Saturday, July 18

Common home

Muslim scholars are joining Pope Francis suggesting that climate change is caused by humans and threatening Earth.

"The views of the scholars – some of the strongest yet expressed on climate from within the Muslim community – are contained in a draft declaration on climate change to be launched officially at a major Islamic symposium in Istanbul in mid-August," reports Kieran Cooke for Climate News Network. "The draft declaration has been compiled by the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, a UK-based charity focused on environmental protection and the management of natural resources. The declaration mirrors many of the themes contained in a recent encyclical issued by Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church."

Criticism is directed at the world's most advanced economies as well as oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia.  The declaration includes quotes from the Koran, such as 16:65:  "And Allah has sent down water from the cloud and therewith given life to the earth after its death; most surely there is a sign in this for a people who would listen."

Regardless of faith, all people share a common home and should have an interest in protecting and caring for the Earth. There is no escaping climate change. "The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change,” the pope writes in his encyclical. “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”

The pope mixes a scolding with eloquent respect for the Earth's land and waters: "The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected."

Researchers are studying climate change and producing models to forecast impacts. Models for the United States are specific and the National Climate Assessment offers projects for each region of the country.

Challenges for a underdeveloped nation like Afghanistan include a lack of baseline data, lack of meteorological stations in most parts, low literacy rates and a lack of trained personnel, explains Ghulam Mohd Malikyar in "The Impacts of Climate Change for Afghanistan."  Key hazards for the country include droughts, abrupt heavy rainfall, flooding doing to fast thaws in snow and ice, rising temperatures, heavy winds, severe storms and desertification, he writes, adding that all this disrupts agriculture. Other challenges include a "Lack of linkage with regional and international climate change networks" and "Low levels of awareness of the current and potential impacts of climate change" as well as "Limited analytical capability."

The country is working to promote awareness of future variability and potential for extreme events, as well as the need for sustainable development.

These trends along with the unnerving signs of climate change - volatile temperatures that destroy crops, dust storms, drought, water shortages, and even unusual snow - run throughout Allure of Deceit and Fear of Beauty. The villagers of Laashekoh do not have the benefit of weather reports, and must take each day as it comes, and the land means everything to Parsaa, the protagonist of Allure of Deceit. From Allure:

....Paul declined. He had to visit other village and expected snowfall.
"Surely not yet," Parsaa said. "The air is not that cold."
Paul smiled. "You will see over the next day... temperatures will plunge before tomorrow evening."

As noted the prologue notes in Fear: "We live in a land where extremes reign." Climate change is a security and economic issue, no longer easy to shove to the back of our minds. Modern literature increasingly reflects these concerns.

Photo of small village nestled in the mountains of southern Afghanistan, courtesy of Mark Ray, USACE, and Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, June 29

Two characters

I relish reading novels that share a setting with those in my books, and make note of the similarities and differences. Such joy is not shared by all authors.

When I first started writing and Alaska was my first setting, the editor suggested I write to prominent authors in the state to request blurbs. Authors must prepare for rejection - not just from publishers, but from reviewers, readers and other authors. The round of requests did not go well. I followed the editor's advice, and soon received a chilly reply from a popular author who explained she would not read other books set in the state because she did not want to be accused of borrowing others' ideas. Of course, more than a decade later, over the next decade the same writer inevitably tackled the same topics as Alaska Gray, now out of print. Another author, once a favorite of mine, snapped that she wrote literary novels and would not be caught dead reviewing a mystery novel

Needless to say, I've since been shy about asking authors for blurbs or reviews. Besides, as a reader, I've read too many glowing author blurbs attached to horribly written books and often asked myself and other authors, "Did we read the same book?" Of course, positive comments are understandable - turning down a colleague is not easy, and skilled writers can unearth some redeeming quality for a review - but excessive, hyperbolic praise draws red flags. Readers doubt their own judgments, and some eventually give up on an entire genre - mysteries in particular.

