personal landscapes

Paul Theroux on Orwell and Burma Sahib


Long before George Orwell wrote Animal Farm and 1984 — and long before he was even George Orwell — Eric Blair was a nineteen year old policeman in Burma serving the British Raj. Biographies skirt over this five year period, in part due to the absence of letters and diaries, but it was the making of the writer he would become. Today’s guest set out to imagine those years in a wonderful new novel...

Jonathan Raban: one of our greatest writers on place


Jonathan Raban (Photo by Julia Raban) Jonathan Raban wrote about human landscapes rather than uninhabited ones, and the borderlands between what a place professes to be and what they are. An Englishman who emigrated to Seattle at the age of 47, his status as an outsider gave him a unique perspective on America as the land of perpetual self-reinvention. Many of his books involved water — from the...

James Salter: with biographer Jeffrey Meyers


James Salter James Salter is the best American writer you’ve probably never read. He was a fighter pilot in the Korean War, flying more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 Sabre. He wrote Hollywood screenplays, one of which was made into a film starring Robert Redford. Three of his books — the novels A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, and a memoir called Burning the Days — place him among the...

Sherlock Holmes and the Ottoman Empire


Andrew Finkel In the late 1800s, during the Victorian era, a moderately successful doctor in Southsea created a fictional character so compelling that people wrote letters to him asking for help. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the novel A Study in Scarlet at age 27, in less than three weeks. The book didn’t attract much interest, but he went on to write a second novel with a little nudge from Oscar...

The Wakhan Corridor with Bill Colegrave


Bill Colegrave The Amu Darya River forms a natural barrier between the lands of Central Asia to the north and the Afghan and Indian worlds to the south. Ancient writers called it the Oxus. It was the nucleus of Bactrian civilizations, the target of conquerors like Alexander the Great, and the destination of intrepid 19th and 20th century travelers. The exact location of the river’s source...

Justin Marozzi: Tamerlane and Samarkand


Justin Marozzi I’d always thought of Temur as a cut-rate Genghis Khan who burst out of the Asian steppe, conquered a sizeable chunk of territory, and then failed to hold his empire together. It was only when researching a trip to Uzbekistan that I discovered Temur — or Tamerlane, as he was known in the West — was one of the world’s greatest conquerors. He was a strategist on a par with Alexander...

Alex Kerr on Finding Hidden Japan


Alex Kerr I’ve often thought of Japan as one of the world’s most misunderstood countries, not because it is uniquely inscrutable but because it’s so beset by stereotypes.  The casual visitor rarely sees beyond their image of geisha, Buddhist temples, hyper-modern electronics and anime. This exotic projection seems especially prevalent here in Germany and in France. The truth is more...

Barnaby Rogerson on the making of the Middle East


Barnaby Rogerson (Photo by Tom Bunning, October 2014) The Arab conquest was a decisive event in the history of the Mediterranean, but it is also one of the least understood. Today this region is plagued by endless conflicts and proxy wars between nations that can look more similar than different to the outside observer. Its greatest internal fault line is the split between Sunni and Shia Islam —...

Sarah Anderson: Founding The Travel Bookshop


Sarah Anderson (Photo by Sebastian Latala) Many readers think of owning a bookshop as some sort of dream job. Sarah Anderson founded the iconic Travel Bookshop in 1979. You might be familiar with this place even if you’ve never been to London. It was the inspiration for the bookshop in the 1998 Hugh Grant / Julia Roberts film Notting Hill.  But that’s not our concern here. I’ve never seen...

Louisa Waugh: Life on the edge of Mongolia


Louisa Waugh Louisa Waugh lived in a village in the far west of Mongolia in the late 1990s and wrote a remarkable book about her experience. It’s a world of drought-stricken spring, lush summer pasture and brutal winters when fetching water meant hacking holes through river ice. In this harsh and stunningly beautiful landscape, villagers lived on mutton, dairy products and vodka, and met...


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