Country Driving – A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory

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I first heard about Peter Hessler’s book “Oracle Bones” from my mom.  She was reading through it and enjoying it immensely, and she recommended it profusely.  I promptly ignored her for a year, until I managed to read a corroborating review from somewhere.  I picked up both of his books at the time, “River Town” and “Oracle Bones”, and the more I read of them, the more I was both annoyed and delighted.  Delighted because the books are some of the best  from a foreign author regarding modern China, and annoyed because I had always dreamed of someday writing a book about my experiences, and I realized that Hessler had, well, written the book I wanted to write.  So much for that (and sorry mom!).I should note that before reading Hessler, I had almost zero interest in the travel literature genre, but he helped interest me in several other books by the likes of Paul Theroux (Riding the Iron Rooster) and even several Chinese authors such as Ma Jian or Gao Xingjian.Hessler also writes for the New Yorker, and while I was in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, he wrote a great piece for that magazine that reminded me why I enjoy his perspective so much.  I was therefore very excited when I got an email (again from my mom) telling me about his newest book, “Country Driving”, which again focuses on modern China and it’s rapid industrialization.While “River Town” was set in the mid to late nineties, and “Oracle Bones” in the early 2000s, “Country Driving” is set in a span from roughly 2002 through 2008.  It’s divided into three sections, one details his trip by car along the Great Wall, one focuses on rural living in a town outside of Beijing, and the last takes place in a booming Special Economic Zone in Southern China.Hessler is unique among most journalists covering China in that he speaks fluent Chinese (this was essentially a matter of survival while spending two years as one of two foreigners in a Chinese city), and that he both appreciates the context of China (history, literature, politics) and the people.  Culturally, there is much that can be mocked about China, and many foreigners focus on these nits that differentiate China from the West to their own detriment, and one of the things I like most about Hessler’s writing is he manages to poke fun at some of the more amusing aspects while still maintaining a deep respect for the country and its people.  He also manages to not romanticize China’s poverty or lament it’s rapid modernization like many foreign observers tend to do, instead, he strikes an engaging balance of description, context, humor and human interest.For a glimpse into China’s complexities from a richly personal point of view, I recommend any of Hessler’s books.  To appreciate how rapid China’s rise has been since the mid nineties, read all three in order.  There is no other author today who writes as well or as thoughtfully about China.

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