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The Sunday Salon: Rebellious Reading

The Sunday Salon.comSometimes I just don’t want to read the book I’m supposed to read.

I want to ignore the shelf of review books (even though I am excited to read them), skip my pile of library books, and avoid the books pulled because of challenges of other book blogging projects. I just want to read something different.

So for the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to indulge that desire, since I think reading books I’m “supposed” to read when I don’t feel like reading them doesn’t work for anyone. And my rebellious reads have been a lot of fun.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel by Dai Sijie and translated by Ina Rilke

Rating: ★★★★☆

My sister gave me Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie for Christmas because she read it in high school and loved it. It’s a slim little book — only 184 pages — which is part of the reason I rebelled and read it. My brain wanted something short and satisfying. And satisfying it was.

The book is a semi-autobiographical novel (nonfictional fiction, perhaps) about two teenage boys in China, Luo and Ma, who are sent away from the city to a rural village for reeducation because their parents have been declared enemies of the state.

While on the mountain, they meet the Little Seamstress, the daughter of the local tailor, and both boys fall in love with her. They also have a friend, probably more like a frenemy, named Four Eyes who his hiding a suitcase of Western books. Luo, Ma, and the Little Seamstress borrow some of the books, then plot to seal them after Four Eyes turns into a jerk. Finding and reading the books helps open all of their eyes to things the Chinese government has been hiding.

I think I loved this book for two reasons — the prose is really beautifully written and it’s a sweet fable-like story about the power of words to change lives. I think anyone who loves reading would appreciate and enjoy that part of the book.

An Education by Lynn Barber

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I read An Education by Lynn Barber because Care (Care’s Online Book Club) sent it to me in the mail and said she thought I would like it, especially the stuff on journalism. And I liked it, for the most part.

An Education is a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber written in nine parts: “Childhood,” “An Education,” “Oxford,” “David,” “Penthouse,” “Fleet Street,” “Success,” “‘Disaster,” and “Postscript.” Each section covers a period of time in her life, from childhood to working at Penthouse to finding and caring for her husband.

While they are roughly chronological, the sections tend to be more thematic, moving back and forth in time to make each chpater a completed essay on that topic in her life. I loved that organization for a memoir.

The title section — An Education — is about a relationship she developed in high school with a much older con man, and how her parents drastically changed their views of her — from supporting her bid to Oxford to suggesting she give up all that work just to get married. I didn’t love this section, but, it’s also probably the time with the biggest influence on Barber, as she notes:

The Simon debacle left me with a strong distrust of book learning, which I still to some extent retain. My feeling was: I’ve read all these books, I’m supposed to be so clever, and yet I couldn’t even spot the most obvious con trick in the world. I felt that what I urgently needed to understand was Real Life and that Milton and Spenser were of no possible help. This was a poor attitude for embarking on three years study of English Literature. It means that I read the classics impatiently, instead of luxuriating in them as I had at school, because I was dying to learn about the present day. I think it was this attitude that propelled me towards journalism — I still have a somewhat exaggerated hatred of anything to do with the past.

That quote actually illustrates something I did not love about the book — a sort of tendency to over-tell the story. Rather than just letting moments sit, Barber tends to analyze and discuss them, which sometimes feels too self-involved or self-important. But I think in retrospect that critique is sort of minor and just a style of the book.

My favorite sections were actually “Penthouse and “Disaster.” The first because it was interesting for me to see another woman’s perspective on being a journalist, and and the second because it was the most emotional section of the memoir. Barber was a journalist starting in the 1960s, and so has different (and similar) insights on the craft and how to do it than I do, which I loved reading:

“I still get furious with people– including, alas, many of my journalist colleagues — who knock media studies as a somehow worthless or frivolous pursuit. I know that the calibre of teaching is not always great, but I don’t see how anyone can fault media studies as a subject, given that we live in such a media-dominated age. Isn’t it important to give young people some idea of how the media works?”

“I think I probably developed me interview style through those early Penthouse confessionals, where the whole trick was not to look embarrassed, not to interrupt their flow, basically just to be a sympathetic ear.”

I remember lying in my Viennese hotel room thinking, ‘This is amazing — I am being paid to meet someone I would kill to meet anyway.’ Until then, I hadn’t had an particular ambition, but suddenly at 36 I knew what I wanted to do — interviewing, and lots more of it.”

