Tag Archives: book review

Book Review: ‘Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia’

My copy of Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia by Penelope Chetwode [below] is secondhand, a slim hardback book with an onion skin thin duck egg blue paper cover. The silhouette on the front of the two ladies – Chetwode, wife of poet John Betjeman, and her steed Marquesa – is echoed inside in a black and white photograph of the pair. Penelope Chetwode This is a quick read and has the feeling of being written up from her daily notebook, which gives it a charm and immediacy. Chetwode clearly loves the people she meets and the countryside she explores on her borrowed horse Marquesa, on a circular trip through the hills between Granada and Úbeda in Andalucía in 1961. She glimpses a world which would be recognised by other literary travellers through Andalucía, from Richard Ford and Washington Irving to Laurie Lee and Chris Stewart. The poverty and generosity of the people she meets, the love for animals, the mystical stories of the hills, the cave-dwellers, juxtaposed on rare occasions with 1960s cars, bars, doctors and shops. two middle-aged ladies in andalusia by penelope chetwode - photo 4-8-13She gets a buzz when she is given directions along a mule track and hears the warning ‘camin muy malo’, very bad road, and off the two ladies go into the wild of scrub and hill. The details of her daily existence are fascinating, where she sleeps, what she eats, what the horse eats, the people she meets on the road and in the posadas, the roadside inns with stables where the horse is led through the front door to the stable at the rear.two middle-aged ladies in andalusia by penelope chetwode - map 4-8-13She painstakingly improves her Spanish, starting from the point of reciting facts about herself and so discouraging questions she cannot understand: “I am English, I am on a tour in these mountains, I have come from the farm of the English Duke of Wellington and Ciudad Rodrigo. That [pointing to the stable] is his mare. I have come from London to Madrid in an aeroplane.” All of this is punctuated with descriptions of the churches she finds, masses she attends, and comparisons with poetry and art. Charming.

Penelope Chetwode


‘Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia’ by Penelope Chetwode [UK: Eland]

5 to remember
de segunda mano – secondhand
delgado/a – slim
la silueta – silhouette
diario/a – daily
de circunvalación – circular/making a circuit

If you like this, try:
‘Voices of the Old Sea’ by Norman Lewis
‘Soldiers of Salamis’ by Javier Cercas
‘The Return’ by Victoria Hislop

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A road trip with a difference: TWO MIDDLE-AGED LADIES IN ANDALUCIA #books #Spain https://wp.me/p3dYp6-nV via @Spanish_Valley

Book Review: ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ by Javier Cercas

soldiers of salamis - javier cercas 29-4-13You could be forgiven for reading this novel and thinking it is a historical account of an incident in the Spanish Civil War. Written by the Salamanca university lecturer of my Spanish tutor, it is a story about war which seems so unbelievable that it cannot be true. Cercas puts this very sentiment into the mouth of one of his characters:
‘Did you know lots of people thought it was a lie?…’
‘Doesn’t surprise me.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because it sounds like fiction.’
‘All wars are full of stories that sound like fiction.’

A man escapes a firing squad, Republicans are shooting Nationalists at the end of the war. He escapes into a forest, thinking he is safe. But there he runs into a militiaman, who inexplicably turns and walks away instead of shooting him. The escaped man, a fascist, becomes a national hero and the soldier disappears into history. This is their story. Cercas examines memory and forgetting, winners and losers in war. Who is the hero, the escaped man, or the soldier who let him live? I have read it three times, and each time I get more from it. Unmissable.
5 to remember
el soldado – soldier
la adivinanza – riddle
increible – unbelievable
verdadero/a – true
la ficción – fiction

Book Review: ‘Your Garden in Spain’ by Clodagh & Dick Handscombe

your garden in spain - clodagh & dick handscombe 30-4-13Familiar from gardening columns in local newspapers here, the Handscombes’ book is an excellent book if you are a) new to gardening, or b) intimidated by the Spanish climate. Much of it is pretty basic, but there is some excellent advice about planting for different conditions eg mountain, salty seaside, dry, windy clifftop etc plus a useful index of the specialist plants eg. bulbs, cacti, pond, succulents, palms, annuals and perennials. There is even a section on how to choose a gardener, aimed at the absentee homeowner.
Not the first book I pick up, but a useful reference to have on the bookshelf.
5 to remember
el periódico – newspaper
el jardín – garden
la clima – climate
el consejo – advice
la irrigación – irrigation

Book Review: ‘The Spanish Temper’ by VS Pritchett

the spanish temper - vs pritchett 29-4-13This is another classic of Spain, written by short story writer and essayist VS Pritchett in 1954. He had travelled extensively in Spain prior to the Spanish Civil War and this book charts his return. His description on the second page of flying over the reddish-brown, yellow and black Iberian Peninsula, looking down at the high plateau and gorges of La Mancha, the dark green of olive trees, the dust and the dirt, will be familiar to today’s Easyjet passengers en-route to Malaga and the South. Pritchett’s style is perhaps old-fashioned now, but this book is crammed with history and politics, and stories of real people such as the flamenco artists in Madrid who will perform for a bottle of brandy and a cigarette. This is old Spain, it is easy to forget that when this book was written Franco was in power and the Civil War had finished only 15 years before.
On the last page he describes a conversation which could happen anywhere, at any time, after any war. The author asks in a café who destroyed the bridge over the Ebro.
‘The others,’ he said.
‘But who are the others?’ I said. ‘Fascists or the Reds?’
‘The others,’ he said. ‘In a civil war,’ he said, ‘it is always the others – and whoever wins is right.’

5 to remember
los otros – the others
siempe – always
otro/a – another
antes que – prior to
el regreso – the return

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
‘In a civil war, it is always the others’: THE SPANISH TEMPER by VS Pritchett #Spain #books http://bit.ly/2wsrTXp via @Spanish_Valley

Book Review: ‘Spanish Lessons’ by Derek Lambert

spanish lessons - derek lambert 29-4-13
Another foreigner buying a home in Spain. This is not Driving over Lemons, few are as it’s difficult to beat or match the first, but it is an interesting depiction of rural Spain. His description of Pilar’s shop, which sells everything from pickled onions to rat poison, sounds just like the corner shop in our tiny village. We soon learned on moving here that no matter how small the shop, no matter how intimidating the counter which demanded we ask for what we wanted in Spanish rather than select off a shelf, they would sell what we wanted. This proved true in the tiny ferretería, the ironmonger, and at the mercería, the haberdashers, where to the amusement of the line of silver-haired old ladies seated on the line of straight-backed chairs, I struggled to ask for tacking cotton to hem curtains. I left with exactly what I wanted, indeed reels of cotton were taken from two different boxes and offered for my decision. More choice, in fact, than in John Lewis’ haberdahsery department in England. Finally, I love the first chapter about the oh-so-English guilt experienced after pinching an orange from an orchard; how Spanish is the ‘one person one orange’ policy.
5 to remember
el/la extranjero/a – foreigner
el hogar – home
rural – rural
la descripción – description
el veneno – poison

Book Review: ‘The Story of Spain’ by Mark Williams

Mark WilliamsThis is the best book I’ve found to date about the history of Spain, starting with pre-history and taking in the Romans, the Moors and the Christians, the Reconquista, Felipe II’s palace El Escorial and the long line of royalty, the Spain of Cervantes and Don Quixote to today via Goya, Velazguez and Picasso. Don’t be put off by the fact that it looks a little like a school textbook. The story is told in chronological order, and each chapter has a summary of key sites worth a visit. Williams is a journalist and this shows in his writing style and balanced reporting. Full of names from history that feature of street names in towns and cities around the country, the book is an accessible telling of a complicated history. He brings to life the true story behind two of Goya’s most renowned paintings, ‘The Second of May’ and ‘The Third of May’ in 1808, a year Williams says is equal in national importance as 1492 – the year the Moors left Granada, and Cristóbal Colón set forth to the New World.
5 to remember
los romanos – the romans
los moros – the moors
los cristianos – the christians
el palacio – the palace
la familia real – royalty

‘The Story of Spain’ by Mark Williams [UK: Santana]

If you like this, try:-
‘A Castle in Spain’ by Matthew Parris
‘The Anarchist Detective’ by Jason Webster
‘Ghosts of Spain’ by Giles Tremlett

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
For a simple history of Spanish history, read THE STORY OF SPAIN by Mark Williams #books https://wp.me/p3dYp6-fv via @Spanish_Valley


Book Review: ‘Spain in Mind’ anthology

spain in mind - alice leccese powers 29-4-13A great book to read when travelling, when you want something to dip in and out of. There are poems, travel pieces, essays, short stories and letters from everyone who has ever written of Spain that you have heard of: Orwell, Hemingway, Stewart, Irving, Brenan, Morris, highbrow, lowbrow, and some you didn’t know about. I challenge you to read this and not want to visit Spain. My highlight? A poem. ‘Candle Hat’ by American poet Billy Collins, about artist Goya wearing a hat decorated with candles around the brim to illuminate his work by dark, giggling with his wife.

