Review: The Last Suttee

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Madhu Bazaz Wangu. CreateSpace IPP, $15, 356p. ISBN 9781974362462.

After years of research and teaching of Hindu and Buddhist art history and culture, author Madhu Bazaz Wangu presents her second novel, The Last Suttee. Through the story of Kumud, a woman director of a girl’s orphanage in India, Wangu tells a story of how just one single, driven female can change an entire community’s perspective on an established way of life.

Wangu draws her tale from the ancient Indian custom of sati, a practice which historically lead a widow to throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre in order to remain a “chaste woman,” literally, a “good wife,” even in her husband’s death. Wangu uses inspiration from the popular case of Roop Kanwar, an eighteen-year old girl whose decision of sati led to official legislation against sati. While fighting personal struggles within herself, Kumud proves to be a heroine by effectively preventing a young girl’s own sati.

The Last Suttee reads to show Wangu’s obviously extensive research into not only the custom of sati, but also the everyday customs and ancient folklore surrounding the Indian culture. The novel opens with an issue of dowry, and continues with insight into popular female overlook and condemnation. Wangu has the gift of setting, and expertly keeps her stage well-described and easily imaginable for the reader.

A powerful and relevant tale of liberation from a devotional but debilitating custom, The Last Suttee is an excellent representation of how the Hindu female population has found strength to grow against a binding and deathly tradition.


From the author: Why I Wrote The Last Suttee

On the morning of September 5, 1987, I was going through the Hillman Library card catalogue at the University of Pittsburgh when a friend stopped by. She told me something I would never forget. She said that an eighteen-year-old Indian woman, named Roop Kanwar, had immolated herself on the pyre of her dead husband. I was dumbfounded. Suttee in the twentieth century? It couldn’t be. But The New York Times confirmed the news. The ritual, known as suttee, was witnessed by the townspeople and thousands more came to see it from nearby villages and towns. When the news was leaked the following day, the town was swarmed for days by Indian and international journalists. I was stunned and speechless, my legs laden with lead. At that frozen moment, the seed for this book was planted.

The kernel stayed dormant, but the incident continued to sear like a wound at the back of my mind. The distress was raw, but I was not yet emotionally ready to write about what had happened and how it had affected me. In the ensuing years, I trawled libraries, bookstores, and the Internet, learning about the history of suttee and the cultural and religious traditions in which it is rooted. I studied records of the shrines dedicated to women who had committed suttee. I read the history and mythology of the namesake goddess, spelled Sati. Critically and carefully I analyzed the photographs of Sati temples and studied the engravings, drawings, and paintings of the goddess Sati and the suttee ritual that had been made by British, European, and Indian artists and travelers.

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Suttee is a centuries-old Hindu ritual. This ancient belief still persists in some remote corners in India. The belief is if a widow cremates herself with her dead husband, the couple will live in heaven as they did on earth. Furthermore, such a sacrifice guarantees a place in heaven for seven generations for both sides of the family.The ritual is rooted in the myths of two goddesses: Sati, Shiva’s wife, and Sita, Rama’s wife. Here are summaries of the myths:

Goddess Sati is the daughter of the high priest Daksha. Shiva, the world renouncer, is so awed by her yogic skills and asceticism that he grants her a boon. Sati asks to marry him. He agrees. Daksha dislikes Shiva. He finds Shiva unconventional and unkempt. Despite her father’s opposition Sati marries Shiva and they live in his mountain abode in Himalayas. 

Daksha plans a great sacrifice. He invites all the important divine beings, except Shiva. Sati feels disgraced by the way in which her father has treated her husband. On the day of the great sacrifice, she throws herself in the fire pit meant for the sacrifice. And burns herself to death. When Shiva discovers what has happened to his wife, he is outraged. He pulls out Sati’s half-burnt body, holds it on his shoulders, and in anguish and lamentations whirls around the world. 

