Peter Hessler: Country Driving

Peter Hessler
Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory
(Harper, 2010, 438 pages)

Peter Hessler, staff writer at The New Yorker and its Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007, has become one of the most popular and fascinating documentarians of the vast economic and cultural changes that have come to China in recent years. His bestselling books River Town and Oracle Bones are now followed by the third in the trilogy. In Country Driving, Hessler talks about finally acquiring a Chinese driver’s license in 2001 (one of 1,000 new drivers now registering every day in China) and spending the next seven years traveling around the country, chronicling China’s economic revolution and the changes it has wrought in the lives of ordinary people through fascinating anecdotes, personal stories, and statistics.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, “The Wall,” Hessler devotes some months to driving west from the east coast alongside, as much as possible, the Great Wall of China – which, as he explains, is not so much a unified wall from a specific part of Chinese history as a collection of disconnected walls, fortifications and ramparts built over some 1,500 years or more. Not only does the stature and construction of the wall change from region to region; so does its meaning: for some outside China, the Wall is a symbol of xenophobia. For the Chinese, it’s mostly a source of national pride, even though its historical usefulness for actual defense has been questioned. (By the way, despite the legends, the Wall isn’t really visible from the Moon, and generally isn’t from space, either.)

Driving is a new thing for many Chinese, and Hessler amusingly remarks on the eccentric habits of Chinese drivers and the sometimes whimsical ways in which the streets, many of recent vintage, have been laid out. Mandatory driving instruction classes ignore issues like turn signals and blind spots in favor of the skills needed to negotiate a plank bridge (and apparently learning to honk at anything and everything). Read more

Yoko Ogawa: Hotel Iris

Yoko Ogawa
Hotel Iris
Translated by Stephen Snyder
(1996, Picador, 176 pages)

Mari seems to be a relatively normal seventeen year old. Shy, with little experience of the world, she has dropped out of school to work at the coastal hotel her mother runs. But Mari’s relationship with a mysterious translator brings out a dark side of her that she had apparently had no knowledge of. After Yoko Ogawa’s lyrical, poignant The Housekeeper and the Professor, Hotel Iris comes as somewhat of a shock. That same calm, lyrical prose is now employed in the service of the depiction of a frankly sadomasochistic relationship.

Mari’s nameless partner, fifty years her senior, is a freelance translator of Russian letters and other odds and ends who lives on a nearby island. We are introduced to him in the first chapter, when he has a violent confrontation with a prostitute in one of the hotel’s rooms. The sound of his voice shouting “Shut up, whore” fascinates Mari. After a subsequent chance encounter in the street, the translator starts writing to Mari, and they agree to meet. There is a calm foreboding about the prose and the setting of their first meeting – the brilliance of the summer sky, the lively tourists, and the translator in his dark suit and tie.

Later, the translator loses his temper at a restaurant, and Mari hints darkly that she looks forward to the time that he will “give me an order, too.” So he does, when they take the ferry to his island home and he assaults her, tying her up and pawing at her body. He strikes her, and she asks for more. She sees herself in the mirror: “Reflected in the glass, I looked like a dying insect, like a chicken trussed up in the butcher’s storeroom.” But she seems to have no reservations as she mentally tells her mother that “her pretty little Mari had become the ugliest person in the whole world.” Read more

Eric Siblin: The Cello Suites

Eric Siblin
The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and The Search for A Baroque Masterpiece
(2009, Atlantic Monthly Press, 336 pages)

The six Suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach have become the centerpiece of the cello repertoire as well as a recording phenomenon, with some 180 recordings of just the Suite No. 1 currently listed at ArkivMusic. But this wasn’t always the case. Just a few decades ago the Suites were at the fringe of the repertoire, seldom played in concert, largely of interest to specialists and academics. How and why did this change?

Eric Siblin, former rock music critic for The Montreal Gazette, has set out to answer this, interweaving his own story of discovery of these works with biographical details from Bach’s life, including the little that is known of the circumstances of the Suites’ composition, and the life of Pablo Casals, who popularized the works throughout his long performing career.

Siblin has divided his book into six sections, each dedicated to one of the Suites, with one chapter per movement. This somewhat arbitrary arrangement allows the author to move freely between each of his three narrative threads. Short quotation headings for each chapter provide some extra color, like this vivid if odd description of the six Suites by composer Kaikhosru Sorabji: “These works are nightmares, gripping, dry, rattling skeletons of compositions, bloodless, fleshless, staring anatomies.” Read more