Peace Corps Writers July 2008
This print version of Peace Corps Writers does not include information from the Current Issue page that provides links to each of the articles, any information that appears in the yellow sidebars, links, book covers, photos or other graphics that appear on any of the pages. Nor does it include newly archived or resource material including copies of RPCV Writers & Readers, bibliographic listings, or Journals of Peace material.
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The 2008 Award Winners
Publisher Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 196264) and I are pleased to announce the winners of the 2008 Peace Corps Writers Awards for books published during 2007. The winning books and authors are:
Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
The Unheard A Memoir of Deafness and Africa
by Josh Swiller (Zambia 199496)
Maria Thomas Fiction Award
by Peter Chilson (Niger 198587)
Award for Best Poetry Book
What Kills What Kills Us
by Kurt S. Olsson (Kyrgyzstan 1996-98)
Award for Best Travel Writing
City of Light, City of Dark Exploring Paris Below
by Valerie (Piotrowski) Broadwell (Morocco 1981-83)
Awards for Best Children’s Writing
by Joseph Monninger (Burkina Faso 197577)
by James Rumford (Chad 197174, Afghanistan 197475)
Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award
“Second Time Around” Peace Corps Writers 9/07
by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 196567)
Winners receive a special citation and cash awards from Peace Corps Writers, an Associate Member of the National Peace Corps Association. Our congratulations to all the winners and all the RPCVs who published books in 2007.
Dog Days of Summer
In the middle of Global Warming we have the most book reviews published in a single issue of Peace Corps Writers. In this issue there are 13 new reviews!
We also have a list of 14 new books by RPCVs. (Global Warming cannot stop these RPCVs from writing their way around the world.)
We have another of our author interviews, this time with Ray Leki (Nepal 1979-81) who just published Travel Wise: How to Be Safe, Savvy, and Secure Abroad. (For all those Peace Corps writers writing their way around the world.)
We also spoke to Jaimie Quaglino, curator at the Kennedy Library for the Peace Corps Colledtion. Read this interview and make your contribution to this important collection.
There is also Literary Type with news of literary awards won by RPCVs, as well as gossip galore, and poems from two of our poets.
Go get yourself a cool drink, a shady spot, and Read On!
Recent books by Peace Corps writers: July 2008
Off the Deep End
by W. Hodding Carter (Kenya 198486)
The Last Campaign
Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America
by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)
Henry Holt and Company
Danger in the Desert:
True Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter
(young adult lit)
by Roger Cohen (Mongolia 199698)
Flying Point Press
What Would Kinky Do?
How to Unscrew a Screwed-Up World
by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 196769)
St. Martin’s Press
A Small Harvest of Pretty Days
by Larry Kimport (Malaysia 1980-82)
A Retiree’s Peace Corps Journal from South Africa
by Sydney Kling (South Africa 2001-03)
Jesus Was Arrested in Mexico City
and Missed the Wedding
by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 197577)
A Book Company
by Phillip Margolin (Liberia 196667)
300 Best Stir-Fry Recipes
by Nancie McDermott (Thailand 197578)
Robert Rose, Inc.
Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations
by Nancie McDermott (Thailand 197578)
The Last Days of Old Beijing
Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed
by Michael Meyer (China 199597)
Walker & Company
The French Atlantic Triangle
Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade
by Christopher L. Miller (Zaire 197577)
Duke University Press
by Bill Owens (Jamaica 196466)
by John Hill Porter (Staff/DC 197072)
The Ohio River
In American History and Voyaging on Today's River, Along with the Allegheny, Monongahela, Kanawha, Muskingum, Kentucky, Green and Wabash Rivers
by Rick Rhodes (Ecuador 19992000)
St. Petersburg, Fl: Heron Island Guides
A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex
edited by Ellen Sussman
contributor Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
The Man Who Loved Rilke
by Eric Torgersen (Ethiopia 196365)
March Street Press
Literary Type: July 2008
Chris Delcher (El Salvador, 19982000) is looking for maps (and the volunteers who made them) to be featured in his upcoming book on mapping in the Peace Corps. Over the course of a year and a half, Volunteers have contributed many wonderful examples which have been posted to a growing online gallery at www.chrisdelcher.carbonmade.com. The project includes a wide variety of maps that range from simple hand drawn journal entries to fully digital projects and from all decades of Peace Corps service. If you are interested in submitting a map for the project please contact Chris Delcher at email@example.com. He is looking especially for maps from Asia.
A 2008 Independent Publisher Book Award gold medal has been awarded to Ninebark Press for its inaugural publication, Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad. This anthology brings together thirty-four contemporary American poets whose work has been significantly informed by international travel or by living abroad. Edited for Ninebark by Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989-91) the book includes poems by Pulitzer Prize-winners as well as mid-career and emerging writers. The award, known in the publishing industry as the IPPY, was formally presented at the 12th Annual IPPY Awards in Los Angeles on May 30th. The awards are given in each publishing genre; Deep Travel was awarded in the category of Anthologies. The press is especially interested in literature that crosses boundaries of genre, culture, and aesthetic. RPCV poets in the collections are: Derick Burleson (Rwanda 199193), John Isles (Estonia 199294), Susan Rich (Niger 198486) and Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 197374, Ethiopia 197475).
John Flynn (Moldova 199395) has a new short story in the inaugural issue of Quiddity Journal, published out of Springfield College-Benedictine University in Illinois. The story, “The Four-Cent Tip” can be accessed online at www.sci.edu/quiddity. There is an audio version of the story also available on the site.
John also has a short story online at Green Hills Literary Lantern out of Truman State University. Titled “Blow Out All The Candles” it’s about a honeymoon couple on the road during the ’50s when gasoline cost 19 cents per gallon. You can access it at ghll.truman.edu
Hodding Carter IV (Kenya 198486) has a new book, Off the Deep End (Algonquin), about his life as a competitive swimmer. Carter, who’s grandfather was the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper publisher of The Delta Democrat Times in Greenville, Mississippi, and his father, also a writer, was the State Department spokesman for President Jimmy Carter’s administration, is a contributing writer for Outside magazine and is the author of five nonfiction books. His article for Outside, on which this book is based, won a Lowell Thomas award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation.
Carter had been an NCAA Division III All-American and national champion swimmer at Kenyon College. After graduating with a degree in English literature, he was accepted by the Peace Corps. Although his heart told him to go for the Olympic gold, his father made it clear that he would be keeping his promise to the Peace Corps.
“My father had paid for my whole life up to this point and bankrolled those countless summer days when I swam five hours daily but did nothing else,” Carter writes. “I’d had only one real summer job my entire spoiled life, and my time had finally come to do something other than swim.” So he joined the Peace Corps.
“I was a weak kid with a strong imagination, and I could feel the weight of the gold medals and hear the unreachable notes of our national anthem nearly every night before drifting off to sleep,” Carter writes in Off the Deep End.
Carter is now back swimming competitivly and last December, he swam fast enough to rank second in the world in the 50 short-course meter freestyle and the 50 short-course meter butterfly for his age group (4549). Off the Deep End is his account of a journey that he hopes will carry him to the 2012 Olympics.
Peace Corps writer Vito Stagliano (Mauritania 196667), who worked at the U.S. Department of Energy including as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Analysis, and wrote on energy and security policy, died suddenly on January 5, 2008 at his home in Chicago.
Here’s a Peace Corps writer success story. Sydney Kling (South Africa 200103) wrote and published Inside Outside: A Retiree’s Peace Corps Journal from South Africa and then she took the $12,000 she made from the sales (about 80,000 Rand) back to South Africa. As she wrote me, “Not very much on the scale of what others are doing but they were very appreciative and I was able to say that such and such person actually received the funds. I divided it among three different home-based volunteer care groups and was able to deposit the money in the local bank in the account of Bishop Henry for Hope for Africa.”
Cliff Garstang (Korea 197678) published a short story, “The Nymph and the Woodsman,” in the Summer 2008 issue of Whitefish Review. Other stories by Cliff have recently appeared in Potomac Review and The Binnacle, and online in Storyglossia, Bound Off, The Hub, R-KV-RY, Monkeybicycle, Opium and Right Hand Pointing.
George Rosen (Kenya 196870) a freelance writer, and author of Black Money, a mystery set in Kenya, is one of 39 visual artists in Massachusetts to receive grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The unrestricted grant is for $7,500. Rosen submitted a short story to the MCC, set in Mexico, and he has been selected as a fellow in the fiction/creative nonfiction category. According to Rosen, “When you’re traveling, in particular living, outside the developed world, you’re constantly aware of . . . how people put their lives together. That’s always been extraordinarily exciting to me, and it’s enabled me to come back to the U.S. and come to our own life, and our own culture from the ground up without any kind of preconceptions.”
In an article entitled “Books for your beach bag” in their July 8th issue, USAToday selected Phillip Margolin’s (Liberia 196667) Executive Privalege, a murder mystery involving the U.S. President, as their pick for a summer read in the “Thriller” category. Reviewer Carol Memmott wrote: “Sizzle factor: .38 Special hot. Sure, the novel’s premise is a tad far-fetched, but don’t we all love to fantasize about the dark and sordid secret lives of the people who run our government?”
Photographer Bill Owens (Jamaica 196466) currently is showing work spanning his photo career that began in the 1970s at James Cohan Gallery in the hot Chelsea neighborhood of New York. The show runs through August 16th. Click for exhibition details.
