Friday, June 12, 2009

Sarah Chayes: Indiana Jones' Modern Day Girlfriend

Gotta love a woman with messy hair

Okay. This woman will kick your butt.  If she were a milspouse she'd be my best friend. And probably anyone's who reads this blog.

I'm reading a fascinating book by Sarah Chayes, who I've featured in an interview with Charlie Rose a short while back. Her book, "The Punishment Of Virtue" is about her leap from NPR correspondent to an NPO founder, military adivsor and a local Afghani tribal observer, and post-Taliban reconstructionist. Chayse writes in an unpretentious, cards-on-the table kind of way. This book is the missing conversational link that helps people understand the generations-old system of tribal structures in a region we've heard little about. It helps us understand what we're facing. She illustrates why Afghanis put more faith in individuals than they do institutions, which is why the American approach of creating them is met with difficulty.

Two of Chayes's traits are her articulate manner and candor. She doesn't hesistate to describe the mendacity of the tribes in her surroundings, the sloth and self-isolation of reporters, the frustration of Marines who want to build a road. Chayes admits how in the early days, much of the reportage wrong because of the collective journalists's lack of understanding of both history and culture. We learn how her editor's biases at NPR killed reports on the subtleties (Marines wanting to be part of the solution and build a road), instead opting standard, humanitarian-in-a-can stories instead. While these are stories we like, they overlook other nuances that complete our understanding of the aforementioned history and culture. (Coincidentally, it's also the reason why milblogs are so great to follow).

When her assignment ended, Chayes quit NPR. She founded Afghans for Civil Society, the monies of which were raised in a very American way. She went home to Masachusettes, held a series of town hall meetings, talked about the work to be done, and got pledges from individuals. With this she founded her NPO:
"Afghans for Civil Society (ACS) seeks to bring about a democratic alternative for Afghanistan that opposes violence and extremism and encourages a nascent civil society."
In other words, ACS isn't mute when it comes to the political reconstruction of an area receiving heavy subsidies. ACS would, through practical efforts, work to influence a society away from the cycle of corruption and violence entrenched in its system of continual wars, governors and war lords. This deviates from the standard NGO, which subcontracts powerful lords to distribute the goods. The money they give often goes to line their pockets, while millions are left in poverty. There's little leverage used to demand better governance.

Crazy? Yes. Impossible? At times. Yet Chayes takes us along on the bumpy ride from Kabul to Kandahar and points north, south, east and west. We go with her to buy rock, only to discover that she can't, see her finagling her way to get it, only to have to bail people out of jail. She shows us how the locals duped the Army Civil Affairs Team into drilling two wells, when the team had just told Chayes they wouldn't give her a $1k subsidy to help ACS drill a well in the same village. How did the locals get the civil affairs team to do it? They changed the name of the town when they were pitching the project to the two visiting CA team members. We're with her as she discovers the entire region has collective PTSD. A society living amid war and destruction for generations, and one that when it comes to subsidies knows how to best milk the system for the benefit of the few.

Substitute Sarah Chayes For Marian
We meet the cast of characters: the proud, the noble, the charmingly corrupt, and the all out vicious. Through it all is the unflappable American, Sarah Chayes, who by all accounts would be Indiana Jones's Marian Ravenwood had Marian sold Stilton in a cheese store, leapt into reporting on food in Paris, covered the war in Kosovo, and had showdowns with Afghans like Abdullah, the Karzai family's engineer (who is now her de-facto deputy). All in all, this is a woman to be watched and a book that deserves to be read.

Note: As with my day-to-day blog, Easy-Writer I'll be doing book reviews. If you're an author, please ask your agent or publicist to request to send me an ARC. I'll read the synopsis and see if it's something I want to read. If so, I'll accept it via US Mail. All book reviews will be archived over on the sidebar. If you seem truly interesting, I might even interview you via the phone (or in person) as I did on my literary writers blog, The Writerly Pause.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house
That your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.
-TE Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
For those of us who fell into T.E. Lawrence's account of the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turks, Three Cups of Tea should fill a void we've been missing. Like Lawrence, Greg Mortenson is a rare storyteller, adventurer, and former soldier. He's also a father, husband, humanitarian and a fearless taskmaster.

"The little red light had been flashing for five minutes before Bhangoo paid it any attention. "The fuel gauges on these old aircraft are notoriously unreliable," Brigadier General Bhangoo, one of Pakistan's most experienced high-altitude helicopter pilots, said, tapping it. I wasn't sure if that was meant to make me feel better."
After a failed attempt to scale K-2, he wanders into the small forgotten town of Korphe, high in the mountains of North East Pakistan. Recovering from his trip, he asks the village chief if he can see the school. Mortenson is taken to an open plot of land where the children are without a teacher. They're seated on the ground, and the wind is blowing their pages. Mortenson pledges to build them a school. This rash decision will lead him to his lifelong cause: breaking the cycle of poverty by providing a balanced education.

But it isn't easy. Along the way, we ride with Mortenson as he works shifts at night as a nurse, trying to save enough money to build his first school. Back in the Bay Area, he lives in squalor, and fruitlessly writes letters to find a benefactor who will underwrite the project. Amazingly, he does. And there starts the tale of buying supplies in a foreign land, underestimating, transporting them on the Khyber Highway in a truck too big for the narrow, winding road. We read about finding a wife, and along the way he gets kidnapped, has two Fatwahs declared against him, and is approached Kirghiz horsemen who have ridden over the Irshad Pass to the equally remote Charpurson Valley in Pakistan to build a school for them. The reader is taken through the "stans," --Baltistan, Waziristan. We learn of the the Wazir, Pashtuns who had not only defeated Alexander, but later, the British as well.

This is a great read not because it's an adventure or a tale of the the human spirit. Three Cups of Tea is essential because it's an approachable primer for those who want to understand how the the Taliban and Al Qaeda used a lack of publicly funded education to their advantage. It's estimated they built twenty thousand schools of their own, known as madrassas. As Mortenson points out, not every madrassa is a hot bed of extremism, but it does give easy access to foment their own interpretation of the Koran.

"They admired war because it was the occupation they could adapt to. Their simple belief in a messianic, puritan Islam which had been drummed into them by simple village mullahs was the only prop they could hold on to ad gave their lives meaning."
Three Cups of Tea gives the reader a greater understanding of the problems of the region, its tribes and the landscape. More importantly, Mortenson makes a good argument for building schools to break the cycle of poverty and giving reason to go toward a brighter future, offering an alternative to the extremist movement. He, along with other Muslims, views the education of girls as essential to rebuilding peaceful communities. As of 2008, Mortenson's non-profit Central Asia Institute built 78 schools, educating 28,000 students, which includes 18,000 girls. Three Cups of Tea is an incredible story of humanity and offers a deeper understanding to the region in conflict now.

Three Cups of Tea is available in paperback through the site, a portion of which goes to building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Creating Characters: Making yours live a full life

My toughest editor, Panda
Writing fiction is a funny thing. It requires a fair amount of manipulation, while trying to be spontaneous at the same time. One worries about whether or not their characters are living full lives, express a range of emotions. So yes, we stress as we write, especially in the final 55,000 word $*(#$&*! draft.

I was thinking of this when I took a break and went surfing. I came across a dynamic man who was a novelist's dream. His name was Major Steve Hutchison. He re-enlisted in the Army after having been retired for 17 years. During this time he earned advanced degrees in psychology, became a university professor, met the love of his life and was by her side through her cancer (which she would die from), worked in corporate health care and then decided to re-join the Army. He was deployed to Iraq. Anyway, sad thing is that he died from the wounds of an IED. While the press gave him the distinction of being the oldest soldier killed at age 61, amid his peers they didn't think about his age, but loved him for his unfailing leadership coupled with pranks.
"He’d often strut to the shower in nothing more than tighty-whiteys, even with females around. When he passed younger soldiers on runs, he did so in non-regulation short-shorts, with pride. He never, ever secured his chin strap on his Kevlar helmet.

Once, he was so mad at the Army’s attention to uniform detail, he didn’t wear a T-shirt to a base ceremony.

"That was awesome," Nestor said. "Man, I laughed so much that day. He didn’t take any BS."

In one of his biggest capers, he adopted a dog. A stray crossed his path and from then on, Hutchison brought it scraps from breakfast, lunch and dinner. He wrote a memo authorizing the dog as a member of the unit and requesting it get shots from the base’s vet. He signed it himself.

