Category Archives: Eastern Europe/Balkans

Trieste by Dasa Drndic

Every once and awhile I grab a book that wasn’t exactly what I expected. Mind you, whenever this happens it hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. More than once it’s turned out pleasantly surprising. Other times, I’ve been disappointed. Then there’s the times I’ve been left scratching my head, unable to decide if I my disappointment was justified or had I really been treated to an excellent book that just didn’t work for me.  Croatian novelist Dasa Drndic’s Trieste is one of those books.

After spying an available library copy of Trieste I was drawn to Drndic’s 2014 novel for a number of reasons. One, it’s set in Italy and therefore eligible for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Two, much of it takes place during World War II. Three, I’ve always had a fascination with the “border cities” of old Europe: cities located on the border of two countries that over history find themselves tossed back and forth between empires. Cursed by geography, places like Gdansk (Danzig), Lviv (Lemberg) and Trieste have always had special place for me.

As novels go, Trieste is a bit of an odd duck. If there’s a chief storyline, it’s that of Haya Tedeschi, an Italian Jew who, during the Second World War had an unlikely love affair with a German SS officer that resulted in the birth of her son. Tragically, mere months after his birth the infant was stolen by German agents as part of the Lebensborn project: an SS-coordinated plan to fill Hitler’s Reich with Aryan infants by any means necessary, including kidnapping children from across occupied Europe. 60 plus years later the elderly Haya has pulled off the near impossible task of locating her long-lost son and nervously awaits a reunion with him in the northeastern Italian town of Gorizia.

I called the book an odd duck because in addition to lots of Hays’s familiar history, the rest of the books seems to alternate between fiction and history, in addition to taking a number of odd and lengthy detours.  Therefore, while there were parts of Trieste I enjoyed, there were parts I didn’t. If you ask me if I liked this book or not, I’m not sure I can offer up a convincing answer.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen

1946: The Making of the Modern WorldI’m a huge sucker for books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. Last year I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. Over the last year or so, I kept seeing a book at my public library called 1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen. However, despite my love for these single year books I never felt compelled to grab a copy. Sadly, I’m embarrassed to say I never did so because I disliked the book’s cover. Then one afternoon I came to my senses, put my petty prejudices behind me and helped myself to an available copy. I’m sure glad I did.

1946, while it might not make my year-end Best of List, could very well end up being one of my pleasant surprises of 2017. Made up of short chapters and employing a direct writing style, Sebestyen’s informative book makes for quick, but fascinating reading. Structured chronologically, it skips around the globe, largely ignoring Africa and the Americas and spending the bulk of time discussing seminal events and developments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Sebestyen’s 1946 chronicles a world in transition. With Nazi German and much of Europe in ruins, the United States and the Soviet Union have emerged as superpowers and their ensuing rivalry would eventually morph into the Cold War. On the other side of the world, Imperial Japan lies defeated, occupied and no longer able to impose its will on East Asia. In Japan’s place is a regional power vacuum with America to a degree the USSR to a slightly lesser degree rushing to fill the void. On a related note, with Japan vanquished Chinese Communists and Nationalists could now be freely fight each other for mastery of the country. Also in Asia, the sun began setting on the British Empire as India/Pakistan moved towards independence and in the Middle East armed Zionists intensified their fight for a modern State of Israel born from the ashes of the Holocaust. Lastly, Britain’s eclipse as a colonial power was part of a larger global trend in anti-colonialism that would in the coming years drive France from Indochina and Holland from Indonesia.

If you end up reading 1946 and would like follow-up books to read let me offer the following suggestions. I would start with Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. From there I would proceed directly to Keith Lowe’s masterpiece Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and then to Anne Applebaum’s outstanding book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956

Oh, and one last thing. Don’t me like me. Try not to judge a book by its cover.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while TV channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named of Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.

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The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer, in his book The J Curve addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Economics, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Israel, Latin America/Caribbean, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Girl at War by Sara Nović

Girl at WarAfter reading one excellent novel set in the former Yugoslavia I was definitely in the mood for another. Right after finishing The Wolf of Sarajevo I found myself cruising my public library’s online catalog when Sara Nović’s 2015 novel Girl at War caught my eye. Reading the book’s brief description, I was happy to see Nović’s novel is set in the small Balkan nation of Croatia. I was even happier to see Girl at War received a ton of accolades, including being named a finalist for LA Times Book Prize. Feeling optimistic I helped myself to an available copy. Before long I was whipping through Nović’s novel at a fast clip and much to my satisfaction enjoying every bit of it. I’m happy to report Girl at War is an outstanding debut novel and worthy of the praise it’s received.

Girl at War begins one hot and humid day in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. The year is 1991 and Yugoslavia has yet to fragment into a patchwork quilt of nations. Like the proverbial calm before the storm, before long 10-year-old tomboy Ana Jurić will experience the horrors of war once Croatia declares independence and the Serb-dominated Yugoslavian National Army and their allied paramilitaries attack the newly independent nation. From there the story shifts to 2001 with Ana a college student in New York City. Suffering from PTSD and probably some from of survivor’s guilt, she feels disconnected and unsatisfied to the world around her. With her relationship with her boyfriend Brian mediocre at best, the only person she shares a meaningful connection to is one of her college professors. Sensing Ana is not just a refugee, but more importantly also a survivor he supplies her with books by Primo Levi and W. G. Sebald, individuals like her who suffered the horrors of totalitarianism. But deep down, Ana knows she must confront the ghosts of her past and face her old fears. She must return to Croatia.

