Book Review: Where the West Ends, by Michael J. Totten

This is the kind of book my wife probably find irritating–the kind where every night while we’re supposed to be getting ready for bed I distract her and myself relating the latest fascinating facts or discovery that are still rolling around in my head after having read them earlier in the day. This week has also found me studying the world map on our wall much more intently than usual. This book got me excited about the world. It got me curious.

There are few journalists I respect and admire as much as Michael J. Totten. As an independent correspondent he often goes after the story first, then figures out how to get reimbursed for his work. If this were a perfect world Michael Totten and others like him would be the ones getting the multi-million dollar contracts instead of political operatives pretending to be journalists like we see continually on CNN, CNBC, FOX, etc.

But it’s not a perfect world, and so when he advertized pre-orders on his latest book, “Where the West Ends” I ponied up the cash. I’ve learned more about the world and its complexities from Michael J. Totten than from any other journalist I can think of, including Michael Yon.

That’s because Totten (and Yon) don’t just go to the countries where the stories are, they get down in the dirt, so to speak, and investigate. He talks to locals, from government officials to business owners, from professors to cab drivers. He lets them speak for themselves. Certainly he has opinions, but he continually challenges what he thinks he knows. He hits every story from as many angles as he can to try and present as much of the picture as possible. He gives his impressions and presents his conclusions, but seldom in a way that implies he knows the answers and his viewpoint is the only correct way to see things.

So of course I trust him. The less people pretend to know the more I believe what they have to say. Michael J. Totten has made a fascinating career of not knowing and trying to find out. He also brings a fresh perspective to his travels, coupled with a evocative style of writing that helps pull you into the picture.  Lesser writers would make much of what he writes about sound boring. Totten takes the ordinary and uncovers the extraordinary.

He also doesn’t take himself too seriously. He knows his adventures make him sound just a touch superhuman, so he also takes time to tattle on himself when it’s deserved. Like his trip to Ukraine. He and his traveling buddy, both seasoned travelers who have experienced some of the most frightening places on earth, and yet are completely flummoxed when they realize that the restaurants in the Ukraine don’t translate their menus from Cyrillic characters, and they are completely unable to order even a basic meal without a translator–which is rare. Their map is printed in English, which is completely useless when all the road signs are in Ukraine or Russian.

They get so desperate at one point that in order to get their point across to the grumpy waitress that they have to imitate a chicken in order to communicate what they want to eat. Fortunately the waitress does prove to have a sense of humor, and they got something with chicken in it.

These are the same two men who, on a lark decide to skip their planned agenda in Turkey and drive all the way into Iraq during the early years of the Iraq war and succeed. They make it in and out of Iraq safely, and yet forget to even buy a English-Russian dictionary before traveling to Ukraine. Totten could have avoided saying anything at all about this, but that’s just the way he is. You get the whole picture, the good, the bad, and the ugly–even the self-deprecating.

So, what is “Where the West Ends” about and why should you read it? Well, in short, it’s an account of parts of his journeys to many of the countries you hear about on the news: Iraq, Kosovo, Albania, Georgia, Ukraine, Romania, and others. Most of these countries are right on the “edge” where Western culture meets Eastern culture. Many of these countries are still conflicted over which culture will win out. They are often the tattered fringes of former empires; the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, and other smaller regimes.

In short, he goes into these places you’ve mostly only heard about and finds out what’s going on and why you should care. He puts a human face on every place he visits. He uncovers inhumanity that is beyond comprehension, and kindness in the most unlikely of places. He relates all this in a way that makes you feel like you’re walking right along side him.

There is simply no way I could do what Totten does. He’s got a personality and instincts that largely keep him out of trouble in some of the most troublesome places in the world. He’s a naturally friendly and curious person, constantly observing everything and everyone. I wouldn’t last a minute in many of the places he skates through almost effortlessly. In short, if I ever go someplace like the places he visits I want him along as my guide, my fixer.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book and anything else you can get your hands on by him. It’s not always short, easy reading, but you will be rewarded for any amount of time you invest. He’s one of those few (sadly) journalists who actually leave you smarter than you were before. You wind up a little wiser about the world, and able to appreciate where you come from a little more.

About the time I started reading this book Michael was on Kickstarter gathering sponsors for a trip he wants to take to Libya. He’s been there before, and it was a fascinating read. I can’t wait to see what he comes home with this time. I guarantee you’ll know more of value about Libya after reading his reports than anything you’ve seen in the news over the past two years.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to read this or one of his other books. True reporters like him are a dying breed, and deserve our support whenever we can. You can find much of his work for free (he’s often the first to tell you where to find it), but if there was ever a case for patronage, he makes a strong one. Without people like him we may never learn the important truths that could change our world.

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