South Asian Redheads?

Lancelot, the playwright whose perspective Lauren Groff features in the first half of Fates and Furies,* is oddly speechless when he sees composer Leo Sen for the first time:

[W]hen Lancelot still couldn’t speak, the ginger boy said drily, ‘Expecting an Indian, weren’t we. I get that often. My father’s half Indian and looks it. His genes were steamrolled by my mother’s. On the other hand, my sister looks like she should be in a Bollywood film and nobody can believe we are related one iota.’

“Sen,” as the novel tells us, derives from the Sanskrit word for “army,” leading Lancelot to assume that Leo Sen would look South Asian, a group known for black hair rather than red.

South Asian American RedheadsAs it turns out, Leo is like my redheaded twin daughters, who are a quarter South Asian. I’m half Sri Lankan — and look it — but I did not pass that outward appearance onto my girls.

However, their sandy-haired, blue-eyed father’s genes did not “steamroll” mine.  Our daughters’ red hair — an autosomal recessive trait — comes as much from me as it does from him. Our girls received a copy of the MC1R gene from each of us. I received mine from my redheaded father, who is of mostly European ancestry, but the single copy resulted in little more than slightly reddish highlights in my otherwise off-black hair.

My husband’s surname did steamroll mine, though.** As a result, unlike Leo Sen, my daughters have an “appropriately” Irish-sounding last name to match their bonny red hair. That doesn’t stop nosy strangers from gawking at our family. People often ask us about our relationship — “those can’t be your kids, right?” — thereby causing uncomfortable interactions that I’m exploring in a light-hearted way with my children in Anusha of Prospect Corner.  In our update to Anne of Green Gables, the main character’s ambivalence about her red hair stems from insecurity about her racial identity rather than from anti-ginger bias.

My daughters are only just beginning to explore what it means to be redheaded girls of a multiracial background in our part of America. To what extent will the way others perceive them impact how they perceive themselves?

My own racial identity has changed over the years. I felt much more “non-white” when I was in college, as many people reacted to 9/11 with fear and hostility towards anyone who looked like they could be of Middle Eastern descent. In law school, a place with few ethnic minorities, I didn’t feel “white” at all. Now, I often slip into saying I’m bi-racial, focusing on only the two biggest contributors to my genetic makeup, even though I would not be here but for my ancestors from two other continents.

All of this is to say that racial identity isn’t easy to define. As the Pew Research Center recently discussed in Who is Multiracial? Depends on How You Ask:

Racial identity is far from a straightforward concept, and when multiple strands of identity come together this has the potential to increase the complexity. An individual’s racial self-identity may take into account a range of factors beyond genealogy, including family ties, physical appearance, culture and how others perceive them. In other words, being multiracial is more than just a straightforward summation of the races in an individual’s family tree.

To figure out how to best capture this complexity, Pew tested six different ways of defining a population of multiracial individuals to survey. The way the question was asked had a large impact on the percentage of respondents who said that they were mixed-race.

With the standard two-question measure (similar to what the Census currently uses), which asks the respondent to choose one or more races with a separate question for Hispanic ethnicity, only 3.7% of the population identified themselves as multiracial. Meanwhile, when the researchers asked respondents to identify whether their grandparents were of “some other race or origin” different from their own, the mixed-race population grew to 16.6%.

I wonder how my own children will fill out these types of forms when they’re older. My hope is that they will see their identity broadly, basing it on more than just their outward appearance. There is more to racial identity than meets the eye.

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*To see Mr. AMB’s thoughts on Fates and Furies–and his review of its reviews–check out: Fates and Furies (What On Earth Is Going On With Its Reviews?).

**Ah, Patriarchy.

***Image above: My little S in 2010.  This is what my twins look like now:

Kids enjoying Kindles

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Fates and Furies (What On Earth Is Going On With Its Reviews?)

Fates and Furies

In this post, Mr. A.M.B. critiques long book reviews and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies:

I typically skip long reviews of books before reading the book. I assume they’re more geared towards criticism and interpretation than towards actually telling me if I should read the book or not.

I thus didn’t read much about Fates and Furies before reading it, because most of the reviews I saw were quite lengthy. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a story about the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde, told first from Lotto’s perspective (“Fates”) and then again from Mathilde’s (“Furies”). Lotto’s tale is told primarily in chronological order. Mathilde picks up the tale at the end of “Fates” and then fills in details about the past via flashbacks and the like.

