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review 2015-04-01 22:53
Loyal Unto Death: Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia (Keith Brown)
Loyal Unto Death: Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia - Keith Brown

In 1903, members of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization were often considered terrorists, and some later specifically described themselves as terrorists: killers for a cause. But by 1948, many wars and struggles later, the surviving elderly veterans of the group were retrospectively considered freedom fighters by the new Yugoslav Macedonian government, and were invited to apply for pension recognition. Although the shift in categorization from terrorist to freedom fighter is not Keith Brown's specific or overriding subject in this fine monograph, it hovered in my mind throughout my reading of the book, probably because it is an issue that has obvious contemporary relevance and that will never be fully settled to everyone's satisfaction. The linchpin seems to be that if one approves of the goals of a revolutionary organization, one has moved some way towards excusing its methods, and in re-defining terrorists as freedom fighters.

Keith Brown's study, Loyal Unto Death: Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia, is specialized, but quite readable. He uses up-to-date historical and anthropological concepts without getting bogged down in impenetrable language or overly convoluted relations of ideas. He also does not commit the common sin of sniffily dismissing earlier literature on his topic - in fact, he mines such writing, both academic and popular, for all it is worth, and in a very respectful spirit. His chief sources are archival - the aforementioned pension applications, and British Foreign Office records. His goal is to trace the internal workings of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization through anthropological analysis. The promotional copy for the book lays out the project well: "Keith Brown focuses on social and cultural mechanisms of loyalty to describe the circuits of trust and terror--webs of secret communications and bonds of solidarity--that linked migrant workers, remote villagers, and their leaders in common cause. Loyalties were covertly created and maintained through acts of oath-taking, record-keeping, arms-trading, and in the use and management of deadly violence."

Brown has some pointed things to say about the interpretation of past events in the Balkans through a prism of contemporary ethno-nationalism, even suggesting that it was not an ESSENTIAL goal of the MRO to replace one "distant" governing authority, the Ottoman Empire, with another, localized government that would presumably be more representative of and responsive to the people. He calls this skepticism "thinking past the nation," borrowing a term from Arjun Appadurai, and he draws on James Scott's work on traditional forms of "anarchist" resistance to "being governed" to elucidate the theme. I can identify this as an area where experts will debate his conclusions, without claiming any competence to make a judgment on them myself.

The readership for a work of academic history such as this, driven by analysis rather than narrative, is naturally somewhat circumscribed, but it could be larger than it is. Enthusiastic readers of "popular history" ought not to be overly wary of tackling more advanced analyses which will help them to understand historical events in a different, more complex way, and in fact this book is a perfectly recommendable one in that respect, because it is challenging without being inaccessible to the typical educated reader. Brown opens up the concepts that he uses in a way that invites further curiosity, rather than shutting it down, and his very ample bibliography offers many avenues for additional exploration.



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review 2014-04-01 14:17
Review | The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obreht | 2.5 Stars
The Tiger's Wife - Téa Obreht

Hello, my children. I am writing this on a pittance of sleep, with my head full of Shakespeare and obnoxious thesis words like ‘perfunctorily,’ so if I don’t make much sense, please forgive me.


At any rate, not to be derailed from my goal of reading 70 books this year, I picked a short one for this week, knowing I’d be buried in an avalanche of thesis work. So I read Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. 


The Tiger’s Wife is a difficult book to summarize, because it seems to be trying to tell ten stories at once: a Balkan folk tale about an immortal man, the life story of the narrator’s grandfather, a provincial incident in which an escaped tiger haunts a rural village, the narrator’s experience vaccinating impoverished children in some far-flung corner of her fictitious country, and the origin story of every character to appear in between. This is not to say that there isn’t some overarching narrative thread – there definitely is, but sometimes it’s hard to find.


Natalia – the narrator – tells a number of disconnected anecdotes about her grandfather and growing up in an unnamed ‘City’ during an unnamed war. Every other chapter, her grandfather ‘interrupts’ to tell her a story about either (a) the deathless man, a sort of fairy-tale character who helps shepherd lost souls to the next life or (b) the titular ‘tiger’s wife,’ a deaf-mute girl who befriends the escaped tiger stalking the village of Galina. The stories are all interesting enough, but they never seem to go deep enough. The Tiger’s Wife was, for me, an oddly passive reading experience. I was curious to find out what happened next, but I didn’t really care. 


To be fair, this could have had something to do with how distracted I’ve been this week. However, I think this is one of those rare cases where the book actually wasn’t long enough. By the end of its short 337 pages, we know absolutely nothing about the narrator except that she’s a doctor who likes Bob Dylan. Instead of spending more time letting us get to know her, Obreht spends whole chapters telling us about the life of the apothecary of Galina, the butcher, etc., when the real story isn’t about them. It wouldn’t be entirely unfair to say that The Tiger’s Wife is a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel. Yes, there is a plot that carries the reader from beginning to end, but it clearly isn’t what Obreht had the most fun writing. And she is having fun – her writing flows well and is easy to read. But it’s not remarkable.


I think the other problem with this book is that there’s no real sense of danger, even though, ostensibly, there’s a war on for a good part of the book. Natalia has nothing to lose, which makes her story kind of casual. The worst thing that could happen is she won’t figure out what her grandfather was doing in Zdrevkov and she’ll carry on with her life. It reads like a fairy tale, but with all the peril removed.


Still, I enjoyed parts of this book – partly, I think, because I spent a summer living in Romania and much of the folklore was familiar. It’s an interesting cultural read, if not a literary one, and it does paint a fascinating picture of the war-torn countries that make up the former Yugoslavia. However, I think Obreht would be better suited to writing a collection of modern Balkan fairy tales. The novel doesn’t seem to be quite her style.


2.5 stars. Find it on Goodreads here.

Source: inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/review-the-tigers-wife-2-5-stars
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text 2014-01-07 10:36
My tbr-pile just got smaller
Never Mind the Balkans, Here's Romania - Mike Ormsby

I love these 'foreign country non-guidebooks' written by people who either moved completely to a foreign country or spend much time there and then write about all the quirks and things that might seem odd to people visiting from other countries so when this book was free I snagged it. Approximately 100 years later I actually started reading and pretty quickly felt slightly uncomfortable. The book could as well have been titled 'Reasons to hate Romania'. The author just kept going on about the negative things. How he got beaten up, corruption, reckless driving...now other books of that type don't ignore negative aspects completely but they don't focus on them as much as this author did and they also try to explain (if possible) how history and other aspects lead to this country viewing things differently.

I thought that perhaps I was overreacting and decided to check out some of the reviews and the book had in fact glowing reviews, lots of 4 and 5 stars and barely any 1-3 stars. Many of the glowing reviews were also written by Romanians who said that this was really exactly how their country was like. I shrugged, thought that I probably had the wrong sense of humour for this book and decided to move on..after checking out the only 1* review. The reviewer had similar complaints to mine: to much negativity.


The publisher of the book (or somebody claiming to be her) had commented and explained the reviewer all the ways in which he was wrong.

Charming. (And yes it included the old favourite 'Why did you read it when you didn't like it?')

I was unhappy but that was just the publisher...

Just that the author had also commented. On a 3* review, again one with similar reservations. To give him credit he was much politer than the publisher (or "publisher"?) but he told him all the prizes he won for the book and quoted all people who told him how great that book was.

LOOK! Let me tell you how wrong you are!11!!!


I suddenly don't feel like reading this book anymore....

