2021 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I found myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 20 books, and for my efforts once again earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. Compared to past years my performance in 2021 was pretty lackluster with just 10 books read and reviewed for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Switzerland. This year for this first time I’ll be including something by a Norwegian author. 

  1. Becket or the Honor of God by Jean Anouilh (United Kingdom)
  2. Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland (Norway)
  3. Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes (Switzerland)
  4. Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer- The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames by Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer (Russia)
  5. The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (Spain)
  6. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini (Italy)
  7. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (Germany) 
  8. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Ukraine)
  9. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury (France)
  10. Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska (Poland)

Much like last year it was a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction with five books apiece. Four are translations from other languages, including Polish. Red Famine easily made my Favorite Nonfiction list for 2021 while Swiss Watching was a runner-up. Both The Invisible Guardian and Empire of Lies made my year’s Favorite Fiction list with Not All Bastards Are from Vienna along with There There as my favorite novels of the year.  

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Old Books Reading Project: Becket by Jean Anouilh

Years ago, each fall around the time of my birthday I used to spend a Saturday morning shopping at the Friends of Multnomah County Library’s annual used book sale. Almost always I walked out of there with more books than I knew what to do with but I didn’t care. I was happy.

One of those books I bought so long ago was a paperback edition of Jean Anouilh’s play Becket or The Honor of God. Published in 1960 it’s a dramatic portrayal of the friendship between Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England, Becket’s appointment by Henry to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury and the two mens’ tragic falling out leading to Becket’s eventual assassination in 1170. More than just some costume drama like so many great pieces of literature it explores a multitude of themes.  It vividly depicts how some friendships, even the most passionate ones can have tragic arcs and end horribly. It also shows the age-old tension between church and state, as well as the battles that frequently arise between the recently converted or recommitted and their less pious former confidantes.

At first I thought it was odd a Frenchman would write a play set in Medieval England. In the introduction, Anouilh recalls purchasing a copy of 19th century French historian Augustin Thierry’s History Of The Conquest Of England By The Normans at a book stall along the Seine. (One of “curious little stalls set up on the parapet where old gentlemen of another age sell old books to other old gentlemen and to the very young.”) Fascinated by Thierry’s account of fractured friendship between Becket and Henry and with encouragement by his wife, he brought forth a play mined from the depths of history. Rooted in the real events and larger than life personalities of 12th century Europe the play is not without its historical inaccuracies, of which the playwright freely admits in the play’s introduction.

Perhaps it’s only appropriate Anouilh would write a play set chiefly in England. Though geographically separated by the English Channel, in the time of Becket there was no clear-cut delineation between England and France. Thanks to their conquest of England a hundred years earlier, it was the Norman French, not the native Saxons who ruled the land, with Henry of the House of Plantagenet as sovereign. This blending of realms would lead to the Hundred Years War with English armies fighting countless battles on French soil. It would also result in Saxon resentment towards their French overlords, exemplified by Anouilh’s Saxon Becket (historically inaccurate since he was descended from Norman stock) sympathizing with the Saxon downtrodden while sparring with the ruling aristocracy, including his formerly beloved Henry.

In the end, this is also a play about the abuse of power. Throughout the centuries, right up to the present despots and those who style themselves as such have enlisted, or at the very least inspired agents to commit heinous acts on their behalf. Time and time again the Nixons, Putins and Trumps of the world have enlisted those around them to do their sordid bidding, always denying any direct responsibility for their actions. To paraphrase 19th century orator, lawyer and “Great Agnostic” Robert G. Ingersoll, nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. The play Becket, also entitled The Honor of God easily could have been called The Recklessness of Kings. As monarch Henry wielded considerable power, but at the same time sorely lacked in character.

Library Loot

It should have been a quick trip to the library just to return one book. It ended with me grabbing four more. Even though my nose has been buried in Tony Judt’s 950 page tour de force Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and there’s a special TBR pile on my desk set aside and ready to go I could not resist borrowing a few more library books. As we all know when it comes to libraries I have no self control. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot pic and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s blog.  

With the Omicron variant starting to hammer us and winter weather arriving in full force, fortunately I have no shortage of quality reading material. Can’t wait to get back to my reading. 

2022 Reading Challenges

This year, just like in past years I’ll be taking part in a number of reading challenges. For as long as I’ve been book blogging I’ve enjoyed participating in various reading challenges since it’s a great way to connect with other bloggers as well as discover great books.

Here is a brief run-down on my reading challenges for 2022.

Mt. TBR Reading Challenge. Bev from My Reader’s Block is hosting this challenge to encourage us to read those books you own yet haven’t read. Last year I signed up for the “Mount Vancouver” level of 36 books – and for the five year in a row failed miserably! This year I’m going try again and maybe with a lot of hard work and perseverance I’ll finally climb that elusive Mt. Vancouver!

The Virtual Mount TBR Reading Challenge. Also hosted by Bev, the goal of this challenge is to read all those books that have been on your list but as library books. I’m opting for the “Mount Crumpit” level of 24 books.

Clean Out Your E-Reader Challenge (COYER). I did this challenge for the fist time last year and enjoyed it. Before last year,  the purpose was to read the free or low-cost e-books squirreled away on your e-reader of choice. This time around that’s still the case, but the hosts Berls and Michelle at Because Reading is Better than Real Life have modified things a bit. As the seasons progress participants are granted more flexibility, thus allowing physical books, as well as more expensive e-books to count.

Books in Translation Reading Challenge. Years ago, when I first started blogging I took part in a books in translation reading challenge and loved it. Once again, Jennifer at Introverted Reader is hosting this challenge and I’m excited to join. Feeling ambitious, I’ve set my sights on the “Linguist” level and hope to read at least 10 translated books.

European Reading Challenge. When I first read about this challenge, I thought it applied solely to fiction. However, I soon learned it included everything from memoirs to travel and even cooking.  That’s why I signed up for the European Reading Challenge, hosted by Gillion on her blog Rose City Reader. Just like in past years I’ll be going for the “deluxe entourage” level, meaning I’ll read at least five qualifying books. By the way, the other reason that I’m taking part in this challenge is Gillion the hosts lives in my former hometown of Portland, Oregon!

TBR 22 in ’22 Challenge.  Also hosted by Rose City Reader, the challenge encourages us to read 22 books before the end of the year that have been on your shelf prior to January 1, 2022. Shelf includes your ebook reader and audiobooks you own, but it doesn’t include library books.” Even though my blog focuses on library books, I have a pretty big personal library and I’m looking for any excuse to get me reading more of my own books.

What’s in a Name Reading Challenge. Even though it’s in its 15th year, nevertheless I discovered it only last year. Hosted by Andrea at Carolina Book Nook, the goal is to read six books that have titles that contain the following:

Compound word (ex. Fangirl or Penpal)
Speed (ex. Talking as Fast as I Can or A Swiftly Tilting Planet)
Person & their description (ex. The Silent Patient or The Lost Man)
Mythical being (ex. Interview with the Vampire or The Lady and the Unicorn)
Season (ex. Winter Garden or A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Color: (ex. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine or Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning)

Library Love Challenge. As you probably all know, a huge percentage of the books featured on my blog are borrowed from the public library or downloaded from Overdrive. Therefore, I’ve always been a fan of library challenges. Hosted by Angel’s Guilty Pleasures the mission is to read as many library books as possible. Once again I’m hoping to read a minimum of 48 books which would put me at the “library addict” level.

Backlist Reader Challenge. I love a challenge that rewards me for reading older books. Heck, I’ve been doing that for years! For the Backlist Reader Challenge hosted by the Bookwyrn’s Hoard readers must read books published before 2022 and be on one’s to be read list (TBR).

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. Formerly hosted by Passages to the Past, and now The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader is a great reading challenge for me because I don’t read a lot of fiction, but when I do it’s usually historical fiction. One again I’m aiming for the “Renaissance Reader” level of 10 books.

Nonfiction Reader Challenge. Since I’m a huge nonfiction fan I’d be a fool not to participate in this one hosted by Book’d Out. I’ve selected the “Nonfiction Nibbler” level and will be reading six books from any of the 12 nonfiction categories.

Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge. Over the last several years along with reading more historical fiction I’ve found myself reading more international crime, spy thrillers and the like. Carol’s Notebook is hosting a reading challenge devoted solely to mystery/suspense/thriller/crime genres. Put me down for the “Amateur Sleuth” level of 5 to 15 books.

TBR Pile Challenge List. After taking a few years off from this challenge I’m back to give it another try. Hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader, the purpose it to make it through a stack of 12 TBR books over the course of the year. All 12 (plus two alternates) must have been on your bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for at least one full year.

