Author Archive

Harris collects $10,000 Canadian prize for ‘Lands of Lost Borders’

Kate Harris this week collected another prize for her acclaimed debut Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road: the $10,000 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.

Place and setting on a warming planet

Two weeks before the global climate strike, the New York Public Library held its first  “Live from the NYPL” session of the season, a conversation between two writers who have grappled with climate change in fiction and fact. They are Amitav Ghosh, whose latest novel, Gun Island (John Murray), brings together California wildfires, Venetian-lagoon tornadoes and myth and coincidence; and Nathaniel Rich, whose most recent book, Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change (Picador), began as a piece for the magazine of The New York Times.

  On the video below, their conversation begins about 14 minutes in. Just before the half-hour mark, they turn to the question of place and setting, and Ghosh says that it’s impossible, in our world, to tackle it as a 19th-century novelist would have done. 

  “For one thing, the settings have completely changed. The populations have changed, the geographies have changed. And most of all, we live at a time when, really, it’s not just people moving; we also know that entire ecosystems are moving. And we know most of all that all these changes are happening because of extended global impact. So any attempt that we have today to approach these issues has to dispense with the 19th-century idea of the setting. 

  “I really feel that John Steinbeck was the great climate novelist avant la lettreThe Grapes of Wrath, the first chapter of it, is just such a magnificent riff on climate… if today you had to be Steinbeck writing about the same sort of phenomenon — and in a way I am writing about the same kind of phenomenon — you couldn’t do it using the Oklahoma dialect, as Steinbeck did. You would have to use Spanish.

  “So already, then, you see this deep fracture entering into our literary universe. How do you deal with this… what we might call an Anthropocene of language, which is not the stable, monolingual reality of the past?”

Travel and place at the festivals

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

Appledore Book Festival (September 20-28) 
Raynor Winn returns to the festival to talk about how the 630-mile walk she and her husband made along the South West Coast Path, recounted in The Salt Path, has influenced their lives since; Mike Thomson, the BBC world affairs correspondent, tells the extraordinary story of Syria’s Secret Library, which flourished underground in the town of Darayya during the civil war; Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who made the first crossings of South America from east to west and north to south, talks about the 40 pioneers he has brought together in The Great Explorers; and Nicholas Crane, author most recently of You Are Here: A brief guide to the world, argues that the study of geography has never been more important than it is now.

Jersey Festival of Words (September 25-29)
Contributors include the round-the-world sailor Robin Knox-Johnston, whose autobiography is Running Free; Raynor Winn (see above); the photographer Martin Toft, who in Te Ahi Kā — The Fires of Occupation explores the relationships between an ancestral river and indigenous people in New Zealand;  Bram Wanrooij, a former Jersey resident and author of Displaced, on Europe and the global refugee crisis; and Professor Alex Rogers, who recently served as a scientific consultant on the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, and has written In The Deep: The Hidden Wonders of Our Ocean and How We Can Protect Them.

Marlborough Literature Festival (September 26-29)
Contributors include Adam Weymouth, whose Kings of the Yukon was recently long-listed in the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition; Monisha Rajesh, who went Around the World in 80 Trainsand Raynor Winn, whose The Salt Path has been chosen for the Big Town Read, in which book groups discuss the selected title before having a chance to question the author.

Ilkley Literature Festival (October 4-20)
Mike Thomson (see Appledore Book Festival) talks about Syria’s Secret Library; Laurence Rose, who likes to explore “the joints between nature, culture and conservation”, talks about The Long Spring, an account of a series of journeys he undertook in 2016 to track the arrival of spring from North Africa to Arctic Norway; Ben Aitken, who went to Poland to see what the Poles who came to the UK had left behind, introduces his debut, A Chip Shop in Poznan; Richard King talks about The Lark Ascending, in which he  explores connections between music and the British landscape; David Barrie, author of Incredible Journeys, tells how animals great and small find their way; and Lara Maiklem, who has been Mudlarking on the Thames for more than 15 years, explains what her finds reveal about London and its lost ways of life.

Bewdley Festival (October 11-20)
Speakers include  the television presenter Kate Humble, whose most recent book is Thinking on My Feet: The small joy of putting one foot in front of another; the travel writer Lois Pryce, talking about her Revolutionary Ride on a motorcyle across Iran; and the naturalist and broadcaster Brett Westwood, with a session billed “Into the woods”.

