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Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing and Havana
ISBN: 0-8129-6760-7
By Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Review by: Elizabeth Blakesley Lindsay

5/15/04

Like many of us, when Stephanie Elizondo Griest was a senior in high school, her plans for college and career centered mainly on escaping her hometown. When she attended a journalism seminar for high school students and heard a CNN correspondent speak about his work covering the fall of the Berlin Wall and other events, she asked how she could follow in his footsteps. His terse answer was, “Learn Russian.”

So she did.

Enrolling in Russian classes at the University of Texas led to four years of intense study of Soviet history and Russian literature, and also to a bit of an obsession with communism. Learning about the history and ideology of communism in college was at odds with the indoctrination she and many others received during the 1970s and 1980s that the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. After graduating from college, she embarked on a four-year journey to 12 countries that had been part of the Communist Bloc. This book focuses on her experiences in three cities where she spent the most time: Moscow, Beijing and Havana.

The book is comprised of tales of surviving in squalid housing, eating unusual foods, and negotiating through cultural and linguistic misunderstandings. Griest also gives us a good sense of the political realities of these places and people. Although she lives with other Americans or other students at several times, she does meet many citizens from many walks of life, giving her a wide range of insights into the places she visited. She also has interesting conversations with many people about her feminism and her racial identity, all of which helps her learn about others and about herself.

Part memoir, part travelogue, Around the Bloc captures the physical, mental and intellectual journey of a young woman who travels far from home to find herself and her place in the world. Even if you feel saturated by the recent surge in memoirs, the hilarious and poignant stories Griest tells make this worth a look. Excerpts of the book and more information about Griest and her work are available online at http://www.aroundthebloc.com.


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