Summer reading special

  • 2004-05-20
This issue:
- "Anecdotes About Soviet Power and Their Leaders Collected from Estonia 1960-1986"
- "Eesti Kook" (Estonian Cooking)
- "In the Name of Freedom: President of Latvia Vaira Vike-Freiberga"
- "The Merry Baker of Riga"
- "Kuus Eesti Luuuletajat"
- "Lithuanian Mythological Tales"
- "The Earth Remains: An Anthology of Contemporary Lithuanian Prose"
- "Tomas Venclova: Speaking Through Signs"
- Riga Blanca

Until now there's been something of a dearth of Baltic-related books available in English. However, this is slowly changing for the better. To give you a taste of what's out there, TBT has compiled this book review special, which includes both original English-language texts and translations. So sit back, relax and enjoy.

- "Anecdotes About Soviet Power and Their Leaders Collected from Estonia 1960-1986"
Juri Viikberg (Punkt & Koma, 2003)

The most pleasant and perhaps revealing way to learn about a nation's history is to study its folklore as expressed through anecdote. As Freud presciently understood, jokes, which are an essential part of anecdotes, are much more than just jokes.
"Anecdotes About Soviet Power and Their Leaders" is a fascinating and often (disturbingly) hilarious insight into the Soviet mentality. The anecdotes come from the period 1960 - 1986, and were collected by Juri Viikberg, a renowned folklore expert in Estonia. In all, the book contains some 4,000 anecdotes, tantalizingly spread out over 80 pages. Similar books in Russian run into hundreds of pages.
Viikberg's collection is neatly put into various categories, such as everyday life in the Soviet Union and Soviet leaders ranging from Lenin to Gorbachev.
As you'd expect, the humor is blackly absurd. There's the one, for example, about Brezhnev, who had his chest surgically widened to accommodate all his medals. And then there are the answers to some decidedly tricky questions, such as why Eastern German leader Erich Honecker used twice as much toilet paper when he went to the toilet (because a copy had to be sent to Moscow) and how Soviet police officers opened a can of meat (they knocked on the can and shouted "Open up, you're surrounded!").
Each section contains minimal supplementary information about the personalities involved, so those without a reasonable knowledge of Soviet history might not get some of the more intricate subtleties of the humor.
A lot is written about Soviet leaders. There's the passionate and smart Lenin, the mysterious and remorseless Stalin, the outgoing yokel Khrushchev, the senile dementia victims Brezhnev and Chernenko, the KGB boss Andropov and the perestroika-minded Gorbachev. All left their mark on people's collective memory and it's fascinating to see how this became expressed in everyday anecdotes.
A joke about Ronald Reagan told by one U.S. citizen to another would have resulted in both of them having a deservedly good laugh. But a joke about the "dear" Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev told by one Soviet citizen to another could have landed both of them in jail.
This is a timely book if you consider that freedom of speech and democracy in Russia are once again in an especially dubious state. But as the book says, the Soviet Union bordered with those countries it wanted to border with. o
(Aleksei Gunter)

- "Eesti Kook" (Estonian Cooking)
AS Ajakirjade Kirjastus, 2003

Even if you are immediately turned off by the idea of warm Estonian head cheese and roasted leg of pork, you will nevertheless be left feeling insatiably hungry by the end of "Eesti Kook" (Estonian Cooking).
A joint culinary effort by the popular magazines Eesti Naine and Pere ja Kodu, "Estonian Cooking" is a testament to the perseverance of the Estonian people, who manage to make dozens of recipes based on the simple ingredients of pork, beef, liver, herring, salmon, and ordinary root vegetables.
Jonesing for a little herring? Why not try some herring with cottage cheese, Baltic herring rolls, or pickled pan-fried Baltic herring?
Need a little iron? Why not stock up on green cabbage with ground meat, stuffed beef schnitzels or some simple beef rolls with gravy?
And that's the way this cookbook unwinds, with page after glossy page of Estonian good stuff. You may recognize some international influences - Swedish lox, German stuffed schnitzels - but the best dishes are, of course, the Estonian ones.
Get your fill with hearty national specialties like "rosolje" - a herring and beet salad; "sult" - the aforementioned head cheese, meaty, jiggly, and great with mustard; and the most telling dish - "kiire panniroog" or "quick mishmash" which basically takes beef, pork, potatoes and whatever else is leftover and fries it up golden brown. Mmm.
As always the Estonians don't stiff you on the potatoes (or the cholesterol) as they form the cornerstone of every nutritious meal.
For those of you left with the munchies you can also indulge yourselves with 14 separate dessert recipes, most of which incorporate the national favorites "kohupiim" (cream cheese) or "piparkook" (gingerbread). Many dishes also have creative names like "kasukas" (fur coat) - a salad, "kirju koe"' (spotted dog) - a cake, or "pikkpoiss" (tall boy), a kind of meatloaf.
The perfectly sized volume also comes with appetizing full page color photos that do each dish justice, and recipes that are fluidly translated into English as well as an interesting introduction by Maire Suitsu, the food editor of Eesti Naine, into the history of Estonian culinary habits. Head isu!
(Justin Petrone)

