Peace Corps Writers — March 2005

Peace Corps Writers - Page 1: March 2005

    And Then Sarge Said to Me
    During some recent email exchanges with Geri Critchley (Senegal 1971–72) about her writing an essay for the Peace Corps Writers, she suggested she’d do a short piece on Sargent Shriver — a recollection she had of him from her Peace Corps years. I thought: Now there’s a great idea! Then expanding on the idea, I thought: Why doesn’t Peace Corps Writers collect stories from all the Volunteers and Peace Corps staff who knew Shriver during his Peace Corps years, and create a library of reminiscences of the great man himself under the caption, “And Then Sarge Said to Me.”
         So with that in mind, send me your fond or humorous recollections of the man who created the Peace Corps, and for whom we all have great affection. I’ll post your submissions on this site so we’ll have a digital archive of Shriver stories for generations to come.
         I ask only that your submission be short, (around 500 words) and that it have a beginning, middle, and end. Add your name and Peace Corps country and times of service, and perhaps one or two sentences about yourself. Send to: jpcoyne@peacecorpswriters.org

    Still Time to Nominate Your Favorite Book of ’04
    Books published in 2004 by a PCV, RPCV, or Peace Corps staff member are eligible. Please recommend your candidates for the following categories (you may nominate your own book):

    • Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
    • Maria Thomas Fiction Award
    • The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award (for best short description of the Peace Corps experience)
    • Award for Best Poetry Book
    • Award for Best Travel Writing
    • Award for Best Children’s Writing

    Once a book is nominated it does not have to be endlessly re-nominated by family, friends, and colleagues of the writers. Authors — and it always seems to be those who had their books published by a vanity press, i.e., P.O.D. (print-on-demand) — who email their friends (most of whom have not read the book) and asked them to nominate their book. One academic RPCV seems to have gotten everyone at his college to email me with a nomination for his book! While I have passed on all the nominations to the judges, I have told them to overlook such annoying self-promotion.
         Anyway . . . don’t be shy, but one nomination is sufficient. Many thanks to all the judges.

    In this issue —
    A new “Friendly Agent”

    Creative Media Agency in New York, traditionally an agency for women’s fiction and commercial fiction that boasts a list of award-winners and bestsellers, is now branching out to include writers of mainstream and literary fiction, as well as narrative and creative non-fiction.
         Lisa VanAuken, a relatively “new” agent at CMA, and our new “Friendly Agent,” is eager to take on both new and established writers who have distinctive stories to tell — particularly stories that bravely and honestly explore the truths of the human experience. RPCV writers will most likely have a special advantage in submitting to Lisa because she adores writing that is informed by a unique perspective.

    The Ides of March, March Madness, and More
    We are very pleased to be publishing five lovely, short poems about West Africa by Carrie Young (Mali 2000–01), an insightful and touching reminisce from Will Siegal (Ethiopia 1962–64) who recounts some of his adventures since leaving the Peace Corps, and from Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 1994–96), who wrote about Kyrgyzstan in light of the recent uprising there. All contributions are to be found in our “A Writer Writes” column.
         Legendary PCV/RPCV/and former Botswana Country Director, Maureen Carroll (Philippines 1961–63), remembers legendary early PC/W staffer, Coates Redmon, who wrote Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story. Coates’ book begins in true Coates style with this sentence: “I decided to write this book over poached salmon and a glass of white wine at the Jean-Pierre restaurant on K Street in Washington, D.C. April 1975.”
         For this issue Terez Rose (Gabon 1985–87) both interviewed Elizabeth Letts (Morocco 1983–86) and also reviewed her new book, Quality of Care, a novel that has been selected as an alternate selection for the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, and Rhapsody Book Club. The two women met on the Internet.
         Our “War and Peace Corps” essay comes from Charlie Ipcar (Ethiopia 1965–68) who explains how African amoebas kept him out of the war.
         Besides all that, we have 12 (a new record) reviews of new books , a listing of 18 recently published books, and in “Literary Type” news about RPCV writers from Honolulu to Lome to Beijing, and an announcement on a novel about “golfing with God.” The “Literary Type” column alone is worth the read, but it is the whole March issue, in our opinion, that is truly valuable, and I’m no April’s Fool. Click the mouse and you’ll see.

    — John Coyne
    Editor


Recent Books by Peace Corps Writers 3/2005

Creative Recycling
Handmade in Africa
(Photographic book)
by Jude Andreasen (Niger 1980–83, Zaire 1985–86, Mauritania 1986–87) and Cleve Overton
Xlibris
December 2004
80 pages
$26.99 (soft cover) $32.99 (hard cover)

Mother’s Pearls
The Revival of Parenthood
by Chava Dagan (Sri Lanka 1994–96)
Trafford
2004
171 pages
$16.99

Five Habits of High-Impact School Boards
by Douglas Eadie (Ethiopia 1964–67)
ScarecrowEducation
September 2004
136 pages
$19.95

High-Impact Governing in a Nutshell
17 Questions that Board Members and CEO's Frequently Ask
by Douglas Eadie (Ethiopia 1964–67)
American Society of Association Executives
119 pages
2004
$29.95

Writing the Journey
Essays, Stories, and Poems on Travel

edited by David Espey (Morocco 1962-64)
Longman
July, 2004
448 pages
$49.40

Me, May, Mary
by Mary Cameron Kilgour (Philippines 1962–64)
Child & Family Press
March 2005
192pages
$13.95

Final Exam
by P. F. Kluge (Micornesia 1967–69)
Gambier, Ohio: XOXOX Press
March 2005
252 pages
$14.95

Job Hunting Tips for People with Hot and Not-So-Hot Backgrounds
101 Smart Steps That Can Change Your Life
by Ron Krannich (Thailand 1967)
and Caryl Krannich
Impact Publications
February 2005
240 pages
$17.95

Breaking the Limit
One Woman's Motorcycle Journey Through North America
by Karen Larsen (Bulgaria 1996–98)
Hyperion
July 2004
383 pages
$23.95

The Manhattan Beach Project
A Novel
by Peter Lefcourt (Togo 1962–64)
Simon & Schuster
February 2005
352 pages
$24.00

Quality of Care
by Elizabeth Letts (Morocco 1983–86)
NAL Accent
March 2005
288 pages
$12.95

Hawaii Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture
edited by Victor H. Mair (Nepal 1965–67),
Nancy S. Steinhardt and Paul R. Goldin
University of Hawaii Press
March 2004
744 pages
$49.00

The Good Corporate Citizen:
A Practical Guide
by Doris Rubenstein (Ecuador 1971–73)
John Wiley & Sons
March 2004
216 pages
$39.95

The Biggest Soap
by Carole Lexa Schaefer (Micronesia 1967–69),
Stacey Dressen-McQueen (Illustrator)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
September 2004
32 pages
$16.00

Cool Time Song
by Carole Lexa Schaefer (Micronesia 1967–69),
Pierr Morgan (Illustrator)
Viking
March 2005
32 pages
$15.99

She Smiled Sweetly
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67)
Henry Holt and Co.
June 2004
288 pages
$25.00

Soul Inspired
(Novel)
by Mark Valle (Zimbabwe 1995–96)
Publish America
October 2004
215 pages
$19.95

Circles of Hope
by Karen Lynn Williams (Malawi 1980–83)
illustrated by Linda Saport
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
January 2005
32 pages
$16.00


Literary Type

The February 28th issue of The New Yorker published “Testing Ground” by George Packer (Togo 1982–84) about Iraq. Packer’s book on the Iraq war, The Assassin’s Gate will be published in the fall of this year.

The New York Times Book Review section on Sunday, February 27th, carried a long review of God Lives in St. Peterburg: and Other Stories by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996–97). Reviewer Pankaj Mishra summed up this first collection of stories by Bissell, “Bissell reveals himself to be not only a subtle craftsman but also a mordant observer of a new generation lost in a complex and dangerous world.”

Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93) won the 2004 George Garrett Prize in Short Fiction for his short story “An American Affair.” It will appear in a book that will be published by Texas Review Press later this year. The collection contains twelve stories, all but two published previously in literary magazines, and centers on relationships, often romantic, between people from the United States and people from Latin America. Several of the stories’ protagonists are Peace Corps Volunteers or former Peace Corps Volunteers. Brazaitis’ first short story collection, The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, won the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award. He has also published a novel, Steal My Heart, winner of Peace Corps Writers’ Maria Thomas Fiction Award in 2001.

Current PCV Liz Richardson who is now serving in Togo is the winner of the first Vanity Fair Essay Contest which asked readers to “explain the character of the American people to the rest of the world.” It was selected from over 4,000 essays entered in the contest.
     According to Liz, who was contacted by Peace Corps Writers in Lome, Togo, where she is a Health Volunteer, “I heard about the contest from my mother. She told me on a phone conversation last July, right before I headed up to IST (In-Service Training). On the whole, IST tends to drag, and I thought it seemed like a good way to spend the time that didn’t involve beer or complaining about having to be at IST. The subject of the essay was supposed to be: explain the character of the American people to the rest of the world, but I spent a good portion of the essay talking about Togo, about what it’s like being a Volunteer, since so much of my view of the United States is colored by my experiences here.”
     Her essay is entitled, “To Sleep, Perchance,” reflects on her time in the Peace Corps, her difficulty explaining the American character to the residents of the African village where she lives, and her personal impressions of who the typical American is and strives to be. Liz will receive a $15,000 prize, a Montblanc Meisterstück 149 fountain pen, and a week-long trip to the Santa Maddalena writers’ colony, in Tuscany.
     Liz is from North Carolina, and graduated from Wake Forest University with a degree in anthropology and French. This is her first published work and it appears in the April 2005 issue of Vanity Fair.

Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978–80) recently had his first story accepted by The Atlantic Monthly. The short story is entitled, “Weightligting for Catholics.” No publication date at the moment.

Reilly Ridgell’s (Micronesia 1971–1973) anthology of Micronesian Peace Corps Stories, Bending to the Trade Winds, is available again. The publisher, University of Guam Press, has ceased to function and the University has relinquished all remaining inventory to Ridgell. The book, first published in 1991, contains stories set in Chuuk in the early 1970s. It can now be obtained through Amazon.
     Meanwhile Ridgell’s textbook on the Pacific Islands, Pacific Nations and Territories, is being revised for a 4th edition to be released by the publisher, Bess Press of Honolulu, sometime this fall. The book has been in print since 1983.

The website PublishersLunch reports that Roland Merullo’s Golfing with God, a novel that blends philosophy, mysticism, and enchantment with golf instruction has been sold to Algonquin Press.

The New York Times Book Review section on Sunday March 13, 2005 carried a long piece “The World’s Biggest Book Market” on the China publishing scene written by Mike Meyer (China 1995–97). Meyer taught English in Sichuan Province while in the Peace Corps and now lives in Beijing. He is writing a book about the destruction of the ancient neighborhood where he lives. He is also studying Chinese literature and urban planning at Tsing Wah University. In his report on China’s publishing scene he writes, “Last year, a Chinese publisher offered to buy the rights to River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, by Peter Hessler (China 1996–98), a Beijing-based writer who contributes to The New Yorker. Hessler passed [on the offer] after learning that unspecified parts would be cut. ‘The point is to be honest to the people you write about,’ Hessler says. ‘It’s condescending to them to allow the material to get softened. I have faith that one day it will be translated directly.’” Meyer and Hessler served together in China.

In the same March 13th issue of The New York Times Book Section, The Manhattan Beach Project by Peter Lefcourt (Togo 1962-64) received a favorable review.

Richard Sitler (Jamaica 2000–02) has the cover photograph and other photos published in the spring 2005 issue of Glimpse Quarterly. The issue of Glimpse features the Caribbean and Sitler’s photographs document his time away from tourist destinations. His photos show Jamaicans of the village of Lluidas Vale in St. Catherine Parish, providing a stark juxtaposition to the image of Jamaica advertised in travel brochures.

