PRIDE AND PREJUDICE IN PAKISTAN? WHY NOT?

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is such a classic that it has been revisted and rewritten through all sorts of different lenses, some successful and some less so (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one I’d put in the latter category; it’s neither a good version of P&P nor a good zombie novel), so the idea of setting it in modern day Pakistan, as Soniah Kamal does in the new Unmarriageable, seems reasonable on its face, and turns out to be a brilliant way of seeing the book anew.

Anyone who’s writing a new version of an old classic is walking a tightrope between being slavishly close to the original and taking so many liberties with the original story that its devotees will scream in horror, but Soniah Kamal manages to dance lightly on that line.  The plot is recognizably that of Pride and Prejudice (and if you’re a fan, as I am, you’ll probably find yourself ticking off the well-known plot points — ah, yes, that’s the equivalent of Bingley’s party where everyone manages to disgrace themselves, oh, of course, that’s what Mr. Collins would be like if he were in this culture, what a clever way to bring a version of Lady Catherine de Burgh into the book — as they occur), and the names are recognizable, if appropriately changed, so Lizzy becomes Alys, Bingley becomes “Bungles” Bingla, Darcy becomes Darsee, Jane is Jena, Lydia is Lady, and so on.  Some of the original personalities carry over to this book, but none of them is exactly like his or her source, and that’s an excellent thing.

Alys is an unmarried woman of 30, pretty much considered to be on the shelf for the rest of her life, doomed to be a burden on her family, though she herself has no such concerns. She and her older sister, Jena, are teaching at a local private school for girls (founded and run by Begum Beenah dey Bagh — and if you’re thinking of Lady Catherine de Burgh, you’re thinking along the right lines).  Alys is teaching English literature to high school girls who know perfectly well that their value is tied directly to their ability to attract rich husbands, no matter what scandalous things Alys says, and indeed, once a girl in Alys’ class gets engaged, she’s on the road to dropping out of school entirely, with her parents’ and her intended’s blessings. Alys teaches the girls Pride and Prejudice (this book brilliantly starts with Alys’ getting the girls to write their own versions of the famous opening line from Pride and Prejudice), and, while Alys doesn’t directly compare the events of this book to those in the book she’s teaching, she’s certainly aware of Jane Austen’s take on the world, and admires it.

The backstory for the BInat family is different from that of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, in that the family was cheated out of its former status due to the machinations of the brother of Mr. Binat, a much gentler and less acerbic version of Mr. Bennet in the original. His wife, who is much smarter and less of a ditz than Austen’s version, is well aware of the girls’ new status and determined that they will still marry well, and when the family is invited to the social event of the year, part of the wedding festivities of a couple of the area’s richest and most socially “in” young people, Mrs. Binat fully intends to set her daughters to work to attract someone who will propose to them immediately and make their dreams (or her version of their dreams) come true. That nobody else in the environment thinks this is a bizarre idea tells you a lot about the milieu in which the book is set.  So Jena meets Bungles and his two nasty sisters, and their handsome but snobbish friend, Darsee, and Darsee snubs Alys for her looks and what he considers her lack of breeding, and we’re off.

Considering that the events of Unmarriageable take place over a fairly short time period, it’s impressive how Kamal manages to hit all the high and low points of Pride and Prejudice, including Alys’ rejection of Darsee’s unexpected marriage proposal, Lady’s unfortunate elopement with Wickaam and the ways Alys changes her opinion of Darsee to lead to their happy ending. Nothing feels rushed, nothing feels as if it’s been forced into the book to match the original’s plot, but everything moves quickly and lightly toward our inevitable conclusion. It’s as satisfying as Pride and Prejudice, and that’s saying something.

I can’t end the review without raising my hat, figuratively, to Soniah Kamal for the way she gave even the most caricature-ish characters from Jane Austen their own lives, their own backstories, and their own dignity. I already mentioned how Mrs. Binat outshines Mrs. Bennet (though Mrs. Bennet, I have to say, is quite a great comic character), but Qitty, this book’s equivalent of Kitty, gets to be more than just an adjunct to Lady/Lydia.  She’s overweight and sensitive about it, but she’s also artistic and able to stand up for herself by the end of the book, which is more than Kitty ever does. Even Mari comes off as a better, more rounded person, than Mary Bennet: she’s deeply religious and what was priggish and obnoxious in Mary is sincere and even warmhearted in Mari.

Both the similarities and the differences between modern day Pakistan and 19th century rural England come alive in this book, and I ended up feeling as if I’d been given a glimpse into a world I hadn’t seen before very often, but that felt as real and alive as my own suburban New York.  

I can’t wait to see what Soniah Kamal will do when she’s not even slightly constricted by  the bones of a famous classic. Judging by Unmarriageable, it will be great fun.

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THE BEST CRIME WRITING OF THE YEAR, AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

If you’re in a criminal frame of mind, or you just want to read some of the best writing about crime published in 2018, your best bet is to check out the books that have been nominated for Edgar Awards this year, many of which are available right here at The Field Library. The Edgars are given by the Mystery Writers of America, and while the final awards won’t be announced until April 25, 2019, the nominees have been announced already, giving you plenty of time to sample what the experts in the field consider the best of the best.

In the category of Best Novel, three nominated books are here at The Field. Down the River Unto the Sea, is by Walter Mosley, already a Grand Master Edgar Award winner for his body of work. This new book doesn’t fit into any of his existing series, but nonetheless looks at the issues of justice and racism which have informed his work all along. The protagonist, John Oliver, was a top notch police officer until he was framed by his fellow cops and sent to prison. Ten years later, he’s working as a private investigator with his daughter when he receives a card from a woman who was involved in the frame. Obviously he needs to find out what happened and why, and this is his first real opportunity to do so.  At the same time, he’s also investigating the case of an African American journalist accused of killing two police officers in connection with the journalist’s investigation of police brutality and corruption.

The second Best Novel nominee we have here is Only to Sleep, by Lawrence Osborn, which is a new take on the iconic Raymond Chandler character,  Philip Marlowe, now 72 and in retirement until one last case comes his way, which is impossible for him to resist.  It seems one Donald Zinn supposedly drowned off his yacht, leaving behind a much younger wife who’s now extremely rich.  But is Zinn dead, or is this an elaborate fraud?

A Treacherous Curse, by Deanna Raybourn, is also nominated for Best Novel.  This is the third in the Veronica Speedwell series, following a Victorian butterfly hunter and world traveler who finds herself involved in various adventures along the way.  Here she’s investigating the disappearance of an archeologist and a priceless diadem from an ancient Egyptian princess’ newly discovered tomb. There are, it seems, all kinds of disasters associated with this particular expedition, and rumors of Anubis himself wandering the streets of London.  Veronica has to sort out fact from fantasy and figure out who or what has led to his disappearance, while conspiracies and threats swirl around her. If you’re into historical mysteries, especially ones set in the Victorian era, this is a series to read, but start at the beginning, which is A Curious Beginning, and is also available here at The Field.

Then there’s The Perfect Nanny, by Leila Slimani, which is nominated for Best Paperback Original.  This book has been a bestseller in Europe and generated a lot of buzz even before it was published here in America. It starts with a bang: two children are dead in their home, found by their mother. The nanny, the perfect nanny who was so good with the children, who made it possible for their mother to go back to her job as a lawyer, killed them. Why? How? The book then goes back to the beginning of the relationship between Myriam, the mother, and Louise, the middle-aged, seemingly ideal woman who will take charge of the children and of the parents, and follows through to the horrible denouement.  This is not a book for new parents or for people who don’t like horror in their mystery, but it packs a punch.

