Review | Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

IRON CURTAIN by Anne Applebaum

“This book is dedicated to those Eastern Europeans who refused to live within a lie.”

History of World War II during my academic years has always been compiled of how the war began, who where the enemies and allies, and how the West saved the world,—forget colonization, forget imperialism, forget the East, forget the rise of Communism—fast forward and now we’re on the Cold War. When the West abandoned the East—the Western betrayal, as they call it—at the hands of the Soviet Regime, Communism took over. A silent and deadly enemy that at first gave the East hope given that the Nazis had already destroyed half of their worlds, but quickly became their new threat to freedom.

“The people of the region were not faced with a blank slate in 1944 or 1945, after all, and they were not themselves starting from scratch. Nor did they emerge from nowhere, with no previous experiences, ready to start fresh. Instead, they climbed out of the basements of their destroyed homes, or walked out of the forest where they had been living as partisans, or slipped away from the labor camp where they had been imprisoned, if they were healthy enough, and embark upon long, complicated journeys back to their homelands.”

This book not only covers the political events of the time, but also the cultural influences of the media on the Eastern cultures (specific portions of the book dedicates itself to explaining how the Soviet regime tried to censor radical movements of freedom of expression pouring from the West). The consistent ban over the idea of freedom of expression is something, if you look close enough, is still a tactic utilized by many Middle-eastern totalitarian regimes today. History, as they say, repeats itself.

A massive advantage I had whilst reading this book was that I already knew a lot of material Applebaum covers in this book. In fact, my sole interest in this book was due to having studied Eastern European countries my third year of University and being completely amazed at how much Western Europe dominated my history textbooks.

Applebaum focuses on Hungary, Germany, and Poland specifically in this book and while I wished we get more from other regions of the East, I was amazed at the density of the history. Eastern Europe is an area more diverse then the West so while I was happy to read German and Polish history (both of these I would consider Western nations), I also wanted to hear from the Eastern/Central countries (ex. Serbia, Croatia, etc.) where a lot more tensions remain today because of what happened 60+ years ago. Both in terms of how the West made bad decisions on behalf of people they knew nothing about but also how they were abandoned after the “victory” of WWII, I wanted to enlighten myself with the perspective of the other side of the world.

I loved that not only is Applebaum thorough in her research but also privately blunt about what happened after WWII ended. She frequently quotes the average person observing the changes in history and not only are many of these words razor-sharp and chilling, but her own observations of listening to these accounts are eye-opening. Of course I knew of the brutality that Communism opposed on it’s neighboring nations, but to hear about how people coped in this barbaric environment was frankly too much at times.

For instance, in “Ideal Cities,” Applebaum quotes Ryszard Kapuściński—a writer himself—going to observe a neighbor on behalf of his newspaper(Sztandar Młodych):

“Not long ago, a fourteen-year-old girl infected an army of boys [with venereal disease]. When we met her, she described her achievement with such vulgarity that we wanted to vomit. She isn’t alone. Not all of them are so young, but there are many. Go to the Mogilski forest, to “Tajwan,” to “Kozedo” [names of pubs]…In Nowa Huta there are apartments where in one room the mother takes money from men, and in the other the daughter makes it up to them. There is more than one such apartment…

And now look at the life of a young man here in the factory. He gets up early, he goes to work. He comes back at three. That’s it. At three, his day ends. I’ve walked around the dorms where such men lived. I’ve looked inside: they are sitting. Actually that’s the only activity they do. They don’t talk, what is there to talk about? They could read, but they aren’t used to it; they could sing, but that would bother others; they could fight, but they don’t want to. They just—sit. The more active wander around the streets. Hell, maybe there is somewhere to go[…]”

The author generally writes in a reader-friendly style but it definitely will not read as easy as fiction. Take notes. Highlight. If you don’t like to do either in your copies, buy another copy. Don’t just “wing it,” because the history narrated here is incredibly important.

On a final note, I think the book also ends on an incredibly powerful Epilogue:

Before a nation can be rebuilt, its citizens need to understand how that was destroyed in the first place: how its institutions were undermined, how its language was twisted, how its people were manipulated. They need to know particular details, not general theories, and they need to hear individuals stories, not generalizations about the masses. They need a better grasp of what motivated these predecessors, to see them as real people and not as black-and-white characters, victims, or villains. Only then is it possible, slowly, to rebuild.

