Friday, August 18, 2023

Book Stack ~ July 2023

  A monthly post about what I've been reading.

Vacation Reads
Before we left on our trip to Slovenia and Croatia, I searched online for "books that take place in the Balkans" and came up with the first two on the list (as well as two from last month's list).

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obrecht. This book tells the story of a woman doctor from an unnamed city (presumably Belgrade) who travels to a coastal town in another of the former Balkan republics (also not named) to provide medical care in an orphanage. While she's there, she learns that her grandfather had gone away to a clinic and died, without telling his wife or daughter the truth about his medical condition (cancer) or where he's going. The narrator intertwines her experiences at the orphanage, including trying to help a group of Roma who are digging in the nearby vineyard for mysterious reasons, with stories of visiting the tiger house at the zoo with her grandfather as a child and then delving further back into stories of her grandfather's childhood and the escaped tiger that takes up residence near his village, and magical realism and folkloric elements become part of the narrative. It's a strange and beautiful book.

Mix Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Sefanovic. This memoir begins with the narrator taking part in a Miss Ex-Yugoslavia beauty pageant among the former Yugoslav ex-pat community in Australia and from there winds back through her childhood growing up in Belgrade and her family's emigration to Australia as tensions in that country rose in anticipation of war of the 1990s. While Stefanic didn't experience the war first-hand, it's still an insightful account of the experience of someone intimately tied to the place and a different perspective on NATO's role in ending that war--different from our own US roaring in as saviors story, and the collateral damage the wars had on the people living in Serbia who did not support Milošević or the ethnic cleansing.

In Croatia I visited a bookstore (okay, in both Slovenia and Croatia I visited a LOT of bookstores) and picked up the following three works in translation:

Take Six: Six Balkan Women Writers, edited by Will Firth. This collection includes stories, excerpts, and essays from six women writers who hail from six different Balkan republics. It differs from the previous two books, as well as The Hired Man, which I read last month, in that most of the stories don't focus on war. Rather, in a variety of writing styles, they delve into different aspects of everyday life of modern people, both tragic (drug use and death) and ordinary (falling in love), including a series of humorous stories that take place in ride shares and memoir vignettes by a teenager in a tuberculosis ward. 

In a Sentimental Mood by Ivana Bodrožić and Kindness Separates Night from Day by Marija Dejanović are both books of poetry translated from Croatian into English. I'm not a great poetry critic, but I enjoyed them both, especially Kindness.

When I got home, I immediately came down with a cold and spent three days lying around hydrating and not moving much, so I craved comfort reads and picked up a couple of vintage Mary Stewart volumes I'd ordered recently. Both Touch Not the Cat and The Gabriel Hounds have good gothic vibes, and The Gabriel Hounds has my other favorite suspense trope: travel to an exotic location (the desert of Lybia). They both also lean heavy on a trope favored by both Mary Stewart and my other suspense writer fave, Barbara Michaels: kissing cousins. The Gabriel Hounds is extra-squirmy, since the cousins' fathers are identical twins, which makes them, genetically, half-siblings. I don't know what it is with these authors, but they loved keeping it in the family. Is the ick factor of this a recent development in society and cousins getting together just no big deal in the sixties and seventies? 

Friday, August 4, 2023

The Long Arm of History

Mountains steep as church spires. Ancient mosaics. Streams of crystal-clear water running over chalk-white rock. A Roman emperor's basement. Twisting Medieval streets. Folk-art beehives. A bomb shelter. Opal-blue lakes. Saint's reliquaries. Deep, underground caves. Bullet holes and mortar craters. Cities the color of sherbet. Butterflies. Lizards. Storks. Swifts. Seas of red roof tiles. A sea of turquoise water. A sea of humanity.

These are just a few of the things we experienced during three weeks in Slovenia and Croatia this month. C and I wanted to take a big trip to celebrate all three kids graduating and *big* birthdays for both of us this year, and we've always wanted to travel to Europe (among other places) as a family, but the timing and the finances had never aligned. With all the fledglings perched to fly out of the nest, it felt like now or never. To make the trip happen we cobbled together our savings, sold some building equipment, and gratefully accepted support from relatives.

Our choice of destination came as a bit of a surprise--both to ourselves and to those we told about it--but after consulting a well-traveled relative and watching several episodes of Rick Steves, we concluded that the the two countries would provide exactly the kind of trip we wanted to experience: a mix of nature and culture, mountains and seashore, caves and church spires, art and architecture, and both deep and recent history. I also had a family connection--a grandfather who came from Slovenia--which added a bit of a personal journey element to the trip for me.

