Joanna Kavenna rss

Author Jane Smiley Photo: Getty

A book about the ordinary nothings that, in the end, are everything

15 November 2014
Some Luck Jane Smiley

Mantle, pp.395, £18.99, ISBN: 9781447275596

We live in a world in which nuance is trampled on and cannot survive. Is that true? I don’t know. But the further point is, must authors now preface their… Read more

Shackleton’s ship the Nimrod in the ice at McMurdo Sound

Flawed, unproductive and heroic: the real Ernest Shackleton

11 October 2014
Shackleton Michael Smith

Oneworld, pp.435, £20, ISBN: 9781780745725

Polar explorers are often cast as mavericks, and this is hardly surprising. The profession requires a disdain for pseudo-orthodoxies and, besides, the urge to dwell on a frozen ocean or… Read more

Riding alone: 
Tim Cope at Khokh Nuur (Blue Lake) near the 3,000 metre-high pass between Kharkina and 
Turgen Uul, Mongolia

In the steppes of a warlord

30 November 2013
On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads Tim Cope

Bloomsbury, pp.509, £20, ISBN: 9781408825051

I suspect travel writing was once a fairly simple business: the author travelled somewhere, the reader did not; the author explained what the place was like and the reader was… Read more

A German soldier sits among the ruins of the Reichstag 
after the Russian entry into Berlin in 1945

After the war — apocalypse

19 October 2013
Year Zero: A History of 1945 Ian Buruma

Atlantic, pp.370, £25, ISBN: 9781848879362

On 12 April 1945 the Berlin Philharmonic gave its last performance. The atmosphere in Germany was apocalyptic, the Allied invasion was expected at any moment. The concert playlist had been… Read more


Niccolo Machiavelli, by Corrado Vivanti; The Garments of Court and Palace, by Philip Bobbitt

27 July 2013
Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography Corrado Vivanti

Princeton University Press, pp.261, £19.95, ISBN: 9780691151014

The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made Philip Bobbitt

Atlantic Books, pp.238, £22, ISBN: 9781843546849

One more anniversary, one more cache of commemorative books. This time we are celebrating the half-millennium since Niccolò Machiavelli produced his notorious work, The Prince. He wrote it after a… Read more

The Long Shadow, by Mark Mills - a review

20 July 2013
The Long Shadow Mark Mills

Headline, pp.498, £14.99, ISBN: 9780755392315

Mark Mills is known for his historical and literary crime novels, including The Savage Garden, The Information Officer and House of the Hanged. The Long Shadow is written in a… Read more

View of Salzburg, oil on canvas by Julius Schoppe, 1817

A Place in the Country, by W.G. Sebald - review

15 June 2013
A Place in the Country W.G. Sebald, translated by Jo Catling

Hamish Hamilton, pp.203, £20, ISBN: 9780241144183

Within a few years, and in four books — The Emigrants (1996), The Rings of Saturn (1998), Vertigo (1999) and Austerlitz (2001) — W. G. Sebald achieved a reputation as… Read more


Everest, by Harriet Tuckey

1 June 2013
Everest: The First Ascent The Untold Story of Griffith Pugh, the Man Who Made it Possible Harriet Tuckey

Rider, pp.400, £20, ISBN: 9781846043482

This book, as the subtitle explains, makes a bold claim: Griffith Pugh was the ‘unsung hero’ of the 1953 ascent of Everest, his achievements neglected and nearly lost to posterity.… Read more

Joanna Kavenna

5 January 2013

I am re-reading D.H. Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia. The opening line runs: ‘Comes over one an absolute necessity to move…’ He expands on the dilemma (I paraphrase): you are afflicted… Read more

Homage to the Goddess Mother

3 November 2012
Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent Mick Conefry

Oneworld, pp.322, £20, ISBN: 9781851689460

Cometh the hour, cometh the many men (and women). The 2012 centenary of Captain Scott’s death inspired a series of heroic forays into print: glory-hungry (or just plain hungry) authors… Read more


Inflated dreams

17 March 2012
The Ice Balloon: One Man’s Dramatic Attempt to Discover the North Pole by Balloon Alec Wilkinson

Fourth Estate, pp.245, 14.99

When almost every tale about the Arctic has been told, when the major explorers have been assessed and re-assessed, when even the most obscure bit-players have been drawn into the… Read more

Heroes of the Ice Age

13 August 2011
An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science Edward J. Larson

Yale University Press, pp.326, £18.99

In Shackleton’s Footsteps: A Return to the Heart of the Antarctic Henry Worsley

Virgin Books (Random House), pp.260, £18.99

Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen Roland Huntford

Continuum, pp.330, £10.99

The Quest for Frank Wild Angie Butler

Jackleberry Press, pp.213, £25

In the early 20th century, explorers were goaded and galvanised by the blanks on the maps — the North and South Poles, and the mist-draped floes and glaciers around them.… Read more


The trail goes cold

2 April 2011
Venetian Navigators: The Voyages of the Zen Brothers to the Far North Andrea di Robilant

Faber, pp.244, £14.99

For centuries, the history of the far North was a tapestry of controversies and mis- understandings, misspellings, dubious arrivals and equally dubious departures. Pytheas the Greek sailed north from Britain… Read more


In deep trouble

6 November 2010
Atlantic Simon Winchester

Harper Press, pp.498, 25

The Wave Susan Casey

Yellow Jersey Press, pp.326, 12.99

Atlantic by Simon Winchester and The Wave by Susan Casey are, at first glance, very different works. Atlantic is a historical-philosophical-fantastical meditation on the Atlantic ocean, from the ‘post-molten Hadean’… Read more


To strive, to seek, to find . . .

21 April 2010
The Watkins Boys Simon Courtauld

Michael Russell, pp.208, 18.95

In 1931, a 23-year-old Englishman called Henry ‘Gino’ Watkins returned from an expedition to the white depths of the Greenlandic ice cap. In 1931, a 23-year-old Englishman called Henry ‘Gino’… Read more


The frost giant awakes

3 March 2010
The Future History of the Arctic by Charles Emmerson

Bodley Head, £20, pp. 418, ISBN 9781847920256 ✆ £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

For thousands of years, no one knew what lay in the ice around the North Pole. The blanks on the maps fuelled the imaginations of classical writers, who crafted stories… Read more

Origins of the human race

18 November 2009
Running: A Global History Thor Gotaas

Reaktion Books, pp.392, 19.95

At first glance, a history of running seems a pretty doomed exercise, like writing a history of breathing, or sneezing. For how can anyone really describe and ‘historicise’ an intrinsic… Read more

Top of the world

19 November 2008
Late Nights on Air Elizabeth Hay

Maclehose Press/Quercus, pp.308, 16.99

Late Nights on Air comes daubed with the usual eulogies, yet this is one book that truly merits the ecstatic blurb and more besides. It is Elizabeth Hay’s third novel,… Read more

Paddling through Canada

18 February 2006
Voyageur: Across the Rocky Mountains in a Birchbark Canoe Robert Twigger

Weidenfeld, pp.390, 14.99

There are a lot of travel writers these days setting off ‘in the footsteps of’ someone else, gathering clues and arguing with ghosts. This is partly pragmatism: there are so… Read more

The frozen, unruly north

26 February 2005
Theatre of Fish John Gimlette

Hutchinson, pp.367, 16.99

John Gimlette is a writer of vivid comical prose, whose first travel book appeared under the title At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig. For his second, he has followed… Read more