Tayler, Jeffrey*: Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel (2005)
* RPCV Morocco (1988-1990)
Our discussion took place: August 2015
Review: © Publishers Weekly: This engrossing narration of crossing the Sahel–the Saharan borderlands of Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Mali–by tortuous and frequently hair-raising local conveyances finds a barren, wind-scoured region, wracked by hunger, tribal conflict, animosity between Muslims and Christians and–a particular bane of wayfarers at border crossings–an infuriatingly corrupt and high-handed bureaucracy. Journalist Tayler (Glory in a Camel’s Eye) is guilt-stricken by the appalling poverty and enchanted with a Tuareg tribal sword dance (“This is how people were meant to live… shouting their joy into the wild night sky!”), but he generally avoids being overwhelmed by either the region’s problems or its exotic charms. Indeed, his critical perspective makes him an often cantankerous presence. Fluent in Arabic and French, he is drawn into debates about religion and politics (President Bush’s words and deeds are a favorite topic among Sahelian Muslims), skeptically cross-examines folklore about tourist spots, argues vehemently.with local defenders and Western relativists alike.against the persistent customs of slavery and female circumcision, and faces down bribe-hungry customs officials. Appreciative of the generosity and patience of the region’s long-suffering inhabitants, he also sees their cultures as bogged down by dogma and fatalism. Vividly written and trenchantly observed, Tayler’s account opens an everyday window on a world that the West normally confronts only in crisis.
Textor, Robert B (editor): Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps (1966)
Our discussion took place: April 2011. Participating in our discussion was CRPCA’s Bob Textor, the book’s editor.
Description: This book is a collection of social science essays assessing the first five years of Peace Corps. It’s full of rich material that lends well to discussion by RPCVs from any era. The book was edited by Robert B. Textor, Peace Corps’ founding anthropologist. It features a forward by Margaret Mead and scholarly pieces about early Peace Corps activities in Afghanistan, Bolivia, Jamaica, Malaya, Morocco, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Tanganyika, Thailand, and Tunisia.
Theroux, Paul*: The Lower River (2012)
* RPCV Malawi (1963-1965). Winner of 1990 Maria Thomas Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: April 2013
Review: © New York Times Book Review: The Lower River is riveting in its storytelling and provocative in its depiction of this African backwater, infusing both with undertones of slavery and cannibalism, savagery and disease. Theroux exposes paternalism in Hock’s Peace Corps nostalgia, his “sense of responsibility, almost a conceit of ownership.” That sense of responsibility, and Hock’s modest contribution to the welfare of a people he was once genuinely fond of, has been replaced by a harsher mode of operation, run by coldhearted contractors living apart in impregnable compounds. “I have to leave,” Hock pleads. “I’m going home.” To which the village headman replies, with chilling menace, “This is your home, father.”
Thomas, Maria*: Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage, and Other Stories (1987)
* RPCV Ethiopia 1971-1973
Our discussion took place: September 2018
Review: © The New York Times: In Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage, Ms. Thomas gives us a group of stories about…Peace Corps volunteers, foreign academics and Agency for International Development advisers, Indians and white hunters left behind by colonial empire, American blacks looking for a place where blackness is the norm. These people don’t belong to Africa. Most have come here with the purpose of doing good, curing disease or famine or inventing consistent technical vocabularies where language hasn’t caught up to imported technology. Others came, as expatriates always have, to be saved from some sickness of the soul – they seek a witch-doctor cure of one alienation by another.
Thomsen, Moritz*: Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle (1969)
* RPCV Ecuador (1965-1967)
Our discussion took place: January 2011
Description: The author, a California farmer, became a Peace Corps farmer in Ecuador at the age of 44. This is a chronicle of his experience living in the Ecuadorian coastal village of Rioverde during his Peace Corps service.
Tidwell, Mike*: The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn** (1990)
* RPCV Congo (1985-1987)
** 1991 Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: May 2011
Synopsis: © Amazon: As a Peace Corps volunteer, Mr. Tidwell spent two years in the grasslands of south central Zaire trying to teach the benefits of fish farming in some of the poorest villages on the continent. His task was not easy. One villager was convinced that fish would stock the ponds naturally, since they come to earth in raindrops. Others suspected that the ponds were just another way for whites to exploit black labor. When he finally made headway, the fish farmers gave away nearly half their harvest to relatives, and Tidwell learned one of many powerful lessons: tradition takes precedence over profits. While the tragic poverty and disease faced by the villagers was daunting, Tidwell found that their adherence to heritage and their celebration of tiny triumphs and daily satisfactions revealed a life richer than he had ever known.
Tinker, Irene: Crossing Centuries: A Road Trip Through Colonial Africa (2010)
Our discussion took place: December 2010. Participating in our discussion was Irene Tinker, the book’s author.
Review: US Ambassador Alan McKee: Irene Tinker’s vivid memoir recaptures a pivotal moment, circa 1953, when East Africa was on the road to independence. It dramatizes both how far new nations have come since then and how burdened they remain by ghosts of the past. Her book contains useful history, rigorous political science, and fascinating ethnography, all enhanced by the added dimension of a woman’s perspective. But, above all, this is a good story, in the tradition of great African travelogues from James Conrad and Graham Greene to Paul Theroux. Crossing Centuries will warm the hearts of old Africa hands and seize the imagination of readers new to what used to be called the Dark Continent.
Troost, J. Maarten: The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific (2004)
Our discussion took place: November 2011
Review: © Publishers Weekly: At 26, Troost followed his wife to Kiribati, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. Virtually ignored by the rest of humanity (its erstwhile colonial owners, the Brits, left in 1979), Kiribati is the kind of place where dolphins frolic in lagoons, days end with glorious sunsets and airplanes might have to circle overhead because pigs occupy the island’s sole runway. Troost’s wife was working for an international nonprofit; the author himself planned to hang out and maybe write a literary masterpiece. But Kiribati wasn’t quite paradise. It was polluted, overpopulated and scorchingly sunny (Troost could almost feel his freckles mutating into something “interesting and tumorous”). The villages overflowed with scavengers and recently introduced, nonbiodegradable trash. And the Kiribati people seemed excessively hedonistic. Yet after two years, Troost and his wife felt so comfortable, they were reluctant to return home. Troost is a sharp, funny writer, richly evoking the strange, day-by-day wonder that became his life in the islands. One night, he’s doing his best funky chicken with dancing Kiribati; the next morning, he’s on the high seas contemplating a toilet extending off the boat’s stern (when the ocean was rough, he learns, it was like using a bidet). Troost’s chronicle of his sojourn in a forgotten world is a comic masterwork of travel writing and a revealing look at a culture clash.
Ung, Kilong: Golden Leaf: A Khmer Rouge Genocide Survivor (2009)
Our discussion took place: August 2016. Participating in our discussion was Kilong Ung, the book’s author.
Synopsis: This is a first-hand account of the life of Kilong Ung who grew up in Battambang, Cambodia and whose life dramatically changed in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. Told from the eyes of the boy that he was, this is an honest, real account that takes the reader through Kilong’s experiences as if one were actually there, without any need for embellishment of the story. This book gives the readers an insight that no history book could. It provides not just an insight into the Khmer Rouge and the terrible extermination of two million people but an insight into humanity, how it is possible for a people to be subjected to mass cruelty and hardship by a ruling power, and yet how an individual against the odds could endure this and do what it took to survive, even as tragedy befell his family. Kilong saw himself as a leaf, a golden leaf, at the mercy of mercurial winds. Yet through fortune and the help of others he survived against the odds, and was able to come to America, penniless and unable to speak English. The tale follows how he adapted to the new culture and made himself a success. The story is filled with humorous incidents as he adapts to American culture as well as poignant emotional times where he grapples with the demons of the past, struggling to overcome the terrible experiences and memories, even as he gains material success in American life. Then when an opportunity for revenge presents itself he is faced with a moral dilemma that will decide his life. Kilong has painstakingly composed a chronicle of his life over countless hours, testing the limits of his emotions. Much of this book was written in an unlikely environment; Starbucks café, whom Kilong publicly thanks for “providing power outlets, public restrooms, soft music, and Americano-inspired recoveries from writing blocks.”
Urbani, Ellen*: Landfall** (2015)
* RPCV Guatemala (1991-1993)
** 2016 Maria Thomas Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: May 2016. Participating in our discussion was Ellen Urbani, the book’s author.
Synopsis: Two mothers and their teenage daughters, whose lives collide in a fatal car crash, take turns narrating Ellen Urbani’s breathtaking novel, Landfall, set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Eighteen-year-olds Rose and Rosebud have never met but they share a birth year, a name, and a bloody pair of sneakers. Rose’s quest to atone for the accident that kills Rosebud, a young woman so much like herself but for the color of her skin, unfolds alongside Rosebud’s battle to survive the devastating flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward and to find help for her unstable mother. These unforgettable characters give voice to the dead of the storm and, in a stunning twist, demonstrate how what we think we know can make us blind to what matters most.
Urbani, Ellen*: When I Was Elena (2006)
* RPCV Guatemala (1991-1993)
Our discussion took place: July 2012. Participating in our discussion was Ellen Urbani, the book’s author.
Review: © Publishers Weekly: In 1991, Hiltebrand, then 22, jettisoned her Southern belle sorority life for two years in rural Guatemala, armed with her dog, fluency in Spanish and a well-grounded blend of will and pluck (“National Geographic lied,” she declares upon arrival). In the country’s crushing poverty and rampant hazards, along with the worshipful envy Hiltebrand elicits as a “gringa,” the author finds an unexpected lode of humor that she mines to impressive effect, gently but not jeeringly. She records events with unflinching precision, leavened with an amiable sense of the absurd–as when a crone blithely steals Hiltebrand’s mattress, which is imbued with new value by a white woman’s touch. Even the kindness extended to her is riddled with poignant irony, as a neighbor slaughters her chickens to feed the author’s ailing dog. The country’s more menacing figures–lewd men, including a would-be rapist–are introduced without histrionics, as products of a culture viewed with clear-eyed, anthropological interest. Hiltebrand’s travelogue is intercut with the quietly powerful life stories of the native women she befriends, and the tectonic shifts in perspective create a rich mosaic of culture and character. Though in spots Hiltebrand’s prose feels thickly applied, her animated voice reliably shines through.
Van Beek, Steve*: Slithering South (2002)
* RPCV Nepal 1966-1969
Our discussion took place: May 2017. Participating in our discussion was Steve Van Beek, the book’s author.
Synopsis: A wild, often hilarious, ride down Thailand’s longest river. A tiny teak boat set in the Ping River deep in the Golden Triangle takes the author on a 58-day voyage of discovery through Thailand’s heart. Along the way, he meets Sin the Buffalo Man, the Cowboys of Tha Sala, Jamrat and the “Boom Boom Girl”, and dozens of other intriguing characters. One dark night, poachers prey on him; on another, he is a murder suspect, as he learns far more about rural Thailand – and himself – than he bargained for.
Where to find it:
Verghese, Abraham: Cutting for Stone (2010)
Our discussion took place: January 2013
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Lauded for his sensitive memoir (My Own Country) about his time as a doctor in eastern Tennessee at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, Verghese turns his formidable talents to fiction, mining his own life and experiences in a magnificent, sweeping novel that moves from India to Ethiopia to an inner-city hospital in New York City over decades and generations. Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a devout young nun, leaves the south Indian state of Kerala in 1947 for a missionary post in Yemen. During the arduous sea voyage, she saves the life of an English doctor bound for Ethiopia, Thomas Stone, who becomes a key player in her destiny when they meet up again at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa. Seven years later, Sister Praise dies birthing twin boys: Shiva and Marion, the latter narrating his own and his brothers long, dramatic, biblical story set against the backdrop of political turmoil in Ethiopia, the life of the hospital compound in which they grow up and the love story of their adopted parents, both doctors at Missing. The boys become doctors as well and Vergheses weaving of the practice of medicine into the narrative is fascinating even as the story bobs and weaves with the power and coincidences of the best 19th-century novel.
Walker, Peter*: Sagebrush Collaboration: How Harney County, Oregon, Defeated the Takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (2018)
* RPCV Sierra Leone 1986-1988
Our discussion took place: June 2020. Participating in our discussion was Peter Walker, the book’s author.
Synopsis: Every American is co-owner of the most magnificent estate in the world—federal public forests, grazing lands, monuments, national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public places. The writer Wallace Stegner famously referred to public lands as “America’s best idea,” but there have always been some who oppose the idea for ideological reasons, or because they have a vested economic interest. In the current decade, federal public lands have been under physical threat as never before, with armed standoffs and takeovers that the US government has proved stunningly unsuccessful at prosecuting in federal courts. One such incident was the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, in 2016. Armed militants seized the headquarters of the refuge for forty-one days and occupied the community for three months. Militants threatened and harassed local residents, pledging to “give back” the land to unnamed “rightful owners” in their effort to enact a fringe interpretation of the US Constitution. Drawing on more than two years of intensive fieldwork, Sagebrush Collaboration shows that the militants failed in their objectives because the sensible and hardworking citizens of Harney County had invested decades in collaboratively solving the very problems that the militia used to justify their anti–federal government revolution. In Sagebrush Collaboration, Peter Walker offers the first book-length study of why the 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge failed. His nuanced and deeply researched account provides the full context for the takeover, including the response from local and federal officials and the grassroots community resistance. It will be essential reading for years to come for anyone who wants to understand the ongoing battle over the future of America’s public lands.
Weiner, Eric: The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World (2008)
Our discussion took place: June 2011
Review: © Kirkus Reviews: Part travelogue, part personal-discovery memoir and all sustained delight, this wise, witty ramble reads like Paul Theroux channeling David Sedaris on a particularly good day. Intent on finding the happiest places on Earth and learning what makes them that way, globe-trotting NPR correspondent Weiner discovers some surprises. Money helps, but only to a point; the happiest places tend to be racially homogenous (an unfortunate statistic for multiculturalists); the greatest obstacle to happiness is not poverty or oppression, but envy; breast-enhancement surgery appears to be a good investment, happiness-wise. The author vividly renders happily repressed Switzerland, determinedly tolerant and hedonistic Holland and culturally vibrant Iceland as models of happiness-encouraging environments. (Another surprise: Happiness flourishes in cold climates.) Excursions to Bhutan and India provide a spiritual perspective and underscore the wisdom of low expectations. For contrast, Weiner visits some decidedly unhappy spots: England’s dismal Slough (“a showpiece of quiet desperation”); newly rich Qatar, choking on cash but devoid of culture; and miserable Moldova, whose citizens live by an ethos of envy, corruption, vicious self-interest and pleasure in the misfortune of others. The Moldova chapter is the book’s funniest-nothing inspires comedy like misfortune and despair. But Weiner writes of the morose Moldovans with affectionate warmth and manages to find something positive to say about the country: The fruits and vegetables are fresh. Americans, despite their wealth and comfort, don’t make the top ranks of the world-happiness index-they think too much, work too hard and look for satisfaction in consumer goods. The author’s pronouncements on the nature of happiness are not exactly world-shaking: It depends on cooperative relationships and community; it has spiritual value; it can be attained as a conscious choice. But the author’s conclusions are hardly the point-as with all great journeys, getting there is at least half the fun. Fresh and beguiling.
Wilentz, Amy: Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti (2013)
Our discussion took place: October 2014
Review: © Publishers Weekly: In this bracing memoir, Wilentz (The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier) revisits Haiti, as she describes a complex nation, following the cataclysmic 2010 earthquake. The world’s first black republic is neither French nor completely Caribbean nor a protectorate of the United States, but rather, Wilentz writes, something akin to French West Africa. Readers get a stimulating immersion course in Haiti’s culture, history, and political machinations. She introduces a fantastical cast of characters who inhabit the many layers of Haitian society and those individuals who flocked to the island following the earthquake, burdened with motives ranging from the base self-promotion or redemption of sundry celebrities such as Kim Kardashian or Charlie Sheen to those who came to help such as Doctor Coffee, whom Wilentz calls “an all-purpose medical phenomenon.” Though many pontificate on the country’s unrelenting despair, poverty, and corruption, Wilentz’s remarkable narrative strives to alter these perceptions. She writes, “But in fact, this depression and hopelessness come from experts who don’t understand Haiti, don’t acknowledge its strengths (and don’t know them), don’t get its culture or are philosophically opposed to what they assume its culture is, and don’t know its history in any meaningful way.” An unsentimental yet heartfelt journey to a country possessing the power to baffle some, yet beguile others.
Wiley, Richard*: Tacoma Stories (2019)
* RPCV South Korea 1967-1969
Our discussion took place: March 2020. Participating in our discussion was Richard Wiley, the book’s author.
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Wiley’s antic, wrenching collection of 14 interlocking stories reveals the subtle connections among a dozen characters whose unpredictable lives evolve through the decades in the title city. The first story, “Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die,” takes place on St. Patrick’s Day in a formerly popular Tacoma, Wash., bar that has “started on its coast to oblivion.” The story stands on its own, but it also introduces the characters who will populate the rest of the volume. Lindy, for example, introduced in the first story as “a woman whose ex was doing time at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary,” appears in the following one, “A Goat’s Breath Carol,” as a ninth grader asking her reluctant seventh grader neighbor to “show her his weenie.” Ralph, an English teacher in his 50s who plays a minor role in the first story, stars in a story set 10 years later, “Anyone Can Master Grief but He Who Has It.” Readers may need to take notes to keep track of the characters and their connections, but that close reading will pay off. The collection provides a tentatively affirmative answer to the question raised by a fictional version of the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth: “Do you think a town can act as a hedge against the unabated loneliness of the human heart?”
