Blog

Wines from Hungary

I had a good time interviewing photographer and author Brian Neely some months back. His book, A Wine Filled Year, explores in photos and text the vineyards and wines and wine-making process from across the Hungarian countryside.

The American Foreign Service Association was kind enough to post the exchange.

I confess my opening is stilted (this is what happens when you ask a writer—whose preferred mode is solitude rather than discourse—to play a speaking role) but Brian livens it up with a tour around Hungary’s wine regions and some of his favorite photos in the book. The conversation flows a little more naturally at minute 14:10, where Brian’s book becomes more than a trip through Hungary to serve as a trip through time.

Wine aficionados can connect with Brian here.

Chain Your Muse

Matthew Palmer's Enemy of the Good explores 'values complexity' even as it provides the reader with an entertaining page-turner.I heard this gem last week, sound advice to anyone who bleeds ink: I keep my muse on a chain. And when I get 20 minutes I yank on the chain and say, ‘C’mon, muse.’

The man with the chain is Matthew Palmer, novelist and Foreign Service Officer, speaking at the American Foreign Service Association to promote his fourth book, Enemy of the Good.

His remarks at our diplomatic safe haven in Foggy Bottom were brief, funny, and informative. Best of all, they left me reassured that somebody’s out there telling the American people what it is we diplomats do for our country.

While his main objective as an author is to entertain, Palmer’s latest thriller also carries lessons in what he calls ‘values complexity.’ To paraphrase, the American diplomat’s job is more difficult for the fact that we stand for everything, that we must choose between morality and compromise, that the U.S. interest in, say, an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, may compel our diplomats to look past the human rights abuses of the local regime.

This isn’t cynical. It’s the job. We stand for a lot of things that get in the way of the other things we stand for.

Look inside Palmer’s work to see how it plays out. He’s an engaging writer and an entertaining speaker, happy to dole out tips when asked. On how he manages to write convincing female characters, he takes a page from George R.R. Martin: ‘I’ve always thought of women as people.’

Ask him why Enemy of the Good is dedicated to his wife.

Palmer doesn’t write to preach but to entertain. He takes Le Carre’s view that the reader doesn’t want reality but a facsimile of reality. This he gives. He gives the reader a story they care about not because of plot but because they care about the characters.

Writers, travelers, expats, overworked people everywhere who fancy themselves scribblers can sit up straight and get to work wherever they are, even in the last row of a 15-hour flight to Bishkek, toilets running over and two heavies parked beside them: I keep my muse on a chain. And when I get 20 minutes I yank on the chain and say, ‘C’mon, muse.’

Writing isn’t precious. Writing is writing. Chain your muse.

Diplomats and Terrorists

When it comes to terrorism, the enemy can't kill us if our institutions kill us first.

Last month American Diplomacy included my review of Ambassador James R.  Bullington’s Foreign Service Memoir, The Road Less Traveled. The book recounts a career that began with the U.S. military build-up in Vietnam and took the author to Burma, Chad, Benin, and Burundi, where he served as Ambassador, and Niger, where he served from 2001-2006 as Country Director for the Peace Corps. Or, as he likes to call it, ‘Hard core Peace Corps.’

Also tucked away in American Diplomacy’s  collection of Foreign Service despatches and reports on U.S. foreign policy was an excerpt from Two Pumps for the Body Man (New Pulp Press 2016).  Set in Saudi Arabia, the satire does for American diplomacy what Catch 22 did for military logic:

The enemy in the War on Terror can’t kill us
if our institutions kill us first.

In the excerpt, lead diplomat Vanna Lavinia contemplates the various threats to her career, including ineptitude, obsequiousness, and direct challenges to her authority. Given these impediments to her sanity, Vanna seems to miss the biggest danger of all as she represents the United States on the front line of the War on Terror.

It’s here, if you’d like to read it and let me know what you think. Review copies of the novel are available through my contact page.

‘Tough Guy’ Rights

Chris Collins might have noted that congressional failure to better legislate sensible measures is part—not all, but part—of the problem he now wants to arm himself against. This failure puts all citizens in jeopardy, not just the seersucker crowd on Capitol Hill.
“I’ll be exercising my Second Amendment right to carry a firearm as I travel my district.”

Representative Chris Collins is acting tough.

“Here’s what’s not up for debate,” the New York Republican wrote in Monday’s Washington Post. “From now on, I’ll be exercising my Second Amendment right to carry a firearm as I travel my district.”

Collins has some right to feel the need for protection. A gunman went ballistic last week in Virginia, shooting at congressmen, U.S. Capitol Police, and staffers as they practiced for a charity baseball game. There’s no denying that it’s his right to carry a gun, within the confines limited by his permit.

But rather than play the victim of intimidation by firearms, Collins might instead have noted that congressional failure to better legislate sensible measures is part—not all, but part—of the problem he now wants to arm himself against. This failure puts all citizens in jeopardy, not just the seersucker crowd on Capitol Hill.