In the July issue of The Sun, a fine magazine published in Chapel Hill, Jeff Fearnside (Kazakhstan 200204) has an interview with writer and farmer Wendell Berry. Jeff lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, near where Berry farms the old-fashioned way, using horses and producing much of his own food. It is an interesting interview on Berry’s life living close to nature. For example, he has published more than forty books, writing by hand in the daylight to reduce his reliance on electricity. He is famous for his 1987 essay, “Why I Am Not going to Buy a Computer,” published in Harper’s.
Jeff, who has been a reporter, was the manager of the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan after his tour as a Peace Corps TEFL teacher in Kazakhstan. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Aethlon, Isotope, Permafrost, Rock & Sing, and the anthology, Scent of Cedars: Promising Writing of the Pacific Northwest, Rosebud Magazine, and now The Sun.
Talking with Ray Leki
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
I HEARD ABOUT RAY LEKI and his new book, Travel Wise: How to Be Safe, Savvy, and Secure Abroad from Laurette Bennhold-Samaan who was the Cross-Cultural Specialist for the Peace Corps in the late ’90s. She mentioned that Leki had written a “wonderful book” about travel and since he was an RPCV she thought I might want to review it for the website. I decided to interview Ray as many retiring RPCVs are traveling these days back to their host countries, and elsewhere in the world. Over the last few weeks we have traded a number of emails about his book and travel and this is what Ray has to say.
Where are you from, Ray?
I’m from Chicago. I went to Southern Illinois University down in Carbondale, Illinois, and then Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business for graduate school.
What did you study at Southern Illinois?
Well, my undergrad major was Chemistry. I got an MA in leadership from Georgetown.
But you joined the Peace Corps after college, right?
Yes, chemistry was closing in on me, and I longed to see the world.
And then you came back to do graduate work?
Right. I studied magazine writing at New York University’s graduate journalism school.
And you did, didn’t you . . . see the world that is?
I started as a PCV in Hang Pang, Nepal, from 1979 to 1981; then as a staff member: recruiter, staging coordinator, stateside training coordinator, training officer (Nepal), acting country director (Pakistan) and project director in Poland so I was on staff from 1982 to 1991.
When you were a Volunteer what did you do, teach?
I was a math and science teacher at Shri Saraswoti Madhyamic Vidhyalaya. This was a remote, rural, agricultural high school. I also helped on a tuberculosis eradication project as a secondary assignment. But I think I made my greatest contribution to the Hang Pang teachers soccer team in a tournament against our archrivals from Therathum we smoked ’em.
Okay, you finished your tour and became a Peace Corps recruiter?
Yes, in the Chicago Area Office. When I got out of Peace Corps the job market was very tight; this was the economic depression of ’82. I recruited in cities and towns and university campuses throughout Illinois and Indiana. You simply just don’t know what fun is until you’ve done a live radio call-in show in Muncie, Indiana at 5:05 a.m. It was a great job and working with other RPCV recruiters was a riot. After a couple years of that, I had the chance to serve on a CAST a pre-selection assessment event and became hooked on the idea of training.
I got a job in the staging office in Washington and directed a variety of pre-departure training events with a wonderful cast of remarkably talented RPCVs, psychologists, trainers, social workers, and other members of the Lunatic Fringe.
Both in Chicago and in Washington, I had great leadership my bosses were terrific role models for government service serious, professional, dedicated, open-minded, and effective. I then ran the Stateside Training Program and did programming and training workshops for newly hired Associate Peace Corps Directors.
At the same time, I went to Georgetown to get certified as a trainer. I took a third tour to return to Nepal, with my wife this time, and served as the Training Officer. During that time, they asked me to go to Pakistan to serve as acting Country Director during the summer before the first Gulf War. We then went on to Poland to help that program get up and running.
Eight years on staff? What about the 5-years-in-up-and-out rule?
I got every possible extension I could from the 5-year rule and pushed it to 8
Then a friend suggested I apply for a job in the State Department as a civil service trainer at the Foreign Service Institute I’ve been here ever since. I am the head of one of the five schools of the Institute we focus on transitions into and out of the U.S. foreign affairs community, as well as to overseas assignments and repatriation. We provide security awareness training, cross-cultural, protocol, personal adjustment, career planning, and related training, information and counseling services.
Let’s go back to the Peace Corps training for a moment. From your experience in the Peace Corps how well does the U.S. do cross-cultural training?
My first experience with Peace Corps training was what got me interested in cross-cultural training as a career. Like many Volunteers, I had an extended family home-stay experience early in my program as part of the cross-cultural training. I found it humbling, painful, joyful, and fascinating. Later in my career as a trainer for Peace Corps, it was one of the areas that I never tired of that I always wanted to spend more time on, even when the training program participants weren’t that wild about spending more time on it.
I know that for many governments, NGO, and private sector employees headed for international assignments, interest in cross-cultural training is primarily limited to culture-specific training, that is, people are interested mostly in training to make them more effective in a particular target culture. That’s understandable, but unfortunate: culture-generic cross-cultural training often allows open-minded travelers to explore a higher level of meaning and abstraction, and reap more portable, tangible, and reliable benefits through their efforts.
Who are some of the best Peace Corps trainers when it comes to cross cultural understanding?
I’ve known Craig Storti (Morocco 197072) since I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the late ’70s/early ’80s. I have delighted not only in his commercial success as an author of cross-cultural books, but in the development and sophistication of his writing.
American University’s Gary Weaver has influenced generations of cross-cultural trainers. There are many great authors and trainers associated with Peace Corps cross-cultural training and I believe part of the achievement of the Third Goal is not only in sharing an understanding of other peoples and cultures of the world (culture-specific) among Americans, but also in sharing an understanding of how other cultures vary across the gamut of countries, including our own (culture-generic). Peace Corps has a proud role and history in the development of cross-cultural communication and training as a field.
Okay, let’s talk about your new book for a moment? Why this book? Why this title?
Travel Wise: How to Be Safe, Savvy, and Secure Abroad is a title my publisher, Intercultural Press, suggested. We wanted to signal to readers that this was about more than safety and security it is about maximizing your chances for overseas success, whatever the purpose or mission of your travels.
What do you hope readers will get from your travel book?
I hope readers will develop a sense of smart confidence, based on a better understanding of themselves, the challenges they face, and on some concrete strategies for success as individual travelers and as professionals whose duties include larger organizational responsibilities and challenges as well. It is a book that brings together many component competencies into a realistic and useable framework: cross-cultural skills, security awareness, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and a clear understanding and appreciation of motivation and mission, so that risks can be intelligently mitigated.
Based on your travel experience and all your work in the field how has overseas travel for Americans changes since your were a PCV?
I believe travel has become a bit more dangerous for Americans not just because of the current unpopularity of our foreign policy, but because of the widening gap between the rich and poor, the increased urbanization of the world, the lowering of social inhibitions regarding victimizing people of any ilk, and the high degree of distance and frustration that unemployed people around the world see between their aspirations and their economic realities. After Peace Corps I traveled for 6 months throughout South and Southeast Asia, and rarely thought of my personal security. That just wouldn’t be the case now.
What would you advise RPCVs to do first if they decide to go “home” to their host country for a visit?
Pay attention to travel warnings published by the U.S. Department of State as well as by the Canadian and British foreign ministries. RPCVs will remember the level of comfort and familiarity that they achieved AT THE END of their tenures, and assume, unconsciously, that their revisiting experience will proceed accordingly. That’s just not realistic. Older, wealthier, paunchier Americans made good targets, whether or not they had once served as PCVs. And the (typically) young fellows who will be looking for prey at the airports and back alleys in the capital will neither know nor care of the RPCV’s service.
Who are some of the RPCV travel writers whose work you read and enjoy?
I don’t get a chance to do much pleasure reading, so my exposure to RPCV authors is lamentably narrow. I love to read Craig Storti’s work and have been greatly encouraged and pleased by how his career and writing style have developed over the years. And, of course, I am a sucker for the “vignette” books that Peace Corps has published over the years that consist of brief snippets of various Volunteer experiences written by the Volunteers themselves. The essay books you started and edited, John, when you worked at the Peace Corps back in the ’90s.
Thank you. What are you thinking about writing next?
I’d like to write a book that explores and demonstrates how cross cultural competence gained through Peace Corps experience or elsewhere becomes a vital element in a wide range of applied international business and interpersonal arenas. I teach a class at American University called Intercultural Training & Facilitation, and it is the facilitation part that really needs more documentation, examination, and rigor. My recent experience as a senior executive student at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business made me painfully aware of how little exposure most business people have with fundamentals of intercultural communication and effectiveness.
Ray, thank you for all your time on this interview.
Hey, it’s my pleasure.
Talking about . . .
the Peace Corps Collection
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
IN 1986 AT THE CELEBRATION at the of the twenty-fifty anniversary of the Peace Corps, I put together the first panel discussion on books written by Peace Corps writers. In the large tent on the Mall in Washington, D.C., those RPCVs who love great books and good writing gathered to discuss what RPCVs had written. It was at this meeting that novelist Suzy McKee Charnes (Nigeria 196162) asked if there was a library or museum collecting the writings of RPCVs. [Then (as now) the official records of the Peace Corps are preserved in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. No institution, however, had been systematically saving personal papers and documents of the former Volunteers and staff, and consequently, there was relatively little published on their actual work and experiences.]
