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September Bookshelf


Country Driving, a Chinese Road Trip

Pick of the list is Peter Hessler’s ‘Country Driving, a Chinese Road Trip’. As New Yorker’s Beijing correspondent this long-term expatriate has acquired deep roots in his adopted country but wears lightly his deep knowledge of Chinese culture and language.

Country Driving, a Chinese road trip

It is actually three books in one, with the first being the most conventional. Over the course of seven years Peter Hessler makes expeditions in a rented car to explore every corner of this huge country. In a country where motorised travel is in its infancy the state of the roads and the organic growth of traffic regulations give him plenty to talk about, but he also meets plenty of locals along the way, giving plenty of insights into the fault-lines in Chinese society being suddenly stressed by 21st-century progress.

Armed with this overview he goes on to examine two facets of Chinese society in great detail. First, he takes a country cottage just outside Beijing and through a long-standing friendship with his young landlord can map the development of rural village life on the edges of a rapidly-expanding metropolis. Secondly he heads out to the edge of China’s great industrial belt and takes a look at one company as it struggles to ride the crest of the country’s export wave.

The book is shot through with accurate observation, wit and sensitivity, but also suffused with a light humour that makes it impossible to put down. For anyone with the slightest interest in China – and as they come to dominate the world economy that should be all of us – this is a must-read.

Travelmag readers would have got an excerpt but, like all good books, I lent it to a friend and that is, of course, the last I’ve seen of it. You’ll have to buy it yourself. Amazon has it but says you’ll have to wait a month for delivery: quicker to go direct to the publisher.

Mission Mongolia

‘Two men, one van, no turning back’ is the subtitle to David Treanor’s account of his impulse drive from London to Mongolia. After 25 years on the BBC newsdesk he gets the opportunity to apply for redundancy, at which point he and a colleague decided to drive to Mongolia.

Mission Mongolia: two men, one van

This isn’t exactly breaking the frontiers of travel. It’s a route followed by the cut-price bangers of the Mongol Rally on an annual basis, though he travels independently a month before the ‘rush’.  And the first pages drag, as he makes rather too much of how unsuitable a traveller he is, and the difficulties of buying the right vehicle. But once underway the story picks up, and David Treanor ‘s clear, unpretentious writing wins through. Through a daily diary his account of the journey brings the trip to life, with corrupt border guards, icy hotel receptionists and roads that barely live up to the name. It is a full account that fills up each day from breakfast in the morning to the first beer of each evening., a pacy and clear narrative that gives you a taste of the reality of long-distance epic drives. As he crosses Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and Siberia the roads deteriorate and signposts disappear and there’s genuine tension in the wastes of the Gobi Desert. It is by any standards a substantial journey and one that, thanks to this book, I no longer feel I have to attempt. It’s available here or direct from the publishers here.

An Idiot Abroad

This TV tie-in has to be one of the most irritating books I’ve flicked through. The conceit is that an idiot is the best guide for a dumbed-down generation. Thus the undoubtedly talented team of Steven Merchant and Ricky Gervais sneeringly send their unsophisticated sound man Karl Pilkington to see the seven Wonders of the World, one after the other.

An idiot might buy this

This is linked to a Sky TV series so he’s travelling with a film crew, which further erodes the possibility he might learn anything on his travels, and they tart up what is very thin copy with several rather ordinary photos of the author, dressed with a hanky on his head to look like an idiot, disfiguring various landscapes worldwide. The programme’s marketing demands that Karl has to pretend to not even want to see the Wonders of the World, which is just irritating. The last thing places like Petra and Machu Picchu need is some uncultured English dork trying to reshape their appeal for a cretinous satellite TV audience.

It’s not just jealousy. On the theory, probably correct, that no-one is going to read his KFC prose without regular injections of the celebrity glitter that surrounds the production, Merchant and Gervais are brought in through regular cartoon spreads that bubble-talk vacuous conversations that might, in a created meeja universe, have linked North London with our hapless presenter as he jets from place to place between shoots. They might have got funnier further on but certainly weren’t legible or entertaining enough for me to wade far through.

I think the publishers know it’s not good. The cover price is £16.99 and even though it hasn’t yet been published (that’s a treat in store for the 23rd September 2010) it’s already marked down to half-price at Amazon and Waterstones. Fans, on the other hand, are all in favour. Mail on Sunday travel editor Frank Barrett got shot down in flames for finding fault with the series and the book has five-star ratings on many sites even before it’s been released.#

This could be pr or some sort of lumpen herd behaviour. To establish the title’s real value I put the brand-new review hardback on ebay where in three days it was bid up to the princely sum of 99p, nearly half a coffee, and was pleased to see it go. If you want to pay more click here.

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