The Underground Girls of Kabul

Since 2001, when a coalition led by the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, a lot of attention was paid to the “rebuilding” of the Islamic republic. Most of what we hear in the news is focused on the deprivation, constant skirmishes between Taliban (and Taliban adjacent groups) attacking Western forces, corruption, and deplorable conditions for women and girls. It sounds like an overwhelmingly hopeless situation. Jenny Nordberg acknowledges these dire situations, but explores the nuances and reveals that even in such hopelessness, there’s small rays of resistance and hope still trying to take root.Underground

She frames this novel around several Afghani women and the story of their lives. One, Azarita, is a parliamentarian. In getting to know her family, she’s informed by the oldest twin sisters that their youngest brother isn’t a boy, but a girl. Nordberg investigates further and discovers that indeed the youngest child was born a girl, but has been presented to society and her family as a boy. She receives the priviledge of being a boy in the patriarchal society even though everyone knows that shes a girl. This concept fascinates Nordberg. As she investigates further, she realizes that there’s many girls who present as boys, called bascha posh, until they hit puberty and are then changed back into girls. In most cases, these girls are made into bascha posh because the family needs more income and only boys can work outside the home. There’s also a myth that if a daughter is bascha posh, then the next child will be a legitimate boy.

However, not all girls decide to change back into women when they hit puberty. A few decide that they do not want to give up their freedom and priviledge to be married off and be chattel to their husbands producing child after child. Many pass as long as they can until either their bodies no longer permit them to pass or their families force them. A few remain bascha posh until they are passed child bearing age. Nordberg found that even in a society that values boys over girls, these bascha posh are accepted as boys even though everyone knows they are born girls. This baffled me because it seems counterintuitive to a society that women are kept separate from boys and are viewed as merely a means to perpetuate bloodlines and produce boys, or girls that can used to barter debt or high bride prices. Yet it seems in Afghanistan that the society is willing not to question the decision parents make about how they present their child’s gender. It’s as if they are all complicit in perpetuating an illusion. These bascha posh are allowed to work, to be educated, to fight, to foster and maintain male friendships; everything that a natural-born boy would be able to do.

Nordberg investigated to see if this was a phenomena only in Afghanistan. She found that this is unique only to cultures that perpetuate strictly opressive patriarchies. That is nations like Albania and Montenegro there are women who are allowed to present themselves as men and access the male priviledge. Even in Western cultures there are examples like Joan of Arc who wore male battle gear and took the role of a military commander. There’s countless examples of women who passed as men to fight in wars. With the relaxation of the oppression of women, the need to pass as men has lessened, but Nordberg points out that in many cases, politics, business, and many other professions, Western women are still not allowed to be fully feminine. Nordberg points out too that in building Afghanistan’s democracy, the West imposed a 25% female representation in parliament, even though the U.K. only has 22% and the U.S. 15%. This shocked me and made me confront the hypocrisy the West gets itself into when building so called uncivilized nations. We don’t always practice what we preach.

While the situation of many of the women and bascha posh seems dire, Nordberg points out that there are rays of hope. The fact that there are still fathers who want more for their daughters than to be another man’s chattel. Instead of trying to focus solely on women and girls, Nordberg suggests that the nation builders include men in the conversation of gender quality. When men realize that women contribute to successful economies and that educated women are a matter of pride, men won’t see women as something to be ashamed or afraid of. And when the pressure to maintain a family’s status doesn’t rest solely on men, they too can progress and together men and women can help build Afghanistan into a safe, functioning nation.

Nordberg’s point about including men in the discussion of gender equality really hit home, especially in light of the #Metoo campaign and the call to restructure how we talk about sexual harrasment and assault. Too often we frame it around women in the passive voice. We need to include men in the discussion and empower them to confront the men who perpetuate this violence and discrimination. We can’t point fingers at the men of Afghanistan if we aren’t willing to confront the men in our own backyard.



