Monday, March 23

Words as weapon

A well-placed falsehood can instigate murder.

In  Kabul, a woman named Farkhunda was kicked and beaten, run over by a car, and then burned to death by attackers who accused her of burning a Koran, reports Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post. Witnesses agree that "she got into an argument with a man who sold amulets in front of the Shah-Do Shamshera shrine," Kaplan explains. Islamic scholars disagree about whether amulets, even those inscribed with quotes from the Koran, are permissible for adherents.

Before long, another man claimed she tossed copy of the Koran into a fire pit. Kaplan continues:"Farkhunda argued that she didn't burn anything - and authorities later said they were unable to find a 'single iota of evidence' that she had set fire to the Korean - but the mob ignored her."

Authorities were at the scene, and the public is divided about whether the members of the mob should be investigated and punished. But as Kaplan concludes, at the very least, Afghans are questioning and debating the morality of Farkhunda's death.

As explained in a previous blog post, an antagonist in Allure of Deceit plots to destroy a rival in his life:

All he "had to do was point out that Rose was an atheist who had once desecrated a copy of the Koran - and yet the Western woman continued to enjoy the rewards of travel and vast wealth. [He] casually passed along cash and copies of a newspaper photograph of Rose to three young men. The most desperate of the three, a young man by the name of Qasim, managed to travel to India.

"The bomb had been intended for Rose alone."

Mishandling of any object does not justify murder under any circumstances. Yet those intent on a criminal behavior and power can concoct a rationale and spread a false rumor to convince others to attack and destroy a fellow human being. As American shipping magnate Alvin Adams, 1804 to 1877, once said, "Appreciate the power of rumor, often malicious, no matter how preposterous, within the local populations you are seeking to help."

Image  of lithograph of Afghan  shows foot soldiers at the entrance to the Valley of Urgundeh in 1841, courtesy of the British Library and Wikimedia Commons: "Amulets, relics and little bags full of texts and prayers were tacked about their clothes.... The men depicted here belonged to a British regiment called the Rangers, which was raised in Kohistan under the command of Lieutenant Maule of the Artillery, who said that he had his hands full trying to impose discipline among these 'wild, unruly, merry fellows.'"

Wednesday, March 18


The civil war in Syria has entered its fifth year. So far, with 210,000 dead and 10 million displaced, scattered to refugee camps or left to fend for themselves, the crisis seems overwhelming. 

"A lack of funding, coordination and international political will to guarantee aid access has meant that many people are not getting the help they need, particularly in hard-to-reach areas inside Syria," writes Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children, for the New Statesman.

Save the Children works in 120 countries: "Across all our work, we pursue several core values: accountability, ambition, collaboration, creativity and integrity."

Forsyth offers specific recommendations including coalitions of governments and NGOs that can better coordinate aid, new strategies for reaching remote places, devising a system for nations to provide equitable funding, and empowering recipients. YaleGlobal points out that such strategies may "seem narrow in light of an expanding population, rising inequality, a decline in resources as basic as water amid so many longstanding conflicts."

As is often the case, readers' comments to Forsyth's essay reflect the challenges and even awareness of the complexities in the Middle East. Some readers offer small and hopeful recommendations; others argue the conflict is not the West's concern. YaleGlobal concludes by noting that the crisis could destabilize neighboring countries. The globe has reason to provide aid. Yet polarization among nations and within nations and organization, in addition to unnecessary politicization of countless issues and misinformation, not only prevent efficient distribution of aid but also the good governance and united effort that could keep such conflicts at bay in the first place.

The novel Allure of Deceit examines how charitable aid comes with an agenda by examining  a foundation's work on the ground in Afghanistan. A director uses programs to investigate the death of her son and wife while villagers are astounded to be regarded as recipients of aid. In the end, most parties are aligned, but not without deceit.

In the end, does aid from external sources help governments evade their responsibility? What kind of aid encourages responsibility? Priorities must be set.

Photo of Syrian children studying in Lebanon schools, with aid from the UK, Save the Children, and Unicef, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Russell Watkins, Department for International Development.

Monday, March 16


The ideas for my books set in Afghanistan - a woman desperate to learn how to read, children running away to an orphanage, a would-be doctor with no patients and a village that gossips about a woman who performs abortions - emerged from my imagination, pure and simple.

As such, the ideas were based on my life experiences. That is probably why I regard Interruptions, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit as my favorite books.