Now, having read the book and then the reviews, I wonder what on earth is going on at the major publishing outlets. For example:

  • The New Yorker justifies dumping all of the major turning points of the book with the excuse: “a novel that can be truly ‘spoiled’ by the summary of its plot is a novel that was already spoiled by that plot.” It’s a cute turn of phrase, but one that is just as meaningless as the lyrics to a pop song. The prolonged review ends with an equally meaningless admonition: “Narrative secrets are not the same as human mysteries, a lesson that novelists seem fated to forget, again and again; the former quickly confess themselves, and fall silent, while the true mysteries go on speaking.”
  • The New York Times’ review looks more like the product of a quick skim of the book than an actual reading. They conclude that the husband’s instant transformation from a privileged and libidinous playboy into an ascetic and monogamous artist was “fairly plausible, a life that might transpire in the world the rest of us inhabit.” They similarly argue that, “In later years, while [the wife] is capable of love … she isn’t notably softened by that emotion in any essential way,” which suggests to me that they wholly missed one of the key plot turnings in the book.
  • The Washington Post’s review struck me as the most reasonable one, even if they embarrassingly said the characters went to Yale instead of Vassar. I searched the book: “Yale” appears nowhere in it. A minor mistake, but the type of plain error that makes it difficult to take the rest of the review seriously.
  • NPR frames the story as, “The voice that tells Lotto’s half of the tale is dreamy. Mathilde’s is rougher, crueler. … Do we close the book believing in the purity and genius of the fated son, or with nothing but a cold and lingering fury?” I’d answer: neither. Lotto’s “purity” comes more from his extraordinarily self-absorption than from any real strength of character, and Mathilde’s “coldness” is revealed to be a facade by her devotion to Lotto and her truly generous act in helping two people who had shown her nothing but malice and manipulation.

I liked Fates and Furies, not least because the pacing is indeed “propulsive,” as the book’s back cover says, but I’d recommend it with the caveat that “people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” It’s not for everybody. The prose is highfalutin, the main characters are so deep in the rarefied world of the arts that they’re not relatable, and the book over-reaches with the abundant references to classical tragedies and comedies, the parenthetical comments presumably from the Greek choir, and the excerpts from Lotto’s plays. In a word, the book is pretentious, but at least the author runs with it.

 

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Who Says Redheads Can’t Wear Pink?!

S with pink frames

One of my little redheads recently got a new pair of reading glasses. I love them on her.

As you can see, my daughter continues to strongly disagree with Anne Shirley about whether redheads can wear pink (see Dear Anne Shirley: Redheads CAN Wear Pink).

We’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Anne of Green Gables as we work on Anusha of Prospect Corner, our retelling of L.M. Montgomery’s classic story. Our modern Anne is named Anusha. She’s a redhead of the same background as my daughters, who are a quarter Sri Lankan. We were 16,000 words into our story when I discussed it last month in Who Would Choose to be Born in December? Now, we’re almost 30,000 words into it.

Each week, I write a couple of new chapters, which my twins critique. Then, they make suggestions about what should happen next. Yesterday, after reading a perplexing “get well soon” card Anusha received after an accident forced her to stay home from school, one of my daughters (the one pictured above) asked if we could write other cards from her classmates.

In response to my daughter’s request, I put together a “get well soon” card from Josie, whom L. M. Montgomery describes as a girl with a “malicious smile.” Here’s what our updated Josie wrote to Anusha:

Card Gif Take 2

I’ll write the rest of the cards — ones from our versions of Diana, Ruby, and others — with my girls. This project is so much fun. :-)

*The pink frames are from Zenni Optical.

**In case you didn’t catch the whole message from Josie, this is what she said: Dear Anusha- I heard you showed that oak tree who’s boss! Everybody’s been talking about you so much that it hardly feels like you’ve been absent. I can’t go a single day without hearing something about you. Hurry back! ~XOXOXO~ Josie

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Double Review: Aurora (Science Fiction) & The Vital Question (Science Fact)

For those interested in inter-generational voyages and chemiosmotic coupling, here is a double review from Mr. AMB on Aurora (Science Fiction) and The Vital Question (Science Fact). They sound fascinating.

~AMB

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson has racked up an impressive array of glowing reviews, including from The Guardian, NPR, and Scientific American. (This review from Book Smugglers is also good, but I think it has a bit too many spoilers to be read before the book–unless you’re into that sort of thing).

