Archives for New books
To the Far Side of Planet Earth: A Peace Corps Memoir
by Jim McConkey (India 1967–69)
A Life In Time: A Woman’s Journey from Orphanage to Peace Corps
by Kate Stone (India 1966–68)
Tony D’Souza’s new novel is Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight and he’ll be reading and taling about it Tuesday, October 11 at Left Bank Books in St. Louis.
His novel follows an underemployed writer whose pregnant girlfriend is laid off during the Great Recession. Unsure how to support a family, James and Kate move to a cheap cabin in northern California and become reacquainted with Kate’s high school friend, whose family grows premium weed.
In the first two dozen pages of “Mule,” James learns how drug trafficking works. As a white guy, he doesn’t fit the official profiles. He details the tricks - and the dangers:
“I read stories about people who’d been busted. I learned never to drive at night, to check that all my lights were working every time I stopped for gas, to stay with the flow of traffic. If a cop started to tail me, I would have to be cool. If I got pulled over, I’d have to control any nervous tics. And the punishments? If caught with a pound in Arizona, I’d face a year and a half behind bars and a $150,000 fine. In New Mexico, eighteen months; in Texas, two years. I’d have a felony on my record and mountainous legal expenses. Forever after, I’d have trouble getting any kind of legitimate work.”
D’Souza, who moved to University City in August, admits that his previous novels share some parallels with him and his wife, Jessyka Lee. “Whiteman” (2006) involves a Peace Corps worker in Africa which D’Souza was; “The Konkans” (2008) is about an Indian-American family in Chicago, where D’Souza grew up.
After the two books gained great reviews and generous advances, the recession hit publishing, and money for writers dwindled. Lee was pregnant with their first child when she got laid off from a retail job.
“It was a good living until the recession hit,” D’Souza says. “We’ve been hanging on.”
D’Souza, 36, stays at home with their two children, just 2 and 3, while Lee works toward her MFA at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
His wife is from California, and D’Souza said he “knows lots of people involved in the drug business.”
Some got involved as a side racket during the recession, he says.
“There are all these people looking to get into it … although I won’t say it’s an epidemic,” he says.
D’Souza is adamant that he’s never smuggled drugs, but he playfully admits that he doesn’t mind if people wonder about the parallels with his real life.
“I want it to seem like it really happened,” he says.
“Mule” isn’t as soap opera-ish as TV shows such as “Weeds” and “Breaking Bad.”
While talking by telephone from California, where he was promoting “Mule,” he said he believes that readers can relate to the desperation and anger that would drive a young, unemployed college graduate to consider moving pounds of marijuana from California to dealers in Texas and beyond.
“There’s a level of anger out there. We didn’t get involved with the game - the housing bubble, the stock market - but we were still affected by it,” D’Souza says.
Drug couriers make the most money for the least amount of work, he says, but it’s a “Faustian bargain.” Once they are used to earning the money and are closely involved with others in the drug trade, it can be hard to get out.
“The drivers are making a lot of money, but are they living a serene, care-free life? No, they are looking over their shoulder,” he says.
D’Souza interviewed such people, and next month’s issue of Mother Jones will feature a nonfiction story that D’Souza wrote about four who got involved in the drug trade because of the recession.
After living in Florida, D’Souza has been delighted with his move back to the Midwest. He’s working on a book about parenting.
Tim Schell (CAR 1978–79) taught English in the town of M’Baiki and would write about it in his novel, The Drums of Africa (2007). He won the Mammoth Book Award for that book.
He is also the co-author of Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Fiction and Poetry (Prentice Hall, 2007) and the co-editor of the anthology A Writer’s Country (Prentice Hall, 2001). His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Award and he was the winner of the Martindale Award for Long Fiction. Today he teaches literature and writing at Columbia Gorge Community College in Hood River, Oregon. His new book, The Memoir of Jake Weedsong, was a 2010 Finalist for the AWP Award for the Novel. It has just come out from Serving House Books.
The Memoir of Jake Weedsong is about Jake and Estuko Weedsong who are living a bucolic life on their vineyard in rural Oregon. Having been forced out of academia, Jake spends his days working on a memoir, much of it comprised of his years living and teaching in Japan where he married Etsuko some twenty years earlier, married her three times on the same day, in fact.
