Chronicle in Stone
by Ismail Kadare
How few people know anything about Albania. This novel explores the devastation of war (WW II) on a small town and its inhabitants through the eyes of a young boy. When Kadare describes the town (and this is the town he grew up in) we have a sense of being part of a living, breathing creature. The inhabitants are wonderfully described in all their beauty and strangeness; the eye of the boy seeing clearly without the veneer of adult perception. Kadare's novel made me want to visit Albania, and in particular this amazing citadel town of stone and slate roofs. Both funny and tragic, it is a book and a place you will not forget. Chronicle in Stone won the International Man Booker Prize in 2005.
"No mere curiosity but a thoroughly enchanting novel – sophisticated and accomplished in its poetic prose and narrative deftness, yet drawing resonance from its roots in one of Europe's most primitive societies." – John Updike, The New Yorker
"Kadare's political courage made him a hero, his sense of irony and his powerful command of narrative are what make him a writer, the George Orwell of an Iron Curtain nightmare that is gone but not forgotten." – The Boston Globe
"It was a strange city, and seemed to have been cast up in the valley one winter's night like some prehistoric creature that was now clawing its way up the mountainside. Everything in the city was old and made of stone, from the streets and fountains to the roofs of the sprawling age-old houses covered with grey slates like gigantic scales. It was hard to believe that, under this powerful carapace, the tender flesh of life survived and reproduced. ...xThe traveller seeing it for the first time was tempted to compare it to something, but soon found that impossible, for the city rejected all comparisons. In fact, it looked like nothing else. It could no more support comparison than it would allow rain, hail, rainbows, or multicoloured foreign flags to remain for long on its rooftops, for they were as fleeting and unreal as the city was lasting and anchored in solid matter." – Chronicle in Stone, Arcade, 2011 edition.
Painter of Silence
by Georgina Harding
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012. It takes place in Romania in the early 1950's. The main character, an artist, is both deaf and mute and we follow him and other characters along with their memories through the cities and countryside of Romania. The author describes Romania vividly. This is a beautiful book and haunting book, one that will leave you not only wanting to visit Romania, but amazed at the beauty of the human spirit. I was ready to jump on an airplane and take a walking tour through this country without delay.
"Painter of Silence insists on being recommended because of its unassertive originality, its sense of history, its knowledge of the unsaid and the unsayable, and – not least – its delightfully surprising ending." – Paul Bailey, The Independent
"Harding writes with exquisite restraint. ...xHer deceptively simple prose gives a startling beauty to the ordinary, and evokes great depth of suffering." – The Guardian
"Though he has seen photographs of cities he has never been in one before. In the dusk as the train came in it looked monochrome as the photos: black smears of road, grey walls, grey buildings angled across the sides of hills. The buildings appeared singly at first then massed, most of them solid but some hollow so that he could see through them to the sky as it darkened. Between the buildings there were the bare outlines of trees – still there were trees – but the forest was gone." – Painter of Silence, Bloomsbury USA, 2012 edition.
The Tiger's Wife
by Téa Obreht
This first novel by Téa Obreht gained much attention the year it was published. It was a National Book Award Finalist, a New York Times Bestseller and was named one of the best books of the year by The Wall Street Journal. The book's action takes place in an unnamed Balkan country and blends together stories, myth, and reality to form a splendid narrative of a part of the world not well known. The importance of story and myth in a culture is carried by the Grandfather figure. His granddaughter, a modern woman, uses his stories to explore herself and her country. An unusual book, one that will, at times, make the reader gasp with amazement.
"Obrecht is talented far beyond her years, and her unsentimental faith in language, dream and memory is a pleasure." – Publishers Weekly
"The Tiger's Wife is a marvel of beauty and imagination. Téa Obreht is a tremendously talented writer." – Ann Patchett
"Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger's wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life – of my grandfather's days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is how he became a child again." – The Tiger's Wife, Random House, 2011 edition.
The Radetzky March
by Joseph Roth
The Radetzky March is an extraordinary novel. The story of the Von Trotta family is told on the stage of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an empire that stretched all the way across Eastern Europe. The old institutions that were passing amid great change, and the sense of war to come form the inevitable background of the characters' lives. Roth's novel is considered by many to be one of the great novels of the 20th century.
"The Radetzky March is a dark, disturbing novel of eccentric beauty. ...xIf you have yet to experience Roth, began here, and then read everything." – Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times
"The Trottas were a young dynasty. Their progenitor had been knighted after the Battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. Spolje – the German name for his native village – became his title of nobility. Fate had elected him for a special deed. But he then made sure that later times lost all memory of him." – The Radetzky March, Everyman's Library, 1996 edition.
The Bridge on the Drina
by Ivo Andric
Although this is a fictional work, there can no better book to understand the history of the Balkans and the lands that used to be called Yugoslavia. Written by Nobel Prize winner Andric, this vivid history of a town and its bridge extends back to the 16th century and forward to the beginning of World War I. Through the eyes of very memorable characters we view the events of the wider world and the way they affect the town and its inhabitants. Even if this seems like too vast a book, I encourage you to give it a try. You will be captured at once by the riveting characters and their place in the flow of history.
"Despite its scale, what makes the book extraordinary is the tender insight with which it treats these individual lives, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim or Jewish." – Fiona Sampson, The Independent
"'You will see, Fehim,' Galus enthusiastically assured his friend as if it were a matter of the same night or the next morning, 'you will see. We shall create a state which will make the most precious contribution to the progress of humanity, in which every effort will be blessed, every sacrifice holy, every thought original and expressed in our own words, and every deed marked with the stamp of our name. Then we will carry out work which will be the result of our free labor and the expression of our racial genius, put up buildings in comparison with which all that has been done in the centuries of foreign administration will appear like silly toys. We will bridge greater rivers and deeper abysses'. ...xBahtijarevic remained silent. Even Galus's voice lowered in tone. As his ideas became more exalted, his voice became lower and lower, hoarser and hoarser, till it became a strong and passionate whisper and was finally lost in the great silence of the night. At last both young men were silent. But none the less Bahtijarevic's silence seemed a thing apart, heavy and obstinate in the night." – The Bridge on the Drina, University of Chicago Press, 1977 edition.
Niki: The Story of a Dog
by Tibor Déry
It doesn't matter whether you are a dog lover or not, this book will charm and amaze you at the same time. The dog Niki, abandoned, is adopted by an ordinary couple in postwar Budapest. The story revolves around this quiet family and what happens to them during a particularly turbulent time in Hungary's history. Unsentimental, and simple, the tale is about caring and kindness in the face of adversity.
"(An) extraordinary novel. ...xIt is Niki's sheer dogginess, so perfectly rendered throughout, that is at the heart of this novel's greatness." – Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Globe
"One of Hungary's leading novelists ... Mr. Déry brings a kind of cunning naiveté that records (or imagines) with utmost seriousness all the tremors of Niki's soul. He puts, as it were, the psychological realism of the contemporary novel at the disposal of a fox terrier." – The New York Times
"The Dog – we will not yet give it a name – adopted the Ancsas in the spring of 1948. Janos Ancsa, a lecturer at the School of Mines, Rivers, and Forests in Sopron, and a qualified engineer, had been posted to Budapest. Having tried in vain for six months to get a flat in the capital, he had, in the end, rented two furnished rooms in the outer suburbs, at Csobanka on the Szentendre line; he left for his office very early in the morning, returning late in the evening to his dinner, which his wife, in default of a kitchen, cooked on an electric fire in one of their rooms. And it was in the evening that the dog visited their home." – Niki: The Story of a Dog, New York Review of Books Classics, 2008 edition.
Valley of Thracians: A Novel of Bulgaria
by Ellis Shuman
Here is a thriller of a novel, with fun twists of plot and all the elements we look for in a good mystery. This is one of those books you won't be able to put down at night; all the while learning about Bulgarian culture, history and folkways. The author knows Bulgaria intimately and takes us on a journey to places most of us have never been nor of which we've heard. I often felt he must have written the book specifically to get in all the beautiful and historical places in Bulgaria. Travel fiction at it's most fun.
"Well written and full of great characters, the book turned out to be a rich and exciting read, with huge expert local and historical knowledge." – Christophfischer.wordpress.com
"The weathered tenements he passed on the road looked just like those he had imagined Eastern Europe would have, with laundry drooping from metal-railed balconies and faded, chipped paint barely concealing the aging cement bricks of the structures. Graffiti sketched in oversized letters and psychedelic hues shouted at him from the concrete walls, as unintelligible here as such statements of protest were in any urban setting." – Valley of Thracians, Kindle edition, 2013.
Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy
by Olivia Manning
After you finish reading the first three novels of Fortunes of War (there are three more called The Levant Trilogy), you will be convinced you have eaten in every restaurant in Bucharest and Athens. Manning and her husband lived as civilians during the build-up to World War II in Romania. They managed to flee to Greece just in time before the Nazis arrived in Bucharest. Although fiction, these novels are based upon Manning’s own experiences. The atmosphere of the reality of war on the edges of their civilization is very powerful. The everyday details of life in Romania and Athens are beautifully drawn. The marriage of a realist and an optimist (her husband) are depicted with both humor and sympathy. The books are jam-packed with many memorable characters, such as the fallen Russian aristocrat, Yakimov, a character you will never forget. Excellent books. After you read these three I guarantee you will go right on to read The Levant Trilogy, a continuation of their journey away from war, this time to Egypt.
“One of the Five Best of World War II Fiction” – Antony Beevor, The Wall Street Journal
“Her gallery of personages is huge, her scene painting superb, her pathos controlled, her humour quiet and civilized.” – Anthony Burgess
“Somewhere near Venice, Guy began talking with a heavy, elderly man, a refugee from Germany on his way to Trieste. Guy asked questions. The refugee eagerly replied. Neither seemed aware when the train stopped. In the confusion of a newly created war, the train was stopping every twenty minutes or so. Harriet looked out and saw girders, darker than the twilit darkness, holding an upper rail. Between the girders a couple fumbled and struggled, every now and then thrusting a foot or an elbow out into the light that fell from the carriage windows. Beyond the girders water glinted, reflecting the phosphorescent globes lighting the high rail. When the train was suddenly shunted into the night, leaving behind the lovers and the glinting water, she thought: ‘Anything can happen now.’” – The Balkan Trilogy, New York Review Books, 2010 edition.