A small item in the March 20th Style Section of The New York Times caught my eye. It was a short piece by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65) on how he never travels without a shortwave radio. “In 1963, when I began a stint in the Peace Corps in Africa, I bought my first shortwave; and over the years, as the radios have become smaller and more efficient, I have traded up.” Even today when he travels his only electronic indulgence is a shortwave radio. “It is,” Paul writes, “enlightenment, security and amusement.” Paul’s favorite shortwave is a Sony ICF-SWO7.

This Is Not Civilization, a novel by Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 1994–96) has just been
released in paperback by Mariner Books. Last year, the novel was a BookSense Pick, a Border's Original Voices Selection, and chosen as a #1 Staff Pick of the Year by Powells.com. It follows the efforts of a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, whose host family eventually follows him to Istanbul just before the 1999 earthquake. Rosenberg is scheduled to read at Powells Books, in Portland, on June 3rd. 

“Leviathan,” a short story by Cliff Garstang (Korea 1976–77) appeared in North Dakota Quarterly Vol. 71, No. 4 (Fall 2004), and another story of his, “Hand-painted Angel,” appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Bellowing Ark.

Peter McDonough (East Pakistan/Bangladesh 1961–63) and Professor Emeritus in Political Science at Arizona State University has an essay coming out in the spring issue of Studies in the Spirituality of the Jesuits, a quarterly published by the Seminar on Jesuit Spirituality. Each issue is taken up by one essay. The publication office is at the Institute of Jesuit Sources, headquartered at the prestigious Saint Louis University.


Talking with . . .

    Elizabeth Letts
    An interview by Terez Rose (Gabon 1985–87)

    We writers today live in a Brave New World, one where publishing has been synergized, conglomerated, mainstreamed and mass produced to an ever-dwindling readership. At the same time, it’s a world where an aspiring novelist can now email queries to his/her hit list of agents — found and researched online, receive quick replies and share the news moments later with a large group of sympathetic writers. Online forums are the perfect writers’ enclave — they ease solitude and allow you to connect and network with like-minded people at the click of a mouse. Best of all, you can wear your torn sweats and fuzzy slippers and no one will know. It was at one such writers’ forum that I met RPCV Elizabeth Letts (Morocco 1983 – 86) in the fall of 2003. She’d just sold her first novel and had signed a contract for the second. Through her, I’ve been able to vicariously experience the peaks and valleys of getting published in today’s competitive publishing climate.
         Quality of Care, Elizabeth’s debut novel, tells the story of an obstetrician who, unable to save the life of a childhood friend in an emergency, returns to the place of her past, commencing a journey of self-discovery and ultimate redemption. The novel, chosen as a featured alternate selection for Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club and Rhapsody Book Club, was also a pre-pub selection of the week at various public libraries and online book clubs. I got in touch with Elizabeth recently — via cyberspace, of course — to see if she could share some of her recent experiences.

    Elizabeth, let’s start with your Peace Corps days. Where were you posted and what did you do?
    I was in Morocco from 1983–1986. The first two years, I did TEFL, and the last year and a half, I worked for a project called The Morocco Literacy Project, which was a research project, jointly sponsored by Peace Corps and The University of Pennsylvania School of Education.

    What came next in your life?
    After Peace Corps, I continued with a Master’s and taught English as a Second Language for several years, primarily in community college. Then I had a complete about-face, attending the Yale School of Nursing, in a program for non-nurse college graduates that allowed me to complete an RN, Master’s Degree, and certification as a nurse-midwife.

    Did you do any writing while in the Peace Corps?
    Well, yes, and no. Part of my motivation to join the Peace Corps was the desire to broaden my experience in order to “find something to write about.” I packed a portable manual typewriter, and I did try to write . . . a lot of short fiction . . . but it was all terrible, and I just don’t think I was ready to write fiction then. The one really important thing I did do while I was in the Peace Corps was to read extensively — all the long boring books that you think you should read but never quite get around to doing. I’m so grateful for that time, and for the well-thumbed Peace Corps library of books that circulated from hand to hand throughout the country.

    On to your novel, Quality of Care. What inspired you to write it?
    When you deliver babies for a living, people often say what a happy job it must be, and the truth is, it is very happy almost all the time, but when it is sad it is absolutely devastating. Since babies don’t arrive during office hours, obstetricians are some of the most dedicated people in medicine. They give up nights and weekends and rarely get a full night’s sleep — but even so, more than half of all obstetricians have been sued for malpractice at least once in their careers. So I became interested in the psychology of that person.

    Which came first — the character of Clara, the storyline or the “big picture” theme?
    When writing Quality of Care, it was the situation, or premise that came first — it’s virtually impossible to work in obstetrics without thinking about the what-if possibility that something terrible might occur on your watch . . . so I think the premise was incredibly compelling. Then I thought about a real worst case scenario — what if that patient had a special relationship of trust with you? I knew before I started writing what the basic outlines of the plot would be, although I do not work from an outline. The characters emerge along with the writing, and the theme is something that I start to recognize as I’m deep into the story and I realize that I’ve used certain repeating motifs that I wasn’t consciously aware of at first. It is my goal that my stories be entertaining and quick to read, but that the reader is left with something to mull over afterwards as well.

    I certainly did my share of mulling after reading Quality of Care — about the capriciousness of life with its accidents and fate, as well as the more conscious choices we make and their consequences. What about you — what do you consider important motifs in the book?
    Several of the characters face situations that are beyond their control — Clara’s accident, Eleanor’s struggles with her daughter, Gordon’s tragic loss of his wife. When faced with the unpreventable and the inexplicable, what do you fall back on? But I didn’t want the story to be about a lawsuit, per se. To me, this book is primarily about Clara’s spiritual journey. But I was also interested in the role of the caregiver — you see a variety of ways of caring in the book — the self-sacrifice of the nurses, Clara’s incredible sense of duty — the way she believes that if she tries hard enough she can guarantee a perfect outcome every time. Gordon’s attempts to save his brain-damaged daughter. Eleanor’s tough love. Lydia’s belief that she was somehow fated to save Clara’s life. All of them were showing their care in the best way they knew how. So the question the book posits is — where is the line between caring for the people you love, or for whom you feel responsible, but still letting go and accepting the fact that you do not control their destinies? For Clara, it was her personal journey of discovery — what happens when you realize that all of your years of dedication and skill and training are still not going to save the day every time.

    Sounds like one of those lessons we all learned in the Peace Corps.
    Oh, definitely. We all join the Peace Corps with the assumption that we’re going for the express purpose of doing good. And we all discover over time that life is rarely as black and white as that. I like to believe that the intent to do good will triumph over time, but not without teaching us to be humble about it.

    So, you went from the Peace Corps and continuing to teach English as a second language, over to the health care/obstetrics field. When and why did you start writing novels?
    I started writing in July 2000 when my family was moving from New York to Pennsylvania. I was in between jobs for a while, and all of a sudden, it just hit me. I thought, I don’t want to be one of those people who dies thinking she has a novel in her. So, from one day to the next, I just started writing seriously. And once I got started, I worked like a demon.

    When and where do you write?
    As a working mother with three school-aged children, I have to grab time and make the most of it. Fortunately, my work schedule leaves me with some mornings free to write — my best time is when my kids are at school and the house is blissfully quiet and empty. But between sick kids and days off and half days and conference days (not to mention the evil vacations), well, the truth is I write any time I can, otherwise I’d never finish anything. As for location, I work at a desk in my dining room right next to the kitchen. People traipse in and out all the time. Kids interrupt me. The phone rings, or I run to the store to pick up a loaf of bread in the middle of a chapter. Virginia Woolf said that a woman writer needs “a room of one’s own” — I mean yes, it’d be nice, but a corner of the dining room will do in a pinch.

    What writers have had an influence on your writing? Any Peace Corps writers?
    I think of myself as following in the footsteps of women who write what is sometimes called “serious women’s fiction” . . . that is books that are thoughtful but also commercial — writers like Jane Hamilton, Sue Miller, Gail Godwin, Billie Letts, and Elizabeth Berg. As far as Peace Corps writers, I read Maria Thomas’s two wonderful books right when they were first published, and was heart-broken when I learned that her career had been cut short by an early death. I’m also a huge fan of Kent Haruf, and I enjoy George Packer’s work.

    You once mentioned meeting George Packer when you were both at Yale.
    Yes, he was a year ahead of me, and we were in the same creative writing class — I believe it was a course taught by Thomas Berger. Although I didn’t know George well, I knew he was going into the Peace Corps and was interested in writing, so he was a bit of a role model. I especially like some of his pieces in The New Yorker. He published a recent piece about Iraqi immigrants who lived in Athens during the Olympics, and I swear only a RPCV could have written with that much insight and compassion.

    Have you written anything about your Peace Corps experience? Do you see it happening in the future?
    So far, I haven’t. I read a very interesting interview with Anita Shreve, who spent some time working in Africa as a journalist. She didn’t set any of her books there until her seventh or eighth book, and she said that she just didn’t feel adequate to the task until then. I tried for a very long time to write about Morocco, but I think I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I didn’t feel I could reduce it to words. But I do very much hope to write something about my experiences there at some point, and I do have a partial memoir in a drawer that I pull out from time to time. The one thing I’ve written that is set in Morocco is a children’s picture book called The Butter Man, due out from Charlesbridge Publishers in 2007. The story is set in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains, where my husband grew up, and is based on a story that he told me from his childhood, and so we are publishing it as co-authors.

    How did you go about getting an agent? How many queries did you send out? Any advice to those just starting out their search?
    I did not use any kind of intelligent or systematic method to query agents — I don’t remember exactly how many I queried. I think it may have been around fifteen or so, names pulled from Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide. If I were giving someone advice now, I would suggest a more systematic approach, and I would also encourage anyone to be confident about the process. When you are brand new to writing, you will hear a lot about how tough it is to get an agent. That is true, to a point, but if you have a viable project you should be able to get an agent just by writing query letters and following the standard protocols. It is not necessary to have insider connections or anything like that.

    And what about publishers?
    My agent decided which publishing houses to submit to, and I must say that working with NAL/Penguin has been absolutely wonderful.

    How does one go about getting chosen as an alternate selection for the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club and Rhapsody Book Club? Your novel, I noticed, was also chosen by DearReader.com to be a pre-pub selection of the week, prompting a few public libraries and other online book clubs to follow suit. Was all this your agent’s work, or NAL’s distribution of advance reader copies?
    To tell the truth, I have no idea. Book club rights are part of the subsidiary rights that belong to the publisher (like large print, audio, etc...) I’m assuming someone sent my galleys to the book clubs and that’s how I got picked, but I really don’t know. I’ve been told it’s considered quite a coup to be picked for several different clubs — I think my book can crossover to different groups of readers. It’s a true mainstream book. As far as the online book club . . . I thought that was a really neat thing. I really support what they do — sending out short excerpts of books to people via email so people are exposed to new books and authors. It’s a service to readers and libraries, as well as the authors, because it entices people to read, and the online book club — DearReader.com — is free of charge.

    How did you “learn” how to write a novel? Any classes/courses?
    I did take some creative writing classes in college, like the one I mentioned, but in retrospect, I don’t think they helped me very much. People are different, and some seem to benefit from explicit instruction, but I’m more the intuitive type, and thinking too much about the process tends to make me self-conscious. But I have always been a voracious reader, and I think that’s how I learned to write a novel. When I sat down to write, I just wrote. When I got stuck, I pulled novels off my shelf and tried to figure out how other writers had done it. I avoided “how-to” writing books as well. Sometimes I worry that if I get too technical about how I do what I do that I won’t be able to do it anymore.

    I’ve found Backspace,* our online writers’ forum, to be a valuable source of writers’ information and camaraderie. How about you?
    I’m surprised at the extent to which the Internet writing community has been helpful to me. I was someone who really looked askance at the Internet, but writers are so isolated that it allows us to make friends, and to swap information which helps us make better decisions. Up through the time I sold my novel, I didn’t know any other writers — I had one friend who was a “writing buddy” but she was as new to the process as I was. Now I have a number of writer friends, and I’ve met many of them through Backspace (www.bksp.org). You really don’t need connections to get an agent, but once you’re at the agented stage it is extremely helpful to be able to compare notes with other people who are going through the same thing.

    What, for you, is the toughest aspect of writing?
    I think the most difficult aspect of writing for me is to stop writing — to get the characters and their story out of my head and to come back to the present. I do a lot of thinking about the story at odd moments, when I’m washing dishes, or driving the car pool. I get totally distracted, drive past my exit or something like that. Then my kids always yell, “Snap out of it, Mom.”

    And the most rewarding?
    The most rewarding part, by far, is in the telling itself, of setting out to tell a story and knowing that I got to the end.

    You’ve just submitted a second novel to NAL. What’s next for you?
    My second novel, tentatively titled Family Planning, is currently in the editing stages and is due out from NAL sometime next year. I’m also in the development stage for ideas for my third novel, and am working on a children’s middle grade reader set in Morocco.

    Well, thanks for all this great information Elizabeth, and I’ll see you over at Backspace. I’ll be the one wearing the fuzzy slippers.
    Thanks, Terez. Tell people to come say hi at www.ElizabethLetts.com as well.

    * Backspace — www.bksp.org — an Internet-based writers' site, hosts discussion forums, a guest speaker program in which agents, acquisitions editors, and bestselling authors conduct online question and answer sessions with the group, and offers articles and advice from agents and other publishing professionals on its homepages. Backspace has attracted the support and participation of many best-selling authors and top publishing professionals, and was recently named one of Writer's Digests "101 Best Websites for Writers."


Review

Burn
by Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91)
Elixir Press
January 2005
79 pages
$14.00

Reviewed by John Isles (Estonia 1992-94)

WHEN THE TV NEWS COMES ON I often feel overwhelmed by the barrage of reportage. It seems nearly impossible to have complete empathy with the inmate on death row, the awe and wonder of the astronaut, or the depth of grief a 9/11widow feels. D.H. Lawrence’s “we know too much and feel too little” applies today more than ever; it is exactly what makes war possible. Sandra Meek’s latest book of poems, Burn, pulls together the disparate events of modern life and connects childhood and old age, technology and terrorism, and the minutest details of a life alongside the immensity of the cosmos. What is simultaneously disturbing and reassuring about the poems is that Meek identifies both the heights and depths of human existence as divine burning; the poet’s job, she teaches us, is to seize the fire.
     The poems in Burn are often evocative of a Robert Rauschenberg collage such as Tracer where Vietnam era helicopters appear next to a classic nude, an American eagle and a 60s era car and trailer. The trick is to connect things that don’t seem connected. The book’s title poem, for example, begins with an image of burnt skin peeling, then shifts to a magnet, an Apollo spacecraft, and finally refocuses on the initial burnt skin image to reveal first-graders peeling dried glue from their hands. It happens so fast that only the poem gives a clear sense:

    Recovering, my hand peels
    translucent flags, tags of rice paper, wherever the magnet
    pulls the compass is
    true north, a particular
    unraveling: 1969, the television flickering its aquarium astronaut
    cradled in static as we first graders poured glue
    into our hands, opaque pools slowly abandoning
    layers of the visible for leavings
    of rubbery crystal, milk drained away . . .

     The unraveling of the glue and the unraveling of the disparate events in the poem are “particular” and “true north.” In other words, there is direction and random events are mysteriously connected. The peeled glue becomes a flag, an allusion to the conquest of the moon with the American flag, and morphs into rice paper and the possibility for writing. The transformation is the work of the imagination pulled by the necessity of living — and burning. By the poem’s end Meek compares the dried glue to cosmic dust and senses her whole life in the lifelines. Uncannily “Burn” reminds us that Genesis was broadcast from one Apollo and conflates the transgression of the garden with the first-graders rewriting the imagined events along lifelines: “[We revised] the cratered lake/to skateable surface, perfect with speed/ of not /looking down, untouched/ galaxy -swirls of fingerprints one more/ sacred transgression.” It’s as if to say, we are all burning, sloughing off skin as we age, writing our own Genesis as we go, one skin and one page at a time.
     “Ground zero” becomes a central motif in the book that has the weight of Emily Dickinson’s “zero at the bone,” death and the unknown. Few writers have been brave enough to address 9/11 in a poem, for obvious reasons, yet Meek situates some of the most devastating events in recent history in the context of burning and holiness. “Stay (1/1/00)” fuses fireworks , topiary, and doves in an apocalyptic poem that largely concerns itself with the stay of execution for a death row inmate:

    For doves let off among fireworks
    shot over Holy City midnight, freedom
    ended as disaster: What tames wild greenery to topiary
    unclipped their wings, sent them
    crashing together. It must have seemed apocalypse, sky
    ripped in two…

The energy of the stanza comes with the morphing from line to line of freedom which ends and sky which is ripped; each is momentarily a banner of hope, each is subverted in the enjambed lines. “Holy City midnight” is both a place and a time. It is the witching hour where one hopes for “fairy tale interventions” of terrorists and of the death sentence; however, “The masked guest never arrives.” End of the world, end for the inmate and for the doves; — it is all burning, our sure progress toward death. “On the Modification of Clouds” examines 9/11 even more directly:

    Two columns of air
    still the city’s tallest structure, weeks later, smoke
    still rising, penciled, as it were, onto the sky —

     It was said that after Auschwitz poetry would not be possible, and I think many Americans feel this way about 9/11. Any attempt to capture that event seems likely to fail, but there is a clear restraint in the Sandra Meek’s work and an earnest attempt to ask the questions that all of us need to ask: why? what is it all for? Additionally, the fact that Meek describes the towers as clouds (the negative that stands in their absence) locates disaster in larger a context where human nature collides with the natural world, where “. . . cirrus, cumulus, stratus, nimbus: where/ is it written, the taxonomy/ for Paradise, language made universal by its dying.” There’s no blame and no patriotism. Us and them becomes earth and sky in the end. There are no easy answers, only “your own broken face, aqueous/ atmosphere, air weighted by the absence/ of wings.”
     While reading “A Short History of Flight,” my first instinct was too skip to find sections actually written by the poet herself. This reaction is largely due to the collage format of the poem which splices in texts from Orville Wright, John Glenn, and several other commentators. I realized after a couple of readings that Meek converses with the texts and inserts her own slant of light into each:

    To go on a cosmic journey, one must leave the planet earth far behind . . . .
    The only change to the delicate blue-and white pattern is an occasional small yellow orange shape, a desert . . . but which one, the Sahara in Africa, the Gobi in Asia, or the great sandy desert in Australia?
    —Alan Bean, Apollo: An Eyewitness Account
    In one desert a woman anchored string to her ankle
    and walked foundations into sand. So the body’s circling
    becomes home.

     There is much like this: ambitious interactions with found texts that force one to think about sources as farflung as A Book of the Campfire Girls and A Citizen’s Handbook. The poem equates humankind’s desire to fly with its Promethean desire for fire, and with all its ambition it is a demanding poem, yet one that is clearly worth a great deal of effort.
     Burn lands squarely on its feet with the closing poem, “Aftermath,” which it seems we are all living in now. It begins, “In the beginning, blue light” to remind us of the cyclical nature of stories. Genesis becomes the story of a person dying of cancer, a personal ground zero. Some of Meek’s most emotive lines comes with the unleashing of the “I” which previously had been used sparingly: “I don’t want to join her/ in the uprooted garden, unnaming the animals” and later “I held your remembered/ breath in my hair, my/ unreeling name —// postponing arrival, all the way down.” The public narrative of 9/11 and the apocalyptic fears of the New Millennium are incorporated with a private narrative of death and separation. Sandra Meek has shorn up her fragments against her ruins in Burn and so can all who pick up this book and read.

John Isles is the author of Ark, a collection of poems out from the University of Iowa Press (2003). His poems have appeared in many journals and are forthcoming in Boston Review, Colorado Review, and Electronic Poetry Review. He was recently awarded a 2005 NEA fellowship and the Ruskin Art Club Prize from The Los Angeles Review.


Review

The Bush Survival Bible
250 Ways to Make It Through the Next Four Years without Misunderestimating the Dangers Ahead, and Other Subliminable Stategeries
by Gene Stone (Niger 1974–76)
Villard Books
November 2004
121 pages
$9.99

    Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–65)

    IN THE WEEK BEFOR THE 2004 presidential election, author Gene Stone composed The Bush Survival Bible by combining his own lists with contributions from friends in public life, education, and writing. To sweeten the blend, Stone includes a few well-traveled Bush jokes and Bushisms as sidebars.
         The book is presented as therapy for depressed Democrats who suffer from “postelection stress disorder.” That alone sets the mixed mood of the book. Democrats are suffering, but many are still in denial. To overcome this stagnation, Stone offers both humorous and serious advice.
         Some sections are corny and fun; check out “13 Ways to Pass as a Republican” or “6 Reasons to Love Global Warming.” Other sections are somber and chilling. In “7 American Politicians More Frightening Than Bush,” Stone passes up the opportunity for comedy, choosing instead to describe genuine right-wing ideologues. They include Richard Barrett (founder of the Nationalist Movement, a white supremacist organization), Alan Keys, Haley Barbour (Mississippi governor with ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens, another white supremacist group), David Duke, Tom Parker (Republican candidate for Alabama’s Supreme Court), Patrick Johnston (a Constitution Party spokesperson who seeks to criminalize homosexuality), and Tom Delay, R-Texas.
         For desperate Democrats who must escape the gallery of right-wing extremists altogether, Stone presents guidelines for settling in countries with “a Bush-free environment.” They include France, Canada, Spain, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Iceland, and Pitcairn Island (not recommended).
         To reduce the impact of the 2004 election, Democrats might begin with “9 New Drinks to Get You By” and imbibe the night away with a “Bloody Mary Cheney,” a “Tom Ridge Collins,” an “Old-Fashioned Family Values,” and a “Banana Swift Boat.” Democrats still standing after all nine drinks can debate substitutes for the “9 People Worse Than Bush” list. The competition is a veritable monster hall of fame, with figures such as Tomas de Torquemada (Spanish inquisitor-general), Vlad Tepes, (of the Dracula legend), Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Genghis Khan.
         Stone balances waves of hyperbole with practical lists on how to cope with electoral defeat. His serious advice involves nurturing one’s mental and physical health, rejecting the politics of fear, and participating in local politics.
         Democrats dedicated to defeating Republicans might turn to editor/author Kurt Andersen’s contribution, “7 Media Habits of Highly Effective People Who Aren’t Republicans.” He suggests that Democrats should “Watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart every night” and “Read anything Jim Fallows [Atlantic Monthly national correspondent] writes about the administration.” Andersen’s most vital advice, however, is to “Avoid the left-wing opinion-silo syndrome.” By this, Andersen is suggesting that Democrats absorb the writings of “intelligent, disillusioned, hawkish anti-Bushites like Paul Berman in Slate and The American Prospect, Andrew Sullivan at andrewsullivan.com, and Mickey Kaus at kausfiles.com.”
         One section that all Bush critics can convert into a nightly game, while sipping “Old-Fashioned Family Values” at the corner tavern, incorporates an observation from author Nick Morgan in a section titled, “1 Way to Tell If Bush Is Lying.” Most Democrats are old hands at this, but just in case, Stone says to watch Bush’s eyes. “[Morgan] says that when Bush lies, his eyes dart quickly from side to side. ‘The moment I [Morgan] saw this was when he said that he wanted peace with Iraq and that he would seek out every possible avenue for peace. I knew then that the war was a done deal.’”
         Stone’s prescription for Democrats is to take the medicine of defeat with a spoonful of laughs. However, if “postelection stress disorder” does not improve in a couple of days, then I recommend the radical procedure of giving copies of The Bush Survival Bible to Republican friends.

    Tony Zurlo’s poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in more than sixty-five journals, magazines, and anthologies. He has also published non-fiction books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, and Algeria. Currently he is working on a book about Malaysia. Tony lives in Arlington, Texas.


