Monday, December 31

Favorite bits

Mary Robinette Kowal asked me to select a Favorite Bit from Fear of Beauty and write about it - and I chose a section in the middle of the book, pages 190 to 193, when main character Sofi recalls the last  day she spent with her father, as she leaves the village where she was raised and heads off for a new life and marriage.

Writers can learn much about the craft - character development, motivation, choices in setting or plotting - with close readings, their own analysis and that supplied by authors. Be sure to check out some of the other intriguing posts, too!


"Unfortunately, when rituals are prioritized over spirituality at this tender young age, religion can become restrictive rather than liberating," writes Asma T. Uddin, founder and editor in chief of Altmuslimah. She and other writers of various faiths were asked to debate when does a religious upbringing cross the line from nurturing to oppressive.

Religion is too restrictive when it limits basic human rights, opportunities, education, curiosity - the growth of the human spirit. Religions lose influence and sustainability when their leaders must rely on manipulation, commercialism or threats to win over hearts and minds.

As noted in Fear of Beauty, "There’s no reason to fear comparisons and inquiries that come with good intentions.... Believers cannot fear the nonbelievers. Those who resist questions or comparisons lack true faith."

Children and families do make comparisons in a diverse society.
Responsibility for spirituality rests with parents, maintains Uddin, and people do change their minds. Yet too many parents lack the confidence to examine teachings and make a choice, and for others, religion is but another passing fashion.

Photo of Afghan child in Garmsir, courtesy of US Marine Corps and Wikimedia Commons


Reading a mystery, getting caught up in a setting along with suspense, I can't help but get hungry for the type of food being described.

And so here is food for thought for readers of Fear of Beauty who might feel the same way and are searching for recipes with pomegranates, saffron, lamb, carrots, raisins, yogurt, grains, grains, and many more, vegetables, fruit, nuts  and spices as ingredients. Here are a few links to recipes from Afghanistan from and

And Christi Qazi offers a reminder in to prepare for unexpected guests: "Guests are revered and even in families, people often just drop in with little or no notice and to not have food for them would be unheard of even in the most spur of the moment situations."

Photo of  Afghan feast in Jani Khel district by Fred W. Baker III, courtesy of US Department of Defense and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 28


Literacy is essential.

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.” ― Kofi Annan

Thursday, December 27

Women helping women

"Each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces has a Women’s Affairs office... the front line in the Afghan government’s effort to advance women’s rights – and to fight violence against women.... For example, Human Rights Watch has heard of cases where, in provinces with no shelter for women fleeing violence (there are only 14 such shelters in all of Afghanistan) Women’s Affairs staff members have protected battered women in the staffers’ own homes, at great personal risk."
Maybe Sofi is reasonable to hide her teacher - and it's not a case of kidnapping after all. Afghan women can help other women, but only secretly.

Tuesday, December 25

Public prayer

Public prayer is treacherous territory for politicians, whether one offers a new sentiments or repeats a familiar verse. Prayer is laden with symbolism and emotion, and in public transforms into a message of persuasion. The audience may or may not agree, and the choice of words, tone, place can influence the prayer's reception.

For too many politicians, when difficult action is required, public prayers become a means of evading responsibility or accountability.  Private prayer can be about making demands ... or confronting personal responsibility.

And that's why a mystery author finds herself writing about prayer and religion - because disagreement over values and beliefs can lead to power struggles and lethal conflict.

John Newton, the same man who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," wrote about "Public Prayer" and warned that some prayers were too much like preaching, a common failing among politicians. "The studied addresses with which some approach the throne of grace remind us of a stranger's coming to a great man's door; he knocks and waits, sends in his name, and goes through a course of ceremony, before he gains admittance, while a child of the family uses no ceremony at all, but enters freely when he pleases, because he knows he is at home," Newton warns. "Some attention to method may be proper, for the prevention of repetitions; and plain people may be a little defective in it sometimes; but this defect will not be half so tiresome and disagreeable as a studied and artificial exactness."

It's for each to decide which is better - public prayer that's awkward, self-serving and poor in form or no prayer at all.

Photo of nomad praying in the desert, courtesy of Kazimierz Nowak and Wikimedia Commons. Nowak, a Polish correspondent and photographer, is described by Wikimedia Commons as likely the first man in the world who crossed Africa alone from North to South and from South to North on foot, bicycle and canoe.


I wrote this nine years ago for The New Haven Register - before the subprime crisis hit, before the global credit crisis, before the storms and floods of 2012. Much has changed since then, but the feelings remain the same.

Gathering more property is empty abundance

If we look back on our most awe-inspiring moments, these are probably not time spent on exotic vacations or in elegant restaurants. No, they were everyday moments — snuggled next to a child and reading a book, or moments at daybreak, daily walks that transformed from the routine to special memories.

By no means do our best accomplishments result in the most money. Raising a child would be a top contender for many, as would creative pursuits. I began writing my second mystery novel a decade ago, and restructured at least a dozen revisions. And I am thrilled about a contract that pays an advance of $1,000 for what represents 10 years of work.

