All I need to be entertained are cats within ear-scratching distance and a good book . . .OK, maybe that's not ALL I need, but it's a good start.

I love to read. And I love to get recommendations for books to read.

I started Cats and a Book to share the books I read with others. Some I love, some I don't, but you may love the ones I don't, so you're welcome to post your own comments and suggestions.

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Happy reading!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, by Peter Hessler

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, by Peter Hessler, is a descriptive tome of the author’s two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling, a remote Chinese town on the banks of the Yangtze River. Hessler was assigned to teach English literature to college students in the Sichuan province. While there, he chronicles everything from his progress toward learning to speak and read Chinese to the villagers’ attitudes toward the Three Gorges Dam project. The latter was of particular interest to his students, since the project was scheduled to flood older parts of Fuling, as well as other towns similarly situated.

Hessler’s descriptions of life in Fuling are detailed. He inserts excerpts from actual essays by his students to describe their feelings about politics or topics of current interest. Although he taught English literature and was cautioned against politicizing his role, he sometimes used Shakespeare or other old masters as opportunities to understand how his students assimilated their history. His insights are interesting and he is careful to state that his observations were limited to this particular area at this particular time, and are not necessarily representative of the entire country. His descriptions of the pollution, constant horn honking from cars and cabs, and crushing crowds is similar to descriptions of more urban settings in China.

He describes how he learns to live with teasing about being a ‘foreign devil,’ deflects interest from women (romantic relationships were strictly discouraged), and finds local restaurants that are hospitable to an outsider. Toward the end of the book, Hessler begins to refer to himself as two people, as if the personality who bears his Chinese name (which they were assigned when relocated to Fuling) is a different person. The readers begins to think Hessler has become a bit unmoored after living in Fuling so long.

Hessler’s narrative is relatively humorless, although it is an interesting read. At one point, he does relate how he helped his Chinese students name themselves. In the past, some names didn’t quite suit the student--one young man named himself Daisy, for instance. This year’s class wanted to give themselves last names as well, so Hessler suggested to the one who called himself “Mo” the last name “Money.”

River Town was published by Harper in 2006. Hessler has also written Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China.

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