-"In the Name of Freedom: President of Latvia Vaira Vike-Freiberga"
Ausma Cimdina (Jumava, 2003)

Vaira Vike-Freiberga - the mere name causes a headache when you consider the amount this woman has accomplished in her lifetime. The mere thought of writing a book about her and I'm instantly seized with a migraine.
That said, I have the utmost admiration for literary critic and professor Ausma Cimdina for accomplishing this feat. Cimdina has managed to sail a sea in which I would most definitely have capsized. The first edition of Vike-Freiberga's biography, published in 2001, was the most bought and read book in Latvia that year.
Cimdina begins where most biographies do - at the beginning. As she writes, people are shaped by the circumstances of their upbringing. Most would agree that Vaira Vike-Freiberga is an exceptional person, so it's no great surprise that her childhood was also out of the ordinary. Before she was a teenager, the president experienced war, death, hunger, exile, humiliation - things that parents pray their children never hear whisper of. Using Vaira's own memories, stories from those close to her and historical documents, Cimdina does an excellent job illustrating the president's war-torn childhood and how it molded her into the women she is.
Yet at times she can be overly indulgent. Although Cimdina includes the opinions of those who opposed and challenged the president, it seems that each of these are followed by a counter example of adornment. There are moments when she goes so far as to almost deify the president. At one point, I don't think I would have looked twice if she had said the president could fly.
With a history like Vaira's, one could almost let her life's events and accomplishments speak for themselves. And to an extent, Cimdina does this. The book's strength is its raw material - direct interviews, powerful excerpts from speeches, publications and poems, official documents, and poignant photographs. These passages are the backbone to Vaira's biography and carry the reader to the very last sentence.
A small peeve I had with the author's writing style is that she finds symbolism and foreshadowing in almost everything. When she suggests that Vike-Freiberga's winning the presidency was a "destined" event that possibly verifies 1930s Latvian visionary Eizens Finks' prophesy that the newly independent country would begin to flourish when a woman became head of state, it gets to be a little much.
Although Cimdina has a transfixing and reputable voice, at times she inserts it a little too much. Then again, compared to the political propaganda that most Soviet-era Latvians are accustomed to, Cimdina must come off as being a paragon of objectivity. And one has to remember that she's writing about Vaira Vike-Feiberga, arguably the most loved president in Latvian history. And her biography deserves to be read. o
(Elizabeth Celms)

-"The Merry Baker of Riga"
Boris Zemtzov
(Stanford Oak Press, 2004)

