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Winter's coming, good books are waiting

  • 2006-10-18
  • By TBT staff
When you go to Paris, it's chic to read Camus, Flaubert and maybe some Lost Generation memoirs. When you go to Berlin, you should read some Isherwood and maybe Mann, if you have the patience. And what self-respecting traveler to St. Petersburg doesn't keep a marked up copy of "Crime and Punishment?" In Estonia, you can pick up some Jaan Kross, although for the most part, the Baltics don't carry such an obvious reading list. Still, there are a few publishers in all three countries that produce a fair amount of art books, histories, memoirs and novels for the eclectic reader. The Baltic Times decided to check out some of the region's most recent titles, and here's what we think...

' Vilnius with Kaunas: The Bradt City Guide'
By Howard Jarvis and Neil Taylor, The Globe Pequot Press

The newest edition to the Bradt travel book collection is a short, pocket-sized guide to Vilnius (with a bonus chapter on Kaunas) by Howard Jarvis and Neil Taylor.

As travel guides come, "Vilnius" is as helpful and easy to navigate as the best of them. The 224-page book (which includes eight color photos and six maps) covers every question or concern that even the shrewdest tourist could conjure up, from the history behind Vilnius' stunning architecture to the mysterious ingredients in a cepelinai (Lithuania's national dish).
For example, did you know that construction work on a bridge across the Neris revealed a hoard of coins that had been hidden from the Swedes before their occupation of Vilnius in 1702? Or that in 2001 Mayor Arturas Zuokas introduced 1,000 orange bikes for public use, every one of which was stolen within hours? I didn't.

But my favorite part of the guide, and perhaps its most unique characteristic, is the handful of quotes on Lithuania by famous writers, politicians and historians. There is a fascinating description of early 20th century Vilnius from the book "Beyond the Baltic," published in 1925, that reads: "The Vilna [Vilnius] that now emerges is no city of the dead. Europe must learn that Vilna has a personality and that it is a very vivid one."

As for the authors, they are clearly no strangers to Vilnius. In fact, their detailed description of every cobblestoned street, dive bar, souvenir shop, four-star hotel and cathedral in the capital makes one wonder if there's a toilet in Vilnius where they haven't been.

But more importantly, the authors write with style, humor and honesty. Jarvis and Taylor narrate a text that, on top of being informative, is actually enjoyable to read. (E.C.)

Available in Vilnius bookstores

'Estonian Folktales: The Heavenly Wedding'
Compiled by Piret Paar and Anne Turnpu Varrak

"Estonian Folktales" is a collection of well-known and little-known myths and fables that is charming in every way. From its illustrations to its quirky stories, the book sings along through its 37 stories. It is enchanting and insightful at the same time.
The book is the result of a project by the Estonian Folk Culture Development and Training Center, which ran a series of courses aimed at preserving the disappearing folktales of old.

It contains not only the stories, but also gives an explanation of their origins, their similarities to stories from across the world, and provides music and lyrics to the songs which accompany them.
"The Heavenly Wedding" is just one of the stories. It tells the tale of a bridegroom who leaves his own wedding to attend another angelic marriage celebration that lasts several hundred years. Exactly why the compilers selected this story as the title of the entire book remains a mystery, for it is certainly not the best of the texts.
The compilers explain their mission in the introduction: "A fairy-tale has no place of birth, it nests in the minds of people, like a butterfly in its cocoon gaining strength to go further."

While it at first appears to be a children's bedtime book, this anthology is just as readable for adults. Some of its tales are downright gothic, speaking of deaths and disaster. Others are loaded with meaning and help reveal certain factors of the Estonian psyche.

The compilers are also at pains to point out that these stories are not only Estonian in origin, but are drawn from all across the world. Folktales travel the globe, yet adopt interesting local flavors at each port.
For me, the illustrations were one of the highlights of the book. The simple drawings by Kadri Roosi are quite typical of Estonian folk art, yet are quirky and loveable at the same time. She selects key scenes from each story to draw a simple pattern along the bottom of each page.

