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review 2018-09-19 12:26
A magical visit to Barcelona and to the world of books and stories. Unmissable!
The Labyrinth of the Spirits - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Thanks to NetGalley and to Weidenfeld & Nicolson (Orion Publishing Group) for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I enthusiastically and freely chose to review.

I read the first two novels of the Cemetery of the Forgotten Books series years back, in Spanish. I have recommended The Shadow of the Wind to anybody who would bother to listen to me (probably multiple times, sorry) and was enthralled by the complex tale of creation and mental unravelling span by The Angel’s Game. In the maelstrom of the last few years, somehow I lost track of the series and missed the publication of The Prisoner of Heaven (although I have been trying to locate a copy since I started reading this volume), but when I saw the last novel in the series was being published in English and offered on NetGalley, I knew it was my chance to catch up. As I also do translations and had read two of the novels in their original Spanish version, I had the added interest of scrutinising what the translation into English would look like. Well, I must say I thought it was superb, in case I forget to mention it later. Lucia Graves manages to capture the style of the author, the complexity and beauty of his language, and translates the local peculiarities of the dialogue, helping readers feel the joy and the intoxicating and magical experience of reading the original. Hats off!

If you’ve read up to this point, you’ll likely have guessed that I loved this novel. To get it out of the way, I’ll clarify that I think it can be read by itself, or as a starting point to a reader’s visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and although perhaps somebody who starts by reading this book will feel s/he knows already the whole story, I suspect they’ll feel curious and intrigued and will want to learn the full details of the stories that come to fruition here (this is my case as well). Here, the author of the story inside the book, Julián, (yes, the story is full of books and writers) explains how the series works better than I can:

The way I dreamed of it, the narrative would be divided into four interconnected volumes that would work like entrance doors into a labyrinth of stories. As the reader advanced into its pages, he would feel that the story was piecing itself together like a game of Russian dolls in which each plot and each character led to the next, and that, in turn, to yet another, and so on and so forth. The saga would contain villains and heroes, and a thousand tunnels through which the reader would be able to explore a kaleidoscopic plot resembling that mirage of perspectives I’d discovered with my father in the heart of the Cemetery of the Forgotten Books.

This is a long novel, and a complex one, although not one difficult to read or follow (I don’t think). As the quoted paragraph says, there are many stories here, and many memorable characters, some dead, some alive, and some… (among them, Alicia Gris, femme-fatale, spy, little girl, seductress, avenging angel, long-suffering survivor of a terrible war; Daniel Sampere, bookshop owner extraordinaire searching for answers; Fermín Romero de Torres, whimsical, fun, full of life and common-sense, witty, heroic, down-to-earth;  Julián Sempere, the stand-in for the author and heir to a long tradition; Isabella, a mysterious figure much of the action revolves around; authors David Martín, Julian Carax, Víctor Mataix; the fabulous Vargas, a hard-working an old-fashioned honest policeman with some secrets of his own; the complex Leandro; the horrifying Hendaya; the intriguing Rovira…). The story moves back and forth in time, from the time of the Civil War in Spain (1938) to its aftermath during the Franco regime, and into 1992. We visit Madrid, Paris —however briefly— although the main setting, and the main character, is Barcelona, in all its glory and horror.

In the darkest corner of her heart, Barcelona, mother of labyrinths, holds of mesh of narrow streets knotted together to form a reef of present and future ruins.

I kept thinking what genre one would fit this book into. Amazon has it listed in the categories of literary fiction, historical fiction, and mysteries. All true, I guess. There are secrets, mysteries, action, revenge, intrigues, crimes, murders, torture… The novel reminds me, in some ways, of the big adventures and narratives of old, novels by Victor Hugo (whose pen, possibly?, makes an appearance in the novel), Jules Verne, the Dumas (father and son), with its sprawling narrative, its wondrous descriptions of people and events, its historical background (the Spanish Civil War and the postwar years, accurately reflected through a fantasy lens), and even its gothic setting (we have mysterious mansions, dungeons, cells, castles, underground passages, true labyrinths…). This book bears homage to literature, to books, to authors, to the power of imagination, and to the magic of reading.

