A crash course in MacArthur-winning journalist Peter Hessler, as suggested by Peter Hessler

Categories: Books, Media

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Ridgway-based journalist and MacArthur "genius" grant-winner Peter Hessler has written stories that focus on everything from China to small towns in southwestern Colorado to Nepal. (Latest Word has more on the $500,000 award from the MacArthur Foundation, as well as a Q&A with Hessler.) The 42-year-old has amassed a sizable body of work, much of it published in the New Yorker, but in National Geographic, the Atlantic and the New York Times as well. He's also written three best-selling books: 2001's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, 2006's Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present and 2010's Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip.

He's now collecting articles for an upcoming book slated for 2012. Here's a shortlist of his favorite New Yorker stories:

Dr. Don: Hessler followed the owner of Nucla's only pharmacy for a year and a half to complete this piece. "I like to write about people who I'd like to think of as average people -- normal individuals who are part of a community," Hessler says. "I think also when you're writing about celebrities or other famous people, they're accustomed to speaking to the press and are not necessarily as open, or even as honest."

"I'm still flabbergasted that someone would want to write about a little old druggist in a little town," says Don Colcord, the pharmacist. "When he sees things, he sees so much of the big picture and can just put it together."

Hessler was even able to pull out the bits on Colcord's gay brother, who was diagnosed with HIV. "He saw that and I couldn't see it, and I've been living with it all my life," Colcord says.

In the southwestern corner of Colorado, where the Uncompahgre Plateau descends through spruce forest and scrubland toward the Utah border, there is a region of more than four thousand square miles which has no hospitals, no department stores, and only one pharmacy. The pharmacist is Don Colcord, who lives in the town of Nucla. More than a century ago, Nucla was founded by idealists who hoped their community would become the "center of Socialistic government for the world." But these days it feels like the edge of the earth.

The Home Team: The 2008 Beijing Olympics from the perspective of ordinary Chinese citizens.

According to the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, or bocog, there were more than 1.7 million citizen volunteers in the region. The most visible ones were stationed at Olympic events and at places like the airport and downtown intersections, which were usually staffed by high-school and college students who spoke some English. These urban volunteers had been outfitted by Adidas, an official Olympic sponsor; the company provided gray trousers, new running shoes, and bright-blue shirts made of a high-tech material called ClimaLite. But the ClimaLite and the corporate sponsorship disappeared in the countryside. That was one way to gauge distance--north of the capital, the urban development thinned out, and along the way the volunteers' gear became more ragged. The ClimaLite was replaced by cheap cotton; the running shoes were no longer standard issue; the Adidas logo was nowhere to be seen. Many peasants wore only a red armband, because they were saving the new shirt for something more important than the Olympics.

Village Voice: One man's crusade for the Peace Corps in Nepal. Requires a subscription to read the whole story.

In the part of eastern Nepal where Goyal served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2001 to 2003, people sometimes weep when his name is mentioned. Locals refer to him as Shiva, the god who is the source of the Ganges River. In the halls of Congress, most people have no idea what to make of him. For the past two years, he has approached the place as if it were just another Nepali settlement with a caste system to untangle. He figured out the Washington equivalent of village-well routes--hallways, hearing rooms, and coffee shops where anybody can hang around and meet a member of Congress. During the past two years, funding for the Peace Corps has increased by record amounts, despite partisanship in Congress and a brutal economic climate. In March, the Peace Corps will turn fifty years old. The anniversary is bittersweet: despite the new funding, which has allowed for a significant increase in volunteers, the agency sends fewer than sixty per cent as many people abroad today as it did in 1966.

Underwater: On how the Three Gorges Dam, and specifically the mass-flooding it caused, has impacted the lives of the Chinese.

On new maps for the city of Wushan, this body of water is called Emerald Drop Lake. But the maps were printed before the lake appeared. In fact, the water is a murky brown, and the lake is actually an inlet of the Yangtze River, which for the past week has been rising behind the Three Gorges Dam.
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