Reading in Spain... a return journey with 

In 1974 I flew into Madrid, the blinding sun causing me to squint as I exited the airport and looked around for the bus heading into the city. My destination was not Madrid but a city that was hundreds of miles north where I would meet a friend with whom I would eventually travel with all over Europe that summer. The destination of the student charter flight had been suddenly changed from Paris to Madrid. No matter that I was meeting my friend in Amsterdam. I was a typical American twenty-something: educated, fresh out of graduate school but grossly ignorant of world geography, languages besides English, and how to pack for two months of travel.  Nevertheless I managed to make my way to the Estacion de Atocha, buy a second-class ticket to Amsterdam, and board a train that would take me north over the next two days. Later that summer my travel companions and I made our way back to Madrid, to take in that magnificent city that comes alive each evening, beginning with the round of tapas bars offering tiny bites of the exquisite Spanish cuisine. It was in the famous Prado Museum that I happened to glance at the newspaper of an American sitting next to me in one of the galleries; it announced the resignation of Richard Nixon, an unreal climax to an era of war and deception. In this last year of Franco's dictatorship, the streets were still heavily patrolled by the Guardia Civile in their shiny flat back hats.
     Preparing for this return journey in 2016 I have been reading what the Independent calls "the most evocative book ever written about Spain," Jan Morris' Spain. Like a personal journal, Morris speaks lovingly yet critically of a country that she loves.  From this slim volume I began to understand the historical events that have shaped Spain as well as the spirit and dynamics of the culture. Two novels set during the Civil War (1936-1939) are also accompanying me to Spain: Time of the Doves by Merce Rodoreda, and Nada by Carmen Laforet.
For Netflix fans, I highly recommend the Spanish series (with subtitles) The Time in Between, a spy thriller set in this same time period. 

Very short takes. . .

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. Another celebrated literary novelist has been asked to take on a classic work and transpose the story into a modern tale. The "vinegar girl" is modeled after Shakespeare's Katharina, the central character in Taming of the Shrew. Our modern heroine-of-sorts, is Kate Battista, the dutiful yet resentful daughter of a distracted Johns Hopkins scientist, who works in a progressive preschool yet feels no affinity to young children. At times she is indeed a sour creature but Tyler slowly reveals Kate's more sympathetic side and it is not hard to cheer her on as she resists her father's plan to get his Russian research assistant a green card.  

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French. This meticulously researched account of the death of young Pamela Werner in 1937 combines a real life murder mystery with a historical perspective of China in political  turmoil before the Japanese invasion and the beginning of World War II. The British residents living in the walled Legation Quarter still maintain a status-driven lifestyle of cocktail parties, clinging to colonial attitudes and behavior. As a British and a Chinese detective join forces to try and solve Pamela's murder, they come up against the Peking underworld and a diplomatic bureaucracy that endeavors to derail the investigation. A unique and compelling read especially for Asia watchers.   

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. Another great book for expatriates, especially if you turned to the International Herald Tribune as your only source of news overseas, in the days before the ubiquitous 24-hour news cycle on the internet. The setting is Rome, the headquarters of a fictional English language newspaper that began in the 1950's and is struggling to survive in the 21st century. The characters are the journalists, past and present, and we gain a perspective from each, chronicling the excitement and dullness, drama and loneliness of an expatriate life spent endeavoring to flush out a story, meet a deadline, and stay one step ahead of colleagues. The New York Times named Rachman's novel a "Notable Book of the Year."

The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton. I cannot resist a coming-of-age story, especially one as beautifully crafted as this one. Fiction abounds with stories of young girls trying to break free of their parents and their hometowns but not Mary Frances "Frankie" Lombard who revels in the beauty and routine of  life on the family farm. She envisions a future tending the apple orchards with her brother William, purposely ignoring the conflicts and changes that are swirling all around her. Feisty and determined, Frankie is reminiscent of another Frankie (A Member of the Wedding) in her self-examination and rejection of the harsh realities of life. Yet she also brings to mind Scout (To Kill a Mockingbird) as she desperately tries to understand those members of her family who are so important to her. Truly a magnificently written book - not to be missed. 

  Life Class by Pat Barker.  Pat Barker is not very well known in this country but she recently was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize in Britain and her latest novel is described as "breathtaking. . .sharply written and elegantly constructed." Known for her powerful antiwar writing, Barker once again places her novel in London, in the days leading up to World War I when a whole generation of young men courageously volunteer to serve, only to quickly and brutally lose their lives or return home maimed physically and psychologically. In the spring of 1914, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke meet in a life drawing class at the Slade, the most famous and elite art school in the country, forming a friendship that develops into a complicated relationship as the war threatens the lifestyle that they had so taken for granted. Barker is noted for her ability to depict the inhumanity of war and in this masterpiece of a novel we see this reflected in these two artists who on the front lines in Belgium, strive to maintain their art and their love amidst the horrendous human destruction all around them.

Have a beautiful summer, see you in September!