As the novel opens, Jake and Etsuko have been attacked by three skinheads in Portland. The three boys are found guilty of a hate crime, and at the sentencing hearing Etsuko convinces the judge that a prison sentence will only further reduce the boys’ humanity. Instead, Etsuko would like the boys sentenced to a traditional Japanese dinner at her house where they will be dressed in kimonos and immersed in Japanese culture. While Jake finds Etsuko’s plan to teach the boys to empathize naïve, he reluctantly acquiesces, and the dinner date is set. In attendance will be Oregon’s poet laureate Gunnar Hoagard and his wife Karla, Jake and Etsuko’s daughter Elin, and Etsuko’s parents who are visiting from Japan.
Two Japanese women, Etsuko and her mother, work with fervor in their preparation of a feast where three of the honored guests are racist boys. This is the story of love and friendship and of the food that nurtures the greatest hopes and desires that hate can be overcome.
By ANDREA WEIGL - McClatchy Newspapers
Nancie McDermott wants you to bake pies. But she doesn’t insist on a homemade pie crust. Her recipes don’t assume you own a Kitchen Aid standing mixer. Your pies do not have to turn out as pretty as the pictures in her latest cookbook, “Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan.”
“I would like to be the enemy of perfectionism,” McDermott says. “There’s so much of that in food.”
Rather, she says, “let the beautiful thing inspire you, not intimidate you.”
This is the 10th book from McDermott, of Chapel Hill, N.C., whose previous books include “Southern Cakes” and “Real Thai,” along with a series of cookbooks with quick-and-easy recipes.
McDermott said being a Peace Corps volunteer led her to become a food writer.
Raised in High Point, N.C., McDermott graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wanting anything but an ordinary life. So she volunteered for the Peace Corps and was sent to Thailand. She loved to eat the Thai food and would later regret not learning how to cook it. After three years, she returned to North Carolina, got her teaching certificate and ended up teaching English and social studies in High Point.
She longed to cook the food she had eaten in Thailand. There were no nearby Thai restaurants at the time, but there was an Asian grocery store in Greensboro. With the help of a few cookbooks, McDermott figured out how to make chicken coconut soup and other Thai specialties.
By 1981, McDermott was ready for a change. “I wasn’t meeting any boys,” she says, laughing.
So she moved to New York, where she met her future husband while standing in line for a movie. Living with friends, working for a caterer, McDermott says she had Chinatown and Thai restaurants to further her Thai cooking education.
In the mid-1980s, her husband’s graduate work took them to Southern California, where she was a short drive away from Orange County’s Little Saigon. There were Thai restaurants, cafes and Asian grocery stores with not only dried but also fresh ingredients.
She started teaching at cooking schools all over Southern California. After taking a food writing class, she started writing for newspapers and magazines.
“Real Thai,” her book devoted to the country cooking of Thailand, was published in 1992 and is still in print. She followed that book with seven others devoted to Asian cooking, from curries to stir fries.
In 1999, McDermott and her family moved back to North Carolina. Since returning, she has turned her love of Southern desserts into a pair of cookbooks. As we head into holiday baking season, she hopes home cooks will not be intimidated by the food world’s focus on perfection but rather get in the kitchen and start baking. With apologies to the sneaker company, McDermott’s attitude is this: Just do it.
BUTTER PIE CRUST
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
6 to 8 tablespoons ice water
1 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
Author Nancie McDermott credits cooking instructor Sandra Gutierrez, former food editor for The Cary (N.C.) News, with this recipe. From McDermott’s “Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan” (Chronicle Books, 2010).
COMBINE flour and salt in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse for 10 seconds. Add butter cubes and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse sand with some small lumps, 30 to 40 seconds.
ADD 4 tablespoons of ice water and vinegar and pulse 5 to 7 times, until dough just barely holds together. Add another tablespoon or two of water if needed just to bring the ingredients together. Turn out onto plastic wrap, and pat dough into three separate disks; refrigerate them for at least 1 hour. Set disks out at room temperature for 10 minutes before rolling.
ROLL out one of the dough disks on a lightly floured surface to a circle about 1/8 inch thick and 10 inches wide. Carefully transfer it into a 9-inch pie plate. Press dough gently into pan and trim away any excess dough, leaving about 1/2 inch beyond the edge of the pie pan. Fold edges up and over, and then crimp the edges decoratively. Or press the back of a fork into the pastry rim, working around the pie to make a flat edge marked with the tines of a fork. If not filling the crust soon, refrigerate it until needed.
Yield: 3 9-inch crusts
MIZ BOB’S DOUBLE APPLE PIE
3 9-inch single pie crusts or store-bought pie crusts
2 1/4 pounds cooking apples, such as Granny Smith, Jonathan, Rome Beauty or Empire
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/3 cup butter
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
From Nancie McDermott’s “Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan” (Chronicle Books, 2010).
HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Roll out a third of pie dough into a 10-inch circle. Line a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan with one crust, leaving 1/2-inch overhang.
PEEL apples, core them and cut them into slices 1/2 inch thick. (Youâ€TMll have about 5 cups.) In a large saucepan, combine apples, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Toss to combine evenly. Add butter and water, and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook until apples are tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in flour and cook 10 minutes more, stirring now and then.
POUR half apple mixture into pie crust. Roll half of remaining dough into a 9-inch circle and place it over apple filling in pan. Place pie in the center rack of the oven. Bake until pastry is golden brown and the apple filling is bubbling, about 20 minutes.
POUR remaining apple mixture into crust, covering cooked pastry. Using back of a spoon, dab a little water on the strip of pie crust covering rim of the pie pan. Roll the remaining dough into a 10-inch circle, and place it carefully over the apple filling. Trim away extra pastry extending beyond the rim of the pie pan.
SEAL top crust by using the back of a fork to press the top and bottom crusts together, working your way around the rim by pressing the tines of a fork into the pastry edge. Use a sharp knife to cut about eight slits into the top crusts, spacing them evenly so that steam can escape and the filling can bubble as it cooks.
RETURN pie to the oven and bake until the pastry is golden brown and the filling is fragrant, about 20 to 25 minutes.
PLACE pie on cooling rack or a folded kitchen towel and let cool for 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Yield: 8 servings
In Search of the Rose Notes
by Emily Arsenault (South Africa 2004–06)
William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins
Reviewed by Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973-74)
SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD ROSE BANKS routinely babysat Nora and her friend Charlotte after school in 1990, while the sixth-graders waited for Charlotte’s parents to return from work.
Then Rose vanished one afternoon in November, after walking Nora home.
Had she run away? Or was the truth darker, an unspeakable violation of the peaceful New England town where they lived? Stricken by the knowledge that she had been the last person to see the charming, irreverent Rose before she disappeared, Nora reluctantly joined Charlotte in an attempt to solve the mystery, with help from Charlotte’s beloved Time/Life books on The Occult. It was a fruitless collaboration that ultimately derailed the girls’ childhood friendship.
Fast-forward to May, 2006: Charlotte, who teaches in the same high school the girls once attended, calls Nora to tell her that Rose’s remains have been found. Nora — now a pottery artist living in Washington, DC — finds herself drawn back to the hometown she fled when she graduated, and to her past as the silent, oddball loner. She patiently unwinds the circumstances of Rose’s disappearance in a first-person account that alternates between 2006 and the early 1990s.
Emily Arsenault’s In Search of the Rose Notes is more than a mystery; it’s a finely-written meditation on identity and perception. You can tell how skillful a writer is by the way she reveals the background necessary to the story: Arsenault informs the reader though conversation that feels so real it might be eavesdropped, then deftly fills in the blanks with flashback scenes, one to a chapter.
I confess that the divided chapter technique initially jarred me. But once I warmed to it, the contrast of present day with the jigsaw-puzzle glimpses of Nora’s past worked well to move the story and flesh out its inhabitants. Arsenault’s adolescents are complex and casually cruel, and as conflicted as the adults they become. She maintains her narrator’s quirks and tics beautifully; in spite of the differences in circumstance and wisdom between the young Nora and her adult self, they are undeniably the same person. Nor does the author sacrifice the believability of her other characters; each is fully-realized, and grows credibly — and entertainingly — from the past into the present.
The mystery at the center of the book is very specific to the characters and their small-town milieu. So I doubt we’ll see Nora stalking Waverly, CT, to bird-dog new and suspiciously convenient murders, a la Jessica Fletcher, in a series of color-related titles. Which is kind of sad; I’d love to meet her again. However, this is the second of two non-related mysteries that Arsenault has written. I just downloaded The Broken Teaglass to my Kindle; if it’s as well-constructed and quirky as In Search of the Rose Notes, I’ll consider it a worthwhile purchase indeed.
Susan O’Neill is the author of Don’t Mean Nothing, a short-story collection very loosely based on her hitch as an Army nurse during the Viet Nam war. She writes short fiction and essays, and novels that seem reluctant to crawl out of her trunk, and blogs here under the title of Off The Matrix. She also edits Vestal Review, a magazine for Flash Fiction. Her website: http://susanoneill.us .
To order In Search of the Rose Notes from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
by Tony D’Souza (D’Ivoire 2000–02, Madagascar 2002-03)
Blissfully happy in a new relationship and orbiting the trendy Austin party scene, James and Kate thought they had everything figured out. When the downturn not yet called the Great Recession and an unexpected pregnancy turn their world upside down, they cut costs by relocating to a tiny cabin in Northern California.
There James is introduced to the underground world of primo-marijuana transport, in which the wages for a week’s cross-country driving could comfortably support a family for months. After the first payload turns into repeated California-Florida trips, James must decide how much time he’s willing to devote to his risky new career. Without glorifying or condemning the couple’s choices, D’Souza articulates the existential tensions that affect so many of America’s recession generation. His authorial voice is sharp and crisp, eschewing flowery prose for a hard-hitting narrative style that perfectly suits the page-turning, drugfueled tale. Fans of Toby Young and Max Barry and those who follow D’Souza’s magazine work will greatly enjoy the timely, witty, fast-paced Mule.
from Library Journal
In his third novel, D’Souza (Whiteman) provides an in-depth look at the creation of a drug mule. James, a young writer thrown out of work by the recession, delivers a pound of prime-grade marijuana to a friend in Texas as a one-time money-making opportunity. But with his wife, Kate, and a new baby to support, James soon builds a cross-country courier route stretching from California to Florida and finds himself constantly on the road, delivering drugs to an increasingly sketchy and dangerous group of contacts. The money is great, but with each trip the risks-and James’s crimes-grow exponentially more serious. VERDICT Despite thinly drawn characters, this gripping novel provides an insider’s view of drug trafficking. While in some sections it reads like a how-to for drug mules, D’Souza’s careful pacing and narrative style provide a tension-filled ride. Recommended for readers who enjoy crime novels and general fiction.
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1990-93)
AFTER YOU READ Tony D’Souza’s Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight, you’ll never approach late-night driving the same way again.
You’ll imagine you’re carrying thousands of dollars worth of marijuana in your backseat. You’ll check your speed every five minutes. Am I driving too fast? Too slow? You’ll look for cops everywhere.
It’s a testament to D’Souza’s talent that one feels such a powerful connection to James, the novel’s drug-running protagonist, even if the closest one might have come to his lifestyle is smoking an occasional joint in college — or laughing at a soon-to-be president’s claim that he didn’t inhale.
James isn’t in the illegal drug business by choice. In a troubled economy, his work (as a freelance writer) simply dried up. He’s newly married and newly a father, with a second child on the way. He could manage a McDonalds and straddle the poverty line. Or he could run drugs for a limited number of years, send his kids to Ivy League schools, and retire to the beach.
Of course there’s always the danger of his being caught and shipped off to prison for three decades. This gives the novel its tension. This and a slew of secondary characters who, at every turn of the page, could either ease James’s life or turn it into a nightmare.
Mule is a page-turner, which isn’t, in my book, a bad thing. If authors, even literary authors, want a wide readership, they should be prepared to entertain. It was Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize winner, who said the goal of literature is to entertain and instruct. Mule does both. I know far more about the drug trade than I did before reading D’Souza’s novel. And I was certainly entertained.
Is Mule literary fiction? This is debatable. Because it’s intensely plot-driven, the book is stingy in its evocation of character. We understand James well — especially as his anxiety impinges on his ambition — but his wife, the novel’s other major character, tends to be defined as a series of materialistic interests. She likes nice clothes and nice apartments. She likes trips to Europe.
The minor characters are perhaps necessarily one-dimensional because James, the novel’s narrator, cannot afford to become too enmeshed in their lives. They’re part of his distribution network, where business comes first and last. There isn’t much time for soul-baring conversations.
Graham Greene used to label some of his lighter and less literary novels “entertainments” to distinguish them from his sobering, serious work. Mule’s tone is serious, but its plot is closer to a thriller than a work of literary fiction. (For the latter, see D’Souza’s award-winning first novel, Whiteman.) Mule is Our Man in Havana five shades darker and minus the satire.
There’s always a risk in writing plot-based fiction that, in order to keep readers turning pages, a novelist will drive the story beyond the point of believability. A murder scene and its aftermath in the middle of Mule is certainly attention-grabbing. But some readers may not find it credible.
Ultimately, these are small objections. Mule captures well an age of high unemployment and low hopes. Indeed, one of the many things D’Souza does beautifully is to create a believably bleak world. Most of James’s friends are living in the margins, jobless and dispirited. It’s easy to see why James would find running marijuana across the country attractive in such an economic wasteland.
But anyone with a conscience isn’t going to keep making such runs without some kind of reckoning — with morality, with fear, with the limits of exhaustion. One of the most powerful scenes in Mule is when James is holed up in a dreadful Texas hotel room, unable to move:
[I]t was the afternoon and I was still in that bed. The phone started ringing and ringing. Then there was a pounding on the door. It was the East Indian. Was I staying or was I going? he asked. I told him, “I don’t know.”
You won’t want to put D’Souza’s novel down. And after you’ve finished it, you won’t stop checking your rearview mirror. Those flashing lights? The party just might be over.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of three books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and a book of poems, The Other Language, winner of the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize. His short stories, poems, and creative nonfiction have appeared in The Sun, Ploughshares, Witness, Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Passages North, Poetry East, and other literary magazines. He is an associate professor of English at West Virginia University, where he directs the Creative Writing Program.
To order Mule from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.
Robert Klein (Ghana 1961–63; 1974–75) is the winner of the Peace Corps Writers Advancing the Mission Award for his book Being First: An Informal History of the Early Peace Corps that was published in 2010 by Wheatmark. Klein, who taught in Ghana for two years, was a member of the first Peace Corps group to go overseas. He then joined the Peace Corps program staff, serving in Kenya and in Ghana, where he was the country director from 1966 to 1968. Returning to the U.S., Klein had a career as a journeyman educator working in New Frontier and other experimental settings in the areas of remedial education and English as a second language. In 1974 he went back to Ghana, with his family, to serve another term as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Through the years he has remained close friends with his Ghanaian students whom he first taught in 1961, and has made periodic visits back to the school and community. He lives now in Madison, Wisconsin and at the age of 81 is working with the National Archives at the John F. Kennedy Library, conducting oral history interviews with former Volunteers.
Bob, receives a special citation and a cash award from Peace Corps Writers - a blog of Peace Corps Worldwide. Our congratulations to all the winners, and all the RPCVs who published books in 2010.
Mary Ellen Branan (Poland 1994–96) is the winner of the Peace Corps Writers Poetry Award for her collection, Weavings published in 2010 by First World Publishing.
Dr. Branan lives in Bastrop, Texas, a small river town not far from Austin. She plied a social worker career in Houston and Austin for 20 years, then returned to the graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, finishing in 1991. As a PCV she was on the faculty of a English-teacher-training college in Pulawy, Poland, a cultural experience and a landscape that inspired a number of poems included those in Weavings.
According to Karla K. Morton, Texas Poet Laureate in 2010: ” Poet Mary Branan’s work chronicles life, death, family, and even Poland, with a warmth and sophistication that only time and artistic sensitivity can bring.”
Congratulations, Mary Ellen!
Mary Ellen receives a special citation and a cash award from Peace Corps Writers - a blog of Peace Corps Worldwide. Our congratulations to all the winners, and all the RPCVs who published books in 2010.
About Peace Corps Writers
All Peace Corps, all the time — book reviews, author interviews, essays, new books, scoops, resources for readers and writers. In other words — just what we’ve been doing with our newsletter RPCV Writers & Readers from 1989 to 1996, and our website Peace Corps Writers from 1997 to 2008! — John Coyne, editor; and Marian Haley Beil, publisher (both Ethiopia 1962–64)
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