Letting Go of Gravity Meg Leder
Published by: Simon Pulse
Publication date: July 17th 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
“The anticipation and slow burn of Parker and Finn’s relationship is electric…[an] absorbing novel that will appeal to fans of Rainbow Rowell.” —Booklist
Parker struggles to reconnect with her twin brother, Charlie—who’s recovering from cancer—as she tries to deal with her anxiety about the future in this powerful new novel.
Twins Parker and Charlie are polar opposites. Where Charlie is fearless, Parker is careful. Charlie is confident while Parker aims to please. Charlie is outgoing and outspoken; Parker is introverted and reserved. And of course, there’s the one other major difference: Charlie got cancer. Parker didn’t.
But now that Charlie is officially in remission, life couldn’t be going better for Parker. She’s landed a prestigious summer internship at the hospital and is headed to Harvard in the fall to study pediatric oncology—which is why the anxiety she’s felt since her Harvard acceptance is so unsettling. And it doesn’t help that her relationship with Charlie has been on the rocks since his diagnosis.
Enter Finn, a boy who’s been leaving strange graffiti messages all over town. Parker can’t stop thinking about those messages, or about Finn, who makes her feel free for the first time: free to doubt, free to make mistakes, and free to confront the truth that Parker has been hiding from for a long time.
That she keeps trying to save Charlie, when the person who really needs saving is herself.
Back in 2000, strange messages started appearing on major overpasses in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, e.g. “TONY DANZA IS MY DAD” and “I PLAY YOGA.” Each time I saw one, I was surprised, confused, and delighted. Later identified as the work of artists Buddy Lembeck and Darius Jones, they were my first introduction to the marvelous world of street art.
In Letting Go of Gravity, my main character Parker goes through a similar experience. When strange messages start appearing on bridges in her town, she wants to know what they’re about. Ultimately they become the first step in her journey of self-discovery.
I was really excited to work street art into a novel, because I love it. For me, it represents a disruption of the everyday, a little bit of the unexpected that asks you to stop and look at the space around you differently. Parker in particular needs that jolt to start thinking about her world in new ways.
If you’re looking for some similar inspiration, here are some artists to check out:
Invader: An anonymous French street artist, Invader places ceramic tile compositions of old video game characters around major cities. You never know when one will appear, which makes finding them all the more exciting. There’s even an app, so you can register the ones you find, like a scavenger hunt!
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: This artist uses street art to combat harassment, creating posters with images of women and captions about their experiences being harassed. Titled “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” the project is an incredibly powerful statement about the way words are used to control women in public spaces, and how women can take some of the power back.
Os Gemeos: Identical twin brothers from Brazil, Os Gemeos create vibrant murals inspired by folk art, hip hop, and Brazilian culture. Their creations are both dream-like and grounded in the world around you, and their appearance in the world makes you feel like you’ve discovered a little bit of magic.
Steve Powers: Powers used to create street art under the name ESPO. Now a full-time artist, he creates word-based and iconic images under his own name. Bright, blocky letters share messages like “YOUR EVERAFTER IS ALL I’M AFTER” and “LETS ADORE AND ENDURE EACH OTHER.” (Powers’ work majorly inspires the street artist in my book.)
Jenny Holzer: Conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s work involves using words to deliver brief truisms on billboards and walls and galleries. Each one is strange and wonderful, e.g. “Protect me from what I want” and “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.” Holzer’s work startles you out of the everyday, asking you to question and tease out what she means.
These are only a few of the artists who inspire me. Are there some more that you love?
A former bookseller and teacher, Meg Leder currently works as a book editor in New York City. Her role models are Harriet the Spy and Anne Shirley. She is the co-author of The Happy Book, and spends her free time reading, looking for street art, and people-watching. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Into the Woods is the title and theme for this assortment of short stories, poems, essays, music, and one walking meditation. Each piece is unique in tone and genre and the result is that the collection captures the fascinating, frightening, fun, healing, and fantastical wonder of time spent in the woods.
The twenty-six contributors who attend Mindful Writers Retreats in the mountains of Ligonier, Pennsylvania, are donating one hundred percent of the proceeds to support the research and work of The Children’s Heart Foundation.
Ellie Trumbull squinted out the window of the Uber, gripping the door handle. The car swerved and bounced up the long driveway leading to the retreat center where the courts had sent Ellie for punishment. She grabbed her stomach to stave off nausea, but when it began to launch itself she smacked the driver’s arm. He slowed and stopped. Ellie pulled the handle, and tumbled out of the door onto all fours, heaving.
