LeBard, George*: A School for Others: The History of the Belize High School of Agriculture (2010)
* RPCV Belize (1981-1984)
Our discussion took place: August 2014. Participating in our discussion was George LeBard, the book’s author.
Review: There’s a 700-word review (longer than this page’s format allows) by Lawrence Lihosit on the Peace Corps Worldwide website.
Le Breton, Binka: Where the Road Ends: A Home in the Brazilian Rainforest (2010)
Our discussion took place: October 2010
Reviews: © Publishers Weekly: This book reveals all the enchantment of the rainforest, as well as its mysteries and dangers. The author and her agricultural economist husband moved to Brazil twenty years ago to take over an abandoned farm in a beautiful but remote locale. Le Breton’s story the challenges and joys they faced adapting to the community and working to realize their dream of bringing environmental awakening to the region through the establishment of the Iracambi Rainforest Research Center. Her tale has everything, from bandits to insane elections to horribly delayed projects to the artificial insemination of the cows. The cast of characters, colorful in the extreme, includes a squatter cowboy who can fix almost anything, neighbors involved in vendettas, homeless bridegrooms, and women who take sewing seminars in the farmhouse kitchen hoping to make money from the new skills, in spite of the prevailing attitude that a woman’s place was in the home. In spite of myriad setbacks, there is tremendous goodwill. “Most Brazilians spent their salary the day they received it, and most shopkeepers put up their prices accordingly. If you were quick off the mark you might find an item in the supermarket going at last week’s price, but the supermarket staff tended to be quicker than you were.” Le Breton’s can-do attitude and successful gerry-rigging makes her an entertaining MacGyver of the jungle.
Lessing, Doris*: The Grass is Singing (1950)
* 2007 Nobel Literature Prize
Our discussion took place: June 2018
Synopsis: Set in Southern Rhodesia under white rule, Doris Lessing’s first novel is at once a riveting chronicle of human disintegration, a beautifully understated social critique, and a brilliant depiction of the quiet horror of one woman’s struggle against a ruthless fate. Mary Turner is a self-confident, independent young woman who becomes the depressed, frustrated wife of an ineffectual, unsuccessful farmer. Little by little the ennui of years on the farm works its slow poison. Mary’s despair progresses until the fateful arrival of Moses, an enigmatic, virile black servant. Locked in anguish, Mary and Moses–master and slave–are trapped in a web of mounting attraction and repulsion, until their psychic tension explodes with devastating consequences.
Luiselli, Valeria, and John Lee Anderson: Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017)
Our discussion took place: October 2019
Review: © Kirkus Review: A heartfelt plea to change the dialogue on Latin American children fleeing violence in their homelands to seek refuge in America. A Mexican-born novelist, Luiselli (The Story of My Teeth, 2015, etc.) began the inquiry that informs her book-length essay as a Mexican-born writer, living in America, awaiting her green card. Her sense of mission intensified when she began working as a translator for those seeking pro bono legal assistance in their attempts to avoid deportation. She found that their stories could not match neatly with the 40 questions on the immigration questionnaire. Some of the children lacked fluency in Spanish as well as English, and some of their memories were vague or evasive. Yet the dangers they had encountered were real, as was the threat of returning to their countries of origin. Luiselli effectively humanizes the plights of those who have been demonized or who have been reduced to faceless numbers, the ones caught in the web of gang violence fueled by drug wars and the American arms trade. She writes with matter-of-fact horror in response to question No. 7, “did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?, that “eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way.” Yet the victims are often criminalized in the American debates over immigration: “In the media and much of the official political discourse, the word ‘illegal’ prevails over ‘undocumented’ and the term ‘immigrant’ over ‘refugee.’” The author also explains how the immigrant crisis predated the triumph of Trump and how policies of the Obama and Bush administrations were heartless in treating such refugees as some other country’s problem. Though Luiselli may not convince those adamantly opposed to loosening regulations, she hopes that those who have been willfully blind to the injustices will recognize how they “haunt and shame us…being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. A powerful call to action and to empathy.
Luloff, Joanna*: The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka (2012)
* RPCV Sri Lanka (1996-1998)
Our discussion took place: March 2018. Participating in our discussion was Joanna Luloff, the book’s author.
Review: © Kirkus Review: In her debut, Luloff weaves a montage of stories into a cohesive whole as she explores the roles of tradition and family and the destructive power of war through the lives of each character. With simplicity, the author, a former Peace Corps volunteer, gives voices to those who’ve been touched, however remotely, by a conflict that lasted for decades and destroyed the fabric of a country. Mohan, Janaki and their two daughters live a comfortable family-oriented life in Baddegama, a village in southern Sri Lanka, and pay scant attention to the struggle occurring between Tamil insurgents and the Sinhalese government. The skirmishes are taking place in the northern section of their country, so it’s had little impact on their lives. But not so for Lakshmi, Janaki’s older sister: Her husband, Sunil, a Tamil sympathizer, disappeared from the streets of Colombo in 1987, and now Lakshmi is returning to her family, a person incontrovertibly different from the girl Janaki once knew. Peace Corps volunteer Sam, a boarder in Janaki’s home, falls in love with a student from the north and insists on staying in the country even though his visiting parents pressure him to leave. And other volunteers, whether for altruistic reasons, adventure or escape, journey to Sri Lanka to find purpose or refuge along the beautiful beaches or in mountain retreats. Like Lucy, who manages an International Aid rest home, some discover that fulfilling a desire for adventure can lead to witnessing unimaginable horrors. Perhaps the most affecting tale is the story of Nilanthi, a brilliant young teaching candidate and the object of volunteer Sam’s love. When the violence causes her program to shut down, she returns home to her parents, three brothers and best friend, Sunitha. What follows is a study of societal barriers, family dynamics and individual strength. Each story is subtly presented and, for the most part, disturbingly believable.
Luz, Susan*, with Marcus Brotherton: The Nightingale of Mosul: A Nurse’s Journey of Service, Struggle, and War (2010)
* RPCV Brazil 1972-1975
Our discussion took place: November 2017
Review: © Booklist: Colonel Luz of the Army Nurse Corps has enjoyed a long, happy marriage to the son of one of the original “Band of Brothers.” She also enjoyed hard-won success in the Peace Corps, as a nurse in an inner-city high school and at a hospital for the criminally insane, in the Army Reserve, and in being there for three nephews with cystic fibrosis. Then in 2006 she went to Iraq and combined public health and psychiatric work with handling a steady stream of casualties from combat and terrorist incidents. And she became the unofficial morale officer, responsible for, among other things, organizing a vocal group among the nurses, in which capacity she earned the moniker that entitles her book. Another Nightingale, the one who founded modern nursing, would have approved of Luz’s work; the army’s approval took the form of the Bronze Star. Readers will most likely approve of her addition to knowledge of the humane aspects of the Iraq War.
Maathai, Wangari*: Unbowed: A Memoir (2006)
* 2004 Nobel Peace Prize
Our discussion took place: January 2017
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Maathai, a 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, presents a matter-of-fact account of her rather exceptional life in Kenya. Born in 1940, Matthai attended primary school at a time when Kenyan girls were not educated; went on to earn a Ph.D. and became head of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi before founding Kenya’s Green Belt Movement in 1977, which mobilized thousands of women to plant trees in an effort to restore the country’s indigenous forests. Because Kenya’s environmental degradation was largely due to the policies of a corrupt government, she then made the Green Belt Movement part of a broader campaign for democracy. Maathai endured personal attacks by the ruling powers-President Moi denounced her as a “wayward” woman-and engaged in political activities that landed her in jail several times. When a new government came into power in 2002, she was elected to Parliament and appointed assistant minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources. Despite workmanlike prose, this memoir (after The Green Belt Movement) documents the remarkable achievements of an influential environmentalist and activist.
Mandela, Nelson*: Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (1995)
* 1993 Nobel Peace Prize
Our discussion took place: December 2015
Review: © Library Journal: This is an articulate, moving account of Mandela’s life from his “country childhood” following his birth on July 18, 1918 to his inauguration as president of South Africa on May 10, 1994. Mandela traces the growth of his understanding of the oppression of the blacks of South Africa; his conviction that there was no alternative to armed struggle; his developing belief that all people, black and white, must be free for true freedom; and the effect that his commitment to overthrowing apartheid had on his family, who “paid a terrible price.” Over a third of Mandela’s memoir tells of his 27 years in prison, an account that could stand alone as a prison narrative. He ends his book with the conclusion that his “long walk” for freedom has just begun: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Mann, Charles C.: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005)
Our discussion took place: March 2012
Review: © Reed Business Information: In a riveting and fast-paced history, massing archeological, anthropological, scientific and literary evidence, Mann debunks much of what we thought we knew about pre-Columbian America. Reviewing the latest, not widely reported research in Indian demography, origins and ecology, Mann zestfully demonstrates that long before any European explorers set foot in the New World, Native American cultures were flourishing with a high degree of sophistication. The new researchers have turned received wisdom on its head. For example, it has long been believed the Inca fell to Pizarro because they had no metallurgy to produce steel for weapons. In fact, scholars say, the Inca had a highly refined metallurgy, but valued plasticity over strength. What defeated the Inca was not steel but smallpox and resulting internecine warfare. Mann also shows that the Maya constructed huge cities and governed them with a cohesive set of political ideals. Most notably, according to Mann, the Haudenosaunee, in what is now the Northeast U.S., constructed a loose confederation of tribes governed by the principles of individual liberty and social equality. The author also weighs the evidence that Native populations were far larger than previously calculated. Mann, a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly and Science, masterfully assembles a diverse body of scholarship into a first-rate history of Native America and its inhabitants.
Marks, Mary Dana*: Walled In, Walled Out: A Young American Woman in Iran** (2017)
* RPCV Iran (1964-1966)
** 2017 Moritz Thomsen Award for Memoir
Our discussion took place: January 2018. Participating in our discussion was Mary Dana Marks, the book’s author.
Synopsis: When Mary joins the Peace Corps the shah reigns in Iran and John F. Kennedy has left his mark on the world. Sent to Kerman, a conservative city on the Iranian plateau, she teaches English to high school girls. In the classroom, or walking through the bazaar amid turbaned Baluchi tribesmen and chanting Sufi dervishes, she is the exotic one. The adobe walls that seclude women exclude her, a bareheaded foreigner. Woven throughout are dusty travels from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, colorful feasts, rich history and hidden romance. Walled In, Walled Out recounts her convoluted, often humorous journey from ignorance to understanding in a country where the people speak with many voices.
McMahon, Tyler*: Kilometer 99** (2014)
* RPCV El Salvador (1999-2002)
** 2015 Maria Thomas Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: March 2016. Participating in our discussion was Tyler McMahon, the book’s author.
Review: © Booklist: In his second novel (after How the Mistakes Were Made, 2011), McMahon once again focuses on an adventurous young woman, this time a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador. Hawaiian-born Malia has come to El Salvador with a newly minted engineering degree, and she throws herself into helping a rural village build an aqueduct to bring much-needed water to the villagers. She spends her weekends with her boyfriend, Ben, surfing the perfect waves just off the coastal city of La Libertad. Then a devastating earthquake wipes out a year’s worth of her work, and she finds herself reluctantly agreeing to spend the next year surfing with Ben, torn between her ambitions and her desire for the perfect adventure. But a robbery and an ill-timed meeting with a shady developer derail the couple’s travel plans. Instead of following the waves south, they find themselves desperately short of money and involved in a dangerous scheme to deliver drugs to renegade dealers. In this dark adventure tale, McMahon summons both the mystical joys of surfing and the angst of young people trying to navigate a treacherous world.
McMahon, Tyler*: Dream of Another America (2018)
* RPCV El Salvador (1999-2002)
Our discussion took place: July 2019. Participating in our discussion was Tyler McMahon, the book’s author.
Review: © Kirkus Review: A Salvadoran father attempts the perilous journey to America while his wife and son stay behind in El Salvador to await his return. McMahon (Kilometer 99, 2014, etc.) spins a beautiful but heartbreaking tale of the classic migrant story, one of sacrifice, danger, and small victories for those who have left and those still at home. Jacinto, his wife Mina, and their 13-year-old son Wilmer live in a small rural town in El Salvador, still reeling from the destructive civil war that left thousands dead and many more permanently changed. Wilmer has asthma, which is a life-threatening condition in their small Salvadoran town that lacks electricity and clean running water. After a particularly serious asthma attack, Jacinto accepts a local smuggler’s expensive offer to get him to the United States, where he hopes to work and save enough to buy the medicine Wilmer needs. Jacinto faces an enormous setback early on, when his group gets lost in the Mexican desert, resulting in five deaths and his capture. He prepares to be bussed back to El Salvador, but in a strange twist of events, he finds himself with a second chance to cross the border into America. Back home in El Salvador, Mina and Wilmer attempt to maintain their livelihoods without Jacinto and without any updates on his whereabouts. The smuggler that arranged Jacinto’s original journey demands an exorbitant interest on their down payment and Wilmer is bullied at school by those who believe his father is dead. Without Jacinto to bring in an income and to stand up for his family, hope for Mina’s and Wilmer’s survival gradually deteriorates. These two parallel stories collide at a moment when all three appear to have little left to lose. Their story of suffering and sacrifice is devastating yet also embedded in love. Every sacrifice made on behalf of a loved one is a testament to human resilience and the fight for a better life. McMahon’s contribution to the body of immigrant literature is entrenched in questions of nationality, poverty, and family. He achieves a storytelling feat by creating an incredibly realistic narrative that is as poignant as it is breathtaking.
Meisler, Stanley: When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years (2011)
Our discussion took place: March 2012. Participating in our discussion was Stanley Meisler, the book’s author.
Review: © Booklist: Few government programs enjoy the reputation of the Peace Corps, a political afterthought by President Kennedy that became one of the more enduring legacies of his administration. Succeeding administrations have had testy relations with the Peace Corps. Johnson railed against volunteers’ opposition to his invasion of the Dominican Republic, and Reagan tried to use the program to advance his agenda in Central America. Since its 1961 inception, the Peace Corps has had to manage its mission to advance peace and provide development assistance, from teaching to building wells, against political onslaughts within the U.S. and host nations even as it managed its image as symbol of American idealism rather than tool of the CIA. Meisler, a deputy director during its early years, offers informed perspective from the turbulent years of the Vietnam War, when many volunteers were conflicted about their government, to the future direction of the Peace Corps. Drawing on his experience and interviews with former volunteers, he presents the fascinating characters, locales, and political background noise from a near-universally admired program’s 50-year history.
Meyer, Michael*: The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed** (2008)
* RPCV China (1995-1997)
** 2009 Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: June 2012
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Just in time for the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Old City’s narrow lanes and shops are being bulldozed and their residents displaced to make way for Wal-Marts, shopping centers and high-rise apartments. Part memoir, part history, part travelogue and part call to action, journalist Meyer’s elegant first book yearns for old Beijing and mourns the loss of an older way of life. Having lived for two years in one of Beijing’s oldest hutongs–mazes of lanes and courtyards bordered by single-story houses–Meyer chronicles the threat urban planning poses not only to the ancient history buried within these neighborhoods but also to the people of the hutong. The hutong, he says, builds community in a way that glistening glass and steel buildings cannot. His 81-year-old neighbor, whom he calls the “Widow,” had always been safe because neighbors watched out for her, as she watched out for others: the book opens with a delightful scene in which the Widow, a salty character who calls Meyer “Little Plumblossom,” brings him unsolicited dumplings for his breakfast. The ironies of the reconstruction of Beijing are clear in the building of Safe and Sound Boulevard, which, Meyer tells us, is “neither safe nor sound. “Meyer’s powerful book is to Beijing what Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities was to New York City.
Michener, James A.: Caravans (1963)
Our discussion took place: September 2014
Review: © The New York Times: In this romantic adventure of wild Afghanistan, master storyteller James Michener mixes the allure of the past with the dangers of today. After an impetuous American girl, Ellen Jasper, marries a young Afghan engineer, her parents hear no word from her. Although she wants freedom to do as she wishes, not even she is sure what that means. In the meantime, she is as good as lost in that wild land, perhaps forever. An extraordinary novel…Brilliant.
Mirante, Edith: Wind in the Bamboo: A Journey in Search of Asia’s “Negrito” Indigenous People (2014)
Our discussion took place: June 2016. Participating in our discussion was Edith Mirante, the book’s author.
Synopsis: Historically defined as ‘Negrito’ because they physically resemble small Africans, these hunter-gatherers may have the most ancient ancestry in Asia. Nearly exterminated by disease and a cataclysmic volcanic eruption, they now survive in forests of Malaysia, the Philippines and India’s Andaman Islands. Some are armed with spears and blowpipes, a few with mobile phones and graduate degrees. Edith Mirante reveals the story of the ‘Negrito’ peoples through a compelling Chatwinesque narrative of journeys into their remaining lands.
Moehl, John*: Phobos & Deimos: Two Moons, Two Worlds (2016)
* RPCV Cameroon (1974-1980)
Our discussion took place: April 2017. Participating in our discussion was John Moehl, the book’s author.
Synopsis: Many of us live dual lives, as though we live in two worlds. This divergence is perhaps greatest for those embedded in what may be called “multiculturalism.” Multicultural people, with their unique life experiences, are migrating around the globe, carrying their own baggage while they face the demands of living in new and strange lands. The short stories in this collection look at the daily tests facing people, frequently in Africa, as they struggle to survive, often in a rapidly changing world. These observations are made through the lens of an outsider–someone from a different culture, with different habits, seeing and learning how these trials are met–seeing and learning that people, regardless of ethnicity, share a common humanity that makes taking these tests poignant and, at times, a true reflection of the human condition. The stories focus on farmers and families, business and traditional leaders, the poor and the rich as they move through life’s pathways, not knowing the changes in store for tomorrow. The stories tell tales of sadness and success, while underscoring the common denominators we all share. The stories may be seen as representing a different world, but they most likely represent the whole world.
Mortenson, Greg, and David Oliver Relin: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time (2006)
Our discussion took place: April 2012
Review:© Publishers Weekly: Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson’s efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, this book will win many readers’ hearts.
Mortenson, Greg: Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009)
Our discussion took place: April 2012
Review:© Booklist: Mortenson’s best-seller, Three Cups of Tea (2009), introduced his commitment to peace through education and became a book-club phenomenon. He now continues the story of how the Central Asia Institute (CAI) built schools in northern Afghanistan. Descriptions of the harsh geography and more than one near-death experience impress readers as new faces join Mortenson’s loyal “Dirty Dozen” as they carefully plot a course of school-building through the Badakshan province and Wakhan corridor. Mortenson also shares his friendships with U.S. military personnel, including Admiral Mike Mullen, and the warm reception his work has found among the officer corps. The careful line CAI threads between former mujahideen commanders, ex-Taliban and village elders, and the American soldiers stationed in their midst is poetic in its political complexity and compassionate consideration. Using schools not bombs to promote peace is a goal that even the most hard-hearted can admire, but to blandly call this book inspiring would be dismissive of all the hard work that has gone into the mission in Afghanistan as well as the efforts to fund it. Mortenson writes of nothing less than saving the future, and his adventure is light years beyond most attempts. Mortenson did not reach the summit of K2, but oh, the heights he has achieved.
Most, Stephen*: River of Renewal: Myth and History in the Klamath Basin (2006)
* RPCV Peru (1965-1967)
Our discussion took place: July 2018. Participating in our discussion was Stephen Most, the book’s author.
Review: © Orion Magazine: The Klamath can be read as an encapsulated history of bad water-management decisions. Virtually everyone involved is a victim; the salmon are merely the most dramatic. When the Link River Dam was constructed without fish ladders in the early 1920s, salmon were eliminated from the upstream half of the drainage. Over the next sixty years, six more dams would push salmon habitat farther and farther downstream, ostensibly to provide flood control and hydroelectric power. Most tells these stories in the voices of the protagonists, who give the basin’s complex history an illuminating immediacy that infuses the entire book. It is a mark of his achievement that he has been able to make these historical, cultural, and environmental pieces into a comprehensive whole. River of Renewal is the best source available for those wishing to think clearly about this cumulative tragedy, as well as a first-rate model for regional land use history anywhere in the American West.
Müller, Herta*: The Fox Was Ever the Hunter (1992/2016)
* 2009 Nobel Literature Prize
Our discussion took place: May 2019
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Set in Romania at the end of the Ceausescu era, this Kafkaesque tale offers a glimpse of a society unhinged by fear and paranoia and crushed by the hopelessness of its dead-end future. Its principal characters include Clara, a worker in a wire-making factory; her lover, Pavel, a married lawyer; Paul, a musician whose concerts have been raided by the police; and Adina, a schoolteacher who discovers that someone is regularly entering her apartment and systematically—and symbolically—dismembering a fox rug in her bedroom. Suspicions suggest that someone in this circle of friends and acquaintances is giving information to the authorities—but who? Nobel Prize–winner Müller (The Hunger Angel) foregrounds her tale against a bleak landscape mired in pollution and industrial waste, where the natural world is menacing: poplar trees ringing the town are described as “knives,” and the sun as a “blazing pumpkin.” In short, staccato chapters etched with her spare but crystalline prose, she parades scores of nameless working-class people who seem devoid of any inner life and whose prospects for rising above their circumstances are summed up as “Nothing but this gutter of poverty, hopelessness, and tedium, from mother to child and on to that child’s children.” More than a portrait of individual lives under the suffocating weight of a dictatorship, Müller’s novel is a searing appraisal of a people whose souls have been strangled by despair.
Murphy, Dervla: Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965)
Our discussion took place: July 2016
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Here is the first American appearance of a book by Irish travel writer Murphy. Originally published in 1965, it is the diary of her bicycle trek from Dunkirk, across Europe, through Iran and Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan and India. Murphy’s immediate rapport with the people she alights among is vibrant and appealing and makes her travelogue unique. Venturing alone, accompanied only by her bicycle, which she dubs Roz, the indomitable Murphy not only survives daunting physical rigors but gleans considerable enjoyment in getting to know peoples who were then even more remote than they are now.