Archive for the ‘Read East 2012’ Category


After the week I had, I needed a comforting sort of weekend.  Thankfully, I rather specialise in cosy, cheering activities and so I have had a busy but calming couple of days with my books and my various adventures in the kitchen.

salt sugar smokeAs soon as I finished work on Friday, I pulled out Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry, flipped to the recipe for pink grapefruit marmalade, and got to work.  My grapefruit were fresh and free (having been picked three days before off the tree outside our front door in Palm Desert) so of course I had to try my hand at this.  It was only my second time making marmalade (having made orange marmalade in February) so I hovered anxiously over the stove the entire time but the end result is beautiful and very tasty.  The only problem was that other members of my family kept wandering off with the book while I was needing to refer to it, eagerly looking through the recipes and taking note of the ones they most want to try.  I am thrilled that it interested them but their interest could have been better timed!

Catherine the Great by Robert K. MassieAlso on Friday, I finished reading Robert K. Massie’s wonderful biography of Catherine the Great.  I had started it earlier in the week and sped through the first half but stalled out for a day or two after the news about the firings broke at work.  Really though, it was the perfect book to return to after that, being absolutely in no way related to anything going on in my life.

What I knew of Catherine before reading this book was minimal: our focus in school had been on her relationships with Enlightenment philosophers and other enlightened despots and how she applied Enlightenment ideas to Russia.  Massie does an excellent job of describing this and of putting her policies into perspective versus what the rest of Europe was doing at the same time.  But what really fascinated me was his portrait of her life before she seized the throne, of her life from the age of fourteen (when she came to Russia from Prussia) to the age of thirty-three, when she became empress in a coup d’etat that deposed her husband, Peter III.   Her careful and astute handling of herself and her relationships over this period was extraordinary, reflecting “years of ambition beginning in childhood; the years of waiting, of hungering for power, of always knowing that she was superior in intellect, education, knowledge, and willpower to everyone around her.”  The entire book is masterfully written, making excellent use of Catherine’s memoirs and her letters, which reveal both her intelligence and humour, and skillfully entwining the personal and political, but it is the woman herself who makes it such an interesting story.

P1060193Then, for something completely different, I read What Did It Mean? by Angela Thirkell on Saturday.  While it is not one of her better books (it make actually be the worst of the ones I have read so far), it was exactly the book I needed.  Published in 1954, it focuses on the celebration preparations in Northbridge for the Queen’s June 1953 coronation.   Lydia Merton has been elected chairman of the Coronation Committee and, being Lydia, does an extremely competent job.  She even manages to get the famous Jessica Dean and Aubrey Clover to agree to perform a short play as part of the festivities.

While the number of characters starts out at a relatively manageable size it explodes by the end of the book to include practically everyone living in Northbridge, as well as anyone who can be feasibly dragged in from further afield.  It is nice to see old friends again, especially the delightful Mrs Turner whose not-quite-romance with Mr Downing was my favourite part of Northbridge Rectory, but there are far too many of them.

There are two things that are responsible for my enjoyment of this somewhat uneven book: the blossoming of shy Ludo, Lord Mellings (Lord and Lady Pomfret’s eldest son) and the constant praising of Lydia Merton.  I am perfectly happy as long as people keep saying lovely things about Lydia and a rather ridiculous amount of the book is spent doing just that.

Now, bereft of Lydia, I am spending today baking vanilla crescents (vanilkové rohlíčky in Czech or Vanillekipferl in German), making chicken soup, and reading the new Slightly Foxed quarterly, which arrived on Friday.  A very nice end to a not particularly nice week!

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Marg has the Mr Linky this week.

I had pretty much given up on the Eastern European Reading Challenge.  My focus the last month or two has been on making sure that I was on track to finish A Century of Books by the end of the year.  The Eastern European challenge I enjoy but – with an aim of only 12 books – it is not a point of pride for me like A Century of Books.  However, with only ten books now left to read for my Century, I realised that I might just be able to meet my goal for the Eastern European Reading Challenging as well.  Of course, on realising that, I immediately placed a number of library holds and here are the results:

The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War by Slavenka Drakulić – I read and love two of Drakulić’s non-fiction books for the challenge last year (How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed and Café Europa) so am looking forward to this.  Her writing is wonderful and I always feel that I learn so much from her books, about people and events I would never otherwise have known about.

The Birch Grove and Other Stories by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz – Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz’s work is familiar to every Polish reader, yet remains unknown to the outside world. The stories in this selection were all written in the 1930s, and provide an extraordinary evocation of Poland’s first brief era of independence between the wars. They are also timeless sonatas of love and loss.

When Eve Was Naked: Stories of a Life’s Journey by Josef Škvorecký – rather than write a conventional memoir, Škvorecký published this collection of autobiographical short stories featuring his fictional alter-ego Danny Smiricky.  Škvorecký had a fascinating life, from his childhood and early adulthood in Czechoslovakia to, after he immigrated to Canada in 1968, his work as a publisher and professor in Toronto.  But, as interesting as I find him, I do not always get on well with his writing so we’ll see how this goes.

Kafka’s Milena by Jana Černa – I knew nothing about this book when I placed a hold on it, except that I have no interest in Kafka.  But Milena Jesenska sounds like a fascinating woman – the flyleaf describes her as a “prominent journalist and translator, one of the most famous women in 1930s Prague” – so I am looking forward to learning more about her.

Silver Moon: Stories from Antonín Dvořák’s Most Enchanting Operas by Ian Krykorka (illustrations by Vladyana Krykorka) – I read this just as soon as I picked it up so I may as well give a mini-review now and check it off my challenge list.  This is a lovely children’s book from the Czech-Canadian mother and son team of Ian and Vladyana Krykorka, retelling the stories that Dvořák used as the basis for three of his operas.  They are all fairy tales with happy endings so it is quite natural to present them as stories for children this way – I wouldn’t necessarily do the same with La Traviata.  Silver Moon begins with “Rusalka”, the most famous of Dvořák’s operas.  It is a Czech version of “The Little Mermaid” about a water nymph who falls in love with a man.  Thankfully, it has a happier ending and a less suicidal heroine than “The Little Mermaid”.  The other two are stories I was not familiar with before: “The King and the Charcoal Burner” and “Kate and the Devil”.  “The King and the Charcoal Burner” plays with the always popular (especially with the Czechs) idea of a king wandering unrecognized among his people and then, revealing himself later on, rewarding them for the generosity they had shown.  Here he also manages to play match-maker, between a girl whose family had helped him when he was lost and hungry and a young man who saved his life in battle.  The final story, “Kate and the Devil”,  about a shrewish girl who is so irritating that even the Devil himself doesn’t want her in Hell, is the most amusing and I would love to see it performed.  The illustrations are more impressive than the text but this is still a charming book.

