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‘Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage’ by Kathleen Winter ****

As is so often the case, I had had my eye on Kathleen Winter’s Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage for an age before I purchased it. I first read Winter years ago, when her novel, Annabel, was selected as the first choice for the in-real-life book club that I was a member of. I got a great deal from it; many others did not. Boundless is certainly a very different book, but for me, it was just as enjoyable, and just as memorable.

In 2010, Winter – who lived in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and now resides in Montreal – took ‘a journey across the legendary Northwest Passage’ in a Russian icebreaker. She travelled from the southwest coast of Greenland to the largest island in Canada, Baffin Island. On her extended trip, on which she was invited at the last minute to make up the journalist contingent, she encountered a great deal of things, many of which were troubling. She saw, firsthand, the effects of climate change on small and isolated communities, and also the difficulties between balancing the traditional cultural elements of Inuit populations with the advances of the modern world.

When she embarked on this journey, Winter had just turned fifty. At the point at which she is invited on the trip by a writer friend, who cannot make it after all, she reflects: ‘I thought of my own British childhood, steeped in stories of sea travel. I thought of Edward Lear’s Jumblies, who went to sea in a sieve. I thought… of the longing and romance with which my father had decided to immigrate to Canada. I thought of all the books I’d read on polar exploration, on white men’s and white women’s attempts to travel the Canadian Far North.’ She goes on: ‘For a writer, loneliness is magnetic. The very names on the map excited me… I knew that to go to these places would activate something inside me that had long lain dreaming.’

People from all walks of life are passengers on the ship. The majority of those on board are men, many of whom sport ‘explorer-type beards’. However, alongside Winter, there is a Canadian Inuk woman, and a Greenlandic-Canadian, both of whom are set upon cultivating interest in their communities. Winter writes that to these two women ‘fell the task of teaching us about the North from the perspectives of Inuit women who have lived there all their lives – women who have come to know its animals, plants, and people, both indigenous and visiting, through long experience.’ I found the portions where she writes about these women quite fascinating.

Whilst much of the ship is rather luxurious, her own accommodation arguably leaves something to be desired: ‘Higher up, through open doors, I had seen passengers’ deluxe cabins with big windows looking out over Baffin Bay. By the time I descended to my own little cabin, there were tiny portholes, and when I pressed my nose to the glass, there lay the sea surface at the level of my rib cage.’ However, she quite wonderfully sees everything as an adventure; she reasons that she will only be sleeping in her little cabin, and will largely be exploring, or talking to others on deck.

I admired the commentary which Winter gives; in it, she captures a great deal. When they first reach Greenland by plane, she comments: ‘Our bus had rounded a corner in the crags of Kangerlussuaq [a small town in the west of the country], and there in the bay was our ship, floating so crisp and blue and white it looked as if someone had ironed and starched it into one of those three-dimensional pop-up picture books that had enchanted me when I was a child.’

The descriptions which Winter gives of her surroundings are highly visceral. She writes, for example: ‘As we sailed into Disko Bay, ice floated in silence, quiet green-greys leading to whites and back to blues. There was no sign of any human, only reflections of ice and sky and northern sea, and the light held a low frequency that lent ice and sky and water a glow both incandescent and restrained.’ Later, she tells us: ‘The fjord acted as an orchestral chamber, magnifying the sounds of these ice monoliths as they crushed and worked. It sounded like a vast construction site. There was a gunshot crack, then a thump and another avalanche; layered under these were the lapping of water, the echoing roar of wind around the moonscape mountains, and other, more distant collisions of ice echoing down the fjord.’

Winter translates the awe which she feels regarding the landscapes around her with a great deal of care, and makes us so aware of the physical landscape. She describes the way in which: ‘We floated by Zodiac to icebergs gathering at the fjord mouth: caves, pillars, monumental and illumined with blue light, and darkness in the deep recesses – so enigmatic and imposing I said nothing for hours.’ Sometimes, in fact, she finds words quite redundant. She comments: ‘I was finding, in the North, that words are a secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.’

The Northwest Passage is a fascinating, and still relatively unexplored, region. Winter comments: ‘It would later be revealed that even our captain’s navigational charts did not tell the complete truth about what lay ahead of us, since much of the Arctic remains uncharted and the land, wind, and ocean themselves are forever in flux’. The original plan for the trip was to follow Roald Amuldsen’s first successful route through the Northwest Passage, but this did not quite go to plan.

