Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the Sandinistas

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Hailed as a “virtuosic one-woman show” (Time Out New York) this New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice pick tells the funny and poignant story of the year the author ran away from college with her idealistic boyfriend and followed him to Nicaragua to join the Sandinistas.

Despite their earnest commitment to a myriad of revolutionary causes and to each other, Deb and her boyfriend find themselves unwanted, unhelpful, and unprepared as they bop around Central America, looking ...

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Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War

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Hailed as a “virtuosic one-woman show” (Time Out New York) this New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice pick tells the funny and poignant story of the year the author ran away from college with her idealistic boyfriend and followed him to Nicaragua to join the Sandinistas.

Despite their earnest commitment to a myriad of revolutionary causes and to each other, Deb and her boyfriend find themselves unwanted, unhelpful, and unprepared as they bop around Central America, looking for "revolution jobs." The year is 1987, a turning point in the Cold War, although the world doesn’t know it yet, especially not Unferth and her fiancé (he proposes on a roadside in El Salvador). The months wear on and cracks begin to form in their relationship: they get fired, they get sick, they run out of money, they grow disillusioned with the revolution and each other.  But years later the trip remains fixed in her mind and she finally goes back to Nicaragua to try to make sense of it all.  Unferth’s heartbreaking and hilarious memoir perfectly captures the youthful search for meaning, and is an absorbing rumination on what happens to a country and its people after the revolution is over.


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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is a very funny, excoriatingly honest story of being young, semi-idealistic, stupid and in love. If you have ever been any of these things, you'll devour it."—Dave Eggers

“Revolution calls itself a memoir, but Deb Olin Unferth’s tale of dropping out of college to join the Sandinista revolution is something altogether stranger and more dazzling.”—Time Out New York

“There is something in Unferth's combination of spare language and intelligent observation, her darts of emotional insight shooting through a highly personal screen, that is reminiscent of Joan Didion. That's a lot to live up to, but the two writers share a sense of beauty and loss and get something on the page that implies something else just out of reach.”—Los Angeles Times

“Unferth’s application of her imagination to her subject…evokes what David Foster Wallace refers to as ‘the click,’ a feeling one gets when reading work that’s firing on all cylinders.”—Christopher Sorrentino, Bookforum

“Unferth surely can write...You find yourself re-reading descriptions…simply for the pleasure of the language.”—Chicago Tribune

“[O]ne of the best memoirs of the past several years. It's a difficult book to stop reading; Unferth is charming, charismatic, and breathtakingly smart… [Revolution is] more than enough to catapult Unferth into the ranks of America's great young writers.”—Bookslut

“The uniqueness of its love story sneaks up on you.”—The Week

“Unferth’s depiction of the futility of Deb’s odyssey is devastatingly frank…At the heart of Revolution is Unferth’s slightly eccentric take on the venerable confusion of the political and the personal…how does one become a person? How is the person to be made?”—Madison Smartt Bell, The Nation

“The book is sly, devastating, and savagely funny, with style to spare.”—Boston Phoenix

“This clearheaded and funny memoir captures the grit and chaos of a tumultuous moment in Central American history, but it’s really a coming-of-age story.” Mother Jones

“Hers is a bildungsroman for the Believer set… impossible to dislike…The jokes are crisp and understated, the sentences clean and knapped.”—New York Observer

“Eighteen and in love, the possibilities seem endless in this endearing coming-of-age book, in which the author returns years later to Nicaragua to come to terms with that tumultuous period in both world history and her own life.”—New York Post

“Here’s the beauty in this very funny, very sweet, magnificently written short memoir: being young and in love and on a noble quest...maybe I know better but it sounds just grand!”—Jewish Book World

“Unferth writes with a beautiful insouciance…[T]his is good and bad news — love doesn’t go away. It just doesn’t go away — it changes into something else. Amen.”—Newsday

“Unferth's surprising voice and precise rendering lend her memoir its particular power.”—Flavorpill New York

“The way you’ll actually feel, reading [Revolution], is too big to name, too expansive and breathtakingly great to minimize.”—Corduroy Books

“Revolution is a ruefully funny memoir that surprises and delights at nearly every turn—through style, subject matter, and a chronological structure that hiccups with flashbacks and flash forwards.”—The Rumpus

“Unferth writes with a sly, understated appreciation for the absurd…A dryly humorous memoir of love, travel and wide-eyed idealism.”—Kirkus

“[Unferth] excels with a wry, self-deprecating voice that propels the tale forward.”—Publishers Weekly

“[Unferth] creates a memoir of unique lucidity, wit, and power.”—Booklist


"Deb Olin Unferth is one of the most ambitious and inspirational writers working today. Her memoir of idealistic, bewildered people-in-training befell me like a fever for which, I'm happy to report, there appears to be no cure. An encounter with Unferth's prose is to be permanently, wondrously afflicted by its genius."—Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment


"Revolution is the best of many worlds: misconceived youth, sharp humor and sharper characters, and mostly, for me, the chance to witness a brand of paragraph-to-paragraph artistry that is much too rare."—John Brandon, author of Citrus County

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250002686
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 2/14/2012
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the story collection Minor Robberies and the novel Vacation, winner of the 2009 Cabell First Novelist Award and a New York Times Book Review Critics' Choice. Her work has been featured in Harper's Magazine, McSweeney's, The Believer, and the Boston Review. She has received two Pushcart Prizes and a 2009 Creative Capital grant for Innovative Literature and was a Harper's Bazaar Editors' Choice: Name to Know in 2011. She teaches at Wesleyan University and currently lives in New York.

