Librarian in Iberia, Part 2

Welcome back to the literary homage to my honeymoon in Spain and Portugal. Last week, we looked at books set in and related to Barcelona. This week, it’s on to the capital, Madrid, but let’s start with a few books that apply to all of Spain.

Ghosts of SpainGiles Tremlett is a British journalist who has lived in Spain for twenty years. After the horrible train bombings of 2004, he undertook Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past. This travelogue explores how the train bombings, the Spanish Civil War, and Basque and Catalan nationalism have shaped the country today. It’s not all dark, Tremlett also looks at cultural elements like the influence of flamenco music, the effect of tourism, and droll comparisons between the Spanish and the British. This book is a great introduction to the country as a whole.

IberiaJames Michener loved Spain. Instead of giving it his usual historical fiction treatment, he wrote a massive travelogue, Iberia nearly 1000 pages long. Published in 1968, it’s somewhat out of date, but a surprising amount holds up. Regardless, Michener’s love for the subject shines through. Whether Michener is recounting history, eating tapas, staying in paradors, attending bullfights, viewing art, or simply watching the people, his enthusiasm carries the day.

The Lions of al-RassanGuy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of al-Rassan is my personal favorite book about Spain. It’s historical fantasy that renames the locations, but this is clearly and vividly medieval Spain. It recounts the triangular relationship of a woman doctor, a solder, and a philosopher/poet/politician during times of turmoil. The intricate relationship between Christians, Muslims, and Jews is well-treated in the context of an exciting, often heart-rending adventurous epic. Kay is a powerful storyteller, and this may be his best book.

The Spanish BowAndromeda Romano-Lax’s The Spanish Bow is fiction inspired by the life of Pablo Casals. It follows an underprivileged orphan who plays the cello through his discovery in a small Catalan town, tutoring in Barcelona, and tours as an adult, particularly to Madrid. As he becomes involved in a volatile trio with a pianist and a violinist, he also witnesses the rise of history: the Civil War, Franco, and WWII.

The Scroll of SeductionGioconda Belli’s The Scroll of Seduction alternates between past and present, chronicling the story of a female student who becomes the lover of a professor, who seduces her–ironically–with tales of his historical obsession: the alleged madness of Queen Juana of Castile, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and her manipulation by Philip of Hapsburg. The historical part of the tale is particularly effective.

The Fencing MasterNo discussion of Spanish-set books is complete without mentioning Arturo Perez-Reverte. Popular in both Europe and the United States, Perez-Reverte specializes in intellectual historical thrillers. There’s almost always exploration of a particular area of interest: book collecting in The Club Dumas, fencing in The Fencing Master, or sea salvage in The Nautical Chart, for instance. He also has a swashbuckling series set in 17th-century Spain following the adventures of Captain Diego Alatriste.

Death of a NationalistRebecca Pawel writes a series of historical mysteries set in a more recent era. They follow Carlos Tejada Alonso y Leon, a member of the civil guard in the tense setting of Franco’s Spain just after the Civil War. The first book Death of a Nationalist, is set in Madrid, while later entries follow the young officer as he is sent on to other postings in Salamanca, Granada, and Northern Spain.

GuernicaMadrid is now home to Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica. Readers can follow the history of the events that inspired the mural through Dave Bolling’s new historical novel Guernica or through nonfiction with Gijs van Hensbergen’s Guernica: the Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon, which studies the bombings at Guernica, Picasso’s painting of those events, and the impact the painting has carried.

Winter in MadridFinally, C. J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, a work of romantic suspense set at the beginning of WWII follows Harry Brett, an Englishman sent to gain the confidence of Sandy Forsyth, a school friend who now controls a shadowy business empire in Spain. At the same time, Sandy’s girlfriend Barbara, a nurse,  goes looking for a former lover who joined the International Brigade to fight for the leftists and disappeared. Sansom builds suspense with deliberation in this atmospheric tale.

There’s one more stop on my Iberian literary trail: Lisbon. Come back next week for book choices for a Portugal-themed meeting.

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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).

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