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‘The Last Whalers’: a hugely impressive debut

The Last Whalers  by Doug Bock Clark (John Murray), a debut I’ve reviewed today in print for The Daily Telegraph, is a tremendous piece of immersive reporting. The review isn’t on the Telegraph website, but you can read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

In Russia — and the Fens

In the couple of weeks while I’ve been escaping the desk, several more reviews have appeared of Mud and Stars (Jonathan Cape), in which Sara Wheeler travels through Russia with the writers of the Golden Age. Julian Evans, in The Daily Telegraph, concludes that Wheeler’s “modest, ungrand tour… is far more of an epic than it at first appears”.  Alexander Larman, in a brief notice in The Observer, says that Wheeler’s “fascinating” book offers an important corrective to the image many Westerners have of Russia, and that its author is “as enthusiastic and authoritative a guide as one could wish for”. I’ve also just seen a review by Malika Browne, published in The Times in June, who says the book is “a well-researched, droll journey”.

  Francis Pryor’s The Fens (Head of Zeus), which was recently Book of the Week on Radio 4, has been reviewed by Hugh Thomson for The Spectator. Pryor, he says, “has spent most of his professional life working in the Fens and this book is a distillation of everything he has learned… His enthusiasm is infectious, whether he’s glimpsing Ely cathedral from a train, coming across John Clare’s grave or counting the bricks of Tattershall Castle.”

Macfarlane wins Wainwright Prize

The Wainwright Prize, an annual award of £5,000 for the best book of nature/UK-based travel writing, went yesterday to Robert Macfarlane for Underland (Hamish Hamilton), his “deep time” journey into the world beneath our feet. The author said he would be donating £1,000 of his prize to The Willowherb Review, “which publishes and celebrates diverse voices in nature writing”.

  I talked to Macfarlane about Underland earlier this year; you can read the interview here on Deskbound Traveller.


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.

A ‘painfully honest account’ of modern Russia

In The Spectator this week, Viv Groskop reviews Mud and Stars (Jonathan Cape), in which Sara Wheeler travels through Russia with the writers of the Golden Age — from Pushkin to Tolstoy — as her guides. It is, she says, “a painfully honest account, rose-tinted spectacles firmly placed to one side, and there is something compelling about Wheeler’s darkly passionate tone… It’s a complicated, bleak romance that mirrors the love-hate relationship many of the great writers had with their own country and people.”

Jan Morris on truth, imagination and Trieste

Jan Morris, in a piece drawn from the archives to mark 40 years of Granta magazine, reflects on virtual reality:

It has been a dogma of my life that truth and imagination are not simply interchangeable but are often one and the same. Something imagined is as real, to my mind, as something one can touch or eat. A fanciful fear is as alarming as a genuine one, a love conceived as glorious as a love achieved. A virtual reality may only be in one’s own mind, imperceptible to anyone else, but why is it any the less true for that? Music exists before its composer writes it down.

It is easy for writers, even writers of non-fiction, to think like this. Every sentence we create we have created from nothing, and made real, and every situation has been touched up in our memory. For years I remembered clearly how the roofs of Sydney Opera House hung like sails over the harbour when I first visited the city, until it was drawn to my attention that the Opera House hadn’t been built then. Every place I ever wrote about became more and more my own interpretation of it, more and more an aspect of myself, until in the end I determined that I was the city of Trieste, and Trieste was me, and decided it was time for me to give up.

Greenland — from last frontier to science lab

Greenland, which one 18th-century visitor saw as having “no use to mankind”, is now regarded as essential to our understanding of the threat posed by global warming. In The Ice at the End of the World (Random House), Jon Gertner tells the history of the island through a century-long parade of adventurers, explorers and scientists. His book was reviewed for The New York Times by Doug Bock Clark, who has himself recently published The Last Whalers (John Murray), a remarkable debut about a tribe of subsistence whalers on a remote Indonesian island. More on that later.

Back on the Yukon

Adam Weymouth’s Kings of the Yukon, which won him the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award for 2018, is now out in paperback — which reminds me that I’ve recently come across an excellent interview with the author conducted by Georgina Godwin for Monocle magazine earlier this year. In it he talks about his environmental activism, his long walks across Scotland and Europe, and what prompted him to paddle the 2,000-mile length of the Yukon River.

Here there be marvels

Explorers’ Sketchbooks (2016), which Huw Lewis-Jones co-edited with Kari Herbert, gave you the impression that you were leaning over the shoulder of Captain James Cook as he charted the Pacific, or that of Meriwether Lewis as he and William Clark established the true extent of the new nation of the United States. The Sea Journal: Seafarer’s Sketchbooks (Thames & Hudson), Lewis-Jones’s latest project, is a similarly rich compendium, which I reviewed for The Daily Telegraph last weekend. That review is now online on the Telegraph site, and here on Deskbound Traveller.

On autumn in Japan and ‘Afropeans’

I mentioned recently that Pico Iyer, whose latest book is Autumn Light, and Johnny Pitts, author of Afropean, would be speaking in London under the 5×15 banner; you can now listen to their contributions on Soundcloud — see below. There’s a 5×15 session coming up on August 4, at the Wilderness Festival in Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire,  on “our place in the natural world”; speakers will include the writer and broadcaster Nicholas Crane and Isabella Tree, whose latest book, Wilding: the Return of Nature to a British Farm, has been short-listed for the Wainwright Prize (for nature/travel writing focused on Britain).

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