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Country Driving

February 8, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve been meaning for a few days now to write about Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. Looking for links to it, I just discovered that it has come out this very day in paperback, so this is a good day to write about it.

As I mentioned a week ago when I wrote about Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man, I learned about both books a year ago. They were published a week apart and got good reviews in the NYT (here and here for Hessler; here for Conover). Repeating myself again from a week ago:

Last February, I read reviews a week apart of two new travel books and thought both would be good reading on a trip to the east coast I would be taking during the first week of March: Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World and Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory. But which to bring?

As I explained in a post last April, I bought, and brought, both. That’s one of the benefits of the Kindle. Weight and space aren’t issues. . . . Once I boarded the plane for my trip, I immediately began to read Conover’s book.

Why Conover over Hessler? I think I was afraid that since some of Hessler’s book had appeared in the New Yorker, I might find it familiar, so I wanted to read the fresher book first. But I only got part way through Conover’s book. I started Hessler’s book during the trip too, reading just a few pages (or their electronic equivalent).

More recently, in the wake of reading Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia in December, I was inspired to return to Conover’s and Hessler’s books. I finished The Routes of Man two Fridays ago, writing about it last week, and now I’m about two-fifths of the way through Country Driving.

I had an odd experience when I initially started in again on Country Driving last week. Conover’s book describes six driving trips, each having an underlying theme. The fifth of the sixth trips was in China, the theme being the rise of a new class of people who can afford to buy cars and take self-driving trips. With that trip fresh in my mind, I switched to Hessler’s book and found myself again on the road in China, following Hessler on a trip along the Great Wall. What was odd was how their two voices ran together in my head. Not that they are similar; not that their journeys are similar. But I had to convince myself nonetheless that I was reading a different book by a different author with a different vision.

For that matter, it didn’t help, with Frazier’s Travels in Siberia still in my head as well, that I was now heading west along the northern edge of China, whereas just a few weeks back I was heading east on the other side of the border. The books were all becoming one. Heck, even Paul Clemens’ Punching Out, which I read last month, entered the mix. He didn’t travel anywhere exactly, staying put in a single closed auto plant in Detroit, but like Frazier and Conover and Hessler, he spends much of his book narrating conversations with people who have a variety of jobs and (although all in Detroit at the time) come from different regions of a big country, immersing himself in their worlds and reporting on them.

The confusion has lifted as I have gotten farther into Hessler’s book, which is quite good. I will have more to say about it after I finish it. Now that it’s out in paperback, you may wish to pick it up. At $9.08 from Amazon, it’s cheaper in paperback than on the Kindle ($9.99).

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