English reviews

Katja Hoyer “Beyond the Wall”

Hoyer is an East-German historian who has been living in the UK for a couple of years and wrote this book about her native country geared towards the English-speaking world - where it received more positive reviews than in Germany. The author interweaves anecdotes and historical events and makes the world’s grayest country look a bit more colourful - nothing beats the drab Mutti Merkel’s craving for blue jeans - and achieves one of her stated goals (“a place far more dynamic than the Cold War caricature often painted in the West”). I don’t buy into the tacit suggestion that East German culturehas been actively ignored - e. g. have a look at “their TV station” which is thorougly uninteresting to anyone not East German - but this book may be pave the way to more books on the GDR that is neither dismissive nor overly nostalgic.

Verdict: must read

Fabrizio Fenghi “It Will Be Fun and Terrifying”

The book is subtitled “Nationalism and Protest in Post-Soviet Russia” and its two main protagonists are Eduard Limonov and Aleksandr Dugin, two of the co-founders of the National Bolshevik Party. Fenghi shows how these two fringe people managed to blend socialism and fascism into their own ideology, achieve considerable success in the post-Soviet political space and then how Dugin managed to move into the Russian political mainstream with the Eurasia Movement and supposedly wield a lot of influence over Putin. This is an intellectual book and not easy to read, it is essential to understand this fascinating and unreal topic.

Verdict: must read

Serhii Plokhy “The Russo-Ukrainian War”

This book was released in May 2023 with the war raging at full scale. It consists of two parts: the lead-up the war which is very well-explained, the invasion of the [Little green men](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_green_men_(Russo-Ukrainian_War) which has been widely ignored in the West. Plokhy also explains how fundamental the Ukranian SSR was in the Soviet Union and the role of 1991 Ukrainian independence referendum in its break-up. The second part is about the actual war itself and it feels a bit cobbled together, not surprising because we don’t really know yet how things will end. I’m sure there will a compelling second edition, hopefully soon.

Verdict: must read

Juliane Fürst “Flowers through concrete”

The author is a historian and recounts the history of Soviet hippies with tangible empathy. She dug through personal and official archives - the Russian official ones are not accessible for obvious reasons - for more than a decade and almost brings to life her subjects and the Soviet society and its morale as a backdrop. Subculture reasearch in the Soviet Union - except for some tidbits of punk - is almost inaccessible for me because I don’t speak any Russian, but the book seems very well-researched and the writing good which papers over the editing which feels a bit sloppy: an academic book which you must read if you are interested in subculture or Soviet history.

Verdict: must read

Serhii Plokhy “The Last Empire”

Plokhy recounts the last months of the Soviet Union starting with the August coup via the dissolution on the 8th December 1991, when the leaders of the Slavic republics decided to leave the union, to the 25th of December 1991 when Gorbachev resigned with a a televised speech. The author sheds light on the struggle between Gorbachev and Yeltsin and then-regional leaders like Leonid Kravchuk or Nursultan Nazarbayev, how the USA led president George Bush tried to stay on top of things, and how the world’s then largest empire would disappear more or less peacefully. This book also helps to understand the ehtnic conflicts and wars that have flared up since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Verdict: must read

Luis Landero “Lluvia fina”

An excellent novel that recounts the horrors of a broken family from the point of view of the brother’s married woman. With every chapter you learn more ugly details about the characters involved - until the unhappy end.

Verdict: must read

Doug Johnstone “Black hearts”

I read most of Johnstone’s books and the Skelf family series are unfortunately not among my favorites: The Skelfs are a family of grandmother, mother, and daughter who run a funeral business and moonlight as sleuths. This crime novel has too many plots and characters to keep track of - so despite Johnstone’s excellent writing it was a bit of a dull read.

Verdict: may read

Arthur Chichester “The burning edge - Travels through an irradiated Belarus”

Arthur Chichester - his more famous name is Bald and Bankrupt - visited Belarus, especially the nowadays deserted area that was heavily irradiated after the Chernobyl disaster. The book is very much like Bald’s videos: he knows Russian and he adds some background information about the country. I guess he would word his assessment of “Batska” a bit differently today. If you enjoy Bald and have two spare hours - read this books!

