RoadWorkBooks: Croatian Literature for Travel:
The armchair traveler stays at home and travels vicariously, following Emily Dickinson’s observation, “There is no frigate like a book.” That’s a fabulous way to expand knowledge about distant places and cultures. Even better is to actually go.
My philosophy for choosing literature for travel is based, in part, in anticipating the trip in advance and gaining pleasure from the research. When I choose titles, I compile a list, such as the one that follows, and then winnow to the titles that I truly will read. For some countries, there is a fulsome list—as in Croatia—while others may feature slim pickings (e.g., Honduras).
Croatia presented challenges typical to many such lists: an emphasis on themes of conflict, particularly the homeland wars of the 1990s. While these can be very good reads, they may not be particularly wonderful ways to relax during the trip. As a result, I tend to choose lighter fare, although rarely fluff. Increasingly, I look for e-books that will not add to baggage weight. I’ve also had very good luck in finding free electronic versions via Project Gutenberg. I do take care with books that have not been through a review process with a reputable publisher. I’m supportive of writers getting their words out to a wider audience, but the results may not be disappointing.
Travelers may not be very familiar with Croatia; I certainly wasn’t except for the fact that I very much wanted to visit its wonderful walled city, Dubrovnik. But here are a few tidbits about the country.
- Croatia has 1246 islands.
- The White House was built of marble brought from the island of Brac.
- Marco Polo purportedly was born on Korcula Island in the 13th century.
- It’s the home of the necktie, which began as the kravata (cravat to the French), the famous tie worn by Croatian soldiers in the 17th century.
- Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), who advanced the theory of alternating current and wireless communication, is Croatian.
- Slavoljub Penkala (1871-1922) invented the first mechanical pencil as well as the fountain pen.
- James Joyce taught English in northern Croatia—Pula—in 1904-1905. Word has it that he taught badly.
- Agatha Christie spent the honeymoon of her second marriage in Dubrovnik and Split. She set Murder on the Orient Express on the segment from Zagreb to Istanbul.
Here’s the list of literature I selected for a trip along the coast of Croatia that began in Split and extended through several island stops to the justly famous Dubrovnik. (Recommendation: do not travel in Croatia in high summer when the crowds are dense and the temperatures soar. Prefer May, September, or October.)
* indicates the titles I chose to read.
*The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric (paperback) – winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature; historical fiction covers generations from late 16th century to beginning of WWI. But, the Drina River is set in Bosnia. Although Andric lived some time in Crotia, this title is notable for its author’s Nobel Prize.
The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht – (2011, pb, Kindle): Named one of best books of the year: “Natalia Stefanovi, a doctor living in an unnamed country that’s a ringer for Obreht’s native Croatia, crosses the border in search of answers about the death of her beloved grandfather, who raised her on tales from the village he grew up in, and where, following German bombardment in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo in a nearby city and befriended a mysterious deaf-mute woman.”
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (2007, PB, Kindle)—Forna won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for an earlier novel. In this one, an Englishwoman with her two teen children work with a local man to rehabilitate a dilapidated cottage in a village. Secrets of the past revealed.
The Sound of Blue by Holly Payne (2004 PB): American goes to Hungary to teach English; gets wrapped up with Croatian refugees. In a journey that takes her to Dubrovnik, a magnificent stone city on the Croatian Riviera, Sara contemplates her own identity. (Most likely a “romance.”)
Zagreb, Exit South by Edo Popovic (2005, pb): illuminates lives of diverse but colorful characters adrift in postwar Croatia.
The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic (2013, PB, Kindle): Magdalena’s search for her missing sister reveals darks secrets of a family caught up in Croatia’s brutal history; begins in Croatia but moves to NYC.
April Fool’s Day by Josip Novakovich (2009, pb and Kindle): dark humor, political satire. The protagonist is born in 1948 on April 1. [Also authored Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust—2009, Kindle.]
The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic (2009, pb, Kindle): Having fled the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Tania Lucic is a professor of literature at the University of Amsterdam. “Relentlessly bleak.”
The Island of the World by Michael D. O’Brien, 800 pages (Kindle and paperback)
The Dealer and the Dead by Gerald Seymour (2014, PB, Kindle), spy thriller that begins in 1992 in a small Croatian village with an arms shipment that goes awry; picks up in 2000.
Ruta Tannenbaum, by Miljenko Jergovic, (2011, PB): Set in Zagreb, between world wars, the protagonist is inspired by real-life figure of the “Shirley Temple of Yugoslavia,” murdered in Holocaust.
Two Tickets to Dubrovnik by Angus Kennedy (2012, self-published novella, pb, Kindle); locales in Croatia and Australia.
Jester’s Fortune by Dewey Lambdin (pb, Kindle) is an 18th century naval adventure in Adriatic Sea for Patrick O’Brien type fans.
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis (2013, PB, Kindle); covers four countries in war; gets to Dubrovnik eventually.
Steffie (Croatian Bridget Jones), a post-modern novel ***
Dancing with Spies by Michael Hillier (Kindle)—self-published thriller
Every Day, Every Hour by Natasa Dragnic (2012, pb, Kindle) romance.
A House in Istria by Richard Swartz (trans 2002, pb) comic novel set in Istria (northern Croatia).
Note: Illyria is an ancient region in modern-day Croatia, and is the setting for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
*The House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus, Book 4), by Rick Riordan (2013, PB & Kindle): this popular young adult literature series, which features Percy Jackson, actually places some of its action in Diocletian’s Palace.
Diocletian’s Palace is an epic poem by Neda Miranda Blazevic-Krietzman (2008, 147 pages, PB)
“The Emperor Diocletian” by Dora Round, Harper’s August 1998.
*Apocryphal Stories by Karel Capek (translated by Dora Round) includes one piece on The Emperor Diocletian.
*Black Lamb and Gray Falcon – (pb, Kindle) Rebecca West’s description of a trip around Yugoslavia in 1937; the first part focuses on Croatia.
Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History by Robert D. Kaplan (1993, a NY Times Best Book)—Croatia appears in chapter 1.
Croatia (Through Writer’s Eyes) by Peter Frankopan and Francis Gooding (2007, pricey)
*A Traveller’s History of Croatia, Benjamin Curtis (2013, pb). This is a series in which, typically, history profs are contracted to write a readable history. (After reading both, I preferred Rebecca West’s account although it necessarily ends in WWII era.)
Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We came From, and What Really Matters, by Jennifer Wilson (2011, pb, Kindle); won Best nonfiction award for its story of Iowa family that uproots and moves to Croatia.
Croatia: Travels in an Undiscovered Country by Tony Fabijancic (1999 pb, Kindle); author’s father is Croatian.
*Montenegro: A Novel by Starling Lawrence (2006, PB); Lawrence was Patrick O’Brien’s editor at Norton. This historical novel set in 1908 gets good reviews.