Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award, in partnership

with The Authors' Club

Authors' Club 1891
WINNER:
Underland  By Robert Macfarlane

In Underland, Robert Macfarlane takes us on a journey into the worlds beneath our feet. From the ice-blue depths of Greenland's glaciers, to the underground networks by which trees communicate, from Bronze Age burial chambers to the rock art of remote Arctic sea-caves, this is a deep-time voyage into the planet's past and future. Global in its geography, gripping in its voice and haunting in its implications, Underland is a work of huge range and power, and a remarkable new chapter in Macfarlane's long-term exploration of landscape and the human heart.

RUNNER UP:
Pravda Ha Ha By Rory Mclean

In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. In that euphoric year Rory MacLean travelled from Berlin to Moscow, exploring lands that were – for most Brits and Americans – part of the forgotten half of Europe. Thirty years on, MacLean traces his original journey backwards, across countries confronting old ghosts and new fears: from revanchist Russia, through Ukraine's bloodlands, into illiberal Hungary, and then Poland, Germany and the UK. Along the way he shoulders an AK-47 to go hunting with Moscow's chicken Tsar, plays video games in St Petersburg with a cyber-hacker who cracked the US election, drops by the Che Guevara High School of Political Leadership in a non-existent nowhereland and meets the Warsaw doctor who tried to stop a march of 70,000 nationalists. Finally, on the shores of Lake Geneva, he waits patiently to chat with Mikhail Gorbachev.

As Europe sleepwalks into a perilous new age, MacLean explores how opportunists – both within and outside of Russia, from Putin to Home Counties populists – have made a joke of truth, exploiting refugees and the dispossessed, and examines the veracity of historical narrative from reportage to fiction and fake news. He asks what happened to the optimism of 1989 and, in the shadow of Brexit, chronicles the collapse of the European dream.

Highly Commended:
No Friend But the Mountains By Behrouz Boochani, translated by Omid Tofighian

In 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani sought asylum in Australia but was instead illegally imprisoned in the country’s most notorious detention centre on Manus Island. This book is the result.


Boochani spent nearly five years typing passages of this book one text at a time from a secret mobile phone in prison. Compiled and translated from Farsi, they form an incredible story of how escaping political persecution in Iran, he ended up trapped as a stateless person. This vivid, gripping portrait of his years of incarceration and exile shines devastating light on the fates of so many people, as borders close around the world.


No Friend but the Mountains is both a brave act of witness and a moving testament to the humanity of all people, in the most extreme of circumstances.

SHORTLIST:
On the Plain of Snakes By Paul Theroux

The master of contemporary travel writing, Paul Theroux, immerses himself in the beautiful and troubled heart of modern Mexico.

Nogales is a border town caught between Mexico and the United States of America. A forty-foot steel fence runs through its centre, separating the prosperous US side from the impoverished Mexican side. It is a fascinating site of tension, now more than ever, as the town fills with hopeful border crossers and the deportees who have been caught and brought back. And it is here that Paul Theroux will begin his journey into the culturally rich but troubled heart of modern Mexico.

Moving through the deserts just south of the Arizona border, Theroux finds a place brimming with charm, yet visibly marked by both the US border patrol looming to the north and mounting discord from within. Attending local language and culinary schools, driving through the country and meeting its people, Paul Theroux gets under the skin of Mexico.

Epic Continent By Nicholas Jubber

Journeying from Turkey to Iceland, Nicholas Jubber takes us on a fascinating adventure through our continent’s most enduring epic poems to learn how they were shaped by their times, and how they have since shaped us. The great European epics were all inspired by moments of seismic change: The Odyssey tells of the aftermath of the Trojan War, the primal conflict from which much of European civilisation was spawned. The Song of the Nibelungen tracks the collapse of a Germanic kingdom on the edge of the Roman Empire. Both the French Song of Roland and the Serbian Kosovo Cycle emerged from devastating conflicts between Christian and Muslim powers. Beowulf and the great Icelandic Saga of Burnt Njal, respond to times of great religious struggle. These stories have stirred passions ever since they were composed, motivating armies and revolutionaries, and they continue to do so today.

 

Reaching back into the ancient and medieval eras in which these defining works were produced, and investigating their continuing influence today, Epic Continent explores how matters of honour, fundamentalism, fate, nationhood, sex, class and politics have preoccupied the people of Europe across the millennia. In these tales soaked in blood and fire, Nicholas Jubber discovers how the world of gods and emperors, dragons and water-maidens, knights and princesses made our own: their deep impact on European identity, and their resonance in our turbulent times.

