Monday, May 22, 2017

MPM: An appreciation

My sister recently emailed me a link, with the only commentary being "!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  :) "

She'd just learned that one more book from one of our favourite authors will be available in bookstores in July.  :)

Both of us discovered the mystery/thriller novels of Barbara Michaels when we were teenagers in the 1970s (still in junior high school, I think) -- most of them gothic mysteries/thrillers, with a tinge of the occult or supernatural. I don't remember the very first one I read, but my favourite was released around the time of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, and clearly written with that event in mind -- "Patriot's Dream," which takes place in Williamsburg, Virginia, and features time travel back to the days of the American Revolution.

Around the same time, we also discovered the novels of another mystery writer, Elizabeth Peters. Eventually, we came to realize that Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels were one and the same person.  The author's real name was Barbara Mertz, a PhD graduate from the Oriental Institute in Chicago, who published two non-fiction books on ancient Egypt in the 1960s. Fans often refer to her as "MPM," and her official website is http://mpmbooks.com/.

The novels she published as Elizabeth Peters differ from the Michaels novels with their focus on art, archaeology & history, as well as their irreverent sense of humour (which often had me chuckling out loud).  Some Peters novels were standalones -- such as my favourite, "Legend in Green Velvet," a caper set in the Scottish highlands.  But she also developed several series that all featured memorable heroines. There was Jacqueline Kirby, librarian turned romance novelist (one Kirby novel has the memorable title "Naked Once More," lol).  There was Vicky Bliss, an American art history professor, working at a museum in Berlin.

And there was Amelia Peabody, Victorian Egyptologist, perhaps the best-known Mertz/Peters/Michaels creation of all. I've always thought the Amelia books would make a delightful movie or television series, if properly scripted and cast :) and the Amelia section of the MPM site includes readers' votes for casting a hypothetical Peabody movie. (Although more than one MPM fan has noted the similarities between the Amelia books and "The Mummy" movies with Brendan Fraser...!) 

I don't remember discovering Amelia until after I was married (late 1980s/early 1990s) -- but once I read the first novel in the series, "Crocodile on the Sandbank," I was hooked, and devoured the subsequent entries, one after another.  I must admit I've fallen behind -- I have not yet read the last few books in the series, although I have an unofficial goal to finish them before the new one comes out...!

Sadly, Barbara Mertz/Barbara Michaels/Elizbeth Peters passed away in August 2013 at her home in Frederick, Maryland. But happily for her fans, she left behind an unfinished Amelia Peabody novel, "The Painted Queen." We started hearing rumours about it shortly after she died, but it wasn't until last fall that publication was confirmed.  MPM's friend and fellow mystery writer, Joan Hess (another author we've both read, whose heroines include Arly Hanks & Claire Malloy), took on the daunting task of finishing it, and the result will be released in July.

*** *** ***

One more reason why I think of Michaels/Peters (and the Amelia books in particular) so fondly.

When we lost learned that Katie's heart had stopped beating inside me on August 5, 1998, my mother flew immediately to be with me in the hospital. My father followed several days later, bearing a gift from my sister -- a hardcover copy of the newest Elizabeth Peters novel -- an "Amelia," called "The Ape Who Guards the Balance," There was a handwritten note inside which read (in part), "I thought Amelia chaining herself to #10 Downing Street would be more entertaining than flowers."  (She was right. :) )

Fast-forward a few months later to later October/early November, with my Nov. 14th due date rapidly approaching. While browsing the books section in the Saturday Globe and Mail, I saw an ad that made my jaw drop: an all-day event on "Crime and Punishment in Ancient Egypt" on Saturday, Nov. 7th -- the 24th annual symposium on Egyptology put on by the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities (SSEA) at the Royal Ontario Museum -- featuring a keynote address by famous author Elizabeth Peters. The public was welcome to attend.

Faster than you can say "Tutankhamun," I was on the phone to the ROM and bought a ticket for $15.

Then I called my sister. :)  I very seldom manage to get the better of her in terms of ruffling her feathers ;) -- so it was beyond satisfying to be able to pose the question, "Guess what I'm going to be doing on November 7th?"  -- and then tell her & hear her pause -- and then shriek "Aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!"  And then ask, in a very small voice, "Can you get me an autograph??"

I remember the day was dark & rainy, but (for perhaps the first time in months), my spirits were buoyant as I took a train into the city and then rode the subway to the museum. I was uninterested in attending the full day's program (I find the history in the Amelia books interesting, but not THAT interesting...!), but I arrived in plenty of time for Peters' scheduled lecture on "Murder, Mystery and Mayhem in Ancient Egypt" at 4 p.m. -- the final event of the day.

