Perceptive Travel Book Reviews November 2012
by William Caverlee

In this issue: a guide to an ancient Roman road, an updated guide to the great American road trip, and a life well lived as a house-swapper.

The Appian Way: Ghost Road, Queen of Roads
By Robert A. Kaster

Like many readers, if I'm browsing the new-book rack at my local library and happen upon a title whose author is a "professor of classics and the Kennedy Foundation Professor of Latin at Princeton University," I tend to keep moving. Happily, Robert Kaster's slender guidebook and meditation on the Appian Way is an exception to the rule—its 124 pages encompass both a brief historical introduction to the ancient Roman turnpike and a highly useful travel guide.

The Via Appia can be traced back to a single person, Appius Claudius Caecus, a Roman patrician and statesman of the 4th century BCE, who conceived of a highway linking Rome and the southernmost heel of Italy. Kaster and his wife explored most of the 350-mile route by car or by foot, during a pair of trips to Italy. (When? We're not told. As usual—in keeping with modern travel writers' obsession with secrecy—we're supposed to guess the precise years Kaster visited Italy.)

These days, in retracing the Appian Way, a pilgrim travels on three distinct roadways: (1) modern paved highways that overlay the original roadbed; (2) highways believed to be close to the original route; and (3) the Roman-era roadbed itself (basalt was the stone of choice).

That automobiles today tear up and down those original Roman stones is both astonishing and scandalous. (Does Greece allow basketball games in the Parthenon?) Kaster spends several pages describing the multiple layers of gravel, mortar, and stone that constitute the thirteen-foot-wide roadway. Millions of cubic feet of dirt and rock had to be dug from mountains and hills—by human labor.

After giving Roman engineering its due, Kaster reminds us that the aristocratic regime that could envision and accomplish so masterful a feat was, of course, "a slave society, a society whose way of life could not be sustained, was in fact inconceivable to begin with, absent the support of the countless humans whom the Roman scholar Varro placed in the category of 'speaking tool.' " Kaster goes on:

They were secretaries and couriers, nursemaids and tutors, body servants, whipping boys, and sexual toys. The way that slaves cushioned daily life and made it easy surely encouraged, if it did not actually create, the petulant egoism and monstrous self-concern of the average Roman aristocrat, who would—I guarantee—make the most arrogant and selfish of your acquaintances look like the Dalai Lama by comparison.

From its terminus in Brindisi in the south, the Via Appia winds its way through towns like Benevento, Bari, and Gravina, which are often overlooked in the standard tourist swing through Rome, Venice, and Florence. The Appian Way combines scholarly ruminations with a companionable auto-tour of present-day Italy. With numerous black-and-white photographs.

Road Trip USA: Cross-Country Adventures on America's Two-Lane Highways, Sixth Edition
By Jamie Jensen

An excellent guidebook from the Moon travel series. At nearly a thousand pages, Road Trip USA is a substantial compilation, to put it mildly. It is divided into eleven cross-country tours: six north-south and five east-west. Like any handbook of this type, you don't read it, you dip into its pages haphazardly, searching for a ski town in Vermont that you'd like to revisit or a Waffle House on Route 66 where you once ate breakfast.

For American readers, there is the added thrill of checking to see if your hometown receives a mention. (With an index twenty-five pages long, you stand a good chance.) My town in Louisiana earned a brief rating, but was then written off with the warning that it "doesn't really offer much reason to stop. . . ."

Road Trip USA is peppered with multi-colored sidebars, inserts, maps, and illustrations. These days, guidebooks have to compete with webzines, Rick Steves, The Food Channel, and the latest Jason Bourne movie; thus, the Moon editors have loaded the book with as much razzmatazz as they could manage.

Author Jamie Jensen traveled over 400,000 miles in researching Road Trip USA. His hook was to limit himself to America's two-lane blacktops, "avoiding the soulless Interstates, with their soggy franchises and identikit chains. . . ." Seeking authenticity on creaky two-lane roads is an oft-praised quest, although judging by the millions of motorists still racing up and down the interstates, it is a goal more honored in the breach than in the observance.