The book talks about books and writing and contains plenty of advice on writing, some of it contradictory, and there are many different types of writers contained in its pages. It is metafictional at its best, and I was not surprised when I read that the author also composes music. There are variations on a theme in evidence (stories are told and retold: sometimes different versions, sometimes from different perspectives, and in different formats). There is plenty of showing, there is telling from direct witnesses, or third-hand, there are documents that bring us missing pieces from the pens of those who are no longer able to tell their own stories, and everybody gets a chance to tell his or her own story, be it in the first person or the third, be it directly or through a narrator. The author has explained that he writes his novels in a similar way to how movies are conceived and designed, and that is evident when one reads the story, as it is impossible not to visualise it. Carlos Ruíz Zafón professes his admiration for Orson Welles and that comes across loud and clear in this book. But, however much he loves movies, he believes books can conjure up worlds that no filmmaker would be able to bring to life, and that is his stated reason for not selling the rights for the film adaptation of the series. Part of me would like to watch it, but I am convinced I’d be disappointed, so incredible is the world the author has built.

I have mentioned the style of writing when I talked about the translation and I have shared some quotes. I kept highlighting and highlighting text while I was reading it and I found it very difficult to select some to share, but I hope the few fragments I have included will pique your curiosity and make you check a sample if you are not sure if you would like it (you would!). One of the tips on writing contained in the book highlights the importance of the way the story is written, above and beyond the plot, but in this case, the two mix perfectly.

I have mentioned some of the themes, the historical background, and the mystery elements included in the story, with some gore and violent scenes, but there are plenty of magical, lighter, and funny moments as well, and I wanted to share a couple of sentences from Isabella’s notebook that I particularly enjoyed, to illustrate the sense of humour (sometimes a bit dark) also present:

We were three sisters, but my father used to say he had two daughters and one mule.

I didn’t like playing with the other girls: my specialty was decapitating dolls with a catapult.

I’m not sure what else I can tell you to try and convince you to read this book. I am from Barcelona and love the city, even if some of the places mentioned in the novel no longer exist (or not in their original form). You could use the book as a guide for a visit (and I know there were tours visiting some of the streets and settings of The Shadow of the Wind), or you could lose yourself in the labyrinth of your imagination. You could imagine the movie, cast the characters, or put yourself in their place (I’d happily be Alicia Gris, pain and all). If you need to live some adventures and take a break from your life, go on, enter the labyrinth and visit the cemetery of the forgotten books. You might never want to find the way out. I am rearing for another visit soon.

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review 2018-04-26 12:17
A book for those who are not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions and are willing to challenge the status quo.
Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography - Sebastiaan Faber

Thanks to Edelweiss and to the publishers (Vanderbilt University Press) for providing me a copy of the book that I freely chose to review.

I was drawn to this book because although I was born and grew up in Spain, I have spent the last 25 years of my life in the UK, and between the time invested in education and work, I know I have missed some of the big debates about the past that have taken place in the country. From personal experience, I know that living abroad gives you a different perspective, usually wider, on a country’s history and society, and I was interested to learn the opinions of a foreign Hispanist on the controversial topic of the book.

This book was illuminating for me. I’ve discovered that I need to catch up and read books, watch documentaries, and explore the memory movement in Spain. I know some details thanks to my mother’s family, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the many initiatives and projects that have been implemented. I learned about laws (helpful and, mostly, unhelpful), about controversy and debates, about the origin of well-known photographs and documents (including the fact that photographers shared cameras and subjects during the Spanish Civil War, and no matter what their intent, those photographs also had, even at the time, a commercial value), about the uneasy relationship between Culture, cultural objects, and History. Is fiction less valuable when it comes to documenting the reception and the collective memory of a historical event? Or more?

Although I am not an expert in History, I have read some History books over the years and one of the things I found more refreshing about this volume, which collects a variety of essays on topics that fit in well together, is the fact that rather than offering an authoritative version of events or pontificating about the right or wrong way of looking at a particular period in history, it asks questions. On relevancy: how can an academic book written in English discussing events and recent debates about Spanish history and politics reach a wider audience? Are academics simply talking to themselves without ever reaching the general public (unless given an “official” status)? On the approach and the position historians should take when researching and writing their findings: Can historical essays and books ever be “neutral”? And should they be “neutral”? Isn’t it better to be open about one’s point of view and allegiances? (As the author observes, WWII historians are clearly positioned when writing about the war, but in Spain, this is frowned upon). On comparative studies and the risks of conflating similar events in different countries and eras, thereby missing the most interesting and fruitful aspects for analysis: Is it legitimate to apply international models (like those developed through the Holocaust studies) to the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist repression?  On the position of the intellectuals and how politics and affiliations affect even those who try hardest to be rigorous. How can those intellectuals who were heavily invested in the Transition open up to other opinions and not consider them a personal criticism? On the memory movement, the hurdles faced by those trying to find out more about relatives or friends, and about the resistance of historians to see any value in memory narratives. Is forgetting the past the best option, or do the unhealed wounds and traumas that have been festering, no matter how long for, always find a way to resurface? About the boom in historical fiction novels about the Civil War and what they tell us about society and popular opinion. Although the author’s opinions are clearly stated, the questions hang there and readers can take them up and find their own answers.

