5 Seafaring Tales for a Sailing Holiday

Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.
Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.

I’m all at sea this month, quite literally, as I sail from Bermuda back to Britain on the STS Lord Nelson. On board we keep a watch system, with four teams working a rota to keep the ship sailing and carry out the tasks essential for everyone to live together in such close confines. Our down time, plus the lack of distractions, gives plenty of time to get lost in a good book. So, here are my recommendations for seafaring tales to take on a sailing trip. Continue reading

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5 Classics of Travel Writing

readinginbedI’m much more a fan of reading non-fiction than fiction, and my favourite genre is travel writing. A well-crafted piece of travel writing, whether it takes the form of a journal, essay or more literary piece, transports you to a different place and time, revealing things previously unknown to the reader or capturing the beauty of the everyday that we often miss in our busy lives. Here are five of my favourites:

 

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

This is most certainly a travelogue, but not one in any ordinary sense. Rather, In Patagonia is a collection of snapshots and sketches from Chatwin’s wanderings, readings and imaginings of the region. Meetings with descendants of Welsh immigrants fill pages next to an account of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s retirement, which sit alongside thoughts on Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and the mythological giants imagined by Magellan. Dispensing with a narrative or plot, the reader is instead privileged to dip in a vast and curious pool of information. The stark Patagonian landscape serves as a cipher for the end of the road, for lands remote and imagined, and the array of characters Chatwin encounters (both historical and present), for those drawn to the ends of the earth for exploration, escape and enterprise.

Buy it here.

Monte FitzRoy in Patagonia. Photo from Wikipedia

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Thesiger is often described as an anachronism, his education at Eton and then Oxford, and his dogged determination to discover what lay within the blank spaces on a map, harking back to the gentlemen explorers of the Victorian Era, obsessed with colonisation and Empire. However, he distinguishes himself by immersing in the culture of the people he encounters, travelling for the sake of the experience, and his lyrical and articulate writing. Arabian Sands is his account of five years spent crossing and recrossing Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Arabia in the mid-1940s, accompanied by nomadic Bedu camel herders. Thesiger was also a talented photographer, and the images in the book capture a way of life on the brink of extreme change.

Buy it here.

Thesiger in Abu Dhabi in 1948. He donated over 5000 photographs of his travels in the Middle East to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Photo from Pitt-Rivers Museum.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Nobel laureate Steinbeck’s novels capture the voices of early 20th Century America, reflecting on his broad range of interests, from history to politics to ecology. In 1960, Steinbeck set out on a road trip in a fitted-out pick-up truck with Charley, his standard French poodle, to document the changes that had occurred across the States throughout that period, and connect with the identity of a new America. Much has been made of the truth of the account, with Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine, having been present for most of the journey yet largely absent from the book. Studies have since revealed that a number of events and encounters were fictionalised, but I feel Steinbeck deals with the issue, meditating on how personal experience shapes a person’s reality. The writing is as good as you would expect from such a renowned author, and there’s Charley, the travelling companion we all dream of.

Buy it here.

John Steinbeck and Charley on the road in 1950. Photo from The Guardian.

News from Tartary by Peter Fleming

In 1935, Fleming, then an editor for the Times, set off on an overland trip from Peking (now Beijing) in China to Kashmir, then in British India, by horse, camel and on foot. Tartary, an area corresponding to a vast swathe of Central Asia, had long been subject to influences from China, Russia and the British Empire in a period referred to as “The Great Game”, yet at the same time was a black hole in terms of most Westerner’s knowledge. With the Soviet Union supporting a communist uprising in Xinjiang, no news had been gathered from the region for several months before Fleming’s journey. The writing is crisp, with a wry humour, although readers should be aware some passages are very evocative of their era.

Buy it here.

Photograph of a Madrasa in Samarkand taken c. 1912. Photo from Wikipedia

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry is best known as the author of The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), a set text for many students of French, but he was also a pioneer of aviation, flying the airmail routes between Europe, North Africa and South America in the 1920s and 30s. In 1935, whilst attempting to beat the record for a flight from Paris to Saigon, he and his navigator crashed into the Sahara. Surviving the crash and lost in a sea of sand, they face a drawn-out death from dehydration. This experience is recounted in Wind, Sand and Stars, part memoir of early aviation and part meditation on the human condition. This is powerful, lyrical storytelling, rich with observations on love, beauty, adventure, life and death. In my opinion, this slim volume is as near perfect as a piece of travel writing can be.

Buy it here.

Saint-Ex and his aircraft. Photo from The Guardian.

 

Which classic travel books have inspired you?

 

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you follow them to buy a book I recommend, I get a small payment from the company, at no charge to you whatsoever. It helps keep my book habit going.

5 Books to Celebrate Burns Night

AmReading1I’m thinking about all things Scottish this week, after a Hogmanay promise to host a real Burns supper for friends on the 25th. Although the food forms the centrepiece of celebrations, a Burns Night isn’t complete without performances of some of the poet’s best-loved works, classic poems and songs. So, inspired by these great works of literature, this month I’m giving you a selection of some of my favourite works of modern Scottish fiction to influence your visit to Scotland. Sorry, not a single time-travelling kilted warrior included.

Continue reading

5 Books Set in Cold Places to Curl Up With This Winter

IMG_3884Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.  And what makes a cold winter evening even better is a good book to curl up with (and perhaps also a glass or two of amaretto and ice). When the wind is howling and sleet lashing the window, snuggle into your favourite tartan jammies, and read all about the ice and snow from the warmth and comfort of your armchair.  With the radio playing softly in the background, lights sparkling on the Christmas tree, and someone bringing warm mince pies occasionally, I can’t think of a more perfect way to enjoy the books below.

 

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

In the introduction to this book, Cherry-Garrard notes: Polar Exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has been devised. As the youngest member of the team accompanying Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole, Cherry-Garrard was one of only three survivors, and part of the rescue mission that discovered the frozen bodies of his colleagues. His account pieces together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen south.

Buy it here.

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich

Long fascinated by the icy landscapes and exotic culture, Ehrlich travels extensively in Greenland, meeting people walking the line between a traditional way of life and modern development. She draws heavily on the journals of Danish-Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen from the 1920s and 30s, retracing expeditions by kayak and dogsled. The book combines travel diary with biography, ethnographic study and geography. 

Buy it here.

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A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

Finnish author Jansson is best known for the Moomin stories, and although this collection of short pieces is for adults, it captures the same feeling of childlike wonder her famous creations have for nature, landscape and life. The beautifully observed stories have a lightness of touch and at the same time a deep truth, making them a joy to read. For a bonus recommendation, seek out her short novel The True Deceiver as a follow up. 

Buy it here.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

This book is difficult to summarise in just a short paragraph. It details Lopez’s travels in the High Arctic, meditating on the landscapes and wildlife, how we explain and interact with them, drawing on historical, cultural, philosophical and scientific significances. This is not an easy book to digest, but the sparklingly beautiful prose and interesting, informative subjects make you want to take your time, and enjoy the brilliance. Best dipped into over a series of winter afternoons. 

Buy it here.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver 

A bone-chilling ghost story set in an abandoned whaling camp in the Spitzbergen archipelago, high in the Arctic, in the late 1930s. With thoughts of impending war not far from the collective consciousness, a British scientific expedition establish themselves in a remote corner, against the advice of the Norwegian administration. As the dazzling brightness of 24-hour daylight gives way to the creeping polar night, a growing unease builds in the team, but is the horror a presence in the darkness or the madness of isolation in a challenging environment?  Buy it here.

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Have you got any icy and snowy suggestions for a wintry reading list?

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you follow them to buy a book I recommend, I get a small payment from the company, at no charge to you whatsoever. It helps keep my book habit going.

The Kon-Tiki Expedition

Kon Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft by Thor Heyerdahl. 

Only a year or so after the end of WWII five Norwegians, a Swede and a Spanish-speaking parrot of irritable disposition put their sense of adventure ahead of their sense of safety, and set out on one of the most audacious expeditions of modern times. Continue reading