Books on Ljubljana, Zagreb, Vienna and Budapest
January 4, 2013 5:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm after book recommendations on Ljubljana, Zagreb, Vienna and Budapest as gifts for my father ahead of a trip.

I'll be taking my parents on a train journey that will take in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Vienna and Budapest in March. Before that, it's my dad's 65th birthday and I'm planning on getting him four books that give a flavour of each city.

It doesn't matter whether they give historical or contemporary views, are fiction or non-fiction, or are about the whole or just one aspect of the city - it's really about finding something compelling to get him engaged in the trip. (So no guidebooks...)

By way of example, if I was after something for London, I wouldn't be after an overwhelming Peter Ackroyd tome, but might aim for something like Constitutional for fiction, or an Iain Sinclair for non-fiction.

Any thoughts much appreciated!
posted by garlicsmack to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
For Vienna:

Frederic Morton's A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889, and its sequel, Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913-1914. Both very engaging, mixing cultural, social, and political history of the city; Thunder at Twilight is more obviously a political history centered on the events leading up to WWI.

Paul Hofmann, The Viennese: Splendor, Twilight, and Exile (bonus points to Hofmann for working "Splendor" and "Twilight" into the same title) and The Spell of the Vienna Woods: Inspiration and Influence from Beethoven to Kafka. Also mixtures of cultural and social histories, with the latter book also a partial memoir of the author's youth and young adulthood in Vienna and the Vienna Woods.
posted by scody at 5:45 PM on January 4, 2013

Sorry, forgot to mention two other histories as well: Carl Schorske's Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture (for which he won the Pulitzer) and Allen Janik's Wittgenstein's Vienna. They're both excellent, but also weightier approaches than the others I listed above, which (depending on your dad's tastes) he may or may not prefer.
posted by scody at 5:50 PM on January 4, 2013

I really like "The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber," which is about a guy who robbed more than two dozen banks and post offices in the years just after the fall of Communism. It's a great (true) story and well-written, but more than that it gives a pretty good sense of place that's now fading, but still recognizable. (I'm talking about Budapest, where much of the action takes place.) The guy who committed these crimes is an ethnic Székely (a Hungarian-speaking ethnicity in Romania, fairly far from the border) who escapes from Ceusescu's Romania in a daring way, only to end up being perceived as a sort of uneducated hillbilly when he gets to Budapest. So, much of the story deals with his perspective as an outsider, which makes it comfortable for a non-Hungarian to read. Lots of local color, descriptions and characterizations of Hungarians that hold true and will set the city apart from the other three. Johnny Depp's picked up the film rights, so maybe it will be a movie too, someday.

I was going to recommend something a little more about the Austro-Hungarian empire for Vienna, since it controlled all four cities at one point or another . . . but I see that Scody's sort of got the historical angle covered, and those are probably better books than I could have recommended anyway.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:50 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is Rebecca West's classic history/travelogue of the Balkans.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 6:18 PM on January 4, 2013

How about one of Alan Furst's WWII-era thrillers? Several of them are set in east-central Europe.
posted by Philemon at 8:22 PM on January 4, 2013

When I moved to Budapest everyone suggested that I read Prague by Arthur Phillips. It's about young American expats living in Hungary just after the fall of Communism. Truthfully, I didn't enjoy it that much - the characters are all pretty self-centered and tiresome and AMERICAN, but it did give me a flavor of what it must have been like to live through such a huge transitional period.

Most of the Hungarian writers I've read are from an older generation. There are two books I'd recommend, both of which are available through NYRB Press. One is fiction - The Adventures of Sindbad, by Gyula Krúdy, which is still enormously popular with Hungarians. It has a bit of a dreamlike feel to it (the main character spends most of the book as a ghost visiting his old haunts), and though much of it takes place in Budapest a lot also happens around the rest of the country. The other is non-fiction, A Journey Around My Skull by Frigyes Karinthy (who is revered for translating Winnie The Pooh into Hungarian - Micimackó). It's the story of his experience with a brain tumor and his observations of his conditions and it's also a wonderful portrait of Budapest's intellectual society in the 1930s (bonus: he describes his surgeries in Vienna).

I've also read and enjoyed books by Örkény, Kostolányi, Szerb and I'm currently reading books by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, but nothing I've read by them really gives a sense of Budapest.
posted by dropkick queen at 8:54 PM on January 4, 2013

That sounds like a fantastic trip! Cafe Europa, by Slavenka Drakulic, might be worth checking out. It's on the older side, being focused on the immediate post-Communist period, but it's a slim volume, an easy read, and I think will give a better sense of urban Southeastern Europe than Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:06 AM on January 5, 2013

I just remembered Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture. I found it a little dry in places, but it does an admirable job of giving a sense of the city at the turn of the century, both in contrast to Vienna (to which Budapest was the Habsburg Empire's "second city") and as Hungary's capital in its own right.
posted by scody at 12:47 PM on January 5, 2013

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