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XANADU AND THE TWEETSTORM

Reviewed by James Badham

In his first year in the Oval Office, President Nathan Steele lurches from one bullying performance to another while bellowing the mantra of his unlikely populist victory: Making America #1 Again. He bloviates. He threatens. He browbeats. He ignores with equal contempt the rule of law, the Constitution and the expert of advice of anyone near him. He insults everyone and everything in his path, especially his predecessor, a two-term African-American president whom Steele refers to as “Boombox” and regularly harangues for having been “weak” on everything including, especially, China.

And, of course, he tweets.

Sound familiar? In the seventh book in his “Priority” series, author Bryant Wieneke has created a doppelganger of a certain American president who, like his real-world counterpart, would be buffoonish if he weren’t so dangerous. Standing well over six feet tall, Nathan Steele is an outsized hulk of presidential mendacity, a former business mogul and the self-described world’s greatest negotiator, whose bargaining tactics are actually limited to two related approaches: intimidation and brinksmanship.

He litters the air with threats, against Congressional representatives, against the fake media and its fake news, against China (engaging with it in a rapidly escalating trade war), and against the special prosecutor assigned to investigate whether the Steele campaign colluded with the Russians during the election that brought him to power. 

 

“He lies like it’s a bodily function,” says Kendall Smith, who has spent a career managing water projects in the dustier reaches of developing African nations. As the book opens, Smith is contemplating a job offer that will send him back o Niger to continue his good water works with support from Saharaville, a sprawling, cooperatively run multinational complex built to support development and humanitarian efforts throughout Africa at a time when terrorist attacks and rebel uprisings have become the norm.

 

Steele, of course loathes the kumbaya component of Saharaville, which he insists on calling Xanadu. He wants to turn it into an American military base from which to counter China’s increasing influence across Africa, a result of its ambitious infrastructure development program. While burping angry racist tweets, Steele takes reckless action based on the suspicion that the Chinese are stockpiling uranium at a secret weapons factory in the desert.

 

Members of the heavy-handed home-rule rebel group Les Africains pour L’Afrique respond by launching riots across Niger, determined to eliminate all foreigners from African soil, as well as those who cooperate with them in any way. That includes Soumana, the sweet, enthusiastic local man hired to drive Smith around Niger to visit villages that might benefit from a new type of deep-reaching water drill. 

The action in Xanadu and the Tweetstorm rolls by with plenty of pace, and the pages turn quickly along with it. Wieneke is at his best when describing Soumana’s desperate attempt to return home while avoiding LaLa members on a solo journey across the Sahara, where, as a young man, Wieneke spent time as a Peace Corps volunteer. These sections ooze with Sahara essence, capturing its strange, forbidding beauty, as well as that of the people who reside within its singular presence. As it does for them, the Sahara runs through Wieneke’s bones — and his fiction.

 