She gasped for breath, dizzied. Voices sounded as she struggled to stand. She focused on the group heading toward her: two women, a man, and several children who simply bolted past her, their squealing laughter filling the air.
A graceful woman with gray, bunned hair and dark skin approached. She took Ellie’s arm and pulled her close, leading her into a building. “Welcome. I’m Vera.”
“I’m Alice.” A stout woman with platinum spiked hair followed along.
A lanky man with hair so perfect it looked plastic picked up Ellie’s duffel bag. “I’m Brandon. Your husband’ll send the rest of your luggage shortly.”
Ellie grunted. They led her upstairs. Brandon rushed ahead to open a door. Ellie shuffled inside.
“Your room,” he said. “I’ll set your bag here.”
Ellie looked over her shoulder to see him smiling, as he’d been doing since she arrived. “Thanks, Guy Smiley.”
She ignored his question, held onto one of the top bunks and surveyed the space. Three large windows at the end of the room and three sets of bunks with plastic mattresses belted the perimeter.
Ellie collapsed onto a bed.
“Plastic makes it easy to clean,” Vera said.
“Shut those.” Ellie shook her hand at the windows.
The woman sighed, closed the curtains and lowered the blind that covered the center pane. She lifted Ellie’s feet off the floor and swung them onto the bed. “Housekeeping’ll make up the bed in a little bit.”
“Fine,” Ellie groaned.
Vera loosened Ellie’s shoelaces.
Ellie snatched her feet away. “I’m fine.”
Vera backed away, her large hands flailing for a moment before she tucked them against her belly. “Our healing circle begins in an hour.”
Ellie turned away and balled up. Leave me alone.
And a few seconds later the door clicked shut.
Giggling children and the sound of feet running down the hallway outside Room 2 woke Ellie. Her mouth was desert dry, so she headed downstairs to the great room where she saw a kitchen area. With the kids gone, the silence felt good.
Ellie startled at the sight of Alice, Vera, and Guy Smiley sitting around an island. Guy Smiley poured coffee. Healing circle.
“Ellie,” he said. “Welcome.”
Vera sliced banana bread. The scent threatened Ellie’s stoic facade. A smile tugged her lips, but she tucked away the fleeting happy sensation, hid it where it wouldn’t remind her how Maggie’s face would light up when she bit into her favorite treat.
Alice clomped her feet onto the coffee table. Vera batted them away and pushed the banana bread toward Ellie.
She looked away.
“I’ll take hers,” said Alice.
“I’d like to begin,” Vera said, her voice gentle and melodic. “The healing circle guides us into continued acceptance and strengthens our endurance as we grow through the pain that comes with losing a child. Each of us understands the daily shock of waking and realizing our lives will never be the same. So how do we go on?”
Guy Smiley sipped coffee. “Feels good to be with everyone.”
“Each time we meet I do better back home,” Vera said.
“Same,” Alice said.
“We hope you’ll find our group helpful, Ellie,” Vera said.
When Ellie didn’t respond the others went around describing how they lost their child. Ellie blocked out every word, rubbing her temples. Her own pain was enough. She wasn’t about to invite theirs inside. Her gaze strayed to the kids outside, the game of tag that left them breathless, rolling down the hill and out of sight. How lucky they were.
“Ellie?” Alice asked. Ellie turned her gaze back to see Alice glaring.
“It’ll help,” sweet Vera said. “To share.”
Guy Smiley slid forward in his seat, fingers steepled. “Change brings…blah, blah … comfort, healing…” He droned on and on and finally Ellie’s mind snapped back to what he first said.
“Change?” Ellie said.
He nodded. They all did.
Ellie’s anger surged. She wiped spittle from her lip. “I don’twantchange. I feel Maggie more now than I ever did… before she died I couldn’t wait to get to work, or girls’ night out or go away with my husband. My daughter… difficult from the day she was born… is dead. I’ll never sit with you people thinking about change and eating stinking banana bread.”
She stood and stomped away.
“She don’t want help,” Alice said.
“But her husband…” Brandon said.
Ellie got farther away, unable to hear what they said. Her husband? He was finished with her. She jogged to her room and crashed onto the mattress that housekeeping hadn’t yet returned to make. She covered her face and held back tears. With balled fists she tried to resist.
