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Desert Island Books: Claire Nelson


Claire Nelson

Things I Learnt from Falling by Claire Nelson was one of the best books I read in January. Hailed as the must-read memoir of 2020, it recounts the story of the travel writer, who made headlines across the world when she went missing during a hike in Joshua Tree. Having fallen thirty feet and seriously shattered her pelvis, Claire was stranded with no phone-signal for four days in the Californian desert, unable to raise the alarm. A New Zealander who’s spent more than a decade in London working in food and travel journalism, Claire’s writing has appeared in titles including Delicious, ELLE, and Jamie Oliver. After recovering from her accident in California, she spent a year living in Vancouver, Canada, where she wrote Things I Learnt from Falling, her first book.

I loved reading about the books that Claire’d take with her were she to ever find herself stranded on a desert island; and – having read, and adored, two of them already – I can’t wait to add the rest of them to my reading pile.

Things I Learnt from Falling by Claire Nelson

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes is the writer/producer of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and all-round TV genius, but in Year of Yes we see her human side. She’s vulnerable, and defensive, and full of excuses: she is you, she is me, she is all of us – until she decides to start saying “yes” to everything and changes her life. This was recommended to me when I had just made a big life leap, and few things could have been as reassuring and comforting as Shonda rooting for me from every page. She becomes that friend you turn to for no-bullshit advice and a kick in the bum, and her brand of “badassery” is infectious. I think we trust her wisdom and clarity all the more because she’s walked you down the roads she took to attain them. We see the work, and witness the progress. The message is: if she can do it, if she can say yes, then so can the rest of us. And hell, we must.

David Bowie Is… by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh

Frankly, I’m still not over Bowie’s death, and might never be. So I love this, the official accompaniment to the Bowie exhibition at the V&A Museum, which (much to my absolute regret) I never made it to. It’s the only book granted access to Bowie’s personal archive, so it dives deep into his life, right from his years as a young dude in London, through all of the incredible eras of his career, and includes glorious imagery – of him, his costumes, his personas… This is the book I dip into this when I need a jolt of creativity, and touch of Bowie, a reminder that it’s OK to put yourself out there.

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Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

A man and his dog, travelling across America in a campervan in the 1960s. I mean, on premise alone, could you get a more classic adventure story? Steinbeck wanted to explore his country on a personal level, and I love the way he sees things, and how he describes the small details and mundane observations. There’s this underlying longing for change everywhere he goes – whether it’s place, or politics – paired with his own longing, for a simpler life beyond the sanitized, organised world we’ve created. A life that contrasts so starkly against the natural beauty and wildness of the country he’s travelling through. And in turn, Steinbeck enjoys seeing the world through the eyes of his dog, Charley, perhaps the greatest lens of all, through which the author gets to observe himself.

Infused: Adventures in Tea, by Henrietta Lovell

I do love an adventurous woman, and Henrietta is exactly that. As the founder of The Rare Tea Company her memoir blends the best of travel, tea, and really, how both of those things have the power to restore us, even through trials of health and heart. She takes you along with her through tea fields in far-flung corners and into the kitchens of some of the world’s best restaurants, sometimes your no-nonsense guide, sometimes your naughty friend sneaking you in through the side door. The way she describes the places she goes is so vividly beautiful, and above all else, she will change the way you think about – and drink – tea. I was gasping for a proper cup with every chapter.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams

An Englishman wakes up one day and finds out his best mate is actually a travel writer from outer space, and that Earth is about to be demolished to make way for a hyper-spacial bypass. All while he’s still in his dressing gown. I don’t know if I’d ever have picked up this book if I’d just read the back cover. But once a friend at school loaned me her copy I saw beyond the sci-fi veil to what is basically a witty, clever and funny commentary on human behaviour. It never takes itself seriously, but it’s full of heart. I figure the science fiction, intergalactic element is really about giving us enough distance to see our own world more clearly.

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The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

This was one of those books I wished I’d read earlier than I did, because it reflected a light back at my own experiences with loneliness, in a way that helped me see them better. It’s almost two books in one: half of it is bibliography, and delves into art history, walking us through the lonely lives of artists such as Warhol and Edward Hopper, brought to life through incredibly meticulous research. The other half is Olivia speaking to her own life, and the way she writes about it is so eloquent; the scenes of her walking around cities, observing the busy world around her in total solitude… those spoke to that part of me in a way no other writing on the subject ever has.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

To be honest, any of Sedaris’ books would slot in here – this one was the last one I read – as his essays are always brilliant and guaranteed to make me hoot very loudly. I really do adore observational humour and Sedaris, for me, feels of that Seinfeld ilk: stories about “nothing”, told by the ruffled observer, pointing out how nuts everything and everyone is. Even stories that verge on the brutal or shocking are still brilliantly wry. And anyone who can make me laugh out loud on the train is a comedic mastermind.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Reeling from the death of her mother, and the ensuing unravelling of her life, Cheryl decides to spend three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail alone, pushing herself out of her comfort zone as a way to heal. I love to read about real-life adventures, tales from the wilderness, but so many of them are by and about men, and often seasoned with a competitiveness in the retelling of the experience. Reading Wild was the first time I really saw a woman connecting with the endurance of the trail, physically pushing herself to her limits… And at the same time, not shying away from revealing her vulnerabilities and mistakes; none of which ever detracted from her strength, but made it more impressive. I’m a big believer in the adage that it’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.

Further Reading

You can read more about Claire’s ordeal in the Californian desert here, and this is a great piece from the BBC on the hiker’s moment of complete and utter terror.

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