10 Books Set in Spain

Hola!  We were lucky enough to visit Sitges and Barcelona as a family in July, so I’ve been hunting down Spanish literature.  I discovered some wonderful books and even managed to read some, in between the usual kids’ shenanigans.

July was also ‘Spain’ month for the Read Around the World challenge, hosted by the fabulous Jen P of The Reader’s Room.

I must say that it wasn’t easy to find books by local authors set in Barcelona – the exception being The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafron, which is excellent and on every list, but I had read already.  However, I had some good tips and found more while I was there (= luggage problems).  So here they are!

The following list covers fiction and non-fiction – you’ll experience the Civil War, get to know Picasso, Miro and Gaudi and see changes in Barcelona pre- the 1992 Olympics.

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  1. Barcelona by Robert Hughes: a wonderful ride through Catalan history and tour of Barcelona, especially its architecture.  Robert Hughes is a knowledgeable guide with a fluid, muscular writing style.  I found this dense at times – so much (art) history – but I like Hughes’ honesty and unflinching directness.  For example, the kitsch additions to the Sagrada Familia “could have been done by Mormons, not Catholics.”  Liable to offend – but Hughes liked to rail against modern ‘sensitivity’.
  2. Spain by Jan Morris: interesting and full of the colours and contradictions of Spain, in Jan Morris’ usual lucid prose.  I love her idiosyncratic style: she gives you a sense of the history guided by her own curiosities.  She wears her knowledge lightly and elevates travel writing to a lyrical narrative, filled with personal anecdotes.
  3. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell: Orwell’s highly engaging account of his experience in the Spanish Civil War.  He was involved in fighting and later had to go into hiding in (and escape from) Barcelona as his group were suspected of being fascist spies.  His wonderfully dry, understated style makes it a pleasure to read: for example, “The point about firewood was that there was practically no firewood to be had.” On the long periods of quiet: “I began to wonder whether anything would ever happen to bring a bit of life, or rather a bit of death, into this cock-eyed war.”
  4. Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toibin: wonderful guide to Barcelona.  Toibin devotes chapters to each of Picasso, Gaudi, Dali and Miro, and the civil war among other things.  It’s not as heavyweight as the Hughes nor as lucid as Morris (Toibin is a fiction writer first and foremost) but interesting because he has lived there on and off since the 1970s, so he gives us insights into its people and some memorable anecdotes.
  5. Off Side by Manuel Vazquez Montalban: I loved this literary crime novel.  Pepe Carvalho is a PI with colourful friends and contacts, authenticity and a love of good food.  Great sense of place as he sees Barcelona changing but still has a grudging affection for the city.   Poet-murderers and cynical business interests are at play and Carvalho questions his relevance in the new Barcelona.  Not pacy, but a great read.

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    Reading Off Side at the Sitges Tennis Club.
  6. The Tenant and The Motive by Javier Cercas: two novellas by Cercas (whose novel Soldiers of Salamis I want to read).  In one, a university professor (the tenant of the title) fears he is being replaced by a new academic who shows up his failings. It made me want to read The Double by Dostoevsky, which I think has a similar theme.  In The Motive a writer obsessively watches his neighbours to gain material for a novel, but takes things too far.  Witty and spare, I liked these and the somewhat abstract plots reminded me a little of Murakami.
  7. Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias:  An immersive, layered story set in Madrid in 1980, tracing the ripple effects of the Civil War on a movie director & his circle of friends.  I’ve been wanting to read Marias for a while, and enjoyed his beautiful, melodious writing.  Male-centred, the men are interesting & powerful whereas Beatriz is seen more as a sex object, which bothered me. However, it is thought-provoking. The prose flows like classical music once you get used to the long sentences: “And those who had lost preferred to forget the atrocities committed, either by them or the still worse ones committed by the other side – more enduring, more brutal, more gratuitous – and they certainly didn’t tell their children … for whom their one wish was that nothing similar would ever happen to them and that they would be blessed with a boring, uneventful life, albeit a life lived with head bowed and no real freedom, because one can live without freedom.  Indeed, freedom is the first thing that fearful citizens are prepared to give up.
  8. No Word from Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza:  This was wonderful! Laugh-out-loud funny, quirky characters (aliens) in Barcelona setting and poignant observations of human behaviour. Strong writing, witty and playful. A touch of the absurd highlights the everyday strangeness of human lives.
  9. In Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda: A beautiful book. Set in Barcelona, this is the story of Pidgey, her marriage to Joe and her daily struggles to survive in the civil war. Told in a dreamlike prose, which is not normally my style, but its raw beauty, the urgency of the story and the characters won me over. A wonderful evocation of 1930s Barcelona but Pidgey’s quiet strength & the trauma of war have a timeless quality. Very moving. I loved this & will read more of Rodoreda’s work.
  10. Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre: Still to read!  It centres on Montse, a 15 year old girl living in a small village.  She is supposed to become a maid but her life changes when the civil war arrives.  It sounds original with a wry sense of humour.
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Visiting Montjuic and the Joan Miro Foundation.

 

Special mention also to Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom – I loved his The Following Story so am keen to read this one.  And Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernandez Cubas was recommended by a bookseller in Barcelona as her favourite Spanish author.

Hope this inspires you for your next Spanish trip, or read (or both)!

Book Club Takes Hong Kong

More Hangover than handover, the Adelaide Book Club visited Hong Kong last month, so I thought I’d share some of our highlights, and a reading list.

(A pause here to acknowledge that with our book club being how it is, the actual reading list comprised Elle, Vogue and Who magazines.  But nominally our book of the month was Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, which I reviewed here).

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Hong Kong on and off for the last ten years and become familiar with its bright lights, sights and smells (and smog, humidity and impatient pressing of the close-doors button in lifts).  I love the Donkey Kong high-rises and the view over the harbour, and there is an abundance of bars and restaurants to indulge in, with new places opening all the time (too many, and too much indulgence, you could say).  Where to start?

The Jade Market

We went from the airport straight to the Jade Market, to catch Irene of stall 278 before she left for Japan to stock up on pearls.  Nothing if not dedicated, we shopped here for two hours before checking into the Conrad!  Sandy’s Pearls (around stall 400) is also very good.

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Shopping hard at the Jade Market – hotel check-in can wait…

Le Garcon Saigon

We had a great dinner here on the first night.  It’s in the Star Street precinct with I really like: old-school factories mixed with independent Western boutiques (increasingly so, and some might say it’s losing some of its original character, but for me the balance is still okay).  French-Vietnamese with a buzzy atmosphere, outdoor tables and people watching.

We took a walk down Queen’s Road East after dinner and ended at Lee Tung Avenue – prettily decorated with red lanterns – and had a negroni at Ophelia.  This is a luxe bar with a peacock theme and glamorous dancers in cheung-sams performing and posing.  I don’t think I could spend too much time there, but it’s very Hong Kong.  Another bananas bar by the same people is Iron Fairies, 1 Pottinger Street, Central (on the corner with Hollywood Road) – I recommend the watermelon daiquiris.

Sevva

A favourite roof-top bar, with a great view of the harbour and the light-show at 8pm.  We had a pitcher of Sangria, possibly a mistake – I would recommend the lychee martinis next time.

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At Sevva

Ho Lee Fook

A fun restaurant in Central, with great food.  Asian fusion with Momofuku influence, wonderful flavours.  The prawn toast and XO noodles are a must.  No bookings (unless over 6 people) but they’ll drink sake with you while you wait, or you can take a drink on the terrace at Chom Chom across the street – we had a delicious mint chilli cocktail there.
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At Ho Lee Fook.  Kathy and Nicola each bought a lucky cat to take home, so they are sure to have good fortune this year!
Sunday brunch here is a must.  Free-flowing champagne, impeccable Japanese food and a fun crowd – what’s not to love?
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Zuma – the best Sunday brunch.

Cafe Gray Deluxe

I love this restaurant.  It has a fabulous bar overlooking the harbour, beautiful fit-out and the food is always great: I am still dreaming about that steak (I don’t eat much meat and rarely order steak but this was perfect).  Highly recommended for a special night out.

… and now for rest and recovery … and that means books!  I haven’t read as many books set in Hong Kong as I would like, but these stand out:

Myself a Mandarin

by Austin Coates

A charming, funny memoir of Austin Coates, who was appointed a magistrate in Hong Kong unexpectedly in 1949.  I found this book thanks to Simon Winchester, who mentioned it in The River at the Centre of the World.  Highly recommended.

The World of Suzie Wong

by Richard Mason

A classic.  A story of a man who meets a woman on the ferry from Kowloon and stays in a hotel/brothel in Wan Chai.  It has some wonderful descriptions of old Hong Kong and romance at its heart.

Fragrant Harbour

by John Lanchester

This novel does a great job of evoking Hong Kong from the 1930s to the 1990s, starting with a young man who travels there from England for an adventure.  Through him you have the first impressions (eg the blunt frankness of the Cantonese language, the smells of the harbour) and we then meet other characters and see Hong Kong through their eyes.  Well-observed.

The Expatriates

by Janice Y. K. Lee

This novel from the point of view of three American women in Hong Kong captures the expatriate experience in all its superficial glory.  Told with compassion and an eye for the small details that make up Hong Kong life, I found it sad but compelling.

If you have any recommendations for books set in Hong Kong, please let me know!

 

Japan with Children (and Books)

Japan is one of our favourite, but all-too-rare, holiday destinations.  So smart, so polite and well-ordered, such care taken with everything from handing you a business card to presenting a plate of sushi as a work of art.  But I also love the quirky personality of Japan: its hidden bars, pop-rock-cutie fashion and dark crime novels.

We spent four days in Tokyo with Zoe (7) and George (5).  I took some Japanese books (aka ‘destination reading’) forgetting that chances to read when holidaying with children are pretty slim.  Some highlights below – bookish and otherwise!

 

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View from our room at the Prince Park Tower Hotel, which had long Murakami-esque corridors.

HARAJUKU

We loved Cat Street.  Had a great coffee and cronuts at The Roastery.  Also excellent burgers and salads at Golden Brown Burgers (recommended by Monocle).  Don’t be put off by the ‘burger’ aspect – these were nutritious, with wonderful fresh salads also on the menu.

Yoyogi Park was beautiful to walk through and we would love to see Tomigaya (the area just on the other side of the park from Harajuku), which sounded fun and Brooklyn-esque and was featured recently in New York Times.  I think I need to open a file “Things to Do When We Return to Tokyo sans kids”.

We had a sushi dinner at family-friendly Itamae Sushi – it was excellent.  There are various locations; our closest was near Shiba Park.

Books: Tokyo Precincts and Tokyo Style Guide have some beautiful ideas for neighbourhood walks.

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A Sunday stroll in Ginza

 

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We spent two hours shopping for stationery at Loft, then went next door to Muji for another suitcase. 😉

We adored Matsuya department store and could have spent longer.  Lunch tip: we bought bento boxes from the Food Hall and took them to eat on the rooftop (level R in the lift). Very relaxed.

Book: I could not help thinking of Out by Natsuo Kirino, which features factory workers who make bento boxes, and a grisly murder.

FISH MARKETS

We did a tour late morning – would be good to make the 4am commitment and see the tuna auction (another one for the file).  There is talk of moving the fish markets to a new location, so it might be one of the last chances to see the original.

A fabulous lunch at Tsukiji Edogin – it’s a five minute walk from the fish markets with excellent produce and space for 9 of us (we had met up with friends from Sydney), and they take bookings.  I highly recommend it if you have a group but want to go local.

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Winning lunch at Edogin with Penny, John and Gia

Our wonderful nanny minded the kids for us so we escaped with friends Penny and John for a fabulous dinner at Sushi Tsubaki (another Monocle recommendation) with a cool chef, wonderful traditional sushi, amazing fresh fish and flavours.

SHIMODA

Next stop, Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula.  Note to self: bring your international driver’s licence (Japan is strict on the paperwork) – a car is recommended.  Also, when renting a house, remember that coffee is number one priority!  We had to resort to the 7-11 down the hill, which had that filter style that tastes like someone has put coffee dregs into old dishwater.  Our wonderful host came to the rescue with some pods on the second day.

You need to seek out the cool spots in Shimoda and (ideally, with a car, which you will have because you’ve taken my advice) beyond.  (e.g. a surf shop on our way out which served fantastic coffee; Perry Road near the harbour).

I’m not sure we have quite nailed that area yet but Jason found it super chilled and relaxing so it’s a thumbs up!

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Iritahama Beach

Books:

Thanks to The Readers podcast – Simon and Thomas discussed Japanese books in one episode and the listeners had some great recommendations…

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

Beautiful and subtle, this was too oblique for me.   Slow-moving, with an unsympathetic protagonist and his lover, a tragic figure.  Nuanced writing, thoughtful and humane.  There is much to think about and space to read between the lines.  I would appreciate it more reading quietly on a train going through the snow country of the title (instead of at the beach with children!).

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe, translated by E. Dale Saunders

Contrary to the title, not a beach read!  A man is held captive in a woman’s house to help dig out the sand dunes that the house is buried in.  This had a nightmarish quality, both with his failure to escape, the heat and the sand (in his food, hair, clothes).  Interesting and poetic, with descriptions of thirst and being trapped by sand all too vivid.  I admired it.

Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith

I really enjoyed this detective story set in Tokyo.  It has an interesting premise (a wife suspected of murdering her husband from afar) and engaging characters: the likeable but flawed Detective Kusanagi trying to solve the mystery with the help of his physicist friend Yukawa.  I loved The Devotion of Suspect X too, and am keen to read more by Keigo Hugashino.

Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb

I loved this novella about working at Yumimoto Corporation in Tokyo.  Amelie Nothomb has a wonderful, dry sense of humour but also a deep understanding of Japanese culture.  Her empathy for her Japanese colleagues and ability to laugh at herself make for terrific, laugh-out-loud comedy and an at times poignant study of the constraints of life in Japan working for ‘the company’.

Bullfight and The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue, translated by Michael Emmerich

I love Yaushi Inoue’s beautifully spare prose and the way he reveals characters slowly, leaving us to think about where our sympathies lie.  Small but perfectly formed, these are cut like crystal.  Highly recommended.

And I could do a whole post about Haruki Murakami (I read Wild Sheep Chase while I was away, and found the most beautiful little book called Haruki Murakami Goes to Meet Hayao Kawai – inspiring).

Do you like reading for holiday destinations?  I have another one coming up (Barcelona), which has me thinking about books in translation generally.  Maybe for another post!

Now back to Inifinite Jest….