Monthly Archives: July 2014

Maggie Gyllenhaal Is ‘The Honorable Woman': A Series Both Ruthless And Rewarding

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Nessa Stein in the SundanceTV original series The Honorable Woman.i i

hide captionMaggie Gyllenhaal stars as Nessa Stein in the SundanceTV original series The Honorable Woman.

Des Willie/Courtesy of Sundance

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Nessa Stein in the SundanceTV original series The Honorable Woman.

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Nessa Stein in the SundanceTV original series The Honorable Woman.

Des Willie/Courtesy of Sundance

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in a new eight-part miniseries that couldn’t be more timely: It’s about a woman who finds herself embroiled in the political tensions of the Middle East, and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Honorable Woman is a co-production between the Sundance Channel, which premieres the eight-part miniseries beginning Thursday, and England’s BBC-2, where viewers already have seen about half the episodes. So have I. And while I expected The Honorable Woman to be topical and potentially controversial, given its setting and premise, I didn’t expect it to be so involving, or so intense. Or so good.

The Honorable Woman is produced, written and directed by Hugo Blick, who hasn’t broken through in the States yet – but probably will now. TV viewers who were drawn to the political intrigues and moral complexities of Showtime’s Homeland, will be very, very pleased by The Honorable Woman. But so should viewers who revel in the unsettling surprises and shocking violence of HBO’s Game of Thrones and AMC’s The Walking Dead – because The Honorable Woman is one of the most ruthless TV dramas I’ve ever seen. Major characters in this miniseries not only die without warning – they die without foreshadowing, and without dignity, like flies being swatted suddenly.

Even before the opening credits roll, The Honorable Woman demonstrates this quickly, and graphically. The very first scene is a flashback showing lunch at a fancy restaurant, where a young girl and boy fidget and joke with one another while their father tries to settle them down. The waiter who serves them dinner rolls with a pair of sharp tongs then uses the same tongs to stab their father in the throat. He dies as they watch in stunned disbelief, and as the little girl is dotted with his blood. Meanwhile, the adult voice of that girl is heard on the soundtrack, offering some perspective from the distant future. She’s played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who adopts a British accent, and an understandably wary attitude, to portray the grown-up Nessa Stein.

It’s unusual, and a little refreshing, to see an American actress travel overseas to play someone with a British accent, given how many Brits are playing Americans on TV over here. But Gyllenhaal nails more than just the accent. She’s playing a very complicated, hard-to-read character: a British baroness with an Israeli passport, an Internet communications executive who has just been appointed a seat in the House of Lords, and a visionary who wants to donate money and resources to the West Bank. She thinks that improving conditions there, and making the Internet more available, is the key to prospects for peace. But others disagree – sometimes very violently. The Honorable Woman includes killings and kidnappings, seductions and betrayals, and Nessa’s obsession about trust turns out to be very central to her character, and to the drama itself.

Every step Nessa takes, or doesn’t take, is followed or influenced or thwarted by those around her – especially her business-partner brother Ephra, played by Andrew Buckman, and a British Intelligence officer played by the always intriguing Stephen Rea. MI-6, American spies, the Israelis, the Palestinians – they’re all in play here, and they’re not playing. Some of the power struggles are for money or territory; others are sexual. There’s a lot of tension between men and women here, corporate as well as cultural – and Gyllenhaal is fearless about exploring and portraying it all.

Writer-director Blick peels back and reveals the elements of his story, and the motivations and relationships of his characters, very slowly. A scream you hear in episode one isn’t explained until episode four — and the pain behind anguished glances isn’t evident until you’ve clocked hours of TV time. But by that time, The Honorable Woman has taken you places where TV seldom ventures. Not only to the tunnels under the Gaza Strip – and I couldn’t believe I was seeing scenes set in those tunnels, after they’ve figured so prominently in the news – but to the deepest fears and hopes and dreams and despairs of the show’s characters. Politically, The Honorable Woman doesn’t take sides – it comes at you from all sides. And all sides are given motivations and conflicts, which makes this miniseries both a rare and a rewarding viewing experience. The characters in The Honorable Woman may not know whom to trust – but trust me. This is one TV drama not to miss.

