I listen to books while gardening or travelling. Favorite when gardening was Swann's Way; favorite when travelling was Herodotus' Histories
I would not describe listening to Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands as enjoyable. But it is a bracing and rather harrowing history of the countries located between the Soviet Union and Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, most especially the Ukraine and Belarus. Bloodlands is an apt description for the unimaginable scale of mass murder, starvation, and sheer human evil that took place in those years. The history is highly intelligent and lucidly told (very important when listening rather than reading), though I am still not quite sure whether Snyder's thesis that once the Germans knew the war was lost, they shifted their war aims to the destruction of European Jews is entirely convincing. Bloodlands is a superb history, where the narration matches its subject so well as to make the story of what happened in those countries compelling and entirely memorable.
Bloodlands is history, not fiction, so favorite characters are not entirely appropriate.
The narration of this lengthy and intricate history was superb.
There were many moments that moved me, most especially when Snyder described the horrific instances of cannibalism when people by the hundreds of thousands starved to death, the victims of Stalin's failed (and to us perhaps incomprehensible) economic policies.
For any of us with family or ancestors from the area -- it is hard to acknowledge the things that happened. I learned from this book -- the subject matter made it impossible to "enjoy" it.
Other reviewers have raised some valid criticisms of Snyder's book: by focusing largely on Poland and Ukraine, he risks skewing the emphasis of what happened in other areas of the theater of WWII. Nevertheless, in choosing this tight focus he builds a detailed and nuanced picture of the most grievous and least well-reported part of the war--both geographically and politically. His research is impeccable, and his prose is clear and elegant. The narration is very good, slightly marred by Cosham's tendency to get a little dramatic in intonation. (The material is dramatic enough on its own, and doesn't need that; but it's slight and not distracting.)
A second criticism of Snyder is the assumption--wrong, I think--that he is somehow equating the degree of evilness of Hitler and Stalin. To me, such debates are utterly pointless and usually ideological. Speaking as a leftist and a Jew myself, I think the claims of absolute exceptionalism for Hitler (or Stalin) only obscure the facts and muddle their interpretation. Snyder does an excellent job of avoiding that trap.
In the discussions of Stalin, he provides a far more thoughtful and balanced discussion than the more familiar western scholars--Robert Conquest, Ann Applebaum, etc.--far too driven by their own agendas, and distracted by their inability to see outside of their own western, late-twentieth-century, conservative context to be reliable.
I especially appreciate Snyder's skill in interweaving huge lumps of facts, most of them unbearably grim, with passages highlighting individuals, so that the geopolitics never obscure the personal, nor vice versa.
Above all, the story of the terrible fate of the Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and other peoples living in that endlessly contested territory deserves to be told in the depth, and with the care, offered here. Told, explored, analyzed. Since WWII there have been other cases of a civilian population caught between two opposing and brutal forces (the Cambodians of the 1970s come to mind).
At times the graphic descriptions brought tears to my eyes. But the lessons to be learned are important. Too much power given to the state can bring enormous catastrophe. This book gives me millions of reasons to insist on a limited government with carefully enumerated powers and strong sanctions for violations.
The millions murdered by the police (with some help by the military) with guns is more than sufficient reason to be nearly serious about making a police officer with a gun a “shoot on sight” offense.
The author goes on and on about body counts and sadly but realistically body counts get old. This book need more details to make it more interesting.