Book Reviews

A look at books published by fellow RPCVs that hopefully you will want to read.

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Review — AFGHANISTAN AT A TIME OF PEACE by Robin Varnum
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Reviews: THE INNOCENCE OF EDUCATION & IN THE CORAL REEF OF THE MARKET by Earl Carlton Huband (Oman)
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Review — OLD MAN IN THE BAG by Ted Wells (Ethiopia)
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Review — BILL OWENS (Jamaica): THE LEGACY OF SUBURBIA: Photographs 1964–2020
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Review — STREETS OF GOLFITO by Jim LaBate (Costa Rica)
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Review — BRIGHT SHINING WORLD by Josh Swiller (Zambia)
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Review — TALES OF TOGO by Meredith Pike-Baky
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Review — FEVER AND OTHER STORIES FROM THE LAND OF MOBUTU by Peter Loan
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Review — THE GOOD HUSBAND by Danny Langdon (Ethiopia)
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Review — LENIN’S ASYLUM: Two Years in Moldova by A.A.Weiss

Review — AFGHANISTAN AT A TIME OF PEACE by Robin Varnum

  Afghanistan at a Time of Peace by Robin Varnum (Afghanistan 1971–73) Peace Corps Writers June, 2021 201 pages $25.00 (paperback), $10.00 (Kindle) Reviewed by Will Irwin (Afghanistan 1966–67) • Robin Varnum tells the story of serving as a PCV in Ghazni, Afghanistan in 1972–73 with her husband Mark and another PCV, Juri Zagarins, fluidly and with engaging detail, from beginning to end. Afghanistan at a Time of Peace (Peace Corps Writers, 2021) is a nicely-designed volume, liberally illustrated with color photos taken by Juri when she was in her early 20s and newly married. Robin tells her story chronologically, from the invitation she and Mark received to go to Afghanistan in December 1971 as TEFLers through training, their assignment to teach in Ghazni, and the quotidian and unusual experiences they had living and teaching there until their departure in December 1973. A sampling of each: Bouts with amoebic dysentery for . . .

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Reviews: THE INNOCENCE OF EDUCATION & IN THE CORAL REEF OF THE MARKET by Earl Carlton Huband (Oman)

  Reviewed by D.W. Jefferson (El Salvador (1974–76), Costa Rica (1976–77) • The Innocence of Education by  Earl Carlton Huband (Oman 1975–78) (Peace Corps poetry) 31 pages Longleaf Press November 2018 $10.00 (paperback) • The author was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Sultanate of Oman from 1975 to 1978. He taught English in the remote fishing village of Bukha located in a then-restricted military zone at the mouth of the Persian Gulf for two years. During his third year, he worked in Salalah, the capital of Oman’s southern district, splitting his time between teaching English and serving as assistant to that region’s Chief English Inspector. This book of poems is based on Huband’s time in Bukha. The poems are compact gems of sly humor and universal humanity with an underpinning wisdom. An alternate title for the book might be The Education of Earl Huband. Like myself and many other PCVs, . . .

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Review — OLD MAN IN THE BAG by Ted Wells (Ethiopia)

  Old Man in the Bag by Ted Wells (Ethiopia 1968-71) Create Space Publisher 286 pages November 2012 $4.95 (Kindle); $21.95 (Paperback) Reviewed by Andrew Tadross (Ethiopia 2011-13) • The Peace Corps memoir is a literary typology in itself, one with a niche readership.  It’s a safe bet that every RPCV has been told by an enthusiastic relative that they must absolutely chronicle their exotic adventures and foibles, their inevitable cultural misunderstandings, their painful failures, and their priceless victories in their valiant efforts to integrate into host communities and accomplish something significant in a 27-month window. Ted Wells has published such a memoir that transports the reader into the world of wild and rural Ethiopia in the late 1960s, with him and his newlywed wife Helen.  Idealistic, naïve, determined, and with an admirable sense of humor, this couple weather the discomforts that come with the territory… intestinal assaults, hellish bus . . .

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Review — BILL OWENS (Jamaica): THE LEGACY OF SUBURBIA: Photographs 1964–2020

  Bill Owens: The Legacy Of Suburbia: Photographs 1964-2020 by Bill Owens (Jamaica 1964–65) True North Editions 326 pages 2021 $400 (hardcover, Limited Edition book comes with a signed print) Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03) • Bill Owens (Jamaica 1964–65) took iconic photos all through his career. He’s noted for shooting pictures of the Hells Angels beating concertgoers at the Rolling Stones’ performance during the Altamont Speedway Free Festival four months after Woodstock on December 6, 1969, considered by historians as the end of the Summer of Love. Of that day, Owens has written: “I got a call from a friend, she said the Associated Press wanted to hire me for a day to cover a rock and roll concert. I rode my motorcycle to the event. I had two Nikons, three lenses, thirteen rolls of film, a sandwich, and a jar of water.” In 1972, Owens . . .

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Review — STREETS OF GOLFITO by Jim LaBate (Costa Rica)

  Streets of Golfito: A Novel by Jim LaBate (Costa Rica 1973-75) Mohawk River Press 252 pages October 2020 $9.99 (Kindle); $19.95 (Paperback Review by James W. Skelton, Jr. (Ethiopia 1970-72) • Jim LaBate has crafted an exceptional Peace Corps novel that takes place in Golfito, Costa Rica, the same town in which he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the 1970s. One of the main characters is, coincidentally, named Jim, a prospective PCV, who has just arrived in Costa Rica in 1974 to train for his assignment as a Sports Promoter. While attending in-country orientation in San Jose, one of the Peace Corps administrators advises Jim to change his name if he really wants to immerse himself into the culture. The PC official’s reasoning is that Costa Ricans seem to accept the PCVs more readily if they use a name that’s familiar to them. So, Jim adopts the . . .

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Review — BRIGHT SHINING WORLD by Josh Swiller (Zambia)

  Bright Shining World by Josh Swiller (Zambia 1994-96) Knopf Children’s Book, grades 7-9 304 pages November 2020 $10.99 (Kindle); $14.99 (Hardcover) Reviewed by Peter Deekle (Iran 1968–70) • Josh Swiller credits his deafness for his resilience. A contributing asset — be it a reinforcement or trial — might be his service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia that is evident in his perceptive insights into human nature. As a writer, Josh has demonstrated a “keen ear” for the internal motivations and interpersonal interactions of the characters in his new book. Bright Shining World (Knopf, 2020) is a novel about young people coming of age in a chaotic and disturbing world. Its publication could hardly be timelier, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the fraught social and political climate of today. The author recounts that “anyone could feel — how battered people were by the rising apocalyptic tide, how deeply they . . .

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Review — TALES OF TOGO by Meredith Pike-Baky

  Tales of Togo: A Young Woman’s Search for Home in West Africa Meredith Pike-Baky (Togo, 1971-73) A Peace Corps Writers Book September, 2020 280 pages $14.00 (paperback) Reviewed by Bill Preston (Thailand 1977–80) • In the Preface to this candid and heartfelt memoir, Meredith Pike-Baky writes, “The tales in this collection are like the beads of a necklace, les perles d’un collier, whole in themselves, and at the same time integral parts of a longer story when threaded on a string.” A spot-on metaphor (or simile, to be precise) which, together with the many-colored beaded necklace cover image, illustrates the twists and turns, the ups and downs and sometimes sideways arc of her time living and teaching English in Togo. Former Peace Corps volunteers will easily identify with many aspects of these tales — including, (in no special order), the challenge of learning new language(s), the heightened self-consciousness of feeling . . .

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Review — FEVER AND OTHER STORIES FROM THE LAND OF MOBUTU by Peter Loan

  Fever! and other stories from The Land of Mobutu Peter Loan (Staff— CD Zaire 1976–79; Washington) Peace Corps Writers August 2020 100 pages $9.99 (paperback), $5.99 (Kindle) Reviewed D.W. Jefferson (El Salvador 1974-76 and Costa Rica 1976-77)   Peter Loan served as a Peace Corps administrative officer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire) in the mid to late 1970s. This collection of short stories is based on his experiences there. “Land of Mobutu” in the title is a reference to President Mobutu who was in power in the time period in which these stories are set. The author doesn’t say, but it seems obvious to me that all of these stories are based on real situations with the names and surrounding facts changed just enough to avoid embarrassment of the participants, lawsuits, and in one case, potential trouble with superiors in the US foreign . . .

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Review — THE GOOD HUSBAND by Danny Langdon (Ethiopia)

  The Good Husband: 50 Practices That Will Make You Nearly Perfect Danny Langdon (Ethiopia 1962–64) Performance International December 2020 262 pages $15.00 (paperback), $9.99 (Kindle) Reviewed by Sue Hoyt Aiken (Ethiopia 1962-64) • The book’s dedication states: “This book was written for husbands . . ..” That is so true! After a short introduction, the author lays out the format for all 50 Practices. Practice #1 is titled, “Have your Song!”  Each chapter thereafter is dedicated to an explanation of a specific practice, including “Scenes from Our Relationship,” followed by suggestions for putting the practice into place. Some specific resources or actions tried and true for the author are also offered. This book comes about after a divorced Langdon, along with his second wife, learns, observes and activates a methodology, resulting in 50 Practices.  All suggestions come from real life and feel authentic as a result. While not all practices . . .

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Review — LENIN’S ASYLUM: Two Years in Moldova by A.A.Weiss

  Lenin’s Asylum: Two Years in Moldova by A.A. Weiss (Moldova 2006-08) Everytime Press 255 pages June 2018 $6.00 (Kindle); $16.95 (Paperback) Reviewed by Steve Kaffen (Russia 1994-96) • Lenin’s Asylum; Two Years in Moldova by A.A. Weiss (Moldova 2006-08) is superb writing: flowing and fast-paced, insightful, entertaining, humorous, and empathetic. It describes the author’s two years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in a village in Moldova. A.A. Weiss is a gifted storyteller and uses crisp sentences, vivid descriptions, and abundant dialogue that are lively, revealing, and often funny. The writing is very personal; you feel the author’s frustrations and joys. Moldova is perhaps the most forgotten country of the former Soviet republics, a landlocked place sandwiched between Russia, Romania, and Ukraine. Moldova clings to Russian, Romanian, or Ukrainian language, culture, and traditions depending upon the region. Of note, the author remarks several times that he was appropriately . . .

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