Sara Wheeler

Sara Wheeler is the author of Terra Incognita.

Jonathan Raban’s last hurrah

Jonathan Raban, who died earlier this year, left this memoir almost complete. It tells two stories, artfully braided. One concerns the first three years of the author’s parents’ marriage, when Peter Raban was abroad serving in the second world war. He rose to become a major in the Royal Artillery, fighting in France and Belgium,

How Putin manipulated history to help Russians feel good again

Every country has an origin story but none has ‘changed it so often’ as Russia, according to Orlando Figes. The subject is inseparable from myth. In this impressive and deeply immersive book, the author sets out to reveal Russia’s history, its people’s perception of their past and the manifold ways in which those in power

How inoculation against smallpox became all the rage in Russia

The concept of vaccination evolved from 18th-century inoculation practices and many people contributed to the accretion of knowledge. This book focuses on two individuals: the Quaker doctor Thomas Dimsdale, who, from his small Hertfordshire surgery, pioneered a simple smallpox immunisation; and Catherine the Great, who summoned him all the way to St Petersburg to inoculate

The unbearable brutality of the Bolsheviks

For far too long,’ Sir Antony Beevor writes, ‘we have made the mistake of talking about wars as a single entity.’ In Russia: Revolution and Civil War he sets the record straight for the bitter years between 1917 and 1921, revealing the myriad ways in which individual actions constellated and 12 million people perished. This

A meditation on exile and the meaning of home

What does home mean? Where your dead are buried, as Zulus believe? Or where you left your heart, as a migrant’s saying goes? In these pages William Atkins melds history, biography and travel into a meditation on exile and the meaning of home. It is a volume for our times, as the author seeks to

The heartbreak left in the wake of the Terra Nova

The story of the five women waiting at home for Captain Scott and his doomed polar party is naturally occluded in tragedy. In this engaging book Katherine MacInnes for the first time presents them – two mothers at the outset, and three wives – as distinct individuals, separated one from the other by class, education,

The unfamiliar Orwell: the writer as passionate gardener

This is a book about George Orwell’s recognition that desire and joy can be forces of opposition to the authoritarian state and its intrusions. To explore the theme, Rebecca Solnit has produced a sequence of loosely linked essays around the roses and fruit bushes the author of Animal Farm planted in 1936 in the garden

A mighty river with many names: adventures on the Amur

The Amur is the eighth or tenth longest river in the world, depending on whom you believe. The veteran travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron reckons 2,826 miles the best estimate. In these pages he makes an arc-shaped journey from source to mouth: Mongolia to the Pacific via Russia and China. The author travels on

A story of women and weaving – a new retelling of the Greek myths

What are myths for? Do they lend meaning and value to this quintessence of dust? Like religion, perhaps they help us battle through. In weighing this issue, Charlotte Higgins demonstrates again why the Greek variety have never lessened their grip on the western imagination. She structures her material around eight women — Athena, Alcithoë, Philomela,

The strangest landscapes are close to home

This pleasant volume, the author announces in the introduction, is ‘not a nature book, or even a travel book, so much as a book of fantasy: four small pilgrimages into imagination’. In its pages Nick Hunt unfurls his sleeping bag under a pink moon, breakfasts on a raw white onion and meditates both on what

Does William Barents deserve to have a sea named after him?

Narratives of frozen beards in polar hinterlands never lose their appeal. Most of the good stories have been told, but in Icebound Andrea Pitzer fills a gap, at least for the popular reader in English, with the story of the 16th-century Dutch mariner William Barents. He sailed further north than any man before him and

Sybille Bedford — a gifted writer but a monstrous snob

Sybille Bedford died in 2006, just short of 95. She left four novels, a travel book, two volumes of legal process and a memoir. Selina Hastings has written a wonderful biography, with lashings of lesbian lovers, which provides a soundtrack to one version of the 20th century. Born German in 1911, Bedford grew up in

Iceland is bursting with cabinets of curiosities

Competition is stiff among museums in Iceland. The Phallological Museum in Húsavík, devoted to the penis, stands tall in a crowded field: 265 museums and public collections operate in a country of 330,000 — a population, incidentally, with the highest literacy rate in the world. A. Kendra Greene, an American writer and artist, has worked

Is it true that men navigate better than women?

Some years ago I participated in a late-night Radio 3 show on exploration and travel. When I left the studio with my fellow contributors, both distinguished explorers, we got lost in the bowels of Broadcasting House. Round and round the dimly lit corridors we trudged, and only after talk of bivouacking did we finally reach

The exotic Silk Road is now a highway to hell

This engaging book describes the Norwegian author’s travels round the five Central Asian Stans — a region where toponyms still make the heart beat faster: Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent. Fittingly, given the means by which foreign powers have harmed the Stans, Erika Fatland begins her story with the disastrous methane spill which Soviet geologists caused in

Whatever happened to glasnost and perestroika?

This is a timely book. It addresses the challenges of a fractious and fractured Europe. The first word of the title means ‘truth’ in Russian, and the author’s point is that we have collectively lost sight of that essential commodity. Rory MacLean, whose previous books include Stalin’s Nose, Under the Dragon and Falling for Icarus,