Archives for New books
Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
Nancy Sellin’s Avoid Mosquitoes and Other Impossibilities is a memoir of her Peace Corps service in Liberia in the 1960s and her life in general, with vivid insights into what it meant to be a young woman of that era. Being of “a certain age” myself I was painfully reminded of the pressures put upon young women by a male-dominated white society, the experimental phase of contraceptives when we all got fat and grouchy, the naïvete of sexual encounters that were either wanton or wanting, and the secret longing for adventure and liberation.
Nancy’s husband, Dale, convinces her to leave Alaska with him to join Peace Corps shortly after their marriage. They both have teaching assignments and while Dale is fulfilled in his structured high school, Nancy struggles with sporadic elementary classes where teaching is done by rote and with switches. She eventually holds lessons in her house for gregarious students as well as teachers who must leave their switches at the door. There is little conflict between the Sellins, their colleagues or neighbors and, in fact, their daily life is congenial and even easy by PCV standards. They live in what looks like a “modern ranch style house, love their cheerful, efficient houseboy and all the people who pass by their house with affectionate greetings on their way to fetch water. Cultural shocks such as people having more than one mate or putting a dozen red peppers into a stew resonate, typically, as eye-openers about moving beyond one’s limits and questioning one’s values. While each chapter is a fascinating, mostly humorous story of life in Liberia, a dark thread of Nancy’s dissatisfaction with her marriage and underlying depression weaves through the narrative. Finally, increasing migraine headaches and mood swings caused in part by those early contraceptives culminate in the Sellins’ early repatriation. Their marriage ends six years later and Nancy goes to New York to fulfill herself as an actress and to view her unforgettable experience in Liberia “through her own eyes.”
Sellin’s writing voice is clear, charmingly personal, sometimes self-deprecating (insisting on the folly of hair spray and padded bras in the African heat) and sometimes poetic (”Giant ceiling fans hovered over us like swooping eagles.”) She nimbly manoeuvers the reader back and forth between her distant past, her PCV present and her post-Peace Corps future. Her account of Liberia during the reign of President Tubman is a nostalgic document in view of the country’s long history of brutal conflict. She describes decent schools, peaceful villages and Monrovia as a relatively thriving capital. Near the end of their tour, Nancy and Dale agonize over their decision not to adopt a Liberian baby and many years later they “risk sadness and regret” wondering if she survived the decades of violence.
As a member of UNA/USA Sarasota I’m involved in a project to raise funds for education in Liberia. I also direct a book club for UNIFEM/USA and we recently read Helene Cooper’s The House on Sugar Beach: In Search of an African Childhood, a moving account of growing up innocent in Liberia and coming of age with Samuel Doe’s regime. Nancy Sellin’s book holds another mirror up to that tentative piece of history. It would surely be of interest to Friends of Liberia. Under President Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson Liberia is limping back to recovery and one sure sign of its progress is the fact that Peace Corps Response is paving the way for Peace Corps’ return.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations in New York and UNESCO in Paris, for international development programs at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of fifty-five, then went on to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002.
For anyone who has traveled or hopes to travel to this lesser known corner of Central Asia’s ancient Silk Road, Roaming Kyrgzstan’s cover photo captures some of the magic that lies within this mountain nation’s truly majestic and rugged landscapes.
Reviewed by Catherine Varchaver (PC Staff, Kyrgyzstan 1995-97)
For anyone who has traveled or hopes to travel to this lesser known corner of Central Asia’s ancient Silk Road, Roaming Kyrgzstan’s cover photo captures some of the magic that lies within this mountain nation’s truly majestic and rugged landscapes.
Turning past the seductive cover, the reader encounters something not unlike Kyrgyzstan’s cities and towns-a richness of content and culture hidden beneath a distractingly unsophisticated and even off-putting presentation. Kyrgyzstan’s natural topography ranges from exotic to breath-taking, but the Soviet influence on local architecture erased a good bit of the visible, traditional charm in the populated areas. Soviet style concrete block architecture is a turn off, but if you can get past that, there is a world worth getting to know behind the cinder block facades.
One of the downsides of self-publishing is the lack of professional editing and formatting. For those of us who are visually sensitive, the ’80’s typewriter style headings in this guide, all underlined, with indented informational paragraphs detract from the short but reasonably informative travel guide listings organized by regions. The photos inside are poor quality and the one map too small to be useful.
That said, Jessica Jacobson’s experience living in Kyrgyzstan gives life to this guide as she reveals a true familiarity with the facets of life and a people as only a former Peace Corps Volunteer can. As the back cover bio tells us, Jacobson is fluent in Russian and spent two and a half years doing some undisclosed work in Kyrgyzstan. She clearly soaked up the cross-cultural plenty in this former Soviet nation where you see Russian men at bus stops squatting alongside ethnic Kyrgyz (or Kazak, Uzbek, Uigur, Tatar); and Kyrgyz shepherd families pouring small bowls of hot tea from Russian samovars outside traditional wool yurts. While city-dwellers may be modernizing in many ways, Kyrgyz country folk still drink fermented mare’s milk and live beneath snow-capped mountains in the north; while in the south, you find camels instead of horses and desert heat at the edges of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan instead of lush greenery or snow.
To her credit, Jacobson raises her travel guide to a higher level with 12 journal-like vignettes strewn throughout that detail a variety of encounters and cultural observations. She paints a colorful picture of life in this complex, multi-ethnic country and manages to infuse her narratives with historical and personal detail. The final result is interesting but only up to a point. The writing is ultimately uneven and conjures little in the way of emotion or socio-political ah-hah’s.
Coming from an author who was a Peace Corps Volunteer (Senegal ‘97), I expected more of a chatty, this-is-what-you-can-expect-if-you-visit narrative style. The fact that Jacobson is fluent in Russian means that she’s never had the experience of traveling in Kyrgyzstan without being able to communicate with most locals. Maybe that’s why this guide doesn’t focus much on how to deal with communication issues you might encounter, especially once you leave the capital, Bishkek.
And for anyone who truly wants to experience the beauty and mystical mountain energies of this faraway Silk Road squiggle on the map, there is one mystifying omission. While it appears that Roaming Kyrgyzstan’s basic information and listing of places to stay, restaurants, and travel services are reasonably comprehensive, Shepherd’s Way Trekking (www.kyrgyztrek.com) is not included. This superb horseback trekking service creates a unique tourist experience. Run by a former English teacher, Ishen, also the son of a traditional Kyrgyz falcon hunter (like the one on the book’s cover), and his wife, Gulmira, Shepherd’s Way offers over a dozen one- to 12-day full-service horseback trips that attract travelers from around the globe to explore the wonders of the Tien Shan or Mountains of Heaven.
So… Roaming Kyrgyzstan might be a guide worth tucking into a large suitcase for some side reading, but don’t forget to make sure you’ve put that Lonely Planet Guide in your carry-on bag.
Catherine Varchaver spent several years on Peace Corps staff working as a desk officer, trainer and Associate Peace Corps Director for Education at Headquarters and overseas. For the last ten years, she has worked in private practice, Body and Soul Nutrition, blending Eastern meets Western approaches to health. Catherine’s blog on this website is Health: Holistically Speaking.
If you have read anything about Bernie Madoff, the $65 billion swindler, who took most of the fortunes of his good friends in Palm Beach (and elsewhere) in the giant Ponzi scheme he operated since the early ’90s, you’ll appreciate this book on his Palm Beach crowd. Written by RPCV Larry Leamer the book was published just weeks before Bernie the Bandit went down.
Reviewed by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64)
Laurence Leamer has written gossipy books about the Kennedys and Arnold Schwarzenegger that have brought some actual thought to celebrity-mongering. Now he has come up with an exercise in commercial star-fuckery, dull-withered-rich-people division, that some of his readers may find considerably less alluring than his takes on Jackie and Ethel. Others might cruise through this stuff with a certain horrified delectation. Put me down in the first category.
While Leamer’s title suggests a true-crime approach to his material, the book is less Vincent Bugliosi than Anthony Trollop. The customs and mores of the dessicated Palm Beach rich are examined with an unsparing exactitude, even when they aren’t doing anything as interesting as shooting their wives or smashing their girlfriends’ faces in. Here’s the biggest mystery in the book: if Leamer is so repulsed by a municipality that harbors some of the ghastliest bigots and spoiled ignoramuses in America, why does he choose to live there part of the year? He offers no clue.
Palm Beach, Leamer reports, has been a warm-weather refuge for the American super-rich since the late 19th century. Henry Flagler’s railroads made the site accessible, and Addison Mizner’s Spanish-Moroccan architecture gave it a public aesthetic. Mizner is one of the Palm Beach personages that Leamer plunks down in his wandering narrative. The “sick, rotund” architect built the monumental mansions, hotels and private clubs that turned Palm Beach into “an exquisite, timeless, sophisticated enclave.”
Sophisticated is the wrong word. By Leamer’s own description, shallow is more like it. Both the old WASP aristocracy—real estate tycoons, oil barons, the Listerine heiress, et al—and the more recently arrived Jews (who inhabit a section of town the WASPS call “the Gaza Strip”), as well as such late-coming riff-raff as Donald Trump, are all animated by just one goal: social-climbing. They go to parties and balls and they decorate their houses and themselves, and they don’t do much else. How “sophisticated” is that? Oh, and they are nearly all Republicans. Those few denizens with liberal concerns—a few Jews mainly—learn early to keep their mouths shut politically.
Over the course of his narrative, Leamer takes us inside lots of grotesquely over-produced charity balls and parties. There are recitations of menus and descriptions of gowns, trophy spouses and eye lifts. We learn that Eric Purcell is “an intriguing conversationalist,” though we never hear him say anything intriguing. Brownie McLean “reigns over” a “superficial society given over to pleasure and amusements.” Leamer leads us through his pal Brownie’s succession of marriages to wealthy men, and while Leamer spends an inordinate amount of time visiting with Brownie—as does the reader—Leamer never conveys what her attraction is. The only thing interesting about Brownie is her money. (Some of you are saying, “Duh.”)
Leamer does have the acuity—and the dramatic sense—to be amused by Palm Beach’s Jay Gatsby-like figures, both male and female. A goodly number of the townsfolk emerged from humble beginnings and their outsized personalities were invented out of not much. They set out to marry money, and in a society where superficiality is everything screwing your way to riches is a piece of cake. It is some of those tales, however, that do have a way of leading to the madness and bloodshed of Leamer’s title. Fred Keller, who shot his wife in cold blood, chose to commit murder to avoid handing over half his fortune to a woman he came to regard correctly as a gold digger. One of several instances where Leamer steps in and participates in the story he is telling is his series of prison visits with the unrepentant Keller. Leamer, however, fails in his attempt to help the killer find “closure.”
It seemed that by the time Leamer was nearly finished writing this book, he was pretty much up to his hairline with the glittering triviality of it all, and so he added a postscript about a couple of Palm Beach’s “nice” people. When Pauline Pitt’s divorced friend died young from breast cancer, Pauline took in the woman’s adopted seven-year-old and raised her lovingly. There are precious few others you admire when you put down this compendium of shiny but dumb lives. Among the most memorable of the strivers here is the woman who believed that her life would be forever enriched by marrying a Jew who didn’t identify as Jewish and taking her vows in the presence of Prince Philip. Oy vey.
Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64; Washington 1964-67) writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. Death Vows was published in September 2008. Lipez is a former editorial writer at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. His journalism and fiction have appeared in many publications, and he reviews mysteries for The Washington Post. He lives in Becket, MA and is married to sculptor Joe Wheaton.
Roland Merullo who served in Micronesia back in the day has written a political book that is “right on” when it comes to what is happening in Washington today. And Matt Losak, who served as a PCV in Lesotho, and later worked as an advance man for President Clinton, reviews the book for our site. You might say it is a match made in heaven, or…
Reviewed by Matt Losak (Lesotho 1985-88)
So, you’re thinking we may have just elected the ideal candidate for President of the United States: he’s black and white and well-read all over, he’s good looking, he’s from everywhere U.S.A. and possesses a political mind that synthesizes the nation’s best visionary thought into today’s kitchen-table problem solving. But in Roland Merullo’s, American Savior, there comes along a third-party candidate, or, should I say, then comes along the second coming of a very special candidate who manages to top them all and his name is Jesus Christ. At least that’s the set up for this fun and sardonic novel where we are treated to the dream campaign of every closet idealist in a novel of divine politics.
Now I have to say that I come from the combined perspective of jaded RPCV (and I was jaded before I went into the Peace Corps!) and overweight, cigar-smoking political hack. So, in many ways, I am extremely vulnerable to the seduction of a story like this. Not that I haven’t experience a kind of divine politics of my own.
As an advanceman in the Clinton White House, I remember standing guard over a pen of about 300 hungry reporters as the President, holding the multi-colored hands of a half-dozen children, crossed a south Texas high school stadium field, four school bands madly blaring Ruffles and Flourishes followed by Hail to the Chief as though their country depended on them, thousands cheering wildly. Clinton, white haired and aglow in the beginning of his second term, alighted the stage like an athlete and stood at the podium with such charismatic radiance that even the bomb-sniffing dogs stood like pointers. Now the set up for an event like this takes about 7 days of advance work by hundreds of people, so when the President’s speech lifted up from the podium and swirled like feathers into the clouds, we all gasped. And for a very dangerous moment I thought this would be my chance to help out Bill by chasing down the white sheets, but I thought the better of it. Good thing too, because this was no average politician. Clinton began without skipping a beat, “Let me tell what was on all those pieces of paper.” And without skipping a word, or an opportunity to embellish brilliantly, he outlined to a wholly converted audience why national service, including the Peace Corps, was one of America’s best investments in a strong democracy. That was the closest thing to divine politics I had ever seen. But that was real life, and Bill, of course, was no Jesus Christ.
In American Savior,we are treated to a whirl-wind campaign story of its own that begins with the one of our most cynical types–a local television news reporter–sent to the worst side of town to cover the story of a ghetto boy who has fallen from a third-story tenement balcony to his death, at least until he is touched on the shoulder by a nice guy happening by. Sent to cover another so-called miracle of an inexplicably cured child similarly touched by the mysterious “Good Visitor” at the local children’s hospital, Russ Thomas begins to get the feeling that the miracle worker may be the real thing. In short order, and against every sensibility of our lead character’s rich cynicism and resistance to faith and folly, we are drawn ineluctably deeper into the excitement and hope of the campaign of the millennia. Because, after all, wouldn’t it be totally cool if it were true?
Merullo anticipates his readers’ objections to this fantasy tale by developing characters who intelligently express them for us just as we arrive at them. How many times have you thought, “Oh, come on, he’d never do that…” before putting the book down, or rising to buy popcorn. In American Savior, Merullo heads us off at the pass. When Thomas meets Jesus for the first time at an Italian restaurant he is fully prepared to endure the pleadings of a delusional. Hearing Jesus’s story, and his request to quit his job and join the campaign, Thomas leaves the meeting suggesting that Jesus prove who he is by sending his next message in a dream, “That’s the way they did it in the old days,” he says with not too little sarcasm. Jesus does not disappoint.
If your first objection to a story like this is that it’s a Christian story, oh ye of little faith, fear not. Merullo adroitly covers the bases through one character or another. Russ Thomas, the son of a devoutly Catholic mother and working-class Jewish father, is possessed of a sarcastic, smart-ass persona he’s developed over the years to protect himself from his life’s considerable pain and dashed hopes. Thomas’s Down syndrome brother and psychiatrist girlfriend-who, by the way, has penchant for sexual role play that even Jesus finds amusing, only intensifies Thomas’s character. Through Thomas, and a wonderful cast of characters that range from gangland toughs to born-again fanatics, cops and robbers, the loving and the violent, we are able to launch our criticism of the whole idea of Jesus on earth and his candidacy, but are swept along by a story that takes one of history’s most important characters and give us the irresistible opportunity to walk him through a modern world of troubles, asking his opinion and advice. Fun like this just hasn’t been had since Captain Kirk and Spock navigated the streets of San Francisco in search of whales.
For the closet idealist, RPCV or no, who is still waiting for that perfect leader who understands truth and justice in a complex world, American Savior gives a Jesus we can root for, not too defined, not too clearly opinionated, but smart, funny and good looking. What’s not to like? The fact that you already know what’s going to happen won’t stop you from turning the pages.
Matt Losak is the communications director at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Mark Brazaitis who is an award winning short story writer as well as a fine novelist also writes poetry, and here another award winning RPCV poet, Phil Dacey, writes a review of Mark’s latest collection.
The Other Language: Poems
by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala, 1991–93)
ABZ Poetry Press
Reviewed by Philip Dacey (Nigeria 1963–65)
I wish Mark Brazaitis had been chosen to present the Presidential inaugural poem instead of Elizabeth Alexander, whose lackluster effort probably won few converts to poetry and disappointed most poets I know. Brazaitis, on the other hand, would have told a story rich in character and resplendent with language that while familiar — not straining to be poetic — nevertheless rose to the level of memorable song, precisely what was needed on January 20th. As he writes at the very end of the book: “I don’t know her nor she me. / Today this is not obstacle enough: / she sings.” The general reader and Brazaitis don’t know each other, but that does not keep him from singing.
The Other Language exemplifies perfectly T. S. Eliot’s definition of poetry as “prose that has developed a sense of aeronautics.” Brazaitis has an impeccable musical ear and with it as guide is able to fly far higher than poets who thrash about in contorted language but rarely get off the ground. In poem after poem, Brazaitis brings into play his skills and experience as a novelist and short story writer, condensing onto a few pages human dramas refracted through a voice consistent in its clarity and powerful affect. And in making doing so look easy, he is downright Horation: the art is to hide the art.
“Dona Alicia’s Story” and “Rosaura’s Story” are prime examples of Brazaitis’s quintessential strength. The poems, both of them spoken by Guatemalan women, are acts of ventriloquism, monologues, persona poems; in one a mother tells of the loss of a son to the guerillas and in the other a wife tells of a sadistic husband she would like to lose. Both poems confirm what Wilfred Owen knew: the poetry is in the pity. They also confirm Brazaitis’s trust in the human voice when it speaks with urgency of what is most dear; Wordsworth’s “sad incompetence of human speech” may have a point but the work of Brazaitis makes a deeper point, that as inadequate as the tool of language may be, it can offer an incomparable glimpse into a great range of experience otherwise outside our ken. Indeed, its ultimate inadequacy adds its own layer of pathos. Fortunately for us, Brazaitis is no post-modernist using language’s insufficiency as an excuse to trash it completely.
A clue to Brazaitis’s success can be found in “We Need a War,” which delivers in ironic terms a plea for peace and contains these lines:
We’ll count as wounded the soldiers
who become so enchanted with the languages
of these detested countries,
they speak them as if each word
began a poem.
Brazaitis has applied that standard to his own language, handling English with a certain wonder, feeling its freshness as if he were coming to it as an outsider. Thus the simplest word can become strange, exotically alluring in contrast to a silenced voice. In “I Know I Could Love You,” one of the book’s many love poems, he writes, “How much water you must have swallowed / to reach me,” lines emotionally weighted and plangent out of all proportion to the elementary diction he employs. And in the same poem, when he repeats the title as a line by itself, we realize that behind it stands Neruda as love-poet–”I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her”–but that Brazaitis is too strong a writer to serve up warmed-over, derivative surrealism and instead persists with artistic integrity to mine his own personal vein, discovering what Valery called “the language inside the language.” The book’s title, therefore, besides referring to a so-called foreign language also refers to the poet’s native language in its otherness.
And, finally, it’s appropriate that a book beginning with the international perspective of an American in Guatemala should end with concerns about the environment, war, and the ultimate fate of the human race. Dinosaurs are invoked to remind us of our vulnerability, and in “Golden,” which is almost entirely interrogative, the poet contemplates environmental disaster and the end of civilization in stark and haunting terms:
…when the Antarctic Peninsula’s
Larsen B ice shelf–as large
as the island of Hawaii–collapsed…
What football game were we watching?
Indeed, Mark Brazaitis would not have had to write an inaurgual poem if he had been asked but only have had to read “Golden.” It would have taught millions of people the power of poetry. It would have confounded the cynics who claim poetry is written only for an in-group of other poets. And it would have teamed up perfectly with a President who commands rhetoric not to hide the truth but to highlight and promote it.
Philip Dacey’s latest of ten books is Vertebrae Rosaries: Fifty Sonnets (Red Dragonfly Press, 2009). His awards include a Fulbright lectureship to Yugoslavia, two National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowships, and three Pushcart prizes. More about him appears at www.philipdacey.com.
First Comes Love, then Comes Malaria: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and a Third World Adventure Changed My Life written by Eve Brown-Waite (Ecuador 1988) generated a publisher’s bidding war and an advance of six-figures. If nothing else, it proved that a Peace Corps book (other than one by Paul Theroux) could make money. It is reviewed here (before publication) by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976–78) who didn’t get malaria in Tonga when she was a PCV, but who eventually married the man she first met as a PCV, and who wrote a great mystery novel about a murder in the Peace Corps, a tale out of Tonga, entitled, Night Blind.
First Comes Love, then Comes Malaria: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and a Third World Adventure Changed My Life
By Eve Brown-Waite (Ecuador 1988-89) EveBrownWaite.com
Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-78)
The time frame covered by the typical Peace Corps memoir rarely allows for the reader to see long-term personal effects, beyond, perhaps, the shock of the first arrival home. The implications of a Peace Corps experience, as we all know, are “time-release” in nature — leaving some of us unnerved and unevolved - works-in-progress. Like a good antibiotic, I suppose, the Peace Corps experience keeps working on us after we are done with the course of treatment.
Eve Brown-Waite’s memoir, unfortunately named First Comes Love, then Comes Malaria, etc. etc. takes a significant and refreshing step beyond those limits.
The book starts raggedly, in the late Eighties, with a city girl hoping her Peace Corps recruiter notices her “boobs.” Encountering the word “boobs,” in the third line, in this moment of coquettish calculation, bored me. I sighed and put the book down. I am almost 60 now; I feel jaded. I’ve reviewed a number of Peace Corps memoirs and novels (and written one) in which lusty young women are drawn into Peace Corps adventures for less than altruism.
What I’m getting at is that three decades after my own Peace Corps experience, I find myself wanting more than colorful mischief as former volunteers document their overseas shenanigans, some as raucous and silly as Tropic Thunder. I want two things: good writing and depth of understanding - a sense, as I continue reflecting on the significance of my own Peace Corps years, of how these powerful commitments transform us over time. It’s not just that we were IN the Peace Corps, but that we made that kind of decision to begin with, and when we were there, things happened that changed us and continue to affect us or ripple through the rest of our lives. And some of us, I contend, wondering if this is a controversial thing to say, outgrow our Peace Corps years. Life becomes more than adding up exotic adventures. We get jobs with no book locker or readjustment allowance or free black bike - we get married or come out, acquire mortgages, have kids, get divorced, submit to colonoscopies, rail against the President and the war, worry about our 401Ks, sign up for yoga, compromise with the mundane and banal, and through it all, because we’re RPCVs, still nurture that romantic ideal of making a difference in the world.
Here’s where Waite’s memoir comes back in. It only begins with her Peace Corps service, a tough and teary year in Ecuador, beginning somewhat like a Third World version of Sex in the City, where she pines for the Peace Corps recruiter, John, she’d fallen in love with, but still manages to find a touching and challenging niche as the escort for “lost boys” from Santo Domingo and Quito, helping them find their way back to their families.
But emotionally, Waite is struggling, and after a PCV colleague gets raped, Waite slowly falls apart. Sent to a conference in Guatemala, shockingly alone in a luxury hotel room, she suffers an anxiety attack that leads ultimately to her departure from the Peace Corps after a year, and her return to the States. The writing in this section is remarkable - honest, affecting, unflinching and compelling.
That’s the first 75 pages. Then what? She goes back home, marries John, and together, the two of them grow up. What’s so fascinating about it is that they continue their life internationally, eventually going to Uganda where John takes a job working for CARE.
Waite’s life as an expatriate obviously differs from her year as a PCV, and the way she lives - tennis, dinner parties, having a fulltime “girl,” which she explains is what everybody calls home help - may grate with some readers who wish it didn’t sound so “colonial.” But she risks political incorrectness by trying to tell her truth:
“It’s not just that I was perceived as wealthy. In Uganda, for the first time in my life, I actually was wealthy…because even the few possessions that I had brought with me to Arua were more than most of my neighbors would ever have in their lives. I was wealthy because I didn’t have to live solely by what I could grow or catch; because I was educated and because I was American. I was wealthy, because, in the end, I could go home.”
As we follow Waite’s three years in Uganda we see her gradually arrive at a deeper understanding about what “home” means - she has a child, she develops AIDS education programs, she learns to cope — and begins to feel that Uganda is, like the world as a whole, her home. Eventually, after Ugandan politics force the couple out of the country, they take another international assignment - not in her beloved New York City, but in Uzbekistan.
So in the final pages of this memoir, we see a woman who has evolved a long way from the superficial flirt flashing her décolletage at a good looking guy. We see a thoughtful, intelligent woman who has become a citizen of the world, well aware of the contradictions and complexities of such a life. This kind of “longitudinal” reflection is a gift to the canon of literature by people who have begun young lives as Peace Corps volunteers - and then gone on living, paying close attention to what matters, and trying to do what’s right.
Jan Worth-Nelson, the 2008 Teaching Excellence Award winner at the University of Michigan-Flint where she teaches writing, authored the Peace Corps novel Night Blind and has had two recent essays published in the Christian Science Monitor. These days most of her energy is devoted to editing an institutional Self-Study document toward UM - Flint re-accreditation. She is also writing love poems.
Lawrence F. Lihosit writes in his review of Glen, a novel by Richard Fordyce (Ghana 1978-80).
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77)
The Peace Corps has no library. Even the Washington office does not have a single book shelf to treasure the work of its dedicated staff and volunteers who returned home to fulfill the Peace Corps’ third goal, to educate. There are some one thousand known examples, yet not one official collection, not even in the Library of Congress!
So, buy Richard Fordyce’s historical novel while it is available. Do not wait to check out a library copy because there is no Peace Corps library. Buy it now. Don’t steal it. Like William Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge , the author explores an era (1950-1980) by using a confused war veteran as the protagonist. In Maugham’s book set during an eleven year lull between world wars, the protagonist journeys east where he meets a spiritual teacher who counsels that enlightenment may come through knowledge, service, or prayer. Maugham’s protagonist chooses knowledge and achieves his goal while many of his materialistic American friends falter. Unlike Maugham’s book which focuses on the struggle to find meaning in life, Fordyce’s book portrays a young man caught so thoroughly in American society’s web that personal enlightenment as a goal to be sought seems impossible. The protagonist wanders aimlessly through a life dictated by others without reflection. Contrary to Maugham’s conception of Americans as an energetic people in constant search (whether it be for social eminence or enlightenment), Fordyce portrays Americans as burned-out reactionaries, victims of social forces beyond their control, men and women who measure their lives with hair styles, popular music, dress, brand names, and of course, television programs. While Maugham’s book deals with personal decisions despite the world’s insanity, Fordyce’s book portrays a time when personal decisions seem impossible. It is as if an evil cloud has descended and made personal choice a series of accidents set in motion by outside forces. When describing the war, there is no discussion about ideas or empires, just dread. Likewise after the war the author describes “a great shadow (which) seemed to descend over Glen and Julie and the people they knew.”
