The best books on the intimate lives of landscapes

Louisa Waugh Author Of Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia
By Louisa Waugh

The Books I Picked & Why

The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt

By Isabelle Eberhardt

Book cover of The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt

Why 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.

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

By Sylvain Tesson, Linda Coverdale

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

Why 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.

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The Journals Of A White Sea Wolf

By Mariusz Wilk

Book cover of The Journals Of A White Sea Wolf

Why 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.

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The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu

By Charlie English

Book cover of The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu

Why 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.

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A Book of Silence

By Sara Maitland

Book cover of A Book of Silence

Why 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.

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