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Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip Paperback – February 8, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010: There is, as everyone knows, no place in the world changing as fast, and at such scale, as China. Accounts of the upheaval can be breathless and even alarming, but Peter Hessler is the calmest and most companionable of correspondents. In his reporting for the New Yorker and in his books River Town, Oracle Bones, and now the superb Country Driving, he's observed the past 15 years of change with the patience and perspective--and necessary good humor--of an outsider who expects to be there for a while. In Country Driving, Hessler takes to the roads, as so many Chinese are doing now for the first time, driving on dirt tracks to the desert edges of the ancient empire and on brand-new highways to the mushrooming factory towns of the globalized boom. He's modest but intrepid--having taken to heart the national philosophy that it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission--and an utterly enjoyable guide, with a humane and empathetic eye for the ambitions, the failures, and the comedy of a country in which everybody, it seems, is on the move, and no one is quite sure of the rules. --Tom Nissley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In his latest feat of penetrating social reportage, New Yorker writer Hessler (Oracle Bones) again proves himself America's keenest observer of the New China. Hessler investigates the country's lurch into modernity through three engrossing narratives. In an epic road trip following the Great Wall across northern China, he surveys dilapidated frontier outposts from the imperial past while barely surviving the advent of the nation's uniquely terrifying car culture. He probes the transformation of village life through the saga of a family of peasants trying to remake themselves as middle-class entrepreneurs. Finally, he explores China's frantic industrialization, embodied by the managers and workers at a fly-by-night bra-parts factory in a Special Economic Zone. Hessler has a sharp eye for contradictions, from the absurdities of Chinese drivers' education courses—low-speed obstacle courses are mandatory, while seat belts and turn signals are deemed optional—to the leveling of an entire mountain to make way for the Renli Environmental Protection Company. Better yet, he has a knack for finding the human-scale stories that make China's vast upheavals both comprehensible and moving. The result is a fascinating portrait of a society tearing off into the future with only the sketchiest of maps. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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I was quite disappointed by Oracle Bones, which I found to be too drawn out, often boring and had Hessler writing to much as a know-it-all. In cCuntry Driving he regained some of his balance and I'm happy to say it's more like River Town than Oracle Bones. The book consists of three parts. The first part deals with Hessler getting his driving license (including samples of the hilarious test questions) and driving along the Great Wall. I consider this the best part of the book with many funny stories and good humour and some information about Chinese regions you don't often come across.
I had expected the whole book to be like a travelogue, not unlike Rob Gifford's more serious China Road, but this (unfortunately) did not prove to be the case. The second and third part of the book find Hessler grounded in the small village of Sancha, north of Beijing, and a facotry for bra rings in Zhejiang. As such, the title of the book is a bit misleading.
The second part of the book, about the village on Sancha is my least favourite. The story mostly deals with one family and thereby the book shifts from the wide perspective of a roadtrip in the first part to the microcosm of a Chinese rural family. That's all fine but it does so in too much detail and I found myself getting impatient with the continuous story about a handful of people. I also found Hessler's writing to be walking a thin line between humorous admirating and derision at times.
The third part, about the Zhejiang factory, is more interesting again. Besides the workings of a factory in all it's facets - including having to deal with workers, government officials and competition - it also gives a glimpse of what China's economic development was like after the turn of the century. This makes for more interesting reading than the life of one rural family as far as I'm concerned.
All in all this is a step back in the right direction for Hessler after the disappointing Oracle Bones.
A note on the audio book: like Oracle Bones this audio book is narrated by Peter Berkrot, who I didn't like much in Oracle Bones because of his dreadful pronounciation of Chinese and silly voices whenever he read out dialogue by a Chinese person. Berkrot has improved is pronounciation somewhat for this book and his silly voices are a bit less exreme, though not fully absent in his rendition of Country Driving.
"Country Driving", however, is not as intimate nor as distinguished a book as Hessler's two predecessors. This is because of the fundamental nature of the book: in "Country Driving", Hessler has gained his Chinese driver's license, and a good portion of the book describes what Hessler sees while driving. As one would expect, these descriptions of scenery (with a strong focus on the Great Wall, or more accurately "Great Walls"), while interesting, don't provide strong insight into the Chinese people. "Country Driving" is most interesting when Hessler gets out of his car and interacts with the Chinese people, as he does in the latter two thirds of the book, which describe his experiences weekending in a small Chinese mountain town and the rise of a new factory town and factory in fast-growth coastal China.
Although he is an outsider and a foreigner, Hessler apparently develops very close relationships with several of the people he meets, and those people trust him enough to bring him into private conversations and to let him know important family secrets. His writing is most insightful when he is able to develop those relationships, because it provides an intimate portrait of how average Chinese people react to the changes the country is undergoing.
Having read all three of Hessler's China books, I would rank "River Town" as the best, followed by "Oracle Bones" and then "Country Driving". Fans of the first two books, however, should enjoy "Country Driving". At the end of "Country Driving" Hessler is back in the U.S.A. and married, so perhaps this is the final book of what will be his living-in-China trilogy. I am very glad he embarked on this project, and I have learned much from his writings.