Wednesday, October 16, 2013


I read two very different books last week. One I didn't finish, the other I devoured in twenty-four hours. The first one was about a jewel thief in Florida, a tell-all memoir of crime, deception, and thievery. The second was about a Chinese peasant who has the one-in-a-billion chance to become a ballet dancer and how his life has unfolded.

I didn't finish Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief by Bill Mason for a few reasons, the main one being language. I'm not adverse to books with scattered swearing as long as it's tasteful or effective. This book wasn't like that, and I got tired of it. I thought learning about the life of a modern criminal would be fascinating. And it was interesting enough, I suppose. It made me aware of a few security risks I hadn't considered, especially for hotels. I wasn't bored. But I wasn't driven to keep reading. I had no desire to finish it, which is odd for me. I finish my books, usually just because I like them, sometimes just out of pride. It may sound naive and obvious, but crime is not as romantic as fiction makes it look. I put this one down.

Then there was Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin. WOW. I really enjoy giving book recommendations when friends ask, and this is the book that I can see myself recommending more than any other. As it now stands, this is going to be my overall non-fiction recommendation of 2013. Everyone should read this book. EVERYONE EVERYONE EVERYONE. A basic description-- it's an autobiography recounting Li Cunxin's journey from an impoverished Chinese village boy destined to labor in the fields to a world-famous professional ballet dancer.

AHHHHHH this book is incredible. I can't even tell you how much this book moved me. There were points that I was nearly in tears, but it was such an optimistic and uplifting book. And it gave me a tiny glimpse of the culture shock that I would get if I ever travel to China. The focus is on duty, family, and honor. It's so NOT on the self it's hard for an American like me to comprehend. I understand what Li's saying, but my brain just doesn't work like that. It's not just an attitude of an individual, it's the attitude of an entire culture.

Another contrast between East and West became very clear. This man is only a few years older than my father, but their lives are night-and-day different. The culture of propaganda was all-encompassing. The poverty was inescapable. It's insane to think that people live like this and I complain that I can't afford a new car yet. I will never truly understand what it is like to grow up impoverished, because I didn't. But I hope to empathize anyway. 

These two books described two worlds with a gaping chasm in between. But I think the biggest difference, more than the East and West or Wealth and Poverty, was the difference in motivations.

Bill Mason wanted to steal jewels. He wanted to be rich. He wanted to take whatever he wanted without consequences. Li Cunxin wanted to help his family. He wanted to serve his country and make his teachers proud. He wanted to become the best ballet dancer that he could possibly be.

In short, Bill Mason wanted to be bad, and Li Cunxin wanted to be good.

Being good doesn't always bring happy endings, and being bad doesn't always end in tragedy. But reading about someone who strives-- goes out of their way-- to be good even when horrible things are happening brings light to my soul anyway.

I want to be good. Sometimes I need reminding of that.

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