Travel: Peaks and pavements
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.
Friday 25 November 2011
The boldest travel writing crosses every frontier of genre as well as place. Yet the modest masters of this hybrid, mongrel art sometimes disappear into their prose.
Aiming high even by his lofty standards, Colin Thubron's To A Mountain in Tibet (Chatto & Windus, £18.99) for once saw this pure artist of the voyage look backwards and within, to his late mother and his childhood, as well as up to the Himalayan peaks and peoples that he sumptuously evokes. The traveller's own destiny also added piquancy to Thin Paths by Julia Blackburn (Jonathan Cape, £17.99). Its ravishingly fine descriptive prose, inspired by the Ligurian mountain village where she settled with her husband, is shaded by a string of bereavements: within her family, among her neighbours, and from the troubled past of this part of Italy. Moving from rural seclusion to metropolitan hubbub, New York life and its ever-changing tones and flavours gave Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts an urgent, buzzing backdrop to the suite of memoirs and reflections in Harlem is Nowhere (Granta, £14.99): her set of dazzling riffs on the cultural citadel of Black America.
So often seen as an Anglophone speciality, travel literature has other illustrious homes: Poland, for instance. This year, readers here could join Jacek Hugo-Bader's hair-raising, high-risk road trip through the fatal badlands of Siberia, White Fever (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; Portobello, £16.99), or Andrzej Stasiuk's hauntingly offbeat excursions into a forgotten "other Europe" in the east, On the Road to Babadag (trans. Michael Kandel; Harvill Secker, £14.99). Europe's far west also guards its mysteries and secrets, and no writer has plumbed their depths so lyrically and learnedly as Yorkshire-born Tim Robinson. This year saw the climax of his great trilogy about the landscapes, legends and people of the West of Ireland, Connemara: a little Gaelic kingdom (Penguin Ireland, £20) - surely a literary classic, whatever its genre. From England's wild west, Philip Marsden elegantly matched the maritime history of Falmouth and Cornwall with his own water-borne adventures in The Levelling Sea (HarperPress, £18.99).
As usual, historic cities incited authors to scale the narrative heights. Simon Sebag Montefiore's "biography" of Jerusalem (Phoenix, £14.99) may count as a wide-angle, high-energy history of this most fiercely contested urban terrain. But it also serves as a wonderfully evocative guide to the past and present of its story-soaked stones, even-handed, high-spirited and far more enjoyably full of sex and scandal than pilgrims might expect.
Meanwhile, in Rome (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25), the ever-eloquent Robert Hughes merged a galloping overview into his forte of art criticism. He composed a richly textured portrait of a city we see, and feel, afresh. Each monument and artwork sparkles, scrubbed clean of tired clichés.
The thematic narrative that visits multiple destinations presents its writer with an extra mountain to climb. James Attlee conquered it in style with Nocturne (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), a "journey in search of moonlight" that took him through science, art and literature as well as from Wales to Nevada to Japan. In contrast, for To the River (Canongate, £16.99), Olivia Laing walked along the Ouse in Sussex. Yet her micro-expedition yielded a haul of gems, as she fed a moving memoir into the currents of culture and history that flow around its banks.
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
New era of cheap oil 'will destroy green revolution'
Ukip founder Alan Sked and Nigel Farage 'begged Enoch Powell to stand as a candidate'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant