17 January 2011

Monday Book Review and next week's theme

I want to announce the theme of next week's posts: ART!

I have some fantastic exhibitions and statues to discuss. I want to make each week thematic so the topics don't get stale or center on one mode of research or work. There are many people doing work in and on East Europe and they need to be recognized. I know that I didn't find much on the region (except Russia) until I deliberately started looking for it. I want to help refer people to others with similar interests. If anyone reading this has suggestions, please send them to me! You can even write up a guest post if you feel so inclined. I would rather mediate the blog than write every single post.

Today's post is regarding the book that changed everything for me: Altering States: Ethnographies of Transition in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, edited by Daphne Berdahl, Matti Bunzl, and Martha Lampland. I wanted to highlight the first book to seal my fate back in 2007. This book is an introduction to the breadth of topics being researched in East Europe and what an introduction it is! It has a host of topics from gay sex tourism in Prague to the Russian concept of the soul and they are all accessible to the average reader. The essays are accessible, but they are not watered down. These ethnographies retain an academic quality while also not succumbing to the awful rhetoric of academic writing. This is not your typical library periodical. It has more life than that.

This book introduced me to Daphne Berdahl and Hermine G. De Soto, who heavily influenced my own research. It was not only because of their expertise in East Germany––their writing really humanized the difficulties and didn't overemphasize divisions. I remembered being incredibly depressed when I found out Berdahl had died while trying to find her contact information. When I browsed graduate programs, I scoured for De Soto's name only to find that she's way too amazing for academia and works for the World Bank. This only made me idolize her more. Can we be best friends? Please? I promise to sharpen your pencils and file your papers. I'm a good secretary.

Aside from my one sided, imaginary relationships with these two amazing women, the book gives a lot of food for thought. The essay, "Tropes of Death and the Russian Soul: Openings and Closings in Post Soviet Siberia" by Dale Pesmen very much altered my perception of the soul and Russian culture. His explanation of "dusha" is so clear and revelatory that it revitalized my interest in Russian literature and helped me understand the structure of these novels. The action of Russian novels starts at least half way into the book and I often joke, "The first half of a Russian novel is an act of will and the second half is the ecstasy of revelation." I think that's more truth than jest, and any Dostoevsky or Tolstoy I've read has been that way. The novel will slowly work its way into the core of the matter and then the action explodes with velocity. Pesmen describes the concentric model of "dusha", which is like a tough nut to crack because the secret (and its power) lies in being hidden and internal. "Dusha" is affected when outer events are internalized, but when it is unveiled, it only hides it further as it deepens. If you've read "Crime and Punishment", you know exactly what this means. Its correlation to Pesmen's "dusha" is too close to ignore a significant connection.

Another essay I want to highlight is "The Shape of National Time: Daily Life, History, and Identity during Armenia's Transition to Independence, 1991-1994" by Stephanie Platz. Personally, I didn't know much about Armenia before I read this and Platz seemed to recognize that was the case. This indirectly influenced my work because she ties in the cultural rituals of Armenian life to their economic decay during an embargo to the land locked nation. The close connection between economics and social life was so closely tied that when the former went under, the latter followed it all the way down. The damage was so extensive that even when the embargo was lifted, social affairs never repaired. My research also tied economic activity to social life, which I can only attribute to this essay being in the back of my mind.

This book was the first related to ECE when I came back from my first stay in Europe and this explains the deep impression it made on me. Despite this personal attachment to the collection, it gives a great breadth of topics, countries, and theory to interest anyone with a fleeting interest. I highly recommend it to anyone who isn't offended by the section on homosexual activity, or who is at least willing to skip it if that's the case. I look forward to the day when I'm not continually saving money and I can buy it, but until then, I have it locked away in my head.

I give it a 10/10.