Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd" by Alan Bradley

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know I am a big fan of the Flavia de Luce mysteries by by Alan Bradley. Flavia is a pint-sized (age 12) chemistry buff who lives in a crumbling mansion called Buckshaw with her father and two older sisters, and uses science and her wits to solve a number of mysteries in and around her small English village of Bishop's Lacey in the early 1950s post-war England.

The long wait is finally over, and Flavia #8 is now in bookstores. I was fortunate enough to find a copy a few days before it was supposed to go on sale officially. (In fact, it's more than a week since the official release date and my local bookstore still doesn't have it. Grrrrr....) 

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd picks up immediately where its predecessor (As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, reviewed here) left off. It's just before Christmas, and Flavia arrives home from a brief stint at school in Canada, expecting her family there to welcome her back. Instead, the only person there to greet her is the family retainer, Dogger -- and he has bad news: her beloved father is sick and in the hospital. Left to her own devices (even more so than usual), it doesn't take long before Flavia stumbles onto a new mystery to solve.

It was good to have Flavia back home with the familiar cast of characters around her. The actual mystery never seems to matter too much in these books -- it's the characters and the wonderful writing that hold our attention. While each mystery is self-contained, there's a continuing storyline unfolding that gradually reveals more information about Flavia & her family -- and keeps us coming back for more.  For that reason, I would highly recommend starting with the first Flavia book, "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie," and working your way through the series in chronological order.

The mystery gets solved, but there's a cliffhanger at the end that had me gasping -- and reaching for the Kleenex box. I am not sure how long we have to wait for the next installment in the adventures of Flavia -- but it won't be soon enough to suit me!

This was book #17 that I've read to date in 2016.

Monday, September 26, 2016

#MicroblogMondays: Ready or not...

The wedding is this coming weekend.

I've already dusted off my speechwriter's hat and helped BIL craft his father of the groom speech, and sniffled my way through reviewing a draft of Younger Nephew's best man speech. I've admired the groom's new suit and gulped as I imagined him in it, standing at the altar, waiting for his bride.

How did he grow up so quickly?

(I've been trying not to imagine what his cousin would have looked like in her bridesmaid dress, and how scarily grown up SHE would have been right now too.) 

I've had my dress & earrings since last March, and have assembled shoes, flipflops, an evening bag, waterproof mascara & other cosmetics to go with it. I've also bought five different bracelets (I'm not joking) and will decide at the last minute which one will be the perfect one to wear. I've satisfied myself that dh's suit doesn't need cleaning and that he has a clean dress shirt and suitable tie and shoes.

I'm taking my regular point-and-shoot camera along with my cellphone camera, but I still have to charge my camera batteries & make sure I have a backup memory card. I have taken thousands of photos of these two boys as they've grown up, and even though there will be professional photographers there, I'm not about to stop now, on this day of all days. ;)  And I need to put together a bag with all the essentials -- epi-pen, ibuprofen, Q-Tips, hairspray...

It's an outdoor ceremony, so please cross your fingers that the weather holds...!

I can't believe it's finally here.

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

Thursday, September 22, 2016


I read an interesting article from Slate's Double XX blog this afternoon (by parenting writer Elissa Strauss, who wrote that great critique of Rachel Cusk's review of Julia Leigh's book "Avalanche"), and it got me thinking.

Strauss had read an essay by actress Ashley Williams about her miscarriage and the silence surrounding it (an excellent read itself). She agrees with Williams that we need to end the silence that surrounds miscarriage -- that speaking out will help to normalize an experience that 25% of all women go through:
These were questions I asked myself after miscarrying an 8-week-old embryo last spring. I was aware of how common miscarriage was, but had heard little about what it would actually feel like. As such, I was not prepared for two weeks of bleeding, nor did I anticipate going into labor and giving birth to two softball-sized blood clots halfway through. Knowing this was possible beforehand would not have relieved the immediate discomfort, but it would have helped prevent much of the debilitating shock I felt for the following weeks.

