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July/August 2010 issue


BOOK REVIEWS

Every road has its thorn

THE ROUTES OF MAN
How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today
By Ted Conover
Knopf
352 pp., $26.95 hardcover

There is a road north of Las Vegas called the Extraterrestrial Highway — so named because it passes by Area 51, where they keep aliens in cages — that is the sort of road we see in our dreams. It’s two lanes of glass-smooth blacktop, running empty and straight toward the horizon, where it disappears over the other side of some small desert mountain and begins unfolding again. It is perfection.

The six roads that American journalist Ted Conover explores in his latest book, The Routes of Man, not so much. “Not all connections are good,” he writes in his foreboding introduction. In his last book, Newjack (a doom-charged account of his time as a guard at New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison, for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award), Conover caught a case of The Darkness that carries over here. These are the roads we see in our nightmares: pitted, dangerous chicanes and goat paths that make it easier for us to plunder the Amazon or burst China at the seams or spread AIDS across East Africa or get killed by roving bands of “area boys” in Nigeria or suicide bombers in Israel.

With the exception of the icy chaddar that Conover hikes in the Himalayan Indian region of Zanskar, his travels rarely take him to a place for which we might want a brochure. And yet even there, within earshot of Tibet, Conover pauses to watch military engineers blowing up the mountains to carve yet another path through them. “Shangri-La was not a local idea,” writes Conover. “It was a Western idea, a symbol of what we lost when we advanced, a seductive nostalgia, a dream.”

It’s a challenge to read this book and not feel as though we’ve messed everything up. Conover’s always impressive immersion reporting — he goes places and spends time with people most of us don’t even imagine exist — and his spare, almost utilitarian writing combine to make an ideal vehicle for hard truths. He opens by giving us a glimpse at the beautiful mahogany in a Park Avenue apartment and then takes us to Peru, to mahogany’s last stands, where great logs are being floated down the rivers and trucked to pirate mills. That’s where mahogany comes from, and though we might like to pretend that it is some purer thing — the way we might like to pretend that Lagos isn’t going to become the most frightening plague city on Earth or that the Chinese aren’t going to keep filling the skies with smoke — it’s important for us to grow up and stop playing make-believe.

The United States has covered an area the size of Ohio with buildings, roads and parking lots. Only the westbound lanes of the roads in East Africa are worn down, because the trucks are full going in and carry out nothing heavier than viruses. The flying roadblocks set up by Israeli soldiers probably create as many terrorists as they keep out. Even the Himalayas aren’t safe from our blundering. “It’s much easier to impede traffic than it is to speed it up,” writes Conover, “to make a roadway dangerous than to make it safe.”

That’s true, and that’s too bad.

But there’s a deeper truth in Conover’s book: just because something’s easy, the opposite isn’t necessarily impossible. Our roads haven’t yet become rails, carrying us toward our collective vanishing point. Not all connections are good, but they aren’t all bad, either. They can still become links rather than divides, and as they always have, our roads can still represent our means to escape to better, even perfect places. We just have to decide that we want to make the Extraterrestrial Highway less the exception, more the rule.

— Chris Jones

Chris Jones is a writer at large for Esquire and lives in Ottawa. He recently visited his 50th state — elusive Idaho — by car, of course.


Other roadside attractions

ROADTRIPPING
On the Move with the Buffalo Gals
By Conni Massing
Brindle & Glass Publishing
251 pp., $19.95 paperback

One hour north of Calgary, there is a small museum that’s big on laughs. The Torrington Gopher Hole Museum houses dozens of stuffed Richardson’s ground squirrels in various costumes and dioramas depicting typical small-town life, complete with captions under each scene.

Gopher hairdresser to client: “I’m a beautician not a magician.”

One gopher diner to another: “I’m feeling stuffed.”

A tour of this only-in-Alberta museum is a typical stop for the Buffalo Gals — award-winning Edmonton playwright and screenwriter Conni Massing and her friends, who have been taking trips around the province together for a decade. In Roadtripping, Massing waxes prairie poetic about bombing along back roads visiting everything from the Big Valley Creation Science Museum to oversized roadside attractions such as Bow Island’s fibreglass bean statue, Pinto MacBean, and Vegreville’s 9.5-metre-tall Ukrainian egg.

The book could have been better organized — sticking to one trip per chapter — and should have focused less on the seemingly endless food stops that made me feel as stuffed as a Torrington gopher. But it’s still worth a road trip to the bookstore. Massing’s great victory, and the heart of the book, is the feat of these friends getting together so consistently year after year. Their dedication to travelling the province and the hilarity that ensues — the camera poses at Mundare’s giant sausage statue would make Ralph Klein blush — hearken back to a time when connection with friends was more than a hastily written text message.

Albertans or non-Albertans who read this travel memoir will learn something they never knew about the province, feel a little envious toward the Buffalo Gals and their get-togethers and, quite possibly, be left with a strange craving for beef jerky.

— Marija Dumancic

Canadian Geographic special projects editor Marija Dumancic was born in Calgary and grew up in Drumheller, Alta., home of the world’s largest dinosaur (and one of the world’s smallest churches).


BRIEFLY NOTED

COUNTRY ROADS
Memoirs from Rural Canada
Edited by Pam Chamberlain
Nimbus Publishing
280 pp., $19.95 softcover

Before winning a pair of Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders, Brent Sutter was a farm boy living outside the town of Viking, Alta. He drove tractors, milked cows and, of course, played hockey with his brothers: on the driveway in the springtime, in the empty loft of the barn through the summer and on frozen sloughs as the cold prairie winter set in. His success, he says, comes from lessons learned on the farm.

Sutter’s story is one of 34 memoirs in Country Roads, a collection of tales about life in rural Canada amassed and edited by English professor and writer Pam Chamberlain. Penned by seasoned novelists (Wayne Johnston and Rudy Wiebe among them) and first-time writers alike, the memoirs vary in content and in style. Some are little more than distant vignettes, patched together from vague recollections, while others offer vivid accounts of transformative events. The stories span more than a century, with memories of communities rising from wilderness alongside more recent tales of tinkering with snow machines and falling through the ice of an Atlantic cove.

Some 60 percent of Canadians lived in rural areas in 1910, says Chamberlain, versus about 20 percent today. Many of the book’s contributors argue that nothing can replace the experience of growing up rurally, and together, they offer a hint of what we might be giving up.

James Scott Berdahl



BRIDGES
The Science and Art of the World’s Most Inspiring Structures
By David Blockley
Oxford University Press
288 pp., $34.95 hardcover

Vowing to teach its audience how to “read a bridge like a book,” Bridges is an invitation for the curious generalists of the world to immerse themselves in the mechanics and history of the structures that connect societies physically and culturally. A professor emeritus in civil engineering at University of Bristol in England, David Blockley expertly describes the processes, relationships, materials and philosophies of engineering that give the world some of its most symbolic pieces of public infrastructure. Identifying the best practices and materials that are the cornerstones of bridge building, Blockley contemplates how a wobbly London Millennium Bridge and other errors have brought pioneering insights to the field of engineering. There are, indeed, few public projects as visible, costly and heavily scrutinized as the ones that fall upon the bridge builder’s desk. Bridges will be appreciated by anyone interested in the design and construction of these structures and in how they withstand the elements, heavy use and aesthetic scrutiny to be more than the ground beneath our feet, even as we stand in mid-air.

Hugh Pouliot



THE ATLAS OF GLOBAL CONSERVATION
Changes, Challenges, and Opportunities to Make a Difference
Edited by Jennifer L. Molnar
University of California Press
234 pp., $49.95 hardcover

Created with help from scientists at The Nature Conservancy to mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, The Atlas of Global Conservation is a comprehensive look at our planet in peril. Bringing together previously unsynthesized data from more than 70 institutions, the atlas serves as an in-depth guide to complex — and deadly serious — challenges such as climate change, water use, habitat protection, deforestation and overfishing. The book’s richly detailed, full-colour maps and authoritative essays are international in scope, covering subjects as vast as the Earth’s terrestrial and marine environments, but readers looking for CanCon will value the references interspersed throughout to boreal forests, prairie grasslands, the Great Lakes and coastal salt marshes. A visually rich resource for concerned conservationists and ecologically minded travellers alike.

Sara Caverley


THE GRIZZLY MANIFESTO
In Defence of the Great Bear
By Jeff Gailus
Rocky Mountain Books
168 pp., $16.95 hardcover

“Grizzly bears will survive not in those places left wild,” writes Jeff Gailus in The Grizzly Manifesto, “but in those places where we actively decide they should.” A journalist-turned-grizzly-advocate, Gailus has worked to protect Alberta’s grizzly bears as part of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and the Bow Valley Grizzly Bear Alliance. His first book — the fourth in a series of short, opinionated, issue-based releases from Rocky Mountain Books — outlines the precarious state of grizzlies in North America, focusing on Alberta. In 1990, the province was home to 800 grizzlies; by 2004, that number had fallen to 700 — 300 bears short of the target set by Alberta’s 1990 grizzly bear management plan. Gailus argues that the biggest threat to grizzlies is people. We are increasingly infringing on their territories with our roads, ATVs and garbage. And in Canada, notes Gailus, we are much worse at protecting the bears than many places in the United States. Parks Canada initiatives, for instance, pale in comparison to the success of Yellowstone National Park’s grizzly restoration programs. By evoking an emotional response to the state of grizzlies in North America, Gailus stirs up a natural urge to protect them.

Ainslie Cruickshank



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