The Best Peace Corps Memoir Ever Written????
My postman hates me. He has good reason. Every day he brings me bulky packages, books written by RPCVs. He doesn’t know that, of course. He thinks I’m a crazy e-bay buyer, that I’m getting lawn equipment for spring, or buying fire logs wholesale. But the other day I got a very small package, smaller than a ‘bread box’ as they use to say on “What’s My Line” for those old enough to recall.
It looked kind-of cute, like a box of expensive chocolates (being close to Easter, you never know….I do have friends) but alas it was “yet another Peace Corps memoir” as my wife might say.
Let me tell you now it was better than a box of chocolate! It is perhaps the best Peace Corps memoir that has come my way since Marian Beil and I started promoting Peace Corps writers in the late ’80s.
Lyrical and poignant, fierce and frightening, this memoir is all of our stories in 100 pages, published in a Hypermodern Edition, and only 100 pages written on pages 5.75 by 4.38 inches (or a twice-folded sheet of typing paper).
The Memoir, História, História, is by Eleanor Stanford (Cape Verde 1998-2000).
The tiny treasure came with a note from the editor and publisher of Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, a new publishing house on the North Side of Chicago. He called me Mr. Coyne (you always get extra points for that) and wrote to me in his note, “I’d like to submit our newest book, Eleanor Stanford’s História, História, for possible review by your blog.”
The book also came with a press release that included several telling blurbs, one by Claire Bidwell Smith, author of The Rules of Inheritance. Her quote captures the essence of this memoir. Bidwell Smith writes, “This book is about the places we travel to, both in the world and within ourselves, the places that inform our hearts, our minds and the relationships we find ourselves in. Written in gorgeous, lyrical prose, História, História will inevitable transports you into a deeper sense of self.”
Jason Pettus (that’s the publisher) also wrote me that Eleanor Stanford’s book was available in a variety of ways: “As a book it costs $20 plus shipping when purchased online, $25 at selected bookstores. The electronic version is free and can be downloaded directly at [cclapcenter.com/historia], or people can purchase it directly at the Kindle Store for $4.99.”
On their publishing site, I found this description that tells you more than I might, and Jason Pettus gave me permission to reprint it. Read it, and then go buy or download the book. We will have a review of the book shortly. It is being written–as I type–by our own award winning author, Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65).
Why I Signed ‘Historia, Historia’ — An Apologia
by Jason Pettus
I’ve read and reviewed 150 books a year, every single year, since CCLaP opened in 2007, which means that I should be crossing the thousand-title count any day now; and that means I’ve read multiple versions of just about every story type there is now, and am familiar now with every trope in all of them. And so that makes it very refreshing to come across a manuscript like Eleanor Stanford’s Historia, Historia; because Peace Corps memoirs are surprisingly one of the most trope-filled story types out there, and it’s always a relief to find one that takes a really unique approach to telling its story. And I say ‘surprising,’ of course, because stories about the Peace Corps always have so much adventure and intensity and life-changing lessons built into them, and they always feel like such unique experiences to the people who go through them; but much like one’s first international backpacking trip, ironically these unique experiences tend to repeat in their details from one person to the next, diluting the enjoyment with each retelling until you’re finally greeting each new Peace Corps memoir someone’s given you with a resigned shrug.
What Eleanor does, though, is dispense altogether with the usual beats of the early-twenties journal-like autobiographical Peace Corps book — there are no overly detailed descriptions of fellow hippie undergrads, no comic misunderstandings among the locals — and instead delves straight into meaty stuff about the culture and history of the Cape Verde Islands off western Africa where she ended up, and about the Portuguese-derived creole language they speak. And that’s because Eleanor is now a thirtysomething professional who’s greatly admired in the academic community, whose previous book was published by the prestigious Carnegie Mellon Press, so she knows how to approach a book like this in a much more engaging and unique way; she has the fastidiousness of a journalist but the outlook of a poet, so can pen essays that are as moving as they are informative. And so as she drops us in the middle of this environment, we also learn about its colonial history and slavery legacy, how its history as a formerly uninhabited land that is still barely self-sustaining shapes the very personalities of the people who live there, and all kinds of other fascinating things about the sociology and geology of this often magical place. Granted, we see all this through the eyes of someone formally associated with the Peace Corps organization, and this story is as much about that process and all its ups and downs as it is anything else; but it’s a case here of its total being bigger than a mere sum of its parts, a Lonely Planet guide mixed with a graduate thesis and blended with a coffeehouse poetry reading until reaching a smooth, cool puree.
But then the final kicker to it all, and the reason it passed that last hurdle and ended up getting signed, is that it’s even more than all this — it’s also a gripping personal tale along the lines of Marya Hornbacher’s Pulitzer-nominated Wasted (in fact, Ms. Hornbacher was kind enough to provide this book with a pre-publication blurb), about the sudden eating disorder Eleanor developed while in Cape Verde, despite never having a history with this subject at any point in her past. And this is an extremely difficult thing to pull off, to combine a very mainstream-friendly format like this with the intellectual finery of the academic side; because let’s face it, a lot more of these personal-essay collections turn out instead like that Augusten Burroughs dreck I can’t stand reading, a style which simply must be tempered with exacting language and finessed research to be palatable at all. Eleanor does that here, which results in a powerful and deeply rewarding reading experience; and both I and all of CCLaP’s assistant editors immediately knew we had something special on our hands when we saw this, after arriving in our mailbox as a cold submission out of the blue back last autumn, part of that glut of submissions we got right after an extremely flattering profile of us ran in last fall’s Poets & Writers magazine.
I think it’s no coincidence that the last author we published, the fellow unique essayist and celebrated academe Kevin Haworth, turns out to have several common friends with Eleanor, and that they’ve ended up hitting it off; both of their books are very similar, I feel, attempts at combining several different types of storytelling to form a hybrid that traditional academic publishers don’t quite know what to do with. And I love being able to put out books like these, because despite my well-known disdain for MFA programs and the like, I actually love writers who have a high knowledge of and a lot of creativity about language itself — I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love me my absurdist science-fiction bizarro comic-tragedies too (*cough cough* Mason Johnson’s Sad Robot Stories coming this summer *cough cough*), but I get a special treat out of publishing the kind of extremely smart academic writer who many times falls through the cracks of the traditional academic presses. Eleanor is one of those people, and Historia, Historia is going to be the next great read in your life for people like me who love this kind of work, so I urge you to go download a free copy or order a paper edition right this moment.
(APOLOGIA: A deliberately all-positive critical essay, usually written in an effort to get others to believe in a specific thing the author believes,)
8 CommentsLeave a comment
That’s one helluva review. Looks like I gotta read this one.
What’s up with Cape Verde? Two book reviews in two days. PC service there must allow plenty of time to write.
I am deliriously happy for Ms. Stanford and can’t wait to read her memoir.
But meanwhile, I must take issue with the publisher re the following quote from his review:
“What Eleanor does, though, is dispense altogether with the usual beats of the early-twenties journal-like autobiographical Peace Corps book — there are no overly detailed descriptions of fellow hippie undergrads, no comic misunderstandings among the locals — and instead delves straight into meaty stuff about the culture and history of the Cape Verde Islands off western Africa where she ended up, and about the Portuguese-derived creole language they speak. And that’s because Eleanor is now a thirtysomething professional who’s greatly admired in the academic community, whose previous book was published by the prestigious Carnegie Mellon Press, so she knows how to approach a book like this in a much more engaging and unique way; she has the fastidiousness of a journalist but the outlook of a poet, so can pen essays that are as moving as they are informative.”
Has he read The Ponds of Kilambaya, for Christ’s sake? Whose memoir is he comparing Ms. Sanford’s to? Did he have to be so condescending toward other Peace Corps memoirists in order to praise Ms. Sanford’s abilities? Makes one wonder as to his possible bias….
Somebody finally gave me a Kindle, and I will download this phenomenal book right away, and look forward to reading Marnie Meuller’s review.
Speaking of postmen, mine approached me a while ago to say he’d noticed that I get a lot of Peace Corps mail, and asked me talk to a young person who was thinking of joining and, of course, I did. Sometimes your postman gets to know a lot about you. In this case, he became a liaison.
Mary-Ann – Like Ronald Reagan, I think he’s thinking of a movie. In this case Tom Hanks’ “Volunteers.”
My apologies if I offended anyone in the Peace Corps community with my essay. What I’m referring to here is that as a full-time book reviewer at my own website, I receive maybe five or ten Peace Corps memoirs a year, most of them self-published and most of them pretty dreadful. I’m absolutely sure, though, that there are great Peace Corps memoirs floating around out there, just that I have not had the pleasure to read them myself yet. I always love to get recommendations for good new travelogues, one of my favorite types of books, so I encourage people to drop me a line at cclapcenter [at] gmail.com and let me know!
I read Stanford’s book and I thank you for providing the download.
It was truly beautiful to read. I look forward to Marnie Mueller’s review of the book.
But I, too, want to address your comments about Peace Corps literature and the “Peace Corps Community.” There are over 210,000 people who have served, without salary, in 137 countries over the last 52 years. Two of them, John Coyne and Marian Haley-Beil, the creators of this website, have been promoting Peace Corps writers for well over twenty years, via newsletters and websites. This website has a list of those writers. You might find authors you recognize if you had had time to scan the lists. As for good travelogues, surely you are familiar with RPCV Paul Theroux or RPCV Peter Hessler.
If you are going to criticize the genre, I think you are obligated to be familiar with its scope.
I did not see Stanford’s book as a series of academic essays plus a careful, lyrical description of an eating disorder. I saw as a journal describing a journey of almost two years, integrating in another culture. But, then, I am not familiar with literary criticism or analysis. I was a political science major. I even had to look up the term “trope”. And I may not even be using it correctly, when I observe that I think you use sweeping generalizations based on a very narrow, provincial perspective. For example, in your interview with Stanford, you said:
“You ended up living for a while in an actual rural village there, and ended up getting a really deep look at the “national character,” so to speak, a lot of which involved behavior that we Americans would find confusing or counter-intuitive to how we think of life.”
I don’t think “we Americas” would find infidelity, babies born out of wedlock but welcomed into families, men who left to find work, women who gossip and find solace in the shared difficulties in their lives; and, men who waste time and money with their buddies, drinking, gambling, and talking sports. Jason, you live in Chicago, for god’s sakes.
This is how the next to last sentence should read:
I don’t think “we Americas” would find infidelity, babies born out of wedlock but welcomed into families, men who left to find work, women who gossip and find solace in the shared difficulties in their lives; and, men who waste time and money with their buddies, drinking, gambling, and talking sports as “confusing or counter-intuitive to how we think of life.”