Places Archive

New books on travel, place and nature

The first titles in the new “John Murray Journeys” series of travel books are due to be published this week.

The New York Times Book Review has marked the Fourth of July weekend with a special issue featuring books about America’s past, present and future. Among them are two new books on Texas; memoirs of family migration; the journalist John Gunther’s Inside U.S.A, first published in 1947; and Republic of Detours, which tell how unemployed writers — including Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren and Richard Wright — were hired to write idiosyncratic guides to the country during the 1930s.

Eland Books, which recently brought back into print Charles Nicholl’s Borderlines: A Journey in Thailand and Burma (1988), is to follow that at the end of this month with Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, 1880-91 (£14.99), an account of the poet’s “lost years” that won Nicholl the 1998 Hawthornden Prize (for “the best work of imaginative literature)”.
Nicholl was interviewed recently about Borderlines by Jeremy Bassetti for his Travel Writing World podcast.

Wanderers: A History of Women Walking, edited by Kerri Andrews and with an introduction by Kathleen Jamie, is out in paperback next week (Reaktion Books, July 12, £9.99). It’s a book about 10 women “who have found walking essential to their sense of themselves as women, writers and people” — from Elizabeth Carter, a parson’s daughter of the 18th century, who wanted nothing more than to be taken for a vagabond in southern England, to Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, who set out to be “a woman who walks alone in the wilderness for eleven hundred miles”.

I’ve mentioned before the series of city-inspired noir anthologies published by Cassava Republic. The latest, Addis Ababa Noir, due out on August 4 (£12.99), is edited by Maaza Mengiste, who was short-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize for The Shadow King, and won an Edgar Award for a short story she includes in this new collection. She promises that the authors whose work she has chosen will open up their city: “Let them lead you down their streets and alleyways, into their characters’ homes and schools, and show you all the hidden corners, the secrets, and the lapsed realities that hover just above the Addis that everyone else sees.”

Michael Pye has written books on subjects from New York (Maximum City) to the North Sea (The Edge of the World). His latest is Antwerp: The Glory Years (Allen Lane, August 5, £25), in which he paints a portrait of the city between 1500 and 1570. It was then, he writes, “a world city, a centre of stories published across Europe, a sensation like nineteenth-century Paris or twentieth-century New York, one of the first cities where anything could happen or at least be believed. Other cities showed the power of kings or dukes or empires, but Antwerp showed only itself: a place of trade, where people wanted, needed to be, or couldn’t afford not to be. It was famous on its own terms.”

In The Eternal Season: Ghosts of summers past, present and future (Elliott & Thompson, £14.99), Stephen Rutt sets out to explore the natural world during its moment of fullest bloom. But he notices, too, the ways in which the season is being deranged by a changed and changing climate: the wrong birds singing at the wrong time; August days as cold as February. The book is both celebration and warning: “It sings,” his publisher says, “with love and careful observation, with an eye on all that we might lose but also save.”

What do Britons make of Finland? Few are better placed to tell us than Tony Lurcock, a former lecturer in English at Finnish universities. Since 2010, he has been producing a series of compilations of accounts by travellers and writers, acclaimed in the TLS as “a fascinating prism through which to view modern Finland”. The fourth and final volume, Finish Off with Finland: A Miscellany, was published last week by that one-person publishing house Charles Boyle, otherwise known as CB editions (£12); you can download an extract from the publisher’s website.

In Minarets in the Mountains (Bradt Guides, July 15, £9.99), Tharik Hussain, who was born in Bangladesh and grew up in the East End of London, travels with his family around the western Balkans. Following in the footsteps of the Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi, he takes them through Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, intent on exploring indigenous Muslim Europe in the 21st century. The book has won praise from writers including Tim Mackintosh-Smith (“A richly detailed travelogue by a humane and compassionate pilgrim”) and Ziauddin Sardar (“A scintillating voyage”).

Ruth Gilligan wins Ondaatje Prize for ‘The Butchers’

The  Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature, an annual award of £10,000 for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that best evokes “the spirit of a place”, went last night to Ruth Gilligan for The Butchers (Atlantic Books), which is set on the Irish border during the 1996 BSE crisis.

Lola, Baroness Young of Hornsey, the chair of the judges, said the book was “about a moment in time, in a particular place. It’s been described in many different terms: literary thriller, coming-of-age story, historical fiction, an account of superstition and the supernatural, but it doesn’t matter how it’s categorised – it’s a page-turning, rollercoaster of a read.”

The Butchers is Gilligan’s fifth novel. She published her debut, Forget, in 2006, at 18, and became the youngest ever person to top the Irish bestsellers list. After two more novels, she took an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia — which has an extract from The Butchers on its New Writing website.

New books on travel and place

Where can travel writing go in the 21st century? That’s a question addressed by the writer and academic Tim Hannigan in The Travel Writing Tribe, due out later this month (Hurst, £20). It’s a book in which he talks to illustrious members of that tribe — among them Dervla Murphy and Kapka Kassabova, Colin Thubron and Samanth Sumbramanian — and in which, his publisher says, he confronts some of the genre’s greatest controversies: “Is it ever okay for travel writers to make things up [a question I put recently to Paul Theroux], and just where does the frontier between fact and fiction lie? What actually is travel writing, and is it just a genre dominated by posh white men? What of travel writing’s queasy colonial connections?” It’s a book, the publisher  promises, that “compels readers and travellers of all kinds to think about travel writing in new ways”.

Here are a few more forthcoming books that touch, in one way or another, on travel and place (including one that’s wholly fiction)…

In Walking the Border (2014), Ian Crofton followed England’s northern edge, its frontier with Scotland. In Fringed with Mud and Pearls: An English Island Odyssey (Birlinn, May 20, £20), he turns to the country’s other edges and specifically to those parts that have become detached. His aim: to use some of the islands — including Lindisfarne and the Isle of Wight, Eel Pie Island and the Scillies — “as a range of lenses through which to view the motherland, in all its kaleidoscopic variety”.

For Alistair Moffat and John Lewis-Stempel, a single place will suffice as a subject — and for each of them, it’s a farm. In The Secret History of Here: A Year in the Valley  (Canongate, June 3, £15.99), Moffat tells the story of his own farm in the Scottish Borders, which he took on in 1994 but which stands on land that has been occupied since prehistoric times. Taking the form of a journal of the year, the book is “a walk through the centuries as much as the seasons”.

Lewis-Stempel (twice winner of the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing) had long wanted to write “the life story of a farm”. He ruled out his own on the basis that it has sheep but no crops. Instead, he chose the one where his grandfather was manager and his mother grew up, in countryside where Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire run into one another. In Woodston: The Biography of an English Farm (July 1, Doubleday, £20), he takes us “from the creation of its DNA — the very soil in which it thrives — four billion years ago to AD 1950”. “And ‘biography’,” he says, “is the correct term, because farms live, have character, personality.”

Noir, whatever the vogue for Scandi crime series may suggest, isn’t exclusively Nordic. It can be African. Cassava Republic Press, having recently published the anthologies Nairobi Noir and Lagos Noir, is bringing out on May 20 Accra Noir, edited by Nana-Ama Danquah, a writer who was born in the Ghanaian capital  and raised in the US.  Accra, she says, is the perfect setting for noir fiction: a major metropolis where there’s poverty, desperation “and the inevitable result of a marriage between the two — crime”.

In Mercator, Nicholas Crane gave us the first biography published in English of “the man who mapped the planet”; in Latitude (Michael Joseph, May 27, £16.99), he tells the story of the world’s first international scientific expedition, a 10-year voyage to find the shape of the earth. Latitude “is a tale of bravery, betrayal and murder set amid the equatorial rainforests and snow-capped volcanoes of South America…With a narrative that reads like a script from a Hollywood adventure movie, [it] reminds us how science can change the world.”

I’ve mentioned The Passenger, an excellent place-based magazine, a couple of times here. The next issue focuses not on a country but a city. Contributors to The Passenger: Berlin (Europa Editions, June 10, £18.99) include the Dutch traveller Cees Nooteboom on his first visit to the reunified city, the Vietnamese-American Alisa Anh Kotmair on Berlin’s Little Vietnam, the architect and critic Thibaut de Ruyter on how the city “celebrates a past that it does not own”, and Julianne Löffler on the “most transgressive sex club”.

After Will Buckingham lost his partner to cancer, he realised that by opening up his house to guests he could see a path through his grief; he found himself immersed in a long and rich tradition of meeting strangers. In Hello, Stranger: How to Welcome the World  (Granta, July, £16.99), he draws on his life as a traveller, and weaves together philosophy, literature, history and anthropology, to offer what his publisher says is “a powerful antidote to our increasingly atomised world, and the past year of isolation we’ve all experienced”.

