Friday, April 26, 2013

The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe by Marci Shore

'The Taste of Ashes' is an odd book to categorize.  I can't say it is a memoir as its concentration is rather limited.  It's definitely not a historical monograph in the traditional sense of the word, especially since it has no bibliography or index (which I found quite odd).  The focus is on the career of the author and her interactions with Eastern Europeans from the 1980s through the next three decades, which inevitably leads to discussions and tangents about Eastern European history in general from the turn of the century up to the present.  For those unfamiliar with Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, and Russian history, you will become quickly lost in a quagmire of names, places, and events that are invoked, described, and mentioned as the author attempts to weave dozens of stories into a coherent narrative, an attempt that I found lacking.

While I am immensely interested in intellectual history, and the previous monograph published by the author is something I'd be interested in reading in the future, attempting to discuss the history of some half a dozen nations through the lived experiences of the men and women she's encountered in her travels throughout Eastern Europe leaves a lot to be desired.  There is plenty of fascinating information offered but an immense amount of context is missing.  One example would be the discussion of the Warsaw Uprising by the Polish Home Army, which is wholly inadequate.  It's missing relevant information and offers a rather biased view of events.  Additionally, jumping from one storyline to another will undoubtedly leave even those familiar with the people, places, and events mentioned flipping back and forth trying to find the relevant thread they should be following or keeping in mind.  While I found parts of the book interesting, I can't help but feel that more could have been done if a greater history/narrative was attempted, which included, or intermixed, the lived experiences of the author and her acquaintances/friends.  Their lives and struggles are worth knowing and acknowledging, but they're hardly different than dozens, hundreds, and most likely thousands of others who lived, suffered, or even prospered in Eastern Europe during the twentieth century.

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