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When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter's Tale Hardcover – February 16, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Davis, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, recounts his two eventful years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in a small Mongolian town in his knowledgeable yet convoluted memoir. As a 23-year-old Midwesterner, nothing prepared him for the former Communist satellite, which is largely rural and teeming with the legacy of the Great Khan, yaks and goats being herded on the rugged steppes. Davis sees a landscape on the brink of change and a young population eager for a better life depicted in Internet cafes and media from the outside world. Yet the isolation and culture shock plunge him into a dangerous place psychologically, and alcohol abuse and mayhem result in a brutal drunken fight. Other than some standard travelogue facts on Mongolian history and culture, Davis is correct when he concludes that his brief Mongolian journey was like a flutter of an eyelid and subsequently will feel the same way to the reader. (Feb.)
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From Booklist

In 2000, at the age of 23, Davis leaves Chicago, his hometown, to travel to Mongolia to work as a teacher for the Peace Corps. Once he arrives in the small town of Tsetserleg, Davis moves into a ger, the circular tent that will be his home for the next two years, and gets to know the family whose land he is living on. He finds his students difficult to motivate, and a romance with a beautiful Mongolian teacher is heated but brief. After enduring a brutal Mongolian winter and a plague-induced quarantine, Davis finds himself falling into the trap he sees so many Mongolian men around him succumbing to: drinking constantly and giving into violent tendencies. The longer he’s in Mongolia, the deeper he falls into depression and ennui, until a violent encounter shakes him into realizing his life has to change. Both a raw personal examination and an insightful look at Mongolian history and culture, Davis’ illuminating memoir sheds light on a remote region. --Kristine Huntley

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1 edition (February 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312607733
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312607739
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,329,652 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By C. Richard VINE VOICE on March 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book caught my eye recently. Here's my take on it.

First though, some background. As a kid I saw a movie about Genghis Khan and got interested in Mongolia. At the time - many years ago - it was communist and VERY isolated. Of course, it had always been isolated I guess - the word Mongolia used to be a virtual synonym for isolation at one time. (I must confess that I use it that way to make a point in a seminar that I give, but that is another story.) Needless to say, there was not much real information on it that I ever saw until quite recently and even now it seems minimal.

So, we now have this book. The author spent time in Mongolia recently as an English teacher and seems to have gotten immersed into the local situation in a time of great change. He lived in a ger - the circular tent looking house of Mongolia and took up some local habits. It seems winter there is pretty hard to say the least. Many bizarre anecdotes.

One of the local habits he took up was drinking a LOT and getting into at least one very violent fight - the scene with him in the hospital with kidney damage after that tells you how bad it was. A bit shocking, but maybe it tells us more about what things are really like there than we might get in say National Geographic.

Not you standard travelogue although there is some of that too. Give the author some credit for honesty, and he did seem to learn something important from the experience and not everyone might.

Some interesting perspective. Give it a try, but be warned that it is not for the faint of heart.
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Format: Hardcover
Whispering Campaign; Stories from MesoamericaDavis describes his surroundings well and also recounts relevant history. He includes many intimate details of his own life: how he drank, loved and fought. Nobody would have confused him with a Mormon missionary. It is refreshing to read a memoir by someone who did not aspire to be a living saint. Few things are harder to put up with than a good example.

This is not to say that the author had no good intentions. Upon returning to his living space, he was surprised to find it clean, bed made. This was quite a change. Before he left, the room had been strewn with filthy clothes, dirty plates, cigarette butts and even a several month old rotting fish. While he had been away, a drunken neighbor broke in with impolite thoughts but was caught. As punishment, he was required to clean the place up. The local police expected Davis to press charges and have his neighbor, a family man, thrown into the Mongolian pokey. "That man," one officer said, pointing outside to where the man was, "entered a foreigner's home. That is not good." Our volunteer, Huck Finn in the Orient, turned the other cheek.

Life in the bush mellows. Whether it be the enormity of nature or being part of the food chain, one cannot help but see things a bit differently. When asked what he had learned in his two years, the author replied, "The Wall Street Journal burns better than The New York Times." No greenhorn would have said that. Five stars. Check it out.
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Format: Hardcover
Matthew Davis witnessed a quickly changing Mongolia. His memoir preserves a brief moment in history like a bee caught in amber. This is an honest memoir written in sparse American-lean. His journalism background served him well.

Flown to Mongolia in the year 2000, a twenty-three year old Davis was assigned to teach English in a remote hamlet struggling with change. Only eleven years after the Soviet retreat following nearly seven decades of occupation, the country has been beset by a series of natural disasters that have nearly expunged their livelihood- animals. With dwindling economic means, nation-wide migration to the cities and even foreign lands was underway. Davis found a people beleaguered by the fierce winds of want who found solace in drink. He, far from home, also took to drink.

The landscape and climate are foreboding. Winter temperatures rival those in Alaska. Unlike most of Alaska, there were roads. On one of his trips overland during winter, the jeep in which he traveled stopped, dead. Outside with the driver, he noted that "a gust of wind rattled across the steppe and blew some loose snow on our bodies. The snot in my nose had already frozen."

Like all wild places on earth, Mongolia offered special obstacles. For instance, the marmot (a large ground squirrel) burrowed all over the steppes and was hunted. Unfortunately, it also can carry the Black Plague. "Every summer," explained the author," Mongolian newspapers run the Plague Alert (much as western states in the United States run fire alerts)." His own town was quarantined for several weeks. There were humorous obstacles as well. When trying to agree on a weekend meeting with a Mongolian peer, he bargained for Saturday since Sunday was Christmas Eve.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Having lived in Mongolia for nearly 11 years including during the time this book covers, I have to say that Davis is very accurate in his portrayal of countryside life and of the state of the country. He's brutally honest about his experiences, not all of which paint a good picture of him, yet still comes out looking good at the end, mainly because he just truly seems to love Mongolia and the friends he made here. I kept thinking how he must have cringed to have his mom and dad read it after describing their visit to the country and admitting all he hid from them.

I've heard the history portions of the book described as boring and filler, but I actually felt it was the most accessible book on Mongolian history that I've read, because he connects everything with real life. That said, his experience will most probably not mirror that of other ex-pats living in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, or even tourists visiting the countryside. Tourism is becoming sophisticated here. I would not, however, recommend visiting in the winter. Come in the summer when it's gorgeous! If you can brave the cold, come in the fall.

A definite read for any Peace Corps volunteer coming to Mongolia. No, actually, you should read it even if you're just interested in Mongolia. It's well written, a good book.
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