Americas Archive

Dillard will be hard to eclipse

According to the BBC, many commentators believe that yesterday’s total solar eclipse over the United States will be “the most observed, most photographed and best documented such event in human history”. It will be hard, though, for any observer to improve on Annie Dillard’s account of an eclipse she witnessed over Washington State in February 1979. First published in 1982, it was republished in full this month on the website of The Atlantic magazine, where it can be read without charge until the end of August.

If you miss your chance, you can find the piece in either of two new editions of essays by Dillard published in Britain as part of “The Canons” series by Canongate earlier this year. One of the collections (with an introduction by Geoff Dyer) is The Abundance; the other is Teaching A Stone to Talk, which I’ve mentioned already elsewhere.

Heard the one about the Swedes and America’s national parks?

One of my favourite books last year came from the butterfly mind of the Swedish entomologist Fredrik Sjöberg, author of that unlikely bestseller The Fly Trap. In The Art of Flight, published as the United States marked the centenary of the founding of its National Parks Service, Sjöberg told how two of his fellow Swedes had had a hand in that great project designed to ensure that “virgin reserves should be placed here and there throughout the country, like Sundays in a landscape of weekdays”.

This week, The Art of Flight comes out in paperback from Penguin (£9.99). Courtesy of the author and his publisher, you can read an extract on Deskbound Traveller.

Spufford wins RSL Ondaatje Prize

“Since all that remains of the place I evoked in my book is a street plan and a metal railing, I feel I must point out that I made it all up.” So said Francis Spufford last night on being awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s £10,000 Ondaatje Prize for a book “evoking the spirit of a place”. The book was Golden Hill (Faber & Faber); the place was New York in colonial days, when Broadway was the Broad Way, “a species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad…”

If it’s an imagined city, it’s also a thoroughly realised and believable one. This is the scene that Spufford’s hero, a young Englishman intent on making his way in the New World, sees on his first morning:

He jumped out of bed and threw the casement wide – rooftops and bell towers greeted him; a jumble, not much elevated, of stepped Dutchwork eaves and ordinary English tile, with the greater eminences of churches poking through, steepled and cupola’d, and behind a slow-swaying fretwork of masts; the whole prospect washed with, bright with, aglitter with, the water last night’s clouds had shed, and one – two – three – he counted ’em – six crumbs of dazzling light hoisted high that must be the weathercocks of the city of New-York, riding golden in the hurrying levels of the sky where blue followed white followed blue…

Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians were passing in both directions. Somewhere below too, hidden mostly by the branches, someone was sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongue as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.

Golden Hill marked Spufford’s debut in fiction, at the age of 52, and has already won him the Costa First Novel Award and been short-listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize, but it is certainly not his first book to appear on a short list. Five works of non-fiction — including The Child That Books Built — have earned him nominations for writing on everything from science to theology. He was short-listed in 2011 for the RSL Ondaatje Prize for Red Plenty, a “factional” account of Soviet Russia.

Summing up this year’s Ondaatje short list before the award was made, the author and critic Henry Hitchings, speaking for the judges, said Golden Hill was “that rare thing: an ingenious novel that draws on profound research to evoke the spirit of another age, yet wears that research lightly. An astonishing achievement, intoxicating in its virtuosity.”

Spufford has said he began the book as an account of 18th-century New York, “but then the characters… wandered over from the other side of my brain, and the expository stuff about the city could be sucked into the storytelling.”

Last year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize short list was unusual in that it included a poetry collection — for the first time in seven years — and had no novels. This year, all but one of the books were fiction. The exception was The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (Canongate), a memoir of addiction and recovery and the part played in the latter by the natural world on Orkney.

The other books were:
In A Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie (Tinder Press)
Augustown by Kei Miller (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris (Doubleday)
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus.

Judging the prize with Hitchings were the cultural historian Alexandra Harris (short-listed last year for Weatherland, an account of how weather has been written and painted in England through the centuries), and the poet Mimi Khalvati.

Now in its 14th year, the RSL Ondaatje Prize is sponsored by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the businessman, adventurer and writer. Last year’s winner was Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, by Peter Pomerantsev, an electrifying portrait of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Travel editor to the world-weary

Thomas Swick, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, looks back on his career as a travel writer, and his stint as a travel editor in the United States  —  “a society that is weary of a world it has never gotten to know.”

Travel editors were an absurdity in a nation of workaholics; the consumer-driven travel section appeared on Sunday more as a taunt than an escape. By bringing to it some of the qualities of travel literature — by giving subscribers something to read as well as to reference — I was trying to make it less ridiculous and more useful, the very thing top editors periodically grumbled it wasn’t.

Deep South to cyberspace

As I mentioned last month, there’s a new edition out of Sitting Up with the Dead, Pamela Petro’s account of a trip she made through the American South in search of its storytellers. You can read more about Petro and her work on her website, which has just gone live.

