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. 

Monday, December 29


A writer could not ask for a better year than 2014.

The year began by concluding the sequel to Fear of Beauty - and Allure of Deceit underwent three big revisions. Writing a suitable follow-up to Fear of Beauty seemed an impossible task, but I am pleased with the result. Fear of Beauty is Sofi's story, and Allure of Deceit is the story of her husband, Parsaa. The characters from Afghanistan are strong, good, and uncomplaining as their daily routines and tiny remote village are buffeted by the forces of globalization. The fictional village of Laashekoh is in northern Helmand. For Parsaa and Sofi, their knowledge of the world is limited, but in their way, they are good citizens, extending hospitality and kindness to travelers and strangers regardless of beliefs or country of origin.

Throughout the year, Fear of Beauty surprised with a number of awards:

- Nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award from Mystery Writers of America.
- Finalist for suspense, Love is Murder Conference.
- 1st place, at-large regional best book for adult readers, National Federation of Press Women, and then 2nd place in the national contest.
- Gold star award for mystery/suspense, Military Writers Society of America.
- Youth Literature Award from the Middle East Outreach Council. 

And as the year ends, I am embarking on the third in the series about Laashekoh.

It was a very good year, and I owe so much thanks to so many groups, reviewers, and readers who take the time to visit and explore the tiny village of Laashekoh. Thank you and a very happy 2015!

Tuesday, December 23


YaleGlobal describes dangerous trends in the Middle East and how extremists compound the desperation.

The Islamic State adds to record numbers of refugees and dangers for aid groups.

The United Nations relies on faith-based charities.

The lead host countries for refugees include Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey where Islamist charities are on the front lines.

Meanwhile, governments want to prohibit any funds headed to the extremists and charities being used to launder their money. Wide bans on aid groups is adding to the challenges and desperation.

Vulnerable refugees are easy marks for extremist recruiters. "The protracted plight of these refugees has become an international security issue as terrorist groups have recruited from refugee camps," notes Jill Goldenziel of Harvard University.

The YaleGlobal article concludes, "The UN anticipates 27 percent more funding is needed for humanitarian aid in its 2015 budget over 2014, with the bulk of that to be spent in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Sudan. Reduced aid could transform humanitarian emergencies into security crises."

Photo of Syrian family collecting bread and other aid, courtesy of H. Murdock, Voice of America and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, December 16

Dangling hope

Some older folks, the insecure ones, like to think they can control the young.  Fear of change can lead to bitterness, religious extremism, and opposition to education and innovation, as indicated by today's Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar. More than 135 million, most children, were killed by six attackers, reports the BBC News.

"This brutal attack may well be a watershed for a country long accused by the world of treating terrorists as strategic assets," writes Aamer Ahmed Khan for  BBC News. "Pakistan's policy-makers struggling to come to grips with various shades of militants have often cited a 'lack of consensus' and 'large pockets of sympathy' for religious militants as a major stumbling-block."

A handful of bullying extremists, especially those with weapons, can wield excessive influence over routines or policies, especially those of a small community. The stunning observation that Taliban only numbered 75,000 or so in Afghanistan - a country of more than 30 million people - prompted the story behind Fear of Beauty.

Bullying is easier when a huge segment of society lacks power. The median age of Afghanistan is 18, so half the nation's people are under that age. Half the population is women. That leaves 25 percent adult men in control, and the literacy rate for them is but 43 percent.  For women, it is much lower.

The graph offers a glimpse into the median age of other countries, ranging from 17 in Chad and South Sudan to 32 in Qatar.

Governments with large, young populations should avoid dangling hope while not providing the resources for achieving their dreams, suggests Yara al-Wazir, writing for Al Arabiya News. She refers to young Arabs but the sound advice applies to all in pointing to a dangerous trend: "I’m talking about the wave of lectures and talks about entrepreneurship, leadership, and motivation with little to no follow up or support on actually achieving the messages these lectures call for. Young Arabs don’t need talks to inspire them; they need a job and an opportunity to inspire everyone else."

She concludes by urging readers to give the young a chance to inspire. As we have noted on these pages before, be wary of any who discourage curiosity or education. A country's future is threatened if attending school is dangerous.

Photo of schoolchildren in Paktya Province, Afghanistan, courtesy of  Capt John Severns, US Air Force, and Wikimedia Commons. He notes: "The school has no building; classes are held outdoors in the shade of an orchard." Population data on graph, courtesy of Worldometers; median age, courtesy of CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, December 9


Concerns are plentiful about food shortages amid a changing climate, society’s focus on eating healthy, food status as necessity versus art. A number of trends - not to mention that organic foods offer undeniably wonderful taste - combine to make organic farming a popular hobby and career aspiration on college campuses. Students have driven the grassroots effort on organic farming.

Since 2003, the Sustainable Food Project at Yale University has managed an organic farm on the urban campus, selling its produce and collaborating with the campus dining halls on sustainability. “By creating opportunities for students to experience food, agriculture, and sustainability as integral parts of their education and everyday life, the Sustainable Food Project ensures that Yale graduates have the capacity to effect meaningful change as individuals and as leaders in their communities, their homes, and their life’s work,” notes the project’s Facebook page.

Since 2007 students at Wellesley College have developed a productive farm, while working to raise awareness of food justice issues. Dartmouth has an organic farm, too.