‘To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
Lighting the candles one by one, then placing
The hat on his head, ready for a night of work.
Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
The laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.’

‘Spain in Mind’  ed. by Alice Leccese Powers

5 to remember
la antología – anthology
la poema – poem
la vela – candle
el sombrero – hat
la mujer – wife

Book Review: ‘Spain’ by Jan Morris

spain - jan morris 219-4-13
Spain was in the tight grip of General Franco in 1954 when Morris first wrote this book and the picture she draws is relevant to today. She portrays a country on the edge of Europe, a grim place to exist in the strong grip of State and Church, but despite all this it is a place filled with generous people as is today’s Spain. She describes a land rich in coal and minerals but no oil, where industry is confined to three tight geographical regions – Madrid, Catalonia and the northern coastline of Cantábrica, Asturias and the País Basque. So Spain is an agricultural country, rich in the holy trinity of wine, wheat and olives, in which 60% of land has never been cultivated. The book has to be read always with the date of writing in mind, but still, this description will seem familiar to those who live here today. She devotes a chapter, ‘Soldiers,’ to war and describes navigating the country by its castles. Spanish castles are frontier fortresses, she says, ‘pushed southwards century by century as the Moors were expelled and the Spanish kings moved their capitals from front to front.’ Here in Andalucía, many of the white hill towns so beloved to coach parties are named for this reason – de la Frontera generally denotes a border town. Arcos de la Frontera, Jimena de la Frontera, Jerez de la Frontera, Vejer de la Frontera. There are many small towers and castles on hilltops alongside the major A-roads, still looking 360° for invaders. These watchtowers of battle are a constant daily reminder of Spain’s warring heritage.
5 to remember
hoy – today
el país – country
el lugar – place
el carbón – coal
la agricultura – agriculture

Book Review: ‘Death’s Other Kingdom’ by Gamel Woolsey

Gamel WoolseyI loved this small book which I read in one day. Written by American writer Gamel Woolsey, member of the Bloomsbury set and married to Spanish specialist Gerald Brenan, Death’s Other Kingdom is an account of life in Spain in 1936 at the beginning of the Civil War.
Málaga goes up in flames and Woolsey observes it, living at Churriana, a few miles inland from the coast and now close to the end of the runway at Málaga airport. The first chapter is an idyllic rendition of life in a Spanish village on a hot day: the pure white walls, the diamond-shaped tiles, the gardener Enrique, his mother Maria, the cook-housekeeper, and her daughter Pilar. It is an idyllic summer day. Woolsey wakes up the next morning and Málaga is burning. She describes the bombs falling – ‘Are they ours?’ ‘Are they the Fascists’?’, the funeral processions, the sad old men and women in dusty black.
This is not a tale of rural Spain, the Brenans were part of the burgeoning ex-pat community in Malaga, pre-Civil War.

5 to remember
escritó por – written by
el miembro – the member
la vida – the life
al principio – at the beginning
el capítulo – the chapter

‘Death’s Other Kingdom’ by Gamel Woolsey [UK: Eland]

If you like this, try:-
‘The Spanish Civil War’ by Helen Graham
‘Spain’ by Jan Morris
‘Spain in Mind’ edited by Alice Leccese Powers

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Read it in one day: DEATH’S OTHER KINGDOM by Gamel Woolsey https://wp.me/p3dYp6-fr #books via @Spanish_Valley



Book Review: ‘A Castle in Spain’ by Matthew Parris

a castle in spain - matthew parris 29-4-13
This not a travel book, more a book about restoring a house in a foreign country. It is a book about a dream, of going on holiday to the same place year after year and looking longingly at una masa, an old country house, and thinking ‘what if’, and then one day going on holiday and seeing a ‘se vende’ sign. The house, L’Avenc’, almost inevitably turns out to be a black hole for euro notes. In a tale familiar to anyone who has ever taken on a labour of love in a foreign country, Parris describes the battles with the house, the countryside, and his own common sense in the easy-to-read style we have come to know from his work as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. Half the house in Catalonia is Gothic, half Renaissance, most of it is slumped though solid. But it is the water supply that turns into a bigger problem than the stone walls and foundations. Parris obviously loves it. He says in the introduction, ‘[This] is a book about a house. I have written it because I think the house matters… L’Avenc is the strong character in these pages. L’Avenc is the personality I want to introduce, the individual I hope you will remember.’
5 to remember
se vende – For Sale
el castillo – castle
una labor realizada con amor – a labour of love
una batalla – battle
el campo – the countryside