AuroraAccording to the publisher, “AURORA tells the incredible story of our first voyage beyond the solar system.” The ship is bound for a planetary system near Tau Ceti, which is so far away that the only way to get there is by way of an inter-generational voyage. We pick up the story near the end of the trip, long after the original crew (and their children) has already died. The characters have thus lived their entire lives on this mission and on this ship, which has been built with biospheres meant to mimic many of the environments on Earth.

Put simply, if Aurora sounds like the type of book you think you might like, then you should probably read it. My primary critique is that the first quarter of the book is too slow and would have been better clipped down to the first tenth or eighth of the book. That said, I agree with The Guardian that, “Where the novel really scores, though, is in the depth and truth of his human beings, both as individual characters and as communities. Indeed, it’s the way Robinson is able to combine individual and social perspectives into a seamless whole that really makes the book.”

One of the reasons I liked the book is because it made me think about real scientific issues; a science fiction book should make you think about the underlying science. So instead of reiterating what other reviews have said, let me jump to a scientific issue. In this video by Robinson (I’ve started it at the relevant point), he makes the point that an earth analogue planet is “either alive or dead.” That is, the planet either has some life of some sort or none at all, and if it has life, then “you’ve got a terrible problem because it is very possible that this alien lifeform will be not good for you and you not good for it.” A character in the book makes the same point.

The Vital QuestionTo address this issue, let me recommend another book: Nick Lane’s The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, which was one of Bill Gates’ best books of 2015.

The Vital Question attempts to answer one of the most perplexing questions in biology: how did life arise on Earth?

Lane is a Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London. He would be the first to admit that his ideas are, for the moment, mostly untested hypotheses, but the arguments he makes are compelling. Lane argues that, given the basic principles of chemistry, “life” can only take on a certain number of forms, and all of them will be chemiosmotic cells that rely on using proton gradients to react hydrogen and carbon.

As Lane puts it:

In this book, I will argue that natural proton gradients drove the origin of life on earth in a very particular environment, but an environment that is almost certainly ubiquitous across the cosmos: the shopping list is just rock, water and CO2. I will argue that chemiosmotic coupling constrained the evolution of life on earth to the complexity of bacteria and archaea for billions of years. A singular event, in which one bacterium somehow got inside another one, overcame these endless energetic constraints on bacteria. That endosymbiosis gave rise to eukaryotes with genomes that swelled over orders of magnitude, the raw material for morphological complexity. The intimate relationship between the host cell and its endosymbionts (which went on to become mitochondria) was, I shall argue, behind many strange properties shared by eukaryotes. Evolution should tend to play out along similar lines, guided by similar constraints, elsewhere in the universe. If I am right (and I don’t for a moment think I will be in all the details, but I hope that the bigger picture is correct) then these are the beginnings of a more predictive biology. One day it may be possible to predict the properties of life anywhere in the universe from the chemical composition of the cosmos.

Kindle Locations 1315-1324. As he says, while explaining the long, difficult trip that “life” took from random chemicals in the ocean to the incredible last universal common ancestor of life, “these strict requirements can explain why all life on earth is chemiosmotic [i.e., the way that life is built upon the movement of ions across a selectively permeable membrane] – why this strange trait is as universal as the genetic code itself.” Kindle Locations 4575-4591.

With that background, an “alive” planet is not inherently problematic to human colonists. An “alive” planet could be filled to the brim with dangerous lifeforms that would could, for example, hijack our mitochondria or disrupt our immune systems — just like Earth-bound infectious diseases do today — but it’s highly likely that human explorers in the future would be able to discover and evaluate these lifeforms quickly upon their arrival. It’s also likely that, for many of these alien lifeforms, our immune systems would be able to mount a resistance, because you’re alive and reading this article precisely because you and your ancestors, going all the way back three billion years to LUCA, have been able to withstand a constant onslaught of attacks by other carbon-based, chemiosmotic lifeforms.

I should note here that The Vital Question doesn’t stop at that part of early evolution. The bulk of the book is really about the rise of eukaryotes, and Lane’s compelling argument that the constraints imposed by the symbiosis between eukaryotes and their mitochondria are responsible for our most complex traits, from sex differentiation to infertility to death.

The book is loaded with thought-provoking concepts, and fascinating hypotheses for why the “Tree of Life” you saw in high school is all wrong, why some animals are far more fertile than others, and why regular exercise makes people live longer while consuming too many antioxidants makes people to die sooner.

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Would You Want A Kids’ Book Endorsed By Bill Cosby?

