Balzac and the little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (thoughts on Part III & review)

TitleBalzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Author: Dai Sijie
Genre: historical fiction (semi-autobiographical)
ISBN: 9780375413094
Length: 197 pages
Published: 2000 (in French, 2002 English)
Source: personal collection
Rating: 3/5
Resolutions/Challenges: none

Reason for Reading: It was in my personal collection and my online book club (Rory’s Book Club) was reading it.

Summary (from book jacket):

At the height of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, two boys are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for “re-education.” The narrator and his best friend, Luo, guilty of being the sons of doctors, find themselves in a remote village where, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they are made to cart buckets of excrement up and down precipitous winding paths. Their meager distractions include a violin–as well as, before long, the beautiful daughter of the local tailor.

But it is when the two discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation that their re-education takes its most surprising turn. While ingeniously concealing their forbidden treasure, the boys find transit to worlds they had thought lost forever. And after listening to their dangerously seductive retellings of Balzac, even the Little Seamstress will be forever transformed.

My Thoughts (about the book in general): In general, I felt rather indifferent towards this book. I didn’t find anything to be overwhelmingly amazing and interesting, nor horribly boring and pathetic. While I found the setting–both time and place–interesting, I didn’t feel like I got much out of the story that would be educational. Yeah, I know that just because it was set in a tumultuous time, that doesn’t mean it has to have a tumultuous story.

Part III Thoughts (for RBC discussion located here)(SPOILERS):

(Here is my post about Parts I & II)

When Dai mentioned those authors’ names, I first thought, “Why so many French writers?” Upon thinking it over, it’s possible that these were authors Dai might have read around the time of his own re-education. I mean, be did move to France after he left Communist China. So I’m thinking there are two possibilities: either Dai read these authors when they were forbidden and they made him choose to live in France or he picked French writers because he moved to France.

I am left a little unfulfilled in the respect that I never learned what the narrators name was. He even described the “three figures representing the three Chinese characters constituting my name.” These were a galloping horse, a pointed sword, and a bell with lots of strokes around it. I suppose I could try to figure it out by Googling these descriptions 🙂 But why did he never say? So many chances to tell, but never did.

“It would evidently take more than a political regime, more than dire poverty to stop a woman from wanting to be well dressed: it was a desire as old as the world, as old as the desire for children.” (p130)
^^^I just found this to be pretty funny 🙂

The random chapters narrated by the miller, Luo, and the Little Seamstress I didn’t enjoy very much. I felt they were out of place with the rest of the story, especially because there wasn’t really any significance to the change of voice. Nothing special happened in these chapters to make the narrative switch necessary. Just another somewhat odd question I have (like the narrator’s name).

I was pretty sure that the narrator and the LS were going to betray Luo’s trust. I was thinking of the love triangle in the movie Pearl Harbor where one guy leaves and his best friend moves in on the girl (although in the movie, they thought he was dead, so it was a legit switch). There were lots of clues I saw to that effect. But I was wrong. This didn’t happen, at all. Although I hadn’t really foreseen the LS’s pregnancy. And I definitely didn’t think she’d run off the way she did. I mean, I didn’t think exactly that she and Luo would end up happily ever after. But I hadn’t expected her to run away.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Parts I & II discussion for RBC (SPOILERS)

Here are my thoughts on the first half of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. I’m reading this for a book club discussion, hosted at Rory’s Book Club (RBC) (click here to see the discussion threads).

I’ve found this book to be very interesting so far. I haven’t really spent a lot of time in communist China in books before, so it is very interesting to read about that time. My book’s blurb about the author says that he was re-educated between 1971-1974. And I think that makes me more intrigued by the story–the fact that it’s semi-autobiographical. Or at least that mountain villages and people are somewhat accurate in representation, since he experienced them first-hand.

I, of course, enjoy the fact that much of the story centers on Luo and the narrator (I don’t recall his name being mentioned yet) attaining forbidden books. One has to wonder, would they want to read them if they were allowed to? Or, given the chance, would they read Eastern classics over Western ones? Personally, I’ve never read anything by any of these authors except Dumas. (Authors mentioned were Balzac, Hugo, Stendhal, Dumas, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Romain Rolland, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Kipling and E Bronte.)

