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Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West

Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West

4.0 2
by Peter Hessler

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Full of unforgettable figures and an unrelenting spirit of adventure, Strange Stones is a far-ranging, thought-provoking collection of Peter Hessler’s best reportage—a dazzling display of the powerful storytelling, shrewd cultural insight, and warm sense of humor that are the trademarks of his work.

Over the last decade, as a staff writer for


Full of unforgettable figures and an unrelenting spirit of adventure, Strange Stones is a far-ranging, thought-provoking collection of Peter Hessler’s best reportage—a dazzling display of the powerful storytelling, shrewd cultural insight, and warm sense of humor that are the trademarks of his work.

Over the last decade, as a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of three books, Peter Hessler has lived in Asia and the United States, writing as both native and knowledgeable outsider in these two very different regions. This unusual perspective distinguishes Strange Stones, which showcases Hessler’s unmatched range as a storyteller. “Wild Flavor” invites readers along on a taste test between two rat restaurants in South China. One story profiles Yao Ming, basketball star and China’s most beloved export, another David Spindler, an obsessive and passionate historian of the Great Wall. In “Dr. Don,” Hessler writes movingly about a small-town pharmacist and his relationship with the people he serves.

While Hessler’s subjects and locations vary, subtle but deeply important thematic links bind these pieces—the strength of local traditions, the surprising overlap between apparently opposing cultures, and the powerful lessons drawn from individuals who straddle different worlds.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 18 elegant and thoughtful essays, almost all previously published in the New Yorker, prize-winning writer Hessler reflects on the foreign and the familiar, offering profiles of people who are often “chameleonlike, while others dreamed of returning home,” as well as a few who were engaged in “creative bumbling.” Although many of the essays focus on China, where he lived for a decade and a half, they range over topics from rat restaurants and life in a Chinese boomtown to life in the uranium town of Uravan, Colo., to the experience of moving from China back the U.S. In a profile of pharmacist Don Colcord, from Nucla, Colo., Hessler provides a brief history of the this small town that grew up over a century ago and was named by idealists that hoped the community would become the “center of Socialistic government for the world.” Drawing upon the experience of one of his former students, Hessler provides a portrait of the Chinese boomtown Shenzen, illustrating how it became divided into two worlds, which were described by the residents as guannei and guanwai—”within the customs” and “outside the customs.” In one of the most hilarious and poignant essays, Hessler reflects on his move back to America after more than a decade away by recalling his victory in a half marathon in Las Vegas: “I had run alone down Frank Sinatra Boulevard, and I had appeared on Las Vegas television… Finally I was home, and I had a story to tell; in America that was all you’d ever need.” (Apr.)
The Wall Street Journal
“Hessler’s signature is an unobtrusive and humorous first-person narrator breezily guiding the reader through places at once exotic and ordinary, a sort of Tracy Kidder in Asia. . . . Hessler has an acute and far-ranging talent for drawing characters.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Affable, humane and perceptive pieces. . . . This isn’t one of those take-your-medicine books about geopolitics and the world economy. Strange Stones also happens to be great fun to read, at once breezily written and deeply informative.”
Fareed Zakaria
“Read this book. . . . This is long-form journalism at its finest.”
The Atlantic
“Revelatory. . . . Wonderful . . . . Continually showcases Hessler’s gift for telling tales of cultural difference and mutual misunderstanding in a way that is both humorous and deeply empathetic. . . . Hessler is a deeply humane teller of true tales, a keen observer, a graceful stylist.”
Kirkus Reviews
A collection of personal essays and profiles that reveal the wonders and woes of the East. New Yorker staff writer Hessler (Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, 2010, etc.) bridges the divide between East and West with riveting reportage. In the opening essay, "Wild Flavor," the author chronicles his visit to a restaurant in southern China, where the waitress casually asked, "Do you want a big rat or a small rat?"--a line that embodies the collection's interest in celebrating and questioning cultural differences. In the title essay, Hessler and an old Peace Corps buddy take a road trip across northern China, and the well-seasoned travelers find themselves duped at every turn--further evidence of the slow learning curve between cultures. Yet perhaps the theme running throughout most of these essays is the author's examination of the perils of living in a closed society, in which even the assistant manager of the aforementioned rat restaurant refused to give his name for the book (despite the fact that most of the village shares his name). In "Boomtown Girl," Hessler best elucidates this fear of oversharing with outsiders by introducing readers to Emily, a Chinese teacher-in-training who bucked all traditional gender roles and set out a future of her own making. While much of the book depicts a country consisting of walls, gates and fences--both literally and metaphorically--Emily's idealism reveals a new breed of Chinese woman, one whose intrepid spirit serves her well. A rich, vibrant collection that pries wide the door to the East, welcoming Western readers inside.
Library Journal
This work represents a collection of Hessler's (staff writer, The New Yorker; Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip) writing from 2000 to 2012. In the title piece, he is curious when he sees sign after sign, "Strange Stones." Soon he learns that the Chinese refer to any rock that is shaped like another recognizable object as a "strange stone." In the essay "Dr. Don," Hessler introduces readers to the only medical man in tiny Nucla, Colorado. Don Colcord owns a local business, the Apothecary Shoppe, where he helps all who come to him, whether they have health insurance or not. Most moving is "When You Grow Up," in which readers meet three boys, ages 10, 12, and 14, who left their village in China to earn money for their families. After feeding them countless hotpots, Hessler asks what they want to be when they grow up. One wants to be a driver, another a security guard, and the third simply wants to go home. VERDICT Anyone who enjoys unique human interest stories will be greatly rewarded by this title.—Susan G. Baird, formerly with Oak Lawn P.L., IL

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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P.S. Series
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Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Peter Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as the Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007, and is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He is the author of River Town, which won the Kiriyama Prize; Oracle Bones, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and, most recently, Country Driving. He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting, and he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011. He lives in Cairo.

Brief Biography

Beijing, China
Date of Birth:
June 14, 1968
Place of Birth:
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Princeton University, Creative Writing and English, 1992; Oxford University, English Language and Literature, 1994

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Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After reading Peter Hessler (Oracle Bones, Country Driving, River Town and this collection of essays), I'm so impressed by his craft that I'd read a comic book for toddlers if he'd authored it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago