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Archive for the ‘Kate Harris’ Category

I shall be rather sad to see 2018 go.  While the world had its problems, for me 2018 was a wonderful year.  I spent lots of time with loved ones, travelled to some beautiful places, and started a new job that makes me happy every day to go to work.  Everyone I love is well and content and I am being supplied with almost daily photos of my one-year old niece – life is good.

My busy year cut into my reading time but I still managed to read (if not always review) some wonderful books this year.  Here are my ten favourites:

10. Green Money (1939) – D.E. Stevenson
After reading more than three dozen books by Stevenson, I thought I’d read everything worth reading.  Happily, I was wrong.  I loved this Heyer-esque comedy about a young man suddenly saddled with a beautiful and dangerously ignorant ward.  This is Stevenson at her most sparkling and confident, full of humour and warmth.

9. Anne of Green Gables (1908) – L.M. Montgomery
Is it fair to put a book I’ve read twenty or more times on this list?  Possibly not (and sorry to Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes, which almost made my top ten but was bumped in order to include this) but I’ll do it regardless.  Anne of Green Gables is perfect.

8. A Positively Final Appearance (1999) – Alec Guinness
Who knew an actor could write so well?  This was Guinness’ third book but it is the first I have read (though certainly not that last).  Covering the period from 1996 to 1998, his diaries are marvellously free of celebrity gossip and are filled instead with sharp observations about the world around him, a fond portrait of his family, and, best of all, insightful comments on the books he is reading.

7. Lands of Lost Borders (2018) – Kate Harris
After overdosing on travel memoirs last year, I restricted my intake in 2018 but thankfully still made room to enjoy this beautifully-told tale of a great adventure.  Harris’s memoir of cycling along the Silk Road, from Istanbul to India, was a wonderful reminder of the joy of exploration.

6. Bookworm (2018) – Lucy Mangan
Mangan’s memoir of childhood reading was warm, funny, and stirred up wonderful memories of my own early reading.  Intriguingly, there was very little overlap between the books Mangan loved and the ones I read as a child but that made no difference to my enjoyment.  Mangan captures how it feels to be a child who makes sense of the world through what she can find in the pages of books and that is definitely something I can understand (as I suspect can most of you).

5. When I Was a Little Boy (1957) – Erich Kästner
A beautifully written – and illustrated – memoir of growing up in Dresden before the First World War, I adored this Slightly Foxed reissue.

4. The Fear and the Freedom (2017) – Keith Lowe
A superb look at how the legacies of the Second World War shaped the second half of the twentieth century.  Lowe looks at so many things, including the inventions and institutions that were created as a result of the war, but I was most fascinated by the less tangible changes it wrought, the mythological, philosophical, and psychological shifts across the countries impacted.  I found the chapter on Israel especially memorable, where the Holocaust survivors were initially treated harshly since their victim-status did not fit with the young country’s view of itself as a nation of heroes and fighters.  The way the nation’s identity changed as survivors began telling their stories in the 1960s, from a nation of heroes to “a nation of martyrs”, is fascinating.

3. The Flowering Thorn (1933) – Margery Sharp
After a few hit-or-miss encounters with Sharp, this was the year she became one of my favourite authors.  And that all started with this tale of a sharp young society woman whose life changes when she adopts a small boy and goes to live in the country.  In another author’s hands, this could have turned into something unbearably twee.  Instead, it is sharp and marvellously unsentimental yet still full of warmth.  I adored it and am already looking forward to rereading it.

2. The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (1996) – edited by Charlotte Mosley
Great wits and writers, Mitford and Waugh’s letters cover decades of occasionally hostile friendship, stretching from World War Two until Waugh’s death in 1966.  Both rather competitive by nature, they saved some of their best material for this correspondence – sloppiness (like bad spelling) was called out.  Full of fascinating tidbits about their own books as well as their famous friends, I was utterly absorbed by this book (and by Waugh’s awfulness).

1. The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) – Svetlana Alexievich
Without question, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of Soviet women’s experiences of the Second World War was my book of the year.  More than one million Soviet women served in the military during the war (half of them in active combat roles) and Alexievich captures the full and fascinating range of their experiences in their own words.  It is a powerful and upsetting book and one I will not soon forget.

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Growing up, I loved to read about Victorian explorers.  I loved to hear about the cartographers and botanists and naturalists who set off across deserts and jungles and mountains guided by a spirit of adventure and more curiosity than was often good for them.

As the world has developed and become better connected, its mysteries have dwindled.  Modern-day explorers are lamentably scarce on the ground but not – I was delighted to discover when I picked up Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris – extinct.

Growing up in a small rural community in southern Ontario, Harris loved tales of Marco Polo and dreamed of becoming an explorer in her own right.  But she dreamed of reaching into the heavens – her destination was Mars.  She excelled at school, studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and was working on her Ph.D. at MIT when she finally realised that space wasn’t what she was really looking for.  She wanted more earthly adventures so, combining her fascination with wildness conservation with her childhood love of Marco Polo, Harris set out with a childhood friend to cycle along the Silk Road, from Turkey to India via Central Asia, Tibet, and Nepal.  It was a thrilling but also terrifying leap:

Beyond avenging my childhood ideals of explorers, and figuring out how to be one myself, I wanted to bike the Silk Road as a practical extension of my thesis at Oxford: to study how borders make and break what is wild in the world, from mountain ranges to people’s minds, and how science, or more specifically wilderness conservation, might bridge those divides.  So there I was, rich in unemployable university degrees, poor in cash, with few possession to my name besides a tent, a bicycle, and some books.  I felt great about my life decisions, until I felt terrified.

The book chronicles their journey across Asia, as well as dipping into Harris’ earlier years as a way of explaining how she came to go on this crazy, marvellous adventure.  She is clearly an overachiever – her academic CV makes me feel like the laziest person on the planet – but her achievements are all a result of her genuine and intense enthusiasm for learning.  Like all the very best and most fascinating people, she is fascinated by the world.  It’s impossible not to find that kind of enthusiasm engaging.

Not only is she a talented scientist and a capable outdoorswoman, she is also a beautiful writer.  I picked the book up because I was fascinated by the journey but found myself utterly absorbed by Harris’ writing.  She writes clearly, warmly and beautifully – the way I wish I could write, in fact:

…exploration, more than anything, is like falling in love: the experience feels singular, unprecedented, and revolutionary, despite the fact that others have been there before.  No one call fall in love for you, just as no one can bike the Silk Road or walk on the moon for you.  The most powerful experiences aren’t amenable to maps.

This passage about Ani, once part of Armenia but now in Turkey, was one of my favourites:

As the sun blinked cold and low over the mountains, the “city of 1001 churches” caught light the way I wished history would: the crumble and decay illuminated, some foundations still solid, graffiti aged gracefully to art.

And what of her other destinations?  The beauty of travelling by bicycle is the time it allows for observation and interaction.  Without the purple prose or excessive introspection common to lesser travel writers, Harris chronicles their encounters with local residents, wildlife, and – always key when cycling – topography.  Most hair-raising are the two instances when Harris and her travel companion snuck across the Chinese border into Tibet.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying that!  (And especially not right now, with China looking for any excuse to arrest Canadians in retribution for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou earlier this month.)

It is a fascinating and beautifully-told tale of a great adventure and, most importantly, it cannot help but make you feel excited by all the mysteries and secrets the world still has to offer.  We are all explorers in one way or another and Harris reminds us of how thrilling – and terrifying – that is.  Read it and be inspired.  Or, to experience the same journey in a different medium, check out the trip highlights video.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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