The Edgars also recognize new writers, and three of the Best First Novel nominees are here at The Field for your enjoyment as well.  A truly original and hard to categorize novel, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs, is one of those nominees.  Isaac Severy was a mathematician who died by apparent suicide, but before he died, he sent a note to his adopted granddaughter, Hazel, telling her to deliver a mathematical proof of his to a colleague, but warning her that a sinister organization is also interested in this proof and so it’s hidden for her to find.  When she goes to Isaac’s home, Hazel discovers that there are many people searching for that bombshell of an equation, including Isaac’s dysfunctional family of geniuses, and she comes to realize that it may be more dangerous than even Isaac thought, as she races against time and tries to use Isaac’s maddening clues to find the equation before something goes terribly wrong.

Bearskin, by James A. McLaughlin, also nominated for Best First Novel, takes the trope of the man on the run from the drug cartels and twists it in new ways.  Rice Moore, our protagonist, has run all the way to the Appalachians, to a remote area where his job is to track wildlife and refurbish cabins, where nobody from the Mexican cartel would be likely to find him. But someone is poaching the bears in this preserve, and Rice takes it personally, getting involved with the scientist studying the bears and setting in motion a plan to expose the poachers, which might have the unfortunate effect of revealing Rice himself to his most dangerous enemies.

Another mystery set in the world of nature, Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, is not just a nominee for Best First Novel, but is also a New York Times bestseller.  Kya Clark lives in the remote marshes on the North Carolina coast, a mysterious figure known to the locals as the Marsh Girl, given almost mythical qualities.  She’s been living on her own in the marshes since she was ten, isolated and more attuned to the world of nature than to human society, with a painful past. When the body of a young man is found, and he was known to have had some dealings with the Marsh Girl, the locals immediately turn on her, forcing her to defend herself against charges of murder. Did she or didn’t she?  What was her life like and what was her relationship with the dead man? A book that’s more often categorized as “literary” than “mystery,” this book is kind of an outlier in the Edgar category, but well worth checking out.

But if you’re not interested in fiction, fear not! The Edgars also recognize outstanding true crime reporting, and we can supply you with some outstanding examples of the genre.

One of the year’s nominees in the category of Best Fact Crime is a book the Field Notes Book Group read this past year, The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson.  I already wrote about it here, but I heartily recommend the book, especially for people who aren’t interested in violence or gore but are still interested in crime and the solving of crimes.

If, on the other hand, you’re interested in gritty reporting on crime and punishment, there’s Sex Money Murder: A Story of Crack, Blood and Betrayal, by Jonathan Green, another nominee for Best Fact Crime,  which takes you deep into the worst of the crack epidemic of the 1980’s and 1990’s in the Bronx, following the rise and fall of the Sex Money Murder gang, its leader and two of its foot soldiers, as well as the efforts of the police officers, F.B.I. officers and prosecutors who risked their lives to bring the gang to heel and to bring some kind of justice to the most dangerous parts of the city.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, by Michelle McNamara, is also a nominee for Best Fact Crime, and also a New York Times bestseller. While many people are fascinated by serial killers, especially the ones who never got caught (how many books are there on Jack the Ripper, for instance?), McNamara took her fascination to new heights or depths, becoming totally engrossed with a rapist-murderer in California in the 1970’s, seeking out all possible information about who he might have been, how he remained free, talking to everybody who had any connection to the murders and falling down the rabbit hole of conspiracy websites and chat rooms. The book is as much about her obsession and pursuit as it is about the killer himself and his horrible acts, but both are compelling and intriguing, in a horrible way.

Interested in the best crime writing around? Check out the Edgar nominees here at The Field Library.

 

THE PAST TRIPS YOU UP: GOOD RIDDANCE

Ready for a light, amusing read about families and coming to terms as an adult with the parents you thought you knew?  Check out Good Riddance, by Elinor Lipman, a humorous story of all the trouble you can get into with an old yearbook.

Daphne is an adult, technically, living in a tiny apartment in New York City, quickly married and even more quickly divorced, and at loose ends after her mother’s death. Her mother, who had been a teacher at the local high school in New Hampshire and the yearbook advisor for the class of 1968.  The class dedicated the yearbook to her, and she kept it for the rest of her life, attending all the class’ reunions and making little annotations by the sides of people’s pictures about how people turned out. The notes are pointed and in some cases a little cruel, as Daphne discovers when she receives the yearbook herself.  Her mother specifically wanted her to have it, though Daphne has no idea why.

Falling under the spell of one of the decluttering people (the author is too clever to name the particular book/television show, but you’ll recognize it from the description), Daphne holds the book to her chest to see if it sparks joy.  When it doesn’t, she tosses it into her building’s recycle bin, and that’s when her problems begin.

She has a somewhat eccentric neighbor, Geneva, who, it turns out, is something of a pack rat, rummaging through the recycling bin to see what treasures might be there. Naturally Geneva sees the yearbook and pounces on it, deciding that it’s a piece of Americana which she absolutely needs. Geneva, it turns out, is a documentary maker (at least in her own eyes), and she intends to use the yearbook as the basis for a documentary about an American high school, possibly focusing on Daphne’s mother’s experiences.  As soon as she contacts Daphne, Daphne has second thoughts about throwing the yearbook away, but Geneva invokes the timeless legal principle, Finders, Keepers.

As Daphne wrestles with her mother’s past and Geneva’s schemes, with her father moving to New York City to fulfill a childhood dream and her hunky next door neighbor helping her deal with the situation, things get more complicated, of course.  Daphne is a bit of a twit, but she gets her deserved happy ending, as do most of the other characters in the book, and she’s funny even when you want to shake her and tell her to use her brain for a change.

It’s a quick, lighthearted read, and even though you don’t learn everything about Daphne’s mother and her interesting past, you get to spend time with some charming characters and get some chuckles at Daphne’s absurd predicaments.  Not a bad way to spend a long winter evening!

EXPLORING THE DARK SECRETS OF THE PAST: THE NEXT FIELD NOTES SELECTION

After a vigorous and interesting discussion of The Kinship of Secrets, talking about secrets and families, about the differences between cultures and within cultures, about what constitutes good writing and what doesn’t, the Field Notes Book Group chose our book for our March meeting, which will take place at The Field Library on March 16 at 11:00.  The book is A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick.  Copies will be available at the circulation desk this week.

A Reliable Wife is a historical novel set in the turn of the century rural Wisconsin, where Ralph Truitt, a rich man haunted by tragedy, has sent for a woman to be a “reliable wife.” The woman who has answered his ad is not what she seems, though: Catherine Land is no simple honest woman, but a woman with a dark past and secrets of her own, whose intentions with respect to Ralph are sinister in the extreme.  However, Ralph isn’t the easily manipulated rube she thought she was marrying, and the two of them will develop their own strange and twisted relationship, where nothing comes out the way either of them expects.

Come and join us for what promises to be a fascinating exploration of human nature and human deception.  We will have the usual snacks and coffee and scintillating company on March 16 at The Field Library.

 

FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION

The kind of historical fiction I particularly enjoy is the type where the author takes something famous, something most people know about in a vague sense, and, by looking at it from a different perspective, brings it to new life.  Whether it’s The Wizard of Oz movie being made, or the home front in England during World War I, two new historical novels here at The Field Library bring us those kinds of new insights.

L. Frank Baum is well known, and deservedly so, for having written The Wizard of Oz, though probably more people these days are familiar with the 1939 movie made from the book. Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts, brings us to the period when the movie was being made, seeing the events through the eyes of Maud Baum, the widow of L. Frank Baum.  Coming to Hollywood to try to make sure the movie remains true to the spirit of her husband’s book, Maud remembers her past with Frank, her days as a Suffragist, and her attempt to save the girl who was the model for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Seeing Judy Garland rehearsing for the role of Dorothy, Maud feels the need to try to protect her, from the studio, from her stage mother, from the pressures all around her, and maybe save her as she couldn’t save the real Dorothy. Finding Dorothy is a rich look at the lives behind the famous story, and a portrait of a real woman’s fierce struggle against the constraints of her time and her role.

