Wednesday’s Woman: Joan C. Ryan

Today’s Wednesday’s Woman is Joan Catherine Ryan, author and counselor from New Hampshire. I met her and her son, also an author, at the 2014 New England Author Expo. Michael W. Schwartz writes the Ratarra Series.

Joan is appearing Saturday, the 20 September 2014 at Barnes & Noble, Manchester, New Hampshire at 10am.

Please spend a few minutes reading some important words from this wonderful woman and her cause. Here is Joan….


Like many women, I came down with breast cancer and survived. My baby granddaughter, Zoe, came down with brain cancer and is going through a grueling recovery process. Zoe’s web site offers updates on her and provides information on wellness.

We all know that not everyone survives this disease. My son, Eric, came down with glioblastoma, an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer. He passed away, 20 April 2012. During his 41 years of life, he was an awesome demonstration of positive thinking and he led by example. He held us all to a much higher standard than we were/are comfortable with. To this day, his family members hold themselves accountable to Eric’s spirit in their daily decisions. I can think of no greater legacy.

profilepic1-300x225 Before he left us, Eric co-founded a company, studied International Relations, and served in the United States Air Force’s 52nd Fighter Wing. Although Eric was active in many areas, his chief passion was helping ‘first generation students’ – those kids who are first in their family to attend college — apply for, get accepted, and receive financial aid to attend college. He didn’t just talk the talk, he sat down with each student and guided them through the college application process, helped them produce all the necessary paperwork; he took the student on campus tours, applied for public and private scholarship monies. He also taught them how to study and learn their college courses. Eric stayed with his students as a mentor for support long after the acceptance letter.

Our family has created the Eric W. Schwartz Memorial Scholarship Fund, a $2,500 scholarship that solely goes to a first-generation student.

As Eric’s mother, it is important to me that his name, his passion and his spirit live on; that he is not forgotten. By purchasing an application or my book Scholarship Matters, A Parent’s Guide to College and Private Scholarships, you can help your own children or sponsor a student.


Please know that our entire family is grateful for all the love and support that you give, have given, us in our cancer-crisis lifestyle. You have buoyed us up beyond that which is humanly possible so that we can get through one more day with hope and confidence.

Joan’s web is here.

Home of M.W. Schwartz’s Ratarra Series.

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Wednesday’s Woman: Susan Fleet

Today’s Wednesday’s Woman is author, trumpet player, and music historian Susan Fleet. She is the author of the Detective Frank Renzi Series, two books on serial killers, and WOMEN WHO DARED: Trailblazing 20th Century Musicians. You can listen to a sample track from her Baroque Treasures for Trumpet and Organ CD here. Visit Susan’s website.

Amazon and Bookbub is offering Jackpot, Book 4 in Susan’s Renzi Series, for a limited time only. Here’s Susan…

Girl Power!

CROP-MoenDAVIS-lossHow about that Mo’en Davis! This 13-year-old girl with the blazing fastball is an inspiration to us. During the recent Little League World Series, she tossed a 2-hitter to lead the Philadelphia Taney Dragons to a 4-0 victory. She pitched the complete game, the first female pitcher to throw a shutout in Little League World Series history. Using her 70mph fastball, the five-foot-four dynamo struck out 8 batters and allowed only two hits.

Accolades from other sports women

When fitness blogger Stephanie Tuck grew up in Newton, MA, she was the only girl on her Little League team, the only girl in the league. “[Mo’en] will not only inspire other girls to play,” Stephanie says, “but she is helping to remove the ‘specialness’ of girls playing at that level. Over time people won’t be amazed that a girl is so good. They will simply be amazed that a particular [player] is so good. Gender won’t matter.”

But gender mattered at the 1999 Little League World Series. Alicia Humbolt started at second base for a team from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, but Alicia says, “One opposing coach refused to let his team play against me.”

