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Saturday, September 06, 2008

From the Bookshelf

I often feel like I am not learning Spanish well enough or fast enough. In many ways it is the hardest thing I have ever set out to achieve. There is never going to be a finish line nor is anyone going to unfurl a big banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished!” As self-deprecating as I am about my ability to speak my new language, I have been fairly pleased with my rapidly-improving reading ability. I just finished my most productive week of reading in Spanish. One of the things I really like about reading in Spanish is that it is thoroughly quantifiable as far as seeing how hard I am working and how much I have achieved—I just need to count the pages I've read. This week the pages I have read include those making up Carlos Ruiz Zafón's novel, La Sombra del Viento (569 pages!) and the farce by Eduardo Mendoza, Sin Noticias de Gurb (143 pages).

I began reading Sombra last year after returning from a trip to Barcelona where the novel is set. I read about 300 pages, understanding it fairly well until I got bogged down and started getting confused. I was only reading at a rate of about 20 a day back then and I simply got lost in the labyrinthine narrative. This time around I set my goal at 40 pages a day, then upped that pace to 50, and ended by reading more than 100 pages the last two days of reading the novel. I really felt like I had made a quantum leap as I was reading this book which has been a phenomenal bestseller, not only here in Spain but all over the world. It's nice when a great book reaches such a massive audience. If you are looking for something to read, I can't recommend this book highly enough (the English title is The Shadow of the Wind).

In this novel you see shades of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, part suspense novel and part fantasy fiction. He uses Barcelona as one of the characters in the book and I was so glad that I got to know that city a lot better before I started reading. I am warning you now, if you start reading this book make sure you don't have anything pressing on your calendar for a day or two because from the first sentence you will be hooked.

Todavía recuerdo aquel amanecer en que mi padre me llevó por primera vez a visitar el Cementerio del los Libros Olvidados.

(I still remember that morning when my father took me for the first time to visit the Cemetary of Forgotten Books)

Continue reading at your peril, or at least the peril of the other shit you may have been planning to do.

As I said, I began reading Sombra with a 40 page a day goal. I was having so much fun reading that I increased that to 50. It would take me three solid hours to bag my 50 page limit. To achieve this modest reading rate I had to sequester myself to the local Ruzafa branch library, away from noise and distractions. Like everything else in my world here, the library is a mere two blocks from the front door of my building. Besides the peace and quiet, my little library also offers a couple of reference items that I have been using to help me improve my reading skills. I have been wearing out their Spanish dictionary for foreigners, which is a terrific resource for students of the language. It gives simple Spanish definitions for words and then uses the word in a sentence. I also use the Spanish thesaurus. I have had to rebind my Spanish/English dictionary with packing tape as I have thoroughly worn it out through heavy usage. And I keep filling notebooks as I write down every word that I look up along with the definition and the context sentence. If anyone has a better strategy for learning Spanish, please let me know.

Sin Noticias de Gurb is one of those books that you could kick yourself for not thinking of the idea first. It is a diary of messages sent by an extraterrestrial who comes to earth, takes on human form, and dryly narrates what he discovers about life here on earth—or at least life in Barcelona. It is laugh-out-loud funny in many parts and even more so if you happen to be something of an outsider yourself but have been in Spain just long enough to recognize some of the more absurd aspects of modern society. It has been a very entertaining week of reading.

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