Archives for Book Reviews
Will Siegel is a technical writer who also writes fiction and who also served in Ethiopia with Marian Haley Beil and myself back in the day (1962–64). Will went to San Francisco State for his masters degree in creative writing and lived there during the summer of love (and lots more) before moving to New York City, and next to Boston where he has lived for the last twenty plus years. Then and now, he is a fine writer and one of the sweetest guys we know and here he reviews Larry Wonderling’s (PC Staff: COR Puerto Rico 1968–70; Afghanistan 1970-73; early ’80s Central and Latin America; late ’80s Africa) book on a tender and tough spot in San Francisco.
San Francisco Tenderloin: True Stories of Heroes, Demons, Angels, Outcasts & a Psychotherapist
Expanded Second Edition
By Larry Wonderling, Ph.D.
Cape Foundation Publications
Reviewed by William Siegel (Ethiopia 1962-64)
Larry Wonderling’s penetrating portraits of people who came to a full stop in the San Francisco Tenderloin district are colorful, interesting and insightful. These are mostly patients that he treated over the course of 20 years - from his naïve beginnings as a therapist to his experienced self as a seasoned professional. It seems he arrived at being a pro, because of his own dogged intuition rather than any philosophy of psychotherapy. He is practical to the core, because that is what works on the edge of the social psychotic Tenderloin where the world is really flat and it takes a mere nudge or a dark wind to cause a fall to the death. These are clients who came to him not to reveal their own traumas and get some relief from neurotic tendencies, but rather to keep their SSI benefits flowing.
My own sojourn in the San Francisco Tenderloin came as a result of the need to hide from my peers as well as myself. Leaving the confines of the Haight Ashbury during the darker days of the 60’s slide into the diaspora of real life, I fled to an SRO hotel in the district - probably not too different from those described as home to many of Larry Wonderling’s clients. My own roost there had to do, like many of his clients, with feeling comfortable. Having run out of friends’ couches and my own good wits, I headed to the Tenderloin, about which I had been duly warned, where no one would take much notice and I could spend the days brooding in my room alone. I don’t remember the area being as dangerous as Wonderling describes, but that may have been due to my own dangerous state of mind. I think at times I heard voices from street corners. They might have been merely the ghosts of one or two of Wonderling’s Tenderloin outcast patients.
There are not many happy endings to these stories, but the workings of each one reveal intimate relationships of the inner self and also perhaps a bit about our own selves. Dr. Wonderling tells it like it is - no sugar coating, no sitcom endings. These are sad and sometimes dreadful stories about people who, because of aberrant tendencies, usually coming from abusive upbringings, have not learned society’s game on society’s terms and need a whole other skewed society - just to function minimally.
Dr. Wonderling knows and describes his patients without jargon in this unsentimental, free-form, yet focused look at people he holds dear but also with objective discernment. He describes the reality of those who feel most comfortable with others who suffer from the same feelings of frustration, doubt, and lack of confidence which we associate with society’s losers. We also get a good insight into the therapeutic process as developed by Dr. Wonderling - special to the people he deals with - which evolves into a simple yet sophisticated method for helping the disenfranchised find a semblance of their own voice. He doesn’t always succeed in bringing his patients to a satisfactory resolution. He does succeed in allowing a lot of room for listening to his clients - a method that builds trust and adds clarity to his client’s self knowledge.
As someone who has spent a fair number of years in one type of therapy or another, as well as being married to a therapist, I understand that some might think his methods involve too much license. Some might call for a stricter therapy to treat the extreme clients Wonderling finds among his Tenderloin population. These are individuals who are willing to navigate extreme danger just to stay out of their own spotlight or run away from their tortured self - often preferring the oblivion of drugs and death to nursing along a more normal psychological neurosis.
After a somewhat rambling attempt to describe the San Francisco Tenderloin district — its history and how the name Tenderloin came about, we get a quick look at Dr. Wonderling’s early knowledge of the area. A San Francisco native, he mentions that he moved to the district for a short period in high school due to trouble at home. He relates how he came to feel comfortable in that forbidden district despite his early reservations. However, the doctor was able to get himself through a Ph.D. Program and set up shop as a psychotherapist in the area, where most, if not all of his clients, were obliged to see him or someone like him if they wanted to keep their checks coming.
The essence of Dr. Wondering’s book, his descriptions and treatment of his patients and how the stories reveal themselves in his patient’s behavior become more and more fascinating as the book progresses. We learn about how his clients present themselves, their background, and their ins and outs through the Tenderloin district, and how these reluctant patients help the therapist in determining their plan of therapy. In each case we are led into the story by the thoughts and details of patient and therapist-story teller. Of the 26 stories related in these pages, some six of them are new, and nearly all of them are updated with further outcomes and insights in this expanded second edition.