And our most valuable possessions are hardly the most expensive. As the fires raged in California, who could not help thinking about what they would reach for first in such an emergency — family, pets, photo albums would top most lists.

If I had the chance to save jewelry, I would snatch the small pearl earrings, an early gift from my husband. If I had to scramble through the ashes left from the fire, I’d search for pottery made by my son as a child and a rock that has the perfect fossil of a fern, found by my father and grandfather long ago as they walked by a creek in their neighborhood and since passed on to my son.

If I could save books, it would be my copies of "Marjorie Morningstar" by Herman Wouk and a cookbook, both of which arrived in the mail from a book club shortly after my mother’s death, almost like a message.

The link between all these belongings, of course, are memories. Our possessions are nothing without memories.

We live in a society that has allowed consumerism to flourish out of control, decreasing the value of almost everything we own.

This probably hurts our children more than anyone.

An introduction from an Oct. 26 article in The New York Times reads: "At age 8, Marcie Rosenthal is done with Barbies. ‘I have a whole collection that I would like to get rid of someday.’ "

Sadly, too many of our children equate the accumulation of possessions with happiness. They expect every want to be satisfied immediately. They embrace objects only to willingly dispose of them a few months later. Many grandparents admit that it’s very hard to find a gift today that truly makes a child happy.

Ironically, the solution to our angst is simple. We can be satisfied with less.

And perhaps we can change the direction in our children’s lives — encouraging contentment with what we have rather than stress over finding more, redirecting our time and energy for a purpose rather than the mere accumulation of wealth.

So what does abundance mean during a time of plenty and comfort? Accomplishments and ideas, strong friendships, smiles on another person’s face. Our pursuit of happiness does not hinge on spending more time on work, earning money, rushing to expensive activities, visiting stores, collecting more possessions. We can spend more time caring for families and friends. We can devote more time to relationships and worthy causes in our communities.

Photo courtesy of Mikimoto

Sunday, December 16

By hand

A research study has shown that children write more quickly with more quantity when they draft manuscripts by hand rather than keyboard.  "But when using a pen, the children in all three grade levels [2nd, 4th and 6th grades] produced longer essays and composed them at a faster pace," reports Joel Schwarz of the University of Washington, in Futurity. The study was headed by Virginia Berninger, University of Washington professor of educational psychology who studies normal writing development and writing disabilities.

The study tested children at three tasks, writing the alphabet both by hand on keyboard; writing a sentence based on one prompt word, both by hand and on keyboard; and writing essays on given topics in 10 minutes.

Victor Burg who taught writing at the Kennedy School of Government during late 1980s and early 1990s often recommended those with writers block to try handwritten drafts. He was advising graduate students tackling assignments on economic and public policy and supervising writing instructors who prepared mid-career students for the graduate program. At the time I was surprised but have since come to realize that it's solid advice for any writing project.

In Fear of Beauty, much of Sofi's personality and voice was developed with handwriting in a notebook, an activity this character had long yearned to try. The task becomes more urgent after the death of her son and she wants to preserve his memory. Yet even securing a pencil and notebook requires subterfuge.

Photo of statue of Isaiah holding pen at Piazza Spagna in Rome, courtesy of gnuckx and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 14


Each year Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index releases international rankings and for 2012, Afghanistan has landed in last place along with North Korea and Somalia, reports Frank Vogl for the Huffington Post.

"There is a brutal message here for the architects of Western geo-political strategy in general and for those most responsible for the Afghan debacle in particular," Vogle writes. "Despite all the diverse experiences of decades, the harsh fact is that Western powers have a zero success rate in establishing decent governance in poor countries embroiled in conflict that have no history of democratic institutions."

Public trust and respect is minimal in such countries, Vogle explains. Human rights abuses and violence are high. This does not bode well for security - for Afghanistan, neighbors in India or Pakistan, or anywhere else in the world.

Image courtesy of Transparency International.

Thursday, December 13


Six months is not long and July will be here before we know it. Pakistan has extended refugee status for 1.6 million Afghan refugees living in that country for six months.

"Pakistani officials have long expressed their frustration with the lack of progress in repatriating the world's largest refugee community - Afghans who fled the Soviet invasion and later, Taliban rule," reports Alex Rodriguez for the Los Angeles Times. "Many refugees have lived in Pakistan for more than three decades. Their presence is resented by many Pakistanis, who see the refugees as a source of escalating crime and accuse them of involvement in terror strikes across the country."

United Nations officials and others would prefer a more lasting resolution.

"The core protection challenge in Pakistan is the absence of a specific legal regime for the protection of refugees," reports the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. "Individually recognized refugees and asylum-seekers have difficulty in accessing basic facilities and essential services including education, health care and work in Pakistan. Many of them have limited income opportunities so they must survive through informal work arrangements."