Goddess Sita is an ideal Hindu wife. Her husband, Rama, is the center of her life. His welfare, reputation, and wishes are most important to her. One day, the demon king Ravana abducts her and takes her to his golden palace. He lies to her that he has killed Rama. Sita is horrified. She moans and tells him that it must have been her fault that her husband was killed. She warns Ravana she could burn him to ashes with the fire of her chastity, but she won’t because she did not have her husband’s permission. 

In the end, Rama defeats Ravana and brings Sita home. There he severely tests her loyalty because she has spent days under the control of another man. Sita is shocked at such an accusation. She protests her innocence. She says she has remained wholly devoted and completely faithful to him. Rama persists. 

Grieved by his false accusation, Sita asks for a funeral pyre to prove her innocence. A pyre is built, and Sita stands atop it with hands folded. Agni, the god of fire, refuses to harm her because she is innocent and pure. She returns to Rama unscathed. Yet he banishes her to a forest. 

Sati and Sita are faithful and chaste wives, and they are devoted to their husbands. The lives of these goddesses are defined by their husbands. Although their dedication and chastity are exemplary, they pay a heavy price for being wives. In both myths, fire plays an important role. Whereas Sati voluntarily kills herself, Sita is saved by Agni. Their god/husbands are alive when the women jump into the sacrificial pit or on the funeral pyre. But ordinary women’s lives are no myths. When a woman is forced into being a suttee, neither her husband nor the god of fire will save her.

The suttee ritual was outlawed by British Raj in 1829. The ritual was described as “heinous rite” when cases surfaced about widows being tied to their husband’s pyre even after being intoxicated with bhang or opium. Many reports of widows escaping and being rescued by strangers were also recorded. Still, more than a century later, scattered instances of the custom have been reported, such as Savitri Soni’s in 1973 and Charan Shah’s in 1999.

The most notorious and controversial case, however, was of Roop Kanwar. Indian people either publicly defended Roop’s action or declared that she had been murdered. Following the outcry that followed Roop Kanwar’s suttee, the government of India enacted the Rajasthan Sati Prevention Ordinance on October 1, 1987. The law makes it not only illegal to commit suttee but also illegal to glorify the ritual or coerce a woman to commit suttee. Glorification includes erecting a shrine to honor the dead woman or converting the place where immolation took place into a pilgrimage site. Derivation of any income from such activities is also banned. The law makes no distinction between a passive observer and an active promoter. Everyone is held equally guilty.

The seed for writing a book inspired by Roop Kanwar’s suttee finally sprouted in November 2009, when I wrote its first draft as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a nonprofit internet organization that supports writers in an effort to complete the initial draft of a novel in one month.

It would take me seven more years to finalize the draft.

The story continued to incubate. I developed the characters, sketched the settings, wrote the narrative and dialogue. But to birth a healthy novel and bring it to life, I had to experience the environment in which Roop Kanwar was born, lived, and died. I needed to converse with the people who allowed it to happen. I wanted to know the antagonist and protagonist’s viewpoints.

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I visited India for a month in 2013 for that purpose. I went to the small towns of Deorala, where Roop Kanwar committed suttee, and Jhunjhunu, home of an imposing marble temple dedicated to faithful women who sacrifice their young lives immediately after their husbands’ deaths. The visit stirred feelings of remorse and wonder. Why did people celebrate sacrificial death? How does blind faith hide behind the stunning structure? Domestic and temple architecture, middle and high schools, ancient mansions with bedroom walls made of mirror-mosaics (some now converted to five-star hotels) were breathtakingly beautiful. The local flora and fauna were intriguing, and men and women’s attire colorful. I fell in love with the place. But I wasn’t there as a tourist. I was there to fulfill a quest, to do something about an event that jolted the core of my being.

Meeting with the people of Deorala opened my mind to the fact that a community’s worldview can be so different from my own. Yet my sorrow and awe about Roop Kanwar and my feelings about other widows like her were not alleviated by talking to Roop’s father-in-law, her brother-in-law and his wife, or their neighbors. Nor did I blame them after visiting her neglected and unkempt suttee site. However, the visit helped me better understand the point of view of the town residents. A magnificent temple dedicated to the goddess Sati, which locals honor and regard highly, further clarified their worldview.