“I was one of those therapists willing to endure low fees and excruciating paperwork,” Dr. Wonderling tells us. The patients range from con men, junkies and ex-convicts, to alcoholics, prostitutes, lost souls and petty crooks - many with difficult behavioral problems. One tough customer was cured by an earthquake, another liked to dine for free at San Fran hotel functions.
Many of the portraits illustrate some life lesson for the author. He returns to the Tenderloin at the invitation of an old friend, Bert, who turns out to be one of Dr. Wonderling’s heroes. “My heroes are generally mavericks of some sort who ignore destiny by getting up every time they’re knocked flat into life’s muck,” he tells us and we believe him. Bert, the head of a drug abuse treatment agency hired Wonderling to treat some of the most untreatable. He developed plans for the most forlorn and dysfunctional, and listened to the misfortunes of people who ended up there. The listening part was perhaps his greatest therapy tool, and it always worked to some extent - not always wonders, but usually to alleviate the heavy burdens on people who were more often than not stuck on the yo-yo, ping-pong axis of society’s rewards and slights - misfits is hardly the word for most of the people Wonderling describes.
I bypass here for the most part the specifics of the 26 remarkable stories of patients that Wonderling describes in terms of his practical treatment. In my view most important are the patient’s universal needs, and the doctor’s varied responses to these needs - psychological and practical. I mention only a few of - all colorful and interesting cases showing patients’ character, assessment and practical treatment with fleeting and sometimes grim outcomes.
Andrew, quiet as a mouse, eventually had his treatment out of the office in order to free him from of his self-imposed shell. This went very well for a time, until Andrew humiliated himself in public. Later, after Andrew died from AIDS, Dr. Wonderling discovered his patient was sending nearly a quarter of his meager monthly IIS check to an orphanage in Africa.
Ody, full of rage, traded an 8 x 10 prison cell for a 10 x 10 SRO hotel room from time to time. In and out of prison, Ody was a fearsome and feared fighter wherever he landed. Therapy in the Tenderloin is often about keeping patients out of trouble. With Wonderling’s help Ody learns to do the simple task of returning a quart of sour milk without violence.
And then there is the annual Christmas party described near the end of the book. This party is like no other you’re likely to attend.
There is also something to be said about Dr. Wonderling’s therapeutic time in the tenderloin and his work as a psychological consultant to the Peace Corps. Those of us who served in developing countries are familiar with basic lack and the overwhelming needs for health, nutrition, and education. What we sometimes forget is the similarity of many parts of our own country that manifest the same fundamental deficiencies - though these needs at home are played out in a more subtle and psychological manner. Many, if not most of the San Francisco Tenderloin district patients revealed by Dr. Wonderling are missing the social skills, emotional maturity, and inner stability that the majority of us learn - skills that allow us to participate in the fuller scope of life as part of a social community - family, job, friends and even dreams. Dr. Wonderling reveals how time and again psychological realities are denied to his patients just as the basic physical needs of many individuals and landscapes that we returning PCV’s encountered in our years working abroad. The similarities are provided in the pages of his book.
I recommend Dr. Wonderling’s book without reservation if you are at all interested in psychology, human behavior and even perhaps meeting the mirror image of your years working and toiling with our many friends in the developing world. For my own Tenderloin memories, let me acknowledge a certain miracle rescue from the swirling confusion that landed me there in the first place. In lieu of that, I certainly would have been fortunate to find Dr. Wonderling and his patient’s chair for a hand up and out of that confusion - a hand which he extended for many years to those who were also fortunate enough to stumble upon miracles - for the good doctor provided a few of his own.
Will Siegel (Ethiopia 1962–64) is a technical writer living in Boston where he also works at writing fiction.
Jack Allison served a 3-year tour with the Peace Corps in Malawi where he was a public health Volunteer in the bush. Here he reviews Thomas Howell’s book Allah’s Gardenon Morocco based on Hollowell’s brief tour as a PCV, and now his extended connection with the country.
by Thomas Hollowell (Morocco 2002)
Reviewed by Jack Allison (Malawi 1967–69)
Thomas Hollowell’s novel is actually a multi-layered reportage of his fascination with Morocco which resulted in a very brief stint as a Volunteer with the US Peace Corps there in 2002, including an historical denouement of the war in the Western Sahara, and a focused account of the capture, torture, and epic struggle of a Moroccan physician, Azeddine Benmansour, who spent 24 years as a prisoner of the terrorist group, the Polisario. Azeddine is one of the longest-held POWs ever.
