Review: Russian-born Producer Takes Readers Through The Looking Glass

Russia has been in the news for the last few years but mostly in terms of election interference, the war in Ukraine, or climate change.  Information about what the country is really like doesn’t seem to interest journalists or their editors.

Luckily for us, Russian-born TV producer Peter Pomerantsev has done a deep dive about his experience making documentaries there and meeting people from aspiring small town models to obscenely powerful oligarchs.  Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible examines a country that shifts like a kaleidoscope on steroids as its leaders stealthily fight for global supremacy and tens of billions of dollars illegally slosh through its economy in often unchartable ways.  A country that seems to have lost its mind in the rush to grab wealth wherever it can.

One thing you can count on with today’s Russia is insane impermanence, especially in Moscow. The city itself is in a perpetual paroxysm of building and rebuilding, and the author’s descriptions of those changes are so memorable. “Whole swathes of town are demolished in fits of self-destruction, wastelands abandoned for years and for no apparent reason, skyscrapers erupting before there are any roads leading to them and then left empty in the dirty snow.”

This re-invention frenzy dwarfs anything that Americans have experienced. People become wealthy there with the speed of light and for “its new heroes, life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable.”   The whole book captures the bizarre reality that has taken hold of Russia and squeezed it dry, while making some people so desperate to feel positive that they’re hypnotized by TV charlatans and self-help cult leaders.

Corruption and bribery rule in every sphere of life, whether getting a driver’s license or snagging exemptions from being drafted into the army.  That’s simply how things get done.  But one of the most egregious examples is the Sochi Olympics.  Those games cost tens of billions more than the previous Olympics–the extra money just drifted away.

That’s what seems to happen across the country with one venture after another, and much of that money has been buying real estate, soccer teams, fabulous art, and companies in London and all across Europe.  Rapacious, dangerously charming Russians seem to have colonized that city, appearing as brash arrivistes but slowly becoming “classy” and moving on from plush city addresses to country estates.

Deep Russian paranoia is stoked by state-controlled media that makes Fox TV seem as anodyne as a chirpy Hallmark greeting card. Against an apocalyptic backdrop, it constantly warns viewers against “Gay-Europa,” Western fascists and the CIA infesting Ukraine, Western plans for genocide against Russia, and “American-sponsored fascists crucifying Russian children on the squares of Ukrainian towns.”

That media machine has produced weeping women who testified to those appalling horrors.  Of course they were fake. It’s all fake news meant to keep the government in power and hide the reality of corruption so widespread that you can’t say it permeates the state. It is the state.

The author notes that the Kremlin “has finally mastered the art of fusing reality TV and authoritarianism to keep the great, 140-millionm-strong population entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares, which if repeated enough times can become infectious.”

You have to wonder if this is a warning to readers that the same thing could happen in Western countries, perhaps with less drama and less notice–because who could imagine it possible?

Lev Raphael  has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and many other media outlets since the mid-1990s.

 

 

Review: The Strange History of Lotharingia

I’ve been a Simon Winder fan ever since he published his hilarious cultural exposé James Bond: The Man Who Saved Britain.  I read it while traveling and laughed so hard and so often that I startled people around me in airports and on planes.  I just couldn’t help myself.

I was more circumspect when Winder launched a trilogy about the tangled history of German-speaking peoples and their friends and foes with Germania.  I made sure that I read that book and its follow-up Danubia at home.  I laughed even more, but this time only my dogs were startled.

Those books are a unique combination of memoir, travelogue, history, and cultural commentary filtered through an exceedingly wry sense of often self-deprecating humor.  They are very British.  Where does his new book and the last volume in the trilogy take us? A land that most people have never heard of: Lotharingia.

Okay, it may sound like a country in a Marx Brothers movie, but it’s real.  Well, it was real.  It’s the part of Charlemagne’s Empire that lay between France and Germany and today is roughly where you find The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of France and Switzerland.  The region has seen umpteen battles as one ruler or country after another sought to control it or even small parts of it.  Winder jokes about the blizzard of battles, some of them started over nothing, and crazy rulers like the French king who thought he was made of glass.

It’s all true, all wildly fascinating, and Winder’s colorful images are wonderful.  Here’s how he describes  Burgundy, one of the many lands to rise–for a time–out of Lotharingia’s chaos: “In many ways the Burgundian state as it developed was like a vast strangler-fig around the borders of France, from the English Channel to the Alps, both crushing France and living off of it, using the haziness of Lotharingia to intersperse itself in spaces in between.”

Winder has spent years exploring the remotest corners of this area, is steeped in its tangled history, and makes erudite and thought-provoking observations on every single page.  He invokes the region’s many rivers more than once, and at times you may feel yourself on a languorous river cruise while you read, enjoying the fantastic views.

