Books of the Year 2012: Travel and place
From art to sport, poetry to nature, travel to food, history to music: our writers select the best of the year’s books in a comprehensive guide to the highlights in every shade of the literary spectrum – except grey
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 08 December 2012
Travel writing is dead; long live the literature of place! In fact, the literary art of journeys and locations merely rebooted while trend-hungry publishers looked away. This year it sprang to life again, healthier than ever. Take Andrew Blum's Tubes: behind the scenes at the internet (Viking, £12.99). He executed a brilliantly smart idea - to visit the global network of data-hubs, server farms and cable nodes from Docklands to Oregon, where immaterial cyberspace hits seabed, hard rock and sub-soil - with investigative skill and flair. Readers will never send an email so carelessly again.
The Mara Crossing (Chatto & Windus, £12.99), equally planetary in its reach but more lyrical in its prose, saw poet Ruth Padel blend travelogue, environmental science and her own verse into a rapt meditation on the meaning of migration - of people, animals and ideas. A pair of legendary, ever-elusive travellers also prompted two of the year's most revealing biographies. In Patrick Leigh Fermor: a life (John Murray, £25), Artemis Cooper winningly followed in the footsteps of the great charmer, warrior and yarn-spinner; while in Ryszard Kapuscinski: a life (translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones; Verso, £25), Artur Domoslawski exposed the double life - as agent and informer for the Polish communist state - led by the most enigmatic and (in many senses) - creative voyager of his time.
In an Olympic year awash with books about London, no work came close to the eccentric charm and warmth on offer in Spitalfields Life (Saltyard Books, £20) by the anonymous "Gentle Author". This deadpan blogger's encounters with East Enders old and new, now transformed into a sumptuous volume, built into an irresistible group portrait of modern metropolitans and their overlapping histories. If the Gentle Author can sound rather like WG Sebald, Nick Papadimitriou veers closer to the topographical delirium of Iain Sinclair or JG Ballard in Scarp (Sceptre, £20): a ramble through his home suburbs of north London that spreads a visionary gleam over the mysterious backwaters of the Northern Line. Further out into the country, Robert Macfarlane's philosophical tramp across deep England, and beyond, in The Old Ways (Hamish Hamilton, £20) confirmed his unique gift for close observation that verges on mystical rapture. Covering some of the same ground (literally), Hugh Thomson enlivened his homecoming walk through the mythic English past and exotic English present with keen reportage in The Green Road Into the Trees (Preface, £18.99).
Three books did the northern counties proud. Simon Armitage read poems for his bed and board as he tramped (in the wrong direction) along the Pennine Way for Walking Home (Faber & Faber, £16.99), which brought a quirkily offbeat sensibility and delectable comic prose to our wild backyard. Jean Sprackland's Strands (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) also packed a poet's eye and tongue into this journal of a year's wanderings along the Lancashire beach near her home, where every tide deposits fresh histories, both natural and human. And in her biography The Pinecone, Jenny Uglow (Faber & Faber, £20) returned to beautifully-observed life the Romantic-era designer and social reformer Sarah Losh, who sought to re-shape the landscapes and communities of Cumbria according to her brand of visionary idealism.
An ocean away, Colombia - a destination of choice for the discerning traveller - inspired two fine, if contrasting books. Tom Feiling's Short Walks from Bogota (Allen Lane, £20) took as its focus the slow recovery of a richly endowed but stricken nation from the fevers of its civil strife. In The Robber of Memories (Granta, £20), Michael Jacobs combined a lusher, more enchanted journey along the Magdalena river with a tender and well-integrated family memoir. From the front-lines and fault-lines of the Middle East, ex-hostage John McCarthy reported with vigour, insight and sympathy on the overlooked Palestinians of Israel itself in You Can't Hide the Sun (Bantam, £20), while Edward Platt brought Biblical history powerfully to bear on a modern flashpoint as he listened to the zealots, peacemakers and survivors of Hebron in The City of Abraham (Picador, £16.99).
The year's strongest literary portrait of a city came in Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom (trans. Laura Watkinson; MacLehose, £20), the great Dutch writer's bittersweet tribute to the fateful capital that moulded his upbringing, and his imagination. And in Meander (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), Jeremy Seal proved (like Jacobs) that a classic travel author's game-plan - a trip along a river, in this case the myth- and history-haunted winding stream that runs through central Turkey to the Aegean - can still deliver an artful and illuminating book.
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