As I said, I cannot claim to any expertise on the topic, and I suspect experts will have much to take issue with in this book, but for me, it helps provide the tools to answer some of the questions that inform the author’s work and that are the same that a large part of the Spanish population are asking. Quoting from the book:

How have history, fiction, and photography shaped Spanish memory? How has democratic Spain dealt with the legacy of the Civil War, the Franco dictatorship, and the Transition? And how have academics, writers, filmmakers, photographers, and journalists in Spain and elsewhere engaged with a collective process that is central to the country’s future as a unified, functioning democracy?

In view of recent events, these questions are more pressing and relevant than ever, and I hope this book reaches as wide an audience as possible. I recommend it to anybody who is open to fresh perspectives on the subject and is up for a challenging — but ultimately rewarding— read.

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review 2017-10-02 07:16
EXAMINING THE ROLE OF "LAS BRIGADAS INTERNATIONALES" IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR
International Brigades in Spain 1936-39 - Ken Bradley

Here is a highly informative book that offers a broad sweep of the history of the international brigades and the roles they played in aiding the Spanish Republican government in its struggle against the Nationalists (and their foreign cadres) during the Spanish Civil War. There are also plenty of photos and illustrations to give the reader a basic understanding of the military units organized by the Comintern which proved under fire to be a 'corps d'elite', seeing action in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. This is a good book for anyone who wants a basic understanding of one of the 20th century's most significant conflicts.

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text 2017-08-22 19:57
I Know It's Kind of Early
Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 - Adam Hochschild
The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 - Antony Beevor

but is anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year?

 

I'm doing it, but I will be writing a creative non-fiction book. I spent the afternoon in a research mode black hole and have a topic and few characters to research more. My topic is Italian-Americans who fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, creating a separate civil war between Italian-Americans and Mussolini's Italian army helping the fascists. And I picked up Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild to help with research off Amazon for less than $6. I already had Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain in my home library shelf.

 

Got any other recs?

 

 

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review 2017-08-12 04:28
Aces of the Legion Condor - Robert Forsyth,Jim Laurier

Here is a concise, comprehensive, well-told story of the establishment and combat history of Germany's Legion Condor's fighter squadron component (Jagdgruppe 88) during the Spanish Civil War. Jagdgruppe 88 was the fighter element within the Legion (4 squadrons), which along with its bomber, anti-aircraft, and reconnaissance/transport units, had been sent to Spain in 1936 by Hitler to assist the rebel forces (i.e. Nationalists) fighting against the leftist Republican government in Madrid. Indeed, the war itself was to be a proving ground for Jagdgruppe 88, which had entered combat flying what was at the time Germany's standard fighter plane, the Heinkel 51, a biplane not far removed from its First World War antecedents. 

Within a few months, the Heinkel 51 was found to be inferior to the Republican fighters (i.e., the I-15 'Chato' biplane fighter and the I-16 'Rata' monoplane fighter - both of which were supplied by the Soviet Union to the Republican forces) it encountered in combat. Consequently, the decision was made to send the new Messerschmitt 109 monoplane fighter (which represented in 1936 a revolutionary leap in aircraft design) to Spain for wartime evaluation and testing. This would be done in stages over the length of the conflict. (The numbers of Heinkel 51 fighters in the Legion would be reduced, til by war's end in 1939, only one squadron would be flying it as a ground attack fighter.) Indeed, as was pointed out in the book: "The Legion Condor had played a significant role in winning Spain for Franco, and the importance of the Civil War had demonstrated the importance of air power to battlefield victory. The success of every major Nationalist offensive and defensive operation was dependent upon clear air superiority." 

Like similar books in the Osprey Aircraft Series, "ACES OF THE LEGION CONDOR" is chockful of photos and richly rendered illustrations. It will make a welcome addition to any aviation enthusiast's library.

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