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Reading Group Guide

Michael Kimball Interviews Deb Olin Unferth

Michael Kimball:

I think of you as a fiction writer first, probably because that is how I first encountered you, but Revolution is a memoir, so I’m wondering about the differences between writing fiction and memoir. I’m asking because there are certain incidents that I wouldn’t have believed if I were reading fiction, but I read along amazed because I’m reading a memoir.

Deb Olin Unferth:

When I decided to write Revolution, I read dozens of memoirs and autobiographies to try to get a sense of how memoirs are put together, how they have changed over the past hundred years, how I might contribute to the conversation that “memoir” is—which is really a conversation about memory and its mishaps, time, the narrative of the self, and much more. I’d been terrified to write a memoir. I’d told myself this was because I doubted its intellectual validity (ha!), but I see now it was because I didn’t want to deal with the problems memoir presents.

A few of these are: the search for and commitment to factual and emotional truth; the willingness to reveal oneself publicly; the need to settle on one “self ”  or one interpretation of what happened; the filter—what sort of a filter to use (you must use a filter! you can’t just write down every single thing that ever happened to you) and why you use that particular filter, and how to tell the reader what that filter is and what doubts you have about it—the need to resist building an artificial but tempting arc (life doesn’t work as an arc, even though almost all of our experiences with human-made narrative do), etcetera. None of these are problems in quite the same way in fiction.


This is why I love interviews. Let’s talk about the filter. I think we use a filter in fiction, too. There’s a pretty clear filter in your novel, Vacation, and the filters are even more obvious in your short stories. Can you talk about the particular filter that you used in Revolution and the doubts that you had about it?


The hardest part was determining the voice I wanted to use—a voice is a filter. What sort of a stance did I want to take toward this subject? I had many doubts. After all, here I was, an American, turning up at someone else’s war and trying to “help,” and, all these years later, here I was writing about it (and writing about something is, in a way, owning it or laying claim to it). It takes a lot of audacity to do that. Furthermore, I wanted to have a sense of humor about it, mostly because I feel like I can only speak seriously through a filter of humor. And what kind of a person would write humorously about someone else’s war? It seemed inhuman, and yet I wanted it to be very human, and very respectful. For this reason, I abandoned the book over and over, but it felt urgent to me to finish it, and urgent on many levels, so I kept returning to it. All I could think to do was to integrate my doubts into the text, be very open about it.


The voice, the tone of the voice, is one of the things that is striking about the book. Some of what happens in the narrative seems so terrible or so absurd that humor seemed necessary—that is, the narrative would have seemed unbelievable without that sort of temper for it. Said another way, there are places where the narrative seems both earnest and ironic at the same time. Do you think of that as one of the ways that Revolution contributes to the conversation of what a memoir is—or, what a memoir can be?


Well, I hope so. I wanted to capture that feeling of simultaneous earnestness and irony. It’s the way I tend to feel most of the time—urgently earnest and yet aware of the absurdity of earnestness. Even then, at eighteen, I felt that way, though the feeling was a little deeper below the surface. I try to get that across in places in the book, such as when I call my family to tell them I’m getting married and I feel a sudden surge of terror that I might not mean what I’m saying and doing the way George does.

I don’t believe irony precludes deep emotion in writing, the way some people say. Irony can indicate deep emotion—pain, fear, doubt, strangling desire. The important thing is not to stop at irony. Let the irony curtain fall around you, then push it away (it comes away so easily!) and look at what it hid.


One of the fascinating things about Revolution is the way that this shifting perspective happens in so many places, on so many pages—and it kind of teaches the reader to read the book in a particular way. This is partly possible, I think, because of the subject matter—we’re given a narrative with a very personal, idiosyncratic story that is set against a backdrop of a narrative that might be told in a history book. What I’m wondering is how you decided to balance these two narratives—how much of the political revolution versus how much of the personal revolution?


The book began and stopped in fits and starts over a period of many years while I tried to figure out just what sort of book I wanted to write. I had written drafts of scenes of both the war material and the personal material. I had, scattered all over, pieces of scenes and mini history lessons I’d written. They were in different boxes and on scraps of paper, some typed into e-mails I sent to myself from Central America in the early 2000s, some in notebooks starting with the ones I’d written during the 1987 trip. Because I’d tried so many times to write this book, I’d done a lot of research over the years, also in fits and starts. I’d say there were four distinct periods when I read almost exclusively books about Central American politics, and I took extensive notes and made hundreds of note cards. (I’d been taught to do this in eighth grade: When writing a research paper, put all your facts on note cards. Probably no one does that anymore, right? Why have them on note cards anyway? What’s the point? It’s mysterious.)

When I finally decided what I wanted to do and surveyed the mountain of material, somehow the balance came very naturally and organically. I didn’t have that much trouble figuring that part of it out. I did not want the book to be a history book. I did want the political backdrop to be an important part of the book. The challenges were: 1. figuring out how much background information to put in (I initially assumed a lot was common knowledge—that turned out not to be—so I needed to fill it out a little), 2. including the factual information in a way that didn’t lose my voice.

Reprinted with permission from The Faster Times.

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