Summer Reading - Baltic Style

  • 2005-06-15
Sometimes it's tough to find a good read in this part of the world. The selection of Baltic related material in English has always been a bit meager, but slowly this is changing for the better. To help you get your fix of summer reading, TBT staff has put together another list of the great (and the not so great) that the region has to offer. Read on!


Jaunibas Pilseta


by Mara Brasmane

Published by Neputns

(English and Latvian)

Mara Brasmane's "Manas Jaunibas Pilseta" (The City of My Youth) is more a photo album than it is an art book. The hardback's leather cover is wonderful to touch, and automatically gives you the feeling of holding a priceless heirloom in your hands. And in a way, it is 's one that belongs to Riga.

Brasmane grew up in 1960-70s Soviet Latvia with a camera by her side. Her youth, perceptions, aspirations, friendships and maturity as an artist is simplistically, yet poetically captured through the camera's lens. In a way, this is Mara's album. But for the anonymous reader, these black-and-white photographs, compiled chronologically and thematically in the leather-bound book, serve more as a documentation of Riga itself.

As a documentary, this book glows in richness. My eyes ate up the photographs of Riga's Old Town, Pardaugava, downtown Soviet street banners, the Central Market, cafes, buildings, and statues that no longer exist. I believe that any person who has walked down K.Barona Street today, comforted by its friendly cobblestones and bustling crosswalks, will be fascinated to see how it looked in 1972.Yet as art, Brasmane's photographs lack strength.

In "Camera Lucida," Roland Barthes wrote,"The photograph itself is in no way animated (I do not believe in 'life like" photographs), but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure." And I agree. The relationship between a photograph and its viewer fascinates me. There are some images that, although without life, pull you in. Others even tranquilize you. You find yourself locked to the subject, not knowing exactly why, but recognizing the feeling all the same. And for me, this is where Brasmane's pictures fall short. There is no pull, no connection between the subject and the viewer.

As Brasmane says in an interview at the back of her book (which adds a personal touch to the album and strengthens her photographs) "I've been asked, 'Why do you take pictures of completely insignificant houses and street corners, why?' But every day is unique today; tomorrow it'll all be completely different." And she couldn't be more dead-on. All of the photographs in "The City of My Youth," from the lucid image of a fog-swept Central Market at dawn to the sun-drenched smiles of newlyweds on Jura Alunana Street, capture with innocent objectivity one moment in an ever-changing Riga. And this is the book's beauty. (E.C)


Ilze Berzins

Published by Albert Street Press

Unfortunately for those hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the Baltics' rare geographical charms 's the Kolka Peninsula 's you won't find it in the book by the same name. You won't even be treated to a good read.

Ms. Berzins' seventh book, Kolka is a prosaic mystery set in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, and involves several severed fingers uncovered in a compost heap. To be fair, this discovery would be a good starting point for any whodunit, but in Kolka, we have to wait 60 pages before the discovery occurs. Up to that point the content is akin to a rambling diary, devoid of suspense or even basic character development. All we are offered is Dominique, a lonely middle-aged woman who drinks too much gin, tends her garden and gossips with her elderly friend, Alma. In this book, what Conan Doyle could have squeezed into 10 pages is stretched into an agonizing 260.

Usually in a novel with such uninteresting characters, the challenge boils down to prose 's the use of language to entice the reader. But in this respect, unfortunately, Ms. Berzins also fails. It is unlikely that even Updike could have salvaged this crippled cast. The narration is riddled with far too many questions and wearisome references to God 's "Thank God" is utterly hackneyed. In Chapter 30 "God" is everywhere: "Cell! God!… I hadn't thought about that" 's "God! There's the door. Rollie is back." And on and on.

At times the writing is painfully simplistic: "I pack the gym bag. I don't dare take the car. Rollie will hear. He'll call the cops. Turns out I don't need to worry about the car. Rollie's already taken it. He'll be out late. As usual." Furthermore, Ms. Berzins' overuse of the exclamation point is reminiscent of a teenage girl's e-mail correspondence. It is no wonder that after a few pages of this prose, all sympathy for the main character evaporates.

Once the fingers do finally reappear, the author fails to keep the reader's interest. Nothing else mildly suspenseful happens. Dominique reels in and out of an alcoholic stupor brought on by the loss of her boyfriend, and the disappearance of Alma, as she tries to outsmart Rollie's drug-dealing friend whom she suspects is guilty of amputating the diamond-studded fingers.

With this backdrop, distant Kolka, which Dominique's boyfriend used to tell her about, turns into a baptismal Elysium that can purge us of our guilt. Not a bad idea, and we are pleased when Dominique finally reaches it in the end. God, it's just too bad we have to go through so much pain to see her make it. (G.P.)

Lithuanian Dictionary & Phrasebook

Jurgita Baltrusaityte

Published by Hippocrene Books

Finally, a concise dictionary/grammar guide on a Baltic language that you can literally fit in your pocket. This handy book has been a long-time coming, and it won't let down anyone who wants to give a crack at the terribly difficult Lithuanian language. The dictionary contains a total of 6,000 Lithuanian-English and English-Lithuanian entries 's the basic lexicon a beginner needs. It also features 130 pages of phrases and expressions for everyday use, such as "I need a lawyer" (Man reikia advocato), "I am gay" (As gejus), and "I'd like to take you out to dinner" (Noreciau pakviesti jus kartu pavakarieniauti).

Thankfully, the author is considerate enough to underline the stressed syllable in every word in this large phrase section. Anyone who has ever tried tackling Lithuanian 's proven by linguists to be the most conservative Indo-European language 's know that word-stress is a nightmare, therefore the assistance is much appreciated.

Some are certain to find the grammar section the most valuable part of the book. Although not designed to be used as a core study on Lithuanian's complex system of cases and conjugation, this dictionary provides a useful crash course that will help one grasp the overall structure of the language. (Although, in all honesty, after studying the charts for three different declensions of adjectives, this reviewer wanted to scream).

Ms. Baltrusaityte currently resides in Chicago, and indeed, much of the book is geared toward a North American audience. Some of the introductions to the sections of phrases contain information for those who have never been to Lithuania before. While wholly unnecessary for readers in this part of the world, Lithuanian Dictionary & Phrasebook is still a perfect way 's and the perfect size 's to get started on one of Europe's oldest languages. (G.P.)

She Who Remembers Survives

Edited by Tiina Kirss,

Ene Koresaar and Marju Lauristin

Published by Tartu University Press

World War II, deportation, Siberia, collectivization, political choices, moral compromises 's to have any inkling of what's behind the attitudes and national identity of people in the Baltic countries today, the depth of the scars that the events of the 20th century left on individual lives has to be understood.

One work that brings some of these scars to the examination table is She Who Remembers Survives: Interpreting Women's Post-Soviet Life Stories.

This book delves into the life stories of nine women, a sample of hundreds of autobiographies collected by the Estonian Life Histories Association, with the aim of interpreting them from the perspective of various disciplines 's sociological, ethnological, historical and literary.

Decidedly academic in style, the main body of the work is made up of a series of articles that, at least theoretically, interpret the life stories. Some of the articles, such as one on collective and individual memory, don't seem to have strong connections with the biographical material presented here. Others, like Ruut Hinrikus' "Deportation, Siberia, Suffering, Love," provide a much clearer evaluation of the psychological context, helping us understand the feelings of guilt and injustice of a victim who spent fifty years unable to share her story with anyone.

The most valuable part of the work is, of course, the stories themselves. These are tales of women that were, as one put it, "caught in the cogwheels of history." They are fascinating stories, many harrowing and heartbreaking. They aren't politically loaded; in addition to Siberian deportees, we hear from one Estonian who ended up in a Nazi death camp and another who was a tractorist and Soviet propaganda hero. What connects them is that they are all accounts of survival.