Donna Orender, a former president of the WNBA, believes Mo’en will help to dispel the “biases we’re taught as kids about the boys’ roles and the girls’ roles.” She tells girls to pursue their dreams no matter what. “Do what you think you want to do, and do your best.” Donna helped to found Generation W, an organization that supports inspiring women and girls.

Throw like a girl?

These days that phrase takes on a whole new meaning. One woman said her 10-year-old nephew started to make a crack about “someone throws like a girl” but stopped. Not because he knew she would disapprove. He had seen Mo’en pitch in the LL World Series on television. “He thought about Davis,” the woman said, “and actually said her name.”

I wish this story ended with Mo’en and her team winning the Little League World Series. But the Taney Dragons lost their second game. Mo’en was the starting pitcher but did not finish. However, the game drew the largest TV audience for a Little League World Series game in network history, largely due to the interest in Mo’en Davis.

CROPMoen-DAVIS-littleleagueMo’en is the first Little League player ever to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but she’s modest about her success. “I never thought I would be a role model at this age, so I just have to be myself.” It’s unlikely that Mo’en will make it to the major leagues, and there are no professional women’s baseball teams. But she does have a dream. Her first goal is to play point guard for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. Then she wants to play in the WNBA. Stay tuned!

A Dynamite Golfer

RESIZOlivia-teenWclubsImagine winning the triple crown of golf; the US Open, the Masters and the world championship. That’s what Olivia Prokopova did this year in the hyper-competitive game of professional miniature golf. Most of her competitors are middle-aged men, but that doesn’t bother her. “At a tournament, it feels like we are one big family,” Olivia says. “We see each other regularly and [they] are very supportive.” Asked if they mind being beaten by a girl, Olivia said, “I have once beaten the same player in sudden-death playoff three times in a row. He was a little upset and walked away briskly, but even then, he later came back and offered his congratulations.”

A Mini-golf Professional

Most people don’t even know there are professional mini-golf players. But 19-year old Olivia is a celebrity in her native Czech Republic. The subject of a book and a documentary, she has corporate sponsors and her own website. People all over the world play mini-golf for fun, but professional courses are far more difficult. They feature a series of AstroTurf putting greens, with variations in elevation and pitch. Skill is more important than luck. Players must sink their shots in one or two strokes per hole.

This is where Olivia excels. She won the 2013 World Crazy Golf Championship in Hastings, Scotland, by a margin of 21 strokes. “There’s no fear in her,” says Rick Alessi, 57, who will compete against Olivia in the 2014 US Open Miniature Golf Tournament. “She just loves the game.”

A Prodigy

Olivia began playing mini-golf at the age of three. “My dad worked as a sports reporter and he took me with him to an interview he did with a mini-golf trainer. I tried to play and really liked it. I kept asking when we could go back to play more.” She was seven when she played her first US tournament.

“It was amazing,” she said. “All the other players would stand around me and cheer, some of them screaming and jumping in the air.”

She travels with her parents, her brother, and Ales Vik, an employee of her father’s miniature golf course-building company in the Czech Republic. Olivia speaks only basic English. Her father, Jan Prokop, speaks no English at all, so an interpreter translates for her at press interviews. But sometimes it gets lonely. “Because I play all the time, I don’t have many friends, but I like the players here. They are like my second family.”

Prizes in miniature golf are nothing like those in the “big” golf world. Adam Scott took home $1.4 million for winning the Masters. The Minigolf Masters has a total prize fund of $12,000. Although the entry fees are not high, Olivia and her family have large travel expenses. Fees from exhibitions and corporate sponsors help to pay them.

For Olivia, mini-golf is a full-time job. Six days a week she practices 8 to 12 hours a day, and has already undergone operations on one wrist and both knees. On Wednesdays, she does schoolwork from 3 to 8PM.

Despite her celebrity, Olivia is modest. “I haven’t got any talent, I just practice every day.” To explain, she punches words into Google Translate, then reads aloud what appears on her cellphone. “Diligence.” Asked if she has a dream, she says, “We have challenged Tiger Woods on several occasions, mainly through the media, but he never responded. Maybe he is afraid?” she joked.

Two other girls dared to follow their dream

RESIZ-Edna-Maud-age7Trumpeter Edna White and violinist Maud Powell thrilled millions of listeners at a time when most women stayed home to raise a family. Read more about them in WOMEN WHO DARED: Trailblazing 20th Century Musicians.

Frank Renzi

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World War I: The Unspoken Legacy

The traditional interpretation of the Great War’s ending is to examine how the map of Europe changed after all the carnage. The Austria-Hungarian Empire broke into the two discrete nations of Austria and Hungary; at the same time, two other nations were formed, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. That other empire, the Ottoman, ceded their lands in Asia but kept a presence in Europe as Turkey. Poland, long a playground of the Austrian-Hungarians, Germany, and Russia, was reconstituted. The new lands of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania came out of Russia. The history lesson often closes with how the terms of the Treaty of Versailles for Germany seeded the rise of Adolph Hitler. There is another haunting, much less discussed consequence of the First World War, an unspoken legacy, which is the violent and volatile situation in the Middle East.

Step back for a moment, back before the war, to 1907. Leaders from around the British Commonwealth met in London for a conference to discuss the status of self-governing British colonies. The London Colonial Conference would confer dominion status to the colonies, but not before expressing concerns about an Arab threat to British imperialism and Europe. The report and its recommendations to Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman are chilling:

To promote disintegration, division, and separation in the region.

To establish artificial political entities that would be under the authority of the imperialist countries.

To fight any kind of unity—whether intellectual, religious or historical—and take practical measures to divide the region’s inhabitants.

To achieve this, it was proposed that a “buffer state” be established in Palestine, populated by a strong, foreign presence that would be hostile to its neighbors and friendly to European countries and their interests.

Move forward in time: Arthur James Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, declared his support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the area known as Palestine, an area of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The month: November. The year: 1917. The problem: the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, had already entered into an agreement with the Sharif of Mecca, Husayn bin Ali, through a series of letters written in the years 1915 and 1916 in which McMahon promised lands in exchange for Arab support against the Turks, a German ally. T.E. Lawrence, embedded amongst the Arabs, shaped Arab dissent against the Turks.

Balfour and McMahon were not examples of one hand not knowing what the other hand was doing. The Balfour Declaration was addressed to Lord Rothschild, intended to solicit his support (he bankrolled British work in the Suez area of Egypt), the support of British Jews and their American relations. The United States entered the conflict in April of 1917. British diplomacy did not end there. In 1916, Britain brokered the Sykes-Picot Agreement with…the French, with Russia’s approval, to divide Arab lands with the Ottoman Empire into provinces ruled by Great Britain and France. The gentlemen’s agreement was being discussed at the same time McMahon was writing and receiving letters from Sharif. The unexpected Russian Revolution of October 1917 provided another unexpected result: the Bolsheviks exposed the duplicity. The Arabs voiced their displeasure. T.E. Lawrence, instrumental in the Arab Revolt against the Turks in 1916, voiced his own displeasure with his superiors in London: The Home Office had compromised his reputation with his Arab allies.

The Sykes-Picot division was such that British took land (southern Iraq) and, more importantly, access to the Mediterranean (Jordan, the Jordan River). The agreement would establish the British Mandate, a set period of time after which the British would vacate the land. The French took a part of southern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon; they, too, established their own mandate, the French Mandate. Russia would get Istanbul and the Turkish straits. The Arabs, who had helped the British, were left outside the tent. Of the two Mandates, the French Mandate expired first, but not before the French established the “confessional” model of government in Lebanon. In short, positions in the government’s cabinet were decided along religious lines, thereby seeding sectarian discord and violence. Lebanon would become the smoldering matchstick in the haystack.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau managed to do some clever footwork to negate the Hussein–McMahon agreement. Letters between men of honor meant nothing. It would seem that the Balfour Declaration would come back to haunt the British, or was the duplicity part of a greater plan? The League of Nations backed the British Mandate in 1922 and 1923 respectively. Throughout the 1930s, both Arab and Jewish nationalism fermented: the British would quash the Arab Revolts of 1936-1939. The British Mandate was set to expire in 1948. The British administered Palestine, west of the Jordan River, and ceded the land east of the river to Hussein bin Ali for his help against the Turks with T.E. Lawrence. The British in effect had both sides of the river. The eastern side would become independent in 1946.

In the eleventh hour of 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine before the British Mandate expired. The UN resolution, in addition to spelling out the details of the British departure, recommended independent Arab and Jewish states. The emphasis is on two independent ethnic states. The majority of Jewish leaders accepted it. Arab leaders, for the most part, rejected it because it violated the UN’s own charter for national self-determination. The General Assembly approved the resolution. At midnight, in the last minutes of 1947, the British terminated the Mandate, and the UN recognized the State of Israel. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria attacked Israel. The result is the 1948 Arab-Israeli Civil War. The flood of refugees from the conflict has not stopped since.

Its colonial empire in the ether, the British kept a presence in the Middle East until they surrendered the Suez Canal in 1954. The financing of the Canal was another feast, another opportunity for foreign investors. There is no doubt that the discovery and documentation of the horrific magnitude of the Holocaust added to the urgency for an ethnic Israeli state, but the debacle had begun with colonial imperialism and politics, with opportunities while the world was at war, 1914-1918.

The Number One recipient of defense aid from the U.S. is Israel, and not far behind is Lebanon.

Odd bedfellows: the haystack and the match.

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Wednesday’s Woman: Yvonne deSousa

Meet Wednesday’s Woman: Yvonne deSousa. I met the irrepressible Yvonne at the 2014 New England Author Expo.  I invited her here to introduce herself and her book on living with MS. says: “In the US, the number of people with MS is estimated to be about 400,000, with approximately 10,000 new cases diagnosed every year (that’s 200 new cases per week).”

What’s so Funny about Chronic Illness?

One day four years ago I got myself up and headed to work where I was expecting it to be pretty busy. No big deal, of course, we all have busy days at work and I was prepared for it. My legs had been tingly and numb for the last several weeks and so I was shuffling around my office like a drunken sailor. But I could still function. And I happened to like drunken sailors so it was all good.  Then I received a somewhat unexpected call from my doctor who told me to leave work and get to a hospital two hours away immediately as my recent test results showed I had multiple sclerosis. The head of neurology at that particular hospital was waiting there to save me. Oh, and I should be prepared to stay in the hospital for several days.

Did I mention that this all took place one week before Christmas?

Shocked, I managed to do what I was told but I was in automatic pilot mode. Actually, automatic co-pilot mode as I was able to reach my little brother who drove me to the hospital. Once there, I met the aforementioned head of neurology who issued this informative declaration- “I’m not going to lie to you, MS sucks.”

Sucks???? That’s the best this well studied doctor could come up with? I could pretty much guess that myself and I didn’t even go to medical school.

Luckily, I didn’t have to stay at the hospital and as my brother walked me out of the building two hours later he desperately tried to cheer me up. In so doing, he said something that would change my life for the better in the aftermath of this terrifying news.

“You know, you could totally get one of those handicapped-parking plates now….”

I couldn’t believe it. Yes, technically a handicapped parking plate could be a small bonus to this sucky news but seriously, I was overwhelmed. I had just been told I had a chronic, debilitating, no known cure disease of the central nervous system. And Christmas was in just a few days. Parking was the last thing on my mind and I told him so. He responded, “Seriously, if you don’t want to use it right away you could let me borrow it.”