Its translation is flawless, unlike other works which carry uncomfortable errors in grammar and sentence construction.
This book is a delight from start to finish, and I could not more highly recommend a translated text (J.A.)

Available in Tallinn bookstores

'Wind Chimes'
By Herta Laipaik, Translated by Vive Martin Varrak

A set of harmonious wind chimes tinkle at the door to a grand house in Tallinn. They are torn down and destroyed when Soviet soldiers come to take possession of the house, a symbol of the nation and its wartime struggle.
Herta Laipaik is an established author who has published over 21 books, earning her the title of Estonia's Agatha Christie for her prolific work. "Wind Chimes" is her personal account of the period in which Tallinn fell to the Soviets.

"Wind Chimes" carries several vivid accounts of strikingly important moments in Estonian history.
The most crucial of these is her memories of the night in March 1944 when the Soviets carried out their devastating aerial raid on Tallinn. Laipaik tells of traveling on a train from the central Baltic Railway Station to her home in the suburbs when the bombs began to fall. Her train lumbered on throughout the attack, dogged by "Ivan in the sky" as planes attempted to bomb it off the rails.

At the time, Laipaik was a newly-married young doctor-in-training who is also launching her literary career. As Tallinn was slipping into the hands of the Soviets, Laipaik's first story was being published in excerpts in the Estonia Word newspaper.
Laipaik seems to be trying to resolve within herself her decision to remain in Estonia at a time when other writers and intellectuals were fleeing on boats to Sweden. She continually references her conversation with an old Russian beggar in the Town Hall Square. The woman told her never to leave her homeland to live in a place with the bitter bread of a strange land.
This book must be given credit as a diary-style recording by one of Estonia's leading female authors. However, the difficulties in the text cannot be overlooked, even when attempting to be generous to the author on account of her age, wisdom and experience.

If one is unfamiliar with Laipaik, as I was, then the story seems to carry little new insights or understandings about Estonia during a crucial period in its history.
The book is an odd mixture of textbook style analysis of World War II and Laipaik's personal recollection.
Laipaik opens the book with an out-of-place explanation of the Nazi propaganda machine, confusing the reader who expected a first-person account of her experiences rather than a regurgitation of well-known facts.

For the English reader it is difficult to summon emotion, interest or understanding when Laipaik undertakes detailed recollections of her meetings with other writers and somewhat obscure historical figures.
The translation does little justice to the text. It is rather rudimentary, and even a basic reedit would have ironed out several irregular sentence constructions. At times the text is Yoda-like in its backwardness, a common flaw when converting Estonian - which places no importance on the positioning of key words in a sentence - to English, in which it is crucial for clarity and flow. Sometimes sentences are just two or three words long, and at other times important punctuation is missing and the grammar is downright incorrect.

Overall, this seems to be vanity publishing. Few English readers would be familiar with Laipaik's work and could hardly be expected to summon interest or emotion at the thought of studying her memoirs. It is commendable but not recommendable (J.A.)

Available in Tallinn bookstores

'Tirradni: Naive Art in Latvia'
By Aivars Leitis, Neputns

Naive art is like pornography. You know it when you see it, but it's difficult to define exactly what it is in words. Aivars Leitis zeroes in on this problem in the short introduction to his book "Tirradni: Naive Art in Latvia." He writes: "Although I have been studying the art created by these people in Latvia for almost a quarter of a century, I still do not have a sufficiently convincing and precise formula to define their art…I can only concur that naive art lies at the meeting point of psychology, psychiatry, comparative ethnography, sociology and aesthetics."

Naive art has a way of forcing a simple concept with an aggressive sincerity. There is not much room for nuance in the rather intriguing two-dimensional paintings that make up "Tirradni," but they leave some profound impressions.
We have the peaceful: Verners Karins' "Freedom Monument" (1986) depicts Riga's great landmark in a relatively unimportant, off-center position amid trees and a small stream with ducks.
The reverent: Meralda Kodolina's "Worshippers" (1987) gives us a mystical procession of white-robed women and children marching through the twilight.

The brutal: Karlis Rudevics' "Final Sunset" (1996) depicts a massacre at the hand of Nazi troops against an eerily beautiful and foreboding pastel of oranges in the sky.
Then there's Edgars Krigers, who seems to have a particular fascination for young girls' legs and rear ends. "Winter Fantasy" gives us a particularly nice specimen of Krigers' obsessions: young ballerinas, kicking up their legs, revealing their crotches as the first snowflakes of winter fall behind them. You can call this whatever you want.

The book also gives us an assortment of peasant masks and sculptures, which can have a particular power all their own. There's something about a physical three-dimensional piece made out of wood or clay that comes from the volk that appeals to our modern sensibilities more than classical sculpture. Picasso and Matisse understood this well. And so it's only appropriate that many wild faces made out of plaster or wood, or the ships made up of small wooden figurines have a special place here in "Tirradni."

Anyone who has walked through The Latvian Museum of Art can see that Latvians, through the centuries, mirrored their work based on movements elsewhere in Europe. But outside of Riga, Latvia is a peasant society and as such it would, or should, have an unheroic approach to the arts. "Tirradni" offers us retrospective of artists at their least refined and most honest. (P.M.)

Available in Riga bookstores

'Embracing Emily'
By H. Reese Scott, We R 1 Ltd.

"Embracing Emily" is truly a unique work of literature. Although it takes some time getting used to the novel's unconventional style, which jumps from a whimsical tale based in The Kingdome of Somewhere to Scott's autobiographical memoir, you soon realize that there's rhyme and reason to the pattern. As the characters in both storylines develop, the colorful narratives gradually stream into one cohesive idea.

This may sound confusing, but once you get past the first few chapters, it all makes wonderful sense.
In some form or another, the fictitious characters who reside in The Kingdom of Somewhere are projections of the self 's ego, alter ego, conscience. Before long, the protagonist, a lovely maiden named Jessica, realizes that she's living within a book and, longing to escape, begins to narrate her own story.

Although at times childishly romantic, The Kingdom of Somewhere is more than just a fairytale. The story serves as an allegory on several levels, and opens up a world of existential questions. It's almost like reading a dream.
As for the novel's other story, "Hannah's Life," I found it hard to keep myself from skipping the in-between chapters to see what happens next.

Born into a strict Fundamentalist Christian family, Hannah sheds her religious upbringing when she falls in love with Lucca, a romantic American Italian. Bonded by their quest for truth, the young couple embraces the liberal lifestyle that epitomized early '70s America, as well as the hardships of marriage. But when Lucca dies of cancer, leaving behind four beautiful children and a rustic farm, Hannah begins a new journey of self-discovery.

Ignoring the levelheaded advice of friends (although encouraged by their love), Hannah sells the farm, packs up her past and offs to newly independent Estonia with her two youngest daughters. The scene where they arrive by ship into snow-swept Tallinn is a joy to read:
"I can't believe that you would consider putting our stuff in a shopping cart!" Hannah's daughter exclaims as they wander through the Port of Tallinn. "Isn't looking like we just got off the boat bad enough? Now you want us to look like bag ladies?"
"But we did just get off the boat!" Hannah replies with a laugh.

Anyone who experienced the early years of Baltic independence 's when supermarkets didn't yet exist, hot water was still a luxury and apartments cost little more than a used Volkswagen - will fall deep into nostalgia reading Scott's account of life in Estonia and Latvia. Her story is inspiring, touching and, at times, hilarious.
Not only does Scott write with honesty and humor, but there's a serendipitous quality to Hannah's new life in the Baltics. And it is this, I believe, that pulled me to the very end. (E.C.)

Available at amazon.com