As a result of that panel discussion, and the creation of the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (NCRPCV now the NPCA) I was put on a panel of RPCVs to find a home for our writing. The panel was made up of Suzy McKee Charnes, Roger Landrum (Nigeria 196163), Margaret Pollock (Korea 197881) and one or two others, including, as I recall, Bob Cohen (Nigeria 196264), and myself.
I began to contact, as did others on the panel, colleges, universities and museums seeking a home for our collection. I can’t remember what other institutions volunteered to house our documents, but I convinced Notre Dame University and the Kennedy Library in Boston that our work belonged in their libraries.
Father Ted Hesburgh, then in his last year as President of Notre Dame, wrote that ND would be pleased to have the collection. Hesburgh was a great friend of the agency and his university had trained many Volunteers.
When I contacted the Kennedy Library, RPCV Henry Gwiazda (India 196466) was a curator there and he helped to secure the collection for the library. The NCRPCV, then under the leadership of Tim Carroll (Nigeria 1963-65), decided to place the collection in the Kennedy Library.
Recently I emailed the current curator of our Peace Corps Collection, Jaimie Quaglino, at the Kennedy Library about it, her background, and how RPCVs and PCVs can contribute to the Peace Corps Archives. Here’s what Jaimie had to say.
Jaimie, how long have you been at the Library and with the Collection?
I have worked as an archivist at the Kennedy Library since 2005 and with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) Collection since the beginning of this year. Before that, from 20012003, I worked part time assisting with archival work at the Kennedy Library while obtaining my double masters degrees in Archives Management and History at Simmons College in Boston, MA. Both my experience working with a variety of collections at the Kennedy Library, as well as my background in American 20th century history, have given me a good foundation to administer the RPCV Collection.
What is the history of the Peace Corps Collection?
The Collection has two major components to it we collect both the Personal Papers of RPCVs and Oral Histories of RPCVs. The Personal Papers collection was established here about 25 years ago as the result of a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer reunion by the director of the Kennedy Library at that time, Dan Fenn. The Oral Histories have a different story. In 2000, Robert Klein (Ghana 196163), a member of Ghana I, who had been conducting interviews with other Ghana I members in order to write his memoir, approached the library with the idea of conducting interviews with RPCVs from all countries, and creating a more formal Oral History Program that could document all RPCV experiences.
What is in the Collection? And who uses it?
A variety of material comprises the body of work held here. We have letters to friends and family from Volunteers, memos and training guides, newspaper articles documenting Volunteer efforts, postcards, memoirs, and photographs.
How many people use the Collection? And who are they?
We don’t collect independent statistics for use of specific collections, so I am not able to provide a concrete number. Generally speaking, however, most users of the collection are RPCVs themselves, or friends and family of RPCVs.
How does the Collection fit in with the whole scheme of the Library?
The mission of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library is to collect material that documents the life and times of President John F. Kennedy. The Peace Corps Collection documents the efforts of a program that began during Kennedy’s administration, yet still continues today.
What is the Library looking for from Returned Peace Corps Volunteers?
The Library is especially interested in original materials (Personal Papers) and Oral Histories from the early Volunteers and years of the Peace Corps the 1960s in particular. Because of the passing of time, and because of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the program in 2011, it is crucial to document the efforts and experiences of the first Volunteers while their stories and mementos are still available. We are interested only in original materials rather than copies of documents so if you aren’t ready to part with your mementos yet, we don’t want to take them from you! Types of documents can include letters you might have sent to your family documenting your experiences, guides or memos you used during training, photographs relating to your work, and other materials that document your personal experiences working as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
How does one give documents to the Library to be included in the Collection?
Before documents can be accepted into the Collection, we need to know how much material the RPCV has (100 letters in a large box, etc.), the dates of the material, and how the materials specifically relate to their Peace Corps experience in the country in which a volunteer was assigned to. We narrow and focus the materials to document the RPCV experience, while maintaining archival quality documentation. Currently, we collect representative sets (usually limiting them to less than 50) of photographs and slides. We also accept only the original documents rather than photocopies of letters. We request the dates of the RPCV’s service, title, and/or a brief description of their duties in the Peace Corps as well.
Once we have more information and make a decision to accept the materials, we ask the RPCV to send the material to me. I create a deed of gift with an Appendix that describes the donation and send the RPCV two copies that must be hand-signed. We use a standard deed of gift for donations of personal papers.
The major purposes of the deed of gift are to transfer title to the historical materials along to the Government and to establish the terms of access to the materials. The deed of gift provides for unrestricted transfer of title to the United States, a guarantee to the donor that the materials will be preserved in an appropriate depository and that the donor will have access to these materials on request during business hours, the terms of access, permission to dispose of materials deemed physically harmful to other items or historically insignificant, assignment of copyright, and a brief appendix that describes the materials being donated.
We ask the RPCV to sign and date two copies of the deed of gift and return them to me so we can pass them on to the Archivist of the United States to countersign. When we receive the deeds back from the Archivist, we send the RPCV a signed deed and retain one for our records.
While there are many steps in this process, they all work to ensure that documents are well-cared for and accounted for and available for research at the Kennedy Library.
Thank you, Jaimie, for your time with this interview and for your work with our Peace Corps history.
Thank you. It is my pleasure. It’s a great job.
The Adventurous Journeys of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa
by Floyd R. Sandford (Nigeria 196466)
Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964-66)
SINCE 1961 NEARLY two hundred thousand volunteers have served in the Peace Corps. And each one has a story to tell. Unfortunately, the tiny market for these stories discourages editors in the traditional publishing industry from considering most of these manuscripts. Even without a wide reading audience, PCV stories are worth publishing, however, because they provide first-hand narratives of contemporary American history.
Such is the case with African Odyssey: The Adventurous Journeys of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, by Floyd Sandford. This memoir reveals Sandford’s discovery of and adjustment to the complexities and ambiguities of life in Nigeria. He tells his story with restrained, dry humor. And the twenty-five chapters are short, with precise titles that allow readers to move back and forth without losing much context.
Like many Volunteers, Sandford was an independent spirit who wanted to help the less advantaged and to study the African environment. When returning to mainstream American life, Sandford passed through the “re-entry” shock of returning to a rich, ethnocentric nation that wasted its own plentiful resources. Already so inclined, he dedicated his life to educating Americans about the importance of cultural and bio diversity and conservation.
Like most of us who served in Nigeria in the sixties, Sandford identifies Nigeria’s potential as a regional model for African progress. And like many of us, he is disillusioned by Nigeria’s deteriorating educational system and government corruption.
The vast majority of RPCVs, such as Floyd Sandford, Ph. D., work in non-literary fields. Sandford, who retired in 2005 after thirty five years of teaching at Coe College in Cedar Rapid, Iowa, specialized in hermit crab sponges. He published extensively in the field, conducted dozens of marine biology field trips to locations around the globe, and is building a biodiverse “haven for all things wild and free” on thirty acres of land in northeast Iowa.
To get his book published, Sandford contacted an agent, who recommended that he try iUniverse, a popular print-on-demand vanity press. In the end, Sandford paid $800 for the first run, according to Rob Cine of The Iowa Source. The result is a professional-looking product, with a glossy cover and sidebars in each chapter. The major shortcoming is that many of the black and white photos are so dark it is difficult to identify faces and objects.
My criticisms of the book are minor. Sandford’s use of scientific jargon encouraged me to scan parts of some chapters. And his colorful descriptions of Yoruba people, their dress, and activities seem only to fill space, rather than to advance the narrative.
Non-fiction is difficult to write for a broad audience. There are a few former Volunteers who have excelled: Paul Cowan, Peter Hessler, Mike Tidwell, P. F. Kluge, Bob Shacochis, or Moritz Thomsen, to name just a few RPCV non-fiction writers.
For me, Sandford's account demonstrates why fiction is probably the best way to present the PC experience. But his book is certainly a valuable addition to the growing collection of Peace Corps memoirs that deserve to be collected in a central library for future researchers.
Perhaps the most important theme in Sandford’s book is his passage on understanding other cultures:
I found that restructuring one’s cultural cognitive universe requires time, and direct immersion in another cultural matrix rarely results in immediate acceptance or understanding. There is no cultural “quick fix.” True understanding comes slowly, often painfully so. For myself, my African immersion was too superficial, the time not enough.
Tony Zurlo has ten poems appearing in the anthology In These Latitudes: Ten Contemporary Poets. Edited by Robert Bonazzi. San Antonio: Wings Press, 2008 and a short story, “Marco’s Marcoroni.” in the anthology, Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian Americana. NY: Fordham University Press, 2008.
He has published books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, Syria, and on the American Congress. And his Op-eds and reviews have appeared in many newspapers and journals.
by Bill Owens (Jamaica 196466)
Reviewed by Noah Beil
BILL OWENS PHOTOGRAPHS suburban, middle-class America. But what does he really think of suburbia? Does he dwell in the suburbs as an observer and pass judgment on his neighbors? Or, after forty years of immersing himself, has he embraced the lifestyle and become assimilated?
