Finding Out Who I Am: A look into my DNA

The 23 and Me Testing Kit (Photo courtesy of James Hadfield)

Earlier this month I submitted a sample of saliva to the genomics and biotechnology company called 23 and Me. The company, founded by the wife of Google co-founder, Sergey Brin, allows individuals to get a portion of their genome decoded and they give some health and ancestral information. Only around 1 million of the 3 billion base pairs are read by the company and based on this, the report shows people their genetic predisposition to some diseases and other traits. I haven’t explored this part yet and will do in the coming weeks.

I was really interested in the ancestry part of their services. I am adopted and have found my biological mother and know a bit about my heritage, but it was really amazing to see in detail the percentages. It was also awesome to think about how humans came out of Africa and some of my DNA sequences are the same as the Neanderthals and the cavemen who painted those beautiful drawings in France.

Humanity is just in the beginning stages of understanding our genome and I hope I live long enough to see the advances in the field. It would be a great field to go into if I was younger. I am not sure how accurate the results are given that only a small portion of my DNA was decoded. The “speculative” read of my DNA was as follows:

Overall, I am 99.3 % European ancestry. The breakdown of this European DNA reads:

  • 38.6 % Eastern/Northern European
  • 19.1 % French/German
  • 12.7% Non-specific Northern European
  • 8.4% Balkan (yea Serbia!!!!)
  • 1.2% Iberian
  • 1.1% Italian
  • 7.9 % Non-specific Southern European
  • 9.6% Non-specific European

There are too many “non-specifics” for my liking and I am not sure how they arrived at this. Is it because they didn’t read enough of my DNA? Could it be that because Europeans interbred so often, that to distinguish between countries, or groups is difficult? Living in Serbia and being of Slavic origin, I always wondered if I had some Balkan blood in me, and yes indeed I do. The 0.7% of non-European DNA was defined as Middle Eastern/Northern Africa.

The company is also crowd sourcing DNA for its mega database to find insights into the human genome. I gladly contributed to this and with the 300,000 other people who have done this also, wish them luck in their research. The company also matches genetic relatives, known and unknown from the database. I found I have a second cousin who also submitted a saliva sample. There were a bunch of third to sixth cousins. Out of respect to my biological mother, I probably won’t look them up.

Another part of the company are collecting health and ancestry surveys from the participants. With this they can get more specific regarding country origins. The top two countries for me were Poland and Slovakia, which matches what my biological family has told me. Other countries earning percentages were Russia, the Ukraine, Estonia, Romania, and strangely, El Salvador and Cuba.

I am 2.8% related to Neanderthals, and the average European is 2.7%. That puts me in the 72 percentile. Very odd to think that humans bred with Neanderthals and we still carry some Neanderthal DNA with us today.

In tracing my maternal and paternal DNA lines, on my mother’s side I am Haplogroup H, which is typical of Europeans, and found in the Basque and Scandinavian populations. On my father’s side, I am the R1b1b2a1a, which comes from the fringes of the North Sea and over 50% of European men possess this group. Sharing the same paternal line is the media sociologist and author, Malcolm Gladwell.

I will be blogging more about this as I delve into the reports on the web site.

 

 

Latest Reading – Gulp: Adventures in the Alimentary Canal

I haven’t read many books about science lately, and it was refreshing to get back into it. The author, Mary Roach’s book Gulp was an informative, and entertaining read. I learned a lot of facts (summarized below) and she also put her personality into the book with humorous sentences interspersed in the writing and footnotes. It gave me “food for thought” to the workings of my digestive system. This book is really great for any biology or general science teachers and also easy to read for the general public. I never really thought of the digestive track to be one, long tube, but that is what it is.There are hundreds of interesting facts and stories. Below are some facts I found interesting in the book.