Like I said at the beginning, this is a terrific novel. Luckily for me I picked a great piece of fiction as a follow-up novel to The Wolf of Sarajevo. Please consider Girl at War highly recommended.

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

The Wolf of Sarajevo by Matthew Palmer

The Wolf of SarajevoTo me there’s nothing like taking a chance on a book you knew nothing about but in the end you thoroughly enjoyed. Recently, I noticed my public library had an available copy of Matthew Palmer’s The Wolf of Sarajevo. Knowing only that it’s set in Bosnia and therefore applicable to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I grabbed it. (Being the cynic that I am, I tried not to put too much stock in the favorable comments on Amazon.) After just a few pages I was completely sucked  in. The Wolf of Sarajevo is one of this year’s early pleasant surprises.

Published last may, The Wolf of Sarajevo is set in present day Bosnia. Even though today’s headlines are all about North Korea and the Middle East, (or President Trump’s train wreck Presidency) back in the 90s the war in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia was all over the news. While the fighting might have ended decades ago, old wounds haven’t fully healed and the young nation limps along held together by an uneasy peace between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. Just when it looks like a landmark peace agreement is about to be struck, a deal that could finally fully heal the fractured nation as well grant it membership in the EU, Bosnia’s Serb leader suddenly and inexplicably pulls out. The State Department’s man on the ground Eric Petrosian, along with Danish EU rep Annika Sondergaard are at a loss why, but after doing a little investigative work soon learn a shadowy figure with the nom de guerre Marko Barcelona is pulling strings behind the scenes. His goal isn’t just to scuttle the peace process but reenergize simmering animosities and ultimately plunge Bosnia and probably the entire region into another round of bloody warfare.

Holy cow what a fun novel. I found The Wolf of Sarajevo fast-paced, intelligent, dark and at times, even wickedly funny. (Perhaps for those reasons it reminded me a bit of Chris Pavone’s outstanding 2012 debut novel The Expats.) Palmer knows Bosnia and its history and none of this should be a surprise since he spent 25 years in the State Department, much of it in the former Yugoslavia. Believe me, I have no problem recommending this terrific page-turner.

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

Pan-European Lives: Dark Voyage by Alan Furst

Dark VoyageAs any of my longtime readers will attest, I love the novels of Alan Furst. Over the last couple of years I’ve devoured almost the novels of his extensive Night Soldiers series. Expertly researched and well written, Furst’s novels capture atmosphere and tension-filled drama of Europe on the precipice of war or during the early years of World War II before the Allied Invasion. With just a handful of books left in the series I haven’t read, my goal for 2017 is the read those last remaining novels. Those happen to be Dark Voyage, Dark Star, Red Gold and his most recent offering A Hero of France. So with that in mind, my first step in accomplishing this goal began when I cracked open my hand me down copy of Furst’s Dark Voyage, 

Just like all the other novels in Furst’s Night Soldiers series, Dark Voyage follows what’s become for me a familiar template. Set during the years leading up to, or the early years of WWII, a middle-aged gentleman of Continental extraction finds himself battling the Nazis as part of one secretive plot after another. Almost always, he’s never a spy or intelligence operative in the traditional sense, but instead some sort of professional who’s been pressed into the role by the Brits, Americans or their allies. In the case of Dark Voyage, it’s the adventures of Dutchman Eric DeHaan, Captain of the Noordendam. One night while in port in Morocco, Captain DeHaan is told by agents of the Dutch military in exile that his ship has been loaned to the British navy for secret military operations. Covertly repainted and renamed the Santa Rosa and now sailing under the flag of neutral Spain, DeHaan takes the battered freighter from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. With him is a diverse multinational cast of crew and passengers resembling a microcosm of Europe and the Mediterranean including a Greek stowaway, a German Jew, two spies (one working for the British, the other a Russian on the run from Stalin’s secret police) assorted Dutch, Germans and Spaniards, and an Egyptian Copt radio operator.

For whatever reason, this wasn’t one of my favorite Furst novel, but nevertheless I enjoyed it. Since my goal is to finish out the series before the end of 2017 it’s a sure bet you’ll see a few other Alan Furst novel’s featured on my blog.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Middle East/North Africa

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Probably the coolest thing about Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is it makes a person read books set in, or about countries all over Europe. That’s always been fine with me. Over the years it’s discovered a ton of great books that who knows, had it not been for the European Reading Challenge I might never had read. And trust me, when is that ever a bad thing?

My quest to find yet another book to read for the challenge led me to Tim Judah’s 2015 book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine. Until it was overshadowed by the tumultuous American election, the conflict in Ukraine seemed to always be in the news. So, when I found an available copy at my public library I helped myself. After a few fits and starts I eventually made my way through it, finishing it last night just before bed.  While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine. Judah travels from one end of the country to another interviewing an almost endless series of people who’ve been involved in, or at least significantly impacted by the ongoing conflict. Like many wars, civil wars and combinations of both, the roots of today’s conflict go deep into the past. As Ukraine struggles define itself as a distinct nation state and plot a political trajectory somewhere between East and West, it must deal with a restive eastern population as well as a resurgent Putinist Russia that sees Ukraine as traditionally part of it homeland.

I’m a sucker for good, on the ground reporting like this. In Wartime reminded me of other books written about Easter Europe like Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War, Lawrence Scott Sheets’ 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Former Soviet Union and last but not least Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History. Of course, since I am a sucker for this kind of writing, you’ll be sure to see a more books like this featured on my blog in the coming year.

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