Bill Owens grew up on a farm near San Jose, California. In 1966, Owens returned from a stint in Jamaica serving in the Peace Corps set on becoming a photographer. Beginning in 1968, he worked for a local newspaper in Livermore, California, a suburb of San Francisco. While shooting local news stories, he developed the idea of a social documentary project that would examine suburban life. Raised a Quaker, Owens felt strongly that he wanted to improve the world, and one way he could do this was to document the excessive consumerism found in the suburbs. This documentary project became his successful book Suburbia, released in 1972.
In the seventies, Owens released several more books and freelanced for magazines but found he wasn’t able to support his family through photography. He viewed advertising work as selling out and wasn’t interested in losing control of his artistic vision. He instead turned to another interest, brewing beer, and opened brew pubs and published a magazine about beer making. He has only recently returned to photography, seemingly energized by the freedom offered by digital technology.
His new book, Bill Owens, is a survey of his career, from his early photojournalism covering chaos at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in 1968 through conceptual projects like Suburbia and Our Kind of People, a look at community organizations. The book also includes new digital color work from a cross-country photographic expedition as well as a recent continuation of his Suburbia project.
Owens is a master of locating interesting subjects in what many would consider mundane surroundings. One image from the Suburbia series shows a young man perched in the branches of a spindly, nearly bare tree, plucking the few remaining leaves while another man, perhaps his father, gathers a pile of leaves on the ground . The caption reads: “My dad thinks it’s a good idea to take all the leaves off the tree and rake up the yard. I think he’s crazy.”
Owens has a gentle, restrained sense of humor that shows in his image selection and the captions he chooses to accompany his photographs. His subjects are often smiling, a welcome relief from the blank faces common in today’s deadpan portraits. One of his images from Our Kind of People is a group portrait of the “Avon Bottle Club.” At the center of the group, a man stands proudly at attention, happy to lead his group of friends who “all have shelves full of Avon bottles.” These are ordinary people in what might be considered an ordinary photograph, but Owens’s sly sense of humor and eye for odd subjects makes his work more than straightforward documentary.
Owens’s sense of humor is still present in his most recent images, but other aspects of his work have changed. He has moved to a digital camera producing color images. Most of the older photographs in the book are portraits, while few of the newer images contain people. He now looks to objects, buildings, and landscapes to describe his environment.
While his environment has changed in the last forty years, it has also stayed the same. Owens still lives in the suburbs of San Francisco surrounded by shopping malls, subdivisions, and wacky people and his photographs still show us the variety that exists even in the suburbs. Owens delayed his artistic dreams in order to make a living, raise two sons, get divorced, run several businesses, and essentially live a middle-class suburban existence. In the book American Photography, Jonathan Green states “suburbia is a place of pervasive uniformity” and, about Owens’s Suburbia project, “for Owens, suburbia is beyond redemption.” I disagree. If Owens felt that way about suburbia, he would have left long ago.
Noah Beil is a photographer studying man's interaction with the earth. He lives in Oakland, California. His work can be seen at: www.NoahBeil.com .
Death Will Get You Sober
by Elizabeth Zelvin (Cote d'Ivoire 196466)
St. Martin's Minotaur
Reviewed by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567)
ELIZABETH ZEVLIN’S FIRST NOVEL has all the ingredients of a delicious mystery: slightly goofy, i.e. charming sleuths, fascinating behind-the-scenes info, and a satisfying, slam-bang surprise ending.
Bruce is a recovering alcoholic who resides on-and-off at a residential detox center in New York’s Bowery full of really disgusting drunks along with employees who are either nasty foul-mouthed guards, or saintly Sisters of Mercy. Bruce’s co-sleuth Barbara is a nosy-parker employee/counselor at the center and, handily, Barbara’s boyfriend, Jimmy, who is also Bruce’s long-time best friend, is a computer hacker. (Whenever Bruce and Barbara need to get into some secret file, they just have Jimmy do it. How clever of Zelvin to make this conceit work splendidly.)
Bruce witnesses the sad death of a fellow alcoholic named Guff, a fellow he likes a lot though the other residents rather resent Guff since he’s rich. “Ivy League is not cool on the Bowery,” Bruce tells us. If Guff weren’t rich, he’d have ended up in a dive in Hell’s Kitchen, now becoming “fashionable Clinton.” Bruce further informs us that New York is always reinventing itself: “Hi, I’m Clinton, I’m a grateful recovering neighborhood.” Bruce, obviously, is damn funny. (But notice the punctuation error in his line of dialogue more on that later.)
After Guff dies in the cot next to Bruce’s, Barbara takes note that there have been a couple of similar unexplained deaths of decrepit alcoholics. It is her curiosity, Bruce’s sympathy for Guff, and Jimmy’s love and affection for the two sleuths that send them off to confirm their suspicion that Guff was murdered.
There follows ongoing clever deduction, plus great tension as the sleuths elicit information from dubious characters by pretending they are what they aren’t, and considerable suspense while the reader becomes entangled in Guff’s family secrets. We are three-quarters through the book before a second body turns up (three new bodies actually, one after the other, all directly connected to Guff’s family). First, Guff’s brother-in-law (a plastic surgeon) is clobbered, next his sister and finally the brother-in-law’s receptionist. I love it when a mystery writer saves all the really good stuff for the end. The climax is terrific because the author has left clues throughout as to who perpetrated the crime but hides them brilliantly.
So guess what? No forensics. I happen to be of the Joe Friday school of, “Send for the boys from the lab,” rather than the sort of mystery fan who loves autopsy gore and the vicarious thrill of carefully measuring the size of a maggot happily making its home in a stab wound to determine when death occurred. Yuck.
The behind-the-scenes stuff I mentioned earlier has to do with the nuts and bolts of detox, notably the slogans endlessly repeated, AA’s twelve steps, and how counselors and alcoholics alike know it’s all bullshit. It would seem that what the steps and mantras accomplish is to numb an alcoholic’s brain so he comes to see the value of self-examination the alternative is to be bored to death. I found it provocative. (Mind you, Zelvin stops the action midway to spend a page-and-a-half telling us, dear reader, that AA works. She must have felt guilty as she is a counselor herself.)
Now the downside: schlocky production on the part of the publisher as in no running headers to remind us who and what we’re reading, and unnumbered blank pages appearing at the end of chapters. (St. Martin’s Minotaur is no Alfred A. Knopf, senator.) But that aside, what is more egregious is that this author is in the process of learning craft. She has not yet mastered delivering a tale from the first person voice that requires managing scenes that take place out of sight and earshot of the narrator. Such skill comes from a great deal of study and practice, and I have no doubt that the author will eventually crack that nut I mean, look at how she leaves clues that you don’t notice. So five of the twenty-seven chapters, without any sort of consistency, drop Bruce’s narrative and point of view, and replace it with an omniscient voice that comes out of nowhere. The first time it happened, I thought, Uh-oh, is the author going courageously out upon a limb to show that something happened to Bruce? Then I thought, this is snarky we’re going to find out he’s dead. Then I figured that this whole thing was Barbara the sleuth writing a novel within a novel. I couldn’t believe it when I realized what was actually going on.
Incredibly, St. Martin’s Minotaur has bought and published a novel wherein the narration switches from first person to third person, back and forth, back and forth because the author hasn’t the experience to pull off what she needed to do. This when graduates of Iowa can’t get contracts! But hey, more power to Elizabeth Zelvin. She must have been a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Bottom line, you’ll enjoy Death Will Get You Sober if you are able to keep a resounding glitch from spoiling the fun.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has written eight novels including the Poppy Rice Mysteries, and an acclaimed memoir, Girls of Tender Age. Her new book, Dirty Water: A Red Sox Mystery, written in collaboration with her son Jere Smith will be published on September 1. She is working on a Civil War novel.
A Retiree’s Peace Corps Journal from South Africa
by Sydney Kling (South Africa 200103)
(Buy from )
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 19751977)
SYDNEY KLING OFFERS intellectual communion with her South African Peace Corps’ journal while bearing witness to a nation that once was the African locomotive but now has been derailed by the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS on the planet. More than five million of its citizens are infected and the prevalence of this disease will affect South Africa for decades to come as the nation’s rail ties of community and family disintegrate. Recent studies project that the South African Gross National Product will drop by one fifth in coming years, compounding the plight. “Obtaining the knowledge that one is HIV positive and listening to all the counseling in the world will not make proper medications and treatment accessible,” explains the author.
Kling personalizes the epidemic, describing the deaths of friends, their relatives, and a parade of funerals. There are also unintended and sometimes forgotten victims, children. The author works hard to arrange surgery for an eleven year old with a tumor on his arm. Only afterwards does she meet the boy’s young mother, herself very ill and approaching congestive heart failure.
Kling offers a unique perspective. Like an increasing number of Volunteers, she joined the Peace Corps at the age of sixty-seven after retirement. Unlike the majority of Volunteers working to fight AIDS, she was already a seasoned nurse and describes with great precision the effects of this modern plague: “She, only 19 years of age, was lying on a mat on the floor in a corner of a very dark, stifling hot room. Her skin was cool and dry to my touch . . . Her pulse was too rapid to count . . .. Her lips were parched and blistered.”
The author also includes vivid descriptions of customs. For instance, for celebrations a Ndebele woman has her head shaved “and a band of beads has been placed around the forehead…Dark marks have been made down the center of her forehead. Several rings encircle her neck. Circlets of beads go around this and down the shoulders. Most also have on arm and leg bands made of more beads.”
There are those who consider journals “subjective” or “fanciful.” Journals, letters, and interviews form historical cornerstones for they offer future generations unfiltered witness. Kling has prepared such a cornerstone describing South Africa during a horrible era. Anyone concerned about the epidemic should read this book. One hopes that it will soon pass and the parades of funerals may be replaced with increasing numbers of beaded ceremonies. Proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the HIV and AIDS affected families in Siyabuswa Township.
Lawrence F. Lihosit works as a city planner. His books are published by A Book Company that plans to release two new books in July 2008: Jesus Was Arrested in Mexico City and Missed the Wedding (a travel narrative) and Attack of the Claw (poetry). He can be reached directly at LawrenceFLihosit@gamil.com
Jesus Was Arrested in Mexico City & Missed the Wedding
by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 197577)
A Book Company
Reviewed by Rick Yurman
WHEN LAWRENCE F. LIHOSIT first wrote Jesus Was Arrested in Mexico City & Missed the Wedding, the term creative non-fiction had not yet come into common usage, so he sub-titled it “A Travel Narrative” but this book is much more than a travelogue. Lihosit uses novelistic techniques and metaphorical juxtaposing of events to create a story of social, political and class relations of Mexico City.
The story begins with preparations for a Mexican in-law’s wedding to a Canadian in Mexico City. This is the bridegroom’s first time in Mexico and he is a fish out of water. Lihosit had gone through something similar years before with his own marriage, except the Canadian speaks only English and French while Larry had trained in Spanish during his Peace Corps years. This time around, Lihosit is able to observe more and understands more of what the family and the bridegroom are going through.
Alongside this narrative, however, there is the story of Fernando and his family, people Lihosit had been involved with politically in an earlier time during a battle to prevent to destruction of a working class area. Things had gotten pretty hot and Lihosit had been forced to flee the country. Returning for the first time, he is constantly on the look-out for Mexican agents who might still want to deal with him.
When he contacts Fernando and finds out that a mutual friend (Jesus) has been arrested, Lihosit is drawn back into the world of political and class conflict despite the demands of his wife and mother-in-law that he steer clear of such troublesome and dangerous people so as not spoil the wedding.
Using novelistic techniques like flash backs and parallel structuring, Lihosit weaves an intriguing tale that shows what he learned about the structure of Mexican society and the political forces at work there. This combination of creative devices and political insights raises Jesus Was Arrested in Mexico City & Missed the Wedding to a whole different level and makes it far more worth reading than any simple travel book would be.
Rich Yurman is a retired English professor (Skyline College, San Bruno, California) and a far from retired poet. He is the co-author of two plays produced by The Red Balloon Theater Company and the author of several poetry books. His most recent works include Giraffe (March Street Press) and Fascination Dolls (Snark Publications). More than fifty of his poems have appeared in various literary magazines.
The Last Days of Old Beijing
Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed
by Michael Meyer (China 199597)
Walker & Company
Reviewed by Sam Stokes (Côte d’Ivoire 196365)
The Last Days of Old Beijing is several stories woven together. It is the personal account of a former Peace Corps Volunteer who, in 2005, rents rooms in one of Beijing’s hutong neighborhoods, teaches English in the local primary school, makes friends with his neighbors, washes at the communal bathhouse, and plays pick-up hockey on the frozen moats of the Forbidden City. It is also a portrayal of neighborhoods destroyed, residents uprooted, and traditional businesses and local restaurants replaced by Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and Hooters; and it is the history of top-down urban planning in Beijing. Over the centuries most of the city, at one time or another, has been destroyed by fire, earthquake, invaders, and bureaucrats, and then rebuilt according to a new vision.
Hutong are the narrow pedestrian-scale streets of old Beijing, dating to the thirteenth century. Hidden behind the plain gray walls that line the hutong are once-elegant courtyard homes, now subdivided and falling into disrepair. Yet they are part of a vibrant community, where neighbors know each other, adults look after each other’s children, and everyone patronizes local vendors. Beijing’s hutong are fast disappearing, prey to government plans to make the city a showcase of modern China and, in particular, to impress visitors arriving from around the world for this summer’s Olympics.
Chinese citizens may own usage rights to the buildings they inhabit, but the land belongs to the state. The government has sold to commercial developers the rights to rebuild on much of Beijing’s land. Developers, whom many suspect to be in collusion with city officials, are forcing hundreds of thousands of long-time residents to move on short notice, offering paltry payments that supposedly allow hutong dwellers to buy elsewhere. But the only affordable options are apartments in nondescript housing blocks far from the center of the city away from jobs, friends, and familiar routines.
Meyer is at his best when he introduces us to his hutong neighbors, including his elderly landlady, “the Widow,” who makes sure he is well supplied with her steaming dumplings; “Recycler Wang,” who haggles over scrap paper and used bottles, and shows Meyer how he ekes out a living; soldier Liu, owner of a soon-to-be-closed shaved-noodle restaurant; Old Zhang, who refuses orders to move until he can get a better relocation price; Miss Zhu, Meyer’s fellow English teacher at the Coal Lane Elementary School; his earnest student, Little Liu, struggling to learn English so as to be better prepared to greet Olympic visitors; and Little Liu’s father, who raises pigeons, a hutong tradition that is banned in the new apartment blocks to which the family will soon have to move. We also meet Chinese intellectuals concerned about the destruction of the city’s past, but largely powerless to act.
About the only people we don’t meet and I would have liked to are the faceless bureaucrats and developers responsible for painting the Chinese character for “raze” on the walls of buildings slated for demolition. “The Hand,” as the character is referred to locally, appears without warning, “like a gang tag, or the work of a specter,” presaging the community upheaval soon to come.
A few hutong have been saved, but the restored or rebuilt residences, even when made to resemble the buildings they have replaced, lose much of their character when their former residents are forced out. While Meyer laments the destruction of historic neighborhoods, it is the passing of a way of life that disturbs him the most. Each year, as American chain restaurants make further inroads into China, fewer traditional foods are available in local eateries. The loss of customary amenities, and of networks of kinship and friendship, concern residents more than the loss of the buildings they have lived in buildings that are often dilapidated, and lack plumbing and heat.
Meyer writes: “Whenever I left the hutong, I missed Beijing. I missed not its tangible architecture, but the intangible lifestyle that navigated and lived within it. I missed things I didn’t know to appreciate at the time, such as commercial streets that invited strolling before the Hand invaded their space. Grandmothers gossiping outside at five in the morning. Men walking to the market wearing silk pajamas. Long meals outside around a steaming hot pot.” Meyer speaks eloquently to the near-universal Peace Corps experience of growing to appreciate the rich sense of community and the slower pace of life present in so many of the countries in which Peace Corps Volunteers have served.
Redevelopment of historic neighborhoods is taking place the world over, but perhaps nowhere so rapidly as in China. Figuring out who is responsible for development or conservation, let alone having an impact on the decisions, is particularly challenging for those concerned with historic preservation in China. Meyer has painted a vivid picture of life in the hutong, and one can only hope that the Chinese authorities will come to realize that it is just as important to guard the cultural heritage of these communities as it is to protect the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.
Sam Stokes has directed programs to protect natural areas and historic resources for the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is the principal author of Saving America’s Countryside: A Guide to Rural Conservation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). Sam has advised many American communities and several African governments on their heritage conservation programs. For the World Bank and UNESCO, he has helped train Chinese officials in heritage conservation.
The Man Who Loved Rilke
by Eric Torgersen (Ethiopia 196365)
March Street Press
Reviewed by Shlomo Bachrach (Staff/Ethiopia 196668)
THIS SUBSTANTIAL NOVELLA begins with t-shirts sold at a campus poetry reading that has printed on them “Rilke was a wimp.” Not a promising start, I thought. But the t-shirts revive a connection between the narrator and Charley, “The Man Who Loved Rilke.” Rilke himself, the early 20th Century German poet, hovers over every page. The story slowly picks up momentum and a lot more weight than one expects in only 61 pages.
Torgerson, a published poet, approaches prose with the poet’s goal of making few words carry a lot of freight. He quickly sketches an amusing insider’s view of campus poets and wannabes, their self importance, self doubt, competitiveness, the academic jousting, the time killing over small quarterlies, looking for the names of friends. This last is more than just amusing since it rubs the narrator’s nose in Charley and Rilke. The narrator, a prose writer by trade stumbles on Charley’s “Refusing The Dog” essay in The Ragged Review, about Rilke based on a letter of his written in the 1920s.
The discovery fully reopens the relationship that the t-shirts started. Charley and the narrator had been close friends in a college writing program. Charley had already made Rilke the template of a true artist, and his obsession grew until it took over his life . . . his poems, his teaching career and his role as husband and father. Rilke utterly dominated Charley’s being, destroying his marriage and ultimately killing him. The process, artfully revealed by Torgerson, is less bizarre and more tragic than seems likely at first.
The joyless but not unappealing narrator becomes Torgerson’s device for uncovering the roots of Charley’s collapse. This might have remained a quirky story about a weirdo who goes off the deep end, but Torgerson makes Charley an extreme example of the familiar. Like Charley, we all carry some baggage.
The image of Rilke is bulked up for the role he has to play. Rilke, we learn, was raised as a girl until age seven; the t-shirt displays a young boy in a dress. The endless self regard of a narcissist, and the poet’s obsessions about art that hypnotized Charley, emerge in letters that Torgerson, a Rilke scholar, quotes from liberally. They reveal a man always on stage as a self-conscious artist, a calling that trumps everything, particularly human relationships.
Charley is fired when a Rilke paper he wrote turned out to be based on his own forged Rilke letter. His life implodes. He leaves his family and goes into the woods to wrestle with the demon of Rilke not with the poet but with the arbiter of a true artist’s life. It’s not a fair fight, as Charley must have known. The narrator shows us the jiu jitsu Charley’s own life story measured by the standards of the Master he loved and hated that threw him to the ground.
With Charley’s retreat and subsequent death the pace picks up. The narrator visits his widow and children then takes a reluctant trip to the cabin where Charley died. Of hunger? Exposure? It doesn’t matter. A coroner would say he OD’ed on Rilke.
Torgerson writes appealing and transparent prose. For the most part, the surface story moves along nicely. Yet this short narrative sets off echoes that go beyond the story and artists, and raises questions about existence, trust and intimacy and the price we pay when we lose sight of universal human needs.
Shlomo Bachrach distributes online news about the Horn of Africa to those interested in that part of the world. To be added to his listserve, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The news items also appear on his web site www.eastafricaforum.net.
When asked, he still works on Ethiopia development projects, most recently on the trademarking of Ethiopian coffee varieties.
Requiem for Mrs. Surratt
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890)
The Word Works Capital Collection
Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196465)
CHRISTOPHER CONLON, LIKE many major American poets, finds inspiration for much of his poetry from American history. The Weeping Time, his moving collection about a slave auction, and his award-winning Gilbert & Garbo are two outstanding examples.
Poets with Conlon’s talent step far beyond the history, however. He writes, “[T]here are different ways for a thing to be true.” And only literature can even hint at these enigmatic, primal emotions and thoughts that drive human behavior. To account for his own inspiration Conlon quotes Arthur Miller’s idea of dreams: “First find facts. . . and then dream about them.” Conlon says, “The writing comes from the dreaming.”
Conlon’s newest book of poems Mary Falls: Requiem for Mrs. Surratt speculates on the emotional life of Mary Surratt, a forgotten character in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Convicted of conspiracy in the plot, Mary Surratt was hanged on July 7, 1865 with three other male conspirators. She was the first woman executed by the U.S. government. President Andrew Johnson refused to commute her sentence to life, saying she “She Kept the Nest That Hatched the Egg.”
Mary Falls: Requiem for Mrs. Surratt forces readers to imagine themselves as Southern-bred Mrs. Surratt, schooled at a Roman Catholic female seminary. Conlon offers a sympathetic view, presenting her as a victim of an alcoholic husband who raped and brutalized her continuously. The poem “The Last Time” portrays their last sexual encounter: “he’s mad-eyes / with drink, leaping atop her, . . . / pulling apart her legs / like dismembering a chicken.”
When her husband John dies, Mrs. Surratt, who became sole owner of a boarding house in Washington, D.C., expresses the bitter-sweet emotion that widows in that era must have all experienced. In the poem “Free,” she watches “the wild geese / glide over the trees, / free as they are / from profit / or loss, from / patrons or creditors, / free from / the life that shackles / her with her / widow’s freedom.”
Conlon also brings into play the rumor of an affair between Mrs. Surratt and her parish priest Father Finotti. In “Thief in the Night” she “weeps openly, . . / for days” because father Finotti has been “banished (everyone knows why) / . . . When he goes / it’s under cover of darkness, as if / in shame . . ..”
The suspense is highest in the third portion of the book, “Theater of War.” Conlon presents Mrs. Surratt as a naïve but suspicious outsider who watches as her son John, a Confederate spy, seems to be plotting with John Wilkes Booth and others. Conlon writes in “January 1, 1865” that when Booth “appears for the first time / . . . Mary is struck dumb: / he’s the most beautiful man but / more than a man!” Her fascination with Booth reflects one of Conlon’s major themes: Mrs. Surratt was dominated by men, from her husband, Father Finotti, her son, Booth, and others. In “The Immaculate” Conlon presents Mrs. Surratt’s awe of men.
foreign about them . . . as if they had
descended from some other world to dazzle,
to enchant, to abuse, to kill, but never
just to live, never simply to be, not born
of woman at all or rather, not of man;
. . . each one distant, alone,
immaculate in his beauty and violence, poised
to engulf her in his icy, alienated embrace.
I agree completely with Earl Hamner, author of Spencer’s Mountain and creator of The Waltons, who writes about Conlon: “I am convinced that Christopher Conlon is an extremely important poet, and that in time to come he will be recognized as a major voice in our literature.”
Tony Zurlo’s poetry and fiction have appeared in more than one hundred print and online journals, including Red River Review, Clockwise Cat, Long Story Short, Peace Corps Writers, Fickle Muses, Open Window, VerbSap, November 3rd Club, Armageddon Buffet, Literary Fever, and The Cynic. He also has published books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria. His op-eds and reviews have appeared in many newspapers and online journals, including the Houston Chronicle, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Online Journal, and Democrats.US.
Midnight on Mourn Street
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890)
Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 199698)
IF EDGAR ALLAN POE’S MUSE is the raven, Christopher Conlon’s comes in the form of a phoenix tattooed on the back of Mauri, the young, mysterious co-protagonist in Conlon’s new novel Midnight on Mourn Street. Like the raven of Poe, Mauri descends on Reed, a man obsessed and haunted by a past love and enduring guilt, and relentlessly torments him. In the process, Mauri implicates herself and becomes intertwined in Reed’s dark trajectory.
Poe feels like an apt comparison, especially in terms of atmosphere, which Conlon is adept at establishing. The feeling of gloom and dark brooding that pervades the novel is one of its strongest points. While Poe focuses, perhaps, on the more startling images of the macabre, Conlon expertly exposes and taps into more realistic veins of horror, the terrible things people do to each other and to themselves. Conlon employs dreams, memories, and madness, even, in ways that warp conscious perception in his characters and add a subtle phantasmagoric effect. In doing so, he does something new, redefines the standard conventions of horror or expands the genre into other domains of the novel. It’s fairly safe to say that nothing supernatural happens here . . . but the cumulative effect of the terrible things that happen to Mauri and Reed is horrible, in a more real sense of the word. The nature of that horror is as much social as it is psychological.
As the novel opens, we get a sense of Reed, a man bordering on middle age, who seems to be attempting to rebuild his life from what, we are unaware. Will, a young, rising, African-American youth, ostensibly college bound, is his only close friend. One night Reed notices a young teen, Mauri, homeless, outside his apartment complex. He invites her in to take shelter, providing the means for the rest of the novel to progress as relationships form and shift among the three and their histories are revealed. In the process, we learn much about Reed and Mauri, the nature of their guilt, obsessions, and dysfunction. While the novel centers around them, Will symbolizes their lifeline to the outside world, as the only other major character, particularly the only one that has meaningful interactions with outsiders. In the book’s preface, William Nolan describes Will as a “guardian angel” who appears at times of need to intercede on behalf of the protagonists.
While the novel focuses on Reed a little more than Mauri, she was the more compelling of the two to this reader. Particularly, it was hard not to turn a skeptical eye to Conlon’s construction of the only strong female character as a girl in her young teens, homeless, turned to various forms of prostitution, etc., becoming involved with a much older man. I think it was the nature of that involvement, not romantic, only tinged with sexual undertones, but evolving into some more essential or deeper connection, that redeems the novel, as well as the characters themselves. It also speaks to Conlon’s craft that he’s created characters like Reed, that remain with us after we’ve finished the book, worrying at our sensibilities, poised on a razor’s edge between redemption and condemnation. I found the state of the characters at the end of the book interesting and the ending surprising and satisfying.
Midnight on Mourn Street is compactly written and a quick read, but well worth it. Readers should bear in mind that this is Conlon’s first novel, not in order to make allowances for what they’re reading, but in order to savor the anticipation of what’s to come.
Paul Shovlin is completing a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at Ohio University and serving as an Assistant Director for the Center for Writing Excellence. He specializes in new media and writing technologies. He lives in Athens, Ohio with his wife and son.
A Small Harvest of Pretty Days
by Larry Kimport (Malaysia 198082)
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 200002, Madagascar 200203)
LARRY KIMPORT’S SECOND NOVEL, A Small Harvest of Pretty Days, is a letter from a time, way of life, and mode of storytelling that evokes the best of turn-of-the-century Americana easily sentimentalized in lesser hands. But Kimport manages to transport us to 1890’s Pennsylvania with relatively little overt façade; he taps the reservoir of this lost world in his first few paragraphs and offers a page-turner of a novel as gripping as it is harrowing. What Kimport does so well is what the great novelist constantly referenced in his book Mark Twainbecame the first American master of: characterization. Kimport’s narrator and protagonist, Clara Waltz, is as rich and subtle a heroine as any of the myriad folk Twain so precisely drew as to carve them onto our collective consciousness. Indeed, it is impossible not to talk about Kimport and Twain in the same breath in the context of this book, because Huck Finn, Twain’s greatest character of all, becomes an actual, indeed central, player in its pages.
At its heart, A Small Harvest of Pretty Days is a murder mystery in period dress. Narrated through the confessional prism of time, the book opens with Clara being followed by a couple of “brutish looking” men on “our frozen road to Montoursville,” another of the small, conservative lumber towns that dotted the Susquehanna Valley. One of the men participated in a brutal gang-rape of Clara a decade before, a rape that resulted in Clara’s conceiving twins, one of whom she lost in birth, and the other, her daughter Emma who has since accompanied her in her life of marginalization, menial labor, and shame.
For after her rape, Clara did not go quietly about her business as the mores of her time wanted her to do, but leveled her finger directly at her attackers, some of whom were upstanding and prosperous members of the community. Instead of coming together to bring Clara justice, the people of the valley did to Clara what the people of Puritan Boston did to Hester Prynne: they placed the blame on her.
Kimport has a gift for action, and the bodies pile up quickly. The first to go is a horse, its neck cut open by a stranger’s knife, and the second is its rider Clara’s principle attacker, Horace Wills killed and stuffed through a hole in the river ice. Clara, hiding at the roadside during these events, manages to witness the face of the man exacting revenge upon her enemies: the aging Hank Finley, an itinerant laborer who has recently drifted into the area, and who circumstance and suspicion begin to hint to Clara may in fact be the legendary Huckleberry Finn. Both Clara and Hank become prime suspects in the mounting murders, and their constant persecution by the area constables brings them together to the very precipice of love. When a traveling circus comes to town with, as the barker boasts, “[T]he grown-up man of Huckleberry Finn!! And his most faithful, most true companion, the Nigger Jim!!” among its cast, the novel reaches its boiling point, and what Clara and reader both must know “Is Hank Finley really Huck Finn?”is revealed in a dramatic twist that even Mark Twain couldn’t have penned. A dark and brooding book that meditates on love in those years beyond youth and illusion, A Small Harvest of Pretty Days will satisfy readers fascinated with a culture, historical period, and most importantly a morality that exacted its bitter social punishment on those least deserving of any punishment at all.
Tony D’Souza, a current Guggenheim Fellow, is the author of Whiteman and The Konkans. He lives in far northern California, where he is a reporter for the Mt. Shasta Herald. His website is www.tonydsouza.com.
Two Years In Poland
And Other Stories
by Lawrence Brane Siddall (Poland 199799)
Pelham Springs Press
Reviewed by Martha Martin (Costa Rica 197981)
AFTER FINISHING Lawrence Siddall’s memoir I looked at the photographs of Poland and Russia on his website, and that is when his Peace Corps experience came to life for me.
The first and third parts of Siddall’s memoir concern his experiences as a teacher of English in Świdnica, Poland, and his travels in Europe and Russia during his service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
The second part of the memoir details his fascinating overland trip in a Volkswagen Beetle from Oslo to Delhi and related side trips. It took place at a much earlier time in his life, after he served in the military in Germany and before graduate school, professional life as a psychoanalyst, and retirement. The maps showing the route taken, along with the vivid descriptions of the landscape, people, cities and food, depict places we are familiar with because of the Gulf War and the war in Iraq at a time when there was another conflict in the Middle East, one over the Suez Canal, when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt in 1956.
What Siddall leaves out of this memoir is as interesting as what he writes about. There is very little about his professional life as a psychoanalyst, which he describes once to students in his high school English class in Świdnica after being asked what he had done to make a living. At the beginning of Chapter 2, Part 1 he writes, “I was in excellent health, I had no debt, my grown children were doing well, and my ex-wife was working.” That, along with the desire “to do something out of the ordinary” and “restlessness” led him to submit his application to the Peace Corps. Disappointed at first to be invited to Poland and not a Latin American country, he ultimately realized that Poland was right next door to Munich, where he had spent two happy years serving in the military. It is almost as if the 34 years he spent working as a psychoanalyst and raising his family were simply a bridge between his days as a young man in Europe, the Middle East and India and his return to Europe (Poland) as an older man. I am curious about the years on the bridge.
There are a lot of thoughtful ideas for teachers of English as a second language. I was particularly intrigued by the English summer camp Siddall describes. Half of the campers were Polish and half were Russian. He writes, “The overall theme of the camp was learning how democracy works. Our goal was to have each cabin vote on a representative, and then the representatives, with our help, would draft a constitution.” I like the idea of English as the language of democracy.
My only major complaint about Two Years in Poland is that I found the dialogue to be wooden and unconvincing. I attended a screening of “quarterlife” recently and got some interesting advice from Marshall Herskovitz on writing dialogue: record yourself making an unscripted news announcement, and then listen to the recording. He said that he considered himself to be an articulate person and was really surprised by how many pauses, “ahs” and other unexpected turns of phrase appeared in his own speech.
Martha Martin is an Admissions and Academic Consultant at the School of Management at George Mason University. She is working on a story about her own Peace Corps experience and is an avid runner, currently training for her fifth Marine Corps Marathon in as many years.
by Alan Gottlieb (Ecuador 198081)
Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 196365)
I LEARNED A HARD LESSON reading Alan Gottlieb’s novel, Ultimate Excursions. I saw all too clearly the sand trap one can land in myself included when writing from autobiographical material, no matter how fictionalized the story may be, when the plot revolves around resolving a trauma in one’s past.
Gottlieb’s protagonist, Tim Lake, suffers from a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder brought on by an event that occurred during his service in the Peace Corps; while on vacation in Peru with a fellow Volunteer, Tim witnessed his traveling companion’s death by overdose, after which, he became complicit in a cover-up by an in-country Peace Corps official. The novel begins with a graphic depiction of the death and its aftermath. The narrative that follows is the tale of Tim’s trials along his path toward absolution for his guilt and redemption in the eyes of his fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
Gottlieb has written a page-turner. The emotion beneath the surface of the prose is palpable, and such a journey is particularly compelling for those of us who suffer our own guilt about ethical and personal failings during our Peace Corps service. His depiction of PTSD is remorselessly accurate the depression, numbness, lethargy, rage, flashbacks, and self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Gottlieb, a long-time newspaper reporter, has used his journalistic skills to create indelible characters, in particular a young African American man named Eugene who works in the mailroom of the Standard Bearer, the New Haven newspaper where Tim lands a reporting job. Tim becomes Eugene’s mentor and friend. Gottlieb’s depiction of Tim’s dinner at Eugene’s housing project apartment is a stunner a masterful balance of compassion, pathos, and humor. The relationship with Eugene is also wonderful up until the moment when Gottlieb takes a fatal turn and has Tim betray Eugene in such a ruthless way that I’m afraid he lost this reader’s sympathy for the rest of the book.
And herein lies the rub. Another aspect of PTSD is self-involvement and self-indulgence. The infuriating narcissism is more palatable and remediable in real life when you’re dealing with the whole person, often someone you love, but when writing a character and particularly when choosing the first person as your means, it’s very hard to find the balance that will keep the reader from growing impatient with the character, and unfortunately, by extension with the author. I’m sorry to say this is what happens in the course of reading Ultimate Excursions.
To Gottlieb’s credit, by the end of the book, he lets on that he understands this problem, in particular, the reader’s impatience with Tim and his mishegoss. Speaking of the discrepancy between his characters distress and the seeming insignificance of his trauma, he says in Tim’s words:
From a decade’s distance, it had a tinny sound small and insignificant and unworthy of the attention it had drawn. A young guy died a stupid death, I witnessed it. I contributed to it in my panic. A mid-level bureaucrat decided to cover his ass by concealing the truth of the matter. Happens all the time. Deal with it. Get on with your life. Sounds easy. Except the image of Mark’s purple face, the sound of his arms snapping against the bedside table and, most of all, my paralysis still possessed the power to wake me in the dead of night in a cold sweat. That wasn’t going to get better. His death haunted and orphaned me, all at once.
I leave you with that nice piece of Gottlieb’s writing and with the recommendation that you read his book whether you’re an old hand at fiction or a beginning writer. His mistakes are a lesson we can all learn from and his apparent talent for transforming journalistic material into the stuff of fictional place and character is something I for one will want to keep a watch on.
Marnie Mueller is the author of Green Fires, which won the 1995 Maria Thomas Fiction Award and an American Book Award. Her other novels are The Climate of the Country and My Mother’s Island, The latter has been optioned for a feature film, the screenplay of which, she has signed on to write. She has recently completed a new novel, Don’t Think Twice.
What Kills What Kills Us
by Kurt S. Olsson (Kyrgyzstan, 199698)
Silverfish Review Press
Reviewed by Sandra Meek (Botswana 198991)
IN What Kills What Kills Us winner of the Gerald Cable Book Award, poet Kurt S. Olsson explores human strivings and failings through engaging voices and evocative brief character studies. In this book which weaves together persona poems and apparent personal memory, power struggles inherent to relationships and the resulting damage, collateral and otherwise, serve as a kind of keynote to which the poems keep returning. The narrative circumstances, however, are wide-ranging from the mythic to the mundane, from classical to contemporary, from the U.S. to Kyrgyzstan. The poems often speak from unexpected and generative perspectives in one poem, Ham tells his father, Noah, “You aren’t the first this drought’s driven mad”; in another, a bear, given agency and voice, tells how he allows a photographer to pose his carcass with kids in the park for “the drama, the bite of life/I still instill in children.”
“Firstborn,” Olsson’s powerful take on the Old Testament Cain and Abel story, is told from Cain’s perspective, focusing on his struggle to get his parents to understand the murder that he has just perpetrated. Cain tells how he has to show them his brother’s body, mime his drawing the knife across his brother’s throat, reenact the crime in his attempt to get his parents to realize, to feel, that loss for which he is responsible. Clear-eyed and utterly untainted by falsifying sentiment, this poem is exemplar of the book entire, suggesting innocence ignorance here embodied in Adam and Eve, is what characterizes a truly fallen world, not knowledge, for without knowledge there can be no understanding, and therefore no empathy: “In the end, he has to teach them everything,/even death,” “even life.”
What Kills What Kills Us confronts its readers again and again with the casual cruelties and acts of ignorance that thrive equally in mythical, classical, and contemporary experience, that survive in our own lives from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. In “The Cool,” for instance, Olsson’s speaker looks back at his teenage years, how he and his friends struggled to be cool by becoming cold, what finally in their eyes would achieve for them a state beyond childhood: “We were men,/a pile of empties as tall as a house.” Aging as individuals, as cultures guarantees nothing; getting older doesn’t mean we’ve grown, as the poem “Spoons” suggests; in this poem, a drunk forgets everything in his life, everything around him, except what he continuously begs to be retold: how “he backpedaled blind-drunk off a balcony” and lived, as if this one story was enough to constitute a self, as if his chance survival somehow equaled grace.
Unmired by nostalgia, these poems ultimately call us not to romanticized memory but to wakefulness; yes, the animal subject escaped from lab-testing in “Devolution,” the one that at any moment “might show up anywhere:/frightened, hungry, drugged, who knew what it was capable of,” is emblematic of the damage we are all capable of perpetrating and discovering in self and world. But we are also capable of astonishing moments of wakefulness, a state of presence and connection captured as well in these honest and searching poems. The collection’s final piece, “Drinking with Li Po,” ends, significantly, with these lines: “maybe it’s the vodka, maybe it’s the atomic bomb China tested 500 kilometers away,/maybe it’s nothing to do with anything, but when I hurtle out/to the roofless outhouse and sway hard into the steam piss makes,/I glance up and I swear see every star ever made.”
Sandra Meek is the author of two books of poems, Nomadic Foundations (2002) and Burn (2005), and a chapbook, The Circumference of Arrival (2001). Her third book of poems, Biogeography, was the 2006 winner of the Dorset Award, and is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in November 2008. She is also the editor of an anthology, Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad (Ninebark Press 2007), which was awarded a 2008 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal. Her poems have appeared in Agni, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, and Prairie Schooner, among others, and she has twice been awarded Georgia Author of the Year, in 2006 for Burn, and in 2003 for Nomadic Foundations, which also was awarded the Peace Corps Writers Award in Poetry. She is a co-founding editor of Ninebark Press and Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at Berry College.
A Writer Writes
Ordinary enough, he looked,
tough guy, greasy hair,
tight jeans maybe a
hint of James Dean maybe strayed
from a streetcorner in Brooklyn.
He’d drop in, show drawings,
drink coffee, wine, insult bad paintings
“not enough fuerza,” he’d say
cheat everyone at cards. All ordinary.
But when he left, the stories stayed,
lingering for days, defining things.
He grew in his absence.
And we developed secret lives.
The stories lingered
how he aspired to fiction,
reading a newspaper, smoking a cigarette
on a crowded train Santiago to Viña
in a cassock & roman collar;
trying out for a cheap novel,
loading the cassock with figurines
& returning to Santiago
like a truck running refugees
across the border.
Two friends of Fernando’s come
to pick up the barbells and weights
he left scattered amidst the junk. They find
most; only two fifty-pound bronze
ones missing. I haven’t seen them.
I’ll ask. “Say you don’t know.
Victor melted them down to make sculpture.”
Later a bronze head of Christ appears
airy, abstract . . . Victor
lifts weights to artistic heights.
Next, facts aspire to the condition of lies.
Bernardo O’Higgins’ pistols missing
from Museo Nacional:
“How do you know Victor did it?”
“He told me.”
“How do you know he didn’t read it in the paper?”
“He told me three days before it came out in
After days of heat from the police, the anonymous
the pistols are in the National Cathedral
For Victor, a failure but a triumph
his performance was full of danger;
it had dramatic interest, flashy paradox
artistically speaking, his biggest job.
The reviews are good.
Where is he now?
I don’t know,
and probably it’s just as well.
Art, after all, is bigger than life.
He couldn’t have kept up with himself.
And life, after all, is bigger than art.
The poem couldn’t have kept up with him.
MAPUCHE WOMAN: The Art of the Deal
(Around Temuco 1967)
When we climbed on the back of the truck,
She was sitting there picture out of the tourist guide
Leathered skin and full thick, coarse skirt
In colors a computer could never imagine.
When the truck takes a side road
We carry her groceries, mud sucking our shoes
Down the road to her cottage
“The Chileans are my neighbors,
but I don’t like them.
They steal my sheep.”
We arrive at the hedge-hidden yard
And sit outside the postcard cottage.
After chatting a bit, we’re ready to go.
“May we take your picture?”
“Dos mil pesos,” she says.
She poses slyly, pleased with her deal.
We snap the photo, privileged to acquire
Something so authentic.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer Jim Galbraith taught English at the Universidad del Norte in Antofagasta. He now lives in Joppa, Maryland, and highly recommends the novels of Chilean-born Roberto Bolaño (19532003).
The Wishing Tree
Keeping watch in the glowing
reverie of tranquil forests
are voices of angels
they whisper to the dead
who sleep on the roadside
and give bread and water
to the flaccid mountains
Love is hung on a branch
and hope scours for children playing
in the meadowthat pop up purple and pink
and white and yellow
No one understands a child’s grief more so than a mother
every waking hour is sifted through sandy minds full
of unsolved thoughts
and time thus divided
wrestles with now and eternity
its only expression a knotted cloth
midlife spirits dangling above the
high places between stone and fog
There is a misunderstanding between peoples
because no one takes the time to
listen to the sky
and contemplate about the mysteries of tranquil bodies
encased in the soils of history and abandoned rocks
of the cosmos or the
quiet branch where wishes are left in the hope
that one day peace will come
and with it
the passage into new life
Expedition into Mystery
I was in Gyumri the other day
walking down the street
when I came across a house between two vegetable stands I sometimes
buy peaches and tomatoes there
I had seen this house before but paid no attention
it was just an ordinary house
it needed some repairs
things falling in on themselves
rusted parts of obscure objects
nothing special until today
I heard the screams before I saw the house
A storm of people gathered
like the waves of Sevan searching
for feeble souls in a bewildered splash of eternity
A woman found her 32 year old son hanging
by his neck
his purplish blue and lifeless body
swinging back and forth
a metronome of silence and stillness
within a bleeding mother’s heart
I don’t know why this man killed himself
and probably will never know why
my only concern is to pray for him and his family
his mom a wife a son
who is too young to understand such tragedies
of human frailty
Maybe God will tell us one day
why such painful events happen
why unnecessary tears must soak
why the pains of death silence
why life sometimes seems to be nothing more
than a fleeting voyage beneath the sand and shadows
Matthew A. Hamilton was an English teacher in Armenia and then extended his tour to teach English in the Philippines where he is serving now. Before joining the Peace Corps, he was a Benedictine monk and later a legislative assistant for Congressman Patrick T. McHenry in Washington, D.C. Matthew was born in Bowling Green Kentucky.
response A letter from a reader
I applaud Chris Honore’s piece [PCW 5/08] on President Kennedy’s 1962 Charter Day speech at UC Berkeley.
I was there in the football stadium among more than 90,000 that day, and his speech was a major reason I joined the Peace Corps. (It can be heard via the JFK Library recording.) I remember that bright, sunlit morning well that was so full of optimism about the future. California’s then Governor Edmund Brown introduced President Kennedy in the hopes it would boost Governor Brown’s reelection campaign. Alas, Brown lost to Ronald Reagan. And it was Governor Reagan who precipitated Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in the fall of 1964, by ignoring Berkeley’s students and firing the very popular Chancellor Clark Kerr for defending them! So much for freedom of expression!
What struck me that day was not so much that Kennedy wanted to debunk “the theory that American power is unlimited, or that the American mission is to remake the world in the American image”, but Kennedy’s call for world peace . . .. “Beyond the drumfire of daily crisis, therefore, there is arising the outlines of a robust and vital world community, founded on nations secure in their own independence, and united by their allegiance to world peace.” I volunteered for the Peace Corps in 1963 on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, and like so many others it was because I was against the Vietnam War and wanted to make peace, not war. The movement for world peace was a major reason Berkeley’s students were part of the anti-war movement. The peace movement was helped by campus visitors of that time, such as William Lederer and Eugene Burdick lecturing about their book, The Ugly American, and Journalist Edgar Snow’s revelations about the Dulles brothers’ religious fundamentalism (communists were a Godless people), and how little we understood Vietnamese aspirations for independence!
I now believe the pendulum is swinging away from the good vs. evil pessimism that is behind the neo-cons’ call for a U.S. world hegemony and back to the “can do” spirit of cooperation so exemplified by the Peace Corps.