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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 the Audible Audio Edition edition.
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 the Audible Audio Edition edition.
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"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.
Country Driving by Peter Hessler does not lack these criticisms. It’s an account of Hessler's experiences driving a rental car through the country, first following the Great Wall to the desolate Gansu province, then to a rural village north of Beijing, and finally, to the Zhejiang in south, the land of emerging factories. At each leg of his journey, Hessler integrates into some facet of the local community, putting him in a position to explore the effects of rapid development at a very personal level.
The criticisms that Hessler includes stem from an American accustomed to different conditions, and to be fair, they aren’t really presented as criticisms. Hessler describes insane driving conditions or guanxi, the Chinese form of networking, where business men and political officials lavish gifts in exchange for leniency, and his subtle sense of humor pries the ridiculousness out. It’s effective - some of the scenes made me cringe, touching on my sensitivity.
But any book full of criticisms, no matter how skillfully presented, is not much of a read. Country Driving is much more. For one, Hessler is a brilliant writer. His sentences are fluid, and he is a master at the thought provoking sentence to end a chapter. Combined with his eye (and ear) for important details, he packs insights to the Chinese way of life into memorable scenes: a peasant family venturing into Beijing to care for their sick child, a young girl celebrating her sixteenth birthday after a full day - 10 hours - of factory work. I could tell how much of China Hessler absorbed during his stay there, and I’m grateful that he translated his experiences from spoken Chinese all the way to beautifully written English.
I suspect that much of my affinity for this book comes from my ability to relate. I visited China every summer with my family from 2004 to 2008, which overlaps with the period that Hessler spent there. As I was younger, I was less tolerant to certain aspects: the trash, the rampant pollution, the suffocating heat, the sheer overpopulation. But reading this book made me want to visit China again, to be in that land of inescapable heritage and unprecedented change.
Hessler now lives in the Middle East as a correspondent. I hope he writes about his experiences there as well. I won’t be able to pronounce the names as effortlessly as I can with his books about China, but I already know I will read everything he writes.