Sailing Alone
Around the World

Joshua Slocum
Alan Sklar,

(Tantor Media)
In other reviews, we've spoken fondly about Sailing Alone Around the World. We offered the idea that it was a marvel of wisdom from an old salt who said that he was more comfortable with a tiller in hand rather than a pen. What remains with us over a hundred years later is his stalwart good cheer, the grand visions he had, his good sense, and his startling humility.

Slocum's journey took him more than three years to navigate some 50,000 miles in a small bark. Always, he showed surprise that people would honor him for his lonely heroics, invite him into their homes, ask him to stay and visit. He was obviously a larger-than-life character, one whom you and I might well have enjoyed meeting (and, presumably, sailing about with).

One question not answered in his autobiography is why he did it. One can enjoy one's own company, but there does seem to be an edge of madness to one who took self-sufficiency to such extremes. Certainly this is true of his final voyage: he disappeared somewhere between his home port and the Amazon River. The New England strain of stubborn independence might well have been overdone in his desire to venture where none have gone before.

Tantor Media offers us here seven CDs with a brief introduction and a complete reading of the classic. However, no matter how worthy the concept, it's a puzzle that Tantor has chosen a reader whose very style contradicts the salty wit and reclusive self-sufficiency of the great sailor.

Alan Sklar has one of those deep, glaucous made for FM-radio voices, one you would expect to find on your local E-Z Listening station, or perhaps on the telephone, hammering an infinitely repeated message when you are holding for your HMO emergency line such that you want to strangle the tape machine (and the speaker).

We think the best choice for this particular odyssey would have been a restrained, slightly sly, slightly ironic reader from New Brunswick ... a man with a touch of the seaspray in his voice. It's a pity, for this is fascinating stuff, the vigorously detailed work of a man who was able to go vast distances, alone with --- and in a state of great affection for --- what Joyce called the "white breast of the dim sea / And all dishevelled wandering stars."

--- Richard Radovich

The Family of
Pascual Duarte

Camilo José Cela
(Dalkey Archive)
First you must know that I would rather live with the mice in my bathroom than set out any trap that will croak them by snapping their little necks --- much less that sticky stuff that leaves them pinned to the paper, crying in a weaker and weaker voice until they at last expire.

And the last time I went to see Bonnie and Clyde, I had to get up and leave when they started killing people: It was that shot in the face of the guy through the car window that did me in. I knew worse was to come.

And one time, in a parking garage, in Dallas, in 1975, I saw a black guy stomping the face of another black guy, and all I could do was blow my horn and then get the hell out of there before he could come and stomp my face.

I was thus probably the wrong person to be set up to do the review of The Family of Pascual Duarte. From the very first page, it bears the smell of expertly described poverty and failure and hurt and bitterness --- all so inevitable that you just want to lay back and take another Excedrin-PM.

Pascual isn't a bad guy. He's just born into the wrong world, at the wrong time, with the wrong parents (drunk bludgeoning father; drunk bludgeoning mother) and the wrong siblings (sister a whore and a thief; brother an idiot who dies at age twelve), a simple fellow who ends up with the wrong wife and two children who don't last: Child #1 --- spontaneous abortion; Child #2, a lovely, smiling son who dies at age eleven months from "the air."

It may remind you a bit of Gone With the Wind --- although this is far better writing than Mitchell ever thought of: writing that is spare, plain, arid, like the country and the people it is to describe.

Too, it brings to mind Anna Karenina, Native Son, Madam Bovary: the creepy inevitability of people who are bound to fail, to fail miserably.

Everything, but everything is stacked against poor Pascual, and mid-point, where his blind angry despair was just beginning to get to me, I passed on this one because things were bad and you just knew that they are going to get worse, and the author --- the Nobel Prize winner Camilo José Cela --- was merciless, milking the horror of a simple man's life of horror for all it was worth.

He doesn't do this in an easy or cheap way: It's all right there. But I've had enough for this month: a terrible backache in a brand new spot (just over the left rhomboid), my best friend just died, my roommate's dog stopped walking and after falling over repeatedly, had to be put to sleep --- and so I apologize, I just don't think I am up for more woe right now. If you know what I mean.

Let me say this, though. If niggling things like dead babies and drunken parents and spontaneous abortions exquisitely rendered don't bother you, then this is the one for you. You'll be suffering with one of the better writers we have going.

By the way, when we went to have the dog put to sleep, it was done and over with fifteen seconds after the vet stuck the needle in poor Rover's hind leg. "Amazing," I thought.

"It's so good," the vet told us, "that when my pals in the profession want to do themselves in, this is exactly what they use."

He wouldn't tell us what it was.

Which is, things being what they were, just as well.

--- L. W. Milam

The Roads of
The Romans

Romolo Augusto Staccioli
(Getty Museum)
One of my English friends, one quite fond of antiquity, claimed that he couldn't stand the Romans. They were just like Americans, he said --- starting wars willy-nilly, much into money, forever and a day disrupting the world with their awful schemes, and fond --- infinitely fond --- of blood sports.

"Greece," he said. "Fourth or fifth century. That's where I would have liked to have been born. An afternoon in the marketplace, arguing with the likes of Ovid or Plato. Evenings in the coliseum, watching Oedipus Rex or Antigone. Nights at the baths, listening to poetry and drinking wine. Those people knew how to live."

He may have been right about the Romans. Pushy, aggressive --- and building all those freeways. At least the contemporary equivalent of freeways. The roads of Rome.

According to Staccioli, the road system extended all the way from Rome to northern Britannia, east through Hispania to the coast, west to Cappaocia (present day Turkey), south though Aegyptus, Carthage (Tripoli) to Banasa in what is present-day Morocco. The total --- as much as 100,000 km of highway.

These roads were constructed of crushed rock or, in many cases, flat stones laid down with appropriate edging. Slaves did the hard work, but also, the soldiers of the Empire: boredom was a big problem, then as now, with conquering armies. Many of these roads were in use up to 200 years ago, and there are places where you can still see them, along with arches and place markers.

S V M  M . P . X  D C C C X X X X

Some ancient bridges still exist, some are still in use, including three over the Valle d'Aosta, Italy. The Romans also constructed complex tunnels, carved by hand out of pure rock, such as the Crypta of Cocceius that runs more than half a mile through the hills of Naples. Average width and height, fourteen to fifteen feet.

These roads are lovely to contemplate --- but more fun is to think of them as a means of transport, open to all:

    merchants and adventurers, emigrants and exiles, physicians, teachers, students, healers, quacks, pilgrims, the sick, lecturers, preachers, explorers pleasure seekers, self-educators, brigands, criminals, prostitutes, theater troupes, gladiators, peasants, seasonal laborers, free men and slaves.

For almost twenty centuries these roads have been in existence; for 2,000 years taking people from here to there.

But living near one of the roads --- especially in the large cities --- could be nothing but insomnia inducing. Not only were people selling stuff, or having parties, or robbing others, or drinking or screaming, or dumping all their trash (and sewage), but they were powerfully noisy day and night, for the wagons of the day had iron wheels and the stones were in no way even nor quiet. Not unlike being stuck in an apartment near the Henry Hudson Parkway, the Loop, or the San Diego Freeway.

--- B. J. Wilkins
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