My interview with Roop Kanwar’s father-in-law took place in the verandah outside the room where Roop lived with her husband. This was the room where she dressed herself in bridal attire and decked herself in jewelry before following her husband’s dead body to the cremation site. The room has been turned into a shrine, and Roop has become an ishtadevi, a manifestation of Narayani Satimata, a local goddess higher in the pantheon of the thousands of village goddesses of India.

When I asked to go to where Roop performed suttee, her father-in-law declined to walk along, but he did ask other men to take me there. I treaded the path that evidently Roop Kanwar, most probably intoxicated with bhang, walked with the help of two women. They followed her husband’s litter, which four male relatives carried. I was told a lamenting crowd of men, women, and children followed the dead body and Roop as they headed toward her husband’s funeral pyre.

Facing the desolate ground where the ritual had taken place twenty-six years earlier, I shed tears of pain for an eighteen-year-old who didn’t know better, and who no one came to rescue.

The characters in this novel are fictional, but the setting is historic. Writing it does not feel like redemption, for I still ache for the women of the world who are engulfed in outmoded traditions, who are uneducated and dependent. Women with so much potential to offer their families, their communities, and, most importantly, to themselves.

Undoubtedly, the world over, women have made tremendous progress. Yet, the path to elevating women’s social status has many roadblocks, and the process is slow. I sincerely hope The Last Suttee not only helps remove a block or two but also adds substance to the process of change.


About Madhu Bazaz Wangu

Madhu Bazaz Wangu is an author, artist, world-traveler, and the founder of the Mindful Writers Group. She was a professor of arts and religions of India before becoming a full-time writer. She has a doctorate in the Phenomenology of Religions from the University of Pittsburgh, and a post-doctoral fellowship from the Harvard University. Over twenty-five years, Wangu has taught at the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham College in Pennsylvania, Wellesley and Wheaton Colleges in Massachusetts, and Rhode Island College.

In 1997, Dr. Wangu voyaged around the world with students and faculty members from various American universities for the Semester-at-Sea program. She loved the experience so much, that each year she has been revisiting places of historical significance in different countries, observing the cultures, meeting the people, and enjoying their cuisine.

In 2010, Dr. Wangu founded the Mindful Writers Group, and in 2015, she started a second group. Dr. Wangu encourages writers of all levels and genres to delve deeper in their work by body-mind-heart meditation. Her album, Meditations for Mindful Writers, was released in 2011. Dr. Wangu also guides writers in meditation and writing marathons. Twice each year, Mindful Writers Groups gather for writing retreats where groups practice sitting and walking meditations surrounded by nature in-between long writing sessions.

Madhu B. Wangu has published four books and numerous essays on Hindu and Buddhist goddesses and Indian religions. She has held five one-person art exhibitions in India and the US. Her collection, Chance Meetings: Stories About Cross-Cultural Collisions and Compassion, was published in 2015, and her debut novel, The Immigrant Wife: Her Spiritual Journey, was published in 2016. Currently, Dr. Wangu is writing a guidebook for mindful writing.

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Now available!
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“A stunning story of one woman’s struggle to stop the ritual of suttee. The novel weaves centuries old traditions with the stark march toward twenty-first century. It progresses with surprising plot twists, a ticking clock, and stubborn and powerful antagonist who challenges the protagonist, Kumud, to stand up to the orthodox and close-minded community”  – Bestselling author, Kathleen Shoop

Read an excerpt HERE

 

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Review: The Smallest Thing

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Lisa Manterfield. Steel Rose Press, $16, 288p. ISBN 9780998696928

“Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, it gave her material for stories.” Thus says author Lisa Manterfield, who presents her second curious novel, The Smallest Thing. Set in the Derbyshire Dales village of Eyam, The Smallest Thing is inspired by the historical plague that overtook Eyam in the 1600s and led to quarantine of the village. In The Smallest Thing, Manterfield’s protagonist, Emmott Syddall, finds herself in a similar quarantine which keeps her from fulfilling her desire to move to London, and ultimately leads her to grow while questioning what she really wants to do with her life.

