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Where the West Ends: Stories from the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus Paperback – July 23, 2012
The Amazon Book Review
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About the Author
Michael J. Totten is an award-winning journalist and prize-winning author whose very first book, The Road to Fatima Gate, won the Washington Institute Book Prize.
He has taken road trips to war zones, sneaked into police states under false pretenses, dodged incoming rocket and mortar fire, stayed in some of the worst hotels ever built anywhere, slipped past the hostile side of a front line, been accused of being a spy, received death threats from terrorists, and been mugged by Egyptian police officers. When he's not doing or writing about these things, he writes novels.
His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic among numerous other publications, and he's a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal. He has reported widely from the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, and the Balkans. A former resident of Beirut, he lives in Oregon with his wife and two cats.
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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.
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 idiosyncracies 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.
In summary, Where the West Ends is a great, low-cost, high-benefit way to learn some fundamentals about ethnic conflict and political (in)stability in a rapidly changing and increasingly important part of the world. It is also written in an accessible and often adventurous style. I can imagine that it could be used effectively in, say, an honors history class in high school.
I appreciate the author's insight into the cultural psyches of the countries he visited, and his blunt assessment of the corrosive effects of communism.
I have only one complaint. Over and over again, the author makes references to pictures taken by himself and his colleague, yet no pictures did delight my eager eyes. Perhaps they were included in the print version of the book, but why tease a poor Kindle owner like that?
I was left as dis-satisfied as a Kievan lady of the night. (You'll have to read the book to get that one)
A pox upon the publisher!
Props to Michael Totten, though. I'm a new fan.
P.S. I just discovered the author's eponymous blog and if you search the archives you can find the pictures he kept referencing in the book. So there's that.
P.P.S. On further reading of the blog, it looks like I could have read it instead of the book and gotten the same content, for free, with pictures. *sigh*