Sunday, December 9

Human trafficking

Gyong-Ho is grateful for her job as a factory seamstress, one of many under the portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. The noisy machines lend a rhythm that blocks out painful memories, the glint of the needle provides the illusion of warmth, and the needs of a selfish and beautiful co-worker pass for friendship. From the start, All Woman and Springtime draws its readers in to the mind control and deceptions that are daily routines in isolated, impoverished North Korea - an entire nation fooled into thinking theirs is the the most powerful, innovative, benevolent nations of the world.

So it's stunning to realize that greater indignities can be suffered in the wealthy and democratic lands of Seoul and Seattle. Naivete and lack of education trap three young North Korean women into a horrific servitude as much as locked doors and armed guards do. So many young people strive for individuality, and the book is a reminder for parents and communities anywhere that extreme control and routines fail to prepare young adults for the unexpected crises that can emerge.

I chose this book to read because of the recommendation from Alice Walker on its cover, describing it as an important novel. I devoured it in less than two days. Walker may not know of every instance, but through her writing, she is a mentor and inspiration to many writers and teachers. Of course, Fear of Beauty is but one example, with and its themes include literacy, trafficking and abuse of power.

The tale of so much anguish is well written, and will stir activism among its readers about the horrific crime of trafficking. Perhaps because I once lived in Seattle and walked the streets described in the University District and downtown. One can't help but feel guilt in reading the sentence from Brandon W. Jones about main protagonist Gyong-ho: "As she walked, she noticed that the well dressed never looked at the wretched. It was like two parallel worlds coinciding but never intersecting."

Fiction highlights the individual pain of cruel public policies and social problems and crimes. One cannot read such a book without taking the next step, seeking out groups that aim for reform. Yes,  human trafficking is a crime that shames us all. 

Particularly encouraging is a Rapid Report & Response Program from Prevent Human Trafficking, which uses cell-phone and SMS technology. "We want to make it easy for everyday citizens to join the fight against traffickers and to report and prevent human trafficking using devices with which they are totally comfortable."

But we don't need a special app. Citizens cannot look the other way and should immediately pick up phones to contact authorities.

Friday, December 7


Colleen LaRose, otherwise known as Jihad Jane, was not the biggest catch for the FBI in their war on terror. She was not a prize convert for Islam either. So suggests the start of a four-part series and six-month investigation from  John Shiffman of Reuters, about LaRose, who set out to follow internet orders to kill a man in Sweden accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed.

"The court filings and press releases draw a frightening portrait of the Jihad Jane conspiracy," Shiffman writes. "But an exclusive Reuters review of confidential investigative documents and interviews in Europe and the United States - including the first with Jihad Jane herself -- reveals a less menacing and, in some ways, more preposterous undertaking than the U.S. government asserted."

Some suggest that authorities exaggerated the dangers presented by LaRose, who grew up in the Detroit area and was a victim of incest. Her education was limited to the seventh-grade and, subsequently, she abused drugs and alcohol. The plot may sound inept and outlandish. But the ignorant who are impatient about investing time in studies and self-improvement can be angry and dangerous. 

Be sure to click through the photos in Shiffman's report, and pause at the school photo of LaRose from the 1970s, when she was about 7 or 8 years old.  I have met Michigan women in their 50s who attended schools in the best districts, and now regret the labels, the free time and lack of standards for children deemed not capable of college work. Everywhere, there are teachers who label children, thereby limiting their own work and a child's opportunities, and others never give up trying to expand the future for every child. "Many teachers see a child as one way or another and they are labeled," writes Stephanie Mayberry. "Once that child in labeled, it sticks with them unless someone steps in and stops it." 

Fortunately, most of us have the chance to meet many teachers throughout our lives who challenge us, guide us, and believe we can move beyond the standards.

Wednesday, December 5


The old argument continues about whether religion and politics belong with polite conversation. "The old adage that polite conversation should not include talk of politics or religion is understandable because both subjects are so heavily laden with emotion that discussion can quickly turn to shouting," wrote John C. Danforth, former US ambassador to the United Nations. "Blood is shed over politics, religion and the two in combination."

Dodging such topics does not achieve understanding.

Abukar Arman, Somalia special envoy to the United States, urges such discussions as "essential to coexistence, development and progress!" And he takes advantage of a public forum in YaleGlobal Online to defend jihad as "the constant motivation for gaining knowledge, to seek and create opportunities for ourselves, to cultivate good families and good communities, to spiritually develop and purify ourselves, find the sublime Creator, understand the purpose of our respective lives and find a common ground in which coexistence is possible."

He maintains that the spiritual process is about truthseeking, not violence. To understand the process, literacy and individual interpretations and expressions are required. He offers a theory as to why and how extremist groups engage in reckless violence - to secure power with an attitude that he labels "assertive ignorance." But the power and recognition built on violence, oppression or inequality do not endure.

"The world has but one religion - love, which is its life," wrote Indian poet Ulloor S.Parameswara Iyer. And I suppose we need the politics for those who don't agree.

Statue of Uloor S. Parameswara Iyer outside the State Central Library, Trivandrum, Kerala, India, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Ajeeshcphilip.