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.
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.
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 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.
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.
This black comedy set in Saudi Arabia does for American diplomacy what Catch 22 did for military logic: The enemy in the War on Terror can’t kill us if our own institutions kill us first.
Jeff Mutton walks the diplomatic beat protecting American officials in Saudi Arabia. An expert with guns and knives, grenades and rockets, he’s survived assaults and sieges, stabbings and chokeholds, car bombs, carjackings, criminal hits, and countless other enemy threats. But instinct tells Mutton the menace he now faces dwarfs all these killers combined. The fool!—his foot fetish has him in hot water again.
Part soft-boiled noir, part literary satire, Two Pumps for the Body Man is an unserious look at a serious situation, a grim reminder that no matter how high the barricade, how sharp the razor wire, there is no front line to the War on Terror. And the enemy is everywhere, even within.
Stephen King reviews Paul Theroux’s new novel, Mother Landat 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.”
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.’
We all know Ben Franklin as one of the nation’s earliest Renaissance Men: scientist, printer, writer, businessman, scholar, politician, diplomat. Fireman. In David R. Andresen’s short mystery Murder in a Blue Moon Ben takes a break from his more gentlemanly pursuits, such as chess, to solve a serial murder in Philadelphia.
It’s fall of 1752, the American Experiment still a quarter century from Independence. Constable Geoffrey Hunter turns to his friend over glasses of Madeira to mull the facts of a case involving prostitutes with broken necks and surprised looks on their faces.
The short mystery develops quickly, clues tying the mystery together sparse, the time between each murder so great they go undetected for nearly a decade. The narrative style befits the times. We take our modern P.I. and dial the voice back to the 18th Century. Andresen succeeds at doing this without slowing the yarn or making it stumble:
I’m not known for being a quiet man, but much of my work required discretion and the rest was so much a simple litany of common greed, sin, and sheer folly that I found it best to spare him and me the despair and disgust so many of my duties as Constable entailed.
When our good Constable does unburden his heart of the details of his case, it requires the author of Poor Richard’s Almanac to put this puzzle together.
An imaginative slice of early American life that’s a tad more lurid than average, Murder in a Blue Moon is a quick, entertaining read.
Among the most interesting aspects of this blog is the lack of a lapel pin declaring the author a Foreign Service Officer. Instead we see a chess enthusiast and writer of fantasy and science fiction. Currently set in Nassau, Bahamas. What’s it like to raise talented musicians as part of your Foreign Service family? Ted has answers.
Posts from one of our most recently sworn-in U.S. diplomats covering the beginning of A-100 training in Fall 2016 through Flag Day and Swearing-In last month. Come October—after Portuguese and Consular training—the posts here will shift focus from D.C. to Praia, Cape Verde.