Rating – ★★★★★

Review | The Story of a New Name

THE STORY OF A NEW NAME by Elena Ferrante

First half of this novel is quite repetitive in the constant cycle of teenage silences, jealousies, and resentments. The second half moves rapidly; firing one blow after another at you—the drama never stops. I devoured this book.

I love Lila. I know this might be a contradictory opinion but honestly, if you stop and think about it, Lila has to go through so much fucking shit. She is literally cursed by her own beauty. In the previous novel she uses her appearance to gain what she wants—can we blame her? Wouldn’t we all do the same?—and her naive mistakes lead her into even bigger tragedies. The men in her life constantly treat her either as child or a kept mistress who might as well have killed someone for all the blaming that she has to take.

What Lila is searching for is what all women want. Safety. And she does everything that she can to gain it, but it remains just outside her reach. She marries because she wants safety, realizing her husband exercises his rights as her husband to beat her more often then love her. She has an affair with another man because she hopes her lover will protect her. But an affair in this society clearly isn’t going to work out well—and it unfortunately doesn’t. But she still searches. She gets raped, abused, humiliated, and so much much more. Analyzing the psychology condition of this woman’s mind would drive one to insanity.

Elena, in comparison, has the easier road. It would be horrifying to say it’s because she wasn’t as “pretty” as Lila but, once again, these women are living a ferocious, savage world and a woman’s beauty is her curse. Elena escapes this curse. Lila doesn’t.

Ferrante is incredibly skilled at making you care even when you don’t want to. Making you watching when you want to look away. I loved this book, I loved Lila, and I loved Elena.

And much like its predecessor, this novel also hangs you at the end of a cliff hanger. I learned my lesson; never buy a Ferrante novel unless you have money handy for the next one.

Rating – ★★★★☆

Review | Bleak House

BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens

A new favorite. This almost never happens.

I curse listening to readers of my generation and all those who’ve kept me from Dickens so long. One of the major complaints I hear about Dickens is that he’s verbose. Maybe it’s because today we expect everything short and quick and thus our minds are trained to gloss over any sentence longer then 10 words long, but I have to disagree with this statement. I think Dickens has a tendency to meander about here and there but to say a 900 page book could’ve been reduced to 300 pages…I dare you on that note: tell me how.

At the center of ‘Bleak House’ we have the Jarndyce and Jarndyce court case and supposedly, Dickens wrote this novel as a part commentary of the English justice system. I do not know, nor do I care a bit, about what he intended to achieve in terms of discussing the law and the government’s failure to deliver justice. What I was most engrossed with was the story. Because…wow.

What most amazes me is the detailing of the novel and how masterfully it is written. I am not a writer so I don’t know how hard writers have to work, but I cannot imagine the amount of work put into producing this novel. I adore Dickens’ writing style and the way he weaves one story into another as we progress. I’d be lying if I said sometimes the innumerable characters gets to be stressful, but they all have a purpose and when you read the last page of the novel and close the book…you’ll love it. I have rarely ever been as deeply embedded into such a large work and despite all its complexity, this novel was incredibly difficult to put down. (Really, I can’t stress this enough—I’m a coward when it comes to big books. I don’t do big books.)

I did have to reflect more thoroughly on the way the novel is structured—in a dual narrative, with one side following a unidentified narrator and on the other, Ester Summerson. I loved Ester’s chapters much more then the other ones but in the end, I did struggle with understanding why she had to have her own narrative (and why she couldn’t be replaced by anyone else residing in the Bleak house). I have since dug deeper and realized that Ester’s instinct to want to heal others is a much-required contrast to the chaos which ensues in the other narrative.

Ester herself I truly loved. Her compassion was honorable and there were times when I just wanted to hug her for her sweet and admirable gestures, in attempts to keep everyone at peace. Mr. Jarndyce himself quite surprised me in the end with his supportive gesture towards Ester. I was saddened by the ending some of the other characters receive but knowing at least one of my favorite characters gets her own happy ending, I am content with it at this point. Although it’s hard not to feel disheartened by Lord and Lady Dedlock’s fates.

I can go on for a while here but I’ll end it there.

Rating – ★★★★★

Review | Irlanda by Espido Freire

IRLANDA by Espido Freire

Irlanda opens with the death of Natalie’s sister and her going to live with her cousin, Irlanda, for a little while. Natalie is a peculiar person in that she talks to dead turtles and sees the ghost of her dead sister, Sargario, wherever she goes.

The writing (or rather the translation) is done quite well. It was a pleasure reading this book and some of the passages in the story are so dark that I was completely enthralled. I read this book in one siting and was blown away by it’s quick ability to grasp my attention so thoroughly.