The novel is well written, with inviting, brief descriptions of the cities, towns, mountains and desert of Morocco, said to have similar topography to that of California. Hollowell apparently wrote the book to expose to the world the atrocities committed by the Polisario deep within the Western Sahara, formerly known as the Spanish Sahara: kidnapping, torture, forced starvation, isolation, death.
The title, Allah’s Garden, alludes to Muslim’s reverent epithet for the Sahara Desert. Hollowell also cleverly uses snippets of language — Arabic, French, Spanish — to convey added, colorful meaning to conversations throughout.
Howell met Azeddine through a student at Al Akhawayn, an English-speaking university where Hollowell worked after his “Field Termination” from the Peace Corps. The majority of the book is based upon a series of interviews Hollowell held with Azeddine. The result is a captivating, at times tedious account of the horrendous travails to which Azeddine was subjected during nearly a quarter-century of captivity in the desert.
Perhaps the most disheartening thread of the book is the success of the Polisario in misleading a host of NGOs into believing that the Polisario was taking excellent, humane care of their thousands of prisoners, including the delivery of food, medicines, mail, and other provisions to their charges. Unfortunately, it literally took years for their massive deception to be uncovered.
Two issues warrant comment: As an emergency physician, I winced at the hyperbole in Hollowell’s description of repeated accounts of torture, for medically, many did not make sense. Additionally, as an RPCV myself, I was dismayed at Hollowell’s disregard for Muslim culture by kissing a young Moroccan woman (who was one of his official Peace Corps language instructors) at a park in Marrakesh. Both were retained, and reading between the lines, most likely resulted in his leaving the Peace Corps after only a few months of service. Personally, this is a major detraction of an otherwise admirable effort to shed international light on a recent dark segment of Moroccan history.
Jack Allison (Malawi 1967–69) served a 3-year tour with the Peace Corps in Malawi, Central Africa, where he was a public health volunteer in the bush. He is best known as a singer/songwriter there, having recorded arguably the most popular song with a message in Malawi, Ufa wa Mtedza (“Peanut Flour in Your Child’s Corn Mush”). After Peace Corps, Jack went to medical school, and recently retired after a 30-year career in academic emergency medicine. He has done 3 public health stints in Africa — a USAID mission in Tanzania in 1982, a Project Hope Mission in Malawi in 1994, and US State Department mission in Malawi in 2005 — the latter 2 involved helping to eradicate AIDS in that central African country. For more information, please log onto afriendofmalawi.com.
Award winning writer and Guatemala RPCV Mark Brazaitis reviews In an Uncharted Country by Korea RPCV Clifford Garstang, published this September by Press 53.
In an Uncharted Country
by Clifford Garstang (South Korea 1976–78)
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)
If Clifford Garstang’s stories were a city, they wouldn’t be a place you would have heard much about. But if you happened to settle there, you wouldn’t want to leave.
In “White Swans,” one of the stories in his excellent debut collection, Garstang tackles the same subject matter that National Book Award-finalist Mary Gaitskill does in the title story to her third collection, Don’t Cry. In Gaitskill’s story, a woman, recently widowed, is helping a friend adopt a child from Ethiopia; in Garstang’s, a married couple is in China to adopt a daughter.
In both stories, bureaucracy is only part of what the characters must overcome. In the Gaitskill story, the protagonist wrestles with her guilt over an affair she had with one of her students prior to her husband’s death. In Garstang’s story, the protagonist must decide whether to remain with his wife and daughter in China until the adoption is official or return home to his dying father, with whom he has a complicated relationship.
The Gaitskill story approaches the melodramatic: “Much closer than the gunshots was the machine of my body, buzzing inside me. It came from inside me and also enclosed me like the darkness and the warmth of the night. It said, It doesn’t matter if you die here. It might be better if you die here.”
Garstang’s story heads in the opposite direction, toward understatement: “Elton couldn’t sleep. A vision of his father, frightened and pale, attached to tubes and wires, wouldn’t leave him. He slipped out of bed. In the green glow of streetlights he packed a suitcase. Megan stirred in her crib and he went to her, stroked her feather hair with his finger.”
Whether one prefers Gaitskill’s dramatic-bordering-on-melodramatic story or Garstang’s less flashy piece is a matter of taste. It’s the difference between Los Angeles and Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s the difference between the authors’ profiles. Gaitskill has been a finalist for the National Book Award and her stories appear regularly in The New Yorker. Garstang has been quietly compiling an impressive résumé, including publishing work in small but prestigious literary journals such as the Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, and the North Dakota Quarterly.
In an Uncharted Country features stories with recurring characters and settings. The strongest connection between them all, however, may be theme. The collection is about characters searching to find their place in their communities and within their families. In a daring exposition of this theme, “Saving Melissa,” a mother steals her daughter from her ex-husband and they move from place to place to avoid detection. But is this moveable home the best home for Melissa?