Wrong, Michela: I Didn’t Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation (2005)
Our discussion took place: April 2019
Review: © Foreign Affairs: Wrong has written a penetrating history of Eritrea, starting with Italian colonialism, working her way through the 30-year struggle against Ethiopian occupation, and ending with independence, the pointless 1998 border war with Ethiopia, and the current dispiriting drift toward a police state. Her major theme is the raw deal the Eritrean nation has gotten from the rest of the world for much of the modern era. Italy, Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and, of course, Ethiopia, have all exploited the country or ignored the welfare of its people. Few Americans know, for example, that the U.S. Army long ran a large intelligence base there, Kagnew Station, that housed over 4,000 people — at a time when Eritrea was an integral (albeit contested) part of Ethiopia and Washington had little regard for its national aspirations. Wrong has an eye for the telling anecdote, and the book’s many vignettes, rich characters, and empathetic writing make for excellent reading.
Wyss, Susi*: The Civilized World: A Novel in Stories** (2011)
* RPCV Central African Republic (1990-1992)
** 2012 Maria Thomas Fiction Award
Our discussion took place: March 2013. Participating in our discussion was Susi Wyss, the book’s author.
Review: © Publishers Weekly: In this smart, urbane debut, characters strive for understanding within a cacophonous modern landscape. Two parallel but conflicting stories open and close the collection, to moving effect: Adjoa and her twin brother, Kojo, are migrant workers from Ghana, having lived for 12 years in the Ivory Coast, saving up to make enough money to return and start a hair salon. Adjoa is serious and single-minded about her mission, but Kojo’s impatience at gaining fast money prompts him to get involved in the robbery of the home of Adjoa’s wealthy American employer, Janice. The reckless act ends tragically, and Adjoa has to carry a heavy load of guilt back to Accra, where she opens her salon and tries to find a good husband who won’t take advantage of her or her business. Elsewhere, Janice reappears on a road trip in the Central African Republic and at an Ethiopian orphanage, where she intends to adopt a child on her own. Wyss offers nuanced takes on vastly different corners of Africa, transcending travelogue to achieve resonant narratives — sometimes funny, sometimes stark — with both grit and heart.
Xinran: Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet (2005)
Our discussion took place: October 2017
Review: © Publishers Weekly: Inspired by a brief 1994 interview with an aged Chinese woman named Shu Wen, Beijing-born, London-based journalist Xinran (The Good Women of China) offers a delicately wrought account of Wen’s 30-year search for her husband in Tibet, where he disappeared in 1958. After less than 100 days of marriage, Wen’s husband, Kejun, a doctor in the People’s Liberation Army, is posted to Tibet and two months later is reported killed. Stunned and disbelieving, 26-year-old Wen is determined to find Kejun herself; a doctor also, she gets herself posted to the isolated Tibetan area where Kejun had been. There, as one of the few women in the Chinese army, she endures much hardship and rescues a Tibetan noblewoman named Zhuoma. After being separated from her fellow soldiers in the wake of an ambush by Tibetan rebels, Wen, accompanied by Zhuoma, sets off on a trek through the harsh landscape. Years later, after going native with a tribe of yak herders, Wen learns the circumstances of Kejun’s death and understands that her husband was caught in a fatal misunderstanding between two vastly different cultures. Woven through with fascinating details of Tibetan culture and Buddhism, Xinran’s story portrays a poignant, beautiful attempt at reconciliation.
Yousafzai, Malala*, with Christina Lamb: I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood up for Education and Changed the World (2013)
* 2014 Nobel Peace Prize
Our discussion took place: December 2016
Review: © Library Journal: On October 9, 2012, the teenage Yousafzai was very nearly assassinated by members of the Taliban who objected to her education and women’s rights activism in Pakistan. Currently, she lives in Birmingham, England, under threat of execution by the Taliban if she returns home to Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Through this book, however, she can continue arguing for her beliefs. Named Foreign Correspondent of the Year five times, Lamb has been reporting from Pakistan for 26 years and seems like just the right person to help Yousafzai tell her hugely significant story.