Monday, April 1, 2013

Review: Eight Pieces of Empire by Lawrence Scott Sheets

Chechen rebels in Grozny, 1995. (via)

Reviewed by Christina
[I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

Published: 2011

It's about: "Not with a bang, but with a quiet, ten-minute address on Christmas Day 1991: this is how the Soviet Union met its end.  But in the wake of that one deceptively calm moment, conflict and violence soon followed.  Some of the emergent new countries began to shed totalitarianism while others sought to revive their own dead empires or were led by ex-Soviet leaders who built equally or even more repressive political machines.  Since the late 1980s, Lawrence Scott Sheets lived and reported from the former USSR and saw firsthand the reverberations of the empire's collapse.  Eight Pieces of Empire draws readers into the people, politics, and day-to-day life of the region, painting a vivid portrait of a tumultuous time.
Sheets's stories about people living through these tectonic shifts of fortune- a trio of female saboteurs in Chechnya, the chaos of newly independent Georgia in the early 1990s, young hustlers eager to strike it rich in the post-Soviet economic vacuum- reveal the underreported and surprising ways in which the ghosts of empire still haunt these lands and the world."  (back cover of my paperback edition)

I thought: I loved it.  I've never been particularly interested in war reporting, and I didn't really realize that's what I was getting into when I requested a copy of Eight Pieces of Empire.  I didn't know that this book would be difficult to read, and if I had I probably would have politely declined.  BUT.  I'm so glad it came my way.  You know those books that force you to examine how little you know about the world?  This is one of those books.

Lawrence Scott Sheets is a strong, journalistic writer (he covered the former USSR, especially the Causasus, for Reuters and NPR) and he fills these dire conflicts with some bizarre characters and absurd situations.  I can totally get behind the stories and the people in them; in a lot of ways, things weren't so different where/when I lived in Kazakhstan.  And despite the innately foreign and occasionally gruesome subject matter, Sheets makes his material human and relatable. 

There are a few stylistic things that grated on my nerves- the overuse of scare quotes,  Sheets' inconsistency in referring to characters sometimes by their given names and sometimes by their surnames, and a few other minor quirks.  But the book itself is excellently paced and so well-written.  Combine that with important and interesting recent history- I would never not recommend this.  It is interesting and worthwhile, especially for a reader who has any connection to or special interest in ex-Soviet countries.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!  сейчас!

Reading Recommendations:  Be ready for the war violence.  Technically this is a quick, easy read.  Emotionally, not so.

Warnings:  Appropriately grisly descriptions of war violence.  And a couple of swears.

What I'm reading next:  McSweeney's Issue 11

(P.S. - Sorry for not doing something funny today.  As you may have noticed, all the BB writers have a little preoccupied lately.  If you need a laugh, you can check out last year's post.)