Rhys Bowen, author of the new book, The Victory Garden, is no stranger to historical fiction, between her Molly Murphy mystery series, set in New York around the turn of the century and her previous books set during World War II (In Farleigh Field and The Tuscan Child), she clearly has a talent for bringing the past to life.  The Victory Garden is set in England during World War I (the Great War, as they called it then), with the character of Emily Bryce eager to do her part to help her country in time of war, despite her parents’ strenuous opposition.  She falls in love with an Australian pilot at a local hospital, and when he’s sent back to the front, she finds work as a Land Girl, tending a large Devonshire estate. She discovers she’s pregnant, she’s not married, and her lover has died a hero’s death in the war, a devastating combination of blows. Pretending to be a war widow, Emily grows up quickly, inspired by her work and the community of people, mostly women, surrounding her.  For those of us who are fans of Rhys Bowen, picking up this book is a no-brainer. For historical fiction fans who haven’t yet encountered her, this is an excellent place to make her acquaintance.

 

 

TIME TRAVEL MURDER MYSTERY

We all know I love time travel novels. Probably The Field Library has acquired more time travel books since I’ve been buying new fiction than at any comparable period in its history, and I’m not the least bit sorry.  There’s just something about the whole concept of time travel that allows an author to talk about all kinds of different things, and in the most intriguing way, and no two that I’ve read tackle the questions from the same angle.  There’s a reason I put “read a book about time travel” first in the reading challenge for last year.

Our newest addition to the time travel collection is The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas, and it’s a wild read, great fun and enthralling enough that I read it in one day because I couldn’t put it down.

The premise is straightforward. In 1967, four women — Margaret, Grace, Lucille and Barbara (Bee) designed and built a working time machine.  But just as they unveiled their successful prototype in a press conference that was broadcast worldwide, Bee suffered a nervous breakdown on the air, throwing the whole enterprise into doubt.  As Bee went to a mental hospital to recover, the other women, led by the indomitable Margaret, pushed forward with the time machine, creating a company called the Conclave that would turn time travel into a viable business, open to military applications, scientific research, and people who could afford to go forward or backward in time.  The only one who was not allowed to have anything to do with the company was Bee, who was virtually ostracized by the other three and the rest of the world, ostensibly for her own good.

Some fifty years later, Bee is a grandmother, living in seclusion.  The Conclave is internationally famous. Time travelers have their own vocabularies to discuss their unique experiences. One day an origami rabbit is sent to Bee’s granddaughter, Ruby,  along with a newspaper clipping about a mysterious death of an unknown woman. Ruby wonders whether this is a threat to her grandmother, a prediction, or an effort to protect Bee from someone who wants to kill her. How can she not try to find out who sent the clipping and why?

Another young woman, Odette, finds a dead woman, shot several times, in the locked basement of the toy museum where she’s just started volunteering.  The woman’s face is obliterated and no one can figure out who she was or how she died. Odette is haunted by this experience, determined to find out who the woman was and why she was killed in such a bizarre way.

Naturally the two plotlines interweave, but because it’s a book involving time travel, there are multiple characters interacting in past and present and even future.  You might think this will make the book confusing, and it is, a little, but the author helps orient you by telling you who the point of view character of each chapter is, and when the chapter is taking place, and after a while, you find yourself making connections between the past and the present and the future, watching characters meet themselves at different ages, run into each other knowingly or not, and set events in motion that you’ve already seen occur.

