Sunday, January 25

Privacy

A caveat: In the midst of busy preparations for the release of Allure of Deceit, I have not seen the film American Sniper. Such war films have little to do with my books set in Afghanistan, even though a primary character of Fear of Beauty was an Army Ranger.

Chris Kyle, his story in American Sniper, stood apart among veterans for many reasons - a special skill, intense feelings, an ability to relay his story.

My stories address the workings of modern globalization by examining personal relations on the ground, eye to eye, along with village and family routines, the everyday and ordinary relations that are complicated enough without extra layers of social controls or conflict. Few of the American and Afghan characters in my stories seek out attention, and instead most strive to blend with their communities. They keep their motivations a secret and they grieve, plan, love, manipulate, dream in privacy - and that lends them a special strength.

Such characters often discover a special affinity with strangers.

Like my previous four novels, Allure of Deceit is story about parenting. Yet it's a story of several parenting styles, not just one. Parents make choices about how to raise their children and this influences entire communities. As such, the story is political and, like our world, the story is complicated and never one-sided.
Not to be missed: The essay "The United States of 'American Sniper'" by Kyle's teammate in The Wall Street Journal. Won't repeat and spoil his conclusion here, but will remind readers that many rights and privileges, challenges and conflicts, are tightly interconnected.

Photo of abandoned Afghan village, courtesy of Todd Huffman and Wikimedia Commons. The reason for the desertion is unknown, though Huffman speculates that occupants either fled to refugee camps in Pakistan or were killed during the war with the Soviet Union. Request a review copy. 


Tuesday, January 20

Hills

During heated arguments, some individuals keep their opinions to themselves, especially for the topics on which agreement is impossible.

On such topics, writers may strive for ambiguity by allowing - even encouraging - readers to reach their own conclusions. Abortion is one such topic.

The short story "Hills Like White Elephants," by Ernest Hemingway influenced the approach taken on abortion in Allure of Deceit. In either story, readers may not be sure about where exactly the writer stands on the topic. But one theme runs true - the urge for individuals to take control of another's life. Such quests are common even though men and women, too, often do not respect what they can readily control. For resolution of such stories, so much depends on a reader's own experiences and opinion.

"Hills" is about a couple engaging in what seems like a tired argument while waiting in a station bar for arrival of an express train to Madrid. The word "abortion" is not mentioned in the story, but the man exerts mild pressure, urging the woman to undergo a procedure, suggesting that it's "awfully simple" and "really an operation at all." The pregnancy, again not specified, looms over the relationship and, like it or not, will set the direction for its future course. The male character may recognize the decision is not his to make and demonstrates little responsibility for the outcome either way.

The story emerges through dialogue rather than characters' observations and description. "Hemingway's accurate ear for speech patterns duplicates the gender-linked miscommunications which exist between man and women in the real world," wrote Pamela Smiley for The Hemingway Review in 1998. As a result of these differences, there are two Jigs: the nurturing, creative, and affectionate Jig of female language, and the manipulative, shallow, and hysterical Jig of male language." Smiliey goes on to suggest there are also two sides to the male who is referred to as the American: "in the female language he is a cold, hypocritical and powerful oppressor; in the male language he is stoic, sensitive and intelligent victim."

Yet, the gender distinctions and who holds power may not be so clear-cut.

Another essential element of the dialogue in "Hills" are the questions and how they signal character transformation during the course of the story. There are 26 question marks in all. At first, most come from the female character, and they are shallow and needy, asking the man what they should drink, what the print says on a beaded curtain says, and whether her observation that the nearby hills look like white elephants is "bright."

Midway through the story, the man asks questions, too, as he nervously reaches understanding that Jig does not necessarily agree with him that the pregnancy should be terminated. Her questions continue, but they become more challenging, taking on the tone of orders: "What makes you think so?" "And if I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me?" and "Can't we maybe stop talking?"

Toward the end, the man relies on questions to change the topic. Jig wants to nail down a description of the nearby hills, which she describes as "white elephants," and "lovely" and "with skin." The man interrupts by asking if she wants another drink.

In the end, the male character is left posing the final question, returning after re-positioning their luggage for the incoming train. He also stops for a drink alone in the bar, another sign that alcohol and time alone are methods for masking or dwelling on discontent. Upon his return, he asks if she feels better, hinting at the state of  hysteria described by Smiley. Jig's response, "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine," suggests her emotions run true. The female is not ill or damaged or fearful, and the pregnancy is not a leading problem for her.

