The public underground toilets of Alexanderplatz, Berlin in the early 1990s.
It's the wee hours and it's snowing outside onto the vast tarmac and concrete rectangle of the empty square. In the toilets, drunken toothless men zip up their flies. The smell of disinfectant and urine, the sight of vomit stains and cigarette butts.
You bet that not many books begin in a less glamorous setting.
What's even more unusual is the way the author introduces herself: hungover and bumping into rubbish bins, memories of her drinking session at the pub only a "smoky blur".
Certainly, Miss Funder doesn't gain much credibility as a reliable journalist with such an overture. As long as Hunter S. Thompson is not her mentor as a gonzo reporter.
Just like the actual aims and reputation of Anna Funder in Berlin, Stasiland took its time to convince me.
This is a book with a clumsy and uncertain beginning. The author seems to avoid at any rate the hard task of introducing her readers to the once called German Democratic Republic (GDR). What Miss Funder focuses on and seeks for are the relevant details that made the big picture: the personal stories of some of those who lived in the GDR.
But this summon of the drowned and the saved after the collapse of East Germany between 1989 and 1990, develops very slowly.
At first, it looks like the author herself treats the whole thing as a pastime inbetween her part-time job on TV and drinking bouts at the Berlinese pubs.
Then, little by little, Anna Funder finds her angle and Stasiland eventually takes off as a very good book with that extra bit of research that fills the gap in each personal account.
Even though, the author puts too much of herself into the book (and seems to enjoy despising herself, for what it's worth), this was an interesting and important reading.
Just don't leaf through Stasiland expecting to find much of the remorse and redemption of the Stasi agent portrayed in the movie The Lives of the Others. Actually, the former Stasi agents Anna Funder meets up after putting an insertion on a local newspaper are all but regretful for what they did and look pretty carefree in the post GDR years.
As for those who were the victims of the Stasi apparatus, the author gets the credit to pick up a few but significant and rather poignant personal stories.
What didn't convince me is the counterposition that shows men as the only enforcers and women as their chief victims. I believe this choice is not deliberate and is due to the fact that Funder got in touch more easily with women telling her their private stories while in Berlin. At the same time, there were statistically more chances that former Stasi agents contacting the author (she calls them "my Stasi men") were male. But still.
All things considered, Stasiland does have its flaws, but it's a refreshing book and a honest collection of first hand accounts on the GDR, that dinosaur of a blabbermouth nation once called East Germany.
Besieged is a book about life in war time Sarajevo wrote by Barbara Demick in 1996 after spending some time there at various intervals between 1992 and 1995 as the correspondent of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The reason why this stuff has recently been re-published is the success recently gained by Nothing to Envy the brilliant book by Mrs Demick about life under the North Korean communist regime.
There is, therefore, a gap of almost fifteen years and more than five thousand miles between what Barbara Demick wrote about Sarajevo in the 1990s and Pyongyang nowadays. Not to mention all the rest.
The book formerly known as Logavina Street and now published in the UK under the title of Besieged with the addition of a slight editing and two extra chapters at the end is good but far from being excellent as Nothing to Envy is.
On the one hand, Mrs Demick was younger then and less experienced in dealing with the personal stories of the people she wrote about. On the other hand, what happened in the region now named Bosnia & Herzegovina in the early 1990s cannot be fully explained in this book, but Demick tried her best to make things clearer here (an afterthought of the author, I guess).
Don't expect a book about the Yugolav Wars, though.
Besieged revolves around the long and bloody siege of Sarajevo in its different stages as seen from the people living or finding shelter in one of the nicer and most diverse streets in town: Logavina.
Here and there the names of Ilja Itzebegovic, Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic appears just like a few lines dedicated to the awful events in Tuzla and Srebrenica even though, the city of Mostar is never mentioned here.
Nevertheless, Besieged is a good and poignant book which achieves the goal to show the hard lives of those (Muslim-Bosniaks, Croats, a few Serbs) who were caught by the Serbian-Chetniks barbarian siege to Sarajevo and how they managed to get by surviving shelling, snipers' fire and starvation.
This is an interesting and important reading, but at the end of the day Mrs Demick could have made it better when she wrote it and so much better while re-publishing the book.
The city of Sarajevo disappeared from the newsreels in the last years and what Besieged lacks is an insight on how things are going on in town right now.