It was then that I doubled over, with laughter. You see, this brother of mine was a semi-pro dirt bike rider who drove a huge Ford F150 pickup truck with two dirt bikes in the bed. I pictured this monstrosity of a vehicle backing into a handicapped spot and I couldn’t help myself. The laughing just hit and I couldn’t stop, even losing my breath a bit.  Weird thing was, when I stood up and got myself together I realized I felt better.  It was as if my little bout of mirth released a spat of feel good emotions that helped beat up on the not so feel good emotions I was battling. It was a realization that would stay with me in the days to follow.

Sure, I would get a little upset when I started to process the diagnosis and the changes it would mean in my life. (I now had to give myself shots – yes shots, three times a week!   And the shots were made from, I’m not kidding here, Chinese hamster ovary cells. How does that happen? What was wrong with the Portuguese hamster’s brain cells or the Italian hamster’s liver cells? And why hamsters? Did the scientists even try goldfish or guinea pigs or any other pets?) But more than angry, I would become frustrated. Here are some of the chronic illness frustrations that well, basically, sucked.

One of the most dreadful MS symptoms, a vise like squeezing of the abdomen, is called a hug. Who thought THAT name was a good idea?

Stress is very, very bad for chronic illness. If you have a chronic illness, don’t get stressed. But what is more stressful than being told you have a chronic illness?

Overactive bladder is a symptom of MS. To treat it, you can take medication. The medication however causes the most vicious dry mouth known to man. To treat that, you must drink more water which will negate the benefits of the medication. (I was trying to work through this frustration as I moved my pillow and TV into the bathroom.)

Before I knew it, my life with MS found me in the midst of a series of bizarre and frustrating adventures. It was immediately apparent that if I was going to keep what little sanity I had while dealing with the insanity that is life with a chronic illness, I was going to have to use my sense of humor.  And like that, I was surviving an MS diagnosis. No, scratch that. I was thriving through an MS diagnosis! And giggling. And before long, I started writing too.

The result is MS Madness! A “Giggle More, Cry Less” Story of Multiple Sclerosis.   It details the journey of my accepting MS and the wacky adventures that followed.  Adventures such as: becoming a secret agent to pay for my new drugs, experimenting with legal speed, “accidentally” kicking an annoying male doctor in the crotch, getting married in a grocery store, shouting the F-bomb in my church parking lot just as Mass was starting and many more.

MS happened to be the suckiness that I was dealing with. But don’t we all have a little suckiness in our lives? The goal of MS Madness! is to show everyone that with a strong sense of humor, you can survive almost anything.

cover-halfI like to think of my book as the story of what would have happened had Bridget Jones been diagnosed with MS. Except I don’t wind up with Colin Firth in the end.

Not yet anyway…

MS Madness is @ Amazon in Print or Kindle

MS Madness is @ Barnes & Noble in Print or Nook

In addition to her book, MS Madness! A “Giggle More, Cry Less” Story of Multiple Sclerosis, Yvonne deSousa also writes a weekly blog on her website,, where she continues to use a giggle stick to beat up on chronic illness.

Yvonne is on Facebook. On Twitter with the handle @YvonnedeSousa

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World War I: The Enduring Cost

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

The statement is from Siegfried “Mad Jack” Sassoon. His declaration of war against War is as concise as Lincoln’s commemoration at Gettysburg: Sassoon’s 235 words to Lincoln’s 272. The quote is given in full because its accusation is relevant today, almost one hundred years after it appeared in The Times on 31 July 1917. Then and now, war is the parlor game of hawks, who themselves have skirted military obligation through connections and wealth. Politicians create it, perpetuate it, and regular, ordinary people die in it.

Sassoon, a highly decorated officer, had seen Death in the trenches. His brother Hamo had died at Gallipoli in 1915, a military catastrophe that should have ended Churchill’s career. Sassoon’s near-suicidal acts of bravery were legendary among the men in the 3rd Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The tipping point, however, came in March of 1916 when a close friend of his in the Battalion, David Thomas, had been shot in the throat. Thomas walked in from No Man’s Land to the first-aid station and choked to death on his own blood. His death would haunt Sassoon for the rest of his life.

