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Picnic at the Iron Curtain: A Memoir: From the fall of the Berlin Wall to Ukraine's Orange Revolution

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Welcome to the world of collapsing Communism. It is the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall when people are still willing to risk all to cross the Iron Curtain to the West. In this adventure-packed memoir Susan Viets, a student turned journalist, arrives in Communist Hungary in 1988 and begins reporting for the Guardian, not at all prepared for what lies ahead. She helps Ea Welcome to the world of collapsing Communism. It is the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall when people are still willing to risk all to cross the Iron Curtain to the West. In this adventure-packed memoir Susan Viets, a student turned journalist, arrives in Communist Hungary in 1988 and begins reporting for the Guardian, not at all prepared for what lies ahead. She helps East Germans escape to the West at a picnic, moves to the Soviet Union where she battles authorities for accreditation as the first foreign journalist in Ukraine and then watches, amazed, as the entire political system collapses. Lured by new travel opportunities, Viets shops her way across Central Asia, stumbling into a tank attack in Tajikistan and the start of the Tajik civil war. "Picnic at the Iron Curtain" shows every day people at the centre of dramatic events from Budapest to Bishkek and Chernobyl to Chechnya. It is a memoir that spans a period of momentous historical change from 1988-1998, following through with an eyewitness account of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.


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Welcome to the world of collapsing Communism. It is the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall when people are still willing to risk all to cross the Iron Curtain to the West. In this adventure-packed memoir Susan Viets, a student turned journalist, arrives in Communist Hungary in 1988 and begins reporting for the Guardian, not at all prepared for what lies ahead. She helps Ea Welcome to the world of collapsing Communism. It is the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall when people are still willing to risk all to cross the Iron Curtain to the West. In this adventure-packed memoir Susan Viets, a student turned journalist, arrives in Communist Hungary in 1988 and begins reporting for the Guardian, not at all prepared for what lies ahead. She helps East Germans escape to the West at a picnic, moves to the Soviet Union where she battles authorities for accreditation as the first foreign journalist in Ukraine and then watches, amazed, as the entire political system collapses. Lured by new travel opportunities, Viets shops her way across Central Asia, stumbling into a tank attack in Tajikistan and the start of the Tajik civil war. "Picnic at the Iron Curtain" shows every day people at the centre of dramatic events from Budapest to Bishkek and Chernobyl to Chechnya. It is a memoir that spans a period of momentous historical change from 1988-1998, following through with an eyewitness account of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.

30 review for Picnic at the Iron Curtain: A Memoir: From the fall of the Berlin Wall to Ukraine's Orange Revolution

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    I was intrigued with the premise of the book, and I am sure the author went through some amazing experiences. Frankly, though, I am surprised that she was/is a journalist. I expect good writing from someone who does it for a living, but I found her prose hard to read. Not because it was difficult, but because it was so bland. Paragraph after paragraph read "Subject, verb, predicate. Subject, verb, predicate." There was no cadence to her writing, no flow. And it was hard to follow where she was. I was intrigued with the premise of the book, and I am sure the author went through some amazing experiences. Frankly, though, I am surprised that she was/is a journalist. I expect good writing from someone who does it for a living, but I found her prose hard to read. Not because it was difficult, but because it was so bland. Paragraph after paragraph read "Subject, verb, predicate. Subject, verb, predicate." There was no cadence to her writing, no flow. And it was hard to follow where she was. At one point, she is suddenly writing about being with her family, and it took me a few minutes to realize that she was on a vacation back at home with her parents. Acronyms are thrown around like confetti, and the author assumes a knowledge of historical events that I, at least, lack. Dramatic events are oddly juxtaposed with wondering whether someone's braid is real, or with how someone cuts a tomato. I think this would have been a better book had the author focused on one or two of her experiences and really fleshed them out. She did live through a lot of history, but it was all too much for one book. I wished to know her colleagues better, to see them as real people and not just characters that floated in and out of her life. I wished for more historical background to help me understand what was going on. Maybe someone more familiar with the history would appreciate this book better than I did. But I found myself finishing it just to get it over.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Martyn

    Very interesting read but did not hold my interest. I gave up about half way through. I may well come back to it.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Alan

    Interesting nonfiction book about the collapse of communism. When Susan Viets was hit by a car in London and lost time in school during recovery, she decided to go to Hungary as it was beginning to open up. This led her to a full time job as a reporter, initially reporting on Hungary, then Ukraine, Germany, Chechnya, Moldova, and Bosnia and back to Ukraine ending with the Orange Revolution. She is realistic and is reporting about conditions on the ground for people living there. It ends long bef Interesting nonfiction book about the collapse of communism. When Susan Viets was hit by a car in London and lost time in school during recovery, she decided to go to Hungary as it was beginning to open up. This led her to a full time job as a reporter, initially reporting on Hungary, then Ukraine, Germany, Chechnya, Moldova, and Bosnia and back to Ukraine ending with the Orange Revolution. She is realistic and is reporting about conditions on the ground for people living there. It ends long before some of the current problems and changes, but provides a fascinating look at events as they unfolded.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Kathryn