And here are a few books that have been published recently that I’ve not had time to mention before…

In 1954, the Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, with their two small children, left grey, post-war London for  Greece. In Mermaid Singing, Clift tells of their first year on the sponge-fishing island of Kalymnos; in Peel Me A Lotus she writes from Hydra, where they stayed for almost a decade, becoming the centre of  an informal bohemian community that later included Leonard Cohen. Each of the two reissued titles (Muswell Press, £8.99 each) has an introduction by Polly Samson, whose most recent novel, A Theatre for Dreamers, featured Clift as a central character.

Hilary Bradt, co-founder of the company that’s now Bradt Guides, had been pony-mad as a child, but it wasn’t until 1984, when she was in her early forties, that she realised her ambition to do a long-distance ride. In A Connemara Journey (Bradt Guides, £12.99),  her thousand-mile trip through western Ireland on two different ponies, originally published as Connemara Mollie in 2012 and Dingle Peggy in 2013, is covered in one book.

Paul Theroux on fiction, travel and the post-pandemic future

I interviewed Paul Theroux for The Daily Telegraph last month to talk about his new novel, travel and travel writing. You can now read a longer version of that interview here on Deskbound Traveller.

Short list for Ondaatje Prize

The short list was announced yesterday for the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature, an annual award of £10,000 for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry “evoking the spirit of a place”.

The six books are:

The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan (Atlantic Books)
This Lovely City by Louise Hare (HQ)
Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Magnolia, 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles (Nine Arches Press)
English Pastoral by James Rebanks (Allen Lane)
Square Haunting by Francesca Wade (Faber & Faber).

This year’s judges are Lola, Baroness Young of Hornsey (Chair), Helen Mort and Adam Rutherford. The winner will be announced on May 11.

More praise for ‘Islands of Abandonment’

An email I got today tells me that Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment, which I have heartily recommended, has been reviewed recently in the Literary Review, where Will Wiles said it was “a fresh, provocative and valuable book”.

Place writing from Pitlochry

A reminder that this Sunday at 5pm the Pitlochry Winter Words Festival will have a special session focused on writing about place, featuring David Gange, Kapka Kassabova and Malachy Tallack. For details on how to join their live session, and for the full programme of events, see the festival website.

At the Paisley Book Festival on February 27, Tallack will be in conversation with Cal Flynn, whose excellent new book, Islands of Abandonment (William Collins), is a life-affirming exploration of so-called “dead zones”, and Lisa Wollett, author of Rag and Bone (John Murray), addressing the subject of “What we leave behind”.

‘Karachi Vice’ out today and on Radio 4

Samira Shackle’s Karachi Vice, which I included recently in a roundup of forthcoming books, is published today by Granta and is currently Book of the Week on Radio 4. It tells the story of the city through the lives of five of its citizens.

Gange, Kassabova and Tallack on writing and place

Writing and place and writing about place will be discussed by David Gange, Kapka Kassabova and Malachy Tallack in a session at this year’s Pitlochry Winter Words Festival, which will be held online from February 8 to February 14. For details on how to join their live session, and for the full programme of events, see the festival website.

Ways of escape in 2021: new books on travel and place

The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story by John Gimlette (Head of Zeus, January 7)
Having transported us in previous books to places as various as Paraguay and Newfoundland, John Gimlette takes us to the fourth-biggest island in the world. Despite its size, it’s something of an unknown country to Westerners, a caricatured place of talking lemurs. Gimlette was introduced to it as a child by Durrell and Attenborough, and saw it first on a wildlife holiday, but wanted to know more about its people. There is no evidence of human life until about 10,000 years ago; and when eventually people did settle, it was migrants from Borneo — 3,700 miles away — who came out on top. The Gardens of Mars is what he calls a “walk-through” history, in which he visits every corner of the country. “Along the way he meets politicians, sorcerers, gem prospectors, militiamen, rioters, lepers and the descendants of 17th-century pirates.”