We’ve heard a lot about the opiate/opiod crisis. “Dreamland” takes readers on a journey of how this crisis began and what factors contributed to this health emergency. Sam Quinones takes a journalistic approach to exploring the roots of the crisis. He begins in a Mexican state, Xalisco. In there state there’s not many job opportunities outside of farming/ranching. At the same time, there’s a very competitive socio-economic culture where everyone is trying to beat the Jones’s next door. Some have immigrated to the U.S., particularly southern California. To try and improve their lot in life and increased their family’s standing, some of the young men have gone to work with their relatives in California. Many of them discovered that these relatives were doing well because they began working in the drug trade. Now, before you think this is a plank in Trump’s anti-Mexican agenda, Quinones contextualizes this by explaining that these immigrants from Xalisco are a small subset of immigrants and that they do not represent all Mexican immigrants. Back to Xalisco. The Xalisco drug trade became highly successful due to avoiding the Colombian cocaine and other large-scale drug syndicates. Instead they focused on selling black tar heroin in the suburbs of many large cities ranging from Portland to Columbus, Ohio.Dreamland

The introduction of black tar heroin in the suburbs coincided with the over-prescribing of opiates in many areas of the country. Unfortunately, these two drugs coincided in many suburban areas creating and sustaining increasingly high levels of addiction. Part of the problem is most of the hardest hit communities have lost a lot of their social programs because of the job loss due to jobs being shipped overseas. So not only are there a lot of addicts, but there’s no social programs to help support addiction recovery. On top of this, there was no support from state and federal governments. People weren’t willing to help addicts. They were (and still are) stigmatized.

One of the moving parts of the book is the personal stories of families who have lost loved ones to addiction. So many families have been ravaged by opiate addiction. Because so many people have been affected it has started getting the attention of local and federal representatives. One of the saddest elements of this story is that it wasn’t until many White communities were affected that real change began to happen. During the crack crisis of the 80’s, which tended to affect Urban Black communities, instead of helping community services to help addicts recover, addicts were jailed. It’s as if the U.S. thought it would jail it’s way out of the crack crisis. With the opiate crisis people are wanting more compassionate approaches to fighting the crisis. Hopefully we will learn our lesson from the past.

One of the things I didn’t like about this book is that it dragged on too long. There came a point at the end where it seemed Quinones wasn’t sure how to end the book. He also kept repeating the phrase, “they sold black tar heroin like pizza.” It was repeated so often it almost became a trigger. All in all I think this is a good read for those who aren’t familiar with how this crisis came about and what some are doing to stem the tide of addiction.

Fluent in 3 Months

Benny Lewis has a blog that he’s turned into this book. Throughout the book he relates his experience learning languages from high school until now as well as what his tips and resources are for learning and maintaining new languages. As someone who’s looking to learn more languages, but who doesn’t have time to take classes I’ve been looking for resources for how to this in a more DIY method.Fluent

Like many people Mr. Lewis took language classes in high school but found he couldn’t converse in these languages once he left school. He then moved to Spain and realized he needed to learn Spanish in order to feel like he was mixing into the culture and community. From this experience he developed a method that has helped him further languages.

One of the ideas that made me stop and think was the idea of “fluency.” Mr. Lewis challenges language learners to consider what their goal is learning a language. Too many times new language learners set a goal become “fluent” in another language and this vague term leads them to abandon their project because they don’t appear to make any progress. Instead, Mr. Lewis posits that language learners should set more specific “fluent” goals. For example, are you wanting to understand the lyrics to music in new language? Movies? Have simple conversations? Be able to have political or specific-content discussions? Choosing something specific gives you a goal to work towards which helps guide what vocabulary you learn, what conversational patterns to learn and practice and ultimately gives you something practical to measure your progress against.

I’ve fallen into the trap of becoming “fluent” in only to give up a few months in because I didn’t feel like I was making progress. Now, taking Mr. Lewis’s advice into consideration, I’m sorting languages into those that I want to be able a specific task (Understand Hebrew in Israeli films) or those that I want to be able to converse in different styles and understand any media (French and German). Mr. Lewis gives many resources for how to arrange your study habits in order to achieve your language goals.

One of the critiques I have for this book is that I wish he gave more specific details of the resources he used/recommends. Instead, he mentions them and describes what the resource can do for you. Then gives you the link for where you can find further resources on his website. This is great, but it feels like the book is more like a commercial for the website. So if you’re looking for examples and samples of resources for language this book is only going to scratch the surface. What this book does accomplish is that it gives some good philosophical approaches to language learning.

What is the Bible?

Have you ever respected someone for their method but disagreed with their conclusions? That’s how I felt toward Rob Bell in this book.Bible

As a practicing Christian, and one who’s interested in the Bible as a book and a source of inspiration, I’m interested to learn more about it. Too many times the Bible has been hijacked by fundamentalists who ignore literary, historical, and social contexts in order to prove a point. Personally, I don’t believe this is how it should be used, nor was intended to be used.

Mr. Bell begins by taking a random verse about Moses and applying several questions, almost like a socratic method. Then, he applies historical and social contexts to the verse as well as relating the verse to the story arch, i.e. literary context. Using all of these contexts, the verse comes to life and what was once odd/obscure takes on meaning and we, modern readers, can understand why an ancient writer is including this information.

The problem I had with Mr. Bell’s conclusions is that he takes his method too the extreme boiling down the Bible into “stories” (his words). He forwards the ideas that what is found in the Bible is a library of books and stories that are written by writers that share their experiences based on their current world and interpretations of their view of God. What’s not clear is whether this is Mr. Bell’s ACTUAL philosophy or whether he’s using unspecific language in order to avoid taking a side.

While I believe some of the books of the Bible are/can be just stories, I do not think this is the entire story. I believe that human writers did record the Bible, and because they are human they do not write in a vacuum; history, society, style, and errors exist in their writings. If their writings are to be more than just fables, there has to be divine inspiration. Genesis through Deuteronomy, the historical books, major and minor prophets, as well as the epistles of the New Testament are foundation upon which Christianity is built. To say they are just stories calls into question our origin story, salvation, sanctification, Jesus as the son of God, and hope that God is returning. I’m conflicted on how to respond to Mr. Bell’s ideas. I don’t want to come across as dogmatic or fundamentalist, but there comes a point where what I believe is based on what I consider to divinely communicated ideas. To consider these ideas man-made would make me wonder why I’m even believing what I do. I believe God is a god of love and he used the Bible to talk to me to show me how I can live a sincere and fulfilled life and how I can live with him for eternity.

On the literary side of things, I was annoyed by Mr. Bell’s constant asides. They became obnoxious and obtrusive. I don’t mind and sometimes like informal writing styles and he in general captures this tone. But there were too many tongue-in-cheek comments and parenthetical look-at-me-I’m-clever moments for me to be patient with. Everything in moderation, Mr. Bell.

There was also a lack of organization. By the end of the book I don’t remember feeling as how what I was reading was anything different than what I read at the beginning. Frankly, I think the book could have been half as long as it was and it would’ve been a much improved read.

I don’t recommend this book because if you’re an atheist he’s not going to tell you anything you haven’t heard before. If you’re a practicing Christian, you may have problems with his theology. If you’re just an interested reader, his style and organization are going to leave you in the wilderness.

The Best American Travel Writing 2015

I’ve never read a concentrated collection of travel writing prior to picking up this anthology. I’d only read the odd essay in magazines like “Times” or “Esquire”. I like to travel and I’ve done some informal writing based on some of the big trips that I’ve taken. I find that reflecting on what I’ve done either on a daily basis during a trip, or looking back at the trip as a whole gives meaning to where I’ve been and what I’ve seen.  It makes me feel more engaged with where I am because I’m thinking about what I’m going to write about.  This anthology has a lot of pieces that share some of those same goals and I felt that I could connect with the writers as well as learn from their own 2015

Lisa Abend’s “The Sound of Silence” shares her experience getting lost, alone, in the Scottish highlands.

