Uncategorised Archive

A life-affirming book about ‘dead zones’

A review I wrote of Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn (William Collins) appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph yesterday and is also online. It’s a life-affirming book about “dead zones”, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Away from it all

The editor of The New York Times Book Review, guessing that people might be keen to read about somewhere other than America for just a moment, offered them two possible options at the weekend. In her email to regular readers, Pamela Paul mentioned that the cover featured two very different books:

The first, “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World,” by Andrea Pitzer, offers a historical Arctic adventure about the Dutch explorer William Barents (namesake of the Barents Sea). The second, “Himalaya: A Human History,” by Ed Douglas, is a social, cultural and geological portrait of the mountain range separating the Indian subcontinent from the rest of Asia, shaping the populations, economies, politics and landscape of the region.

Tributes to Barry Lopez, who explored ‘the kinship of nature and human culture’

Writers and readers have been paying tribute to Barry Lopez, who died on Christmas Day, at 75, of prostate cancer. He was a writer, as Robert D McFadden put it neatly in an obituary for The New York Times, whose work explored “the kinship of nature and human culture”.

Among those leading tributes on Twitter yesterday evening was Robert Macfarlane, who said it was Lopez (“my north star”) who had made him a writer: “Barry gave us stories to help us stay alive. Stories of love, care, generosity & land, of the grace-notes of the canyon wren, of petroglyphs carrying wisdom across deep human time. And stories of warning & horror, too — of exploitation and wreckage…”

John Freeman, executive editor of Literary Hub and editor of the literary magazine Freeman’s (and former editor of Granta), said: “Barry Lopez was so endlessly generous, the world today feels at once empty & never fuller. Now that he’s pure spirit again we can see just how many he touched, woke up. He was gentle, curious, kind, funny in a fable-y round the fire way, distressed and hopeful.”

Kate Harris, whose debut, Lands of Lost Borders, Lopez had championed, said of him: “Godspeed, Barry Lopez, you beautiful, generous, visionary human being and writer.”

I’ve already recommended here a video of a conversation between Macfarlane and Lopez. John Freeman has linked from Twitter to one he had with Lopez, in May last year (see below).

Lopez’s Horizon was one of my books of the year in 2019; you can read my review here on Deskbound Traveller.

Norman Maclean’s Montana

Norman Maclean, born on this day in 1902 in Clarinda, Iowa, will forever be associated with Missoula, Montana, where his family moved in his sixth year. If you haven’t yet read his mini-masterpiece, A River Runs through It, now’s as good a time as any to start…

Dark to light

Happy winter solstice to all in the northern hemisphere. Time for the dark to give way to the light, and here are two pieces that mark the transition: from Kevin Barry in The Irish Times (published in 2018, and written about the winter of 2015, but timeless), and from Elizabeth Dias, in The New York Times.

In the Middle East, with a ‘teacher of the road’

One of the many things I’ve learnt from Quite Alone, Matthew Teller’s new collection of writing on the Middle East, is that in Hebrew “tour guide” is moreh derekh, a teacher of the road.

Teller himself is a teacher worth following. The articles gathered here are drawn from the past dozen years, but informed by an association with the region that goes back four decades. Among them is one on the rock-hewn city of Petra, in Jordan, which he has visited, he reckons, 20 times. His ambition, beautifully realised, is to see it afresh.

There are articles from every country in the region between Egypt and Oman, apart from Yemen, where he hasn’t been (but whose people’s suffering he urges us, in his introduction, not to forget). They were written for various outlets and range in subject from art and architecture, via travel, to the plight of stateless people in Kuwait. If they have a common thread, he says, it is “a desire to amplify the voices of the overlooked and the under-served” and to help “demolish” stereotypes about the Middle East.

They certainly do that. In Jordan, a country that is 95 per cent Muslim, he introduces us to Omar Zumot, who makes wine. In Dubai, he meets Father Lennie Connully, parish priest of St Mary’s, a Roman Catholic church that stands next door to a mosque and which draws 7,000 people to its Friday Mass.

He has left the articles largely unedited since they were written, and here and there I found myself wondering what had changed in the interim. How for example, has the Arabian oryx been faring since he reported, in 2009, on efforts to save it?