PRIORITY ONE

Reviewed by David Gurr (Ethiopia 1962–64) in Peace Corps Writers, 2005

IN 1965, PRESIDENT JOHNSON ASKED Secretary of State Dean Rusk to pull the Peace Corps out of Santa Domingo because the Marines were going in to protect American lives and property. Rusk responded in essence by saying that the United State has more than one foreign policy and he would not comply with the president’s request. As it turned out, Peace Corps nurses treated wounded Santa Domingons. The idea of having more than one US foreign policy comes to the forefront in Priority One with the caveat that it is post 9/11.
     One prominent character in the book is a USAID worker who worked at the State Department, but left that position to become an AID worker following 9/11. He is assigned to a Northwestern African country to study and improve the availability of potable water, given the long term impact of the drought in the Sahel. Once there he agonizes extensively over whether his mission will ultimately improve the lives of the residents of the country.
     Another character is a former colleague of the AID worker who also left State following 9/11. But he has become a CIA operative in the same Northwestern African country. His mission is to illuminate a weapons factory so that a B-2 Stealth Bomber can destroy the factory because U.S. intelligence believes that terrorists are using it to produce weapons-grade uranium.
     Among the other characters is a Russian woman who is overtly trying to harvest water and grow crops using an underground trickle system in this parched land. As the story develops it is revealed that she is a KGB agent in on the scheme to destroy the factory. The factory was originally developed by the Russians, but was sold to some local terrorists, and the Russians are embarrassed that they did not take more care in disposing of the factory and let it fall into the hands of the terrorists. Thus, Russia is now working with the Americans to destroy the factory.
     And, finally, there are two disaffected young men from the country itself. For them, the United States has replaced the former French colonists as the object of their hatred because of its economic and cultural dominance, and they are recruited by the terrorists and ultimately end up guarding the factory.
     All of these people’s lives intertwine when the AID worker is coerced by the CIA operative to take him to the factory to check it out. That evening the AID worker has a one-night fling with the KBG agent — not knowing her true reason for being in the country.
     The CIA operative sustains a crippling fall, and he and the KBG agent coerce the AID worker into illuminating the target for the B-2 bomber crew. During this time the AID worker and the CIA operative each address the pros and cons of their respective missions. This becomes the stuff of the overseas experience of having to consider the greater good following 9/11.
     Finally, like the two former State Department colleagues, the bomber crew also has a difference of opinion in their approach to combat. The pilot, who would be considered a “hot dog” in military flying parlance, and has made a vocation of reading military history and thinks that war should be avoided at all cost, chokes at the first pass at the illuminated target and does not release his bomb. His co-pilot, an older “by the book” pilot, takes over the mission and makes a second run at the target, hoping that it is still being illuminated. The AID worker continues to illuminate the target hoping that the bomber would return after failing to drop its ordinance on the first pass.
     Following the destruction of the factory, the AID worker and the KBG agent narrowly escape being confronted by the two terrorist guards.
     The final kicker is that, after failing to waylay the AID worker and the KGB agent, the two terrorists contact their base camp and learn that while one factory was destroyed there is another that was not. This leaves the reader with a feeling that another drama could unfold in a sequel — Priority One, Number Two? Two such books would be good candidates for a series of two films. In fact, Morocco has been the host to a number of desert films and most theater audiences enjoy watching things blow up as part of a twisty human drama.
     Priority One successfully explores how things have changed in the post 9/11 world. The continuing failure of nations to address long term programs such as education and health results in the recruitment of terrorists from among the billion people in the world who are poor. The lack of opportunity for many to earn a decent living is also the result of the short-term self-serving nature of the developed world. Special interests conspire with their governments to retard development in lesser developed countries by protecting their agricultural subsidies for such commodities as cotton, fish and grain. These subsidies result in artificially lower prices compared to those for the same products in developing companies. This also results in nations like the United States and France dumping surpluses on the world markets further depressing prices for those same commodities.
     In the early ’80s legislators in the US Congress had to choose between foreign aid to lesser developed countries and antipoverty programs in their districts. They had to plunk for the latter in order to “deliver” Federal funds back home. This was the inception of the loss of long-term resolve to make the world a better place to live. In addition, the long-term needs of people in developing nations have been replaced by short-term anti-terror goals that ironically have arisen for the absence of the former. 
     A good example is the war in Iraq which has become a recruiting ground for disaffected youth around the world. And it is not just Al Qaeda, but a host of similar independent organizations without any affiliation. Before the invasion of Iraq, it was estimated that there were about 70 such organizations and as we have recently seen, Al Qaeda and other groups are even warring among themselves over strategies for resistance in Iraq.
     The book offers an interesting review of this less than “brave new world” and besides being a good read, it is thought provoking.

David Gurr has trained Peace Corps Trainees for Brazil and Turkey, served as a social science researcher in Viet Nam, studied anti-policy poverty and economic growth policy, and for the past 40 years has worked with anti-poverty programs at the federal and the city level, overseeing anti-poverty grants. Also, for the past 11 years, he has served as a project officer with AmeriCorps/VISTA.

THE SANTA BARBARA PRIORITY

(Amazon comments)

AG

5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, alternative take on the espionage genre.

October 29, 2010

Format: Paperback|Verified Purchase

An entertaining, thoughtful, amusing foray into international intrigue and diplomacy, Wieneke offers a compelling view of how world relationships might be better handled. This novel blends elements of Tom Clancy and Graham Greene but looks behind the high jinks of the cloak and dagger genre to examine paths to peace. Characters come alive as real people who wrestle with world issues at a personal level. Bonus - great locale descriptions (Santa Barbara, Niger). This is an insightful novel that offers an alternative vision of international relationships and diplomacy. A wonderful book.