Such experiences have likely contributed in some small way to making me more open to exploring new settings. The latest is Afghanistan. And I do not mind reading or commenting on books that share the setting.

That said, I just finished Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman. Like most books set in Afghanistan, the novel is more violent than Fear of Beauty or Allure of Deceit. Still, the novel is beautiful, lyrical, and I recommend it highly to readers who have enjoyed my books.

The similarities are rich and rewarding. While reading the novel's early pages, I felt at home. Aziz's parents would get along with Parsaa and Sofi. Parsaa and Mumtaz would respect each other. Aziz and Saddiq could well be friends. Aziz is probably a bit older than Saddiq but both are restless, thoughtful, and resourceful, especially outdoors, whether climbing mountainsides or trees. Both fall in love, and both have older brothers named Ali. Saddiq's brother is murdered, and Aziz's is the victim of a bombing at a marketplace.

As with any young Afghan, Saddiq and Aziz must cope with constant uncertainty, never sure what the next day or moment might bring. Each must engage in constant calculation and deceit to survive and to help others of their choosing to survive.   

The books share so much in terms of atmosphere, tone, characterization, themes, philosophical exchanges and even pet birds - a magpie in Blue on Green and the mynah in Allure of Deceit. The characters in these books think alike. Notably, Mortaza in Ackerman's book, like Parsaa in Allure, rejects charity: "Those boys need an example of strength. The promise of charity has paralyzed them."

Yet the plots could not be more different. Saddiq, keenly aware of individual motivation and need, has less reason to seek revenge. After losing his family, Aziz becomes a soldier, a murderer, a terrorist. He finds revenge, but that's not enough to renew the bonds with his brother.

Before losing his family, Aziz's upbringing is very much like Saddiq's. Aziz's memories are reminiscent of Fear of Beauty, when militants overrun and disrupt the village: "We always knew of the war, but it was a distant thing. When it finally came, groups of fighters arrived in our village They offered protection to the spingaris in exchange for another tax on the land. We never spoke to these fighters, the spingaris did. They played all the groups off each other, making assurances they could never keep. It was a dangerous game. My family tried to ignore the war. We were happy with our piece of earth, a home, food. It was enough. But this didn't last. Eventually our village was taught that everyone must make a choice." (page 117)

In other circumstances, Saddiq might have followed in Aziz's footsteps. If the fictional village of Laashekoh were larger and under siege, like Gomal in Ackerman's book... If Saddiq had lost most of his family and scrambled to provide for remaining members...

But no, Aziz is alone and Saddiq is not. Saddiq's life is more orderly, more comfortable, not peppered with treacherous humiliations. He's not forced into settling life-and-death moral quandaries with every encounter. The two young men are trustworthy, but for only a select few. Each can easily lie to family or the closest friends. Aziz lies to escape his many losses and perhaps in an inept way, to reduce mental anguish for his brother. Saddiq's deceit is in pursuit of his own version of justice.

It's no wonder that Parsaa, leader of Laashekoh, does everything in his power to avoid foreign or Afghan fighters. As Ackerman suggests, the small lives we build can unravel at any moment.

Wednesday, June 3

Identity crisis

Parents now find themselves on the front lines of battling extremists.

Pentagon officials and media pundits are appalled by the handful of teens rushing off to join Islamic State extremists fighting in Syria and Iraq. Intelligence agencies have estimated that 150 Americans are among the estimated 25,000 who have joined the Islamic State to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Others, like the Tsarnaev brothers, act as so-called lone wolves.

The extremists recruit with propaganda, and are adept with social media, presenting their twisted rampage as a grand adventure with up to 2000 Twitter accounts, according to a census reported by the Brookings Institution. At risk are teens and young adults who feel inferior and wrestle with their place in the world, many raised by parents who are resentful and bitter themselves. A minor identity crisis is trying out new clothing, hairstyles and activities that rebel against expectations of parents and teachers. A major crisis is running away from home, engaging in substance abuse, joining a cult or extremist group.

