Reviews of my favorite books written by expatriates, journalists, and diplomats on what it's really like to live abroad

Friday, May 8, 2009

Book Review: Dome of Many-Coloured Glass by Post Wheeler & Hallie Erminie Rives

In years past, the best used book sale in Washington DC was run by a non-profit arm of the State Department. All the foreign service personnel and spouses would donate books - it was so huge they had to rent the biggest hall in town. If you've lived overseas you can understand why. Books in English are better than Godiva chocolates, so you collect an awful lot of them.

Foreign service officers and their spouses tend to live more exciting lives than most of us and then write books about themselves, which they all in turn collect, and then, when they get old, donate to the booksale. So there's that too.

At my very first Foreign Service booksale, so many years ago that I was in my 20s and living in a one-bedroom apartment within walking distance to the White House, I picked up a copy of 'Dome of Many-Coloured Glass' a diplomatic memoir. I think I liked the heft of the book (860-pages, not including index with tantilizing entries such as 'Anathan, Baroness d' pages 277, 445, 561") as much as I adored the scent of its yellowing pages.

Even in 1955, when it was first published, this autobiography must have been unusual in that husband and wife, both well-published authors, shared the stage. Each one tells the story of a diplomatic posting from their own perspective, the husband who is the diplomatic officer and the wife who must 'pay, pack and follow' as well as create a vibrant social life. Their postings, including Japan, London, The Arctic, Rome, Russia, Paraguay, Sweden and Albania, were extraordinary, and held at extraordinary times in the first half of the 20th century.

This book is no longer in print and second-hand copies are sometimes hard to come by, but you'll find the search is well worth it if you're interested in:

- international relations in the first half of the 20th century.

- what it was like being a diplomatic spouse back when men were diplomats and women were "helpmeets" (and boy did they help!)

- office politics at the US State Department. (Ugly, mean, tough.)

- High society in Japan, Sweden, et al, back when the Wheelers were circulating in it.

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