Category Archives: Bookworm’s Corner

Reads that I really enjoy, or have strong enough feelings for that I must write about them.

Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie: Book Review


Two boys are sent to rural China to be reeducated during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. There they discover a suitcase of banned foreign books and befriend the beautiful daughter of the local tailor. That’s it in a nutshell. A charming novel that is easy to read but may be too short and simple to hold much weight in time.

The story reminds me of a folk tale with a fair amount of whimsy in the narrator’s voice and the setting of the countryside and mountains that creates some beautiful imagery. At some points, the poetic language can begin to sound like a fairy tale, but that is often cut short by bits of history and realism in the cruelty of the authorities against intellectuals and the dire conditions the boys must endure to return home. It is also worth noting here that the book contains some graphic scenes in violence and romance that can cause offense or stomach queasiness.

An aspect of this story that has me on the fence is the characters. Our main heroes and heroine, to me, are the typical ‘kind but somewhat misunderstood’ good guys. They are not completely bland but not captivating in a “I LOVE Harry and Ron and Hermione and I want to be their friends!” kind of way. The supporting cast contains an old hermit and a by-the-book friend with glasses who evoke stronger feelings in the reader towards them than the main characters. The overall mildness of the characters, however, does create ordinary voices that we can relate to and make it hard to label a villain, which is true in real life. Still, I think I would’ve liked a little more depth to the characters so I can remember their individual qualities months after reading about their adventure.

The adventure itself, is quite unique and fun. It is a coming of age story, and also one that celebrates culture, specifically literature and music. The discovery of banned books and folk songs changed these characters’ lives and makes me grateful for the range of resources from all over the world we have access to today, especially now thanks to the internet. Although history is not my favourite subject, I think it is important to understand our past because it shapes our perceptions on life and our roles in society. In the end, that’s what this book is about.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a relatively quick-paced and enjoyable read, if you like the premise. As I’ve mentioned before, there is an ordinariness to the plot that portrays life as it is without the melodrama, which some like and others don’t. It’s a nice little book and I would recommend it – I recently discovered that they made a movie from it, which may be interesting to look at – but if you asked me if this is one I would read over and over again, honestly, probably not. Except maybe the ending. I won’t give it away, but yeah, the ending is pretty great.

Thanks for reading,
thebookybunhead

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A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore: Book Review

Let me just say that this gentleman is probably one of the funniest authors around. I’m not sure how many times I chuckled apparently not to myself while reading this; earning peculiar glances that I could only respond to by grinning foolishly, still laughing in my head, or hiding my face behind the covers; but it was worth it. However, as you can guess from the cover, this book’s got its dark side too.

In fact, it’s about Charlie Asher, a Beta male, who has been appointed a job as Death. Along with other ‘Death merchants’, Charlie helps human souls pass on to their next life, a responsibility which he must juggle while taking care of his family and second hand business. What follows is a battle between good and evil as forces from the Underworld threaten to take over. So it’s basically a hero myth, but with context, character, and style unlike any other.

Like I said, Christopher Moore is one of my favourite authors because I can always count on his books for a fun, dramatic read. The characters are colourful, the dialogue between them a zany train of thought, and you never know what to expect as you turn each page. It’s like every time you think you find and follow a straight path, wham! a glass wall appears changing your direction with a most surprising statement or event.

Characters include a Gothic girl chef obsessed with death, an ex-cop who is desperately lovesick and thinks everyone is a serial killer, a reflective homeless known as the Emperor of San Francisco, and two hellhounds named Alvin and Mohammed. But despite the randomness, everything fits, crazy antics contribute to the plot and ’embellishment’ descriptions become relevant; so when you step back, the winding labyrinth of a journey makes a beautiful picture.

In this case, it is the coping and understanding of death that is gained alongside Charlie’s development in his new career. The humour infused throughout makes the serious theme of death not so grave, and I won’t give it away, but leads to a satisfying and serene ending than can be considered enlightening.

One of the characters, Mrs. Ling, is an older Chinese woman who cooks and eats everything, including the deceased pets of Sophie, Charlie’s daughter whom she babysits. Clearly it is a hilarious stereotype, and though its true that Chinese cuisine consists of the strangest meats and parts, how is it really any different than a processed burger patty? All I’m saying is that isn’t it good not to waste anything? Then again I am impartial in the defense…

It is the first book in the series which I hope to read entirely in the future, and I recommend other books by Moore as well, particularly Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.
So, ending my rambling, if you like comedy, mystery, and everything unexpected then I say go for it.

Thanks for reading,
-thebookybunhead

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When Elephants Weep: Brief Book Review

So, this title quickly caught my eye as I was browsing the book shelf as I have always been a sucker for anything animal-themed. Thought it indeed had some very fascinating and touching stories regarding our non-human friends, I must admit this book was not quite what I expected.

Stories include:

– A mother giraffe fends off a lion for an hour to defend her child.
– Koko the gorilla cares for a “pet” kitten she names “All Ball.”
– A male falcon displays uncharacteristic behavior, including sounds that sound like cries of anguish, when his mate is killed.
– A gorilla who is given orange juice as a treat, gives it instead one day to a researcher who complains of a stomach ache. When she returns ten days later, the gorilla insists on the researcher drinking her juice until reassured that the stomach ache is gone.
– And of course, the thing that gives this book its title: elephants have been seen to cry on numerous occasions.
(These examples summarized in the review by Andrew J. Sydlik)

While I thoroughly enjoyed such a vast archive of accounts and stories (this book is well researched and referenced), often times the book takes on a rather ‘preachy’ tone, focusing on the argument of whether animals have feelings or not, instead of insight into how feelings and behaviour integrate which was what I expected. I don’t know how different the views on animal cruelty were when this book was published in 1995, but regardless I find a lot of the book scorning denial for superiority of the human race and scientists who do not take emotions as seriously as they should, when  instead it could have highlighted works that have been done to support the argument of existence and importance of emotions in non-humans.

That being said, and being the biased animal lover that I am, the many stories will leave you well entertained and more affectionate of our animal friends than you were before, so I would say, give it a go, just feel free to skip some of the in-between stuff.

Thanks for reading!
-thebookybunhead

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“See the music, hear the dance.” -George Balanchine

So we all know Balanchine was a genius. But apart from his achievements of irreversibly changing ballet vocabulary and staging (he doesn’t ‘create’, God does) one of the most diverse, lasting repertoire of ballet works today, he was also a man of character – of passionate drive, and nonchalance.

“George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker” written by Robert Gottlieb documents the illustrious development of his career and works, and attempts to explain his deep philosophies of dance and music; but possibly most fascinatingly, allows us a glimpse into daily life of the man, compiling true and intimate memories through people who actually knew him. It is one of many biographies about this amazing artist, and a rather nice short and light one to start off with.

It is truly a remarkable story, spanning across the globe from Russia, to Europe, to America; and in different fields, from operas, to ballet companies, to film and Broadway. It is easy to speak of Balanchine’s successes and label him a superhuman; however, this story reveals the hardships and failures that went along with cultivating his talents. Funny to think he was not interested in dance when he was first accepted in to Mariinsky. It is always inspirational to learn the story of how someone seemingly ordinary can become so extraordinary. Though there are discrepancies regarding his own dancing as written in the opinions of the book, there is absolutely no doubt of Balanchine’s choreographic merit.

In addition being a talented musician Balanchine integrated dance and music in intricacies that were never seen before. His works can be seen as simple and yet rich simultaneously.  He had great relationships with as well as respect for his dancers, and it shows in the final product onstage. Mr. B, as they called him, inspired them in every rehearsal, specific to his esthetic but always willing to explore, sometimes even using mistakes for the piece. As much as he admired beauty, especially that of the female ballerina, he valued musicality, dynamics and agility in a dancer. For him, dance in one word: energy.


(with Stravinsky, a life-long partnership)

In spite of his vibrancy, Balanchine was, I dare say, a quiet man. And it is predictable considering his childhood isolation from basically being dumped at the school by his parents for his better future and leaving his home country at teenage years only to not see most of his family again. He certainly loved his family, but did not speak of them often, which leads me to a thought, how special is a blood relation? Sure, family is family, and the bonds are irreplaceable and infinite, but do between parent and child, or sibling to sibling, they need to be built just as in any other relationship?

