On My Playlist

On my playlist

A couple of months ago, I posted about some of the music on my playlist. Spotify has led me to encounter so many new artists I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise, and I’ve been listening to a lot of Spanish and Latin American music. Here are a few of my favourite tracks. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you can still enjoy the music!

La Santa Cecilia

La Santa Cecilia are a Mexican-American band based in Los Angeles. They’ve won a Grammy for Best Latin Rock Album, and their music incorporates many different traditional Mexican and Latin American styles. I’d love to see them play live — it would be so much fun. Continue reading

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What’s on My Playlist

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The Alhambra, Spain. Photo credit: Victoriano Izquierdo at Unsplash

Since I signed up to Spotify and discovered that it suggests new music for you based on the artists you like, I’ve been branching out in my musical tastes. Logging onto Spotify and having a mosey about is like going down a veritable rabbit hole: you don’t know what you’re going to find, and you can end up somewhere that’s very different to where you started. Continue reading

Mystery and thrills in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Barcelona

Continuing with the Spanish theme of the last three posts on my blog, The Shadow of the Wind is a novel set in mid-twentieth century Barcelona. In the middle of the old city of Barcelona is a ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, a library with winding passages and corridors so hard to find again that you must leave a trail as though journeying into the heart of the Minotaur’s den.

The Shadow of the Wind book

When Daniel is ten years old, his father takes him to choose one book from this mysterious labyrinth of a library. He picks an obscure title, La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Julián Carax. As Daniel grows up, he tries to find more titles by Carax, but he cannot find a single one. There are reports of a strange man who calls himself Lain Coubert — the name of the devil in Carax’s novel — who is going around the city asking for Carax’s books to burn.

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Travels in Madrid: Part 3 – art galleries, Egyptian temples and more

After the busy sight-seeing in Toledo on the second day of my trip to Spain, my friend had to work on the third day, so I ventured out into Madrid on my own. I decided to go to El Museo Nacional del Prado — one of the most magnificent art galleries in the world.

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Before you can enter the museum, you have to go through a more basic version of airport-style security: bags through the scanner as you walk through a metal detector. As I only had a small backpack, I was allowed to carry it with me but people with any larger bags had to leave them in a room behind the security desk. Continue reading

Travels in Spain: Part 2 – Adventures in Toledo

If you read my previous post, you’ll know that at the beginning of June I flew to Madrid for a four-day mini vacation. Four days isn’t a long time, but it’s surprising just how much you can see, do and experience in that time. I spent three days in Madrid and one day in Toledo, a nearby city.

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A view of Toledo, looking back across El Puente de San Martin (Bridge of St. Martin)

 

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Travels in Madrid – Part 1

At the beginning of June, I spent four days in Madrid, visiting a Spanish friend who is living there and studying for her Master’s degree. I am already longing to go back. The city is beautiful, filled with gorgeous architecture, elegant parks and expansive boulevards.

On the first day of my visit, we went on a three-hour walking tour around the city. I chose to go on the Spanish-language tour, but it is available in English too. We began in Plaza Mayor. Like many Spanish cities, Madrid is a city filled with plazas (squares), but Plaza Mayor is the main square — popular with locals (madrileños) and tourists alike.

Plaza Mayor Madrid

The largest and most central square in Madrid, Plaza Mayor is lined with tapas bars and restaurants.

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My Literary Wish List

A few weeks ago, Emily January over at The Bookshelf of Emily J. posted this post with ten books that she wouldn’t mind getting for her birthday. Emily suggested that her readers could post their own literary wish lists too. My birthday isn’t for another eleven months but here are ten books I would be delighted to be given. Perhaps I will gift them to myself! 😉

Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English (2007) by Christopher Davies.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that I love language and the study of linguistics. One thing, out of many, that fascinates me about language is the fact that English has so many varieties around the world. I am interested in differences between the U.S. and the U.K. in general but language differences are especially interesting to me.

One Night in Winter (2014) by Simon Sebag Montefiore

There is something about literature which is set in Russia that I find absolutely enthralling. I read Sebag Montefiore’s sweeping, epic novel Sashenka a few years ago. It began in 1916, at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and it was a compelling read. Sebag Montefiore is a historian as well as an author and so his novels are always scrupulously well-researched and historically detailed. He has written several books — fiction and non-fiction — about Russia and its history. I can’t wait to read One Night in Winter.

Sweet Tooth (2012) by Ian McEwan

Set during the Cold War, Sweet Tooth is about a young Cambridge graduate and compulsive reader, Serena Frome, who is recruited to MI5 in order to infiltrate the literary circles of writers whose politics are in alignment with the government. It is a story of love, betrayal and espionage and it sounds intriguing!

Homage to Catalonia (1980) by George Orwell

This October, I am due to go to Catalonia to teach English. Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s account of his time spent fighting against the fascist Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. I have studied the Civil War as part of my degree and there is much more for me to learn about this brutal time in Spanish history, which led to a forty-year political dictatorship. The legacy of the Civil War and Franco’s oppressive political regime can still be seen in Spain today; the cultural taboo surrounding the war and the dictatorship is only just starting to be broken.

Hard Choices (2014) by Hillary Clinton.

There are too few women in high-ranking political positions and in leadership roles in the workplace. Regardless of political views, I think Hillary Clinton is an inspiring person simply because she is a woman who has achieved a prestigious position, despite the sexism that women often face in the world of politics. I read her earlier memoir, Living History, and I look forward to reading her latest.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013) by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb.

Continuing with the theme of strong women who want to make a difference in the world, I Am Malala is a remarkable story of the determination of a Pakistani schoolgirl who speaks out for education. After being shot in the head by the Taliban on her way home from school and undergoing emergency surgery, Malala has been (and continues to be) on an awe-inspiring journey and has become the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is an amazing young woman!

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (2013) by David Rakoff

Until his untimely death from cancer in 2012, David Rakoff was a regular contributor to This American Life and I always enjoyed hearing his humorous and often poignant stories. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish was published posthumously in 2013 and Rakoff wrote it entirely in rhyming couplets. I have heard a number of his stories in rhyme on This American Life; they are often thought-provoking and always enjoyable.

Looking for Alaska (2006) by John Green

I keep hearing hype about John Green but have never read any of his books. I thought I would add this to my wish list so I can find out what all the fuss is about.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling).

Crime isn’t my usual genre of fiction but as a fan of Rowling’s writing and superb storytelling, I want to read this. I remember when the real identity of Robert Galbraith was leaked last year. There was such a media storm! I wrote a post about it entitled Musings on Fame, Fortune and the Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling.

In the Skin of a Lion (1997) by Michael Ondaatje.

This book was recommended to me by Caitlin Kelly from Broadside Blog. The main character is Patrick Lewis, who “arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario” (Goodreads).

What is on your literary wish list at the moment? Have any of the books on my wish list caught your eye?

In August, I read…

Now that we are in the last few days of August, it is time for my literary round-up of the month. This month, I read two very different but equally gripping novels. My August reading material began with a trip to Spain and then to Morocco in The Seamstress by María Dueñas.

Note: You can also find María Dueñas’s novel under the title The Time In Between (click here to see its Amazon page). It is identical to The Seamstress, just with a different title.

“Born in the summer of 1911”, Sira Quiroga grows up in Madrid. From the age of twelve, she works as an apprentice to a dressmaker in the same workshop where her mother worked. Her life is simple, predictable, stable. “My ambitions remained close to home, almost domestic, consistent with the coordinates of the place and time in which I happened to live” (p. 3). But when she is seduced by a man who persuades her to run away with him to Morocco, her life begins to change. Her suitor betrays her and steals her money, leaving her alone in a country of which she knows nothing. This is when the novel really starts to pick up the pace. The first few chapters laid the groundwork and the background for Sira’s character but the chapters in Morocco are the ones I enjoyed most.

By now, the Civil War is raging in Spain and Sira can’t go back to Madrid, as much as she longs to return home and to see her mother, who she has no way of contacting. She is stuck in Morocco, she has no money and her duplicitous lover left her with a large debt to pay. So, Sira turns to the only trade she knows: dressmaking. Her years spent sewing dresses in a Madrid shop meant that she is an expert at her trade.

Between 1912 and 1956 in Morocco, the Spanish established the Protectorado español en Marruecos (the Spanish Protectorate) and during the Spanish Civil War many expat Spaniards and their Nazi German friends lived there. Sira manages to achieve success by setting up an atelier and sewing dresses for the Spanish and German women. “Bit by bit the business began to flourish, word began to spread” (p. 173).

The novel spans a wide arc from pre-Civil War Spain, to Morocco during the Civil War and finally to Franco’s Spain during the time of World War II. The Seamstress is full of detail and at 600+ pages (609, to be exact) I read it slowly, enjoying a few chapters each day. María Dueñas has a PhD in English philology and teaches at the University of Murcia, in the south-east of Spain. Her academic expertise and research skills are evident in the novel. She includes a lengthy bibliography of the sources and texts she consulted while writing. The historical detail is wonderful and the plot is constantly developing. Despite having studied the Spanish Civil War, I knew nothing about the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco and its role during the Guerra Civil. The Seamstress made me want to find out more. Although the protagonist is a fictional character, many of the other people who appear in the novel were real people, including Rosalinda Fox, who had a fascinating life.

There are some areas where the novel dragged a little. The detail is wonderful and really sets the scene but there is a lot of it and I think some skilful editing would make a difference. On the whole, though, I can’t really fault this book. The plot is engaging, the setting is atmospheric and I liked the central character. Some reviews I read called Sira a shallow character but personally, I disagree with that judgement. She is an enterprising, resolute young woman and it is a credit to Dueñas’s proficient writing that Sira matures and develops throughout the novel. It is a great, memorable novel and I look forward to reading more from Maria Dueñas.

My second August read was Serena by Ron Rash. I have just finished reading it and it is in sharp contrast, both in setting and in characters, to my first August read. It begins in 1929 in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where George Pemberton and his wife, Serena, set up camp. Pemberton is a timber baron who oversees a logging empire: the Pemberton Lumber Company. But the title of the novel is really the key to its contents: Serena, a determined, ruthless and ambitious woman who stops at nothing to get what she wants, is at the heart of this story. Her name is an ironic choice; she is anything but serene.

Rash’s writing hooks the reader in right from the first paragraph:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.” (p. 3)

Throughout the book, Serena and Pemberton’s story interweaves with the young woman’s, whose name is Rachel Harmon. Rachel is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel. She struggles to raise her son with almost no acknowledgement from Pemberton; he doesn’t even remember her name.

There are many reviews where Serena is called an “Appalachian Macbeth” and I can clearly see the resemblance. Serena is an extraordinary character, very similar to Lady Macbeth. Like Lady Macbeth, Serena works to get rid of those who fall into disfavor. The reader is only shown glimpses of her background; she refuses to think about the past and only looks forward to the future. Her parents and siblings died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and when asked who was managing their Colorado estate, she responds simply, “I had the house burned down before I left” (p. 55).

Neither Pemberton nor Serena are sympathetic characters and I found it very hard to get close to them. Their harsh, ruthless actions lead to violence and murder in the camp. Serena is the lead, encouraging Pemberton on in their trail of murder and destruction, but he follows willingly. What bothered me the most is that they don’t show remorse or guilt for their actions; they come across as being psychopathic. Serena appears to have no empathy for others whatsoever.

Although the craziness of Pemberton and Serena is a constant presence throughout the book, comic relief is provided by one of the workers at the logging camp. Ross’s shrewd comebacks made me smile more than once. When the fanatical lay preacher, McIntyre, tells the workers that “The only signs you need to follow is in the Bible”, Ross responds with dry humor:

“What about that sign that says No Smoking on the dynamite shed,” Ross noted. “You saying we don’t need to follow that one?” (p. 63)

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I stayed up late to finish reading it because I wanted to know what happened. It really held my attention and that is always a good thing in a book. Ron Rash writes well and I like his gritty style. But some elements of the plot irritated me because of their sheer implausibility such as the old woman who can see the future and helps the Pembertons out with her psychic powers. There is another similarity to Macbeth here: she reminded me of the Macbeth witches and their prophecy.

By the time I finished reading the novel, I felt that the senseless actions of the Pembertons became too over-the-top. They seem one-dimensional because of their sheer lack of compassion for anyone and their obsessive relationship with each other. I hoped that by the end of the novel Rash would elucidate the motivations for Serena’s unrelenting greed and ruthless ambition but he does not dwell on her motives.

A movie adaptation of Serena (Serena at IMDB) is currently in post-production. Jennifer Lawrence plays Serena and Bradley Cooper is Pemberton. At the time of writing this, there is no US release date but it will most likely be released at some point in 2014.

What did you read in August?

Blog challenge recipe #7: Valencia orange cake

It has been way too long since my last Blog Challenge post. Here is numéro siete. This time, I chose a recipe from Spain.

National flag of Spain

Spanish food is amazing and I love tapas dishes but I don’t have much experience with Spanish desserts. So, this past weekend, I did a little research and discovered that orange cake is a popular Spanish treat. And because orange cake sounds so delicious, I baked one using the recipe below. The cake is delicious, full of flavor, with a very rich taste. Here it is!

A slice of Valencia orange cake

Thank you very much to Erica at Comfy Belly for giving me permission to reproduce the recipe text here. I recommend checking out her site (linked above)! I found it when I was searching for an orange cake recipe and will definitely be returning frequently for culinary inspiration and healthy new recipes.

Valencia Orange Cake
(recipe source here)

Ingredients

2 organic Valencia oranges
4 eggs
1 cup of honey
2 cups of blanched almond flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of sea salt

Method

1. Place two whole organic Valencia oranges in a pot with enough water to cover them. Add a tightly sealed lid. The oranges will float, but they should be mostly covered. Simmer them in the pot for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. When you can easily glide a toothpick or fork through them, they are ready. You can add water to them while they are cooking, if necessary.
2. Cool the oranges for a few minutes, slice them into wedges and remove any pits or inedible parts (like the nub where the stem was).
3. Process the oranges until you have a smooth, orange paste without lumps.
4. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. (I bake using a convection oven setting, so I place the temperature at 300 degrees F).
5. To get a slightly lighter cake, separate the egg yolks and egg whites, and then whip the egg whites separately until stiff peaks form.
6. In a bowl, beat eggs (or egg yolks if separated) until well blended, and then beat in the honey and dry ingredients (baking soda, salt, and almond flour).
7. Fold in the almond flour and orange paste into the egg and honey mixture and blend well.
8. If you whipped the egg whites separately, here is where you want to fold the egg whites into the rest of the batter.
9. Use a spring form pan or a well buttered baking pan. Butter or oil the
bottom of the spring form pan. No need to butter the sides of the
spring form pan.
10. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Make sure to bake it thoroughly, especially in the center, or it may settle when it cools. Even if it settles, it still tastes wonderful.
11. Enjoy!