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Archive for the ‘Don George’ Category

Well, we’ve reached the end of a year I would rather not repeat.  But, despite its challenges, it did hold some amazing moments.  I had the chance to travel widely and experience things I’d been dreaming of for years, and, best of all, I became an aunt.  There is nothing so hopeful as welcoming a new life into a family and it was a very cheering way to see out the year.

It wasn’t a spectacular reading year for me (too many comfort reads and too little quality during the first half of the year, certainly) but there were still plenty of stellar titles to choose from.  Here are the ten that really stood out:

10. For the Glory (2016) – Duncan Hamilton
This excellent biography of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner and Christian missionary who was immortalised in Chariots of Fire, was the first book I read in 2017 and remained one of my favourites.  Hamilton, a sports journalist, is a clear and thorough biographer, and does full justice to a fascinating and inspiring life.

9. Browsings (2015) – Michael Dirda
An enthusiastic and eclectic collection of pieces Dirda wrote about the books he loves, his immense love of used book stores (and hours spent therein), and other things sure to delight passionate readers.

8. The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) – Katherine Arden
Sweltering in a Tuscan summer, I read this beautiful fantasy novel and escaped to the cool world of medieval Russia, a place where magic and fairy tales all come to life in the most suspenseful way.  I adored it, quickly read the sequel which came out this month, and am already eager for the final book in the trilogy (which is being released in August).

7. Felicity – Stands By (1928) – Richmal Crompton
About as far from great literature as you can get, these humorous stories about the adventures of sixteen-year old Felicity brightened up a relatively difficult point in my life.  They are bubbly and fun and a welcome reminder that Crompton could be both those things (and not just the author of needlessly repetitive and melodramatic family tales).

6. The Way of Wanderlust (2015) – Don George
In a year full of both travel and travel reading, this collection of Don George’s writing was a wonderful inspiration.

5. The Snow Child (2012) – Eowyn Ivey
Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, was one of my favourite books of 2016.  This year, I finally picked up her first novel and found it just as wonderful and captivating.  Inspired the story of the Snow Maiden, Ivey weaves a magical story of a struggling, childless couple living in the Alaskan wilderness and their love for the girl who appears from nowhere one wintery day.  It is beautifully told and shockingly perfect for a first novel.

4. The Coast of Bohemia (1950) – Edith Pargeter
A travelogue about a 1948 trip to Czechoslovakia by a woman best known for writing mystery novels (under her pen name of Ellis Peters) might not appeal to everyone but for me this book was wonderful.  Pargeter’s love of all things Czech makes her a passionate observer of the customs and places she sees.  I loved seeing the country and its people through her eyes and getting to experience a time long past through her excellent record of it.

3. Last Hope Island (2017) – Lynne Olson
An extraordinarily entertaining and enlightening look at the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the occupied countries whose governments and monarchs were living in exile in London.  It is packed full of facts, interesting characters, and devastatingly caustic quotes about de Gaulle (naturellement, everyone hates de Gaulle).  After Felicity – Stands By, this was the most enjoyable reading experience I had all year.

2. The Marches (2016) – Rory Stewart
I started reading this because I knew it was about Stewart’s journeys on foot around the English-Scottish border as he attempted to make sense of the centuries old divide between the two countries ahead of the Scottish independence vote – a fascinating project I was keen to learn more about.  But Stewart takes that journey and weaves into it the story of his own extraordinary (Scottish) father.  The result is a very wonderful and affectionate love letter that left me deeply moved.

1. Moon Tiger (1987) – Penelope Lively
I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.

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The theme of 2017, for me, was travel.  This was reflected in the three months I spent in Europe, obviously, but also in my reading throughout the year.  I read books to help me plan, to inspire me to visit new destinations, and just to enjoy learning about people doing things I haven’t the slightest interest in doing.  Some of the books were helpful, others not, some were well written, and others were absolutely cringe-worthy.

The best of the bunch was The Way of Wanderlust by Don George.  So much so that as soon as I finished reading it I went back and read through my favourite bits again.

As someone who haunts the travel section of my local bookstore, George’s name was vaguely familiar to me from his work as the editor of countless collections of travel writing but that was it.  I knew nothing of him as a writer or a traveller in his own right but just flipping through this book’s table of contents and seeing the variety of places he wrote about convinced me I needed to try this.  Croatia, Japan, Pakistan, El Salvador, and Jordan all beckoned.

This is a collection of George’s best works and they range over his lifetime as well as over the globe.  Separated neatly into three sections (pilgrimages, encounters, and illuminations), he writes about youthful adventures in Europe and Africa, family life in rural Japan, spiritual encounters in the Outback, how it feels to stand in front of a beloved painting in Paris, and so many more things that aren’t necessarily obvious subjects.  But in George’s hands, they are not just worthy of attention – they are precious.

His writing style changes from subject to subject and with time but he is always engaged, empathetic and fully present in each story.  I loved how confident he was regardless of his tone, able to make fun of himself but also to feel awed and humbled by the things he encounters.

One of my favourite stories, “Conquering Half Dome”, is about a vacation he took with his wife and children to Yosemite National Park in California.  Despite a lifetime of travel and moderate outdoor adventures, he finds himself terrified by the cable route up Half Dome.  His account of it definitely falls into the humorous category:

I’d read before the trip that the path slopes up at an angle of about sixty degrees.  In my mind I had pictured that angle and had mentally traced a line along the living room wall.  That doesn’t seem too steep, I had said to myself.

Beware estimates made in the comfort of your living room.  From the plushness of my couch, with a  soothing cup of steaming tea in my hand, sixty degrees hadn’t seemed too steep – but in the sheer, slippery, life-on-the-line wildness of Yosemite, it seemed real steep.  I looked at the cables, and I looked at the sloping pate of the mountain – and I thought, This is a really stupid way to die.

I could cheerfully read an entire book written in that vein, but this is not that book.  In my other favourite piece, “Japan’s Past Perfect”, the beauty of his opening paragraph shows just how well he can set the mood and how beautifully he can describe a scene:

I’m sitting on the polished wooden steps of a 300-year-old farmhouse in Japan’s Iya Valley, looking out on a succession of mountain folds densely covered in deep green cedars.  Skeins of morning mist rise from the valley floor, hang in wispy balls in the air, and tangle in the surrounding slopes.  No other houses are visible.  The only sound in the drip of predawn rain from nearby branches and from the farmhouse’s roof of thick thatch.  The faint scent of charcoal from last night’s hearth rides on the air.  I feel as if I’m in the hermit’s hut in a 17th-century ink-and-brush painting.

There are 33 stories in the collection and all are fascinating.  The foreword he includes for each piece is also wonderful, giving the reader some context around both the place described and George’s life.  George shares a lot of himself in each story but these forewords provide even greater intimacy.

Really good travel writing isn’t necessarily about making you fall in love with a certain destination; it’s about making you fall in love with the entire world and feel that exploring it is a great and wondrous adventure.  And in this wonderful collection that exactly what Don George does.

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