Thursday, October 12, 2006
Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
So I was unhappily awake at four o'clock this morning when I happily discovered that my friend, and former classmate in undergraduate workshops, Peter Hessler had been named a finalist in nonfiction for the National Book Award. I intended to post on Oracle Bones back when I first read it, but somehow that never happened. What I particularly admired about the book is how it blends memoir (Pete's life as a freelance journalist and clipper for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing), history, current affairs (it covers the time when the US fire bombed a Chinese embassy), and profiles of a diverse group of Chinese men and women. As a close reader of Pete's career, I know that the book is assembled largely out of profiles he wrote for The New Yorker, but the manner in which they are layered together makes a wonderful patchwork that tells a much bigger story of US and Chinese relations. It's a great example of how you can make your living as a journalist (writing articles) yet still build a book. Pete was a nonfiction student of John McPhee, who apparently always made the point: journalists should write books.