Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

I laughed, I cried, it's better than Cats. Well, I've never seen Cats, but I loved Mao's Last Dancer - the morning book group's pick for our meeting on September 2. This memoir written by the ballet dancer Li Cunxin was on the bestseller list for over a year in Australia, where he lives, and was also a New York Times bestseller.

Li grew up in Communist China, the sixth of seven boys. His close-knit family subsisted mostly on dried yams grown on their patch of the commune farm on his father's day off from work. In 1972, at age eleven, Li withstood several painful auditions that tested his flexibility and was selected to attend Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. Although he was homesick and near the bottom of his class his first few years, one of his teachers inspired him and he began his ascent to stardom in the ballet world.

This is an inspirational story about the pursuit of excellence and the pain of being separated from family. Li Cunxin tells it straightforwardly (somewhat disappointing for readers hoping for literature with a capital L) and seasons it with humor. Puzzled by the tights that dancers wear, after one ballet Li's father asks, "Why didn't you wear any pants?"

Mao's Last Dancer was made into a movie that will be shown at the library tonight (August 25) at 7 p.m. as part of the Summer International Film Festival.

Discussion questions for the book are available here. The study guide for the movie asks some helpful questions too. The New York Times ran an interview with Li Cunxin in 2004 called "The Dancer Who Defected Twice". You can watch clips of Li's motivational speaking on his web site.

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