The travel pieces raise fewer questions of that kind. In two of the best, published in 2012 in consecutive issues of the monthly magazine Wanderlust, he reports on what it’s like to travel independently in Palestine and then in Israel. In another, from a couple of years later, he joins Breaking Bread Journeys, which was founded by Elisa Moed, an Israeli, and Christina Samara, who is Palestinian, and which aims to link sites and experiences normally cut off from each other. Their initiative, he says, “leaves you feeling that the physical barriers restricting travel in the Middle East are insignificant, compared with the mental ones”.

Jan Morris off on ‘her greatest journey’

It was a weekend of tributes to Jan Morris, consummate conjuror of time and place, who died on Friday at the age of 94. Her son, Twm, announced her death: “This morning at 11.40 at Ysbyty Bryn Beryl, on the Llyn, the author and traveller Jan Morris began her greatest journey. She leaves behind on the shore her lifelong partner, Elizabeth,” he wrote.

Among those celebrating Morris’s life and work were Chris Moss for The Daily Telegraph and the New Welsh Review, Tom Robbins for the Financial Times and Tim Adams in The Observer, who interviewed Morris in February. 

Archive pieces newly available online include an in-depth interview first published in The Paris Review in 1997. I’ve also chanced upon a Q&A session Morris had with a book group convened by The Guardian in 2015; the book under discussion was one of my favourites of hers: Venice. I’d also highly recommend a piece from the South China Morning Post by Fionnuala McHugh, who interviewed Morris in Hong Kong in 2001, at the time of the publication of Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere.

Some years ago, I asked Morris to contribute to a series, “Companion Volume”, in which writers nominated a favourite travel book. She chose Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1763).

Morris may have embarked on her own “greatest journey”, but we will be hearing from her again soon. She told those Guardian readers in 2015 that a final book, Allegorizings, a work of personal reflections, would go to press “the minute I kick the bucket”. She added that the book was “loosely governed by my growing conviction that almost nothing in life is only what it seems. It contains nothing revelatory at all.”

Travel from an independent bookshop

I’ve spent less time in bookshops in 2020 than at any time in my adult life. I have, though, ordered online from shops I’ve lingered in in pre-Covid times, including No Alibis in Belfast and Sam Read in Grasmere, in the Lake District. I’ve been making a point on Deskbound Traveller of encouraging readers to support independent shops, and that support has never been more needed than it is now, with new restrictions forcing shops to close for a second time in the run-up to Christmas. 

  Doing your bit has got much easier thanks to the launch this week of Bookshop.org. If you want to support a bookshop near where you live, you can search for it on the site by entering your postcode, and see whether it has signed up as a partner to Bookshop.org. If it has, and you go on to make your order, that shop will receive the full profit. Otherwise, you can buy through the main part of the site and your order will contribute to an earnings pool shared among all the independent bookshops that have signed up. There’s more about how it all works in a piece that appeared this week in The Guardian.

  I’m signing up as an affiliate to the site, so if you buy a book as a result of a link from Deskbound Traveller to Bookshop.org, I may earn a commission.

Short list for Boardman Tasker award

The short list was announced last week for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature. Among the five books is Two Trees Make a Forest (Little, Brown), the acclaimed debut by Jessica J Lee, founding editor of The Willowherb Review. Also included is The Unremembered Places (Birlinn), in which Patrick Baker explores far-flung ruins and relics — from a cemetery for dam-builders to the remains of illicit stills — that serve as archives for Scotland’s “wild histories”. It’s a haunted and haunting little book (just over 200 pages).

The winner of the award will be announced on November 21 at the Kendal Mountain Festival, which this year, like so many events, will probably be online only.

The pandemic, travel and poetry

Jean McNeil, a compulsive traveller forced by the pandemic to stay at home, ranges far and wide in the pages of the latest Literary Review of Canada, reflecting on restlessness, freedom and the enduring power of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry:

Travel is often tedious and upsetting, never mind dangerous. Over the years, I’ve been snarled in New York, where I found myself underneath the World Trade Center as both planes struck, and then marooned for weeks afterwards when all aviation was cancelled. I’ve been stuck at Toronto Pearson after an Air France flight crashed on the runway, stymied by polar whiteouts in Antarctica, stranded by volcanic eruptions, and abandoned by the Royal Air Force on a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic. But the pandemic is the most effective grounding I’ve experienced. As I scour the silent London skies for planes, I consider what I have lost or, more precisely, what has been rescinded.