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photo credit: Andreas Von Einsiedel

photo credit: Andreas Von Einsiedel

Perceptive readers may remember this room from when Margaret Powling featured it on her blog back in April.  It looks so comfortable and inviting – the perfect place to escape to with a few good books.

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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).  

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Sharlene has the Mr Linky this week.

I’ve been having trouble settling down with a book recently.  I’ve made it 100 or 200 pages into so many books recently only to realise I’m not all that interested in learning how they end.  Rereading has been far more successful – I was absolutely enthralled by A Desperate Fortune, despite having read it several times before, and sped through Home from the Vinyl Cafe – but I long for something new.

Which brings us to this week’s loot.

After reading Weekend at Thrackley earlier this year, I didn’t really have any intention of reading more by Alan Melville.  But the comments to that post were so encouraging about his other books (Quick Curtain and Death of Anton) that I thought I’d give them a try, and throw in one of his plays (Simon and Laura) for good measure.

I’ve already started Quick Curtain and it is wonderful – exactly the kind of fun, absorbing read I needed.

What did you pick up this week?

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).  

Wishing you all a happy and wonderful Christmas, however and wherever you are celebrating.

For me, Christmas is all about family and traditions and in our family those traditions are invariably Czech.  To bring a little bit of Czech Christmas into your lives, I wanted to share these Josef Lada paintings.  Lada was a Czech artist who is best known as the illustrator of the The Good Soldier Švejk but it is his scenes of rural life that I love best.  We had a book of them that I would pour over for hours as a child and I love them still.

Merry Christmas!

For me and many other Canadians (and enlightened Americans living near the border), one of the much-anticipated pleasures of the holiday season for many years was listening to Stuart McLean debut a new Christmas story on his CBC radio show.  You knew you could tune in and spend half an hour that would lead you from collapsing with hysterical laughter to blinking back surprisingly emotional tears.  It was a wonderful tradition.

Stuart passed away from cancer in February 2017 so intellectually I know there are no more stories coming.  But emotionally, I know nothing of the sort.  I long for his characteristically humorous and touching stories this time of the year and, even if Stuart is no longer around to read them, we still have his books to keep us company.  And so, earlier this week, I found myself reaching for Home from the Vinyl Café.

Published in 1998, this was Stuart’s second volume of Vinyl Café stories.  The Vinyl Café was the name of his radio program but it was also the name of the record shop run by Dave, the hapless hero of his stories.  Dave, his wife Morley, and their children, Stephanie and Sam, were the focus of twenty-odd years of radio stories as Stuart chronicled their lives in a normal Toronto neighbourhood with stories of neighbourhood rivalries and friendships, social faux pas (something Dave was particularly subject too), Stephanie and Sam’s growing pains and Dave and Morley’s nostalgia for their own childhoods.  They were wonderful stories and this book is a particularly wonderful collection of them.

It begins with the first – and one of the very best – of the Vinyl Café Christmas stories: “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  This appears to be available on the CBC website (here – this story starts around 24:30) so if you’re able to listen, go now and do so.  It will be time well spent.  Just make sure you’re somewhere you can laugh uproariously without alarming too many people.  Dave’s wife Morley, after years of carrying the burden of all the holiday preparations as well as the day-to-day administering of their busy family, accepts Dave’s offer to help with Christmas this year: Dave can cook the turkey.  He commits, happy to make a small offering towards marital harmony, but realises only on Christmas Eve that he has forgotten to buy the turkey.  Determined to have the perfect Christmas dinner ready for his family (who are conveniently out of the house volunteering for most of Christmas day), he uses all of his ingenuity to acquire and cook a bird.  But the path he takes is far from conventional and the results are hysterically funny.

The next story in the collection is one of my all-time favourites and could not be more different from “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  “Holland” tells the story of how Dave and Morley met in the 1970s and their early married life.  It’s a story about the struggles to combine lives and traditions, and the work – and love, and patience – that is required to make that happen.  It’s a beautiful story and one that has stayed fresh in my mind ever since I first heard all those years ago.  Someone has helpfully uploaded it to YouTube so you can listen here (it’s been split into two parts).

There are some other equally classic stories in this book – “Burd”, about what happens when a rare bird decides to winter in Dave and Morley’s backyard, and “Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party”, which involves an awkward neighbourhood gathering and a mix up with the eggnog bowls – but others I’d forgotten.  So many of the stories look at the anxiety Dave and Morley feel as parents, worrying about Sam and music lessons, or Stephanie and teenage romances, and they show what Stuart could do so well: make fun of the little things while always staying true to the heart of the matter.

I love these stories.  I have read them countless times and I will read them countless more, alongside all the other volumes of Stuart’s books.  They bring me great pleasure at this and any other time of year and I hope, if they’re not already a part of your life, you will give them a try.  I can’t imagine them not bringing you joy.

Wormington Grange (photo credit: Hugo Rittson-Thomas)

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Have you stocked up on books for Christmas?  I am urgently placing holds, willing everything to arrive by Sunday (the last day my library is open until the 27th) so I have supplies laid in for the holiday break.  I still have my fingers crossed that some long awaited holds will come in before then but these books will keep me well entertained regardless:

Prague Spring by Simon Mawer – Naturally, I’m intrigued by any novel about the Prague Spring.  This sounds like it is focused on outsiders’ perspectives and I’ve been seeing lots of enthusiastic reviews in my favourite publications.

House of Gold by Natasha Solomons – I tried with this one.  I really did.  For years, I’ve felt like Solomons was so close to becoming an author I could really enjoy (her early books – Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English and The Novel in the Viola – had promise but were far from perfect) and I really thought she’d turned the corner.  Her last novel, The Song Collector, was marvellous and I loved every page.  Unfortunately, the magic has not lasted and this tale inspired by the Rothschild family has proved a big disappointment.  I made it halfway through but have given up in disgust.

The Assassination of the Archduke  by Greg King and Sue Woolmans – I’ve borrowed this a few times over the years but never gotten to it.  Assassination might not be everyone’s idea of Christmas reading but I’ve always been interested in Franz Ferdinand and this book has come highly recommended by other history geeks.

Walking to the End of the World by Beth Jusino – Always on the lookout for new travelogues about walking, I was at the top of the hold list for this memoir.

Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg – Another favourite topic is the social impact of urban planning so this look at the important role played by shared public spaces sounds excellent.

Falling for London  by Sean Mallen – This memoir of a Canadian journalist’s experiences after landing his dream posting in London is in every shop window I pass these days.  I love any sort of ex-pat memoir but one set in London is particularly alluring.

What did you pick up this week?

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).