What did you pick up this week?

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When I saw Under a Cruel Star by Heda Margolius Kovály, a memoir about life in Czechoslovakia from 1941 to 1968, in the House of Anansi catalogue last spring, I immediately asked if they would send me a copy.  They, being extraordinarily kind and exceeding prompt, did so immediately and I am ashamed that it took me until October to finally read it because it is truly an extraordinary book.

It is the sustained power of the book that is most remarkable.  Beginning with Kovály’s wartime experiences in the Lodz Ghetto and then in a labour camp and continuing through until the autumn of 1968, when she left Prague after the Russian invasion, there is not a single moment when her story lags.  It is horrifying, capturing some of the worst features of the 20th Century, but mesmerizing and wonderfully told.

Kovály was a survivor.  The rest of her family perished in the Holocaust, but not she.  Towards the end of the war, she and fellow female inmates were being marched west, away from the ever encroaching Eastern front.  She and a couple of the other girls managed to escape the guards, despite their weakened states:

People often asked me: How did you manage?  To survive the camps!  To escape!  Everyone assumes it is easy to die but that the struggle to live requires a superhuman effort.  Mostly, it is the other way around.  There is, perhaps, nothing harder than waiting passively for death.  Staying alive is simple and natural and does not require any particular resolve.

When she finally reaches her home, when she returns to Prague…for me this was the most affecting portion of the whole book.  She wanders from friend to friend, trying to find someone who will shelter and help her.  Her best friend, who had sworn when Kovály and her family were deported to do all he could for them, is horrified when she appears at his door and rushes her away.  Other can supply food, some clothes, maybe a bed for night but there is no warm welcome to greet her.  After so many years spent living under Nazi rule, everyone is terrified and fear is the most common reaction to Kovály’s sudden appearance at their doors.  And why not?  After years of occupation and with the war’s end in sight, “what”, as one of Kovály’s friends asks, “sense is does it make anyway to risk one life for another?”  The posters in the streets, listing the names of people – sometimes entire families – killed for trying to help people like Kovály are a daily reminder of what danger her friends face by being in contact with her.

She eventually finds shelter and, finally, the war ends and she can emerge from hiding.  But, of course, nothing goes back to normal.  She is reunited with old friends who had been interned in other concentration camps – including Rudolf Margolius, who she would soon marry – but her family is gone as well as most of her possessions.  She and other Holocaust survivors did not receive a universally warm welcome back to Prague, as Kovály details in one of the most moving passages of the book:

Sometimes a bedraggled and barefoot concentration camp survivor plucked up his courage and knocked on the door of prewar friends to ask, ‘Excuse me, do you by any chance still have some of the stuff we left with you for safekeeping?’  And the friend could say, ‘You must be mistaken, you didn’t leave anything with us, but come in anyway!’  And they would seat him in the parlour where his carpets lay on the floor and pour herb tea into antique cups that had belonged to his grandmother.  The survivor would thank them, sip his tea, look at the walls where his paintings hung.  He would say to himself, ‘What does it matter?  As long as we’re alive?  What does it matter?’

At other times, it would not turn out so nicely.  The prewar friends would not make tea, would not suggest any mistake.  They would just laugh and say in astonishment, ‘Come on now, do you really believe we would store your stuff all through the war, exposing ourselves to all that risk just to give it back to you now?’  And the survivor would laugh too, amazed at his own stupidity, would apologize politely and leave.  Once downstairs he would laugh again, happily, because it was spring and the sun was shining down on him.

It would also happen that a survivor might need a lawyer to retrieve lost documents and he would remember the name of one who had once represented large Jewish companies.  He would go to see him and sit in an empire chair in the corner of an elegant waiting room, enjoying all that good taste and luxury, watching pretty secretaries rushing about.  Until one of the pretty girls forgot to close a door behind her, and the lawyer’s sonorous voice would boom through the crack, ‘You would have thought we’d be rid of them finally, but no, they’re impossible to kill off – not even Hitler could manage it.  Every day there’re more of them crawling back, like rats…’  And the survivor would quietly get up from his chair and slip out of the waiting room, this time not laughing.  On his way down the stairs his eyes would mist over as if with the smoke of the furnaces at Auschwitz.

The entire book is a consideration of the moral choices made under trying circumstances, of how human nature responds to the repressive force of totalitarianism, be it fascism or communism.  Though these forces – and the common passivity of most citizens when faced with an oppressive regime – shaped her life, Kovály retains a remarkably fair-minded perspective.  Her focus is not on her emotional reaction to her situation.  We hear about her feelings, yes, but more often we see her trying to make sense of what happened to her, trying to describe how and why people were acting in the ways that impacted her life, trying to track the moral descent that began with the Occupation and persisted after the war’s end:

Those who had compromised their integrity during the Occupation now began to calculate and plan, to watch and spy on each other, to cover their tracks, eager to secure the property they had acquired through collaboration with the Germans, by cowardice or denunciation, or by looting the homes of deported Jews.  Their sense of guilt and fear of retribution soon bred hate and suspicion directed mainly at the real victims of the Occupation: the active and passive resisters, the partisans, the Jews, and political prisoners; the honest people who had stood their ground and had not betrayed their principles even at the cost of persecution.  The innocent became a living reproach and a potential threat to the guilty.

For Kovály and her husband, communism seemed the answer to this kind of easily warped self-interest.  She does a particularly good job of explaining why they were drawn to communism and explaining the significant role their wartime experiences played in that:

A strong sense of solidarity had evolved in the concentration camps, the idea that one individual’s fate was in every way tied to the fate of the group, whether that meant the group of one’s fellow prisoners, the whole nation, or even all of humanity.  For many people, the desire for material goods largely disappeared.  As much as we longed for the comforts of life, for good food, clothing, and homes, it was clear to us that these things were secondary…

I will never agree with their reasons for being attracted to communism, but she makes their choice understandable and sets up the tragic situation that they, with Rudolf’s role in the government as Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade, help create.

By the early 1950s, Kovály realises that communism – or at least the communist government her husband is part of – is not going to provide the changes they had dreamt of.  The longed for equality is more distant than ever, as Party members live ridiculously indulgent lives and the Party itself gives preference to its members of ‘peasant’ stock as opposed to the bourgeois intellectuals, like Kovály.  Betraying an interest in theatre, music and literature was something to be avoided at Party banquets, where it was viewed as a sign of elitism.  These years, when the horrible corruption and suspicions beginning to take over everyday life, were awfully painful to read about, especially as they ended with Rudolf’s arrest and eventual execution after the sham Slánský trial in 1952. 

