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.

Remarque’s first big battle comes in Chapter 4. The next big battle—bigger than the first—is recounted in Chapter 6. In between, the reader is introduced to Corporal Himmelstoss, the squad’s chief tormenter, and it’s no mistake the chapter opens with the difficulty of crushing lice. Killing each separate louse is a tedious business when a man has hundreds. The little beasts are hard and the everlasting cracking with one’s fingernails very soon becomes wearisome.

Thereafter Himmelstoss, chief military louse, makes his appearance. He taunts the squad about responding to his authority. But Himmelstoss is a man from camp and his authority is viewed as vapid. “Stand up there, bring your heels together when your superior officer speaks to you,” Himmelstoss orders Tjaden. The soldier waves him off. “You take a run and jump at yourself, Himmelstoss.” Himmelstoss is a raging book of army regulations. The Kaiser couldn’t be more insulted.

The only peace that comes of this exchange is that the command comes down light on Tjaden and gives him open arrest. Baumer and Kat sneak off, pillage a goose, and bring him the roasted meat. Himmelstoss is soon crushed like a louse, shown for the coward he is during the great battle that rages next.

Remarque aims his barbs at the military’s institutional rigidity and ignorance time and again. On home leave Baumer fails to salute an old major and is forced to practice the protocol. It enrages him. What does the major know of sacrifice? The military hands out new uniforms in time for the Kaiser’s inspection—then collects them again when its over. The military sends fresh recruits with no training, and two companies are mown down by a single airman. What do they know of cover?

My copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is in tatters. It is well read. It is a well-read copy with lines like these underlined: There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best—in a way that cost them nothing. And that is why they let us down so badly… They ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress—to the future… While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.

As I read All Quiet on the Western Front these past two days Remarque’s strong prose consumed me entirely. The story is timeless. So many have read this book, yet still our current leadership would tear down the very institutions dedicated to preventing similar stories from being re-lived—the State Department, USAID, the Peace Corps—to build up a store of arms and creative means for killing our fellow man.

How has a book so well-read managed to be so poorly taken into account?

Memoir: Set This Submarine on Fire

Memoir’s a tough genre. For memoir to appeal to a broad audience its got to succeed in one of two ways.

wildEither the voice asserts some irresistible quality: rich, engaging, dynamic, inspiring, insightful without being pedantic. Or the narrative relates circumstances of an extraordinary nature: the subject is a half-Kenyan young lawyer who rises to become the U.S. President; a soccer team survives a plane crash in the Andes by feeding on fellow passengers; a scientist’s submarine catches fire at the exact moment she discovers a new species capable of saving the planet.

So much the better if the voice and the sublime work in cahoots.

But in memoir where these traits are lacking altogether, we wind up with a book like Devon James Hoffman’s Wild Enough to Get to You. The narrative voice tends toward the abstruse, and the undertaking is a well-traveled road.

As a memoirist Hoffman’s first order of business is to bring clarity and coherence to his experience. He explains his efforts this way: “You may be disappointed to find that this book isn’t about my service but is, instead, about what my service was about.” The stories, he tells us, “may seem disconnected and eclectic, but they are my memoir. This book achieves its unity by following the journey of my changing paradigm, instead of my physical body.”

Original review in its entirety at Peace Corps Worldwide

Workshop: Stories of Peace

peacecorpsmn_logopcimageWhile the Pols and Poobahs dress in UNGA-wear and head for New York, the Peace Corps Community runs amok in the Nation’s Capitol. Join Peace Corps Writers tomorrow at a workshop for writers in the DC area. The event, part of the annual Peace Corps Connect gathering (celebrating 55 years this year), will take place at the George Washington University from 1-5:50.


  • Spoken Word Storytelling, with Meleia Egger (1:00 – 2:30 pm).
  • Workshop on finding, crafting, and sharing your stories led by John Coyne, co-founder of Peace Corps Writers (2:45-3:45 pm, repeated 4:00-5:00 pm).
  • Panel discussion with published Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) authors led by Marian Haley Beil, co-founder of Peace Corps Writers (2:45-3:45 pm, repeated 4:00-5:00 pm).

Panelists will include:


Floyd Heck Marvin Center
Room 407
George Washington University
800 21st Street NW — at the corner of H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20052

Registration: $10

 

20 Years On: Peace Corps & Writing

Today’s the day 20 years ago that two score optimistic & good-willed Americans gathered at the 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to begin the most excellent adventure I know, a blend of humanitarian endeavor, mutual group support, and self-reliance in the face of a great unknown.

pc-group-chevy-chase

We were to spend the next 27 months as Peace Corps Volunteers in Malawi, contributing to that country’s education objectives as teachers of English, Math, Science, History, Music, The Bible… Whatever came our way. At the same time, equally, we were contributing to our personal growth, our burgeoning confidence, our ideals and goals we held as emerging citizens of the world.

For me the adventure was a quest to put something exotic into my writing, an admission that the years of scribbling I’d already spent on journals and stories and half-baked novels lacked the insights of worldliness. It was the first time I’d acknowledged to a group of strangers that I considered myself “a writer”. I’m still grateful nobody laughed.

I don’t pretend to have achieved worldliness in the intervening years. But the Peace Corps experience has defined my growth as a writer. From Paul Theroux attending our swearing in, to meeting the trusted writing confidantes I’ve maintained since (these include notorious crime writer Preston Lang), to the broader network of Peace Corps Writers who now review, share, and promote our mutual literary efforts—Peace Corps, more than anything else, has enabled me to push my limits as a novelist.

pcimagepeacecorpsmn_logoThe adventure stays with me, twenty years later, through the friendships forged and maintained, the stories written (shelved or published), and the outlook I bring to almost everything I do—whether guiding public engagement for the State Department or raising my sons with global empathy.


Peace Corps at 20. Thank you, friends. What has the experience meant to you?

Peace Corps Writer Awards for 2016

A few notable works recognized with various Peace Corps Writer Awards for 2016. Next week the Peace Corps community will gather in Washington, DC for Peace Corps Connect to celebrate the agency’s 55 years. Activities will include panels and workshops featuring Peace Corps Writers. More.


The Maria Thomas Fiction Award for 2016 (named after novelist Maria Thomas [Roberta Worrick (Ethiopia 1971–73)], author of a well-reviewed novel and two short story collection, all set in Africa. She lost her life in August, 1989, while working in Ethiopia for a relief agency, in a plane crash that also killed Congressman Mickey Leland of Texas)

Fiction. Set against a wild and haunting landscape, the short fiction in this collection spotlights the struggles of everyday individuals to overcome the ghosts they have inherited from Romania’s communist past. The book won BkMk’s G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, selected by PEN/Faulkner finalist Lorraine M. López, who writes, “Myka’s characters release uncountable fibers, connecting them to one another in the linked narratives, binding them to the harshly beguiling Romania they inhabit and that inhabits them.”

The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience award for 2016 (In 1997, this award was renamed to honor Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965–67) whose Living Poor has been widely cited as an outstanding telling of the essence of the Peace Corps experience.)

Mmarrying-santiago-150arrying Santiago
by Suzanne Adam (Colombia 1964-66)

She hadn’t seen it coming. Her new Chilean husband changed his mind, or, rather, the military coup changed it. Instead of their relocating to her native California as planned, he now wanted to give his country a chance. That was over four decades ago. Raised surrounded by the lush landscape of Marin County, Suzanne Adam hadn’t expected to settle in Santiago, a city of over five million people, where she faced a series of daunting challenges: food shortages, a military dictatorship, heartbroken parents, maids and machismo. After a visit back home, she returned to Chile with a California redwood seedling in her pocket, and together they would push down their roots into that distant soil, where she discovered the truth in Wallace Stegner’s statement: “Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see the world afterwards.”

great-surge-150The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World
 
by Steven Radelet (Western Samoa 1981-83)

The untold story of the global poor today: A distinguished expert and advisor to developing nations reveals how we’ve reduced poverty, increased incomes, improved health, curbed violence, and spread democracy—and how to ensure the improvements continue.

Peace Corps Writer’s Crime Debut

Congrats to fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Chris Orlet (Poland, 1992-94), who’s debut novel In the Pines came out this month from New Pulp Press. New Pulp is home to many other fine noir and crime writers like Mark Richardson (see my review of Hunt for the Troll–2015). NPP released my neo-noir satire, Two Pumps for the Body Man, this past spring.

Read what other RPCVs are up to at PeaceCorpsWorldwide.

in the pinesIn a small southern Illinois town, Emily Ahrens, a rather plain, unexceptional 17-year-old girl, dies suddenly, horribly and inexplicably, at home. There appears to be no rational explanation for her death. Tests soon confirm that Emily died of kidney failure due to arsenic poisoning. Tests also confirm that she was not pregnant. A coroner’s inquest, called to decide whether her death was suicide, accident, homicide, natural or undetermined concludes the death is undetermined. With no evidence of foul play, local authorities are reluctant to investigate. The girl’s father, Walt Ahrens, a local car dealer, refuses to let the matter drop and begins obsessively seeking answers, even as his family begs him not to, even as the townspeople seek to put the tragedy behind them. Stonewalled, Walt hires a shady private investigator from the city to look into the circumstances of his daughter’s death, but he too fails to turn up any answers, only more questions, before dumping the case back into Walt’s lap. When the desperate father turns up the screws on one rather unsavory suspect, a fatal accident ensues, and circumstances begin to spiral out of control.

Chris Orlet was born and raised in Belleville, Illinois. He has worked a multitude of dead-end jobs, including bartender, sportswriter, gun seller, Peace Corps volunteer, tech writer, salesman for a trailer parts company, and other occupations too unsavory to mention. He lives in Saint Louis, Missouri with his wife, son, and dachshund.

The first readers

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It’s almost twenty years since I first shared my fiction beyond the confines of family or classroom. I found three trusted readers during the months of pre-service training as a Peace Corps Volunteer. What else to do on the dusty plains of Central Malawi beneath the boiling sun, the cloudless sky? I wrote my first novel.

I wrote by hand on copy-books, small blue rectangles, the sheets bound with staples.  Grit, dust troubled the flow of ink from the cheap pens we had. The novel fit on six books and is nestled now in an old cigar box. Two decades ago, I troubled three companions to take an interest. They were kind to read my amateur rubbish, worse than boredom itself.

One reader became my wife. Another remains a friend we still see now and then–we owe a visit. A third, Rand Wise, recently reviewed my debut novel—a thoughtful and comprehensive look at Two Pumps.

“…layer after layer of wry humor and irony, much of it stemming from pressure from “the fourth branch” (a secretive entity high up in the U.S. government, clearly a nod to Dick Cheney) to produce intelligence to further the case for invading Iraq…”


Two Pumps for the Body Man (2016) by B.A. East… is the Catch-22 of the war on terror. Set in a U.S. Consulate in Saudi Arabia (post 9/11 but before the invasion of Iraq), the novel features a large cast of characters including an attractive and narcissistic Consul General, intelligence officers, visa-denying clerks, and logistics people.

2 Pumps hi rezThe closest thing the novel has to a main character is Jeffrey Mutton, the chief of security for the consulate who has to reconcile his security concerns with the demands of the CG to host high profile parties (and she holds a moment of weakness involving the titular shoe fetish over him).

The story develops slowly, fleshing out the cast of characters while adding layer after layer of wry humor and irony, much of it stemming from pressure from “the fourth branch” (a secretive entity high up in the U.S. government, clearly a nod to Dick Cheney) to produce intelligence to further the case for invading Iraq. (More great fiction about the former Veep in “Dicked“)

East deftly handles the comedies of errors that result from the miscommunications, manipulations and power plays between characters, with perhaps the funniest example being an investigation of one of the consulate officers who is suspected of having undue access to the POTUS, even though his intelligence reports are manufactured and mostly plagiarized from news magazines.

The novel takes a serious turn when the consulate is attacked, and the aftermath features the key insights of the novel and its most impassioned prose. Whether you are looking for a comic sendup of consular life or an insightfully cynical look at the war on terror (or maybe both), this book is for you. 

Peace Corps Writers 2015

The Peace Corps and Returned Peace Corps writing community at Peacecorpsworldwide is seeking nominations for favorite books published in 2015 written by a PCV, RPCV or Peace Corps Staff. I’ve compiled a partial list of the books released last year here, and welcome feedback on
additional titles, reviews, and links.

imprint-logoPaul Cowan Non-Fiction Award 
First given in 1990, the Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award was named to honor Paul Cowan, a Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Ecuador. Cowan wrote The Making of An Un-American about his experiences as a Volunteer in Latin America in the sixties. A longtime activist and political writer for The Village Voice, Cowan died of leukemia in 1988.

Maria Thomas Fiction Award 
The Maria Thomas Fiction Award is named after the novelist Maria Thomas [Roberta Worrick (Ethiopia 1971-73)] who was the author of a well-reviewed novel and two collections of short stories all set in Africa. She lost her life in August, 1989, while working in Ethiopia for a relief agency. She went down in the plane crash that killed Congressman Mickey Leland of Texas.

Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Memoir Award 
In 1992, The Peace Corps Experience Award was initiated. It is presented annually to a Peace Corps Volunteer or staff member, past or present for the best memoir. In 1997, this award was renamed to honor Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965-67) whose Living Poor has been widely cited as an outstanding telling of the essence of the Peace Corps experience.

Other categories include awards for Outstanding Poetry Book, Best Travel Writing, Best Children’s Book, Best Photography Book, and the Editors Special Award for a writer in our community who has published a significant book that does not fit into any of our other awards categories, but deserves recognition. Nomination(s) should be sent to John Coyne at: jcoyneone@gmail.com. Awards will be announced at the NPCA Conference in September in Washington, D.C.

MFA Program for RPCVs and PCVs

Reposting this opportunity for the Peace Corps community to earn an MFA. Original content from Peace Corps Worldwide:

Are you inPCWRITES-IMAGEspired by your Peace Corps service? Do you have an affinity for writing? Looking to write a memoir or book about your Peace Corps experience?

John Coyne (RPCV Ethiopia 1962-64), editor of Peace Corps Worldwide, has arranged with National University in California to offer an online MFA program in non-fiction, fiction and poetry writing for PCV and RPCV writers.

Courses are currently under development and will be taught by published Peace Corps authors and National University faculty members. Coyne will teach the introductory class and serve as an adviser to Peace Corps students. The inaugural program is slated to begin in Fall 2016 – will be accepting a class of 15 exceptional students.pcimage

The MFA is flexible program. Students can complete the degree in between one to two years, taking a single one or two-month class at a time. As the course is online, students have the opportunity to progress at their own pace. This also allows students to participate whether they are currently serving (and writing!) overseas or here at home. Tuition will be in the range of $20,000 with an opportunity for financial aid.

National University in California has been selected as the site for this MFA program because it a non-profit accredited university with a highly successful creative writing program. The college was founded in 1971, just 10 years after Peace Corps’ was founded and currently has 120 undergraduate and graduate programs.

If you are interested in earning an MFA in Creative Writing through this program, contact John Coyne.