The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

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Overview

A moving testimony to the power of literature to bring people together in even the most difficult of circumstances.

In the spring of 1999, the world watched as more than 800,000 Kosovo Albanians poured over Kosovo's borders, bringing with them stories of torture, rape, and massacre. One year later, Paula Huntley's husband signed on with the American Bar Association to help build a modern legal system in this broken country, and she reluctantly agreed to accompany him. Deeply ...

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Overview

A moving testimony to the power of literature to bring people together in even the most difficult of circumstances.

In the spring of 1999, the world watched as more than 800,000 Kosovo Albanians poured over Kosovo's borders, bringing with them stories of torture, rape, and massacre. One year later, Paula Huntley's husband signed on with the American Bar Association to help build a modern legal system in this broken country, and she reluctantly agreed to accompany him. Deeply uncertain as to how she might be of any service in a country that had seen such violence and hatred, Huntley found a position teaching English as a Second Language to a group of Kosovo Albanians in Prishtina.

A war story, a teacher's story, but most of all a story of hope, The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo is the journal Hunt-ley kept in scattered notebooks or on her laptop over the eight months that she lived and worked in Kosovo. When Huntley asked her students if they would like to form an American-style "book club," they jumped at the idea. After stumbling upon a stray English-language copy of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Huntley proposed it as the club's first selection. The simple fable touched all the students deeply, and the club rapidly became a forum in which they could discuss both the terrors of their past and their dreams for the future.

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo is a compelling tribute to the resilience of the human spirit.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Paula Huntley didn't set out to write a book. In 2000, she and her law professor husband headed for Kosovo -- he to help the nation devise a new legal system, she to accompany him and find a way to be of use. Begun as an email journal to friends and family, who in turn forwarded it to others, The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo is Huntley's account of their months spent in the former Yugoslavian province, where events can range from mundane and inconvenient to inhuman and atrocious.

A marketing executive with nothing to market in a war-ravaged country, she begins teaching at a local English-language school. Inspired by the eagerness, genuineness, and curiosity of her small group of young Kosovar students, she finds a copy of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea -- the only one, she guesses, in the entire country -- and decides to use it as a text for a club she starts outside of class. The classic becomes a point of departure, as Huntley discusses the text with her students and reaches a true understanding of the challenges they face. Huntley, a dutiful reporter, conveys her Kosovo experiences with the careful eye of a gifted correspondent, but more important is her empathy. When she has to cut her year-long stay short by months, she records that one of her students sends her an email plea: "Don't forget us." Huntley won't. And thanks to her deeply felt storytelling, neither will we. Katherine Hottinger

Publishers Weekly
Huntley's husband volunteered for an American Bar Association project in Kosovo to help create a new legal system in the fall of 2000, the year after NATO bombing had ended. With trepidation, Huntley decided to go, too, enrolling first in a crash course on the teaching of English as a second language so she'd have something to offer. On arriving in Prishtina, she volunteered at a language school and started keeping this diary. Her (mostly Albanian) students became her personal connection to everyday life in Kosovo; this diary, where she recorded her impressions, became her way of sharing Kosovo with the world. There are the usual funny details of life in a foreign country, e.g., the laboriously translated menu that offered "chicken buttocks on screwers." Before long, however, her students' stories take center stage: how they survived the Serb roundups, tortures and killings. As a taxi driver explained, "Some men are hard as stones." Teaching supplies are scarce, so it's serendipitous that the one American-language paperback that Huntley came across is a copy of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, which she photocopied for a reading club she started. Initially leery-"God knows this country doesn't need anymore [sic] macho"-she was pleased to find her students responding to the strength and endurance of Hemingway's protagonist. Huntley and her husband returned home in April 2001, but stayed in touch, largely via e-mail, with their Kosovar friends. Huntley's journal not only shares their stories, but reminds readers that by volunteering, people get back more than they give. Agent, Lorraine Kisly. (On sale Mar. 1) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Huntley spent eight months of the year 2000 teaching English as a second language to young people in Prisvtina, Kosovo. This book is the result of a journal she kept during that time. The story she tells is both inspiring and disheartening, a combination of poignant optimism and sad resignation concerning the people and events of that war-torn region. Huntley relates some of the history of Kosovo while giving readers a glimpse of modern Prisvtina and the surrounding countryside. But this is primarily a story about the Albanian people-what they have endured over the past decade and how they are coping today with the UN-enforced peace. Above all, the book speaks to what inspires the younger generation of Albanians to seek out a better life for themselves through education. Well written and extremely timely, this is an inspirational account of how simple acts of humanity can change the lives of countless people, and it deserves a place in most libraries.-Mary V. Welk, Chicago Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Diary detailing a charged and watchful year living in Kosovo directly after the Serbs’ retreat. Huntley wasn’t along just for the ride when she accompanied her husband to Kosovo, where he worked to rebuild the legal system from the ground up. She wanted to be usefully engaged, and, judging by this journal of her year as an English teacher to a group of young Kosovars, she was. Huntley lived in Prishtina, which lacked phones and postal service and had only intermittent e-mail; the town was physically spared but "ethnically cleansed" of Albanians by Serbs. Living there required a high tolerance for chaos and filth ("the air is visible," she reports), but she could hear the call to prayer through the cries of blackbirds and witness the return of a community from exile. (Not all the community, she is quick to point out: Serbs and Romas walked ever so softly if they dared to return at all—and most didn’t.) The author does a justifiable amount of intelligent hand-wringing over US intentions in Kosovo, which proved, as she expected, to be cut-and-run. Much of the narrative concerns the aspirations of her students, torn between the desire to be with their families and the longing to get away. Coming across most forcefully here are the everyday revelations of a land, history, and circumstance so different than any the author had ever known: the honor-bound blood feuds, the pervasive fear, the long memories so successfully exploited by ideologues, the organizational jockeying and international politicking amid the misery, the remarkable instinct to survive, but also the godawful crushing of that instinct when experiences are just too horrible to be absorbed. The Old Man and the Sea, with itsportrait of persistence in the face of pain and suffering, naturally struck a chord with her students, who gave their book club its author’s name. Powerful and bleak: Huntley doesn’t see much but bones for the Kosovars to be gnawing on in the near future.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781585422937
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 1/14/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 872,325
  • Product dimensions: 5.59 (w) x 8.29 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Read an Excerpt

1.

Wednesday, August 23, 2000 (two months earlier)
Bolinas, California

In three days we leave for Kosovo, and I am scared. Last night I awoke in the middle of the night and sat bolt upright, panicked. "What in God's name are we doing?"

I've had three months to get used to the idea. Ever since I came home from work the first of June to hear Ed say he'd been offered the chance to help build a modern legal system there. "Anywhere but Kosovo!" I protested. In Kosovo, where Slobodan Milosevic's bloody last-ditch effort to hang on to Serbian power in Yugoslavia ended only last year, the wounds are still fresh. Kosovo seemed, quite simply, too hard, too sad. But it is Kosovo that offers the greatest challenge for him, and now, for both of us, it is the plight, the courage of the Kosovars that touches our hearts.

So, despite my months of protest, we are going to Kosovo. I keep telling myself that it won't be the first time I have followed my heart into something new and scary. I met Ed twenty-one years ago on a blind date in Little Rock, Arkansas. Two months later I left my job, my friends and family, and everything I owned to go live with Ed in a funky little town in northern California, as different from Little Rock as any place in America could be. I took a chance and was happy I did. So maybe now...

Although Kosovo is Ed's idea, his work that will take us there, I know I must find my own way. I know something of what I hope to gain from the experience: a greater tolerance for ambiguity, a greater respect for differences, some clearer understanding of my own capacity for change, maybe. Am I willing to risk turning my own notions of myself and the world upside down? For this, I suspect, is what I'm getting myself into.

I already think of myself as tolerant, open-minded, respectful. But, from what I've read, life in Kosovo may challenge this smug belief. I may find myself wondering where to draw the line: Should endless generational blood feuds be respected? (The ancient Albanian code of conduct, the Kanun of Lek Dukagjin, which I am reading tonight, specifies that blood can only be wiped out with blood.) Should abuse of women be tolerated because it is part of their culture? (In the Kanun, women are "sacks, made to endure," as if their only purpose is to bear men's children-male children, preferably.) These traditions are dying out, I imagine. But what will I make of the vestiges that remain?

And can I stick it out for a year? How hard will life in Kosovo be? Will there be enough food? Will we be able to find decent housing? Can we stay healthy? We spoke recently with a psychologist who took a team of his fellows into Kosovo last winter. Seven of the ten got viral pneumonia, several became extremely depressed, and only one is willing to return.

How dangerous will it be? Only today I read a news report about a Bulgarian U.N. worker in the capital, Prishtina, who, being stopped on the street by an Albanian who asked the time in Serbian, politely answered in the same language. Believing he had identified one of the hated Serbs, the Albanian shot the young Bulgarian to death. The U.N. worker's only mistake was giving the time in the language of the enemy. Political correctness, Balkan style.

Ed has taken unpaid leave from the law school to work pro bono in the Balkans and I've resigned from my marketing job of twelve years. We will have no income for a year, but we've decided to make the commitment. The only worry that really remains tonight is whether I can do anything useful for the Kosovars. I don't want to be a voyeur in a country that has suffered so much. Ed will be helping to create a modern legal system with the American Bar Association's Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (ABA-CEELI). But I have no legal training, no medical or counseling skills. And there is certainly no need in Kosovo at this stage for my marketing experience.

But I did spend the last four weeks, day and night, working to get a certificate in teaching English as a second language. Will I be able to do that? Would that be useful? It is all unknown. As Daddy would say, I'm "borrowing trouble." I'll just have to see what happens.

Friday, August 25, 2000

Tomorrow we leave for D.C. for a few days, then Kosovo. And tonight I feel so sad to be leaving our sweet little house on the cliff over the ocean, my friends and family, our cat, Rodney. We've put our personal stuff in the studio, preparing the house for our tenant. I find myself envying her the next year in our house, the beautiful views, the ocean air.

I've solved my biggest worry by buying Web TV for my parents. With no phone system and no mail in Kosovo, the only way to communicate with them will be through satellite internet. They are old and Daddy's lung cancer, though in remission, could come back at any time. Now that they have access to the web, I know they can reach me if they have to. And they have actually become enthusiastic about the trip.

In our living room sit ten bulging suitcases, our life for the next year. I've packed so many means of diversion: books, CDs, pencils and paints, my harmonica (piano substitute)...Many of the books are about Kosovo, the history of the Balkans area, texts to help us understand better where we are going and what's happening there. But I'm also taking with me Lord Peter Wimsey, Jeeves, Sherlock Holmes, and I wonder, am I bringing with me the bricks and mortar of my own fortifications, the walls to keep fear away, to isolate myself from the place, the people, the chaos? Should I leave it all behind? Should I fearlessly embrace the conditions I've been told to expect, the long silent nights, the turmoil on the streets, the gunfire, with only the contents of my brain (and my character, God help me) to get me through? Should I forego the idea of diversion altogether and throw myself naked into the experience?

Writer Gretel Ehrlich of her sojourn in Greenland: "I close my eyes for the moment but the brightness penetrates my eyelids. Light peels my skin; the hole in the ozone stares at me. There is nothing more to lose or gain. Empty-handed I climb out of my own hole to some other kind of observation post. Exposure implies vision. Isn't that the point of travel? To stumble, drop one's white cane in a blizzard and learn to see."

Yes, well, Gretel, I know you're right. And I wish I could put it so eloquently. But I'm hanging on to my cane for a while yet. Lord Peter may come in handy on those dark, Balkan nights.

Friday, September 1, 2000
Prishtina, Kosovo

We arrived this afternoon around 3. From Ljubljana, Slovenia, the pilot headed west and south, over the Adriatic almost to Brindisi, Italy, then back east to Kosovo. All to avoid Serbian air space. I walk through the curtains of business class into coach, headed for the john, and, with a shock, discover a sea of young, dark-haired men, all staring at me, neither friendly nor unfriendly, just intent...on something. Are they returning refugees? During the fighting and ethnic cleansing of 1998 and 1999, the Kosovo diaspora took refugees to all parts of the globe-now many are being forced out of their host countries, returning to whatever uncertain future their devastated country offers. Or are they simply business travelers in casual clothes?

In our business-class cabin, everyone is Western European or American-some with guns and extra clips at the waist, a good indication that the usual rules won't apply here. And all men, again, save me.

Below us lie rugged mountains whose slopes and valleys are dotted with isolated villages. Their bright red roofs, so the man next to us says, signal the massive reconstruction going on here. Almost half of the Albanian homes in Kosovo were destroyed by the Serbs, he tells us, not as a result of the "collateral damage" of war, but as a result of the calculated plan to drive Kosovo Albanians from their homes and from the country, to create a country for Serbs. All over the country, he says, homes are being rebuilt with international aid.

As we descend toward Prishtina we see in the devastated Serb military complexes the effectiveness of the three-month-long NATO bombing campaign of the spring of 1999, and on the outskirts of the city we see hundreds of houses burned and gutted by Serb and Yugoslav forces. And then we begin to see camouflage on tanks, helicopter gunships, bunkers, gun emplacements, armored personnel carriers, men. The reassuring camouflage of KFOR (Kosovo-Force, the United Nations-authorized, NATO-led military force in Kosovo). As we taxi up to the terminal, I see a tiny hand-lettered sign over the terminal door that reads "Welcome to Prishtina."

We are entering the first country to be completely administered by the United Nations. Since June 1999, when NATO forces drove out the ruling Serbs, the U.N. and KFOR have been running Kosovo and protecting it from any further Serb incursions. They have responsibility for everything from roads to the judicial system to schools to the police, and will have until the "final disposition" of Kosovo can be determined.

I am the first person off the plane, walking down the steps onto the tarmac as if it was all familiar ground. This strange familiarity comes, no doubt, from our culture's frequent exposure to war and its trappings in movies and on TV. The real and unreal have become so blurred in even my mind-I who see relatively little of this stuff-that what should shock seems only a memory of something experienced in a safe and cozy room. Is that why I feel no fear, or is it because my curiosity is so strong it drives out fear? Soldiers, policemen everywhere. Men with guns. I look back to see some pooh-bah from our cabin being greeted on the tarmac by effusions of handshakes and photographs. We discover later it is probably his presence that has caused KFOR to block the locals' presence from the terminal, their cars from the airport. And outside the terminal another crowd of young males. Now and again there is an older face, thin, sunken cheeks and flowing mustache, all topped by the plis, the country's traditional white felt conical cap worn by Kosovo's patriarchs. But no women at all. What are all these guys doing here? Not waiting for relatives' arrivals as far as I can tell. Just passing the time, checking to see who's come into their country?

Ed makes ten laborious trips to the luggage carousel as I wait, pondering the unlikelihood of all our bags having made it to the Prishtina airport. I watch the other passengers, young Albanian men, struggle with cheap duffels that have ripped open, spilling their sartorial guts, or large cardboard boxes, once precisely rectangular and bound by twine, now smushed and shapeless, with gaping holes spewing stereo parts, blankets, stuffed toys. There is chaos here, but there seems to be a high level of tolerance for chaos. That will probably be the key to survival.

The UNMIK (United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo) customs guy, a Russian soldier, stops someone now and again, opening boxes or cases. But Ed and I don't fit his profile, and besides, he clearly has no intention of rummaging through ten large suitcases. Henry, a genial attorney from Texas who has come from the ABA-CEELI office to pick us up, assures him that Ed is here to work on the legal system. With a dismissive flip of his wrist and a question in his eyes for me ("But what are you doing here?"), he waves us into our new Kosovo home.

—from The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley, Copyright © 2003 Paula Huntley, Published by The Putnam Publishing Group, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), Inc., All Rights Reserved, Reprinted with Permission from the Publisher.

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Reading Group Guide


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

Q> The The Old Man and the Sea really touched Huntley's students and enabled them to talk about deeply personal and painful subjects. Did you ever read a book (with one or more other people) that became a vehicle for conversation about very personal and painful subjects? What was the book?

Q> Leonard, the Professor, and Huntley's other students demonstrated incredible hope and optimism despite terrible adversity. What in their lives or in their personalities made this possible? Can you imagine yourself, in the same circumstances, demonstrating such hope and optimism?

Q> Huntley tries to teach her students about the perils of stereotyping-to avoid saying, "All Americans are this," "all Serbs are that," and so forth. Do you ever find yourself stereotyping? Why is it so easy or appealing to stereotype?

Q> In her interview, Huntley talks about the notion of "clean hands, dirty hands," as well as collective guilt and collective innocence. Do you feel that the Albanians who unequivocally hate Serbs are justified in their hatred? Do you feel that they can, and should, overcome their hatred for the sake of rebuilding their country?

Q> If this happened to you personally-if your country were at war, and someone from "the other side" burned down your house or killed members of your family-would you be able to overcome your feelings about that person and about his/her people for the sake of moving on?

Q> Although much progress has been made, Albanian women are at times treated as second-class citizens. In fact, echoes of the ancient Albanian Code of Conduct, the Kanun of Lek Dukagjin, still resonate, especially in the remote rural areas; women are often mistreated, and in extreme cases are ostracized from their families or brutally punished if they dishonor the family by being raped or by not being a virgin upon marriage, for instance. How can the U.S. and other countries help modernize or democratize Kosovo while respecting their history and their differences from other western countries? Or should we be insisting on 100 percent equal rights for women in exchange for our aid?

Q> Do you think that journals, in general, translate into good books? Did you like the fact that The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo was never intended to be a book, and is in fact a series of spontaneous, uncensored journal entries by a "ordinary" woman-i.e., not a journalist or historian? Do you think it would have been a very different book if it had been written by a journalist or historian? Do you keep a journal? Can you imagine turning it into a book? When does something that is meaningful to you personally become something that might be meaningful for a wider audience?

Q> Huntley says that the most important thing she gave her students and other Kosovars was love and encouragement. Did you ever offer love and encouragement to someone you didn't know well, even briefly, and realized that you had touched their lives? How did it feel? Did anyone ever do that for you?

Q>Have you ever fantasized about dropping everything and seeing the world? Have you ever fantasized about dropping everything, seeing the world, and also doing volunteer work in another country? Where do you imagine going? What kind of volunteer work do you imagine doing?

Q> Are there lessons we can take from this book-personally, spiritually, politically, and otherwise-that can help us deal with the turmoil of our post-September 11 world?
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2006

    Full of honest love and acceptance

    Paula shows genuine concern between the races of the Albanians and the Serbs. She struggles to help her students learn English and also learn how to get past their fear and prejudices. In the meantime, her students unfailing love of America touches the hearts of Americans (and makes us feel a little undeserving) and helps stir the reader into loving this poor but strongly hopeful country.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2004

    Hemingway's Book Club of Kosova

    I totally agree with Kosovar's review. It is one of the best and the most honest book ever written about Kosovars. I've been there, and I experienced 'the same' stuff Paula and her husband Ed, did. Kosovars are one of the most friendly and pro-American people in Balkans.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2003

    Inaccurate and full of lies¿. racist work of Southern white American woman

    The book was very disturbing to me. I could not believe what I was reading....I have not ever read such a racist book as this one written by Mrs. Huntley. I was very surprised that a person of her age, education, and experience could write and take such a closed minded and racist approach as she did. Many points in this book are inaccurate and simply lies. Throughout the book, she doesn't support her statements and I am sure that even if she tried, she could not. I believe that there is not one entry in her journal where she is not badmouthing Serbs. Even more so, not only is she demonizing Serbs for what happened in Kosovo in '98-'99, but she is even denying much of their history and pride. On the contrary, she very rarely (almost never) accuses Kosovar Albanians for what they had done to Serbs (and still are doing as we speak, due to inadequate protection from the UN forces of few Serbs who are brave enough to stay or unable to leave). A few times, she does mention atrocities that were done by Kosovar Albanians, but then she almost justifies their behavior by explaining that they have done this or that because of what Serbs did to them beforehand to provoke this kind of behavior. What double standard! I could go on-and-on and on about the book and Mrs. Paula, but there is nothing nice that I could say about her or about the book. The reason is her constant demonization of Serbs, usually with no evidence at all (almost all of her judgments and thoughts are based on stories from her students who are Kosovar Albanians who certainly are not objective). In addition, I do not understand what kind of person she is for further instigating hate between Albanians towards Serbs, Serbs towards Albanians, and even the rest of the world towards Serbs. As a rational and peace loving person, I believe that you'll understand my dissatisfaction with the book. Dr. Michael Perenti, Yale graduate in political science, who has done extensive research on the topic and also visited Yugoslavia after the NATO bombing ended is someone you should read if you are interested in the subject. He wrote a book called, ¿To Kill a Nation¿ and is very good reading with finally some justification/support for what he writes.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2003

    The best up-to-date book about Kosovo

    This is one of the newest books on Kosova, and it is so beautifully written by Paula, who joins her husband in Prishtina after he's gone there to do volunteer work. Paula, as an American lady soon finds out that she came to a very friendly country. Everyone she meets tells her 'I love America, we were saved by America', she even hears that 'I'd die for your U.S. Flag as I would have died for my own'. IT is a great book, a love story between two countries U.S.A. and KOSOVA.

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