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Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory    by Peter Hessler order for
Country Driving
by Peter Hessler
Order:  USA  Can
Harper, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

Peter Hessler spent seven years (2000-2007) working in Beijing as a correspondent for The New Yorker. Besides his work for the magazine, Hessler wrote three books about Chinese culture. In this, the final work in his China trilogy (Oracle Bones and River Town were the first two), the journalist offers a fascinating look at a country that has undergone rapid changes.

In the first section of the book Hessler takes to the road and describes his 7,000 mile across northern China, following the Great Wall from the East China Sea to the Tibetan plateau. In this, the most amusing part of the book, the writer describes Chinese drivers, the nation's new highway system, and the people he met as he visited small, out-of-the-way villages.

Filled with entertaining anecdotes and commentary about Chinese drivers ('They tailgate whenever possible. They rarely use turn signals. If they miss an exit on a highway, they simply pull onto the shoulder, shift into reverse, and get it right the second time.'), this part of the book also includes sample questions from Chinese drivers' tests. ('If you come to a road that has been flooded, you should a) accelerate, so the motor doesn't flood, b) stop, examine the water to make sure it's shallow, and drive across slowly, c) find a pedestrian and make him cross ahead of you.')

For six years Hessler rented a small house in a village outside of Beijing where he went on weekends to write and relax. The second part of the book focuses on how this farming village changed as paved roads brought tourists to the area. Since he got to know his neighbors quite well, the author charts the manner in which one of these families was able to take advantage of the village's change in status from a dying farm community to a thriving tourist village.

In the final section of the book Hessler looks at how two entrepreneurs create a small business in a rising industrial town in southeastern China. He follows the company's owners and its employees over a two year period to show how an enterprise like this operates.

By focusing on the people he met and got to know over a period of time, Hessler has created a narrative that is enjoyable to read. He's done his research so there's plenty of factual material, but the individual stories of these men and women are what sets this book apart from others.

After riding with Hessler as he takes to the road exploring the country's new highway system and spending time with the unique individuals who flesh out this narrative, you'll have a better understanding of the transformation that is changing China and why this is such a challenging time.

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