I have to say that I’m a little surprised that the narrator and Luo didn’t fight over the Little Seamstress. And Luo is the more confident one, as far as the storytelling goes. I can’t help but wonder, if the Little Seamstress is so beautiful, how the narrator has no feelings of wanting her at all. It’s a little strange that we don’t really know anything about Luo’s and the Little Seamstress’s relationship–but all of the sudden, the narrator mentions that they had sex (and even a little detail, at that!). It makes me wonder whether or not that relationship really means anything. But, then again, the narrator just might not relate everything Luo says. The narrator seems to feel inferior to Luo, but is totally okay with it. And I find that a little strange…

Oh, and I’m wondering if there’s any significance to that rooster clock. If the villagers went through all the belongings that the two boy brought with them and saw anything of value, they could’ve taken it and made it “community property”, couldn’t they? (If they were true communists and shared everything, that is.) Or maybe they were just supposed to take away anything “revolutionary”. Either way, it seems like the headman, who so admired the clock, could easily just take it away from the boys. What role will the clock take later, I wonder…

On a previous note, I wonder why the narrator has no name. Even when asked his name by Four-Eyes’ mother, he replied with Luo’s name. What’s the significance to this?!

Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte–Final Thoughts

TitleThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Bronte
Genre: fiction (classic)
ISBN: 9780760783276
Length: 456 pages
Year Published: 1848
Source: personal collection
Rating: 4/5
Challenges/Resolutions: Victorian Lit Challenge; Personal Collection Resolution; Years of Books Goal

Reason for Reading: First, and foremost, I read this to discuss on the Rory’s Book Club discussion forum, located here. But I also was interested in reading something by Anne Bronte because I have already read books by Charlotte and Emily, her sisters (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, respectively). So, now I have read one of each Bronte 🙂 It just also happened to fit into my Victorian Lit Challenge and Years of Books Goal.

Summary:

Gilbert Markham is deeply intrigued by Helen Graham, a beautiful and secretive young woman who has moved into nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son. He is quick to offer Helen his friendship, but when her reclusive behavior becomes the subject of local gossip and speculation, Gilbert begins to wonder whether his trust in her has been misplaced. It is only when she allows Gilbert to read her diary that the truth is revealed and the shocking details of the disastrous marriage she has left behind emerge.

My Thoughts: Overall, I found this book to be quite intriguing. There were certainly many questions I wanted answered throughout the book. However, when those questions were answered, the story was left sort of lacking for interest. The apex of the story, when we finally find out where Mrs. Graham came from and why (and also a little later how Mr. Lawrence is involved in all of this), comes later in the novel and I wasn’t as interested in the story afterwards. But there were a few twists and turns Bronte included that brought back my interest by bits–a sick man and a marriage, to give an idea but not ruin the story. Although, I have to admit that I’ve been reading the Hunger Games series and watching The Tudors on DVD, so that might be why I was distracted when I should’ve been reading 😦

Regardless of the slight lapse of interest towards the end, I think I have to say that I liked this book more than Wuthering Heights which I liked better than Jane Eyre. Oddly enough, I read them starting with my least favorite–liking each one more as I go along. However I think this may be due to my maturity also growing and, therefore, finding better solace in the books the later I read them. This was my first Anne Bronte. But I love that the sisters wrote in such different ways. Their villains and disastrous situations are all different, and I’m glad that no one of them fell into the style of her sisters.

I noticed at the end of this novel that the narrator was a man. Yes, of course I realized at the beginning that Gilbert is a man’s name and therefore that he is a man 🙂 But much of the story was composed of Mrs. Graham’s diary, therefore being narrated by a woman. And I wonder at the fact that these two separate parts of the book weren’t very different. In today’s world I think that there are distinctive behaviors attributed to the different sexes (at least in general), but both the narrations from Mrs. Graham’s diary and Gilbert’s letter are very similar. Which leads to something else: I don’t think that I’ve ever read of a man’s feelings of love for a woman from his own perspective. And definitely not written by a woman author. I wonder if Bronte had any difficulty writing from a man’s perspective? Austen, whose writing is closest in time to the Brontes that I’ve ever read, did not write from the male perspective, but rather the male perspective as interpreted by the female character.

Favorite Quotes:

“…it is never too late to reform, as long as you have the sense to desire it, and the strength to execute your purpose.”
p347, Helen to Mr. Hattersley

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“Increase of love brings increase of happiness.”
p374, Helen

My Thoughts on the Cover: I happen to love the cover of my edition, which, believe it or not, is rather hard to find a decent sized image of on the internet. Nevertheless, I have the Barnes & Noble edition. I think the cover image is a perfect representation of the character of Mrs. Graham.

Years of Books Goal

Tenant of Wildfell Hall Ch. 29-40 (RBC discussion, SPOILERS)

This third section is, I think, my favorite of the whole book so far. It’s just really interesting because there is a lot going on and we finally get some answers to some questions.

To begin with, we finally figure out what exactly it is that Mr. Huntingdon did to tick off Helen: he had an affair with Annabella (Lady Lowborough). But I thought it was interesting that this wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. But, then again, with the time-period the book I can understand why it is that Helen didn’t leave as soon as she found out about the affair. Helen stuck it out for about two years, living at home with her “husband”–I’m sure if they had Facebook, their relationship status would’ve been “separated” or “in an open relationship” 🙂 Anyways…I give Helen a lot of credit for sticking it out. It must be hell to live alongside a person whom you hate. But, as I don’t have children of my own, I don’t think that I could empathize with her. I won’t know until I have children just what I’d go through for them. (Although I know I would go through a lot for my husband, sisters, and other close family/friends.) But what made Helen decide to finally leave Mr. Huntingdon was that little Arthur, at the tender age of four, was already mimicking his father 😦 I cannot imagine a four-year-old behaving the way Helen described it. (I have to admit that the first thing I thought of in regards to a tipsy tot was Stewie from Family Guy, an American cartoon.) But that would definitely scare me into wanting to leave!

But then something pretty unexpected happened, and right at the end of our section! Mr. H found out that Helen was planning to run away and confiscated pretty much anything of hers with value so she couldn’t get money. So we’re left with a cliff hanger before the next section, leaving us wanting to know how she ends up leaving him if he did this. I mean, maybe he does end up dying, although the fact that Helen acts as a fugitive makes it appear he’s alive and well. But, at least now we know at least one of the bad things Mr. H did.

One thing that I noticed about the men in this section is that they tend to know when they are behaving like imbeciles. Mr. H, for example, was misbehaving in order to gain attention. Well, at least from Helen’s biased viewpoint 🙂 And Hattersley basically told Helen that he couldn’t be bothered to think about what he does. He wants Millicent to be his moral compass–to tell him when he does wrong–so that he doesn’t have to be bothered to think. Hattersley just seems lazy when I tells Helen this. And Mr. H appears needy. But I think that these are weird behavior patterns to gain what they want. If they know that they’re not doing good/right things, why bother doing them at all? Mr. H should remember that he’d be paid attention for good and not just bad–Helen always doted on him when he did right. But I’m pretty glad that I personally don’t know anyone who acts like this…at least not all the time 🙂

So, the questions I still need answered are these: How is Mr. Lawrence involved in Helen’s plight? How did Helen finally run away? and Does Mr. H actually track them down (if alive, which I think he is) before the book ends?

thoughts on Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Ch. 15-28 (RBC discussion, SPOILERS)

(Here is a link to my post about the first 14 chapters of Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.)

This second section of the book is sooo interesting!! It’s during this section that we finally learn about Helen’s past. For the first 14-ish chapters we’re left completely wondering what happened in her past that led her to bring her small son and move into Wildfell Hall. The way that Helen behaves in relation to little Arthur leads us to believe that something happened in her past, probably with Arthur’s father (Mr. Arthur Huntingdon), that makes her want to protect him and not let him even have the chance to learn how to become another version of his father. But even within this grouping of chapters, some of my questions have been left quite unresolved. Such as: What happened between Helen and Mr. H to make her be a Mrs. Graham living in Wildfell Hall? Did he actually die? Did they divorce (heaven forbid for someone as pious as Helen)? Did she actually run away from him and “kidnap” little Arthur? This last possibility makes a little sense–Mrs. Graham could be a made up name and her reasoning for titling her paintings with different geographic locations could all indicate that she is trying to hide from Mr. H. But one of the greatest questions of all (for me at least) is, what does Mr. Lawrence have to do with any of this? Is he perhaps privvy to Helen’s schemes and helping her out?

One thing that I realized especially in this section is Helen’s regard towards Mr. H. Very close to the end of this section is when Helen is finally getting fed up with him, but before that I noticed a trend. Helen would start a diary entry being very mad at something Mr. H did, but by the end of the entry, she would’ve forgiven him because he promised to not do such things again. Now, this wouldn’t be bad if she didn’t always lament about how he can never be in earnest or speak seriously on any subjects. Wouldn’t you think that a person who knows someone else never is serious about what they say would know that they may not be truthful in their promises to stop doing “bad” things?? 😕 I would think Helen would’ve caught on to this. But she must have been completely blinded by love. And her thoughts that she could change Mr. H.

