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Books 2003: Belarus and Eastern Europe

These are the best books that I've read or re-read in 2002 and some of those that I'm planning to read in 2003. Most of the presented books relate to Belarus or the region at large (our dear Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rzecz Pospolita, etc.). By clicking on any of the books and ordering it from Amazon you will greatly help this otherwise non-commercial website, at least to cover the webhosting costs. By ordering books here you help grow in the cyberspace. And I am very thankful for this! Wishing you all the best in 2003!

1. Europe: A History   by Norman Davies


"This work belongs on the bookshelf of anyone studying European history." -- I totally agree with the reviewer. Although I have not had time to read it completely--the book contains more than 1000 pages! But I've really enjoyed the parts that I did read. By the way, there is even a special insert on BNR (Belarusan National Republic of 1918).

From the reviews:

...For anyone to write a book on a topic as sweeping as the history of Europe is bound to be a monumentally daunting task. To write such a history that attempts to be balanced and inclusive is even more difficult. Davies' book is the best European history that I have come across, and I can't see how one could write a better history without covering multiple volumes or including multiple authors.

Thirdly, eastern Europe is finally given some due attention. Too many European histories have tended to dwell on northern and/or western parts of the continent. Only someone such as Davies, whose specialty is Polish history, could adequately include the more neglected parts of Europe. I especially liked his telling of the Soviet liberation of Warsaw during the last years of WW2 as contrasted with the Allied liberation of Paris at about the same time. It was definitely an eye-opener.

2. Pan Tadeusz / English and Polish Text   by Adam Mickiewicz, K.R.MacKenzie (trans.)


"Litwo, ojczyzno moje. Ty jestes jak zdrowie!" This is a must-have for anybody, interested in the history of our lands, of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Adam Mickiewicz was born and grew up in the Grand Duchy, in Navahrudak (Nowogrudek), a town now in Western Belarus. Although most people know Adam Mickiewicz as a Polish writer, he is considered a great national poet of the Grand Duchy, and thus Lithuanians and Belarusians praise him as much or may be even more than the Poles themselves.

From the reviews: In recent years many of the East European authors and artists have been rediscovered by the dominating Western sphere of writers, artist, and the litterature critics. This book is one of the jewels resurfaced in the circles of scholars and historians, but also among the everyday reader. The story is a description of the then social sphere of the society, where people are born within a class and are influenced by it, regardless of they likeing it or not. This is realism and romanticism at best, entangled in a passionate embrace. A delight to read.

I should add that this bilinguial edition would be very useful for those who want to study or refresh their knowledge of Polish.

3. Sign of Misfortune   by Vasil Bykau, Alan Meyers (transl.)


Here is one curious review from Publishers Weekly:

"This careful translation of Bykau's 1982 excellent, unrelentingly bleak drama serves to introduce Belarus' foremost living writer to the American public. Two elderly peasants, Stepanida and her husband Petroc, eke out a living on an allotment carved from an estate in the eastern Soviet republic. Having survived the horrors of agricultural collectivization during the 1930s, which caused a near-famine in their village, they now face a new terror--Nazi occupation. The Germans, with the help of vindictive local polizei who bear a grudge against the garrulous Stepanida for her Communist activism prior to the war, requisition their farm. Bykau's descriptions of fluctuations of nature and Stepanida and Petroc's stoic endurance through years of suffering and deprivation are contrasted with the deliberate brutality of the Nazi occupiers. Even when the Germans are finally forced to retreat, the elderly couple's misfortunes do not end. Petroc, who, unlike his wife, is an optimist, tries his hand at making vodka to use as a bargaining chip. But the polizei's demands become insatiable, and when he is unwilling to meet them, events move quickly to a tragic end. Bykau's sturdy yet evocative prose conveys the strength of the Russian [sic!] character during a grim period of history."

The last sentence stopped me cold, of course. If not for this last phrase, I would say it is a nice review. I've seen a Soviet translation of this book, and it was quite bad. As far as I heard Alan Meyers has done much better job!

4. Treasury of Love Poems   by Adam Mickiewicz, Krystyna Olszer (Editor)


This book is on my wishlist for 2003. It is a collection of Mickiewicz's love poems in Polish and English. I have read "Pan Tadeusz", and I have read some of the poems in English translation, but I really would like to have this bilinguial volume.

By the way, in order to save money, you can actually buy it together with "Pan Tadeusz" -- you will see the appropriate link on the Amazon page.

5. Escape to the Forest: Based on a True Story of the Holocaust   by Ruth Yaffe Radin, Ruth Yaffe Radin


I think, it's a bit too short and simplistic for a serious adult reader, but still the story is quite fascinating. Here are some quotes from other reviewers:

"a short, accessible novel that could serve as a introduction to the realities of the Holocaust. Sarah, a young Jewish girl, lives in eastern Poland, where the Russians have taken control of her town and imposed harsh restrictions."

Well, the location is no Poland. Lida is located in Western Belarus.

One more review:

"Ten-year-old Sarah and her family must leave their home and live in a Jewish ghetto surrounded by barbed wire. There, life is a nightmare of cold and hunger where Nazi soldiers kill Jews at will. But Sarah still hears stories that give her hope--stories about a man who lives in the nearby forest, fighting the Nazis and sheltering the Jews."

6. The Last Sunrise: A True Story   by Harold Gordon


From the publisher: "This is a true story of a ten year old boy who survived almost five years in Nazi concentration camps. A child who lost everyone he loved and everything he owned and emerged healthy in body and in mind."

The action takes place in Hrodna, Belarus. I still have not read the book, but I presume it should be more interesting and serious than "Escape to the Forest" (which I mentioned here as well).

7. The Bronski House: A Journey Back   by Philip Marsden


This is the information from the publisher: "The late poet Zofia Ilinska, nee Bronski, fled Poland in September 1939 at the start of World War II; she was 17. Along with her mother, Zofia settled on the English coast in Cornwall. In 1993, after receiving a letter from a cousin in Poland asking her to visit, Zofia returned to her native village"

And one of the reviews: "The language is so poetic and fluent, it hurls you away, lightly and fluffily to a different era; a world long gone and forgotten. It has something of an East European Gone With The Wind theme, only much more concise and fleetingly. I longed for more pages, a hundred more, fivehundred more, in this novel too timid and subdued somehow. Perfect script for a fullblown-no-expenses-spared Hollywood film!"

The funny thing is that Belarus is listed as the chief keyword for this book. I have not read it yet, but it is on my wish list. And I will add more comments about this book, once I read it (at least, I will find out why Belarus is on top of the keyword list).

8. Pack of Wolves   by Vasil Bykau, Lynn Solotaroff (transl.)


Amazon says this book is out of print and is of "limited availability" (only used), but there is a nice short review:

Vasil Bykau is the Belarusan author of a dozen novels based on his own wartime experience. "Pack of Wolves" was his first book to be translated into English. This engaging story is presented in a series of flashbacks revolving around a suspenseful life-or-death struggle. Lauchuk, a one-armed veteran, arrives in an unfamiliar city, hoping to find someone he met thirty years ago. That brief meeting took place during the War. As Lauchuk nervously awaits his reunion with a man he never got to know, he reminisces about a fateful two-day ordeal in 1943: ...Lauchuk, a machine-gunner, has been disabled by a sniper's bullet. A stupid, useless wound, just because he had craved a smoke. So now he must leave the front, and worse, accompany an aging orderly, a gravely injured paratrooper, and a pregnant radio operator to the medical unit. It will be a dangerous journey. To break out of German encirclement, the little band forges a swamp, wrestling their horse and cart through treacherous bogs. They narrowly elude a Nazi patrol, and lose one of their number when they are forced to run for their lives under fire. But their ordeal is only beginning. Klava goes into labor just as local Polizei (collaborators) strike their trail. A drying shed in a burned out village provides a shelter for Klava to deliver her son, until the refugees are set upon by their pursuers. Then begins their desperate battle, only now it is for the survival of the band's newest member. And ultimately Lauchuk will have to make a life-changing decision... Like most of Bykau's stories, "Pack of Wolves" addresses the humanity of the characters as they struggle with inhumane circumstances.

9. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting   by Milan Kundera, Aaron Asher (trans.)


This is my most favorite Kundera's work. I even translated several chapters into Belarusian -

From the reviews: THE BOOK OF LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING is a rare and precious jewel. In many ways this is an experimental novel, the seven different parts of the book are compared by the author to Beethoven's variations upon a musical theme. These different variations either describe, converge upon, or dance around the story of Tamina, a Czech exile who ran away from the communists with her husband only to see him die of disease soon afterward. As time passes she becomes obsessed with the mortal fear that she will forget him. She cannot go back to her homeland but she can try to get her husband's love letters back, to bring some of his laughter back into her life, to remind her that she is not alone.

