Well known fact about me: I’m a huge proponent for books. I average 20 novels a year and nerd out at bookstores in Seville (and online – damn Amazon’s one-click for my Kindle!). In Spain – particularly in Cataluña – the International Day of the Book is celebrated as a day for lovers, even if only for lovers as books.
The UNESCO has delegated April 23rd as the International Day of the Book, owing to the fact that both Cervantes and Shakespeare, considered to be true purveyors of their languages, died on this day in 1616. What’s more, the feast day of St. George, the patron of Cataluña, commemorates his death and falls on April 23rd. This holiday is revered in the region, and I actually first heard of the celebration reading one of my favorite books set in Spain.
According to local legend, Sant Jordi heroically saved a princess on the outskirts of Barcelona by using a spear. From the slayed dragon’s spilt blood grew a rosebush, and Saint George pick them and gave them to the princess. Since the Middle Ages, men have been giving roses to their sweethearts on this version of Valentine’s Day, and women gift books to them. Results are a massive sale of both in the days leading up to the 23rd.
On this Catalan version of Valentine’s Day, I leave you some of my favorite books set in Spain:
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruíz Zafón
Celebrated young adult novelist Ruíz Zafón jumped into adult fiction with this superb work of mystery and intrigue, set in Barcelona. Youngster Daniel’s father takes him to a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a forlorn library stacked floor to ceiling with obscure books. The one he chooses, the Shadow of the Wind, is subsequently devoured. When his father warns him that he must protect the book forever, a sinister man tries to destroy it, throwing Daniel into a struggle to save a book and the legacy of an author called Julián Carax. Set in post-war Spain, I had an insatiable thirst for this book, relishing in the intricate story lines and well-drawn characters. I’ve subsequently read many others by the author but not the prequel to Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Am I the only one who felt tortured reading Old Man and the Sea? I was convinced I was anti-Hemingway, but my English lit teaching sister has set me straight. Bullfighting’s biggest proponent and the one who put Pamplona and the San Fermines festival on the map, troubled Hemingway was a Hispanophile in his own right. After having a coffee in his haunt in Pamplona, Cafe Irún, I grabbed a copy of the book with a torero emblazoned on the front. Set in 1920s Paris, a group of socialites travel to Pamplona to attend the San Fermines bullfights and running of the bulls. The book explores love, lust, masculinity and death against the backdrop of a Spanish town.
(The Paris Wife is a painful but beautifully written biography of Hermingway’s first wife, reconstructed from letters and journal entries by Paula McClain. Hadley divorced him just after the publication of The Sun Also Rises and took all of the royalties for it).
Dancing in the Fountains: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, Karen McCann
Back in the Fall, I was thrilled to give away a copy of a laugh-out-loud tale of expat life by my friend and fellow Seville inhabitant, Karen McCann. Exploring the canny and kooky, the ups and the downs, Karen’s account of swapping brutal Cleveland winters for the eternal sunshine of Spain with her husband, Rich, is spot-on. I chuckled, recognizing several of the bars Karen and Rich frequent or the characters I’ve also come to know. This delightful recounting of the dreaming to the doing is one I’ve recommended to anyone who years for the sunshine and siestas lifestyle Karen and I enjoy.
Buy it: Dancing In The Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad Paperback | Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad Kindle
Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past, Giles Tremlett
For a country know for its exuberant and open people, talking of the Civil War and the Franco years remains taboo, even fourty years after his death. Journalist Tremlett sets out to discover the dark roots of one of Europe’s more open and inviting countries. There’s talk of sex and the boom of the tourism industry, of midnight firing squads to eradicate those who cried out against El Generalísimo, of flamenco and gypsies. To truly understand a country whose history spans more than 2000 years is difficult, but Tremlett’s book about modern Spain and its secrets sheds light on modern society.
Buy it: Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past Paperback
Winter in Madrid, CJ Sansom
My second post-war novel is a spy story set in Madrid with strong, British characters who make a life in the capital under the new Franco government. Madrid itself takes on a persona as if it were a character, and it made me look differently at several barrios that I’d come to know and enjoy, and the story of lost love made it an enjoyable read.
Zen Khou, Maestro, Jeremy Joseph Dean
The most recent book I read is a story that mirrors my own in many ways. Jeremy Dean left his comfortable job as a teacher in England after over twenty years to teach at a bilingual immersion school in the Comunitat Valenciana. What he finds is a school that is poorly organized, the kids not quite bilingual and his own teaching styles no match for Spanish niños. Like I said, mirrors my experience at a bilingual immersion school. Dean complements his experiences at school with the day-to-day dealings of bureaucracy and language issues, though his students (the Marias, the Jaime/Jaume and the effable Macarena) steal the show with their ganas, their progress and their gut-busting pronunciation that kept me in good spirits during my two years teaching.
One of these days, I’ll actually get around to reading Don Quijote. After all, I did by a 400 anniversary edition and threw out half of my clothes after studying abroad to make room for the 800-paged brick!
Do you celebrate Día del Libro? What are you favorite books about Spain? Like books themselves can be, these are subjective views and by no means a be-all, end-all list. I’d love to hear your suggestions – I’ll need to download onto my kindle for the Camino anyway!