Book Review: Lenin’s Asylum
Reviewed by Jaylynn Korrell
“A.A. Weiss shines in this intelligent, introspective new travel-memoir from Everytime Press.”
During his two years in Moldova, Aaron Weiss was known as the American. The men wanted to befriend him, the children wanted to play with him, and nearly everyone wanted to drink with him. Me? I just wanted to be him.
When Weiss first signed up for the peace corps, he knew he would go through a distinct and interesting new experience. But nothing really hit him until he stepped foot in Riscani, a small town in one of the poorest countries in Europe. In Lenin’s Asylum, Weiss sends the reader on the culture-shock journey along with him.
For Weiss, Moldova was full of eye-opening experiences. One of the first times he encounters this extreme change is through his teaching. In Moldova, he learns that not only does a teacher have to earn respect like anyone else, but even when he does, he better be ready to abide by a few student rules too:
- They are going to talk in his class.
- They might leave in the middle of it to smoke.
- They are probably going to hit each other a few times.
- And somebody might bring a gun to class, and it’s not the end of the world.
In Lenin’s Asylum, readers come to terms with the way the world works in Riscani just as Weiss does, allowing us to develop our own relationship with this new culture. And let me tell you, it makes for some deeply entertaining nonfiction.
Aaron’s budding relationship with his host family might create for my favorite development of the memoir. Just like with the students, his host family illustrates their fondness for him over time, and in their own way. Small gestures go far: When his host-mother leaves food out for him, when he’s invited to share a drink with them, we feel welcomed into this new culture too. This lovely dynamic of acceptance in an unknown place creates for a wholesome reading experience and an altogether pleasant way to learn about something new.
“The boredom of another afternoon trapped inside the apartment by winter dulled the excitable memories of the table tennis victory. But then I untied the bag of biscuits from the shopkeeper and ate them with my tea. Thank God for these biscuits! For adding a wrinkle, a variety however small, into this monotony. I’d indulge any happiness to keep winter from bringing my spirits down.”
For me, their relationship really reaches its peak when Weiss reminds his host family that there is more to this world than the life they have created. While Weiss may have unique perspective to offer them in this way, they have some of their own too: he must learn how to feel content with what he has. This book offers subtle reminders like this about opening our ears for what the rest of the world is ready to teach us.
I brought Lenin’s Asylum with me on vacation. Oftentimes, I found myself sneaking away to devour more pages and more experience. While I occasionally expected Aaron to dive a little deeper into his emotions and take a bigger step toward propelling the memoir forward, I was equally thankful that I got to spend time with Moldova in this precise way. He does a truly wonderful job.
“Since arriving in Riscani, I’d experienced the personal shock of uselessness on repeat. Everyone experimented futility, and the only social requirement was to keep functioning. The only failure would be in not trying to help, in denying the biological impulse to move toward action.”
Reading Lenin’s Asylum offers a unique journey, delivering with a complete immersion into an unknown culture, making you feel like you’ve visited too. It would be an excellent read for those with travel on the brain as well as those who want to take a daring new step into a very real world.