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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's Hard To Build Without Destroying, February 16, 2010
This review is from: The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today (Hardcover)
We love roads, and we come to hate them. "Anyone," writes Conover in his opening paragraph, "who has benefited from a better road--a shorter route, a smoother and safer drive--can testify to the importance of good roads. But when humans strive, we also err, and it is hard to build without destroying."

That contradiction, that tension underlies the book. A road from Peru's Altiplano into the jungle allows access to valuable mahogany trees, but also threatens primitive people and an established ecology. In East Africa, a road that is a clear economic boon to many has also helped the spread of AIDS, via truckers and prostitutes along its length. Roads are integral to development, and development can look disastrous.

There is nothing armchair about Conover's reporting. He clearly has a library and has read widely, but each of the six chapters is written from inside a culture, whether the author is zipping along the new highways of China or riding inside an ambulance through the teeming, chaotic city of Lagos, Nigeria. It's a book full of people, and the conflicts are inevitable. Why, a friend asks the author, would he go to Lagos, a city which Conover admits has "few museums, not too many antiquities, only a handful of public spaces or buildings of note, and stunningly little natural beauty. It does, however, have a reputation for crime, and lots of lots of people." Because people are interesting, Conover says, and "So is crime."

So are the politics of Israel and Palestine--and the chapter on the roads of the West Bank is the best piece of journalism I've ever read about that conflict. Conover explores the Israeli checkpoints in the company of both Palestinians and the Israeli soldiers who try to control them. It's degrading to both sides. The soldiers are looking for guns, explosives and suicide bombers, and most Palestinians are simply trying to get to work, or get home. Israel's management of the West Bank often comes down to restricting the travel of the Palestinians, and when Conover is in line with them as they move on foot toward a pair of turnstiles, "an exercise in gradual compression," the reader gets a visceral feel for their frustration and humiliation.

The soldiers don't like it either. "Innocent civilians...are inevitably damaged by the army's work in the territories," Conover writes. He spends weeks with an Israeli commander and his men, who not only run the checkpoints but sometimes tear up Palestinian houses in search of arms. It's bad for the families, the commander says, "But what's not plain until the fifteenth time is that it's bad for you."

Six fascinating travels interspersed with engaging personal essays: a great book.
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Location: Athens, OH United States

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