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Courage and hope in the midst of war: The Hotel Tito [review]

The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodroziç

Images of death and destruction in a hitherto little known corner of Europe filled our television screens in the early 1990s.  Week after week saw ever more alarming reports about the thousands of people forced to flee as the Croatian war of independence advanced on their homes.

Croatian war of independence

The Hotel Tito is a novel about that experience of displacement told through the eyes of a young girl.

When war breaks out in 1991 she is nine years old. She is sent from her home town of Vukovar to take a seaside holiday far away from the hostilities.

By the time she returns at the end of summer, everything that was familiar no longer exists.

Her father has disappeared while fighting with the Croatian forces. Her town has become a battle ground fought over with shells and rockets.

It’s not safe to stay in Vukovar so she, her mother and elder brother join a stream of residents who become refugees in Zagreb. But then they are evicted and end up in Kumrovec  – a village near to Zagreb, on the Croatian-Serbian border.

And there they are stuck for three years, sharing a one room apartment in the former Political School (known as  Hotel Tito in homage to the village’s most famous son Josip Tito, former president of Yugoslavia). 

Hotel Tito by Ivana BodrozicLife in Hotel Tito:  a strange existence.

The large conference rooms of the Hotel Tito have been re-assigned to serve the needs of a new type of resident.

Conference Room One is designated as an infirmary, number five is the  church, four is used for daycare.

For the young inhabitants of the hotel, the magical room is number seven; a space designated for parties, card games and social activities.  The front lobby is their rendezvous point for ventures into the local night spots.

Though it might sound like a playground, the hotel is hardly an ideal place in which to live. Naturally the family find it difficult to live in a room so tiny it can only just accommodate three beds. Other families are moved on, to bigger and nicer apartments. Why not them, they want to know?

Battling against officialdom

Petitions and appeals to the government result in promises that new accommodation will be found for them. But the promises never materialise. Nor is there any good news about the missing man.

Believe me, it is much harder for the families of the missing because there are things we can never accept, and the uncertainty is crushing us.

The girl never gives up hoping that one day she will learn her father is alive.

But in the meantime she has to get on with the business of growing up. A process which involves ditching the Barbie dolls and embracing the rites of adolescence: the first disco,  encounters with boys,  experiments with smoking and cocktails and the shock of the first hangover.

This narrator is an intelligent girl with a funny way of looking at life but is also keenly observant.  At the beginning of the book she has limited appreciation of the momentous changes happening in her country.  Although her parents don’t explain why she is being sent to the seaside, she has “a sneaking feeling it has to do with politics because everybody talks about politics all the time.” 

I know a thing or two about politics myself, like I call my toy monkey Meso, because my monkey and our president look a lot alike.

About the Croatian war of independence itself she has little to say other than it’s “cruel and went on for ages.”  She is more focused on the daily challenges of getting around a strange place, making new friends and experiencing the sneers of local people towards  incomers who don’t even know the correct names for basic foodstuffs.

The city was lovely and totally insensitive. They didn’t need us, there were enough people in Zagreb already; they felt that being from Zagreb was a matter of some prestige. … We made the switch to salty rolls but when we said the words they sounded off , always with a twang; when we bought them the baker had a little sneer. Like it was something enormous, not a stupid doughy roll.

Teenage confusion amid the chaos

This is a girl who is full of the anxiety and confusion experienced by teenagers. One moment she suffers acute embarrassment at the drunken antics of her grandfather, the next she feels a deep love for the old man. Desperate to get away from home and experience freedom but nervous about whether she will fit in and find friends in her new school.

Her insight and honesty make reading Hotel Tito a very human novel. It relates the experience of people who are displaced in war. The are in a state of constant anxiety about what is happening “back home” and never feel completely accepted in their new “home.” But it is also very much a novel about the process of growing up.

And like so many bildungsroman novels, despite the tribulations and frustrations experienced by the protagonist, by the end you sense that they have come through the challenge. That they have emerged stronger and with a spirit of optimism and hope for the future.


About the author

Ivana Simić Bodrožić  author of The Hotel TitoIvana Simić Bodrožić was born in Vukovar in 1982 though she has lived in Zagreb for many years.

She published her first poetry collection in 2005, Prvi korak u tamu (The First Step into Darkness) and has since published a second anthology plus a short story collection 100% pamuk (100% Cotton).

About the Book 

Hotel Zagorje (Hotel Tito) was the first prose work by Ivana Simić Bodrožić. It is described as an autobiographical novel. We know that Bodrožić  was in fact displaced from Vukovar and did live for a while in Hotel Tito. But the book reads more like fiction than as a memoir of the Croatian war of independence. I suspect that has much to do with the fluidity of the translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac.

Hotel Tito was published to critical acclaim in 2010. It received the Prix Ulysee for the best debut novel in France, and a number of prestigious  awards in Croatia and the Balkan region.  Bodrožić is currently working on the film adaptation of the novel with Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić (the winner of Golden Bear 2006, Berlin International Film Festival).

Why I Read This Book

My edition was published by Seven Stories Press. I wouldn’t have known about the book however but for the fact it was chosen by Asymptote for their book club in November 2018.  Including it in my #15booksofsummer list meant I could read my first ever Croatian author. Another country that I’ve now covered as part of my World of Literature challenge.

15 books of summer

Bookends #10 Oct 2018

October already? What an odd Autumn this is turning out to be.  Thursday afternoon I was able to sit in the garden soaking up the sun (yes it was that warm). Today I’ve been sitting wrapped in a thick sweater and waiting for the heating to kick in.

This week I bring you an article about the elements of a good story, a blog post about the importance of context in our reading and a book written by a woman who for eight years was hardly out of the media spotlight.

Book: Becoming  by Michelle Obama

Becoming michelle obamaI rarely read autobiographies. Those by ‘celebrities’ are instant turn offs (they’re usually rushed out on the back of some recent success in a TV series or film and have little content of substance). I’d rather go for a memoir or an autobiography by someone who isn’t well known except outside their immediate circle of expertise and experience but who has an interesting story to tell.

Michelle Obama is of course extremely well known in the sense that for the eight years she was America’s First Lady she was hardly out of the public eye. I’ve always wondered how someone with her level of intelligence coped with the accepted wisdom that First Ladies are not meant to have opinions of their own. How does it feel to have every aspect of your appearance scrutinised and dissected?

Her forthcoming memoir Becoming will I hope answer some of those questions.

According to the blurb, Becoming is “a work of deep reflection and mesmerising storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her-from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it-in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations – and whose story inspires us to do the same.”

The book is due out in the UK in November.

Blog Post: Frame of reference for reading

Simon at Stuck In A Book wrote recently about the experience of reading a particular book is affected by lack of knowledge about the ‘rules’ for certain genres or of the historical and social context. His example relates to his own experience of reading a novel which uses magical realism and is set during the civil war in Mozambique.

This post chimed with my experience of reading some of the books I selected for my World of Literature project. I struggled for example with The Tree of Life by Maryse Conde because I knew little about the history of Guadeloupe. The same thing happened with The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (I gave up on that one because it was too confusing).  I know I could get info easily enough from the Internet but I don’t like interrupting the experience of reading the book.

How does everyone else deal with this situation? Do you just plough on and hope things fall into place? Or do you press pause, do some background reading and then come back to the novel?

Here is Simon’s post 

Article: What makes a good story – 

Talking of ‘rules’ apparently Anton Chekhov had some clear views about the elements that needed to be in place for the story to work effectively.

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

I’m with him wholeheartedly on the first rule – I really don’t want to feel I am being given a lecture if I am reading fiction. Originality? Yes but not if this is just for the sake of being original and where the author is having more fun than the reader ( as in Will Self and his unpunctuated paragraphs).

But I’m not on board with his direction of extreme brevity.  What about ideas that start off as a kernel but by allowing them space to blossom they end up with even deeper meaning? I don’t see a virtue in an author thinking how quickly they can get the scene or the episode wrapped up.

Here’s the article. See what you think….

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

Top 10 books around the world

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It’s been a long time since I joined in with the Top Ten Tuesday meme but this week’s topic gives me a chance to talk about a topic of particular interest to me.

I realised a few years ago that my reading was rather limited geographically so I made a conscious decision to look for novels written by authors outside of USA and Uk. Since starting my World of Literature project I’ve read books in 36 countries. Though the Top Ten Tuesday topic is strictly speaking about books that take place in another country, I’m taking a liberal approach and going for novels written by authors from 10 different parts of the world.

 

Belgium: Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb. This slim work from one of Belgium’s leading authors is set in Japan. It gives a fascinating glimpse into the difficulties of navigating the work culture in Japan.

Finland: White  Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. I never realised that Finland had suffered a horrendous famine in the 1860s. This is a grim account of a woman walking mile after mile through waist-high snow to prevent her children starving to death.

India: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. A Booker prize-winning novel that will make you laugh and make you think.

Japan: After the Banquet  by  Yukio Mishima. This was my first venture into Japanese literature. It was enigmatic at times but also a fascinating portrait of a marriage between two people whose interests and perspectives seem diametrically opposed.

Kenya: Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. A savage indictment of the political and government regime in the country post independence.

Nigeria:  Americanah  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Two young people dream of leaving their country to find a new life in America. Only one of them makes it. But it’s not what she expects.

Norway: The Blue Room  by Hanne Ørstavik  A short psychological novel about a naive young girl and the troubling relationship she as with her mother.

Republic of the Congo:   Broken Glass by  Alain Mabanckou. A lively novel set in a seedy bar where a rag bag of odd characters hang out.

South Korea: The Vegetarian by Hang Kang. A disturbing novel about a troubled girl who decides to stop eating meat.

Zimbabwe: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. A country in the middle of a crisis. Aid workers turn up in their white vans and dish out sweets and toys, take a few photos and then disappear. Some people are lucky enough to leave. But is life elsewhere necessarily better?

 

 

The View from Here: Books from Spain

Welcome to the next country in  The View from Here series on literature from around the world. Today we get to visit Spain. Our guide is Isi who loves blogging so much she has two sites: FromIsi in English is available via this link. The Spanish site is here.

Isi describes herself as one of those persons who enjoys winding down by grabbing a hot tea and a book and finishing the day immersed in a good story.”

Given that, she says it was a natural step, once the technology was available, to create a blog to talk about books.  Her first blog was in Spanish. How did the English language version happen?  “At the age of 30,” says Isi, “I decided to resume my long abandoned English lessons I started at school and my teacher, knowing my love for books, suggested to start a book blog in English, so I could practice my writing skills by writing reviews – a book lover always has something to write about, hasn’t she? That was the best idea ever, because not only did I practice every week, improving fast and enjoying the process, but I also found a great community of book bloggers from all around the world; people who have become my friends.”

Q. What books and authors from Spain were required reading in school? Books/authors that wereconsidered classic in other words and that every child was expected to know about?  

There are many of classic books you had to know at school, including all genres (poetry, drama, etc.), which, of course, at such ages you can’t enjoy or even get to know the subtle message hidden in them that seemed to provoke that awe to Literature teachers. It didn’t help that they are still written in old Spanish, which makes the reading even harder for young lads. I also remember learning lists of authors and their books by heart, an activity that I now see as useless as reading all those classics at such ages. I guess Literature lessons are the same in schools all over the world, but in my opinion, this approach only makes students hate books.

However, there is one exception: Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, the poet. I believe all teenagers have a “Bécquer period” in their lives; you fall in love for the first time, and Bécquer’s love poems begin to make sense…

To mention some other author and titles that have been translated into English, we all have read “The Celestina” by Fernando de Rojas, “The Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, “Lazarillo de Tormes”, whose author remains unknown, or “The grifter” by Francisco de Quevedo.

Q. It’s likely that anyone asked to name a Spanish author would come up with Cervantes. Or looking more to contemporary authors, they might name Javier Marías. Who are some authors we could be missing out on?

Well, let’s start with some authors who have been popular in recent years. Luz Gabás has been a best-selling author, whose first novel (Palm trees in the snow) has made it into a film, and it’s a great romance novel set in the last years of the Spanish colonialism in Africa. I particularly liked this book because I read and commented it with my grandmother, who also enjoyed it, and then we went together to watch the film. Almudena Grandes is another example of great literature I always recommend because her characters are too real, with complex stories that make you be part of them. Arturo Pérez-Reverte can be also considered a modern classic (like Javier Marías); his articles, short-stories and long novels are all well written and hooking – I particularly like his books about Captain Alatriste, but I’ve enjoyed every other piece he’s written. I’ll finish with Dolores Redondo, whose crime novels, The Baztán trilogy, have been also best-sellers and made it into films everybody talks about nowadays.

viewfromhere

Q. Which classical author from the past is your particular favourite  — and of course, why?

I couldn’t tell another than Benito Pérez-Galdós. I knew the titles of his books (because I had learned them by heart in school), but I only read one of his novels for the first time a few years ago, thanks to a fellow blogger. He wrote 46 books called “National episodes”, which are actually fictional, but include real events from our recent history, beginning with the title “Trafalgar”, that relates one of our endless conflicts with the British (I had to mention this, haha!).

Q. What can you tell us about the themes and traditions of literature in Spain?  Are there particular styles of writing or themes that are prevalent?

The most influential theme in our literature is the Spanish civil war. Like the books set in both world wars, our books set in the civil war always have something new for you to learn, and it is an issue that still divides Spanish society. To mention some of my favourite novels on the subject, I recommend “The frozen heart” by Almudena Grandes, who I mentioned above, and “In the night of time” by Antonio Muñoz Molina. However, I must warn future readers because I think you must do some research on the subject before reading these books to really benefit from them; you might get lost otherwise (after all, Spanish readers have being told about about the war by their relatives and studied it at school).

Recently there was a kind of “breakthrough” in Spanish literature with the publishing of a novel set in the Basque Country talking about ETA terrorism. The author is called Fernando Aramburu, and the title is “Patria”. It has been translated into several languages, so I guess it will be available in English soon.

Q. Who are some of the up and coming authors in Spain to whom you think we should pay more attention?

Apart from Aramburu, you absolutely have to read Víctor del Árbol. His books will be published in English this year, and you will find deeply emotional and though-provoking -but very hard- stories. Add “A million drops” to your reading list, please.

Alejandro Palomas is one of those rare cases in which I have to recommend an author I still haven’t read, but everybody is talking about him now and I have many reasons to believe I need to read his novels: he just won a literary prize and all my fellow bloggers are in love with his work, so take him into account as well.

Q. Are there any literary prizes that help to promote Spanish writing?

Many (too many?). There are several prizes awarded by some of the most important Spanish publishing houses but we, the readers, don’t pay much attention to them because they always seem to go to very famous authors, in order to increase sells for the publishing houses. An unknown author wouldn’t sell as much, right?

Nevertheless, there are other prizes that promise a good read. One of them is the Nadal Prize (nothing related to the tennis player, lol), the one Alejandro Palomas won this year, and there is another I always consider reading, which is an award from the booksellers association.

 

The View from Here: Literature from Wales

viewfromhereToday in The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we get to visit my home country of Wales with the help of Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, Wales. 

Honno was established in 1986 to publish the best in Welsh women’s writing. Today it publishes novels, autobiographies, memoir and short story anthologies in English as well as classics in both Welsh and English. Over the years Honno and its titles have been awarded many awards. Registered as a community co-operative, any profits made by the company is invested in the publishing programme.  Caroline has worked in general trade publishing for over thirty years and has edited a number of award winning and bestselling authors. When not working she likes to walk in the woods, make her own clothes, grow her own food and clear up after her housemates (all seven of whom have four legs).

Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from Wales? 

A good starting point would be  www.gwales.com. You can browse fiction by review or the different categories. You have to dig a little deeper but the site also lists Welsh publishers, so it is worth browsing through them individually to see the broad range of titles published in Wales.

Q. In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: “Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?”  They ended up with a shortlist of 23 novels (listed here). What do you think of this list – are there any surprises? Any names missing for you?

I’m not sure I agree with such a label — it would be different for every reader… I’d want to know which categories the books were being judged against before opting for one over another. Also, I haven’t read them all, so how could I judge? And out of the 23 only half a dozen were by women—  is this because male authors are better or because they are traditionally more likely to be published? I’m sure there are many many great novels by women that aren’t on the list.

Q. Are there any particular trends or themes that you find often in novels by writers from Wales?

Reinterpretations of traditional Welsh mythology, the history of Welsh emigration, and the transition from rural to industrial ways of life are themes that often crop up, both amongst the classic novels we publish and the contemporary submissions we get.

Q. Apart from Dylan Thomas, few authors from Wales seem to have made a big impact on the world stage. Why isn’t literature from Wales as well known as say Irish literature or Scottish fiction?

I wish I knew! Wales’s writers have certainly been recognised — R.S. Thomas was nominated for a Nobel Prize for instance. A degree of lingering mistrust between England and Wales could be partly to blame — however, Ireland does much better than either Wales or Scotland pro rata for population size and they too have a troubled history. Maybe hitherto they’ve had bigger characters/personalities who’ve been known for behaviour outside of their writing – Dylan Thomas is perhaps the only Welsh writer who fits into this category…

Q. How important are prizes like the Wales Book of the Year award or the Dylan Thomas prize in giving more attention to Welsh authors?

They have proved to be useful in terms of wider recognition from publishing industry in rest of UK and the world, for rights sales in particular –which improves the lot of the author who may then get an offer from bigger international publisher although less good for Welsh publisher who takes risk on an author but can’t afford to retain them on their list once they’re successful.

Q.In an article in The Bookseller magazine in 2016, a number of Welsh publishers commented on how it was getting harder to persuade mainstream media to review books and to get booksellers to stock their titles which come from Wales even if they are not necessarily about Wales   Is that something that you’re concerned about?

It definitely has been an issue for us, partly down to mainstream media paying less attention to smaller presses generally, partly that smaller presses just don’t have the budget to effectively promote their books with review copies, pre-pub events and networking and partly down to being unable to network effectively with London-based media when you are in Aberystwyth! I don’t know that being from Wales or about Wales is necessarily the issue here — it’s more that space for any book related material is increasingly limited particularly in the print media/newspapers so inevitably they are going to focus on the big names. Also lead times are getting longer, which works against publishers whose lead times are shorter, which is true of some independent presses like Honno… Contrarily space online for books is growing incrementally but is yet to be seen as creditable or reliable in the same way as the established broadsheets.

HonnoQ. When Honno was created, the intention was to increase the opportunity for Welsh women in publishing and to bring Welsh women’s literature to a wider public. Is that still a key focus for you – have you seen any changes in attitude from readers over the years? 

Absolutely it’s still a key focus! What we’d like to do is to widen our demographic to younger women in Wales and beyond —  a lot of our initial interest was from women who are now getting older and making sure that their descendants know about Honno and recognise its importance is vital. There are many more demands on young women’s time and attention than was true in the early eighties—  hence our interest in media other than print as a way of engaging younger readers.

Q Do you have a personal favourite among the authors from Wales?

Of the Welsh Women’s Classics we publish, My Mother’s House by Lily Tobias is one I particularly enjoyed. Obviously it is too difficult to choose a favourite contemporary author from among the Honno stable (without also risking the others’ wrath!) but outside of that Cynan Jones is a favourite — now receiving wide recognition but no longer published in Wales (hence my point earlier about the downside of prizes).

Intrigued? Want to know more?

  • You can find more infomation about Honno, their catalogue and authors at their website www.honno.co.uk  or via Facebook (facebook.com/honnopress)  and via Twitter @honno.  
  • To learn more about literature from Wales visit the dedicated Literature from Wales page on this blog to discover reviews of authors from Wales and lists of suggested books to read.
  • You might also want to take a look at a View from Wales post I wrote in 2016

The View from Here: Recommended Romanian authors

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We’re off to Romania for our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world.  Our guide is Georgina who blogs at Readers’ High Tea.

Let’s meet Georgina

Hello! My name is Georgiana and I live in Bucharest, Romania. My academic background is a blend of computer science and business studies, and at the moment I work as a management consultant. As hobbies, I enjoy travelling to places I’ve never been before and doing sports (snowboarding and squash). I’ve been interested in books since childhood, and recently this interest has materialized in a blog –  Readers’ High Tea. I created it as a cosy place where readers share thoughts about the books they read, find what book to read next, and also read about other bookish stuff like discovering nice bookstores around the world.

I am currently experimenting a lot with my reading, so I do not have particular authors I like and read a lot. Carlos Ruiz Zafón is the exception here, as his gothic style made me fall in love with his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. I read both classics and modern authors, mostly foreign ones. The most recent book I’ve read and enjoyed (a lot!) is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Tell us about the traditions of literature in your country. Are there any particular styles or characteristics for literature from your region? Any themes or issues that you see reflected frequently?

The most common themes reflected in the Romanian literature are rural life (inspiration from nature, folklore, the daily lives of peasants), social and political conditions, and the effects of the war on people’s lives (including the struggles of intellectuals during the war). Modern writers also tackle subjects as spirituality, religion, and self discovery.

What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of Romanian literature? 

Romanian literature is studied in-depth during high school years, ranging from from poetry to drama and novels. When it comes to the ones considered classics, I would mention Moromeţii (The Moromete Family) by Marin Preda and Ion by Liviu Rebreanu – two novels that portrait the ordinary peasants’ life. Another one is Enigma Otiliei (Otilia’s Enigma) by George Călinescu, a novel that presents the life of people in Bucharest at the beginning of the 20th century. Maitreyi (Bengal Nights) by Mircea Eliade, one of my favourite books I’ve studies in school, depicts the writer’s love story with the Indian girl Maitreyi Devi.

Regarding poetry, Mihai Eminescu is for sure considered one of the greatest Romanian poets. Tudor Arghezi, Nichita Stanescu (he was inventing words called unwords), and Lucian Blaga are also classics studied at school.

What books and authors are very popular right now in Romania? 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins are very popular at the moment. Also the recent Harry Potter related books (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) are quite trendy. In general, young adult books are popular, and also many self-development books (some examples: time management – Musai List by Octavian Pantis, life style – The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo)

What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from Romania ? 

Unfortunately many Romanian authors are not translated in English. From the authors that are translated, I recommend Bengal Nights by Mircea Eliade, he was a Romanian historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago. Nostalgia and Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu are also worth checking out, as Cartarescu he is an awarded contemporary writer. Another recommendation is Book of Mirrors by Eugen Chirovici, which is said to be global publishing phenomenon.

Views from Around the World

There are 16 other countries featured in the View From series with guest bloggers from Japan, France, Canada and South Africa for example. Do take a look via the View From page.

 

Interested in doing a View From guest post?

If you’d like to represent your country of birth or the place you live or the literature of a country you feel passionate about, do please get in touch.  Either send a direct message via Twitter to @BookerTalk or via the contact me form below

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