The very name of the passage is problematic; it was given the moniker by colonisers, and is known as other things entirely to those who live alongside it. I appreciated the time which Winter gave to discussing this fact. She draws attention to the vast differences between explorers, who see a region briefly and seem to think they then have dominion over it, and those who have called it their home for centuries. Often, in the communities which Winter and the other passengers visit, dogs outnumber humans. Despite this, there is still such a strong sense of history, and of shared experience.

I liked the way in which Winter wrote about her voyage as both physical, and one of self-discovery. She searches, throughout, for her own belonging. As an English transplant to Newfoundland in her youth, she tells another passenger that she feels ‘”sort of at home on the ship, here, between homelands.”‘ She writes with a great deal of insight about selfhood, and the loss of her first home. It is clear, from very early on in the narrative, that this journey had a profound impact upon the author, something which she comes back to throughout.

Boundless is Winter’s first work of non-fiction, and I am really hoping that it isn’t the last. Her prose is excellent, and balances more informative passages with her own musings with a great deal of skill. Winter’s tone is incredibly engaging, and I loved exploring the Northwest Passage through her lens. She is a continually thoughtful guide to the Arctic region. I long to do a journey like this one sometime in the future, but for now, I can only thank Winter for allowing me to take part in her own travels, and for being so open and honest about everything she encountered. Boundless is a thorough, and quite excellent, piece of travel writing, which I read with a great deal of interest from cover to cover.

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‘Dark Skies: A Journey Into the Wild Night’ by Tiffany Francis ***

I very much enjoyed Sigri Sandberg’s An Ode to Darkness (review here) when I read it back in 2020, and have been on the lookout for similar books since. When I spotted Tiffany Francis’ Dark Skies: A Journey Into the Wild Night, I was suitably intrigued, and reserved a copy from my local library. In this, her second book, Francis ‘explores the nocturnal landscapes of Britain and Europe and investigates how our experiences of the night-time world have permeated human history, art and folklore.’

Dark Skies has been marketed as Francis’ account of travelling around ‘different nightscapes’, from witnessing 24-hour daylight in the Gulf of Finland, to the Northern Lights in the Arctic Circle amidst three months of constant darkness. Francis aims to delve into the history of ‘ancient rituals and seasonal festivals that for thousands of years humans have linked with the light and dark halves of our year.’ At the outset, she writes about the reasoning behind her exploration, and also poses quite poignant questions: ‘Everything we do depends on the sun rising every day, but half of our lives are spent in darkness. How much energy continues to burst from the landscape after the sun goes down? And by giving in to sleep when the world grows dark, how much of life are we missing out on?’

Throughout history, our lives have been shaped, to quite an extent, by darkness. Our ancestors often relied upon constellations to guide them, and tended to rise with the sun, and go to bed as soon as it became dark. They underwent a quite natural process called ‘second sleep’, in which they would wake for an hour or two around midnight, work on projects or simply relax, and go to sleep again afterwards. This has largely stopped in the modern world, partly due to our more structured days, and also because of the steep levels of artificial light which surround us at all times. It is becoming increasingly difficult, in the 2020s, to find somewhere which is completely dark.

Francis begins her journey in late September, just after her relationship with the often-mentioned “Dave” has ended. She writes: ‘… the thought of lingering on in Hampshire was enough to send me instead to Norfolk, to temporary distraction from the loneliness that had started to creep into my body.’ She travels relatively far from her home, largely throughout the United Kingdom, but also within some other European countries.

Francis undoubtedly captures some really nice moments throughout. In Tromsø, in Norway’s Arctic Circle, she sees the Northern Lights, and describes them thus: ‘A single ribbon of light had appeared from nowhere in the sky above the lake… It was barely visible at first, a flickering serpent waking from sleep… As the light inched across the sky in wandering, waving movements, a sliver of blue and green seemingly without purpose or direction… And so the ribbon widened, it seemed to harvest colours from all over the world, reflecting the cerulean waters of the Caribbean sea, the lime greens of sphagnum moss, the electric blue of a cobalt crust fungus, the pearlescent aperture inside a seashell. In that moment, the entire universe seemed to be captured, drifting through the sky before me in a glass thread.’

I enjoyed some of Francis’ writing, particularly with regard to her descriptions of the nature around her. Some of her sentences though do feel a bit overdone, and too romanticised, at times. I found some of the comparisons which she makes a little strange, I must admit; for instance, she describes herself as akin to ‘a wasp on a yoga ball’. This is something which I have never heard before, and I really have no idea what it is supposed to mean, as even in the context it wasn’t particularly clear. There are also touches of melodrama here, which I did not appreciate; she writes, for example, that a forest she was walking through ‘was so creepy I half-imagined we might be strangled by some devil-possessed ivy vines and dragged into the trees, a midnight feast for a gang of carnivorous plants lurching in the dark…’. Considering that Dark Skies is supposed to be a piece of nature writing, this felt highly unnecessary.

