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The vanishing island

There was an email from The New York Times in my inbox this morning headed: “Climate: The most important story of our time.” It’s a story that’s certainly receiving some attention this week in Britain, thanks to the demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion in London and last night’s BBC1 programme presented by David Attenborough, Climate Change — The Facts. During that programme, a campaigner representing Gulf Coast communities declared that people of that region could become “the first climate-change refugees” in the United States. 

  Equally endangered is a settlement in the middle of America’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay — the subject of Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem, published in the US towards the end of last year. Swift’s is a story of a small and singular place seeing changes that will soon affect the whole world. At the broadest point of the bay, “at the mercy of nature’s wildest whims”, sits Tangier Island, whose inhabitants for generations have harvested crabs and oysters. The very water that sustains their community — one of 470 conservative and deeply religious people — is also slowly erasing it. Scientists say that the island, which has lost two thirds of its land since 1850, could become the first American town to fall victim to rising sea levels caused by climate change; the locals say the problem is erosion — and they have been told anyway by Donald Trump, who is hugely popular on Tangier, that there is no reason to worry. Swift lived among the islanders, and his account, at once affectionate and inquiring, is a superb piece of reporting. If you have any interest in writing about place and/or climate change, you ought to read it.

Read an extract from ‘Skybound’, out today in paperback

Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine, which was one of my books of 2018, is out today in paperback (Picador). It’s a hymn to glider flying; an extraordinary book in which the writer, for whom the world had been closed down by cancer, feels it reopen, and carries the reader up on the thermals with her. You can read an extract from it here on Deskbound Traveller

RSL Ondaatje Prize short list

The short list for the RSL Ondaatje Prize was announced last night, at the end of a fascinating session at the British Library in London in which four former winners of the prize talked of “the spirit of a place” and how they set about evoking it.

The books short-listed (including a couple you may have seen mentioned on Deskbound Traveller) are:

No Turning Back: Love, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria by Rania Abouzeid (Oneworld)

The Wife’s Tale: a personal history by Aida Edemariam (4th Estate)
 
Happiness by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury)
 
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (Granta)
 
The Crossway by Guy Stagg (Picador)
 
Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth (Particular Books/Penguin).
 
  The British Library session was recorded for BBC Radio 3’s “Free Thinking” slot, and is due to be broadcast on May 1.

The novel on rails

Tim Parks, in The New York Review of Books, sees a “deep affinity between a book and a means of transport”…

But if some novels feel like supersonic flights and others like leisurely tours, there’s no doubt in my mind that the means of transport closest to the experience of written narrative is the train. On the plane, you are merely trapped in your seat and too distant from the land to have much experience of it. Aboard a steamer, you’re isolated in the monotony of the ocean. On a bus, you’re very much part of the traffic, in thrall to circumstance.

But on the train, there you are just a few feet above ground, close to the world as it dashes by, yet protected and separate from it; freed from responsibility, but invited to pay attention. Isn’t this exactly the experience of reading a book?

RSL Ondaatje Prize short list due tomorrow

The short list is due to be announced at the British Library in London tomorrow evening for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, an award of £10,000 for a work that evokes “the spirit of a place”.

Outposts of adventure

Outpost by Dan Richards (Canongate), which considers “the romantic, exploratory appeal of cabins and isolated stations” everywhere from the Cairngorms to Mount Mitoku in Japan, by way of the Utah desert, is reviewed today in The Guardian.  

  The author has also written a piece for Telegraph Travel, focusing on his stay at the fire lookout tower in Washington state where Jack Kerouac once wrestled with solitude. You can read an extract from the book on the Caught by the River website.

Stagg’s ‘The Crossway’ short-listed for Rathbones Folio Prize

Guy Stagg’s The Crossway (Picador), an account of how he walked from Canterbury to Jerusalem in an attempt to “mend” himself after mental illness, was among eight books short-listed this week for the £30,000 Rathbones Folio Prize (for “works of literature in which the subjects being explored achieve their most perfect and thrilling expression”). Also short-listed was Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly (Unbound), which, in common with The Crossway, has been long-listed for the RSL Ondaatje Prize, for a working “evoking the spirit of a place”.

Travel and place at the festivals

Forthcoming festivals with events featuring writing on travel and place include the following:

Cuirt International Festival of Literature, Galway (April 8-14) 
In a session titled “Traversing Parallels: Literature of Place”, Malachy Tallack, author of Sixty Degrees North and, most recently, the novel The Valley at the Centre of the World, which has been long-listed for the 2019 RSL Ondaatje Prize, will be in conversation with Manchán Magan, who has written books on his travels in Africa, India and South America and two novels.

Colonsay Book Festival (April 27-28), Southern Hebrides
The poet Jen Hadfield will read from new work and old (including Byssus and the TS Eliot Prize-winning Nigh-No-Place) that explores the natural world and ideas of home. Ann Cleeves will be in conversation about her series of Shetland novels (inspiration for the TV drama starring Douglas Henshall as DI Jimmy Perez), the eighth and last of which, Wild Fire, was published in 2018. 
  Robin A Crawford will be discussing and reading from Into the Peatlands: A Journey Through the Moorland Year; Sarah Maine will be in conversation about character and the power of place, with readings from The House Between Tides and Women of the Dunes; and James and Tom Morton will entertain with stories, readings and a few songs/poems about Shetland, “along with some father/son quarrelling/banter (and possibly a bit of cooking… )”.
  (Colonsay itself, incidentally, is the subject of The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee, recently republished in Britain by Daunt Books.)

Guernsey Literary Festival (May 1-6) 
Horatio Clare will be talking about his latest book, The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal and about Down to the Sea in Ships, which won him the 2015 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award. Huw Lewis Jones, editor of The Writer’s Map, will be talking to Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Piers Torday about the maps that have inspired them.

Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye (May 23-June 2)
Isabella Tree talks about her latest book, Wilding (long-listed for the RSL Ondaatje Prize), the story of a pioneering rewilding project in West Sussex using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife. 
  Kapka Kassabova, author of Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, which was  Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year for 2017, talks to Misha Glenny, former Central Europe correspondent for the BBC (whose own books include The Balkans, The Fall of Yugoslavia and, more recently, McMafia).
  In a session billed as “Che Guevara to Juan Guaidó: Understanding Latin America”, Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker talks to Sophie Hughes to introduce the graphic version of his biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life and explain what’s happening today in Venezuela.  
  Robert Macfarlane, whose latest book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, will be published on May 2, will be interviewed by Horatio Clare (who will himself be speaking  later on — see below).  
  In a session titled “Woodlands Past and Future Forests”, the arborists George Peterkin and Archie Miles discuss the state of woodland with Natalie Buttress, director of Woodland Trust Wales, and Sandi Toksvig, ambassador for the Woodland Trust.
  Monisha Rajesh, author of Around the World in 80 Trains, talks about her 45,000-mile adventure on the rails.
  John Simpson, BBC world affairs editor, talks about his new thriller “and the way in which, in fact as in fiction, so many of the most improbable or extraordinary stories and trails all lead back to Moscow”. He will be interviewed by Oliver Bullough, whose own books include The Last Man in Russia and Moneyland.
  Drawing on the Literary Atlas project, academics from Cardiff University and the University of Wales — Jon Anderson, Mary-Ann Constantine and Damian Walford Davies — explore the relations between literature and landscape.
  Alice Morrison (presenter of the BBC Two series Morocco to Timbuktu), who went to Morocco to run the Marathon des Sables and stayed on, talks about her latest book, My 1001 Nights: Tales and Adventures from Morocco (due to be published by Simon and Schuster on April 18).
  Erling Kagge, the philosophical Norwegian adventurer and bestselling author of Silence in the Age of Noise, discusses his new book, Walking: One Step at a Time, with Dylan Moore.  In a separate session on the same theme, Kate Humble will be talking about her latest book, Thinking On My Feet.
  The travel writer Nicholas Jubber talks about his Epic Continent (which John Murray is due to publish on May 16), in which he explores the impact of poems, from The Odyssey to the Serbian Kosovo Cycle, on identity in Europe.
  Raynor Winn talks to Claire Armitstead about The Salt Path, the story of how Winn and her terminally ill husband, having lost their home and their livelihood, set off to walk the South West Coast Path.
  Peter Frankopan talks about The New Silk Roads, “a timely reminder that we live in a world that is profoundly interconnected”. 
  Horatio Clare, whose books include Something of His Art: Walking to Lübeck with JS Bach, The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal and Running for the Hills, will look at writers inspired by the Welsh border landscape, including Coleridge, the Wordsworths, Bruce Chatwin and David Jones, and explore what it means to walk in the footsteps of writers and walkers.

Weymouth and Stagg on long list for RSL Ondaatje Prize

I’m delighted to see that the long list for the RSL Ondaatje Prize, announced today, includes two of my favourite books from 2018, both of them impressive debuts: Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth and The Crossway by Guy Stagg. The short list will be announced at the “Spirit of a Place” event at the British Library in London on April 16; the winner will be named on May 13. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to reading more from what looks like a fascinating long list.

  The 20 books long-listed are:

No Turning Back by Rania Abouzeid (Oneworld)
Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers (Faber & Faber)
Little by Edward Carey (Aardvark Bureau)
Middle England by Jonathan Coe (Viking)
The Wife’s Tale by Aida Edemariam (4th Estate)
Happiness by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury)
Where the road runs out
by Gaia Holmes (Comma Poetry)
The Café de Move-on Blues by Christopher Hope (Atlantic Books)
A Stranger’s Pose by Emmanuel Iduma (Cassava Republic)
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly (Unbound)
Arkady by Patrick Langley (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
A Line in the River by Jamal Mahjoub (Bloomsbury)
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (Granta)
Let Me Be Like Water by SK Perry (Melville House UK)
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (Doubleday)
The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka (Scribe UK)
The Crossway by Guy Stagg (Picador)
The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack (Canongate)
Wilding by Isabella Tree (Picador)
Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth (Particular Books).

‘Out of Egypt’ — not just a dazzling period piece

André Aciman’s Out of Egypt, the extended story of an extended Jewish family in Alexandria in the first half of the 20th century, has recently been published in Britain (Faber & Faber). It’s a dazzling period piece — but a timely and essential read too. My review appeared in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday; you can read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

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