0

‘The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova’ by Paul Strathern **

With many of us dreaming about foreign shores, it seems on the face of it that The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova offers a myriad of information to the discerning traveller. Strathern outlines in his introduction that he has attempted to describe Venice’s most famous inhabitants ‘against the background of events that over the centuries forged and finally destroyed the most powerful of all Mediterranean cities’.

9781845951924Its premise is fascinating, but sadly it does not always deliver. Its introduction is incredibly short and only covers two printed pages. Whilst it is informative on the whole, there is no real reasoning which Strathern gives for wanting to undertake such a project, which is a shame as such a personal addition would have been a nice touch to the volume. The book has been split into four separate sections – ‘Expansion’, ‘The Imperial Age’, ‘The Long Decline’ and ‘Dissolution and Fall’, and it begins in 1295 with Marco Polo. Strathern has used quotes from additional sources throughout, ranging from the thoughts of Marco Polo and the unnamed ‘man to whom Polo would one day dictate the story of his travels’, to Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus and Dante Alighieri.

The historical background of Venice is set out well, and Strathern features early cases of germ warfare, slavery, a dearth of manpower in fields and homes, the doges of Venice, Cretan rebellions and travel in and out of the city. The overriding focus in the book, however, is upon battles, warfare and the use of the Navy. Whilst this is evidently important in terms of Venice as a whole, this aspect feels rather overdone. In rather an ironic consequence, The Spirit of Venice does not present the spirit of the city as well as it could.

Whilst The Spirit of Venice is an interesting volume for the most part, it feels overly academic in its style, and is rather bogged down in small details, some of which do not hold much importance in the grand scheme of things. The writing can feel dense, and at times the reader has to wade through its pages. Sadly it is rather a weighty tome and is probably not the easiest book to cart around with you whilst on your trip, but it is one which can be dipped into beforehand. As far as history books pertaining to Venice go, this is rather interesting at times, but there must be far more accessible tomes ot there, which may even be lightweight enough to take with you on your travels.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Advertisements
1

Holiday Reading: The Cruise Edition

I am yet to finalise my holiday reading lists this year, but as part of my boyfriend and I’s trip to Florida in September, we have also booked a Caribbean and Latin American cruise.  I have read very little literature set in and around the countries and islands we are visiting, so I thought I would create a little list to hopefully pick from when it comes to choosing my holiday books.  I have tried to only choose two or three books per place so as not to make the list unmanageable, but for the Cayman Islands particularly, very few of the books set there personally appealed.

1. Cayman Islands

Founded Upon the Seas: A History of the Cayman Islands and Their People by 2533820Michael Craton
‘This book is the first comprehensive history of the Cayman Islands. Researched and written by the noted Caribbean Historian Michael Craton and the Cayman Islands New History Committee, it explores in detail the social, economic and political history of all three islands.  Researched, written edited and designed over a 6-year period, this book is in several respects a national history. The text and illustrations encompass the most important subjects, facts and events in Cayman History and its analysis of the main currents in Cayman’s past is addressed to the reader from a standpoint that is simultaneously modern, scholarly and Caymanian. Based on a wealth of information drawn from archives and libraries in the Caribbean, Europe and North America, the text is illustrated with rare maps, facsimile documents and numerous historical photographs.’

 

2. Roatan (Honduran island)

130520The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
In a breathtaking adventure story, the paranoid and brilliant inventor Allie Fox takes his family to live in the Honduran jungle, determined to build a civilization better than the one they’ve left. Fleeing from an America he sees as mired in materialism and conformity, he hopes to rediscover a purer life. But his utopian experiment takes a dark turn when his obsessions lead the family toward unimaginable danger.

 

Clementina Suarez: Her Life and Poetry by Janet N. Gold 2948768
Clementina Suárez (1902-91), the legendary matriarch of Honduran letters, scandalized Central American society with her bohemian lifestyle, her passionate woman-centered poetry, and her dedicated and unconventional promotion of art and literature.  This first biography of the notorious poet follows her life from the family home in an isolated rural province of Honduras to New York, Mexico, Cuba, and El Salvador, placing her in the company of some of the major figures of twentieth-century Latin American cultural and political life.  Using layers of rich sources–interviews with Suárez and her daughters and sisters conducted during a year’s stay in Honduras, recollections and written tributes of friends and artists, and archival material from public and private collections in Central America–Janet Gold weaves together the story of a writer who stubbornly chose to live as she pleased, with a well-balanced discussion of the social and cultural climate of twentieth-century Central America.  In Gold’s words, she paints a portrait of “haciendas and cantinas, mule trips to Tegucigalpa, and poetry recitals in the National Theatre. . . . posing for Diego Rivera, partying with Pablo Neruda and Miguel Angel Asturias, writing poems about sexuality and political commitment.”  In the Honduran psyche, Suárez has played the roles of liberated woman, fallen woman, femme fatale, prostitute, broken-hearted lover, muse, revolutionary poet, and respected woman of letters.  The process of reconciling the conflicting stories about Suárez with her personal response to this extraordinary woman enriched Gold’s task as a feminist biographer and led her to examine and appreciate the complex nature of “life writing.”  The result is this portrait of a woman poet that brings to life the person yet leaves the legend intact.

 

9780801477294The Broken Village: Coffee, Migration, and Globalization in Honduras by Daniel R. Reichman
‘In The Broken Village, Daniel R. Reichman tells the story of a remote village in Honduras that transformed almost overnight from a sleepy coffee-growing community to a hotbed of undocumented migration to and from the United States. The small village–called here by the pseudonym La Quebrada–was once home to a thriving coffee economy. Recently, it has become dependent on migrants working in distant places like Long Island and South Dakota, who live in ways that most Honduran townspeople struggle to comprehend or explain. Reichman explores how the new “migration economy” has upended cultural ideas of success and failure, family dynamics, and local politics.  During his time in La Quebrada, Reichman focused on three different strategies for social reform–a fledgling coffee cooperative that sought to raise farmer incomes and establish principles of fairness and justice through consumer activism; religious campaigns for personal morality that were intended to counter the corrosive effects of migration; and local discourses about migrant “greed” that labeled migrants as the cause of social crisis, rather than its victims. All three phenomena had one common trait: They were settings in which people presented moral visions of social welfare in response to a perceived moment of crisis. The Broken Village integrates sacred and secular ideas of morality, legal and cultural notions of justice, to explore how different groups define social progress.

 

3. Belize

Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet 10955031
Hal is a mild-mannered IRS bureaucrat who suspects that his wife is cheating with her younger, more virile coworker. At a drunken dinner party, Hal volunteers to fly to Belize in search of Susan’s employer, T.—the protagonist of Lydia Millet’s much-lauded novel How the Dead Dream—who has vanished in a tropical jungle, initiating a darkly humorous descent into strange and unpredictable terrain.  Salon raved that Millet’s “writing is always flawlessly beautiful, reaching for an experience that precedes language itself.” In Ghost Lights, she combines her characteristic wit and a sharp eye for the weirdness that governs human (and nonhuman) interactions. With the scathing satire and tender honesty of Sam Lipsyte and a dark, quirky, absurdist style reminiscent of Joy Williams, Millet has created a comic, startling, and surprisingly philosophical story about idealism and disillusionment, home and not home, and the singular, heartbreaking devotion of parenthood.

 

213258Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve by Alan Rabinowitz
In 1983, zoologist Alan Rabinowitz ventured into the rain forest of Belize, determined to study the little-known jaguar in its natural habitat and to establish the world’s first jaguar preserve. Within two years, he had succeeded. In Jaguar he provides the only first-hand account of a scientist’s experience with jaguars in the wild. Jaguar presents an irresistible blend of natural history and adventure; intensely personal, it is a portrait of an elusive, solitary predator and the Mayas with which it shares the jungle. Strong and sensitive, the book excitingly describes the rewards and hardships of fighting to protect this almost mythical cat.

 

An Anthology of Belizean Literature, edited by Victor Manuel Duran 13774118
This unique anthology utilizes the predominant themes of western literature to chronicle the prose and poetry of Belize. For this text, the editor has selected the original works of Belizean writers written in the four principle languages of the country: English, Creole, Spanish, and Garifuna. Via the many genres of Belizean literature, the work is able to recount in depth the history, struggles, colonial exploitation, and myths of the Belizeans as they strive for freedom and as they search for their identity. This anthology is a unique and important addition to the canon of Latin American Literature. It provides a greater understanding of the culture, history, and people of this small but linguistically diverse country in the heart of Central America. This anthology is essential to any course in Latin American literature.

 

4. Cozumel (Mexican island)

56899Aura by Carlos Fuentes
Felipe Montero is employed in the house of an aged widow to edit her deceased husband’s memoirs. There Felipe meets her beautiful green-eyed niece, Aura. His passion for Aura and his gradual discovery of the true relationship between the young woman and her aunt propel the story to its extraordinary conclusion.

 

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea 5970496
Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the United States to find work. Recently, it has dawned on her that he isn’t the only man who has left town. In fact, there are almost no men in the village–they’ve all gone north. While watching The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides to go north herself and recruit seven men–her own “Siete Magníficos”–to repopulate her hometown and protect it from the bandidos who plan on taking it over.  Filled with unforgettable characters and prose as radiant as the Sinaloan sun, Into the Beautiful North is the story of an irresistible young woman’s quest to find herself on both sides of the fence.

 

25517Malinche by Laura Esquivel
This is an extraordinary retelling of the passionate and tragic love between the conquistador Cortez and the Indian woman Malinalli, his interpreter during his conquest of the Aztecs. Malinalli’s Indian tribe has been conquered by the warrior Aztecs. When her father is killed in battle, she is raised by her wisewoman grandmother who imparts to her the knowledge that their founding forefather god, Quetzalcoatl, had abandoned them after being made drunk by a trickster god and committing incest with his sister. But he was determined to return with the rising sun and save her tribe from their present captivity. When Malinalli meets Cortez she, like many, suspects that he is the returning Quetzalcoatl, and assumes her task is to welcome him and help him destroy the Aztec empire and free her people. The two fall passionately in love, but Malinalli gradually comes to realize that Cortez’s thirst for conquest is all too human, and that for gold and power, he is willing to destroy anyone, even his own men, even their own love.

 

Women With Big Eyes by Ángeles Mastretta 2008413
Women with Big Eyes is Mexican novelist Ángeles Mastretta’s most widely read work, now available for the first time in an English translation. Each of the stories in Women with Big Eyes reveals a different woman, yet they are linked by a single thread: the uniting revelation that women share an unnamed force, whether it comes in the form of iron resolve, flaming passion, or simply the knowing and mystical ways to nurture a soul.   Mastretta’s women are vibrant, sly, wise, earthy, and full of life, with stories that mesmerize. From these pages, they gaze at you, into you, each representing an aspect of what it means to be a woman with big eyes-able to see the world for what it is, to wink at it, and to make an uncompromising life within it.  Ángeles Mastretta is a delightful storyteller, and these tales are shot through with sex and laughter. Women with Big Eyes makes a perfect, exquisite gift for any woman with a passionate heart and radiant eyes.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which would you recommend?  Are there any other books set in any of the places above which you feel should be on my list?

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Oxford Book of War Poetry – edited by Jon Stallworthy *****

I always mark Remembrance Sunday by reading some semblance of war poems.  This year, I decided to read the marvellous Oxford Book of War Poetry for the umpteenth time, focusing solely upon those featured which were written during the First World War.  This book features some of my absolute favourite poets (Alfred Lord Tennyson, John McCrae, Wilfred Owen, etc.), and spans from battles outlined in the Bible and an extract from Homer’s Iliad, to present day conflicts.  It is, I think, the most marvellous and extensive collection of themed poetry which exists.

