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Billy Wilder, a journalist before he was a screenwriter or director

The great movie director Billy Wilder, whose six Academy Awards rank him among the best who have ever stood behind a camera and told the people in front of it what to do – was once asked during an interview for a biographer the accomplishment for which she was most proud. The answer from Wilder, […]

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The Army gets it right, Eleanor gets an audience, and the love triangle scandal of the 1870s: newsletter, April 30, 2021

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,374) on Friday, April 30, 2021. Nature is doing its random best, as usual, to confound us. Where I live, we had two nights of frost last week — unheard of after mid-April. Fortunately, the cooler temperatures this spring have prevented us from putting anything […]

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Norman Mailer: Larger-than-life colossus of 20th century American letters

When Norman Mailer was 20 years old in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. A precocious student, he had just graduated from Harvard University. He had initially majored in engineering, but he took writing and literature courses as his electives. During his undergraduate days, he had published his first story, “The Greatest Thing […]

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Henry Ward Beecher and the love triangle that gripped the public in the 1870s

If your emotions we’re caught up in the swirl surrounding Meghan and Harry . . . If your feelings were buffeted by the off-again on-again relationship of J.Lo and A-Rod . . . Then you should have been alive in the 1870s when public domestic squabbles were very good. A few weeks ago in this […]

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Anna Ella Carroll, strategic mastermind or relentless self-promoter?

Was Anna Ella Carroll the “military genius,” the “strategic mastermind,” and the “forgotten heroine” of the American Civil War that many of her adherents claim? What she the shadow member of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, unacknowledged because of her gender? Or was she simply a relentless self-promoter? Much time and effort among historians, both professional and […]

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Rolling Stone identifies the top 100 Motown hits

The editors of Rolling Stone have done us Motown aficionados a solid favor by identifying the top 100 — that’s right, a cool hundred — Motown hits and tell us some of the stories behind the music. You know the list is a good one when the 100th song on the list is “Shop Around” by Smokey Robinson […]

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Sherwood Anderson: Hemingway’s mentor and object of his ridicule

Even if you are the most avid Ernest Hemingway fan on your city block or country road, chances are you have not read his novel The torrents of spring. The novel itself is probably not worth reading, but the story behind it is worth knowing because of what it tells us about Hemingway the human being. […]

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Rose Dugdale and the stolen Vermeer

Rose Dugdale’s life, in the 1950s and 1960s, seemed to be on a straight path of privilege, success, and accomplishment. Dugdale had been born in 1941 to an upper-class family in Great Britain. She spent her early years on vast ancestral estates and grew up to be a beautiful and pleasant young lady. When she […]

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Deliberate Practice: the road to getting better

Too often, when we are complimenting a work of artistry, we say the person who produced it has “talent.” But such a comment — without our meaning it to be — is dismissive rather than complimentary. What it dismisses is the amount of time and hard work that has gone into producing the artistry. It […]

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Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space 60 years ago this month

Sixty years ago this month, a Russian named Yuri Gagarin shocked the world by leaving it – and then returning 108 minutes later. Gargarin, a Russian cosmonaut, became the first human to escape the earth’s bounds by blasting into space aboard a Soviet Vostok spacecraft on April 12, 1961. Prior to the Soviet announcement of […]

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We’re into April, Ernest Hemingway month

April 2021 will undoubtedly be the month of Ernest Hemingway, thanks in no small measure to the six-hour documentary produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and broadcast on the Public Broadcast System this week. Indeed, if you look on the PBS website, it seems to be all-Hemingway, all-the-time. Once again, Burns and Novick selected a […]

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‎Podcast recommendation: Spy Affair from Wondery

Podcast producer Wondery has come up with what sounds like another winning series: Spy Affair. It’s the story of Russian operative Maria Butina, who came to America and inserted herself into politics at the time that Donald Trump was on the rise within the Republican Party. Here’s part of the official description: A charismatic Russian […]

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Elizabeth Cochran Seaman – Nellie Bly: allowing the girls to dream

When Elizabeth Cochran was 16 years old, she lived with her family in Pittsburgh. The year was 1880, and Elizabeth was intelligent and precocious. The Pittsburgh Dispatch ran an article titled “What Girls are Good For,” and the author concluded the girls were good for having babies and keeping house. It was not an unpopular […]

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Wanda Gág and her Millions of Cats

Illustrator-genius Wanda Gág (pronunciation: rhymes with “bog”) must have liked cats. Her most famous book was Millions of Cats, published in 1928 and for many years as much a part of a child’s literary shelf as Goodnight, Moon or Where the Wild Things Are are today. Millions of Cats was not only a wildly popular book (which still sells well today), but it […]

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Millions of Cats, Passing notes, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and more on Opening Day: newsletter, April 2, 2021

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,369) on Friday, April 2, 2021.     The 2019 college admissions scandal that resulted in the indictments of more than 50 people — most of them the well-off and well-intentioned parents of college-aged children — was based on an idea that many people carry […]

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‘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 […]

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Warren Hastings, the guy caught in the middle

What do the British East India Company and the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump have to do with each other? To answer that question, we need to take a quick romp through 500 years of history with a short side trip to Boston. The man caught in the middle of all of this is […]

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Thaddeus Stevens, the unsung hero of racial equality

To look at Thaddeus Stevens’ picture, you don’t see a political hero. You see a rough face perched on an unusually large and protruding lower lip. He appears to have a permanent frown etched on his visage, like he hasn’t enjoyed a joke since he was about six years old. Stevens was played masterfully by […]

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Robert Littell: the game of spying with a bit of irony and humor

Spy novelist Robert Littell has been called the American John le Carre, but there is a key difference that Sarah Weinman, in a recent review of his work for InsideHook, points out: Where John Le Carre channeled barely suppressed rage into realist narratives steeped in bureaucracy, and Charles McCarry took the adage that “the average intelligence […]

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The decision that changed everything

Early in my academic career, I made a decision that seemed fairly minor and local at the time, but it turned out to be enormous and to change the entire trajectory of my 38 years teaching at the college level. I had come to the University of Alabama’s Department of Journalism in 1978 and had […]

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