"An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude"
(reviewed by Poornima Apte JUL 24, 2004)
Editor and workaholic Ann Vanderhoof is sick of the working life as is Steve, her “partner in work as well as life.” After much debate, the two decide to leave work behind and sail away down to the Carribean (from Toronto) for two years. Understandably, Vanderhoof is nervous: “In one corner: the security of a job, a steady income, a home, a daily routine—comfortable, safe, predictable. In the other corner: escape from work, winter, and daily routine, the excitement and risk of the unknown—tempting, and more than a little scary.” Despite the unknowns, the two make the break.
An Embarrassment of Mangoes is an account of the couple’s travels as they sail down the seas. Truly wonderful travel writing takes you by the hand and gives you glimpses into cultures and people you have rarely met before. You go along for the ride because you like the companion, and you live the experience vicariously. Here, Vanderhoof’s accounts seem no more than an extended yuppie vacation. So many descriptions here are of the couple’s meeting other “cruiser” couples such as themselves: “Belinda’s thirty-fourth birthday, and the dinner party is on her boat.” And there are more. The fact is we don’t really need a glimpse into their culture; at least we don’t need to travel down all these miles to do it.
The book is full of sailing accounts which might seem mildly intriguing at first, but get annoying later because they seem like mere fillers: “Then came the act of anchoring—completely stopping the boat in a particular spot without having an engine to throw in reverse to act as a brake on Receta’s 2300 pounds. As Steve steered her toward an empty area of the anchorage, I furled the headsail—again, using a winch; again, at a speed I didn’t think I was capable of—to slow us down. He then ran forward to the bow to drop the 45-pound anchor, while I steered us directly, precisely into the wind, at which point the mainsail would be ineffective and Receta would essentially coast to a stop. Now to the reversing part, to put a backward pull on the anchor to set it in the sand. As Steve paid out the anchor chain, I backwinded the mainsail by putting my weight against the boom, which essentially started Receta coasting backward in the breeze.” The endless technical accounts make one lose interest pretty quickly.
The biggest shortcoming of Mangoes is that Vanderhoof does not look truly outward in her travelogue. Every page is peppered with mention of Steve at least twice—did I tell you how skinny Steve is or what a great sailor he is. Even when she does try to present accounts of local life to give the book some color, she seems a very uncomfortable participant. Almost every incident happens to them or gets air time because it happens to them as here: “At one stop, an ancient, not terribly clean, and mostly toothless lady climbs onto the guagua with a live chicken tucked under her arm. She somehow squeezes in next to Steve and settles the chicken on her lap. It rides contentedly back to Luperon with its head and back on Steve’s thigh, while the woman rides contentedly with her arm around his shoulders. I ride with visions of chicken mites and body lice dancing in my head.” Vanderhoof is definitely not William Dalrymple.
An Embarrassment of Mangoes finally reads like a lightweight travel account. It is useful as a cookbook though, because the author has included some good recipes in here including a delicious one for Pina-Colada cheesecake.
Vanderhoof has somehow churned a “how I spent my summer vacation” book into a travel book. Unfortunately, An Embarrassment of Mangoes is not great travel writing—unless of course, it is snowing outside-- in which case, any book with an inviting picture of a turquoise sea on its cover will do.
- Amazon readers rating: from 100 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from An Embarrassment of Mangoes at RandomHouse.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Docks & Projects: Great Things for the Whole Family to Make and Do (1994)
- An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Carribean Interlude (2004)
- The Spice Necklace: My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating, and Island Life (2010)
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- Official website for Ann Vanderhoof
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About the Author:
Ann Vanderhoof is a writer and magazine and book editor whose work has appeared in publications in the United States and Canada. She was the founding editor of the award-winning Canadian magazine Cottage Life and is also the senior editor of Ports Cruising Guides, a series of guidebooks for boaters. She lives in Toronto.