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National Magazine Award finalist Christopher Howard's debut novel, Tea of Ulaanbaatar, tells the story of disaffected Peace Corps volunteer Warren, who flees life in late-capitalist America to find himself stationed in the post-Soviet industrial hell of urban Mongolia. As the American presence crumbles, Warren seeks escape in tsus, the mysterious "blood tea" that may be the final revenge of the defeated Khans—or that may be only a powerful hallucinogen operating on an uneasy mind—as a phantasmagoria of violence slowly envelops him.
With prose that combines Benjamin Kunkel's satiric bite, William Burroughs’s dark historical reimagining, and a lush literary beauty all his own, Christopher Howard in Tea of Ulaanbaatar unfolds a story of expatriate angst, the dark side of globalization, and middle-class nightmares—and announces himself as one of the most inventive and ambitious of the new generation of American novelists.
Published: Random House Publishing Group on Jan 4, 2011
ISBN: 9781609803353
List price: $14.95
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Author Christopher R. Howard’s first novel Tea of Ulaanbaatar reads like a combination of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” and “The Sheltering Sky” -- which is to say it’s a very weird brew indeed. Imagine a twisted coming of age story about a young man obsessing over an unsuccessful romance while living in a bizarre, threatening foreign country and downing large quantities of a mind-bending psychoactive drug and you’d be pretty close. (Howard’s references to the narcotic tea Tsus had me rushing to Google because it seemed so plausible to believe that such a thing might exist. For the record, it doesn’t.) I visited Ulanbaatar twice in the 1990s and Howard captures the “through the looking glass” disorientation, the persistent and volatile undercurrent of potential violence, and the desperation and ferocity of post-Soviet-collapse Mongolia. The scab-covered homeless children, the flirtatious and alluring young women who practice casual prostitution, the men so drunk at nine in the morning that they stagger through the streets, they all populate Tea of Ulaanbaatar. But we never learn much about them and understand even less. This novel isn’t about the Mongolians, but Americans in Mongolia. Howard’s story focuses on a set nihilistic Peace Corps volunteers and a few deranged Peace Corps staff, a group of people I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want to go bar-hopping with through Ulaanbaatar’s many here-today gone-tomorrow night clubs. Everything is disintegrating, buildings, dogs, people, morals, the past and the future. If you haven’t gathered by now, this is a dark, disturbing read.Tea of Ulaanbaatar shows some of the unsteadiness of a first novel. The no quotation marks/non-linear style sometimes adds brilliantly to the sense of displacement and sometimes is merely confusing. Some passages are polished and honed to perfection, while others are rough and untrimmed. All that said, if you like stories of people going down the rabbit hole -- some coming through on the other side and some not -- Tea of Ulaanbaatar is for you. As for me, I give it three stars for the vivid depiction of Mongolia and the fact that it kept me reading even when I winced.read more
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Tea of Ulaanbaatar byChristopher R. Howard has elements of Catch 22 and the tragi-comic violence of a Quentin Tarantino flick, It revolves around a group of Peace Corp ne'r-do-well nihilists stranded by choice in post Soviet Mongolia. That about sums it all up. I enjoyed this book and was a little disappointed with the ending.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
The TEA OF ULAANBAATAR centers on Warren, a young Peace Corps volunteer, as he travels through the wasteland of contemporary urban Mongolia. He finds life in Ulaanbaatar as bleak as the life he left behind in the U.S., and watches as his few colleagues grow increasingly unmoored. He begins to use tsus or blood tea, a dangerous and mysterious drug, and becomes caught up in plans to export it to the rest of the world. As reality starts to fray, Warren begins to believe that tsus is not just a narcotic--it may be the harbinger of the apocalypse.The book is spare--taught prose and just 200 pages--but exceptionally vivid and atmospheric. The compelling sense of place, lyricism, and growing tension carry it beyond an empty "doing drugs in exotic locale" book, and blood tea becomes a metaphor for societal as well as individual breakdown. The Americans' take on the Mongolians is often dehumanizing, which can be uncomfortable, but this is the author's point, not his flaw. It's a dark book, but has bright moments as well, building to a satisfying conclusion (even if it breaks your heart along the way).read more
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Author Christopher R. Howard’s first novel Tea of Ulaanbaatar reads like a combination of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” and “The Sheltering Sky” -- which is to say it’s a very weird brew indeed. Imagine a twisted coming of age story about a young man obsessing over an unsuccessful romance while living in a bizarre, threatening foreign country and downing large quantities of a mind-bending psychoactive drug and you’d be pretty close. (Howard’s references to the narcotic tea Tsus had me rushing to Google because it seemed so plausible to believe that such a thing might exist. For the record, it doesn’t.) I visited Ulanbaatar twice in the 1990s and Howard captures the “through the looking glass” disorientation, the persistent and volatile undercurrent of potential violence, and the desperation and ferocity of post-Soviet-collapse Mongolia. The scab-covered homeless children, the flirtatious and alluring young women who practice casual prostitution, the men so drunk at nine in the morning that they stagger through the streets, they all populate Tea of Ulaanbaatar. But we never learn much about them and understand even less. This novel isn’t about the Mongolians, but Americans in Mongolia. Howard’s story focuses on a set nihilistic Peace Corps volunteers and a few deranged Peace Corps staff, a group of people I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want to go bar-hopping with through Ulaanbaatar’s many here-today gone-tomorrow night clubs. Everything is disintegrating, buildings, dogs, people, morals, the past and the future. If you haven’t gathered by now, this is a dark, disturbing read.Tea of Ulaanbaatar shows some of the unsteadiness of a first novel. The no quotation marks/non-linear style sometimes adds brilliantly to the sense of displacement and sometimes is merely confusing. Some passages are polished and honed to perfection, while others are rough and untrimmed. All that said, if you like stories of people going down the rabbit hole -- some coming through on the other side and some not -- Tea of Ulaanbaatar is for you. As for me, I give it three stars for the vivid depiction of Mongolia and the fact that it kept me reading even when I winced.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Tea of Ulaanbaatar byChristopher R. Howard has elements of Catch 22 and the tragi-comic violence of a Quentin Tarantino flick, It revolves around a group of Peace Corp ne'r-do-well nihilists stranded by choice in post Soviet Mongolia. That about sums it all up. I enjoyed this book and was a little disappointed with the ending.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
The TEA OF ULAANBAATAR centers on Warren, a young Peace Corps volunteer, as he travels through the wasteland of contemporary urban Mongolia. He finds life in Ulaanbaatar as bleak as the life he left behind in the U.S., and watches as his few colleagues grow increasingly unmoored. He begins to use tsus or blood tea, a dangerous and mysterious drug, and becomes caught up in plans to export it to the rest of the world. As reality starts to fray, Warren begins to believe that tsus is not just a narcotic--it may be the harbinger of the apocalypse.The book is spare--taught prose and just 200 pages--but exceptionally vivid and atmospheric. The compelling sense of place, lyricism, and growing tension carry it beyond an empty "doing drugs in exotic locale" book, and blood tea becomes a metaphor for societal as well as individual breakdown. The Americans' take on the Mongolians is often dehumanizing, which can be uncomfortable, but this is the author's point, not his flaw. It's a dark book, but has bright moments as well, building to a satisfying conclusion (even if it breaks your heart along the way).
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
This is a very trippy little novel about one disillusioned man's stint in the Peace Corps, stationed in the "post-Soviet industrial hell" of Mongolia. Quoteless dialogue abounds, so it is a spare, staccato look at the drugs, prosititution, poverty and decay of Ulaan Baatar. The problem with this, like so many "edgy" looks at globalization gone horribly awry, is that Warren, our protagonist, is a pretty repugnant guy. Although, his fellow Peace Corps recruits are even worse, egads. Talks about a buch of folks I have no desire to read about, these would be them. Warren epitimomizes everything that does not work about self-absorbed Americans going to impoverished countries to seeming attempt to "help" the people there. No wonder no one wants our volunteers! It just seems a new place to do drugs, engage in prostitution, be violent, use the government's money, tell weird stories and get lost. There was nothing in this book that showed that these folks actually helped anyone, at all. But maybe that was the point of it. The way Mongollia has been destroyed is actually very well documented and I understand this is one man's experience, but still, it is extremely violent, hallucinogenic and half the time I was not sure if events were happening or it was Warren's head being toasted on "tsus." (a fictional Mongolia-specific "blood tea" that is a drug which seemingly allows a person to see into the future, among other pleasantries). This novel felt like an attempt at ... something, but I'm not sure what. For such a small book, I had a hard time picking it back up. The grammarical structure did not help any either. Sometimes that works, but here it just did not. Not recommended.
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Christopher Howard's writing is crisp and evocative. Even during the most feverish, drugged-out passages of the book, the action, the characters and the insanity that surrounds them can all be clearly seen; this suffuses “Tea of Ulaanbaatar” with the feeling of a well-produced, late-night docudrama about the impending end of the world. At the same time, there is much here I didn't want to see clearly: the disparaging, prejudiced portrayals of the frequently-evil Mongol people; the morally bankrupt Peace Corps volunteers; the immaculately decrepit city and surroundings. In total, an easy, occasionally uncomfortable read that didn't quite work for me.
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Tea of Ulaanbaater is a taut and proficient story of a disillusioned and corruptible Peace Corps volunteer whose life is disintegrating in Ulaanbaater, the capital of Mongolia. Christopher Howard writes about this locale with some authority as he was a Peace Corps volunteer in an aborted mission to Mongolia. His protagonist, Warren, much like Howard it appears, is revolted at first by what he sees. Warren, and his obsession with cleanliness, perhaps a self-delusion of faultless superiority, is eventually overrun by filth and vermin until he is as base as the very worst villain. Can he wash away his sin? Can he be redeemed?Ulaanbaater seems a fitting location for moral breakdown as the former Soviet satellite described by Howard is itself withering from parasitical opportunists and criminals. The local upper class steal foreign aid, the police are drunken louts, criminality is rife, foreign profiteers prey upon human weakness and foreign volunteers steel much needed medicine and supplies for their own personal cravings. The local populace suffers immeasurably.Warren’s own curiosity and spiritual hunger lead him to partake of the primary distractions available, sex and drugs. Neither relieve the pangs of emptiness until he learns of the mysterious and mythical “blood tea”, tsus. Tsus is a kind of hallucinogenic plant, perhaps akin to marijuana or opium, which can be drunk like a tea or smoked.Tea is a recurring theme in the novel. Various descriptions of teas are interwoven in the narrative. They seem to act as a kind of ballast for the magical properties of tsus. Tsus seems to taste differently to different persons or at different times. It creates euphoria and leads to dreams of various types, some of which lead the user to the belief of being able to see the future. Once tsus-induced dreaming occurs, it becomes difficult to determine what is real or what is possible. Tsus becomes a portal to the horrors and ecstasies of imagination.If there is a real fault in the novel, it is the author’s susceptibility to sensationalism. Hot Mongolian chicks, Russian thugs, extreme violence and drugs seem primarily a young man’s preoccupation of what is interesting about life in a place. In this work, they effectively drive the plot but also detract from what is often some very fine writing.Nevertheless, this is an impressive debut to a promising career as a novelist.
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