 The roots of Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm began in 1999, a result of students wanting to practice methods learned in classrooms: "From the beginning, the aim of the farm was to provide a place where students could come and volunteer, work, visit, and have input on the development of land and farm." With solar-run greenhouses, it was the nation’s first year-round community-supported agriculture model farm.

Many agriculture industry specialists may have thought of organic food as a passing fad. Some even suggest organic farming raises food costs and adds to global poverty But MSU, the nation’s other land-grant agriculture schools, and Ivy League schools have made organic farming part of the curriculum. The University of Georgia offers a certificate program in organic agriculture.

The US Department of Agriculture and corporations are funding research on sustainability. USDA has awarded $52 million in grants for organic growing and local food economies including farmers markets and development of standards, just a tiny fraction of the 2014 Agricultural Act.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Services offers information on hundreds of internships and apprenticeships - including the Rodale Institute Experimental Farm in Pennsylvania. "Internships are based around hands-on and 'direct work with researchers on short- and long-term trials and experiments covering everything from soil quality indicators to regenerative farming's impact on global warming,'" notes Rodale. "Positions are available in research, farm operations/ demonstration and communications."

Organic farming offers promise for small farmers in the developing world. Only a systematized and certifiable approach is required, suggests IFAD, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, an agency of the United Nations. IFAD conducted evaluations, part of its efforts to reduce poverty in many agricultural nations, and determined "In almost all of the countries where the evaluations were carried out, small farmers needed only marginal improvements to their technologies to make the shift to organic production." IFAD likewise offers internships. 

Similar studies on organic farming have been conducted in Afghanistan: "The organic farming and food business in Afghanistan can only become viable and competitive (especially in the mid and long-term) if a wider enabling environment is put in place, too: accompanying organic policies, research and education, extension and inspection and a certification system," suggest Martien Lankester and Darko Znaor for USAID. USAID also has internships for students interested in agriculture.

The mystery novels Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit are set in rural Afghanistan - and focus on the diverse aid work underway. Among the many conflicts are age-old dilemmas for farmers - who must decide whether and how to adopt new methods suggested by aid workers, some of whom attended the programs on sustainability described in this post and others who have disdain for such programs.

Photo of the Clapboard and Stone Bakeoven at the Rodale Institute Organic Experimental Farm is courtesy of Final4one and Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, December 8


The UN secretary-general urges that physicians not refuse to do abortions on women who report being raped in the camps serving refugees from Iraq and Syria. 

""The Secretary-general’s comments are part of an ongoing dispute between nations and the UN bureaucracy on how best to end rape and sexual violence in conflict," reports Susan Yoshihara for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and LifeNews.com. "Like the work of the [UN Security] Council, major political initiatives in the last few years have emphasized ending impunity for perpetrators and making reparations to survivors of violence.... UN staff, however, have promoted a feminist agenda which views deconstructing traditional social relationships and abortion rights as necessary steps to ending discrimination and violence."

The secretary-general suggests that his recommendation is in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2122, adopted in 2013. The resolution does not specify abortion, but does recognize "the importance of Member States and United Nations entities seeking to ensure humanitarian aid and funding includes provision for the full range of medical, legal, psychosocial and livelihood services to women affected by armed conflict and post-conflict situations, and noting the need for access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination...."  

The resolution also points out that women are especially vulnerable in armed conflict with "forced displacement," "unequal citizen rights," "gender-biased application of asylum laws," and "increased risk of violence." It also urges participation of women and consideration of gender-related issues. 

Syria and Iraq are "red" countries on the World Abortion Laws map from the Center for Reproductive Rights: In Syria, abortion is explicitly permitted to save a woman's life, but spousal authorization and parental notification are required. In Iraq, the law is not explicit on exceptions on saving a woman's life. 

Permanent members of the UN Security Council - United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom - are "green" countries, where abortion is generally permitted for most women without restriction on reason. Non-permanent members are a mixed bag: Chile and Nigeria are red which allow for saving a woman's life or are prohibited; Argentina (allows for cases of rape), Chad (allows for fetal impairment), Jordan, Republic of Korea (allowed for incest and rape; spousal authorization required) and Rwanda (allowed for incest and rape) are orange, allowed for various health puproses; Australia, Lithuania, Luxembourg are green. 

"According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 3 million have fled to Syria's immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria," reports the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, also noting that "the influx of refugees has been an enormous challenge for Syria’s neighbours, with strong implications for the stability of the entire region." 

As of July, 22 countries, most in Europe, have agreed to help resettle more than 34,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to a second country. The United States, Kuwait, European Commission, United Kingdom, Canada and Japan lead in pledging funds to support UN appeals to assist Syrian refugees, reported the UN Tribune. 

The camps are bleak places offering little in the way of education for children or work for parents. More than 30 million children worldwide cannot attend school because of violent conflicts, reports UNICEF. 

Allure of Deceit, to be released in February 2015, is a mystery novel about post-war Afghanistan and the small village of Laashekoh. The novel explores how charitable giving can come with a hidden agenda and upend incentives. Children run away to an orphanage. A caregiver accepts donor funds for women's health care, but lacks patients. A Michigan foundation director pursues programs for the purpose of solving the murder of her wealthy son. Lying is a means of self-defense. 

Contact the publisher for review copies. 

July 2013 photo of Za'atri camp for Syrian refugees is from the US State Department and Wikimedia Commons.