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Two Books About Haiti

I have noticed of late that a few reading friends tend to theme the books which they read, choosing several about the same topic and reading them in quick succession.  Having been granted two galleys about Haiti at around the same time, I thought that I would read them back to back, for what I hoped would be an immersive cultural experience.  One of the books, Roxane Gay’s Ayiti, is a short story collection, and the other, Maps Are Lines We Draw by Alison Coffelt, is a travel memoir.

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Ayiti by Roxane Gay ****
I have heard nothing but praise for Roxane Gay, and this collection of tales set entirely in Haiti – ‘a place run through with pain’ – really appealed to me.  Ayiti is accurately described in its blurb as ‘a powerful collection exploring the Haitian diaspora experience’.  Some of the stories included are little more than vignettes, or fragments of tales, examining one or two elements of the migrant experience, and covering just a couple of pages.  Others are much longer, and have a lot of depth to them.

Gay’s prose has a sensual vivacity to it.  The second story, ‘About My Father’s Accent’, for example, begins: ‘He knows it’s there.  He knows it’s thick, thicker even than my mother’s.  He’s been on American soil for nearly thirty years, but his voice sounds like Port-au-Prince, the crowded streets, the blaring horns, the smell of grilled meat and roasting corn, the heat, thick and still.’

Many themes are touched upon and tackled here.  Gay writes about racism, misconceptions about the Haitian culture, superstition, medicine, tradition, sex and sexuality, violence, crime, the changing face of Haiti over time, and the family unit.  The stories in Ayiti are emotive and thought-provoking; every single story, no matter its length, is memorable, and there is a real power to the collection.

 

Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Roadtrip Through Haiti by Allison Coffelt ** cover127304-medium
Throughout Maps Are Lines We Draw, Allison Coffelt rather briefly details a trip which she takes across Haiti, along with Dr. Jean Gardy Marius, founder of the public health organisation OSAPO.  In Haiti, she writes, ‘she embarked on a life-changing journey that would weave Haiti’s proud, tumultuous history and present reality into her life forever.’

Maps Are Lines We Draw is rather a short travel memoir, told using an entirely fragmented style which weaves together experiences from Coffelt’s trip, childhood memories, and many facts about Haiti.  Whilst it was interesting enough to read about her trip, there was quite a jarring edge to the structure.  I found it quite bitty and inconsistent due to the seemingly randomly placed fragments of thought and memory.  The author uses a lot of quotes from various guides, but there is rarely an exploration of them; rather, they feel like random appendages which have been placed willy-nilly in order to make up a wordcount in a GCSE essay.  At several points, it read simply like a factbook.

I love the fragmented style of prose when it is used in fiction, but I do not feel as though it works well with regard to non-fiction.  There needs to be an overarching, controlled structure for works such as this.  Only the sections on Haiti’s history have been approached well.  Whilst Maps Are Lines We Draw is enlightening in some ways, it is markedly problematic and frustrating in others.

 

 

I have very much enjoyed my first deliberate experience of reading two books with very similar subject matter, despite enjoying one far more than the other!  Is this something that you personally do often?  Do you have any books along the same themes, or about the same topic or geographical location, which you would recommend reading one after the other?  Would you like to see more twinned reviews like this on the blog?

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‘The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall’ by Charlie English ****

I had been itching to read The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall by Charlie English since I purchased it back in August 2017.  I felt that it would be best saved until late Autumn as a seasonal read, and it proved the perfect tome to settle down with in the fading afternoon light of November.

9781846270642Metro calls The Snow Tourist a ‘wonder and a delight’, and Joanna Kavenna deems it ‘an enchanting tale of one man’s search for snow, a report on the precarious state of our extreme climates, an evocative poem to lost childhood winters…’.  Robert Macfarlane says that The Snow Tourist is ‘a finely written and many-sided account of the fascination – both fearful and loving – that we have for snow.’  Wanderlust compares English’s ‘easy-going narrative style’ to Bill Bryson’s, which endeared me to it even further.

In The Snow Tourist, Charlie English has travelled all over the world, over a period of a few years, to find snow.  He begins in his home city of London, and journeys to such places as Vermont, Austria, and the Inuit-inhabited lands of northern Canada.  English certainly has part of an old-fashioned explorer within him; he seems fascinated with everything he sees, and everyone he meets, despite the odd wobbles he encounters due to the extreme cold.

Of his choice to undertake the journeys detailed in The Snow Tourist, he writes: ‘every autumn now my thoughts return to snow.  Snow is something I identify myself with.  Like my father, I am a snow person.’  This inheritance, passed down from his father, is all the more important to English, as his father committed suicide when he was just ten years old.  English goes on to detail his hopes for his travels: ‘The expedition I decided upon one grey day in London consisted of a series of journeys linked by a single natural form – snow.  I would travel to the best snow in the world, discover how people lived with snow, and what they did with it.  As on previous expeditions, the principal objective would be the journey itself, the knowledge and experiences I would gather, and the people I would meet along the way.’

The Snow Tourist is filled with startling facts and conjectures.  English writes, for instance, that ‘someone once estimated that a million billion snow crystals were created around the earth every second, in a jumble of shapes and sizes, from simple hexagonal prisms to flat plates and many-footed stars.’  English also explores such things as the history of skiing.

English intersperses his travels, and writing about those whom he encounters, with memories of snow from his own childhood.  He remembers the following, rather touching moment: ‘A Super-8 film shows me and my brother being towed on the back of a sledge to a famous local hill, Granny’s Bump.  My father is in his wellington boots, red weekend trousers and Norwegian fisherman’s jumper.  My mother is wrapped in a long padded coat, with a woollen hat.  My brother and I wobble about on the sledge and fall off as they haul us along by a rope.  Watching it again now, these three flickering minutes give me a sense of warmth and loss, of nostalgie de la neige.’  Throughout, there is a near-perfect balance struck between facts and personal experience.

The Snow Tourist is engaging and fascinating from the outset, and English’s chatty yet informative prose style makes his book accessible to all.  The travelogue is reflective yet up to the minute, detailing the effects which climate change has had upon some of the snowiest places on earth, and how rapidly the snowfall which some of us live with for many months of the year is beginning to melt way ahead of expected time.  There is an awareness throughout of ways in which snow is changing, and how this affects different cultures which rely upon it.  A lot of historical detail has also been included – for instance, the history of Western snow science.  The ‘Dictionary of Snow’ included as an appendix is a lovely touch, and provides a lot of interesting facts to retain, as well as a slew of different words for different kinds of snow.

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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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‘The Year of Living Danishly’ by Helen Russell ****

I have been coveting Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly since its publication.  I am a fan of all things Scandinavian, and loved Copenhagen when I visited a few years ago.  Whilst the rest of Denmark is on my to-visit list, I have so many trips planned at present that I probably won’t get to go back for a few years at least.  I therefore thought that it would be a good idea to scour bookshops for a copy of The Year of Living Danishly to (hopefully) sate my interest in booking another trip to the beautiful country.  (Of course, this could have backfired, but thankfully it did not!)

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The whole of The Year of Living Danishly has been simply but cleverly structured, following a calendar year from January to December.  This begins with Russell and her husband, ‘Lego Man’, moving to a tiny coastal town in rural Jutland, where Lego Man receives a dream job offer to work at Lego HQ.  The Year of Living Danishly was written as a project of sorts for journalist Russell, who had to resign from her full-time job at Marie Claire magazine to move.  She tied this in with the many polls and surveys which have deemed Denmark the world’s happiest country: ‘I decided I would set out to discover the key to getting happy in every area of modern life.  I would learn something new each month and make changes to my own life accordingly.  I was embarking on a personal and professional quest to discover what makes Danes feel so great.  The result would, I hoped, be a blueprint for a lifetime of contentment.  The happiness project had begun’.

Each chapter within the book deals with a different experience of Danish life.  January is devoted to the trendy concept of hygge, and how one can introduce hyggelig elements into their life.  There are sections devoted to Danish industries, designers, and childcare, and much about the pastry for which the country is famous.  Practical issues, as well as necessities of making such a move, from obtaining Danish identity cards to setting up bank accounts, and finding the words for the most simple of concepts (the supermarket, the library) have been included.

I love travelogues in which the author has moved to an entirely different, sometimes even alien, country, and relays their experiences of adapting to a new life.  Russell’s in particular is one of the most readable which I have come across to date; her writing style is both chatty and informed, to the extent that it feels as though you are settling down with a good friend when reading. Russell’s writing is often quite light, but in a refreshing way.  The prose style helps to balance the many facts which have been crammed into its pages, as well as the interviews with those experts whom Russell seeks out to discuss certain aspects of Danish life, from education to religion.

What overwhelmingly comes through on the page is Russell’s eagerness to adapt to her new life, and the relief which she feels when getting away from her previous, stressful North London lifestyle.  Whilst uncertainty, of course, begins to creep in once the couple land, and the force of the move becomes apparent, one gets the sense throughout that Russell is still trying to make the most of the place in which she finds herself.  She gives a fascinating glimpse into a different culture, and the pride and patriotism which Danes have.  The Year of Living Danishly is both interesting and insightful, and will be invaluable for anyone considering such an upheaval in their own lives, as well as the perfect transportative tome for the armchair traveller.

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‘The Palace of the Snow Queen’ by Barbara Sjoholm *****

‘A Frequent traveler to Northern Europe, Barbara Sjoholm set off one winter to explore a region that had long intrigued her. Sjoholm first travels to Kiruna, Sweden, to see the Icehotel under construction and to meet the ice artists who make its rooms into environmental art. Traveling to the North Cape, she encounters increasing darkness and cold, but also radiant light over the mountains and snow fields. She crosses the Finnmark Plateau by dogsled, attends a Sami film festival (with an outdoor ice screen), and visits Santa’s Post Office in Finland. Over the course of three winters, Sjoholm unearths the region’s rich history, including the culture of the Sami. As Sjoholm becomes more familiar with Kiruna, she writes of the changes occurring in northern Scandinavia and contemplates the tensions between tourism, the expansion of mining and development of the Ice Hotel, and age-old patterns of land use, the Sami’s struggle to maintain their reindeer grazing lands and migration routes.’

I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle.  Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.  9781593761592

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things.  She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past.  Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account.  It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further.  The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.

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