Garstang writes the story in the first person, from the mother’s point of view. It’s a risky choice-and it pays off beautifully: “Always it was my fault, to hear Max tell it, even before the divorce and the lopsided custody mess. Still makes my face hot to think about it, all these years later, Max standing there is his shiny brown suit and skinny tie, talking about me like I wasn’t even there.”
Garstang does equally well whether he’s writing an adventure story (”Flood, 1978″), a love story (”William & Frederick”), or a whodunit-or, better put, an is-he-going-to-get-away-with-it. In the latter story, “Stonewall,” readers might resist sympathizing with a dog-killer. Or, given the dog-killer’s wife-abusing antagonist, perhaps they won’t.
Press 53 and its founder, Kevin Watson, have made it their noble mission to bring short story collections (as well as collections of poetry) to the reading public. Thank goodness. These days, writers wishing to publish their short story collections either have to win one of, oh, a measly eight national contests, sponsored by small or university presses or write a best-selling novel whose success justifies the financial risk of publishing the author’s short stories.
Garstang’s book looks good and reads better. And there isn’t a literary author alive who wouldn’t want blurbs by the writers-Elizabeth Strout, Tim O’Brien, and Peter Ho Davies-featured on the back. Also, the book’s price is as reasonable as Garstang’s twelve short stories are memorable.
Here’s hoping that Press 53 prospers and brings us more authors like Clifford Garstang.
And here’s hoping we hear more from Garstang soon.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel published in 2000 by Van Neste Books and the winner of the Maria Thomas Fiction Prize. Mark’s most recent collection of stories is An American Affair, winner of the 2004 George Garrett Fiction Prize from Texas Review Press. He is an associate professor of English and the director of the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.
Patricia Taylor Edmisten, who served in the Peace Corps in Peru from 1962 to 1964, is an author herself. She has published Nicaragua Divided: La Prensa, Chamorro Legacy, and Wild Women with Tender Hearts, which was the winner of the 2007 Peace Corps Writers’ Award for poetry. Patricia reviews Kirsten Johnson’s novel Footsteps about life in Kenya.
by Kirsten Johnson (Kenya 1982–84)
Plain View Press
Reviewed by Patricia Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962–64)
It’s easy to forget that Footsteps is a novel. Buoyed by an enormous heart, Kirsten Johnson shares with her readers the injustice and inequities she witnessed while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya in 1982. In particular, she sheds light on the unique burdens borne by girls and women: lack of education; pregnancies before reproductive organs mature; the absence of skilled midwives; unsanitary birthing conditions; too little breast milk for their babies because they themselves are undernourished; little or no access to basic medical care and birth control; a cultural tradition of male dominance; the uneven distribution of labor, and now, HIV/AIDS and the burgeoning numbers of sick babies and orphaned children.
Central to the plight of some Kenyan women is female circumcision, the issue that drives the plot in Footsteps. Often referred to in western nations as “female genital mutilation,” it is this practice that the female protagonist Kanini endures when she’s thirteen, and it shapes her destiny. Although her parents are nominally Christians, they insist that she have her clitoris excised. In their way of thinking, female circumcision is a cultural tradition that will not only make Kanini a “proper girl,” it will be the mark by which she is fully received into her tribe.
Although female circumcision is illegal in Kenya, Kanini, if she’s to show respect for her family and neighbors, must endure unimaginable pain. (One of the strongest passages in the book is the description of Kanini’s ordeal.) Men, by contrast, after their own circumcisions, may still enjoy sexual pleasure, and stray to have more of it, endangering their wives’ lives. Women become instruments of that pleasure and have no say in determining when and how many children they will have.
Aware of the subservient role of women at the too precocious age of nine, Gateria tries to influence her older sister to refuse circumcision:
“Kanini, I’ve heard of girls who never recover from circumcision,” Gatiria said in a lowered voice. “They bleed to death, or they get infected and die after a few weeks. Even the ones who survive, some die later in childbirth. Haven’t you heard the stories? What do I care if no one wants to marry me? I’d rather be a childless old woman than die from nyambura!”
Although Kanini is fearful of the knife, she is much more anxious about the possibility of being rejected by her family and community.
A new novelist’s biggest challenge, especially if she has social or political aims, is to let plot and action reveal her protagonists’ values instead of dialogue that, were the characters real, wouldn’t be spoken because the people talking would already know the information conveyed. The writer’s tendency to teach through dialogue is the book’s biggest weakness. On the other hand, the sisters’ correspondence, after Gatiria has escaped circumcision by taking refuge in a Christian mission and Kanini is married and has borne her first child, pulses with authentic language: In the letter below, Kanini writes to Gatiria in English, a language she is still learning.
I do not like playing sex, Gatiria. When I see the sun going down, I start to feel bad thinking about the night coming. Kathenge is really liking it. He says he lives for this thing, which to me is such a torture. I do not understand why men are wanting sex all time, even so many women do not care about it. And then it is the women who must suffer having the babies. At least the men could be having them if they like the sex so much! Truly, Ngai is not fair, and I do not understand Him.
Although unspoken by the characters, Footsteps is a novel that will prompt readers to view women’s rights as human rights.
Patricia Taylor Edmisten served in Peru from 1962-64. She wrote the introduction to, and translation of, The Autobiography of Maria Elena Moyano: The Life and Death of a Peruvian Activist; the novel, The Mourning of Angels, and two books of poetry, The Treasures of Pensacola Beach and Wild Women with Tender Hearts, which won the 2007 Peace Corps Writers’ Award for Poetry.
Ecuador RPCV Marnie Mueller is the author of Green Fires, which won the 1995 Maria Thomas Fiction Award and an American Book Award. Her other novels are The Climate of the Country and My Mother’s Island. The latter has been optioned for a feature film, the screenplay of which, she has signed on to write. She has recently completed a new novel, Don’t Think Twice. Here she reviews:
Rock Worn By Water
by Florence Chard Dacey (Nigeria 1963–65)
Austin: Plain View Press
Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)
Florence Chard Dacey had endeared herself to me before I even opened her book for review. Take note, fellow writers! Her accompanying letter was exemplary in its restraint, simply stating the facts of publication (date, price, and ISBN) and that she as a former volunteer would like her collection to be listed and considered for review on the Peace Corps Worldwide website; she included no deconstruction of her text or thematic selling points for the book. Accompanying her letter was a straight-forward, one page press release from her small press publisher that listed her credits along with a couple of glowing blurbs. I thought, this is pro, as I cracked her beautifully produced volume of poetry with eagerness.
Chard Dacey did not disappoint. She’s a good poet, whose major theme is the place where humans and the natural world intersect, frequently in rapture, though sadly, in these accelerating times we live in, all too often on a collision course. Full disclosure: As an environmentalist and a nature observer myself, I don’t much like flowery poems that use nature as metaphor, nor overly didactic poems that blatantly lay out atrocities perpetrated on the land. But Chard Dacey is neither of those writers, and that’s what makes her poems so fine and interesting. She weaves her praise songs organically out of a deep knowledge of the Minnesota eco-system. She knows her land, her flowers, and her fauna so completely that the wilderness merges effortlessly with her poetic self. There’s no need or room for fancy flights in her plainspoken verse. She deals with the politics of destruction with equal subtlety through the simple juxtaposition of undemanding nature with the follies of insistent human stresses.
In one of my favorites in the collection, “What I Did Not See,” she opens, A bee complained how I kept him from his cup of purple flower/so I moved on. The stanzas that follow posit all the goings-on of nature that she doesn’t see, “But I knew were there —,” and how what she doesn’t see “steadies her,” when she’s far away from the prairie which is her first home. And then in an elegiac tone, she writes, I know a hill where prairie smoke will write/its pink and purple story every June, even as/machines not far away break the earth to make another road.
Her use in a number of poems of the beautiful prairie smoke flower — they cover the prairie floor in spring, dipping their heads in the wind and from afar look like carpets of rolling smoke-made me wonder if she intended this as a political metaphor. Is this the prairie fire plumes of environmental activism, an antidote to the rolling thunder of destruction? Though it worked that way for me, I would guess she’d tell me that I’m reading too much into the image. Her touch is light in her lyrical and oft-times ecstatic political poems. She pays reverence to the world of barnacled whales in the powerful “With the Whales.” and mourns the death of a 4900-year-old tree killed in the service of scientific inquiry, in the ironic “Old Tree”; she admires the wolf packs that free their wild spirits by chewing off telemetric collars, in the sad yet hopeful “Collar,” and in “Waves,” a poem that gently urges the reader toward activism, she wonders “Do you think waves imagine anything?”
This is a volume of excellent, strong poems. My only caveat is that by the end one has the feeling the book has gone on too long by a few tonal beats. The subject matter is so much of a piece that I felt the book would be better served by dropping five or six of the weaker, reiterative offerings.
But that said, any of these poems could be used for testimony in public hearings, as Chard Dacey herself did with her poem “Certificate of Need” before The Minnesota Waste Management Board or equally as well savored in some quiet spot where one can take the time to contemplate the beauty of her language and the world she so lovingly depicts.
Portrait of a Peace Corps Gringo by Paul Arfin, self-published with BookSurge in August, is reviewed here by Honduras RPCV Barbara E. Joe, author of Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras, selected as Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2008 by Peace Corps Writers and Best New Non-Fiction Finalist, National Indie Excellence Awards. Barbara works as a Spanish interpreter, translator, and freelance writer in Washington, DC.
