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A Pleasant Treat

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Kate Zambreno reading Heroines tonight

Columbia College is hosting a “Creative Nonfiction Week” starting today. I enjoyed its “Story Week” program before and stopped by the reading with author Kate Sambreno and essayist Colette Brooks tonight, partially to escape from my desk as I got stuck on a chapter of my own writing, and partially because the place where the reading was held was only two blocks from my office.

What a nice treat! Sambreno’s reading from her latest book, a memoir, titled Heroines, was simply brilliant. The insight on women (and the wives of famous men being silenced), the crisp language, and the honesty that were revealed from the excerpts she selected to read, touched me, and apparently many others since a line was formed with people having her sign the books they just bought. Since I moved to the city and my living space shrank to less than half of what I used to have, I’ve gone digital and seldom bought books in print. I made an exception tonight—I bought a copy of Heroines and had her sign it, too. I look forward to reading it! The only pity for today’s event was that there was no “conversation” and no Q and A session.

Having Zambreno sign the copy of Heroines I just bought

Tomorrow evening’s event will be focused on election and will be held at 33 E. Congress Parkway. It sounds interesting. I plan to attend it. The program will end on Thursday evening, and it’s open to the public. Check it out if you are in the vicinity. It’s part of the beauty a city like Chicago can offer—a rich cultural life. Take advantage of it.

 

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

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 www.mulberrychildmovie.com 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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Talking to Women’s Book Club

Monday, February 28th, 2011

By Jian Ping

Beverly invited me to talk to her women’s book club at noon today in Downers Grove, a western suburb of Chicago. I readily agreed. I knew the area, close to where I used to live in the western suburb of Chicago.

Beverly advised that her group had been together for many years and some of them were friends since high school. I always enjoyed talking to book clubs—they would have read my book by the time we meet and the questions they raise are always more thought provoking.

The 15 or so of women were already at Beverly’s home by the time I arrived, thanks to the traffic jam on I-55. Beverly greeted me at the door. I felt like I had known her for a long time. She said she was a “planner”. I was certainly impressed by her timely follow up and attention to details ever since she approached me via email—she provided me with detailed driving directions, sent me a list of questions that she’d like to ask, and made a comprehensive list of events that happened to my family and China in chronological order. Even today, to go with the China-themed discussion, she offered Chinese food: eggroll, orange chicken, rice, and of course, fortune cookies.

Our talk started at noon, followed by lunch and our continued discussions on Mulberry Child and China in general. I was planning to leave at 2:30 p.m. but didn’t depart until nearly 4 p.m., making it the longest appearance I had ever had at a book club! Our discussions went from the happenings to my family, mother-daughter relationship, parenting, to the development of China today. I very much appreciated their genuine interest in my story and China, and enjoyed our discussion and interaction.

It is moment like this that makes me realize why I write.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.mulberrychild.com or www.moraquest.com for more information.

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A Nice Treat (1)

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

By Jian Ping

Beaver Lake, WI

I was invited to talk to a women’s book group in Hartland, a suburb of Milwaukee by Karen, my friend Mary’s mother. Last Wednesday, Mary took time off from work and gave me a ride to her parents’ home. As we got closer, she took a scenic drive and showed me Beaver Lake—her parents’ home is located along its shore. I could see the glistening of water through the thicket of trees between the lake and the road. Beaver Lake, on which Mary had spent endless hours cruising and water skiing, appeared larger than I expected.  

Karen came to the door to meet us. She wore a burgundy silk top and her hair was tied back with a matching red ribbon. She looked much younger than her age. Two of Mary’s relatives, Peggy and Ross, were there as well. We chatted over a table of veggies, cheese and crackers in the living room. I soon learned that one of Peggy’s sons and daughter-in-law were published writers. Later, Mary’s father Bill returned home from his golf outing, declaring his winning of $11 for the day. “Better than losing 50 bucks,” he said, laughing. He took us to his clubhouse along Beaver Lake for dinner, and I enjoyed a hearty meal of lamb chops, my favorite, and lots of hearty laughter over our conversation—it was home away from home for me, and later, I joked with Mary to ask her mother to adopt me as her Chinese daughter.   

Soon after we came back to the house, Karen and Bill retired for the night. Mary and I sat in the screened porch and read into the night. All I could hear was the singing of cicadas. No squeaking of speeding tires or the hamming of traffic. As I commented to Mary how quiet and peaceful it felt, I heard the ruffling of the bushes next to the window. Mary smiled, saying it must be their neighbor’s dog. Sure enough, a thin, furry face of brown and white popped up above the screen, but disappeared after a quick peep. “He will be back for a biscuit in the morning,” Mary said.

I sat alone in the dark for half an hour after Mary went to bed. The flood light lit the backyard, highlighting the green lawn and the leafy bushes. I swung back and forth on the cushioned, comfortable chair, savoring the undisturbed beauty of the night.

Early in the morning, I sneaked out of the house for a run. The sun was about to rise and the morning air felt fresh and cool. I followed a paved trail and ran around a nearby newly developed subdivision—all enormously large houses, some still under construction, as if there was a competition for size. When I made my way back 50 minutes later, I ran directly to the lake behind the house and was pleasantly surprised to find the water warm. I decided to get into my swimsuit and take a dip into the lake.

