December 7, 2018

Why Books Make the Best Gifts

Christmas shopping? Looking for ideas?  Consider giving books. There are dozens of reasons why books make the best gifts. For example, books are . . .

  1. Easy to wrap
  2. Can be personalized
  3. Don’t need batteries
  4. Won’t go out of style
  5. One size fits all
  6. Won’t shrink
  7. Inexpensive
  8. Easy to mail
  9. Re-giftable
  10. Last a life-time

Few gifts can match the variety that books offer.  Fiction and nonfiction are the first two broad categories. From there, the possibilities are endless. For the practical, do-it yourself person on your list, there home maintenance guides for plumbing and electricity; there are small engine repair books,  volumes on landscape and gardening, books on travel, or how to win at blackjack in Las Vegas.  Some books are whimsical; think about those science fiction stories, or dystopian novels. There is a sports story for almost every athlete that ever played, in every sport known to man. You can even find one about umpires. (Planet of the Umps: A Baseball Life from Behind the Plate, by Ken Kaiser and David Fisher).  For the hands-on, nuts and bolts person in you life, look to nonfiction for the books to make the best gifts.

Someone on your list into art or photography? Easy! Hard bound books in this genre are are gorgeous, and when the visual element portrays a person or time in history, the results are stunning, as in the book   Obama: An Intimate Portrait: The Historic Presidency in Photographs, by Pete Souza).

There is no age limit to giving—recipients can be six months old for one of those flexible, crinkly-page ABC books to handle, rustle, and chew on. The classics for children such as Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown never get old, and Dr. Seuss continues to entertain the next generation.  A newer addition, and one of my favorites, is Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Schreffler. What a clever protagonist,  the witch with ginger hair—she practices a bit of magic and deftly spins a lesson about diversity and inclusion.

Ideas for the best book gifts are everywhere: Goodreads, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon, to name a few. Or, just google, “Ideas for book gifts.”

If you are looking for a book to spark a lively book club discussion, consider the novel The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, the story takes place on a North Dakota Anishinaabe Reservation, and is told through the voice of 13 year old Joe. It is a coming of age story, and a search for justice within tribal sovereignty. A great book for book club members, with discussion questions online.

My favorite genre, however,  is narrative nonfiction—a true story that reads like a novel. And one of my favorite books in this genre is Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. By the time I reached the last few pages, I was so moved, I had tears streaming down my face. My husband happened to walk by, did a double take, and gave me a look of concern. “I know,” I answered, shrugging my shoulders. “It’s about a boat!”

Actually, it’s about much more than just a boat. It’s a true story about a rowing team, the Great Depression, an abandoned boy learning how to become part of a team, and the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

It was this genre—narrative nonfiction—that I tried to emulate as I wrote Little Women of  Baghlan: The Story of a Nursing School for Girls in Afghanistan, the Peace Corps, and Life Before the Taliban.  For two more timely examples of a narrative nonfiction book, check out All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and Red Notice, by Bill Browder.

There is a book out there for everyone. So think about books for your Christmas list–ask for them! Give them!

Consider Iceland, where residents have a beautiful tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the night reading. This custom is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it is the reason for the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood.” This ‘flood’ occurs between September and December, when the majority of books in Iceland are sold in preparation for Christmas giving.

November 15, 2018

Writing Groups Support Authors

The Literary Writers Network in Chicago, is one of many writing groups that support authors.  I joined shortly after starting my book, “Little Women of Baghlan, even though it was over an hour’s drive each way to attend the meetings, I quickly realized how fortunate I had been to find a group that was dedicated to the craft of writing, and equally dedicated to an honest critique of our individual work. I remember feeling that we all welcomed, indeed craved, a candid, straightforward review of our efforts. It was always about the writing, not about any of us as individuals.

But the meetings were NOT unrelenting drudgery, the members grim and serious. Even when a writer had his or her work on the ‘chopping block,’ the suggestions were given in a collegial, helpful manner. We were all in it together, helping each other become better writers.