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05

THE MISSION PRIORITY

Reviewed by Lawrence (Honduras 1975-77) and Ezequiel Lihosit in Peace Corps Writers

December 23, 2009

Do you miss the Bush era colored coded paranoia? I sure do. That was even better than building fallout shelters during the 1960’s. I only wish they had introduced some kind of anti-terrorist uniform with cool patches, maybe a Youth Bush League. Yellow today but maybe orange tomorrow! Go buy that plastic and duct-tape right now and start taping up your house. Forget the reality that nerve gas is absorbed through your skin, not necessarily breathed in. As Country Joe McDonald proclaimed, “Ain’t no time to wonder why, whoopee! We’re all goin’ ta die.”

 

For us nostalgic old coots, there are books. Bryan Wieneke has written a political suspense book like a modern day Robert Ludlum for lovers of suspenseful political thrillers. He spins an elaborate espionage tale that forces the reader to turn pages. Set in Southern California, the reader understands that terrorism has come home. Like Ludlum novels, a pair of American crusaders fights evil.

This is the third in a series featuring the protagonist Kendall Smith. Set in the present day, Smith and two other agents are assigned to the Riverside Hotel for anti-terrorism security after a Presidential debate. Kendall Smith, an accessible and everyday character, works for the Department of Homeland Security, yet he is not a typical soldier type. Wieneke’s own experiences in the Peace Corps helped shape the main character’s special view on foreign policy and his search for diplomatic solutions.

 

Kendall, his partners Jason Perez and his Perez’s wife Allison search the Riverside hotel, site of a big Republican donor dinner after the Presidential debate. They also follow up any leads that suggest the involvement of the terrorist organization, Serpent Cracheur. The search for clues is meticulous and like Ludlum’s famous detail, enthralls the reader. Kendall (no expert in surveillance or anti-terror procedures) has an intimate knowledge of the organization due to his African work.

 

What Smith lacks is information from his boss. Kendall resents his boss and the two butt heads over everything from strategies to dinner choices but Allison mediates. After Perez’s intuition proves correct, Kendall learns to respect his rival. Kendall feels the pressure to uncover any bomb or plot since he and Allison are the hotel protection until the secret service arrives. After Perez gets a tip about some people living in an abandoned house, the team learns that theSerpent Cracheur is active near the hotel’s site and they have left a message. From then on, the team works with a frenzied passion to search every window, drawer, and crevice to stop terrorism before it interrupts our own Presidential Debate.

 

The heart of the novel is a foreign policy clash. Jason Perez, presents the no frills, bombs away approach. He believes in the Allen Dulles view that the United States needs to use force to protect “legitimate business interests.” Kendall feels that the United States foreign policy is “unnecessarily violent and he did not want to be a part of it. He believed in a non-violent approach.” These two manners of diplomacy have been argued for decades, yet the military usually prevails.

Though Serpent Cracheur attempted to kill Kendall at the end of the last book (Santa Barbara Priority), he understands their plight with oil companies. He does not agree with terrorism but having worked in Africa he cannot eliminate the target. What Wieneke infers is that one’s life experiences differently shape someone’s reaction. His time in Africa inspired a different foreign policy for poverty and disease made him question capitalism.

I suspect that Bushites appreciate this venue: right and wrong, for us or against us. While great literature is supposed to present struggles between good and evil, wrapping those terms around empire politics is somehow reminiscent of The Little Prince. Much like sleight of hand, the reader is soon marching, lock step, towards Fatherland security. You can almost hear hard-nailed boots clicking and stiff leather jackets crinkling.

BEWARE OF PIRATES

(Amazon comment)

5.0 out of 5 starsFive Stars

April 28, 2017

Format: Kindle Edition

Written very well and was an excellent and exciting story.

A DRY AND THIRSTY LAND: THE MISADVENTURES OF A PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER IN WEST AFRICA

Reviewed by Ben East (Malawi 1996-98) in Peace Corps Writers

February 4, 2014     

Mr. Wieneke’s engaging 60,000-word memoir contains all the stuff of Peace Corps legend, from encounters with exotic insects and large snakes to bouts of diarrhea and Malarial fever. It also contains a large dose of the question: why did Peace Corps bring me here? As such it contributes to the body of Peace Corps literature a thoughtful voice that will be especially compelling for prospective Volunteers.

His adventure begins 13 years after the birth of the Peace Corps, and his narrative examines the organization as much as it examines his adaptation to Nigerien culture. He repeatedly notes frustration at being assigned to teach agriculture (his degree is in English literature) and at Peace Corps’ orientation program: “It did not make sense to me that they would bring Americans to Niger to teach marginally relevant agricultural techniques at Kolo. There were clearly needs here; why didn’t Peace Corps identify them and train us to help where it was most needed?” He says, “I wanted my job to have more meaning . . .  Both for the sake of the Nigeriens and for myself.”

 

While some of the narrator’s grievances against Peace Corps may be attributed to the unrealistic expectations of a youthful optimist eager to effect great change in the world, other problems belong to the organization itself. Take the role of the Assistant Peace Corps Director for Niger, who nearly gets the narrator and three others lost forever in the Sahara by refusing to backtrack after missing a turnoff, and later bullies the narrator for choosing Sprite over bra-Nigerien (local beer) after a hard day’s journey through 110 degree heat. Did the assistant director’s poor navigation skills and incredible insensitivity reflect the personality of the broader Peace Corps of the time?  If so, the organization has learned from its mistakes. Two decades later, for example, Peace Corps Malawi frustrated me at times, but on the whole it served its purpose by bringing me eye to eye with another culture and giving me the skills to succeed within it. And my subsequent encounters with Peace Corps programs — Ghana, Mexico, Nicaragua — have left me even more impressed, from the highly motivated Volunteers to the dedicated local- and U.S.-hire staff.  If the organization thrives this far into its 6th decade, it does so on the strength of its ability to adapt and take on the fresh ideas of its main renewable resource: its people.

 

In one of the best chapters of A Dry and Thirsty Land, the narrator gets to the heart of what may be wrong with his Peace Corps experience. As he sets out to learn the primary skill he’s in Niger to teach, animal traction, it is clear how little of his training has involved the local population. He has learned the colonial language rather than the local language, and he has spent little time with people who would naturally be his mentors: other teachers at the school. He’s spent time on an American compound, speaking French to a hired cook and following around his predecessors entrenched in doing things their own way. So in the chapter No Heifers, the narrator jumps at the chance to engage with the local village by helping them castrate a bull. And in addition to learning the noble skill of crushing a bull’s testicular cord with le pince burdizo, he also learns the even more useful skills of discerning cultural ambiguity, practicing patience, and adapting expectations.

I was disappointed to arrive at the last page of A Dry and Thirsty Land just as the narrator ends his first year in Niger. By the time the narrator packs up to spend a mid-term vacation in the United States, the reader has grown to appreciate the easy-going narrative voice and understated humor. We would like to know how things work out for him in his second year. Is it then that he comes to fully realize that the Peace Corps had, in fact, trained him well and served both him and the people he served best with that particular assignment? But then, to leave the reader wondering is exactly the nature of the Peace Corps experience, isn’t it?  It is never over. It carries on. It lives within us and keeps us wondering what happened to so many people who touched our lives, and whose lives we touched — hopefully for the better.

Ben East taught English in Malawi before taking up various teaching and diplomatic assignments with the State Department in West Africa, the Middle East, and throughout the Americas.  A native of Connecticut, he recently returned to the States after nearly two decades overseas. He lives in Virginia with his wife (also a Malawi RPCV) and two sons. His fiction has appeared in The Foreign Service Journal, Atticus Review, and Umbrella Factory Magazine

A DRY AND THIRSTY LAND: THE MISADVENTURES OF A PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER IN WEST AFRICA

(Amazon comments)

RW

5.0 out of 5 starsA brilliant Peace Corps memoire!

March 15, 2016

Format: Paperback

Bryant Wieneke is my favorite Peace Corps author! While I love his fiction works, this account of his Peace Corps experience is my favorite... ready for your next book, Mr. Wieneke!!

MN

5.0 out of 5 starsA very entertaining book

April 2, 2014

Format: Paperback

A wonderful story of a novice Peace Corps volunteer. The excellent writing makes it an easy read.

This is the 5th book I've read by this author and they have all been very enjoyable.

Also, it's a good choice if you ever need to castrate a bull.

 

RR

4.0 out of 5 stars Very good story, very well told.

February 24, 2014

Format: Paperback

I enjoyed the author's writing style. Idealism bumps into the Peace Corps system. He navigates a year of interesting places, people and personal growth. I enjoyed the journey that Mr. Wieneke has taken me on in this book.

dw

5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful book!

May 20, 2014

Format: Paperback

I LOVED this book and enjoyed each chapter thoroughly.

I can't wait to find out what happens in his 2nd year in the Peace Corps!