There are some glaringly obvious mistakes which have been included here too. The author claims, wrongly, that Mount Snowdon in Wales, at 1,085 metres above sea level, is the highest point in the British Isles. In actuality, Ben Nevis in Scotland is almost 300 metres taller, standing at 1,345 metres. I have no idea how such errors would have got past an editor. A lot of the book, indeed, could have done with some clearer editing, and this would, I am sure, have made it far more readable, and a bit less frustrating in places.

There is a slightly disjointed feel to the narrative throughout. Francis tends to begin a paragraph with one theme, and then moves to writing either about something completely different, or more often than not about herself and Dave, before circling back to something mentioned pages and pages beforehand. A lot of tangents are taken, and it sometimes makes this rather a jumbled, and largely unfocused, read. She also poses a lot of questions in her narrative, but never makes a single attempt to provide answers, or even to muse at length about what she has asked.

Dark Skies has received very mixed reviews since its 2019 publication. Many readers – and I do agree with them – have said that the book has been poorly marketed. Rather than an exploration of the night, and of darkness, Dark Skies focuses far more upon the memoir side of things than anything else. There is actually comparatively little about the ‘dark skies’ of the book’s title, particularly when one considers how much is written about her on-again, off-again relationship with the aforementioned Dave. I wish that many of the personal details here had been left out. Francis appears almost worryingly eager to share every single detail about herself, and about her relationship, to a reading public consisting largely of strangers. Oddly, for a twenty-first century woman who describes herself as a naturalist, I also did not feel as though she is always entirely respectful of the landscapes around her; she says, for instance, that it is ‘weirdly fun to pull off’ lichen from tree trunks – something which I would never personally dream of doing.

Dark Skies is not at all what I was expecting, and it does feel as though its marketing is quite misleading. It meanders here and there, and has very little structure to it on the whole. I also do not feel as though Francis really met her own brief here. She does do some things in the dark, like visiting an outdoor spa in Germany’s Black Forest, but her exploration of such occurrences, and of the darkness itself, does not go anywhere near far enough. Even when Francis writes of being in the dark, she is thinking of other things; there is no complete focus given to the darkness.

I had difficulty rating this title. It is largely for her lovely and quite informative chapters on Scandinavia – which were well written and executed, and actually set out to explore the darkness on some level – that I have rated this book as a 3-star read; without them, I could not have given it more than 2 stars. Dark Skies really did not match my expectations of what a book about night skies and darkness should include, and I found myself so disinterested in the very long portions written about her relationship, which served to overshadow the rest of the narrative. So much could have been explored and achieved here; it feels like a missed opportunity in a lot of ways.

Whilst I do not feel as though Dark Skies at all meets what it promises, Francis seems like a lovely person, with a great deal of talent. She and I have a lot of hobbies in common, from history and archaeology to Moomins and knitting, and I found myself relating to quite a lot of what she wrote. I would be so interested to read her other work in future, as I feel she has a lot to offer as both an author and an environmentalist.

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‘On Trails: An Exploration’ by Robert Moor ****

Robert Moor has won several awards for his non-fiction writing, and his first full-length publication was On Trails: An Exploration (2016). He is lauded on the book’s blurb as ‘a brilliant new literary voice’, who has paved the way for ‘a groundbreaking exploration’ of the humble trail.

Moor hiked the Appalachian trail, which stretches between Maine and Georgia on America’s East Coast, in 2009. He writes that his memories of this enormous journey ‘consist chiefly of wet stone and black earth. The vistas from many of the mountaintops were blotted out. Shrouded in mist, rain hood up, eyes down cast, mile after mile, month after month. I had little else to do but study the trail beneath my nose with Talmudic intensity.’ On this trip, he started to consider the multitude of paths which exist beneath our feet in every corner of the world. Much of the time, these trails – whether natural or manmade – are taken somewhat for granted. Over the course of the following seven years, Moor took the decision to travel extensively, exploring trails of all kinds. Throughout On Trails, he blends his own travels with science, philosophy, historical facts, and nature writing.