The story is about a man pressing a woman who is initially uncertain about a course of action, and subtly demonstrates how the pressure strengthens her resolve. That could involve going ahead with the procedure or going ahead with the pregnancy and birth. Either way, Jig likely contemplates ending a relationship with the man who offers annoying lectures, as indicated by her plea for him to stop talking, accentuated by the word "please" used seven times.

The lack of trust and distance in the short exchange of dialogue is intense. Jig seeks reassurance that the couple can be happy again and resume their carefree ways. The male character's early confidence only increases her doubt about his role in her happiness. He focuses on immediate concerns, loving her "now" while insisting they cannot have "the whole world."

The male character presses her to take steps that will preserve their wandering ways, summed up in another pointed, judgmental question by Jig: "That's all we do, isn't it - look at things and try new drinks?" She is unsatisfied and yearns for more than an aimless life with a manipulative partner.

The story and dialogue take a sharp and ambiguous turn, as suggested in the long exchange without attribution toward the end when Jig talks about having the whole world and "everything." The man argues with her. By paragraph breaks and orderly dialogue progression, the line "We can go everywhere" should be Jig's and the line "once they take it away, you never get it back" belongs to the man. Yet someone speaks out of turn as the breaks do not show an even back or forth. The reader can only be certain about who is speaking again when the man urges the woman to "Come back in the shade" and chides that she "mustn't feel that way." If the dialogue had been orderly, that line should have been Jig's turn to respond. One character had two lines in a row, and this reader suspects it was the man toward the end of exchange.

The confusion is momentary as the characters speak in circles to the point of going into role reversal, seemingly for the sake of argument. Still, Jig's side of the dialogue offers keen recognition that, regardless of the decision, there is no going back.