More than 50 years ago, psychologist Erik Erickson described how those aged 12 to 18 develop a sense of self and way of viewing their role in the world. Teens “perversely test each other’s capacity to pledge fidelity” and “The readiness for such testing also explains the appeal which simple and cruel totalitarian doctrines have on the minds of the youth of such countries and classes as have lost or are losing their group identities,” he wrote in Childhood and Society, a recipient of both Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

His writings about identity crisis are relevant today.

People construct their identities throughout life, but the feelings of crisis are particularly acute during adolescence and soon afterward. We resist parental rules. In my case, I resented my father who prohibited me from driving or going out with friends. Though we lived in the same home, I stopped talking to him for nearly two years. Eager for independence, I skipped school, took a bus into the city and ate lunch in bars, dressing in casual business attire. I remained aloof from others, pointedly not ordering alcohol to avoid being asked for a driver’s license. I selected a setting and attire that made me feel sophisticated and in control.

Constant comparisons over social media, intense competition for colleges and jobs, and young celebrity stories of spectacular success complicate identity formation for today’s teens. Dependence on one’s parents can now stretch out to age 25 or beyond – both for those pursuing higher education and those who end schooling early and struggle to compete in a high-tech world and a troubled job market.

Parents and teachers prepare for identity crises in advance, reducing the lure of extremism.
Too much nagging can push young adults to unwanted activities. Parents and schools must select battles, avoid excessive rules and resist automatic dismissal of young ideas. Praise good choices in school, activities and friendships. Do not get caught up in petty details on odd clothes, hairstyles.
Early on, parents can introduce children to a diverse range of activities and find time to work on a project together – if only a few hours a week gardening, cooking, or volunteering at an animal shelter, senior center, or church program.

Let children experience some failures early in life so that they learn to strive for comebacks and seek new pursuits. Be grateful to teachers in middle school who challenge students and hand out low grades for lack of effort. Be supportive and good-natured when a tryout for a team or other activity does not succeed.

Children and teens observe their parents' attitudes and responses to problems. Parents can model anger and resentment, blaming others for their difficulties. Or they can demonstrate calm, courage and tolerance during difficult periods.

From an early age, children should be taught to avoid prejudice and those who discourage education, debate or humor.

Finally, parents and schools can rely on the narratives in literature or current events that demonstrate the futility of extremism. Erickson himself wrote in Identity: Youth and Crisis: “No wonder that in young people not inclined toward literary reflection, such deep-seated negative identities can be reabsorbed only by a turn to militancy, if not transient violence.”

Photo of mother and child in Farrah Health Clinic, courtesy of Master Sgt. Tracy DeMarco and Wikimedia Commons. 

Friday, May 29

Quid pro quo

Charity comes with a catch.

Yes, donors intend to improve lives, do good, help others. But the donations serve other purposes. The donors define the "good" that is accomplished. The recipients can be empowered, given some measure of decision-making capacity. But the donors must set conditions, and they use charitable programs to add a glossy humanitarian veneer to their reputations.

In Allure of Deceit, one of the characters - a victim before first page begins - has a reputation for critiquing charity. She points out the origin of the word "forgiving" is "giving" and how charitable practices can imply that recipients are wrongdoers, weak and deserving of no control.

Charities must tread carefully not to insult those they serve, and that requires lowered expectations on compliance or cooperation. As a result, charity is not the most efficient form for delivering needed services.

The description of Petra Nemcova's gala for the Happy Hearts Fund in the New York Times article by Deborah Sontag, "An Award for Bill Clinton Cam With $500,000 for his Foundation," bears eerie resemblance to the first chapter of Allure of Deceit. 

Orange from Songag: "She special-ordered heart-shaped chocolate parfaits, heart-shaped tiramisu and, because orange is the charity's color, an orange carpet rather than a red one. She imported a Swiss auctioneer and handed out orange rulers to serve as auction paddles playfully threatening to use hers to spank the highest bidder for an Ibiza vacation. The gala cost $363, 413."

