Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History

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Review: Balkan Ghosts by Robert D. Kaplan

I picked up Balkan Ghosts because I was interested in the subject matter, and I hadn’t read anything by Robert D. Kaplan before this. It’s interesting that this book was published in the “Vintage Departures” series because it might not have occurred to me that this book is a travelogue, even though Kaplan does spend much of the book on rickety trains and in decrepit hotels throughout the Balkans. So unmethodical are his travels that “travelogue” seems a misnomer. Nonetheless, Kaplan’s descriptions of the Balkans just months after the fall of Communism are illuminating. At every turn, he is digging up hidden details unseen by Western eyes during the decades of communism. Through the shattered republics of Yugoslavia he travels, then on to Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Kaplan imbues the book with an impressive amount of historical context, going to great lengths to avoid the generalizations that are more typically employed to explain the seemingly perpetual strife of the Balkans. The book was published in 1995, the mid-point of a bloody decade in the Balkans, and it contains a good deal of forewarning of what was to come to pass in the region in the coming years. In this sense the book is impressive in a third way. Beyond a travelogue, beyond a regional history, Balkan Ghosts is the rare “current events” book that will not soon become obsolete.

A Reading Queue for 2004

I recently reorganized my bookshelves. I straightened and categorized the books, and I separated out all of the books that I haven’t read and that I hope to read sooner rather than later. These are books that I’ve bought at the store, received as gifts, and unearthed on bookfinding expeditions. There are 31 of them. For a while now, I’ve had a quite large “to read” pile, and I add titles almost every week, it seems. The problem is that stacks of books are constantly getting pushed aside while I read whatever book I’m most excited about at the moment. There’s not really anything wrong with this except that there are books that I really would like to read, but never seem to get around to it. So, since I obviously am not to be trusted, I have decided to take some of the decision making out of my hands: I have set aside a special shelf to hold my new “Reading Queue.” On it are all of the books that I own and would like to read but haven’t yet. From this shelf full of books, I will randomly select the next one to read. Before I get into that though, here’s my reading queue, some of the books that will keep me occupied during the coming year:Without Feathers by Woody AllenThe Summer Game by Roger AngellOnce More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader by Roger AngellGame Time: A Baseball Companion by Roger AngellAn Army at Dawn by Rick AtkinsonThe Sheltering Sky by Paul BowlesThe Hole in the Flag by Andrei CodrescuDon Quixote by Miguel De CervantesParis Trout by Pete DexterThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre DumasThe Last Amateurs by John FeinsteinA Season on the Brink by John FeinsteinLiving to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezLast Train to Memphis by Peter GuralnickThe Great Fire by Shirley HazzardRound Rock by Michelle HunevenThe Known World by Edward P. JonesBalkan Ghosts by Robert D. KaplanShah of Shahs by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Price of Admiralty by John KeeganEverything’s Eventual by Stephen KingLiar’s Poker by Michael LewisThe Coming of Rain by Richard MariusThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLooking for a Ship by John McPheeMoviegoer by Walker PercyFraud by David RakoffThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver SacksEast of Eden by John SteinbeckQuicksilver by Neal StephensonMr. Jefferson’s University by Garry WillsOnce I had a full shelf to pick from, the only question was how to pick randomly. I thought about writing down names and picking out of hat, but that seemed like a pain, and I would have had to go look for a hat, so instead I located a random number generator to help me make my choice. I’m going back east tomorrow for two weeks, so I picked three books to take with me: Everything’s Eventual, Paris Trout, and Don Quixote. I’m guessing most folks will be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks, and so will I, so I’ll probably only post a couple of times while I’m gone. They should be good, though. Look for “My Year in Books” and a post about the books I gave as gifts. Happy Holidays, all.

Mother Russia

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading two illuminating books about the Soviet Union. Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum is the first compresive account of the Soviet system of forced labor and random terror. Now that the shroud of secrecy and propaganda is lifted, the reality of twentieth century Soviet Union, and especially the period of Stalin’s rule, is of a catastrophically malfunctioning totalitarian state. At times the horror of the Gulag is almost unfathomable. Applebaum’s research here is clearly very thorough. She makes ample use of survivor memoirs, recently opened Soviet archives, and interviews. Gulag is an unwavering look at a piece of human history that is difficult to behold. Any inclination to sympathise with the Soviets is dispelled by this remarkable book. If Gulag is a book about the rot at the center of the Soviet system, then Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick chronicles the point at which the rot became more powerful than the Communist Party’s iron fist. Remnick is a storyteller telling the story of a riveting period in history. As he writes, “To live anywhere between Bonn and Moscow in 1989 was to be witness to a year-long polical fantasy. You had the feeling you could run into history on the way to the bank or the seashore.” Lucky for us, Remnick spent 1989 (as well as the years before and after) in Moscow. Reading these two books simultaneously has provoked in me a minor obsession with 20th century Russian history, which is fantastic because in the last year alone several compelling books about the subject have come out. I’ll let you know if and when I read them.Some Good BookfindingToday, on my day off, I went by a nearby Goodwill store and found a mini treasure trove of good reading. The best find was 7 old issues of Granta, each one chock full of fantastic writers, including some of my favorites like Ryszard Kapuscinski, T. C. Boyle, and Haruki Murakami. Flipping through the tables of contents, I can see I’m in for some great reading. I let you know what I find. I also bought an old issue of Story magazine from 1997 featuring stories by Heidi Julavits and Bobbi Ann Mason among several others. I don’t know who is giving away old literary magazines but I was more than happy to find them. I also found two history books that look pretty great: Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan which is about Eastern Europe and The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan, a history of naval warfare. And just in case all these books are too serious I found a copy of The Essential Calvin And Hobbes for only two bucks… yes!Don’t ForgetGo to Realistic Records to get a copy of the Recoys album. And go see them play Friday June 20th 9pm… Kingsland Tavern at the corner of Kingsland and Nassau in Greenpoint (that’s Brookyn by the way). I’ll be there!

Surprise Me!

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