February 16, 2003 - Hall Sciences: Reviews of Peter Hesler's River Town

Peace Corps Online: Directory: China: Peace Corps China : The Peace Corps in China: February 16, 2003 - Hall Sciences: Reviews of Peter Hesler's River Town

By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, February 16, 2003 - 6:53 pm: Edit Post

Reviews of Peter Hesler's River Town

Reviews of Peter Hesler's River Town

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
Rating 4
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze80% Recommended by our customers.
Catalog: Book
Manufacturer: Perennial
Authors: Peter Hessler
Release Date: 24 December, 2001
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List Price: $13.95
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Rating 5 Review on River Town
River Town is Peter Hessler¡¯s autobiographical account of his life in Fuling city. In a part of China where many of the natives have never even seen a waiguoren (Mandarin for foreigner), Hessler relates his daily events and adventures throughout a two-year period in his life where he serves as a Peace Corps volunteer in teaching English at a local university. From the busy streets of Fuling, to the peaceful regions of Raise the Flag Mountain, Hessler vividly describes his surrounding habitat with details that one would not think to include. Simple descriptions like the unified motions of the Stick-Stick Army and the down-to-earth verbal exchanges between himself and peasant folk along a mountain hike are just a few experiences Hessler relates to the reader captivates his audience. Throughout the novel, several themes appear. The cultural differences between American ideas and Chinese ideas are clearly translated through Hessler¡¯s personal experiences. Another is the theme of noise throughout the novel. From the constant honking, to the local¡¯s verbal abuse towards Hessler, to the simple polite and genuine interaction between the locals and Hessler, the idea of noise is prevalent throughout the novel. I personally was not expecting this to be such an engaging reading assignment. But honestly, this book was perhaps one of the most interesting and well-written texts that I have come across in recent years. After the constant overflow of novels that never entertained me or kept my interest in high school, this is a welcome surprise. I strongly encourage all avid readers to go out and purchase this book.
Rating 4 Good solid, admirable work--but a bit superficial
I read Peter Hessler's book within one week, and I wholeheartedly agree with its many admirers. The writing is excellent, the anecdotes priceless (witness his student's Marxist take on Beowulf from the perspective of the monster Grendel!), and his commitment and respect for understanding China genuine. Indeed, this is one of the few books I've read which is not a holier-than-thou rant from a spoiled and generally clueless Westerner, detailing (yet again) skewed takes on China's problems and what not. Like his excellent Atlantic Monthly pieces, River Town is a balanced account of life in China, where people are pretty much just like you and me, albeit poorer (assuming you're a Westerner).

However, despite Hessler's formidable Chinese skills, I can't help but feel he provides only a superficial understanding of Chinese society. He never truly penetrates it like many other writers have done with other non-Western societies. Thus, while Hessler writes about his trip to Xi'an or his friendship with the people who run the local noodle stall, I feel often that I'm just reading a prose version of a tourist's snapshots. Snap, snap, snap--little anecdotes that give me a smile but never made me think. Hessler's relationship with Chinese women is a classic example of his remove from the country: in his entire time there (2 years), he never went out with a single Chinese woman!--and this is despite countless references within his book to their beauty and grace. Indeed, his one "date" is near the end of his 2 years when he and his Peace Corps sitemate took a couple of the local bank's tellers out for dinner to show their appreciation for all their kindness--later, we find out, these two women were married at the time. Likewise, when a local tramp who works in a beauty salon pursues him, he is horrified by the thought of people seeing her with him. But why the fear? Surely, even if he rebuffed her, it would be interesting to see where she lived and how she operated. Instead, Hessler becomes afraid and runs away, destroying a friendship that would provide balance to his often dull episodes about his relationship with a Catholic priest.

So . . . overall, this is a very impressive book, but it's one that's curiously vapid. Maybe I'm comparing Peter Hessler's experiences in China with Paul Theroux's in Africa, and this is not a fair comparison. However, Theroux in his countless stories about Africa seem to have lived and understood the place to an extent Hessler doesn't. In his descriptions about Africa, it seems Theroux as a Peace Corps volunteer had gone native in every sense of the word. Hessler doesn't go as far native as a Peace Corps volunteer, and that remains the only (though not insubstantial) flaw of the book.

The final verdict: Read River Town if you're interested in China. But if you're interested in Peace Corps stories, read Paul Theroux's novel "My Secret History" which is more impressive.
Rating 5 Vanishing beneath the Yangtze
This is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. A vivid portrait of a time of flux in an ancient country, Peter Hessler's River Town is a moving account of his experiences as a foreigner -- or waiguoren. Hessler uses gentle humor and keen powers of observation to bring to life the vignettes of his students and the townspeople. His gently ironic temperament served him well in confronting not only an unfamiliar political regime but also the strangeness of China itself -- or, more to the point, his own strangeness in the eyes of the Chinese. He vividly recounts how, on arrival, he underwent an unsettling transformation and found himself practically illiterate, with an Oxford degree in English but the Chinese-language skills of a toddler. River Town is an important work of reportage, and not just because of the peculiar historical moment it describes -- a moment when Hessler's students can speak of their sincere admiration for the Communist ideals of Chairman Mao, then go off after graduation to seek their fortune in the tumultuous prosperity of China's southern cities. It's also a window into a part of China -- the province of Sichuan -- that has rarely been explored in depth, even though, as Hessler notes, it is home to one out of every 50 people on earth. And Hessler portrays a world that, thanks to the Three Gorges Dam, will soon vanish, to one degree or another. When, pulling away from the dock in Fuling at the end of his Peace Corps term, Hessler looks back at the city and wonders if he'll see it again, you realize with a shock that he's not just being sentimental. But if Fuling, with all its chaos and its poetry, does soon disappear beneath the Yangtze, there will be some small consolation in knowing that it survives in the pages of Hessler's book.

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