For Moor, the simple trail poses a lot of questions, some of them quite abstract and difficult to answer. These include, ‘how does order emerge from chaos?’ and, ‘ultimately, how does each of us pick a path through life?’ These philosophical musings are touched upon from time to time, but his focus is largely placed upon the physical trail.

Trails are grounding; they keep us focused, as well as promoting a sense of well-trodden safety, and almost a sense of community, in that others have walked along a path before you, and will continue to do so afterwards. In his prologue, Moor acknowledges quite how pivotal trails are: ‘Piece by piece, I began to cobble together a panoramic view of how pathways act as an essential guiding force on this planet: on every scale of life, from microscopic cells to herds of elephants, creatures can be found relying on trails to reduce an overwhelming array of options to a single expeditious route. Without trails, we would be lost.’ He goes on to write that ‘Paths, in their very structure… blear the divide between wilderness and civilization, leaders and followers, self and other, old and new, natural and artificial.’

At the very end of his prologue, Moor notes: ‘Throughout the history of life on Earth, we have created pathways to guide our journeys, transmit messages, refine complexity, and preserve wisdom. At the same time, trails have shaped our bodies, sculpted our landscapes, and transformed our cultures. In the maze of the modern world, the wisdom of trails is as essential as ever… To deftly navigate this world, we will need to understand how we make trails, and how trails make us.’

Moor goes on to recount his exploration of trails, from visiting fossil trails – the oldest known paths in the world – in Newfoundland, Canada, to touring a safari park in the United States with a PhD student studying migratory patterns of herd animals. He also spends time working – not always successfully – as a sheep herder for a traditional Navajo family. Throughout this more personal narrative, he writes at length about the creation of the Appalachian Trail, and of several designated national parks throughout the United States. He includes a lot of detail from a scientific standpoint, and makes everything so accessible and readable.

The author has considered a great deal when putting together this quite fascinating book. He writes intelligently about crowd theory, the creation of cities which have grown organically with no external planning, and the reading of animal trails across the world. He also considers the Internet, and the pathways which have been created within it.

Like many people, I am sure, I had not considered trails in a great deal of detail before picking up Moor’s book, and had more often than not taken them for granted. Now, though, I am far more aware of where I am walking, and thinking more deeply about when the paths which I choose to take every day were laid. On Trails is informative, thoughtful, and aware. I greatly appreciated the enormous amount of research which has gone into the tome, and very much enjoyed the blending of so many different elements in its telling. On Trails has proven to be far more wide-reaching than I initially expected, and it feels like the author has taken a truly fresh approach in its telling.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find a Good Death’ by Caitlin Doughty ****

I will begin this review by pointing out that Caitlin Doughty’s rather niche work will not be for everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed her debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which collects together her memories and thoughts from working in a crematorium. Doughty has made her living as a mortician, and owns a funeral home in Los Angeles. She writes about such serious elements – the majority of which revolve around death – with a lot of snarky and sarcastic humour, and one cannot help but be entirely entranced by her stories and experiences. Her second book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find a Good Death also very much interested me as a reader.

She argues, in both of her books, that death is a topic which should be spoken about more, but is something which many in the Western world particularly shy away from. In From Here to Eternity, Doughty begins by signposting her fascination of our ‘pervasive terror of dead bodies’. She writes in her introduction: ‘One of the chief questions in my work has always been why my own culture is so squeamish around death… Our avoidance is self-defeating. By dodging the talk about our inevitable end, we put… our ability to mourn at risk.’

Her aim in this book was to visit different places around the world to see how other cultures are not scared of the process of death, but rather embrace it, and make it a part of their own living. She travels all over the world – from three locations in the United States, to Indonesia, Mexico, Spain, Japan, and Bolivia.

Early on, Doughty sets out that in the United States, death has become an incredibly big business since the advent of the twentieth century. Everything has long been associated with cost, and with upselling – a better graveyard plot, a more superior wood used for the coffin, many ‘extras’ sold by different funeral homes. She believes that we need to reform funeral practices in the West, moving permanently away from profit-oriented practices, to ones which ‘do more to include the family’. These family-focused death practices are common around the world, and it is this which she keeps coming back to. Doughty writes, with a great deal of sensitivity, about the ways in which confronting death can bring peace, particularly for those in Western cultures, where such an attitude is generally suppressed.

Some of the practices which Doughty writes about are rare for foreigners or tourists to be able to attend. Others have really embraced the onlooker, though. At a Torajan funeral in Indonesia, for instance, the body is ‘transferred in a replica of a traditional Torajan home. These houses, known as Tongkonan, resemble no residence you’ve ever seen, standing high on stilts with a roof that sweeps up to two points in the sky. This corpse, inside his mini-house, was carried atop the shoulders of thirty-five young men.’ A ‘death tourism industry’ has sprung up around the Torajan funeral, with visitors coming from far afield to watch.

