Librarian in Iberia, Part 1

I’m not here.

Well, this is the Internet, so you’ll have to take my word for it: I’m not where I usually am. I’ve deserted my library and book groups for the month because I’m on honeymoon in Spain and Portugal! (And no, you don’t have to send condolences to the bride: I’m writing this before I leave, not in some Internet cafe.)

To honor the occasion, I thought I would spend the next three weeks exploring the way in which a book group can use geography as a superb monthly theme. Lose the usual snacks in favor of port, vinho verde, imported ham, and a table full of tapas. Break out the best of your Spanish titles, it’s time for a literary fiesta!

BarcelonaFirst stop: Barcelona. You might remember Robert Hughes for his epic history of Australia, The Last Shore, his 60s memoir, Things I Didn’t Know, or his art criticism, but one of his greatest successes is Barcelona, which traces the history, architecture, art, and culture of Barcelona and Catalonia from its Roman origins to the present. You couldn’t find a better introduction to this diverse city.

GaudiOf course Barcelona is the city of Gaudi. His unique architectural style makes Barcelona distinctive. There are many overviews of his architecture available, but Isabel Artigas’ Gaudi, published by Taschen in 2007 is beautiful, and as art books go, affordable. I recommend bringing books like these and illustrated travel guides to your meeting to pass around while you talk about your literary discoveries.

Battle for SpainOn a darker note, Catalonia was the last stronghold of the left in the Spanish Civil War. This epic struggle was in many ways the pre-cursor to all that happened in World War II. This history makes dramatic, fascinating reading. George Orwell’s classic memoir, Homage to Catalonia, Hemingway’s marvelous novel (my favorite of all his works), For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Antony Beevor’s highly readable history, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 are all first rate explorations of a harrowing time.

Basque History of the WorldBarcelona isn’t too far from the Basque Country in northern Spain, and no literary tour of the region would be complete without the book that got marvelous Mark Kurlansky, king of the micro-history, rolling. The Basque History of the World covers the politics, culture, sociology, linguistics, and even culinary skills of this influential minority in a book that fascinates at every turn.

The Shadow of the WindFor fiction fans, the Barcelona setting offers other pleasures. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is a tale within a tale, about a boy whose father takes him to the Cemetary of Forgotten books, where he selects a masterpiece of a thriller which comes to infatuate him. In the search for the book’s origins and its author, he enters a labyrinth as complex as Barcelona’s gothic quarter. Equal parts scary, thrilling, and sensuous, this was a blockbuster in Spain.

Speaking of forgotten masterpieces, Nick wrote about the pleasures of Carmen LaForet’s Nada in his September 15th post. It’s a coming of age story set in Barcelona, following a student who moves in with her dramatic, sometimes violent aunt and uncle. A new translation of this 1945 work is now available. Highly recommended!

Best Thing that Can Happen to a CroissantThe provocative cover of Pablo Tusset’s The Best Thing that Can Happen to a Croissant may make you hesitant to pick up the book, but don’t be scared away. It’s the story of Pablo, the bright, combative, profane, fat, and deeply lazy heir to a Barcelona family fortune who spends his days surfing the Internet, abusing various substances, and arguing with the members of his club. When his brother (whom he dislikes) disappears, Pablo goes on debauched and circuitous hunt to discover what happened. This is one of those books that hinges on the voice of its extravagant narrator, and Pablo will offend you, frustrate you, and make you laugh out loud in equal parts.

Dog DayI’ll finish my literary tour of Barcelona with the police procedurals of Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett. Her heroine, Inspector Petra Delicado, is a tough, combative woman. Her personality contrasts nicely with that of Sgt. Fermin Garzon, a polite, sensitive, older man. The interplay of these characters and the novels’ tight-but-twisty plotting make the series a great discovery. So far Dog Day, Prime Time Suspect, and Death Rites are available in translation.

I’m heading east from Catalonia and on to Madrid and environs next. So grab a book and join me on my Iberian adventure.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

2 Comments on "Librarian in Iberia, Part 1"

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  1. mishamstone@yahoo.com' misha says:

    Great booklist. Have a fabulous time in Barcelona! I have fond memories of reading “Shadow of the Wind” while in Barcelona and even have a photograph of myself reading it on the roof of Gaudi’s Casa Milla! I didn’t know about the Hughes book. I’ll have to pick that one up.

  2. dhall1@houstonisd.org' Debbie H. says:

    Would that I had the time to read about and visit all of these wonderful books and the cities of Spain and Portugal. I will pass this list on to my friends.

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