Due to its specialist academic orientation, She Who Remembers Survives will probably be most accessible to the lay reader that picks through it backwards - beginning with the life stories and then delving into the articles that interpret them. Better still would be a new version of this work, geared for a global audience. These are stories that should not be kept in the realm of academia. (S.R.)

Racist Extremism in Central and Eastern Europe

Edited by Cas Mudde

Published by Routledge, 2005

Violence, intolerance, and ethnic nationalism plagued Europe in the 1930s, and since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, these issues have once again become a real cause for concern in East Europe. This collection of research covers the eight former communist countries that have entered the EU, plus Bulgaria and Romania, and a final essay by the respected political scientist Cas Mudde from the University of Antwerp. The book was a collaborative work, whose idea originated in Riga with former head of the Human Rights and Ethnic Studies Centre, Nils Muiznieks. Later, the Open Society Institute proposed the project and scholars and activists in the region were found, many from the NGO sector. As is to be expected in a project like this, some chapters are stronger than others, making the book a bit uneven, but nonetheless a very valuable collection. The Latvian section is written by Nils Muiznieks, and the Estonian part by Vadim Poleshchuk of the Legal Information Centre for Human Rights, in Tallinn. Contributing from Lithuania is Giedrius Kiaulakis from the Centre for Civic Initiatives, in Vilnius. The country studies give good background and cast light on the development of extremists groups in the three countries and the influences that sometimes flow across borders to incite radicalism. Not all radical groups are equal, and not all belong strictly to one ethnicity- the National Bolsheviks, for example, contain a variety of different ethnicities. The Baltic States, despite showing growth in ethnic extremist groups, come to look fairly moderate compared with other parts of East and Central Europe. As Mudde explains in his closing essay, "Central and Eastern Europe is neither a hotbed of racist extremism nor a safe haven for racist extremists." Although he cautions that many problems still remain, and could even increase as Eurosceptism and mass immigration become issues in the new member states, as they have become in countries in Western Europe. (A.E.)

The Hidden

and Forbidden History of Latvia Under Soviet and Nazi Occupations 1940-1991

Published by Institute of the History of Latvia 2005

This collection of historical essays covering over 50 years is the 14th volume of work done by the Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia. While most work has previouslybeen available only in Latvian, the Commission set out years ago to delve deeper into controversial historical topics, to uncover areas of history not fully understood or that had been manipulated by either the Soviet or Nazi German regimes. This volume, written by leading historians, is an important contribution to the available literature in English, and covers divisive topics like the Arajs Kommando, the Holocaust, and the first year of the Soviet occupation. The compilation opens with an essay by Alfred Eric Senn and an introduction by Valters Nollendorfs and Erwin Oberlander. The book features strong work from Aivars Stranga on the Holocaust in Latvia, and essays by Karlis Kangeris, and Uldis Neiburgs. Some more difficult themes are addressed in the book, such as the issue of when the mass killing of Jews took place- did they begin in the short period between Soviet and Nazi rule- Stranga concludes that they did not. Rudite Viksne covers the membership of the notorious Arajs Kommando unit, charged with killing approximately 26,000 people during the Nazi period. She investigates the backgrounds of its members whose numbers perhaps totalled more than a thousand- only 356 of whom have been identified to date. And Viksne uses available KGB interrogation files to explain the types of people who joined this group. This 14th volume will not be the last for the Commission - six more volumes are already planned. The continuing distance between today's state and the fall of the Soviet Union will hopefully bring out about more works like this, resulting in more honest historical understanding of Latvia's difficult history over the last century. (A.E.)

Jonas Mekas:

the Diary Film

Published by the Lithuanian Institute and Moderna

Museet of Stockholm

Jonas Mekas, a great Lithuanian poet, thinker and one of the most prominent avant-garde cinematographers in America, once announced an unusual intention: to bomb Hollywood! This, not to mention his talent, certainly brought this exceptional man into the limelight of avant-garde and independent film. 'Jonas Mekas: The Diary Film', recently published by the Lithuanian Institute and Moderna Museet of Stockholm takes a short glimpse at the footsteps of Mekas and follows his life through his diary and his avant-garde films.

Since the early 50's, Mekas has been a driving force in the experimental filmmaking movement. He has made several films that are now considered experimental film classics, the most famous of which feature his practice of incorporating diary excerpts into the film. As such, Mekas' films portray his life, his family, the artists, poets, and musicians that surround him. This is interesting to the reader - Mekas was part of the lively art scene in Soho when the area was emerging as a vibrant venue for artists and his friends and acquaintances have been some of the most interesting celebrities of our time.

In the book, the publishers focus on the filmmaker's diary excerpts. The format the publishers chose for the book 'Jonas Mekas: the Diary Film' is, therefore, wonderfully appropriate- they have created the book to look like a diary with a ribbon bookmark and a string to fasten the book with. The first time I went through the pages, I felt I was entering the forbidden 's reading somebody else's diary and it was thrilling.

As the title of the book implies, the publication avoids covering all of Mekas' artistic works, which range from rare, beautiful nostalgic poetry to philosophical and artistic essays. Instead, the book serves as a fine introduction to Mekas' works and in particular to his diaries and film diaries. A devoted fan, however, won't find the book much of a read - there are only a few texts on Mekas' life and stenography from his filmmaking classes. Nevertheless, the book's photography and stills taken from Mekas's enormous film collection, including portraits of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Andy Warhol, the Kennedy family and the filmmaker himself, make flipping through the book a thoroughly appealing and pleasing experience.

The book was created as more of a pleasure piece than an analytical work on Mekas' life and contribution to film, therefore, it isn't likely to become a source of reference for film critics. But, nevertheless, I would imagine that film pundits would love to have this little black book on their shelf as a nice souvenir. 'Jonas Mekas: The Diary Film' is a highly recommended half hour read for anyone with an interest in Mekas' life or avant-garde filmmaking. (M.S.)

Z, The Terminal Letter

Mart Sander

Published by Martin & Martin

At one time or another we've all imagined what it would be like to experience the world through the senses of a household pet. And all those who have possessed a pet no doubt noticed how they grow jealous with the arrival of a new presence in the house. But imagine a pet so jealous that not only does it want to kill its master's lover, but take over her body as well. To be forever closer to the one it loves.

This premise is amongst the frightfully original surprises that await readers who dare open up "Z, The Terminal Letter," a collection of short stories by actor-musician Mart Sander. This is the Estonian's second book (the first "Mercator" was published in 1994), and it is noteworthy that all the tales were written in English, some as early as 1997. Though Mr. Sander, who apparently spends most of his time on the stage and in the recording studio, had some editorial help, the resulting prose is very impressive for a non-native speaker.

Even if the writing doesn't grab you, the subjects will. In "Z" you'll find ghosts, werewolves and a cemetery that comes alive at night. The story "Actually" is worthy of a Twilight Zone episode, and in "The Ultimate Treat" 's this reviewer's favorite 's we are treated to two children's summer romp through a half-deserted castle and the delectable mysteries they uncover. Finally, there is "Z, The Terminal Letter," where the protagonist dismantles the entire world one letter at a time, and in doing so, meets the girl he had always longed for.

Not all the stories are necessarily short. "Animal Life" stretches to almost 100 pages. "There's something evil lurking in the woods outside the village," a desperate man tells two lost women, "in the woods, and it's trying to get in by using human beings." This is entertaining suspense in the pure Lovecraftian mode, with all the saucy dialogue you would expect from a contemporary writer.

"Z" is the way to spend your summer. One story at a time, this little brown paperback will open doors to tiny worlds, each of which, beyond its supernatural surface, has something curious to say about the human condition. (G.P.)