Long before the pandemic, I had to run a dreary paperwork errand in downtown Madrid. It was a rainy day, and after spending an hour on a bus crawling along the Gran Vía and accomplishing my mission, I needed a pick-me-up of some kind. It was late morning, and as I wandered about, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon Desperate Literature, the fantastic international bookshop at Calle Campomanes 13.
I loved the name of the shop, and the fact that it had opened post 2008 economic crisis, like some kind of miracle. It is packed with a beautifully curated selection, and seems like it has been there forever, like Shakespeare & Co in Paris. It is no coincidence that co-owner Terry Craven is a veteran of the classic Parisian store.
Within five minutes of checking out new releases, first editions, and making all kinds of discoveries in English, Spanish and French (they have books in other languages that I can’t read), I had decided this was my favourite new bookstore. There are books for readers of all ages, a children’s corner, first editions of George Orwell. This is truly a glorious independent international bookshop in the heart of Madrid, that not only deals in books but in everything literary. In addition to regular readings and events, in 2019 they hosted Madrid’s first anglophone poetry festival and just launched their fourth literary prize, currently still open for submissions here.
As people await vaccinations and the possibility of travel, it now seems like a particularly apt time to discover some new books, and I can’t think of a better curator than Terry Craven to suggest five of his favourite titles. I am excited to do so, and am going to add one suggestion of my own, only because I discovered it the last time I was at Desperate Literature: The Bloomsbury Cookbook, by Jans Ondatje Rolls. This is a huge, illustrated, fascinating book for anyone interested in the Bloomsbury group, cooking, or both.
Before sharing Craven’s list, let me add that he is also a painter and his artwork is currently on show at Galería Arniches 26, in the Calle Carlos Arniches 26, Madrid. Finally, though the beauty of Desperate Literature is analog vs. digital, i.e. paper and glue books, they do take online orders so please support this multilingual, independent bookstore and explore their selection before shopping elsewhere.
Terry Craven’s Top Five Books:
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
A mediation on living and being in a single place, on merging to the greatest possible extent one’s selfhood with the landscape in which we move. Beautiful and poetic nature writing centred on co-habitation, not conquering.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
A book I come back to again and again. A genre-bending work of ‘auto-theory’ covering desire, identity and the possibilities of language and thought. A true wedding of word and world, the lived experience moving through readings and vice versa. A work that draws in other thinkers and writers, but gives back, too, sending the reader in multiple directions.
Diary of a Film by Niven Govinden
Just out, Diary of a Film is exactly the book I needed to read at the opening of 2021. A book fizzing with energy, the vibrancy of potential and artistic discovery, with the joys and pains of creation, the melancholy of longing, of having given oneself fully, of love. Set during a film festival in the streets of Italy with all the attendant culinary delights, it plays on a cinematic and literary history to produce something truly magnificent.
Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams
Eley Williams’s first collection of short fiction is magnificent. Bending and playing with language, finding the gaps in communication and sitting there. A work on the everyday and the extraordinary alike, and containing maybe the best love story I’ve ever read (‘Smote’).
El mismo mar de todos los veranos by Esther Tusquets
A beautiful, melancholic work of high-modernist writing, taking Spanish (at least to this anglophone’s eyes) to stupendous levels, a stream-of-consciousness meditation of lesbian love, frustration, indifference, the past, inheritance. It’s absolutely heartbreakingly gorgeous. Why this book went out of print beggars belief, and I’d love to see it back on shelves. Also, a cheap english translation is needed!
Soledad Maura is a Professor at Williams College (USA) and a former Senior Fulbright Research Scholar. Her biography of Jorge Semprún was published by Penguin Random House in Spain and by Flammarion in France. Her first novel, Madrid Again, was recently published by Arcade (New York). More at soledadfoxmaura.com. ALSO READ: El Corazón Partío: an interview with author Soledad Maura
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