Monday, February 2

Silk Road

A number of cookbooks have focused on the Silk Road, the network of trade routes winding through Asia and Europe, but few are as ambitious as Silk Road Gourmet by Laura Kelley. She ties food and recipes of 30 nations with smart historical research and a keen sense of connections. Readers who enjoy a certain setting often want to try their hands at the cuisine - and for those who read about the Middle East, Central Asia, China and India, Kelley's books and blog are a treasure. She delves into historical records and editions in libraries and museums to explore crockery, processes, recipes. I first discovered her work by reading a BBC News article about onions that begins with a description of  Yale University's Babylonian Collection and the world's oldest known cookbooks on clay tablets. The article then goes on to praise Kelley's research and recipes.

"Exploring how food is a part of an ethnic group’s or nation’s material culture has always been a private interest of mine as well," her website notes. "Everywhere I went, I saw connections between cultures in their foods and big sweeping patterns of ingredients or methods of preparation sweeping across the Old World.  How the land and maritime routes of the Silk Road brought about an early period of globalization became the theme to express these ideas about food and the world."

One recipe from Kelley's widely acclaimed book that readers of Fear of Beauty will want to try: Chicken With Apricots in Lemon-Pepper Sauce. She notes the dish, spicy and sweet, is an example of the Persian influence on Afghan cooking. (Recall that the villagers of Laashekoh were refugees from earlier wars and migrated southeast through Afghanistan until settling in northern Helmand. Apricots have a role in the novel, along with pomegranates, cumin, saffron, raisins and other wonderful ingredients from the region).

Her recipe calls to mind an old favorite recipe from New England: roasted chicken with apricot-nut stuffing. The comparisons are not so outlandish considering that Kelley herself writes about "How Colonial Americans Were Inspired by Asian Spices": 

"When we think of the diets of our founding fathers and mothers, we imagine porridges, breads, fresh and preserved fruits and vegetables, and gently flavored roast meats.  What most people don’t realize is that the colonists had a taste for exotic fare from all over the world and would pay dearly for delicacies from India, China, Indonesia and other places far from the shores of North America. In addition to buying authentic food items, the colonists tried to recreate these dishes based on taste and the ingredients they had on hand."

The connections are constant in Kelley's work. Check out her blog for more recipes - and you won't be able to resist trying the entire collection! The love and attention that goes into her writing and research are inspiring.

Photo of women at an Afghan meal, courtesy of Wellcome Images and Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, January 25


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. 

Monday, January 19


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


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.