Category Archives: Eastern Europe/Balkans

2017 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year was a bit of a down year for me since I read and reviewed only 13 books. At year’s end I vowed to do better and this year I’m happy to report I read and reviewed 18 books. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like LatviaBosnia and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Looking back on the challenge, I read some quality books since three of those novels made my year-end best fiction list. One of those three novels, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (United Kingdom) ended up being my favorite piece of fiction from 2017. As for nonfiction, Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (France) and Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance (Sweden) both made my year-end best nonfiction list.

Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and I encourage all you book bloggers out there in the blogosphere to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.



Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe

In Europe’s Shadow by Robert D. Kaplan

Years ago during one of my visits to the public library a came across a copy of Robert D. Kaplan’s 2000 book The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. Contained in this collection of essays on democracy, international relations and assorted global hotspots was a considerably pessimistic article originally written for The Atlantic magazine. In his lengthy piece, “The Coming Anarchy” Kaplan predicted a bleak future for the developing world. Already cursed with fragile governments and limited resources, these countries face a bleak future of overpopulation, resource depletion and explosive urbanization. Unable to cope with such challenges many of them will descend into anarchy while armed conflicts, flights of refugees and human misery become all more common. According to Kaplan the future looked grim. And it left me wanting to read more of his stuff.

Fast forward to 2011 when I read his 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power finding it even more insightful and fascinating. According to Kaplan, the Indian Ocean region will continue to grow in importance as India and China rise, leading to an increase in global trade but also the potential for greater international rivalries and possibly even armed conflicts. I happily devoured Monsoon and had no difficulty including it in my year-end Best Nonfiction list.

So I guess it should be no one’s surprise once I learned Kaplan’s newest book was about the Eastern European county of Romania I immediately went about securing a copy from my public library. Even though  I took a six month break before starting it back up I found it excellent. As high as my expectations might have been, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond did not disappoint me.

Much like Ian Frazier’s 2010 book Travels in Siberia In Europe’s Shadow is the end result of Kaplan’s many visits to Romania, going all the way back to the 70s when he was a young aspiring foreign correspondent. Until the early 90s, the Romania Kaplan visited was an impoverished Communist backwater ruled with an iron hand by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. While other Warsaw Pact countries were ruled by drab Leonid Brezhnev kind of leaders Ceaușescu’s autocratic regime was a twisted mix of Stalinism, hard-core Romanian nationalism and North Korean-style cult of personality. After Ceaușescu was overthrown in a bloody uprising the country former Communist apparatchik Ion Iliescu became president. In retrospect Iliescu’s somewhat authoritarian rule served as a transition period between the dark days of Ceaușescu and the freer Western-style rule the country’s citizens enjoy today. A member of both the EU and NATO since 2007, Kaplan’s most recent trips to Romania show a country that despite the curses of the past eagerly desires to move closer towards the West, politically, culturally and economically.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from In Europe’s Shadow is the understanding that depending how you look at it, Romania is blessed and cursed by geography. Throughout its history Romania has had to deal with Russians, Ottomans and Central Europeans (be they Germans, Hapsburgs or Hungarians) trying to impose their will. Traditionally, especially in modern times the solution has been for Romania’s leaders to play one powerful neighbor against the other resulting in varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, as these powerful empires have washed over Romania throughout centuries they’ve left indelible marks. While Romanian is a Romance language written in Latin script one can find influences from Hungarian, Turkish and assorted Slavic languages. Thanks to Byzantine and Russian influences the county’s majority religion is Romanian Orthodox. Depending on the region, years of Hungarian and Turkish rule have flavored everything from cuisine to native dress.

Just as I proclaimed Monsoon should be required reading for the politically engaged and globally minded I’ll do the same for In Europe’s Shadow. As Putin’s Russia continues to flex its muscle especially in Ukraine and the Middle East and Turkey asserts itself Romania navigates between East, West and South. That being the case, In Europe’s Shadow should be required reading.


Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks

Latvia is a small country. Nevertheless, over the last few years I’ve still managed to read a couple of books set in this tiny Baltic nation. For instance, last year I read Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga and back in 2013 it was Agate Nesaule’s ward-winnng memoir A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile

Last September I came across a review in the New York Times of a recently published memoir by Latvian-American Pulitzer Prize-finalist and nonfiction writing professor Inara Verzemnieks. Intrigued by David Bezmozgis’ review, I placed a hold on Verzemnieks’ memoir with my public library and before I knew it, a copy became available. I’m happy to report I breezed through Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe in no time. Which of course based on my experience usually means I’d chosen a good book to read.

Like many children unlucky to be born to a pair of broken parents Verzemnieks was raised by her grandparents, both active members of a tight-knit community of Latvian émigrés in Tacoma, Washington. While growing up Verzemnieks took part in numerous activities like special summer camps, Latvian-langauge church services and folk dancing all meant to keep alive the culture and spirit of her relatives’ former homeland. Years later, she traveled to Latvia to interview those blood relations who stayed behind. Among the Living and the Dead is a beautifully written and fast-paced account of their lives, especially the hardships they endured living under not one, but two brutal regimes as well as suffering the ravages of war.

History has not been kind to Latvia. With the exception of the interwar period of 1918 to 1940 when the country briefly existed as an independent nation it’s been dominated by larger and mightier European powers. Only relatively recently with the collapse of the USSR has Latvia been able reclaim its independence. While the country as a whole was ruled by Russia (be it imperial or Soviet) individual Latvians, especially those in rural areas lived as serfs, laboring for their Germanic overlords. World War II brought immense suffering to the Latvians. Starting in 1940 the Soviet Union invaded and annexed Latvia, imposing Communist rule and with it forced collectivization, murder and deportation. (Verzemnieks’ great aunt Ausma was sent to Siberia.) The following summer the country would be invaded once more, this time by the Germans. After spending three years living under German occupation Latvia was invaded and annexed a third and final time by the Soviets.

In addition to invasion and annexation, depopulation is another recurring theme. Under the Soviets thousand of Latvians were either exiled to Siberia or sentenced to years of hard labor in the Gulag. Even after breaking free from the former Soviet Union, according to Verzemnieks thousands of Latvians have left and continue to leave in search of greener pastures in Western Europe and America.

The strength of this memoir is its writing. As I mentioned earlier Verzemnieks writes beautifully. Therefore, I have no hesitation recommending Among the Living and the Dead to anyone, especially readers interested in one the more overlooked countries of Europe.



Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Memoir

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

I’ve been participating in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge for several years and based on my experience it’s easy finding books set in places like the United Kingdom, France and Germany. I’ve even managed to find books set in smaller countries like Bosnia, Austria and even tiny Vatican City. But when it comes to Bulgaria it’s been tough. Only once have featured a book set in that particular Eastern European nation. I’d almost given up when I learned author Elizabeth Kostova had recently written a novel set in Bulgaria. In spite of hearing this good news, I still didn’t run out and grab a copy of her latest novel The Shadow Land because I still remember a friend of mine calling Kostova’s earlier novel The Historian the worst novel she’d ever read. (Daunting too is the The Shadow Land’s length weighing in just a shade under 500 pages.) But knowing that novels set in Bulgaria are few and far between I took a chance, easily securing a copy from my public library. Much to my relief, The Shadow Land is not an awful novel. To my surprise, I rather enjoyed it.

The story begins with the novel’s 20-something American protagonist Alexandra Boyd arriving in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia to begin her new job teaching English at a local school. Immediately upon her arrival, due to a mix-up while entering a taxi she gets stuck holding an urn of human ashes meant for interment at a Bulgarian monastery. With the helpful assistance of a local cab driver she’s nicknamed Bobby Alexandra embarks on a search to reunite the cherished remains with its rightful owners. But much to her surprise, she quickly learns there are powerful people actively trying to stop her. But why?

On one hand, while I’m tempted criticize the author for her novel’s length, on the other hand I must praise her because The Shadow Land possesses so many of the elements one would expect from a quality novel. Readers of The Shadow Land will encounter exotic locations, heart-breaking loss, action, mystery, shifts in timeline as well as narration and even a bit of romance. And plenty of plot twists.

Who knows, after lucking out with The Shadow Land I might even give her other books including The Historian a chance. Don’t be surprised if I do.



Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History

The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwarth

The good news is I had a blast taking part in this year’s inaugural Thanksgiving Readathon. I’m sure all the participants enjoyed the week’s flurry of blog posts and Twitter updates. The bad news is unlike everyone else who took part in the Readathon I finished only one book. But alas, all is not lost because the one book I did manage to finish, Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End I thoroughly enjoyed. As a matter of fact, I can easily see The Vanquished making my year-end Best Nonfiction List.

Europe emerged from the ravages of World War I a shattered continent. Hunger and influenza stalked the land. Millions of men, most of them in the prime of life were either dead, maimed or emotionally damaged. But perhaps worst of all, the mightiest empires of modern Europe, specifically Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire had fallen, each one collapsing like a house of cards. From the ruins of these once proud empires arose a host of new nations, each one eager to assert its dominance. Frequently, those quests for nationhood resulted in yet more rounds of armed conflict.

It’s cruelly ironic the above-mentioned nations all marched to war in 1914 expecting to enlarge their respective empires only to stripped of their territory five years later. (Even Italy, which wound up on the side of the eventual victors suffered huge losses in men and material only to receive relatively minor land gains.) Out of the ashes of empires arose Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Finland broke completely free from Russia as did the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

Cruel irony would rear its head once again, since Poland and Yugoslavia, spin-offs from large multi-ethnic empires would be left with significant minority populations of their own. The resurrected nation of Poland would be roughly two-thirds Polish with sizable numbers of Germans, Ukrainians and Lithuanians. Meanwhile, newly created Yugoslavia would begin life as a Serb-dominated kingdom of Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, Kosovo Albanians and Montenegrins as well as home to fairly large communities of ethnic Germans and Hungarians. In effect both countries become mini empires of their own. Even smaller nations like Czechoslovakia would face challenges with its Sudetenland Germans as would Romania after absorbing the former Hungarian province of Transylvania. Ethnic solidarity frequently clashed with national will as all sides saw their actions justified according to newly proclaimed rubric of National Self-Determination, as proclaimed in American President and statesman Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points.

World War I was a knock-out blow not only to Europe’s land-based empires but also its traditional political structures. Russia’s absolute monarchy and the shaky provisional government that followed was replaced by Communist dictatorship, inspiring the establishment of short-lived Red regimes in Hungary and Bavaria, insurrection in Germany and bloody civil war in Finland. (And even a bloodier and more extensive civil war in Russia.) The leaders of Italy’s constitutional monarchy, unable to placate the masses in the wake of the county’s “mutilated victory” opened the door to Fascism. Elsewhere in Europe, military coups toppled both monarchs and elected leaders, especially in newly established countries. Lastly, in Germany far-right hooligans, (many of them anti-Semites) and bitter war veterans angry the war was lost not by the military but the nation’s Weimar leaders rioted and seethed. Over the next dozen years this nationwide rage coalesced into the Nazi Party, with disastrous results not only for Germany but the entire world.

The Vanquished an outstanding book, wonderfully complimenting other excellent history books like The Sleepwalkers, October, Paris 1919 and Savage Continent. Please consider The Vanquished highly recommended.



Filed under Arab World, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville

When my book club chose China Miéville’s October: The Story of a Revolution as our November selection I was a bit surprised. You see, our club only reads nonfiction. Miéville’s body of work encompasses science fiction, fantasy and graphic novels.(His writing has been labeled by some as “New Weird”) He’s definitely a writer of fiction. But when I went to buy a copy of October I was surprised to learn it’s not a work of fiction but nonfiction. Yes, the multiple award-winning author of Perdido Street Station and Scar has truly branched out.

Published in May of this year, October is a month by month account of the tumultuous events of 1917, beginning in February when an unlikely alliance of workers, soldiers and women (many of them war widows) drove out the Romanovs and ending in November when the shaky Provisional Government was overthrown by Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks.

I thought I knew more than the average person when it came to the Russian Revolution but after reading October I learned the surprising degree of my ignorance. Heck, the stuff about Lenin alone could make for an interesting book in the hands of a gifted writer like Miéville. Perhaps most important of all, as several member of my book club pointed out how quickly these events unfolded and considering the contingent nature of those developments how easy it could had been for someone other than the triumphant Bolsheviks to have seized lasting control of Russia. General Kornilov and his conservatives, the Mensheviks or the teetering Provisional Government with only a lucky break or two could have wound up masters of Russia. All while the German Imperial Army stood a stone’s throw from Petrograd poised to deliver the final knock-out blow.

As I mentioned earlier, of all the historical figures portrayed in October, I found Lenin the most fascinating. (Provisional Government leader Alexander Kerensky could be a close second.) Fortunately for me, on this 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution two books about Lenin recently hit the bookstores, both by talented authors. Some of you might remember a few years back when I reviewed Catherine Merridale’s 2006 book  Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945. Her new book is Lenin on the TrainLast March I reviewed Tariq Ali’s novel A Sultan in Palermo. His latest book The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution was also released this spring. After reading October I can’t wait to get a crack at these two new books.



Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

Some of you might remember one of my Five Bookish Links posts in which I posted a link to a piece that appeared in Small Wars Journal. In the article, James King asked members of INTELST forum, a group of almost 4000 current and former Military Intelligence professionals what they thought are the best books for intelligence analysts. What I neglected to mention in my post is according to King “while the list is composed of mostly non-fiction there are a few fiction books.  One of these fiction books, Ghost Fleet, was nominated more than any other book on the list.”

If there’s a consensus among 4000 military intelligence experts the novel Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War should be required reading then this is a novel I need to read. Luckily for me, I was able to borrow a downloadable copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Inspired by King’s recommendation I quickly went to work on the Ghost Fleet and because it’s such a page-turner I blew through it in only a few days.

Ghost Fleet takes place approximately 10 years in the future. China is ruled by the Directorate, a junta of military strong men and civilian business leaders. Believing the United States stands in the way of China’s continued ascendency as a world power, and confident in their nation’s technological and military prowess the Directorate authorizes a sneak attack on American forces in East Asia and the Pacific. Just as the Germans enlisted the declining power of Austria-Hungary as their junior partner in World War I, the Directorate adds Russia as its junior partner attacking US bases in Japan, Guam and Hawaii. Before long America’s Pacific-based Aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines have been destroyed, its spy and GPS satellites have been shot to pieces and Hawaii is under Chinese occupation.

Alas, this is not your grandfather’s World War III novel. When the call goes out for assistance at America’s hour of need it’s answered by a diverse cast of heroes. A former Sudanese “Lost Boy” now Silicon Valley mogul recruits the best and brightest minds in the business to take down China’s IT infrastructure. A flamboyant Aussie biotech billionaire (a kind of ethnic Indian version of Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban rolled into one) who, styling himself a modern-day privateer, seeks America’s blessing for his efforts to pillage Chinese military assets. A  university-based Chinese-American female scientist whose expertise in designing massive batteries is a potential military game changer. As Hawaii  suffers under Chinese occupation a gang of American servicemen and servicewomen calling themselves the North Shore Mujahideen engage in high-tech assisted hit and run attacks on the Islands’ occupiers. Lastly, a female serial killer, as beautiful as she is emotionally damaged, has been haunting the bars and beaches of Honolulu brutally murdering Chinese occupiers one by one.

To dismiss Ghost Fleet by saying it’s not high-class literature misses the point. Not only is it an exciting page-turner but those in the know have praised the book to high heaven. When an American Admiral proclaims the book is “a startling blueprint for the wars of the future and therefore needs to be read now!” if for that reason alone I’ll recommend Ghost Fleet.


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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, China, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, Japan, Science