So you've signed up for the Peace Corps, and you're hoping to change the world, one life at a time. Pretty inspiring, right? Perhaps you read Three Cups of Tea. Tea is good, right? It must be--I'm drinking some right now. (And generally all day long. And since I'm partial to lemon, I often carry a slice with me to work. But that's drifting a bit far afield.)
But what if, when you got there, the Peace Corps was as ragtag as the country you were visiting? Not only were folks not teaching, but most were hanging out in clubs, getting high, doing a little smuggling, having sex with whomever...
Oh, and what if the tea wasn't just darjeerling, but a powerful drug, with the hallucinagenic powers of LSD, the addictive properties of crystal meth, and violence-inducing tendencies of crack, to the nth degree?
That would be tsus, the blood tea that Warren, our hero, discovers on his posting to Ulaanbaatar.
But tsus, in a way, is just a reflection for Warren of a Mongolian culture beaten down by years of Soviet occupation, of a glorious past where they controlled much of the world, of a culture half preserved and half cast off, and of a land where bitter winter and few opportunities combine to dull the spirit of all who enter.
Warren's not alone, mind you. There are about a half dozen postings and ex-pats in Ulaanbaatar, Clark, Jamison, Harriet, and Charlotte, as well as their medical officer, Samantha, who is a combination of Colonel Cathcart and Nurse Ratched.* There are several Mongolians, including the alluring Subdaa and her brother Batsuren, bearer of the Tsus, plus a mentor-like teacher, Boldbaatar. And then there's Padma, the love that Warren left behind.
But once the tsus is discovered, Warren and Clark scheme to figure out a way to get this blood tea out of Mongolia and make a bundle of cash.
That's not necessarily going to be easy, and you can only imagine, there's no way this can really end without some gruesome violence. Yes, The Tea of Ulaanbaatar has some gory scenes, and though you know I am generally a shrinking violet when it comes to this stuff, I didn't see any other way to write the book. Plus, I'm fine with violence if it's intrinsic to the plot, theme and characterization, and everything in Howard's novel surely does. Plus, it's nothing compared to what the rest of the Boswellians read.
So I liked it. But really, what do I know about this stuff? Plus I'm shilling it for our event with Howard, next Thurseday, July 28, 7 pm, at Boswell. So how about some quotes.
"Like Robert Bingham's Lightning on the Sun, Tea of Ulaanbaatar is a merciless dissection of lost young American volunteers drifting through a violent and absurd third-world capital, helping no one, especially themselves. Christopher Howard's sharp, spare voice delivers a nightmarish geo-noir."
and here's Eli Horowitz, the acclaimed editor at McSweeneys:
"Christopher Howard takes us to a rarely seen corner of the world, and then takes us further, into a spooky, trippy, gritty realm that is entirely his own."
OK, that quote doesn't say whether he likes it or not. But here's Library Journal:
"An accomplished novel with a keen sense of atmosphere and desciption."
And if you'd like to read more, the Peoria Journal Star has written a nice profile of Howard, his stint in the Peace Corps, another in the army (I guess that novel is to come), including, oddly enough, exactly how much Amazon is charging for the book. Well, I guess the article had some editing help from the bargain-shopping department.
Hey, it's all part of the Peoria-Milwaukee connection. First Caterpillar buys Bucyrus, (if you have some memory, actually first P. A. Bergner bought the Boston Store division, but that was over 25 years ago) and now Christopher Howard makes the trek to Milwaukee too.
See you next week at this event. But if I catch any of you sipping tea and acting strangely, I'm going to ask you to leave before things get violent.
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