Lotharingia By Simon Winder 

At the heart of western Europe lies a huge swath of land, stretching from the mud and fogs of the North Sea coast, down through countless market towns, ports, fortresses and ancient cathedrals, through a mass of river systems and forests, all the way to the great barrier of the Alps. Divided by their languages, religions and frontiers, everyone living there shares one thing: that they are inhabitants of a lost part of Europe – Lotharingia.

In AD 843, the three surviving grandsons of the great Emperor Charlemagne met at Verdun. After years of bitter squabbles over who would inherit the family land, they finally decided to divide the territory and go their separate ways. In a moment of staggering significance, one grandson inherited what became France, another Germany and the third Lotharingia, the chunk that initially divided the other two chunks: ‘the lands of Lothar’. The dynamic between these three great zones has dictated much of our subsequent fate.

Lotharingia is a history of this in-between land. In this beguiling, hilarious and compelling book we retrace how both from west and from east any number of ambitious characters have tried and failed to grapple with these people. Over many centuries, not only has Lotharingia brought forth many of Europe’s greatest artists, inventors and thinkers, but it has also reduced many a would-be conqueror to helpless tears of rage and frustration.

The Bells Of Old Tokyo By Anna Sherman 

For over 300 years, Japan closed itself to outsiders, developing a remarkable and unique culture. During its period of isolation, the inhabitants of the city of Edo, later known as Tokyo, relied on its public bells to tell the time. In her remarkable book, Anna Sherman tells of her search for the bells of Edo, exploring the city of Tokyo and its inhabitants and the individual and particular relationship of Japanese culture - and the Japanese language - to time, tradition, memory, impermanence and history.

Through Sherman’s journeys around the city and her friendship with the owner of a small, exquisite cafe, who elevates the making and drinking of coffee to an art-form, The Bells of Old Tokyo presents a series of hauntingly memorable voices in the labyrinth that is the metropolis of the Japanese capital: An aristocrat plays in the sea of ashes left by the Allied firebombing of 1945. A scientist builds the most accurate clock in the world, a clock that will not lose a second in five billion years. A sculptor eats his father’s ashes while the head of the house of Tokugawa reflects on the destruction of his grandfather’s city (‘A lost thing is lost. To chase it leads to darkness’).

The result is a book that not only engages with the striking otherness of Japanese culture like no other, but that also marks the arrival of a dazzling new writer as she presents an absorbing and alluring meditation on life through an exploration of a great city and its people.

Last Days in Old Europe By Richard Bassett 

In 1979, Richard Bassett set out on a series of adventures and encounters in central Europe which allowed him to savour the last embers of the cosmopolitan old Hapsburg lands and gave him a ringside seat at the fall of another ancien regime, that of communist rule. From Trieste to Prague and Vienna to Warsaw, fading aristocrats, charming gangsters, fractious diplomats and glamorous informants provided him with an unexpected counterpoint to the austerities of life along the Iron Curtain, first as a professional musician and then as a foreign correspondent.

The book shows us familiar events and places from unusual vantage points: dilapidated mansions and boarding-houses, train carriages and cafes, where the game of espionage between east and west is often set. There are unexpected encounters with Shirley Temple, Fitzroy Maclean, Lech Walesa and the last Empress of Austria. Bassett finds himself at the funeral of King Nicola of Montenegro in Cetinje, plays bridge with the last man alive to have been decorated by the Austrian Emperor Franz-Josef and watches the KGB representative in Prague bestowing the last rites on the Soviet empire in Europe.

Music and painting, architecture and landscape, food and wine, friendship and history run through the book. The author is lucky, observant and leans romantically towards the values of an older age. He brilliantly conjures the time, the people he meets, and Mitteleuropa in one of the pivotal decades of its history.

Around the World in 80 Trains By Monisha Rajesh

From the cloud-skimming heights of Tibet's Qinghai railway to silk-sheeted splendour on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Around the World in 80 Trains is a celebration of the glory of train travel and a witty and irreverent look at the world.

Packing up her rucksack – and her fiancé, Jem – Monisha Rajesh embarks on an unforgettable adventure that takes her from London's St Pancras station to the vast expanses of Russia and Mongolia, North Korea, Canada, Kazakhstan, and beyond. The journey is one of constant movement and mayhem, as the pair strike up friendships and swap stories with the hilarious, irksome and ultimately endearing travellers they meet on board, all while taking in some of the earth's most breathtaking views.

Mud and Stars By Sara Wheeler

There is a literal Russian landscape, and there is its emotional, literary counterpart. In Mud and Stars, award-winning writer Sara Wheeler sets out to explore both.

 

At a time of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, Wheeler searches for a Russia not in the news – a Russia of humanity and daily struggles. She gives voice to the ‘ordinary’ people of Russia, and discovers how the writers of the Golden Age continue to represent their country today.

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