Wednesday, September 30
The passengers had little choice but to listen to the message on impending threats, the need for caution, fear and shame. He railed on about Jeremiah's warnings, frequently pausing to lean over a passenger and challenge the individual with the question, "Do you believe in the Lord God Almighty?"
The incident was nerve-wracking, calling to mind similar incidents in northern areas of Africa, where extremists board buses and demand passengers to recite a quote or two from the Koran to prove they are not infidels.
Some passengers pointedly ignored him. Most nodded nervously. He did not confront my friend, but the sermon went on for 90 minutes, intruding on any plans for passengers to converse, read or contemplate the scenery. Shortly before his destination, he passed a hat for donations. Not all gave. Videos of the clean-cut preachers in dress shirts and ties dating back a few years can be found on YouTube, and my friend was told the preachers receive a free ride in exchange for a sermon.
There are varying statistics for the demographics of Zambia: The CIA World Factbook suggests that 75 percent are Protestant, 20 percent Catholic, and the remaining a mix of Hindu, Muslim and indigenous tribal religions. Others report the percentage of those who are non-Christian may run as high as 12 percent. No surprise that there are reports of Muslim preachers are taking up the practice, too.Christianity is the country's official religion, but the constitution protects the freedom of conscience or religion for all. Religious instruction is required for grades one through nine: "Religious education focus on Christian teachings but also incorporates comparative studies of Islam, Hinduism, and traditional beliefs," reports the Zambia 2013 International Religious Freedom Report.
A lack of consideration by any one religion can diminish faith in general among the wider populace. A generous spirit, open minds, support of equality for all including women and men, common courtesy, all these can restore one's faith in human nature and the power of religion.
In Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, characters must wrestle with doubt over longstanding religious beliefs, especially when values come in conflict with protecting the ones they love. And as an author, I feel very fortunate that few suggest that the topic is inappropriate for a mystery novel. I had one memorable experience a few weeks after Fear of Beauty. I was on a panel for a book festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, an older woman snapped, questioning why I would even think about writing about the Muslims in Afghanistan. But such a response has been a rarity. Most readers express curiosity about the books - and especially so in rural areas of Michigan, North Dakota, Georgia and Louisiana. So few are closed-minded or mean-spirited, and as I have said before on these pages, our values are strengthened by comparing and contrasting those held by others.
Jeremiah offered another warning that may not have been mentioned during the bus ride: "From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit." 6:13.
Photo of a road in southern Zambia, courtesy of Amantia Phalloides, Namwianga Mission and Wikimedia Commons.
Thursday, September 24
Every billion changes the character of the world, reducing the area of wild and open space, leaving fewer resources for other species and future generations.
Many applaud the Pope's call to for action to stem climate change, yet "One of America’s leading scientists has dismissed as 'raving nonsense' the pope’s call for action on climate change – so long as the leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics rejects the need for population control," writes Suzanne Goldenberg for the Guardian. "In a commentary in the journal Nature, Paul Ehrlich, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, argues that Pope Francis is simply wrong in trying to fight climate change without also addressing the additional strain on global resources from population rise."
The population of less developed nations is growing at a faster pace than in wealthier nations of Europe, North America and parts of Asia: "There is not a single issue among the sustainable development goals – including poverty, hunger, housing, education, employment, health, gender equality, human rights and environment – that would not benefit from reducing high rates of population growth," writes Joseph Chamie for YaleGlobal.
As explained in Allure of Deceit, the Central Intelligence Agency tracks such trends. Extremely high or low fertility rates, those that out of balance with resources like water or food can pose a security risk for neighboring nations. The countries with the highest fertility rates:
Niger, average of 6.89 children per woman
Mali, 6.16 children
Burkina Faso, 5.93
South Sudan, 5.43
Notably, Afghanistan's fertility rate fell sharply, near half, since the US invasion in 2001. Countries with the lowest fertility rates:
Hong Kong, 1.17
South Korea, 1.25
British Virgin Islands 1.25
Bosnia and Herezegovina, 1.26
From the first chapter, Allure of Deceit explores population growth and family planning from the perspectives of a remote village in Afghanistan, a conservative director of a small charity, and the director of one of the world's largest charitable foundations:
Pearl Hanson was a Texas conservative, practical and stubborn. Despite limited tools and her brash ways, her program had raised awareness about the economic benefits of small families. The link between wealth and family planning prompted even devout women to pursue methods of contraception on their own. Pearl understood and didn't cast blame.
The book is a murder mystery layered with social mystery. Why do some believers bitterly oppose family planning and contraception for others and yet practice these techniques on their own? why do they resist making contraception freely available for society as a whole, especially the young, and then express surprise about unwanted pregnancies? why do they refuse to fund programs on family planning at the national or international level and then resist the desperate migrants who long to escape conflict and terror in the Middle East or poverty and hunger and lack of opportunities in Africa? why do some resist arguments that access to birth control reduces abortion? William Saletan writes for Slate about studies on the failure rate for specific methods of contraception and how that correlates with abortion.
Shame is a powerful weapon and one that knows no boundaries. Once a powerful authority like a parent or politician or Pope suggests that contraception is wrong, the sentiment spreads, planting fear and doubt. War and economic uncertainty spread doubt, too. Women do not want to commit to raising a child in a dangerous world. So thoughtful women, including many Catholics in the United States, ignore those who wield shame. One way or another, mothers strive to be responsible and avoid having children they cannot afford.
Photo of Afghan market, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard and Wikimedia Commons.
Saturday, August 15
But lately, the genre has been less satisfying. The number of books has exploded - and BJ Gallagher has written about these trends for Huffington Post - and this goes for mysteries, too.
But the quality of books may be in decline. Perhaps I've become jaded, impatient, and I finish only about two out of every three books I read anymore.
The reasons are many. Blurbs and jacket descriptions do not deliver on their promises. Publishers encourage authors to churn out one or more books per year. Some series rely on tired formulas. Authors invest more in publicity than editing, proofreading, storytelling, or research. Publishers, reviewers, fans herd in pursuing big names. Authors no longer allow series to each their natural conclusion, and heirs to a story line hire writers to keep the story going.
The Statistical Abstract of the United States reports that a total of 11,022 books were published in 1950, and fewer than 2000 were fiction. By 1965, the number jumped to more than 20,000 of which 1,615 were new fiction. For 2013, print books by traditional publisher totaled more than 304,000 and the total of non-print books was estimated at more than 1.1 million. The 2014 Bowker release adds, "In traditional publishing, Fiction and Juvenile genres continue to dominate the market."
Reviewers cannot read all books, and bookstores cannot stock all books. Globalization combined with word of mouth ensures that most readers can herd around the same dozen or so book each year.
And even those favorites can disappoint.
Still, readers persist in discovering and new writers and bringing their stories to the public's attention, including The Martian and Still Alice.
Photo of Yale Law Library, courtesy of Nick Allen and Wikimedia Commons.
Saturday, July 18
"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
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
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
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.