But she couldn’t.
Up off the bed, Ellie dug through her duffel and found it. Vodka. Cap unscrewed, she gulped, washing away the scent of banana bread, the thought that she’d never again see Maggie’s smile when she took a bite of it.
Almost twenty years in the making is Amsterdam Exposed before author David Wienir finally presents his story of the renowned Red Light District, where tourists “come for the weed, stay for the hookers.” Nonetheless, Wienir makes it easy to be drawn into turn-of-the-millenium Amsterdam, as he spends his Thursdays studying international law at Vrije University and his six-day weekends trying to get window girls to talk to him. Amsterdam Exposed is an alluring memoir giving a glimpse down the streets illuminated by red lanterns, as well as into the man who teaches respect for the women who work there.
Wienir opens his memoir having just arrived in Holland for a fall semester studying international law abroad. Wienir brings with him an ulterior motive to write a book about the Red Light District, inspired by a prostitute in Reno who told him that “people forget we’re human,” a year and a half prior. Over the next four months, Wienir sets off to find prostitutes willing to help him with his book, and keeps a code for himself: never pay a prostitute to talk, and never sleep with one. He’s turned down by every woman he encounters except for two, only one of whom actually comes to help Wienir.
Emma is a twenty-five-year-old prostitute from Estonia. She lives two lives in that she does not allow her work life and her personal life to overlap. When Wienir meets Emma in the District, Emma is interested in befriending him, but does not readily talk to Wienir about her work. Wienir devotes time to building Emma’s trust in himself, and eventually reaches Emma while unknowingly invoking change in Emma’s personal outlook.
Wienir actively writes in a voice that weaves the then-current state of Amsterdam with his own story of his time spent. He creates rich and descriptive settings that shine on Wienir’s professional background, effortlessly leading the reader to think of Wienir’s voice as a lawyer in the future casually telling his story over the wining-and-dining of his own law associates. Amsterdam Exposed confidently takes a risqué topic out of a captivating environment and places it in one that is approachable, adventurous, and thought-provoking.
Excerpt from Amsterdam Exposed
On a brisk September morning, I put on a pair of blue jeans and a white T-shirt and
boarded a plane to Amsterdam. I traveled light. If necessary, I could do some shopping
Money was an issue, and the cheapest flight I could find was on Iceland Air. This
allowed for a three-day layover in Reykjavik. I had always dreamed of visiting Iceland
and decided to spend a few days there. With a copy of Let’s Go Europe serving as my
bible, I found a bed in the Salvation Army Guesthouse. Back then, there were two travel
guides in play, Let’s Go Europe and the Lonely Planet. Let’s Go Europe was the guide
of choice for students, effectively funneling everyone into the same hostels, restaurants,
landmarks, and clubs. Within minutes, I connected with a group of international
students. We spent the next three days touring waterfalls, enjoying the local cuisine,
On our final day, we visited the waters of the Blue Lagoon. There were six of us, from
six different countries. Submerged to our shoulders, we floated in silence, looking into
each other’s eyes and carving out the moment. After a night partying in Reykjavik, we
said our goodbyes, knowing we would never see each other again. That was OK. This
was just a layover. I continued on my journey refreshed, feeling as if I had visited the moon.
David Wienir is a business affairs executive at United Talent Agency and entertainment law instructor at UCLA Extension. Before UTA, he practiced law at two of the top entertainment law firms where he represented clients such as Steven Spielberg and Madonna. His previous books include Last Time: Labour’s Lessons from the Sixties (co-authored with a Member of Parliament at the age of 23), The Diversity Hoax: Law Students Report from Berkeley (afterword by Dennis Prager), and Making It on Broadway: Actors’ Tales of Climbing to the Top (foreword by Jason Alexander).
Educated at Columbia, Oxford, The London School of Economics, Berkeley Law, and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, David is married to Dr. Dina (to whom the book is dedicated), a pioneer of the cannabis movement who has been named “Queen of Medical Marijuana in LA” by Rolling Stone Magazine and is the inspiration for the Nancy Botwin character in the show Weeds.
Notes of Magic
(The Bohemians #1)
CreateSpace IPP, February 2018
Enchanted city. Old magic. New threat.
