Warwick's has been a chaotic, exhausting place this week - we've been having beautiful new carpeting put in storewide, which entails moving everything off of the floor so that the old carpet can be torn out and the new can be laid down. This makes for long days for booksellers. But I'm still managing to get some reading done - over on my other site, The Book Catapult, you can read about the ten books I've read so far in 2010. Or, we can talk about books in person, as there's another edition of "Coffee with a Bookseller" coming this Tuesday morning at 10AM, where you and I can rap about what's new & good for you in books.
To tide you over, let's talk about journalist Ted Conover's new book, The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today.
As a reader of maybe 98% fiction, I tend to not be able to read through nonfiction books at one go and I need to break them up with novels for some reason. I've been chipping away at this one for the better part of a month, but I'm going to commit a bit of bookseller taboo and recommend it anyway. Conover is the author of three previous books that I've loved: the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Newjack (when he was denied entry into Sing Sing prison for a story, he got a job as a prison guard there instead), Rolling Nowhere (he spent a season literally riding the rails with the last of America's hobos), and Coyotes (this should be required reading for anyone living in Southern California, as Conover repeatedly crosses the Mexican border, dodging the INS with illegal migrant workers). Routes (his first book in over a decade) is a series of six loosely linked essays about the culture of the road across the globe - how those roads connect us, divide us, and alter our world, for good or for ill. In his typical fashion, Conover doesn't just report on a story, researching from afar - he fully immerses himself in the issue, no matter the circumstances or discomforts. The first essay here is my favorite - "Forest Primeval to Park Avenue" - in which Conover travels the hard route taken by Peruvian mahogany as it is cut (often illegally) and taken overland through the mountains and jungles to be processed and sold as furniture, crown moldings, and cabinet doors in the United States. (My father was a cabinet maker, so I've always been curious, but I never really thought about all of the logistics involved.) From there Conover travels to India's Zanskar Valley ("Slipping From Shangri-La") to trek a footpath across the Himalayas only accessible when the river freezes, which literally frees the local teenagers to be able to walk out into the world at large. Then to the overland trucking route across East Africa ("The Road is Very Unfair") that has been the superhighway for the AIDS virus to spread across the globe. And on to the series of highways dotted with Israeli checkpoints across the whole of the borderland between Israel & Palestine ("A War You Can Commute To"). (That's as far as I've gotten, but the other 2 parts are about the burgeoning car culture in China, reminiscent of the 1950's in the US, and traveling the harrowing highways of Lagos, Nigeria in an ambulance.)
Conover has an unparalleled skill at giving the reader the sense of total immersion - really, due to his own personal immersion in the subject matter. This is not pedestrian journalism here - more in the vein of Sebastian Junger or Jon Krakauer - and his life is often as in danger as you would imagine it to be in such rough corners of our world. The reviews I have read (a couple have run in the New York Times, which is always a good sign) have all been positive, but have mildly complained about the overall cohesiveness of this book - Conover struggles to link all the narratives into his greater theme - but even the slightly negative press has recognized Conover's skill at writing the adventure/travelogue, which is what attracted me in the first place. Maybe he shouldn't have tried to link everything together thematically & just stuck with his real strength - straight-up, hardcore journalism, of which he has few peers. Most definitely worth checking out.