Review

The Captured
A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier

by Scott Zesch (Kenya 1982–84)
St. Martin’s Press
November 2004
362 pages
$26.95

    Reviewed by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64)

    THE PEACE CORPS WAS SEEN by its founders as an actual development agency — a potentially large (25,000 Volunteers perhaps) and an important one. In 1961 no one involved in the start-up of the Peace Corps would have thought that by late 2004 a fine new book by Scott Zesch (Kenya 1982–84) about nine German-American children snatched from the Texas Hill Country by Comanche and Apache warriors between 1865 and 1871, would finally bring Peace Corps’ Third Goal full-circle, and home.
         What is really neat is that this RPCV book isn’t about Zesch falling in with foreign natives while asking not. It tells what happened in old Comanche country when he accidentally discovers a faded tombstone with his name all over it. We learn in sometimes harrowing detail what happened to his Great Uncle Adolph Korn when he was kidnapped by Apaches while herding sheep for a neighboring farm on January 1, 1870. After a few days Adolph was traded to a “bellicose” band of Comanches for a sorrel horse, a pistol, and a blanket. After proving his mettle in several trials, Adolph then lived with them as a plains horse Indian for twenty-some months. That’s just one story. There are many more.
         Discovering his great uncle’s lost gravesite, Zesch follows a trail back to a time on the Texas frontier where roaming bands of Indians were losing land to his immigrant German ancestors. The Indians, for their part, abducted the German children for political and financial ransom, and to replenish their diminishing ranks of warriors. “After an apprenticeship of merely nine months," writes Zesch, "the fourteen-year-old white boy had developed a taste for raids and battles.”
         So Zesch, in The Captured, has done for abducted, stolen white kids and their Indian host country nationals (HCNs) what a thousand or so Peace Corps writers have done for the Third World: contribute to the education of America.
         Oklahoma readers of this book will know that if they find themselves standing in line at Wal-Mart behind a big red guy with black braids, that he comes from a culture that once-upon-a-time hands-down, in head-to-head, one-on-one competition, beat ours. For, as Zesch writes, “Captivity had clearly been the high point of their lives, a part of them would always belong on the other side.” This book is a humbling read.
         Zesch catches up with his Great Uncle Adolph Korn’s Indians in the same moment as we 1960s Volunteers found Africa: a colonized, rapidly westernizing culture slowly falling to pieces in, as anthropologists coldly define it, a “cultural interpenetration zone.” But because he is a thorough and scholarly researcher, Zesch also entered — as far as now possible from this remove — Adolph’s cultural and psychological mazeway: an individual’s own complex mental image of nature, society, culture, personality, and body image. From the books, court house records, libraries, and family memories, concluding with a visit to the Comanche Reservation in Oklahoma to get a reading on his research which, in fact, held up to elders’ memories and oral traditions. Out of all of this, Zesch pulled six persisting features about the white Indians after their Indian wars were over and they returned home:

    • They couldn’t stay cooped up indoors.
    • They couldn’t settle in one place.
    • They couldn’t hold a regular job.
    • They couldn’t stay married.
    • Consciously or not, they held fast to their Native American teaching.
    • Eventually, some of them drifted back to the Indians.

         Sound like any RPCV we have known?
         I have only two quibbles with the book. First, let’s call them Indians, not Native Americans. (Indians call themselves In-din.) Covering all bases, several times Zesch uses both terms in the same sentence.
         Secondly, the final chapter wherein Zesch visits the actual scene of Great Uncle Korn’s capture by the Apaches 133 years ago, is disappointing to even him. He drives to the bleak, nondescript place in Mason County on the banks of the Llano River where family memory tells him the incident took place. One suspects Zesch was himself looking for that transfiguring moment when the shade of Adolph — this poor kid who later spent years estranged from his embarrassed family, reverting to his Comanche ways and living as a hermit in a cave in the hills near where he grew up — would somehow come to him, make himself felt. It is a let down.
         As Cayuse Indian horse elders say, “Want to In-din-up? Get on a horse.” What Zesch should have done at this moment was follow his own tracks back to where he himself grew up, a cattle ranch not far away where, as a kid, he rode his own horse past old Indian camps, finding arrowheads, cave paintings and such. These white kids had not become mere Indians. They had become horse warriors, a breed apart and that’s why they never settled down. His Great Uncle Adolph Korn became a “daredevil, juvenile horse thief who wasn’t content to play it safe if he could set off a hair-raising chase or a little gunplay. He rode their best mounts; he was sent on reconnaissance missions; he even commanded a band of Comanches in battle.”
         Find Adolph? Hell, Scott, you should have just gone home, saddled up, checked the cinch, and then took off at a flat-out, hell-bent-for-leather gallop. And like a long ago Plateau Indian, singing out: “My horse is swifter than the shooting star, he can outstrip the wind.” Your uncle, young Adolph Korn (1859–1900), would have been right there — stirrup to stirrup — grinning and whooping it up!

    A horseman, Tom Hebert lives on the Umatilla Indian Reservation just outside Pendleton, Oregon where he is consultant to the Confederated Tribes (the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla) on tribal cultural affairs including a horse program. He can be reached at: tlhmavrick@uci.net


Review

Clearing Customs
by Martha J. Egan (Venezuela 1967–69)
Papalote Press
February 2005
382 pages
$24.95

    Reviewed by Brian Kane (Honduras 1994–96)

    ALMOST TEN YEARS AGO I am sure I looked like a lot Volunteers on their way home from Peace Corps service in Central America: unshaven, scraggly pants nearly falling off, too many necklaces and bracelets for a normal citizen, and three huge duffel bags filled with trinkets from being abroad for over two years. So I was not all that surprised when I was singled out of line and forced to open all my bags for a Customs agent. What did surprise me was that as I finally zipped up the last of my searched bags and started towards my connecting flight, I got no more than twenty yards before I was stopped again by a different agent, who, even though he had seen me get searched earlier, still insisted that I go through the whole routine again. When I protested that it had just been done, he took his time probably hoping that I would miss my flight. Thanks to a flight delay I did not miss that connection but the flight home would have been a perfect time to read Martha Egan’s first novel, Clearing Customs.
         The story begins with the main character, Beverly Parmentier, being singled out and harassed by Customs agents while coming home from a vacation in Mexico. The agents continue their invasion of her privacy for over a year and almost on a daily basis. Beverly is one of the most likable characters you will find in a novel. Self-described as “short, fusby, and forty two”, she is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Colombia who served in the late 1960s. She still carries that period’s idealism with her, so she starts a small struggling import store of Latin America folk art in the Old Town section of Albuquerque, New Mexico. She sees the store as her “personal foreign aid program between hardworking Latin America artisan families and her customers.” Her quirky characteristics and modesty make you root for her from the very opening pages.
         The goliaths in the story are the tax-supported thugs known as Customs agents who have declared a subversive war on small importers like Beverly. The novel takes place in the late 1980s when President Reagan has just passed the Cultural Patrimony Initiative, which allows the government to hassle importers about national treasures such as pre-Colombian art. Due to her innocence, Beverly is confused about why she is caught in the crossfire of the aptly named “Operation Pillage.” She first notices her phones being tapped, strange people following her, and even witnesses harassment of her friends and colleagues. We follow Beverly on her trips to get away from it all. The agents, however, are persistent and secretly follow Beverly on a weeklong rafting trip with her friends down the Yampa River, on a visit to her hometown on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to attend a family funeral, and even on her solitary vacation to St. Bart’s.
         The author, Martha Egan, is also a small importer who has had her problems with Customs over the years. Egan appears to have revenge in mind by writing the book, but the vengeance seems to have skewed the character descriptions for half the people in the novel. Almost all the Customs agents are one-dimensional characters that seem to all have buzz cuts, muscular features, and are just not very bright. The one agent that receives lengthy descriptions is the main nemesis and leader of Operation Pillage. He, however, is described as ugly with little pig eyes, having an explosive temper, being rude to all women while also sexually confused, and even has ties to Nazism. The hapless Customs agents are painted with such negativity that it even provokes the reader to feel sorry for them. These descriptions were more glaring since they were juxtaposed with Beverly and her friends and colleagues who all seemed like wonderful down-to-earth idealists who love life.
         While the bad guys may not have a lot of character description, Egan does a wonderful job describing certain places. Descriptions of the changing color of a New Mexican sky, or of wildlife behavior on the river, and even of the detailed colors and trappings of a typical Mexican restaurant illustrate the settings and bring the story to life so that you can see yourself in the narrative. I imagine her attention to detail comes from writing two acclaimed books about Latin America decorative art, Milagros: Votive Offerings from the Americas (Museum of New Mexico Press, 1991), and Relicarios: Devotional Miniatures from the Americas (Museum of New Mexico Press, 1993).
         While a less conventional plot and more subtlety between the characters may have helped, the novel contains suspense and the feeling of pulling for the underdog. For those who think that government officials have distorted their commitment to the larger public good, Egan provides ample ammunition for such reasoning. I recommend the book to all, but do not recommend bringing it with you on international flights where you may be stopped by Customs agents!

    Brian Kane was a Small Business Volunteer in Honduras from 1994- 96. He is the Assistant Director for Admissions at The New School and has just received an M.S. in Nonprofit Management from the New School’s Robert J. Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy.


Review

Final Exam
by P. F. Kluge (Micornesia 1967–69)
Gambier, Ohio: XOXOX Press
March 2005
252 pages
$14.95

    Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)

    WITH A SERIAL KILLER on the loose at a small liberal arts college in Ohio, it isn’t only the students and faculty who are in danger. It’s the college itself.
         The question hanging over P.F. Kluge’s entertaining new novel is this: Who will go down first — the killer or the college?
         Kluge’s plot doesn’t seem at all implausible. How many murders would have to take place before parents began pulling their children from an isolated, rural college, no matter what its academic reputation? Ivy-covered walls may be appealing, but not if a murderer could be lurking behind them. Better to ship Junior off to a community college and have him home by six every night.
         And, as in Kluge’s novel, the list of suspects would inevitably be long — from disgruntled ex-professors to admissions personnel from a rival school competing each year with greater desperation for fickle students.
         The campus of what is certainly Kenyon College, Kluge’s alma mater and the place he teaches now, shakes after a professor is murdered. It trembles to its core after a pair of students are killed. Will one more murder be the tipping point?
         In the meantime, the college tries to solve the case with a less-than-crack investigative team, one of whose members, Billy Hoover, helps narrate the book. (The other narrators are the college’s president, Warren Niles, and one of its creative writing teachers, Mark May.) Each member of the team — indeed, everyone on campus — has an opinion about who the murderer might be. But prejudices cloud clear thinking, and midway through the novel the murders are as big a mystery as always.
         And then someone else — a prospective student, no less — is killed.
         Kluge does a fine job of keeping the plot moving even though it becomes clear early in the novel that he has another agenda besides spinning a good, old-fashioned mystery. Kluge is interested in the way colleges work, or don’t work, these days. So via his characters, he editorializes about the value of everything from creative writing workshops to college fundraising to tenure. Most of this is entertaining; it will be especially entertaining for readers in academia. (Kluge has traveled this territory before. He wrote a nonfiction account of a year-in-the-life of Kenyon College in 1995. Called Alma Mater: A College Homecoming, it contains no serial killer.)
         Final Exam isn’t, alas, flawless. Although Kluge’s three narrators offer different perspectives on the same crimes (and the same endangered college), they sound similar. Billy Hoover, who isn’t a college graduate, is as introspective and intelligent as the college’s president. He’s also the best storyteller of the bunch. Perhaps Kluge is making a point about the arbitrary hierarchy on a college campus, as well as the facility of an un-workshopped storyteller, but I suspect he was busy concentrating on other matters — his plot, his wry observations on college life — and allowed one narrator’s voice to blend with the others.
         He also allows an opportunity slip when, after bringing in Lisa as a love interest for Billy, he exiles her for what feels like a hundred pages.
         In addition, I’m not sure Kluge anticipated to what extent his college would go to protect itself against future murders. If establishing its own Department of Homeland Security would be too expensive, the college might at least have thrown up a barbed-wire fence and employed its own version of the Guardian Angels.
         These are minor complaints. Overall, Kluge’s novel is a fun read, with some serious — and, even more entertaining, frivolous — points to make about academia. Kluge seems to dare readers to transfer what Warren Niles says about another book — “[it] fell apart after a promising start, ending in unbelievable contrivances” — to Final Exam. But Final Exam is better than that. Indeed, it passes the test.