Conservatives and liberals could embrace this story and yet neither can be exactly certain that the set of words will sway other readers to their way of thinking - and that is the story's power. Hemingway may have been undecided, too. He gives his readers the power to take their own stance.

~~~

The context for abortion in Allure of Deceit may be more manipulative - a tale about another procedure, supposed to be so easy and simple. Yet the attempt to exert control over another human does not work out as planned, sending out repercussions for others well into the future. Characters cannot control the feelings of others, unless of course those other characters want to be controlled.

Photo of the Ebro River in Spain courtesy of Nicola and Wikimedia Commons.


Thursday, January 15

No limits

Pope Francis defends freedom of expression to a point.

"One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people's faith, one cannot make fun of faith." The Guardian reports the comments were made during his travel from Sri Lanka to the Philippines. "There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity ... in freedom of expression there are limits."

Every faith may have its dignity, but each also is riddled with corruption and cruelties that accompany power over others. Dignity is not about killing shoppers in a Kosher grocery store, storming offices of a satirical newspaper and killing staff and the police who guard them, beheading journalists or imposing archaic rules on Muslims in Syria or Iraq. It's not about ignoring and hiding hundreds of reports of children abused by priests over decades.

The world's religions are in competition. Globalization ensures ongoing debate, and satire ensures that key questions are heard by many. Satire may be in poor taste or miss the mark, still the wide range of ideologies demonstrates that some religious beliefs must be wrong. More likely, any spiritual message interpreted by humans is flawed, as indicated by a timeline on the history of free speech, also provided by the Guardian:

1633: Galileo answers to the Inquisition for the claim that the sun does not revolve around the earth.

1859: Fundamentalists attack Charles Darwin for the theory of natural selection.

1989: The Iranian leader issues a fatwa against author Salman Rushdie over "blasphemous" content. the fatwa is withdrawn in 1998.

The inability to embrace free speech for one's opponents in the constant global exchange of ideas demonstrates a lack of confidence and faith, often leading to bullying and coercion. Progress requires free speech on all topics, especially religion. Any attempts at control invite defiance.

The 1857 portrait, Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition, courtesy of Cristiano Banti and Wikimedia Commons.

 




Tuesday, January 13

Shadow aid

YaleGlobal summarizes  an intriguing article by journalist Elizabeth Dickinson for the Middle East Research and Information Project:

“Across the Middle East, the United Nations is coordinating the largest operation in its history to help nearly 3 million Syrian refugees at a cost of $4.2 billion in 2014 alone….But on the side, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of start-up charities and regional donors have built parallel networks of aid.” Distribution is uneven, relying on select connections and networks, manipulated by politics and corruption....Dickinson concludes that the piecemeal approach to aid based on individual whims results in inefficiencies, waste, new power structures, inequality and conflict – all of which threaten sustained giving. Refugees might receive dates during Ramadan but their children have no schools to attend.


As a journalist, Dickinson gets to the heart of human predicaments. The inefficiencies and piecemeal aid she describes are not limited to Syria or the Middle East and can be found in countries as secure as the United States. Charities elsewhere have come under scrutiny, too. Malfeasance by a few hurt legitimate charities.

Allure of Deceit is the story of a fictional  charitable foundation, huge and influential, and its director who uses funds and programs in Afghanistan and India to figure out why a young inventor and his wife were killed in a terrorist attack. Afghan villagers are dismayed to be regarded as recipients of zakat, and in the book, a foundation employee is distraught, too, as he tries to explain the disparities to an Afghan man: 

.... so much charity was based on whims. “I sometimes feel as if all that matters is an administrator’s last conversation with a donor. A donor hears a report that children are going without shoes and soon we’re unloading crates of shoes, every size and style imaginable, most of them inappropriate for this terrain. So we look for storage, often paying to lease the space.”

Lessons of Allure of Deceit: Needs are great and transform abruptly over time, with shoes and coats desperately needed one day and not the next. Motivations, whether for generosity or murder, also transform over time - and too often, some regret their choices.

Photo of US Navy officer delivering shoes to children in Dijbouti in 2010 is courtesy of US Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Bruns and Wikimedia Commons; photo of a US Air Force helping a young Afghan girl try on donated shoes at Parwan Refugee Camp in 2008 is courtesy of US Air Force Master Sgt. Keith Brown and Wikimedia Commons. 

Monday, January 12

Pressure

Attempts to censor and control minds can be readily found in democracies. After the initial shock of 12 slaughtered at the Charlie Hebdo offices, the controlling types have emerged, brusquely advising entire populaces how to mourn, how to react, how to tame others.

The Telegraph offers two examples.

"The Prime Minister agrees with Sajid Javid, the Culture secretary, that the Muslim community has a 'special burden' and that it is 'lazy and wrong' to say that the Paris attacks have nothing to do with Islam." The argument is that the extremism is a perversion of faith, that tackling extremism requires working closely with the Muslim community.

No mention in the article that a self-identified Muslim man hid victims in a freezer in the related attack on a Kosher grocery market in Paris or that a Muslim police officer was among the victims during the attack on the satirical newspaper. No mention that numerous Muslim leaders and organizations swiftly condemned the crimes.

Then, the same newspaper points out that "US media questions why neither Barack Obama nor top officials attended Paris Charlie Hebdo rally" and notes: "French President Francois Hollande and some 44 foreign dignitaries, including leaders from Germany, Italy, Britain, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian territories, led up to two million people in what commentators said was the largest crowd in Paris since its liberation from Nazi Germany in 1944." 

Obama and other government leaders have plenty to do in securing communities and workplaces - not simply adding more guards and surveillance, but by being a voice of reason, improving education, being a role model for public discourse, while maintaining the stretched social safety net that provides security for so many families.

Government has much to do. In the meantime, citizens must grapple with the tragedy and knowledge that their communities are never as safe as they once had thought, and be allowed to grieve as they see fit. Pressure on how to think or behave is inappropriate so soon after such a tragedy. Anyone who has witnessed controlling parents can point out that children or other subordinates often  resist such pressures. Pressure does not persuade others to think alike. For families and communities, as suggested by Allure of Deceit, neglect may be more dangerous for encouraging extremism.

How to mourn, whether that's advice for an individual or all members of a religious group, is not the province of political commentators. 

Write to request review copies of Allure of Deceit. 


Photo of 1911 pressure cooker courtesy of Thesupermat and Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, January 8

Free speech

Terrorism starts at home, so suggests the tale of Fear of Beauty. The petty resentments, the irrationality, the scapegoating and complaints, the displays of anger, the bullying, fear of competition, marginalization, abuse and more.

Police quickly identified the three suspects accused of bursting into the offices of a satirical newspaper in Paris, Charlie Hebdo, and killing 12 with assault rifles. News reports describe them as two brothers and a brother-in-law. The case bears similarities to the bombing of a crowd at the Boston Marathon - with two Tsarnaev brothers named as suspects.

The three in Paris will not slow satire in the West. All they accomplished was to ignite interest in a struggling publication and unite diverse citizens to stand up for freedom of speech and embrace satire and other forms of scrutiny. The killers revealed their fears and have shown that ideas and pens wield power.

The Arab League and Al-Azhar have condemned the murders. Leaders of many organizations recognize, as we have said on this pages before, a faith is unsustainable if it cannot endure such scrutiny and tests.

By evening, the news reported the two brothers in the France killings were orphans.

Tuesday, January 6

Secret canon

An odd collection of books, a mixture of old and new, can change a person's life. Many novels on the lists of great literature are dated. Some authors aimed for provocation and other works were simply products of their era. Sady Doyle reviewed No Regrets for In These Times. In No Regrets,  women authors describe what they had read or avoided during their youth, and Doyle points to her favorite suggestion from Carla Blumenkranz and notes, "Maybe every woman writer has to create her own 'secret canon,' her own list of essential books, in order to survive the male-dominated cultural definition of 'great literature.'"

Of course, this could apply to others who feel marginalized for any reason. Every person should create his or her own canon of great works, the books that influenced a life.

In Fear of Beauty, an Afghan woman, a new reader, quickly discovers that she does not agree with her husband's interpretation of the Koran. Desperate to figure out why her son died on the night he was supposed to attend school, she must first learn to read. She studies in secret and keeps her observations a secret, but her life is more thoughtful and less routine.

As Doyle points out, any reader is qualified to decide what they need from literature and what literature should be, what influences that individual and what should influence society as a whole.

Interpretations vary. Most of us, like Doyle, can remember hearing an interpretation of a passage that did not mesh with our own. They may speak out or choose to remain quiet.

The finest literature is open to interpretation. One interpretation does not mean another's interpretation is necessarily wrong.

If  readers are candid and thorough, public reading lists, like Goodreads - simply admitting what we like and don't like and why - can expose our personalities, levels of socialization, character traits, fears, choices, and more. Of course, many readers do not list every book they read, and others tame their criticism. A book that provokes strong, negative reactions can be as influential and powerful as one that invites our praise.

Characters should be imperfect, and to paraphrase Joan Didion, rigid politics and rigid rules have no place in the literary realm.


"The Novel Reader," a painting by Vincent van Gogh, 1888, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Monday, January 5

Celebrity charity

The whims of donors and fundraising ... Huffington Post's Lily Karlin reports that Keshia Knight Pulliam was fired from the US  television show Celebrity Apprentice for not reaching out to Bill Cosby for assistance in raising funds. She starred in The Cosby Show, 1984 to 1992.

Fundraising calls are difficult. The reason Knight Pulliam gave on the show was that she had not spoken with Cosby "in I don't know how long." The show's host, Donald Trump, described that refusal as a fatal business flaw. Trump later noted that the show was taped before accusations of sexual harassment and abuse from long ago surged against Cosby.


There are dangers in charity's piecemeal approach of delivering social benefits - almost like lotteries, as warned by Transnational Celebrity Activism in Global Politics: Changing the World? 


As noted by a 2011 review, celebrity activism would seem a win-win for worthy causes as celebrities attract attention. "Rising inequality, fast global travel and communications, have spurred the rush for global activism. The marketing successes of a few celebrities have drawn more celebrities to causes," the review notes. "The celebrity spotlight, intended to expose injustices and acts of humanitarianism, inadvertently reveals entrenched layers of inequality.

Editors Liza Tsaliki, Christos A. Frangonikolopoulos and Asteris Huliaras offer advice for celebrities: participation in activities that are less staged, educating themselves and others to raise awareness about major challenges, and motivating others to act.

The responsibility rests with fans, too, because they collectively choose and create celebrities.

Allure of Deceit, released in February, tells the story about a large and fictional charitable foundation whose staff members manipulate money and programs in Afghanistan for their own personal goals. Publishers Weekly writes: "Froetschel (Fear of Beauty) highlights the problems of charity in this subtle, thought-provoking mystery.... The truth behind Ali’s death proves far from simple in a novel that raises uncomfortable questions about Western efforts to assist people in the developing world."

Write to request review copies of Allure of Deceit.

Photo of Manhattan cocktail, courtesy of Joshua Hammond and Wikipedia Commons.