Who knew that a book about bears in Bulgaria would be a laugh-out-loud delight? Witold Szabłowski’s Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny (Penguin), translated by Antonia Lloyd-jones tells the story of Bulgarian gypsies and the move to democracy in Eastern Europe (and elsewhere). For generations the gypsies have been raising bears and teaching them to dance and perform tricks. By most accounts the training was far more stick than carrot: a hot-metal ring was inserted in the young bear’s nose, and the bear was then often beaten, and its teeth removed as a precaution. The bears were fed mostly bread and candies and enough beer and hard liquor that some became alcoholics. After the “liberation” of Eastern Europe, the charity Four Paws (with support from Brigitte Bardot) began to move for an end to private citizens keeping bears, and by 2007 the last of the bears were confiscated from their owners. Four Paws established a park in the small Bulgarian town of Belitsa to house the bears. By all accounts the bears’ treatment in Belitsa is cushy, far easier than in nature, and certainly a great improvement over their lives before. The tragicomedy begins as we learn what it takes to wrestle a bear from its keeper; part of Szabłowski’s achievement with this book is that we sympathize with the gypsies alongside the bears. Szabłowski does a masterful job of contrasting the new freedoms in former Communist countries with the new freedoms of the Belitsa bears. How do we get them to stop dancing, fearing a punishment that’s no longer administered? Or perhaps, just perhaps, do they long to return to the old days, when at least they knew where they stood?