I ran into Mary in the hallway when I entered the house. “Join me for a swim,” I said, feeling excited by my discovery. 

Mary smiled, saying she’d rather swim later when the sun would be high and the water “really warm.” I couldn’t resist the allure of the water and quickly changed into my swimsuit. “Please come get me if I’m not back in an hour,” I told Mary.

Beaver Lake seemed to be asleep. Nearly every house along the lake had a private access to the water, complete with a boat and a dock. But there was not a single human being around. I jumped into the shallow water and swam toward the middle of the lake. Through my goggles, I could see swarms of small fish dodge from my intrusion and disappear into various vegetations at the bottom. As I picked up speed, my body warmed up and got used to the water temperature. I selected two boats across the lake as my benchmarks and swam back and forth, a long stretch. It was so wonderful to press forward or backward without worrying about hitting the edge of a swimming pool or flipping around every half a minute or so.  As I was about to make another round, I heard Mary calling me from the shore. I could hardly believe an hour had passed so quickly.

Karen was sitting at the breakfast table when I came down after a nice shower. “It’s only 65 degrees out there,” she said. “Don’t you feel cold?”

“Not at all,” I said enthusiastically. “It’s so beautiful and lovely!”

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.moraquest.com and www.mulberrychild.com

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Jasmine

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

By Jian Ping

Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee

Over the weekend, I finished reading Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine. It’s a story of a village girl from Punjab, India to the U.S. –her innocence, talent, love, adventurous nature and fierce resolve. The ordeals she went through didn’t diminish her and the traditional restraints on women, especially a widow, didn’t confine her. As she claims at one point: she is a survivor and adaptor. She is, in fact, much more than that.

I’ve been reading quite a bit of immigrant literature lately. From Gish Gen’s Mona in the Promised Land, Amy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate: a Book of Musings to Patricia Chu’s Assimilating Asians, I am reading several books simultaneously. While each writer has her own characteristics, Mukherjee’s Jasmine was the one that I couldn’t put down and finished reading first. Aside from the narrative that made me keep turning the pages, the indomitable spirit of the protagonist, the concise yet powerful language, and the presentation of immigrants, with a profound understanding and respect, struck me with awe.

I had attended a talk by Bharati Mukherjee at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago three years ago. I was impressed by the list of awards she had received for her writing and amazed by her talk on the writing of a recentlypublished book. I wish that I had started reading her books right then. Now I’m all excited about my “discovery” and can hardly wait to start reading another book of hers: The Middle Man and Other Stories—also on immigrant lives.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.moraquest.com, www.mulberrychild.com

A Personal Reading

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

By Jian Ping

Last week I read Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen. She came to the U.S. with her family in 1975 from Vietnam as a refugee and grew up in Grand Rapid in Michigan. I enjoyed her writing style, resolving around food, culture, and her alienation in the midst of predominantly white girls with blond hair and blue eyes, girls she desperately wanted to be as a child. She renders her family’s immigrant stories without self-pity and reveals her childhood experiences with a light touch, enough to draw a smile from me, with a certain level of resonance, as I thought of raising my daughter as a first-generation immigrant mother.

I was with the author, especially through her early childhood. What surprised me was the ending, when she, as an adult, visited Vietnam with her grandmother. After growing up in Midwest, being fully conscious of her yellow skin and black hair, witnessing her grandmother’s devotion to Buddhism, and enjoying the Vietnamese food her grandmother cooked, she found no resonance with Vietnam or her relatives in the country.  “Sitting with my aunt and grandmother, I did not feel a rush of love. I felt regret, exhaustion. I felt like an outsider, and I knew I would always be just that. I would fly back home to the United States and perhaps never see them again.”

 I found myself flared up in disappointment, or even anger. While I understand that she left Vietnam as an infant, I expected her to identify more with her roots. I felt like hearing my daughter tell me she was all American, and her being born Chinese was irrelevant. I closed the book with a feeling of distaste. Was I too judgmental or biased? I wonder.   

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

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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 www.moraquest.com, www.mulberrychild.com

At the Southern Kentucky Book Fest

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

by Jian Ping

Left to Right: Dave, Margaret, me and Jessica

Last weekend, I attended the annual Southern Kentucky Book Fest in Bowling Green. It was a large event , organized by Western Kentucky University Libraries, Barnes & Noble and Warren County Public Library.

More than a hundred authors participated in the event, including featured writers such as Lisa Scottoline, Richard Paul Evans, local favorites and emerging faces. I was a panelist on the “serious memoir,” and had the opportunity to talk with my fellow panelists Randi Davenport, Jessica Handler, Margaret Edds and David Lanphear. Each of them shared their unique personal and inspiring stories. I also met with a few dynamic young adult authors, including Michael Reisman (Simon Blloom: The Octopus Effect) and Cynthea Liu (Paris Pan Takes the Dare) and a fellow writer from China Haiwang Yuan (This is China: The First 5000 Years).

It was a wonderful experience. I’d like a give a special thanks to Tracy Harkins, coordinator of the event. It was a joy working with her—a model of efficiency and hospitality.  
Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com

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. www.mulberrychild.com

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