Sassoon would have been court-martialed for that letter had it not been for the intercession of poet and comrade-in-arms Robert Graves, who pled for clemency before the Review Board. Sassoon had not only criticized the war and the politicians; he had refused to serve. Graves would convince the authorities that Sassoon should not be prosecuted for treason because he suffered from neurasthenia, the convoluted term of the day for ‘shell shock.’ In a word, Sassoon was out of his head and could not be held accountable for his actions or words. Sassoon was shipped off to the military hospital at Craiglockhart in Scotland, where he underwent psychoanalysis with psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers. Other treatments for ‘shell shock’ at the time included physical exercise, hot and cold baths, and shock therapy. While at Craiglockhart, Sassoon mentored Wilfred Owen. Sense of perspective: the United States had entered the war in April 1917, Owen died in April of 1918, and Sassoon would later enter politics, find religion, and die in 1967. Pat Barker would fictionalize Sassoon’s convalescence in the novel (and later movie) Regeneration.

Shell shock, war weariness, battle fatigue are all locutions for what we now call PTSD. Neurasthenia was the term applied to officers, whereas the enlisted men were dismissed as slackers, or worse: hysterics. Nerves and nervousness were psychosomatic conditions associated with women, although we now know that artillery explosions can cause neurological damage, and alter behavior. In 1917, “shell shock” would disappear from the literature. Another euphemism appeared: NYDN, or Not Yet Diagnosed Nervous, which the men called, Not Yet Dead Nearly.

Then and now, the emotional fallout of war is not to be discussed because it is unmanly, less than dutiful, a badge of shame. In 1943, General Patton slapped Pvt. Charles H. Kuhl for saying, “I guess I can’t take it.” Patton could not understand why the soldier was there in the hospital since he had no visible wounds. Patton slapped him, yes, but what had not been mentioned at the time to the public was that Patton had drawn his revolver and shoved it in the young man’s face. A detailed report of the incident went to General Omar Bradley, who locked it up in his safe and did nothing. The incident made news only after a doctor on the scene sent a report to Eisenhower’s surgeon general, Brigadier General Frederick A. Blessé. Eisenhower scorched Patton and exiled him to Sicily.

While that detail is from another time and another war, the culture of hierarchy, of testosterone-addled machismo remained — still remains — albeit the military claims to acknowledge PTSD — treat it, and trains troops to prevent it in training. Today, numerous organizations, either government-sponsored or veteran-founded, help veterans deal with PTSD. Organizations such as The Wounded Warrior Project, The Heroes Project and Team Rubicon have generated public awareness about PTSD and assisted veterans with re-entry into society.

However, the men who seek help are often stigmatized. Charles Durning, Lee Marvin, Audie Murphy, Louis Hayward – these are all veterans from WW II who suffered horribly from PTSD in silence. They and others would suffer from alcoholism, depression, nightmares, inexplicable bouts of rage, and survivor’s guilt. Hayward might not be a familiar name to most readers. Louis Hayward, a Marine captain, supervised the photography corps during the amphibious assault on Tarawa in 1943. For four sleepless days, he endured artillery fire, avoided sniper fire, and engaged in hand-to-hand combat, while documenting the slaughter of six thousand men. He quietly came home a shattered man. His marriage to Ida Lupino crumbled.

Sassoon had dared to question the insanity of his day, only to be labeled temporarily insane. Perhaps Sassoon the poet had glimpsed the tribal truth: that humans like to kill each other, but can neither acknowledge this instinct nor sustain it. Deep down human beings seem to know that to kill is wrong and endless slaughter will only make the mind and body break and rebel. The fact remains, however, that that those in the echelons of power above or those in the society below do not want to know that, despite all the rhetoric about patriotism and sacrifice, blood is thirst and it must be shed. War might be Hell, uncivilized, but it is also the mark of Cain, then and now.