Per Adam’s instructions I’ve selected 12 books plus two alternates:

  • Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett (2006)
  • Growing Up Jewish: An Anthology ed. by Jay David (1969)
  • The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870–1914 by Moses Rischin (1977)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2008)
  • Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2013)
  • The Knowledge Web: From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back — And Other Journeys Through Knowledge by James Burke (1999)
  • The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David S. Landes (1999)
  • The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (2009)
  • The Coming of the French Revolution by Georges Lefebvre (1967)
  • Becket by Jean Anouilh (1960)
  • The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Centuryby Willam Rosen (2014)
  • Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945 by Rana Mitter (2013) – Kindle
  • Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder (2015) – Kindle, not shown

Old Books Reading Project. This is my own private challenge and solely a creation of my own. I have a huge personal library and many of these books are over 30, 40 and 50 years old. Year after year they just sit there just waiting to be read. And what do I do about it-nothing. I keep going to the public library to get new ones or worse, buy more. This must change. Therefore, I’m hoping this challenge that I created last year will somehow force me keep reading some of the books I already own. It’s also an effective way for me to spotlight a few old and forgotten books that have still have considerable merit, despite not being a New York Times notable book or talked about on NPR.

2021 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2021 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Since I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year my list will be kinda short.

  1. The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas
  2. There There by Tommy Orange
  3. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini
  4. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury
  5. Prague Spring by Simon Mawer
  6. The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo

As short as the list is, I’d also like to add a pair of honorable mentions. Once again, Peiter Aspe did not disappoint me. Earlier this year I also read my first James Patterson novel and much to my surprise I was pleasantly entertained. To consider his 2012 thriller/mystery Guilty Wives unworthy of honorable mention doesn’t seem right.

  1. From Bruges with Love by Pieter Aspe
  2. Guilty Wives by James Patterson and Davis Ellis

As for this year’s winner in fiction, for the first time ever it’s a tie. There There and Not All Bastards Are from Vienna will share the honor. Both are outstanding.

Typical of my reading tastes, seven of these eight novels are set outside the USA, with three translated from other languages. Also typical of my tastes four are historical fiction. An equal number are thriller/mysteries.

2021 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

As 2021 finally draws to a close it’s time to announce my favorite nonfiction books of the year. This year, just like in years past I read some outstanding nonfiction. Year after year it’s hard to limit my list to only 10 books so a number of times I cheated and listed a dozen titles. Last year I stood firm and limited my list to 10 and this year I’ll do the same. In no particular order of preference here’s collection of books I have no problems recommending.

  1. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin
  2. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
  3. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
  4. To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw
  5. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
  6. Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum
  7. Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson
  8. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser
  9. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
  10. I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet 

 I’d also like to add four honorable mentions to this esteemed line-up. 

  1. God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America by Hanna Rosin
  2. Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance by Mustafa Akyol
  3. Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes
  4. A Mirror Garden by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

You probably noticed Anne Applebaum’s name appears twice on the list. This marks the first time I’ve selected two books by the same author. In another first, I also included three books by foreign correspondents recalling their respective assignments throughout the Muslim world (Black Flags, The Forever War and I Was Told to Come Alone). As for my favorite book out of the 10, it was hard to choose but I’ll have to go with Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949

Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler by Svenja O’Donnell

My quest to learn more about 20th century European history inspired me to borrow a library copy of Svenja O’Donnell’s 2020 family memoir Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler. Published in 2020, it tells the story of her mother, grandparents’ and great grandparents’ and the lives they lived in the German city of Königsberg (now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad) and harrowing escape just ahead of the invading Red Army during the final months of World War II leading to their eventual resettlement after the war in West Germany.

Born in Paris to a German mother and an Irish father, the British-educated O’Donnell has served as Bloomberg‘s UK political correspondent covering Brexit and other European developments. In her capacity as a journalist she visited Russian Kaliningrad, where she concluded the fall of Communism “brought heavy job losses” and the city “became a hub of drugs and human trafficking, with a rampant heroin problem and the highest rate of HIV in Europe.” Mindful of her family’s connection to the city from pre-Soviet times, during her assignment in Kaliningrad she phoned her elderly grandmother to let her know she was visiting the former Königsberg. Upon hearing the news her grandmother responded somberly there were deep family secrets she needed to be told. Then, over the next 10 years until her death Inge revealed to her granddaughter the details of a life lived long ago, and a world destroyed years ago by the ravages of war.

Born in Königsberg, as a 16 year old Inge was able to convince her protective Lutheran parents to enroll her in a girls academy in Berlin. Wishing to insulate her from the temptations of a big city, they were more than happy when she eventually moved out the school’s designated boarding house and in with a classmate’s family, knowing they’d keep a close eye on her. But before long the two girls were frequenting Berlin’s underground swing dancing clubs and enjoying all the exciting nightlife Berlin of the early War years was able to offer. But temptations arose closer to home as she fell head over heels in love with her friend’s older brother leading to her pregnancy. Sadly, her boyfriend’s father disapproved of her and to thwart any possibility of marriage used his connections to fast track his conscription into the Wehrmacht. Broken hearted, young and pregnant, in order to give her pregnancy and motherhood a thin veneer of legitimacy Inge had to settle for a wedding ceremony featuring an empty chair as proxy for the absent groom. Making maters worse, the father of her child was taken captive in the Battle of Stalingrad and languished for serval years in a Soviet POW camp.

Later, in the dead of winter, now as a young mother with an infant daughter in tow Inge and her relatives were forced to flee Königsberg as the Red Army juggernaut slammed into East Prussia, laying waste and exacting revenge. Evacuated by ship, her vessel narrowly escaped being torpedoed by Soviet submarines and thus avoided the same fate as the MV Wilhelm GustloffSafely in western Germany they sought refuge in occupied Denmark but left after the end of hostilities, in no small part due to the inhospitality of the local Danes, resentful of their prior treatment at the hands of the Germans. Back in a Germany shattered by years of war and occupied by the victors Inge attempted to build a new life for herself and her infant daughter.

Inge’s War is well written and satisfied my need for a good book on 20th century European history. Through the eyes of O’Donnell’s grandmother I was able to see a central European world long forgotten but with faint echoes that can still be heard today.

About Time I Read It: Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

One fall Friday evening in 2013 while drinking with friends at the pub someone recommended Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Sadly, like many great book recommendations I’ve received over the years it took me forever to act on my friend’s advice. I even borrowed a copy from the public library not once but twice  only to later return it unread. Last week, just like I did with Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad I decided to give Command and Control another chance. I secured a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work reading Schlosser’s 2013 book. And just like I Was Told to Come Alone I kicked myself for not reading it sooner.

Schlosser made a name for himself with his best seller Fast Food Nation but could he tackle the high stakes and technical world of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons and the global arms race they spawned? Any doubts I might have had were quickly put to rest mere pages into this book. Command and Control isn’t just a history of that arms race. It’s also a detailed and fascinating history of the costly and sometimes deadly accidents that’s plagued the weapons’ history. Anchoring this history is Schlosser’s recalling of a routine maintenance operation gone horribly awry leading to the explosion of a Titan II ICBM outside Damascus, Arkansas in 1980.

I came away from this book shocked by the sheer number of serious accidents involving nuclear weapons that have occurred over the decades. More shocking than that, it feels miraculous none of them resulted in any warheads accidentally detonating. (Although in 1961, when a B-52 broke apart over rural North Carolina and accidentally released two thermonuclear bombs one of them narrowly escaped detention. Had it gone off, it would have spread a plume of radioactive fall-out as far north as Washington DC, and just in time for Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony.) Nor did any American military commander or his NATO counterpart go rogue and facilitate the unauthorized use of one of these weapons, even during the dark hours of the Cuban Missile Crises. Luckily still, the many false alarms experienced by our nation’s early warning systems did not mistakenly set off a nuclear holocaust.

Schlosser fears we might not be so lucky in the future. Since the 1970s more countries have developed their own nuclear weapons, or in the case of Iran are actively working toward one. Pakistan and India, neighbors with deep-seated rivalries, especially over contested territory, have come close to nuking each other several times over the last twenty plus years. It’s also assumed Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been dispersed to undisclosed locations throughout the country in hopes of protecting it from an Indian first strike. However, this potentially creates more opportunities for Islamic terrorists or rogue elements within the military to commandeer a warhead. Overall, while some developing countries like India and Pakistan have been able to incorporate Western technology into their respective nuclear weapons programs Schlosser wonders if they have also successfully imported our culture of safety and associated protocols. With India, Pakistan and Iran all possessing significantly higher industrial accident rates than the United States perhaps we should be concerned.

I found Command and Control even better than I’d expected and easily makes my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet

As you’ve probably guessed, while I’m always borrowing books from the library I don’t manage to read them all. Some books I end up returning without even cracking them open, and more than a few I’ve started only to return to the library unfinished. But even if I don’t finish a book, if it shows promise I’ll borrow it again later and try harder to finish it. Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad is one of those books. I started it back in August only to return it unfinished to the library three weeks later. Recently, I wanted to give Mekhennet’s 2017 book another chance so I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work. I’m glad I gave it another chance because I Was Told to Come Alone is a well-written, first hand account of life growing up in Germany as the daughter of Muslim immigrants and her rise to prominence as a world-class foreign correspondent.