It’s a great voyage because you don’t have to put up with annoyances like people around you taking endless selfies and calling home to check on their Amazon deliveries.  Along the way you discover mind-blowing art, fabulous treasure, bizarre monuments, and tranquil oases that might make you want to start packing your bags.

Winder is a perfect tour guide.  He’s witty, affable, erudite, and engaging.  He has a brilliant eye for the weird, picturesque or goofy detail, whether noting a king or emperor’s unusual name or pointing out that sacred relics in medieval Europe were as common as penny candy.

Encyclopedic and consistently entertaining, this is a perfect gift for fans of well-written travelogues, history, and memoir.  Winder’s personal and family wanderings are as much fun as following his exploration of the most luxuriant royal family trees that ever sprang from Lotharingia’s extravagantly fertile soil.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and has reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Jerusalem Report, Bibliobuffet, Lambda Book Report, and Michigan Radio.

 

My German Book Tours Had Their Quirky Moments

I’m lucky to have had three sponsored book tours in Germany, a country I surprisingly fell in love with, given that my parents were Holocaust survivors.

I was touring for several books including a memoir, My Germany, and I always had a terrific time, especially with my hosts in one city after another.  I admire the serious book culture that exists in Germany and how authors are respected as cultural figures. I love the comfortable trains and the train stations with good food, great bookstores, and cheerful-looking flower shops.

But I found certain things about traveling in Germany quirky, and that’s actually a good thing, because a book tour can be exhausting with the constant change of scene and because you’re working so hard.  Without a sense of humor, you can really get worn down.  Noting cultural differences is a fun distraction–and educational, too.

Those same great trains and train stations have been a consistent source of amusement for me. No matter where I am or what train I’m on, even though an announcement might be delivered in German and English, the speaker always leaves out important content in English. The German announcement will apologize for a train being late in German but that won’t be repeated in English, and forget hearing anything about connections or even whether there’s a bistro or restaurant on the train. Without knowing German, you can miss a lot, and let’s face it, plenty of foreigners travel on Die Bahn.

Hotels of all sorts there are a puzzle. Why are so many German beds so low to the ground? This isn’t a country prone to earthquakes — they really don’t have to fear falling out bed, do they? And what’s with German pillows? They’re mostly as soft as rags, which is why the hotel staff can arrange them in pretty shapes on the bed (triangles seem to be popular). Usually I need a handful of them to make for a somewhat restful sleep, or the hope of one.

The beds are low but the showers are high. You almost always have to step up into the shower or bath tub which admittedly isn’t a big deal. But the dismount can be tricky when you’re all wet. And why are German toilets high, too? Are you supposed to be having elevated, philosophical thoughts on the throne because you’re in the land of Goethe?

Maybe so. Let’s face it, Germany is Goethe-crazy. On one tour I ate at a Heidelberg restaurant Goethe mentioned in one of his journals, and the restaurant noted in its publicity material and in a mural on its wall that he almost slept at the inn there way back when. Almost.

But even Germans make fun of their Goethe worship. In the university town of Tübingen, there’s a plaque indicating that Goethe puked there. What’s even funnier is that plenty of American tourists don’t realize it’s a joke.

Lev Raphael loves travel and speaking foreign languages.  He’s the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery, and teaches creative writing online at www.writewithoutborders.com.

I’m Grateful To Know More Than One Language

 

New stories about people being harassed and threatened because they’re not speaking English are a sad sign of how xenophobia is becoming normalized in the country.  And they disturb me personally.

I grew up with Eastern European-born parents who spoke at least ten languages between them. They used English with me and my brother, but more often than not spoke Yiddish to each other whether at home or in public. Russian, too, if they had something snarky to say about someone, or if they didn’t want me and my brother to know what they were discussing.  Likewise, arguments when they escalated went to Russian, which both my parents had spoken since childhood.

The apartment building I grew up in was filled with immigrants. Most of them spoke German, though there was some who spoke Russian or other languages.  Way before I traveled anywhere, I felt the world was at my doorstep because of this linguistic richness.

I found the ability to shift back and froth from one language to another simply wonderful.  I envied the ability to be private in public, to have not just one “secret Language,” but a handful of them.  And I was often delighted when one of my parents would realize a store owner, for instance, was from some country whose language they spoke but I never heard at home–like Romanian.

I studied French in school and did well, thanks to having a francophone mother, and it’s helped me in Canada and Western Europe.  I went on to study German and learned it well enough to do use it for introductions and readings on book tours in Germany.  When it looked like I might be teaching in Sweden not so long ago, I plunged in and had a ball learning the language, and learning about the people and culture.  Now I’m studying Dutch because I want to write about Flanders in perhaps more than one book.

Studying a language opens doorways you didn’t even know existed. But harassing people who aren’t speaking English is the sign of a closed and fearful mind.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of the travelogue/memoir My Germany and 24 other books in many genres.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

Is Ghent a Better Travel Destination than Bruges?