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn (William Collins, January 21)
Grey partridges wandering car parks near Cambridge; a cuckoo seen in Osterley, in west London, for the first time in 20 years: the National Trust was reporting this morning on how wildlife has been taking advantage of reduced human activity during the Covid-19 lockdowns. In Islands of AbandonmentCal Flyn chronicles that phenomenon on a larger scale. It’s a book about 12 abandoned places around the world — ghost towns and exclusion zones, no man’s lands and post-industrial hinterlands – “and what happens when nature is allowed to reclaim its place”.

Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City by Samira Shackle (Granta, February 4)
Karachi, capital of Pakistan, is a city of 20 million people. It’s riven, Samira Shackle says, by “complex and ever-evolving conflicts, sectarian and ethnic resentment mingling with politics and organised crime”. But it’s also a place where many hope to make a fortune, or at least a new life. She first went there for a year in 2012, a Londoner moving to her mother’s home town, and arrived in the aftermath of a riot, but she has been drawn back regularly ever since. In Karachi Vice, she tells of “the daily struggles taking place on these dusty streets” through the lives of some of its residents, from an ambulance driver to an activist campaigning against injustice and corruption.

A Coup in Turkey: A Tale of Democracy, Despotism and Vengeance in a Divided Land by Jeremy Seale (Chatto & Windus, February 4)
Jeremy Seal, a travel writer and tour guide who’s had a life-long fascination with Turkey, investigates an episode that, he says, is “key to a deeper appreciation of the ideological divisions which blight this often troubled country”. The episode is the coup of 1960 that deposed Adnan Menderes, the prime minister, who was subsequently executed by the military. Like the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Menderes made his name as a champion of democracy; and like Erdogan, Seal says, Menderes duly proved to be an autocrat. Early readers of the book have included Colin Thubron, who says: “Through the spellbinding career of a single, ill-fated leader, Jeremy Seal illumines a bitterly divided country.”

Wars of the Interior by Joseph Zárate; translated by Annie McDermott (Granta, February 4)
The New York Times has been running a series of pieces, “The Amazon has seen our future”, about how the people of the region are living through the most extreme versions of our planet’s problems — including Covid-19. Among contributors has been the Lima-based journalist Joseph Zárate. In Wars of the Interior, he takes three of Peru’s most precious resources — wood, gold and oil — and exposes “the tragedy, violence and corruption tangled up in their extraction. But he also draws us into the rich, surprising world of Peru’s indigenous communities, of local heroes and singular activists, of ancient customs and passionate young environmentalists.”

Speak, Okninawa: A Memoir by Elizabeth Miki Brina (Granta, April)
Elizabeth Miki Brina’s parents met on the island of Okinawa. Her mother was a poor local waitress, living through the long aftermath of the Second World War; her father was a white soldier from middle-class American family. Elizabeth (now living and teaching in New Orleans) grew up in 1980s Fairport, in New York State, embarrassed by her mother and longing to be like the other kids at school. Speak, Okninawa is “her courageous and heart-breaking account of her journey home — back to herself, back to Okinawa, and back to the mother she had pushed away for so long”.

I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi (Bloomsbury, April 29)
Anita Sethi was on a train journey through northern England in the summer of last year when she became the victim of a race hate crime. Afterwards, she suffered panic attacks, but determined that she would continue travelling on her own and assert her right to exist. In I Belong Here she sets out to explore the Pennines, the backbone of Britain. “My journey,” she says in her prologue, “is one of reclamation, a way of saying, to adapt the Woody Guthrie song title, ‘this land is my land too’ and I belong in the UK as a brown woman, just as much as a white man does.” Robert Macfarlane says that Sethi’s is “a brilliant, brave and important book”.

Outlandish: Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes by Nick Hunt (John Murray, May 6)
Having followed Patrick Leigh Fermor (Walking the Woods and the Water) and then four of Europe’s winds (Where the Wild Winds Are) across the continent, Nick Hunt takes us through landscapes that shouldn’t be there: wildernesses that seem to belong to another part of the world. There’s a patch of Arctic tundra in Scotland; a jungle of primeval forest in Poland and Belarus; a desert in Spain; and the fathomless grassland steppes of Hungary. “Perhaps,” he says in his introduction, “the result is not a nature book, or even a travel book, so much as a book of fantasy: four small pilgrimages into imagination.”

Recently published books that I’ve not mentioned here before include: The Golden Maze: A Biography of Prague by the Australian broadcaster and writer (and former comic) Richard Fidler (HarperCollins, £20); and On Fiji Islands by Ronald Wright (Eland, £12.99).