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review 2012-01-19 00:00
Spies of the Balkans - Alan Furst SYNOPSIS
Salonika, 1940. To the bustle of tavernas and the smell of hashish, a secret war is taking shape. In the backrooms of barbers, envelopes change hands, and in the Club de Salonique the air is thick with whispers. Costa Zannis is the city's dashing chief detective - a man with contacts high and low, in the Balkans and beyond. And as unknown ships and British 'travel writers' trickle through the port, he is a man very much in demand. Having helped defeat Italy in the highlands of Macedonia, Zannis returns to a city holding its breath. Mussolini's forces have retreated - for now - but German sights are fixed firmly on the region. And as the situation in Germany worsens, Zannis becomes involved in an audacious plot - smuggling Jews to Istanbul, through the back door of Europe. The British hear he can penetrate the continent's closed borders, and soon Zannis is embroiled in the resistance, and in a reckless love affair that could jeopardise everything. With a remarkable cast of operatives, SPIES OF THE BALKANS is a brilliant new espionage novel from Alan Furst.

Gosh - my first Furst! Why have I only discovered this author now?

Reading this author is like watching the best spy noir film you have
never seen. You don’t read this book you experience it.

The author’s sense of time and place create one of the most convincing
pre second World War settings I have ever read. As someone said no one
captures the turbulence, ambivalence, chaos and turmoil of Europe in this era as well as Alan Furst. Against the background of the ominous approach of WW2 his very ordinary characters are trying to carry on with normal life but in reality are having to make extraordinary choices (moral/immoral)and life or death decisions in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia.

“And, with much of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany, and Mussolini's armies in Albania, on the Greek frontier, one wasn't sure what came next. So, don't trust the telephone. Or the newspapers. Or the radio. Or tomorrow.”

The story has a fatalistic feel of inevitability, and powerlessness as
the Greeks wait for the invasion. When it, comes the story suddenly
becomes a race against time as the main character strives to ensure
the safety of his family and lover in the madness and panic that the
advance of the Germans brings.

Highly recommended
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review 2011-06-02 00:00
Spies of the Balkans - Alan Furst Shshshshsh. Don’t tell anyone. It is 1939. In the strategic Greek port city of Salonika, rumblings of war can be heard as Nazi Germany gains allies by threat and force. People wonder only when the invasion will come. Costa Zinnis is the head of a special political branch of the police, charged with discretely managing the problems of the connected and keeping his finger on the pulse of the town. And there is plenty going on. Spies abound. A mysterious German accepts an envelope in a dark alley. Zinnis and his second pursue and the game is afoot.

Zinnis is the core here, and a solid one. The character is both tough and appealing in the classic spy noir style, but is a bit shorter in the damaged department that that formula suggests. He loves his mother, younger brother and dog, Melissa, who is a very welcome element. There are many fine supporting players here. A wealthy German Jewish woman needs help smuggling Jews out of Germany. Zinnis’ lady friend, a Brit, owns and runs a dance school, and hangs with the Salonika movers and shakers. But is she more than she appears? His rabbi in the police is a wonderful creation, an 80-something with solid connections and a clear view ahead. A suspicious British “travel writer” makes the rounds, as do an assortment of folks from the Greek and Hungarian criminal classes. Zinnis teams up with a foreign policeman to try to affect the course of political change. It is all very hush-hush, and all very much fun to read.

Of course no spy story would be complete without a femme fatale, and Spies of the Balkans does not disappoint, although I found that element one of the weaker ones. The attraction may have fit in with the love-at-first-sight expectations one has of such tales, but it seemed forced to me, at least on his end.

The payload here is a look at what life was like in late 1930s Greece while waiting for the other shoe to drop. Mussolini, threatening to invade, is eager to keep up with his mustached German buddy, groups within nations vie for political advantage, nations look to serve their own interests at the cost of their neighbors, preparations are made for resistance. The war years are like the Bible in that the tales are eternal. Furst has written eleven novels in his “Night Soldiers” series about (mostly) Eastern Europe during World War II. Spies of the Balkans is the latest.

While reading Spies of the Balkans one cannot help but visualize the events in glorious black and white, so well does Furst capture the right feel for the genre. In the same way one wonders what Rick and Louis might get up to after Lazlo and Ilsa take flight, Spies of the Balkans leaves one wanting more. This is a fast, fun and engaging read. The secret is out.
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