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Reading the Great Gatsby

Monday, April 1st, 2013


Our reading group’s selection for last month was Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, paired with Anita LoosGentlemen Prefer Blondes. Part of the reason for the selection was that a new film of The Great Gatsby is scheduled to come out this summer and we want to have a group outing.

I’ve read the book years before, but don’t remember much of the details except the lonely figure of Gatsby standing in the back of his mansion looking out to the green light across the water. Reading it again, I was able to notice and appreciate a lot more, including the opportunities and optimism after the WWI, the prohibition, and the conflicts between “old money” and the “newly rich”.

gentlemen prefer blondesAnita Loos’ book has nothing to do Fitzgerald’s content or perspective, but it was written in the ’20s, the same time period. I found it incredible that the stories were written by a woman – they were not only mocking men, but women as well. Both books were popular and developed into films. Loos’ book was written with tremendous humor, which probably played a key role in its success. Still I found it hard to believe Loos, a very successful screenwriter of the time, wrote something of this nature. Yet the other three women in my group, all strong characters, appeared to take in the book with good humor. The era in which it was written probably saved it.

Interestingly, The Great Gatsby reminded me somehow of China’s situation today in which the newly rich is grabbing money in unprecedented speed, and at the same time, the country is going through crisis of morality, widening disparity between the haves and have nots, and a sense of spiritual emptiness under the economic prosperity.

I look forward to watching the new interpretation and presentation of the Great Gatsby film with by group.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. Visit for more information.


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The Woman in White, the novel

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

My reading group gathered together over the weekend to discuss this month’s selection of reading: Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White.

A month ago, when we first decided to read the book, we went to watch the play based on the novel. We all enjoyed the play enormously (blog on Oct. 10). Now that we’ve finished reading the novel, we have the pleasure of comparing the two and exploring deeper into the narrative.

Our reading group of seven is a perfect number—small enough to sit around one table and large enough to have different perspectives. It has always been a joy discussing books we’ve read together.

I enjoyed the novel, despite having known the plot from the play; and my favorite characters in the book are Marian and Count Fosco—both witty, strong, and smart. Even though Fosco was a villain, one could not help from being charmed by his good manners, ability to engage his listeners, and the tenderness in a man who could be ruthless. Everyone in my group resonated with me, and by hearing their view, I also gained a better understanding of the setting in the Victorian period and why, intelligent and strong as Marian was, the best outcome for her might be what the author set her to be—living with her sister, Laura, and caring for her child vs. having a life of her own.

First edition

In many ways, it was amazing that Collins created such a strong woman character, despite having Marian diminish herself because she was so helpless at times as woman.

As a “sensation novel” in a detective genre, the plot was so meticulously constructed that it felt almost too perfect. The narrative from the perspective of different characters, an innovation at the time, still provide joy for a reader to get into the head of the perspective narrator, and the voice of each person, from the protagonist Marian, Walter Hartright, to the servants, each came alive, and the tune and language in line with their education and social status. Quite amazing.

I neglected to notice that the only key character who didn’t have a narration in the novel was Laura, the beautiful young woman that Hartright fell in love with head over heals, and eventually, like in a Hollywood movie, married.

“The dumb blond,” one referred her in our group.

“I’m so glad she didn’t have a narrative in the book,” another commented.

We all laughed.

The book is well written, entertaining and meticulously constructed. The play certainly did the justice to the novel, though the ending was a bit different.

Worth checking it out if you haven’t read it.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning feature-length documentary by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. Visit for more information.

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Reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012
Cover of "Beloved"

Cover of Beloved

There is no single statement or simple summary that can express the complex emotions and reflection after reading Toni Morrison‘s powerful novel Beloved.

Thanks to John, one of our seven-member reading group, we selected Beloved for August reading. Except Norm, a professor of literature at a Chicago university, none of us had read Toni Morrison before. “It’s beautifully written,” Norm said. But he warned us it would be a heavy reading.

Heavy it was. The story dealt with the issue of slavery, the meaning of freedom, and the necessity to deal with the suffering in the past in order to move on to the future. It was so well-written that we found ourselves well connected with the lives of Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Paul D, key characters in the book, and felt their pain and unbearable suffering, as if we were present.

Our book group, from left to right: Susan, Norm, Francis, John, and Amy. I was taking the photo and Mary was absent for the day.

At our discussion session over the weekend, we voiced our own interpretation and addressed the questions we each had, bringing the understanding to a deeper level. There was so much to dig into: the symbol of the ghost “Beloved,” the child Sethe murdered out of deep love so she wouldn’t be subjected to slavery; the constant switching point-of-view in narration, making the story non-linear and more complex since it opened more doors to examine the roles both white and black played; and how the repressed past prevented people from moving into the future, an issue we could all related to, either in history or in our present life.

We talked for three hours over lunch and snacks. Afterward, John sent an email that strongly expressed how I felt about our group and discussion every time we met:

“I get so much more out of the book just listening to the various takes that people have on aspects of the book that often I miss completely. I always walk out enriched by you folks.”

Thank you all. I look forward to our discussion on 1Q84 next month!

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning feature-length documentary by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset.



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One Day, Two Events (2)

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

By Jian Ping

Book signing at Kazoo Books in Kalamazoo, MI

I met Hank seven years ago at the Graham School, University of Chicago. We were attending the Basic Program—great books of the West. We moved on to take the Asian Classics when the four-year program was finished, and Hank’s wife Joyce joined us in this new program. They have been very supportive to my book since the beginning—coming to my first talk at the Printers Row Book Fair and invited me to talk to their respective “men’s” and “women’s” book groups. Recently, they also introduced me to talk at the “Kitchen Cabinet,” a social club in Barrington.

It was through them I met Sharon, Joyce’s cousin. Sharon attended one of my talks in the Chicago area. Afterward, she invited me to meet with her book group in Kalamazoo, MI and be her house guest. I readily agreed. That Thursday, Hank raced on the highway to “Kazoo” and we arrived at Sharon’s home shortly before 5:30 P.M., the start of the event. We rushed into Sharon’s car and headed toward the Kazoo Books, a local bookstore. Most of the women in the book group were already there when we walked in. We shook hands and sat around a table that was covered with food they had brought—salad, cheese, bread, fruit, pasta, cookies, cakes and various types of drinks. I was impressed that Gloria, owner of the bookstore, designated a room for such events and allowed people to bring in food and drinks.

 I chatted with the group, addressed their questions and listened to their comments. At 6:30, the event was open to public and more people joined us. We changed the setting and I stood in the front and gave a talk about my book and China’s Cultural Revolution, with visuals to help the audience have a better understanding. Many in the audience raised questions, and we had a very lively discussion—this was one of those events that I knew I connected with the audience.

Gloria invited everyone to have a piece of carrot cake at the end of my talk, and I joined her by passing a bag of crispy peanut candies from China. After book signing, a few women lingered to continue our conversation. It was well after 8 P.M. when we returned to Sharon’s house.

I felt most fortunate to have the generous support of friends and the genuine interest from many readers.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.,

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A Nice Treat (2)

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

By Jian Ping

Mary and me at Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand last December

Mary drove Karen and me to Suzie’s, a book club member who was hosting the event starting at 10 A.M. The contemporary house was open and bright, with its backyard facing another lake. Many members had arrived, and among them, two brought their adult daughters. I soon learned several of them had visited China and one had an adopted granddaughter from China. Since they had already read my book Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, I proceeded to show them some images of the Cultural Revolution and invited them to ask questions at any time. We had a lively discussion. Eventually, Karen had to cut in and reminded everyone that it was a quarter to noon and we needed to wrap up. I signed copies of Mulberry Child for the members and continued to chat with a few until Karen and Mary urged me to leave—we planned to grab a few sandwiches on our way back and have lunch over the lake. We didn’t have much time left since I wanted to take the 3 P.M. Amtrak train back to Chicago.

I was impressed that Karen, at 80, walked down the slope to the boat with us without any difficulties. Mary skillfully steered the boat out of the docking area and cruised at leisure around the lake. A young man was waterskiing in the middle of the lake, gracefully jumping and turning at high speed, and another man was riding a jet ski, leaving waves of splashes behind him. Other than that, no one else was on the water.