David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Where Love’s Concerned, This ‘Magic Barrel’ Is No Magic Bullet

Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel

Lena Finkle is a 37-year-old, twice-divorced Russian immigrant and a self-described “toddler of relationship experience” — when a friend asks how many guys she’s “been with” in her life, she can only hold up three fingers. Anya Ulinich’s new graphic novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is her account, told in expressive dark-inked drawings and hand-printed all-caps dialogue, of her quest to find true love — and good sex — and resuscitate what she depicts as her freeze-dried heart.

Finkle’s saga takes us from her girlhood apartment block in Soviet Moscow — where she’s molested by a pervert in the elevator — to a scathing guided tour of the nutcases and illiterates she meets through the online dating site OkCupid, some of whom are creepily similar to the students she teaches in her New York writing workshops. She tells one lover who asks what she likes, “I’m ‘kinky’ the way a tangled garden hose is kinky … obstructed.” His response: “You’re good with words.”

Bernard Malamud’s classic story “The Magic Barrel” provides a template for Ulinich’s novel; it stars rabbinical student Leo Finkle, who hires a matchmaker to find him a wife.

Like her near-namesake, Lena is aghast that she’s never loved anyone body and soul (except her two daughters). She married her first husband, a stoner she met at a Phoenix 7-Eleven, in exchange for immigration papers shortly after she and her parents flew to Arizona on tourist visas in 1991. She met her second husband not long afterward, in the library at Arizona State University. Her story begins shortly after she decides to end their hostile 15-year marriage and move into a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her daughters.

Malamud’s matchmaker claims he’s got a whole barrel of additional prospective brides if none of his initial offerings suit fickle Finkle. Lena’s own magic barrel houses a similar overflow, a seemingly endless supply of available — if not actually suitable — men. Yet, as Ulinich makes clear, there is no magic barrel or bullet where love is concerned. Instead, there’s “panicked grasping for some kind of meaning.”

Ulinich pulled off a similar tragicomic mix with Petropolis, a coming-of-age novel about a Russian mail order bride’s search for her long-lost father (not to be confused with Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, about growing up in Iran after the Islamic revolution).

But she throws a lot at us in the opening sections of Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel. The blocks of dialogue, commentary, thought bubbles, and arguments with a miniature Lena — who represents her skeptical conscience — all vie for our attention and occasionally induce eye-strain and brain-drain. Background information is conveyed in facsimiles of ring-bound notebooks bearing titles including “The USSR Eighties” and “The Brief Romantic History of Lena Finkle.”

I nearly bailed when I hit the dizzying two-page graphic spread titled “Romantic Inevitability—->And the Student Body, Arizona State University, 1992,” but I’m glad I hung in there for her ghoulishly funny dating saga. Who would want to miss the bucktoothed weirdo whose shelves are lined with empty prescription bottles, the veterinary technician whose bedside table holds the unclaimed, mummified remains of someone’s pet bunny, and the Don Draper lookalike who shies at sex? To her friends’ consternation, Lena readily jumps into bed with some pretty horrific prospects: “It was kind of thrilling to get so close to a stranger — to get inside his house, his body — so fast!”

The novel deepens when Lena spots a man reading Malamud on a bus. Ulinich captures this intriguing character, with his glass eye, “odd face … like a child and an old man,” and high-pitched, soft voice in beautiful, haunting close-ups and intense conversations. A seemingly penniless carpenter who sleeps on a mattress in the Chinatown tenement he’s renovating, “the Orphan” turns out to be a wealthy heir who hates money. He has a history of getting women (including Lena) to open up to him — but then he leaves “while the sex is still really good.” Lena not only ignores all the red flags but lets us know what’s coming, with early allusions to her “year of unreasonable grief.”

Don’t expect even a wishful happy ending like Malamud’s, filled with fantasies of “violins and lit candles” revolving in the sky. This absorbing, brio performance is about a woman with a Russian soul who doesn’t sugarcoat anything.

“No one ever truly arrives!” Lena exclaims. In other words, this immigrant’s quest for love and connection in her adoptive home will continue.

