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.

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.

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.

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.

More Foreign Service Fiction

The latest release from ex-Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren, author of controversial Iraq reconstruction expose We Meant Well, is set during World War Two. We may find ourselves in 1940s Japan, but Hooper’s War aims its barbs dead-center at the contemporary conflagrations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The men and women in Hooper confront the complex ethical decisions of war, torture, drone-like killings, and the aftermath of moral injury and PTSD. This is an antiwar novel for people who enjoy a good war story—think Catch-22. Sometimes funny, sometimes deadly serious.”  —Peter Van Buren

Hooper’s War is fiction, but if it reads anything like We Meant Well the mission will stick to you like the sweaty dust of reality itself:

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People stands shoulder-to-shoulder with many other great war books. The food is bad and the environment gritty. The Colonel’s in charge; body armor’s strapped on; everybody piles into helos or Humvees to leave base. A young soldier, comrade torn by hot shrapnel, ignores the bloody gristle staining his cheek to stop the damn bleeding.

Throughout Peter Van Buren’s story, the screech of mortality hangs overhead.

Full review of We Meant Well.

New Foreign Service Fiction

After 20 years on the diplomatic beat ex-Foreign Service Officer Matthew Palmer has released his fourth tradecraft thriller: Enemy of the Good.

U.S.–Kyrgyz relations are at a critical juncture. The U.S. is negotiating the details of a massive airbase that would significantly expand the American footprint in Central Asia, tipping the scale in “the Great Game” among Russia, China, and the United States. The negotiations are controversial in the United States because of the Kyrgyz regime’s abysmal human-rights record. The fate of the airbase is balanced on a razor’s edge.

Second-generation Foreign Service brat Kate Hollister is assigned by the U.S. Ambassador—who also happens to be her uncle—to infiltrate a pro-democracy movement responsible for sabotaging the regime. Washington has taken an interest in the movement, and her uncle knows Kate has an in—many in the movement were high school classmates of hers.

It soon becomes clear that nothing about Kate’s mission is as it seems.

Mother Land: A Review for Mothers Day

Stephen King reviews Paul Theroux’s new novel, Mother Land at the New York Times this week (PeaceCorpsWorldwide brought it to my attention).

King gives voice to the love-hate relationship so many readers have with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, novelist and travel writer, whose prolific career spans nearly six decades and whose vicious pen reaches the furthest places on the globe—including home.

“All self-educated readers (that would be most of us) have holes in our curriculum vitae, and I’m no different. I’ve read Dickens and Tolstoy but not Austen; most of Faulkner but little of Hemingway (and regretted what I did); all of Philip Roth, but none of Saul Bellow. Paul Theroux was one of my holes, a prolific writer I had always meant to get around to. Now that I have, I’m not exactly sorry, but I’m certainly gobsmacked, and although I knew next to nothing about Theroux’s life, by the time I’d read the first 100 or so pages of “Mother Land,” I began to suspect that what I was reading was not so much a novel as a kind of masked autobiography.”

Why the love-hate relationship? One answer here: Crossing Paths with Paul Theroux.

Let Us Not Be Quiet

Revisiting Remarque before peace eludes

My copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is a tattered thing. The cover, already coming apart in brittle pieces, fell off entirely as I read. It was appropriate to the fate of narrator Paul Baumer to see that cover come away.

It is the father of all modern war writing (though it disdains fathers).

It gives us the Lost Generation in its rawest form. It came out about the same time as A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Remarque seems to have tapped the same narrative vein as Hemingway. Is it the standard voice of those who witnessed firsthand the horrors of WWI; or is it the standard voice of all warrior-writers? Mailer, Heller, Tim O’Brien, Kevin Powers write with the same wry tension when they write of the Second World War, Vietnam, the most recent war in Iraq.

Heller is far windier than the others, so it surprises me to think that so much of Catch-22‘s invective can be found in Remarque. It is invective born of rage at the military as an institution, at institutional blindness writ-large.

Continue reading Let Us Not Be Quiet

Love and Protest

Amy’s Story by Anna Lawton sets a tempestuous romance against the turbulent half-century of global change that erupted in the 1960s and flowed across the land like a modern Great Flood. The novel plants the seeds of these decades in the post-World War One migration from Europe to the United States and reveals the newest fruits—poison to some, nectar to others—in the closing pages. The private romance and the public turmoil work together to create a story as much about love as it is about progress, about aspiration and success as about longing and loss.

A third conflict, the subtle struggle between the adventurous Amy and childhood friend Stella (with whom she shares a surprising connection) can be summed up in a line: ‘She tried to pull me back and make me think before jumping into action, although my instinct often prevailed.’

At every level the book addresses the question, ‘Where are you from?’ And the structure suggests there is no true answer without first understanding the history that brings you there.

The protagonist arrives in L.A. from Turin as the lover of a charming, if arrogant, Fulbright scholar. Jim is writing an industry-shattering book about Italian film’s influence on Hollywood, an anti-establishment work that will keep him struggling for years to win his place at the table. The pair struggle together; they’re a team; and their struggle occurs at a time when baby boomers around the world are struggling to upend the status quo.

We know the reasons: the war in Vietnam; political assassinations; craven and unstable American leadership; beats and hippies and drugs and music; the push for racial and gender equality. A trip to Mexico during these years reveals the nightmare women endured in the years before Roe v. Wade, a stunning description of the harrowing limits being pushed in the struggle to maintain control over a woman’s own body.

But as her mentor makes plain, not all protestors understand exactly what or why they protest. ‘These kids fill up their mouths with words such as Marxism, Communism, class struggle, revolution, but they don’t even know their true meaning. They lack historical knowledge, never went to the roots.’

The roots he refers to are the ideas from Europe that stitched themselves into the fabric of the American Constitution. And his lesson carries an eerie foretaste of the conformity and demagoguery that duped 46.1% of voting Americans last fall: ‘The ‘mass’… this is one of the favorite words in Marxist parlance because the mass can be easily manipulated. All you need is a charismatic leader, a simplistic doctrine, smart images on posters and banners, and…. A new dogma is born, an absolute truth, and all genuflect to it.’

Continue reading Love and Protest