Slovenia felt in many ways like coming home for me--the spectacular Julian alps were not that far different than my own Colorado Rockies and the forested lowlands were every bit as green as Maine. Beyond those similarities, it was a completely different world, as clean, organized, and well-run as an imaginary land. I never saw a pothole, nor hardly a scrap of litter. Every house was charmingly built, in white or cream or pale green or yellow stucco, with a red-tiled roof, wide overhangs, and second-story balconies with decorative railings adorned with geraniums. And the houses stood in neat little villages, rather than sprawling over every inch of countryside the way they do here.The capital city, Ljubljana, is a fairyland of beautifully designed art-nouveau-style buildings, where even in the outskirts, modern skyscrapers and old communist-era apartment blocks manage to look attractive. Even industrial yards and junk piles behind farmsteads looked tidy. The people we met were friendly and kind, and the cake was amazing.

In Croatia we moved into a much more populous, much more Mediterranean land, where long arm of history exerted a greater influence and left a far less orderly imprint on the ground. Over two weeks, we wound our way up and down the stone staircases of ancient, fortified cities on the coast, visiting Roman ruins and Gothic churches. The white-hot sun beat down out of a white-blue sky and bounced back on us from the limestone walls and earth, and we sought relief in Euro-style lemonade (water with pure lemon juice; no sugar, little ice) and the Adriatic, its water a mystical aqua-blue, where, with little in the way of beaches and even less in tides, you swim off of rocks that you wouldn't dream of going near in Maine for fear of being dashed to death by the waves.

What struck me on my only previous trip to Europe--ten days in Ireland ten years ago--was the way the Medieval walls and Georgian townhouses and modern buildings were woven together into a tapestry that demonstrated that time is a continuum and we are part of history. This continuum was even more pronounced in Croatia, where in Pula a Roman amphitheater still stands among the walls of a modern, industrial city, in Split, where tourists throng through the cobbled streets of a town built by Medieval refugees within the abandoned walls of a Roman emperor's retirement palace, and in countless other towns along the Adriatic coast, where magnets and shot glasses and linen dresses are hawked from the tiny first-floor shops of the towering stone or stucco buildings from which, long ago, merchants sold bread or flax, indulgences or tinctures.

It's not hard to imagine the same steep, narrow, stone-paved streets, now thronged with tourists, instead surging with donkeys, unwashed humans, rotting produce, and waste. Here in the US we tend to keep history separate from life. We might visit Gettysburg or the Liberty Bell, but rarely is our past so starkly woven into our present. And what a history--the outer wall of Dubrovnik, the Grič tunnel of Zagreb, the forts and fortifications, all play the same role, a (often vain) attempt to protect the place, and the people, from invaders. This part of the world sits at a crossroads: between west and east, north and south. It's been battled over by the Illyrians, the Romans, the Slavs, the Ottomans, the Austrians, the Hungarians, the Venetians, among others, and, most recently, by the individual republics that made up the former Yugoslavia. You can see the signs of this latest war in the rebuilt tile roofs of Dubrovnik, where armies of Serbia and Montenegro aimed for the country's cultural history (and, across the border in Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the rebuilt Old Bridge in Mostar, where Croatian army did the same).

Despite this long, hard history, which you might expect to leave the residents bitter or careworn, we met many delightful people throughout our journey: the proprietor of the tourist farm where we stayed our first four days in Slovenia and his family; a boy who guided us to our apartment in Koper; another young man who did the same in Zagreb; the hosts of several of our apartments who went out of their way to make our stay comfortable; many of the waiters in the restaurants we ate in (most of whom took great delight in joking with us and in our attempts at "hello" and "thank you"--which was the extent of our language acquisition); the woman behind the desk at the modern art museum in Dubrovnik, with whom I bonded over being a mother of three sons, including twins.

When it came time to prepare to come home, I didn't want to leave. I was exhausted by the heat and the many miles of stone stairs we climbed every day, and I really wouldn't have minded eating a few vegetables and drinking a tall glass of ice-cold well water. But I wasn't ready to break up the family party--M would be staying behind to travel for a few additional weeks, and, after we got home, the twins would be back to their self-contained ways. I was enjoying us all being together. I also wasn't ready to give up having new and interesting places to go and sights to see every day. Somebody said the sign of a successful vacation is when you're ready to go home at the end, but for me I think it's never wanting it to end.

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