The life of a widow of a traitor is horrible but logistically fascinating.  Companies could not afford to hire employees in bad standing with the Party, so it was difficult for Kovály to find legitimate work to support her and her young son, Ivan.  The Party was responsible for housing, so naturally Kovály and Ivan were evicted from the nice apartment they had lived in during her husband’s tenure as deputy minister and rehoused in a dirty, frigid hovel.  Friends would not talk to her and other parents would not let their children associate with Ivan.  That is why they call it totalitarianism: the government truly does have total control over your life.

Kovály touches only briefly on the years following her second marriage in 1956 (to Pavel Kovály, an old friend) and leading up to 1968.  Her excitement during the Prague Spring was wonderful to read about, the joy at, after so many years of seeing the worst effects of communism on her society, finally seeing that there were still people who cared enough to demand to know what their government was doing, who wanted a role in shaping their own destiny:

All these young people had been reared in a society walled in by censorship, where the expression of any independent opinion was routinely treated as a crime.  What could they know about democracy?  How could they even know what they wanted?  But as the evening progressed, those of us who were much older grew even more amazed and impressed.  We were taken not only by the precision and clarity of the ideas that were voiced but by the high level of the discussion and the discipline of that mass of young people.  They knew exactly what they wanted and what they did not want, what was open for compromise and what they refused to give up.

Kovály left for American in the fall of 1968, tearing herself away from the city she loved.  She was encouraged that the yoke of unquestioning obedience had been broken but was not willing to spend any more of her life in the oppressive darkness of a totalitarian regime now that the Russians had invaded.  When the barbarians once again have control, and you have spent all your life fighting them to no avail, it is time to leave.  She wrote this book in exile, publishing it in Czech with 68 Publishers in Toronto (the publishing house run by Josef Škvorecký and his wife Zdena Salivarová that was devoted to publishing works by Czech and Slovak exiles and dissidents) in 1973.  Her exile was not permanent though: I understand that Kovály and her husband returned to Prague in the mid-1990s and she lived there until her death in 2010.   It is not an easy city to give up, as she well knew:

Prague is not an uncaring backdrop which stands impassive, ignoring happiness and suffering alike.  Prague lives in the lives of her people and they repay her with the love we usually reserve for other human beings.  Prague is not an aggregate of buildings where people are born, work, and die.  She is alive, sad, and brave, and when she smiles with spring, her smile glistens like a tear.

This review is now almost twice the length of what I write for most books, but then Under a Cruel Star is a very special book and probably deserves three or four times more than this. Kovály spent a large portion of her life living ostracized and endangered because of the policies of the governments at the time.  That taught her to loathe totalitarianism but it also taught her about people: how little pressure it takes for a friend to abandon you, how weak those communal bonds really are when tested, and how much stronger the instinct for self-preservation is than the instinct to fight for one’s moral beliefs in order to uphold the honour or accountability of their government.  Kovály shows neither the worst of humanity nor the best – just the average.  The everyman who, under Nazis or Communists, keeps his head down and avoids any entanglements that could cause him or his family trouble, even when he might feel a moral imperative to act.  But fear and self-preservation are usually stronger than even the most dearly held ideals.  These are the important lessons of the book and also the warnings: self-interest may be natural but it also means the destruction of justice and truth, of trust and a life truly worth living.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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A year or two ago, when sifting through family storage boxes, I came across Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down  by Zdena Salivarová, most notable for the terrifying alien girl on the cover.  (Note: there are no aliens in the actual text.  Sadly).  How this book came to be in our family, I have no idea.  It was with my grandmother’s books but I doubt she ever read it.  Presumably someone within the Czech community in Toronto gave it to her; 68 Publishers, the publishing house run by Salivarová and her husband Josef Škvorecký that focused on the works of exiled Czech and Slovak authors as well as dissidents still in Czechoslovakia (some of whom smuggled their works out via Canadian diplomats stationed in Prague), was based in Toronto and my grandmother ended up with quite a few of their books in her collection.  Some had pride of place on her bookshelves.  Not this one.  As far as I can tell, it spent three and a half decades languishing in a cardboard box.  Which is probably where it belongs.

Published in 1976, Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down is the story of Vera, a young Czech girl, who meets and falls in love with Janis, a Latvian student, while he is in Prague competing in a basketball tournament.  It seems to be set during the 1950s, as both teenage characters mention experiences as small children during the war, but the date is never definitely stated.  What is clear is the oppressive force of the communist governments in both their countries and the way it shapes their lives

The love story is very basic.  Two teenagers fall in love and go a little nutty, shirking responsibilities and desperately grabbing time together they can manage…the usual.  But what is unusual is the reason for their desperation: though both countries are communist, movement between the two is far from free.  From the start, Vera knows that Janis will never be allowed to stay in Czechoslovakia.  So she forms the plan to follow him home to Latvia.  Except even then she has to fight through the bureaucracy for permission to leave the relative freedom of Czechoslovakia for the brutally repressive USSR.  Given that the summary on the back cover describes this as “a tragic love story…a modern version of the Romeo and Juliet theme”, it is safe to say that it does not end happily.  On the plus side, there are no teen suicides so the Romeo and Juliet comparison was needlessly misleading.

Vera’s plight is contrasted by the adventures of her superficial cousin, Masha.  Masha’s mother, Vera’s Aunt Vilma, is a marvel who knows exactly how to work the system.  With the right connections (and enough money passed under the table), she gets Masha a place at university, finds her beautiful clothes, and always manages to get the most sought-after food.  And when the time comes, she is able to get Masha permission for her to marry her French boyfriend and immigrate to France.  Vera’s father is in prison and her mother has none of Vilma’s savvy so while Vera struggles fruitlessly to find a way East, she is constantly bombarded with updates about Masha’s glamourous life and unlimited freedom in the West, only further emphasizing the absurdity of the situation.

The writing was simple yet still somehow felt over-written, though perhaps over-dramatized is what I really mean.  It is written in short, staccato sentences with lots of bleak, unanswerable statements.  Not my style at all.  But, as a record of daily life at a certain period in history, it is fascinating.  The book is full of teenage couples sulking in the shadows, looking for the privacy they cannot find in their cramped family apartments where five or six people share two rooms.  Vera’s grandmother, an ardent Social Democrat, sulks about their home preaching the political ideology she still believes will triumph, despite the depressing reality that surrounds her.  And, of course, Aunt Vilma’s successes at massaging the system to work in her favour serve as a reminder of the power of a few well-placed connections and an ample bank account.

This is not a great book but it is still an interesting one.  I cared nothing for Vera or Janis but I did appreciate getting to see a new, more detailed and certainly more depressing perspective on daily life in 1950s Czechoslovakia than I had previously come across.  For me, the main value of the book was as a historical record, not as a memorable story.

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I picked up Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright (with Bill Woodward) excited but with really no idea of what I was getting into.  I had expected a sort of memoir (the subtitle is “A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948”) but the book is actually a history with personal elements, not just of the very fascinating years from 1937 to 1948 but of all the years leading up to the war.  This is the introduction to Czech history that I have spent so many years searching for and it is frankly marvellous.

Albright begins the book by offering a brief outline of Czech history prior to the nineteenth century before starting to focus in on the modern circumstances that shaped the country she was born into.  Like all Czechs, she is very proud of her nation’s past achievements, concerned that foreigners might not be aware of them (or, worse, might attribute them to the country’s larger neighbours), and enjoys educating the reader:

By 1900, 80 per cent of the [Austro-Hungarian] empire’s industrial production was based in the historic Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia.  The literacy rate was 96 percent, twice that of Hungary and higher, even, that the German.  The economy was expanding more rapidly than that of England or France.  The Czechs were leaders in rail service, coal mining, iron and steel production, chemicals, paper, textiles, glass, armaments, and industrial machinery.  Guided by the motto “In work and knowledge is our salvation”, they developed novel techniques for processing ham and fermenting beer, made a popular liquor from beets, invented a convenient way to market sugar (in cubes), introduced the assembly-line production of shoes, and were among the first to install electric rails and trams.

This is the kind of trivia most Czechs love to bestow on the uneducated masses (which is of course why I have quoted it here – I understand my duty as a half-Czech).  It is part of the national identity, the off-told tale of the industrious, cultured, democratic nation subdued by its larger brutish neighbours.  Albright makes no attempt to appear as an unbiased historian.  She talks about writing her PhD dissertation and being challenged by her professors for her idealised view of her homeland:

Over time, I became conditioned to think of my homeland as exceptional, a country filled with humane and democratic people who had struggled constantly to survive despite foreign oppression.  The nation’s finest moments had been marked by a willingness to defend itself against more powerful foes; the saddest by a failure to fight back when betrayed by supposed allies and friends.  Its purest expression could be found in the period between the two world wars, when the Czechoslovak Republic served as a model of twentieth-century democracy within an otherwise dismal Europe.

Clearly, Albright has learned more about the nuances of human behaviour since then and some of the most interesting portions of the book deal with the moral dilemmas faced during and after the war, but, in her heart, it seems Albright still believes in the popular, idealised vision of the shining Czech democracy, never more perfect or pure than under its first leader, T.G. Masaryk.  And how easy it is to romanticise those brief years of democracy, from 1918 to 1938!  What could be more dramatic than the way it was brought to an end with the Munich Conference, when the Czechs were betrayed by their allies?  No one forgets Munich.  Albright’s family (her maiden name was Korbel) spent the war in London but just because they found shelter in the UK that did not mean that anything was forgiven:

Even with Churchill now in the prime minister’s chair, the legacy of Chamberlain and appeasement was not forgotten.  My father told a story about that period.  He had been on a bus and tripped over an Englishman’s foot.  Instead of apologizing, he said, ‘I am not sorry, that is for Munich.’  Then there was the immigrants’ ironic prayer: ‘Please, O God, give the British all the strength they will need to withstand the beating they deserve.’

Albright’s own memories play almost no part in this book.  Born in 1937, she has no memories of Prague before the war (and wouldn’t have, even if she were older, since her family was living in Belgrade where her diplomat father was posted).  The Korbels spent the war in London, where Josef Korbel organized and managed BBC radio broadcasts to the Czech people back home and where he also served under Jan Masaryk in the Czech government in exile.  Albright only recalls details from the last couple of years of the war but she gives a marvellously detailed account using other sources of what was going on both in the Czech community in England and in the occupied Czech lands.  She traces the fate of her family members detained at Terezin and then killed in Poland.  She recounts the Czech resistance’s success and failures, most dramatically the blundered assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.  She looks at the decisions involved towards the end of the war that led to the Russian forces liberating the Czech lands and establishing a foothold in the country.  She talks about the awful expulsions that went on after the war, when a vengeful nation sought to drive out all of its ethnic Germans, regardless of their alliances.  And she gives her own views on the mysterious death of Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk in 1948, officially stated as a suicide at the time by the communist government but ruled as murder in a later investigation after the Velvet Revolution.

The country that existed after 1945 was one that bore very little resemblance to the optimistic, proud nation of only a decade before.  Albright draws on her father’s writings frequently throughout the book but it was his insights into post-war Czechoslovakia that were most interesting.  He was able to understand the complexities and challenges his daughter still struggled with in her twenties, when she was receiving the critique on her starry-eyed dissertation:

In his writings, my father described a country divided among returning exiles from London and Moscow, resistance fighters, ‘sit-it-outers’, ‘comrades’ (who talked the most), and former concentration camp inmates (who said the least).  So much had happened that the sense of national solidarity had all but drained away.  Too many people had grown used to taking orders.  The Czechs who had survived the occupation resented their countrymen who had been ‘safely out of it’ in England.  Many of the exiles who had served under arms questioned the bravery of those who had remained at home.  The gulfs separating these groups, lamented my father, ‘were deep, always emotional, sometimes rational, and rarely bridgeable.’

I found every page of this book fascinating but I was truly delighted by the depth of information Albright provides.  With so much more detail, I was able to better understand some of the episodes from my own family’s history.  For example, my grandmother’s first love had been in the RAF in England during the war.  He came back after but left again in 1947.  Now I know that the Czech and Slovak military was being trained in the style of the Red Army, which meant that those men who had served with the Russian military during the war were given the most prestigious postings while the British-trained men were effectively shunned: “The Communists wanted a monopoly on wartime heroes and so redefined the London-based military as a tool of capitalist oppression.  Within a few years, the majority of the men who had fought so bravely with the RAF were either forced into exile or in jail.”  Albright’s breaking down of the criteria for dispelling ethnic Germans after the war also helped me to understand why some of my family members were exempt while others were not: my great-grandmother, an ethnic German born in Bohemia, was excused because her family had been targeted by the Nazis (her Czech husband had been killed by the Gestapo) but her two sisters, both widows of other ethnic Germans, had no such ‘proof’ of their loyalty and were so forced to reapply for citizenship, which was initially refused.

Focusing on the difficult moral choices during these eventful years, Albright adds a new and more personal dimension to the book.  Her own life story is briefly sketched over the course of the book but it is never the focus.  It is by contemplating the moral dilemmas faced by statesmen and civilians alike that she reveals more of herself to the reader.

What fascinates me – and what serves as a central theme of this book – is why we make the choices we do.  What separates us from the world we have and the kind of ethical universe envisioned by someone like Havel?  What prompts one person to act boldly in a moment of crisis and a second to seek shelter in the crowd?  Why do some people become stronger in the face of adversity while others quickly lose heart?  What separates the bully from the protector?  Is it education, spiritual belief, our parents, our friends, the circumstances of our birth, traumatic events, or more likely some combination that spells the difference?  More succinctly, do our hopes for the future hinge on a desirable unfolding of external events or some mysterious process within?

She asks the reader to ponder the complexities of responsibility and to contemplate his or her own ethical values.  It is not so that the reader can answer ‘correctly’ as to how to behave in a challenging circumstance but so that he or she can better understand the pressures that shape history and judge more fairly even the most disastrous of decisions.

I adored Prague Winter.  There is no other single English-language book out there that provides such a thorough overview and analysis of this period of Czech history and certainly not one that does it in such an engaging and approachable manner.  Trust me, I’ve been looking for over a decade.  I have read everything I could get my hands on, have grilled relatives, have absorbed any information I could find and yet still I only knew a fraction of what Albright includes here.   After I finished reading, I immediately went out and bought a copy for my aunt, who in turn leant it out to a friend as soon as she finished reading.  It is that kind of book.

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I have got a couple of disappointing books to talk about today, which, if it weren’t for the Eastern European Reading Challenge, I would probably skip reviewing altogether.  However, since they must be reviewed (and I am again falling woefully behind in reviewing my books for this challenge), they shall be dealt with as quickly as possible.  I could go off on a little rant about how Eastern Europe is defined for this challenge (having nothing to do with physical location and everything to do with the former Eastern Bloc) but, since it gives me ridiculous freedom with my book choices, I won’t indulge.  I will however say that Hungary is Central Europe and Croatia is Southern Europe but anyone who can read a map already knows that.  So there, crotchety rant ended.

Elza’s Kitchen by Marc Fitten is set in the fictional Hungarian town of Delibab, where forty-eight year old chef Elza runs Tulip, a successful but modest restaurant.  She was married years before to a man who wanted a family but the ambitious Elza had no interest in children.  Now, she has a lover, her sous-chef, a man eighteen-years her junior but he too is starting to make unwelcome mentions about a future together, talking of marriage and children. (This was one of the more bizarre features of the novel: characters talk about Elza having children in the future very matter-of-factly and the only barrier mentioned is her disinterest, not the biological improbability of a woman closing in on fifty being able to conceive.)  Irritated by her lover and bored with the restaurant, Elza decides she needs a challenge: she will get a famous food critic to come and review the restaurant and she, who has spent more time in the office than the kitchen the past few years, will cook for him, a new and wonderful dish.  Why she is doing this and what she hopes to achieve by it is less clear.

This book is all over the place.  There is some promise in the character of the Critic, whose darkly comic encounter with a prostitute on the worst day of his life was the highlight of the novel for me, and though he goes off and has adventures, evolving in a way I desperately wished Elza would, we don’t get to witness them.  Dora, the ambitious young pastry chef at Tulip who takes up with the Sous-Chef after Elza rejects him, is also intriguing – bright, skilled, and a child of capitalism – but, again, she remains very flat.  They, sadly, are the best of the bunch.  Everyone else, including Elza, is simply boring.

And then there are the gypsies.  Fitten, an American, lived in Hungary during the nineties so has some idea of the tensions that exist between most Hungarians and the Roma but nothing about Elza’s interactions with a Romani family felt remotely true to life.  I have no trouble recognizing the stereotypical Romani family he created – the children beg in front of the restaurant, the fathers scam Elza out of money and possessions later on – but Elza’s response to them felt incredulously free of all of the nasty social prejudices that are part of the culture in Central Europe, especially Hungary.  Even the ‘harsh’ responses from those around her were shockingly mild.

For a novel about food, set in a restaurant, the descriptions are disappointingly bland.  Food needs description.  The reader needs to hear about the smells and the colours and the tastes and all the memories each bites evokes.  Here, we get a few perfunctory lines about paprika, butter, and sour cream and that’s it.  It is entirely free of passion and entirely unconvincing – much like the book overall.

Then, there was Every Day, Every Hour by Nataša Dragnić, which was a much better book but perhaps even more disappointing, tantalizing me with moments of brilliance that could not save the story from truly idiotic characters.    Dragnić is Croatian and the novel was first published in German, and then translated to English by Liesl Schillinger.  I would love to be able to say that my problems were translation-based, but they weren’t.  I really enjoyed Dragnić’s style of writing.  It is beautiful and flowing, complimenting the fantastical elements of her story.  But then she inserts dialogue between her Too Stupid To Live characters and everything falls apart.

In a small seaside town in 1960s Croatia, Luka and Dora meet for the first time in their Kindergarten classroom.  He is five and she only two but from that moment on they are inseparable and the intensity of their connection is recognized by everyone around them.  Four years later, they are separated when Dora’s family moves to Paris.  They grow up, Luka caring for his family and nurturing his skills as a painter, Dora embracing France and pursuing a career as an actress.  It is not until they are in their twenties that they meet again, when Luka comes to Paris to show his work, but the connection is still as intense as ever and they begin a turbulent love affair that spans decades.

Yes, decades.  These are not people who can manage their lives neatly.  It could not be as simple as “Oh, I love you and want to spend my life with you.  Let’s do that.”  No, no, no.  It must be “I love you, I burn for you, I will learn Spanish so I can recite Pablo Neruda’s love poems to you but I am also a crazy Slavic person who feels that depression is my natural state so I must do as much as possible to work against a happy ending and make myself miserable.”  Sigh.  That is the crux of the issue.  If you like doomed lovers who active conspire against their own happy endings, this is the book for you.  If, like me, you want to slap people who make their lives unnecessarily messy and painful by having happiness in their grasp and then running in the opposite direction, give this a miss.  It is Dragnić’s debut novel and though I didn’t love it, I did really like her style and I’ll look forward to seeing what she writes next.

At least I can say there is one positive both books share: the cover designs are lovely.

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I have no idea how to approach this review.  I finished reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) on February 16th and literally every day since then I have thought about how to write this review.  And come up with nothing.  Honestly, this is a book that is supposedly intimidating to read but let me tell you how much more terrifying it is to talk about.

Even if you’ve never read War and Peace, odds are you are at least vaguely familiar with it.  At least that is what I am hoping since I am not going to go into detail about the plot and all of the characters.  Instead, please enjoy some slightly disjointed, rambling thoughts on a novel that I fell completely in love with as soon as I started reading.

There are grand events here – the war sections, unsurprisingly – but I was surprised by how much of the novel revolves around the domestic woes of its central characters.  And what beautifully complex characters they are.  No one is perfect here and each character has enough flaws that the reader can easily understand why others characters may dislike him or her.  But, perhaps because of their flaws, each character is sympathetic.  I may not have liked Prince Andrei but I did come to understand his character and his motivations, to feel pity for him rather than the contempt I would have felt for anyone else who behaved as he did.  I did hate him when we were first introduced – how could you not despise someone who spent all this time ignoring or insulting his pregnant wife? – but by the time he met and fell in love with Natasha, I wanted him to find peace and happiness.  Not necessarily with her, it must be said, but conceptually that was what I desired for him.

Then there was Pierre, so awkward and exploitable but with such a very good heart.  He is emotional rather than rational, putting all his passion into all the projects or people that he loves, trusting that what he lacks in knowledge and patience can be compensated for with enthusiasm and emotion:

Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

Of course, it does not always work out well but it is difficult not to warm to someone who wants so much to do good and who loves so freely.  At the same time, it is very, very easy to see why other characters view him as a sad joke.  Pierre has a rough and very eventful go of it, what with his awful wife, his entanglement and subsequent disillusionment with the Free Masons, his eager but ill-considered attempts at social reform on his estates, his hopeless love for Natasha, his experiences in battle and as a prisoner in 1812…Pierre is quite busy from 1805 to 1813.  And yet as much as I came to love him for his open heart and generosity, for his naiveté and eagerness, there was still something that kept me from liking him.  I cannot quite put my finger on what that was.  As with Prince Andrei, I wanted him to find peace and happiness but I never saw him behave with a woman in a way that made me certain he would be the right husband for Natasha.  But then that’s one of the problems with Natasha: she is so wonderfully loveable and charming that it is hard to conceive of anyone good enough for her.

And what of Natasha?  I loved her immediately, was enchanted by her energy and emotiveness.  One of the reasons I picked up War and Peace (having been scared off of Tolstoy altogether by numerous failed attempts at Anna Karenina) was to finally meet her, after years of hearing nothing but praise.  Margaret Kennedy called her “an entirely charming girl”, saying that she was the only literary heroine who could match Elizabeth Bennet.  Natasha doesn’t match Lizzie; she bests her.  Yes, Natasha spends most of the novel as an emotional teenage girl, tossing quickly and completely from one emotion and one romantic attachment to the next without a thought, but Natasha’s appeal is emotional.  Even those who love her best cannot describe her as an intelligent or clever woman.  Her strength lies in her ability to feel and to love and when she loves, she commits herself completely and beautifully.  The most beautiful, most memorable moment of the novel belongs to Natasha, when she casts off the countess she has been trained to be since birth and dances a folk dance so freely, so exactly as it should be danced, with only her spirit and the music to guide her:

Where, how and when had this little countess, brought up by an émigré Frenchwoman, sucked this spirit in from the Russian air she breathed, where has she gotten these ways, which should have been long supplanted by the pas de châle?  Yet that spirit and these ways were those very inimitable, unstudied Russian ones which the uncle expected of her.  As soon as she stood there, smiling triumphantly, proudly, and with sly merriment, the fear which had first seized Nikolai and all those present – that she would not do it right – went away, and they began to admire her.

She did it exactly right, and so precisely, so perfectly precisely, that Anisya Fyodorovna, who at once handed Natasha the kerchief she needed for it, wept through her laughter, looking at this slender, graceful countess, brought up in silk and velvet, so foreign to her, who was able to understand everything that was in Anisya and in Anisya’s father, and in her aunt, and in her mother, and in every Russian.

It is such a happy moment and a lovely, fanciful image: the aristocratic girl with the soul of a peasant.  Tolstoy does not tell us the music or give any idea of the steps but it is so easy to know exactly what those onlookers saw and to feel what they felt when Natasha danced.

I had no real quarrel with the Natasha shown in the epilogue, though I understand it troubles other readers.  She is a woman completely devoted to her husband and to her children, with no interest in other people or even her appearance.  She lives for them and they provide her with a purpose and an identity:

She, as they put it, let herself go.  Natasha took no trouble either about her manners, or about the delicacy of her speech, or about showing herself to her husband in the most advantageous poses, or about her toilette, or about not hampering her husband with her demands.  She did everything contrary to these rules.  She felt that the charms which her instinct had taught her to make use of before would now only be ridiculous in the eyes of her husband, to whom, from the first moment, she had given herself entirely – that is, with her whole soul, not leaving one little corner that was not open to him.

Other readers see this as the loss of the enchanting young woman we got to know over the course of the novel, but I’m not so sure.  Young Natasha was passionate but indecisive, falling in love with every man she met only to change her affections a few days later.  But while she loved, she loved completely.  To me, it makes sense that once she had a family of her own, all her passion and energy was focused on them, all her devotion given to Pierre, and her constancy is a sign of the maturity she has finally achieved.  Yes, much of it is probably Tolstoy’s fantasy of feminine perfection and it may be unrealistic but at least it is consistent with the character’s earlier behaviours.

Everything else about the epilogues (oh yes, there is more than one) is a touch peculiar.  Natasha’s beloved brother Nikolai has turned into a grumpy despot, snapping at his wife and children and generally showing very little of the charming young man he had once been.  I was particularly upset by this change since Nikolai in his youth had provided some of Tolstoy’s most amusing material.  His rapture as a young, untried soldier listening to an address from the sovereign was one of the most perfect scenes of the novel, highlighting the absurdity of such passionate yet blind devotion:

‘My God! what would happen to me if the sovereign addressed me!’ thought Rostov.  ‘I’d die of happiness.’

The sovereign also addressed the officers.

‘I thank you all, gentlemen’ (every word Rostov heard was like a sound from heaven), ‘with all my heart.’

How happy Rostov would be if he could die now for his sovereign!

‘You have merited the St George standards and will be worthy of them.’

‘Just to die, to die for him!’ thought Rostov.

The sovereign said something more which Rostov did not hear, and the soldiers, straining their cheers, shouted: ‘Hurrah!’

Rostov also shouted with all his might, leaning towards his saddle, wishing to hurt himself with this cry, only so as to fully express his rapture for the sovereign.

The sovereign stood for a few seconds facing the hussars, as if undecided.

‘How can a sovereign be undecided?’ thought Rostov, and then even this indecision seemed majestic and enchanting to Rostov, like everything the sovereign did.