‘Guardians Of The Galaxy': Let’s Hear It For F.U.N.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) have some adventures together in the terrific new Guardians Of The Galaxy.i i

hide captionGamora (Zoe Saldana) and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) have some adventures together in the terrific new Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Jay Maidment/Marvel

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) have some adventures together in the terrific new Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) have some adventures together in the terrific new Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Jay Maidment/Marvel

The worst thing about making a post-Avengers Marvel movie is how far ahead of the game you are when you start. Your film will be marketed with brute force, treated as arguably the biggest opening of the summer, reviewed everywhere, and very likely to land among the most commercially successful films of the year, whether or not you do anything interesting with it. From a professional development standpoint, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to describe your task as “don’t screw up.” There’s no reason for that not to inspire cautious tiptoeing, for it not to motivate a precise tonal copy of what’s worked in films like Iron Man and The Avengers, and ultimately for it not to lead to a zillion-dollar effort to ensure a solid, uninteresting base hit, creatively speaking.

So it’s particularly surprising how often Guardians Of The Galaxy feels very unlike other Marvel movies and other comic-book movies.

Directed by James Gunn (who also directed the offbeat superhero comedy Super) and written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, Guardians introduces us to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a capable and ambivalent wisecracking thief still working for the aliens who abducted him from Earth as a little boy, shortly after the death of his mother. As wisecracking thieves always do, Quill finds himself in a jam, and not long after, he’s in jail with the mysterious and fearless Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the grief-stricken and huge Drax (Dave Bautista), a big walking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and the particularly mercenary Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper). They soon find a common purpose, and we’re off. There’s an orb – oh, there’s always an orb – and there’s a preening and pronouncing bad guy (Lee Pace) who speaks at all times as if he’s an action figure being waved around and given voice by a growling kid who’s just recently discovered comics, and there’s a message about the importance of friendship and teamwork.

What distinguishes Guardians Of The Galaxy is its tone, which arrives early in the form of the ’70s mixtapes that Quill got from his mom, which he still blasts on his adored Sony Walkman. After the brief prologue, we first find him kicking and cool-guy-dancing through the puddles of a faraway planet while Redbone’s “Come And Get Your Love” plays. He’s very much a Marvel hero, but Pratt – a tremendously charismatic actor whose work as the huge-hearted and slightly foggy-headed Andy Dwyer on Parks And Recreation foreshadowed some of what he’s doing here – gives him both a shaggier charm and a much more specifically comedic carriage than most Marvel heroes. This is not the suave, swaggering wit of Tony Stark; it is a much more uncertain and blithely goofy thing.

The simple fact that Guardians Of The Galaxy is closer to a pure comedy is what distinguishes it most. Iron Man and The Avengers certainly are witty, but they’re not comedies, and this is. Where those films largely depend on well-timed ironic understatement and the occasional Hulk-on-Loki beatdown for their chuckles, this movie has jokes. Lots of jokes. Plain old jokes. Laugh lines. Punchy cuts between serious action sequences and bone-dry, deadpan takes. It has wonderful face-pulling. It has mechanical-eyeball comedy.

What comes through so delightfully is a balance between the weary, sometimes skeptical but deeply affectionate good will of adults who love an enjoyable blockbuster and the campy, self-serious exploration of good and evil that kids can happily bathe in before they start to think of comics as fundamentally a capitalist enterprise. You could see this movie and then have a long debate over exactly what Pace is doing, how in on the joke he is, and how much he knows that intensity-wise, he’s doing Release The Kraken MULTIPLIED by Emperor Palpatine TIMES Loki PLUS everybody who gets a mask pulled off his head at the end of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. It’s not that he’s not doing a real villain, but he’s also doing the villain, the idea of a comic-book villain. While he’s giving it all he’s got when it comes to menace, his delicious super-ferocity is meant to work hand-in-glove with the more obviously comedic stuff that Quill’s team is doing. (Interestingly, the constantly joke-cracking Rocket is probably the least successful invention on the team; Groot’s limited capacity for comedy – he’s a tree, remember – becomes the funniest bit of all.)

There’s plenty of heart in Guardians, but it gets its emotional heft largely from the warmth that this kind of comedy inherently contains. Genuinely funny people engender sympathy (see the witty Hans in Die Hard), so comedy isn’t just for giggles, it’s also for resonance. But here’s the thing: it’s fun. F-U-N. Remember F-U-N? The thing that blockbusters used to be before they started crushing cities full of innocent people and seemingly forgetting all about them? The thing that the Richard Donner Superman was? The thing that used to at least be one of the most important big-money-movie elements, alongside bloodletting, franchising, and an unrelenting, ashen grimness that could be rounded off to approximate seriousness of purpose?