Taq, a young fiddler, comes to Prague with dreams of joining the Bohemians, a band of immortal, magic-wielding street performers. He has a mission to right past wrongs, but things don’t go as planned when he meets the beautiful performer, Katia. Now, he must decide if revealing his secret is worth losing her heart.
Katia has spent one hundred years chained to Prague, broken-hearted and silent, waiting for her chance to be free. But with a mysterious newcomer, and an impending threat on Bohemia itself, peace is starting to seem further away than ever. Now, Katia must decide if she should trust Taq, or put her faith in the one who broke her heart – the tyrannical Magistrate of Bohemia.
Jessica Bucher is long-time lover of stories about young love and characters who are larger-than-life. It’s why she was swept off her feet by a soldier who stole her away to travel the world. Thirteen years later, they have two (almost three) children and more stamps in their passports than they can count. Seeing the world has inspired many stories and novels, with The Hereafter as Bucher’s debut. She is a Creative Writing graduate, blogger, yoga teacher, music lover and member of the Ansbach Writers Group.
From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood is arguably the most “bookish” book that has been recently published. Stemming from a childhood spent near the Ingalls’ family home in Kansas and a decision to visit places that inspired books like On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake, author Nancy McCabe presents a memoir reflecting on the impact that classic childhood novels have had on her.
Over her years of reading children’s classics, McCabe personalizes the actions or habits of the heroines that she reads about. As an adult, McCabe sees the sum total of who she has become, and writes each chapter of From Little Houses with commentary based on a book. As a child, McCabe remembers trying to imagine dialogue between the dandelions and tulips in her back yard, like Anne of Anne of Avonlea imagined dialogue between “the asters and the sweet peas and the wild canaries in the lilac bush and the guardian spirit of the garden.” As a preteen, McCabe wears her hair long because of how the protagonist of Plain Girl embraces her common, plain clothes and looks. These are just a few examples of how deeply literature seeped into McCabe’s character.
Truly conversational, From Little Houses is like sitting at a table with an old friend while she recounts her travels. But, not only are travels recollected; McCabe also expands on detail from the classics that she’s read to offer literary criticism and analysis. Though there would be a seeming prerequisite of having read the novels that McCabe discusses, it is not difficult to fully appreciate the strong relationship that McCabe has developed with the stories that she’s read and re-read, either as a child, as an adult, or as a mother to her daughter.
Part term paper, part travelogue, From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood is a slice of literary pie with promise to satisfy any true, devoted book worm who is willing to eat with the fork.
About the book
Nancy McCabe grew up in Kansas just a few hours from the Little House on the PrairieIngalls family home. McCabe read Little House on the Prairie during her childhood and always felt a connection with Laura Ingalls Wilder. When McCabe was thirteen, she visited Wilder sites around the Midwest with her aunt, but didn’t again revisit the books that had so influenced her childhood until she was an adult. It was this decision that ultimately sparked her desire to visit the places that inspired many of her childhood book favorites, taking her on a journey through the Missouri of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Minnesota of Maud Hart Lovelace, the Massachusetts of Louisa May Alcott, and even the Canada of Lucy Maud Montgomery.
From Little Houses to Little Women reveals McCabe’s powerful connection to the characters and authors who inspired many generations of readers. While traveling with McCabe as she rediscovers the books that shaped her and ultimately helped her to forge her own path, readers will enjoy revisiting their own childhood favorites as well.
About the Author
Nancy McCabe is the author of four memoirs about travel, books, parenting, and adoption, as well as a novel entitled Following Disasters. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Prairie Schooner, Fourth Genre, and many other magazines and anthologies, including In Fact Books’ Oh Baby! True Stories about Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love, and McPherson and Company’s Every Father’s Daughter: Twenty-Four Women Writers Remember their Fathers. Her work has received a Pushcart Prize, and she has been recognized on Notable Lists in Best American anthologies six times.
The Summer of Broken Things Margaret Peterson Haddix April 10, 2018 Simon & Schuster
Fourteen-year-old Avery Armisted is athletic, rich, and pretty. Sixteen-year-old Kayla Butts is known as “butt-girl” at school. The two girls were friends as little kids, but that’s ancient history now. So it’s a huge surprise when Avery’s father offers to bring Kayla along on a summer trip to Spain. Avery is horrified that her father thinks he can choose her friends—and make her miss soccer camp. Kayla struggles just to imagine leaving the confines of her small town.