Often I was shocked to discover that my writing, which had seemed so clear in my own head, so clever, so obvious and insightful, was perceived by my fellow writers as muddy, hard to follow, and poorly written. The ‘rules’ were that I could not interrupt the discussion to clarify. I could not stop everyone and explain what I meant to say. I could only go back and revise, until my words stood on their own, with no further explanation needed.

Over time, we developed a shorthand for writing comments on our colleagues’ work. POV meant that the author had slipped from one point of view to another—apparently something I did frequently. AWK was shorthand for awkward construction; the prose grammatically correct, but . . . awkward. Ungainly. Cumbersome. And then, there was the evening that I had my work returned with a red circle around a paragraph, and the acronym WTF in the margins. I re-read the paragraph in question. Umm hmm. What the . . . was I thinking, anyway?

Recently I was a guest at the Kankakee Writers Club, a small group that meets at the Public Library in Kankakee IL. Although the members did not critique each other’s’ work, as do many writing groups, they do share resources and ideas. Acting president Emma Kemp had prepared a “self-education resource list,” a bibliography of writing resources, and a web reference guide, among other materials.

There is a wealth of information about writing groups on the internet. One resource is Jane Friedman’s blog advising writers to be discerning when choosing to become part of a group. You can find her blog post at:

As I shared my own experience of writing “Little Women of Baghlan,” that evening, I was transported back to the days when I was immersed in Jo’s story and the background research for the years 1968-70. Since I am one of those obnoxious early morning personalities, I was at the computer at 5 AM on most days, barely aware of the sky becoming light, and the first birds chirping outside my office window. I miss those days—the focus of creating a story, of harnessing the power of words. I miss the pleasure of language, of listening for the musicality of the rhythm and cadence in every sentence, and yes, I miss my writing group.

October 30, 2018

Why Should I Vote?

Your Vote Counts

If you don’t like what’s happening in our country, you have both the opportunity and the responsibility to do something about it. Vote. If you want to ensure that our Constitution endures, vote. If you need a reminder of just why it is so important, it is this: according to the first amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Eleven worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, were gunned down in cold blood last week, simply for exercising their first amendment right. If you are horrified that people have been killed while at prayer, vote.

If you are appalled at the emerging reality of our country as a place where citizens increasingly take up arms against each other, or send pipe bombs in the mail, vote.

If you are concerned about the uptick in hate crimes against the Jewish, Black, gay and lesbian, Latino, and Muslim communities, vote. The hate rhetoric originates at the top of our government, with a president who follows the playbook inspired by George Wallace. That playbook includes ‘White Nationalism’ as a belief that citizenship should be defined by the color of one’s skin, their eyes, and hair, how they dress, and how they worship.

If you want the script to change—then vote.

If you want a congress that will protect the Mueller investigation, in spite of recent judge appointments, including that of Bret Kavanagh to the Supreme Court, then vote. In the 1974 case of US. v. Nixon, the Court ruled unanimously that Nixon was not above the law, and that he was required to release his White House tapes. Kavanaugh later wrote in 1999 that perhaps the case was “wrongly decided,” and that as a justice, he might support the president’s right to refuse to turn over evidence to Mueller’s team. If this makes you uneasy, vote.

The midterm elections are not glamorous, not as exciting as the presidential elections, but they are no less important. Congress makes our laws. Congress needs to be a check and balance to the judicial and executive branches. If you feel that Congress is not doing its job, then vote.

We live in a democracy, by definition a country in which the supreme power is vested in the people. That power is exercised directly or indirectly through a system of representation, with periodically held free elections. And yes, your vote matters. Every American that does not take the time or effort to vote, simply gives away that ‘supreme power’ to someone else.

Like the United States, Afghanistan is currently in the midst of parliamentary elections. Out of around 12 million eligible Afghans, almost 9 million are registered to vote, including 3 million women. If you think it is an inconvenience to vote in the United States, think of the Afghans. They face the possibly of violence from the Taliban just by showing up at the polls. Throughout Afghanistan, more than 54,000 members of the security services have been deployed for protection.