I won’t talk about Disaster at all, since I think it’s better to go into with no idea what it’s about. It was so good though — the only note I have from that section is in big scrawling letters: “Wow — did not see that ending coming! No hints at all… woah!”

Boyfriend and I watched the movie An Education soon after I read it and had mixed reactions. I think the movie is based on a fiction book by Nick Hornby, which is based on Barber’s memoir, but the full memoir was published after the movie came out… is that right?

EDITED TO ADD: Carrie (Nomadreader) clarified my confusion with this comment:

Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay based on that chapter of Lynn Barber’s memoir. There was no novel, and the memoir has been out for quite some time. I haven’t read the book because no one seems to love it, and An Education was one of my two favorite movies last year (and I thought Carey Mulligan should have won the Oscar).

Anyway, Boyfriend thought it was a very “girly” movie, based mostly on what was happening — a young girl meets an older man, gets sucked into a sophisticated life, then rebels against it. I didn’t love that the movie focused only on that section of the memoir, since I thought Barber’s life was more interesting than just a childhood affair. But in general, it was a good movie, and Carey Mulligan as the main character was awesome.

And Moving On…

So that’s been some of my rebellious reading lately. I just picked up another one last night, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik, which is about a yearly bird watching contest. Completely random, but I’m loving it so far because I have a deep affection for books on obscure obsessions.

How do you deal with the urge to read something completely different? How likely are you to diverge from any sort of formal or informal reading obligations? What have been some of your recent rebellious reads?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Amy June 27, 2010, 11:07 am

    I do not do well at all with scheduled reading. I’m hosting the Nigerian mini challenge this month and am struggling to finish a few more of the books I had planned on reading this month. Something about knowing that I HAVE to read them makes me not want to. It’s weird, and something I need to overcome. I usually just go to the tbr pile and pick up something else instead.

    • Kim June 27, 2010, 8:43 pm

      Amy: Yeah, the having to read thing sometimes reminds me of homework and makes me want to rebel. I had been going on rotation of my books, library books, and review books, but that got old. Hence rebellious reading.

  • nomadreader (Carrie) June 27, 2010, 11:39 am

    Re: An Education. Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay based on that chapter of Lynn Barber’s memoir. There was no novel, and the memoir has been out for quite some time. I haven’t read the book because no one seems to love it, and An Education was one of my two favorite movies last year (and I thought Carey Mulligan should have won the Oscar).

    Either way, I’m glad you had some diversionary fun reading!

    • Kim June 27, 2010, 8:44 pm

      Carrie: Thanks for clarifying that — I’ll edit the post accordingly. I didn’t love the book either, but there were enough parts I enjoyed that I’m glad I read it.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) June 27, 2010, 12:49 pm

    Sometimes you just have to stop and read the book that’s calling your name. I’m glad you enjoyed Balzac since it’s in my TBR.

    • Kim June 27, 2010, 8:44 pm

      bermudaonion: Exactly. I think you’ll like Balzac, it’s a nice and interesting little story.

  • Jenny June 27, 2010, 1:22 pm

    I made a rule not to read any books this summer that I can get when I’m at home, thus maximizing my use of the fancy (and expensive) university library here. So my rebellious reads have all been books I should have waited to read until I got home – Diary of a Provincial Lady, Monsters of Men, Sea of Poppies. I enjoyed them all, but my fancy library card was expensive, so I am now back on track, reading up on South Indian temple dancers in the 1800s and 1900s. 😉

    • Kim June 27, 2010, 8:45 pm

      Jenny: That’s funny! I hope you’re enjoying the expensive library card — sounds like you get to read some interesting stuff!

  • Jeane June 27, 2010, 1:40 pm

    I have been trying to stick very close to my challenge lists for the past few weeks, and although making me read many books I’d otherwise have held off on, it’s starting to feel restrictive! I’m ready to break out and just read whatever I feel like for a while.

    • Kim June 27, 2010, 8:46 pm

      Jeane: I have one challenge list right now, Women Unbound, and I’m having a heck of a time making myself read the books even though I want to. Something about lists makes me crazy! Good luck 🙂

  • Amanda June 27, 2010, 5:57 pm

    First quarter of the year, I had a very 3-star sort of reading pattern because I was only picking up what I SHOULD. Soon afterward, I started picking up what I wanted and I’ve had much better luck since. I’m going to stick with that!