My favourite poems from the First World War in this collection are: ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke, ‘Into Battle’ by Julian Grenfell, ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae, ‘All the hills and vales…’ by Charles Sorley, ‘Range-Finding’ by Robert Frost, ‘Calligram, 15 May 1915’ by Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Reprisals’ by W.B. Yeats, ‘The Hero’ by Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Glory of Women’ by Siegfried Sassoon, ‘In Memoriam’ by Edward Thomas, ‘The Cherry Trees’ by Edward Thomas, ‘Rain’ by Edward Thomas, ‘As the team’s head brass’ by Edward Thomas, ‘To His Love’ by Ivor Gurney, ‘The Silent One’ by Ivor Gurney, ‘On Receiving News of the War’ by Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ by Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ by Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Returning, We Hear the Larks’ by Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’by Wilfred Owen, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Exposure’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Insensibility’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘The Send-Off’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Strange Meeting’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Two Voices’ by Edmund Blunden, ‘Winter Warfare’ by Edgell Rickword, ‘My sweet old etcetera…’ by e.e. cummings, ‘next to of course god…’ by e.e. cummings, ‘i sing of Olaf’ by e.e. cummings, ‘In the Dordogne’ by John Peale Bishop, ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon and ‘Rouen’ by May Wedderburn Cannan.

I shall end with one of the poems I mentioned above, ‘Winter Warfare’ by Edgell Rickword.

Colonel Cold strode up the Line
(tabs of rime and spurs of ice);
stiffened all that met his glare:
horses, men and lice.

Visited a forward post,
left them burning, ear to foot;
fingers stuck to biting steel,
toes to frozen boot.

Stalked on into No Man’s Land,
turned the wire to fleecy wool,
iron stakes to sugar sticks
snapping at a pull.

Those who watched with hoary eyes
saw two figures gleaming there;
Hauptmann Kalte, colonel old,
gaunt in the grey air.

Stiffly, tinkling spurs they moved,
glassy-eyed, with glinting heel
stabbing those who lingered there
torn by screaming steel.

Colonel Cold strode up the Line
(tabs of rime and spurs of ice);
stiffened all that met his glare:
horses, men and lice.

Visited a forward post,
left them burning, ear to foot;
fingers stuck to biting steel,
toes to frozen boot.

Stalked on into No Man’s Land,
turned the wire to fleecy wool,
iron stakes to sugar sticks
snapping at a pull.

Those who watched with hoary eyes
saw two figures gleaming there;
Hauptmann Kalte, colonel old,
gaunt in the grey air.

Stiffly, tinkling spurs they moved,
glassy-eyed, with glinting heel
stabbing those who lingered there
torn by screaming steel.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology’ – edited by Tim Kendall ****

Oxford World’s Classics’ beautifully produced Poetry of the First World War is one of the most important and far-reaching anthologies to have been published in this, World War One’s centenary year.  In his introduction, Kendall, the book’s editor, writes: ‘this anthology represents the work of poets who lived through the First World War, from Thomas Hardy, 74 at war’s outbreak and the unrivalled elder statesman of English letters, to [John] Edgell Rickword, 58 years his junior, who left school to enlist in 1916’.

Kendall’s introduction works well, and his passion about First World War poetry comes across immediately.  He states that he has tried to include poems which are as diverse as possible, making room for those written by the following throughout: ‘Men and women, soldiers and civilians, patriots and pacifists – the poets of the First World War came in all forms’. Kendall describes the way in which, ‘during the First World War, poetry became established as the barometer for the nation’s values: the greater the civilization, the greater its poetic heritage’.  He then goes on to say that ‘pride in their nation’s literary achievements was a common ingredient in the patriotism of soldiers and civilians alike’.

Kendall has made well considered contributions to Poetry of the First World War, and successfully encompasses writers – all from Britain and Ireland, mind – from all walks of life.  The poems which he has selected were penned between 1914 and 1966.  He has also included something a little different; a selection of Music Hall and trench songs relating to, or prevalent at the time of, the conflict.  The dates in which the poems were written – often very precise – have been included too; this is an important yet simple piece of information which is so often missing from poetry anthologies.

As with all Oxford World’s Classics editions, a wealth of important contributory information has been included, from an extensive selection of informative notes, to a large bibliography.  Each poet’s introduction begins with a comprehensive biography, the majority of which relates heavily to their place within the First World War, and all of which have been carefully written.  The chronology of war poets and the conflict which has been provided is a useful tool.

As with most collections of this nature, there is an imbalance between the showcased poets and the number of their poems included; here there are ten by Thomas Hardy and seventeen by Ivor Gurney, for example, but only one from the likes of established names such as A.E. Housman, Lawrence Binyon and David Jones.  Poetry of the First World War is still, however, a very enjoyable, thought-provoking and well considered collection, which deserves a place on every bookshelf.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Only Remembered’, edited by Michael Morpurgo ***

‘Only Remembered’ (Jonathan Cape)

Only Remembered, edited by Michael Morpurgo, is part of what will undoubtedly be swathes of First World War-based literature and non-fiction published in this, its centenary year.  This particular volume is aimed at children, and has been illustrated by Ian Beck.  The book’s subtitle states that it presents ‘powerful words and pictures about the war that changed our world’.

A wealth of different takes on and elements of importance in the conflict can be found within the pages of Only Remembered.  Many different sources have been used as inspiration too, from poems to extracts from comic books like ‘Charley’s War’, and from musings about what it would have been like to be a pilot in the RAF, to a critique of the trench-produced newspaper, ‘The Wipers Times’.  Famous contributors can be found amongst the ranks – politician Lord Paddy Ashdown, actors Joanna Lumley, Tony Robinson and Emma Thompson, and writers Richard Curtis and Jacqueline Wilson, the former children’s laureate.  Oddly enough, there is no material here which has been penned by Michael Morpurgo, despite the novels which he has set against the backdrop of the First World War.

Whilst some of the contributions are rather simply written – to suit a much younger audience, one feels – others feel far more poetic and well-rounded.  Actor Jeremy Irvine, for example, talks about fighter planes ‘jousting in the sky… a chivalry that couldn’t be found in the bloody slaughter of trench warfare on the ground’.  The random ordering of the work suits the style of the book, as does the way in which the authors have adopted different styles to present their information.  Some of the contributions take the form of mini essays, which show how the war impacted upon those who fought within it.  Others merely introduce poems and comics by using just a paragraph or two.  In this way, the book does tend to feel a little uneven.

Only Remembered hascertainly had a modern twist put upon it at some points.  In one of the first contributions in the book, Shami Chakrabarti, who introduces Wilfred Owen’s haunting poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, refers to the poet as ‘perhaps… an original “emo”‘.  I found this an incredibly odd analogy, and hoped that the rest of the book would not follow the same pattern.  Thankfully it does not, and all of the other personalities who have contributed do seem to take the First World War a lot more seriously.

There is certainly some thought-provoking work of quality here, and my favourite pieces were Jeremy Irvine writing about fighter pilots, Richard Curtis talking about the World War One-based sketch on Blackadder, and Jacqueline Wilson’s musings on author Noel Streatfeild’s war.  To conclude, Only Remembered is quite a short book, but it feels as though it will be an important one, which is sure to answer questions that children may have about the conflict.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘The Haunted Life and Other Writings’ by Jack Kerouac ***

The late Jack Kerouac, most well known for his stream of consciousness novel On the Road, had many previously unpublished fragments to his name, which have been collected together within The Haunted Life and Other Writings. The work within its pages has been separated into three different sections – the first is comprised of ‘The Haunted Life’, a relatively short work, Part Two consists of various sketches and reflections, and the final segment is entitled ‘Jack and Leo Kerouac’.

The selection has been edited by Todd Tietchen, who is also the author of the book’s rather long introduction, ‘Jack Kerouac’s Ghosts’. Tietchen’s introduction is nicely written and rather informative, setting out as it does the start of Kerouac’s friendships with the likes of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and the more important elements of his life and writing. Tietchen believes that the thing which ‘emerges from these writings is an image of the young Kerouac as a careful and thorough drafter of his ideas, committed to an artistic process that does much to refute the public perception of Kerouac as a spontaneous word-slinger whose authorial approach merely complemented his Dionysian approach to life’.

The title story, ‘The Haunted Life’, is not stylistically similar to the majority of Kerouac’s work; it is built largely of dialogue and conventional prose, and talks mainly about America – her history, her political situation, the many races which she consists of, and the influence of President Roosevelt.

As each section or inclusion here tends to be quite short, the entirety does feel like rather a mismatched collection at times. Often, there are no threads of cohesion which link one entry to the next. Whilst some of the considerations within the title story and the essay fragments are interesting, nothing is quite long enough to render it memorable.

Purchase from The Book Depository