Which leads me to another point: marrying people that have faults when you think you can change them doesn’t always work! I know this from personal experience. My oldest aunt married her husband probably a little under 30 years ago. He’d been married before and surely had his faults (controlling/domineering is putting it lightly). But she was young, as far as her experience with men goes (she was in her later 20s), and she thought she could change him. But she couldn’t. And, while they’re not divorced or separated–she’s too “Christian” to give up on him (essentially her own words)–he lives in California and she lives in Ohio (that’s about 2000 miles). This has been the situation for about 6-7 years. So, thinking you can change someone only works if they’re somewhat willing to change.

~*~JANE EYRE & WUTHERING HEIGHTS SPOILERS~*~
And one last thing that I want to talk about is that I’m really liking Mr. H as a villain. Let me explain…I read a lot of Jane Austen–or reread, rather. I feel her villains are often very similar to each other. Now, I know the Bronte sisters are three different authors, and therefore their villains will be different. But I feel their stories are similar in a very general sense–with a woman wronged by the villain (that’s why he’s a villain!) But their villains are so different. Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre) isn’t known to be bad until towards the ending, while Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)  is essentially bad right off. But Mr. H is in between. He’s not bad right off, at least not the way Helen sees him. But he’s certainly known to be bad before the ending. I just like that he’s different 🙂 Obviously I don’t care for his character.
~*~END SPOILERS~*~

I can’t wait to keep reading to find out the answers to my earlier questions!! 😀

Tenant of Wildfell Hall Ch.1-14 thoughts (RBC Discussion, SPOILERS)

NOTE: If you’d like to read and/or discuss (if you have already read) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, there is a discussion thread for it at the Rory’s Book Club website. If you click here, it will take you there. It’s never too late to join in 🙂

I really enjoyed this beginning. I especially liked the first chapter, in which Markham describes the residents of the village and how Bronte wrote it. Markham was supposed to have been writing the descriptions to a friend of his in a letter, but yet it didn’t exactly feel like a letter when reading it. The beginning was typical of the Bronte sisters. It was slower moving, but still sort of building up something that lets you know it’s going to get interesting if you can stick through it.

Question #3 asks “Chapter 3 deals with the question of how to raise a young boy. What do you make of this debate, and does the novel come down on one side or the other?” And I kept this question in mind when I was reading. And, quite frankly, I love the little debate that comes from Mrs. Graham’s treatment of Arthur. I think it deserves some direct quotes to illustrate the debate:

“What is it that constitutes virtue, Mrs. Graham? Is it the circumstance of being able and willing to resist temptation; or that of having no temptations to resist?…If you would have your son to walk honorably through the world, you must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them–not insist upon leading him by the hand, but let him learn to go alone.”
p22, Markham’s side

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“It must be either that you think she [women in general] is essentially so vicious, or so feeble-minded, that she cannot withstand temptation, and though she may be pure and innocent as long as she is kept in ignorance and restraint, yet, being destitute of real virtue, to teach her how to sin is at once to make her a sinner, and the greater her knowledge, the wider her liberty, the deeper will be her depravity…”
p25, Mrs. Graham’s side

Essentially, there is some hypocritical line of logic in Markham. What you might not get from the quotes is that Markham says young boys shouldn’t be brought up to have no temptations but to know how to resist them–they can’t be virtuous if they’re brought up in ignorance. And Mrs. Graham says, “Well, what about girls? Can’t they have virtue even though they aren’t brought up to know temptation, but to be completely concealed from it?” And basically Markham is befuddled at this–he doesn’t really come up with a great answer as to how virtue applies to the sexes. Since they’re brought up in different ways, perhaps they have different definitions of “virtue” for boys and girls??

Moving on…

I don’t know what to think of Mrs. Graham. Towards the end of this section, she is seen in private with Mr. Lawrence. They’re just talking…and touching intimately (for the time). But Markham is in love with Mrs. Graham and at times it appears she is trying not to feel anything for him. So, does she love Markham or is there really something going on between herself and Mr. L?

And what of the fact that Markham assaulted Mr. L in Chapter 14?! What was that? I mean, Markham technically had no incentive to whip Mr. L. Yes, he believes Mrs. Graham might be loving Mr. L, but that’s not Mr. L’s problem. Maybe this physical fight is the male version of what might happen between women if they were fighting for the same man–which, I imagine, would’ve been just talking/gossiping about each other, etc.

But I can’t wait to hear Mrs. Graham’s history! I want to know what happened to what I’m assuming is a sleaze-ball of a husband. He has to be pretty bad if she’s so smothering of Arthur, in my opinion.

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

Title: The View from Castle Rock
Author: Alice Munro
Genre: fiction, short-story collection
ISBN: 9781400042821
Pages: 349
Year Published: 2006
Source: public library
Rating: 3/5
Reason for Reading: for RBC Discussion; Canadian Author Challenge

Book Description (from dust cover):

…In stories that are more personal than any that she’s written before, Alice Munro pieces her family’s history into gloriously imagined fiction. A young boy is taken to Edinburgh’s Castle Rock, where his father assures him that on a clear day he can see America, and he catches a glimpse of his father’s dream. In stories that follow, as the dream becomes a reality, two sisters-in-law experience very different kinds of passion on the long voyage to the New World; a baby is lost and magically reappears on a journey from an Illinois homestead to the Canadian border.

Other stories take place in more familiar Munro territory, the towns and countryside around Lake Huron, where the past shows through the present like the traces of the glacier on the landscape and strong emotions stir just beneath the surface of ordinary comings and goings. First love flowers under the apple tree, while a stronger emotion presents itself in the barn…

Evocative, gripping, sexy, unexpected–these stories reflect a depth and richness of experience. The View from Castle Rock is a brilliant achievement from one of the finest writers of our time.

My Thoughts: I rather enjoyed this collection of short stories, however much I usually dislike such collections. These stories did flow well together, even if each story barely referenced any previous one–they’re the sorts of stories one could read out of order, because no one story depended on any other story.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about these stories were the long time-span of which they covered. Munro starts with a story about her great-great-great-great-grandfather back in Scotland and progresses up until her present life. I like how the stories are collected further into two different collections–the fictional stories about her long lost ancestors who lived in Scotland and their journey to the New World and the further exploration of central-northern US/central-southern Canada. The second part concerns truer stories, stories of Munro’s own life and journeys. this split between fictional and more autobiographical was a good feature I felt Munro used.

Cover: This cover is pretty simple–an old photograph, which I am assuming comes from Munro’s family history. Since the novel is called “The View from Castle Rock”, I think the photo is meant to show the father and son pair, mentioned in the story of the same name, who look across the ocean and see the New World (America/Canada). The boys could either be turned around, and that piece of land in the background is the New World. OR, the photograph could have been “taken” from across the ocean, in a land that is already the New World. Does that make sense? 🙂

The following concerns only the second part of this short story collection, called “Fathers”, due to being a copy of my book discussion post on Rory’s Book Club.

In this second part, I especially liked the “Hired Girl” story. I could relate to Munro (narrator) because I, too, have had summer jobs. Munro worked as a maid in an affluent home for the summer. While I’ve never had this particular job, I have babysat/chauffeured for some rich kids (that’s the closest I’ve been to Munro’s job). Munro was happy with her job because it did show her something of the world outside her small town. I always thought it would have been cool to work on a cruise ship as a summer job. It would have allowed me to travel more and see a little more outside of my very small world. But, unfortunately, I did my summer job on top of my normal year-round job so I couldn’t just quit.

I also liked the “What Do You Want to Know For?” story. I liked how Munro would insert news about her possible breast cancer intermittently throughout the story. It was kind of like saying, “I’m old. I’ve lived my life. I’ll just go on with my everyday routines.” She even said this, in so many words:

“I am over sixty. My death would not be a disaster. Not in comparison with the death of a younger mother, a family wage-earner, a child. It would not be apparent as a disaster.” (p323)

And what sorts of things did Munro do when she was not thinking about her situation?

“I filled my time by answering letters and cleaning up my house and going through my files and having people to dinner. It was a surprise to me that I was busying myself in this way instead of thinking about any deeper matters.” (p317)

On second reading of this quote, I see how these sorts of things could sort of be seen as Munro is wrapping her life up, getting things together, and taking care of anything unfinished. But, I can also see these things as those of everyday daily life. They can be used as a distraction from really thinking. So, I wonder what Munro meant of these things. Was it my first or second impression?