Whereas Maugham’s protagonist and war veteran sets out to see the world alone, Glen (Fordyce’s protagonist) joins the Peace Corps. “It couldn’t be any worse than what I was doing in Vietnam. Might even make up for some of it.” During my service (about the same time as Fordyce’s) the country that I served in also included several Vietnam War veterans. They were generally silent about their war experiences, sometimes even evasive which gave the impression of penance.
This is an unusual book. The author has no desire to relive his own Peace Corps experience, explain perceived mistakes or lampoon those who were perceived as doing him wrong. Rather, he has created a literary construct to describe a people. This is an intriguing time capsule. Buy it!
Once you have purchased and read Glen, write to your U.S. Representatives, Senators, and new President to demand that they urge the Librarian of the Library of Congress to immediately begin a Peace Corps Special Collection of fiction and non-fiction. Books like Glen will serve future researchers armed with questions.
The hot Peace Corps book for Spring ‘09 is by Eve Brown-Waite. She sold it for six figures last year and now comes the moment of truth. It’s being published in April. This review comes from the Feb 27, 2009, Library Journal. We have a much kinder review of Eve’s story of her Peace Corps days and life overseas in Peace Corps Writers. Check it out.
Brown-Waite, Eve. First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and a Third World Adventure Changed My Life. Broadway. Apr. 2009.
Verdict: This is ultimately rather thin stuff, with the author’s churlish moments unfortunately more memorable than the times she is genuinely touched by her surroundings. Optional at best.
Background: Brown-Waite’s story begins as she joins the Peace Corps, falls in love with her recruiter, and goes to live in Ecuador. She didn’t complete the full tour of service for personal reasons and felt that she owed it to herself to try overseas living again. She got her chance when her husband (the erstwhile recruiter) took a job in Uganda; the three years they spent there make up most of the book. To her credit, the author is candid about her frustrations and whiny moments, seemingly aware that she might come across as annoying. In the end, however, her purportedly life-changing experiences read more like a catalog of personal hassles. The writing is amusing in parts, but the narrative rarely rises above the superficial: Ugandans talk funny, they smell, some of their customs are irritating-and there are bugs!-Megan Hahn Fraser, Univ. of California Lib., Los Angeles
I’ve come across a novel (his first) by RPCV Barry Kitterman who was in Belize in the seventies that came out in May 2008 from Southern Methodist University Press entitled The Baker’s Boy. The novel is set in Central America and in middle Tennessee, and involves two intertwined stories. In the first, Tanner Johnson, nearing midlife, has left his pregnant wife and taken a job as a baker, working nights, trying to avoid a shadowy presence that haunts him from the past. In the second, Tanner relives his painful experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Belize, where he taught at a boys’ reform school. Of the book, novelists Rick DeMarinis writes, “A strong and haunting debut novel by a fine writer.” Davide Bradley, who wrote The Chaneysville Incident, says the book reminds him of “expatriate novels like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.”
I’ve “read into it,” as book editors like to say in New York publishing when they haven’t read the whole book, and I can honestly say that Kitterman can write. Barry has lived and taught (since Belize) in China, Taiwan, Ohio, and Indiana. He now teaches at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. Married with two children, he is also the editor of Zone 3 Magazine. Check out his site BarryKitterman.com.
Here are a few of his upcoming readings and signings if you are in the area.
Feb 26 - Hopkinsville (KY) Community College, 7:00 p.m.
Mar 19 - Miami University, Peabody Hall, Oxford OH, 8:00 p.m.
April 18 - Southern Kentucky Book Festival, Sloan Convention Center, Bowling Green
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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