July 28, 2015

The Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award: the contenders

Have you ever wondered why the best narrative travel writers always seem to be British, or long-term residents of Britain? After years of wondering myself (particularly around literary festival time), I recently came upon a clever explanation for this phenomenon in Abroad, Paul Fussell's classic study of British literary traveling.

Another reason for British distinction in both traveling and travel-writing is suggested by Christopher Sykes, who imputes these impulses to the complicated British sense of "residing on the outskirts of the Roman Empire" and thus of being teased by a Germanic suspicion that "we are not wholly satisfactory". One result of this little unease, Sykes says, is the British desire to escape from oneself (cf. gardening, stamp-collecting, crossword-puzzle working): the "easiest relief ... is in foreign travel... Delight in travel has long been an English characteristic".

It is Britain in fact which (as Fussell goes on to point out) gave birth to both The Travellers Club and to that epitome of "empiricism and singlemindedness", the Railway Enthusiast.

It has also been for many years the home of the Dolman Prize, the world's only prize for "serious travel literature", now rebranded the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award. Happily for the authors, the arrival of the new sponsor, Edward Stanford Ltd., owner of Stanford's maps and book stores, doubles the prize money. Luckily for us, it doesn't interrupt the association of the award with The Authors Club, and, I presume, the tradition by which the judges get together at a pub down the road from The Authors Club to decide the winner.

The prize will now become part of a suite of new Edward Stanford Travel Awards. One of these, the Edward Stanford Award for Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing, is destined for a living travel writer who will be chosen from a long list incorporating nominations from the public, or at least the twittering public:





And now, here's this year's short list for the best travel book of 2014, and their publishers' summaries. Not all the authors are British, just five out of six!


            












The land where lemons grow : the story of Italy and its citrus fruit by Helena Atlee

Just the Table of Contents has my head spinning:

Citrus crops in Italy -- The scent of lemons -- Curious fruit: citrus collectors in Renaissance Tuscany -- Cooking for the pope -- Golden apples: a case of taxonomic havoc -- A day in Amalfi -- One of the sunniest places in Europe: Sicilian lemons, 'like the pale faces of lovers ...' -- Antiscorbuticks -- A golden bowl of bitter lemons: extraordinary wealth on Sicily's west coast -- A Sicilian marmalade kitchen -- Oranges soaked in sunsets: blood oranges in the shadow of Mount Etna -- The runt of the litter: Liguria's cosseted chinotti -- The sweet scent of Zagara -- Dogged madness: limonaie on Lake Garda -- Battling with oranges in Ivrea -- Green gold: Calabria and the most valuable citrus in the world -- Unique harvest: on the Riviera dei Cebri -- Places to visit -- A citrus chronology.


Down to the sea in ships : of ageless oceans and modern men by Horatio Clare

Applause for the anonymous author of the summary for this book, for using "wuther" in its active verb form.

"Horatio Clare joins two container ships, travelling in the company of their crews and captains. Together they experience unforgettable journeys: the first, from East to West (Felixstowe to Los Angeles, via Suez) is rich with Mediterranean history, torn with typhoon nights and gilded with an unearthly Pacific peace; the second northerly passage, from Antwerp to Montreal, reeks of diesel, wuthers with gales and goes to frozen regions of the North Atlantic, in deep winter, where the sea itself seems haunted. In Clare's vibrant prose a modern industry does battle with implacable forces, as the ships cross seas of history and incident, while seafarers unfold the stories of their lives... A beautiful and terrifying portrait of the oceans and their human subjects, and a fascinating study of big business afloat, Down to the Sea in Ships is a moving tribute to those who live and work on the great waters, far from land."

                       


"In Rising Ground, Philip Marsden sets out on foot to explore the power of the landscape and the continuing hold it has upon our imagination. Starting in Bodmin Moor and moving westward along the narrowing Cornish peninsula to Land's End with a growing awareness of the great ocean beyond, Marsden travels an ancient route of pilgrimage towards the setting sun, rehearsing the soul's passage after death. Along the way, he seeks out others whose have felt similarly compelled by the landscape, from Geoffrey of Monmouth and the inventors of the Arthurian legends to Tudor topographers and 18th century antiquarians; and from Romantic scholars to post-industrial poets, abstract painters, and new-age seekers. As he camps on clifftops, criss-crosses the moors, and digs around in the archives, Marsden reflects on the spirit of place, asks how we are shaped by our connection to the landscape, and takes us right to the heart of what it means to belong."


Walking the woods and the water: in Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn by Nick Hunt

"In 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to chance and charm his way across Europe, 'like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar'. The books he later wrote about this walk, including Between the Woods and the Water, are a half-remembered, half-reimagined journey through cultures now extinct and landscapes irrevocably altered by the traumas of the twentieth century. Nick Hunt dreamed of following in Fermor's footsteps. Eighty years later he began his own 'great trudge'—on foot all the way to Istanbul. He walked across eight countries, following two major rivers and crossing three mountain ranges. With only Fermor's books to guide him, he trekked some 2,500 miles from Holland to Turkey. Why? For an old-fashioned adventure. To discover for himself what remained of hospitality, kindness to strangers, freedom, wildness, the unknown, the deeper currents of myth that still flow beneath Europe's surface. This is a story worthy of Fermor's own."


                           



Indonesia etc. Exploring the improbable nation by Elizabeth Pisani

"In 1945, Indonesia's declaration of independence promised: the details of the transfer of power etc. will be worked out as soon as possible. Still working on the etc. seven decades later, the world's fourth most populous nation is now enthusiastically democratic and riotously diverse. It is one of the richest and most enchanting countries on earth, but is riddled with ineptitude and corruption. Elizabeth Pisani, who first worked in Indonesia as a foreign correspondent, set out to rediscover its enduring attraction, and to find the links which bind together this impossibly disparate nation. This book weaves together the stories of Indonesians encountered on her journey with a considered analysis of Indonesia's recent history, corrupt political system, ethnic and religious identities, stifling bureaucracy and traditional 'sticky' cultures. Fearless and funny, she gives a compelling and sharply perceptive account of a captivating nation."


A journey into Russia by Jens Mühling

"The recent crises in Ukraine have reminded us that Russia's interests run counter to those of many other nations, but what of the Russian and Ukrainian people themselves? What kind of lives are they leading, and what are their feelings toward the political regime that has so inflamed the West? When German journalist Jens Mühling met Juri, a Russian television producer selling stories about his homeland, he was mesmerized by what he heard. The encounter changed Mühling's life, triggering a number of journeys to Ukraine and deep into the Russian heartland on a quest for stories of ordinary and extraordinary people. Unveiling a portion of the world whose contradictions, attractions, and absurdities are still largely unknown to people outside its borders, A Journey into Russia is a much-needed glimpse into one of today's most significant regions."

July 04, 2015

Happy 150th to Alice in Wonderland, the mother of all quirky books




It's 150 years today since Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published, three years after Charles Dodgson told the story to the Liddell sisters as they boated down the Thames. Together with its sequel Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, it is now known by all of us as Alice in Wonderland, and by me as one of my favourite books of all time.

For the occasion, I thought I'd republish the love letter to Alice I wrote for a Quirky Books series we ran on our website many years ago, which I called

The mother of all quirky books

Because of everyone who's loved it or borrowed from it, from Virginia Woolf to the Jefferson Airplane; because Wonderland is where surrealistic starts; because the characters play croquet with flamingos for mallets and don't follow the rules; because the logic is faultless but illogical; because it celebrates absurdity; because of "Contrariwise" and "Off with their heads!"; because Alice wants to know, was she in the Red King's dream or was he in hers; and because it's funny.

Nearly everyone read, or had read to them, the Alice books as a child. Some people were delighted, others frightened or bewildered. But whether you loved it or hated it, it's worth taking another look. Alice is a fairy tale, perhaps the most original and imaginative fairy tale ever. Some parts are grim and disturbing, some are comic and demented. The "beasts", whether chess pieces or mock turtles, all remind us of someone we know. The heroine is undaunted, incurably curious, and, deservedly, she wins a crown at the end.

Try The Annotated Alice, an oversized, complete text version of both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the looking glass with the original John Tenniel illustrations (surely half the charm of the book) and an introduction and running commentary by Martin Gardner, who was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of Alice and who loved mathematical puzzles as much as Charles Dodgson -- for many years he wrote a column on them for Scientific American. Gardner knew it was important not to take Alice too seriously, but he rightly saw that no joke is funny if you don't see the point. He quotes the original versions of the many poems Carroll lampoons, reports on the discovery of a note in which Carroll signed himself "the White Knight", reprints French and German translations of Jabberwocky and, true to his mathematical origins, maps out the chess game for us.

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying, " she said: "One can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Go ask Alice, indeed.

***
And to finish, here are some Books in the City posts on Alice you might not have seen:

Alice in Wonderland on screen, where you can view the earliest film version of Alice, from 1903.

Bwana Paka Mcheshi, the Swahili Cheshire Cat, on the death of Martin Gardner, genial annotator of Alice.

Adolf in Blunderland: a Treasure from the Basement, on a 1939 parody of Alice in Wonderland I found in the Central City Library basement stacks.

***
illustration by John Tenniel via www.fromoldbooks.org

 
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