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Wednesday’s Woman: A Voice from the North

2014 is the centenary of Tove Jansson’s birth, and Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum is celebrating her art and life with an exhibition that runs until this September, when her drawings and paintings will be on exhibit in Japan. A biography of Jansson by Boel Westin in English appeared in January and the New York Review Books will release an anthology of her writings in October 2014, which will coincide with the release of an animated feature film Moomins on the Riviera in her native Finland.

Although born in Helsinki on 9 August 1914, Tove Jansson belonged to the minority Swedish-speaking population of Finland and therefore wrote in Swedish. Born into an upper-class family, young Tove was well educated — she studied art in Helsinki, Stockholm, Paris, and Rome — before World War II altered her life and, probably, her psyche. Finland faced direct Soviet aggression in The Winter War of 1939-1940 when temperatures dropped to negative double digits, in what was truly a heroic David and Goliath fight. After two massive invasions, Finland ceded land to the Russians. The loss of the lands in Karelia and the subsequent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Finns haunted the people of Finland. With Allied support nominal and lacking, the Finns allowed the passage of Hitler’s troops to engage the Soviets in Operation Barbarossa. While Finnish President Risto Ryti declared war on Russia he did not formally ally his nation with Hitler. The Finns, who did not accept Nazi ideology or anti-Semitism, would call the remainder of the conflict the Continuation War. The psychological anxiety should not be underestimated.

Tove Jansson, a painter of landscapes and still life, drew humorous and endearing magical creatures in a fictitious hardy Finnish landscape of lakes, rocks, sea, and valleys. As the brutal and nerve-wracking war boomed in the background, with Tove’s brothers in the army, she drew her Moomins. In her first two Moomin books, The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945) and Comet in Moominland shortly afterwards, catastrophe lingers overhead, as her displaced creations try to find stability and relish the pleasures of a simple life. Finn Family Moomintroll, translated into English in 1951, would catapult her career into the international spotlight, leading to an offer to provide a Moomin comic strip to a British newspaper, which in turn led to syndication and millions of Moomin fans worldwide.

The hippo-like Moomin is to Finland what Harry Potter is to fans today. Moominmania, however, never took hold in the United States. Established and fortified by her Moomin success, Tove Jansson would spend the rest of her life drawing, painting, and creating sculptures in her studio on a small island in the Finnish archipelago of the Åland islands. Tove created more picture books, wrote some adult fiction, and produced public works throughout Finland. She illustrated all her own books, Swedish translations of The Hobbit and other titles. Her Moomins would inspire films, operas, and plays. Characters like Moominmamma and Moominpappa, Sniff, Snufkin, and the Snork Maiden became household names, a vivid part of childhood memories for generations of British and Scandinavian children.

In 1956, she met her lifelong partner Tuulikki Pietilä, herself an artist and a Finnish-American. They would collaborate on artistic projects. Homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971; it was decriminalized in 1999, so Tove either lived in the closet, or saw no need to make a public statement. She lived her life with a reverence for the landscape and with love for her family and friends. Jansson would write Tuulikki into the Moomin family as the character Too-ticky. JoSelle Vanderhooft makes an argument that Tove’s sexuality influenced her Moomin oeuvre in that there are no gender expectations or societal structures in the Moomin world, only openness and interpersonal harmony.

Tove Jansson died in 2001 at the age of 86. Finland considers her a national treasure. Tuulikki Pietilä died eight years later.

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Good To Be The Ghoul: The Werewolf

Of all the creatures in horror films and literature, the werewolf seems to be the least glamorous, the least sexy and threatening. Unlike vampires, witches, or zombies, his identity is not fixed. Even among shape-shifters, the wolf is but a choice among many options. The explanation for poor lupine self-esteem could be that the werewolf is a temporary state: a few hours of madness, always at night, and always associated with the full moon. Let’s face it: the werewolf is a boring guy in need of a PR makeover.

