The best books on the intimate lives of landscapes

Who am I?

Louisa Waugh is a writer, blogger, and the prize-winning author of three non-fiction books: Hearing Birds Fly, Selling Olga, and Meet Me in Gaza. She has lived and worked in the Middle East, Central and West Africa, and is a conflict adviser for an international peace-building organisation. She blogs at The Waugh Zone and currently lives in Brighton, on the southern English coast, where she kayaks and drinks red wine on the beach, usually not at the same time.


I wrote...

Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia

By Louisa Waugh,

Book cover of Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia

What is my book about?

I went to live in Mongolia because I had always wanted to see the country, and had time on my hands. I lived in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, for two years, then moved to a remote village in the Western Mountains to live in a village called Tsengel. I wanted to experience the intimate life of Mongolian nomads and their relationship with the heart-stopping seasons that have created the extraordinary landscape in which they live and die. My book is a portrait of a small community amidst the mountains that shape them culturally, religiously, and socially. And I had my own heart-stopping moments of fear, and joy, amongst these tough mountain people.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt

Louisa Waugh Why did I love this book?

Isabelle Eberhardt was born in 1877. She was “a crossdresser and sensualist, an experienced drug taker and a transgressor of boundaries”. Born in Switzerland, she crossed the Sahara Desert on horseback dressed as a male marabout, driven by a hunger for nomadic adventures, and for love. Isabelle’s evocative diaries are intense, beautifully written, self-centred and dramatic, occasionally very funny. She fell madly in love with the Sahara, was accused of being a spy, married a young Algerian soldier, and drowned in a desert flash flood at the age of 27. This book is about a short life that burned radiantly and the desiccated landscape that mirrored her intensity.

By Isabelle Eberhardt,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Nomad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Eberhardt's journal chronicles the daring adventures of a late 19th-century European woman who traveled the Sahara desert disguised as an Arab man and adopted Islam. Includes a glossary. Previously published in English by Virago Press in 1987, and as The Passionate Nomad by Virago/Beacon Press in 19


Book cover of The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga

Louisa Waugh Why did I love this book?

“Fifteen kinds of ketchup. That’s the sort of thing that made me want to withdraw from this world”.  So French nomad Sylvain Tesson retreated to a cabin in the woods on the edge of Lake Baikal, in the middle of Siberia. He took a lot of dried pasta with him, and Tabasco sauce, along with litres and litres of vodka. His account of six months cabinning in the taiga are poignant and sublimely poetic. His book is replete with leisurely ruminations on, amongst other topics, French literature, testosterone-fuelled herd behaviour (his words), messy love affairs, alcoholism, and the joys of solitude amidst the magnificent and sometimes terrifying beauty of Siberia.

By Sylvain Tesson, Linda Coverdale (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Consolations of the Forest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sylvain Tesson, found a radical solution to his need for freedom, one as ancient as the experiences of the hermits of old Russia: he decided to lock himself alone in a cabin in the middle taiga, on the shores of Baikal, for six months. Noting carefully his impressions of the silence, Sylvain Tesson shares with us an extraordinary experience.


Book cover of The Journals Of A White Sea Wolf

Louisa Waugh Why did I love this book?

In 1991, Mariusz Wilk, a Polish journalist long fascinated by the mysteries of the Russian soul, moved to the Solovki islands, a lonely archipelago amidst the far northern shores of Russia’s White Sea. He lived on one of these islands for seven years, and came to know every single one of its thousand residents. His sparse, heartfelt account of these islands that are dominated by the powerful interwoven forces of religion, politics, and the Arctic, is unconventional, and well worth the challenge. He pierces beneath the skin and the ice of this remote community and slowly begins to unravel the complexities and contradictions of Russia’s history and her landscapes.

By Mariusz Wilk,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Journals Of A White Sea Wolf as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1991 Mariusz Wilk, a Polish journalist long fascinated by the mysteries of the Russian soul, decided to take up residence in the Solovki islands, a lonely archipelago lost amid the far northern reaches of Russia's White Sea. For Wilk these islands represented the quintessence of Russia: a place of exile and a microcosm of the crumbling Soviet empire. On the one hand, they were a cradle of the Orthodox faith and home to an important monastery; on the other, it was here that the first experimental gulag was built after the 1917 revolution. Over the course of years Wilk…


Book cover of The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu

Louisa Waugh Why did I love this book?

Has a city ever been more mythologised than Timbuktu? Sure, it has been exaggerated in Western  Orientalist imaginations - but Malians have also subscribed to, and helped to create, this myth. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Timbuktu, and this non-fiction investigation into the “rescue” of  Timbuktu’s sacred manuscripts after Islamist attacks, is a brilliant combination of a real-life thriller and a biography of the enigmatic city herself. The realities of Timbuktu are not disappointing: it remains a well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage site, and a living city of trade, with ancient mosques and churches, erected amidst Saharan sand dunes and a bombed-out airport. The people who live here have also survived horrific violence: this book is a pretty accurate account of what did, and didn’t, happen when the Islamists came to town.

By Charlie English,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two tales of a city: The historical race to reach one of the world's most mythologized places, and the story of how a contemporary band of archivists and librarians, fighting to save its ancient manuscripts from destruction at the hands of al Qaeda, added another layer to the legend.

The fabled city of Timbuktu has captured the Western imagination for centuries. The search for this 'African El Dorado' cost the lives of many explorers but Timbuktu is rich beyond its legends. Home to many thousands of ancient manuscripts on poetry, history, religion, law, pharmacology and astronomy, the city has been…


Book cover of A Book of Silence

Louisa Waugh Why did I love this book?

Of all the destinations we can and do explore during our lives, our internal landscape is the most intimate. Without silence, how do we begin to know ourselves, and to see ourselves for who we really are? Sara Maitland moved from being a chatterer to “a silence hunter,” seeking out spaces where she could live alone and savour silent solitude. Her book explores histories and landscapes of silence, from contemplatives to explorers. She nails the difference between bad silence (the kind most of us are terrified of) and the spaciousness of prolonged silence that, eventually, becomes a state of bliss. Don’t be put off by the apparent seriousness of this subject: Sara might be a religious reclusive, but she writes in accessible prose that, ironically, induces the sense you could almost be having a drink together. It’s a brilliant book.

By Sara Maitland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Book of Silence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

After a noisy upbringing as one of six children, and adulthood as a vocal feminist and mother, Sara Maitland began to crave silence. Over the past five years, she has spent periods of silence in the Sinai Desert and the Australian bush and on the Isle of Skye. She interweaves these experiences with the history of silence told through fairy tale and myth, Western and Eastern religious traditions, the Enlightenment and psychoanalysis, up to the ambivalence towards silence in contemporary society. Maitland has built a hermitage on an isolated Scottish moor, and the book culminates powerfully with her experiences of…


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A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

Book cover of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

Janet Hulstrand Author Of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Reader Editor Francophile Minnesotan Once and forever Brooklynite

Janet's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This memoir chronicles the lives of three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel. The story begins in 1992 in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn as the author reads a notebook written by her grandmother nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year search to find her grandmother’s journals and uncover the hidden interior lives of her mother and grandmother.

Her adventures take her to a variety of locations, from a small town in Iowa to New York, Washington, London, and Paris—and finally to a little village in France, where she is finally able to write the book that will tell her own story, intertwined with the stories of her mother and grandmother.

A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

What is this book about?

This story, about three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel, begins in 1992, in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn, as a young writer reads journals written by her grandmother as a schoolgirl nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year quest to uncover the hidden lives and unfulfilled dreams of her mother and grandmother. In this coming-of-middle-age memoir, the author comes to realize that the passion for travel and for literature that has fueled her life's journey is a gift that was passed down to her by the very role models she was…


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