    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. His new collection of stories, An American Affair, won the George Garrett Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from Texas Review Press later this year. Brazaitis is an assistant professor of English at West Virginia University.


Review

Journeys
A Novel of Iran
by Jennifer B-C Seaver (Iran 1966–68)
iUniverse
2004
215 pages
$15.95

    THIS NOVEL HAS EVERYTHING a simple story should have: characters, setting and plot development. However, what I value in Journeys: A Novel of Iran is the close-up view of 1966 Iran, its land and politics. The story also provides interesting details about Peace Corps policy in the 1960s.
         Journeys relates the story of a young Peace Corps Volunteer during her first three months in Rasht, Iran in 1966. Author Seaver traces the growing maturity of young Sherrie Hancock from Hartford, Connecticut as she adjusts to a new life: freedom from a stale relationship in the United States, teaching EFL, and fitting in with Iran’s complex social system. Sherrie enters the country just as summer vacation begins and succeeds in balancing her relationships with her roommate and fellow PCVs with calmness and the determination to succeed. She also obeys the Corps command to spend the rest of the summer productively, offering an arts & crafts/sports camp to children in Rasht and volunteering at an orphanage. There is a romantic development, too. In the end, Sherrie adapts well, as we knew she would.
         Rasht is located in Gilan, a provincial capital in northern Iran. It is in a subtropical zone on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. The Peace Corps Volunteers complain about the heat and dryness in Rasht. Twice in the course of the novel, they are invited to prettier spots: Ramsar, site of a French-built dam, and Massoleh, an ancient traditional city, built house-upon-house on a mountainside. These locales suggested many more intriguing spots in Iran, and Seaver’s descriptions piqued my interest in seeing the country.
         The social and political backdrop of Iran impressed me as most different from my Volunteer experience in Gabon in the early 1980s. A short summary of the political scene at the time, with information provided by the author and the most recent issue of Smithsonian (March 2005), may help the reader understand events in the novel better: In 1941, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi succeeded his father as Shah of Iran. A decade later, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry. In a CIA/British-backed coup two years later, the Mossadegh government was toppled and Mohammed Reza, who had lived in exile, returned to power. Over the next 30 years, the Shah consolidated his power with the help of oil revenues. His “White Revolution” modernization campaign, begun in 1963, instituted land reform, women’s suffrage and the Health and Literacy Corps. The Peace Corps was invited back into the country. However, opponents were repressed, and in 1979, the Shah ceded the throne again, forced by an opposition lead by clerics and merchants. In Journeys, “SAVEK” police are omnipresent, on the alert for radical talk and unseemly behavior. Females cannot walk on the street alone, and one young Volunteer is denounced by a priest for her immodest Western ways. Peace Corps workers are up against dual goals: implementing modernization and preserving the traditional Iranian way of life. B-C Seaver conveys this atmosphere of a country at a crossroads effectively.
         In 1966, Peace Corps policy was quite different from the way it was in the early 1980s. Volunteers submitted monthly reports to staff in Teheran. “We were supposed to show that we were always doing something,” Seaver adds. Pre-service preparation included physical training: Volunteers rose at 6 a.m. for a half hour of exercises every morning. As for vacation allowances Seaver says, “We had numerous days off because Iran follows the Shi’ite Islamic calendar.” Now Ruz — New Year’s (March 21) — lasts about two weeks. Schools are closed and many businesses shut down. We also took one month of international leave in our second year of service.” The Peace Corps ethic of the time infuses the Volunteers’ consciousness: “Serve.” Resentment among the Volunteers occasionally erupts. To ensure that trainees fit the desired psychological profile, there was a staff psychologist who met individually with each trainee several times during the training period, offering the option of “self-deselection.”
         Seaver writes, “In October 2002, I returned to Iran with a group of returned Volunteers traveling under the auspices of Friendship Force International (a Carter Center initiative) and the National Peace Corps Association. Most of us served in Iran during the sixties and seventies. We were generally encouraged by the changes we saw in (a) the Volunteer selection process, (b) in-country orientation and training programs, (c) opportunities to learn more about the country before accepting an assignment, and (d) ability to keep in touch while abroad through the Internet and e-mail. I am currently working on a sequel to Journeys.”

    Darcy Meijer was an EFL teacher with the Peace Corps in Gabon, Central Africa, from 1982-1984. She has been teaching English composition and ESL since then.
    Darcy is also the Editor of the Gabon Letter, the quarterly newsletter of the Friends of Gabon.


Review

Quality of Care
by Elizabeth Letts (Morocco 1983–86)
NAL Accent
March 2005
288 pages
$12.95

Reviewed by Terez Rose (Gabon 1985–87)

    Quality of Care, Elizabeth Letts’ debut novel, should come with a warning: do not attempt to begin this novel prior to undertaking an important task. I brought the book home one evening, opened it to the first page and stood reading for five minutes, coat still on, dinner unprepared. Then I sat and read until my son came in and asked if I was going to make his dinner since it was past eight-thirty.
         Letts takes an irresistible premise — what happens when you are unable to save the life of the person who saved yours? — and delivers a riveting, fast-paced story with compelling characters and polished, highly-charged writing.
         Clara Raymond is an obstetrician. One night a pregnant woman arrives at her labor and delivery clinic with minor complaints. The woman turns out to be Lydia, a childhood friend who once saved Clara’s life in a horseback riding accident. Their reunion, however, ends in unspeakable tragedy, with the ensuing days a distorted echo of Clara’s unresolved past. Temporarily suspended from her practice, Clara decides to return to the root cause of the pain in her life — the place of her childhood, and the haunting events she’s tried to put behind her.
         When Clara arrives at an estate in the coastal California community where she grew up, its dressage facility throws her back immediately into the world of competitive horse riding. The owner of the property is wealthy Eleanor Prescott Norton, the dressage judge who disqualified Clara from a pre-Olympic equestrian trial competition when she was fifteen. Eleanor is also the chairman of the hospital board of trustees who contributed to Clara’s father’s professional downfall. Eleanor mistakes Clara for a stable hand applicant and offers her work. When Clara catches a glimpse of a dressage horse named Benedetto, reminiscent of the beloved horse she once owned, she decides to stay for a few days.
         Clara’s pain and confusion over Lydia’s death are further complicated by the fact that Lydia’s grieving husband is Clara’s first love, as well. Gordon — orphaned at nineteen, charismatic yet adrift at the university they both attended, who alone could understand her silent grief, and she, his. A local memorial service for Lydia has now brought him back. Will their sorrow, loneliness and electric attraction once again draw them together?
         Quality of Care weaves a tapestry of past and present, accident and fate, choices made and their consequences. Is Clara willing to hear what Eleanor knows about Clara’s deceased father’s demise? Is Eleanor as cold-hearted as she appears, or does she care that Clara’s fellow stable hand, a teenager named Jazmyn, is heavily pregnant, her health and security at risk? The story asks the question, “Where is the line between trying to help the people you love, and letting them go to act out their own destinies?”
         Letts, a practicing certified nurse-midwife has a keen eye for detail — both technical and physical. Her knowledge of horses and obstetrics makes the descriptions ring with authority, yet without ever burdening the reader with unnecessary terms or lingo. She is at her best when describing the coastal scenery (“The hillsides were variegated, some fields of tall grass scattered profusely with goldenrod, others a harmonious blend of dense low-lying chaparral, bluish green to grey, like a natural patchwork”) as well as in flashbacks to Clara’s developing relationship with the brilliantly-drawn Gordon (“I was drowning in him, plunging somewhere deep and fast — on that same speedy trajectory that a car would take when the land beneath it disappeared, or an icy airplane that decided to drop from the sky”). These stirring, evocative and sensuous flashbacks with their undercurrents of grief and mystery kept me reading, hungry to stay inside the story.
         Letts delivers her story, much like the nurse-midwife she is — with deft hands, coaxing the reader on with absorbing dialogue and narration; providing them with a protagonist who never succumbs to excessive sentimentality, which helps the reader follow Clara through her painful journey to the story’s ultimately uplifting resolution. The novel is not perfect — there are a few inconsistencies in characters’ voices, and plot developments often rely on coincidence. The prose occasionally lacks the smooth veneer of a seasoned novelist, but even this works to bring us closer to the flawed but loveable Clara. Chosen as an alternate selection for the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club and Rhapsody Book Club, Quality of Care is a novel that will appeal to women, to horse lovers, to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in a powerful, heartfelt story.

    Terez Rose’s writing has appeared in the San Jose Mercury-News, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Peace Corps Online. Anthology credits include Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food (Seal Press, November 2003), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales, June 2004) Migrants and Stowaways (Knoxville Writers’ Guild, October 2004) and the upcoming Italy: A Love Story (Seal Press, June 2005). She is finishing what she vows will be the final draft of her first novel, set in Central Africa.


Review

The Serpent's Kiss
by Mark T. Sullivan (Niger 1980–82)
Atria Books
384 pages
July 2003
$25.00

    Reviewed by W. Tucker Clark (Nepal 1967-70)

    REPORTER-TURNED-NOVELIST Mark Sullivan says he learned his first lessons on how to “cover a story” when he was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Agades, Niger, an oasis on the caravan routes to Timbuctu. He learned, he said, to write “from a cultural anthropology bent” while emerging himself in the nomadic culture he saw in town. These skills would later prove useful to him as a journalist and as a novelist.
         Coming home, he earned a masters in journalism from Northwestern University and became a newspaper investigative reporter in California, using many of the “tricks” he had learned in Africa to submerge himself in new cultures where he found work as a homicide reporter in San Diego.
         It was while he was a reporter that he got the idea of writing a series of mysteries about a homicide cop, Seamus Moynihan.
         Sullivan writes what has been called “real, old fashioned thrillers.” Novels reviewers find to be: heart-pounding tales of suspense, mysteries and adventures where “individuals are caught up in the clash of cultures.” In the The New York Times, one reviewer raved that “few investigative reporters exhibit Sullivan’s sense of poetry.”
         His mysteries are based on the unique way San Diego homicide police investigate homicides — they use a team of specialists, not the two person crime units favored by television series. And once he had his protagonist detective established as a character, he begins to plot the mystery that needs to be solved.
        In this, The Serpent’s Kiss, his sixth novel and the first in a series starring the San Diego Detective Sergeant Seamus Moynihan, Sullivan used the biblical mystery of Cain’s wife, the second woman after Eve. The mystery of serial killings by torturing snake bites became Moynihan’s case to solve.
         In his life and in his writings, Sullivan has always plunged himself in the subject about which he is writing. For a mystery on skiing, he took up extreme skiing. His novel The Purification Ceremony is about deer tracking, a subject he undertook before beginning to write. And for Labyrinth, based on cave explorers, Sullivan became a spelunker.
         In fact, in all of his novels, it has been fact followed (or made into) fiction. And good reads they all are.

    Tucker Clark has worked as a VH-1 pro-social television producer, Alcoholism Treatment expert and Social Services Supervisor and Administrator, Corporate Trainer and Workshop Leader, E-Commerce and Polling Wizard, and PrePaid Legal Services, Inc Director-level marketer.