But in Spain, the two uncover a secret their families had hidden from both of them their entire lives. Maybe the girls can put aside their differences and work through it together. Or maybe the lies and betrayal will only push them—and their families—farther apart.
Margaret Peterson Haddix weaves together two completely separate lives in this engaging novel that explores what it really means to be a family—and what to do when it’s all falling apart.
From New York Times bestselling author Margaret Peterson Haddix comes a haunting novel about friendship and what it really means to be a family in the face of lies and betrayal.
Margaret Peterson Haddix grew up on a farm near Washington Court House, Ohio. She graduated from Miami University (of Ohio) with degrees in English/journalism, English/creative writing and history. Before her first book was published, she worked as a newspaper copy editor in Fort Wayne, Indiana; a newspaper reporter in Indianapolis; and a community college instructor and freelance writer in Danville, Illinois.
She has since written more than 40 books for kids and teens, including Running Out of Time; Double Identity; Uprising; The Always War; the Shadow Children series; the Missing series; the Children of Exile series; the Under Their Skin duology; and The Palace Chronicles. She also wrote Into the Gauntlet, the tenth book in the 39 Clues series. Her books have been honored with New York Times bestseller status, the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award; American Library Association Best Book and Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers notations; and numerous state reader’s choice awards. They have also been translated into more than twenty different languages.
Haddix and her husband, Doug, now live in Columbus, Ohio. They are the parents of two grown kids.
Such are Erin’s beginning and resulting understandings of happiness after leaving her A-list social status in her suburban Chicago high school to spend a semester in Christchurch, New Zealand. Mirroring her own New Zealand self-discoveries in her latest protagonist is author Michele Bacon, presenting Antipodes as her second novel.
As a very determined Ivy League medical school hopeful, Erin has every step for her next fifteen years mapped out: “Great school, great job, great life.” When Erin loses her position as captain of her high school swimming team, loses her boyfriend, and embarrasses herself at a party, she and her mother attempt to repair Erin’s perfect college application with a semester spent studying abroad.
Upon arrival in Christchurch, however, Erin is disheartened to find that she’s signed up for five months of having to get around town without a car, attending a school that doesn’t allow makeup or jewelry, sharing a small bedroom with the daughter in her host family, and being on a completely different time schedule than her best friend. As the months pass, Erin makes new friends and learns the value of family, sets a national swimming record, sees other beautiful parts of New Zealand, and picks back up a forgotten instrument, all while slowly realizing that she’s prioritized the wrong things in her attempt to find happiness.
Within her writing, Bacon consciously draws parallels between Erin’s physical journey and her personal journey. For example, Bacon uses Erin’s interests in astronomy to name the Moon as a constant, clearly reflecting opposite points of view from Erin’s Northern Hemisphere home in Chicago compared to the view from Southern Hemisphere Christchurch. Also, Bacon demonstrates a uniquely creative writing skill by using an interesting variation of divergent thematic patterning in her narrative. With every few forward-moving chapters proceeding from Erin’s flight to Christchurch, there is a backstepping, flashed-back chapter from before Erin’s flight to Christchurch. As Erin experiences New Zealand and ultimately begins to reflect on who she is and what her passions are, we see a glimpse of the seeming antipode of the current point in time.
Through fresh use of literary device with strong character development and vivid descriptions of setting, Antipodes is a masterfully written novel that shows that even when meaning and direction seems lost, it’s not such a long journey back to true purpose.
About the Author
I was born in Trumbull County, the only square county in Ohio, where books were my favorite means of escaping an unhappy childhood. Writing was my transparent attempt to create the things I craved: big happy families, international adventures and unconditional friendship. From a young age, I was drawn to people’s stories, and I still want to know how you met your best friend or fell in love with your partner.
In high school, I embraced my inner geek and wrote my first novel. In college, there were short stories and still more novels. I graduated from The Ohio State University with a B.A. in English, with concentrations in critical theory and creative writing.
Full-time work sapped my creative brain for several years, but my professional life was one of reinvention. In state government, business management consulting, and nonprofit fundraising, I adapted easily and absorbed the languages of different professions. My last paying job was as an independent fundraising consultant for nonprofit organizations. That was seven years ago.