Green in Allure: "Lime, peacock, moss, sea mist, forest and fern - gowns in every shade of green swirled about the ballroom floor. Aromas of mint and rosemary drifted from all-green centerpieces.... The meal was vegetarian, with ridiculously delicate portion sizes for the salads, fruit, and grilled vegetables.... Such attention to detail did not prevent the wrong people from making decisions or the wrong groups from receiving awards."

Life and art go hand in hand.

Sontag's story focuses on Nemcova offering a $500,000 contribution to the Clinton Foundation, presumably in exchange for his attendance at the gala to accept an award: "Happy Hearts’ former executive director believes the transaction was a 'quid pro quo,' which rerouted donations intended for a small charity with the concrete mission of rebuilding schools after natural disasters to a large foundation with a broader agenda and a budget 100 times bigger." Happy Hearts and Clinton Foundation officials deny that the donation was solicited.

The article echoes the purpose of the gala in Allure of Deceit: The foundation "operated in more than thirty nations and could be counted on to distribute at least $400 million annually for a mix of organizations. GlobalConnect was influential, yet it limited support to some fifty groups per year. Competition was intense."

In Allure of Deceit, Lydia Sendry is powerful, overseeing the world's largest charitable foundation. She wants to change the world, but she also wants to find out who murdered her only son.

The time has come to analyze society's dependence on charitable giving, especially for basic services like health care or education, and perhaps end tax write-offs for all charitable donations.

Note:  On September 1, Charity Navigator has given the Clinton Foundation four stars, its highest rating, after a review of the finances.

Review copies are available. Photo of reception, unrelated to charity, courtesy of  Tracy Hunter and Wikimedia Commons. 

Tuesday, May 12


The shrike may have all the appearance of a sweet songbird, but it's a predator known for catching small birds or rodents, and impaling them on thorns or sticks for later dining. The eating behavior is described early in Allure of Deceit:

Parsaa did not let up swinging the scythe, carving gentle arcs into the field, the wheat falling in line on either side, while keeping his eyes on the shrike. Suddenly, the bir dove into a nearby section of uncut wheat and emerged with a plump mouse. Clamping its beak tight, the shrike returned to the edge area. Once there, the shrike took careful aim and impaled the mouse against a long thorn. Stepping back, the bird leisurely pecked at its writhing meal. 

"With every swing of the blade, Parsaa was a co-conspirator.

Afghanistan has eight of the world's 31 species of shrikes. The one that appears in Allure of Deceit could be the bay-backed version, a bird that can be found in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka."A strikingly coloured, delicately built and fine-billed shrike, the bay-backed shrike is a beautiful bird of South Asia," notes Wildscreen Arkive. The colors include soft gray, warm chestnut with solid black markings. "The most distinctive feature of this bird is the black facial mask extending from the side of the neck through the eyes to the based of the hooked bill."

The bird's habitat includes cultivated fields and scrubby areas, notes Bird Forum. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a leader in the study and conservation of birds,  collects their songs and the bay-backed shrike can be heard here. 

Photo of the bay-backed shrike in India, courtesy of J.M. Garg and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 5


Reducing clutter can keep us calm.

Reducing clutter requires a regular assessment of belongings. But just because an item has not been used for a year or more does not necessarily mean they should be tossed. Place such belongings in storage and label the boxes. Opening the box a few months later can offer a pleasant surprise and new appreciation - or perhaps the realization that the time has come to give the possessions away.

And then there is mental clutter. This requires regular assessment of routines, shedding unwanted priorities, distractions and anxiety.  Ryan Nicodemus explains in an essay for the Minimalists: "...once I decided I’d had enough of the mental clutter, I had no choice but to to change my circumstances - I had no choice but to remove myself from circumstances that added to my mental clutter. I stopped associating with certain people, I changed my spending habits, I downsized my possessions. I started with myself, and I changed my circumstances." Nicodemus co-authored of Live a Meaningful Life with Joshua Fields Millburn.

Farnoosh Brock of Prolific Living urges focusing on just one thought at a time and not letting competing ideas bombard the mind.

Individuals can become more than our circumstances, and this becomes obvious with some streamlining. For example, minimize technology. Cellphones can become a ball and chain, forcing users to be at the beck and call of family members, co-workers and friends.

Warning, though: Pushing others to reduce clutter can make them cling to the oddest of possessions. Individuals must make their own choices, and attempts to control another individual almost always backfires.

Writing the books set in Afghanistan, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, prompted appreciation for the comforts in my life and the value of simplicity. Before making a purchase or a commitment, Stephanie Vozza, interviewing Scott Eblin, author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The  Mindfulness Alternative, for Fast Company, suggests asking one's self:  "Is this necessary?"

And the answer is often no.

Photo of Afghan market in 2009, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard, and Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, April 27


Laashekoh, the fictional village that is the setting for Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, is unusual in many ways. But perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this village is the many trees. In truth, Afghanistan has few forests. A lack of forest management, few government regulations, minimal enforcement combined with war and tribal competition led to rapid deforestation - another version of the tragedy of the commons. Trees are cut for fuel and building. Without replanting, the soil has eroded, discouraging replanting and regeneration.

"Commercial timber harvesting is illegal in Afghanistan - which leaves a massive smuggling industry...," report Sean Carberry and Sultan Faizy for NPR. With so much conflict and corruption, preserving trees is a low priority.

All of Afghanistan's forests could be gone in the next 30 years. "As the forests go, so will lots of wildlife species, further damaging Afghanistan's biodiversity," reports Afghanistan Online. "Moreover, not only will Afghanistan suffer economically, but there will also be an increase in fatalities and damages as a result of flooding and even avalanches.

Afghanistan's hillsides were not always so bare. "Good policy and planning, forest law, sufficient budget, specialists and experiments, technology and sufficient time are needed to solve this problem," notes Cropwatch.  

A few forests remain. Varying elevations contribute to specific micro-climates, and Laashekoh is one such place. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that only about 2 percent of Afghanistan is forested, not including small patches of other wooded land.

Campaigns to replant trees are underway. Up to 25 million tree seedlings were planted near urban areas, reported IRIN in 2010, though only half could be expected to survive because of water shortages.

The Afghan Child Project describes entire towns without trees and launched projects to plant trees near schools. Each child planted a tree and cared for it, sharing his or her own water.

The International Security Assistance Force donated more than 400,000 almond, pine and other seedlings in 2012. "The trees do not only play an important role for the environment, but also for the psychological health of the residents," notes Afghanistan Today, with independent reports financed by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Many Afghans attach great cultural value to trees." One vendor reported selling more than 150 saplings a day.

Some trees mentioned in Allure of Deceit are transplants from other lands.

The novel refers to a stand of black locust trees near the village of Laashekoh. The tree is not an Afghan native plant, but saplings were purchased and planted early in the 20th century. The plant has since been shown to produce rapid growth and high yield, according to researchers from the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois. Trimming the trees in early years also encourages more branch growth.

A black locust can reach 30 meters in height and grows quickly at the start, with growth rates going into decline after 30 years, reports J.C. Huntley for the US Forest Service.

Likewise, the stone pine, which endures drought well, grows fast in its early years, reaching a height of 15 feet in five years. Full height is not reached for another 50 years. Pines like Pinus longifolia is moderately fast-growing.

A yew, cyprus, banyan, chestnut or pine can live 1,000 years or more. Without much thought or planning, communities too often cut down trees that provide shade, soil protection and beauty and cannot be easily replaced.

The photo "Morning in Badakshan": John Scott Rafoss, Afghanistan Matters and Wikimedia Commons  The photo of conifers in the snow: Mark Jurrens and Wikimedia Commons. Photo of tree stand taken from a helicopter: Andrew Smith, Afghanistan Matters and Wikimedia Commons.