I think the book is too short for me to have taken my time guessing and thinking, but I ended up predicting the mystery behind Natalie’s strange personality and why she does/thinks the way she does. It doesn’t take much away from the enjoyment but it does make me wish the novel was longer or perhaps the mystery had been more intricate.

Rating – ★★★★☆

Review | New World Fairy Tales

NEW WORLD FAIRY TALES by Cassandra Parkin

I’d initially thought that this collection of short stories was going to be very strong on the fantasy element but, while it’s clear that these are all fairytale retellings, all the stories are realistic with only hints of magic scattered throughout—which was in itself expertly done.

The stories are as follows:
♥ Interview #4 – 4 stars. Unsurprisingly, this was the one I loved immediately—since Cinderella was amongst my favorite tales growing up—even though it was the simplest one. It’s also the one that completely sucked me in from the start and I read the first 40% of the collection because of this one starter story. Amazing!

♥ Interview #9 – 5 stars. This got a bit political. So of course I was going to love it. Here is where the the “fairytale,” the “magic,” and the contemporary setting blended perfectly.

♥ Interview #15 – 4 stars. I absorbed this one like a breath of fresh air. There was so much beauty and so much ugliness. It was a pleasure.

♥ Interview #17 – 4 stars. The ending of this one really surprised me and while I don’t think it’s too original at this point (I mean come on, it’s 2016 and there are many plots that’ve utilized this twist) but I still have to hand it to the author to keep me on the edge of my seat throughout.

♥ Interview #26 – 3 stars. This one was new and more difficult to relate to a fairytale but I still enjoyed it. I’d guessed something even darker for Thomas then what was given so unfortunately, this was the story I liked the least—though not by much obviously.

♥ Interview #42 – 5 stars. Snow White is a boy. And he is gay. And I loved it.

Would highly recommend this collection to newer readers of magical realism, fairytale retellings, or short story collections! It’s made you to slip into a dark but delicious little secrets.

Rating – ★★★★☆

#ReadSoulLit: Poem of the Day

SLAVE SALE: NEW ORLEANS by Charles Reznikoff

To begin with, the slaves had to wash themselves well,
and the men who had beards had to shave them off;
the men were then given a new suit each,
cheap but clean, and a hat, shirt, and shoes;
and the women were each given a frock of calico
and a handkerchief to tie about their heads.
They were then led by the man selling them into a large room;
the men placed on one side, the women at the other;
the tallest at the head of each row
and then the next in size
and so on to the shortest.

Many called to look at the slaves for sale
and the seller kept talking about their qualities;
made them hold up their heads and walk about briskly;
and those who might buy had them open their mouths
to look at their teeth,
and felt their arms and bodies,
just as they might a horse for sale;
and asked each what they could do.
Sometimes a man or woman would be taken to a small house
in the yard,
to be stripped and looked at carefully:
if they had the scars of whips on their backs
that would show they had been troublesome.

During the day a number of sales were made;
and a planter from Baton Rouge bought Eliza’s little son.
Before that the boy had to jump and run across the floor
to show his activity.
But all the time the trade was going on,
his mother was crying and wringing her hands
and kept begging the man who was thinking of buying the boy
not to buy him unless he bought her, too,
and her little daughter:
and Eliza kept saying that if he did she would be “the most
faithful slave that ever lived.”
But the man from Baton Rouge said he could not afford to
buy her,
and then she began to cry aloud in her grief.

The man selling the slaves turned on her, his whip lifted,
and told her to stop her noise:
if she would not stop her “sniveling”
he would take her into the yard
and give her a hundred lashes.
She tried to wipe away her tears
but could not
and said she wanted to be with her children
and kept begging the man selling the slaves and the man from
Baton Rouge—
who by that time had bought her son—
not to separate the three of them, mother, son, and daughter;
and over and over again kept saying how faithful and obedient
she would be
and how hard she would work day and night.

But the man from Baton Rouge
said again he could not buy mother and son, let alone the three,
and that only the boy must go with him.
Then Eliza ran to her son, hugged him and kissed him
again and again
and her tears kept falling on his face.
The man selling the slaves kept cursing her
and called her a blubbering, howling wench
and ordered her back to her place in line
and to behave herself
or he would give her something really to cry about.

#ReadSoulLit: Poem of the Day

THE TRADITION by Jericho Brown

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.
Foxglove.
Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

Wishing you a good day,
Yamini!