Mr. Brammer's Reviews > River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

River Town by Peter Hessler
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Sep 28, 2007

it was ok
Recommended for: people who like overwrought prose

Several people I know have read and raved about this book, it's gotten across-the-board good reviews from respected publications, so I started "River Town" with high expectations. Why, then, do I think this book is so terrible? Mainly I find Hessler's writing style grating and pretentious. He makes sure to mention early on that he went to Princeton and Oxford (and reminds us a couple times afterwards), even though it was totally irrelevant to the narrative, and his descriptions of the Sichuan countryside are overwrought and romanticized.
Another thing that I dislike about the book is that nothing about it seems human: Hessler has a tendency to generalize about the Chinese, and he never really paints himself in a negative light. One of the dangers of putting too much stock in "expat on the ground" memoirs (or Peace Corps memoirs in general) is that there are a lot of impressions formed that come from limited experience in one town, region, or group of people, and all of it is colored by the writer's outsider status. I give River Town two stars because it made me nostalgic about my own Peace Corps service, but I really don't think it gave me any kind of real understanding of modern China.
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Reading Progress

September 28, 2007 – Shelved
Started Reading
October 14, 2007 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Coalbanks (new)

Coalbanks Who said: "You should burn your 1st novel." ? Hemingway? Maybe this applies here so thanks for the warnings. I had skimmed it some time ago but prefer the National Geograpgic article of the same region from 1942-44 which was re-visited by the NG about 50 years later.

Adele Bonnie the author says at the beginning that this book was about his experience and about a specific place in China in a particular time. He did not intend to give any sort of real understanding of modern China. It seemed to me he only mentioned the Princeton and Oxford educations in the same way that anyone would mention in this type of work where he went to school. Just as background info.

Mr. Brammer I've enjoyed the stuff that Hessler has written for the New Yorker; he has definitely matured as a writer. I just thought that River Town was more about Hessler than Sichuan culture, which I guess reflects the natural egocentrism of American expats. Judging from the other comments, most RPCVs eat up these kinds of memoirs.

Larry Bassett I would echo Adele's comments. I am about a quarter of the way into this book and, while I might not rave about this book, I am finding it very enjoyable reading. I have not been bothered by the several Princeton/Oxford references. Maybe a "good" editor would have Xed those out. But it seems to me that the editor may have taken more of a hands off attitude and let the author's personality come through in his somewhat casual writing style. Nothing wrong with being proud of having gone to Oxford. But let me get back to the book.

Gyuris Gábor What else book wd you suggest to have an other picture of the modern China? Im curious of your point. I liked Hessler's book, i found it quite sensitive and balanced in the observation. But i wd read some other books also about the topic.

Larry Bassett If you talking about U.S. authors, Hessler has two additional books about China. And James Fallows' Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China is also interesting. And of course there are Pearl S. Buck's China based novels for not-so-modern China.

Gyuris Gábor Thank you very much, all sounds interesting. After this book, I really felt the many contradictions about how the people seems to live. I really wondered many times about how the ideology lives in the people. Despite many bad things in the past they still belive in the current political regime. It was similar in Hungary, till 1989 not many people would question the pol.system, despite many suffered of that. Hessler went on well to undrestand why people do this way - In China.
This was my first book of China, so doesn't matter from which countries's eye I wd read.

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