Not Faulkner's best by a long shot, but the book is better than the narrator allows it to be. The effect is similar to that of having a mosquito at your ear while you are trying to sleep. . . .
I enjoyed the first three quarters of this book, as it was historical in nature, and I was fascinated by Castro's dream and the action he took to see it through. But as the last quarter of the book progressed, Castro's self-aggrandizing built to a ridiculous crescendo, and he came off delusional and embittered. Ignacio Ramonet, who asked no tough questions in the first three fourths of the book, asked only a few in the last quarter, and when it was clear that Catro was providing delusional answers, there was zero follow up. This was not an interview. It was a carefully-contrived list if questions that Castro clearly reworked to put himself in the best light. Any self-criticism he offers is qualified. While Cuba has made some remarkable progress in realizing Catro's dream of socialism, Castro has held his people back from being a free people, which is indisputable, and for that, he has no remorse. He blames all of Cuba's woes on the US, and refuses to accept that he could have changed Cuba for the better if he had really cared about his people as much as his ideals and his legacy. He stopped being relevant decades ago, as did The Revolution, and there was no one willing to confront him in his own country. Narrators capable of correct pronunciation of Spanish should have been selected. Some of the pronunciation was really lousy and distracting. My advice is, stop listening after Part Three.
Moves around, but goes nowhere, and the ending leaves you wondering why it was written at all. The protagonist is whiney and self-loathing. I've lived in China for 16 years, and while there are some interesting tidbits in here for people who've never been to the country, from the perspective of a person who understands the country, it's weak and made me want to yawn - a lot. It wasn't until I finished the novel that I figured out what it was that made me think it was fatally flawed, and then it just hit me. While the author may have spent enough time in China to have the insight and ability to get around like the protagonist does - the problem is, the protagonist doesn't have time to understand China sufficiently to go through the experiences she goes through. She talks and acts like an "old hand", but if you work through the timeline, she could have only spent at most, two years in China before she has these experiences. Furthermore, she indicates when she first got there she really didn't get out much. There's absolutely no way someone with such little time on the ground in a place like Beijing, could or would have the sort of experiences and the insight the character has. It's ludicrous, frankly. As a writer, i'd say, she's, well, "meh." There are a few well-turned phrases, and the structuring is good, but plot's lousy and there are far too many cliches. Plus, too many phrases/words are repeated. "knots" of people, "seamed" faces, etc. But, the biggest tragedy was the narration. I've never, ever heard any Chinese people speak English the way the reader presented. I laughed every time she tried to imitate a Chinese person - which was about 25% of the book. And the place names and Chinese words were a joke. One last pet peeve: The word is "concrete" not "cement". Cement is a constituent of concrete. You wouldn't say, I ate a "flour" when you mean you ate bread. Ergo, the sidewalk is concrete, not cement.
Having lived in China for 16 years, I am an avid fan of Hessler's work, and have hard copies of all three books as well as the audiobooks. However, I prefer Audiobooks, because of my lifestyle. What I don't understand is why Hessler would allow Berkrot to read his books. The books are all 5-Star, but Berkrot is a lousy choice for books filled with Chinese characters and Chinese words. I recognize that I am biased because I live in China and know when Chinese is being butchered, and I recognize that the cringes I have to deal with at every other word are partially my problem. I guess my collection of Audible books with Chinese topics and themes would probably rival any other collector's, so I consider myself a knowledgeable critic on this subject. The pity of it is, while Hessler's hardbacks are on my top shelf, Berkrot is, hands down, the "worst" narrator for Chinese-themed books that I have listened to - nobody butchers like Berkrot. Hessler has spent so much time in China - why would he want someone to read his book that does such a poor job with Chinese names and words? I hope Hessler is reading these, as I'm sure he'll keep writing about China, and I hope he can find someone who can at least get, say 5% of the pronunciations in the realm of acceptable. If Berkrot "must" read your work, tell him its "Bei "J"ing. It has a "J" because it sounds the same as John or Jeff. Would Berkrot say Zhohn and Zheff??
The subject matter of this book is compelling from so many different perspectives. Having lived in Shenzhen since the mid-90's, and having spent many years in the trading business and more time than I care to admit trudging around factories in China, I was very excited to see this book come out, and was expecting so much from it. The information conveyed here is really good, and the author does a very workmanlike job of conveying factual (mostly) information. The writing, however, is horrendous. I've read better on the back of cereal boxes - seriously. I honestly don't understand why a publisher would let this out of their shop - I can only guess its because of her connections with the WSJ. And the only thing worse than the writing is the narration. The narrator has no passion for the subject matter, and it comes off exactly that way. She makes bland writing even worse. And as for the pronunciation of the Chinese, it's abysmal, inconsistent (the city of Dongguan comes up several hundred times in the book, and she butchers it at least 6 different ways, including pronouncing backwards once); I didn't hear one Chinese word that was even close to correct pronunciation. For anyone that lives in China interested in this compelling topic, it's like listening to fingernails on a chalkboard. I struggled through it only because I have a personal interest in the topic. If I saw anything else from this writer or the narrator, I'd steer well clear of it.
A fascinating account made almost unbearable by the poor English translation and ridiculous narration. The English translation is Americanized colloquial and entirely unrealistic. Worse yet, the voices created by the narrator are tragic, including Omar with a California "surfer dude" accent. Very distracting considering the gravity of the subject matter. What a disappointment.
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