Sunday, July 06, 2008

Reading in preparation for Spain

I’ve been doing some reading in preparation for our trip to Spain, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some reflections on the books I’ve been consulting.

I found Miranda France’s Don Quixote’s Delusions: Travels in Castilian Spain (2001) at the Lincoln Library (call number 914.62 FRA). This book offers an interesting mix a few a different types of narrative. Miranda France is about my age, or maybe a couple years older, and she describes her time in Spain as a university student (in 1987-1988). This part of the book is a personal memoir, and she shares what it was like to be a young person in Spain during this time when Spain was experiencing the post-Franco exuberance. She had an interesting assortment of friends and house mates, and I think her reflections on what these people did and what motivated them is quite good. There is psychological insight and plenty of anecdotes to illustrate both the universal human condition and the particular aspects of life she had at that particular time and place. There are also many chapters about Don Quixote and its author, Cervantes. These are examples of literary criticism and philosophical musings on the meaning of Cervantes. Other chapters of the book describe her travels in Spain, both during her student days and then more recently when she returned a decade after leaving Spain. She’s a good travel writer. Finally, there are chapters and sections in which she explores Spanish history and culture. I found her views to be reasonable and intelligent, and I liked her perspective on history. She is a person who loves Spanish culture and cares about her subject, but she is at the same time critical and analytical. Her life as a student reminded me of my own experiences in many ways. However, she was probably more closely associated with the seedy and underground aspects of Spanish life than most writers on Spanish culture, and this gives her a unique perspective. I highly recommend this book.

Gaudi, a biography, by Gijs Van Hensbergen (Lincoln Library, call number 720.92 GAU) offered me some insight into one of my favorite architects. It was a fine biography, with much attention to the political and economic conditions in Barcelona and more widely in Spain during Gaudi’s life (1852-1926). I was glad to read the defense of both Gaudi as a person and also his architecture, which many people find vulgar, silly, or crackpot (it is not: it is brilliant). Two other Gaudi books were Essential Gaudi (by John Gill, published in 2002, call number 720.92 GAU) and Gaudi (by Ignasi de Sola-Morales, published in 1983, call number 720.92 GAU). The second of these is a fairly straight-forward picture book with a biography and several pages of photographs devoted to each of Gaudi’s projects. I loved the sketches by J. Matamala of what he remembered Gaudi’s ideas were for a skyscraper hotel in New York City (images 142-146, see example posted as part of this blog). The Essential Gaudi had a nice format I would probably use if I were making a book about our upcoming trip to Spain. As you opened the book each two page spread had a text article on the left and a full page photograph on the right. This was a book that paid far more attention to architectural considerations. Both these books were a delight to browse through in anticipation of going to Barcelona and seeing the originals for myself.

The book that gave me the most pleasure was Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain (edited by Jerrilynn D. Dodds, published in 1992, call number 709.46). This book contained a catalogue (pages 190-391) of an exhibition given at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The first 189 pages of the book offered well-illustrated essays about the Islamic history and culture and artistic trends during the age of Islam in Spain (mostly 711-1492). I'm trying to get my history straight. The history of Islam in Spain is usually divided into six periods. The initial conquest and the rule of Umayyad Governors runs from 711-756. This is followed by the Umayyad Emirate from 756-929, the Umayyad Caliphate (929-1031), the Taifa Kingdoms (1031-1086), the Almoravid and Almohad rules (1088-1232), and finally the Nasrid Kingdom in Granada (1238-1492).

The best history book I came across was Spain: The Root and the Flower by John A. Crow. I found the third edition, expanded and updated, published in 1985, although the first edition came out in 1963. Crow mixed cultural insight and popular history with the normal accounts of the politics and kings and wars. I liked his opinionated comments on various aspects of Spanish history, and his emphasis on artistic and intellectual developments, and particularly the Spanish literature. This was available in the Lincoln Library, but I got the most recent edition from my university library at call number DP 48 C8 1985.

The book I read to learn about current events in Spain was Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett (both the Lincoln Library and UIS library have this, and the call number at the UIS library is DP 233.5 T74 2007.) This book had some interesting details about Spanish attitudes and popular culture. There was a lot about sex. For example, Spanish men pay for sex more than other Europeans. Miranda France had also commented on the highly visible sex worker business. There were stories about scandals and corruption, and some stories about popular figures like famous Flamenco singers and so forth.

Another art biography I highly recommend is Goya, by Robert Hughes (Call number 759.6 GOY at the Lincoln Library). I like Robert Hughes, and I like Goya. This book helped me to make sense of Goya’s fascination with witches. It also explained to me much about the politics and culture of Spain in the late 18th century and early 19th century. The book is very well illustrated.

Stories of the Spanish Artists until Goya by Sir William Stirling Maxwell (published in 1938, and available in the Lincoln Library at call number 759.6 M46s) gives some background on the artists whose work we’ll be seeing in the art museums. The stories were sometimes interesting. This was a good bedtime book.

For fun, I picked out a 122 year old book from the UIS library, The Story of Spain by Edward Everett Hale and Susan Hale, part of The Story of the Nations series, published in 1886. The call number is DP 68 H16. I don’t think the history was particularly accurate, and the authors' attitudes were very dated, but the book itself offered some historical insight into what Americans or English people might have read about Spain when my great-great grandparents and great grandparents were in their prime. The book concentrates on the very early history of Spain, and legends or myths about its history. The chapter on Ferdinand and Isabella (late 15th century) doesn’t come until page 298, it’s chapter 20 out of 25. The book did offer this advice, “...the student of modern Spanish history must remember all along that Spain is the prey of unceasing partisan dissension....” That seems to be still the case, according to what I read in Tremlett’s book. I've shard a couple illustrations from this old book here in the blog.

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