Bookshelf (Spring 1994)

The best new and recent books about the Caribbean

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The 1994 issue of the Caribbean Islands Handbook (ed. Ben Box and Sarah Cameron, Trade & Travel Publications in the UK, Passport Books in the US) was released late last year; at 866 pages, still lightweight and hard-covered, covering in hard detail virtually every island in the Caribbean that anyone is likely to set foot on, this is tremendous value at £14.95.

Macmillan Caribbean has released new editions of two of its popular Caribbean travel guides: Antigua and Barbuda: Heart of the Caribbean, by Brian Dyde, and Nevis: Queen of the Caribees by Joyce Gordon. Like most of the titles in this series, these two guides try to combine good background material with hard factual information for travellers on the ground. Macmillan’s photo souvenirs continue with Islands in the Sun: Eastern Caribbean Highlights by Chris and Joyce Huxley (regular contributors to this magazine), 48 pages of handsome photographs from the US and British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, St Maarten, St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, Dominica, St Lucia, Barbados, St Vincent, the Grenadines and Grenada.

Macmillan’s environmental coverage is usefully extended by Fauna of the Caribbean: The Last Survivors, by Lesley Sutty, which focuses attention on the range of endangered species in the Caribbean and should be widely read, not least by government ministries. Sean Carrington’s Wild Plants of Barbados is a well-illustrated reference book, also from Macmillan, with colour photographs of 200 of the 520 species listed and described.


Anyone who doubts the international appeal of Caribbean food and drink should note how the market is awash with Caribbean cookbooks. Penguin has reissued one of the most solid titles, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz’s Caribbean Cooking, first published 20 years ago and going strong. A fascinating range of titles is coming too from The Crossing Press in Freedom, California. They include a general survey of popular recipes (Island Cooking: Recipes from the Caribbean, by Jamaican Dunstan Harris), a volume for the sweet of tooth (Caribbean Desserts, by John DeMers), a book of slightly offbeat recipes from the Caribbean and the Pacific (Jay Solomon’s A Taste of the Tropics), and specialist books on the cooking of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago (Jerk: Barbecue from Jamaica by Helen Willinsky, and Callaloo, Calypso & Carnival: The Cuisines of Trinidad and Tobago, by Dave DeWitt and Mary Jane Wilan).


The latest additions to Heinemann’s well-established Caribbean Writers series come from Jamaican writers, all women and producing fine, sharp fiction about contemporary Jamaican life. Mint Tea is a first collection of short stories — gentle, sensitive, poignant — from Christine Craig, who now lives in Florida and has already published children’s books, short fiction and poetry. The stories examine the emotional lives of a wide range of characters. An impoverished mother sees her son beaten by the police, a retired school teacher “adopts” an abandoned and disturbed orphan, a smart Kingston suburb succumbs to the manipulations of metropolitan visitors, an eccentric English professor faces self-revelation and breakdown. Despair and dislocation are balanced by Craig’s gentle irony and her evocation of the Jamaican landscape.

Me Dying Trial is a first novel from Patricia Powell set in the rural Jamaica of the late sixties and early seventies, and traces the painful choices made by Gwennie, an unqualified teacher. Unhappily married, she leaves her husband and family behind and exchanges the drudgery of her life for work as a domestic in America. Written in modified Jamaican dialect and peopled by unforgettable characters, the book captures the anguish of the modem Caribbean emigrant.

The Roads are Down is a slim but subtly powerful first novel from Jamaican economist Vanessa Spence, who was named after her great-aunt Vanessa Bell of Bloomsbury Group fame. It tells of young, independent, professional Katherine living in the Blue Mountains above Kingston and her unlikely affair with a middle-aged married American. Using Katherine and her mercenary friend Carla as alternating narrators, Spence presents a laconic vignette of contemporary middle class Jamaican life.


Michael Holding with Tony Cozier (West Indies Publishing, Jamaica, 1993)

The Jamaican fast bowler Michael Holding was one of the most formidable players cricket has ever seen, a one-man wrecking machine. It was the English umpire Dickie Bird who, watching his long run-up, called him “whispering death”. In this book, Holding looks back over his career: his Jamaican childhood, his involvement with the Australian magnate Kerry Packer who tried to turn traditional cricket upside down, and his key role in the spectacular West Indies dominance of the cricketing world under Clive Lloyd. There’s plenty of interesting material on other players and on cricketing issues from apartheid to neutral umpires. It’s good to see an attractive paperback autobiography of a major Caribbean sportsman coming from a Caribbean publisher, the enterprising West Indies Publishing in Kingston.

CARIBBEAN CARESSES SERIES (Heinemann, from 1993)

Mills & Boon long ago understood the popular appeal of light, romantic formula fiction. Now Heinemann has applied the idea to the Caribbean, and has launched a new series of light romances set against the backdrop of Caribbean sunsets, beaches and Carnivals. The first six titles were released late last year. Girl meets boy in the heady atmosphere of Carnival time in Valerie Belgrave’s Sun Valley Romance, beautiful Betty is courted by three attractive men in Dorothy Jolly’s Heartache & Roses, and a mysterious and influential consultant comes into Erica’s life in Deidre Allan’s Fantasy of Love. In Lyn-Anne Ali’s Hand in Hand, Andel’s love must try to unlock some terrible event hidden inside beautiful Khadija’s memory. Lorna, in Lucille Colleton’s Merchant of Dreams, casts a gorgeous hunk as the lead in a TV commercial she’s producing, with predictable consequences. Annette Charles’s Love in Hiding has Thierry and Rena circling each other, unable to bring their love into the open. Happy endings are the order of the day.


Juliet Barclay, with photographs by Martin Charles (Cassell 1993)

Whatever you may think about Fidel Castro, the Cuban capital Havana is one of the world’s great cities. Once the opulent heart of the Caribbean, much of it fell into decay, and it is now being restored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This handsome book tells the city’s story, from its early sixteenth-century beginnings through the days of treasure ships and slavery, the cosmopolitan 19th century, into the reign of Castro. The text focuses on the fabric of Havana life, and is lavishly illustrated not only by contemporary prints but by superb photographs of its buildings and streets, its palaces and churches and squares, by architectural photographer Martin Charles.


Derek Walcott (Faber and Faber, 1993)

This adaptation is the first full-length stage version of Homer’s classic tale of Odysseus’s ten- year journey home to Ithaca from the Trojan wars. It has been in repertory at London’s Royal National Theatre, attracting even more attention since its St Lucia-born author was awarded the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature. The play reads as a complete poem, structured in quatrains of hexameters, which pushes the story forward and adds cohesion and dynamism to stage performance. The imagery is suffused by the sea, and the language moves easily from the stately measured diction of the Greek generals to the demotic vulgarity of Odysseus’s drunken crew. While Walcott remains faithful to Homer’s structure and themes, he introduces contemporary and Caribbean angles of his own (Cyclops as a totalitarian despot, the London underground as Hades), linking this most ancient of stories with modern concerns.


Boscoe Holder

Geoffrey MacLean (MacLean Publishing, Trinidad, 1993)

Boscoe Holder is one of the best known of Trinidad and Tobago’s painters; his portraits and landscapes have long been in demand, and his accessibility, his strong creole images and his celebration of the human body have given his work a popularity rarely matched among Caribbean painters. This handsome, fully illustrated book is the first in a projected series on Caribbean painters by Geoffrey MacLean from MacLean Publishing (la Dere Street, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago). MacLean’s own biographical essay (illustrated with archive photographs) traces Holder’s development through his days as a dancer and pianist to his most recent exhibitions; his brother Geoffrey Holder contributes an affectionate foreword, and there are 52 full colour reproductions of Holder’s work.

The Chieftain’s Carnival

Michael Anthony (Longman Caribbean Writers, 1993)

This collection of stories by the Trinidadian novelist and historian Michael Anthony is based on actual historical events which are milestones in Trinidad and Tobago’s development. They cover different periods, from Columbus’s “discovery” of Trinidad through the 1884 Hosay riots, the 1903 burning down of the Red House, labour leader Uriah Butler’s flight from the police in the thirties and the accidental creation of the steelpan, to the attempted coup of 1990. They provide dramatic and evocative insights into a rich history.


John Wickham (Longman Caribbean Writers 1993)

A collection of delicately balanced short stories from the editor of the famous literary magazine Bim, written over 40 years in deceptively simple but atmospheric prose. The central motif in the lives of the characters is discovery — either of themselves or of the larger patterns of life. Sibling hatred, individual isolation, the value of lost friendship — these discoveries are made across time, leaving an indelible impression on the reader as well as the fictional characters.

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