Since then, I have been writing and traveling (and, let’s be honest, chasing down small people who don’t like to wear clothes). I’ve traveled to all 50 states and dozens of other countries, always collecting pieces of characters and ideas for stories. I recently spent a year on sabbatical in Christchurch, New Zealand, where I may have left my heart at Ilam School. Now that we’ve settled back in the States, I’m writing for adults and young adults, exploring the Pacific Northwest, and baking like a fiend. (You’d thinking baking would be the same everywhere, but it’s not. Something is different about kiwi butter.)
When an idea strikes, I scrawl sweeping plot outlines, character idiosyncrasies, and ideas for scenes on the nearest blank spot of paper. My current manuscript was born of those torn slips of paper, used envelopes, lollipop wrappers, fuel receipts and–once–that little paper bit that keeps a nursing pad sticky until it’s time to use it. My manuscripts are better than the quality of papers where they began. Promise.
Outside of writing, I am a tabletop game enthusiast, passionate skier, and lover of prime numbers. I also am a mentor at the Moving Words Writing Clinic, and a freelance copyeditor.
I live in Seattle with my husband and three growing children.
When hearing a book described as a memoir, the thought that follows usually includes some semblance of “a personal reflection of a life over time.” Tara Westover, at a mere 31 years old, makes her book debut with a quite superlative memoir. Educated follows Westover’s upbringing as part of a survivalist family, through her questioning and outgrowth of her fundamentalist origin, and to her breakaway to self-confidence through higher learning.
Tara Westover was raised as one of seven siblings in a tiny Idaho town at the base of a mountain. Her father was paranoid about crossing paths with the government, and actively prepared for the “Days of Abomination” believing that the world would end at the turn of the century. Westover’s mother was a midwife and herbalist who was raised in a “normally functioning” home, but now largely supported her husband in silence for the best of her children. Westover received no formal education as a child, was never vaccinated, and to this day, doesn’t know her exact birth date – she wasn’t issued a birth certificate until she was nine years old.
As Westover grew up, she and her family saw head injuries, falls from the tops of mechanical equipment, motorcycle accidents and burns from explosions, and perceived all as God’s will. Westover had strained relationships with her parents and with one of her older brothers because of tempers, pride, and even mental sickness; it’s her broken family system with which Westover eventually struggles to reconcile. When Westover begins to see the possibility of a different life from her upbringing, she takes it upon herself to self-teach, and gains acceptance to Brigham Young University. Ten years later, she completes her doctorate in history at Cambridge University.
In addition to expertly writing a clear and fluid narrative, Westover effectively crafts noticeably strong chapter beginnings and endings. At a chapter’s end, the reader is continuously compelled to read into the next chapter, if even just a few lines of the first paragraph, before closing the book until the next opportunity to sit and read. Westover fully immerses her readers with vivid descriptions of not only her physical environment, but also her emotional environment.
Through Educated, Tara Westover communicates an important truth that is allowance for self-accomplishment through selfhood. “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”
A fifteen-year window into the life of an NYC woman who is the outlier of her wealthy and privileged family is Laura & Emma. Author Kate Greathead presents her first novel, a story of a mother and daughter that explores family relationships, social standards, and the sacrifices that come with choosing motherhood.
It’s easy to completely relate to Laura. She is a woman who mostly keeps to herself, doesn’t fall in with social standards of the upper class, has a favorite neighborhood grocery store, and doesn’t exactly love the idea of all-the-time sex. Laura is embarrassed by the word “wealthy,” and she tries to independently make a living without her family’s money. She adheres to her own particular fashion habit of rarely buying new clothes with a “’Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without’” mentality. She is quite content to be living a solitary and simplistic life.
Then, in the summer of 1981, Laura has her first and only sexual experience that leaves her pregnant. Laura schedules an abortion – her “greatest gift to the planet” – but changes her mind on the morning of her scheduled abortion. With the arrival of her daughter, Emma, Laura’s quiet life evolves into a life of pediatricians, private school admission applications, game nights, and beach vacations. Emma grows to be curious, energetic, and strong-willed; though Laura and Emma are close while Emma is young, they inevitably grow apart as Emma gets older, until Emma goes off to boarding school and Laura resumes her solitary life.
Greathead expertly weaves her novel through interlaying nods to the history of New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. With each abrupt introduction of a new scene, Greathead gives just enough information on what must have happened in the lost time to encourage her audience to continue on. Reading more like a narrated journaling that is built from a chronological collection of aperçus, Laura & Emma is a strong debut novel that gives so many more questions to ask than are answered.
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.
Sutteeis 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.
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.
“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