’t always happen. I don’t know why. We plant several patches of buckwheat that will come up at different times during the season, and we do this because the bees love the nectar that it produces. The nectar is only available in the morning, not in the afternoon or evening, and the bees know that, so you will find them there only the morning.

Those of you who are not gardeners may wonder what’s so enticing about a garden. The previous paragraph gives you a clue. Each plant has its own characteristics, its own cycle, and its own production process. If you begin to look into all that, you soon get hooked.

Whatever you’re hooked on these days, I hope you get a chance to enjoy it this weekend. Keep writing. It’s great hearing from everyone.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,569 subscribers and had a 27.2 percent open rate; 3 persons unsubscribed.

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We all know the name Stradivarius; we should know the name Cremona

It’s about the sound. But it’s also about the age, and the rarity, and the physical beauty. And, of course, there’s always the money. Mostly, however, it’s about the name and the reputation.

One of the most prized musical instruments in the world is the Stradivarius violin.

These violins were made in the late 17th and early 18th century by members of the Stradivari family, Antonio the father and Francesco, Omobono and Paolo the sons. Together they made more than 1,000 violins, some 500 or so that still exist. You can probably purchase one if you have anywhere from several hundred thousand to eight or nine million dollars lying around.

During Antonio’s lifetime (1644-1737), the Stradivari violins became world-famous for their sound and craftsmanship. The first of these violins began to appear in the 1660s, but the “golden age” of Stradivari production occurred between 1700 and 1725.

Today, whenever a Stradivarius violin is found, bought, or sold, it’s big news. But the name we should know is not just Stradivarius but Cremona. That’s the town in northern Italy where for the past five centuries the best violins in the world, including those made by Stradivari, have been made.

Beginning with the Amati and Rugeri families in the 1500s, and later the products of the Guarneri and Stradivari, Cremona craftsmen and women did much to develop the shape, style, and sound of the modern violin. Andrea Amati was the founding father of the earliest prominent violin-making family, and his skills and techniques were passed on to his sons.

They attracted to their workshop Andrea Rugeri and Francesco Guarneri, both of whom eventually left to set up their own violin, viola, and cello operations. Third generation Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri produced some of the best and most highly prized violins ever made. Although it is unclear whose workshop he trained in, Antonio Stradivari followed the local traditions and started what became the most illustrious violins of them all.

One of the factors that gave the violins of Cremona their special quality, particularly with their sound, was the spruce trees found in a forest near the town.

Cremona today is still a center for violin production of the highest quality. The men and women who work in these shops may produce fewer than 10 violins a year, but they are sought after by musicians and collectors who are willing to pay top dollar for them. Cremona has recently celebrated its tradition by building a museum, the Museo del Violino, that not only collects and displays violins but also does research on the qualities that give them a unique sound.

In 2012, UNESCO named “the traditional violin craftsmanship of Cremona” as an intangible cultural heritage with the following in its nomination:

“Each instrument is handmade and assembled with more than 70 different molded pieces of wood. Every part of a new violin requires a particular technique, continuously adapted according to the different acoustic response of each piece of wood: for this reason, it is impossible to get two violins exactly identical. Every part of the violin should be made with a particular kind of wood, carefully selected and naturally seasoned, so that its preparation can be neither forced or artificial. … It is not possible to use any industrial or semi-industrial part, and spray painting is prohibited. Many of the elements of the musical instrument appear merely ornamental, but in reality they are highly functional in order to get the force and the sound amplification, or to protect the instrument from accidental breaks: this is a double characteristic of the first violin’s creation.”

Illustration: This caricature of Antonio Stradivari at the top of this article is based on the romanticized 1893 painting by Edgar Bundy, shown here.

‘Tartan noir’ – you can probably figure it out

Tartan noir is not a term I had heard before a couple of weeks ago — but you can probably figure it out. It refers to crime and detective fiction that is either set in Scotland or by Scottish writers.

