From Publishers Weekly
When Griest was a high school senior in Texas, a CNN correspondent told her that if she wanted a globe-hopping career like his, she should learn Russian. Four years later, she went to Moscow and spent a semester at a linguistic institute, beginning a four-year period of travel (1996-2000) to 12 nations, including much of the former Soviet bloc and Communist China and Cuba. Readers will quickly intuit just how little of Griest's adventures made it into this account, as a two-month Central Asian trek gets a single sentence and Eastern Europe falls completely by the wayside. But there's little opportunity to regret what's missing because of the captivating stories that Griest does choose to tell. From the sight of an old woman stealing canned goods from a shopper who'd passed out in a Moscow grocery to the aggressive banter of Havana black marketers, Griest has a journalist's eye for compelling detail. Her youthful romantic attraction to "the Revolution" is slightly less attractive, at times treating the largely defeated Communist movement as almost exotic, and naive daydreams about matters like the "damn good loving" she might find from angst-ridden Beijing men can occasionally induce winces. But she doesn't flinch from depicting the brutal effects of authoritarianism and economic decline, or how her experiences hastened her political and emotional maturity. Though still raw in places, Griest's writing shows great promise; she may wind up joining Tom Bissell (Chasing the Sea) in the vanguard of a new generation of travel writers.
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Griest begins her travel memoir with a promising theme: at 21, she set off for Moscow with some fellow Texas college students in an attempt to strengthen her Russian language ability and deepen her understanding of Russian culture. Griest accomplishes the goal of changing her misconceptions not only about the Russians but also about the Chinese and Cubans, by spending the next four years traveling and living among them. Along the way, she has many surprising, bizarre, and even touching experiences. Yet, despite her informal journalistic approach (which is wonderfully accessible and conversational), there are moments of immaturity in her accounts that make the book seem more like a collegian's diary than a poignant journalistic endeavor. Her travelogue is, therefore, "in your face," for better or worse, and because of this may well appeal most to twentysomething readers. However, Griest is a fine observer, open to experiences and frank in expression, and she certainly is entertaining. Janet St. John
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