Investigative journalist Jennifer Gould walks into the room with a wide grin on her face and fluttering, nervous laughter underlining her nice-to-meet-yous. With diplomatic skills that are charming but not slick, the 29-year-old Canadian repeatedly thanks the listener for indulging stories from her new memoiristic travelogue, Vodka, Tears, and Lenin’s Angel, and apologizes for taking up valuable work time. Her relaxed way of talking isn’t laden with big, bulky vocabulary-builders—the kind she often uses as a staff writer for The Village Voice—but instead is laced with hefty helpings of “cool,” “wild,” “crazy,” and “amazing.” With a reputation as a relentless, hard-nosed reporter preceding her, Gould contradicts all expectations.

But then the stories come, unbelievable, bizarre stories, and the truths take care of themselves. In 1992, Gould—broke, scared, and near-delirious from the thirst for travel—quit her job at the Philadelphia Inquirer in order to see first-hand the changing landscape of the Soviet Union. It was the biggest risk of her life, but one that would ultimately pay handsome dividends. From the end of the Cold War to the Russian election of 1996, Gould, free-lancing for a host of internationally recognized newspapers and magazines, was granted access to subjects as varied as KGB colonels, street kids, teenage mafiya millionaires, prostitutes, Chechen rebel fighters, and, of course, Yeltsin and Gorby.

“Communism was collapsing, and I really wanted to witness history,” Gould says, genuine excitement fueling her words. “I didn’t want to miss it. When I first arrived, the streets were totally gray, no colors at all. Cars were always breaking down on the side of the road [and being abandoned]. By the end of my story, the place was covered with Western civilization. I really watched the country transform….It was complete chaos.”

If you’re wondering how a lone journalist without significant contacts—and who didn’t even speak Russian—accomplished such impressive tasks, look no further than Gould’s mien: assertive without being bossy, determined without being hard-ass, professional without being wonky. Those qualities helped her land a controversial, well-publicized interview with neo-fascist nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky for Playboy. While the interview is fascinating for sociopathic reasons alone, what went on behind the scenes is even more compelling.

“I’ll agree to the interview only if you wear less layers, if you wear a bikini, if you come in topless,” Zhirinovsky, a seemingly impossible man to deal with, says to the writer at one point. Gould, who would keep her shirt on and stick with her subject for several more days, later writes, “The sex talk explodes during our last interview. It is my seventh day onboard….He also boasts about his sexual achievements. ‘I’ve had more than two hundred women, and with every woman I’ve had it several times. And if you add masturbation, I’ve climaxed probably ten thousand times. I started when I was fifteen. Now I’m forty-eight. How many years is that? Almost thirty-five? Thirty-five years, one hundred times per year. Multiply: three thousand five hundred.’”

Something tells me Gould didn’t even flinch. —Sean Daly