studies in travel writing

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Travel Books of the Year 2009

This can hardly claim to be a 'best of' list. It is a shamefully partial response to notices in the US and UK press. They are not even personal recommendations. And for good reason: I haven't read them. But they grabbed my attention during the year and look interesting enough for me to try to read next year - when they come out in paperback or turn up at my local library. Or - who knows? - arrive in the form of a well-chosen seasonal gift.

Even at a glance, the list suggests that travel writing - whose demise is announced as regularly as the death of God or the end of history - is in rude health. If it reflects, perhaps, the continuing preference of publishers for stories about rich people going to poor countries, there are also signs of a pleasing variety and inventiveness that can only bode well for the future.

The ground covered by these books range from intercontinental networks to single neighbourhoods. They encompass not just intrepid voyages into the unknown but also journeys back home or around one's back yard. And it's good to find travellers not so much concerned to prove they are exceptional than to engage with other lives and make them the subject of their books too.
  • Sara Wheeler, The Magnetic North. This 'cultural and scientific history of the Arctic' was too dry for The Spectator, but the reviewer was impressed by the section on Lapland: 'The people, landscape and nomadic herding way of life touch her romantic sensibility, and her prose soars. At her best Wheeler is as good a travel writer as Colin Thubron or William Dalrymple.' [More details]
  • Iain Sinclair, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. A psychogeography of London E8 by what the Observer called 'the indelible diarist of our age - our post-punk Pepys - though his diaries take the form of walking tours, striding in particular that margin between obsessive note-making, internal dialogue and scabrous prose.' [More details]
  • Jan Wong, Chinese Whispers. The author travels from Canada to Beijing to track down a fellow-student she denounced and betrayed during the Cultural Revolution. The reviewer in The Times was 'tempted to say that the direction taken by Wong points the way for the future of travel writing' - avoiding 'mere landscape painting' in favour of 'the drama of a search for a live human being.' [More details]
  • Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport. A Heathrow diary which the Spectator thought was 'simultaneously poignant and terribly funny, thanks to de Botton's knack of seeing the philosophical in the mundane and not being afraid to play up the incongruity.' [More details].
  • Joan Fry, How to Cook a Tapir. This memoir of a year in Belize in the early 1960s as the young - but increasingly disenchanted - wife of an anthropologist makes for 'a fascinating, unusual book' according to PopMatters. [More details]
  • Joe Moran, On Roads. The only problem the Telegraph had with this book was its title which 'fails even to hint at the richness Moran uncovers as he explores what he calls "the unnoticed collective life" of our motoring, and its '"laws, rituals and codes of behaviour".' [More details]
  • Rory Nugent, Down at the Docks. A close-up of New Bedford, Massachusetts, offering what the San Francisco Chronicle described as 'a series of vignettes seen through the eyes of an almost theatrical cast of waterfront denizens: down-and-out fishermen, dope peddlers, insurance cheats, schemers of every stripe. Nugent has a nose for sleaze, and he evokes it with panache.' [More details]
  • Philip Parker, The Empire Stops Here. The Guardian gradually warmed to what emerges as a 'quite breathtaking and eccentric edifice of scholarship' that informs this account of an epic journey following the course of the Roman imperial frontier. [More details]
  • Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence. From a rambunctious childhood to the isolated Galloway cottage where the author now lives, this journey, according to The Times, 'grapples with ideas at the very heart of what it is to be human, and Sara Maitland is a joyous champion of the countercultural notion that silence is more than simply an absence of noise.' [More details]
  • Philip Graham, The Moon, Come to Earth: The Chicago Tribune loved 'this exquisite little book' about Lisbon, Portugal. 'The reader gets to travel alongside the Graham family as they explore a city, a language, a culture and, of course, themselves.' [More details]
  • Paule Marshall, Triangular Road. This memoir by the Barbadian-born, Brooklyn-raised novelist is transatlantic in scope. The Washington Post thought it 'revealed 'a strong gift for self-scrutiny made all the more revealing by quiet humor and what appears to be complete honesty.' [More details]
  • Susan Richards, Lost and Found in Russia. A journey deep into the provinces, warmly applauded on the openDemocracy website: 'Her book is so well written and so imbued with a deep and intimate understanding of Russian culture that it reads almost like a novel, but it also carefully documents how ordinary people's lives are affected by shifts in politics.' [More details]
  • David Grann, The Lost City of Z. In a highly-regarded book optioned as a film even before it was published, Grann follows in the footsteps of Col Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in the Amazon in 1925. The New York Times described it as 'at once a biography, a detective story and a wonderfully vivid piece of travel writing that combines Bruce Chatwinesque powers of observation with a Waugh-like sense of the absurd.' [More details]
  • William Dalrymple, Nine Lives. In what was probably the most-reviewed travel book of the year, Dalrymple explores the religious variety of the Indian subcontinent through nine life stories. Said the Observer, 'This is travel writing at its best. I hope it sparks a revival.' [More details]
  • James Attlee, Isolarion. Of this account of a walk up the Cowley Road in Oxford, the Telegraph wrote: 'Exploring the multicultural and richly layered landscape on his doorstep, he proves that good travel writing is not about where you go, or how you go there, but the way that you look at the world that you pass through.' [More details]
Posted by Alasdair Pettinger Sun 29 Nov 2009 12:50 GMT+0000


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