When it comes to reading books set in Spain, I’m finding myself pretty much obsessed with those that have something to do with the Spanish Civil War. I’m sure there are lots of fascinating periods of Spanish history – but none seem to tickle my curiosity as much as this one.
Luckily for me, there are lots of books which explore this subject from various different angles, and I have been hoovering them up over the last couple of years.
Novels inspired by the Spanish Civil War
For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway – this classic novel of the Civil War written during Hemingway’s time spent covering the conflict for the North American Newspaper Alliance is considered one of the best novels of all time.
Guernica – by Dave Boling – Harrowing story of a Basque family and the bombing of their town of Guernica, the subject of one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous works.
The Return – by Victoria Hislop – semi chick lit and semi historical novel, this book reveals an engaging story of one family in Granada during the war.
Seven Red Sundays – Ramon J. Sender – A story of workingmen in Madrid during the lead up to the Civil War.
Soldiers of Salamis – Javier Cercas – In the final moments of the Spanish Civil War, a writer and founding member of Franco’s Fascist Party is about to be shot, and yet miraculously escapes into the forest.
Winter in Madrid – C. J. Sansom – Set after the Civil War but with flashbacks to the conflict itself, this novel sees British man, Harry Brett, sent into Spain to spy on an old school friend who is doing shady business deals in Madrid.
The Time of the Doves – Mercè Rodoreda – I haven’t read this short novel originally written in Catalan but it gets a rapturous reception on amazon.com. There is some criticism, however, of the translation and as it looks as if there is a new version coming out next year from Virago Press, I might wait and see if that contains a translation people are happier with.
So what was the Spanish Civil War?
What followed was a period of political instability between left and right-wing groups, with both winning time in power and forming elected governments. But while a left-leaning coalition won an election in January 1936, there was increasing violence between the two sides. On the right the Nationalists included monarchists, Roman Catholics and the fascist-inspired Falange, while the left included urban workers, agricultural labourers and the educated middle class.
By mid-1936 the country was so politically unstable that a military coup led by Francisco Franco on July 17 led the country into a war which was to last until 1939, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands from the fighting, and many more from starvation and disease. Franco then ruled the country as a dictator until his death in 1975.
The great thing about the list of books available to you is that you can pick just what kind of novel you are after. If you want something light(ish) and accessible (bordering on chick-lit) then The Return will be ideal. For something a little more intense, then Guernica would work. If you prefer a spy drama, then there is Winter in Madrid, and if you really want to get to the heart of the battle and those who fought in it, then you can’t go past the Hemingway.
Let us know if you have decided to delve into Franco’s world for this challenge, or if you’d prefer to explore something far from the horror of war…there are plenty of other books set in Spain you can choose from.
I look forward to reading your comments and reviews….
In his article at The Daily Beast Michael Medved gives us a glimpse of what U.S. President Barack Obama is believed to be reading on his summer vacation.
Medved points out that despite all the information Obama is expected to consume, he is taking the time to indulge in some fiction. And having had a look at the president’s choices – I am convinced he is a closet Packabooker. Mr Obama knows how to choose fiction with a strong sense of place.
If you’d like to join Obama in his summer reading – this is what he is believed to have with him in his Martha’s Vineyard Book Bag.
In The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell Obama is off to Louisiana (or somewhere very nearby). Chief protagonist of these three novels is Detective Rene Shade who takes us deep into the criminal underworld along the steamy shores of a bayou. From the murder of a city councilman to a poker game which goes horribly wrong, Shade walks both sides of the law as he attempts to get to the truth. Filled with authentic dialogue and characters, this is a fine choice for someone wanting to explore America’s deep south with a bit of ‘country noir’. If you saw last year’s Oscar-nominated film Winter’s Bone it is based on another of Woodrell’s novels.
Chicago is Obama’s next stop with Ward Just’s novel Rodin’s Debutante. The story of Lee Goodell who grows up in the 50’s in a town on the outskirts of Chicago. Intending to become a sculptor he rents a basement studio on Chicago’s South Side where he is exposed to crime, violence and death. Chicago itself is one of the characters of this coming-of-age novel, but larger issues around the differences between rural and urban America are among its themes.
The president then travels much further afield with his next choice – Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Ethiopia’s internal coups and conflicts in the 50’s and 60’s are the backdrop to this novel in which twin boys are abandoned by their surgeon father after their mother dies in childbirth. They grow up in a missionary hospital in Addis Adaba, until political events eventually force the narrator, one of the twins, to flee. This novel has overwhelmingly positive reviews on Amazon, with many describing it as unputdownable and others saying it is the best book they have ever read. Obama seems to be on a winner with this one!
Obama’s final choice takes him to the complex world of the Middle East. To the End of the Land by David Grossman tells of an Israeli mother suffering under the strain of her son’s army conscription. Fearing a knock on her door telling her that her son has been killed, she sets out to walk from the north of Israel to Jerusalem.
Mr President – we salute your decision to include a range of fiction in your holiday reading. As Packabookers well know – while there is much to learn from histories and political biographies, sometimes the most important stories only come to us in a novel.
Books set in Russia – Helen Dunmore takes us to Leningrad…
Well…by now you have no doubt realised that the correlation between the proper month for our World Party Reading Challenge and the corresponding blog post is completely up the spout. But never mind – we shall ignore the fact that it is no longer June and move swiftly on…to Russia.
There are mountains of books set in Russia you could read for the Challenge. You might want to go traditional and ambitious with something like Anna Karenina or War and Peace, or you may want to immerse yourself in the darkness of dissident writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Or perhaps for a change of pace you might consider the Cold War spy novels of John Le Carre or the Soviet crime fiction of Tom Rob Smith.
But for this challenge I decided to delve into a bit of Russian history by reading Helen Dunmore’s The Siege. Actually I had already read this novel a few years ago, but with the release of Dunmore’s sequel The Betrayal, it seemed a good opportunity for a re-read, and then to move on to the second book.
The novel is set in the north-western port city of Leningrad (which has now reclaimed its pre-revolutionary name of St. Petersburg). In 1941, as WWII began to bite, Leningrad was almost surrounded by German troops and their Finnish allies. The city headed into the winter of 1941 a victim of German shelling, with its supply routes to the rest of the Soviet Union cut off and its residents falling to starvation, exposure and disease. By the time the Siege was fully lifted in January 1944, it had claimed more than 600,000 lives.
In Dunmore’s novel we meet 23-year old Anna Levin, who is determined she and her family will survive as the city becomes surrounded. Along with her dissident father and five-year-old brother Kolya she hoards food and fuel for the bitter winter ahead. There is some joy for Anna in her relationship with Andrei, a doctor who works for days at a time in the hospital – but while this IS a love story, it is under such extreme circumstances their relationship is stunted for much of the Siege. Anna and Andre are forced to live a romance of pragmatism rather than of passionate sentiment.
This novel is filled with the realities of famine. At one stage Anna must pull apart Kolya’s papier-mache castle, so that she can extract nutrients from the paste that had held it together. Another time, she boils strips of leather to make a broth. It is impossible to imagine how anyone survives in these circumstances and Dunmore does not spare you anything in her detail.
Eventually, the Russians were able to transport some supplies over the frozen waters of Lake Ladoga, the massive lake to the city’s East – but this too was fraught with danger. The operation was not always as successful as suggested in this extract from an American film which shows footage from the time. (It also has some great graphics showing the city surrounded!)
Given there is a sequel to this novel, I am not spoiling anything by telling you that Anna and Andrei survive – but the path to that survival makes for some pretty unforgiving reading.
Dunmore’s follow up The Betrayal is set some ten years later. The war has ended but for Andrei and Anna there is a new fear; Stalin’s Ministry for State Security. They live in a world of trepidation and caution, doing their best not to be noticed by anyone who can do them harm. Andrei is now a respected physician, but when he is asked to treat the seriously ill son of a senior secret police officer, their carefully constructed world is threatened.
The Siege and The Betrayal are very different novels from each other, and each can easily stand alone. But I like the device of telling a city (and country’s) history through one family, even if the plot and style is quite different. And it reminds us that this was what it was like for millions of Russians who lived through decades of such hardship; they had to deal with one crisis and then another, with barely a moment of reprieve along the way.
Dunmore’s prose is matter-of-fact and brutal. She does not let you escape the impact of starvation and fear on the mind and body. And yet still, we see that survival is possible; that Anna and Andre do it, that thousands of others have done it, that time and time again people manage to overcome the most desperate of circumstances. It is a story of the miracle of the human ability to endure.
You could do far worse than visit Anna and Andrei’s world for our Russian challenge – but if the thought of putting yourself through their ordeal does not attract you, there are many other books set in Russia you may want to consider.
I look forward to hearing your suggestions and comments, and please feel free to link to any reviews you decide to write.
As I finished the last page of Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim the tears were streaming down my face. Half an hour later, I still could not stop crying.
I’m not sure if Anam just caught me on a day when I was feeling vulnerable or if it was all down to the power of her writing, but there was something about this novel which was truly heart-wrenching.
The Good Muslim is the second in what is to be a trilogy, based on one family in Bangladesh throughout the country’s short but turbulent history.
The first in the series was A Golden Age, set during Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan in 1971. Widow Rehana Haque is barely aware of the growing political tensions around her as she concentrates on bringing up her two teenage children Soheil and Maya. But the war is soon on her doorstep and as Maya and Soheil become involved in the rebellion, she too must decide how far she is prepared to go in the name of the country’s independence.
I thoroughly enjoyed A Golden Age, both for what I learnt about a country of which I am shamefully ignorant, and for the powerful characters and narrative Anam created. So when The Good Muslim was released, I wasn’t quite sure where the story could go next.
I shouldn’t have worried. If anything, the second novel is even better than the first.
It is now more than ten years after the end of the war, and for many revolutionaries the aftermath has been a disappointment. The country is ruled by a dictator, former criminals have not been punished and there is growing religious extremism.
After several years as a doctor in poverty-stricken areas of the country, Maya returns home to Dhaka where she immediately feels out of place. She cannot reconcile her experiences with the lives her friends now live. They have moved on from the war, made money in the new Bangladesh and are enjoying settling down with their families and holding lavish parties.
But as much as Maya feels alienated by this, her biggest concern is the change in her own family.
Her much-loved brother Soheil has transferred his zeal for revolution, to religion. With followers throughout the country, Soheil has little time for Maya or the urchin son he leaves in the care of a group of female devotees. He disapproves of Maya’s attempts to interfere as well as her non-believing ways, and she despairs at their ever returning to the easy comradeship of their past.
This is a novel about many things – it is about loss, both personal and political. It explores the abuses of the past and the need for some sort of recognition and reconciliation. And it is about how underneath faith and idealism you will often find broken and guilt-ridden souls.
Anam’s prose is confident and unflinching as she tackles issues of gender, religion and politics. And while Rehana and Soheil remain in the background in this novel, Maya is a complex, endearing and ultimately fallible character who you do not want to let go of at the end. Thank goodness there is still one more novel to go.
And as to why The Good Muslim made me cry?
It was for Maya – for her idealism, for her frustrations in trying to put the world to rights and for her self-recrimination when she fails.
It was for Soheil – for his inability to remain connected to his family as he seeks solace from a higher power, and his failure to make peace with his younger self.
And if was for revolutionaries everywhere. At a time when we are seeing uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, it is disheartening to be reminded how easily those bids for change can be hijacked in the aftermath, and how so often the will of the people becomes forgotten when a new world is forged.
I cannot recommend The Good Muslim enough, it is one of the year’s highlights for me. But while part of me wants you to pick up a copy right away, I’d urge you to read A Golden Age first. Don’t miss this opportunity to get to know Maya and Soheil in their younger days – it helps so much in understanding the adults they become.
And meanwhile , I must wait patiently for book number three…..
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book The Good Muslim by the publishers.
John Baxter’s The Most Beautiful Walk in the World is the kind of book that just makes you want to jump on a plane immediately so you can join him in wandering the streets of Paris. This is a book written by a man who truly loves to understand what he is seeing around him and ponder on how it all fits into the city’s history…and with this book, you will feel the same way.
Baxter is an Australian who has lived in Paris for more than 20 years. One day, in an effort to help out a friend, he found himself conducting a couple of guided ‘literary walks’ for writers visiting the city. It made him realise how limited traditional tours and guide books were, with their inability to allow room for the unexpected. Receiving a great reaction from his first “customers” and some encouragement from a highly entrepreneurial friend, Baxter decided to expand his tour operations…this book tells you that story, and of course, offers some great advice for those wanting to set off on their own literary meander around Paris.
What kind of a reaction have you had?
The book has been an astonishing success. It has already gone into five printings in less than a month, and reviews have been uniformly enthusiastic. Many people have also emailed me their appreciation. It’s been a welcome surprise.
How do you feel when you see tourists wandering around with cameras and guide book, practically ticking the sights of Paris off a checklist?
It’s better than not “doing” Paris at all, but I’m sorry to see them missing out on so much. At times, I want to grab them and say, “No, stop reading and look! “ An hour sitting in a café can tell you more than the most detailed guide book.
You really make the sixth arrondissement sound like the stuff of dreams, especially for those in love with all things literary, is it really as romantic as it appears?
Even more so! There is hardly a street or square that doesn’t have some literary association. There is a magic to the very stones. They breathe poetry.
If someone was coming to Paris and they only had one day to experience the city, what would you suggest they do?
Breakfast at the Cafe Flore or Deux Magots on Boulevard St Germain, a Metro ride to Montmartre to view the city from the terrace of Sacre Coeur, a sandwich eaten in the Luxembourg Gardens, a visit to the church of St Severin in the Latin Quarter and to the Shakespeare and Company bookshop nearby, a nap back at your hotel, then dinner in a great restaurant, and a walk across Pont Neuf, pausing in the middle to watch the Seine by moonlight. (Of all these experiences, the Seine by moonlight will probably be the one you remember best.)
Image courtesy of Savani1987 via Wikimedia Commons
I normally ask our contributors to recommend somewhere off the beaten track, a hidden gem they can go and visit, but your book is full of them. Can you give us a favourite?
At least once a month, you’ll find me at the flea market at Porte de Vanves that takes place year-round each Saturday and Sunday morning. It’s a cornucopia of treasures that also reveals an enormous amount about the history and culture of France. (Don’t be surprised if you run into Catherine Deneuve. She’s a keen flea-marketeer and a frequent visitor.)
And if a visitor just went to one place to eat, where would you suggest?
The Au Bon St Pourcain on rue Servandoni, next to Saint Sulpice church. A classic one-room restaurant that hasn’t changed in a century.
Your timing for the book is perfect. There seems to be a real Paris fascination at the moment, perhaps helped by Woody Allen’s new movie, ‘Midnight in Paris’…
There are times when Most Beautiful Walk reads like the Book of the Film. But it was pure coincidence. Oddly, Woody is an unwilling visitor to Paris. He doesn’t trust the water, doesn’t like the food, and speaks no French. But he’s as susceptible to its magic as the rest of us.
What do you hope The Most Beautiful Walk in the World leaves people with?
I hope it makes those who have never visited Paris decide to do so, and those who already know the city to return. The city is inexhaustible. There is always more to discover.
This book is not just about Paris though is it? It’s about walking, observing and taking it all in, wherever you are…
It’s about jumping in at the deep end; experiencing life without preconceptions. Life is more enjoyable if one can stop and look. Paris makes that easier, since there’s so much more to see.
Do you still offer guided walks yourself? How can people find you if they are keen to hear your stories in person?
I still do a few tours, but pressure of work has forced me to limit them. Anyone who is interested could email Terrance Gelenter at Paris Through Expatriate Eyes.
Do you have a favourite novel set in Paris?
Le Divorce by Diane Johnson, who’s another long-time expatriate (and neighbour). Despite the title, it’s in English; the witty and observant story of a collision between an American and a French family over marriage, infidelity, sex and a 17th century painting both claim to own. The movie version of a few years back didn’t do it justice.
The Most Beautiful Walk in the World reminds us just how much has happened on the streets of the cities we visit. How often do you fly through a place in a few days, just making sure you see the main sights before moving on? Of course it’s rare to have the luxury of truly exploring the streets as John does, but it is good to be reminded that even if we can’t always see them, the pavements we walk on and the buildings we pass are rich with stories of the past. Next time you are walking the streets of an unfamiliar city, just stop from time to time, take a deep breath and look around, and wonder what ghosts are walking along beside you.
And of course, if you are off to Paris anytime soon….then I highly recommend The Most Beautiful Walk in the World as a companion. If you are looking for a traditional guide book, then this is not for you. But if you are keen to explore the poetry of the streets alongside someone who can whisper stories in your ear – then John Baxter’s book is a fine way to do it.
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World” by the publishers.