The theatre was packed. (I think I was one of the youngest people there...!) The "lecture" turned out to be a wide-ranging informal interview/conversation with fellow mystery writer Aaron Elkins, including questions from the audience.  I don't remember a lot of what was said, unfortunately, but I do remember that MPM was just as funny and charming and delightful as I'd imagined her to be. The hour flew by far too quickly.

Afterward, MPM signed copies of her books in the foyer outside the theatre, many of which were stacked on tables nearby, available for sale. I had brought the copy my sister sent me of "The Ape Who Guards the Balance" as well as a second copy for her to sign for my sister, and she graciously personalized and signed both books (with hieroglyphics, as well as her signature). I said something stupid about how we had both been reading her books for years, trying hard not to gush too much. (I didn't think to bring my camera with me, & of course, there were no cellphones with handy cameras included back then.)  I left the museum with a broad smile on my face. :)

I (very) reluctantly let go of my complete collection of hardcover & paperback Peters/Michaels books before our move last year, since I also have them all in e-reader format. But I did keep my paperbacks of "Patriot's Dream" and "Legend in Green Velvet, " and a hardcover companion/coffee table book, "Amelia Peabody's Egypt."

And, of course, my prized signed copy of "The Ape Who Guards the Balance." :) (The ticket receipt, day's agenda, and note from my sister are all tucked inside the front cover.)

Are you a fellow Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters fan? Do you like reading mysteries? Any favourite authors to recommend? 

#MicroblogMondays: Let's break the silence on another taboo subject

When I first started working as a 25-year-old staff writer on my company's monthly employee newsmagazine, one of my duties was to coordinate the monthly listings of executive appointments, service anniversaries, retirements and "in memoriams" -- the deaths of both pensioners and active employees. Sometimes the necessary details -- spellings of names, locations, job titles (those pesky acronyms...), etc. -- needed clarification, and I would have to make some phone calls.

I wasn't always prepared for the stories & additional information I'd hear -- never more so than the day, early in my career, when I was breezily informed that the 35-year-old supervisor I was calling about had died in childbirth. Childbirth??!  Who, in 1980-something Canada/North America, with all the benefits and miracles offered by modern medicine (not to mention universal healthcare), died in CHILDBIRTH??

Unfortunately, more women than we might think -- and even more unfortunately, 30 years later, it's still happening with alarming frequency.  Those of us who have endured miscarriage, stillbirth and other forms of pregnancy or infant loss know the silence, the taboos that surround our losses -- not only among family & friends, but in the medical community itself -- the lack of established protocols, reliable statistics and research.

But maternal death (or near-death) remains, it seems, is also an unspeakable subject -- despite the fact that some 700 to 900 American women die every year from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes -- and a further 65,000 come far too close to dying for comfort.  This is a far higher rate than any other developed country -- and almost 60 per cent of these deaths are preventable.

So I was happy to see that NPR & ProPublica have recently joined forces to shed some light on this important-but-overlooked loss-related health issue. They kicked things off with a devastating story, "The Last Person You'd Expect to Die in Childbirth," which focuses on the death of Lauren Bloomstein, a 33-year-old woman whose doctor failed to recognize the warning signs of pre-eclampsia & HELLP syndrome. (Ironically, Bloomstein was, of all things, a neonatal intensive care nurse.)  That was followed by "What We've Learned So Far About Maternal Mortality From You, Our Readers." Item #1:  "We realized that it's part of a pattern:  Treating the death of a mother due to pregnancy or childbirth as a private tragedy rather than as part of a public health crisis," says writer Adriana Gallardo. (Hmmm, this sounds familiar...)

"We're just getting started," Gallardo promises. Want to help them?  Through my 10 years of pregnancy loss support group facilitation, almost 20 years in loss & infertility online forums and almost 10 years of blogging, I know that that many of the loss moms I've encountered were near-casualties themselves. (In fact, I discovered that my own mother had had pre-eclampsia and, in her own words, "We're both lucky we're here.")

If you know someone who died or nearly died in pregnancy, childbirth or within a year after delivery -- or if you ARE that person (whether your baby lived or died) -- consider telling ProPublica your story.  Further information on how to contact them can be found here.

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

It's baaaaccckkkkk!! :)

I can scarcely believe I am writing this.

A couple of months ago, I was mourning the accidental deletion of one of my all-time favourite posts, as I was trying to edit it to add a new label & correct a few typos It was a post near & dear to my heart, so much so that I chose it as my pick for Mel's "Creme de la Creme" list for 2012. "I am childless, hear me roar" was written at what I sensed to be a turning point in the life of our ALI community and the childless-not-by-choice segment in particular, summarizing the progress we had made to date, a rising tide of voices saying "I am childless. My life did not turn out as planned. But it's a good life anyway."  

And then I hit the wrong button, and my post was gone. I was depressed about it for days, & resolved to be better at backing up my blog content. (Which reminds me, I need to get back at that project again. 2007 to 2012 have been backed up so far;  2013 to the present need to be done...!)

This morning, I delved into my drafts folder to look at something and wound up scrolling idly all the way through it.

And there it was, at the very bottom of my drafts folder: "I am childless, hear me roar."

I could scarcely believe my eyes. I held my breath & clicked on the title. It opened. I scrolled through the content;  it looked complete (aside from the video link, which no longer works). I noticed the "scheduled" publication date -- May 2012. I tentatively hit "publish" and went to May 2012 in my archive list, and checked.

And there it was. Not only that, it looks as thought all the comments are there intact too. And even the label "Creme de la Creme picks" that I was trying to add when I hit the wrong button and sent my cherished post into oblivion -- or so I thought -- is there.

Here's the link! :)  :)  :)

Lesson learned! And you can learn from my mistake too. Back up your blog!! :)  (And, when in doubt, check the drafts folder, lol.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"Killers of the Flower Moon" by David Grann

Around the same time that I finished David Grann's "The Lost City of Z" a few months ago (my review here), I heard the author had a new book coming out soon. I made a mental note to watch for it and bought it on sale shortly after its release last month. :)

I'm glad I did.  Entertainment Weekly has called it "the best book of the year so far," (and apparently a movie is already in the works). It's a gripping read, one that kept me up late several nights in a row, promising myself that I would read "just one more chapter..." before turning out the lights... ;)

"Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI" tackles a forgotten -- and extraordinarily shameful -- chapter in American history and the (mis)treatment of American Indians. After being driven off their home territory in Kansas (an event depicted in Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie") in the 1870s, the Osage Indians eventually settled on a reservation in a rocky area of northern Oklahoma. A few decades later, oil was discovered there, and by the early 1920s, the Osage were among the richest people in the world, living in mansions with white servants and sending their children to the finest private schools. The federal government, however, declared the Osage were not capable of handling their own affairs; white guardians were appointed to look after their fortunes and monitor their spending.

And then, one by one, the Osage began dying.

"This is a story that has real evil in it -- evil like I've never covered or ever experienced,"  Grann told "CBS Sunday Morning," which did a story about the Osage murders and the book a few weeks ago.  

"When I began researching this story, I thought of it as a traditional mystery, a whodunnit," he said. "And by the end, I realized this wasn't a whodunnit, this was who-didn't-do-it, meaning so many people were part of this." 

The book focuses on the story of one Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, whose mother, three sisters and brother-in-law were all murdered or died under suspicious circumstances.  It also tells the story of the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the agent -- Tom White, from a prominent family of Texas lawmen -- assigned by the bureau's young director, J. Edgar Hoover, to lead the investigation and track down the killer(s) -- many of them the very guardians who were assigned to protect Osage interests -- or others who stood to benefit.

The last part of the book jumps to present day, and Grann's own research for this book. The FBI estimated there were 24 Osage murders between 1921 and 1925 -- but Grann came to realize there were dozens and possibly hundreds more, beginning as early as 1918 and continuing into the 1930s, involving far more people than those who were tried & convicted.  He investigates some of these lesser-known cases and manages to pinpoint at least one likely murderer who was never publicly linked to the crimes.

Unfortunately, the exact number of Osage killed during the "Reign of Terror" (as they call it) will never be known, and most of these cases will never be solved. "The blood cries out from the ground," a current tribe member tells Grann, quoting the Bible in the last line of the book. Chilling.

I will be thinking about this book for a long time.

This was book #8 that I've read so far in 2017, bringing me to 33% of my 2017 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

#MicroblogMondays: Voldemort Day/weekend recap

*  Voldemort Day is over. TGIM! ;)
* Thankfully, it was not as bad as some years. My usual strategy is to hide out at the movies, and my choice this year was "Snatched" with Amy Schumer & Goldie Hawn -- admittedly, a mother-daughter movie, but what a pairing!! It won't win any Oscars but it was mindless fun. (Bonus!:  It was also far less busy at the theatre than it sometimes is -- lots of parking & minimal lineups for tickets & popcorn.)
* I am back to eating popcorn (yay!!), after avoiding it while my endless dental work was underway. :p
* Yes, I wore my new necklace. :)
* Unfortunately, I was in a lot of discomfort all day with midcycle cramping & bloating/mittelschmerz. (It's better today, though still not 100%.)  When oh when will Aunt Flo finally give up the ghost??!!
*  We washed the patio door/windows, which hadn't been done all winter. It wasn't a professional job by any means, but it looks so much better than it did!
*  It's 19C right now and supposed to be 29C by Wednesday!!  Looking forward to (finally!) dusting off my capris & sandals! ;)  (Just in time for the Victoria Day long weekend, too!)  

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here.  