Scott Anderson’s “Lawrence of Arabia” explores the sites and history of the man who put the Modern Middle East into motion. I learned a lot of geopolitics I hadn’t known before.

Kevin Baker’s “21st Century Limited” shares the current state of train travel in the US and while it doesn’t woo him, sadly, it also doesn’t make him believe it should be done away with.

Patricia Marx’s “Tale of a Tub” hilariously recounts her experience traveling from Philly to Hamburg via freight ship.

Nick Paumgarten explores Berlin’s history as the center for techno music and culture in “Berlin Nights”.

“Baked Alaska” takes readers to a remote Aleutian island where Christopher Solomon and two friends hike into a remote volcano and then kayak around the island. Oh, and encounter lots of bears.

Even if you don’t get to travel, reading these experiences will give that vicarious experience while avoiding some of the pitfalls the authors survived in order to give we readers this tome.

The Best American Non-Required Reading 2015

“The Best American Non-required Reading” is an anthology of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and graphic novels that is selected by a committee of high school students. As a high school teacher, I was curious to see what high schoolers would select as the best literature. I found their picks interesting and surprising. Non 2015

Wells Tower’s “Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant?” was eye-opening as it was shocking to read about the account of big-game hunting. Tower is open about his bias (anti-elephant hunting) but is objective in his portrayal of the wealthy Americans who do participate in the hunt. He doesn’t villanize them, but he does ask important questions.

Victor Lodato’s “Jack, July” takes us into the mind of an addict much like “Requiem for a Dream.”

“780 Days of Solitude” is the account of the three Americans who were held in Iran on charges of espionage. It’s written by the three young people and was a take on the story I hadn’t read before. I’m interested to read their entire book this was excerpted from.

Paul Salopek’s “Out of Eden Walk” shares his journey walking from Ethiopia through Russia tracing the route of human migration. The selection in the anthology covers his time in Palestine, Jordan, and Turkey.

There’s so many more I want to highlight, but I’d basically be recommending 80% of the book. While many of the pieces were well written, I had trouble appreciating the collection as a whole.  Having so many different genres mashed into one collection, I felt that I wasn’t able to settle in a enjoy reading the book cover to cover.  I found that I had to keep shifting my thinking switching from fiction to non-fiction to poetry and it gave me a bit of a headache.  Reader beware.

Ice Bound

Ice BoundIce Bound by Dr. Jerri Nielsen, recounts the adventures of an ER doctor who decides to winterover at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole research center in Antarctica.  The climax of the adventure occurs when Nielsen discovers a mass in her right breast.  From there it’s incredible how people outside of Antarctica work to get her the medicine she needs and arrange a way to get her out before it’s too late.  It’s an autobiography, and while I was engrossed in the story the writing style was somewhat lacking.

The best part about the story was her adventures in Antarctica.  I’ve always been fascinated with the Arctic and Antarctic adventurers and I knew there were research stations on the Antarctic continent, but I’ve never really known much about the people who are there and what they actually do.  Nielsen’s account gave an inside glimpse into what it would be like to live at the South Pole during the 24-hour darkness of the austral winter.

One of the points that stands out is how close everyone becomes.  You can imagine living under a small dome for six months with 41 people in sheer darkness you’d either all hate each other or become a close-knit tribe.  Luckily, it’s the latter in Nielsen’s case.  What I found difficult to relate to, is that she doesn’t develop her sense of acclamation to the tribe.  She shows up in the austral summer and seems to immediately think of her self as a part of the tribe.  I don’t know whether this is because she left out how she wove herself into the group of those wintering over, or whether she was in such a need of friendship that she just glommed onto the group.

Reading her autobiography has ignited my interest in reading some of the biographies of the Antarctic explorers such as Amundsen and Scott.  Maybe because Antarctica is one of the last frontiers, and will never be concurred, but I think it’s the fact that anyone who goes to Antarctica has to come face to face with their good and bad sides as well as constantly be faced with their mortality.  Antarctica is like a crucible and those who chose to put themselves in that situation seem to be more confident and aware of what life really is all about.