Of some similarity was a sort of disattachment in his marriages. Balanchine had several muses, five of whom became his wife at some point in their lives, and when he loved he was truly passionate. He put women on a pedestal in a sort of veneration, which is not suited for everyone. Often it was a splitting in their professions that caused drifting between the couple as Balanchine needed a muse for creation and inspiration.

Dismissing any eccentricities that I must admit defines every artist, Balanchine was a generous man to the ballet world. He pushed the boundaries of an existing art form while remaining true to its core and virtuoso. I can only imagine from this reading what it must have been like to be taught by him, meet him, or simply to have a peek of him in the studio.

(Photos from two of my favourite Balanchine ballets: Serenade and Apollo)

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Mindset by Carol S. Dweck: A ‘key to success’ book that actually serves its purpose well

Let’s face it. There are so many self help books out there, it is a difficult task to decide on picking one that is actually helpful despite reading the cover, judging the authenticity of “it will change your life” quotes,skimming through the content. So I have saved that trouble for you, tadah!

Possibly the only book you ever need to become successful:

Mindset

I do not hesitate in saying that this book will change your life. It sounds so cliche, but it is so true! I cannot articulately explain just how (that’s what the book is for) but basically, it enlightens us to the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

There are so many things outside of our control; we can’t change the world around us, our situations, or how others act and think. And it’s hard to change ourselves, our habits and our personality. So this book doesn’t tell us how. What we can change is how we look at ourselves and the world. And that is what this book is about. It is amazing how a change in perspective not only affects the way you think, but also how you act and react. It is an idea that is so wide-spread it can relate to everyone – students, teachers, parents – and be applied to all aspects of life, whether you’re an athlete, a musician, or an accountant.

Here’s an excerpt from her website with a helpful example:

“In the academic arena, mindset plays an important role. Students with a growth mindset are more likely to continue to persist when they struggle, while those who believe their intelligence is fixed are more likely to give up. Dweck has shown, too, that cues from parents and educators about performance can impact students’ beliefs and future actions.

Consider this example: a student completes a challenging mathematics problem successfully and her teacher offers praise by saying, “Great job! Clearly, you are very good at math.” What effect might this feedback have on the student’s beliefs? Dweck’s research indicates that this type of feedback—praising innate ability—reinforces the fixed mindset and the belief that people are born either with mathematics skills or without them. Further, she has shown that praise that reinforces this belief undermines students’ motivation and future learning, leading them to avoid more challenging tasks to protect themselves from failure.

Now consider an alternative: when the student completes the challenging mathematics problem, the teacher responds by saying, “Great job! You must have worked hard at that problem! Nice effort!” How might this feedback have a different effect on the student’s beliefs? Dweck has demonstrated that this response—praising effort instead of intelligence—reinforces the belief that success is developed through persistent effort. Dweck’s research also shows that even when a student fails at a task, this type of feedback indicates that struggle and failure are normal, and that effort is a crucial part of eventual success.”

And the best part about this book is the simplicity of its message. Some of you may have heard of the famous “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey, and while I learned from that book too, this one’s better. There aren’t many rules to follow or steps to take that are difficult to remember, instead only one, clear message:

I'm going to succeed cause I am crazy...

Ok, so this is a very crude portrayal of the concept but it gives you the idea.

I have seen a great difference in the way I approach my work in both ballet and school since reading this. Because I am less concerned about what I can do now but rather what I will be able to do in the future, perfectionism has diminished allowing me to take more risks. It also taught me that talent is not enough. Through hard work and perseverance anything is possible, and the book has many examples of that. I don’t procrastinate as much, scared to start a paper, worried that it will not turn out perfect – because it is my effort and how much I learn during the process that counts. This idea persuaded me to work harder by doing extra exercises to supplement the training of my daily dance classes. After reading it, I just felt so enlightened and motivated that I truly can reach, or at least, should try to reach, my full potential.

I hope I have interested you in this book if you haven’t read it already (in which case I’d be interested to hear what you think) because sincerely I’d feel like I’ve contributed to a better mankind with each person that reads this. I guarantee it is a worthwhile read, if not mind-bogglingly life-changing at least moderately interesting.

Read on,
thebookybunhead

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