Book Review: Readings

Stephanie Elizondo Griest


Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana

by Stephanie Elizondo Griest

Villard, 399 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Armchair travelers have rarely had it so good as they do with Texas native Griest's memoir of her jaunt from Austin to Moscow to Beijing to Havana and beyond, which reads like one part informative history lesson on the People's Revolutionary struggle and one part Hope 'n' Crosby road movie.

Like other travelogues that straddle the fine line between humor and pathos – Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent, Stuart Stevens' Malaria Dreams, and Ralph Leighton's epic tale of physicist Richard Feynman's travels to outer Mongolia, Tuva or Bust, all come to mind – Griest's extensive travels in the shadow of a post-Soviet world are tailor-made for news junkies who've sat spellbound on their couches while CNN played out everything from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Tiananmen Square massacre to the difficulty of getting their hands on a real Cuban Hoya Double Corona to puff in the sanctity of one's own living room.

Most of us never get up off the couch – we've got Christiane Amanpour's combat boots subbing for our own Dr. Martens, after all – but Griest, who hit UT-Austin up for a Russian 601A to assist her in her Red Bloc travels, did what most of us only dream of: She lit out for the Moscow Linguistics Institute in 1996, the first leg of a journey that would take her from one Communist hot spot to the next, and did it all with a decidedly Austin flair. In between classes, she volunteers at an orphanage of truly Dickensian design – the ever-present signs of fetal alcohol syndrome marring the faces of children who've lost parents to the various regional conflicts or, often, have never had parents to begin with – and heads by bus to Gorky's hometown of Nizhniy Novgorod.

From Russia and then to Beijing, where Griest works as a journalist in a state-vetted newspaper overseen by a tyrannical editor named Lao Ye who "would work himself into such a frenzy veins would bulge across his massive bald forehead and his face would turn bright purple," Around the Bloc eventually comes to rest in old Havana, home of Fidel and Che and – surprisingly – one of the best socialist public health care systems in the world.

Griest writes with an eye toward the common experience, and does it in an immensely entertaining fashion. There's none of the musty feeling of a lecture on Communist history in her book – if anything, it feels like a long, long note from a friend on the road who just happens to know a whole lot about Marx, Engels, and Red all-stars. Her four-year journey across the crimson map is nearly as much fun to read as it must have been to undertake: smart, sassy, and informed. And the reader, of course, doesn't have to worry about the Russian Mafia.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest will take part in the Texas Monthly BookGroup on Wednesday, March 31, 7pm, at BookPeople; will give a lecture on Communist and corporate media at the University of Texas on Thursday, April 1, 8am; and will read and sign at Barnes & Noble Guadalupe on Friday, April 2, 3pm.

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Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Villard

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