What in the world is going on_Who Is Bill Cosby

My children counted the helicopters hovering above us while we ate lunch at our local co-op:

“It’s five!,” the youngest called out.

“No, eleven,” said the eldest. “I mean twelve.”

“Yeah, it’s twelve,” her younger-by-six-minutes twin agreed.

Then, after three police cars turned up to block the street in front of us, they finally asked: “What in the world is going on?” (see above for their depictions of the scene).

I replied, “Um, well, a famous man who got arrested is going to court today in our neighborhood,” a response that elicited the barrage of “who, what, where, when, and why” questions I’ve come to expect from my children. They rarely settle for incomplete answers.

“Who is the famous man?” was a relatively easy follow-up question to address.*

It was Bill Cosby, whose arraignment on criminal charges happened last week at the courthouse in our neighborhood. He’s charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault stemming from an alleged 2004 attack at a home around the corner from where I went to middle school. It may seem odd that he’s being charged now, twelve years after the alleged events, but that’s only because the former District Attorney refused to prosecute Cosby back in 2005. The victim in this case is one of several women who have accused Cosby of drugging them to have sex without their consent.

These are the first criminal charges to be brought against Cosby. He is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a criminal court, but his deposition in the civil case related to the alleged 2004 attack is damning:

Question (the victim’s lawyer):  “When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?”

Answer (Cosby): Yes.

It won’t be easy for Cosby’s defense to get around the fact that he’s admitted under oath that he gave women illegal sedatives in order to have sex with them. What the new District Attorney has to do is prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Cosby did the same to the victim of the alleged 2004 attack without her consent.

Of course, my children haven’t heard anything about Bill Cosby’s criminal case, and they aren’t familiar with him from The Cosby Show or Jell-O commercials. They know Bill Cosby’s name because he endorsed Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales, a beautifully illustrated collection of African stories.** My twins received it a few weeks ago as a birthday present from my sister. Having ordered the book online, she didn’t notice Cosby’s name on the cover until it arrived by mail.

nelson mandela cover with cosby

The book was published in 2002, before any allegations against Cosby had been made publicly, and republished in 2007, after the initial allegations but before the media firestorm that began in 2014.**  Even if we forgive the publisher for using the endorsement of a man who already had more than one terrible accusation against him, wasn’t Nelson Mandela’s endorsement of this collection of folktales enough?

Mandela worked to end apartheid in South Africa, received the Nobel Peace Prize, and became South Africa’s first black president. It’s sad that the publisher thought that putting an American entertainer’s name and banal quote on the front cover would make Nelson Mandela’s collection more palatable for American readers.

Considering Cosby’s current reputation, I wonder how well this version of the book will sell now. My sister almost sent it back when she noticed Cosby’s name on the cover.
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*The hardest question to answer is “why”: “Why is this famous man in trouble?” I did my best to explain it in a way my children would understand without scaring them, referencing “good” touch and “bad” touch. (For more on age appropriateness and references to sex and/or sexual violence, see (1) Is this Book Adorable or “Lewd” and “Unsuitable for Small Children”?and (2) Julie of the Wolves: An E-Book My Children Won’t Read Until They’re Older).

**The book refers to Nelson Mandela in the present tense. He passed away in 2013.

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A Novel Inspired By Real-Life Litigation (& Jane Austen, Of Course)

AEE obituary 2

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliot was only 14-years-old when she lost her mother, the sensible and amiable Lady Elliot. The year was 1800, according to Sir Walter Elliot’s Baronetage book.

More than two hundred years later and across the Atlantic Ocean, the fictional Elkins family is reeling from a similar loss in Amelia Elkins Elkins. In my retelling of Persuasion, the matriarch’s untimely death propels her family to turn to the courts for justice.

Just last week, the Philadelphia courts resolved a similar type of case to the one at the heart of my novel. In this real-life case, the plaintiff won an award of $12.5 million ($5.5 million in compensatory damages and $7 million in punitive damages) against Johnson & Johnson, which marketed an unsafe medical product made by Ethicon, one of its subsidiaries. The product was a vaginal mesh implant that caused the plaintiff to suffer on-going health problems that left her unable to have sex.

If that award sounds like a lot of money, consider this: the jury also heard Johnson & Johnson had $69 billion in shareholders equity, of which $44.1 billion was in the form of liquid assets. After the verdict, a Johnson & Johnson spokesperson said, “We believe the evidence showed Ethicon’s Prolift pelvic organ prolapse repair kit was properly designed; Ethicon acted appropriately and responsibly in the research, development and marketing of the product; and Prolift was not the cause of the plaintiff’s continuing medical problems.”

