Here is a quick run down of Spain related books to help you enjoy your adventure. While traveling I always like to read relevant literature – not just the serious stuff but a few fun reads as well. I also love to read in Spanish so I’ll include both options whenever possible.
BEWARE when purchasing through Amazon — make sure you choose the edition with the language that you prefer.
Guide Books: In the old days, Let's Go was the indispensable guide for young backpackers looking to travel cheaply and wishing to go off-the-beaten path. It is still a good bet, especially for budget travel, but these days there are so many more options. I find Lonely Planet to be the most well-rounded and practical. They offer a range of options, from cheap to luxury which is great for someone like me who likes to travel modestly but who enjoys the occasional splurge. Also, Lonely Planet is concise and accurate. We found ourselves carrying around Lonely Planet Madrid because it was compact and the maps were better than others we had. I’ll sometimes check out Fodor's for the background and cultural information, but generally find it stodgy and perhaps best suited for someone on a cruise or a tour.
Spanish-English Dictionary: I highly recommend the Collins Spanish English dictionary. Whether you need the Unabridged Dictionary for academic study, a tiny Gem Travel Dictionary to carry while touring or something in-between, Collins is the most complete and practical. In every edition they provide helpful usage notes and words in context so that you actually use the words properly in a sentence. I have tried several dictionaries that were totally useless because they only include a cryptic, poorly worded definitions. The larger Collins dictionaries include a fine range of colloquialisms and archaic words that are found in literature. Collins seems to put effort into figuring out which words people really need.
As noted on my Spain language tips page, you may also want to study up on the many colorful expressions used in everyday speech. Two nice books are: McGraw-Hill Diccionario del Argot or Diccionario de Jergas de Habla Hispana.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of Spanish literature, and I’d welcome more suggestions! Just a few entertaining books with Spanish themes that you might enjoy.
I’ve been taken by La Sombra Del Viento (in English, The Shadow of the Wind), by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Set in mid 20th century Barcelona, it tosses out geographical landmarks so tastily that you want to chart them on a map. And, it is nicely set in post Franco's post-Civil War Spain, without belaboring the point. I usually gravitate toward literary style works and this one contains just enough weight while also reading like a thriller. It has some of the broad scope and mysticism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende, a little Raymond Chandler and maybe a touch of Steven King. It can be a little brutal at times, sexy, romantic, bleak and fun. A great read.
El Zorro: Comienza La Leyenda by Isabel Allende (also available in Englsh, as Zorro, a Novel ) – the historical details and adventure make it worth the read. Much of the tale takes place in colonial California and Los Angeles in particular. Then the story moves to Barcelona and stretches across northern Spain on the historic pilgrim route to Santiago de la Compostela. I’m a huge Isabel Allende devotee and you should certainly read some of her early work if you haven’t. Zorro is not her best – it does a little too much summarizing and not enough detailing. And the way it lays the post-modern revisionism is fun but a little heavy handed. Still a very enjoyable book. By the way, her latest, Ines del Alma Mia: Una Novela, or, in English, Ines of My Soul: A Novel, also spans the Atlantic with a story of colonial Peru and Chile from the perspective of the widow of a Spanish conquistador.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell – I found this book to be more interesting historically than as good fiction, helping me fill in the blanks about the Spanish Civil War and the many confusing alliances.
La tesis de Nancy – This is sorta mandatory reading if you are an exchange student studying in Spain. Though it is set in the 1950s, you can laugh at Nancy's gaffes as she tries to learn Spanish culture and language. And dream along as she gets involved with gypsy culture.
Miguel de Unamuno is perhaps my favorite Spanish author. Unamuno may not provide any great insights into Spanish culture, but his books are wonderfully absurd, modernist and, written in the early part of last century, take place in a Spain that no longer exists. Niebla (or in English, Mist) is also not too long, so it is not daunting if you are reading it in Spanish. Unamuno also writes a wild Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho, or, in English, The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho.You might enjoy Unamuno if you are a fan of Conrad, Dostoyevsky or Camus.
Antonio Gala – is a contemporary Spanish writer whose essays and fiction are beautiful and poetic. I’ve only seen Antonio Gala's work in Spanish.
Juan Ramón Jiménez – I find that reading poetry is a fun way to learn Spanish (I know, I was a literature major and I’m a dork). But you can translate a piece of poetry and read it over and over again so that the vocabulary really sinks in. And poetry often comes in English/Spanish versions. Then you can learn a horribly impractical vocabulary that allows you to talk about your soul, blossoms and mist. In Jimenez I hear the roots of Pablo Neruda, though Jimenez, who promoted “pure poetry” famously detested Neruda who rebelled against the concept of pure poetry. You can start with a Jimenez anthology Antología poética. And the Robert Bly translation of works by Jimenez and Lorca, Lorca & Jimenez: Selected Poems is nice because they also include the original Spanish. I don’t love the poetry of Platero y yo / Platero and I but it is pleasant and is a good kids book.
Spain and Spanish for Kids
In attempting to prepare our kids for travel in Spain we found a couple of books helpful. Talking it up with them before the trip helped get them excited and prepared to experience a different culture.
Look What Came From Spain – I probably would have included different details about Spain – I'm just not that into Jai Alai or Flamenco, but it a fine books for the kids.
Don Quixote and the Windmills – this is a great version to introduce the kids to this classic. Just the windmill story is covered and they do a good job.
Treasures of the Prado (Tiny Folio) – to get our kids excited about seeing some famous paintings, we purchased this book before we left. Used, it is basically available for the price of shipping. It is small, fun to look through and contains the major the religious and court paintings you'll find at the Prado
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