Manterfield has described herself as loving “fish-out-of-water stories of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, especially if those situations delve into the unexplained.” At closer to eighteen than seventeen years old, self-centered Emmott is quite decided on leaving her small-town life in Eyam and strained relationship with her father. Wanting to be with her boyfriend, Ro, and having found a job and apartment in London, Emmott plans to move within a matter of days from the novel’s opening. A sudden outbreak of an unknown illness traps Emmott in the middle of a mysterious sickness, complete with a village-wide quarantine, HAZMAT suits, and situation briefs. Though she searches for a way outside the town’s boundaries, Emmott is unable to find an escape past the quarantine, and when Ro abandons their plans to move, Emmott is left with crushed dreams and nothing to do but ride out the outbreak.

In The Smallest Thing, Manterfield explores not only the historical effects of quarantine, but also the personal effects of being held in close proximity with the same people for long periods of time. As a teenager, Emmott has not yet learned to think of how her actions affect the people around her. When she is forced by the quarantine to zero in on her relationships with her father, best friend, neighbors, and even Ro, Emmott learns things about the people closest to her that she didn’t know before. She also gets a rude awakening of what it is to be alone – the very state of being that she was running toward by planning to move to London.

“I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished I could be alone. I couldn’t wait to get away from the village and out from under the watch of my parents, to be free to be myself and do my own thing, without other people and their opinions getting in the way. I wished so hard for that, and now I’ve got it. Now I am completely alone.”

– Chapter 28, Page 236

Well-written with a delicious dose of descriptive setting and metaphor, The Smallest Thing is a lesson in growing to recognize more than just a personal struggle when disaster strikes the people closest to you.

 

Review: Merle

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Angela Wren. CreateSpace IPP, $10, 208p.  ISBN 9781546811985.

Also a theatre director in Yorkshire and a self-proclaimed Francophile, author Angela Wren presents her second Jacques Forêt mystery, Merle. Like her first Jacques Forêt novel, Messandrierre, Wren sets Merle in a small, French town that soon discovers that murder visits not only Paris.

Formerly a Parisian policeman, Jacques Forêt is now a private investigator who has been commissioned by Vaux Consulting to investigate the possibility of corporate corruption among executives. As Jacques spends time with the employees of Vaux Consulting, he finds that there is more being hidden within Vaux Consulting’s walls than originally suspected. Jacques is quite confident in his investigative skills, however, and isn’t afraid to ask awkward questions to find out what he needs to know; Jacques seemingly begins to upset the wrong person, and receives notes threatening himself and his lover, Beth, who has just decided to move to Merle with Jacques. Before any resolution arrives, corruption spirals into murder, and the lives of people near to Jacques are put into danger.

Wren demonstrates her skill as theater director by fragmenting her plot and rearranging the pieces in a way that opens her novel with an apéritif showing a glimpse of the denouement. Wren keeps Jacques and Beth dimensional with subplots exploring how how serious Jacques and Beth’s relationship is, and how Beth’s hobbies will thrive in Merle. Wren’s astute attention to detail of French culture, architecture, and geography keeps her writing relevant and pleasant.

Packed with continuing complications to intensify the final unraveling, Merle is a thrilling read about authority, corruption, and the power of secrets to deprave a genial French town.

Review: Emma in the Night

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Wendy Walker. St. Martin’s Press, $27, 320p. ISBN 9781250141439

Into the night suddenly disappear two teenage sisters, Emma and Cass, leaving an empty car on the beach and a single pair of shoes in the surf. Three years later, Cass alone returns to her parents’ home with a story of captivity on an unidentified seven-acre island, and a driving urgency to find her sister who has since given birth. In Emma in the Night, author Wendy Walker carefully weaves a psychological thriller that is even more carefully unwound in a way that reveals only bare hints of resolution until all is immediately exposed.

As the narration switches between Cass’s first-person recounting and a third-person limited overlook of FBI Forensic Psychologist, Dr. Abby Winter, details of Cass and Emma’s home lives before their disappearance come into light. Their mother is revealed to be a pathological narcissist who has spent years competing with her daughters for attention, power, and validation, as her girls have grown in beauty. As the oldest daughter who has realized the threat that she is to her mother, Emma has the stronger love-hate relationship with their mother, and Cass takes refuge in Emma’s shadow as a “bird on the battlefield” with an unrealized, yet growing desire to see her mother defeated.

Cass’s experience growing up with a narcissistic mother is reflected in Dr. Winter’s character, whose mother was also a narcissist. Having investigated Emma and Cass’s disappearances since the beginning, Dr. Winter brings a contrasted, systematic aspect to the novel’s premise of psychosis, while remaining approachable to the reader by her own emotional investment in the case. As Dr. Winter learns of Cass’s childhood, she remembers her own, and is ultimately able to discover Emma’s whereabouts by understanding the dynamic in Cass’s household.

Throughout the novel, Cass is repeatedly put into situations requiring either swift decisions or well-thought-out planning, nothing in-between; Cass is forced to quickly become an adult, and learns that survival in her environment requires rigid observation, manipulation, and sacrifice. Wendy Walker presents the argument that people will believe what they want to believe, and paired with Walker’s working knowledge of the causes and effects of narcissism, Emma in the Night allows its audience to keep guessing at what the truth behind the girls’ disappearance and captivity might be.

Review: The Tower

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Nicole Campbell. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, $13.50, 346p. ISBN 9781545411278.

Her fifth novel in just over two years, Nicole Campbell presents The Tower, a young adult story of life, love, death, and loss. Setting her tale in Elizabethtown, Illinois, and distinguishing it with a foundation in witchery, Campbell tells the otherwise familiar story of three teenagers who have grown up together and are now learning how to navigate through the realities of life.

Rowyn, Reed, and Rosalyn are as close as three friends can be. Having been raised as members of the same “Circle,” their families’ beliefs in witchery knit them close as the characteristic that sets them apart from the other kids at school. Outside of their beliefs, though, Rowyn, Reed, and Rosalyn are every-day teenagers that struggle with coming of age, relationships, what to do after high school, and even the effects of sudden tragedy.

While the staple themes of a young adult novel are well carried throughout the novel, the significance of some of the witchery signified in the story isn’t directly communicated. For example, the Tower card is drawn periodically during readings,  but without an understanding of tarot cards and their meanings, the connotation is lost to the reader. It is not until the last page of the book that some connection is made between events in the story and drawings of the Tower card:

“The Tower card hadn’t lied. Everything crumbled and fell, and it took pieces of me with it.” Excerpt From: Nicole Campbell. “The Tower.” iBooks.

Campbell writes well while switching between points of view of each of the teenagers. She is attentive to differing reactions that each character might have to the same event, and is able to understand and communicate emotional struggle. The Tower is an approachable story, remaining realistic in its “paranormal” basis, welcoming any reader of general young adult fiction.

Review: The Pain Eater

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Beth Goobie. Second Story Press, $13, 244p. ISBN 9781772600209.

Drawing from a childhood of trauma and a self-proclaimed “fragmented” psyche, Canadian poet and author Beth Goobie presents The Pain Eater, a relevant story of a teenage girl who is swallowed by the emotional effects of sexual assault and finds a way to confront her fears.

After being attacked by four masked classmates on her way home from a school production during the last school year, fourteen-year-old Maddy Malone finds herself with a deep-kept secret and a hollowed, introverted personality. In an attempt to bury her shame and fear, Maddy retreats into herself and begins digging her fingernails into the backs of her hands and burning her inner thighs with cigarette butts. Maddy is determined to keep her secret, and pushes away her friends, parents, and sister who have noticed the change in Maddy.

With the arrival of the new school year, Maddy takes her resolution to hide into the hallways with the hope that she can remain invisible. As days pass, Maddy is able to identify three of her attackers, and finds that she shares an English class with two of them. The class begins to write a story about a teenage girl named Farang who “eats” the pain of her fellow villagers, and as each student presents his chapter, Farang’s struggle becomes more and more like Maddy’s until Maddy’s secret is on the brink of coming out.

Beth Goobie utilizes a frame story variation throughout The Pain Eater that uses Maddy’s class story of Farang to explore Maddy’s feelings more openly. The emotional similarities written between Maddy and Farang are made suspiciously obvious. While Farang is unallowed to voice her desires, Maddy is unwilling to talk about her secret. When Farang is finally free from having to endure the pain of her community, Maddy is finally willing to confront her attackers and accept support from the people who care about her. Goobie advances the connections between Maddy’s and Farang’s emotions until Maddy finds the courage to stand again, addressing a tender topic with a strong approach to show that sometimes, a person may find healing in their own way and in their own time.

Review: Wild

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Cheryl Strayed. Vintage Books, $16, 315 p. ISBN 9780307476074

If ever a motivator was needed to step outside of the “everyday grind,” or inspire a need for rejuvenation and embark on a new adventure, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, meets every requirement.

Life sometimes brings moments of feeling lost, disorientated, or adrift in a static sea, after an unfortunate or emotional event. An experience like this is normally not voluntary, and is generally difficult to emerge from. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is the true story of how a 26-year-old woman found healing and reawakening after conquering an 1,100-mile hike on her own.

It was not until after Strayed divorced her husband, lost her mother to lung cancer, and experienced an addiction to heroin that she decided to attempt to hike a 1,100-mile portion of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), beginning in the Mojave Desert and ending at the Bridge of the Gods in Washington. Important to note is the fact that after her divorce, Strayed, whose given name is Cheryl Nyland, legally changed her name to Cheryl Strayed in order to signify the times in her life that she’d really lost her way.

Strayed noticed a PCT guidebook at outdoor recreation outlet REI, and later found herself returning to the store to purchase the guidebook. Having never been backpacking before, she was driven to make the hike, not entirely sure how, or even why. Strayed soon after quits her job as a waitress, sells the majority of her possessions, and purchases an amateur’s set of supplies for what would become a three-month journey.

Within her memoir, Strayed tells two stories alongside each other: one of her journey along the PCT, and the other of her personal background, or what brought her to the trail. Both of Strayed’s stories show a struggle, and in the end, conquest over one actually brings Strayed to victory over both.

Strayed makes sure to communicate to the reader how much of a burden her backpack was on several, quite comical, occasions. Strayed dubs her backpack “Monster”, which she notes was 70 pounds at its heaviest, and 50 pounds at its lightest.  Either stuffed into or strapped onto Monster are fleece pants, a thermal shirt, a hooded anorak, two pair of wool socks, two pair of underwear, gloves, a sun hat, a fleece hat, rain pants, food for fourteen days, a sleeping bag, a camping chair, a headlamp, bungee cords, a water purifier, a stove, a canister of gas, a lighter, two cooking pots, utensils, a pair of sandals, a towel, a thermometer, a tarp, a mug, a snakebite kit, a Swiss Army knife, binoculars, a compass, a book telling how to use the compass, a first-aid kit, toiletries, a menstrual sponge, a lantern, water bottles, iodine pills, a saw, two pens, three books: The Pacific Crest Trail, Vol.1: California; As I Lay Dying; and Dream of a Common Language, and a sketchbook. Needless to say, Monster is our literal representation of Strayed’s struggle while on the PCT.

Perhaps more personal about Strayed’s struggle on the PCT is Strayed’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s sudden death. Strayed writes that her mother passes away seven weeks to the day after being diagnosed with cancer, and how Strayed had carried a particular anger since losing her mother so soon. Being motherless causes Strayed to “instantly grow up and forgive her [mother’s] every motherly fault,” instead of gradually growing apart from her mother while concurrently realizing that her mother had raised Strayed to the best of her ability. Before her death, Strayed’s mother repeats to Strayed, “I’m with you always,” like she would when Strayed was a young girl.

