Tuesday, December 15, 2015

#5 Central Europe (CE)-- THE READING LIST

So what have I been reading during the past six months? I would guess some of you reading this blog know I toured Central Europe( shortened to CE) for 25 days in August, September with my brother, sister-in-law and 26 other retired academics from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana under the auspices of Friendship Force, an international travel and hosting organization working to improve understanding and knowledge of people and places around the world. The trip covered Slovakia, Vienna, Slovenia,Croatia, Hungary and back through Slovakia by motor coach, seeing many spectacular sights, eating great food and drinking fine wines and beers, and just generally having a swell time.

My older brother was in charge of this trip so you know where this is going. If you have an older brother, especially one who was a teacher, department head of a college department and dean of arts and sciences, you know the trip will be well planned. Integral to this was the reading and viewing list stretching several hundred pages about each country, city and site to be visited so we would be prepared. While most travelers ignored the list, I viewed and read as time allowed. I would certainly recommend movies like Kolya and A Shop on Main Street as excellent introductions to understanding Central Europe.

The books that I read that were most helpful to me were also limited. I read a number of stories in "Description of a Struggle: the Vintage Book of Contemporary Eastern European Writing" that collected 43 stories from authors in 16 countries. One story, I think called "The War", sticks in my memory especially as we travelled through what was Yugoslavia and the scene of so much fighting from World War l through the civil wars as the country broke up in the 1980s after the death of Tito. A small company of soldiers crosses a mountain pass and comes on a town, silent with death. Upon inspection, it appears partisans from the opposition have massacred everyone, stolen everything and moved on. The kicker is neither group of soldiers is named-- are they Nazis, slavic partisans, communists? It doesn't matter in the utter horror of war.

Simon Winder's "Danubia" was also on the list so I gave it a try and read the whole deal, all 576 pages of history of the Habsburg Empire that ran Central Europe from Bratislava and Vienna for 500 years until World War l brought Austria and Emperor Franz Joseph to an end. The book was equal parts interesting history, travel narrative and the author's views(sometimes odd) on music, culture, food, sex. animals in zoos.

A book not on the list but of great interest is a brand new book, "Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning" by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. I read this before the trip and it framed a lot of my thinking as we traveled. Snyder's thesis is that to understand the Holocaust, one must understand Adolf Hitler and his deterministic view that people and races could be eliminated or enslaved if they prevented the master group's progress. He admired the US removal of native American people from lands that were needed for farming, mining and sought to do that in CE with the goal to make the Ukraine a German territory. When military victories over the Soviet Union stopped at Moscow's outskirts, Hitler thought his goal in the war would be to totally eradicate the Jews, gypsies,and all other "undesirables" from Europe leading to the change from casual death pits at the edge of towns to an industrial model that led to Auschwitz.This is an important book that doesn't just deal with the past, but looks at the condition of today and asks if it could happen again.

During the trip I re-read "The Good Soldier Svejk" by Jaroslav Hasek, written in 1923 about the bumbling adventures of a Czech soldier in the services of the Emperor and the Austrian army fighting the slavs and the Russians in WW l. While not a travel book it is very funny and does describe a number of sites visited in CE.

The final book related to the tour was Dan Fesperman's "Lie in the Dark"(1999) which is set in Sarajevo, Bosnia as the Serbs pound the city that hosted the summer Olympics a few years earlier but now is a battlefield in a civil war. Vlado Petric is a city police detective who discovers the murdered body of the chief of the federal ministry of special police on the street in "snipers alley". Petric is assigned the investigation as war rages around those left in the city with no food, water, electricity. Corruption and cynicism are the two commodities that rule as Bosnians and Serbs who are sniping and mortaring each other 24/7, deal with each other to sell UN-supplied food. Why was the police chief killed? So that's what I've been reading the past six months.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

#4 June 2015- The Never-Open Desert Diner & The World of the Old Ones

#4 June 2015- The Never-Open Desert Diner & The Lost World of the Old Ones

So, what have I been reading since the last posting two years ago? Hard to remember, but I think I read through several series-- Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther books, Henning Mankell's Wallender books, and the Thomas Perry Butcher's Boy series. I'm sure there were many other books picked up and read or abandoned after 100 pages and magazines- Economist, Forbes, Car& Driver, Road & Track, etc. occupy way too much time.

But now I'm ready to report on two new books that have settled into my thoughts and reading time. James Anderson of  Oregon and the Four Corners Region debuted with his novel "The Never-Open Desert Diner" early 2015. Ben Jones, a thirty-eight year old, unmarried over-the-road truck driver, is facing the loss of his business and leased truck to bankruptcy as he delivers boxes to one of the most desolate areas of the US-- Utah Highway 117 off US 191 between Price and Rockmuse UT, a ghost town when the coal mines closed. He mostly encounters desert "rats" living in isolation, desert preachers and 79 year old Walt Butterfield, the owner of the Diner and a collection of classic motorcycles that he rides across the desert and on the highways.

Ben meets Claire, a mysterious woman who is living in an abandoned tract house in a development that never developed as she silently plays a cello without strings in a bare living room. Suddenly Ben's life is changed as Claire's story intertwines with the horror of Walt's history and a mystery about a stolen, multi-million dollar cello.The book is a beautifully written presentation of life in the desert with clear evocations of death by dehydration, heat prostration and drowning in a previously dry arroyo balanced with loving depictions of the light of sunrise and sunset, the vegetation and geology and especially the people who live in such an environment.

The second book I want to highlight is David Roberts "The Lost World of the Old Ones:Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest." World-class mountain climber Roberts focuses on the Colorado Plateau in this followup to his earlier, cult-classic"In Search of the Old Ones"(1996) which led to his banning by BLM officials from a number of areas where his descriptions of sites led pot hunters and ruin desecrators to do their bad work. This book is very careful to avoid giving directions, GPS coordinates, etc. to bad actors but it does present updates on Robert's travels, explorations by climbing, hiking,and boating, discoveries of archaeologists and plenty of disagreements about what happened to Folsom people, the Ancient Puebloans/Anasazi, and the people of the Rio Grande. The book is by turns witty, angry and inciteful but it is never boring or overly academic. This is the book for anyone traveling, hiking, climbing the Colorado Plateau.