Around the Bloc

Villard / Random House

March 9, 2004

As a high school senior desperate to escape South Texas, Stephanie Elizondo Griest listened up when a CNN correspondent offered the how-to-be-like-me advice of “Learn Russian.” Though she barely knew enough of her mother’s native Spanish to communicate with her Abuelita, Stephanie enrolled in Russian at the University of Texas, commencing what would become a four-year, 12-nation tour of the Communist Bloc that shattered her preconceived notions of the “Evil Empire.”

In Around the Bloc, Stephanie relates her experiences as a volunteer at a children’s shelter in Moscow, a propaganda polisher at the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece in Beijing, and a belly dancer among the rumba queens of Havana. She falls in love with an ex-soldier who avoided radiation clean-up duties at Chernobyl by slitting his wrists, fights to feature the Spice Girls in print, hangs out with Cuban hip-hop artists who rap about Revolution, and makes difficult realizations about the meaning of democracy and social justice. She also learns how to buy vodka for a Russian dinner party (one bottle per guest plus one), stumbles upon Beijing’s underground gay scene, marches with 100,000 mothers demanding Elian’s return to Cuba, and gains new appreciation for the Mexican culture she left behind.

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