I read and loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by the same author. I remember thinking at the time that Ms. See did a remarkable job of vividly describing the surroundings of her characters, while also making them seem like real and sympathetic people -- people I could almost recognize, despite the time and place of the story. I feel even more strongly about this book. Pearl and May start out as privileged young Chinese women in Shanghai in 1937 and end up 2 decades later in post-World War II California, both - but particularly Pearl - greatly changed. No spoilers here, but I was riveted by the perspective of this story, from China during the Japanese invasion to the Chinatown of Los Angeles before the second world war to Chinese-American life during and after the Communist takeover of mainland China. But the book is not simply a history of this period from the characters' viewpoints. It is also a richly developed character study, with very real dialogue, passions, conflicts and misunderstandings. Janet Song is an excellent reader, with her slight accent and excellent pronunciation of Chinese words. Her steadily prevailing tempo and control is very suggestive of Pearl herself.
There is a certain nakedness to Stegner's storytelling, in the sense that it doesn't shy away from uncomfortable subjects like death and troubled marriages. His characters are not always likeable, but they are very real and may even remind you of people you know. This is a book about the life of a friendship between two couples over many years. Stegner explores the joy and excitement of the young friendship, but he recognizes that friendships can die away to almost nothing for long periods of time, only to be reignited by a major event. Stegner's appeal (for me anyway) is in his ability to develop his characters as they age and deal with life's challenges -- as well as to describe their surroundings lovingly and vividly. This story is not predictable, nor does it offer any particular shocks or surprises. However, it is gut-wrenching in its honesty about human beings and the institutions of marriage and friendship.
Suffice it to say that they don't say anything about this chapter of Henry Ford's life in his hometown of Dearborn, where I spent a lot of time in my childhood. Grandin depicts a man filled with hubris who seemed to think he couldn't fail at anything he tried. Yet, he failed miserably with Fordlandia, his attempt to build a worker's paradise in the Amazon -- not least because he couldn't be bothered to visit the place himelf - not even once - and was incredibly short-sighted about the realities of transferring Dearborn to the jungle. What is perhaps even more disturbing is that much of the ignorance that characterized his decisions about Fordlandia was also present in the way he ran his operations back home and saw his own place in the world. It's a tribute to the men and women that came after him that Ford Motor Co. itself has not gone the way of Fordlandia.
A short note aobut the narrator -- although his reading is a bit slow and halting, as some reviewers have noted, his pronunciation of the Brazilian words and place names is impressive and really enhanced my listening experience.
I find myself agreeing with the review written by "Ella." Ballerini is an excellent narrator, but the story is lacking. I enjoyed the young Pasquale scenes much more then the modern-day scenes -- I felt that the story line went off-track when it settled into the modern day. The sections I enjoyed most involved the villagers and their humorous observations, as well as Pasquale's determination to do right by Dee. Not bad for a light summer read, but I am not enthusiastically recommending it to my friends.
Having read most of the previous reviews of Audible listerners, which range widely, I feel compelled to add my view. Haddon shows in this book an uncannily billiant talent for writing about families' inner workings, most of which never see the light of day, but instead go on in our heads, contributing to all the unfair assumptions and misunderstandings that arise among family members. Each of the characters in The Red House is a very real, flawed (that is, recognizable) human being, and I marvelled at the way the author gave life to them, made each of them likable and unlikeable at the same time, made me ache for them and shout in frustration at them, and ultimately reached a credible ending that doesn't tie up all the loose ends, much like real life. Haddon is equally adept at giving voice to the private thoughts of a middle-aged self-questioning doctor with no children of his own and a teenage girl who is feeling alienated and confused about her own identity. Yes, his style is a tad inaccessible at times (he loves lists...for example, of the various items for sale in a second-hand store -- not sure what the point there was), and I wished the narrator had taken longer pauses to mark the sometimes unexpected switches between one character's perspective and another, so I could catch up with him; however, the tone and pace of the book felt much like I imagine a week in the country, thrown together with a lot of relatives one hasn't seen in a long time, would feel -- the disconnectedness, the boredom, the insecurity, the sense that you have to accomplish something before the week is over, and the occasional moments of love and understanding. If you like to escape into novels, this may not be the best book for you, but if you appreciate writers who can bring the real world, with all of its imperfections, to you in achingly poignant prose and have you nodding your head in recognition, then I highly recommend The Red House. I'm very glad I listened to it.
It seems so rare today that authors take the time to follow a character's development and show it to the reader through actions and reactions that feel nothing but natural in the circumstances. In this book, Cora undergoes remarkable but very believable changes, triggered by her natural instinct at the beginning of the story to leave her Wichita home for a summer in New York City as the chaperone of Louise Brooks. Although she does not fully realize it at first, her life in Wichita has become suffocating and depressing to her soul. In New York, where she is free from the wagging tongues and well-meaning judgments of her Wichita peers, Cora begins to see herself in a new way and takes very definite steps to change her life for the better -- and she stays true to this path (as well as to those she loves) for the rest of her life.
What an uplifting and meaningful gem of a book, read perfectly by Elizabeth McGovern.
I confess to becoming completely caught up in this story, so I was a bit dismayed to read that some believe Ms. Markham did not actually write it. If she did, she certainly had a gift for beautiful prose -- in addition to living a grand adventure. There are passages of this book, starting with the first page, that are simply transporting. Julie Harris was an excellent choice to read it.
Before I read this book, I knew nothing about Ernest Hemingway's early adult life, and this was a great way to discover it. I particularly enjoyed the point of view from which the story is told (Hemingway's first wife) and thought the narrator's voice suited Hadley well. Early in the book, it was easy to understand the mutual attraction, and I realized that I too could have fallen in love with the young writer, so it was with dread that I recognized the early signs of his decline as the book progressed. This was a fascinating time in American literary history, and McLain did an excellent job of bringing it to life.
Overall, I'm glad I listened to this book and learned about Clara Driscoll. It was gratifying to find out, through a little Internet research, that the story is based heavily on the real Clara's letters and actual stained glass pieces she is believed to have designed. The narrative, however, does drag on a bit, as other reviewers have noted, and there are a number of barely-developed characters of whom it is hard to keep track. Perhaps most importantly for me, the narrator's voice very often was unconvincing. I found her English accents unrealistic and her tone frequently sarcastic when sarcasm did not seem appropriate. The strength of this book is in the life and character of the real person, Clara Driscoll, who produced incredible works of decorative art (for which, until very recently, she received no recognition), while also managing a large department of mostly immigrant working women during a time when a workplace like Tiffany Studios was almost unheard of for women. Susan Vreeland unquestionably has a knack for bringing art to life.
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