Jensen has filed entries on thousands of towns, curiosities, and natural wonders. He has a soft spot for vintage American diners and devotes a two-page sidebar to those homely eateries. Truth to tell, I wouldn't mind tackling a double order of bacon and eggs at Collin's Diner in North Canaan, Connecticut. After breakfast, I'll head west, stopping at the Burma-Vita Company near Minneapolis, home base for millions of roadside Burma-Shave signs, which once spread poetry across the land. Finally, still driving west, I'll ignore the Rockies and seek out Big Sur, California, which these days is an over-praised cliché of natural beauty . . . and yet, and yet . . . we're talking California's irresistible Highway 1.

For diehards who seek a coast-to-coast romp through small towns and narrow byways, Road Trip USA is an asphalt-lover's dream. Get your motor running. . . .

A Good Life: At Home on Foreign Soil
By Derek Phillips and Klaske Muizelaar

The travel journal, A Good Life: At Home on Foreign Soil, begins its life as one book and ends as another—an unexpected transformation. American Derek Phillips, age fifty-four, and his Dutch wife, Klaske Muizelaar, forty-one, were living in Amsterdam in 1988, when they first heard about an international travel association for "house exchanges." The system works this way: Homeowners A & B from Stockholm spend a month or so in C & D's house in Lyon, then return the favor. An ingenious method for seeing the world without hotel bills or room rentals.

During the next twenty years, Phillips and Muizelaar made over fifty trips abroad via such exchanges. Their memoir recounts around thirty of these visits. Chapter by chapter, trip by trip, they visit Wales, the United States, France (their most popular destination), Italy, Greece, Costa Rica. . . .

Phillips and Muizelaar are urbane, honest, courteous, mild-mannered, erudite, artistic, health-conscious, companionable, and responsible—exactly the kind of strangers you'd gladly allow in your house for a month. They are also scolds, fussbudgets, moralizers, and world-class complainers.

At home we were used to a reasonably hard mattress, but in Saint David's the mattress sagged and we had trouble getting used to it.

We had read about the obesity epidemic and about the percentage of overweight people in the United States at the time. But seeing them in the flesh was something else again.

Back inside to eat our dinner at the dining room table, we were somewhat irritated by the constant presence of the two cats and the younger dog.

We were awakened early by pigeons cooing outside our window, and never got back to a sound sleep.

In our life more generally, each of us was sensitive to people who showed a lack of respect by not doing what they said they'd do: repay a loan, return books or tools or other items, turn up for an appointment on time, or whatever. We were not quick to forgive and forget in that regard.

Let me be fair: A Good Life contains plenty of blissful traveler's tales: outdoor cafés where photogenic locals laugh and drink; long hikes on backwoods trails; delicious meals prepared right from the garden. Still, the writing throughout is pedestrian, humorless, devoid of poetry: We did this; we did that; then we did something else. After the first five or six nearly identical trips, I was reeling with reader's fatigue. Then toward the end of the book, toward the end of my stay with this exasperating couple, A Good Life transformed itself into something else.

Tragically, at age sixty, Klaske Muizelaar is diagnosed with lung cancer, and we find ourselves walking along with her and her husband during the last two years of her life. Their final journey is that too-familiar, terrifying voyage through an inexorable illness: biopsy, chemotherapy, radiation, coldly indifferent doctors, hopes and false hopes, brief remissions, then a final decline. For once, the book's plain writing style—one day after another—serves the narrative aptly; and in the book's closing pages we stand beside Klaske's husband, Derek, as the love of his life is torn from him, and he is left alone, beyond consolation, beyond words of sympathy. In its final chapters, A Good Life becomes a moving story of loss.

William Caverlee is a contributing writer for the Oxford American magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, His articles have appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals, and in the anthology, The Writer's Presence (Bedford/St. Martins, 2012).

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

The Appian Way

Buy The Appian Way in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

international travel

Road Trip USA

Buy Road Trip USA in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

A Good Life

Buy A Good Life in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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