Yeah. Fun! I missed it.

On the downside, Guardians is probably least inventive in its aesthetic: it doesn’t play like a Marvel movie, but its visuals sure look like one. Orbs, explosions, huge spacecraft … all of this has been seen. There are a handful of very pretty shots – Gunn seems to have a fondness for floating and uses it in several places to lovely effect – and there’s a nicely manic fight sequence between Quill and Gamora early on. But the branding of the Marvel Universe is certainly more consistent and more easily felt visually than tonally.

That music, on the other hand, is deftly chosen. Everybody from Stanley Kubrick to Michael Moore has done the bit where you play upbeat music over downbeat images for a kick of irony, but there are a few places in Guardians where songs, including “Hooked On A Feeling” (admittedly a well-worn weapon at this point), create a more complex sensation than the expected orchestral soundtrack would have. And while the other Marvel movies are similarly contemporary, they’re also much more Earth-bound; it’s a funny feeling – in a good way – to see people having epic battles over ancient artifacts in space and have the music create such a temporal link to this particular man’s lost life on Earth.

It’s easy to create a clean break between the satisfaction of popular entertainment and the rewards of great art, and that divide, while not quite as easy to define as it seems, is certainly genuine. What’s much shakier is the idea that the satisfaction of popular entertainment is valueless while the rewards of great art matter. There’s always been a place for F.U.N. – it’s always been one of the reasons people seek out culture. To see it done really, really well, with purpose and energy and wit, is itself awfully rewarding.

Book News: George W. Bush Coming Out With Biography Of His Father

George H.W. Bush (left) congratulates his son George W. Bush as the two former presidents attend last year's dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.i i

hide captionGeorge H.W. Bush (left) congratulates his son George W. Bush as the two former presidents attend last year’s dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.

David J. Phillip/AP

George H.W. Bush (left) congratulates his son George W. Bush as the two former presidents attend last year's dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.

George H.W. Bush (left) congratulates his son George W. Bush as the two former presidents attend last year’s dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.

David J. Phillip/AP

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Former President George W. Bush plans to take a break from painting to publish a biography of his father, former President George H. W. Bush. The book, which will be published by Crown on Nov. 11, “covers the entire scope of the elder President Bush’s life and career, including his service in the Pacific during World War II, his pioneering work in the Texas oil business, and his political rise as a Congressman, U.S. Representative to China and the United Nations, CIA Director, Vice President, and President,” according to a press release. The Associated Press reports that Bush wrote the book himself, though he “had assistance with research.”
  • A novel by Oscar Hijuelos, the first Latino author to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, will be published posthumously. Hijuelos died last year. The New York Times describes the novel, Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise, as “an intensively researched 859-page historical novel about the friendship between Mark Twain and the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.” The book will come out from Grand Central Publishing in fall 2015.
  • Michelle Huneven writes about the shock of discovering you’ve been used as inspiration for a character in a story: “The laws of literature, like the laws of gossip, usually demand exaggeration, decontextualization, a heightened or minimalized reality, and a lot more shape and order and impact than everyday life. ‘You’ve been fictionalized’ actually means, ‘You’ve been exaggerated!’ (Or downplayed!) You’ve been snipped and shaped and built on, face-lifted, aged and/or repainted for maximum artistic impact.”
  • Stephen Marche considers the inevitability of literary failure: “Three hundred thousand books are published in the United States every year. A few hundred, at most, could be called financial or creative successes. The majority of books by successful writers are failures. The majority of writers are failures. And then there are the would-be writers, those who have failed to be writers in the first place, a category which, if you believe what people tell you at parties, constitutes the bulk of the species.”
  • Nathan Filer on the hyperbole of blurbs on book jackets: “Nothing can be interesting; it must be fascinating. Good isn’t good enough; it must be great.”

This ‘Suitcase’ Is Packed With Sharp, Funny, Tragic Tales

Panic in a Suitcase

At some point in the past decade, the word “Brooklyn” became cultural shorthand for a certain type of young, nouveau riche hipster. The borough has a history that goes back centuries, and a huge, notably diverse population, but to many Americans, it’s now mainly associated with fixie-riding arrivistes sipping artisanal espresso drinks while they work on their painfully autobiographical novels about escaping suburbia.

Like any other geographical stereotype, it’s wildly reductionist, and not just because a lot of hipsters have moved on to kombucha. There’s obviously a lot more to Brooklyn than skinny jeans and indie rock bands, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from today’s dominant cultural conversation. That’s one of the reasons why Panic in a Suitcase, the excellent debut novel from New York-based author Yelena Akhtiorskaya, is such a breath of fresh air.

Panic in a Suitcase is set chiefly in Brighton Beach, the neighborhood known for decades as home to immigrants from the Soviet Union. The novel follows the Nasmertov family, recently arrived from Odessa, Ukraine, as they adjust to life in a new country, 5,000 miles away from the city they called home for generations.

It’s not as much of an adjustment as you might think, though. When the family is visited by Pasha, a troubled poet and his family’s lone holdout (he can’t bring himself to leave Odessa), he observes that Brighton Beach isn’t too different from his hometown: “His fellow countrymen hadn’t ventured bravely into a new land, they’d borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else’s crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they’d gone through so many hurdles to escape.”

The first part of Panic in a Suitcase centers on Pasha, whose family has brought him to visit in the hopes that he’ll decide to join them in Brooklyn. Pasha is stubborn to a fault, terrified of any kind of confrontation, and even as a child exhibited a “catastrophic intolerance for the idiocy of others.” His mother, Esther, and sister, Marina, treat him with a mix of affection and exasperation — they can’t abide his seeming lack of interest in his career, his surroundings, and even his own son, whom he barely acknowledges.

Jumping forwards 15 years, the second part of the novel focuses on Pasha’s niece Frida, a precocious but aimless girl who doesn’t initially seem interested at all in her homeland. (Asked, as a child, if she likes living in America, Frida is nonplussed: “Here — as opposed to where? If there had been a somewhere else, Frida was currently engaged in an immense struggle to extract every last trace of it from her DNA.”) Years later, she returns to Ukraine for her cousin’s wedding, and finds herself just as adrift as she was in the States.

Pasha and Frida don’t have too much in common except for a tendency toward caprice and a nagging sense of anomie. But Panic in a Suitcase is less a novel about them than it is about the Nasmertov family as a whole — Akhtiorskaya treats the clan almost as a single character, functioning as a whole, even as its constituent parts are in a constant war with themselves.

And it works, because of Akhtiorskaya’s patient, understated prose. She’s a deeply perceptive writer, and her observations about the family’s experience as immigrants to America are sharp and sometimes heartbreaking. On the family’s habit of literally counting the days since they moved to the States, she writes, “It’d seemed that if not counted, the days might either not pass or sneak by in clusters, two or more at a time. One thing a Soviet upbringing taught you was to pay attention.”

And as sad as the novel is in parts, it’s leavened by Akhtiorskaya’s dry, brilliant sense of humor. She tackles both normal and comic moments with a straight face, which makes them even funnier — at one point, she gives the somewhat snobby Pasha credit for gamely making conversation with “a woman among whose wisdoms was that a Virgo and a Cancer should never mix except for in the bedroom and who saw logic in wearing a crucifix, a kabbalah bracelet, and a bindi simultaneously.”

Panic in a Suitcase isn’t just remarkable as a literary debut, but also as a uniquely American work of fiction. It’s a testament to how diverse and unexpected the Brooklyn literary scene can be, but more than that, it’s a testament to Akhtiorskaya’s wit, generosity, and immense talent as a young American author.

As Volunteerism Explodes In Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most?

Haley Nordine, 19, is spending the entire summer at the Prodesenh center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala. The American University student helped build the center's new library.i i

hide captionHaley Nordine, 19, is spending the entire summer at the Prodesenh center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala. The American University student helped build the center’s new library.

Carrie Kahn/NPR

Haley Nordine, 19, is spending the entire summer at the Prodesenh center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala. The American University student helped build the center's new library.

Haley Nordine, 19, is spending the entire summer at the Prodesenh center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala. The American University student helped build the center’s new library.

Carrie Kahn/NPR

As you plan — or even go — on your summer vacation, think about this: More and more Americans are no longer taking a few weeks off to suntan and sight see abroad. Instead they’re working in orphanages, building schools and teaching English.