Friday, May 12, 2017

Retail therapy :)

I have always subscribed to the philosophy that "when the going gets tough... the tough go shopping,"  lol. A new lipstick or book has often lifted my spirits after a crappy day at work.

And what could be tougher for a bereaved childless mother to face than Mother's Day (aka Voldemort Day -- That Which Shall Not Be Named) weekend??

Fortunately, some shiny new bling arrived in my mailbox this afternoon to distract me. :)


I have wanted one of these for eons, and I decided recently that I'd waited long enough. I ordered it a few weeks ago from a local Etsy dealer (here's the website, in case you're interested), and happily, it arrived just in time for the weekend.

I don't know whether the post-purchase high will last me through Sunday night... but it won't hurt, lol.

(I guess I could have saved this post for #MicroblogMondays... but I couldn't wait to share it with people who would appreciate it!! lol)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"Option B" by Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant

Four years ago, Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, published a book called "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead" (which I reviewed here). In the book, she lauded her husband, Dave Goldberg, for being a supportive husband and involved father, and one of her key messages to women was the importance of choosing a partner who would support them at home as well as with their professional goals.

Two years later, on May 1, 2015, Sandberg suddenly became a widow and the single mother of two young children, when Goldberg died suddenly at age 47, while they were on vacation with friends in Mexico.

Another two years has passed since Goldberg's death, and Sandberg, together with her friend Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton University, has written a new book drawing from her and her children's experiences with grief and loss, and how they have rebuilt their lives after this traumatic event.

I knew Sandberg's story and the basic premise of "Option B:  Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy." Still, I was still unprepared for the visceral reaction I had to the first few pages of this book. I started crying as Sandberg described finding her husband's lifeless body on the floor of the resort's gym -- the ambulance ride, how friends had to peel her away from the body at the hospital, the wails & screams from her young children when she told them their father was dead, and again at the cemetery for the burial. The raw emotions she described brought back memories of my own raw grief over the loss of our baby girl -- the wails from my mother when I made the most difficult telephone call of my life, my father's heaving shoulders at the cemetery -- and this was almost 19 years ago now...!

Nevertheless, I was glad to read "Option B" and to see such a well-known public figure address such a difficult issue with such openness and brutal honesty.

Like many of us who have experienced traumatic loss, Sandberg was convinced she would never feel joy in her life again. She begged her friends, especially those who had lost parents at a young age, to tell her that her children would be okay. Her friend Grant assured her that there were things she could do, steps they could take, to rebuild and recover. And they have.

Much like "Lean In," "Option B" blends Sandberg's personal story with stories from others she has met who have bounced back from traumatic loss and other challenging experiences.  Like "Lean In," every story is backed up by academic studies and data, all meticulously footnoted in an extensive appendix. (The sheer volume of stories and facts can be a little overwhelming to digest at times. It's not a long book -- 176 pages of text, plus footnotes & index, etc. -- but it took me a while to wade through it.)

I know some people have pointed out that Sandberg, with her wealth, position, understanding boss and other resources, is far better able to deal with adversity than most. (Since Goldberg's death, Facebook has revised its bereavement leave policies and other support mechanisms for its employees;  few other companies have yet to follow suit and offer more than the standard three-day paid bereavement leave.)  Sandberg herself admits this, and has acknowledged that she clearly was not thinking about the challenges faced by single mothers when she wrote "Lean In."

But death and grief are a great leveller -- they come to all of us, eventually, and no amount of money can shield us from it.  I believe Sandberg is sincere in her desire to use her experience -- and her public profile -- to help others and get people talking about grief, loss and adversity more openly. Much of what she has to say will be familiar to those of us who have walked a similar path -- but her words could be a lifeline for those who are newly bereaved. (It's also a good book for those who want to support struggling friends & family members in a more meaningful way.)  And most of the tips and strategies she & Grant offer in this book are things that anyone can try, that don't cost any money -- things like creating and posting a new set of "family rules," keeping a gratitude journal, finding a support group, and even just getting plenty of sleep.

I remember when Sandberg wrote her infamous Facebook post, 30 days after Goldberg's death, talking about what she'd learned about grief and loss, I wondered here on this blog whether 30 days was a little early to be making definitive "what I've learned" statements. Part of me similarly wonders whether less than two years is a little early to be making definitive pronouncements about what works and what doesn't when it comes to learning to live with loss. I would be curious to check in with Ms Sandberg in the years to come to see what, if anything, she would change or add to her book, as her relationship with grief (and that of her children) evolves.

In the end, I'll reiterate what I said then:  if Sandberg can get people talking about grief and loss issues with this book in the same way that "Lean In" fuelled new discussions about women and work-life balance, it can only be a good thing.

Sandberg is donating all proceeds from "Option B" to OptionB.org, a nonprofit initiative to help people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity.

This was book #7 that I've read so far in 2017, bringing me to 29% of my 2017 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.