The point of punitive damages is to send a message for truly outrageous conduct, and Johnson & Johnson remains completely unrepentant. Maybe they’ll learn their lesson after a couple more verdicts like the one they just received in Philadelphia.

By the time I was writing Amelia Elkins Elkins, there were already about 50,000 transvaginal mesh cases filed in courts across the country, including the one that resolved in Philadelphia last week. The fictional lawsuit in my story is different from the typical mesh litigation, which usually involve product liability-related claims like negligence and strict liability, in that it also involves a wrongful death claim.

For the fictional Gladys Elkins, the pelvic mesh implant plays a role in her death. However, as the story unfolds, new details emerge that lead her daughter Amelia and the family’s lawyers to think twice about how to proceed with the case.

The novel includes excerpts from fictional court documents, which I tried to make as interesting as possible while retaining the ring of truth (this is no small feat considering how dull legal documents typically are!).

I was nervous about what readers would think of this aspect of the novel, particularly if they aren’t lawyers. Thankfully, though, Maggie from Macarons & Paperbacks allayed my concerns when she said in her review:

One of my favorite parts about this novel is how the romance, although thrilling and sweet, was not the main focus of the story. I loved diving into the legal world, which I know little about, and I appreciate how Blair clearly described all of the technical terms and documents. Being an attorney herself, I imagine that she’s had plenty of practice explaining legal practices to clients! If you’ve ever had any interest in the legal field, you’ll definitely enjoy following this fictional lawsuit as it envelops readers in mystery and intrigue.

Phew. Hopefully, others will feel the same way.

**UPDATE regarding the type of product that plays a role in the fictional events in Amelia Elkins Elkins: On January 4, 2016, the Food & Drug Administration announced that transvaginal mesh products used for pelvic organ prolapse repair will now have a “Class III” warning (instead of a Class II/moderate risk warning) because they carry a high risk of adverse events. For more on this announcement, see Litigation & Trial’s The FDA Is Doing Too Little, Too Late About Transvaginal Mesh.

Portion of Amelia Elkins Elkins Cover

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A Very Unfroglike Frog (Who Made My Daughter Cry)

IMG_4531 (2)

One of the books I gave my twins last week for their 8th birthday was Donna Jo Napoli’s The Prince of the Pond, a middle grade novel. This retelling of “The Frog Prince” fairy tale features a very unfroglike frog.

The Prince of the PondFor starters, he has given himself a name, which his amphibious female companion has never known a frog to do before.

He knows nothing about how typical green frogs behave because, well, he was originally a human prince. Now, unable to adjust to his long and sticky tongue, he is “the fawg pin,” which is the closest he’s able to come to saying “the frog prince.”

His female companion diligently teaches him how to be a frog, while he teaches her how to be a “fawg.”

Part of being a “fawg” involves raising their offspring, which is “unfroglike.” As his astute other half tells him:

This attitude is not froglike. Frogs lay eggs. Then they leave. Insects come. Snakes and toads and bullfrogs come. Everything eats the eggs. And everything eats the tadpoles. It doesn’t matter what happens to them. They’re on their own.

Pin’s tadpoles, however, are not on their own. Parenting is an unusual trait for green frogs, but as I’ve learned from the Internet, it’s not such an unusual trait for other species of frogs.

According to Smithsonian.com:

However, in Napoli’s story, the human-born Pin does far more to protect his young from snakes, toads, and bullfrogs than any real-life frog would do. This overprotective parenting style results in a generation of “fawgs” who don’t know how to fend for themselves–which is fine, as long as Pin is around to protect them.

Which leads us to the part of the story that broke my daughter’s heart (spoiler alert):

Pin isn’t around forever. No parent is.

The Prince of the Pond is a poignant retelling of a well-known fairy tale, one that’s worth reading.  However, it was not the best birthday gift for my soft-hearted 8-year-old (pictured below). I wish I had known that before giving it to her.

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IMG_6054*This novel is part of a trilogy, but no one in my family has read the other two books: Jimmy the Pickpocket of the Palace and Gracie the Pixie of the Puddle.

**For more on devoted amphibian dads, see the Exploratorium’s Parenting, Frog Style. However, before we feel all lovey-dovey for daddy frogs, there’s this: Overzealous Male Frogs Practice a Practical Sort of Necrophilia. Nature is fascinating.

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