Monday, April 30, 2018

The Essential Guide to Being Polish: 50 Facts & Facets of Nationhood by Anna Spysz and Marta Turek

The many facets of Polishness
As an American of one-quarter Polish ancestry, I became interested in Poland while researching my genealogy. This in turn led to an enthusiasm for Polish food, literature, and film. I’d been looking for an overview of Polish history, but didn’t really want to tackle one that was too dense or academic. Luckily, I stumbled upon Anna Spysz and Marta Turek’s 2013 book The Essential Guide to Being Polish, which was being offered as a Kindle Daily Deal. This pleasant surprise turned out to be just what I was looking for, plus a lot more.

The book provides a broad overview of a thousand years of Polish history and culture, with an emphasis on the state of the nation and its people today. As the subtitle indicates, the book is comprised of 50 chapters, each of which reads like a brief article or encyclopedia entry. These are divided into five parts: Poles in Context (history, language, religion), Poles in Poland (customs, family life, food, drink, holidays), Poles in the Limelight (famous Polish artists, scientists, athletes, etc.), Poles Around the World (the global Polish diaspora), and Poles in a Nutshell (the conclusion, about the “Essence of Polishness”). These chapters resemble the informative sidebars one finds in a Lonely Planet guidebook, only much more in-depth in their coverage, and with the benefit of having been written by native Poles. Authors Spysz and Turek were both born in Poland. Their families moved to the United States when they were young, and then each returned to Poland for college and professional life. They are the perfect guides for the English-language reader hoping for some insight into Polish culture past and present.

As Spysz and Turek point out, the development of present Polish identity has largely been shaped by the country’s having survived being constantly attacked and conquered throughout its history. Despite their nation being completely wiped off the map for a couple centuries, Poles tenaciously managed to maintain their national identity. Whether under the tripartite Prussian, Russian, and Austrian partitioning prior to World War I, the Nazi occupation of World War II, or the Communist oppression under the Soviet Union, Poles have stubbornly resisted attempts to quash their Polishness and have emerged triumphantly independent as a proud and hopeful people.

The text does get repetitive at times, as the topics of the 50 chapters often overlap. At times it feels like the same few events in Polish history are being relentlessly drilled into you, and prominent figures like Lech Walesa and Marie Sklodowska Curie make frequent appearances. I was a bit disappointed with the chapters on literature and film because they really didn’t tell me a whole lot I didn’t already know. In general, I wish the chapters in the Poles in the Limelight section would have been expanded to include more than just a few key figures, but that criticism is mostly due to my specific personal interests in those areas, as opposed to, say, the economics or politics of Poland, which other readers may prefer.

The Essential Guide to Being Polish is an enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in that nation and its people. Those of Polish descent will find in it much fuel for pride. Though far from a typical tourist guide, it is loaded with valuable information for anyone planning to travel to Poland. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it there myself, but Spysz and Turek’s book definitely gave me a better understanding one of my ancestral homelands.
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