I wrote about the limits of research for Portland Book Review: 

"The stories of my characters are ... woven with my memories: The exhilaration of my mother reading aloud, transforming a nightly fairy tale into heart-wrenching moments. The hints that my brother, sister and I might be a burden after her death. Summers spent on an uncle's farm, running with cousins through fields and patches of woods. Sessions with students, adults and younger, who confided about their struggles to read. The confusion after a long wait in a clinic with a friend distraught over a pregnancy and sensing a change of heart. Arguments with my son and fears for his safety as he set off on more than one ill-considered adventure."

"My research does not aim to provide a travelogue on Afghanistan, but rather prompt an examination of the comforts and opportunities in my country."

I conclude by pointing out that imagination goes into research, unearthing new details, making careful choices and connections. Yes, imagination is required for research, but somehow many readers do not use the word that way.

And I certainly must admit to finding the courage to start writing my novels while examining old, old books deep in the stacks of Yale's Sterling Library.

Libraries are truly magical places, as discovered by Sofi in Fear of Beauty.

Photo of Sterling Memorial Library, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Emilie Foyer; photo of Sterling stacks, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Ragesoss, to whom I'm grateful for taking a photograph of the inside of this wonderful place.

Tuesday, March 10

Reading aloud

Reading is an activity that increases our knowledge and lifts our spirits. It's an exchange between writer and reader. The writer tries to persuade and convince, but every reader controls his or her interpretation of any text even if some must do so in secret. 

Among my favorite memories: my mother reading to me and years later reading books aloud with my son. Our family started when he was three months old. I propped him against the sofa beside me for endless repeats of rhythmical Each Peach Pear Plum and continued the nightly ritual into early high school when we both took turns. 

We analyzed the books and compared them to our lives. And we understood them better for both following the words on paper as well as hearing them or speaking aloud. 

"Shared bookreading can stimulation more verbal interaction between child and parent, and therefore children's language development is likely to profit more from reading aloud than toy play or other adult-child interactions," note E. Duursma, M. Augustyn and B. Zuckerman n "Reading Aloud to Children: The Evidence." 

The list of evidence is long: "Sharing books with children can also help them learn about peer relationships, coping strategies, building self-esteem and general world knowledge." 

Even for older children and adults, reading a key points out loud helps create a distinctive memory, notes Art Markman  in Psychology Today, writing about a paper by Colin MacLeod, Nigel Gropie, Kathleen Hourihan, Karen Neary and Jason Ozubko for Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory, and Cognition. 

"The read-aloud process has enormous benefits to literacy learning," write Vanessa Morrison and Lisa Wheeler for Reading Rockets. 

Fear of Beauty is about a woman in rural Afghanistan who is desperate to learn how to read after the death of her so. In Allure of Deceit, she is trying to urge another son to attend reading sessions in their village. In both these mystery books about parent-child relationships, the characters read aloud.
Write to request a review copy.

Image of The Holy Family with the Virgin Teaching the Child to read, painted by Bartolomeo Schedoni, 1578-1615, courtesy of the National Gallery in London and Wikimedia Commons. The Italian artist who was known for his art with religious subjects, "quiet sentiment and vigorous painting" had a troubled life, notes

Friday, February 27

2 sentences

In two books, two characters want to leave their home without disturbing other family members. Opening the door to make a quiet escape is essential for each, and here are the descriptions of opening the door from each novel:

    "In bed her only sensible thought was that he must have taken great care going along the hall without her hearing, and closed the front door inch by deceitful inch." Ian McEwan, The Children Act

    "Saddiq had to open the door without disturbing his father. The man was sensitive to changes in teh house and would hear the door scrape against the dirt floor for feel a draft form outside.
     "Crouching, Saddiq rubbed his hand back and forth, smoothing dirt near the doorway ...Then he turned full attention to the door. Using two hands, he slowly lifted the thick wooden bar and gave the slightest tug. Gripping the side of the door with both hands, Saddiq pulled steadily just enough to slip outside. The lower edge rubbed against the floor with the softest whoosh. Holding his breath, he stepped outside, gently closing the door.... 
    "His father did not storm outside with questions." - Allure of Deceit

McEwan's sentence is more concise.  One reason may be that he is the better writer! But another difference stems from each character's' age. The first sentence describes an unhappy husband and the second describes a child who wants to embark upon a quest without his parents' knowledge.

And another difference is point of view. The first sentence is described by the wife who has just realized her husband's secret departure. The stealth in the second sentence carries the point of view of the child who opens the door.

Both examples turn an ordinary routine, the opening of door, into anxious intrigue.

Request a review copy of Allure of Deceit.

Portrait of The Open Door by Helen McNicoll, a Canadian painter who died in 1915 at the age of 35, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain of the EU, the US and countries with a copyright term of life of author plus 70 years or less. "Primarily a painter of working women and maternal themes in outdoor settings, McNicoll drew her subject-matter from the tradition of Impressionist women painters such as Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, while acknowledging the “new woman” of the modernist age," notes Natalie Luckyj in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.  

Thursday, February 26


Rituals are routines. Yet the first word carries an aura of meaningfulness and gravitas while the word "routines" may seem boring, rote and without thought. It's a good idea for each person, each family, to examine routines and decide which have meaning and purpose and which can be discarded.

"Romance is an ideal to which every married person should aspire," writes Francesca Di Meglio for She also argues society's definition of romance may be off. "We're making it be about grand gestures and things that require lots of work, which means time and/or money, neither of which any of us has. Romance doesn't have to be so hard. It can come in the form of a simple act..."

And then Francesca described one of my favorite rituals, my husband making coffee each morning. "It's a small gesture, maybe it's silly," I had explained to her, "but it's a habit that has built over time that matters as much as the gifts we've exchanged, trips we have taken, or activities we enjoy."

As Di Meglio reminds, the trick may be assessing our routines and turning them into pleasant and comfortable rituals. No couple does this more than Sofi and Parsaa in my novels set n Afghanistan. Fear of Beauty is Sofi's story, and Allure of Deceit describes Parsaa's reflections, his appreciation of his own marriage and thoughts about other romances that have gone wrong.

Request a review copy of either book by contacting Seventh Street Books.

The photo "Going Home" is courtesy of Iain Cochrane of Scotland, 2008, and Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, February 23

Places to go...

Books are wonderful companions for travelers, helping transport us to another land in person or spirit. Setting can be a key feature for some books, often performing as a character. Fiction and nonfiction can prepare readers for other cultures, adding special meaning to journeys that test our assumptions as readers: "writing images particular spaces onto the printed page, but just as writers invent places, readers are at the very least partners in the process of producing textual places," writes John Thieme in "Reading Places: The Geography of Literature," an essay that compares how R.K. Narayan and Amitav Ghosh handle cultural geography.

Amazon, Goodreads and other sites offer many lists on settings, but a map or table is really handy. Several websites focus on setting, connecting readers and writers with books set in all over the globe:

Few novels posted are set in
Afghanistan - or East Lansing 
Novels: On Location is the easiest and quickest site for posting location. Users can search by location or by novel. Those who want to add a book can zoom in on an location, add a pin, and type in the name of the novel. The site pinpoints most novels automatically with a thumbnail of the cover and description, allowing immediate purchase from Amazon or iBooks. It took less than 5 minutes to place Fear of Beauty on top of Afghanistan and explain how the setting of Laashekoh is a fictional village in northern Helmand. There is also a Reader Notes section, to add descriptions or quotes from the book. Results are posted immediately. 
The setting for both novels is a fictional and remote village. So I typed in "northern Helmand" as the location for both. Fear of Beauty is shown north of the capital in another province and Allure of Deceit is south of the Helmand provincial capital. Because the village is fictional, I can understood the tool's confusion.

Still, I agree with this self-assessment from the site's creators in the integration notes: "the Web's best way to find novels by setting. If you write a blog on literature, travel or, education, enhance the interactive experience for your readers by integrating Novels: On Location." Note of caution: Authors or readers may unintentionally inflate pin results by posting one book with more than one setting in multiple locations.

BooksSetIn relies on search engine methods and tabular results, with input provided by readers. This format accounts for both place and time. In searching for Helmand Province, one book emerges: Torn by David Massey, while a search for "Afghanistan" yields many more results. Again, it took less than 5 minutes to list the title, author, ISBN, and description for Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit. The site is inviting for travelers and readers both - and asks: "Taking a trip? Interested in another part of the world? Want to learn about another culture?" 

The tool easily permits multiple locations and also highlights a few places and books on its front page. Not much has been written about the site, but Facebook suggests it began in Pennsylvania.

Book Drum, from London, is the most thorough, elegant and yet complicated of the sites, inviting authors and other registered users to submit detailed profiles on authors and settings as well as background and new explorations of specific quotes. A map is promised but did not show up on this user's multiple  tries with browsers IE and Chrome (a message points out that Google has disabled its map tool for the application). Starting the profile is easy, logging on with Facebook, but some features such as adding coordinates or saving the page numbers for quotes do not run as smoothly. Books are not posted until all six sections are started. The site's self-assessment: "Book Drum is the perfect companion to the books we love, bringing them to life with immersive pictures, videos, maps and music." 

These websites are especially useful for countries and cities that are less common as literary settings. Cities like New York and London on these sites are teeming with books.

That doesn't mean the smallest villages of the world are not teeming with stories. 

Most authors and readers have not caught on to these sites just yet, and an avalanche of interest could arrive any day.