Author Archive

Under siege in Ukraine

The latest book from the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov (best known for his post-Soviet satire Death and the Penguin) is a version of the diary he has been writing since Russian tanks rolled into his country last February: Diary of an Invasion (Mountain Leopard, £16.99). In The Observer last weekend, which published extractsKurkov was interviewed by Rachel Cooke. His book, she says, brings the early days of the war vividly to life:

He writes stirringly of the notes people begin leaving in their cars offering lifts to the border; of his sudden longing for the comforting sweetness of honey; of the cigarettes required to bribe Russian soldiers at checkpoints in the east. Here are the kind of stories you don’t see on the television news: a description of the evacuation of dolphins trained to work with autistic children from Kharkiv to Odesa; of the doll talismans (known as oberig or “protectors”) that Ukrainians knit and transport to the front along with warm socks; of the rise of the TikTok star Tetyana Chubar, a tiny, blond, 23-year-old divorced mother of two, who is the commander of a self-propelled howitzer.

Annie Proulx on our unloved wetlands

Fen, Bog and Swamp (Fourth Estate, £16.99), in which the novelist Annie Proulx (The Shipping News, Brokeback Mountain) lays bare the reality of wetland destruction and what it means for the planet, is currently Book of the Week on Radio 4. It was reviewed in The Observer on Sunday and in the Literary Review earlier this month. Proulx covered the subject of wetlands recently for The New Yorker and, I see, is due to speak to one of the magazine’s staff writers, Sarah Stillman, in a session next month at New York Public Library.

Another Winn for Raynor

In The Guardian at the weekend, Amy-Jane Beer welcomed Landlines, Raynor Winn’s latest walking odyssey with her husband, Moth. It is, she says, “a wonderful book”:

Winn seems to have a bird’s-eye view of Britain – a map at her feet, a keen eye for detail, particularly for social injustice. Hers is a voice of empathy and integrity, and her points are never made polemically, but by the simple observation of others’ experiences.

A migrant at the age of nine

I’ve been reading great things from reviewers in the United States about Solito, in which the Salvadorean poet Javier Zamora recreates the journey he made at the age of nine over land and sea to join his parents in California. His parents had emigrated to the US before he turned five, and he had been living with his grandparents. The book has been featured in publications as various as The New York Times and High Country News (which covers social, political and ecological issues in the western US). But it wasn’t until I saw an interview yesterday with Zamora in the Review section of The Observer that I realised Solito was being published simultaneously in Britain (by Oneworld). 

Zamora — a graduate of the creative writing programme at New York University and a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, California — had written of his experience as a migrant in his debut poetry collection, Unaccompanied. He told Killian Fox that he had been prompted to turn to prose and write Solito by “the weight of the trauma” that he had carried since boyhood:

I began… during Donald Trump’s America, when everybody was talking about immigration. In 2017, when we had the Central American child crisis at the border, it seemed it was the first time Americans realised that there had been child migrants. It angered me that they didn’t realise it had been occurring for decades, and I was part of that.

  But he says there was joy and hope as well as hardship during his journey:

I can still taste the fish we had in Acapulco and remember how happy we were getting food from nuns in a shelter near the border. It’s moments such as these that are absent from news clippings and even other works of fiction and non-fiction about immigration.

  In retracing his journey, Zamora was helped by Francisco Cantú, who had worked as a Border Patrol agent in the areas where Zamora had crossed — a time he recalled in his own acclaimed memoir, The Line Becomes a River. Letters between the two men were included by William Atkins in his 2021 anthology for Granta of new travel writing, Should We Have Stayed At Home?; you can still read them on the Granta magazine site.

Wainwright winners; Boardman Tasker short list

The winners of the three categories in the Wainwright Prize were announced on Wednesday: James Aldred for Goshawk Summer (nature writing); Dan Saladino for Eating to Extinction (writing on conservation); and Rob and Tom Sears for The Biggest Footprint (children’s writing on nature and conservation).

The short list was announced yesterday for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.  The six titles on it are: Climbing the Walls by Kieran Cunningham (Simon & Schuster); Time on Rock by Anna Fleming (Canongate); High Risk by Brian Hall (Sandstone Press); Through Dangerous Doors by Robert Charles Lee (WiDo Publishing); A Line Above the Sky by Helen Mort (Ebury Press); and The Mountain Path by Paul Pritchard (Vertebrate Publishing). The winner will be announced  at the Kendal Mountain Festival, in Cumbria, on November 18.

The Himalayas, minus the clichés

In The Guardian on Saturday, Anna Fleming (author of Time on Rock: A Climber’s Route into the Mountains) reviewed High (MacLehose Press), an account of a journey through the Himalayas by the Norwegian writer Erika Fatland. It’s a book, she says, that steers clear of clichés about the region and comes to life through conversations. “Fatland, as traveller and anthropologist, establishes a unique rapport with girls and women, leading to precious insights into lives rarely recorded.”

Fatland will be speaking about her book at Stanfords bookshop in London on October 6 and at the Cheltenham Literature Festival a couple of days later.

Digging in Peru with Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair, that master in his own words of “digging into where you are”, spent half a century making London his literary turf. More recently, he’s been digging in Peru, where he and his daughter Farne retraced an ill-fated colonial expedition led by his great-grandfather, Arthur Sinclair. The Gold Machine (2021), his account of their journey on the ground and into the darkness of Britain’s imperial past, goes into paperback this week, and a feature documentary opens in cinemas. While Sinclair goes on tour with the director, Grant Gee, Farne will be releasing a podcast, In Tropical Lands, on Apple Podcasts.

On the move, with Winn, Palin and company

“This September,” the blurb on the back of the bound proof goes, “the million-copy bestseller returns”. Raynor Winn has been on another long walk, and the result, Landlines (Michael Joseph, £20), is due to be published on September 15. Having walked 630 miles along the South-West coast of England for The Salt Path, then tried to readjust to normal life before taking on the rewilding of a farm (The Wild Silence), Winn and her husband Moth — who is terminally ill — set off to walk 1,000 miles from the north-west corner of Scotland to the south coast of Cornwall. “On their epic journey,” the publisher says, “they map the landscape of an island nation facing an uncertain path…”

Sir Michael Palin’s travels as a television presenter have taken him to the Poles and the Sahara, to the Himalayas and North Korea, but until this year he knew little of the Middle East. In March, for a forthcoming series for Channel 5, he went Into Iraq, following the Tigris from source to sea in an attempt to understand “how the birthplace of civilisation [has] become so riven by conflict”. His book, bearing the same title as the TV series (Hutchinson Heinemann, £16.99, September 15), is an illustrated day-by-day account of the journey. 

There’s an endorsement from Palin on the cover of Himālaya: Exploring the Roof of the World by the historian John Keay (Bloomsbury, £30, September 15): “It adds the human element to the hard rock. And what a rich vein it is,” he says.
  Keay has been visiting the region since the 1960s, when he was a foreign correspondent in Kashmir. His book — “ranging from botany to trade, from the Great Game to today’s geopolitics” — is the summation of a lifetime’s study of one of the last great wildernesses. 

When the pandemic clipped his wings, Nigel Richardson looked for travel stories closer to home. After one outing with a metal detectorist in Kent, he was hooked on a new hobby. In The Accidental Detectorist: Uncovering An Underground Obsession (Cassell, £20, September 1), he sifts Britain’s soil from Portsmouth to Edinburgh, explores the psyches of those hooked on “happy bleeps”, and celebrates “places far too obvious for me to have noticed before: the ones in front of my eyes and beneath my feet”. (Interest declared: Nigel Richardson is a friend and former colleague of mine.)

  And here’s a couple of recently published books I’ve not had time to mention here :

Nemesis, My Friend: Journeys through the turning times by Jay Griffiths (Little Toller, £18)
Hard to summarise this collection of essays from the Wales-based author and champion of wild places. Nemesis, she argues, should be seen as a goddess not of retribution but of “limits, proportion, proper measurement and rightness”, and a vital guide on a planet we’ve overheated. Griffiths follows the changing light through days and seasons and across the globe, moving from listening to birdsong in her garden in Wales to communing with independence campaigners in West Papua. 

My Family and Other Enemies: Life and Travels in Croatia’s Hinterland by Mary Novakovich (Bradt, £9.99)
In a book combining travel and memoir, Novakovich explores the sparsely populated Croatian region of Lika, birthplace of her parents and a land that has endured centuries of strife. Over visits spanning more than 40 years, she uncovers her family’s tumultuous history as well as the stories of people who survived the conflicts of the 20th century. Along the way, she celebrates an indomitable people, and “beauty among the bullet holes”.

*Updated September 2: I’m reminded by the latest “Genius Loci” newsletter from Jeremy Bassetti that Mary Novakovich was a recent guest on his Travel Writing World podcast.

Grand Tour to package

In Tourists: How The British Went Abroad to Find Themselves (Bloomsbury), Lucy Lethbridge tells the story of the opening up of travel from Britain, taking readers from the last years of the Grand Tour to the first years of the package holiday. Early reviews have come from Guy Stagg in The Spectator, Gillian Tindall in the Literary Review and (behind the paywall) Caroline Eden in the Financial Times.

Travelling back on to BBC radio

The first dedicated travel show on BBC radio for more than a decade was welcomed by Patricia Nicol in her column for this week’s Culture section of The Sunday Times. Your Place or Mine with Shaun Keaveny (BBC Sounds) sells itself as “the travel show that’s going nowhere”. In each episode, a guest sets out to sell a favourite place to Keaveny and his fellow presenter, Iszi Lawrence, trying to persuade them to give up the comforts of home to try out an unfamiliar destination — or, as Keaveny puts it, to talk them into “swapping Gogglebox for the Gatwick Express”. The first series of 10 episodes includes Sarah Kendall, the stand-up comedian, on her home town of Newcastle, Australia; Ching He Huang, the food writer, on her birthplace of Taipei; Aatif Nawaz, the comedian and cricket commentator, on his parents’ birthplace, Lahore; and Guy Garvey, lead singer and lyricist of Elbow (born in Bury, Greater Manchester), on New York.

While largely appreciative of the new show, Nicol laments the scrapping in 2012 of Excess Baggage, presented by John McCarthy, which “informed a wanderlust but also grappled with the ethics of tourism”.