It all ties together, and although I guessed who the murdered woman was and how she was killed before the author revealed it, that didn’t lessen my pleasure in the unwinding of the various plot threads in the least.  The characters are vivid and surprise you with their actions throughout the book, and death itself takes on a different shape and emotion with people who can witness a person’s death and then travel back to talk to the person when the person was still alive. There’s a special justice system that operates within the Conclave because the time travelers are subject to so many different laws in different times and places that they are, in some ways, outside the ordinary laws of this world, a fact which plays a significant part in the plot.

With all the pleasures of the book, I do have to warn potential readers about one flaw.  For some reason, there are a number of places where different people’s lines of dialogue are placed on the same line, so you have trouble following who said what in a conversation.  This is purely an error in editing, but it does get on your nerves after a while. I realize that books aren’t line edited the way they used to be, and typos are a lot more frequent in published books than they were, say, twenty or thirty years ago, but this really is embarrassing and whoever edited this book should be ashamed.

Leaving that aside, dive into The Psychology of Time Travel, and enjoy a mystery, a romance, a reflection on mortality and what matters most, and a purely fun read.

EXOTIC SETTINGS, EXOTIC MYSTERIES

While a really good writer can make almost any setting, no matter how familiar, seem new and exciting, there does come a point when you want something a little different, when you want to see a mystery set somewhere you haven’t been before, somewhere that hasn’t been the setting for hundreds of other mysteries, in print or on film. So often the setting becomes an integral part of the story, so that it couldn’t take place anywhere else, or the setting itself almost becomes a character in the story, so a standard place often leads to a predictable story. However, we have two new mysteries here at The Field Library which take place in settings very unusual for the mystery genre, and as a result, the stories themselves take on different dimensions.

Jane Harper, the author of the first mystery, The Lost Man, has written two other books set in Australia (The Dry and Force of Nature).  This one, a stand alone, takes place in the unforgiving outback in central Australia.  The three Bright brothers each live on their own ranch, three miles apart, each the other’s nearest neighbor.  In December, Cameron, the middle brother, disappears. Months later, his two brothers, Bud and Nathan, find Cameron’s body lying dead at the fence that acts as a boundary for their lands. The family gathers to grieve, along with long time employees and recently hired ranch hands, but Nathan becomes suspicious about exactly how and why his brother died. Why would someone as experienced in the harshness of the summer outback have just wandered off under the hot sun? Could he have been forced to his death?  And if so, there are very few people who could possibly have had a hand in his death, all of them related, one way or another, to Cameron and his brothers. Family secrets emerge as possible motives for murder under the brutal heat and isolation of the outback.

If the thought of so much dry heat is too much for you, you can turn to Watcher in the Woods, by Kelley Armstrong, for a complete contrast. Watcher is set in the secret town of Rockton, in the Yukon territory, a place off the maps, where many of the inhabitants are criminals or victims fleeing from civilization.  Casey Duncan, our protagonist, is one of the three police officers who keep order in the town, and while she’s no stranger to violent crime there, she’s surprised that any outsider could find the place, let alone cause trouble there. A U.S. Marshal appears, demanding the officers release one of the residents to him, without specifying exactly who he’s seeking, and within a few hours, he’s been shot dead.  The pool of suspects is limited to the people in town, including Casey’s sister who just arrived, and Casey and her fiance, the town sheriff, have to determine what the Marshal knew and who was willing to kill to keep it secret, before the killer strikes again. In a town of so many secrets, so many people hiding from the world, that’s not going to be easy.

Take your pick: Australia or the Yukon.  You’ll enjoy a different world, and a different kind of mystery.

MAKE YOURSELF BETTER BY MAKING SOMETHING

How could I resist a book with the title Craftfulness: Mend Yourself by Making Things?  It’s as if the authors, Rosemary Davidson and Arzu Tahsin, looked into my psyche to find exactly the concept that would push all my buttons. And whether you’re a person who does crafts or whether you just wish you could de-stress and take more control over your life, you may very well find that Craftfulness speaks to you in a powerful way as well.

It’s an odd duck of a book. It’s not really a crafting book per se, though it does have some projects late in the book for you to see if a particular craft resonates with you (making a loom and weaving something with it, knitting, binding a small book, making a clay pot, drawing and keeping a journal). It’s not quite a self-help book either, though it probably fits more into that realm than anything else. It reads as if the two authors were sitting in your living room, showing you the crafts they do and explaining, with great enthusiasm, why they believe working with their hands is a lifesaving thing, or at least a sanity saving thing.

There’s definitely something intuitively right about their whole premise: they quote from neurological studies as well as from anecdotal evidence about how creative work calms the mind, helps one achieve a sense of “flow” and helps overly intellectual or overly scheduled people to feel better and work better overall.  I suppose it’s a sign of our times that we feel we need some kind of expert permission to make things with our hands, as if someone who’s knitting or making a clay pot or drawing is just fooling around and not being a productive member of society, as if we have to be working all the time at “important” things instead of doing things just because we enjoy them.  We can, the authors assure us (not in so many words), do things we enjoy because they’re also good for us, a form of self-care. If you have trouble getting into actual meditation, the idea that becoming deeply involved with a recreational activity (like knitting or sewing or bookbinding) can give you the same mental and psychological benefits as meditation is very attractive.

With aplomb and plenty of personal examples, they demolish many of the obstacles to starting a new creative practice, including the fear of failure, the overly critical sense we have when we’re trying something we’re not good at yet (there’s one powerful statement that as adults our critical faculties are so much more developed than our creative ones, so we tend to be much more harshly judgmental than we should be), the notion that only some special, gifted people can be artists and the rest of us should just steer clear of anything that might be considered creative. This is a fun book to read even if you already spend time making things for the sheer pleasure of it; sometimes you need to be reminded that what you’re doing is good for you and good in general.

If the world is too stressful, or too grey and cold, Craftfulness encourages you to try something different, to use a different part of your brain and return to the joyful creativity of your earliest childhood.  It’s a delightful book, a quick and inspiring read, and it made me want to go back to the sketchpad for another round of drawing.

 

WHERE COLOR MEANS EVERYTHING: WE CAST A SHADOW

As a parent, how far would you go to take care of your child?  What would you be willing to sacrifice in order to protect your child from danger?  If you knew your child was going to be the victim of prejudice and trouble his whole life because of a physical trait you could get fixed, how much would be too much to get that trait fixed?

These are the questions at the heart of a new dystopian novel, We Cast a Shadow, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, but with a twist.  The added factor in We Cast a Shadow is racism taken to a new level.  In the future world of this book, a series of procedures have been created called Demelanization.  Skin can be lightened, lips thinned, noses reconstructed, all to make a black person look more like a white person.  Of course, there’s a cost for these procedures, and it’s not cheap by any means, but in the increasingly segregated and dangerous world of the United States, more and more African Americans are opting for these procedures.  

Our unnamed narrator is a black man who has managed to succeed in this world; he’s living outside the ghetto, he’s married to a white woman, he’s got a good, well-paying job as a lawyer in a large firm.  He’s also he father of Nigel, a biracial child with a black birthmark that’s growing larger and larger. He’s convinced Nigel’s only hope of success in this world is to lose all evidence that he has any African American traits at all, via the demelanization procedure.  

In order to afford the procedure, he has to make partner, win bonuses, at his firm, but he has to compete with the few other African Americans in the firm for whatever crumbs of status and money might be available. He’s willing to do whatever is necessary, as he defines necessary; even if this means engaging in humiliating and even degrading exercises.  His self-hatred and internalized sense of his own racial inferiority motivate him almost as much as his love for his son does.

At what point does protection become harm?  How far can a parent go to save his or her own child from a system that’s horrible and dangerous?  How far is the protagonist of We Cast a Shadow willing to go, and is that too far?   Suspenseful, satirical and thought-provoking, We Cast a Shadow is a book for our times.