Of course, Doughty attends a ‘Day of the Dead’ parade in Mexico, which was rather strangely inspired by James Bond. In Mexico, at the beginning of November, families invite their dead back to visit. Of one young man, who had passed away in the small city of Santa Fe de la Laguna, she writes: ‘He will continue to return as long as his family continues to show up, inviting him to come back among the living.’

On the other side of the world, at a Buddhist temple in Japan, technology has been used to enhance longstanding religious practices: ‘After the family keys in at the entrance,’ with a smart card, ‘the walls light up blue, except for one single Buddha shimmering white: no need to squint through names trying to find Mom – the white light will guide you straight to her.’ This white light leads to the ashes of a loved one, which can be kept in the temple for a long time. Also in Japan, a company called I-Can Corp has married together death and technology: ‘presents a Sims-like experience in which your ancestor’s virtual gravestone appears on screen in a green field. The user can, according to taste, light a virtual incense stick, place flowers, sprinkle water on the stone, and leave fruit and glasses of beer.’

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of From Here to Eternity is the focus which Doughty places on the United States, and the way in which just a few individuals – for now, at least – are challenging the status quo. In Colorado, there is a single town which promotes the outdoor cremation, using a movable wooden pyre. In North Carolina, a group of medics and research scientists toe the line between ‘death-innovation and the deranged’, with a plan to “turn corpses into compost”, as the New York Times put it. Behind this is something called the ‘Urban Death Project’, an architectural blueprint for being able to compost human bodies in built-up urban areas, which have little – or no – space to bury their recent dead.

Throughout, Doughty poses many questions about how the individual would wish to be treated after their death, and the many options which are available to them – even in the reserved Western world. In Barcelona, for instance, stands an enormous funeral home which handles almost a quarter of all deaths in the city. They display dead ones behind glass, akin to something out of Snow White, which allows families to stay with them all day. A Spanish-style ‘viewing’ displays ‘a loved one in their coffin, surrounded by flowers, behind one large pane of glass, akin to a department store window.’ A Catalan-style viewing moves the open coffin into a glass display case in the centre of the room.

I haven’t read anything quite like From Here to Eternity before, but it reminded me somewhat of the rather funny Netflix travel series, ‘Dark Tourist’. The series, too, shows a Torajan funeral – rather squeamish to the Western viewer, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless. Throughout, Doughty’s prose is clear and informative, and one can see that she is both passionate about her subject, and keen to impart her wisdom. I must admit that I did find From Here to Eternity a little gross in places, as Doughty certainly does not shy away from discussing fluids and the like, but it is ultimately fascinating, and eye-opening.

This is a great volume to dip in and out of, and to learn from. Some of the rituals which Doughty writes about are really quite beautiful, and I for one feel more comfortable discussing death as a result of reading this. It is perhaps an odd volume to choose during a pandemic, but what Doughty writes here is important – particularly as we face death on such a large and upsetting global scale.

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‘To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace’ by Kapka Kassabova ****

Before the virus completely took over 2020, and made it almost impossible to travel without a two-week quarantine, my boyfriend and I had planned a trip to North Macedonia. We were intending to end our holiday with a wild swim at Lake Ohrid, somewhere we have wanted to visit for years. We are hoping that we will be able to embark on this trip at some point during 2021, but for now, I reached for the closest thing I could find – Kapka Kassabova’s non-fiction title To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace.

The Balkans is an area which I have travelled in relatively extensively already, but I find it fascinating to see regions which I love – as well as those which I have yet to visit – through the eyes of someone who is somehow connected to the physical place. Kassabova’s maternal grandmother grew up in the town of Ohrid, beside the lake, which lies ‘within the mountainous borderlands of North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece’. Lake Ohrid, and also Lake Prespa, which can be found relatively nearby, are located in ‘one of Eurasia’s most historically diverse areas’, and are the two oldest lakes in Europe. Ohrid and Prespa are joined by an underground river, and span these aforementioned borders.

‘By exploring on water and land the stories of poets, fishermen, and caretakers, misfits, rulers, and inheritors of war and exile,’ declares the blurb, ‘Kassabova uncovers the human history shaped by the lakes.’ Alongside her personal journey to reach her family’s roots, the author makes ‘a deeper enquiry into how geography and politics imprint themselves upon families and nations.’