Review

She Smiled Sweetly
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67)
Henry Holt and Co.
June 2004
288 pages
$25.00

    Reviewed by Maureen M. Smith (Cameroon 1987-89)

    NOT BEING A MURDER MYSTERY FAN, I didn’t expect to like She Smiled Sweetly, the third and latest in a sleuth series featuring the female FBI investigator created by author Mary-Ann Tirone Smith.
         But the opening scene — a foreboding beach smothered with detritus, dead crabs, and tar-spotted seagulls — had me hooked. On this Boston harbor, a detective who found a body asks for help from protagonist Poppy Rice. With each successive chapter, as this brassy, sometimes sassy sleuth delves deeper into the unsolved drowning, the plot intensifies, making the story a page-turner that will keep you reading long past bedtime.
         The suspense comes partly from the empathy you feel with Poppy Rice, willful and determined to solve the mysterious drowning of a pregnant woman and to bring the killer to justice. But before long, the plot thickens when she discovers that another pregnant woman was found drowned 30 years earlier near Ireland. The similar circumstances reach past just how they died. For one, the Boston victim comes from a prominent political family with Irish origins.
         As if two potentially linked murders do not offer complication enough, you soon learn of more than just one suspect. And one of these several apparent antagonists has committed other heinous crimes. Poppy and Rocky Patel, a likeable detective and partner in the case, leapfrog onto one lead after another as they trace the ugly tracks of the suspects.
         Patel, his parents from India, lends to the story’s international flavor. In one scene, Poppy joins Patel and his wife, Lucy, an Italian chef, for a home cooked meal of lamb saag. Perhaps those ethnic touches shouldn’t have surprised me, since Tirone Smith has also written about serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon.
         Beyond the intrigue and suspense of the mystery lies a strong and satisfying moral. This woman sleuth can stand up for those whose rights went awry and she can put perpetrators in their proper places. Like the title of the book, the end result — justice — smiles sweetly.

    Maureen M. Smith is a writer who is currently completing “My African Sister,” a memoir which chronicles her friendship with a rural African woman she met while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon. She has published hundreds of articles in many publications including the Christian Science Monitor and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. For further information, see www.maureenMsmith.com.


Review

The Shortest Way Home
by Elaine Reidy (Dominican Republic 1963–65)
AuthorHouse
September 2004
369 pages
$19.95

    Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)

    OH, HOW THIS BOOK TOOK ME BACK! Elaine Reidy’s The Shortest Way Home is a bildungsroman, the tale of a young, working class Irish American girl who joins the Peace Corps in 1963, straight out of her hometown of Trowbridge, Massachusetts. When we meet her she’s tough, enterprising, and idealistic. Lina, short for Colleen, files her application on her own, without letting her parents in on her plans. When she’s accepted by the Peace Corps, her parents are horrified and try to stop her, but she will have none of it. We follow her through training in a camp in Palmar (which sounds suspiciously like the place I trained in, in the mountains above Arecibo, Puerto Rico). Esmeralda, where Lina is sent, is clearly the Domincan Republic of Elaine Reidy’s own service. Through her we witness that first encounter with the urban poor, their wretched living conditions, the illnesses that run rampant in the barrios, the rats, the hunger, and the astonishing generosity the Esmeraldans show to any visitor in their homes. With Lina we rail against the shocking unconsciousness of the rich and the obtuseness of American government officials, including the hierarchy of the early Peace Corps.
         Lina, who seems to live on cigarettes and Coca Cola, emerges as a sexually puritanical, hard-working, dedicated, sassy young woman with a head of ever-wilder red hair, a pair of large breasts on an increasingly skinny frame, and innate talents for crooning ballads and winning at cards. One of the best scenes in this book is a game of gin rummy between Lina and Dieudonné, a Haitian journalist and voodoo practitioner, during which Reidy skillfully writes a duel of power and vulnerability at the card table. At one point Dieudonné says,

    “Deal, and forget the innocent act.”
         Lina shrugged. She shuffled fast and fancy, then picked up the deck and cut it several times, one-handed. She set the deck down and looked right into Dieudonné’s eyes.
         He laughed. “Show me how to do that.”
         Lina realized that Dieudonné probably picked up some money playing cards with unwary tourists.
         “You’d better not use this on any innocents.”
         “Cherie, I am not stupid. But I know some people who will find those moves very impressive.”

         It’s the stuff of a Graham Greene novel, but I’m sorry to say that most of the book doesn’t come up to the level of the writing in this scene. Nonetheless, The Shortest Way Home is a valuable piece of literature, particularly for those interested in the early days of the Peace Corps. It describes and evokes the mid-1960s experiences of Volunteers in Latin American countries with a specificity I haven’t found elsewhere.
         As many of us did during our term of duty, Lina loses her virginity along with her innocence, and though her first sexual experience is gentle and quite delicious, the loss of her political innocence is devastating. Reidy searingly and unsentimentally documents those terrible days of the violent upheaval in the Dominican Republic and the eventual invasion by the U. S. Marines. As I closed her novel I was overcome with emotion, remembering the courage of the Volunteers who worked to save lives during the bloodiest weeks. If half of what this fictive tale reveals is true, then Elaine Reidy and the others who served with her deserve our deepest admiration and gratitude for their selfless contribution to the people of the Dominican Republic.

    Marnie Mueller’s Peace Corps novel, Green Fires, was the winner of the Maria Thomas Award for Outstanding Fiction and an American Book Award. The Climate of the Country, her second novel, is set in Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp where she was born. Her most recent novel, My Mother’s Island, was a BookSense 76 Selection.


Review

Things Are Different in Africa
A Memoir of Dangers and Adventures in the Congo

by Frederick Edward Pitts (Congo/Mali 1992–93)
iUniverse Press
2004
220 pages
$18.95

    Reviewed by John Rex (Ethiopia 1962–64; Namibia 2003–04)

    IN 1992, HAVING REACHED MIDDLE AGE and needing a change in his life, Frederick Edward Pitts joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Makoua in the Republic of Congo. His job as a Volunteer was to supervise construction of fish ponds, part of the Congo fish project.
         His memoir of that time is almost the prototypical Peace Corps account: arrival on site, culture shock, settling in, significant people, and adventures, with the added twist of evacuation from his post due to political upheaval and then his early termination from the Peace Corps.
         Pitts’ story differs from the usual RPCV stories in its ongoing ambiguity and negativity. For example, he writes that he “survived several months of language training,” plus another “sixty-days” of “language . . . immersion” — without once mentioning what language he was studying.
         As a Peace Corps trainee — first in 1962, and again in 2003 — I received at the most ten weeks of language training. Were the 90s so different?
         As a reviewer — and reader! — of Things Are Different in Africa, I would like to know some specifics about what Pitts experienced as a Volunteer — all the who, where, when, and for how long of his tour to gain some perspective on what he went through, but this book does not give us a coherent narrative. Instead, Pitts dwells on fragments of experience and observations, most of which are unfavorable depictions of the Peace Corps bureaucracy, the Congo, and the Congolese.
         For a start, Pitts had what we all know in the Peace Corps world — a “counterpart,” whom he identifies repeatedly as his “homologue.” The counterpart’s name is Herve, and Pitts describes him as a “tall, pudgy coal-black man.” Pitts appears to have taken an immediate dislike to his Congolese counterpart.
         Pitts also gives us brief descriptions of other people he meets overseas. Most of these individuals are presented as being deficient in their actions and attitudes. Their culture doesn’t measure up according to Fred Pitts, or as he puts it, “things are different in Africa.” Being different in Africa for Pitts means not being good enough.
         I have lived in Ethiopia, India, and Namibia — as well as New York, Maine, California, Virginia, and Florida — and I have learned that many things are very different wherever I go. Some differences are good and some are bad, but all have provided me opportunities to grow through new perspectives and alternate understandings of what it means to live in this world. Cultural immersion means “being with” others, experiencing compassion. Different “things” have changed me. That kind of personal change or growth seems not to have affected Pitts. Instead, he remains judgmental, most often critical, of what others are doing “differently.”
         In his writing Pitts is extremely idiosyncratic, and often incomprehensible. He delights in dangling modifiers: “. . . while brushing my teeth in the yard, the familiar white truck came toward me . . .” He favors the passive over the active voice. He speaks of “serpents” and “carnivores” and “creatures” and “denizens” without letting us know what he means. He describes ordinary cultural matters in the past tense, as if they were historical. Events happen “momentarily.” And so he goes on. What an editorial challenge this book would have been if someone had edited it.
         Things Are Different in Africa includes a number of fuzzy black and white photographs which are not meaningfully integrated into the text. The book also lacks a map, which would have been helpful.
         Pitts also takes some things for granted in the Peace Corps and he shouldn’t. For example, he refers to Newsweek magazine as something “routinely distributed by the Peace Corps.” Not so in 2004 when we PCVs seldom received a copy due to budget cuts. And there is his wonderful new red motorcycle on which he rode freely and crashed terribly. In my recent experience in Peace Corps/Namibia Volunteers were sent home if caught riding a motorcycle. And this is in a country without public transportation in many locations. But that is another story. My story.
         Frederick Edward Pitts has told his story with the expressed objective, he states, that the reader will gain “understanding of life in an obscure part of the planet Earth.” I respect that effort and his goal, although for this reviewer, the telling is seriously flawed.

    John Rex taught school in Western New York for 27 years before moving on to seminary and ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. After serving congregations in Virginia and Florida, and extended work with groups in India, he retired and rejoined the Peace Corps. He now resides in Buffalo, NY.


Review

Things Are Different in Africa
A Memoir of Dangers and Adventures in the Congo

by Frederick Edward Pitts (Congo/Mali 1992–93)
iUniverse Press
2004
220 pages
$18.95

    Reviewed by John Rex (Ethiopia 1962–64; Namibia 2003–04)

    IN 1992, HAVING REACHED MIDDLE AGE and needing a change in his life, Frederick Edward Pitts joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Makoua in the Republic of Congo. His job as a Volunteer was to supervise construction of fish ponds, part of the Congo fish project.
         His memoir of that time is almost the prototypical Peace Corps account: arrival on site, culture shock, settling in, significant people, and adventures, with the added twist of evacuation from his post due to political upheaval and then his early termination from the Peace Corps.
         Pitts’ story differs from the usual RPCV stories in its ongoing ambiguity and negativity. For example, he writes that he “survived several months of language training,” plus another “sixty-days” of “language . . . immersion” — without once mentioning what language he was studying.
         As a Peace Corps trainee — first in 1962, and again in 2003 — I received at the most ten weeks of language training. Were the 90s so different?
         As a reviewer — and reader! — of Things Are Different in Africa, I would like to know some specifics about what Pitts experienced as a Volunteer — all the who, where, when, and for how long of his tour to gain some perspective on what he went through, but this book does not give us a coherent narrative. Instead, Pitts dwells on fragments of experience and observations, most of which are unfavorable depictions of the Peace Corps bureaucracy, the Congo, and the Congolese.
         For a start, Pitts had what we all know in the Peace Corps world — a “counterpart,” whom he identifies repeatedly as his “homologue.” The counterpart’s name is Herve, and Pitts describes him as a “tall, pudgy coal-black man.” Pitts appears to have taken an immediate dislike to his Congolese counterpart.
         Pitts also gives us brief descriptions of other people he meets overseas. Most of these individuals are presented as being deficient in their actions and attitudes. Their culture doesn’t measure up according to Fred Pitts, or as he puts it, “things are different in Africa.” Being different in Africa for Pitts means not being good enough.
         I have lived in Ethiopia, India, and Namibia — as well as New York, Maine, California, Virginia, and Florida — and I have learned that many things are very different wherever I go. Some differences are good and some are bad, but all have provided me opportunities to grow through new perspectives and alternate understandings of what it means to live in this world. Cultural immersion means “being with” others, experiencing compassion. Different “things” have changed me. That kind of personal change or growth seems not to have affected Pitts. Instead, he remains judgmental, most often critical, of what others are doing “differently.”
         In his writing Pitts is extremely idiosyncratic, and often incomprehensible. He delights in dangling modifiers: “. . . while brushing my teeth in the yard, the familiar white truck came toward me . . .” He favors the passive over the active voice. He speaks of “serpents” and “carnivores” and “creatures” and “denizens” without letting us know what he means. He describes ordinary cultural matters in the past tense, as if they were historical. Events happen “momentarily.” And so he goes on. What an editorial challenge this book would have been if someone had edited it.
         Things Are Different in Africa includes a number of fuzzy black and white photographs which are not meaningfully integrated into the text. The book also lacks a map, which would have been helpful.
         Pitts also takes some things for granted in the Peace Corps and he shouldn’t. For example, he refers to Newsweek magazine as something “routinely distributed by the Peace Corps.” Not so in 2004 when we PCVs seldom received a copy due to budget cuts. And there is his wonderful new red motorcycle on which he rode freely and crashed terribly. In my recent experience in Peace Corps/Namibia Volunteers were sent home if caught riding a motorcycle. And this is in a country without public transportation in many locations. But that is another story. My story.
         Frederick Edward Pitts has told his story with the expressed objective, he states, that the reader will gain “understanding of life in an obscure part of the planet Earth.” I respect that effort and his goal, although for this reviewer, the telling is seriously flawed.

    John Rex taught school in Western New York for 27 years before moving on to seminary and ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. After serving congregations in Virginia and Florida, and extended work with groups in India, he retired and rejoined the Peace Corps. He now resides in Buffalo, NY.


A Writer Writes

5 Poems from West Africa by Carrie Young (Mali 2000–01)

By the Light of the Moon

          How free is the ocean
          Or the moon
          Really?

          The village was off the road
          And away from the world
          Like a soft breeze
          Blowing across the ground
          Felt only by the Earth
          At the bottom of the mountain
          That calls it home

          The beauty of the place
          Equaled by the difficulties
          Surrounding this life
          Filled with the noise of natural things-
          The pounding of grain like thunder,
          Roosters crowing at every mood of the sun,
          Fires crackling with ancient memories,
          Children laughing and disappearing into tall grasses

          And almost every night
          The sound of a bilaphone
          Playing at a fete somewhere
          On another side of the village
          Sending out a deep and hyper sound
          That somehow found its way to me
          Even in the thick, dark air of Africa

          People dressed in bright fabrics
          Were dancing until the dirt stirred
          Into a fog around them
          And all that was hard about the days
          Trickled down their faces
          In sweat like tears

          I could see them in my mind
          As I lay in a room lit quietly by candles
          My book resting next to me
          While I joined them somewhere
          In that fog of dirt and freedom

          Freedom for muscles
          That were bent and tired
          From hours spent in the fields
          And freedom from a mind
          That was never allowed to forget
          The weightless breath of fate
          Waiting in the wind

    Returning Again

        Every meal of everyday
        A memory of the one before
        Rising from a mat on the ground
        To pull water from a well
        To carry home in a metal bucket
        On her head
        She may be used to it
        But that doesn’t mean that metal
        Is somehow less hard to her
        On her body
        As she cooks
        Over a smoky fire
        Bent over now and still
        Hours later bent
        In a field of intimidating size
        Her hands are losing skin
        To the wooden handle
        Of her only tool
        Swung up into the air
        And brought back down
        Into the soil
        This act her livelihood
        Her only hope of income
        She returns home
        As the sun sets over her field
        And bends to cook
        Before returning again
        To her mat on the dirt

    Balance

          If the world were a body
          Africa would be the eyes
          Shining
          In the knowledge of things that have been
          Of life's truest tests and most intense beauty
          If the world were a body
          The western world would be the hands
          With the capacity
          Of an uplifting generosity
          Together
          These eyes of wisdom
          And hands of generosity
          Can create balance,
          Peace

    Birth

          The lantern made
          A light creaking noise
          As it swung by my side
          On a walk through the village
          Of red mud and grass
          That was a labyrinth
          Lost somewhere in time
          Thousands of years ago
          I don't remember
          If I walked in the light of the moon
          Or in the darkness
          When I came upon
          The orange glow of candles
          Coming from a room with walls
          That would fall in the rain
          There was a woman laid back
          On an old bamboo chair
          Giving birth in the center of the room
          In the center of the ancient village,
          In the center of Africa
          And what felt like the
          Very center of time itself

    The Shadowless Light of Memory

          She saw a leaf leave the tree
          And float down away
          From the perfect blue sky
          In the white light of the day
          A kind of shadowless light
          Painting itself on all sides of the leaf
          She quietly watched
          Until it landed in her palm
          Lightly, the way memories
          Fell onto her mind
          Like those of Africa
          Of the people's eyes
          Sparkling
          As if constellations
          Lived in them
          Shooting stars, twinkling stars,
          Night skies filled with stars
          Were the people's eyes
          And at times
          The stars became veiled
          As if behind a cloud
          Until the storm passed
          And the stars shone once again
          In the clear sky
          Of their eyes
          The shining backdrop
          Of the memories
          That fell like leaves
          Onto her mind

      Carrie Young lived in a small, rural village of Mali without electricity or running water. She is inspired by the effect that living so close to the natural world had on her, and wants to share the beauty and reality of that experience with others. She also feels that it is her responsibility to tell the story of the people of her village who took her in like family and generously shared their lives and souls with her.
           After the Peace Corps Carrie spent a season living and working in the south of France, and then worked as a researcher for National Geographic Magazine from 2002–2004. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in creative writing.


A Writer Writes

The Future of Kyrgyzstan

by Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 1994–96)

LIVING IN KYRGYZSTAN only a few years after its independence from the Soviet Union, I once asked my Kyrgyz host-brother what he thought of Stalin. He was a worldly young man, the son of a local politician, who was studying computers in university and had access, even then, even in Kyrgyzstan, to e-mail and the Internet. In those optimistic days of burgeoning freedom, we spoke of the Gulag, of the estimated 100 million people who died because of Stalin’s purges and programs. “Yes,” my host brother admitted, “Stalin had his faults, but he was still a great, great leader. He was a national hero.”
     Kyrgyzstan is the smallest and least known country in Central Asia. For anyone who has ever lived there, seeing its name grace the front pages of our newspapers this week — when a disorganized opposition has taken over the presidential compound and assumed control of the nation — still comes as something of a shock. You do not expect to see Kyrgyzstan written about, you do not expect anyone to take notice of what is happening there. But as much as last Thursday’s coup seems to follow upon elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, and successful street movements in Georgia and the Ukraine, there is one significant difference: no organized party is ready to take over. In the political vacuum, a dangerous jockeying for power has begun.
     The Kyrgyz people I knew in the early nineties were politically timid — simply proud to have a nation of their own. In its tourism literature, the country referred to itself as the “Switzerland of Central Asia,” both because it was mountainous, and because it was peaceful. To see images today of protesters storming the White House, forcing the president to flee the country, and looting the capital is shocking — but speaks of the frustrations of a people who have been denied the true benefits of democracy for too long. President Akayev, in power for fifteen years, was rumored to have been fixing the parliament to his liking, perhaps positioning himself for yet another run at office. The long suffering citizens of his nation have had enough. They do not want a president for life, a dictatorship under the guise of democracy.
     It was always a privilege and a wonder, living in Central Asia in the years after independence, to witness a nation being born. With that birth came inherent post-colonial problems. How would a people, under Soviet rule for much of the 20th century, reclaim their ancient heritage? What role might religion play in forming a new government? Who would be the political model, secular Turkey or Shiite Iran? How would America and China exert influence on Russia’s former turf? But most importantly, how would Kyrgyzstan democratize itself?
     Kyrgyzstan was once the great hope for democracy to take root in Central Asia. Those of us who have followed the fate of the country have seen those enormous hopes of the early years fade, amid obstacles familiar to all nations of the former Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan is heavily impoverished, and heavily corrupt. The once-developed country faces Third World crises of health and economy. Long under the heavy hand of totalitarianism, with no foundation in democracy, Kyrgyzstan is still fighting today, fourteen years after independence, to create true, fair elections. Those uplifted by the recent elections in Iraq and Afghanistan might take note of how long it takes a fledgling democracy like this to mature, and what kind of difficulties prevent it from happening.
     When a president stifles opposition parties and purges the press, locks away journalists, turns a blind eye to human rights violations — when a country is democratic in name only — there is no room for political growth. The people of Kyrgyzstan desire a government that works efficiently and transparently for the betterment of its citizens, with a ruler who is confident enough in his legitimacy to allow dissenting voices. Starved of basic economic and political freedoms, unsure of what democracy even is, so used to suffering in silence and submitting to the power of larger nations, the Kyrgyz people have at last decided they must change things themselves. They know what they want, but is there any leader who can give it to them?
     Back in 1994, when my host-brother claimed Stalin was still a national hero, my heart sank. I immediately thought, Kyrgyzstan needs new heroes. Who would emerge to take Stalin’s place in the grade-school textbooks, to cleanse the national conscience of decades of propaganda? After all these years under President Akayev, the answer is nobody.
     President Bush likes to claim that “Freedom is on the march.” Freedom, however, was also on the march back in the early nineties, when my Kyrgyz host brother felt free enough to discuss the Gulag, but still claimed Stalin as his hero. Freedom from one source of oppression only opened the door to a different source — smaller, more localized, but no less at odds with true democracy.
     The toppling of the government of Kyrgyzstan does not simply follow in lockstep with events in Iraq and Afghanistan and Beirut, but provides a lesson and a warning to those nations as well. Kyrgyzstan has for a second time shaken off the shackles of a corrupt regime. We must support, once again, their critical search for a true leader — one who cares more about democracy than about consolidating power — to guide them forward.

Robert Rosenberg wrote the literary novel, This Is Not Civilization, which links together an Apache reservation in the Arizona desert and his village in Kyrgyzstan.


A Writer Writes

Hanging On (and Hanging Out) in Boston

by Will Siegel (Ethiopia 1962–64)

I CAME TO BOSTON ten years ago to return to graduate school. I was getting nowhere writing a novel in California and I fancied that a masters might pull me out of the swamp of my life in L.A. I came to my senses a few months after my arrival here on a chill December morning in 1995 at a T-stop across from Eastern Mountain Sports. As I looked around to see where I’d landed, I found myself in culture shock, not unlike what I’d experienced 40 years before when I first arrived in Addis Ababa in the last days of the rainy season of 1962 — one of 275 Peace Corps Volunteers, the first ever to go to Ethiopia.
     Thirty-five years before Boston, I set off with the Peace Corps to “save the world.” I thought (hell, we all thought!) that by sharing my knowledge and myself, I could bring a small part of the world to new understanding and new motivation and improve their lives. What did I know? I was young. There, in the fabled Horn of Africa, we were welcomed and greeted by the Emperor Haile Selassie, written about and gawked at as “Kennedy’s Kids.” We’d come to share our knowledge and skills and western ways in this remote highland kingdom of Africa.
     Like everyone else in the Peace Corps, I learned more than I taught, but I always felt, in that soft underbelly of my secret desires, that I would somehow touch others and help them grow. I believed, in my youthful ignorance, that American ingenuity could solve most of the problems of the world.
     I didn’t, however, solve many (or any!) problems of the world, but for me — as it has been, I’m sure, for most RPCVs — the Peace Corps experience was the seminal experience of my life, though for nearly four decades I kept trying to deny it.
     When I came home from Ethiopia and enrolled in graduate school in California, I quickly realized most of my fellow students couldn’t care less about where I’d been and what I’d done in Africa.
     Swallowed up by the California anti-war, free love, and psychedelic madness of the 1960s as sure as Jonah was swallowed by the whale, I found myself among strangers who, in the name of cool, maintained a distance from any sort of idealism, caring, or concerns about the world.
     I had also come home from Africa with the distinct knowledge that the Peace Corps had not prepared me for life as an RPCV. I returned “dumbed-down” by the experience of being away from American culture for two years. I lost something of myself in Africa. And my great hope for the world, that I’d clung to through Peace Corps Training at Georgetown University, had slipped away without my even noticing. Instead of sharing what I’d seen and lived through at the grassroots of the Third World — the suffering, deprivation, and ignorance, I couldn’t tell my story. Such tales scared people off. And the truth is the telling scared me off. I became jumpy and evasive and afraid of what I learned up close and personal in Africa. My memories of Ethiopia weren’t quite the trip to Disneyland I hoped to remember.
     So was it worth it? Living two years among the poor and unprivileged, planting the experience into the context of my life became a puzzle to me. I can still trace my footsteps along the crowded streets with honking taxis, donkeys and vendors hawking their wares, on my way to teach classrooms filled with barefoot kids. What did it mean to come home and shelve those impressions and memories away like photographs stashed and forgotten for years in a shoebox?
     I never solved that puzzle, and because I couldn’t solve it, I have always felt a vague sense that I failed as a PCVs, though I’ve come to own this sense of failure as my own shortcoming. I know other Volunteers from Ethiopia and elsewhere who have kept in touch with their host countries, who have brought barefoot kids back to America, and who have come home themselves and furthered the ideals of the Peace Corps agency. They fulfilled the Third Goal. Not me.
      Many of us have lived lifetimes since we came home. We’ve had our careers, our marriages, and our children. We’ve watched the world go through cycles of wars, political upheavals, and cultural fashions. For those of us who went to Ethiopia, we saw the decline and fall of one of the great emperors and empires of the world, and watched Ethiopia become a communist nation, and then not. Many of those barefoot kids we taught as children grew up to turn against America, and then turn against each other. They, too, are now old men in Addis.
     Thinking of my Peace Corps years through the decades, I have at times been discouraged, ready to hang it up and forget. After all, what had I done to change the world? Where was the good I dreamed of achieving back then in the Sixties when Kennedy sent us off to Africa from the lawns of his White House?
      But I had changed. I’d been transformed. The experience of the Peace Corps took me out of the backwaters of Ohio where I grew up and spun me off in another direction so that now when I glance back over the decades, I barely remember who I once was before the Peace Corps.
      Yet this riddle of what the Peace Corps meant to me has lain at my feet all these years. I’m beginning to understand how the culture shock of Ethiopia ripped apart my world. The puzzle is really me. I might have saved myself many sleepless nights if early on I’d grasped that instead of changing the world I needed to change myself.
      These days in Boston, I often drive past the T stop where I first realized I had left the warm climate of California for frigid Boston and I think about how far I’ve come, not only in miles and years, but also in my mind.
      Sometimes I think about Ethiopia and the kid I once was, and the hope I once had, and the good things that I did do in the Peace Corps. I’m happy to be reminded that a little is more than nothing. And with that little, there is always the hope of doing more.

Will Siegel lives and works in Boston as a technical writer. A former TV writer and guitar player, he counts himself lucky to be a husband and good friend of many PCVs who served with him in Addis Ababa and remember the work that he did as a secondary school teacher in the city, and with the Swedish Leprosarium on the outskirts of town. He is a survivor of his childhood in Ohio, Haight Ashbury’s cultural revolution of the 1960s, and since 1995, Boston winters. He continues to remember and to write.


War and Peace Corps

Amoebas and Me

by Charlie Ipcar (Ethiopia 1965–68)

I WENT TO ETHIOPIA in the fall of 1965, at the height of the Vietnam War, and taught general science for two years at the Technical School in Addis Ababa. I also coordinated two summer projects near Dira Dawa, teaching reconnaissance geology techniques to university students who were planning to work for the Ministry of Mines. I was a good Volunteer and asked to extend my Peace Corps tour for a 3rd year. The Peace Corps initially turned down my request for a 3rd year, I believe because I had seriously annoyed some of the staff who had only heard from me when I had a complaint, but the Country Director, Dave Berlew, was willing to review my case and I was granted a third year.
     Then I was flown home that summer to Maine where my draft board insisted that I be given a pre-induction physical. Fortunately for me the center’s medical director agreed to defer me for six months because of my on-going treatment for amoebic dysentery. A follow-up physical was to be in northern Italy and when I returned to Ethiopia, I was given a round-trip commercial airline ticket to Pisa. On that trip, when I landed, I saw two soldiers jump into a jeep, start it up, and plow into the wall in front of them. From that point on I figured it would be fun to go with the flow and jumped on a bus waiting to take me to Camp Darvy, in Livornio, northern Italy.
    It was the summer of 1967, and I was one of a number of PCVs from East Africa who had been called for follow-up physicals at Camp Darvy. If we were physically fit, we could head for the war raging in Southeast Asia.
     I was 25 at the time and my draft board back in Maine was well aware that if I continued for another year teaching geography in Ethiopia I would inevitably become 26 and beyond draftable age, a major coming of age at that time in our nation’s history. However, there was a problem for my draft board, one unrelated to the merit of my current service which they had summarily dismissed six months before. I was still undergoing treatment for amoebic dysentery.
     When I was ushered into the examination room at Camp Darvy, I was provided a cup and a small flat stick and was instructed to produce a stool specimen which I was willing and able to do and there was more waiting, while they analyzed the results. Finally I was called into a doctor’s office and the young man smiled, and told me I was perfectly healthy, which was a surprise to me given that I had confirmed my amoebas’ vitality with the Peace Corps medical people before leaving Addis Ababa.
     I showed him their medical report and he decided to take another look. (This was a year after Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice's Restaurant,” so I had come prepared, no glossy photos, but official Peace Corps medical documents.) The young doctor returned and now he looked sad and said my amoebas could well be chronic and he would defer me for another six months.
     Free from the draft, I was reunited with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who were also being examined, and while we were waiting for bus transport back to the barracks, a big American car pulled up and the lady inside asked us if we wanted a lift back to the base and we all gratefully piled in. As she drove along she told us how pleased she was that young American boys like us were volunteering for the service, and we lost little time in dissuading her from that illusion. Well, she got all huffy and the next thing we knew we were delivered to the military police headquarters where the gentlemen there were told by the Commandant’s wife to take proper care of us, which they promised to do.
      After she spun off they delivered us back to the barracks where we’d spent the previous night. The MP’s did look somewhat embarrassed as they were also some of the guys in the barracks whom we’d been singing protests songs with the previous night.
      Again, the barracks crew sneaked us out that night for a compensatory night on the town, and years later I must confess that I still get occasional flashes of bar scenes and that seaside restaurant where we were delivered an octopus nestled on top of the pasta in a pool of tomato sauce.
      What joy!

Charlie Ipcar, who recovered from his chronic amoebas, spent his third year in the remote village of Emdeber in the Gurage country of Ethiopia where he taught geography, chemistry and general science. Finishing up, he traveled through Eastern Europe and arrived back in the states in August for his 26th birthday, and in time to watch on television the rioting at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
     Today, Dr. Ipcar is engaged in buying and renovating several buildings. He has also worked coordinating two statewide referendum campaigns on the issues of nuclear power and nuclear waste, and was a full-time staff member on a U.S. Senate campaign. In his spare time, he helped reorganize the Portland Folk Club, and formed a folk group called Roll & Go. Last year, he released his first personal CD, Uncommon Sailor Songs, which primarily includes songs he composed or adapted from poems. Information and MP3 samples of this CD may be accessed from his personal website: http://home.gwi.net/~ipbar/. He lives with his wife in Richmond, Maine, a quiet river town some twenty miles up the Kennebec River from the coast. They share their household with two cats and a mouse.


To Preserve and to Learn

Remembering Coates Redmon

by Maureen Carroll (Philippines 1961–63)

AS A VERY EARLY PCV, I was also one of the first RPCVs to join the headquarters staff. Sargent Shriver had attracted or seduced the true “best and brightest” of the time to get the Peace Corps aloft, and many of them were still there in late 1963 when I arrived in the Office of Evaluation. Working among the likes of Bill Moyers, Franklin Williams, Frank Mankiewicz, Harris Wofford, Charlie Peters, David Gelman, Warren Wiggins, Nan McEvoy, Bob Gale etc. was heady, challenging, inspiring, and lots of fun.
     One of the women I met early on, Coates Redmon, became a friend for life. She was working in the Special Projects Office, writing Annual Reports and Congressional Presentations, savoring tales from the field and writing lively and convincing versions for the public and the Congress. Coates loved hearing our tales of life overseas, and we loved listening to her witty and keen observations on the social and political life in Washington and within the Peace Corps.
     She and her husband Hayes had arrived in Washington at the dawn of the Kennedy years via New York City and Colorado. Hayes later worked with Bill Moyers in the Lyndon Johnson White House, and Coates later worked for Roslyn Carter in the East Wing. Coates was the first person I ever knew well whom I thought of as an “insider.” She moved in social circles in Washington and Cambridge and New York City and Martha’s Vineyard that produced delicious anecdotes about the high and mighty. And Coates was a master story-teller — full of wit, irreverence, and probity.
     Those qualities paid off handsomely in 1986, when she published one of the Peace Corps classics — ranking right up there with Living Poor, The Ponds of Kalambayi, River Town, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, and many other finely written accounts from the Volunteer and field perspective. While some authors had written accounts of the Peace Corps from a headquarters perspective, the books tended to be academic and stolid. In Come As You Are: the Peace Corps Story (published in 1986 by Harcourt BraceJovanovich,) Coates tells the story of the founding of the Peace Corps, based primarily on interviews with many of the principals that reconstruct the story “behind the scenes.” This book is highly readable and essential to understand the evolution of the unique Peace Corps spirit and style that continues to characterize the agency almost 45 years later.
     Coates held many interesting positions in her career — fellowship chairman for the Institute of Politics at Harvard, writer and producer for Children’s Television Workshop, speechwriting for Senator Charles Percy and for Rosalyn Carter, and Executive Director of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards. But like many of us, Peace Corps remained her first true love. Her book is out of print but should be available in libraries or at other sources specializing in used books. Read it — you’ll enjoy it tremendously — as all of us who knew Coates enjoyed her company and her friendship.   Coates Redmon — 1931–2005

Maureen Carroll was a Peace Corps Volunteer with the first group to the Philippines in 1961 and worked for the Peace Corps during the 60s and the 90s. She has always been considered by those who knew her in the agency as a "Super Vol" and a "Super Staff." Maureen was on the short list of possible Peace Corps directors in the mid-‘90s when Carol Bellamy was selected at the first RPCV to become director by President Clinton. Like Coates, Maureen has done many other things in her life, both here and abroad. A resident of Washington DC for many years, she is "slacking" at the moment, waiting for her next great adventure.


Friendly Agent

    Lisa VanAuken at the Creative Media Agency, Inc. (www.thecmagency.com) is acquiring: fiction — ainstream, literary, historical, multicultural, women’s, romance (historical, contemporary, paranormal, suspense/mystery, romantica, erotica), chick lit-esque books (less Helen Fielding and more Karen Brichoux or Darcy Cosper), political, environmental, feminist, gay/lesbian, satire, religion/spiritual; and non-fiction: historical, creative non-fiction, memoir, women’s issues, multicultural, feminist, regional, folklore, environmental, political, celebrity, on writing/on literature/on publishing, gay/lesbian, self-help, religion/spiritual.
         Not acquiring: Fiction: Children’s, young adult, fantasy, science fiction, horror, category romance, some chick lit (see note above), screen plays, poetry, short stories, (except for writers established in novel length fiction querying with a collection); non-fiction: trendy how-to (except for writing-related texts), decorating, design, dieting/beauty/fashion/etc., fitness, crafts, technology, text books,
       Lisa writes: “I love writers who are scrupulously informed about their subject matter, whatever it may be. An author must own his/her material, inside and out, to inspire true fascination in readers. Doing this challenges readers to do more than simply read a book — they must learn from it as well. I find this experience can be cultivated by talented writers in everything from political satire to coming-of-age stories to traditional romance. On a personal level, I tend to respond to writing that surprises me, whether it’s thoughtful, subtle, raucous, edgy, stylized, challenging, gritty, rich, lovely, poignant, brave, sexy, risky, quiet, boisterous, or simply a competent, non-obtrusive vehicle for a gripping story.”
         To submit: 1) Traditional snail mail query (including, bio, word count, SASE, etc.), with synopsis (up to ten pages), and first 50 pages (or three chapters) or manuscript. Write to:
    Lisa VanAuken
    Creative Media Agency, Inc.
    240 West 35th Street, suite 500
    New York, NY 10001
    2) Email query: One page only with bio, word count, one-paragraph synopsis. NO attachments, NO writing sample, NO extended synopsis. Write to: cmagency@yahoo.com.