Wrong email address or username
Wrong email address or username
Incorrect verification code
back to top
Search tags: suriname
Load new posts () and activity
Like Reblog Comment
review 2020-04-23 22:44
Chrysalis by Kim Todd
Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis - Kim Todd

This is a lovely biography of an early female scientist, by an author who clearly put a lot of care and interest into learning about Maria Sibylla Merian and her work. Born in Germany in the mid-17th century, Merian trained as an artist but was fascinated by the metamorphosis of insects from childhood. She continued to study them throughout her life, observing and creating gorgeous paintings of their life stages, and ultimately traveled from Amsterdam to Suriname in 1699 to study insects there, in one of the earliest European scientific voyages. She was a pioneer of ecology: studying life in its natural context rather than collecting dead specimens to observe under a microscope.

A challenge the author faces is that little material about Merian’s personal life survived, though she left lots of notes and artwork. So there is some speculation here, though Todd often suggests multiple possibilities where we don’t know the answer rather than pushing for a particular interpretation. What we do know about Merian’s life is so tantalizing that I wish we had more: what really happened in her marriage, which resulted in a divorce at a time when this was highly unusual? What led her to join, and then leave, the severe, cult-like Labadist sect, and what was life like in it? There’s a lot we don’t know, but Todd fills in many of the blanks with history, by researching life in Germany, the Netherlands and Suriname at the time Merian lived in these places. I’m surprised others have found the book dry; to me it had a quiet warmth that really drew me in.

Unusually for a biography, this book continues well after Merian’s death, which occurs on page 225 out of 282. It then follows her daughters, her scientific legacy, and recent developments in ecology and studies of metamorphosis, all of which adds a lot to the book. I’d love to see more biographies engage with the context of their subjects in this way. There are also black-and-white illustrations as well as some color plates, many showing Merian’s work, though for me reading this alongside the illustrated children’s book Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist, Scientist, Adventurer was great because that one provides such a wealth of color paintings by Merian.

In the end, I enjoyed this a lot: it’s intelligent, accessible, and wide-ranging in its subject matter while telling what we know of the story of a remarkable woman. I love that Todd wrote this book at all: it’s surprisingly hard to find historical biographies (at least in English) of people who spoke languages other than English, and if they’re women without adventurous sex lives, forget it! But from these biographies Merian emerges as a fascinating person who deserves to be remembered.

Like Reblog Comment
review 2019-02-25 03:57
Wild Coast by John Gimlette
Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge - John Gimlette

I was initially excited about this book, which describes a wild, little-known part of the world in vivid detail. However, that excitement soon wore off, as Gimlette seems largely drawn to describing war and atrocities, to emphasizing atmosphere over accuracy in his reportage, and to following the stories of white explorers and colonists while stereotyping and relegating everybody else to the sidelines, even though “everybody else” makes up 99% of the population.

The book is structured around Gimlette’s travels through “the Guianas,” three relatively small countries carved out of the Caribbean coast of South America, but which have remarkably little in common with the rest of the continent. Or rather, two countries – English-speaking Guyana and Dutch-speaking Suriname – plus French Guiana (referred to here as “Guyane”), an overseas department of France. These countries’ populations are mostly descended from the black slaves and Indian indentured servants brought there to work the sugar plantations; there’s also a small native population and, in Suriname, villages of “maroons,” descendants of escaped slaves who, centuries ago, formed their own tribes in the jungle. A little over half the book focuses on Guyana and most of the rest on Suriname, with just one 40-page chapter covering French Guiana.

It’s definitely interesting material, and Gimlette devotes perhaps half or less of the book to his travels, while the rest relates the bloody history of the Guianas. I definitely learned a lot from it: Gimlette clearly did a bunch of research, and he visits many sites of historical import and relates stories revealing the significance of these places to the reader. When covering more recent history, he talks to people who experienced historical events, sometimes including key players as well as everyday folk. He travels widely around the countries, from the coast, where 90% of the population lives, to the jungle and the savannah, and meets people from all walks of life. He has an eye for the bizarre, describes his surroundings in colorful detail, and has a smooth, assured writing style.

That said, the more I read of this book, the more disenchanted I became. Gimlette seems drawn to the horrifying, whether it’s the barbarity of slavery or French Guiana’s penal colony, the horrors of recent civil wars, or the mass suicide/massacre of an American cult at Jonestown; this is not a light or easy read, though its tone is often flippant. Gimlette’s writing is atmospheric, but not well-sourced: despite the fact that the book is largely history, it has no endnotes, only a description of his sources generally. And he seems to play fast and loose with the facts. “Even as I write, there isn’t a single road that leads from the Guianas into the world beyond,” he tells us at the beginning, before taking a bus through French Guiana to the Brazilian border at the end. In writing about the Jonestown cult, he asserts that “Jonestown carried on killing for years after the massacre. . . . Even years after the cult’s demise, defectors were still being hunted down and killed” – a claim the internet does not seem to support.

But it’s not uncommon for him to leave his facts vague (who is supposed to have killed the defectors, given that Jones’s loyal followers had already killed themselves?). When discussing Sir Walter Raleigh’s final, ill-fated expedition into the rainforest, he describes in detail the suicide of Raleigh’s friend Captain Keymis and Raleigh’s own execution back home in England, but fails to note why Keymis killed himself or why Raleigh (who comes up time and again in this book) was executed, beyond the vague statement that “the expedition disintegrated into a bloody brawl.” I had to turn to the internet to learn that, in fact, Keymis lead an expedition against the Spanish without Raleigh’s permission, in which Raleigh’s son was killed; Keymis killed himself because Raleigh refused to forgive him, and Raleigh was executed because the skirmish violated the terms of his own parole on a questionable prior conviction for plotting against the king. It’s as if Gimlette wanted to include their deaths for the extra color and weight they lent the story, but couldn’t be bothered to share the facts from which a reader could make sense of them.

And then there’s the fact that so much of the book is focused on white European men like Gimlette himself, even if they did nothing more than wander into the jungle and die (see Raymond Maufrais). It winds up giving the impression that only these people’s stories are worth telling, particularly alongside Gimlette’s ready stereotypes of everyone else. The Amerindians, apparently, are cannibals, as are the Africans. Escaped slaves who set up fiefdoms full of brutality and debauchery are “reverting back to old Africa,” despite the fact that this is how the colonists operated toward them.

So ultimately, I can give this book a cautious recommendation at best. It’s a colorful introduction to a world about which little has been written, but it’s also a heavy read, imbued with the author’s biases and questionable, unsourced assertions. Too bad, for a book that began with such promise.

Like Reblog Comment
show activity (+)
review 2017-08-18 20:57
The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod
The cost of sugar - Cynthia Mc Leod

This is a lively, melodramatic work of historical fiction set in mid-18th century Suriname. At that time, the small nation on the northern coast of South America was a Dutch colony consisting of sugar and coffee plantations carved out of the jungle, many of them run by Jewish owners who arrived in Suriname via Portugal and Brazil, and all of them worked by slaves. Unlike in North America, however, proximity to the jungle meant that slaves often escaped to form their own communities, which were in constant conflict with the colonial government.

The story spans 14 years and has a large cast for under 300 pages, but its protagonists are stepsisters Elza and Sarith, both daughters of Jewish plantation owners. The two are best friends as girls, but soon find themselves opposed, primarily because Elza is a sweet young woman who treats the slaves well while Sarith is short-sighted and willing to ruin the lives of everyone around her in order to get her way. Yes, it’s that kind of book. The book focuses on Elza early on, then shifts its attention later in the story to Sarith, Sarith’s slave Mini-mini, and a young mercenary named Jan.

Which is to say that there’s no single plotline, and characters come and go rather oddly (I expected Alex to become more important than he did, and Amimba, as the first character we meet, to have something more than a walk-on role). But as a story about a place and a society, rather than any single protagonist, it flows well. The plot moves quickly and stays interesting, the translation is fluid, and the characters – if not particularly complex – are sympathetic, except when not intended to be. It presents a detailed picture of a historical era that doesn’t feel overly influenced by modern views, though it can be a little ham-fisted. The author has clearly done her share of research on Surinamese history and is able to bring her cultural knowledge to the pages.

Interestingly, most of the novel was originally written in Dutch, but slaves at the time were forbidden from learning Dutch, so conversed among themselves and with whites in Sranan, a creole language related to English as well as other European and African languages. The author originally wrote conversations involving slaves in Sranan, which is evidently still sufficiently widely-spoken in Suriname for the original audience to understand. In the English version, the Sranan dialogue is translated, but you can see the original in the footnotes. Helpful footnotes also explain those words or concepts that will be unfamiliar for the English-speaking reader (there’s a glossary at the end too, but I didn’t need it).

Overall, this is an entertaining work that will likely appeal to those who enjoy popular historical fiction. It’s not great literature but doesn’t try to be. And props to the author for writing a book for a country she was told “doesn’t have a reading tradition” – this book is now apparently beloved in Suriname after all.

Like Reblog Comment
review 2013-04-29 00:00
Suriname here we come! - Sanne de Bakker Dit leek me een leuk boek.. Helaas was dat niet zo. Ten eerste die ouders, dumpen een oma (die dementie heeft) bij hun 11 jarige dochters. Geen goed idee. En nog een berg andere dingen. Die moeder was echt super irritant met haar aww en ach.

Ook dat er aan de zijkanten of op andere plekken feitjes stonden. Het was leuk voor 1 of 2 pagina's, maar het leidde al snel af en werd vervelend.

More posts
Your Dashboard view:
Need help?