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History, Fiction & Biography

If you want to know more about the Arabs' contribution artistically and culturally to Spain as a whole, read Titus Burckhardt's Moorish Culture in Spain (McGraw-Hill).

Spain's most famous artist was Pablo Picasso. The most controversial book about the late painter is Picasso: Creator and Destroyer by Arianna Huffington (Simon & Schuster). Spain's other headline-grabbing artist was Salvador Dalí. In Salvador Dalí: A Biography (Dutton), author Meryle Secrest asks: Was he a mad genius or a cunning manipulator?

Andrés Segovia: An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920 (Macmillan), with a translation by W. F. O'Brien, is worth seeking out.

Denounced by some as superficial, James A. Michener's Iberia (Random House) remains the classic travelogue on Spain. The Houston Post claimed that this book "will make you fall in love with Spain."

The latest biography on one of the 20th century's most durable dictators is Franco: A Concise Biography (Thomas Dunne Books). Gabrielle Ashford Hodges documents with great flair the Orwellian repression and widespread corruption that marked the notorious regime of this "deeply flawed" politician.

The most famous Spanish novel is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Readily available everywhere, it deals with the conflict between the ideal and the real in human nature. Despite the unparalleled fame of Miguel de Cervantes within Spanish literature, very little is known about his life. One of the most searching biographies of the literary master is Jean Canavaggio's Cervantes, translated from the Spanish by J. R. Jones (Norton).

Although the work of Cervantes has attained an almost mystical significance in the minds of many Spaniards, in the words of Somerset Maugham, "It would be hard to find a work so great that has so many defects." Nicholas Wollaston's Tilting at Don Quixote (André Deutsch Publishers) punctures any illusions that the half-crazed Don is only a matter of good and rollicking fun.

Ernest Hemingway completed many works on Spain, none more notable than his novels of 1926 and 1940, respectively: The Sun Also Rises (Scribner) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (Scribner), the latter based on his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Don Ernesto's Death in the Afternoon (various editions) remains the English-language classic on bullfighting.

For an interesting selection of anecdotes and pieces written over the years on the capital, read Madrid: A Travellers Companion (Constable) by Hugh Thomas, author of the classic in depth Spanish Civil War. A more personal view of the city is provided in Elizabeth Nash's highly individual Madrid: A Cultural and Literary Companion, in Signal Books' "Cities of the Imagination" series.

If you want the full lowdown on the monuments and historical background of Castile, check out hispanophile Alistair Boyd's Companion Guide to Madrid and Central Spain (Collins). A succinct and offbeat introduction to the capital's surrounding towns and villages is further provided in (author of this guide) Peter Stone's Madrid Escapes (Santana Books).

If you're interested in checking out the country's 20th-century political and historical background, check out Madrid-based journalist Giles Tremlett's Ghosts of Spain (Walker & Company), U.K. scholar Paul Preston's Franco (Basic Books), and famed researcher Hugh Thomas's revised and enlarged classic The Spanish Civil War (Modern Library).

If you read Spanish, one important book of the moment is the rewarding 2010 biography of Spain's socialist president Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero: El Maquiavelo de Leon (Esfera). Written by a leading Spanish media figure, José García Abad, it should silence all those critics who think of Sr. Zapatero as Spain's buffoonish "Mr. Bean." (Though it has to be admitted there is a certain physical resemblance btw. the two at times.)

Films Set (Mainly) in Madrid

One of the city's most enthusiastic chroniclers on celluloid has been Pedro Almodóvar (Oscar winner in 2002 for the best foreign language movie All About My Mother and whose muse Penélope Cruz was nominated for a Best Actress award in his later film Volver). Though his unique comic vision has not altogether been appreciated by many Madrileños -- who regard his stylish films as perverse kitsch sagas of marginals and neurotics -- atmospheric sub-classics such as Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown and What Have I done to Deserve This? create their own hilarious Madrileño subworld in which the female plays a surprisingly dominant role.

More seriously complex and unsettling are the works of the similar sounding Alejandro Almenábar -- Chilean born but settled in Spain -- who kicked off in the mid-1990s with Tesis (about snuff movies), and followed up with a nightmarish Madrid-based duo: Abre Los Ojos (remade in the States as Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise) and Los Otros (The Others), a supernatural period thriller -- his first in English -- which starred Nicole Kidman. His latest film to date -- set for a change in Galicia -- was the moving Mar Adentro (somewhat bizarrely translated in English-speaking countries as "The Sea Inside"), in which Javier Bardem plays a terminally ill paraplegic patient and the moral dilemma faced by those around him regarding the use or nonuse of euthanasia.

Equally sobering, though more conventionally dramatic, are the social commentary works of Carlos Saura, ranging from his early Los Golfos and De Prisa, De Prisa (both about young Madrileño criminals in the Franco era) to the '90s Taxi (on urban racism in the city). His realistic musical trilogy Carmen, Tango, and Flamenco shows another facet of this leading director's talents.

A leading light in the realms of inventive anarchy is Alex de la Iglesia, whose blackest of black comedies include Día de la Bestia in which a trio of would-be exorcists try to hunt down the Devil in his lair beneath the KIO towers; and La Comunidad, where the inhabitants of a crumbling block of apartments fight for possession of a hidden stash, finally settling their scores in a vertiginous Harold Lloyd-style battle on the city's statue-dotted rooftops.

Last but by no means least, the highly unprolific Victor Erice (with three films in 30 years) created an indelible image of an artist's struggle in the Quince Tree Sun, shot entirely on location in the garden of real life artist Antonio Lopez's own rambling Chamartín house. Strictly for cineastes, this one.

Spanish Classical Music

Three major composers stand out. Isaac Albeñiz, a child prodigy who played in piano concerts at the age of 4, with his Iberia suite; Manuel de Falla, an ascetic Andaluz from Cádiz, for his Three Cornered Hat ballet; and Enrique Granados, with his lively Goyescas.

The most talented musician of modern times was cellist Pablo (Pau) Casals, while today's leading opera singer is Plácido Domingo. In the world of creative folk music the cantautores (singer-songwriters) Joan Manuel Serrat and Joaquin Sabina are generally rated the two best working today. And in the world of flamenco dance the charismatic Sara Baras, who has made several world tours, is the most genial and talented performer of the moment.

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