Portrait of a Peace Corps Gringo
by Paul Arfin (Colombia 1963–65)
Reviewed by Barbara Joe (Honduras 2000–03)
In Portrait of a Peace Corps Gringo by Paul Arfin, I looked forward to becoming reacquainted with Colombia, where I’d spent two teenage years.
This book, however, turned out to be more autobiography than Peace Corps memoir. Peace Corps service is often valuable in shaping young people’s future. For Arfin, this pattern held true. While the author credits his youthful service with shaping his later life and career, his time in Colombia occupies only one chapter, along with others entitled My Family and My Childhood, My Public Service Career, and My Life Today. These headings provide a foretaste of both the book’s contents and chronological, no-frills style.
Arfin grew up in New York City suburbs, survived a childhood bout with polio, was bar-mitzvahed at 13, and recounts getting his first car, first kiss, first drink. He never seemed able to please his perpetually disapproving father. In college, he frankly admits, “My study habits were poor, as were my grades,” though he did manage to get one “A”, in Spanish. After mostly playing hooky on reserve duty and becoming a “nervous wreck” over the Cuban missile crisis, he volunteered for the Peace Corps to evade active military service.
Appearing among various family photos are several of his time in Colombia, including one of his all-male group’s arrival in 1963, exiting a Pan Am plane wearing suits, ties, and business hats. His first glimpses of abject poverty moved him to tears. Rats, scorpions, and cold showers were part of his daily routine. He and his associates had no luck courting local women or female Volunteers, so they frequented “whore houses . . . where we would drink a lot, dance, and have sex.” Volunteers were permitted to drive jeeps, which led to the tragic death of a fellow Volunteer. Given a vacation allowance for travel to neighboring countries, he and his fellows ended up in Venezuela where a vehicle breakdown obliged them to wire Peace Corps for more money. While waiting for repairs, Arfin admits they lived “high on the hog.” Back in Colombia again, after a night of heavy drinking, the author drove his jeep into another car, injuring a woman passenger (no wonder most Volunteers are now forbidden to drive). He was then put into “house detention” in Bogotá and given what he calls “a dishonorable discharge.” Applying for work for at Peace Corps headquarters back in Washington, he learned that “I had been black-balled as a ‘trouble-maker.’” So, he took a job with Arvis car rental. After losing that job and experiencing unemployment, he started working with disadvantaged youth. Following another bout of unemployment, he earned an MSW, worked for the YMCA, then directed a child care organization that eventually branched out into elder care.
Arfin’s parents had been relieved when he’d returned from Colombia without a “native” bride. He proposed to his “secular” Jewish wife just two weeks after meeting her. Their two daughters’ births were duly filmed by the proud father to show as slide shows to friends and relatives. He and his family made two nostalgic trips back to Colombia. After a 2004 heart attack and emergency treatment, he changed his diet and began traveling with his wife and spending more time with his adored grandchildren.
This is a solid, honest portrait of a slice of recent history, written in an ingenuous, fresh style, with scant dialogue and no literary pretensions. The large-sized type is somewhat distracting, making the book seem longer than it really is and highlighting typos, such as Cuzco and Cusco (referring to a Peace Corps side trip) appearing on the same page.
Arfin says that now, at age 69, he is sustained by “many sweet memories of my life in Colombia.” This is a personal story of a largely conventional life, whose highlight was Peace Corps service, written more for family and friends than for the reading public. It includes 15 testimonials from Peace Corps associates and others, including one from “Paul’s Lifelong Friend and Tennis Partner.” Most of all, Arfin seems to be telling his now-deceased father, “See, Dad, I made good after all.”
John Woods is president of CWL Publishing Enterprises. He has worked in book publishing since 1970 and recently worked on Making the Good Life Last: 4 Keys to Sustainable Living by Michael A. Schuler (Berrett-Koehler). He was a Volunteer in Ethiopia from 1965 to 1968. His son Christopher Woods was a PCV in Kazakhstan from 1996 to 1998. Here John reviews Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America by David A. Taylor.
Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America
by David A. Taylor (Mauritania 1983–85)
Reviewed by John Woods (Ethiopia 1965–68)
Imagine in this current economic travail if one of President Obama’s initiatives was to fund a project where out-of-work writers were employed to create travel and cultural guides to every state and several major cities in the United States. I’m pretty sure the right wing cable chatter and blogs would go crazy over this. Yet this is just what happened during the 1930s when the WPA set up what was called the Federal Writer’s Project. The mandate from Congress was to “hold up a mirror to America.” Ah, yes, those were different times.