(Hmmm, sounds a bit like something I wrote a few weeks ago. ;) )

However, she objects to Williams' use of the word "survivor" to describe herself.
I understand the instinct to frame women who have had miscarriages as survivors; it’s a way to find meaning, even redemption, in chaos. Still, it’s wrong, in both logical and emotional terms. 
When we call someone a survivor we are emphasizing the unacceptability, or unnaturalness, of the situation they were forced to endure. We don’t survive what is normal, we survive what is exceptional or repugnant. If the goal is to make miscarriage feel normal, then the survivor label is counterproductive.

She notes that others have objected to the survivor narrative, including Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon (who has dealt with stage 4 cancer) and Parul Sehgal in the New York Times Magazine, writing about women who have experienced sexual violence.  (Both are great articles too.) "It’s not enough for a woman to deal with something crappy, but we’ve got to make a hero narrative out of it, too," Strauss points out.

I understand that. It's why so many of us tell people that we're fine, just fine, even when we (still) feel like crap sometimes. It's why so many women living without children after infertility & loss feel like they can't just live an ordinary life -- if their life is going to be so different from other women's because they're not having children, then they need to do something REALLY different, and grand and bold and adventurous and fabulous -- because they can!! Right??  

I understand the point that Strauss and the others are making, and it's a valid one. But there's no getting around the fact that, right now, at least, miscarriage and stillbirth and infertility are NOT normal experiences. OK, miscarriage might be a normal experience from a biological perspective -- but it doesn't feel that way. The silence and shame and stigma that surround it are not normal, and certainly not acceptable. Until we do normalize miscarriage and other kinds of pregnancy loss, and until those of us who have been through these traumatic experiences begin to feel supported and heard and not so "other," I would not deny those who feel like they have survived something and want to call themselves "survivors" the right to do so.

What do you think? Do you consider yourself a survivor of pregnancy loss &/or infertility? Is there a term that you would prefer instead? (Or do we need to label ourselves in this way at all?)

(Do I feel like a survivor? Sometimes, yes.)

*** *** ***

And now, just because the earworm has been planted ;) and because it's one of dh's all-time favourite songs: 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Avalanche: A Love Story" by Julia Leigh

I am always up for a good "repro-lit" read -- especially when it reflects my own story (i.e., it doesn't end with a baby) -- and earlier this year, when Pamela first wrote about "Avalanche: A Love Story" by Australian writer and film maker Julia Leigh, I put it on my wish list. Unfortunately, it took some time before the book became available in Canada;  I was finally able to download an e-copy to my Kobo in August, after Pamela announced she'd be hosting a book tour with author participation. (I also love discussing books with other people!)

"Avalanche" is not a long book -- 133 pages -- but it packs a powerful punch. Reading it brought back a flood of memories from my own days in treatment (which you can read about under the label "The Treatment Diaries") -- not all of them good. It could be a difficult read, depending on where you are in your own infertility journey.

Leigh was 38 when she met, fell in love with and married Paul (they had actually met years earlier, then reconnected). The vision of Our Child (in capitals and italics) took hold in Leigh's mind, and quickly became all-consuming. Right from the start, however, there were challenges: besides Leigh's advancing age, there was also the obstacle of Paul's vasectomy. When a reversal was unsuccessful, he underwent a surgical procedure to retrieve and freeze his sperm. Before they got to use it, though, the marriage fell apart.

Leigh decided to try for motherhood on her own. Her ex refused to let her use his frozen sperm, so (while mourning the loss of Our Child, the child she had envisioned) she began the search for another donor. She finally found one, a willing male friend, when she was 42, and over the next two years, embarked on a series of ARTs, including egg retrieval and freezing, fresh and frozen embryo transfers, ICSI, IUIs and various "add ons" that Leigh's doctor suggested might (might! -- or might not... "It's up to you...") improve her odds of success ("embryo glue," anyone??).  She toyed with -- and rejected -- the idea of using a donor egg. Her sister offered to carry a baby for her. The treatments took a rising toll on her physical, emotional and financial well-being, until she finally reached the point where she knew she could not continue.

