Saturday, 27 July 2013

Book Review: Where the West Ends by Michael Totten

I generally steer away from travel writing about more mainstream locations because I find that the genre can be rather formulaic (I ate here, I stayed here, the people were like this and then I went somewhere else) and I feel that popular destinations like London or Paris are best experienced in person rather than through the page. I can state with reasonable confidence, however, that I do not have any of the areas visited by Michael Totten in Where the West Ends on any upcoming travel itineraries. In fact, it is pretty safe to assume that I probably wont ever make it to the likes of Kosovo, Iraq, or Montenegro or anyplace else visited by Totten while he traverses the nebulous border between east and west. Totten's book reads like a travelogue with a strong geopolitical focus and is ultimately an informative and enjoyable examination of such countries.

Totten and an occasional travel partner ultimately visit thirteen countries in all with each country roughly receiving one chapter. Each chapter can stand alone as a vignette but chapters are further organized by region which helps provide greater context to understanding life there. Where the West Ends adheres to some of the basic structures of travel writing, and Totten offers up some vivid descriptions of the sheer beauty and abject desolation that he finds within these countries. He is a gifted writer and he is also very familiar with his subject matter. Totten is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and he has reported from Iraq, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. 

I came into the book with very limited knowledge about the region. I always plan on reading The Economist cover-to-cover but I can't recall the last time I read more than one article in the Middle East and Africa Section. I generally assumed that countries such as Georgia and Kosovo had their issues and quirks but I never read anything describing life there. Shameful reading habits aside, I remain interested in learning about the area and Totten thankfully is able to provide quite a bit of fascinating information about it. In addition to dejecting post-communist apartment blocks and corrupt officials, many of these countries are filled with factual tidbits. The reception of Totten's American citizenship truly runs the gamut, and there are some surprising members of the pro-American camp. The author is embraced by Iraqi Kurds, who are ideological polar opposites from Iraqi Arabs in terms of America. Kurds (and even the most devout viewers of Fox News) cannot beat the residents of Kosovo in terms of American support, though. The country boasts what is probably the world's only examples of graffiti writing effusively praising George W. Bush and a patisserie/disco (there are undoubtedly numerous typos in this review but that last phrase is not one of them) named "Hillary" in honor of the former first lady, while her husband has an eleven foot statue in his honor on Bill Clinton Boulevard in the capital of Prishtina. That being said, the highlight of the book was still probably learning about a statue of Lenin in Yalta that stares directly at a McDonald's franchise.

While there are plenty of entertaining and somewhat-depressing descriptions of awful hotels, ravaged post-communist environments, shady cabdrivers and other elements of the countries covered, Totten also writes about some of their deeper cultural and political aspects. Totten interviews various professors, journalists, and everyday residents who help provide additional insight into life at the borders between the developed and developing world. I found these sections, such Totten's detailing of the Russia-Georgia conflict to be both comprehensive and enlightening, though not all interview subjects were equally engaging. Several of these sections dragged on a bit as a result. It was still generally nice to understand the historical underpinnings that led to the often dismal surroundings encountered by the author. Totten also makes some astute statements, such as when he posits that nationalism is on par with radical Islam in contributing to the perpetual state of Middle Eastern tension.

I don't want to come across as a pre-schooler but Totten mentions holding a camera or performing the act of photography several times in the book, often while in front of some majestic landscape or peculiar sight. He even risks riling up unfriendly soldiers and officials by having a camera on his person during several instances. If he is going to dangle these pictures in front of our faces and endure so much trouble and risk in doing so you would think he could include some of said photographs within the pages of Where the West Ends. On a more positive note, these reckless camera-holding habits exhibit Totten's freewheeling and adventurous approach to his journey, which helps make for an enjoyable read. He is unafraid to travel to Iraq on a whim (the trip was completely unplanned as he tells it), solicit navigational help from anti-American civilians, and he even attempts to pay Chernobyl a visit during his travels (where he is unfortunately rebuffed). These passages inject more excitement than most books that extensively cover the breakup of Yugoslavia and collapse of Albanian government can muster.

In Sum

Where the West Ends is a worthwhile read that strikes a nice balance between being informative and entertaining as Totten explores the Balkans, Middle East, Caucasus, and Black Sea regions. Simply pointing out their idiosyncrasies in a travelogue would make for a worthwhile read, but the book is further enhanced (in general) with reflections about the factors that shaped each country's politics and culture. 


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