The interesting thing about this project is the quality of the work and the prominence of the writers it attracted. The book chronicling all this is David A. Taylor’s Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression in America. As a way to help us understand the project, we learn first how the project came to be and then the author has chapters on how guides were developed in places like West Idaho, California, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and more.
Any number of prominent writers either got their start or found employment during the depression with the project, including names like Richard Wright, who edited essays for the Illinois guide and then came to New York, where he wrote about black history. Zora Neale Hurston, a preeminent writer of African American literature also found a home for a while with the project. And the 22-year-old John Cheever, when he couldn’t make money with his writing any other way, took a job as an editor in Washington DC, working on the guides.
The book includes numerous excerpts by these and many other writers, along with descriptions of how they lived and worked in the various venues in which they found themselves. In the chapter titled “Chicago and the Midwest,” we hear the story of how Studs Terkel, Richard Wright (before he went to New York), Saul Bellow, and Nelson Algren all ended working in the Chicago office. Here’s one paragraph the captures what it must have been like:
The Chicago office was an exceptional version of what Henry Alsberg could scarcely have hoped for when he said that WPA writers “will get an education in the American scene”: a community of talents that would absorb the local culture in each place with fresh eyes and imaginations. Algren and Wright provided alphabetical bookends to a startling roster that included Saul Bellow (in his first paid writing job), novelists Ana Bontemps and Jack Conroy, choreographer Katherine Dunham, Terkel, and poet-novelist Margaret Walker.
We can only imagine what directions the lives of these artists might have taken had they not been able to hone their craft in the writers’ project. And do you know the name Louis LaMoore? He was another writer who joined the project as young man. We learn that he had a reputation as one known to stretch the truth about his background. Later, though, he went on to change his name to Louis L’Amour, becoming the famous author of novels of the Old West.
The book has many such tales of writers who found their first viable jobs with the project. And it is replete with accounts of the challenges involved in creating guides for different states and regions. In other words, this book brings together the stories and history of arguably an important piece of our twentieth century cultural heritage along with insights into what life was like during the depression. For this reason alone, it is worth reading, but beyond that, any aspiring writer should appreciate that even for the great writers, things didn’t always come easily.
John Woods is president of CWL Publishing Enterprises (www.cwlpub.com), a book packaging that produced the Briefcase Books series (36 titles) published by McGraw-Hill. He recently worked on Making the Good Life Last: 4 Keys to Sustainable Living by Michael A. Schuler (Berrett-Koehler).
Images of America — Platte County is reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit, whose latest book, Whispering Campaign, includes short stories from Mexico and Central America. Published by iUniverse, it will be available at Amazon.com by November 1st.
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975–77)
Images in America: Platte County is a history book. It could be described as a photo essay but it is more than that. This is about the people, places and activities from the 1800s until 1965 that defined Platte County, Wyoming. The history of its changing cultural geography begins with homesteaders riding a trail parallel to the North Platte River in the later portion of the 19th century and ends with abandoned Atlas missile silos south of Chugwater in the 1960s.
The black and white photographs are all of extremely high quality and reproduced accurately. The author has supplied a full paragraph to describe each, sometimes quoting historical figures. We have the opportunity to see channels being dug, the animals and plants that sustained these laboring pioneers, the homes and businesses they built, and even the faces of some of its citizens.
This is part of a history series published since 1993 by Arcadia Publishing which includes more than five thousand titles that describe life across the United States. Ms. Talbott’s book is part of the “Images of America” series which concentrates on geographic areas. Other series offered by the publishing house include historical postcards, sports, Black America, Then and Now and Campus History. Their web site offers job opportunities for those who like history.
Working with various local historical groups, a library and local utility companies, Ms. Talbott combed archives and old books. She also interviewed. “Each person I talked to would send me to another. I met keepers of history . . . fascinating.”
The result is something that all Returned Peace Corps Volunteers should consider because that is what Peace Corps’ memoirs are: primary historical sources to be used by the next generation. The people she describes were never on a television talk show. The places have never been immortalized. The activities never made people on the other side of the earth tremble with fear or gawk with envy. Their stories are valuable just as we are and print is the path to remembrance. Electronic images are as temporal as a bolt of lightning. They disappear without a trace with the first power outage. Books have survived centuries.
Our Peace Corps experiences permit us to describe some part of the world which has undoubtedly changed as much as Platte County. The author of her own Peace Corps memoir, Ms. Talbott has proven again that she has a keen eye for the telling detail.
Lawrence F. Lihosit books and pamphlets are available on-line at www.abookcompany.net.
Poet Ann Neelon teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Murray State University and edits New Madrid magazine. Here she reviews The Baker’s Boy by Barry Kitterman — winner of the 2009 Maria Thomas Peace Corps Writers Award for Fiction.
Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978–79)
In reading Barry Kitterman, I find myself rediscovering the pleasures of reading Dostoyevsky — admittedly an extravagant claim in response to a first novel. Like Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot and/or The Possessed, The Baker’s Boy constitutes a powerful work of moral imagination. Brothers Albert and Junie and their cohorts-including Broke-hand, Mouse, Snot, Milkboy, Corky, Cowboy, Whiteboy, Redboy, Bigboy, Leeboy, and Blackboy-are no choir boys, as Tanner Johnson, their teacher at the New Hope School, duly notes (this despite the fact that Albert and Junie’s mother took a knife and deformed Junie’s face because she wanted him to stop singing). They fight. They steal. They prostitute themselves. Yet their essential innocence stalks Tanner for twenty plus years in the wake of the tragedies that ensued during his Peace Corps stint in Belize.
Nearing 50, after having wandered for years from job to job and state to state, Tanner is still trying to find himself despite his three-year-old marriage to Katherine, a children’s librarian, and his status as an expectant father. Even on good days, he tells us, he has “enough sorrow to patch up the ozone layer.” His aspirations to go back to school go up in flames when he witnesses a classroom shooting on his first day back, at which point he begins to wrangle with much darker forces than his ambivalence about his wife’s pregnancy. If Tanner has been afflicted all these years with Peace Corps post-traumatic stress syndrome, he’s been suffering passively, and he begins to suffer actively in the wake of the shooting. He drops out of his marriage. He checks out of his job in a sporting goods shop and checks into the wee-hours-of-the-morning shift as a baker at The Unreformed Temple of Caffeine, a café owned by one of his wife’s friends. Stacen takes him on partly out of the (skeptical) kindness of her heart and partly out of her desire to seize the opportunity to keep reminding him that he is “seriously screwing up his life story.” The café serves as a sort of holding tank for Tanner. After two months of working there, he still can’t tell the difference between a mocha and a latte.
The key to the novel’s power of moral imagination lies in the ghost of Albert, the baker’s boy from Belize, whose job it was to help Brother Constant bake 50 loaves of bread twice a week in the reform-school kitchen. The ghost is thin and black, its arms always covered with a light dusting of flour. It has become as familiar to Tanner as his own shadow. “Raise your hand if you still want to save the world,” Price Donelly, one of Tanner’s fellow volunteers, quips during Peace Corps training in Miami, but saving the world turns out to be difficult business in the context of the New Hope School. The ghost of the baker’s boy signifies at once that the search for the good can turn very, very bad and that the search for the good should be undertaken anyway. “This one is not the other one,” the driver of the bus to Belize City says, in an attempt to distinguish Tanner from his predecessor Hobson, an alcoholic cynical to the core and cruel enough to dangle a street boy by his ankles twenty feet above a river and let him go. The distinction is crucial.
It is in telling his own story that Tanner finds the courage to transform himself into something more than the “deadbeat fly-by-night voluntary-sperm father” he fears doomed to become. An ice storm and the exigencies it imposes turn The Unreformed Temple of Caffeine into a sanctuary for the human heart. “We all take a turn,” says Mr. Liu, who emigrated from Shanghai and runs the Chinese restaurant across the street. “Provide some fun for the others. No radio, no TV. Everybody join in. Like communism.” In this amateur-hour setting and among these motley ordinary extraordinary people and in the nick of time before his wife’s water breaks and his son is born, Tanner finally tells his story, exposing the secret ruins of his life in Belize. In its pitch-perfect equilibrium between happiness and sadness, this scene is reminiscent of Ilyusha’s funeral at the end of The Brothers Karamazov. With Dostoyevsky, it’s grief and then pancakes afterwards. With Kitterman, it’s grief and then scones.
I highly recommend The Baker’s Boy both to those who have served in the Peace Corps and to those who haven’t. It breaks out of the realm of “Peace Corps novel” into the realm of the great book. It qualifies as a great book because it wrangles, in a deep way, with the problem of suffering. Dostoyevsky, the son of a military surgeon, observed suffering by disobeying his parents and wandering out into the garden of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow to talk with sick patients. Kitterman observed it by joining the Peace Corps and serving in Belize. Like Dostoyevsky, Kitterman concludes that even minor actions can have profound ethical effects. The humor in The Baker’s Boy leavens this moral truth as yeast leavens bread. Once I tasted that bread,” Tanner says of the bread Albert brings him from Brother Constant’s kitchen, “I didn’t know if I could live without it.”
In November Ann Neelon will read with Virginia Gilbert (Korea 1971-73) and Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989-91) at a special session of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association Conference devoted to “Peace Corp Poets and the Modern World.”
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