Soon his boss, Col. Warren Perry, learned of the transgression. Hutchison merely did what so many soldiers do when caught breaking the rules: He lied.

He said he’d get rid of the dog, but he found the pooch a foster home. It didn’t work out. When he sneaked the dog — he’d named it Princess Leia — back on base, Perry was back on his case.

"I said, ‘They can only make you retire again, sir,’" Rieckmann said with a laugh."
So let's recount all the interesting things: the college professor, the love of his life, losing her, the tighty whiteys, the issuing of a memo, the lying to a superior, the dog named Princess Leia. The fact that a dog is added into the mix punches the reader in the gut. That it's all true, is simply inspiring.

In the final analysis you can say, "Gosh, I really like this guy. He's watchable. I wish I had known him." It's every writer's dream.
Princess Leia arrived from Basra on June 1. (She is now living in Michigan with his friends. Was transported by the Humane Society) Read: Loved Ones Meet Fallen Soldier's Dog | | Washington, DC |

Read the rest of the fine article at Stars and Stripes.
And check out Baghdad Pups, the program run by the SPCA International that helps to bring soldier's dogs back home. While the transport cost per adopted dog is around $4k, these dogs are often the touchstone for the soldiers who are in incredibly scary situations. If you can, send them a few bucks.

My Screwed Up Writing Life: A response to the great Jim Belshaw

On his blog, Personal Reflections, Jim Belshaw has written his thoughts on the struggle to identify oneself as a writer. Jim, a very good writer of everything from academia to business, is writing a non-fiction book on the history of New England, Australia. It's a weighty tome, and it involves skill, vision, research and great passion about the topic. Fortunately, Jim has all of these qualities.

In his post, he tells us about the distinction he used to make between those who write using the words as a tool to make a point/ get a job done and those who do it because writing and the exploration of it is central to how we express ourselves.

Jim points out that a writer is someone for whom the writing is central, not just a way to get a point across. They must do it. He's given me an unexpected nod, acknowledging me as a writer.
I'm immensely flattered by this.

But it always wasn't like this for me.
California Delta
I never wanted to be a writer. I wasn't one of those kids who hang out at poetry jams with a portfolio of poems, or a notebook. In my small town, no one read poetry outside of a textbook. There weren't role models to show me writers existed beyond the back page of book jacket, no book fairs or reading groups.

Instead, creativity came in other forms. I'd draw, going through reams of paper. As a teenager, I'd buy ridiculous patterns from Germany and France to make my own outfits. I played the piano and flute, discovered Basie, Brubeck, Earth Wind and Fire, along with Bach in one stupendous year. During hellishly hot summers, I rode my bicycle for miles along levees for hours, and shunned company during our summer holidays to walk alone on the beach. Later, I received my college degree in fine arts, though I can't remember the name of a single classmate. Everything I did was training for being a writer. But the cradle was learning to be alone. That I didn't mind and still prefer my own company probably is the sign of someone destined to become a writer.

An artist or a writer will tell you that it takes precedence over everything --sometimes badly so.
I like writing more than mothering, than keeping house, than money, than being married. I like it more than being nice. And this is the time when writing is a real nuisance because balance isn't something we're very good at. Admittedly, writers are hell to live with, and our worst roommates are ourselves.
The hierarchy of a writer's life (if left to themselves) would probably be like this:
  1. Writing
  2. Cat or Dog
  3. Heat and AirCon
  4. Food
  5. Sex (though sex can jump to 3, it may never take the place of 2. And the writer who replaces number 2 with sex is usually seen as slightly off-kilter later on in life --see Norman Mailer).
Fortunately, we rarely get our way, thus rendering lists like the one above useless. Our lives are complicated and we learn that the writer without stress, or one who gets their way all the time is thundering, but dull (see Gordon Lish).

Lastly, I agree that writing in itself is a craft. I learned it on the job, through a writer's program in workshops, and studied poetry. Interestingly, I've learned less from books on writing than I have from novels by great writers such as Harriet Doerr, Thomas Keneally, Eric Newby, Edward Abbey and through the rewriting process. Perhaps this is what separates the wheat from the chafe --we've had people pushing us along, those who have offered critiques on a weekly basis. Though we don't mind being by ourselves, we didn't get here alone.

Writing is a gigantic puzzle that I see and hear. I've learned the importance of rhythm in writing. By manipulating tempo and sound through choosing the right words, one can shape the mood of piece, infusing it with artistry.

But alas, every writer gets stuck. Simply put, writing is thinking. And sometimes we over think, we get too intellectual, we worry about things we can't possibly predict, when in fact we should write more spontaneously. When I find myself in a tight spot, I turn on some jazz and just start pounding to the beat, letting the words spill out and finally, yes... I'm at it again, experiencing the pleasure of putting images into words.

Just like Jim.

Rewriting Miss Penny

In July, I fly to NYC to pick up a manuscript that has been long in the writing to do a bit of editing, re-structuring and generally pulling the storyline together. It has taken Penny 10 years, maybe more to put it together, but even longer than that when you count the years it was tumbling in the writer's mind.
I know the manuscript already, had seen it in a very very rough stage at a writer's workshop at UCLA. So that part is good, but the real allure was the writer herself.

They just don't make 'em like this anymore.

Miss Penny grew up in Manhattan during WWII. Her parents were wealthy, and so Penny enjoyed the type of private school where you throw ceramics and talk about communism while planning your next trip to Paris or Madrid. She was a model, John Ford was entranced by her and flew her to Hollywood for a screen test. She became a writer, a journalist, then a successful Chief Editor of a fashion magazine based in NYC in the 60's and 70's. She worked for the papers, she knew all the designers, she drove a convertible sportscar and bought a huge 4 story townhouse in Greenwich Village.

She used to swap parking spaces with Calvin Trillin, dated other famous authors like Tobias Wolff who decided she liked poodles more than men. And speaking of, she had several husbands though only one daughter. The author traveled through Bamiyan in the 1960's, left publishing and became a filmmaker. She is the most fun person to have a drink with, the worst driver when sober. Needless to say, this woman has a history and stories like hers are ones that you come across and think, "No, that can't be true."

But then you find out that it is.
Oh, how much fun I'll have!

Chapter Headings, Blurbs and Sarcasm

I met my writer friends at the UCLA Writers' Program. Though most in the group pictured have their own way, there remains a core of four. Recently, I got this note from Sovann.
Kanani- I would only number the chapters if the story deals with fantasy or if it is a children's book or something historical. But for a contemporary piece like yours I would avoid naming chapters, but I would definitely start the first letter of every chapter with velvet embroidered giant letter of the fanciest font on the planet and make the rest of the fonts arial. You should be able to feel the fuzz on the "E"! -Sovann
I take everything from my group seriously. Here is my response:

Yes, I think a giant capital letter in raised velvet to start every chapter is definitely called for. I'm planning on writing my own blurbs by Sydney Sheldon, Jacquelynn Susann and Jackie Collins for the back. Jackie's fake blurb might be more difficult to do, since she's not dead yet. But then, there are a lot of people who don't know that, so probably no one will notice. Anyway, I might bill it as
"Plodding in the footsteps of Syd, Jac, and Jackie..."
During our ponderous lectures from Les, I was able to plan infomercials starring Dionne Warwick. I'll have a special: buy three books, get free astrological advice. Or I might pair up with Joan Rivers on QVC: buy a book and get fair bashing about your clothes.

The cover should look like painted Velvet, and feature a naked-lady mudflap design with a picture of a river running through it . The letters will be in silver foil, and I'll change the name of the book back to "Deep River" to be suggestive of Deep Throat. True, my book has nothing to do with that, but I'm all for cross-branding to make a sale. Can you blame me? Believe me, I dream of slick fiction to make the big bucks so I can have a yacht on the Riviera like Sydney Sheldon. He is, after all, our literary hero who lived until the ripe age of 90.
"It takes me several months to finish the first draft. My secretary types it, and I go back to page one and start rewriting. This version can number anywhere from 1000-2000 pages at a time, ripping all the scenes apart, getting rid of and creating new characters. Two months later that draft will be finished and I'll start all over again. I do that for 12-18 months, doing up to a dozen different rewrites. My publisher doesn't see a word until I bring him the final draft."
One to two thousand pages! The man was a writerly stud! He surpassed that guy in the class where every chapter was a sex scene! Sheldon had what I seek: friends, success, happiness and a secretary. Sydney was "da man."
Your Writer Friend, Kanani