Strayed captures perfectly the symbiotic relationship between carrying Monster on her back and anger in her heart in this quote: “I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it,” (pg. 92). Ultimately, it is Strayed’s realization while closing in on her journey’s goal in Washington that her mother’s death didn’t have to be a burden of grief, but could be a burden of love, that releases her from her strayed struggle within.

Review: With Malice

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Eileen Cook. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18, 320p. ISBN 9780544805095.

In her latest thriller, With Malice, author Eileen Cook places two girls in Italy and brings only one of them back – with broken bones and memory loss.

Cook opens her novel presenting Ivy League-bound Jill Charron waking up in a hospital, having just been emergency airlifted from Italy and not knowing that she was ever in Europe. After being told about the car accident that left her with a broken leg and aphasia, Jill struggles to put together the pieces of her missing memories. Jill tries to use a hospital phone to call her best friend, Simone, convinced that Simone will be able to fill in the gaps of her memories, but Jill is rudely thwarted by Simone’s parents. Jill later learns that although she and Simone had gone on the school-sponsored trip to Italy together, excited to immerse themselves in all the art and history that Italy has to offer, Simone didn’t return from Italy – and Jill is the leading suspect in Simon’s apparent murder.

Already wrestling with her lack of memory, Jill is burdened with pressure from her family’s lawyer, who is trying to control what the media publishes; from the Italian police, who want to extradite Jill to face charges of manslaughter; and even from her parents, who have doubts of Jill’s innocence. All the while, Jill strives to remember any piece of her time in Italy, her supposed “lover”, and what could’ve caused such an argument to lead Jill to possibly murder Simone.

Cook expertly keeps the reader from deciding between Jill’s innocence or guilt by venturing out of the normal form of writing a novel. Cook builds the story partially through published snippets of blog posts, Facebook posts and comments, text message threads, and interview transcriptions. Cook alternates her chapters from publishing witness accounts and social opinion of the Jill’s innocence or guilt, to progressing Jill’s story as she spending her weeks in therapy and residential care, anticipating the day when she’ll have to go to court. As soon as one piece of evidence is revealed that seemingly proves Jill’s guilt, another eyewitness account is presented that convinces of Jill’s innocence. This method of writing draws the reader into the story, and largely contributes to the thrill of reading on to find the truth.

Cook develops Jill’s character around internal struggles, self-discovery, personal growth, and the questioning of faithfulness, all of which a teenager battles during transition between high school and the “real world.” One common coming-of-age reality that Jill comes to face is the reality that she’s going to have to move forward with college and the rest of her life without her best friend, Simone, whom she’s known since fourth grade. Cook challenges this concept with Jill’s roommate in the recovery home, who teaches Jill to be open to trusting people regardless of how long or how well she knows them.

With Malice is a suspenseful read that explores the values of honesty, loyalty, and friendship, as well as the argument that a person’s real character is only discovered by persevering through difficult times.

Review: Before The Fall

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Noah Hawley. Grand Central Publishing, $26, 400p. ISBN 9781478987581
Into a world that has grown focused on the appearance of self and the embellishment of truth, Noah Hawley installs a cast of characters representative of both connivance and compassion. Our society today knows to accept news reports at arm’s length, unless the sources are verified and the facts are proven to be correct. Hawley’s latest thriller, Before the Fall, epitomizes this conflict between reported fact and fiction, drawing the reader in closer and closer until the truth is finally revealed in quite literally the very last pages of the novel.

Thirty miles off of the coast of New York, a private plane falls out of the sky taking the lives of nine very wealthy passengers with it. The only survivors are a struggling painter, and the four-year-old son of a news magnate.

Scott Burroughs, middle-aged and not quite the successful artist, manages to find the boy floating amidst the waves and wreckage. Having somewhat of a history in swimming, Scott is able to get himself and the boy safely, heroically, to the shore. Scott is soon thereafter greeted not with a hero’s welcome, but instead with accusations of conspiracy to assassinate the boy’s parents and the others that were on the plane.

Investigators are taught to ask the hard questions, and unfortunately,  this sometimes sheds a darker light onto mysteries surrounded by unfortunate circumstances. Why was Scott on a plane with ten other people worth millions of dollars? What was Scott’s true relationship with the boy’s mother, who seemingly “invited” Scott to make the flight with them? And how is it that Scott is the only survivor, save the little boy whose well-being Scott seems to be unusually concerned with? Instead of recognizing Scott for the selfless feat that he accomplished in swimming thirty miles to shore with a young boy on his back, the media tears apart supposed innocent coincidences in an effort to prove Scott guilty: all in the name of having someone on whom to pin the murder of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hawley proves to be a master of weaving together pieces of a puzzle that he’s already solved, in a way that teases the reader so that putting down the book before the reader is satisfied is simply out of the question. By the end of the book, every single detail presented by Hawley falls into place and complements the whole in a way that leaves nothing unresolved. Before the Fall is an investigation that the reader is invited to participate in, carefully waging the forces of truth and fiction against each other in a skillful battle for liberation.

Review: Global Mom: A Memoir

Melissa Dalton-Bradford. Familius Publishing, $18, 320p. ISBN 9781938301346

As a young mother of two small children, Melissa Dalton-Bradford was a professional musical theater actress preparing to step onto a Broadway stage when she received a phone call from Randall, her husband: he’d been offered the job, and it would take his family to Norway.

The idea wasn’t too unimaginable – after all, Bradford had lived abroad before, and she and Randall did want to raise their children in other countries – and what a perfect opportunity for their family! But the offer had come sooner than Bradford thought it would, and over the next twenty years, Bradford and her family would call eight different countries “home”.

Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family is a wonderfully lively memoir of a woman who experiences first-hand the struggles and rewards of motherhood across the globe.

Dalton-Bradford dives right into her memoir with life in Norway. Her voice as an author begins as a voice that I would expect of a landmark writer, made an example of for her use of literary analogy. Reflective of Dalton-Bradford’s cheerful writing is her and her children’s lives through the young years. Dalton-Bradford tells of bundling her small children, Parker and Claire, in layer after layer of “vintertøy”, or winter clothing, before they run outside to play with the Norwegian children from whom they will gradually pick up the tongue of the nation. It is during these years in Norway that the Bradfords purchase the single possession that will act as the landmark of Dalton-Bradford’s many homes: a ten-foot long, three-foot wide, four-inch thick Norwegian dinner table, purchased as a memorial to five years that the Bradfords lived in Oslo. Throughout her memoir, Dalton-Bradford tells of sitting at the table for journal entries, projects, gatherings, homework assignments, and holiday dinners. When the Bradfords move to France, the table is lifted by a pulley through a second-story window into their new French home whose entrance is too narrow to accept the large piece of furniture.

Upon arrival in France, Parker and Claire experience struggles in schools in Versailles, thanks to their Norwegian foundations. This doesn’t stop Parker from growing to identify Paris as his true home, however. A move back to the States meets Dalton-Bradford’s children gritting their teeth at having to memorize an “Allegiance chant.” Claire hears all the other girls on the elementary school playground giggling with each other about somebody named, “Lizzy McGuire”, and goes home to tell her mother that they must get American television.

Subsequent years take the Bradfords again to Paris before yet another move to Munich. It is not until the few weeks between Paris and Munich that I believe Dalton-Bradford finds her true, personal voice as a writer. Dalton-Bradford experiences crisis, loss, and discouragement. I have not experienced motherhood – but the last few chapters of Dalton-Bradford’s memoir pull strings within me that I’m sure would’ve been tugged much harder if I had children of my own.

As an adventurer with desires to travel, absorbing Global Mom has moved me to realize that nothing really holds a person back from achieving their goals and living their dreams. Things happen along the way – life happens, it always does – but to have the strength, faith, and courage of a wife and mother who continually moved her family physically, while keeping them rooted emotionally, is something that I would every day envy for my own venturesome existence.