Or would Rootin’ Tootin’ Collins have our six year olds protect themselves from the next school shooting by tucking pistols in their Pokemon lunch boxes?

What Collins has told us is, when it comes to curbing the plague of gun violence in America, “I give up.” He isn’t bravely facing a fight; he is in cowardly fashion disturbing the peace, yelling ‘FIRE’ in a movie theater and standing smugly back with a matchstick in his hand.

Continue reading ‘Tough Guy’ Rights

Expeditionary Diplomacy

The otherwise respectable American Diplomacy, which publishes ‘Foreign Service Despatches and Periodic Reports on U.S. Foreign Policy,’ included my review  of of Ambassador James R. Bullington’s Foreign Service Memoir, The Road Less Traveled, in the latest lineup.

The memoir recounts a career that started in expeditionary diplomacy for the State Department during the U.S. military build-up in Vietnam and some of the fiercest early battles of that war, and took the author to Burma, Chad, Benin, and Burundi, where he served as Ambassador.

‘…The trim black passport issued to American diplomats has a hefty corollary in James Bullington’s big black memoir. The passport confers access and status on the bearer in a foreign land. The memoir demonstrates why such access and status are vital to promoting U.S. values and interests. More important, the narrative reveals such access and status to be privileges earned rather than rights granted.’

As a corollary to this, I’m including a lightly annotated excerpt of Ambassador Bullington’s oral history for the American Diplomatic Studies and Training oral history project. The excerpt focuses on Bullington’s service as Peace Corps Country Director in Niger (2000-2006) and some trouble he had during the 80’s getting diplomatic pouches into Burundi thanks to—shall we call them large?—seed packages requested by the Peace Corps. Read here.

American Diplomacy is published in cooperation with the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences and its Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense and with the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

Witch Hunt

"If the turd floats, it isn't a witch."

Let’s not kid ourselves. Among the many mistakes in Arthur Miller’s talented life (he divorced Marilyn Monroe after just 5 yrs) was his choice of title for The SINGLE GREATEST Story About American History’s Salem Witch Trials.

The Crucible. The Crucible? What’s this, Chemistry class? Are we grinding elements here to torch them with a Bunsen Burner? No wonder High School English was such a drag! We were stuck reading “The Crucible” when we could have been reading:

The Single Greatest WITCH HUNT in American Political History

How our young minds would have tuned to the salacious proceedings! We may not have had Smart phones and Twitter feeds back then, but we sure had our share of demagogues in the corridors of power. How much more quickly would Joe McCarthy have been taken down if only Arthur Miller hadn’t been such a pansy about his title!

I’ll leave you with a bit of wisdom overheard in my high school’s 3-corridor lav, a place where renegades and truants filled their lungs with smoke during the long years of forced reading. They seemed to have retained something of those lectures about Salem, about Washington, and about the natural state of man. None other than high school bully D. Whalon said, staring into the abyss of the toilet in the stall next to mine:

“If the turd floats, it isn’t a witch.”

Washington’s mighty Potomac, already a cesspool of toxic runoff and waste, might just be the place to test this theory in our modern day WITCH HUNT. And I wonder, if he were to be dunked unto its waters, would the hunted Don John himself sink? Or would the turd float?

We, the People from U.N.C.L.E.

Enough! The past eight days has brought just too much to keep up with. How do you address and condemn one awful imposition on our sanity without condoning all the others by omission? And how can you possibly write up all that condemnation?!

This quandary has me in a state of total paralysis.

  • Let me count the ways:
    • Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum in Contempt of Congress
    • Congressional Contempt for the FBI
    • The Elmer Fudd Congressional Sessions
    • Hosannahs in the Highest: A Cabinet Full of Praise
    • The PR Excuse Puppet—“The President Is New At This”
    • Bend Over, America, While We Step Behind the GOP’s Curtain
    • May We Also Tweak Your Finances?
    • Prez to House: Your Bill Is Mean. Thanks for Passing It.
    • Congressional Baseball Shootout.
    • Obstruction. Of. Justice.

More, More, More!

Surely I’ve left something out. Please add your concerns below. I’ll be sure to pass them along to U.N.C.L.E.—United Now to Counter Legislative (and other) Evil!

The Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade

I want loyalty, I need loyalty

No writing has influenced my work more than Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Not the Bible. Not the Constitution. Not even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is a pretty great book and should be thrown full force at anyone who tries to ban it.

I wrote my first novel, Two Pumps for the Body Man, under the deep influence of Catch-22. I wrote it to oppose tyranny. I wrote it in response to the maddening bureaucracy all around me. I wrote it to protest a blind march to war in Iraq because of an attack that originated in Afghanistan.

