Category Archives: Eastern Europe/Balkans

Soviet Spotlight: The Yid by Paul Goldberg

I’d read all kinds of cool things about Paul Goldberg’s 2016 debut novel The Yid, but seeing Portland Silent Reading Party co-host Karen reading a copy was the only recommendation I needed. Even though I easily found an available copy through my public library it seemed like it took forever to finally start reading it. However, when I did get around to cracking it open I burned through The Yid in nothing flat.

The inspiration for Goldberg’s darkly funny and intelligent novel is the little known period of 20th century history that occurred during the twilight years of Stalin’s reign called the Doctors’ Plot. During this period Soviet media was awash with stories of Jewish doctors, acting on orders from America, Great Britain and Israel were engaged in a nefarious conspiracy to murder high-ranking government officials and poison good Soviet citizens.  Fortunately, before Stalin and his inner circle could begin mass arrests and deportations of the USSR’s Jewish citizens the Soviet dictator died. (I first learned of forgotten period years ago when I read Vladimir Pozner’s memoir Parting with Illusions.)

The craziness begins late one night in 1953 when a trio of Soviet secret police arrive to arrest Solomon Levinson. A retired actor from the now defunct State Jewish Theater who also spent time fighting for the Reds in the Russian Civil War, let’s just say Levinson knows how to handle a sword and handles it well. After swiftly dispatching the three government agents he teams up with a quirky band misfits who include surgeon Aleksandr Kogan; African-American émigré Frederick Lewis (whom in addition to English can speak Russian, Esperanto and Yiddish) and Kima Petrova a woman of modest means but powerful political connections. Taking inspiration from the Shakespearean theme of murdering a crazed monarch, Levinson and his band set out to rid the Soviet Union of Stalin before Stalin can enact his evil plans.

The Yid is a clever page turner. Who knows, maybe one of the reasons Goldberg is able to write such a wonderful novel is because he himself is a Jew who escaped the Soviet Union and came to America at the tender age of 12. Don’t be surprised if Goldberg’s excellent debut novel end up on my year-end list of best fiction.

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About Time I Read It: Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan

Seems like the more I enjoyed reading a book, the longer it takes me to post a review of it. As to why, I’ve always thought it’s because frankly, outstanding books are not easy to write about and deep down, I’m afraid any review I write won’t do the book justice. I’m sure that’s the case with Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. I read this thing months ago and it’s taken me forever to get off my butt and write about it. Well, that wait is over.

Published 15 years ago in 2002, Paris 1919 has been on my list to read for over six years, ever since I learned Amy of the blog Amy Reads happened to be reading it. Those following my blog might also remember Paris 1919 was one of the books, just like The Great Gamble that was featured in the post “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read.” With this being the hundred year anniversary of World War I, from time to time I’d at check-in at my public library to see if a copy happened to be available. One of those times I got lucky and a copy was available for the taking. So, of course I grabbed it. And loved it.

It’s hard to read Paris 1919 and not marvel in both the scope of the Paris Peace Conference but also its lasting consequences. For one, in today’s hyper interconnected, 24 hour news cycle driven, Twitter-crazed world, it’s hard to imagine the world’s leaders setting up shop in some city for six months just to hash out a peace treaty. Also, some of the participating delegations and their respective support staff were, numerically speaking, huge. The British and America groups rented out entire hotels and even brought their own nationals to staff the places. Those attending the Paris Peace Conference, in official or unofficial capacities was like a who’s who of the mid-20th century. Lawrence of Arabia, Ho Chi Minh, Queen Marie of Romania, FDR and Eleanor, Arnold J. Toynbee and John Maynard Keynes all rubbed elbows at the Conference in some degree or another. (Even French novelist Marcel Proust was seen at one of the Conference’s many dinner parties. According to MacMillan he was overheard asking one his fellow dinner guests to regale him in great detail of the Conference’s developments.)

As for the consequences of the Conference, with a few exceptions the blueprint that was drawn in 1919 holds true today. The great land-based empires of western Eurasia were carved up. Russia lost, then won, then lost its Baltic territories. With the collapse of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany, Poland regained its independence and Czechoslovakia became independent. (Although 70 years later it would split in two). A Serb-dominated Yugoslavia would arise from the ashes of WWI only to horribly disintegrate by the century’s end. Lastly, the Ottoman Empire’s remaining Middle Eastern territories were seized by Britain and France. As a result of this land grab British Palestine became the State of Israel. The Kurds were left without a homeland. Iraq is a sectarian mess. The rest of the Middle East, especially the former Ottoman lands have been unstable for years, especially recently. Lastly, over the last 75 years there hasn’t been a group of freedom fighters or separatists who haven’t espoused the Wilsonian term of self-determination at least one in a manifesto or proclamation.

Paris 1919 is easily one of the best pieces of nonfiction I’ve read this year. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make my year-end best of list. Consider this book highly recommended.

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Soviet Spotlight: The Jews of Silence by Elie Wiesel

The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet JewryLast year, when I heard the news Elie Wiesel passed away like many others I was saddened because the world lost not only a powerful writer and wise man but also a survivor one of history’s darkest episodes. Over a prolific career spanning over half a century, his extensive body of work was undoubtably shaped by not just the horrors of the Holocaust but also his quest for meaning in the modern age. Throughout his many writings he asked how does a Jew, or really for that matter any person live a just and fulfilling life?

Saddened to hear of his passing, I later found myself inspired to read more from his extensive body of work. I even thought about doing some sort of ongoing series, perhaps calling it an Elie Wiesel retrospective. Unfortunately, like so many blogging projects I’ve vowed to embark upon, I never got around to doing so. Typical of me.

I stumbled upon his book The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry completely by accident while fumbling through my public library’s catalog of available Kindle downloads. Seeing it was a collection of Wiesel’s newspaper dispatches he wrote in 1965 chronicling his travels across what was then the western portion of the former USSR observing Jewish life under the authoritarian rule of the Communists I simply HAD to borrow this book. So of course, I did.

Despite being a slim book (the paperback version is only 144 pages) it nevertheless punches above its weight. Wiesel recalls in detail the conversations he had with his coreligionists throughout the major cities of the USSR including Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Vilnius. He describes meeting Jews who are free, but not completely free of oppression. He learns despite the Soviet lines of proletariat equality and all men are brothers old prejudices die hard. The USSR’s Jews are still looked at with suspicion by some in power, and are seen as “rootless cosmopolitans” with questionable allegiance to the Soviet state. Worse, some see them as a potential fifth column secretly supporting America or the (then young) modern state of Israel. All of this is made worse by living under one of the mid-twentieth century’s most oppressive regimes.

The Jews of Silence left me wanting to read more stuff by Wiesel. It also made me wanna read Gal Beckerman’s 2010 book on the Jews of the USSR When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone which I’m happy to report I bought myself as a Christmas present late last year. So with that in mind, look for more books by Wiesel and one by Beckerman to show up on my blog.

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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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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 be me like me. Try not to judge a book by its cover.

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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 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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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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