He — the werewolf, who until recently had been exclusively male — is no vampire who charms his victims with an accent, turns into a bat, or terrorizes them with incisors. Until the 1981 movie The Howling, the werewolf had no sex life or tribe. He was the loner, a situation that could be attributed in great part to nineteenth-century Romanticism. He is no possessor of spells and incantations, no conductor between worlds like witches. He — again, only male until recently in film and literature — isn’t even interested in, or capable of, turning others into a werewolf. He is rather poor at self-promotion. The werewolf is, in short, a somewhat tragic figure, lone wolf jokes aside. He is milquetoast Larry Talbot or angst-ridden Oz of Buffy fame most days of the month until that pesky full moon rises and brings out his canine side. The werewolf is a cursed figure.

As banal as it sounds, the werewolf represents the instinctive and animal part within us. Men are dogs. There is also that midlife crisis, from which women are either immune or far cleverer at hiding. The lunar cycle gets it shade of lore here, too, from controlling ocean tides, hormones, and being the cause of irrational behavior. Are not these transformations of man into the wolf possible metaphors for puberty, midlife crises, or, in the case of women, for menopause? Lon Chaney’s metamorphosis is quaint when compared to the harrowing scene in American Werewolf in London. Nobody I know who saw that in the theatre the first time ever forgot that scene; but even then, that movie was laced with dark humor. Dracula yawns, as if the werewolf is nothing more than a distant cousin of Fido on a bad day.

The curious thing about werewolves is that their pedigree starts in the ancient world as incidental creatures, disappears well into the late medieval era, and then reappears as if two breeds of werewolf had developed in Germany and Eastern Europe. The persecutions of werewolves and witches have had a lot in common. I suspect that this is the case because trying animals was common in Medieval Europe. Witches have animals for familiars and there was a spate of animal attacks in certain parts of Europe. It was a terrible time for animals. Animal trials were business as usual in Medieval Europe. A horse, for example, could be found guilty of kicking a human to death and then executed in one of those splendid auto-da-fé Michel Foucault loved so much. In the few incidents in which a person was accused of being a werewolf, there was cannibalism and the suggestion (in hindsight to us moderns) that the accused might have been a serial killer.

The werewolf legend does, however, have a lighter and more rational dimension to it. Remember Romulus and Remus, the two babes, who founded Rome? They were suckled by a she-wolf. In today’s world, it is not uncommon to hear about animals that protect and nurture a human baby, or cross the species line and care for an orphan. We shouldn’t anthropomorphize, but there are times when animals demonstrate far more compassion than bipeds. The wolf is the totem animal of Rome in Italy. Fun fact: in Latin, “lupa” means prostitute. The Romans had the Lupercalia celebration every February to honor shepherds and the god of the forest, Pan, in front of the cave where Romulus and Remus were suckled. Celebrants wore wolf pelts and festivities were known to get kinky.

There are many Germanic names that include the “wolf/wulf” stem (think Beowulf), but there is a richer and seldom discussed werewolf tradition in Scandinavian literature, namely in saga literature. The Vikings seen in the amusing “What is in your wallet?” commercials are berserkers. These men were fierce and feared and called the Úlfhednar, or wolf-men. More like a Scandinavian version of Special Forces, these warriors were dedicated to Odin and they went into battle wearing wolf pelts, known to “hamask” or change form, which meant they became ferocious as a pack of wolves. They are not romantic, tragic figures; they were formidable fighters. Pure testosterone. We have Nordic noir, and we may have Nordic wolf literature in the future, but the precedents are there in the saga literature of the past.

Teen Wolf enters its fourth season on MTV Monday nights. Unlike the Michael J. Fox version in the eighties, this Teen Wolf is not a howler; it has received critical praise.

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