It’s not an especially good term either. “Tartan” as a reference to Scotland is pretty shallow and unsatisfying. Scotland is a whole lot more than a few colorful cross-weaves, although the tourists still seem to want that.

Author Craig Robertson doesn’t like the term either, as he confesses in his recent article in The Guardian, but that’s not the point of his article. The point is to select his 10 best Scottish crime novels, and though selecting the 10 best of anything is tricky business, his list contains the usual suspects: Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride, and the like.

Number one on his list — though he does not like to rank them — is William McIlvanney, about whom he says:

Forensic examination would likely reveal that all Scottish crime novels have a little Laidlaw in their DNA. Powerful, gripping and beautifully written, it uses a brutal murder to shine a light on the city’s dark injustices, both criminal and social. McIlvanney had the enviable ability to use just a handful of words to make acute observations and deliver them with the certainty of a head butt. Source: Top 10 Scottish crime novels | Books | The Guardian

I had never read any of McIlvanney’s books before, and this article prompted me to download Laidlaw. Robertson is right. McIlvanney’s sentences are worth the price of the book.

McIlvanney was born in 1936 in Kilmarnock, Scotland, and he studied English at the University of Glasgow. He was a teacher from 1960 to 1975 when he left the profession to become a full-time writer. He was a regular contributor to newspapers and was also a football commentator for BBC sports.

While he wrote a number of books of fiction and non-fiction, he is most famous for his crime trilogy Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), and Strange Loyalties (1991). Each novel feature Inspector Jack Laidlaw, an intellectual cynic who finds himself having to deal with Glasgow’s lowlifes.

McIlvanney won numerous awards for his books but never achieved the fame or financial rewards of those Scottish authors who followed him — and who give him credit for being their inspiration.

McIlvanney died in 2015, but examples of his writing can still be found on a website that he contributed to for several years before his death:

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

Motown: The Complete Collection (so far)

I decided to take at least a week off from my review of the greats of Motown this week and make an assessment of what — if anything — I need to do next. If you have suggestions, please let me know. I haven’t covered everyone or every group, and there are still lots of interesting stories.

Lots of you have commented about how much you liked the Motown series, that you listened to a lot of Motown growing up, and that you enjoyed reliving some of those moments. So I did. Thanks very much for your comments.

Here’s the complete list so far:

Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye asked What’s Going On?

Please, Mr. Postman

Berry Gordy began Motown with an $800 loan from his family

Martha and the Vandellas: Heat Waves, Quicksand, and but always Dancing in the Street

Temptations: soulful voices, close harmonies, and choreography that made you want to dance

Smokey Robinson, Motown’s founding brother

Stevie Wonder: the most talented Motowner of them all

The Supremes: Best Girl Group Ever?

The Four Tops: polished performances and fierce loyalty

Olof Palme’s murder put to rest, maybe

It wasn’t the crime of the century — that was the Kennedy assassination — but the 1986 murder of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme ranks as one of the great unsolved murders of the 1900s. Now it has been officially put to rest, at least for the time being.

Palme was shot on a cold evening in February as he and his wife walked through downtown Stockholm after attending a movie. Dozens of people were out and about at the time, but there were few who actually saw the murder. But from the beginning, officials botched the investigation badly and continued making mistakes in the weeks that followed.

As Imogen West-Knights writes in a long piece about the murder in The Guardian, published last year:

On Sveavägen, where the shooting occurred, shock seemed to have taken over. Police failed to cordon off the crime scene properly, covering too small an area. One of the bullets was not found until two days later, when it was picked up from the pavement by a passerby. Mourners arriving in the hours after Palme’s death slipped past the tape to place flowers near the pool of blood; by trampling the crime scene, they rendered future searches for the killer’s footprints useless. Key witnesses were allowed to leave the scene without being interviewed. Löfgren, the broadcast journalist, was out in the area that night and hailed a cab to take him home. The driver had witnessed the killing but had not been questioned, Löfgren recalled with disbelief. “I phoned the police and said: ‘This guy here claims that he was a witness to the murder, and he’s still out driving a cab?!’”