Marozzi talk on ‘Islamic Empires’

Justin Marozzi will be talking about his new book, Islamic Empires, at Daunt Books’ Marylebone branch in London next Wednesday, September 18.

Broad view of the Bering Strait

Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (WW Norton), which Robert Macfarlane recommended when I interviewed him earlier this year, was reviewed at the weekend in The New York Times by the novelist Julia Phillips (author of the bestselling Disappearing Earth):

The first people to enter the Americas came through Beringia, the stretch of land and sea between what is now Russia and Alaska. That may have been 20,000 years ago. By foot, by boat, they traveled, hunted and built communities. Some of them moved south. Within a few millenniums, people had settled everywhere from the Arctic Circle down to Patagonia. All the places on this continent we know — the cities, the villages, the spot where this newspaper is printed — follow this movement out of the Bering Strait. To study that place is to know a whole hemisphere’s history.

It’s also key for understanding the present. Movement in the Bering Strait continues. In “Floating Coast,” Bathsheba Demuth, an environmental historian at Brown University, tracks the last two centuries of motion between northeastern Russia and northwestern America.

  It is, Phillips says, sometimes a challenging book, but a rich, well-researched and rewarding one.

It keeps under readers’ feet the vastness of Demuth’s expertise, as solid as a land bridge. She has made it her life’s work to learn about Beringia. In relaying her knowledge, she provides a vision not only of where we on this continent came from but where we are headed. We study the Bering Strait to learn what the future holds.

‘Kings of the Yukon’ on Banff long list

The long list for the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition was announced this week. It includes Kings of the Yukon, a superlative debut by Adam Weymouth; Horizon, in which Barry Lopez looks back on a lifetime of journeying and laments what we’ve done to “the throttled Earth”; and The Grand Canyon: Beyond River and Rim by Pete McBride, which is a marvellous photographic record of the canyon from end to end.

  More than $20,000 in cash is awarded annually in eight awards whose winners are selected by an international jury of writers, adventurers and editors.  The jury of three this year includes  the poet Helen Mort, who will presumably have to absent herself when the mountain literature category is being decided: among the books to be considered is Waymaking, an anthology she helped to edit of “prose, poetry and artwork by women who are inspired by wild places, adventure and landscape”.

  The winner last year in the adventure travel category was Kate Harris for Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road — which was short-listed this week for yet another prize.

‘Lands of Lost Borders’ on Boardman Tasker short list

I’m delighted to hear that Kate Harris’s Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road, which was one of my favourite books of 2018, was short-listed yesterday for the £3,000 Boardman Tasker Prize, which is presented annually to “the author or co-authors of an original work that has made an outstanding contribution to mountain literature”. For the full short list of six books, see the Boardman Tasker site.  You can read a brief extract from Kate Harris’s book here on Deskbound Traveller.

The tale of Islam in 15 cities

In The Sunday Telegraph last weekend, the historian Noel Malcolm reviewed Islamic Empires by Justin Marozzi (Allen Lane), a “deeply engaging and fascinating” history of the Islamic world as a series of accounts of 15 cities, from Mecca to Doha. Malcolm says it’s an episodic, impressionistic work, and also, here and there, a personal one. “Marozzi is an Arabic-speaking journalist with decades of experience of the Islamic world; he is good at evoking the atmosphere of these places in the present or the recent past. In Egypt, he tells us, he has been ‘pursued down narrow alleys by incandescent taxi drivers’ and has travelled up the Nile ‘in prostitute-filled riverboats’. Oh well, I concluded, on balance that must be better than being chased down the alleys by incandescent prostitutes, and finding the riverboats full of taxi drivers.”

“Surfacing’ again

Kathleen Jamie’s new essay collection, Surfacing (Sort Of Books), which I have mentioned here a couple of times, was serialised in the Review section of The Daily Telegraph at the weekend; the extracts are now online.

Lines on the landscape

Why and how does the British landscape — urban as well as rural — inspire writers? That’s a question addressed in a lively BBC “Arts & Ideas” podcast bringing together the writer “and incorrigible walker” Horatio Clare and the rapper and playwright Testament (AKA Andy Brooks), in whose Black Men Walking (see below) four ramblers discuss Britishness and belonging while stretching their legs in the Peak District. The session is chaired by the historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough.