I love to read. And I do have my preferred genres and favorites. One of those genres, if you can call it that, are books whose stories take place in a tropical setting (big surprise, huh ). I have already written my list of top 10 tropical books, but there are so many good ones out there that I have read since then! So here is the second installment of the best books in a tropical setting according to Cassie.
The Mapmaker’s Wife by Robert Whitaker
While the cover and title are both misleading, this is a fascinating historical book. Isabel Godin is the one woman of the story of any significance, however her adventures surviving alone in the Amazon only takes up about 1/10th of the book. The vast majority of the book is about the scientific expedition led by La Condamine into the Equatorial Amazon in search of the answer to what the circumference of the Earth is and the implications on Newtonian science or other prevailing theories of the day.
It is very well-researched and while some parts are a little too scientific for me, it had a nice balance of the interplay of human tendencies, including a murder!, during this quest. The author does a good job of also balancing the perspectives of the various people -natives, slaves and Europeans- and how this confluence changed everything in this wild, tropical region. While Isabel Godin’s survival and search for her husband after a 20 year absence was short because of a lack of historical records, it was probably the most interesting part. I also enjoyed the photographs and old documents that were included.
Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost
I wrote about Sex Lives in the previous “best of” list, and Getting Stoned with Savages is very much a follow-up to that previous book. The author’s humorist style reminds us that the discomfort we feel in traveling is part of the fun. While in Vanuatu and Fiji, he tries kava for the first time, experiences a typhoon, deals with a huge centipede and becomes a dad! Quite the adventure and in a most beautiful of settings.
Driving over Lemons by Chris Stewart
This one is probably about the furthest stretch from “tropical” on the list as you can get since it takes place in Spain. But the way I see it, anywhere that they will be driving over lemons is pretty darn warm. The author and his wife move from the UK to southern Spain where they buy a dilapidated old farm and house complete with the former owner who doesn’t want to move! They have to contend with a variety of issues including flooding rivers that leave them stranded, no running water or electricity. And as soon as they sort out all of these issues, they become pregnant with their first child. What I really liked about the book was the author’s ability to integrate with his new home country and its people and roll with the -often hilarious- punches.
In this same general genre of Mediterranean transplants I would have to also recommend A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle as well as Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. (And if I may make an aside, I must say that the movie Under the Tuscan Sun was a HUGE stretch from the book.)
All three of these books are about moving to the Mediterranean (Spain in Stewart’s book, France in Mayle’s book, and Italy for Mayes) and fixing up a property there with varying degrees of difficulty. I related the most to Driving Over Lemons as they were closer to my age and weren’t retiring after a long life of doing something else, but rather starting from scratch like we will be doing.
A Trip to the Beach by Melinda and Robert Blanchard
Melinda and Robert Blanchard were successful businesspeople in Vermont when they decided to up and leave and start up a new business: a restaurant on the beach of a small Caribbean island. They have a few problems getting set up, but overall, it is a fun, easy read and the characters of their restaurant are lovable. While the Blanchards seem to have a bubble of money that separates them from the “real” Anguilla of most residents, it is none-the-less an inspiring story. I had never heard of Anguilla, the flat little Caribbean island, until I read A Trip to the Beach and now I can’t wait to visit and perhaps stop at the Blanchard’s restaurant!
An Embarrassment of Mangoes by Ann Vanderhoof
This book is fun because its setting is constantly changing; they are on a sailboat! I know next to nothing about sailing, so this book really opened my eyes to what it would really entail to live in a confined area with limited showers, limited fresh food (except at some spots where there was too many as the title implies), and dangerous night crossings. It is light reading about a fun adventure of leaving the cold Canadian landscape for tropical locales all around the Caribbean. A perfect book for lounging and reading at…the beach!
Kook by Peter Heller
I recently read Kook after receiving a recommendation to do so. I also know next to nothing about surfing so it was a real eye-opener from the perspective of a novice surfer AKA a kook who wants to get good enough to ride “the big wave”. Peter and his bride-to-be, Kim, set out on an adventure down the coast of Baja Mexico and beyond with a few side adventures to help the cause of dolphins in Japan. I learned a lot about different boards, surf etiquette as well as the plight of many marine animals.
Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island by Peter Rudiak-Gould
A more serious exploration of life on remote pacific tropical atolls (in the Marshall Islands) than Troost’s take, there are still quite a few funny moments. Peter (seems to be a common author name here!) is fresh out of college and out for an adventure teaching English to children on a tiny island without much of any creature comforts most industrialized people come to expect. All alone, he experiences a huge amount of culture shock and has a hard time adjusting to his new life. While he eventually comes to appreciate his experience and learns and shares a lot of what he knows about the history and tenuous future (given global warming, tsunamis and dwindling global aid), he is definitely ready to return to the US after his 1 year gig is up.
La Isla Bajo el Mar by Isabel Allende
I read this one in Spanish, but I think it is translated into English as well. Told from the perspective of Zarite, a slave in Haiti that lives through the Haitian slave uprising and later in New Orleans, it is a well-researched yet reaching piece that fills you with the dichotomy of humanity that was inherent in such an ugly practice as slavery. I also learned about Francois Mackandal, a slave rebel, and one of the most intriguing historical figures in the book. In many ways this book reminded me of Conquistadora but La Isla Bajo el Mar is from the slave perspective and Conquistadora from that of the landowner/slave master. I love nearly anything by Allende but also recommend her most famous: La Casa de Los Espiritus.
Mambo Kings and Beautiful Maria of my Soul- Oscar Hijuelos
I have already written about these great books here, so check it out!
On the Island by Tracey Garvis-Graves
This book is a cross between the stories of Castaway and Blue Lagoon with a taboo love story thrown in so how could I resist?! Ana is a school teacher who is ready for a break and in an unfulfilling relationship while TJ is the teenager she is charged with tutoring in order to catch him up after recovering from a serious illness. On the way to the Maldives where TJs parents’ are vacationing, their plane crashes in the water and they must swim to finally land on a deserted island where they must scramble to survive and eventually start a whole new life.
What I think is so cool about this book is that it was originally self-published by Garvis-Graves but was so popular that a major publishing house picked it up and it’s also in the process of becoming a movie! Talk about a meteoric rise! A reminder to not dismiss self-published books out of hand.
Molokai by Alan Brennert
Like Honolulu, this book is a period piece set in Hawaii. Molokai explores the life of young Rachel Kalama and the inhabitants of Kalaupapa, the quarantined leper colony of the late 1800s. Interesting read for both the drama that unfolds throughout Rachel’s life, but also historically exploring the devastating effects of leprosy in separating families and changing lives forever.
Also, this book reminded Britton and I that we want to learn this song (Molokai Slide) on guitar:
Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk
I absolutely love this book! It is one of the first I will recommend if someone says they are looking for a fun, easy read. Absolutely awesomely hilarious and set on a fictional Caribbean island. Read my full post on it here.
Hot House Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire by Margot Berwin
I read this book a while ago and I am surprised I missed it in the first list because it is such a fun book, especially for people like me who love plants almost as much as I love the tropics in general. Life for thirty-something Lila Nova changes dramatically from the cold sanitary minimalistic box-like lifestyle in Manhattan when she meets a charming and charismatic plant-vender. Soon she finds herself in a magic realism world of shaman, panthers and tropical plants throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. Will she find all 9 plants before their power falls into the wrong hands? Will she find love? Will she live to find out? In between the magic and story-line you will also learn some interesting things about a variety of plants. Especially creepy is mandrake.
Did you notice something missing? I have left off some of my favorite reads from and about Puerto Rico. Don’t despair! It is in the works!
Am I missing any that you have read? I would love to check them out!