‘A Month in Siena’ by Hisham Matar ***

I picked up Hisham Matar’s travel memoir, A Month in Siena, from a lovely little honesty bookshop located at the stunning Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire. I hadn’t heard of the title before, but its bright orange spine really caught my eye.

When I began to read, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, as I was unfamiliar with Matar’s work. He is highly praised; of one of his other books, The Return, the late, great Hilary Mantel commented: ‘Hisham Matar has the quality of all historians – of the world and the self – most need: he knows how to stand back and let the past speak.’ Of the same book, Zadie Smith wrote: ‘Wise and agonizing and thrilling to read’, and Kazuo Ishiguro called it a ‘moving, unflinching memoir.’ One of his novels, In the Country of Men, was shortlisted for the Man Booker, and won six international awards; he also won a Pulitzer Prize for The Return. I therefore decided that Matar was something of a Big Deal, albeit one I had heard little about.

When Matar was 19 years old, his ‘life was shattered by the disappearance of his father’, who was kidnapped in Cairo, Egypt, and never found. In the same year, he ‘became transfixed by the work of the great artists of Siena’, Italy, whose work spanned the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Twenty-five years later, he travelled to Siena; this marked, says the book’s blurb, ‘the encounter… between the writer and the city he had admired from afar.’ It goes on to state that A Month in Siena is ‘a dazzling evocation of an extraordinary place and its effect on the writer’s life… a consideration of grief and a profoundly moving contemplation of the relationship between art and the human condition.’

The catalyst for Matar in finally visiting Siena was a trip to Libya, ‘the place where I grew up, the country of my origin, the setting-off place from where I had travelled’. In the introduction, he notes the sudden surprising anxiety which his decision instilled within him: ‘But now that I was finally going, my mind began to devise ways of delaying my arrival. It was as though the long years of anticipation had created a reticence.’

I personally do not read enough books about art; this is something which I would like to focus on more in my reading in the near future. Matar’s book opened my eyes to the sheer amount of detail which can be picked out from a painting or mural, and the profound impact which one work can have. He writes, for example: ‘A picture changes as you look at it and changes in ways that are unexpected. I have discovered that a painting requires time. How it takes me several months and more often than not a year before I can move on. During that period the picture becomes a mental as well as a physical location in my life.’ He later adds: ‘The colours, delicate patterns and suspended drama of these pictures gradually became necessary to me.’

Matar’s writing is enchanting, and I was drawn in to this short but illuminating book. One of my favourite moments of the whole is when Matar writes about the sheer wonder of seeing artwork from the Sienese School of painting in real life, and the way in which the movement inspired so much of the art which followed: ‘To look closely at their work is to eavesdrop on one of the most captivating conversations in the history of art, one concerned with what a painting might be, what it might be for, and what it could do and accomplish within the intimate drama of a private engagement with a stranger.’

Another element which I enjoyed are his observations on the city of Siena itself, although I do wish more attention had been paid to this throughout. I would have loved to read more sentences like this beguiling and nostalgia-inducing one, recorded when he first arrived in the city with his wife, Diana: ‘The sharp turns of the passageways and the closeness of the buildings gave me the sense that I was entering a living organism. With every step I pressed deeper into it and, as though in response, it made room. I was inside a place both known and deeply unfamiliar.’

Matar is an excellent guide, both to the physical city, and to the art he so admires. A Month in Siena is rich and evocative, although I found it rather a brief account. So much is considered, with something of a poet’s gaze, but I would have liked more emphasis to be placed upon particular scenes and ideas at times. I have certainly learnt a great deal about the Sienese School, and parts of this memoir were quite revealing; I just wish it had been a bit longer.


‘A Florence Diary’ by Diana Athill ****

I have been lucky enough to travel quite extensively in Italy, but Florence is a city I’ve not yet visited (at least at the time of writing). I adore travel writing, and whilst it was one of the things which got me through one lockdown after another when real-life travel was banned, I had not encountered much of it in my 2022 reading life. That changed, however, when I found a slim copy of Diana Athill’s A Florence Diary in my local library.

These 64 pages are filled with ‘a charming and vivacious’ account of Athill’s trip to Florence during the late 1940s, alongside photographs taken in Florence during this period. At the time of its publication in 2016, the book was a ‘recently discovered gem’. It provides, says its blurb, ‘a vibrant portrait of one of the most beautiful and beloved cities in the world.’

In her retrospective introduction, Athill notes that this is the only diary she ever wrote, when asked to by her mother, who subsequently ‘preserved’ it: ‘My mother didn’t just read it, but even edited it a little: tiny corrections in her handwriting occur here and there.’ Of the city, she comments: ‘Florence didn’t feel like home. Its great charm lay in its unlikeliness to home – in its being enchantingly “elsewhere”. And I am forever grateful that it was my very first “elsewhere”.’

During the summer of 1947, Athill and her cousin, Pen, took the Golden Arrow train to Florence for a fortnight. The holiday was paid for by their aunt, as a celebration of the end of the Second World War, and marked the first time Athill had been out of Britain. Of herself and Pen, she comments: ‘We could hardly have been more different from one another but we travelled together as comfortably as a pair of old bedroom slippers.’

There are many comical scenes here, particularly with regard to the girls’ long train journey from central London. When their journey begins, ‘Pen didn’t register any luggage, and although her stuff was small it was very numerous, and largely tied together with insecure pieces of string. It included a smart white straw hat with blue veil, a collection of canvases, and a vicious easel which poked people in the eye at every move and kept on losing legs.’

Alongside the humour are some wonderful reminiscences too. Athill notes, breathily: ‘Everything is so beautiful that even not “doing” anything special is marvellous.’ What I particularly enjoyed here were the glimpses Athill gives into a very specific and particular period in time, when Europe was rebuilding following years of war. Of a trip to the Accademia di Belle Arti, for instance, the cousins see ‘a special exhibition of pictures that were wrecked in the war and which they are restoring… They are working miracles on them. Things that were blistered fragments are made almost whole again.’
I also appreciated the almost self-deprecating way in which Athill spoke of their actions. On Wednesday the 28th of August, for example, she wrote: ‘We left the Hotel Bonciani this morning, in a shower of gold. From our enormous popularity at the end, we deduce that we must, as usual, have over-tipped like mad.’ She comments on everything she sees, flattering or otherwise: ‘Everyone seems to adore their babies, and they spoil them and pet them and dress them up beautifully, but the minute one of the poor little things begins to go to sleep, they sweep on it and poke it and jog it and throw it in the air and bandy it about from hand to hand and coo and chuck and sing, until it is a wonder that any Italian child survives infancy.’

Athill’s writing is splendid, and she knows just the right tone to strike at every point. She beautifully notes the following partway into her stay: ‘Nobody seems to use the loggia much, we can’t think why. When I came up this evening after dinner, I almost gasped at the beauty of it. There is a moon and the sky is velvet blue, and the lights on the hill opposite are reflected in long wavering streaks in the velvet blue Arno…’.

Perhaps shamefully, I had only read a single one of Athill’s books prior to A Florence Diary, Persephone-published Midsummer Night at the Workhouse. A Florence Diary has cemented that I really need to get to more of her oeuvre, and soon. A Florence Diary is a rather charming piece of important social history, which transported me right to Italy. The joy of travelling, and of exploring somewhere new, is expressed so lovingly, and with such gratitude. I only wish it had been three times as long!


‘The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: Travels Among the Collectors of Iceland’ by A. Kendra Greene ****

I have been highly intrigued by A. Kendra Greene’s non-fiction book, The Museum of Whales You will Never See: Travels Among the Collectors of Iceland, since I first spotted it on Goodreads. I love quirky non-fiction, and I’m (borderline-) obsessed with Iceland, so I thought this would be something I would thoroughly enjoy.

Iceland boasts almost 300 independent museums, ‘mostly very small’, and the majority of which have sprung up since the 1990s. Some of them are set up in people’s gardens; some came into existence on the back of ‘jokes and bets’. Amongst other places, Greene visits ‘a house filled with stones’, and a ‘museum of whales that proves impossible to find’. Her exploration of Iceland’s museums takes her all over the country, from the far more populous south, to barren regions of the north. In her introductory chapter, Greene sets out that she has decided to focus her book on Iceland because she has ‘never known a place where the boundaries between private collection and public museum are so profoundly permeable, so permissive, so easily transgressed and so transparent as if almost not to exist.’

I was lucky enough to go to Iceland with my boyfriend in 2016, and visited one of the museums which Greene talks about – the Phallological Museum in the capital Reykjavík. Whilst there, I was mildly embarrassed about being surrounded by phalluses, and there exists a very awkward photograph of me standing beside an enormous whale penis, which my boyfriend insisted upon. Regardless, it was certainly an experience. Greene writes that this is ‘probably’ the only penis museum in the world.

I really enjoyed the structure of The Museums of Whales You Will Never See. The longer chapters, all of which focus on one individual museum, is either entitled ‘Gallery’ or ‘Cabinet’, and provides a small fragment of a meeting, or a curiosity discovered by the author. Each of these shorter sections refers to a separate museum, from ‘Gallery 3: Vagrants and Uncommon Visitors’, which relates to Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum, to ‘Gallery 5: The End of the World’, which details Iceland’s Herring Era Museum. The museums which she chooses here could be said to be more obscure, with unusual collections; these particular ones tend to largely be found outside of the capital city.

Throughout, Greene writes not just about how important museums are to society, but about the process of collecting itself: ‘We do not just keep and collect things, amass and restore them. We trouble ourselves to repurpose, create, and invent things just to carry, a little easier, those stories we cannot live without.’ Written specifically about the bird museum, but surely applicable to all, Greene states: ‘And surely every museum is a museum of selection, a museum of choices made, but here the how of collecting seems not to matter. The source of a thing does not matter. It is the thing that matters in its own right. And that shouldn’t shock me, surely it shouldn’t, but when was collecting ever just about things?’ Of another museum, she goes on to write: ‘Never mind all the stuff that isn’t here, the things never made or never replaced for lack of resources, the things used and reused and repaired and repurposed and chipped and cracked and tattered and frayed and splintered and bruised and torn and scuffed and scrubbed and shattered and worn until gone. These are just the things we have that weren’t consumed or obliterated, a subset of the things we could possibly have, a subset of the things there were.’

The collections written about in The Museum of Whales You Will Never See are, of course, vast in their differences, and I appreciated this. She visits very niche collections, such as the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík, and the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum in Bíldudalur. Greene also includes the somewhat curious detail in that the majority of Icelandic museums displaying a polar bear specimen, despite the fact that polar bears have never roamed the country. Greene also writes – although sadly not at that much length – about the collections in all of the museums across Iceland which have helped to keep Icelandic history alive in the modern age.

Although undoubtedly interesting, I must admit that it did take me quite a while to get into some of these chapters, and Greene’s writing on the whole. The author tends to launch in at very random points, and everything unfolds quite slowly. A better approach for such a book, I think, would be to begin with details of her own visit, and then unfold the story of each individual collector. At the moment, this feels quite muddled, and a lot of important details which the reader needs to make sense of certain scenes are not revealed until a long way into the chapter. The Museum of Whales You Will Never See does feel a little piecemeal at times, as the author uses short vignettes to jump between quite a number of topics.

I did feel as though an opportunity had been missed here, with the brevity of some of Greene’s writing. She mentions a few museums in passing, sometimes not even detailing their names or locations. A list of everything mentioned has been included at the back of the book, but I feel as though anyone trying to use this as a guidebook of sorts, as Greene intends, would have to be comfortable doing quite a lot of legwork beforehand.

Although I did not love this as I hoped I would, I found The Museums of Whales You Will Never See quite fascinating. I really appreciated the concentration on just one country, and hope that Greene – or another author – replicates this idea in another locale. The book does have some shortcomings, where I did not feel that certain museums were given enough space, or detail, but I understand that an author of such a book would have to be more selective than they would perhaps like.


‘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.


‘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.


‘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.


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.


‘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.