  • 5 tastes, but infinite odors – 80-90 % of the pleasure of eating is smell
  • Dogs put their heads out car windows because it is an awesome way to smell
  • Le Nez Du Vin – kits for learning specific smells
  • We only smell 5-10 % of inhaled air (imagine if it was more)
  • Average person only eats 30 differen food – 4-day repertoire
  • Eating animal organs are good for u – packed with nutrients, the most on earth – wild animals eat organs first
  • Saliva raises pH of food – antibacterial as well
  • Detergent and fabric softeners are digestive enzymes
  • Colds transmitted thru fingers more than mouth – don’t pick your nose
  • Hot dogs, grapes, round candies top 3 choking hazards – resulting in death of young children
  • Bristol Stool Scale – classifying shape and consistency of stool
  • Anus can tell if it is a solid liquid or gas and is rich in nerves
  • Flatulance 80% H 1/3 people CH4 as well
  • Beyond suckling there is no reason for absorbing lactose, so people should not drink milk
  • A person farts on avg. 22 times per day
  • Biggest risk factor in colon cancer is amount one eats – fiber does not help
  • Why does aspirin only inflame in stomach?
  • morning breath is H2S, bacteria eating shed tongue cells and there is no saliva to wash them away
  • Ecoli, Staph bacteria only aerobic type in stools;
  • colon, anus cancer taboo
  • Enteric nervous system is a primitive brain for the digestive system and immune system

Latest Reading: Happy Money

The book “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending” was a quick read that confirmed much of my intuition and opened my eyes to a few new ideas. Two professors (U of British Columbia / Harvard) wrote this book based on their research and others looking at how people spend their money equates to happiness. It is a great way to look at wealth, and the old saying, money can’t buy happiness, is in someways proven correct and other ways found false. The Founding Fathers of the USA put “In the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence and before reading this book, I never really formerly thought that it was a guiding principle in my life, but in many ways it is. To be happy should be the utmost goal of a person. Fortunately for society, what is good for the individual is usually good for the society and doing good and not harming others, leads to happiness.

The authors give five rules to maximize one’s enjoyment of spending money that goes against common sense a bit.

1) Buy Experiences

  • The biggest investment for most people is there home. The big house in the suburbs doesn’t bring big happiness. There is no evidence that these large homes one sees, actually makes your life better. I certainly found this out when we bought a large house. I found us cleaning and taking care of it instead of devoting more time to my children and each other. The author’s argue that instead of investing in things like expensive cars, boats, and homes, more pleasure is gained through buying experiences that make us feel more connected to others. The research shows that satisfaction with experiential purchases tends to increase with passage of time (stories) while satisfaction with things tends to decrease over time.
  • One of the largest material purchases perople ever make is their home, yet home purchases usually fail to make people any happier.
  • It is easier for people to seek out experiences, from picnics in the park to nights on the town, when the local environment provides appropriate settings. Governments usually provide support for museums, national parks, and culutural institutions.

2) Make it A Treat

  • You enjoy things more in small doses, and overabundance undermines our enjoyment of things. The two salient examples are if you drive an expensive car daily, the thrill wears off, so it is better to treat yourself to a luxury rental and really enjoy and look forward to the experience, and save money on an average car for daily use. The other example is not to “binge watch” television series on line and instead, watch with a gap in between each episode. Thinking about the next episode, discussing with friends, etc. heightens your enjoyment.
  • Banning carbonated soda drinks for a large part of the day will restore children’s enjoyment of the drinks, best regarded as treats.

3) Buy Time 

  • We too often sacrifice free time just to save a little money. Time is valuable and for example, you can spend an extra $100 for the direct flight from LAX to JFK instead of spending four hours in the airport in Dallas. Is 4 hours worth $100 to you?
  • People are in a good mood when exercising, reading, or having sex, but are not in a good mood when commuting, shopping, or doing housework.
  • Research shows 30% of work emails are useless. The average Intel knowledge worker receives 50-100 emails per day (I get this many) and they have instituted an email free Tuesday. This is a sizable workload on a daily basis that takes away from our primary work.
  • As time becomes worth more money (this is true now as compared to 20-30 years ago and as one moves up the corporate ladder) people report feeling more pressed for time, even though they have the same amount of time as before.
  • Taking the time to help others makes people feel more effective and these feelings of competence lead volunteers to feel less overburdened by the multitude of tasks in their everyday lives.
  • Go outside and exercise – there is added value in exercising outside!
  • Premium cable and flat-screen TVs eat up your time! When you buy a really nice TV, you are committing on average 1/6 of the next year watching it.
  • Take less money on a job if it means more time for family.
  • When faced with a decision between multiple products while shopping, ask yourself whether the differences in features will alter how you spend your time. If the answer is no, go cheap.
  • We bought time by moving closer to the school. In the US, 89% of trips are by car compared to 52% in Netherlands. Riding a bike and walking make people feel good!

4. Pay Now, Consume Later

  • Consuming later provides time for positive expectations to develop, delaying consumption also increases our ability to smooth over the cracks, so you won’t remember how much an experience cost, if you do it much later from when you paid for it.
  • What we owe is a bigger predictor of our happiness than what we make. The relationship between income and happiness is weak with Americans, and the key is debt.

5. Invest in Others

  • The effect of a single spending category (prosocial spending) was as large as the effect of total income in predicting happiness.
  • “I feel that my work makes a positive difference in other people’s lives.”
  • Investing in others brings a host of benefits to the giver, affecting not only happiness, but also health and wealth. Giving away money makes us feel like we have more to spare, just like giving up your time to volunteer.
  • When asking for donations, be specific on how their donation will help.

Another predictor of happiness in a country is the income gap between high and low income earners. In the US, the richest 20% of Americans own 85% of all wealth while the poorest 40% earn approximately 0% of the wealth.

I highly recommend reading this entire book.

Latest Reading: “War” by Sebastian Junger

Junger is a New York Times reporter and author who was embedded with US troops in a remote valley in Afghanistan in 2007-2008. This book and a documentary film, “Restrepo” were the result of his experience. I was engrossed in the book and couldn’t put it down, while between swims in the ocean and pool with the kids while on holiday last week.

The book gives some detailed descriptions of battle in this dangerous valley near the Pakistan border. I enjoyed following these, but more importantly for me, I really understood the mentality of troops on the front line. I forgot how young these guys are and so many of them come from rough backgrounds, where the army is a better way of life than they would have in civilian life. I can’t imagine being 19 and in a situation like these guys are put through. I was so immature at that time in my life. The two biggest take-aways were the thrill of combat and the strong bonds formed between soldiers. It is the only friendship a person will have whose life depends on the relationship. When going through experiences like that, I can see why they never have relationships like that again in their civilian lives.

I also got a sense of what it is like to be on the opposing side. They must be in fear of the US military strength, with the Apache helicopters, drones, and invisible bomb strikes. It sure is an expensive war the US is fighting over there. It is also interesting that this is the front line on the “war on terror” and how few people are really involved. The vast majority of Americans are not in the military and those that are, most do not see combat.

It also concerns me for returning veterans and the medical treatment they will receive, both physical and psychological. It will be difficult for many to readjust to everyday life in the US, post-military.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but will have to check it out. I highly recommend this book.

Latest Reading: “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956”

Over the holiday I finished reading Anne Applebaum’s book about the establishment of Soviet control of Eastern Europe. She specifically focuses on East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, and I would have preferred more on Yugoslavia, but they are mentioned. Having lived and traveled extensively throughout the region for the past 5 years, I was really interested in the book. It is quite detailed and some sections are a bit tedious, but mostly it was a fascinating book and answered a bunch of my questions on the communist era. When seeing the communist era buildings here today, I always say “what were they thinking?” This book answers some of that question and more. I highly recommend anyone interested in Eastern Europe to read this book!

I feel sorry for the countries of Eastern Europe and what they went through from World War II until today. The Nazis considered the Slavs to be “subhuman” not much better than Jews, and they suffered from German occupation greatly. They did many inhuman things to the Slavs and other groups of Eastern Europe because of this mindset. Yugoslavia alone lost 10 percent of their population during World War II. The destruction of their society and infrastructure greatly traumatized the people of Eastern Europe,

For Western Europe, post-World War II was a time of healing and rebuilding. My father was stationed in Stuttgart, West Germany as part of the Marshall Plan in the 1950’s and help rebuild the German economy. In contrast, Eastern Europe, instead, was occupied by the Russians and suffered further. War reparations were harsh and much property, both public and private, that the Nazis hadn’t confiscated already, was shipped to USSR.

The Soviets also took over every aspect of these nations’ lives and I can see how hated they could be. Massacres, imprisonment, brainwashing, were some of the tactics the Soviets used to take control of these countries. The book goes into great detail describing the local Quisling leaders, most who were trained at the Comintern, the Russian’s international school of communism. Applebaum also discussed the secret police, including the AVO in Hungary. I want to visit their ex-headquarters in Budapest, 60 Andrassy Street, which I think is now a museum.

The communists used violence to suppress the already traumatized population. Appplebaum has a chapter on the preemptive arrests, where even teen members of groups like the boy scouts, were arrested, tortured, and killed. I also now understand why the Polish plane crash was so emotional a couple of years ago. The murder of the Polish White Army by the Soviets was intense. This coming after years of resistance fighting against the Nazis. The Nazis had planned to destroy Polish civilization and turn the Poles into an illiterate work force. After the Nazis left, the massacres of Poles by the Ukrainians and Russians continued. This also includes the Polish Jews who were basically wiped out. I also didn’t know that the city of Vilnius, and a big part of the country was lost to the Soviets after World War II. With the loss of land, over 1.5 million Poles were displaced. What a sad history of Poland!

I also learned that Winston Churchill coined the phrase “Iron Curtain” in a letter to US President, Harry Truman.

In looking back at the communist era, there were some good things. The community spirit raised by events like the youth festivals are lacking in today’s societies. I also learned from the book that poor and disadvantaged people had an easier time in the communist system raising their standard of living.

However, there were more bad parts of communism. The ruling elite had a life of privilege, the shortages of consumer items, lack of freedoms, repression of culture and religion, etc. not mentioning the repressive violence to keep the system in place, were not worth it.The effects are still being felt today. The education system formed by the communists was based on the writings of Russian theorist, Anton Makarenko, who favored peer pressure, repetition, and indoctrination. The schools are still trying to modernize. The Communists owned everything, so the process of privatizing thousands of companies and sorting out the land titles of private property, are fraught with corruption.

The book ends with a great piece that I will copy here

“…everywhere else int eh post communist and the post-totalitarian world. Before a nation can be rebuilt, its citizens need to understand how it was destroyed in the first place: how its institutions were undermined, how its language was twisted, how its people were manipulated. They need to know particular details, not general theories, and they need to hear individual stories, not generalizations about the masses. They need a better grasp of what motivated their predecessors, to see them as real people and not as black-and-white caricatures, victims, or villians. Only then is it possible, slowly to rebuild.”

Yugoslavia was much less effected by the Soviets and the “iron curtain” than the rest of Eastern Europe. I understand there is even some nostalgia from that era. It would be interesting to read in English about this era. I wonder how much the files of the Yugoslavia secret police were made public and how much is exactly known from that time.

Serbia: Smoking Capital of the World

In a recent article by the Wall Street Journal Serbia ranked number one in the world in cigarettes sold per capita. Serbia topped all countries with 2,861 cigarettes smoked per capita. They defeated fellow Balkan countries Bulgaria (#2 – 2,822) and Greece (#3 2,795). Eastern Europe took the top eight spots with Russia (#4 – 2,786) and Ukraine (#5 2,401) rounding out the top five.

I thought Serbia would rank pretty high because you see (and smell) smokers all the time. The Serbian government last year put the first laws prohibiting smoking in certain areas and it has improved the climate for non-smokers. I always wondered what percentage of Serbs are regular, pack-a-day smokers. I would guess it would be around 1/3.

Armed with this data point, 2,861 cigarettes per person, I did a bit more mathematics. If the population of Serbia is 7,276,604 million people, then that would mean almost 21 billion cigarettes were smoked (20,818,364,044). If a pack contains 20 cigarettes, that would be a little over 1 billion packs of cigarettes (1,040,918,202). If you subtract the 14.9 percent of the population that is under the age of 14, that would mean the adult population smoked 166.5 packs per person. If you assume that the average smoker consumes 1 pack per day, that would mean that roughly 50% of Serbs would be considered regular smokers (46.5%). – Note to readers, please correct me if I am wrong on this. I took the population statistics from the CIA World Factbook.

Why do so many Serbians smoke? One reason is the cheap cost of cigarettes, $2 per pack. There are not many restrictions regarding smoking and the recent laws do not go far enough to put a damper on people’s habits. Although I love that the two big shopping malls in the city are now smoke-free, even the cafes. I don’t feel they went strong enough, with most bars and restaurants, still having large smoking areas alongside non-smoking areas. There is not much in public service announcements as well and smoking is not a taboo, like it is in many western countries.

The Wall Street Journal focuses on Russia’s attempts at lowering the smoking rate. I think the time is right for Serbia to tackle smoking. It must be costing the health care system a lot. It is also ironic that a people that look so good (thin, athletic) and are so active, have such a bad health habit as smoking. I hope they can get Serbia out of first place.

 

Latest Reading: “Running With the Kenyans” by Adharanand Finn

Lining Up Behind the Kenyans in the 2009 Belgrade Marathon

I completed reading “Running With the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth” by the Guardian Editor and freelance journalist, Adharanand Finn. The 37 year old took his family to live six months in the Mecca of distance running, a village in the Rift Valley called Iten.