Novel ideas in Mississippi

Hari Kunzru’s forthcoming novel, White Tears, had its genesis in a road trip that took him through Mississippi and a subsequent immersion in the blues, he disclosed in a piece for The Guardian at the weekend. In the course of that piece, he mentioned the great Mississippi flood of 1927, which was one of the most destructive in the history of the United States. The flood itself was central to another recent novel set in the Deep South, Southern Cross The Dog (2013), the debut of Bill Cheng. Cheng, a Chinese-American born in New York, was also inspired by the blues, but unlike Kunzru he didn’t take to the road. He had never set foot in Mississippi when he wrote his book, which is a remarkable feat of imagination.  You can still read an extract on Deskbound Traveller.

Poetry: ‘A lotta hard-workin’ people tryin’ to make an honest dime’

What is Poetry? “It’s just a lotta hard-workin’ people tryin’ to make an honest dime.” So I discovered yesterday, when I searched for “poetry” and “journeys” on the Soundcloud site.

Having enjoyed the latest edition of Poetry Please on Radio 4, on the theme of “Dusk ’til Dawn” (perfect listening for a post-run bath), I searched for “Poetry Please journeys”, and discovered that Roger McGough did hit the road, in March 2015, in the company of Tennyson, Arnold and Cavafy, among others. Unfortunately, that episode is not available on the BBC iPlayer. (Note to BBC: please add it asap.)

So I tried the same search on Soundcloud, couldn’t find the journeys episode, but did turn up Poetry, Texas, in which a Danish poet, Pejk Malinovski, went all the way to the Lone Star State because he’d seen a picture online; a picture of a water tower with the word “Poetry” on it: Poetry, Texas. His programme is gently revealing of rural life, and the voices are wonderful. It was made by the innovative team at Falling Tree Productions and went out on Radio 4 in May 2013 —  but again isn’t available on iPlayer. I’ve put the Soundcloud link in below.

The world of John McPhee

It’s 40 years since the appearance of John McPhee’s travel book about Alaska, Coming into the Country. To mark the occasion, Work in Progress, the excellent website of his American publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has put an extract up online.

On this side of the pond, there’s a lovely recent (2015) edition from Daunt Books, which is not just one of the best travel bookshops in London but also a publisher in a small way, dedicated to introducing works by fresh voices or reissuing lost classics. Coming into the Country falls into the latter category, having been published in Britain in 1977, the year the first barrel of oil was taken from what McPhee calls “America’s ultimate wilderness”. It began life as a series for The New Yorker — where McPhee has been a staff writer since 1963 — and is really three books in one: the story of a river journey he made in 1975; an exploration of “urban” Alaska; and sketches of people, from American Indians to oil drillers, who had “come into the country” around the town of Eagle. In our time, as Robert Macfarlane puts it in his introduction, it reads “like a combination of prophecy and elegy”.

Last autumn Daunt published a second title by McPhee, Oranges, about growers and traders of the world’s most popular fruit. Later this month it is due to bring out a third, The Crofter and the Laird, for which he moved his family from New Jersey to the land of his forefathers: the island of Colonsay, “17 square miles of dew and damp” off the west coast of Scotland.

A revealing question: ‘Where are you going?’

In her “Pick of the Week” column on radio for The Daily Telegraph at the weekend, Charlotte Runcie recommended The Documentary: Where Are You Going? (tomorrow on the World Service at 7.30pm), for which Catherine Carr travels to the Mexican city of Tijuana, just south of where Donald Trump is promising to build a wall. Runcie says it “reveals compelling stories of transition, identity and politics by, simply, stopping people and asking them where they are going.”

The programme, recorded in November following Trump’s election victory, turns out to be part of a series — all available on the BBC iPlayer — in which Carr has asked the same question of people in Amsterdam, Kolkata (Calcutta), New York and “The Jungle” refugee camp in Calais.

Sitting up with the storytellers of the South

suwtdjktI’m delighted to hear that a new edition has been published today (by Arcade, in the United States) of Sitting Up with the Dead, Pamela Petro’s account of her first trip to the southern United States, and her encounters with the great storytellers who live there. She travelled from the Atlantic seaboard across the high country of Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, seeking out people who were keeping alive the narrative tradition and saying to them, “Tell me your tales.”

“Two covers, a spine, and a few hundred pages,” she writes in the prologue, “do not have nearly as much personality as living, cussing, dancing, spitting, smoking, eating, drinking humans.” She’s too modest: turn her pages and you’re with her on the journey — which is why I was so keen to buy an extract for The Daily Telegraph when the book first appeared in Britain in 2001.

The new edition has a foreword from Jimmy Neil Smith, founder of the National Storytelling Festival. It also has a plug on the cover from Paul Theroux, who recently travelled to the same part of the country for his own book, Deep South: “The origins of Southern literature are its folktales and local stories,” he says, “and the South is full of storytellers. Pamela Petro has found the best of them. This book is both important as scholarship and great fun as a trip.”