“School is still off,” Mary said. “I’m surprised not many people are out on the lake.”

I was glad the lake was not crowded with people and boats. The sun was shining, yet on the water, it felt cool. A gentle breeze created small ripples on the surface of the water, making it sparkle as if beckoning to us. It dawned on me why so many people preferred to have a second home in the country. The beauty of nature and the peace of the surroundings were so soothing and serene.

What a wonderful treat I had—receiving the warm hospitality from Mary’s parents, indulging in the friendship of my friend, and making connections with my readers! 

Thank you! Thank you all!

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry China: A Memoir of China. Visit,

Talking at Women’s Book Group in Barrington

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

 By Jian Ping

Barrington, IL

Yesterday was the 2nd time in three weeks I went to Barrington, a northwestern suburb of Chicago. The first time was to give a talk at a Rotary Club on May 13. The Metra train ran late that day, so my husband had to give me a ride in the pouring rain early in the morning so I could make it to the 7 A.M. breakfast meeting.  Yesterday, my appearance was at a women’s book group. I was much luckier—Sharon, my friend Joyce’s cousin, came all the way from Michigan to attend the talk and stopped by in downtown Chicago to pick me up! And the event started at 12:30 P.M.

Barbara was the host for the group. After a delicious lunch, complete with desert, we all settled in her living room in a circle, more than twenty people. I showed a few posters and photos of China’s Cultural Revolution. Since they had finished reading my book, the Q & A was lively and enthusiastic. I always enjoy meeting and talking with readers of Mulberry Child directly—pleasantly amazed by their questions and interpretations. Yesterday, I was especially touched by their resonance with Nainai, my grandmother who played a significant role in my life.   

Several people in the group had been to China, so we also discussed about the changes in the country today, as well as the lives of my siblings and the devotion of my mother and late father. I also informed them of the docu-drama film based on Mulberry Child that is currently being developed. I also talked about the book I’m writing with my daughter Lisa. I was so engaged in the discussion that I didn’t realize we went way over time. I ended up missing my 3:18 P.M. train back to the city!

I was very touched by these women’s genuine interest in the book and in China and their appreciation of a life torn by political persecution and poverty in China in the 60’s and 70’s.

Joyce, my friend who introduced me to the group, couldn’t make it today due to a car accident. Thanks, Joyce, and keep up with that fighting spirit and get well soon.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. For more information, visit,

Appearance at a Men’s Book Group

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009
Chinese poster saying: "Smash the old wor...
Image via Wikipedia

I rushed back to Chicago from a business trip yesterday, Feb. 17, to participate in a men’s book group to discuss about Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. I had joined discussions in several women’s book groups before, but had never appeared in an exclusive men’s group. I was anxious to meet the guys, wondering what their take would be on a memoir.

My friend Hank introduced me to this group. They meet regularly, rotating the hosting of the group meeting at its members’ homes. Last night, the discussion took place at Bill’s home in Barrington, northwest of Chicago. In the cozy setting of his living room, with ample supplies of drinks and snacks, a dozen men in their fifties and above and I sat in a circle on sofas and armchairs and engaged in heated discussions soon after the introduction. Hank surprised me by distributing a well organized list of events addressed in my book to every one. It placed the year in chronological order in the middle, with major happening in my family listed on the left and China’s political movements on the left. I wished I had thought of such a simple yet clear layout when I was working on the book!

I listened and took notes as each man took his turn making comments. I thought they’d be more focused on political issues vs. the incidents happened to my family. I was genuinely touched when half of the men marveled at the strength of Nainai, my grandmother, who was illiterate, walked with bound feet, but was defiant when faced with political persecution. One member did state he enjoyed reading the historical information presented in the book much more. I nodded to him, fully understood his perspective, and later, when I had a chance to respond to the questions raised, I explained to him and the group my deliberate approach: to focus on the family story, and via which, to show the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution.

I truly enjoyed their comments on my father’s unwavering devotion to the Communist Party, their comparison of the political movements in China with those in Russia and Germany and their discussion about the changes in China today and the challenges China faces in the economic slowdown, especially in the export segment.

As I joined them, providing more historical information on China, I felt I learned just as much from them.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.

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