Other protocols were ignored or forgotten. The Stockholm police have a system for searching the inner city street by street, but it was never deployed. Squads of police tore around looking for the gunman, but had almost no information about what he might look like. Trains, ferries and flights continued as normal, while the roads and bridges out of the city remained open for hours after the murder. At that stage, it seemed as if nobody was really in charge. It was “sports week”, a holiday when many Stockholmers head for the mountains. Hans Holmér, the chief constable of Stockholm county police, was skiing in the north country with his mistress. Who killed the prime minister? The unsolved murder that still haunts Sweden | News | The Guardian

If you are interested in this topic, this article is the one to read.

Just recently, however, an official commission has identified what it considers to be the most likely suspect: a man who died in 2000. (Read about that in The Guardian here.) But there won’t be a trial or any additional chances to question witnesses under so. So, it is unlikely that this conclusion will be persuasive.

Capturing a swarm of bees: follow-up

Last week after writing a bit about capturing a swarm of bees, my old friend Hal M. wrote:

Jim, very interesting, but how do you “put” them in a box. And don’t say “very carefully.”

So, I decided I should say a bit more about swarms.

Actually, “very carefully” would not be a good answer in any event. What you do is shake the limb and make them fall into the box. I have even put my hands (gloved, of course) on the swarm and tried to guide them down into the box. Getting the bees into the box is a bit tricky since you want to try to get the queen in there, and she’s usually at the center of the swarm.

Honeybees live in colonies; they do not exist individually. Like any other living thing, their main reason for a bee colony’s existence is to reproduce and continue the species. That makes the birth of an individual bee — worker or queen — irrelevant. What is important is that the colony itself reproduces. Honeybee colonies reproduce by “casting swarms.”

When a colony reaches a certain point, it will develop a new queen. Since there is normally only one queen to a colony, the old queen will leave, but she will take a portion of the colony with her. That’s called a swarm.

The swarm hangs together, literally, usually around a tree limb or something similar. On the outside of the swarm, individual bees peel off and look for a new home — usually some kind of protected cavity such as the hollow of a tree. Within 24 hours, the bees process the information they have received from their scouts, and they take off for their new home. Exactly how they make this decision is one of the great mysteries of the bee science.

When a beekeeper captures a swarm, he or she makes that decision for the bees, and the beekeeper hopes the bees will agree. If they do and other conditions are right, the bees can grow into a healthy colony and might even produce honey for the beekeeper during the next season.


Check out last week’s newsletter

Becky A.: I love the watercolor as I always do. Great read about Motown, but the library article made me a little sad. However, it is something all of us need to keep in mind. The world has changed a bit.

Vic C.: I spotted the attached yesterday (right) and was planning on sending it to you prior to your latest epistle arriving.

I have stared at it for long moments and have finally concluded that, somewhere deep within the apiary, is a flight control center easily equivalent to that which is operating at O’Hare.

Vince V.: Do you or any of your readers believe Robinson Crusoe is not Defoe’s best work? I would rate both Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year ahead. Interestingly, all three of those works are inspired by real events and/or people.


Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Pont Neuf, Paris
You sophisticated travelers might be able to recognize this as Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge across the Seine River in Paris. I got the idea of doing this one from a recent article in the New York Times in which the Times photographer reshot some of the photographs that Eugène Atget took of Paris a century ago. The photographs pointed up how unchanged parts of the city are from what they looked like a hundred years ago.

Best quote of the week:

The capacity to produce social chaos is the last resort of desperate people. Cornel West, author and philosopher (b. 1953)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, 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 ( 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: Defoe’s chronicle of an earlier plague, the Four Tops, and the coming crisis for libraries: newsletter, June 5, 2020


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