Boris Zemtzov was one of the founding members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Latvia, and one of the first foreigners to move to Riga and set up shop (literally) after Latvian independence in 1991. "The Merry Baker of Riga" is Zemtzov's memoir of the chaotic days of the early 1990s when Latvia was just starting out on its turbulent transformation to a free market economy.
"The Merry Baker..." is not, it has to be said, a particularly impressive piece of writing. But as a memoir of a very special time and place, it is definitely absorbing. Zemtzov's likeable character and acute eye for detail also go some way to compensating for the doughy texture of the text.
From describing his joy at finding a rock-hard avocado to eat, to the torturous process of trying to set up a new business, Zemtzov provides an intriguing and sympathetic peek at a Riga that already seems like a distant dream away. And yet this all happened little more than a decade ago.
As stories go, Zemtzov's is a fascinating one. He moved to Riga to live with a Latvian woman called Inge, whom he met in Moscow, and her two children in 1991. He then set up The Merry Baker bakery with the intention of selling high-class pastry products to a people whose culinary experiences had been severely limited by life in the Soviet Union.
"The Merry Baker..." has some truly wonderful insights into post-Soviet Latvia, such as when Zemtzov wants to set up a stall for his bakery at the song festival. He goes to see the Latvian director of the song festival site along with two American businessmen, who try to persuade the Latvian to allow them to sell Coca-Cola among the spectator stands.
When the startled Latvian replies that such a thing has never been done and that people just wouldn't understand the sight of sales people scurrying between the seats, one of the Americans says: "This is how things are done in every civilized country in the world at concerts. Now you wouldn't want that Latvia falls further behind the rest of the civilized world, would you?"
"The Merry Baker..." works best as a series of anecdotes that perfectly captures the madness that was Riga in the early 1990s. There's the Kafkaesque business of "singing into" a new apartment (nearly all property was still public at that point). There's an unpleasant run-in with the mafia, which was rampant in its extortion rackets back then. There's also the complicated business of trying to keep the bakery staff in line by preventing them from stealing eggs and getting drunk every time a name day comes around.
"The Merry Baker..." would have benefited from a better editor, and it will hardly be referenced by students writing up theses on the post-Soviet nations. But, nevertheless, this is highly recommended reading for anyone with a personal interest in Latvia and its gloriously strange rebirth as an independent state. o (Tim Ochser)

- "Kuus Eesti Luuuletajat"
(Six Estonian Poets)
Edited by Anne Lange (Tanapaev, 2002)

Estonian poetry is as gloomy, paranoid, and awesome as one might expect, chock full of ice, wind, and omnipresent death. Unfortunately, too little of it has been translated for the rest of the world to appreciate.
"Kuus Eesti Luuletajat" (Six Estonian Poets) is the ideal remedy for the absence of Estonian poetry on the world stage, sandwiching two generations of Estonian poets into less than 200 pages.
The translations are provided courtesy of Ants Oras, an Estonian literary hero and exile in his own right, who fled Estonia in 1943 to live out his golden years teaching at the University of Florida.
The first two poets in the volume - Gustav Suits and Marie Under - are the book's big guns. Members of the legendary Siuru - a subversive literary group that was at its peak in around 1918 - both Suits and Under lay a strong foundation for what were to become almost universal themes in Estonian culture, such as indulging the senses in nature, and using nature as a metaphor to discuss greater issues.
Suits writes of a land torn apart by thunder storms, hellish winters, and an "icy wind blowing from the northeast."
"Life would lock its doors, but faster are the skis of Death, its master,' he writes in 1917's "Spectral Moon."
Marie Under may be a bit more sensual in her verse, but her work also speaks of "Winds. Waves. And gloom" (from 1930s Alone With the Sea). The best work is her three-part "Indictment," written in exile in Stockholm between 1943 and 1954.
"The world is blind, the world is deaf. We cry unheard for power is callous or insane," she writes.
Husband and wife duo Heiti Alvik and Betty Alver, as well as Uku Masing, write with equally desperate and lonesome sentiments. Writing from the year before the Soviet takeover (1938) they lament frosty winters, thunder, gods, ghosts and battles. Masing's work has particularly religious undertones.
Sadly, the book ends on a low note of eigth grade English class mumbo jumbo, with poet Aleksis Rannit celebrating the colors of autumn, among other things. It's a let down, but by no means the only drawback.
While Oras, who seamlessly spins Estonian simplicity into choice English, is clearly gifted, editor Anne Lange's introductions to the poets are crippled by useless academic language and devoid of solid biographies.
For a book that makes Estonian poetry available as never before, revealing a bit more about the poets' personal lives would have been a useful insight to readers.
Saucying up the biography of Marie Under for example - who was known to wear her heart very loosely on her sleeve - could have given the curious reader a better understanding of her sensous poetry and made the book more palatable to a wider audience. o
(Justin Petrone)

- "Lithuanian Mythological Tales"
Compiled by Norbertas Velius, translated by Birute Kiskyte
(Vaga, 2002)

In spite of their love of mobile phones and designer fashion, Lithuanians are a decidedly old-fashioned bunch. This was proven to me on a rainy evening recently spent in the depths of a thick forest outside Vilnius. As the gloomy light of evening slowly faded into darkness, I began to recount to my friends stories I had read the previous day in "Lithuanian Mythological Tales," a compilation of native folk tales translated into English.
As the damp air began to fill with tales of "laumes," a sort of malevolent pixie, and "velinases," the local incarnation of a demon, my friends' faces turned stark white. One woman plugged her ears so as not to hear the tale involving Giltine, a female grim reaper figure.
The fragments published in "Lithuanian Mythological Tales" are more than just quaint horror stories-they are narratives that cast an unavoidable shadow on the local psyche, no matter how far removed an individual may be from the agrarian setting that spawned them.
In much the same manner as the brothers Grimm scoured German villages for fables, Norbertas Velius compiled Lithuanian tales over the course of decades. Yet, as the book's short introduction explains, Lithuanian mythology differs significantly from that of neighboring nations-Lithuanians' respect for their natural surroundings contrasts with German distrust and fear of nature, and the relatively flat landscape failed to give rise to the mountain trolls and gnomes of Scandinavian tradition.
The 300-odd tales are loosely arranged according to topic. Thus, a lengthy section is devoted to stories of hidden money, while another contains tales of "slogutis," a personified nightmare.
The chapter on laumes features one of the best-known Lithuanian myths, "The Laumes and the Baby." The story of a mother whose child is taken care of by laumes when she accidentally leaves it hanging in a tree, it demonstrates an important moral when a wealthy mother intentionally abandons her child in the same tree in an effort to get the same silken baby's clothing that the laumes gave to the poorer mother. Sensing the woman's intentions, the laumes pinch the child until it dies.
As informative and entertaining as "Lithuanian Mythological Tales" may be, it is a shame that the text is not presented in a more professional manner. Birute Kiskyte's translation from Lithuanian is passable, but grave oversights in its editing left enough spelling and punctuation errors to distract from the text itself.
Moreover, while the organization of the tales is helpful, the longer sections, such as "Velnias" and "Goddesses of the Plague. Giltine" become repetitive.
Nonetheless, "Lithuanian Mythological Tales" should appeal to a wide set of interests, from mythology itself to horror literature and even psychology. o
(Steven Paulikas)

-"The Earth Remains: An Anthology of Contemporary Lithuanian Prose"
Translated and Edited by Laima Sruoginis (Tyto Alba, 2002)

If one is looking for a lively way to learn about Lithuanian history, the anthology "The Earth Remains: An Anthology of Contemporary Lithuanian Prose" is a perfect read; however, as a definitive guide to contemporary Lithuanian prose, this book might have missed the point.
The main intention of the editor appears to have been to provide readers with the history of Lithuania from the beginning of World War II to the most recent years of independence. Each work included in the book was inspired by certain political or social conditions that represent the radical transformations in Lithuanian history.
The plots shift from one period to another, beginning with recollections of deportation to Siberia experienced by the author Dalia Grinkeviciute and then turning to the partisan resistance in excerpts from the novella "Duokiskis" by Saulius Saltenis.
The following chapters depict the long arm of the KGB in excerpts from "Vilnius Poker" by Ricardas Gavelis, or mandatory service in the Soviet army in passages taken from "The Mobile Train Stations of Rontgen" by Jurgis Kuncinas. Finally, the anthology swings round to more recent history in Vanda Juknaite's "Land of Glass."
Excerpts of works by Gavelis, Kuncinas, Jurga Ivanauskaite, Renata Serelyte, Herkus Kuncius and a few others afford the reader an opportunity to sense the stylistics of contemporary authors. Short introductory chapters to each author introduce their impact on Lithuanian writing and explain the development and trends of the country's literature. The introductions, for instance, explain the significance of eroticism in a country with a strong Roman Catholic tradition.
The compilation certainly reflects Lithuanian history through literature, which gives an in-depth insight into historical events and how they affected the lives of average people. But it fails to properly represent contemporary Lithuanian writing.
The various excerpts published in "The Earth Remains..." act like pieces collected from different puzzles that cannot be combined to create a coherent image of contemporary Lithuanian prose.
For instance, it would be difficult to consider the 50-year-old work of Grinkeviciute an example of a modern classic, and it hardly belongs to the puzzle representing "contemporary" literature.
Furthermore, the anthology requires an update, as it fails to mention other popular contemporary writers, such as Marius Ivaskevicius, Juozas Erlickas, Sigitas Parulskis and Giedra Radvilaviciute. (Milda Seputyte)

