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‘The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 11: True Stories from Around the World’, edited by Lavinia Spalding ****

The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 11 felt like a fantastic choice to read on holiday; I did so whilst sheltering in a hotel room in Miami from Hurricane Irma, in fact.  Lavinia Spalding has already edited several of the volumes in the Best Women’s Travel Writing collection, and the eleventh is the most recent.

In her introduction, Spalding comes up with the following, and rather lovely, allegory.   During the editing process of the book, she ‘came to the conclusion that to be good travelers, we must embody the qualities of water: its beauty, strength, mutability, fluidity, and determination.  We need its capacity to ebb and flow; to permeate the most hidden and unreachable places; to soften and smooth what it moves against; to carve a path through seemingly impenetrable obstacles; to change form, and allow itself to be changed.’

The women featured in this collection, who have travelled all over the world for many 25785280different reasons, write about a lot of places which I have personally been to, and many more which are destinations on my future travel list (which is, frankly, enormous).  They use travel as a means of escape, or a means of belonging; of finding themselves, or of knowing themselves better.  They travel for work, for love, or for pleasure.  What was great about making my way through the chosen essays here is that they have all been randomly ordered; thus, you can flit from one continent to another, and then back again in the space of three entries.  Some of the destinations are repeated, as one might expect with such a collection, but every story feels fresh and new regardless.

The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume II is both fascinating and current.  Zora O’Neill’s essay,  ‘On the Migrant Trail’, for instance, describes her choosing at random the same journey from Turkey to Greece that ‘hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan’ take.  There is a wonderful honesty which shines through in many of these meaningful essays, and every single author shows just how rewarding having a sense of adventure and a valid passport can be.

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‘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.

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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?

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‘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.

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