Besides a talent for writing well, bravery and a dogged ability to uncover the truth, one could argue for a foreign correspondent to be successful such an individual should also be even handed, multilingual, and possess a keen understanding of other cultures. With that in mind this is the career Mekhennet was destined to pursue. Her father a Sunni Moroccan and her mother an ethnic Arab Shia from Turkey, Mekhennet’s parents met as guest workers in Germany. Underclass and a cultural outsider who experienced more than her share of prejudice, the young Mekhennet nevertheless applied herself. Intellectually curious, ambitious, and a desire to write, she began interviewing German political figures while still in high school. Later, as a college student she worked as an entry level journalist. Raised Muslim and fluent in Arabic, she quickly proved to be an invulnerable asset to her more seasoned colleagues as they interviewed Muslim immigrants and perused leads throughout Europe in the wake of 9/11.

In a career that’s spanned the better part of two decades Mekhennet’s travels have taken her across three continents, conducting interviews and investigating stories across Europe, North Africa, Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. During her tenure she’s reported on Al-Qaeda, the rise of ISIS, (including helping uncover the true identity of the infamous terrorist Jihadi John) Arab Spring, Syrian Civil War, 2015 Paris Terrorist Attacks and European Migrant Crises of the same year.

I Was Told to Come Alone is well written and considering English is her third or fourth language makes this even more impressive. What’s also impressive is her sense of fairness. As a Muslim from Germany, she’s experienced discrimination and as a result is sympathetic to the plights of her co-religionists living as immigrants or the children of immigrants in Europe. On the other hand, she takes to task Islamic extremists for their misogyny and refusal to respect the basic rights of others.

Admirable as well is her honesty and insightfulness when assessing the 2015 European Migrant Crises. Unlike some European leaders and aid officials she wisely pointed out while many of those seeking refuge were fleeing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, many were also economic migrants from across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. In addition, a sizable portion of them were not highly educated professionals but laborers conversant only in their respective native languages. Based on her observations she also revealed a few hailed from ISIS’s Islamic State. While not terrorists bent on wrecking havoc, nevertheless their sympathies for the Islamic State were apparent.

I Was Told to Come Alone is easily one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It deserves to stand beside other outstanding books by respected journalists about political developments in the Islamic world like Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War. Just like Black Flags and The Forever War there’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland

Just before the entire world went on lockdown I was wandering through the stacks at the public library one afternoon when I happened to see a copy of Erika Fatland’s Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Intrigued by what I saw I still declined to  borrow it, but figured someday down the road I eventually would. Recently, I found myself in the mood to read about the “Stans” of Central Asia and borrowed a copy of Fatland’s book through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I enjoyed the author’s account of her journeys across the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and now can’t wait to read her recently published English edition of The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, … Finland, Norway, and the Northwest Passage.

Before reading Sovietistan I didn’t know a lot about this part of the world. I did however know all the countries are landlocked. (Although two of them border the equally landlocked Caspian Sea.) I’d also read one of the countries, Turkmenistan, for years was ruled by a dictator so megalomaniacal he renamed several months of the calendar in his honor. Lastly, thanks to the magic of Hollywood I knew Kazakhstan was home to the fictional character Borat.

Combining travelogue with generous portions of history and contemporary politics Fatland serves up a detailed yet personal look at all five Stans of Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Like so many former European colonies in Africa and Asia, these landlocked countries of Central Asia, while steeped in history are in essence modern creations, with legacies dating back to the early years of the USSR. After the Soviet Union collapsed all five declared independence. In the decades since then they’ve attempted, in varying ways and with varying success, to guide their young nations between East and West always mindful of their former master to the North and its undeniable influence.

The countries visited in Sovietistan feel ancient and exotic while at the same time modern and Western. Just as the lucrative trade of the Silk Road brought wealth to the ancient kingdoms and imperial provinces of this region centuries ago, today oil and gas exports generate billions in petrodollars, financing lavish presidential palaces and, depending on the country funding national infrastructure. Sadly however, like many oil exporting countries in the developing world most of this generated wealth ends up lining pockets of the elites only to be squirrelled away overseas in foreign bank accounts or spent profligately on luxury items. Like the potentates of old, their current day presidents have ruled their respective Central Asian countries with iron fists. (The exception being Kyrgyzstan, which even though it’s the most corrupt of all the Stans, its president actually stepped aside in response to public pressure.) Inheriting not just the borders of the old USSR but also its Stalinist mode of governance, some leaders have imposed their own cults of personality, with their imposing likenesses gracing statues and portraits ubiquitously throughout their respective countries.

While blessed with oil deposits and physical beauty, ecologically some of the Stans are horribly scarred. Years of Soviet above-ground nuclear weapons testing have ravaged parts of Kazakhstan and produced generations of health problems for its residents. Years diverting water to grow cotton has catastrophically drained the Aral Sea, leaving it a shadow of its former self.

This is a great look inside a part of the world that in my opinion doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Please consider Sovietistan recommended reading.