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A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory

A-Country DrivingHaving traveled to China with the Peace Corps, Peter Hessler fell in love with the country and began writing for the New Yorker, serving as its Beijing correspondent between 2000 and 2007. His previous books--River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2001), winner of the Kiriyama Book Prize, and Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China (4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2006), a finalist for the National Book Award--draw on his experiences in China during that time.

The Topic: While the rest of the world continues to struggle with sluggish economies and financial scandals, China is enjoying unprecedented growth. But this growth, Hessler argues, comes at the expense of its citizens, whose lives have been irrevocably altered. In "The Great Wall," the first of three sections, Hessler observes the enormous changes produced by the recent affordability of the automobile and the expansion of China's highway system as he travels the length of the Great Wall. These changes include the rise of a poor rural village to a bustling tourist hot spot, explored in "The Village," and the transformation of a sleepy town into a profitable manufacturing hub, described in the last section, "The Factory." Across the nation, Hessler observes ordinary people struggling to gain a foothold in a bewildering New China.
Harper. 448 pages. $27.99. ISBN: 9780061804090

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Broken into three sections, Country Driving offers a ground-level mosaic of life amid the nation's transition into a modern economic and political powerhouse. ... Full of exotic detail, solid reporting, and ironic observation, Country Driving offers a personal snapshot of the world's second superpower hurtling through the 21st century." Michael Kenney

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Hessler's description of China's new drivers is hilarious--and frightening. ... We hear a lot nowadays about China's economic success, but Hessler reminds us that it is still a poor country where farmers earn a few hundred dollars a year on half-acre plots and job applicants falsify their documents to win coveted factory spots that pay 40 cents an hour." Mike Revzin

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The three sections of Country Driving are neatly interwoven; the frantic road-building and car-buying chronicled in the first section open up the village of section two to ‘nostalgic city customers' and quite literally pave the way for the factories that pop up like mushrooms in the new development zone of Lishui. ... Hessler is a magnificent guide to this largely uncharted territory, witty, insightful, keenly aware of the ironies of this communist-capitalist society." Patricia Hagen

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Hessler is an impeccable compiler of facts, in the John McPhee Eagle Scout mold, and he lays these facts out elegantly. ... Country Driving is most affecting in its portrayal of lives ripped up at the roots, sometimes for the better, sometimes not." Dwight Garner

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Hessler's experiences on Chinese superhighways, local paved roads, and dirt paths paralleling the Great Wall are simultaneously hair-raising and humorous. ... The scenes rendered by Hessler are unforgettable, page after page after page." Steve Weinberg

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Having lived and worked in China for a prolonged period, he brings the same degree of dedication and observation to Country Driving as he did to his excellent and compelling previous memoir, Oracle Bones. This is humane and brilliantly observed writing, with Hessler forensically devoted to the human story behind the bigger political picture." Clover Stroud

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"So there's a bit of a patchwork pattern to Country Driving, but never mind. It's an absolutely terrific book, at once highly entertaining (his accounts of the driver's test and of how the Chinese act on the road are often hilarious) and deeply instructive, as he paints a portrait of a country in the midst of change so widespread and profound that it can scarcely be grasped." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

Fluent in Chinese, Hessler had the enviable opportunity to immerse himself in China's culture while training a keen eye on its incongruities and absurdities. His informal writing style and finely honed storytelling abilities create both unforgettably poetic and laugh-out-loud funny scenes. Part memoir, part travelogue, and part social history, Country Driving contains fascinating anecdotes and historical asides. Though the topic of China's frenzied progress has been explored before by others, as well as Hessler himself in his previous books, his personal connection to the land and its people results in a fresh and compelling account--hailed as his best book yet by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.