Tamina's homeland meanwhile, still languishes and suffers under the boot of the Soviet Union. The intellectuals who were so excited about communism in the late 1940s can't believe how wrong it goes over the next twenty years and try to correct their mistake. But the Soviets will have none of their "stalking a lost deed" as Kundera calls it--just as the Czechs are succeeding in relaxing the strictures of totalitarianism, in storm the Soviet tanks in 1968, ending the "Prague Spring" and delaying freedom in Eastern Europe for another twenty-one years

10. The Unbearable Lightness of Being   by Milan Kundera, Michael Henry Heim (trans.)


From the publisher: "Set first in Czechoslovakia, then in Switzerland, Kundera's story tells the sometimes laborious story of a womanizing Czech surgeon forced to flee the Russian invasion and take on menial roles, giving his passion for the flesh a slighly different perspective, as he is no longer a doctor but just a window-washer. His relationship with this current female-of-choice, the interesting and puzzling Tereza, is at the center of the novel."

Most people consider this as Kundera's best book. In my opinion, this is not the case. Still, I enjoyed it greatly, read it again in 2002.

11. Ignorance   by Milan Kundera, Linda Asher (transl.)


I have not read this one yet. This is one of the new novels from Milan Kundera, it's on my 2003 wish list.

From the reviews: Bypassing the question of whether you can ever go home again, Milan Kundera's Ignorance tackles instead what happens when you actually get there. Ignorance is the story of two Czechs who meet by chance while traveling back to their homeland after 20 years in exile. Irena, who fled the country in 1968 with her now-deceased husband Martin, returns to Prague only to find coldness and indifference on the part of her former friends. Josef, who emigrated after the Russian invasion, is back in Prague to fulfill a wish of his beloved late wife. As fate would have it, the two have met before in their former lives, and the before-skirted passionate encounter is now destined to transpire. However, as in the story of Odysseus, which this novel so deliberately parallels, every homecoming brings with it a conflicting set of emotions so powerful that one has to question whether the voyage is really worth the pain. Expertly tackling the philosophical and emotional themes of nostalgia, memory, love, loss, and endurance, Kundera continues to astound readers with his masterful ability to understand and articulate issues so central to the human condition."

12. The ordeal   by Vasil Bykau


I've read it only in Belarusian. Unfortunately, Amazon says this book is out of print and is of "limited availability", they don't even have the picture of the book cover. I really hope there will be a new edition soon. >>>

13. Sotnikau   by Vasil Bykau


I've read it only in Belarusian, back in high school. Unfortunately, Amazon says this book is out of print and is of "limited availability", they don't even have the picture of the book cover. >>>

14. The Pyramid   by Ismail Kadare


My wife bought it for me in Tirana airport and brought it all the way to Minsk. Although Jonada paid double the price, I think it was worth it. Afterwards this books has traveled with me to Hungary and Germany...

One of the reviewers:Aside from the translation, which is stilted and occasionally inappropriate (unlikely idioms appear in odd places), this is a harrowing little book. The Egyptian Pharoah Cheops and the story of construction of the pyramid which bears his name is the basis for an elegant parable. The casual brutality with which the tyrant exercises power seems as appropriate to ancient Egypt as it does to a Stalinist Soviet Union a Maoist China or Enver Hoxa's Albania.

15. The General of the Dead Army   by Ismail Kadare


From a review: "An Italian general is sent to Albania in the early 1960s to locate and disinter the bones of the thousands of his countrymen who died there during World War II. He and his partner, a sinister priest who is also an Italian Army colonel, run into a rather atypically unorganized German team doing the same. This miserable task takes a couple years. Over the course of the tale, we realize that the general is totally unpenitent and still rather hostile to those who [fighting off invasion and occupation] put his countrymen six feet under. Gradually his insensitivity is revealed as moral corruption. Neither priest nor general have clean hands"

It is one of the early novels of Ismail Kadare (if not the first one), but I heard it's great, and I am really looking forward to reading it this year. It's on my wish list.

16. Let's Go 2003: Eastern Europe   by Inc. "Let's Go"


The guide contains 928 pages. From the publisher: "For over forty years Let's Go Travel Guides have brought budget savvy travelers closer to the world and its diverse cultures by providing the most up-to-date information." Usually, the Belarus part is quite good (at least, in the 1999 and 2001 editions). I hope this year will not be disappointing either. >>>

17. Lonely Planet: Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus   by Richard Nebesky


"Lonley Planet treats Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as if it still were part of the same country it was 11 years ago. All three countries have their unique pluses and minuses, and, lets face it, deserve their own individual guides. The reader is not being made aware enough and therefore does not really appreciate the fact that, for example, Russia and Ukraine are very different from one another, and any similarities are far less common than once assumed." -- from one of the reviews. I've read the Belarus part from the 1999 edition, and had the same impression. Perhaps, they don't even rewrite it much from year to year. >>>

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