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Book News: Barbara Mertz, Mystery Novelist Of Many Names, Dies

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • The Egyptologist and wildly prolific writer Barbara Mertz died Thursday morning, her publisher tells NPR. She was 85. A formidable scholar with a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago, she wrote works of history under her own name, and dozens of mystery novels as Barbara Michaels. But perhaps her most lasting identity will be Elizabeth Peters, the author of over 30 novels about the adventures of Amelia Peabody, Egyptologist and Victorian-era amateur detective who wielded her parasol as a deadly weapon. Dominick Abel, her agent of 35 years, wrote in a statement emailed to NPR: "A skilled novelist with an acute sense of character and humor, Barbara prized honesty above all, in life as well as literature. Barbara was passionate about many things — Egypt, literature, gardening, cats, politics, family, gin. She was one of the most interesting people I have ever known. I will miss her."
  • Margaret Eby of New York's Daily News delves into the strange history of writer Flannery O'Connor's pet peacocks: "When she was five years old, she taught a pair of chickens to walk backwards, attracting the attention of Britain's Pathe news. Over her life, she cared for ducks, swans, and guinea hens, but the peacocks became her crowning achievement. From the peahen and peacock pair that she purchased by mail order in 1952 flourished a cackling crowd of peafowl. They snacked on the fig trees out back, pecked at the roses, and trailed their long, dazzling tails through the red Georgia dirt."
  • The Virgins author Pamela Erens writes about her love of Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist of Middlemarch, for The Paris Review Daily: "It can be embarrassing to love Dorothea in this day and age. It's like loving Saint Theresa, the gruesomely self-mortifying sixteenth-century saint to whom Dorothea is compared in the novel's introduction and conclusion, or Patient Griselda."
  • At Slate, Emily Yoffe, aka "Dear Prudence," the advice columnist (and perpetual voice in my head), describes how she blew her chance to become the fifth Mrs. Saul Bellow: "One morning that fall, my alarm clock woke me up to the news on NPR that Saul Bellow had married for a fifth time. His new wife was 31. I lay there in the gloom facing the brutal truth: I was too old for Saul Bellow."
  • Random House will publish a version of the commencement speech Tenth of December that author George Saunders gave at Syracuse University this year. The book will be called Congratulations, by the Way. The speech went viral after The New York Times posted the text online. Saunders said, "What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded ... sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly."
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    Annalisa Quinn
    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.
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