The real Mary Westmacott, capitalizing Black when referring to race, Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable meeting: newsletter, July 10, 2020

July 12, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,557) on Friday, July 10, 2020.

“The Best Year Ever” is probably not a description that you are willing to apply to 2020 just yet, but that thought occurred to me this week as I was gathering in the bounty from our garden. We are getting daily helpings of tomatoes, cucumbers, and okra. We have already canned a lot of green beans and are set to do more this weekend. Potatoes were abundant, and I still have a few to dig.

On top of that, we harvested honey this week, and our beehives came through for us big time. It wasn’t the “best year ever” for honey, but it was the best we’ve done in several years. The hives themselves are full of bees with lots of brood cells (which means new bees), and we will continue to do what we can to keep them full and healthy as we head into the fall.

So, with the world in chaos, we are going to have to look hard for ways in which 2020 is the “best year ever” or at least is a very good year. Those victories might seem small, but they really aren’t. If 2020 is for you the “best year ever” or at least a “very good year,” let me know in what way that’s happening for you.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,564 subscribers and had a 27.0 percent open rate; 5 persons unsubscribed.

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Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable

The Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable will hold its monthly meeting (via Zoom) on Monday, July 13, 2020, at 7 p.m. ET. Our featured guest will be Bill Beaty. Here is the URL you need to join the Zoom meeting:

Bill flew 155 combat missions in an A-7 Corsair, an attack aircraft, which he selected because “I always wanted to fly low and fast.” He deployed in 1970 to Vietnam aboard the USS Ranger, an aircraft carrier.

You don’t have to be a veteran or a Tennessean to join the Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable. You just need to be interested in what happened in Vietnam and in America’s involvement there in the 1960s and 1970s. Show your support for the men and women who were there by joining us on July 13.

The Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable is a part of the Vietnam Voices project of the Blount County Public Library.

Mary Westmacott, Agatha Christie’s alter ego

Agatha Christie’s reputation, as well as the body of work, as a mystery writer so overwhelms anyone who takes a look at her life that it’s easy to miss the fact that she wrote six novels — none of them mysteries — under the pen name of Mary Westmacott.

Like many other novelists, Christie found that writing in one genré, particularly one as rule-bound as mysteries, was too restrictive for her fertile imagination. She wanted to explore people and relations in other venues and settings even though she was well on her way to making a name for herself in the mystery and detective corner.

And also in common in other writers who did not want to take advantage of any fame they might have achieved, Christie wanted to keep her identity a secret. So in 1930, she asked her publisher, Collins, to publish her non-mystery novel, Giant’s Bread, under her nom de plume. They did so but reluctantly. “Agatha Christie” meant money for them; “Mary Westmacott” did not.

Still, the book was published, and no one guessed who the author was. It was well-reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic and sold reasonably well.

Here’s part of what the New York Times said about Giant’s Bread:

“Whoever is concealed beneath the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott may well feel proud of Giant’s Bread. The blurb lends mystery to Miss Westmacott’s identity. She has written half a dozen successful books under her own name, it says, but they have been so different from Giant’s Bread that she decided to have it ‘judged on its own merits and not in the light of previous success.’

Who she is does not matter, for her book is far above the average of current fiction, in fact, comes well under the classification of a ‘good book.’ And it is only a satisfying novel that can claim that appellation. In Giant’s Bread there are traces of the careful, detailed writing of the English novelist, and there are hints of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s methods of mentioning a finished episode and explaining later how it all happened. . . . Each figure is well conceived, human and true.”

After that, Christie followed up with five more Mary Westmacott novels: Unfinished Portrait (1934), Absent in the Spring (1944), The Rose and the Yew Tree (1948), A Daughter’s a Daughter (1952), and The Burden (1956).

These books might best be described as psychological explorations in which Christie examines love in its various forms, from the romantic to the familial. Her daughter Rosalind described them as “bitter-sweet stories about love.”

The book that gave her the most satisfaction as a novelist was the third, Absent in the Spring, published during the war in 1944. The following is from Christie’s autobiography:

“Shortly after that, I wrote the one book that has satisfied me completely. It was a new Mary Westmacott, the book that I had always wanted to write, that had been clear in my mind. It was the picture of a woman with a complete image of herself, of what she was, but about which she was completely mistaken. Through her own actions, her own feelings and thoughts, this would be revealed to the reader. She would be, as it were, continually meeting herself, not recognising herself, but becoming increasingly uneasy. What brought about this revelation would be the fact that for the first time in her life she was alone – completely alone – for four or five days.

“I wrote that book in three days flat…I went straight through…I don’t think I have ever been so tired…I didn’t want to change a word and although I don’t know myself of course what it is really like, it was written as I meant to write it, and that is the proudest joy and author can have.”

Her daughter Rosalind had this to say about the book: “I think Absent in the Spring combines many talents from Agatha Christie, the detective story writer. It is very well constructed, compulsive reading. You get a wonderfully clear picture of all the family from the thoughts of one woman alone in the desert – really quite a triumph.” (

Although Collins had published her first four novels, they were not enthusiastic about them and made that clear to the author. For her fifth, A Daughter’s A Daughter, Christie asked her agent to find a new publisher, and Heinemann took them on, publishing A Daughter’s a Daughter  in 1952, and The Burden in 1956.

The best roundup of these novels that I have found is from the Shedunnit podcast by Caroline Crampton. You can listen to her episode about Mary Westmacott at this link.

No murders here – just life’s little mysteries

Author W.M. Akers probably spends more time than he should reading the 1920s’ issues of the New York Times. Still, he’s come up with an amusing piece that explains his obsession.

Akers is the author of Westside and Westside Saints, which feature detective Gilda Carr, who abhors investigating murders and would much rather take on other of life’s more common mysteries.

I did much of the research for these novels by wading around the New York Times archives for 1921, and that research soon took on a life of its own, becoming Strange Times, my newsletter, which chronicles the weirdest news of that very unusual year. In reading the 1921 Times, I’ve encountered countless murders, heists, and daylight shootouts. But my all-time favorite mysteries are tinier than that.

Here are five of the weirdest little mysteries I’ve encountered in the ’21 Times. Some are criminal, some are simply odd,and all would make Gilda Carr smile. Source: Tiny Mysteries From the Files of the New York Times | CrimeReads

So, what are these little mysteries that keep Akers glued to 100-year-old newspaper pages. How about these:

— a mule that causes an explosion that takes a life and destroys a building — but the mule survives;

— an ape that is mistaken for a burglar and shot;

— an unusual sentence for a candy thief;

Well, you get the idea. Akers even has a newsletter where there is more of this stuff.


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

NYT to capitalize “black” when referring to African-Americans

The New York Times is changing its style on the use of the word “black” to describe those of African-American descent. As David Leonhardt reports in his NYT daily briefing:

Effective yesterday, The New York Times began capitalizing the word “Black” when describing people and cultures of African origin. “We believe this style best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor, and Phil Corbett, another senior editor, wrote in a memo.

The Times will not be capitalizing the word “white.” As Dean and Phil explained: “There is less of a sense that ‘white’ describes a shared culture and history. Moreover, hate groups and white supremacists have long favored the uppercase style, which in itself is reason to avoid it.” Source: Your Wednesday Briefing

Is this important? Does it really matter?

For those of us who use the language for a living, particularly in a professional setting, the “rules of usage” — what we call “style” — are very important. Knowing the rules and using them appropriately are parts of the coin of our realm, the way in which we distinguish ourselves from those who are not professionals.

For many decades now, one of the leaders that we have looked to is the New York Times. So when the Times makes a change, the rest of us take note. We may agree or disagree. We may follow the Times’ rule or not. We are likely to listen to the debate, weigh the arguments, and come to our own conclusions.

But, yes, it matters. To us, language is a sacred trust.

Leonhardt also points out that some would like to go beyond what the Times has done and capitalize “white” when referring to Caucasians.

In The Atlantic, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued for capitalizing both “Black” and “white.” Neither is a literal description of skin color, he writes, and neither is a “fully formed and stable social category.” Both encompass a varied group of cultures.

I have friends, not professionals, who shake their heads and think this is an angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin argument. Maybe that’s what it seems, but it’s not.

From the archives: Neil Sheehan: A Bright and Shining Lie

Anyone who has read or knows anything about the war in Vietnam is familiar with Neil Sheehan. Sheehan covered the war as a reporter for the New York Times and was one of the correspondents who could see that the American government’s description of the war and what was actually happening there were quite different.

Sheehan’s great Vietnam book is A Bright and Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. In this book Sheehan focuses on an Army officer (and later a civilian working in Vietnam) who was both gung-ho and highly critical of America’s involvement and actions in southeast Asia.

It took Sheehan 14 years to write the book. A recent article in the New York Times recounts some of what Sheehan had to go through to finish the book:

The years it took to complete “A Bright Shining Lie” consumed Sheehan. It was extremely hard on his wife, Susan, and their daughters; the girls were barely in elementary school when he started, and out of the house by the time he finished, with no family vacations to speak of along the way.

“I set out to write a normal-length book in a few years time, but Vann turned out to be the most extraordinarily complicated man I ever met,” Mr. Sheehan, 81, said from his Washington home. “I never thought I wouldn’t finish the book, but it was extremely draining.”

You can read the entire interview here on the New York Times website.

Elizabeth T.: How they rise and fall…I do remember reading some Walpole in the distant past.  I recall that he seemed a little strident and not very original.  Now you sum this writer up by calling it a bit of a slog,  I will pass the journey and defer to your judgment, because I am awfully prone to slogging on with a writer, wanting to finish what I start and appreciate that writing is hard and dedicated work and I can at least read on,   I do enjoy giving some insightful, I think, critiques. But I am not above taking a swipe at the egregious and downright boring.  Thanks again. You win!
Jean T.: Blackberry picking will probably start later this month. The bushes are loaded with more fruit than for the last three or four years. 
We run a Community Centre in south east London. It was built on an old railway goods yard in 1982/3 and there is a large area of blackberry bushes in one corner of the site. We allow it to grow almost unchecked for several reasons 
1. There is a world war 2 air raid shelter in the corner – brambles keep inquisitive children (and adults) out. 
2. An urban fox lives under the blackberry bushes. He is a beautiful beast. We also have vixens with cubs living under there. 
3. Because the fox lives under the brambles local cats tend to avoid going under there, and as a consequence we have a flock of sparrows that nest there. 
4. The flowers encourage and feed various insects including butterflies and several species of bees. 
Stay safe. In the UK everything is beginning to open up again (slowly). I’ve been out 5 times since mid-March. I’m diabetic so the doctors recommended self-isolation for me. My husband has been furloughed from work since March – he restarts next Monday, pubs, restaurants and most shops reopen today (4th July). My husband will try to get a haircut so he goes back to work less shaggy. We are living in hopes there won’t be a spike in new cases. There will be local lockdowns if that looks like it’s happening. Rules for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are different – the joys of devolved Government. 

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Calton Hill, Edinburgh

Best quote of the week:

Transport of the mails, transport of the human voice, transport of flickering pictures — in this century, as in others, our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bringing men together. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author and aviator (1900-1944)

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: Hugh Walpole, reactions to masks and COVID-19, First Amendment violations, and an international watercolor conspiracy: newsletter, July 3, 2020


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