For Kassabova, this region, which has housed ‘generations of my predecessors… is a realm of high altitudes and mesmeric depths, eagles and vineyards, orchards and old civilisations, a land tattooed with untold histories.’ The focus of To the Lake, as outlined in the introduction, is as follows: ‘Geography shapes history – we generally accept this as a fact. But we don’t often explore how families digest big historo-geographies, how these sculpt our inner landscape, and how we as individuals continue to influence the course of history in invisible but significant ways – because the local is inseparable from the global. I went to the Lakes to seek an understanding of such forces.’

The first chapter of To the Lake opens with Kassabova’s recollections of her maternal grandmother’s death. Her descriptions of her grandmother, Anastassia, which she goes on to reveal piece by piece, are so vibrant: ‘Surrounded by the mediocrity, conformity and mendacity that a totalitarian system thrives on, Anastassia lived with zest, speaking her mind in a society where half the population didn’t have a mind and the other half were careful to keep it to themselves.’ Her descriptions of her family particularly really stand out; she describes her mother thus, for example: ‘She always felt to me precariously attuned to life, as if born rootless, as if needing an external force to earth her.’

Some of Kassabova’s writing is undoubtedly beautiful – for instance, when she writes ‘Ohrid made you feel the weight of time, even on a peaceful evening like this, with only the screech of cicadas and the shuffle of old women in slippers’ – but there are some quite abrupt sentences and sections to be found within To the Lake. It does not feel entirely consistent at times, and Kassabova does have a tendency to jump from quite an involved history of the area to a conversation with someone who lives there, and often back again, without any delineation. This added a disjointed feel to the whole. However, the value and interest of the information which she presents was thankfully too strong for this to put me off as a reader.

To the Lake is certainly thorough; it was not a book which I felt able to read from cover to cover in one go, as it is so intricate – both in terms of the history and geography of the region, and of Kassabova’s own family. There is a great deal within the book which explores national divides throughout the lake region, as well as the religions which are practiced. Kassabova seems to focus far more upon the differences of the people whom she meets, than their similarities. There are some brief nods to fascinating Slavic folktales along the way, which I wish had been elaborated upon. Regardless, To the Lake is an important book, and an ultimately satisfying one, which I would highly recommend.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence’ by Nick Hunt ****

Weather fascinates me, and therefore when I spotted Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence in Fopp, I did not hesitate before picking up a copy.  This non-fiction work was shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards in 2018, and chosen as a book of the year by The Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Spectator respectively.  Amy Liptrot observes that the book is ‘packed with wonder’, and Jan Morris concurs, writing that it is ‘full to the brim with learning, entertainment, description, scientific fact and conjectural fiction.  It is travel writing in excelsis.’

9781473665750In Where the Wild Winds Are, Hunt sets out to follow four of Europe’s prevalent named winds.  He begins in Cumbria with the Helm, the only named wind in Britain, before travelling to Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy to find the Bora which blows through all three countries, causing havoc for residents.  Hunt then searches for the ‘snow-eating’ Foehn in Switzerland’s alpine valleys, and the Mistral in the South of France, which ‘animated and tormented Vincent Van Gogh.’  Soon, Hunt ‘finds himself borne along by the very forces he is pursuing, through rain, blizzards, howling gales, and back through time itself, for where the wild winds are, there are also myths and legends, history and hearsay, sacrifice and superstition…’.

In his prologue, which is entitled ‘Blown Away’, Hunt reflects on his experience of the Great Storm which hit Britain in 1987.  Just a child at the time, he remembers how he was almost swept away by a gust of wind.  At this point, his obsession with one of our most unpredictable types of weather began.  Although he goes on to say that he did not take up a career in meteorology, or anything of the sort, what he did become ‘was someone with an urge to travel, and especially to travel by walking, which allows you to follow paths not dictated by road or rail, paths not marked on any map, or to follow no path at all; to wander and to wonder as freely as your feet can take you.  But every journey has a logic, even if it’s an invisible one.  All travelling, I came to understand, is an act of following something: whether a coastline, an ancient migration, a trade route, a border or someone else’s footsteps.’

Hunt then recollects the moment at which he came across a map of Europe’s winds, which linked regions in a way he had not previously considered.  He writes: ‘The fact that these invisible powers had names, rather than simply compass directions that described where they were from, gave them a sense of majesty, even of personality.  They sounded like characters I could meet.  These swooping, plunging arrows suggested routes I might follow, trails that had not been walked before.  As soon as I saw that map I knew: I would follow the winds.’  Thus, his quest to follow four winds – sometimes successfully, and sometimes not so – ensued.

Hunt chose to locate four winds as ‘a nod to the proverbial four winds and the four points of the compass.’  The book has consequently been split into four corresponding sections, each of which contains a map of his route.  He also lets us, the readers, know about the daunting elements of the task which he set himself: ‘It was clear that to follow the wind meant following uncertainty, allowing myself to be carried along by the unknown and the informed, the guessed-at and the half-imagined.  Chasing the invisible was in many ways a quixotic quest, which appealed to my romantic side…’.

Hunt’s writing oscillates between matter-of-fact and descriptive.  When in Croatia, he writes, for instance: ‘After climbing for an hour I reached a layer of dense cloud, which brought about the sensation of entering a different realm.  I waded upward through submarine light, condensation slapping on the wet forest floor like rain, with the muscular trunks of beech trees looming through saturated air.  Deciduous trees gave way to pines.  Here and there blobs of snow lay like stranded jellyfish.’  Of one of the winds which he does locate, he comments: ‘It was in my ears, but it wasn’t blowing; nor was it moaning, whistling, howling, or any of the other words usually used to capture wind.  It was less a sound than a sensation, a nameless energetic thing that erased the line between hearing and feeling; for the first time in my life, I understood sound as a physical force.  It was in my lungs, under my skin.’

Before picking up Where the Wild Winds Are, I had not encountered a travel book like it.  Although it took a little while to really get into, I found myself fascinated by the mixture of elements which Hunt has woven in, from the history of forecasting the weather and the tools which the process entailed, to the quirky and eccentric characters whom he met along the way.  There is a definite human perspective which has been considered, strengthened because Hunt is always keen to ask those he meets how they feel about the wind, and how it affects their day to day lives.

Where the Wild Winds Are is not as focused upon the weather as I expected it would be.  Whilst Hunt’s aim is to follow the four named winds, he does so in a manner which is largely unscientific.  He discusses many things as he goes about his travels, from the fall of Yugoslavia and historic battles in Britain, to immigration, and its perceptions.  The title, too, is sometimes a little misleading.  Whilst Hunt does make some of his journeys on foot, he often relies on public transport to get him quickly from one place to another if rumours of the wind in question being in a particular location have reached him.

Where the Wild Winds Are is both an interesting read and a gentle one.  I enjoyed Hunt’s prose, which is often quite evocative.  The author does go off on tangents from time to time, which I did not find overly compelling, but on the whole, the book is accessible and relatively easy to get into.  I would recommend it if you enjoy travel writing and are looking for something a little different to sample.

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The Book Trail: Travel Writing

I am beginning this edition of the Book Trail with a piece of travel writing about selected winds of Europe.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to generate this list.

1. Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to 33814761Provence by Nick Hunt
‘As a six-year-old child, Nick Hunt was almost carried away in a gust from the Great Storm of 1987. Almost thirty years later he set off in search of the legendary winds of Europe; from the Helm, to the Bora, the Foehn and the Mistral.  Where the Wild Winds Are is Nick Hunt’s story of following the wind from the fells of Cumbria to the Alps, the Rhone to the Adriatic coast, to explore how these unseen powers affect the countries and cultures of Europe, and to map a new type of journey across the continent.’

 

76620952. Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story by William Blacker
‘When William Blacker first crossed the snow-bound passes of northern Romania, he stumbled upon an almost medieval world. There, for many years he lived side by side with the country people, a life ruled by the slow cycle of the seasons, far away from the frantic rush of the modern world. In spring as the pear trees blossomed he ploughed with horses, in summer he scythed the hay meadows and in the freezing winters gathered wood by sleigh from the forest. From sheepfolds harried by wolves, to courting expeditions in the snow, he experienced the traditional way of life to the full, and became accepted into a community who treated him as one of their own. But Blacker was also intrigued by the Gypsies, those dark, foot-loose strangers of spell-binding allure who he saw passing through the village. Locals warned him to stay clear but he fell in love and there followed a bitter struggle. Change is now coming to rural Romania, and William Blacker’s adventures will soon be part of its history. From his early carefree days tramping the hills of Transylvania, to the book’s poignant ending, Along the Enchanted Way transports us back to a magical country world most of us thought had vanished long ago.’

 

3. Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe by Nicholas Crane 837297
‘Nicholas Crane embarks on a journey on foot through some of the remotest parts of Europe, travelling along the chain of mountains that run from the Atlantic in Spain, to Istanbul in the East. It’s not just a story about travel, but also about the human condition, about growth and fulfilment.’

 

162404814. The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor
‘In the winter of 1933 eighteen-year-old Patrick (“Paddy”) Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe, starting in Holland and ending in Constantinople, a trip that took him the better part of a year. Decades later, when he was well over fifty, Leigh Fermor told the story of that life-changing journey in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, two books now celebrated as among the most vivid, absorbing, delightful, and beautifully-written travel books of all time.  The Broken Road is the long and avidly awaited account of the final leg of his youthful adventure that Leigh Fermor promised but was unable to finish before his death in 2011. Assembled from Leigh Fermor’s manuscripts by his prize-winning biographer Artemis Cooper and the travel writer Colin Thubron, this is perhaps the most personal of all Leigh Fermor’s books, catching up with young Paddy in the fall of 1934 and following him through Bulgaria and Rumania to the coast of the Black Sea. Days and nights on the road, spectacular landscapes and uncanny cities, friendships lost and found, leading the high life in Bucharest or camping out with fishermen and shepherds: in the The Broken Road such incidents and escapades are described with all the linguistic bravura, odd and astonishing learning, and overflowing exuberance that Leigh Fermor is famous for, but also with a melancholy awareness of the passage of time, especially when he meditates on the  scarred history of the Balkans or on his troubled relations with his father. The book ends, perfectly, with Paddy’s diary from the winter of 1934, when he had reached Greece, the country he would fall in love with and fight for: across the space of three quarters of century we can still hear the ringing voice of an irrepressible young man embarking on a life of adventure.’

 

5. The Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians by Philip Marsden 1117853
After centuries of prominence as a world power, Armenia has withstood every attempt during the 20th century to destroy it. With a name redolent both of dim antiquity and of a modern world and its tensions, the Armenians founded a civilization and underwent a diaspora that brought many of the great ideas of the East to Western Europe. Today, shrunk to a tenth of its former size and wracked by war with Azerbaijan and by earthquakes, its people still retain one of the world’s most fascinating and misunderstood cultures.’

 

5967786. The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier
‘In 1953, twenty-four-year old Nicolas Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet set out to make their way overland from their native Geneva to the Khyber Pass. They had money to last them a few months and a Fiat to take them where they were going, but above all they were equipped with the certainty that by hook or by crook they would reach their destination, and that there would be unanticipated adventures, curious companionship, and sudden illumination along the way. They were not disappointed, and neither will be readers of this luminous travel book fashioned from Bouvier’s journals. The two friends support themselves by writing and painting in Istanbul; are spellbound by the brilliance of winter in Tabriz; take a side trip to rebellious Kurdistan; and find ever more ingenious ways to keep their increasingly battered vehicle on the road as they head to Afghanistan. Along the way, they spend wild nights listening to Gypsy musicians, trading poetry with tramps, and entertaining their companions with song and an accordion.’

 

7. Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay 6827029
‘Eliza Fay’s origins are obscure; she was not beautiful, rich, or outlandishly accomplished. Yet the letters she wrote from her 1779 voyage across the globe captivated E. M. Forster, who arranged for their British publication in 1925. The letters have been delighting readers ever since with their truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twists and turns, their earthy humor, and their depiction of an indomitable woman. When the intrepid Mrs. Fay departed from Dover more than two hundred years ago, she embarked on a grueling twelve-month journey through much of Europe, up the Nile, over the deserts of Egypt, and finally across the ocean to India. Along the way her party encountered wars, territorial disputes, brigands, and even imprisonment.  Fay was a contemporary of Jane Austen, but her adventures are worthy of a novel by Daniel Defoe. These letters—unfiltered, forthright, and often hilarious—bring the perils and excitements of an earlier age to life.’

 

4712398. Letters from Russia by Astolphe de Custine
‘The Marquis de Custine’s record of his trip to Russia in 1839 is a brilliantly perceptive, even prophetic, account of one of the world’s most fascinating and troubled countries. It is also a wonderful piece of travel writing. Custine, who met with people in all walks of life, including the Czar himself, offers vivid descriptions of St. Petersburg and Moscow, of life at court and on the street, and of the impoverished Russian countryside. But together with a wealth of sharply delineated incident and detail, Custine’s great work also presents an indelible picture–roundly denounced by both Czarist and Communist regimes–of a country crushed by despotism and “intoxicated with slavery.”‘

 

 

Which of these books have you read?  Do any of them pique your interest?

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