The 'framing story' of the book is to cover a road trip along route 312 across China by the author. The author is a China correspondent for U.S. National Public Radio, and the road trip is to end his lengthy correspondence.
The framing story, however, is just the surface; the author uses his encounters during the trip as springboards into quite vivid vignettes about Chinese history, both recent and more distant.
Was it good?
The book is exceptionally good, I would say. Not only is Gifford a superb writer (at least to my taste), but in addition the 'two-dimensional' structure of the book (the road trip on the 'x axis' or timeline and the vignettes on the 'y axis) works beautifully.
Moreover, the author is able to put forward a very compelling and well-argued interpretation of Chinese history, present and likely future(s).
The main take-away for me?
I suppose that the main take-away for me was deepened appreciation of how different human experiences there are in the world. That is, we (or at least I) too rarely consider how things are outside our own social circle - or more broadly, nation. This, I'm convinced, makes us (me) interpret the world too single-mindedly.
Gifford's road trip encounters and vignettes really hammer it home that human beings at this very moment live in vastly different contexts and consequently have immensely different experiences - and consider those as "just another day". Here, I don't say that any of such contexts is at face value better or worse than another, but that our (my) own life experiences are likely constrain how we see the world (c.f. the Whorfian hypothesis in linguistics).
Who should read the book?
This is a book for everyone. It is very accessible to everyone, everyone can (I think) enjoy it from a perspective or another, and everyone should benefit from the broadened horizons Gifford puts forward. Well, this may not apply to Chinese in full force, but Gifford's interpretation of their country and culture should be of interest to them as well. At least I would be very interested in reading Gifford's take on Finnish culture and history!
The book on Amazon.com: China Road