It’s called volunteer tourism or “volunteerism.” And it’s one of the fastest growing trends in travel today. More than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year.

But some people who work in the industry are skeptical of volunteerism’s rising popularity. They question whether some trips help young adults pad their resumes or college applications more than they help those in need.

Children learn to cook at Prodesenh, a community center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala.i i

hide captionChildren learn to cook at Prodesenh, a community center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala.

Carrie Kahn/NPR

Children learn to cook at Prodesenh, a community center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala.

Children learn to cook at Prodesenh, a community center in San Mateo Milpas Altas, Guatemala.

Carrie Kahn/NPR

Judith Lopez Lopez, who runs a center for orphans outside Antigua, Guatemala, says she’s grateful for the help that volunteers give.

All visitors and volunteers get a big warm welcome when they walk in the doors of her facility, Prodesenh. It’s part orphanage, part after school program and part community center.

Most of the kids at Prodesenh don’t have parents, Lopez says. They live with relatives. Some were abandoned by their mothers at birth. Others lost their fathers in accidents or to alcoholism.

There are three volunteers here now, all from the U.S. Lopez says they give the kids what they need most: love and encouragement.

One those volunteers is Kyle Winningham, who just graduated from the University of San Francisco with a degree in entrepreneurship. “Yeah my real name is Kyle, but mi apodo aqui es Carlos,” he says.

Winningham didn’t have a job lined up after school. So he decided to spend his summer at Prodesenh. “When the kids have homework, I help with homework,” he says. “When they don’t, I generally help out with teaching a little bit of English.”

But today they are cooking. Lopez hands out bowls filled with bright red tomatoes, onions and mint. She’s teaching the kids to make salsa.

Haley Nordine, an international relations major at American University in the District of Columbia, is also spending her entire summer at Prodesenh. During her first six weeks here, the 19-year-old helped build the newest addition to the center, a small library. Now she’s tutoring.

“I’ve met a lot of international relations majors here so it seems like a trend,” Nordine says.

Most volunteer tourists are women. And they’re young adults, between the ages of 20 and 25, says the industry consulting group Tourism, Research and Marketing, based in Glasbory, Wales. But more and more high school students are also traveling and volunteering.

Sam Daddono is a junior at Rumson Fair Haven High School in New Jersey. His whole Spanish class is in Antigua, sharping up their Spanish skills. But they’re also hiking up the side of a volcano every morning to help tend to a coffee plantation — and learning about what life is like here in Guatemala.

“The way I view things now is a lot different than before,” Daddono says. “I’ve visited other countries, but I’ve never done hands on work or really talked to the people about the problems that they face in their lives.”

That worldview for many American teens is a lot different than it was two decades ago, says Ken Jones, who owns Maximo Nivel, a volunteer tourism company out of Antigua. He got his start in the travel business, offering only Spanish language classes. But young people today, he says, want a richer experience.

“It used to be beach and beer,” Jones says. “And now it’s, ‘Well, I want to come down and learn something and figure out how to help or be a part of something.’ It was more superficial 20 years ago, maybe.”

The industry has exploded in the past few years, says Theresa Higgs, who runs United Planet in Boston. The nonprofit offers what she calls a cultural immersion program.

But Higgs is on the fence about whether the rise in popularity of volunteerism is a good thing. She’s heartened by the altruism of volunteers. But she’s worried about the flood of for-profit organizations bursting onto the scene.

“What I think often gets lost is the host communities,” she says. “Are they gaining? Are they winning? Are they true partners in this? Or are they simply a means to an end to a student’s learning objective, to someone’s desire to have fun on vacation and learn something?” she asks.

Higgs urges travelers to do their homework and research companies, just as you would before giving to a charity or volunteering for any organization.

About a dozen youth from the United Church of Christ from Yarmouth, Maine, are learning how to count to 10 in the Mam language, from an elderly Indigenous woman in Guatemala City. They are volunteering for a week at the nonprofit Safe Passages, which helps children and parents who live and work in the capital’s sprawling garbage dump.

It’s pouring rain outside, but 17-year-old Mary Coyne isn’t bummed. She’s glad she spent her summer vacation here instead of at the beach, she says. “Yeah, I’m not getting a tan and not eating ice cream,” Coyne says. “But it’s something different. It’s like your whole being is satisfied because of experiences like this.”