Reading "Avalanche" brought back a flood of memories for me, from the endless number of carrots offered that keep fertility patients coming back for more, right down to noticing the doctor's expensive car parked outside the clinic. From an emotional perspective, it's not an easy read (although it's beautifully written), but based on my own (far more limited) ART experiences, I think it's a pretty accurate one. It's something of a cautionary tale -- but it would be worthwhile reading for anyone thinking of embarking on ARTs, as well as anyone (including family & friends) who wants to know what women go through when they attempt ARTs. People -- and I include my pre-ART self among them -- often assume that "oh well, you/we can always do fertility treatments" without realizing exactly what that is going to involve -- that it's a slippery slope, that you'll find yourself crossing lines and doing things that you never imagined existed in the first place -- and (especially) that all your time, money, pain and effort will not necessarily result in a take-home baby. The mind-numbing litany of details contained in "Avalanche" might be shocking to the uninitiated -- but they also confirm to those of us who went through it (or something like it) that yes, this IS a Very Big Deal and not something that should be entered into lightly. 

My main issue with the book, if I can call it that, is it left me wanting more. Leigh wrote the book shortly after she abandoned fertility treatments (which might account, in part, for its raw tone and vivid descriptions).  I am hoping for a sequel, or an epilogue to any future editions, because I would like to know how she is doing and how her life has unfolded since then.  (Of course, she is answering readers' questions as part of Pamela's book tour, so perhaps we'll hear something there about her life today!) 

This review is part of a book tour organized by Pamela at Silent Sorority. Here's her post with all the details and a linked list of others who are participating! 

ETA: Updated link with live reviews: http://blog.silentsorority.com/not-going-sugar-coat-failed-ivf-grief-real/

This was book #16 that I've read so far in 2016.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Right now...

Right now... (an occasional meme): 

Reading:  "Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd" by Alan Bradley -- the latest Flavia de Luce mystery. Review to come shortly!

Watching:  The new television season has begun... and not a moment too soon, lol. ;) Looking forward to the return of "Poldark" on PBS this Sunday night! :) :) :) 

Listening: I recently listened to a podcast I'd bookmarked a few weeks ago from Dawn Davenport at "Creating a Family" that talked about the childless/free option and how you make that decision. The podcast is actually a rebroadcast from 2014, and one of the speakers is Australian broadcaster & author Sheridan Voysey, who wrote a book ("Resurrection Year") about the decision he and his wife made to live childfree after infertility. I thought it was a great conversation with some really good points made -- and including that elusive male perspective, to boot! ;)

Drinking:  Tea -- my preferred caffeine fix. :)   

Eating: Baked pork chops for dinner tonight.   And cookies that I baked last weekend on a rainy Saturday.

Wearing:  Still wearing capris & sandals outside, and shorts inside -- the weather has been beautiful! (and I hope it continues for a while longer..!)  -- but I know those days are numbered... 

Loving:  Being able to sit on the sofa with the balcony doors open, with light flooding in and a bit of a breeze.

Anticipating: Older Nephew's wedding. I know I've been saying this for a while now (lol!!), but it's coming up very soon!!

Hoping: The weather holds until then (outdoor ceremony, eeek). (They do have an indoor space available, just in case!)

Following: The weather forecasts for the next two weeks. Closely. (lol)

Wondering:  When work on the townhouse site behind us is going to resume. It's been pretty quiet back there lately. (Not that I'm complaining about that...!)

Trying:  To keep my inbox weeded out on a more regular basis.

Planning: To have BIL & SIL over for dinner on Saturday night, and to invite some of our friends over once this wedding is over with. :)  We used to have people over a lot when we were first married, and then I got out of the habit. Plus the kitchen/eating area at our house was pretty small and not especially conducive to entertaining. Just having a couple of people over for coffee would put me in a tizzy! Our condo is small, but the space is more open and flexible. I find a lot (not all, but a lot, lol) of my anxiety over entertaining has dissipated, and I'm actually looking forward to having people come to visit. :)

Contemplating: Whether we can squeeze in a quick trip somewhere after the wedding (but before Christmas). We were thinking about an Atlantic Canada road trip with BIL & SIL after the wedding, but the timing is not good and so we've postponed that idea until next year.

Monday, September 19, 2016

#MicroblogMondays: It's in the bag... ;)

SIL & I, along with our dhs (brothers to each other),  spent Saturday night at the mall, shopping for the so-far elusive perfect evening bag/clutch to go with her mother-of-the-groom dress. This was our second such trip in about a week, and probably the half-dozenth since we went dress shopping last spring.  On our previous excursion, we didn't find the bags we were looking for -- but we did both find new shoes to go with our dresses. We'd actually both bought new shoes earlier this summer, but the new shoes we found matched our dresses better, fit better and were cheaper too. How could we resist?? ;)  (And note to Mali: I also found a great pair of dressy silver flip-flops to change into later for dancing, should the shoes start to chafe. Thanks for the tip!)

SIL was out of luck in the evening bag department -- but I scored. Nevermind that I already have two silver evening bags in my closet that probably would have done the job perfectly well. ;)  This one perfectly matched my new shoes. Even better, it was marked down from $34.99 to $27.99. And even better still, when I got to the cash register, it scanned in at $22.99. I also found a fabulous bling-y bracelet.

Dh & BIL watched with bemusement as we looked at and nixed one evening bag after another in store after store after store. We wanted something champagne-y, to match the underlay on SIL's lacey dress, as well as her shoes. Most of the bags we found were too gold or too silver.

"Who's going to care??" dh finally asked me, half perplexed, half exasperated. I tried to explain to him that yes, in the end, a plain black evening bag could probably suffice. But there's a certain thrill in finding the perfect accessories and perfect makeup and nail polish colours to go with the perfect dress, especially for an occasion that's as special as this one. I can't speak for SIL, but for me, knowing that I look my absolute best gives me a big boost of confidence and frees me to enjoy the evening more.

Do you agree?

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

Friday, September 16, 2016

An avalanche of opinions

You would think a cover review of not just one but two infertility-related books in the Sunday New York Times's Books section would be a good thing, right? Who wouldn't want to see their book featured in the NYT?? and at the same time, shed a spotlight in a well-read and respected publication on an often-ignored and misunderstood issue.

It's not a good thing, however, when the reviewer is as seemingly clueless about the subject and lacking in empathy as Rachel Cusk appears to be.

The Sunday New York Times Book Review of Sept. 4 featured Cusk's review of two infertility-related books. The second was a new book by Belle Boggs, "The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine and Motherhood." The bulk of the review, however, focused on "Avalanche: A Love Story" by Australian novelist/filmmaker Julia Leigh. 

I had not yet read Leigh's book when I read Cusk's review, so I was not in a place to comment on its merits or shortcomings, as a work of literature or as a representation of the infertility experience. But Cusk's review nevertheless left me -- an infertile, childless woman reader -- slack-jawed. Gob-smacked, as the Brits sometimes say. I decided that regardless of not having read the book, I needed to write about this, now. (I've since read the book -- I'll be posting about that next week -- and I got sidetracked by life over the past few days -- but I'm still sufficiently hot under the collar about the review that I decided to publish this post now anyway.)

Cusk opens her review with a rambling comparison between her creative writing students -- students wanting to be writers -- and women embarking on IVF. 
Some of them [her writing students] had been longer in pursuit of that goal than others, and for these more thwarted individuals I sometimes felt fear — that they would spend all their money and time on what would in the end prove a fruitless ambition, and more, that they had started to idealize “being a writer,” to detach it from what writing really was or ever could be.

Then I read this:
“It never occurred to me that I couldn’t have children” is a statement that crops up frequently in the literature of I.V.F. A definition of subjectivity might be the failure to see what was given, and to understand thereby the meaning of what was not. The wisdom of experience is perhaps a wisdom of givens; but how can a parent — for whom the business of having children represents an accumulation of experience so colossal that it’s almost impossible to imagine what her world would have looked like without it — understand someone locked in the moment where the original impulse to have a child occurred, a moment that to them has become almost irrelevant? All parents know is that in that moment, they knew nothing at all.  [emphasis added]
Ouch. This is the ultimate sort of Smug Mommy remark, the kind of throwaway comment ("Oh, I can't IMAGINE my life without my kids...!")  that cuts infertile women to the quick and still has the power to smart, years after treatment has been abandoned. The condescension practically drips off the page. Poor deluded crazy infertiles, obsessing over something that clearly was not Meant to Be. Thinking they know what parenthood is going to be like, when they clearly understand nothing of the sort.

When conception & pregnancy come easily, I suppose it's easy to dismiss that initial impulse/desire to have a child as "irrelevant." And I am sure all parents, in retrospect, realize how little they knew when they first set out to have a child. As I wrote recently, there's a big difference between thinking you're knowledgeable and prepared and then finding out, in the thick of things, how very little you actually know about any given situation. I was writing about infertility treatment and pregnancy loss, but it's also completely applicable to parenthood. I can understand that parents might find the naivete of prospective parents-to-be amusing.  Most of them, though, have the good grace to keep their mouths shut about it.

Leigh's assumption that she will be able to combine motherhood and a creative life also seems to raise Cusk's hackles:
...it is surprising to hear her dismiss in a couple of lines — replete, what’s more, with clich├ęs — the honorable testimony of female literary history regarding what very much is the rocket science of combining artistic endeavor with family life. Her tone reminds me of the recent blitheness of the Brex­iteers, assuring they would “find a way” to make British independence work, despite the evidence to the contrary supplied by people who knew what they were talking about.
How dare she!! Right?

"Who is to blame?" Cusk concludes (!):
If one were not interested in the question of accountability, it would be simple merely to say that I.V.F. didn’t work for Leigh and her husband. But what is most distressing about “Avalanche” is also what makes it important: It is the work of a palpably weakened author, a testimony of personal suffering whose legitimacy — on this telling — seems to have gone outrageously ­unquestioned. [emphasis added]
Wow. Just... wow.
I was not alone in my reaction to Cusk's review. "What On Earth Was The New York Times Book Review Editor Thinking?" asked fellow childless-not-by-choice blogger Pamela Tsigdinos in Medium: 
...readers and reviewers may agree or disagree on the merits of the book. Does it engage? Illuminate? In my estimation it does both. Those, however, were not the questions answered or explored in The New York Times Book Review. Rather, Ms. Cusk’s review oozed with personal judgment.
Parenting writer Elissa Strauss offered a deft critique of Cusk's review on Slate's Double X blog, calling it "a lesson in how not to write about infertility:"
Cusk’s sideways dismissal of the experience of women going through infertility treatment, the sharpest corner in a largely amorphous piece, is a great illustration of why we need more writing on the subject. The review may not be an endorsement of the books themselves, but it stands as proof as to why they are necessary. Our collective understanding of reproductive challenges is so limited, so lacking in nuance, that even the most perceptive thinkers land in hackneyed, and insensitive, terrain when exploring the subject.... 
Infertility treatment  can be physically, emotionally, financially and, sometimes, ethically trying. It can be hard to know when to start, and even harder to know when to stop. To take something this complex and reduce it to an act of myopia or selfishness is really to miss the point.
(Thank you, Ms Strauss!)  

Interestingly, Cusk's was actually the second review of Belle Boggs' book published by the Times in less than a week. The first, printed a few days earlier, was written by Jennifer Senior, author of "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood," which I reviewed here. Senior's review was much more sympathetic, albeit not entirely positive. She made a few well-considered points about how Boggs' book could have been better -- a lack of diversity, a rote rehash of certain topics. Fair enough. I would have liked to read HER review of Leigh's book.

Why not read the book(s), judge for yourself and let the rest of us know what you think? Pamela is hosting a book tour on Wednesday, Sept. 21st, where different bloggers who have read "Avalanche" will offer up their opinions -- and their questions for the author. I will be one of them :) and I hope you'll consider joining us! It's not a long book, so there is still time to participate. Check out the details on how to participate on Pamela's blog.

Pamela has already written about "Avalanche" for Huffington Post

Mali also reviewed "Avalanche" on her blog earlier this summer.