Finn was a pretty good runner in high school and wanted to find out why the Kenyans dominate distance running. For the past 20 years or so, almost every medal and marathon has been won by the Kenyans. They really took out everyone and truly dominate the sport.

The book was a quick read and I was interested to see what Finn found out and how much he improved himself. He formed a team while there and ran in the Lewa Marathon, a race through a National Park in eastern Kenya. I learned much about Kenya and I’ll be watching the distance running in this month’s Olympics with greater interest.

Why are the Kenyans the best distance runners in the world? Finn writes that there is no one secret practice or distance running genes, but a combination of things.

  • The country’s favorite sport is distance running and it would be like soccer in Brazil or cross-country skiing in Norway, they are fanatical about it. I didn’t realize Kenya was so big, with a population of 43 million. Cross-country races and track meets are huge events, widely followed in the country with television coverage and fans in makeshift stadiums.
  • Most of the runners come from poor villages where the children run barefoot to school, eat a spartan diet, and generally have a tough and active upbringing. They view running as a “way out” of poverty and if selected to compete in international events, the prize money from say the New York Marathon, can buy them a house and a herd of cows. They spend their days digging in the fields, herding goats, etc, while children in the west are playing Xbox, eating high-fat foods, and getting soft.
  • Once they are selected, they devote their lives to running. This means outside of running, they only rest, eat a restricted diet, and focus on getting better times. They do not work, go to school, etc. All of this running is done at altitude, which also helps them get more red blood cells.
  • There is a genetic component. As you can see in the photo below taken this year’s Belgrade Marathon, they are very thin and all arms and legs. My Slavic upper body bulk doesn’t look as sleek as the Kenyan running machine. Most of the Kenyan’s world class runners are from the ethnic group, Kalenjin and they live in the Rift Valley.

I don’t see how Europe or USA can take back distance running and overcome the Kenyans. I also see a bit of backlash, as people note who is the first non-Kenyan in the race and celebrate that finish. I wonder how long their world dominance can continue?

I recommend the book to others. I enjoy reading about sports, especially sports that I participate in. The book inspired me to run more and I have this summer.

Latest Reading: “Island Practice” by Pam Belluck

I just finished reading this account of Dr. Tim Lepore (pronounced peppery), a general family medical doctor on the island of Nantucket. The book is a well-written journalism piece by Belluck, a New York Times reporter. Lepore is quite a character, that puts his patience first, and at 67, a stark example how the financial structure of healthcare is changing in the USA. I am from a small town in the isolated northern part of Michigan and can relate to Nantucket, a small island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. It is a small town hospital struggling to stay alive in the face of rising costs. Many hospitals are facing the same challenges.

I was particularly interested in Dr. Lepore’s research into tick-born diseases. He is an expert because Nantucket has an overpopulation of deer and hence, one of the highest rates of tick-caused diseases like Lyme Disease. I learned that the baby ticks pick up bacteria or parasites from feeding on mice. As the ticks grow, they change to deer and come in contact with humans. The deer allow the ticks to have enough sustenance to produce baby ticks. There are deer on Nantucket because in the 1920’s, a boat saw a deer swimming off the coast and they rescued the buck and set it on the island. A few years later, two does were imported from Michigan and today, there are thousands of deer on the island. Dr. Lepore found that the white-footed mouse has blood flooded with parasites and the mice had lots of deer ticks feeding on them, but no dog ticks. The major diseases are Lyme, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis. Being from Upper Michigan, I have a special interest in ticks and my wife always freaks out when she finds them on the kids. We have found quite a few on us this spring and summer in Belgrade, but the diseases associated with them are rare here and there are no deer in Belgrade. Even on Nantucket, of the 2,500 hospital visits they get a year of suspected tick cases, only about 10 percent were actually diseases. The treatment is heavy antibiotics.

Another part of the story was the living conditions on the island. Nantucket is known for tourism and extremely rich summer residents. It has an extremely high cost of living and for the permanent residents, there is much poverty due to the seasonal employment nature of the economy combined with the high cost of living and the isolation from the mainland. There is a lot of alcohol and drug abuse and depression. Some of this is also caused by the great income disparities between the locals and the tourists/summer residents. I read with interest about rash of teen suicides at Nantucket High School and the struggles with chemical dependency the counselors and teachers face with the students. The scourge of alcohol and drugs reminds me of small towns in Northern Michigan. Much potential is wasted due to excessive drinking.

Dr. Lepore is very opinionated and insightful. One of the things I am struggling with is children spending too much time watching television and playing video games. Lepore says, “I have this thing about books – you read, you can create the world.” … “In a video game it makes the world for you. You’re a watcher, not a participant. Unplugging the computer is the only way we can get her (referring to his niece) off the internet.”

The book was a fast read. There are plenty of characters on the island that come to see Dr. Lepore and it keeps it interesting. There are lots of topics covered too, like abortion, gun collecting, marriage, raising kids, immigrant stories, etc.

I have a friend from Nantucket and I will email him and see what he thinks of the book. I’ll report back on this post if there is anything relevant.

 

 

He tested the white-footed mice and found their blood flooded with parasites, and it ws

Latest Reading: “A Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes

I recently completed the 2012 Man Booker Prize Winning book, “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes. The Booker Prize is the Commonwealth’s most prestigious literary prize and former winners are Salman Rushdie, and books like The English Patient. 

The book really has two levels. The first is the story of a retired English gentleman who receives 500 British Pounds and a diary of an old friend, from the will of the mother of an ex-girlfriend. The plot revolves around the narrator finding out why and reflecting on what happened 40 years ago when he dated the girl. The other level is the author writing about old age and looking back on one’s life. There were some very good passages to think about. Julian Barnes is in his sixties and his wife passed away a couple of years ago, so his latest books have been about death.

I had a bit of a hard time figuring out what happened in the story, but the comments under the reviews of the book really helped. What did we do before the internet???? I highlighted some bits in my e-book version. I love electronic books for that. The iPad library and books are really easy to read and so easy to download. It makes hauling books around the world obsolete as well as my abandoned dream of having a huge library in my house. The only bad thing is you can’t lend books to friends.

Here were the “food for thought” from the book regarding getting older.

  • “This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.”
  • “They grow up so quickly, don’t they? when all you really mean is: time goes faster for me nowadays.
  • “he took off with someone who looked rather like her, but was that crucial ten years younger”
  • “history is not the lies of victors…it’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”
  • “Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records-in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping.”
  • “But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions-and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives – then I plead guilty. I’m nostalgic for my early time with Margaret, for Susie’s birth and first years…”
  • “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly…”
  • “when we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful; whereas when the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we are more armoured and have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully”
  • “often in those long waking nights that age imposes.”
  • “and of the luck any parent has when a child is born with 4 limbs, a normal brain, and the emotional makeup that allows the child, to lead any sort of life. May you be ordinary, as the poet once wished the newborn baby.”
  • “You get towards the end of life- no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life.”

I guess that turning 45 last week has me thinking of getting to the stage of “old age.” I find that I am still in good health and feel young now. I am enjoying every year more and more and discover that as I get older, I get happier.

 

Book Review: “Constantine’s Crossing” by Dejan Stojiljković

The Serbian publishing company Geo Poetika with help from the Serbian government, has translated a series of novels of Serbia authors to English. This is the second one I have read, the first being Lake Como.

This book has a lot going for it, as it is right up my alley. It is a historical fiction novel, set in World War II, in the southern Serbian city of Niš. It has evil Nazis, Chetniks, Partizans, mixed in with a search for the Emperor Constantine-s weapon collection in the tunnels underneath the city. It also has vampires. With all of these elements that I love, I really enjoyed the book. It was a fast read and I could’t put it down.

I wish Stojiljković would have taken the story deeper, however. It is a great concept, but at 265 pages, it is hard to develop the characters fully and get into all of the cool history surrounding the early Christians, Germanic Tribes, and the life of Constantine. I don’t think the author is a scholar and perhaps this book would have been more to my liking if it was written by Umberto Eco or even Dan Brown. I could have used some more background on things like the runic alphabets, the Nazi’s work in the occult, and the life of Constantine. I could have used another 300-400 pages!

It was a great concept however and a perfect book for the airplane. Thanks again to Geo poetika for featuring these Serbian writers for the outside world to read. I highly recommend this book and it makes me want to explore some of the ruins around Niš. Also, the myth of the vampire started in Serbia and I just read of the course at the University of Wisconsin, by a Serbian professor, that explores this connection.