Part of that project died with the natural lapse of the Bush-Cheney era, the Rumsfeld snowflakes era, the Valerie Plame/Scooter Libby era. The book had yet to be published and already, with the passing of the forces behind the so-called ‘War on Terror’, it had become irrelevant.

Or had it? After 52 years, has Catch-22 become irrelevant?

One of the more scathing passages from that classic relates to the headlines today. In The Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, Captain Black has all the men in the combat squadron ‘dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them’ and ‘bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long’ even as they suit up and prepare to fly into anti-aircraft artillery.

“The important thing is to keep them pledging,” he explained to his cohorts. “It doesn’t matter whether they mean it or not. That’s why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what ‘pledge’ and ‘allegiance’ means….”

…“Of course, it’s up to you,” Captain Black pointed out. “Nobody’s trying to pressure you. But everyone else is making them sign loyalty oaths, and it’s going to look mighty funny to the F.B.I. if you are the only ones who don’t care enough about your country to sign loyalty oaths.”

In the final version of Two Pumps, the idea of an oath to loyalty is whittled down to a few lines in a passage about secrecy. Two junior officers are asked to sign declarations of loyalty, discretion, and, finally, the SDDTS Clearance Waiver Non-Disclosure Form, which is a meaningless form that doesn’t exist, mainly because Super Duper Double Top Secret Clearances don’t exist.

As far as I know.

But loyalty exists. It’s a return on trust. And those who want it, those who need it, must first earn it.

*Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.
-Johann Heinrich Heine

Voice

Paul Theroux’s voice in black and white, on the page, captivated me from the start: natural, authoritative, transferring all kinds of observation from the most minute cultural idiosyncrasy to the cruelest cut at character—fictional or real.  I started reading him 20 years ago with My Secret History. Until today, I’d known Theroux only through text and tale.

Now an interview with The New Yorker Radio Hour has banished 20 years of presumption about what I thought Paul Theroux might sound like.

His spoken voice is less certain, more affected, a cross of British-sounding intonations and patrician New England syllables. ‘Writer’ is ‘Writa’; ‘Awarded” is ‘Awaurded’; ‘Father’ is ‘Fawtha’; ‘Mocking’ is ‘Mawking’. I hear Bernie Sanders in it; Theroux can be piping, short of reedy, other times gravelly, but never sonorous.

Credit him for giving the world the best of his voice in books and writing. In person he maintains the same honesty, which borders on cruelty, that can be found in his writing. I detect no apology, for example, no sorrow, no bitterness, only hard truth in what he says of being cast into the world by a family situation that made him unhappy. Asked ‘Was it his mother that made him a writer?’ Theroux responds:

My mother drove me away from home. I wasn’t happy in this big family. And I fantasized about going away. So I think going away made me a writer. My mother really wanted me to go away. When I told my parents that I was going to Africa their faces were wreathed in smiles.

Theroux escaped a family of seven siblings to join the Peace Corps and teach English in Nyasaland (now Malawi). And there’s plenty of self-deprecation and laughter in the banter that follows the revelation above. But its a telling honesty about how Theroux perceives family, and maybe explains his tendency to go it alone. In the broader world, Theroux found his voice and, better still, made it heard.

Writers should appreciate the gem at minute 8:23. In her supremely radio-friendly voice The New Yorker’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman reads from Theroux’s latest book, Motherland, encapsulating the man and his work in a few  short lines.

It must have seemed that I was writing stories, book reviews, novels, travel books, magazine articles, essays, newspaper columns, more novels, more stories, another travel book. But it was not an unsorted stack of vagrant scribbles; it was in words a sort of edifice. What I was doing was giving form to a continuous account of my existence, my disappointments and obsessions, my reading, my secrets, writing every day. All these books and pieces could be laid end to end as a long linking account of who I was, bringing order to my living and publishing it, in thousands of pages of print, bound on three shelves of a bookcase, which represented my attempt to make sense of my life.

Read with the right voice, this paragraph represents a monument to aspiration.

The Patchworks

The next school shooting is inevitable. Unless one government intern can make a miracle of his odd jobs.

‘God Saves & Satan Invests’; Shepard Fairey

Gabriel Dunne’s D.C. internship has him tracking gun violence in America. But before he can start, Gabriel’s boss tasks him with planning her wedding; Parker wants help seducing their fellow intern; security chief Hubbard hounds him about expired passwords; the shredder guy needs saving from his deadly machine; and Congress threatens a government shutdown that’ll send them all packing. When a colleague is victimized by just the kind of violence their office exists to prevent, these ordinary bureaucrats must rally, or become statistics in America’s next mad shooting spree.

The Patchworks, due out September 2017 from Moonshine Cove Publishing. Will America realize sensible gun legislation before then?


My first novel (Two Pumps for the Body Man, 2016) did for American diplomacy and the War on Terror what Catch-22 did for military logic in World War II: The enemy can’t kill us if our institutions kill us first. The Patchworks examines American gun culture with a similar black humor.