Incidentally, in Afghanistan’s lower house, the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), 69 of 249 seats are held by women, or approximately 28 percent. In the US Congress, there are 106 women serving, making up just less than 20% of all 535 seats in the House and Senate. The 2017 global average of seats held by women in parliaments around the world was 24%.

50 years ago, Richard Nixon ran against Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election of 1968. A young Peace Corps Volunteer voted for the first time in that election, and her experience is captured in the book, “Little Women of Baghlan: The Story of a Nursing School for Girls in Afghanistan, the Peace Corps, and Life Before the Taliban.” As described in the book, the young Volunteer didn’t just fill out her absentee ballot, and drop it in the mail box.

She carried it to the taxi bazaar in Baghlan, where she hired a driver for the fifty-mile trip to Kunduz. From there one of the Volunteers would take it to the post office in Kabul. One vote cast among millions, but her vote nonetheless, and she was strangely moved by her participation in the process so far from home.”

A half century later, we still breathe the air of freedom, and in this midterm election, we cannot take this freedom for granted. Threats to our democracy do not always come from outside our borders; often they come from within. Democracy is eroded by lawmakers who legislate voter suppression, by congressmen and senators who remain silent during riots in Charlottesville, who look away from children orphaned at the border, who echo anti-Semitic, racist language, are willing to roll back women’s rights, deny climate change, refuse to acknowledge the gay community, ban Muslims, and put personal gain above the good of our country.

But there is a simple defense against these lawmakers.

Vote them out. While you still can.

September 12, 2018

Remembering John McCain

John McCain

John S. McCain, 1936 — 2018

Meghan McCain eulogized her father, John McCain, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., with a speech that was impassioned by grief, love, and admiration. She mourned her personal loss for the man she called her father, recognizing at the same time that his passing from this world marked “the passing of American greatness.” She defined that greatness as real and true, not just empty talk, or words from men “who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly.”

Rarely, if ever, has there been clapping in the hallowed nave of the National Cathedral, however, when Meghan McCain went on to say that the America of her father did not need to be made great again, because “America was always great,” those in attendance spontaneously broke into applause.

Indeed, there has been a lot of rhetoric lately about how we need to ‘make America great again.’ I guess the conversation depends on one’s view of greatness. Just how is that defined, exactly? Great. Greatness. Merriam Webster defines the word great as “notably large in size, number, or measure.” The Oxford English Dictionary goes on to describe ‘great’ as “wonderful, distinguished, or famous.”

So the question should be asked: What purpose does ‘greatness’ serve? If we need to make America great again, great for what? Famous for what? And does a return to greatness mean we stop moving forward? That we reject inclusion, generosity, diversity, or a global awareness? Without purpose, ‘great’ is an empty word, full of self-importance and braggadocio.

We think of greatness in terms of nations, but what about the individual citizen? Those who serve a purpose that is greater than themselves, the people who make this world a better place?

Navy pilot John McCain was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, breaking both arms and a leg when he ejected from his plane. He was captured and imprisoned in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where he remained a prisoner of war until his release in 1973. The wounds that he sustained, along with the torture and mistreatment he endured, left him with lifelong physical disabilities, yet he still burned with a desire to serve the country he sacrificed for; the country he loved.

He served during a particularly turbulent era in our nation’s history. The 1960s and early 70s were a time when young Americans such as McCain were fighting in Vietnam, while others protested, and still others were joining a radical new organization called the Peace Corps. Black activists, marching in Birmingham, Alabama were attacked with fire hoses and police dogs; while idealistic young men and women risked their lives as Freedom Riders to ensure people of color were allowed to vote. In 1968 Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. That same year the Apollo Astronauts traveled to the far side of the moon.

