Eastern Europe is big. (Especially since the author points out that defining what exactly Eastern Europe is, is rather complicated and that he decided to use the term in the widest possible sense), The book covers the time from roughly 500 AD to the fall of the Soviet Union. This is also a lot of time. The book has 500 pages, which might seem a lot at first but often only leaves 2 or 3 pages (sometimes not even that) to describe what happened in a certain region in a certain time. There is just an awful lot of facts crammed into very little space. As a result, not a lot of the things I read about really stayed with me. If I already knew a bit about a certain topic the short chapters often helped me to remember it better (and perhaps learn and remember a bit more) but if something was completely new to me it usually got lost between everything. I think it would have helped if the book had focussed on a shorter time-frame and then spent a bit more time on the single chapters.
Well and then there're the Useless Trivia sections. Throughout the book, there are short asides titled - duh - Useless Trivia - and a snappy, amusing heading like 'Reach out and touch someone...else...' or 'Things to name a Heavy Metal Band after'.
According to the author, these are 'utterly useless historical, cultural, or other completely senseless facts about Eastern Europe'. He also says 'these little factoids can be fun'. He doesn't directly say that one can simply skip these bits but it's clear that the important bits are outside the 'Useless Trivia' sections.
Now a lot of these bits are exactly that. For example, you learn why St. Nicholas day is celebrated on December 6th (because the historical Nicholas destroyed lots of temples dedicated to Diana whose sacred day was December 6th). Other bits are just very useless and not even in an amusing way. Like the Cold War has several UT-bits titled 'Which side are you on?' with short biographies of people who first supported the regime very strongly but later criticized it openly. I think that might have been more useful to talk about that topic in more general terms instead of picking out single cases. Other bits are just about famous people from the US with Eastern European roots which is possibly a YMMV-thing (and well the book is aimed at a US-audience) but I often really didn't see the point of including these things.
Well, and then there are parts where I think Useless? Fun? WHAT?
Among the events that got the 'summed up under a snappy and amusing headline' treatment are:
- the siege of Leningrad
- the assassination of Heydrich and the subsequent Nazi massacres of the Czech
- stories of people who were shot while trying to cross the Berlin Wall
Now I do have some problems with calling these 'fun little factoids'. OK, I have a lot of problems with that. (Also, the exact circumstances of the fall of the Berlin Wall are also in a 'Useless Trivia' section because...because?)
There are also a lot of graphics in this book. One of them is a language family tree in such an abysmal quality that it's completely unreadable. It looks like a thumbnail that has been blown up to the size of a page...now it's only one but finding this in a published book is annoying. There are also a lot of maps, which are are great (and so helpful for geography-illiterates like me) and timelines, which are less great. Every chapter has two timelines at the beginning: one with the events happening in Eastern Europe and the other with world events. I would have gotten more out of this if that had simply been done with a table with two columns because then I could have seen much easier which two things had happened at roughly the same time.
Overall the author has a style that is easy to read and I'll definitely keep this book and will also look into it again (and in the 20-page long bibliography to find other books) but it could be a lot better than it is.