Books: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

December 27, 2014

I suppose since one of my primary criteria in selecting this audiobook was its (short) length, I can’t complain that it didn’t fulfill my expectations. I had four days of work left before Christmas break, so rather than start a new audiobook that would take the usual three weeks or so of weekday commuting, I wanted something only about 4 CD’s long. I browsed through the library’s list of historical fiction on audiobook, and discovered that Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress contained exactly four CD’s.

The novel is mildly interesting, but I really couldn’t get all that interested in the two main characters. Teenage boys, sons of doctors who have been identified as “class enemies” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, they are sent to a remote mountain village for “re-education” by living and working among the peasants. They meet the daughter of a tailor in another village, and fall in love with this “little seamstress.”

They also meet another young man sent to another mountain village for re-education, and discover that he has a suitcase full of Western books. In other words, forbidden books. They manage to steal the suitcase (and the other young man can’t very well report to the authorities the theft of something he should not have had to begin with). They read the books secretly and are enthralled by visions of a world that had been unknown to them. Then they tell the stories to the little seamstress.

Part of this is about the power of books. The boys are supposed to be getting “re-educated” by the peasants, but instead their horizons are expanded by reading books by Balzac, Dumas, and others. And they in turn fill the mind of the little seamstress with Western ideals. Yet her education doesn’t have the results they wanted for her, either.

The boys’ escapades also remind me of Tom Sawyer’s adventures. Like Tom, they learn how to get out of work when possible, and out of trouble. They take the opportunity to take a sort of revenge on the man responsible for their re-education. They come up with an elaborate ruse to trick an old miller, they conspire to steal a treasure (the books), and of course they sneak away to visit the little seamstress whenever possible.

Since I never cared much for Tom Sawyer, I suppose it’s not surprising I don’t care all that much for this duo. The historical information is interesting, but other reviews point out that this novel seems to trivialize the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution. I had thought the book might interest me in reading Balzac for myself, but it didn’t.

Still, some things turn out right. I finished the last CD with only two miles to go on my way home, on my last day of work before Christmas break.

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Books: WWW Trilogy

August 7, 2012

I won’t say that Robert Sawyer is my new favorite author – that’s still Dean Koontz. But Sawyer is now my favorite science fiction author. His WWW Trilogy (Wake, Watch, and Wonder) is thought-provoking, full of real science as well as science fiction, and just plain good story-telling.

The trilogy chronicles the emergence of a conscious mind that somehow exists in the infrastructure of the World Wide Web.Because it has all the resources of the Web at its disposal, it has capabilities humans – and human governments – can only dream of. People use the internet to collaborate, but their efforts are puny next to a “being” that can instantaneously access any and all data of all kinds residing on any computer anywhere in the world so long as it is connected to the internet.

The question is whether such a being will use its vast power in ways that will help or hurt human beings. Because it is not localized in any particular part of the Web, it cannot be controlled.  Without risking devastating effects on the worldwide network of computers that are essential to commerce today, it cannot be removed. But some people think such a powerful non-human intelligence is so dangerous that it is worth the risk involved in destroying it.

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Just to make us think

January 11, 2011

I don’t know exactly what the Wall Street Journal’s reason was to publish this controversial essay about Chinese mothers (other than the obvious, to sell newspapers), but I think it’s good food for thought, no matter what you think of the opinions expressed in the essay.

Hearing a view very different from your own (and I would guess that most readers of my blog would have views much closer to the typical Western parent than the Chinese mother who wrote this essay) can make you see your own views a little differently. Maybe you don’t change your views, but having to think why you hold them is good – better than having those same views without thinking them through.

And maybe thinking about those different views helps you consider that there might be some good points in the opposite view also. After all, why is it that some people do hold such views so tenaciously?

My own inclination is always to guess that the best answer lies somewhere between two extremes. In the context of the article, I would say that typical Western parents can learn from the Chinese about having high expectations, and being willing to do the difficult work of insisting on high standards being met – despite strong resistance from children.

Based on some of the comments (though I read only a few of the 2500+ comments), it’s not at all clear how typical the views of the essay’s author are, among Chinese parents. But however many do hold those views, and see them as superior to the typical Western view (and I don’t know just how typical that view is either, though I would guess pretty widespread), they can learn something from the Western point of view. Not every child can be the best – obviously. There are valuable traits and skills that may not manifest themselves in high grades and awards.

I can’t help but lean more towards the Western view, but it’s worth stopping to ask myself why.

How much of our views comes from the culture we live in? How much from our individual experience (including direct observation of others we know personally)?

Is there one best way to parent? What are the unintended consequences of both parenting styles described?

Must stability in society always be at odds with innovation? If one has to err on one side or the other, which has the better long-term consequences?

Is it possible for everyone to be special? If so, what does it mean to be special?

What do you do with the low achievers in society?

I almost didn’t read the article, because the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” didn’t sound like it could be intended to do anything but grab attention and provoke strong reactions. But I’m glad I did read it. Because it made me think, and that’s always a good thing.


All eyes on China

August 8, 2008

For at least two decades I’ve read conflicting arguments over the best approach to foreign relations with China. Will increased trade help bring about increased freedom for Chinese people, as they are exposed to Western ideas more and experience a taste of free choice at least in the area of buying and selling? Or is that just rewarding the authoritarian regime, allowing them improved status and power without their having to improve their record much if at all?

These questions have come up for a lot of discussion as the preparations for the Beijing Olympics have progressed. And they’re not any easier to answer. I know some people think it was a terrible mistake for the IOC to award the 2008 Summer games to Beijing. They think President Bush should boycott the games. Some of them will practice their own private boycott by not watching the games on TV.

I have little interest in watching the games themselves, but I’ve many times thought about whether or not it’s good to buy products made in China. Some products are made by slave labor, and others by people working in such awful conditions that it might as well be slave labor. Yet other companies in China provide decent working conditions, and offer new opportunities for prosperity, personal advancement, and contact with Western people and ideas, which bring many benefits to their workers and their families. Reducing trade with China would reduce both.

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Reading: The Willow Pattern

June 20, 2008

The genres I like best for leisure reading are historical fiction and mysteries. So naturally I’m especially fond of historical mysteries. My all-time favorite series is the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters, set in medieval England (another of my interests). And I’d be reading more of Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels, if our local library had any.

The first of Van Gulik’s books I read was The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, his translation of a Chinese detective novel, Dee Goong An. I was fascinated to find out that Judge Dee was a real person from history, a district magistrate from the time of the Tang dynasty. The fact that the story was a genuine Chinese detective story, translated to English, rather than a Western detective story set in ancient China, made it all the more interesting to me.

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Spotlight on Beijing

May 7, 2008

To say I’m not interested in sports news is an understatement – my worst category in Trivial Pursuit is Sports & Leisure (though followed closely by Arts & Entertainment). But even I know what country is hosting the Olympics this summer. Of course, most of the news on that topic, for now, is more political than sports-related, as people argue over whether it was right to allow China to host the Olympics, and whether we should boycott the Games.

William McGurn had an interesting column about that question in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. “By agreeing to stage the Olympics, the [Chinese] government has also given a world stage to anyone with a grievance.” How much attention would people be giving the protesters if not for the backdrop of the Olympic Torch relay?  How many people who regularly buy items marked “made in China” without a second thought will reconsider, their awareness heightened by the frequent news stories – generally negative – about China?

Unfortunately the people of China, lacking the free flow of information we enjoy, may not know how much attention the fault of their leaders are getting.