It was a decade of contradictions, of racial tension, war, riots, and scientific achievement. It was also a decade of idealism, purpose, and service, whether that meant service in the military, or service as a civilian. During the time of McCain’s imprisonment, another young American also served her country, working and living in Baghlan, Afghanistan from 1968-70. As a representative of the United States, she served in the Peace Corps, taught English and medicine in a small adobe schoolroom, worked in a hospital without running water, and established a school of nursing for Afghan girls. Her dedication reflected what was best about our country—our generosity, inclusiveness, and force for good in the world. Her story is one of thousands of similar stories. They are part of our heritage, our American history, our treasure.

John McCain understood that service can be as diverse as our nation. He endorsed this notion by stating: “It’s not just the military. We have the Teach for America program. We have AmeriCorps. There are many avenues of service, and there is nothing nobler than serving a cause greater than your own interest.” (, July, 2015)

When former senator Joe Lieberman stepped to the podium to eulogize his longtime friend, he spoke of John McCain’s deeply held belief that there is a special satisfaction that comes from “serving a cause greater than yourself.” For McCain, that cause was America— the America of our “founding values, freedom, human rights, opportunity, democracy, and equal justice under law.” 

Former President George W. Bush echoed those same sentiments. He noted that McCain didn’t see our country just as a physical place or power, but as the “carrier of enduring human aspirations. As an advocate for the oppressed. As a defender of the peace. As a promise, unwavering, undimmed, unequaled.”

Former President Barack Obama spoke of McCain’s understanding of a fundamental truth, that America’s security and influence in the world have been won not just by military power or wealth, but from our “capacity to inspire others with our adherence to a set of universal values. Like rule of law and human rights, and insistence on God-given dignity of every human being.”

What better way to honor John McCain, Obama noted, than to recognize that “there are some things bigger than party or ambition, or money, or fame, or power.” There are principles that are worth fighting for, values that are worth risking everything for, and truths that are enduring. “At his best, John showed us what that means. For that, we are all deeply in his debt.”

January 29, 2018

Update to the Afghan Women’s Robotics Team

Afghan Robotics Team

By now it is known that an Afghan women’s robotics team, made up of a group of high school girls from Herat, Afghanistan, won a silver medal for courage in the FIRST Global Challenge in Washington, D.C. this past July, 2017.  This was after their visas to the United States were denied twice, even after the girls made two 500-mile round trips to Kabul to interview in person at the U.S. Embassy.  Only after a public display of support in the U.S. did the Administration allow the Afghan Women’s Robotic team to attend. In addition, since Afghanistan is still an active conflict area, the team waited months for their kit of wheels, gears, and radio controls to clear security. Meanwhile, their competitors were already working on their robots. By the time the materials arrived, the Afghans had only two weeks to assemble a working robot, but they did so successfully, getting a head start by using recycled materials, and even a Coca-Cola bottle.

The teenagers are sponsored in part by Roya Mahboob, an Afghan technology entrepreneur. Mahboob came on behalf of her company, Digital Citizen Fund, a women’s empowerment nonprofit.

In November, 2017, the team traveled to Estonia to compete in the Entrepeneur Challenge at Europe’s largest robotics festival, the Robotex festival. They faced off against 3700 competitors and 1600 robots. Not only did they build a robot that would solve a real world problem, they also designed marketing flyers, and presened a sales pitch to a team of judges.

The winning robot, presented by three members of the Afghan Women’s Robotic team, uses solar energy to work on small farms, doing tasks like seeding and cutting crops.

Next stop is another visit to the U.S. in May of this year to compete for investment money to start their own company.

Stay tuned.

Information for this post obtained from K.N. Smith, contributor to Forbes, Nov 29, 2017; Amanda Erickson from The Washington Post, July 4, 2017; Camila Domonoske, NPR, Nov 30, 2017.

Photos from Jurban

Arrival of the all-girls Afghan national team at Dulles Airport for the FIRST Global Challenge 2017, an international robotics competition for high school STEM students held in Washington.

January 15, 2018

Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Day

Celebrating MLK Day rings a bit hollow this year, coming days after the White House openly insulted immigrants and the countries they come from—brown and black skinned immigrants to be precise. However, many Americans happen to think otherwise, including a bookshop owner in New York.