Bruges and Ghent were never on my radar until my first trip to Paris when I came across a travel magazine with a big section on Bruges and the amazing canals had me spellbound. I didn’t get there as soon as I hoped (author book tours in Germany sidetracked me), but when I did, it outshone my fantasies. My timing made it possible to see the famous Holy Blood Procession that had been going on there since medieval times.

In Bruges, my wonderful B&B host and I discussed other cities in Flanders and she dismissed Ghent as not up to the standard of Bruges. She thought that it was worth—at the very most—a day trip. That was also apparently what her other guests told her after visiting Ghent.

Having  spent a week there myself, I don’t agree. Bruges is magnificent, thanks to its death in the 14th century as a port city and to being relatively untouched by war through the centuries. The core of the city is beautifully preserved, and the further you get from the crowds, the more tranquil you find it. But it’s definitely “preserved” and in many ways feels like a giant museum.

Ghent on the other hand is a very dynamic city. It has its fair share of canals and gorgeous buildings, as well as ancient churches and beautiful art. Bruges has the Michelangelo Madonna and Child, Ghent has the Van Eyck altarpiece. I think it’s a draw there, and the same goes for the food. I ate just as well in each city, savoring Flemish/Belgian specialties like waterzooi, carbonnade, vol-au-vent, moules-frites, stoemp, and of course made only a tiny dent in the amazing variety of amazing beers (there are apparently over 1,000).

Where Ghent outweighs Bruges for me is the fact that it’s a university town that’s friendly, entertaining, and alive. Ghentians call their home “The City of Trust and Love” and I found that attitude in people of all ages.

There’s a reason Belgian novelist Georges Rodenbach wrote a book called Bruges-la-Morte (Dead Bruges). Bruges might be more picturesque, but Ghent is livelier and, perhaps best of all, attracts fewer tourists. Not surprisingly, it’s widely called one of Europe’s hidden gems.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, and is currently working on a novel set in Ghent.

Falling in Love With Ghent

The psychologist Otto Rank wrote that artists are perpetually in conflict with life.  They need seclusion to produce their work, but they also need to go out into the world for stimulation to create their art.

Whatever takes me away from home, I’m always receptive to possible locations for stories, essays, and books–and I return with lots of notes and photographs.  I was recently in Ghent, Belgium on a travel grant, liaising with officials from Ghent University to explore the possibility of a study abroad program with Michigan State University.  The city is widely called “a hidden gem.” It’s all that, and more.  Day after day I felt bombarded with impressions and ideas I knew would fuel my writing down the road.  I fell in love with a city I’d known almost nothing about, and fell hard.  Here’s why.

First there are the people. As my favorite author Henry James would have put it, “the note” of the city is friendliness. I got that vibe everywhere, whether in sandwich or coffee shops, stores, restaurants, and even from strangers who helped me when I got slightly lost. Some of them walked a short distance with me to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

As a writer, I seek comfort and quiet when I travel and the Carlton Hotel Gent was the epitome of those things. Family owned, boutique-style, it was smoothly run, ultra-quiet, close to the train station, served delicious breakfasts, and the owners were perfect guides to the city and its restaurants. The hip Café Parti was nearby and if could’ve eaten every lunch and dinner there, I would have. It served Belgian specialties that I’d sampled before in Brussels and Bruges, but they were exceptional, especially the stoofvlees, a beef stew made with dark beer, and the onglet, hanger steak better than any I’d had in the U.S.

I liked the modern lines of the hotel and the Café Parti (above) because Ghent has so much history in its architecture, from the Renaissance buildings along the canals, to the Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral and the medieval Gravensteen fortress at the city center. Dipping in and out of these different periods was intensely enjoyable. And so was sampling my favorite Belgian chocolate, Neuhaus, and a Ghent specialty, neuzekes, candies filled with raspberry syrup that look like little pointed hats and are partly made with gum Arabic. They’re sensational.

Bikes are king in Ghent, or so they say, and it apparently has the largest bike-friendly zone in Europe. Ghent was the first city to designate a street as a “cycle street”—meaning that cars have to stay behind bikes. They’re everywhere, weaving through traffic and around the trams which snake along the sinuous streets which seem unlike any other street plan I’m familiar with from my previous years of visiting Western. There was something very calming about riding a tram or just watching one.

For a city which is the third largest port in Belgium, and has 250,000 residents, Ghent never felt overwhelming. It welcomed and fascinated me, and unlike the more famous Bruges half an hour away (which has twice as many tourists), it didn’t feel like a museum despite the amazing architecture from so many different periods.

Before I got there, I had plans to set a novel elsewhere in Flanders, but after this past week, the novel-in-progress has moved to Ghent.  Frankly, I wish I could, too.  For awhile, anyway….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch.