A flawed but intriguing project.



A Polish journalist’s account of his conversations with the personal chefs of five notorious dictators.

Szablowski (Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny, 2016, etc.) became fascinated by the relationship between dictators and their cooks after watching a film featuring Yugoslavian dictator Tito’s personal chef. In a project that took several years to complete, the author traveled the world to interview the people who had cooked for Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot. Alternating between third-person reports of Szablowski’s interviews and first-person accounts from interviewees, the author shares intimate historical insights into the meaning of life under dictatorship. Szablowski begins with—and periodically revisits—a section called “Snack,” which deals with Young Moeun’s memories of a youth spent cooking for Pol Pot, whom she remembered chiefly for his good looks and gentleness. The next section, “Breakfast,” recounts conversations with Hussein’s cook, Abu Ali, who recalled his employer’s generosity and fondness for “bastirma” (dried beef). “Lunch” presents the story of Amin’s cook, Otonde Odera, who made “nutritious pilafs [and] baked fish” while also managing to survive the political intrigue that nearly cost him his life. “Dinner” focuses on Hoxha’s cook, Mr. K., who had to “cope with deficit items, unavailable in [Stalinist] Albania” while cooking meals to soothe his “agitated” boss. “Supper” deals with two of Castro’s chefs. One, Erasmo, thrived under the dictator and became a prosperous restaurateur while the other, Flores, lost his mind and ended up living in poverty. The final section, “Dessert,” continues Moeun’s complimentary musings on Pol Pot, which she intersperses with recollections of life as a member of the Cambodian Communist Party. Two strengths of Szablowski’s book are its originality and topicality in a world increasingly governed by political strongmen. However, the complex, fractured structure creates an uneven narrative that is sometimes difficult to follow.

A flawed but intriguing project.

Pub Date: April 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-14-312975-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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