Category Archives: Journal

Five Favorite Books

My list of favorite books varies according to what I’m currently reading, but here I list, in no particular order, five books that gave me new insights.

Gary Sick, All Fall Down. Gary Sick was part of Jimmy Carter’s presidential team. He outlines in detail the thinking and events that led to the Iranian student takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979. Our relationship with Iran since then has been, to say the least, tortured. I referred to this book while researching for my novel, When Winter Comes.

John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life. One of the best biographies I have ever read. It won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. It opened up for me a part of twentieth century American history that still influences us today.

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. This book, published in 1996, describes the author’s perspective on major civilizations in the world today and their differing world views.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. A little book that arose out of Frankl’s experience in the death camps of the Holocaust. He explains not only the philosophy that helped him survive but gave him meaning afterward.

Elizabeth Elliot, A Slow and Certain Light. Elliot was the widow of Jim Elliot, killed while serving as a missionary to the South American Auca tribe. I began reading and rereading this book during a period of purposelessness, a time I thought would never end. It gave me hope until something better arrived.


The American Mission, by Matthew Palmer, is the story of a young U.S. diplomat in Africa. The diplomat, Alex, suffers from post traumatic stress disorder after witnessing a massacre he was unable to stop, in Darfur, one of the troubled regions of Sudan.

The disorder has damaged Alex’s career. In his new assignment, he deals with a corrupt African government, as well as his own betrayal by some of his colleagues, and his progress toward redemption.

I loved the story for many reasons. Readers love a decent but damaged hero who struggles to overcome the forces of evil. As a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, I also personally identified with the settings.

Finally, someone has written a realistic story (with certain novelistic liberties, of course) about the U.S. Foreign Service. Palmer has taken U.S. diplomats out of the realm of striped pants cookie pushing and created a more realistic picture of what they do.

Matthew Palmer should know. He is, in fact, still an active Foreign Service officer. I watched a video interview with him about his newest book, The Wolf of Sarajevo, which I look forward to also reading. Palmer, of course, can write realistically about diplomats in the Balkans, as well as other places, because he served there.

Palmer said he cringes at popular perceptions of diplomats in the literary world. He had difficulty getting his novels accepted by a publisher. Publishers had problems with the “foreign” element of the story. A story about Americans in Africa? they asked.

I sympathize. In pitching my novels, at least two editors told me they would have difficulty pitching a story set in a foreign locale to their American readers.

This perception is changing. Several such novels have become popular with American audiences. (Books by Khaled Hosseini, set in Afghanistan, come to mind. In a lighter vein, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith are popular.)

Even U.S. political campaigns seldom explore foreign policy in any depth. Perhaps the publishers and the politicians are missing a newer population, more interested than they had supposed in countries beyond our shores. After all, Americans should know about the countries where they send their soldiers to die.

How Religious Pluralism Strengthens Faith

Peter L. Berger, a professor at Boston University, wrote an article, “The Good of Religious Pluralism” (First Things, April 2016).

What’s good about it? Doesn’t pluralism undermine faith?

Berger says no and lists four benefits of religious pluralism:

It becomes more difficult to take a religious tradition for granted. Acts of decision become necessary.

Freedom is a great gift, and pluralism opens up new areas of freedom.

If pluralism is combined with religious freedom, all religious institutions become in fact voluntary associations (whether religious believers find this theologically congenial or not).

Pluralism influences individual believers and religious communities to distinguish between the core of their faith and less central elements.

Religious pluralism, it seems, encourages personal commitment to a faith rather than blind obedience.

Loving What Is Not Used Up

Material things—our clothes, our iPhones, our gourmet meals—aren’t in themselves evil, but they are finite.

The problem with material things is the emphasis we place on them. The saying “money is the root of all evil” is incorrectly quoted. The correct admonition is: “the LOVE of money is the root of all evil.”

Excesses of material things—harvested fruits or wealth—are not to be loved or hoarded but shared as well as enjoyed. The Hebrew Old Testament enjoins the people of Israel against too much efficiency. They are not to reap to the borders of their fields but to leave the leftover for the poor to gather.

Our nonmaterial resources follow different laws. They are not “used up.” One learns to enjoy music. To reach higher levels of musical understanding brings greater enjoyment and does not take from anyone else.

The good gifts don’t decrease with use, but grow with use.

My Kind of Escape Reading

My reading is more or less divided into two camps: stretching and escape. Most of my nonfiction is of the stretching variety, magazines and books I read to learn and to encourage ideas.

My fiction tends to be of the escape variety. Recently I’ve discovered a detective series that suits my kind of escape reading. It’s Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge novels. Rutledge is a detective from Scotland Yard, well beloved locale of many British novels.

Rutledge, however, is a wounded hero. He suffered trauma during World War I as a commanding officer for four years. In his imagination, he carries on conversations with one of the men, Hamish, a Scottish soldier Rutledge sent to his death for disobeying orders during the terrible Battle of the Somme.

Seeking to recover from what we now call post traumatic stress disorder—as well as he could recover—Rutledge suffered a broken engagement.

His investigative work is his salvation. He struggles to quiet Hamish’s sometimes accusing voice; yet Hamish provides a foil against which Rutledge can bounce off his theories as he attempts to solve complicated crimes.

Though grim deaths are a part of the plot, violence is not glorified, nor is sensuality.

I enjoy the fight for survival the hero makes, the cynical comments that are honest but not overwhelming, and especially the small lives of villagers and ordinary characters drawn well by the author.

The series is my kind of fiction: realistic, yet not drowning me in despair. Occasional kindness. An imperfect hero, yet with high standards. Bringing me out of my everyday world, but not, as my mother would say, leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth. Enough hope that I check out the next one.

Elie Wiesel and Others Died This Week

During the past few days, hundreds have died violent deaths in the Middle East and South Asia. Other deaths included five police officers in Dallas, a man in Minnesota, and the named sniper of the police officers. A survivor of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel, also died naturally at the age of 87.

Of all of them, Elie Wiesel knew the most about hatred. At the age of fifteen, he and his family—Elie, father, mother, and two sisters—were forced into cattle cars and taken to Nazi death camps. His mother and two sisters were taken from him. His mother and one sister died; the other survived. He saw his own father die in the camp, pleading for water.

Elie Wiesel did not kill anyone in revenge. Instead, he dedicated his life to a search for the meaning behind such senseless inhumanity. He earned the Nobel peace prize, and his writings are read widely.

He helped establish the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He set up a foundation to pursue human rights in Cambodia, Bosnia, South Africa, Chile, and Rwanda.

Wiesel did not seek revenge. Instead, he worked to save others from suffering as he had.

Smoothing Out Life’s Ups and Downs

“When the flames of devotion are within your soul, it is wise to consider how it will be with you when the light is taken away. And when the light is extinguished, remember that eventually the light will return.”

–Thomas à  Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, compiled and edited by James N. Watkins

I confess little enthusiasm for old classics, especially the spiritual ones. Many, when I read them, leave me bored with what seems to me only Middle Age piety.

Recently, I discovered a modern translation by James N. Watkins of the book attributed to Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. I’ve been hungering lately for deeper meaning, and this book has met some of that craving.

Yes, the book sometimes talks of our nothingness before God. We post-moderns consider such thoughts heretical, arrayed against a we-must-feel-good-about-ourselves mentality.

Yet, the book speaks to me when I feel failures staring me in the face, ambitions unrealized, loved ones hurting.

It also touches me when I’ve triumphed. It keeps me from riding so high that I think life is always going to be this way, a never-ending victory.

As à Kempis says, “And do not depend too much on spiritual emotions, for they can quickly turn to the opposite feeling.”

Who Fights Drug Resistant Diseases?

A few years ago while in the hospital recuperating from surgery, my brother developed a drug resistant infection. Only intense treatment with powerful new drugs defeated it.

Recently, articles have reported the discovery of still more drug resistant infections. Who develops newer drugs to fight these powerful infections?

Pharmaceutical companies, according to one report, no longer are as interested in newer drugs for infections. The reason, according to the article, is because such drugs do not make a profit like drugs to treat chronic conditions. Antibiotics are only used for a short while, then stopped when the infection is defeated. By contrast, those with chronic conditions like diabetes use drugs all of their lives.

This would seem the perfect example of the need for what is called a “mixed economy,” that is, an economy which includes both private capitalism and government involvement. Government research has long funded studies leading to medical breakthroughs in the fight against diseases like cancer. Such research may not be profitable initially, yet paves the way for eventual recovery and less long term care.

Private enterprise is efficient in ordering much of our economy. However, not all problems can be solved with the profit model.

Allowing Ourselves to Say We’re Guilty

Michael Yandell, an Iraq War veteran, wrote an article “Hope in the Void,” published in Plough, Spring, 2016. He talks of moral injury, an injury he suffered as a result of incidents he experienced and witnessed in that war.

He found out, he said, that he was not the good person he thought he was when he went into that war. “I must come to terms with who I am and then must look toward becoming something new,” he wrote.

Throughout the article, Yandell, stressed that one must be allowed to recognize guilt in order to build something new. “If a veteran enters your church, your synagogue, your mosque or your temple, be the eyes and ears to see and hear her.”

Places of faith, he says, “can serve as pathways of hope through individual and collective guilt. . . Do not,” he cautions, “allow the sufferer to bear their guilt alone.”

We don’t just listen to another’s confession of guilt. We share in his or her guilt. It is society that sends its members into harm’s way. Society is obligated to shepherd them home.

What Are Fairy Tales For?

In the old fairy tales, the hero and heroine find each other after various complications, then marry and live happily ever after.

The movie I saw recently was a fairy tale. Not the old-fashioned kind but the modern kind with modern problems like drugs and abandoned children. The movie ended “right.” Problems were worked out, fathers got off drugs, and children found homes.

We know how often right doesn’t win in stories of drugs and parentless children. Nevertheless, the audience was satisfied when the problems in this movie were solved, even if the solutions bordered on the unrealistic, reminding us of the fairy godmother setting things right in the old fairy tales. But the acting was acceptable and the movie enjoyable. As my mother would say, it left you with a good taste in your mouth.

A cynical age demands realistic stories, not just fairy tales, but fairy tales have their purpose. They keep hope alive. We yearn for good to win in a world where it so often does not.

The old fairy tales were told in the unjust world of another era. Kings often were selfish, even evil. The average man or woman lived in survival mode.

Fairy tales encouraged the imagining of a more just world. The slighted sister with the good heart wins out over the selfish step sisters. Jack kills the evil giant and brings riches to his widowed mother. An orphan boy finds a sword in a stone, pulls it out, and becomes a leader of his people.

Most of us believe that good SHOULD win. A fairy tale keeps alive this deepest belief in good. Stories are told during times of hardship. They keep hope alive until that moment when hardship can be overcome. We need realism, then, to make the victory work.

Sometimes a Glimpse: Humankind Touched with Greatness

The championship performance of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillame Cizeron in the 2016 European skating event demonstrated a heart stopping moment of supreme beauty.

I was touched with the couple’s discipline and dedication and reminded of the God given potential of human ability. Watching the duo, I forgot a world where too many deliberately harm others or waste lives in a false seeking after pleasure. I wished all could be brought to understand the goodness and beauty of which we are capable.

Here’s the video of their performance.

Hey, Hon: the Advantages of a Southern Accent

My Southern accent often calmed emotion-wracked Americans asking for assistance at U.S. embassies and consulates overseas where I worked. Americans living in one of Saudi Arabia’s oil hubs in Dhahran, many from Texas and Oklahoma, seemed especially to appreciate the accent.

Callers knew right off that they were speaking to an American, perhaps reminded of folksy icons like Gomer Pyle or Sheriff Andy from Mayberry.

The problems of Americans living overseas often landed on our doorstep. Americans became ill, were arrested, or lost passports. We performed notary duties, visited prisons and hospitals, and explained why we couldn’t issue a particular visa to an unqualified foreign relative or friend. I have counseled Americans in all sorts of conditions, from abused wives to those busted for alcohol in strict Muslim majority countries.

Through it all—the calls to stateside relatives, the emergencies at one a.m., the terrorist attacks—my colleagues and I strove to remain calm and unflappable. No matter how I may have felt inwardly, my Southern accent was a definite aid.