MELANOMA WITHOUT A CAUSE: HOW THE NEW MIRACLE IMMUNOTHERAPY DRUGS AND MY OWN IMMUSE SYSTEM HELPED ME FIGHT STAGE 4 CANCER

(Amazon comments)

Lawrence F. Lihosit

5.0 out of 5 stars. A powerful book

August 25, 2018

Format: Paperback

The author and I both served in the Peace Corps. Years after returning home, we met in Santa Barbara where we gave short lectures about our experiences in the University of California Santa Barbara library. We exchanged books and soon were co-authoring an article for Peace Corps Worldwide (the e-magazine).

Although a fan of his Priority Series anti-war novels, this new book is more valuable. Based upon his own medical journal, he describes his treatment for a rare form of cancer called melanoma without a cause. Like former President Carter, Wieneke began a regimen of new drugs designed to help his own body combat the disease. Diagnosed with phase four cancer (it had already attacked several vital organs), he began a painful and tedious regimen of immunotherapy drugs. He suffered vertigo, memory loss and nausea. His weight plummeted by thirty pounds and he found himself unable to perform the most basic tasks while fighting for his life. Within months, his weight slowly increased, his energy returned and finally, tests proved remission.

This straight-forward account is not written for the squeamish but rather for other victims, family and friends. It is a powerful book written by a literary veteran who, thanks to this treatment, is still among us.

 

RK

5.0 out of 5 stars. A great read about a VERY TOUGH journey

April 26, 2017

Format: Paperback|Verified Purchase

 

A great read about a VERY TOUGH journey. Mr. Wieneke takes you every step of the way, from doctor to doctor, test to test, keeping you on the edge of your chair as he and his loving wife wait for test results in the uncharted area of immunotherapy, while maintaining a positive attitude and a wonderful sense of humor. I hated to see the book come to an end but am so happy the Mr. Wieneke didn't...come to an end that is! He has made amazing progress. For the rest of the story and the hoped-for positive ending I will just have to follow his blog.

CL

5.0 out of 5 starsIt felt like talking with a friend and couldn't put it down

July 21, 2017

Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase

With difficult subject matter, this book is captivating, full of heart and will be an inspiration and comfort especially for those fighting the same battle. It felt like talking with a friend , couldn't put it down.

RB

5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring!

September 13, 2017

Format: Paperback|Verified Purchase

Loved this book. His positive attitude and ability to enjoy life is inspiring!

IM

5.0 out of 5 starshe is brilliant at drawing you into his world and articulating the ...

April 8, 2017

Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase

A story that will make you laugh out loud, cry and inspire, Bryant vividly and unashamedly takes you on his cancer journey. From the diagnosis, to the treatment, and just getting through each day, he is brilliant at drawing you into his world and articulating the range of emotions, setbacks and triumphs that are a part of his continuing journey. He is a wonderful storyteller.

GB

5.0 out of 5 starsAmazing story by a cancer warrior

April 3, 2017

Format: Kindle Edition

Amazing story by a cancer warrior. Walk the journey with him and feel all the feels that he and his family go through. An inspiration for all.

MA

5.0 out of 5 starsFive Stars

April 15, 2017

Format: Paperback

Great read, hard to put down. A real life story about with real life struggles.

WINNING WITHOUT THE SPIN: A TRUE HERO IN AMERICAN POLITICS

(Amazon comment)

DP

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent account of Walter Capps' political campaign-1996

May 17, 2000

Format: Library Binding

 

Bryant Wieneke does an awesome job of summarizing the wild ride of Walter Capps' 1996 political victory for U.S. Congress. I started the book at 7:00 p.m. and didn't put the book down until I was finished with it.
Walter Capps clearly is the type of person we should all have representing us in Congress, and Bryant Wieneke brings this to light throughout the book. Walter was a fair, compassionate religious studies professor that continued to look for the best in everyone, admired and encouraged our differences. His philosphy was that we should work with government instead of against it.


The hair-raising day to day operations of a political campaign are exposed in this book, also; not always a pleasant world to be in. The bulk mailings repeatedly requiring sorting by zip codes because the bar code was too close to the postage stamp was frustrating. The inter-office personalities and conflicts were interesting. Arranging events with the President of the United States, fundraising events at the homes of various Santa Barbara celebrities, arranging television and radio interviews, and on and on. I was exhausted by the end of the book, but I got goosebumps as I read the outcome of the election.

 

Truly an uplifting account of a remarkable man and his all-to-short political career. One can only imagine what may have become of Walter Capps had he lived to serve a long and fruitful life in politics.
Thank you, Bryant, for writing a beautiful account of Walter Capps' life during this two year period. It is truly inspiring.

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