Verdict: interesting read

Adam Hochschild “American Midnight”

A left-wing historian writes about the First Red Scare and covers the years from 1917 to 1921. The author shows how enthusiasm for war and nationalism led to a wide-spread fear of left-wing movements and at the end he also draws some parallels to the Trump presidency. It’s not a dry history book rattling down the facts, it rather tries to recount the fates of “normal people”. Personally I know too little about that period in the USA, so I would have done better with an introduction.

Verdict: interesting read

Jarvis Cocker “Good Pop, Bad Pop”

Jarvis Cocker cleans up his attic and needs to decide whether to keep or bin things he hasn’t seen in years. Things turn into memories of adolescence, setting up a pop band, school, moving out and a lot more. Must read if you are even only remotely into Pulp or britpop.

Verdict: must read

Ira levin “The Boys from Brazil”

Josef Mengele tries to take over the world in 70ies, but Yakov Liebermann (very reminiscent) of Simon Wiesenthal prevents that. The book is off to a thrilling start, but fizzles out towards the end, especially because it is somewhat amusing to see how they imaginged the future would be. I found this book in my parents’ attic and I bet it must have been an exciting read back then. The plot is great and it’s still a quick read…

Verdict: interesting read

Chris Miller “Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology”

The history of the semiconductor industry in one book, readable and understandable, yet not too superficial. It points out how chip technology was essential in winning the cold war and retain American/Western supremacy. It also explains how complex chip production is, what Moore’s law’s exponential growth means in real life, and the many choke points that exist. It provides for a solid understanding of what US industrial policy has looked liked since Trump and what it quite likely will look like in the years to come.

Verdict: must read

Ada Ferrer “Cuba: An American History”

The author itself says it: a book on the history of Cuba from a Howard Zinn perspective. The author, a professor of history, was born in Cuba, emigrated to the USA as a toddler, and returned to Cuba many times. She recounts Cuban history from a people’s perspective and intertwines it in a revealing manner with US-American history, she also treads a fine line between Cuban, American, Cuban-American and (US) Democratic perspective and manages to be sensible there. A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read.

Verdict: must read

M. Mitchell Waldrop “The Dream Machine”

A fantastic book on the history of computing intertwined with the biography of J. C. R. Licklider, one of its early visionaries who was seminal for how we interact with computers, software, networking, and thus today’s internet. This is quite a tome, but an excellent and compelling read.

Verdict: must read

Serhii Plokhy “The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story”

Plokhy, a professor for Ukrainian history at Harvard university, chronicles the life of Bogdan Stashinsky, a Soviet spy of Ukrannian descent. In the 50ies he killed two leaders of the Ukranian nationalist movement, one of which Stepan Bandera, with an umbrella that was squirting cyanide. He later married an East-German woman who convinced him to defect to West-Berlin, on the night before the Wall was built, was put to trial and sentenced to jail in West-Germany. He disappears after having been released from prison. Plokhy’s writing is captivating, the story itself is so good it makes a James Bond movie look mundane.

Verdict: must read

Victoria Smolkin “A Sacred Space is never empty”

One of the Soviet Union’s goal on the path to reach communism was to do away with religion through the scientific foundations of their new belief. This book chronicles the different approaches that were taken over the roughly 70 years of Soviet rule: suppression by militant atheists, tacit acceptance, collaboration against an externatal enemy to ersatz rites. 1000 years of the Christianization of Kievan Rusʹ Gorbachev officially met the then head of the Orthodox church, much to almost everyone’s surprise. An excellent read and I would much appreciate a follow-up on the Yeltzin and Putin years.

Verdict: must read

Tim Marshall “The Power of Geography”

9 countries and how their history was shaped by their geography, entertaining reads of half an hour each. The book ends with how the upcoming space race may end up and how geography may shape that. Read it soon (till June 2023), this book won’t age well.

Verdict: worth a read

Zakhar Prilepin “Sankya”

Sasha is a young member of the “SS Party”, cheeky aronym for Sojus Sosidajuschtschich, who fight against Westernization, globalization, and the powers that be. The author romps through various graphical acts of violence in Moscow, Riga and Sasha’s native Nishni Novgorod. Their economic ideas are left-leaning, their social ideas right-leaning, e. g. Women play second fiddle both in the party and in Sasha’s life. Sounds familiar? Everything seems to be modeled after the National Bolshevik Party and it turns out that the author was a long-time of said party, so the novel might be quite autobiographic, although all involved parties deny that. Today’s Prilepin thinks that Putin is a wuss.

The book was published in 2006 and translated to German in 2012 and to English in 2014. Its German publisher is left-leaning and intellectual and it received raving reviews back then, which is next-to impossible to understand with today’s moral compass.

Verdict: skip

Deutsche Bücher

Friedrich Ani “Bullauge”

Ein Polizist, der auf einem Auge blind geworden ist, und eine Frau, die das mutmasslich auf einer Demonstration verursacht hat, treffen sich und “verwickeln” sich. Die Frau stirbt, das Ende des Krimis ist überraschend. Das Buch ist sehr atmosphärisch, mehr Roman als Krimi.

Urteil: lesenswert

Jörg Thadeusz “Steinhammer”

Thadeusz lässt das Ruhrgebiet der 50er Jahre wiederauferstehen: drei Jugendliche, die Armut und Kriegsfolgen hinter sich lassen wollen, der talentierteste von ihnen wird Künstler in Düsseldorf. Ich habe mich quasi in schwarz-weiß durch das NRW dieser Zeit gehen sehen.

Urteil: sehr lesenswert

Moritz Hürtgen “Der Boulevard des Schreckens”

Ein satirischer Roman über Journalismus in 2022, in dem Volontäre sich über Jahre beweisen müssen und hier erst zweitklassige Künstler interviewen sollen, die in einem piefigen Vorort sterben, bevor das sowieso gefälschte Interview veröffentlicht werden konnte. Gut zu lesen, ganz witzig und ein Glück habe ich was vernünftiges gelernt.

Urteil: lesenswert

Volker Kutscher “Transatlantik. Gereon Raths neunter Fall.”

Das neunte Buch der Gereon-Rath-Serie - verfilmt in Babylon Berlin - spielt im Berlin und New York von 1937 und verwebt die bereits bekannten Charaktere weiter. Ich habe natürlich längst den Überblick verloren, aber der Autor frischt die Erinnerung an Personen und Ereignisse gut wieder auf. Das Buch ist spannend und ich habe die knapp 600 Seiten an einem Wochenende “lesen müssen”.

Urteil: sehr lesenswert

Herfried Münkler “Marx, Wagner, Nietzsche. Welt im Umbruch.”

Der Doyen der deutschen Historiker setzt drei prägende Figuren der deutschen (Geistes-)Geschichte in Beziehung zueinander: Das Buch ist exzellent geschrieben, regelrecht “spannend”, und beschreibt auf circa 700 Seiten Leben und Wirken von Karl Marx, Richard Wagner und Friedrich Nietzsche.

Urteil: sehr lesenswert

Jens Bisky “Berlin - Biographie einer großen Stadt”

Knapp 800 Jahre Geschichte in etwa ähnlich vielen Seiten unterbringen ist eine große Herausforderung. Ich habe mich zum guten Teil durch das Buch gequält: es ist zu oft entweder aus Fanboy- oder Bildungsbürder-Perspektive geschrieben und damit wirkt es weder wissenschaftlich noch unterhaltend.

Urteil: querlesen

Spanish books

Leonardo Padura “Personas decentes”

A Mario Conde crime novel set in 2016 that intertwines a murder of a government official, Obama and the Rolling Stones in Cuba, and a historic murder case. The elderly Conde, an ex police-man, has gotten wise and reflexive and helps the police that is apparently strechted thin. The Cuban society as a backdrop for this story with its limitatons and deprivations comes to life and I wish I knew a bit more about Cuban history. A good, albeit long book.

Verdict: worth reading

Arturo Pérez-Reverte “Sidi”

A “rewrite” of sorts of the Spanish national epic, brought much closer to reality and a new life by Pérez-Reverte’s skillful writing. I enjoyed reading the booking even though I am neither a fan of historical novels nor of medieval novels.

Verdict: worth reading

Aroa Moreno Duran “La hija del comunista”

A girl grows up in the sixties in East Berlin, she’s the daughter of Spanish communists who ended up exiled in the GDR - something which actually really happened to a couple of hundred people. She’s torn between communism, her Spanish heritage, and puberty and flees to West Germany at some point. I like the setup of the story a lot and I found the first two thirds of the book very convincing, the last third in West Germany and the inevitable fall of the Wall felt a bit underwhelming.

Verdict: worth reading