    • Kim June 27, 2010, 8:47 pm

      Amanda: That’s a good plan, especially if the SHOULD reading starts to make all reading less enjoyable. It was nice to go off list for awhile and just read whatever.

  • Trisha June 27, 2010, 9:26 pm

    I am definitely a spontaneous reader. I’m terrible at reading by list, aka because I have to, for whatever reason. Reading is my favorite hobby, and I don’t want it to ever feel like work, so I fully intend on sticking to my unscheduled reading tendencies.

    • Kim June 29, 2010, 6:17 pm

      Trisha: I’ve been mixing scheduled and unscheduled, and whenever I feel less like the “required” stuff I take a break for awhile. These to were fun, in that way.

  • Heather June 28, 2010, 4:00 am

    I’m with you on the rebellion. I have a ton of books I should be reading and a ton I really want to be reading. I’m trying to read one of each at a time, but sometimes the one I want to be reading is the jealous child and demands I read it NOW. I’m pretty spontaneous with my reading, love lists but can’t stick to them, and can be pretty ADHD when making myself read something when I’m not feeling it. Bravo to you for going with the flow! And I loved Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress! That is still one of my favorite covers ever.

    • Kim June 29, 2010, 6:19 pm

      Heather: That’s how I’ve been doing it — one I should read then one I want to read. It works most of the time, since most of the ones I should read are also books I want to read.

      But I’m no good at challenges — once a book goes on a challenge list, I might as well put it away because I will never get to it 🙂

  • Lynne June 28, 2010, 7:47 am

    Kim, I’ve been trying to read Middlesex this past week because I’ve had it forever, but it’s just not doin’ it for me? I’ve read 150 pages, but I really think I’m going to give it up. Nothing is happening, and I’m getting bored.

    Should I press on? Does it get better?

    I’m feeling some rebellious reading coming on…

    • Kim June 29, 2010, 6:20 pm

      Lynne: If it’s not doing it for you, then I’d say let it go. How far along is 150 pages — are they in Detroit yet? Is Cal born? If Cal hasn’t been born yet, I’d say stick to that part and then decide, but otherwise let it go.

  • Jeanne June 28, 2010, 7:47 am

    I blame grad school for turning me into a person who will not read anything on assignment–all my reading is rebellious since I finished all the books (yes) on the lists for comprehensive exams in literature.

    • Kim June 29, 2010, 6:22 pm

      Jeanne: Managing to read all the books on a lit exam is impressive — from what professors have told me, those are giant lists. And yay for being rebellious all the time. Since I have some review copies, I feel like I need some structure, but love going off list once in awhile.

  • Andi June 28, 2010, 9:16 am

    Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was one of those big disappointments for me. I read it years ago, and I think it fell prey to hype as so many books do for me. I’m admittedly a VERY finicky reader, so I pretty much read whichever way the wind blows. Deadlines are tough unless I’m just super excited about a book (Coop!).

    • Kim June 29, 2010, 6:23 pm

      Andi: That’s too bad about Balzac. I went in without knowing much of anything, which was really nice for a change. I think it was big a few years ago though, and if I’d read it then the hype might have been too much — I get like that a lot.

  • Care June 29, 2010, 3:32 pm

    Great observations on Barber’s memoir. And your comment “deep affection for books on obscure obsessions” just shows how much of a sophisticated dork you really are! I’m doing OK with reading but had a bit of a rebellious slump in spring. And I’m about to go on vacation with high hopes of pleasant reading time. I’m taking the Oscar cat book that Esme sent, The Samurai’s Garden (highly rec’d by a friend) and American Gods. Plus, I might re-read Franny & Zooey! oh – and A Thousand Splendid Suns. and North Dallas Forty. 🙂 Diverse enough?

    • Kim June 29, 2010, 6:25 pm

      Care: Lol, it’s true though. Some of my favorite books are about obsessive people and the things they’ll do anything for are so good. I’m always reminded of a quote from The Orchid Thief where Susan Orlean says one of her biggest passions is to find something to be passionate about, or something. Basically that she loves other people’s passions more than her own — that reminds me of me.