Photo: farmers rural China
The vast expanses of rural China are the focus of Country Driving.

Photograph by Pedro Guimaraes, 4SEE/Redux

By Don George

February 2010

Book of the Month:
Country Driving, by Peter Hessler

China is the first "It" country of the 21st century. From the impressive spectacle of the Beijing Olympics to the imposing specter of its burgeoning financial clout, developments in China over the past decade have commanded the world's attention. The resulting media coverage has spotlighted the physical and social changes transforming the country's urban landscape, but has mostly ignored the regions outside the city centers. Peter Hessler's new book, Country Driving, shines a brilliant light onto these vast expanses.

Hessler presents three complementary portraits of the country in transition. The book's first section, "The Wall," describes two driving journeys tracing the route of the Great Wall, starting in Beijing and venturing west more than 7,000 miles to the Tibetan Plateau. Picking up hitchhikers and stopping in dusty villages, Hessler learns firsthand about the massive migration transforming this swath of China, as youth are lured from the hardscrabble fields toward the economic lights of the coast.

The book's second section, "The Village," focuses on Sancha, two hours by car north of Beijing, where Hessler rents a second home in 2001. In less than a decade, this village is saved from the brink of extinction by an auto revolution that sweeps through the capital. As more city folk buy cars and explore the nearby countryside, Sancha is reborn as a tourist stop. Hessler humanizes this change through the tale of one family he befriends—and the dramatic effects these developments have on their lives.

In the third section, "The Factory," Hessler turns to Lishui, a small city in southeastern China. Here he follows the development of a factory over a two-year period, charting how a government-funded expressway turns an agricultural region into a bustling industrial center, and tracing the rippling impact that process has on the local community.

From the shifting sands and almond blossoms of the countryside to the disorientations and dreams that bloom countrywide, Country Driving illuminates rural China in an eloquent, intimate, learned, and empathetic light.

Reading Matchmaker

If you liked The Lemon Tree, learn more about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Susan Abulhawa's Mornings in Jenin. In her debut novel, Abulhawa (born to refugees of the Six Day War of 1967) wades through 60 years of Palestine history through heroine Amal, whose Palestinian family was driven from their home in 1948 to the refugee camp Jenin. Fans of The Kite Runner will enjoy Born Under a Million Shadows, where author Andrea Busfield explores Afghanistan through a child's eyes in modern-day Kabul. When 11-year-old Fawad's father and brother are killed, he and his mother go to live with three Western women, all journalists and aid workers living among the Taliban. One woman—Georgie—is in a dangerous love affair with an Afghan warlord, and Fawad learns more about the Taliban, life, and his country than any other 11-year-old could imagine.

Winter Escapes

Put away the mittens and explore Zanzibar, Fiji, and Jamaica in Islands: 100 Ultimate Escapes. This coffee-table book takes readers through a photo journey of the world's most fascinating islands, from "Dream Destinations" like Bora-Bora and the Maldives, to "Natural Paradises" like Cape Verde and Tasmania, to the bustling islands of Hong Kong and Santorini.

One Last Thing: Love's Labors Tossed

In keeping with a Valentine's Day theme for this month, how about a love story with a twist? February's publishing menu offers two tempting choices: In Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard recounts how a fateful déjeuner with a stranger in Paris deliciously derailed her life; Bard's Parisian insights and savory recipes make a delightful union. In Hold Me Tight & Tango Me Home, Maria Finn turns to tango for solace after she learns of her husband's infidelity. Her tango trail eventually leads to buoyant Buenos Aires—where heartbreak turns to healing among the cobblestoned streets and mesmerizing milongas.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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