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The next Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year…

The last Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year was Interstate (Arcadia), Julian Sayarer’s portrait of the United States as he saw it while hitchhiking during the final days of the Obama administration. Which will be the next? That’s something not even the judges will know for a while: we met for the first time this week.
  The £5,000 Stanford Dolman prize, formerly the Dolman prize — after the Rev William Dolman, a member of the Authors’ Club, who had been sponsoring it through the club since 2006 — was rebranded in 2015 and is now the centrepiece of a scheme run by the bookseller Stanfords and named after its founder: the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. This year, as last, the chair of the judging panel is the travel writer and biographer Sara Wheeler. Joining her are Helena Drysdale, Jason Goodwin, Victoria Mather, Mary Novakovich, Samantha Weinberg and yours truly.
  On Tuesday, at the National Liberal Club in Whitehall, base for the Authors’ Club, we met the literary journalist Suzi Feay, a member of the club’s committee, went through books that have been submitted to check they are eligible and called in a few more. Then we went home with our first batch of books to read. 
  Guidebooks aren’t eligible (though they may be for one of the other awards in the Edward Stanford scheme). Nor are novels, however powerfully they evoke a spirit of place (and there’s already an award for that in the RSL Ondaatje Prize). The Stanford Dolman is a prize for narrative travel writing. There is often some debate over what constitutes a travel book, but once it’s settled and we’ve decided to consider a book, Sara told us, our chief criterion in assessing a title, and weighing it against others, should be literary merit.
  We are due to confirm a short list by December 7, for announcement on January 10. The winner will be chosen by January 22, and the award ceremony is due to take place during the Stanfords Travel Writers’ Festival at the Destinations Show at Olympia, London, early in February.
  I can already think of a book or two from the past year that might be a contender for the prize, but we have all been asked to avoid mention in public of particular titles until we have arrived at a short list. I’m looking forward to hearing what my fellow judges think should be on that.

Back to North Korea

Only 5,000 people a year visit “the hermit kingdom” of North Korea. Among them has been the radio producer Sarah Jane Hall, who first went in 2004, when, she says, it was hard to imagine the political temperature could get any higher. Since then, of course, the leaders of the United States and North Korea have been threatening each other with nuclear weapons. In Archive on 4: Travels in North Korea, which was broadcast on Saturday evening and is now available on the BBC iPlayer, Hall asks: “Is it easier to go to war with a country we don’t understand?” She mingles her own experience of North Korea with those of recent visitors to the country, including tour leaders and their customers, a diplomat, a film-maker and the broadcaster Andy Kershaw. What did they see and do, and what did they learn?

Words on the wind

On a day when some parts of the British Isles are being swept by what the BBC calls “the remnants of Hurricane Ophelia”, that excellent website Caught by the River has published an extract from Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are, which I reviewed recently.

‘A shock trip to North Korea’

Yoojin Grace Wuertz, in the TLS, reviews The Sun Tyrant: A Nightmare called North Korea, by JP Floru (Biteback).

A western with a difference

On the Twitter feed of The Paris Review, I found mention of a new novel of the American West in which it seems that setting plays a large part. It sounds like the kind of novel that might make a contender for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, for “a work which evokes the spirit of a place” — except that the writer, not being British or Irish or a UK resident, probably wouldn’t be eligible. It was partly his own rootlessness, indeed, that prompted him to write the book. The novel, In the Distance, is by Hernán Diaz, and published in the United States by Coffee House. Publishers Weekly, which includes it in a roundup of new fiction, says:

The novel is the set in the 19th century and concerns a young Swedish immigrant to California, Håkan Söderström, who travels eastward across the United States in the hope of finding his brother. His journey, a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse, leads him to encounter a range of characters—to quote the publisher, “naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians, and lawmen”—who call to mind myriad American myths and stereotypes.

Diaz is 43 and lives in New York, where he is the associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University and the managing editor of the scholarly journal Revista Hispánica Moderna. He says he began to think about writing In the Distance while reading “desert” books (works set in “desolate expanses”—not only deserts but also steppes, plains, the Pampas) and asking himself questions about the relationship between foreignness and physical isolation. “Does nationality matter if one is stranded in a void?” he wondered. “I’ve been a foreigner all my life,” he says. “I was born in Argentina, left for Sweden when I was two, went back to Argentina briefly, then moved to London, and now I’ve been in New York for the last 20 years. So it’s something I care a lot about.”

Diaz may have staked out his desert landscape in the American West, but he isn’t particularly interested in the western per se. “There are no gunslingers or saloon brawls or stagecoaches being chased in the book,” he says. For him, the desertlike atmosphere of the West carries its own truth about life in America. “The vaster the desert, the more claustrophobic the confinement,” he says.

Seeking the essence of Pakistan

Isambard Wilkinson was sent by The Daily Telegraph to Pakistan in 2006 to report on “the war on terror”. In his mind, though, Osama Bin Laden and his like were “distractions from the real quarry: the essence, the quiddity of Pakistan, which I hoped to find by encountering its mystics, tribal chiefs and feudal lords”. It’s the latter that he sets out to concentrate on in his debut, Travels in A Dervish Cloak (Eland). Reviewing the book for the writer’s former employers, in the Review section of The Daily Telegraph, Arthur Evelyn says that Wilkinson, “an engaging and enthusiastic guide”, “gives a glimpse of the joy and vitality to be found in this most complicated of countries, but he cannot escape from some of the unpleasant realities”. There are also reviews in The Spectator, The Irish Times, The National (Abu Dhabi) and The Asian Review of Books.

Murphy, McPhee, and the art of loading a truck

Finn Murphy is a “bedbugger”, as the long-distance removal man is known to his fellow truck drivers. He is also an admirer of the work of John McPhee (recently the subject of an excellent profile by Sam Anderson in The New York Times Magazine). In Murphy’s  new book about his own trade, The Long Haul, much of the fascination lies in the McPhee-like attention he pays to what the rest of us overlook. On the website Longreads, there’s an extract in which he manages to make even loading the truck sound interesting.

Chatwin, in Patagonia and down under

Susannah Clapp is currently theatre critic of The Observer. Forty years ago, she was Bruce Chatwin’s editor, so, with an anniversary edition of In Patagonia on the way, she can offer a singular perspective on the man and the work:

I had written the reader’s report on the book. It had dazzled and worried me. It was exceptional – but it was enormous and it didn’t flow. I became his editor, with the task of making the book speed along. Over the next few weeks, we went through every line of the manuscript, reading it aloud in the Regent’s Park flat of the art dealer John Kasmin. Every night, the author went home merrily to hack away his stuff: he loved chucking out adjectives and anything that looked like a moody reaction shot. Every morning, he arrived having cut – but often having also added another episode; stories kept spilling out of him. 

In Australia, the 30th anniversary of Chatwin’s The Songlines — inspired by the way in which Indigenous Australians map geography and preserve history and culture — is of greater interest. In a fascinating piece in the Monthly, Richard Cooke writes: 

It is an imperfect book, and the fete surrounding its publication has moved on, but The Songlines did force the white world to gauge the depth of Indigenous culture. And it is partly imperfect because Chatwin too was overwhelmed by his subject. As he tried to make sense of what he had seen in Alice Springs and its surrounds over a total of nine weeks in the early 1980s, he wrote that songlines were on “such a colossal scale, intellectually, that they make the Pyramids seem like sand castles. But how to write about them – without spending 20 years here?”

Scaling these intellectual monuments, even tracing their outlines, is almost impossible. Songlines are not just sung poems. They are also legal documents, genealogical records, maps and the legends of maps, documentations of flora and fauna, systems of navigation, religious rites, spells, history books, memory palaces, and endless other combinations of ceremony, knowledge and philosophy that cannot be readily analogised into another culture. Anthropologists have dedicated their lives to obtaining only the most peripheral glimpses of them. Some have resisted further insights, knowing they are bought through a system of law, obligation and initiation that is not entered into lightly. Compared to the accumulation and expanse of millennia of living traditions, writing itself can seem like an almost futile explanatory tool. And Chatwin had only a few weeks.

Travel writing as it used to be

A magnificent collection of historic travel books, amassed by one couple over half a century, goes on sale at Sotheby’s in London tomorrow. In all there are some 400 books, from the 17th century onwards, telling the stories of explorers and travellers, scientists and sailors, botanists and big-game hunters. I interviewed John Bonham, one of the collectors, for The Daily Telegraph.

Slouching towards Biloxi

South and West (4th Estate), comprising two excerpts from notebooks written in the 1970s by Joan Didion, one of America’s greatest essayists, has just been published in Britain. When it appeared in the United States in March, Michiko Kakutani, reviewing it for The New York Times, said that it “shed light on the current political moment. At a remove of more than four decades, [Didion] maps the divisions splintering America today, and uncannily anticipates some of the dynamics that led to the election of Donald J Trump and caught so many political and media insiders unawares.”

Peter Conrad, reviewing the book yesterday in The Observer, was similarly struck by its “chilling power of prediction”, while noting that Didion showed “enough catty snobbery… to explain why Trumptards resent the coastal elites who belittle them”.  Duncan White, in The Daily Telegraph earlier this month, was less impressed: “The literary tourist [in Didion] is so busy lapping up the southern Gothic that the hard-nosed reporter in her misses the story. Everywhere she goes she notices black Americans, but not once does she speak to them about their experience living in a world that, despite being six years after the Civil Rights Act, is still ornamented by Confederate flags and KKK graffiti… South and West is ultimately a testament to failure; it shows us how a writer as formidable as Didion can get it wrong.”

Judge for yourself: the Review section of The Guardian at the weekend had an extract from the book, which is now online.

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