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The best books of 2020: history of place

  • Written by  Geographical
  • Published in Books
The best books of 2020: history of place
08 Dec
2020
Our own category, ‘history of place’ covers all those books that tell the story of a particular location – its landscapes, people, wars, celebrations and culture. 2020 has been a particularly good year for this category with a wide range of books that introduce us to places we might not know, but really should

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EAT THE BUDDHA: The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town by Barbara Demick

Best known for her revelatory book about North Korea, Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick returns with a familiar style but a new location. Choosing as her focus the small town of Ngaba, located in Sichuan Province, China, but Tibetan in every way, she uses the intimate, traumatic and inspirational stories of residents past and present to tell the wider story of modern Tibet. – Katie Burton

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The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation by Declan Walsh

As a journalist for the Guardian and The New York Times, Declan Walsh covered Pakistan for more than a decade until he was expelled by the authorities in 2013 for ‘undesirable activities’. The Nine Lives of Pakistan therefore focuses most on the period during which Walsh was present in the country, honing in on the the lives of nine particularly influential people, from the most famous: founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto; to the less well-known businessmen, human rights leaders, warlords and religious figures who have nevertheless played a huge part in shaping the country. The legacy of Walsh’s nine lives on. He was present in Pakistan at a particularly formative time, one that saw the rise of militant Islam and the growth of the Pakistan Taliban. It was a decade that sowed the seeds for many of the problems still faced by the country. As a means to understanding those problems, The Nine Lives of Pakistan is a fascinating guide. – Katie Burton

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THE UNREMEMBERED PLACES: Exploring Scotland’s Wild Histories by Patrick Baker 

In The Unremembered Places, Baker draws on boyhood fascinations to unravel the draw that many adventurers feel for the Scottish Highlands. On this journey, Baker treads the same path as the shadowy figures of Scottish history: merchants, journeymen, vagrants who each made their way through an unforgiving countryside. For Baker, the landscape is a passageway through time, connecting modern backpackers with the forgotten folk of history. – Jacob Dykes

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RIVERS OF POWER: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World by Laurence C. Smith

A book on rivers is that it manages to be so much more than just a book on rivers. For rivers, it turns out, are the lifeblood of cities, the stage for countless skirmishes, and at times, a terribly destructive force. No region or epoch is left out. Laurence, a professor of environmental studies at Brown University, sweeps the globe to demonstrate the power of these most essential bodies of water. – Katie Burton

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THE STREETS OF EUROPE: The Sights, Sounds and Smells That Shaped its Great Cities by Brian Ladd 

If you don’t like strangers, or creditors, turning up unannounced, you might consider a trip to Europe before 1750-or-so. Back then, Brian Ladd explains, people didn’t really go in for street signs, still less house numbers. You’d be described to outsiders as the chap who lived on, say, Featherhill Road, a little bit after the archway, not too far from the pub. Your local pals could find you in a jiffy, but the taxman would have to do a little detective work. Then everything started to became very orderly. Streets got straighter, urban planners (that execrated breed) were invented, and the chaotic blend of wheeling and dealing, socialising, and almost tripping over the pigs fell into decline. Bit by bit, everything moved inside into neatly labelled boxes. Sure, we vanquished the stink of sewage, but we lost a lot of drama and fun as well. Ladd asks how and why we made this journey. – Jon Wright

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TO THE LAKE: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace by Kapka Kassabova

This is a book about Macedonia, or as per its new name – North Macedonia. Kapka Kassabova, author of the award-winning Border, a book about her birth-country of Bulgaria, now turns her attention to the birth-place of her older family members: Lake Ohrid, an ancient lake spanning North Macedonia and Albania, whose shores are home to an extraordinary melting pot of people, religions and cultures. – Katie Burton

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MAGDALENA: River of Dreams by Wade Davis 

A towering revelation of the magnificent, tragic country of Colombia. One of the most biologically rich and most diverse states in the world and yet, throughout its turbulent history, it has been ravaged by savage conflict and rapacious commercial abuse, culminating in La Violencia, the period of violence that lasted for ten years from 1948 to 1958. Davis manages this complex story, mixing his knowledge of environmental complexity with a historian’s grasp of the big picture. The perceptions of some of the great naturalists, including Alexander von Humboldt, are introduced to parallel some of the most horrendous examples of man’s inhumanity to man, especially the intense cruelty perpetrated on the indigenous people during the rubber boom. Throughout, Davis’s deep understanding and affection for the people and the environment sweep the reader along. – Robin Hanbury-Tenison

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