    Just couldn't finish it. The writing was not good which is surprising since she is a journalist.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    In spite of naivety at times she survived her adventures and made friends on many places.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kristina

    Really a 3.5. Two main complaints: 1. I really hated the first two chapters. Okay so stuff happens to her and she gets some money and decides to go to Hungary--chapter 1. She's been in Hungary for some time and suddenly she gets visitors from Germany whose experiences and ultimate choices lead her to question what she thought she knew about freedom and Communism--chapter 2. Great. But there is such a yawning gap between chapter 1 and chapter 2 that I honestly thought if such a pattern continued, I Really a 3.5. Two main complaints: 1. I really hated the first two chapters. Okay so stuff happens to her and she gets some money and decides to go to Hungary--chapter 1. She's been in Hungary for some time and suddenly she gets visitors from Germany whose experiences and ultimate choices lead her to question what she thought she knew about freedom and Communism--chapter 2. Great. But there is such a yawning gap between chapter 1 and chapter 2 that I honestly thought if such a pattern continued, I would not finish the book. I WANT TO KNOW HOW YOU GOT TO HUNGARY AND WHAT YOU SAW/DID/FELT THERE. You just moved from London to Budapest without knowing much of anything about anything and you leave out a whole period of time chronicling your first immersion into a Communist society? How the hell am I supposed to know what it was like? Isn't that why I'm reading this book in the first place? I'm not anywhere near old enough to have been able to do what you did and so you deprive me of your very first impressions? The galling thing is that for whatever reason, the book DOESN'T continue this way. The author manages to chronicle her daily life in Kiev et al. in pretty nice detail. Her infrequent comparisons to her life in Budapest made laugh because they didn't mean anything since she hadn't told us how her life in Budapest actually was. I mean, London to Budapest. There was so much I feel she must have experienced--language, culture, food, rules, architecture, society, money. A shame that we couldn't experience it vicariously through her. 2. The book lacked a decent structure. Yes it was written chronologically but I didn't really feel like there was one pervasive theme. There should have been--the title clearly means to encompass the dismantling of communism from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the latest (at the time)manifestation of the transition from authoritarianism via the Orange Revolution. Firstly, she never talks about the actual fall of the Berlin Wall, not really. And she arrives in Hungary BEFORE the fall anyway. The part about the Wall is described very personally and by that I mean without any true historical context about the bigger implications for communism as a theory of governance and the Soviet bloc's relevance in the world. As a journalist, she should be aware of at least some of those things. (Her attempt to rectify this by describing attending a lecture by Timothy Garton Ash and her fascination at how he pieced together these events to fit a political science theory did not persuade me.) Secondly, the book should not have contained her section on "Chechnya in London" nor "Sarajevo." Or at least, not in as much detail. If she had really fleshed out the Hungary portion and then woven it with Kiev and her side travels from there, it would have been a great book. The last chapter about how she went to Ukraine for the Orange Revolution would have made a very fitting epilogue. The two superfluous sections, in my opinion, while tangentially relevant (of course, I understand it's her memoir but it's also a memoir with a supposedly given theme and a title which I consider to be somewhat misleading) are there only for the purpose of giving us background on her life. It seemed weird that she would go into all that detail about London for almost the sole purpose of telling us she was introduced to her future (then ex) husband who joined her in Sarajevo but then the next chapter would vaguely say that somehow their marriage ended up falling apart when they moved back to Canada. Either: stick to the theme of communism with personal bits giving us a more personal connection or give us the full scope of your life with communism as a backdrop. I will say, the chapters relating to her time in Kiev and the trips she took from Kiev (to Chechnya etc.) were riveting and I thought they were excellent. While that does take up most of the middle of the book, the beginning and end were too meh to raise my rating to more than 3 stars.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Roger Charles

    For me this book is mis-titled. I hoped and thought this book would be interviewing people crossing from East Germany into West Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. In some ways I misinterpreted the title and that fault lies with me. The author, Susan Viets, obviously has a brave and risk taking spirit so bravo to her and her cohorts. Back to the book; it seemed like it was split into two stories: 1) when the Iron Curtain came tumbling down in Hungary and Kiev and the Bosnia debacle. Actually I no For me this book is mis-titled. I hoped and thought this book would be interviewing people crossing from East Germany into West Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. In some ways I misinterpreted the title and that fault lies with me. The author, Susan Viets, obviously has a brave and risk taking spirit so bravo to her and her cohorts. Back to the book; it seemed like it was split into two stories: 1) when the Iron Curtain came tumbling down in Hungary and Kiev and the Bosnia debacle. Actually I noticed after 65% (i only know this due to ebook stats) of the book it picked up. I enjoyed the last 35% of the book than up to that point. This book is 'all over the place:' travel challenges in the third world and old eastern Europe, shopping in those places and the realization she was truly in violent areas and how they related to her/mankind's existence. An appropriate title for this book? I'm lost for one; although the story can be interesting it was never focused to me.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ruth Bonetti

    Interested in the present crisis in Ukraine, I downloaded this as an eBook. From the outset I was intrigued that an admitted novice with no degree in journalism managed to talk herself into closed countries, and then to file and publish reports. The section on Chernobyl was interesting. But dramatic incidents lost impact with a half-dozen sentences in a row that began with 'I' and would have benefited from the adage 'show, don't tell.' They needed more sense of place. Perhaps it was a security me Interested in the present crisis in Ukraine, I downloaded this as an eBook. From the outset I was intrigued that an admitted novice with no degree in journalism managed to talk herself into closed countries, and then to file and publish reports. The section on Chernobyl was interesting. But dramatic incidents lost impact with a half-dozen sentences in a row that began with 'I' and would have benefited from the adage 'show, don't tell.' They needed more sense of place. Perhaps it was a security measure to not name people but I lost track of those simply called 'my host.' When 'my host' reappeared in the next chapter was it the same person? It was a disappointing read as the author zipped between countries too rapidly to digest.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alise Napp

    Read my full review on my blog. "Viets has a wonderful story to tell and has clearly lived and exciting life. While I learned a lot, though, I found her writing to be very stiff. It appears that years of writing for news reports took their toll on her style. She writes as though sending a report of facts, a style which does not lend itself well to a memoir. It is clear that Viets spent most of her life writing for international political news stories, not human interest ones. The heart is there u Read my full review on my blog. "Viets has a wonderful story to tell and has clearly lived and exciting life. While I learned a lot, though, I found her writing to be very stiff. It appears that years of writing for news reports took their toll on her style. She writes as though sending a report of facts, a style which does not lend itself well to a memoir. It is clear that Viets spent most of her life writing for international political news stories, not human interest ones. The heart is there under the layers of facts, you just have to be willing to read between the lines to connect with it. "

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mandy

    The content was very interesting, I mean, the author got to witness and report on major events in history. The main problem was the writing. It was hard to follow the timeline bc the author was very vague and would switch between events/time periods with no reference. At one point she was engaged, the next chapter she was getting divorced...she never mentions when they got married or how long they were married. Things like that were distracting and making me wonder if I had missed something. Jum The content was very interesting, I mean, the author got to witness and report on major events in history. The main problem was the writing. It was hard to follow the timeline bc the author was very vague and would switch between events/time periods with no reference. At one point she was engaged, the next chapter she was getting divorced...she never mentions when they got married or how long they were married. Things like that were distracting and making me wonder if I had missed something. Jumps between events and/or time periods would happen from paragraph to paragraph without any real reference or acknowledgment to the new time or date. It could have been a really great book.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Mary Cooper

    I am amazed at how independent the author was. It took a lot of courage to leave home and travel to countries experiencing times of unrest, and to do it alone. While other reviews have described her writing as "too stiff", I found the book intriguing. Mostly factual with a little bit of emotions, the book held my interest. The book is about the unrest, not about the author's personal life. At times I did feel that there wasn't enough information about what was going on...maybe there should have I am amazed at how independent the author was. It took a lot of courage to leave home and travel to countries experiencing times of unrest, and to do it alone. While other reviews have described her writing as "too stiff", I found the book intriguing. Mostly factual with a little bit of emotions, the book held my interest. The book is about the unrest, not about the author's personal life. At times I did feel that there wasn't enough information about what was going on...maybe there should have been 2 books since the book spanned such a large time frame. I recommended this book to my mother who read it and absolutely loved it.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kareem

    This is really the first book I've read concerning the collapse of Soviet Russia and the turmoil of Eastern Europe in the late 80s and early 90s. Got a idea of how laborious and liberating the transition away from communism was. Also got an idea of how compromising the author's job as a journalist was and how she didn't really want to get back into it, especially after her father passed away. The way she integrated the changes in her life with these world events over these years was pretty profo This is really the first book I've read concerning the collapse of Soviet Russia and the turmoil of Eastern Europe in the late 80s and early 90s. Got a idea of how laborious and liberating the transition away from communism was. Also got an idea of how compromising the author's job as a journalist was and how she didn't really want to get back into it, especially after her father passed away. The way she integrated the changes in her life with these world events over these years was pretty profound.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Caffeinated Weka

    I tried to like this book. The subjects covered are intriguing and it started out with so much promise. I gave up about 1/3 of the way through. The writing was really stilted, especially from someone who is a journalist. The narrative skipped across the surface of several stories and events that I really needed more historical context to make sense of, let alone trying to keep up with the cast of characters making one-off appearances. I may pick it up again later and attempt to finish it, but it I tried to like this book. The subjects covered are intriguing and it started out with so much promise. I gave up about 1/3 of the way through. The writing was really stilted, especially from someone who is a journalist. The narrative skipped across the surface of several stories and events that I really needed more historical context to make sense of, let alone trying to keep up with the cast of characters making one-off appearances. I may pick it up again later and attempt to finish it, but it hasn't held my attention so far.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Dixie

    This book of a reporter working in so many countries at critical times in history 1988 (Hungary) - 2004 (Ukraine's Orange Revolution) From being in Hungary w/ the East Germans leaving for Austria before the border rules changed, Kiev while it's still part of the USSR & see what happened when USSR collapsed, her visit to Chernobyl & the abandoned city (how they were treated). She went to Chechnya & Sarajevo during the war, and back to Kiev for the Orange Revolution. Good, easy read for anyone inte This book of a reporter working in so many countries at critical times in history 1988 (Hungary) - 2004 (Ukraine's Orange Revolution) From being in Hungary w/ the East Germans leaving for Austria before the border rules changed, Kiev while it's still part of the USSR & see what happened when USSR collapsed, her visit to Chernobyl & the abandoned city (how they were treated). She went to Chechnya & Sarajevo during the war, and back to Kiev for the Orange Revolution. Good, easy read for anyone interested in Eastern Europe's history.(less)

  15. 4 out of 5

    Betty

    I learned so much more than I had previously known or understood about the demise of the Soviet Union through this reporter's experiences. I got lost in all the names and the somewhat choppy writing, but the info was fascinating enough that I ignored some of that and read to the end. Once again, I am reminded that I am so fortunate to have been born in a free country. I also marveled at the risks that journalists take to bring accurate news to the world.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kayla Hewitt

    As a journalist in Eastern Europe in the late '80s/early '90s, the author had some fascinating experiences and an interesting perspective on world events. Unfortunately, the book is written in a very standard journalistic style - not much artistry and very little sense of pacing and drama. I've read books written by journalists that are gripping and emotional, but this one fell flat for me. I did find it interesting to read more about the history of Ukraine, given recent events.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Anick

    Simply put, it's a really good read. An insight into a period of historic change, written as a page-turning personal memoir. A great introduction to countries in the midst of this momentous transition, brought out through dramatic events that the author has witnessed first hand and adventures she's embarked on.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lisa of Hopewell

    As a Russian & East European Studies major in the early 80s I would have loved to have lived Susan's life! Had I been able to master the languages I'd have tried to do this instead of doing Peace Corps--which back then did not yet go into former Soviet countries. Very poignant that I read of the Orange Revolution at the time Ukraine has again come under Russia control. As a Russian & East European Studies major in the early 80s I would have loved to have lived Susan's life! Had I been able to master the languages I'd have tried to do this instead of doing Peace Corps--which back then did not yet go into former Soviet countries. Very poignant that I read of the Orange Revolution at the time Ukraine has again come under Russia control.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Quinn Wright

    Really good insight into the end of the soviet era and the difficult transformation into the post-coldwar world that the former soviet states faced and continue to face. I visited the Ukraine a couple years ago and some of the things she talks about is just like I remember. Hope that things will improve for these wonderful people.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    I found it fascinating to read how life was in the Ukraine not so long ago. This book started out great but got a little slow at the end. If you are interested in how life was behind the Iron Curtain, worth a read.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Janet C.

    Excellent source of information for this time in history. So much was going on and the author was a first hand witness.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sharon Zink

    A reporter's adventures in the former Soviet Union and central Asia.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Reyes

    Average depiction Interesting following the history of the different countries, but the manner of telling seemed a little dry. Almost hard to get through.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Ferguson

    It was a very interesting story and I was quite impressed at the things the author did, but her writing was not very engaging.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Patricia Eichenlaub

    Interesting read about the falling of the Iron Curtain!

  26. 4 out of 5

    Midge Bork

    It's curious how so many war correspondents began as stringers. Trial by fire.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Vikas Datta

    Quite an interesting account of events in the annus mirabilis 1989 and further in time and space

  28. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    Liked it. I enjoyed reading about this time period. Great insight.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Inna

    Although I did not love the writing, it was an interesting read. Having not been even a teenager living through many of the events discusses in the book, it was interesting to read her perspective.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

    Awful. The writing was horrid. Boring. Choppy. Confusing. And the author is/was a reporter?! One star was one too many.

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