From that disappointment, the epilogues just got stranger, with much (terrifyingly dull) pondering on the forces that shape the world.  For someone who managed to write hundreds of pages of terrifically entertaining narrative (not to mention wonderfully vivid battle scenes), this was a particularly stupefying way to conclude it.  I have to admit I skimmed most of it.

It is not a flawless novel but is there such a thing?  Some judicious editing would have been a great help in the sections where Tolstoy wanders off a bit and the writing in general isn’t particularly genius.  But it is a brilliantly entertaining novel, full of humour and emotion and characters so captivating that I am not sure I have ever met their equals.

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Before reading Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-1944 by Anna Reid, I knew nothing about the siege.  I had a vague memory from history class that it had in fact happened and, like seemingly most things involving Russia during the war, the fatalities were absurdly high.  It is a shocking and at times difficult book to read, given the epic scale of the tragedy, but it is an amazing record of what happened in the lead up to and during the almost 900 days of the siege.

The siege of Leningrad was the longest of the war and the deadliest in recorded history (approximately 750,000 civilians died).  As she begins, Reid tries to put the tragedy in context for the reader:

Other modern sieges – those of Madrid and Sarajevo – lasted longer, but none killed even a tenth as  many people.  Around thirty-five times more civilians died in Leningrad than in London’s Blitz; four times more than in the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima put together.

This is destruction on a scale I can’t even begin to process, especially given the very short time period in which most of it happen (estimates put the civilian deaths during the first winter of the siege at half a million).  Using diaries written during the siege and the memoirs of those who lived through it, Reid gives a vivid and chilling portrait of everyday life within the city as the trappings of civilization evaporated:

Over the course of three months, the city changed from something quite familiar – in outward appearance not unlike London during the Blitz – to the Goya-esque charnel house, with buildings burning unattended for days and emaciated corpses littering the streets.  For individuals the accelerating downward spiral was from relatively ‘normal’ wartime life – disruption, shortages, air raids – to helpless witness of the death by starvation of husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and children – and for many, of course, to death itself.

Due to inept Soviet bureaucracy, the city was particularly ill-prepared to withstand a siege.  Extra food stores that could have been sent were diverted away, leaving Leningrad with only a month’s worth of rations once the siege ring closed.  But the worst blunder, as Reid sees it, was the Soviet regime’s failure to evacuate Leningrad’s civilian population when they had the chance.  636,283 civilians (including Baltic refugees) were evacuated during the two months leading up to 29 August 1941, when the last train left.  Pointedly, Reid reminds us that “this compares with 660,000 civilians evacuated from London in only a few days on Britain’s declaration of war two years earlier.”  This left almost three million civilians within the siege circle, including 400,000 children and “over 700,000 other non-working dependents.”

The winter of 1941-1942 was unusually harsh and, by the time that weather set in, most of Leningrad’s buildings no longer had running water or electricity.  The city was under heavy German shelling but starvation was the real danger.  With so little food in the city when the siege began and with poorly judged rations that saw what stores there were being handed out too quickly, the food situation became dire almost immediately.  People who worked in food processing or distribution, unsurprisingly, had the best chance of surviving: “All 713 employees of the Krupskaya sweet factory survived; so did all those at the no. 4 bakery and at a margarine manufacturer.  At the Baltika bakery, only twenty-seven out of what grew from 276 to 334 workers died, all the victims being men.”  Anywhere else, those kind of survival rates were unheard of.  Leningraders tried to extract calories from clothing, household items, anything they could find really when the rations proved insufficient but, in many cases, that was not enough to keep them alive.  The ration system was modeled on the one used in the Gulags:

Though articulated as giving to each according to his needs, in practice it tended to preserve (just) the lives of those vital to the city’s defence – soldiers and industrial workers – and condemn office workers, old people, the unemployed and children to death.

Thanks to this design, it became possible to predict the order in which the members of a family would die of starvation:

…mortality followed a clear demographic.  In January 73 per cent of fatalities were male, and 74 per cent children under five or adults aged forty or over.  By May the majority – 65 per cent – were female, and a slightly smaller majority – 59 per cent – children under five or adults aged forty or over.  Children aged ten to nineteen made up only 3 per cent of the total in the first ten days of December, but 11 per cent in May.  Within a single family, therefore, the order in which its members typically died was grandfather and infants first, grandmother and father (if not at the front) second, mother and oldest children last.

The bulk of the book focuses on what happened from June 1941, when the Germans launched their attack on Russia, to the spring of 1942, after the first devastating winter of the siege.  The diary entries from this period are terrifying, offering a glimpse into the minds of those driven mad by hunger and by their horrific surroundings.  Honestly, all the details from this period are disturbing and I am not finding it easy to think back and to recall all of the things that I found so upsetting.  It is important that they are recorded and I feel thankful for having read this book, if only because I’d otherwise have had no idea of the scale of the siege’s destruction, but it is not a comfortable book to revisit.  It is unrelentingly horrifying.

The remaining two years of the siege (it ended in February 1944) are quickly summarized in a few chapters, which felt like a bit of a relief after having survived the gruesome details of the first winter but does seem strangely unbalanced.  The following winters were much warmer, ration levels were higher, electricity and water had been restored to many buildings, and Leningrad was down to a fifth of its pre-war population (after the deaths of the first winter and successful evacuations begun in early 1942).  Such relatively comfortable conditions are no match for the drama of that first, ill-prepared winter when 500,000 civilians died.

Though Reid’s focus is on the plight of civilians within Leningrad, she provides a good balance by reminding us every so often what the armies were doing.  Intriguingly, she uses the diaries of a German officer for this, allowing us to see the Red Army through his eyes.  It is not an inspiring sight.  Armed with rifles from the 19th Century, and poorly led and chaotically disorganized after Stalin’s military purges during the 1930s, those who had volunteered to fight in the summer of 1941 were ill-prepared to meet the German tank divisions.  Being treated as cannon-fodder, it did not take long for many soldiers to become disheartened and seek a way out:

Between 16 and 22 August 1941 more than four thousand servicemen were seized as suspected deserters while trying to get to Leningrad from the front, and in some medical units, a worried political report noted, up to 50 per cent of the wounded were suspected of self-mutilation.  At Evacuation Hospital no 61, for example, out of a thousand wounded 460 had been shot in the left forearm or left hand.

Though Reid does provide these glimpses into the lives of soldiers and their activities at the front, the focus of Leningrad is firmly on the civilians trapped in the city.  It is a social history, describing the thoughts and day-to-day activities of Leningraders, but the world in which they live is almost bizarrely unrecognizable.  Death is a constant and people become numbed by the sheer number of bodies in the streets, the number of friends and family lost.  As a reader though, I was anything but numbed.  Reid has crafted an absorbing chronicle of a horrific event, filling it with amazing detail and offering a good critical analysis of the siege myths presented in Soviet-era publications.  It is a wonderful book (not to be confused with an enjoyable one) and I’m very glad to have read it.

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When I was recapping my reading challenges for 2011 earlier this week, it became clear to me just what a wonderful time I’d had participating in the Eastern European Reading Challenge.  I did not reach my goal of reading twelve books – I managed eleven – but I learned so much and discovered some truly amazing authors who I had never tried before.  The challenge is being continued into 2012 and it didn’t take long for me to decide to continue with it.

I will again be aiming for the Scholar level (12 books).  Participates must choose titles about or by an author from any of the following regions: Croatia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Hungary, Belarus, Estonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Czech Rep., Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Romania, Moldova, and Kosovo.  Ideally, I’d like to read 6 fiction and 6 non-fiction books for the challenge but I won’t hold myself to that.  As always, the most important thing is to enjoy what books I do choose.

Of course the highlight of signing up for any challenge is creating a book list and I’m quite proud of this one (look!  It has categories!).  If you’re interested in joining the challenge and looking for more ideas, you can also check out my initial list from when I signed up and my list of what I actually read (there is shockingly little overlap between the two).  If you have any suggestions of books that would work for this challenge, ones you’ve read or even just heard of, please let me know!  I’m always looking for new ideas.


The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
The story of three unforgettable women whose destinies are tangled up in a family dynamic that is at turns hilarious and tragic.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić
Dubravka Ugrešić takes the story of Baba Yaga and weaves it into something completely fresh. The result is an extraordinary meditation on femininity, ageing, identity, secrets, storytelling and love.

They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy
An unrivaled portrait of the vanished world of pre-1914 Hungary, as seen through the eyes of two young Transylvanian cousins, Count Balint Abady and Count László Gyeroffy.

Kornél Esti by Dezső Kosztolányi
Here is a novel which inquires: What if your id (loyally keeping your name) decides to strike out on its own, cuts a disreputable swatch through the world, and then sends home to you all its unpaid bills and ruined maidens? And then: What if you and your alter ego decide to write a book together?

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
Joseph Roth’s classic saga of the privileged von Trotta family encompasses the entire social fabric of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just before World War I. The author’s greatest achievement, The Radetzky March is an unparalleled portrait of a civilization in decline, and as such is a universal story for our times.

The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek
Hašek’s most important work was centered around the deeply funny story of a hapless Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army — dismissed for incompetence only to be pressed into service by the Russians in World War I (where he is captured by his own troops). A mischief-maker, bohemian and drunk, Hašek demonstrated his wit in this classic novel of the Czech character and preposterous nature of war.

Cape of Storms by Nina Berberova
Nina Berberova portrays a very specific generation––one born in Russia, displaced by the Revolution, and trying to adapt to a new home, Paris. Three sisters––Dasha, Sonia, and Zai––share the same father, Tiagen, an attractive, weak-willed, womanizing White Russian, but each thinks differently about her inner world of beliefs and aspirations, and consequently each follows a different path.

The Golden Bird: Folk Tales from Slovenia by Vladimir Kavčić
Eighteen tales from Slovenia tell of clever and magical animals, beautiful princesses, brave princes, ogres, and demons.


Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
It is an old, old tale, the German story of Briar Rose, the Sleeping Beauty. Now one of America’s most celebrated writers tells it afresh, set this time in the forests patrolled by the German army during World War II. A tale of castles, of mists and thorns, of a beautiful sleeping princess, and an astonishing revelation of death and rebirth.

Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore
A sweeping epic of Russia from the last days of the Tsars to today’s age of oligarchs.

The Siege by Helen Dunmore
A brilliantly imagined novel about war as experienced by ordinary people, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.


On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk
Andrzej Stasiuk is a restless and indefatigable traveller. His journeys – by car, train, bus, ferry – take him from his native Poland to small towns and villages with unfamiliar yet evocative names in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Moldova and Ukraine.

Blue River, Black Sea by Andrew Eames
A journey along the Danube to the heart of the Europe nobody knows, exploring how much we really know about the “New Europe.”


How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel
Ota Pavel’s magical memoir of his childhood in Czechoslovakia.

Forbidden Bread: A Memoir by Erica Johnson-Debeljak
The author leaves behind a successful career as an American financial analyst to pursue Ales Debeljak, a womanizing Slovenian poet who catches her attention at a cocktail party. The story begins in New York City, but quickly migrates, along with the author, to Slovenia. As she struggles to forge an identity in her new home, Slovenia itself undergoes the transformation from a communist to a capitalist society.

A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl
Golden Prague seemed mostly gray when Patricia Hampl first went there in quest of her Czech heritage. In that bleak time, no one could have predicted the political upheaval awaiting Communist Europe and the city of Kafka and Rilke. Hampl’s subsequent memoir, a brilliant evocation of Czech life under socialism, attained the stature of living history, and added to our understanding not only of Central Europe but also of what it means to be engaged in the struggle of a people to define and affirm themselves.


When Miss Emmie Was in Russia: English Governesses Before, During and after the October Revolution by Harvey J. Pitcher
An intimate and revealing portrait of pre-Revolutionary Russian society which, contrary to received wisdoms, reveals a complex, liberal and humane society, full of enormous potential and past achievement. It is also the biography of five intrepid women who, by travelling abroad and working as governesses in Russia, achieved an intellectual dignity, a purpose and an authority which was denied them in their homeland.

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes
Beginning in the eighteenth century with the building of St. Petersburg and culminating with the Soviet regime, Figes examines how writers, artists, and musicians grappled with the idea of Russia itself–its character, spiritual essence, and destiny.

Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-1945 by Peter Demetz
A dramatic account of life in Czechoslovakia’s great capital during the Nazi Protectorate.

The Last Days of the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport
The brutal murder of the Russian Imperial family on the night of July 16–17, 1918 has long been a defining moment in world history. This book gives a riveting day-by-day account of the last fourteen days of their lives, as the conspiracy to kill them unfolded.


We the People by Timothy Garton Ash
On 4 June 1989 the Communist regime in Warsaw collapsed as Solidarity won the election, 12 days later Imre Nagy was buried in Budapest, 31 years after his execution. The Berlin Wall came down and in Prague, Vaclav Havel masterminded the Velvet Revolution. Timothy Garton Ash was witness to all these events.

The Czech Reader: History, Culture, Politics edited by Jan Bazant, Nina Bazantova, and Frances Starn
The Czech Reader brings together more than 150 primary texts and illustrations to convey the dramatic history of the Czechs, from the emergence of the Czech state in the tenth century, through the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and the Czech Republic in 1993, into the twenty-first century.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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