- "Tomas Venclova: Speaking Through Signs"
Donata Mitaite (Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, 2002. Translated by Diana Bartkute Barnard)

As an arts student at the University of Toronto in the mid-1980s, it was fashionable to make a statement about oneself by sitting in a bohemian cafe for an afternoon, ostentatiously displaying a book by some little-known exiled East European author - Jozef Skvorecky's 'The Engineer of Human Souls' and Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' come to mind.
My classmates and I would quietly sneer at the preppy, briefcase-bearing commerce students discussing the latest junk-bond strategy, because we knew that life was really elsewhere: the promised land beyond the Iron Curtain, where writers hadn't sold out and more than that, they were dissidents.
To join our club one had to be able to memorize and drop a few exotic names - Bronislaw Geremek, Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, to name a few. I must admit that I was one of those pretentious fops, and probably still am, which is why I welcomed the English translation of Donata Mitaite's "Tomas Venclova: Speaking Through Signs."
Lest you be misled by the title, Venclova is not a famous deaf-mute, but a 66-year-old "post-catastrophist" Lithuanian poet and the country's chief literary export, whose name has been whispered among the world's literati as a potential Nobel laureate.
Venclova was born into a family of hard-line communists, refused to swallow the prevailing ideology, buried himself in books, swallowed gigantic mouthfuls of world literature, hung out with dissident intellectuals and poets in Moscow, emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1977 and is, to this day, a professor at Yale.
Mitaite's book is a literary biography. I found myself reading the passages about Venclova's life and literary life in Soviet-era Vilnius with great interest, but skimmed the dense attempts at explaining his poetry using arcane literary terminology ("...fear is concentrated into meaning, and time changed into a stanza").
If you are - or were - an honorary member of my secret club, you will enjoy the memory trip - especially descriptions of Venclova's friendships with Brodsky and Milosz - and will overlook the translator's numerous syntax errors, though this rendering does maintain the flow of the text nicely. (Darius James Ross)

- Riga Blanca
By Ilze Berzins
(Albert Street Press, 2003)

Paulette Laci is devastated when she learns that her husband Andy Laci - or Andrejs Lacis - has had an affair in their Ottawa home with a visiting ethnic Russian prosecutor from Latvia.
A day after the revelation, her husband, a crown attorney who is intent on cleaning up corruption in Latvia, leaves on a trip to Riga where he may be taking a job to do just that.
A call from the Russian adulteress, Valeria Atnikova, telling Paulette that she is pregnant with Andy's baby sets the story in motion. After a drunken night of soul-searching, Paulette decides to go after Andy and catches a plane to Riga in the hope of winning back her man.
Paulette arrives in Riga to find a disgusting airport (this is no longer true) and an unfriendly, dirty Riga teeming with Russian thugs and rough street justice.
"Riga Blanca" is good at describing Latvia's capital city, although these descriptions are horribly outdated and seem stuck somewhere in the mid-90s, despite trying to sound up to date by using contemporary cultural references and landmarks, such as the Lido restaurant chain.
Berzins' glittering generalities about life in Riga unfortunately consist of the worst stereotypes about Latvians, Russians and the expat community. The Russians are largely portrayed as monolingual thugs and conniving con artists, whose only way to dispense justice is in a violent quid pro quo executed with the help of thugs.
George Soros, who's described as an ardent Russophile, provides the only way out of Latvia for poor Atnikova, who becomes trapped in an abusive relationship with a Russian hoodlum named Niko. She plans on using one of those mythical Soros stipends to escape from Latvia and is willing to do nearly anything to get it.
Paulette meets up with her friend Vizma Gross in Riga and attends the expat community dinner at Vincents' restaurant (impressive realism, that). Paulette, Vizma and poor Atnikova meet and end up strangely enjoying each other's company. The thrust of the novel basically consists of Paulette's search for Andy, who, she learns from the newspapers, has been killed in a fire. So did Andy die, and if so, who killed him and why?
"Riga Blanca" was ultimately a let down for this reviewer. Not only is Ilze Berzins seemingly stuck in an imaginary mid-90's Riga, but she didn't even bother to publish a believable ending to her novel. The typographical errors in both Latvian and English should have been cleaned up by an editor, as should the totally unbelievable conclusion.
And researching contemporary Riga requires more than a copy of the magazine Riga In Your Pocket. (John Karklins)