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Books for the beach

Some China-themed recommendations to add to your holiday reading

One trend that looks set to be pretty much irreversible: publishing executives’ appetite for books about China.

As you depart on your summer holiday, which of the long list of titles does WiC recommend for your suitcase?

Our foremost pick is Peter Hessler’s Country Driving (reviewed in issue 54). This is a must-read book, written by an author who has developed a special empathy for the country. Hessler has a turn of phrase and an eye for detail which makes his work both informative and highly entertaining.

Country Driving is his third book on China, and his best. It’s split into three sections: the first part is a driving adventure on the country’s new highways; the second follows the impact of a new road on a village near the Great Wall; and the third traces the growth of a new industrial zone near Wenzhou.

Of the three, the portion about the village is especially good and the fruit of the author’s decision to spend his weekends there. It offers not just a narrative of change, but a range of insights on everything from the advantages conferred by Communist Party membership to the importance of the brand of cigarette you smoke.

Another great poolside read – though not a new book – is Peter Fleming’s Travels in Tartary. This is rightly regarded as a landmark work by most travel writers and follows Fleming (elder brother of Ian) on two expeditions through China in the 1930s.

It’s style is wholly unique – a sort of Jeeves-meets-James Bond – but when read alongside Hessler it makes plain just how much China has changed – and how incredible that transition really has been.

James Fallows’ Postcards from Tomorrow Square is another good read, comprised of the author’s collected journalism for the Atlantic Magazine during his time living in Shanghai. It’s even-handed and amusing – with a particularly excellent chapter on the tycoon behind the air-con firm, Broad.

As an entertaining historical tale, Sarah Rose’s For All the Tea in China makes clear that China has no monopoly on intellectual property theft. In fact, she focuses on China as a victim, and how the British stole the Middle Kingdom’s precious tea-making secrets.

Finally, there’s The Party (not to be confused with the Peter Sellers film of the same name), recently published by the former Beijing correspondent of the Financial Times, Richard McGregor. The topic is the Communist Party, although McGregor uses his subject to offer a guided tour of how modern China does (and doesn’t) work. McGregor explains that the country’s successes and shortcomings are a function of the Party itself.

As the subject matter suggests, this is a bit weightier – more an after-dinner read than something for the beach.


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