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The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Discussion Questions

July 29th, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers_RachmanFollowing one of the most critically acclaimed fiction debuts in years,New York Times bestselling author Tom Rachman returns with a brilliant, intricately woven novel about a young woman who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.

Tooly Zylberberg, the American owner of an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside, conducts a life full of reading, but with few human beings. Books are safer than people, who might ask awkward questions about her life. She prefers never to mention the strange events of her youth, which mystify and worry her still.

Taken from home as a girl, Tooly found herself spirited away by a group of seductive outsiders, implicated in capers from Asia to Europe to the United States. But who were her abductors? Why did they take her? What did they really want? There was Humphrey, the curmudgeonly Russian with a passion for reading; there was the charming but tempestuous Sarah, who sowed chaos in her wake; and there was Venn, the charismatic leader whose worldview transformed Tooly forever. Until, quite suddenly, he disappeared.

Years later, Tooly believes she will never understand the true story of her own life. Then startling news arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers.

Use these discussion questions to take your book club’s exploration of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers to the next level…

1. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers opens and closes with the character of Fogg. Why do you think this is? What does seeing Tooly through Fogg’s eyes do for us as readers? What do you imagine lies in their future?

2. Tooly keeps twenty–first–century technology at arm’s length. How do you think her upbringing might influence her relationship to technology?

3. Do you understand Humphrey’s dislike of “made–up stories”? What is the effect of having a character express this opinion within a novel?

4. Tooly wonders what it would have been like to live in “an important era.” Do you agree that the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty–first was an era of “relative calm, after all the proper history had ended”? What do you think makes an era important?

5. Tooly worries that there isn’t a “pure state of Tooly–ness.” Did you find Tooly an exceptionally malleable character? Do you think all people have the capacity to take on new personalities? Have you started anew at any point in your life?

6. Tom Rachman deliberately withholds plot information from the reader through nonlinear storytelling. When did you first begin to piece the story of Tooly’s life together? When were you truly surprised?

7. What are some of the different con games characters play on each other? Can you think of instances when a con was mistaken for love, or love mistaken for a con? Are there any moments when you felt that Tooly crossed a moral line?

8. This book is full of fathers and father figures: Paul, Venn, Humphrey, Duncan. Who do you think is the best father? The worst? How might each man’s own childhood have influenced his ideas about family and duty? Who do you think shaped (or engineered) Tooly the most?

9. In 2011, Duncan and his friends are leading very different lives than Tooly expected them to in 1999. How did their dreams as college students and their realities as adults diverge? Why does this surprise Tooly? In what ways is she unlike them?

10. Venn is described as “a being wrought of his own will, belonging to nothing.” What do you think is most important to Venn? Why do you think he drives Tooly away at the end?

11. Do you agree with Venn that Tooly was in love with him?

12. Humphrey calls Tooly “the favorite person of my life.” What are the limitations and the strengths of their relationship? How would Tooly describe what Humphrey means to her in 1988? In 1999? In 2011?

A Letter from Deb Caletti

July 27th, 2015

Secrets She Keeps_CalettiDeb Caletti, the author of The Secrets She Keeps, a beautiful novel about three women coming to terms with love and marriage, has written you, her readers a note. Read on…
Dear Reader –

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years from my many book events, it’s this: We readers understand each other.  We can come from different parts of the world and have varying life experiences, but get us into a room talking about our favorite reads, our stack of books turning into a nightstand, and we are all from the very same place.  Let me tell you, friends, we can get pretty heated about whether one should fold down the corner of the page to keep our place or not.  We are deliciously book-greedy, and we rant and gush and get choked up about the words that have moved us.

I am a reader even before I am a writer, so when I sat down to write The Secrets She Keeps, coming from Random House on July 7th, it was with a reader’s desires as well as a writer’s.  I wanted to create a book that you’d read a little slower to make it last longer (do you know that feeling? I love that feeling!), with lines that made you think, and characters you related to and rooted for as the pages turned.  I really wanted that satisfying sigh at the end.

The Secrets She Keeps is about two sisters with troubled marriages who gather at their aunt’s now crumbling Nevada “divorce ranch.” The story is told in alternating time periods – one summer at the present-day ranch, and the summer of 1951, a summer of secrets, when high-society women and Hollywood celebs stayed at such  ranches to establish residency and secure difficult-to-get divorces.  The Secrets She Keeps reflects contemporary life and marriage as we know it, yet it is also full of Mad Men-esque glamour, desert dust and wild mustangs, cowboys and majestic scenery.  More than those things, though, it is a book about the power of female friendships, about self-discovery, and resilience.  It’s a story about love – its timeless troubles, and its stubborn, enduring joys.

Thank you for being part of The Secrets She Keeps, dear fellow readers.  I’m excited to share this one with you.  I hope, hope, hope you sigh at the end.  And, for the record, please fold down any corner that you wish.

Fondly,

Deb Caletti

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No Place to Hide by Susan Lewis Discussion Questions

July 22nd, 2015

No Place to Hide_LewisFleeing her native England with her three-year-old daughter, Justine Cantrell gives herself a new name and a new life in America. In a quiet midwestern town on the shores of glittering Lake Maxinkuckee, Justine hopes to recapture the fleeting days of happiness in the long-ago summers she spent with her grandmother. And though her memories of that time are scant, Justine knows they must have shared a special bond. After all, the power of her grandmother’s love has pulled her back to this haven in search of a new beginning.
But fate has other plans. The more Justine gets to know the small town and its people, the more she realizes that her grandmother had her own devastating secrets—secrets that will soon threaten Justine just as surely as her own dark memories.

If you’ve been reading with your book club or on your own, let these questions help you get thinking about the novel…

1. The subject of violence among children is central to the plot of this novel. Discuss violence in schools. What causes it? How can it be stopped?

2. How well do you feel Susan Lewis captured life in America? How does her experience living in Britain color her view of American life? Does her “outsider” status afford her unique insight, or are there elements of midwestern life that must be lived to be understood?

3. What do you think of Justine’s decision to leave England? Would you have done the same in her position?

4. Who surprised you most in this novel? Why?

5. Justine’s memories of England and of summers spent with her grandmother in Indiana are driving forces in this novel. Describe the function of memory and the past. How do Justine’s memories influence her decisions?

6. Both Justine and Grandma May kept carefully guarded secrets. Compare and contrast their secrets and their motivations for hiding them. In what ways are Justine and her grandmother similar? How are they different? Are there any parallels between their experiences?

7. Discuss Justine and Matt’s relationship. What were its primary strengths? Weaknesses?

8. Discuss the themes of prejudice and bullying among schoolchildren that come into play in this novel. What, if anything, could have changed in order for Ben’s experience to be different?

9. How would you describe Justine as a mother? How is her relationship with Tallulah different from her relationship with Ben? How is it similar? Did Justine inherit any parenting styles from her own mother?

10. What is the community in Culver like? How do Justine’s friends in America differ from her friends in England? Are there any particular qualities they have in common?

11. The theme of escaping the past is prominent in this novel. Can we ever truly escape the past? Is it possible to have a fresh start, or do we always carry our emotional baggage with us?

A Conversation Between J. R. Moehringer and Tom Rachman

July 17th, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers_RachmanJ. R. Moehringer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000, is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Moehringer is the author of the bestsellers Sutton and The Tender Bar, and co–author of Open by Andre Agassi. Here he speaks with Tom Rachman, author of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.

J. R. Moehringer: Your new novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, is wonderfully Dickensian. There’s a quasi–orphan protagonist thrown in among lovable scoundrels, some of whom become parental surrogates, plus a slew of eccentric minor characters with names like Mr. Priddles and Fogg. And of course there are sly mentions of Nicholas Nickleby sprinkled throughout. Having grown up in a bar called Dickens, I have to ask: How much were you reading Dickens, or thinking of him, while plotting and writing? And is Nickleby your favorite of his novels?

Tom Rachman: I do love Dickens. His characters were among the    first to imprint themselves into my imagination when I was little. I remember listening on audiobook during family vacations, while my sister (three years older) raced ahead in print, burning through another huge paperback. The main character in my novel, Tooly, is a bookworm like my sister—-the type who spends daylight in the -company of fictional characters, only to glance up hours later, startled to find a mere room. I wanted to show, as Tooly’s life unfolds, how one’s earliest stories condition how one encounters the world: what one -expects of strangers, whether one counts on justice, whether one veers into cynicism or veers back again. I chose to have Tooly reading Nicholas Nickleby because that book so memorably describes a wretched school—-and the joy of fleeing. All of which informs Tooly’s path in life. Or the path she thinks she’s taking.

JM: Clearly you have issues with the concept of linear time. As do many of your characters. (As do I.) I’m thinking of Gerda Erzberger, in your first novel, The Imperfectionists, railing against the “illusion of continuity” in our lives, lamenting that the past “won’t hold still.” It doesn’t hold still in your plots, either. In both your novels, the past is ever lurking, ebbing and flowing—-particularly for Tooly. Are you instinctively drawn to stories with this fluid and fractured sense of time, or is the choice more deliberate?

TR: I’ve sometimes used a collage effect, placing times side–by–side in a story, to investigate how personalities form, how they change, how they misunderstand one another. In life, we rarely contrast now and then with clarity. I’m thinking, for example, of when you encounter old friends after years apart. You find yourself noting how different they are, or how the facets which defined them are still present yet unexpectedly different in proportion, so that the giggliness has turned into giddiness or the determination has become courage. What you rarely consider is that, if your friends have changed, then surely you have too. Instead, we assume ourselves fixed in nature—-that only the rest of humanity shifts! But maybe we’re all ongoing stories, defined at various stages of life, or whenever people oblige us to declare ourselves. Fiction is marvelous for studying this, allowing the writer and reader to leap decades in a sentence. No other art lets you bend time as much.

JM: It strikes me that nearly every character in Rise & Fall has a powerful longing for home, and each of them has a radically different idea of what home means. Some are never quite sure what it means, though that doesn’t ease their longing. Is this just me projecting some of my own inner drama, or was the deep human desire for home running through your mind while you wrote?

TR: You’re right. In this novel, Tooly travels the world, watching all the stationary citizens, and wondering—-sometimes enviously—-what that life would be like, whether belonging can be attained, whether it’s a fallacy, and if you suffer by having no place. These are all thoughts that have occurred to me. I was born in London, raised in Vancouver, studied in Toronto, worked in New York, Rome, and Paris, and presently live in London again. I have family scattered from Canada to South Africa to China to Switzerland and places beyond. So what is home for me? It depends what one means by “home.” There’s the apartment or house or room that contains one’s bed. Then there’s the neighborhood or city or country that contains one’s identity. The first sense of home I establish easily. The second sense remains elusive to me after thirty–nine years. When I was growing up, this bothered me. I yearned to be from somewhere, and confident of it. But I’ve shifted. Now I prefer to adopt admirable features of the cultures I’ve passed through, without restricting myself to just one.

JM: Because of your background in journalism, and your years working overseas, it was easier for readers to imagine, rightly or wrongly, possible inspirations for certain characters and events in The Imper-fectionists. But I can’t imagine what the spark was for the remarkable character of Tooly, or her odyssey. (Unless maybe The Tempest? She and Humph have a strong Miranda–Prospero vibe about them.) I really want to hear that you met someone like her on a long flight or at a dinner party.

TR: I’m very fond of Tooly, but I’ve never met her. Despite what they say about writing what you know, I’m poor at converting real people into fictional ones—-whenever I’ve tried, they are the least credible parts of the story! My characters start from imagination and gather small traits from actuality as they (and I) go along. If people recognize a real–life feature or anecdote in a character, they might falsely assume that this means the entire character was torn from reality. But mine are hybrids, predominantly fantasy, with a few purloined chromosomes, and a good number of my own in each character. The settings, by contrast, I try to reproduce as authentically as possible. For The Imperfectionists, which is set at an international paper in Rome, I mined my past at various news organizations in various cities. For Rise & Fall, I had to research a lot more—-everything from U.S. embassy security in the 1980s, to international schools in Bangkok, to the look of the Welsh countryside.

JM: I also wish I could go to Tooly’s lovely bookstore, World’s End. Based on your previous answer I’m going to assume it’s not modeled on any real bookstore, alas, but maybe it combines some qualities of your favorite bookstores? And are you the type of person who feels a fierce loyalty to bookstores, who can’t visit this or that city without also visiting its landmark bookstore—-the Strand in New York, Another Country in Berlin, Daunt in London, Tattered Cover in -Denver?

TR: The bookstore in my novel is inspired by many that have given me hours of pleasure over the years—-be they wondrous giants (say, Powell’s in Portland) or cramped establishments that require you to edge sideways past the stock (say, the Community Bookstore in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn). Another influence was Hay–on–Wye, in Wales, a town devoted to bookstores: It’s just one after the other. When I first went there, I was agog. It’s an amusement park for bibliophiles.

JM: In your first novel, a dying newspaper is the emotional anchor for your characters; in the second novel, it’s a dying bookstore. Is it reasonable to accuse you of chronic nostalgia? Do you perhaps feel that you were born at the wrong moment in history?

TR: I consider myself a realist—-with a sprinkling of nostalgia. I’m fascinated by our times, all these amazing technological and political and cultural changes. And I’m not one of those woebegone fellows yearning for the good old days—-there was too much brutality and drudgery in the past to imagine it was all doilies and Chopin. The era we’re in contains betterment in many respects, and this leads people to assume that all tech–driven change is progress. Not so sure. The value of a smartphone is indisputable—-but who hasn’t felt slightly more harried, slightly more distracted, as a result? I don’t want to -declare contemporary changes either good or bad. I’d rather record a glimpse of them in my fiction, and encourage readers to ponder the torrent of change. Does our epoch define us? Or does one’s unique personality assert itself regardless of the period? In the background, the great powers of the world rise and fall, in politics, tech, everything. But one’s own strengths and influences rise and fall over the course of one’s life. That contrast is at the core of Rise & Fall: a tale of a book–besotted world traveler trying to figure out where and how and when she fits.

Originally published by Salon in June 2014

Discussion Questions: Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

July 9th, 2015

Lucky Us_BloomDisappointed by their families, Iris, the hopeful star and Eva the sidekick, journey through 1940s America in search of fame and fortune. Iris’s ambitions take the pair across the America of Reinvention in a stolen station wagon, from small-town Ohio to an unexpected and sensuous Hollywood, and to the jazz clubs and golden mansions of Long Island.

Use these discussion questions to guide your book club in navigating this novel of heartbreak, love, and luck.

1. The day that Eva’s mother leaves her at her father’s house is the day that Eva loses one family and starts another. Have you ever been in a place where you have had to create a new family around yourself? What were some of the best parts? The worst parts?

2. Edgar’s mother once told him, “It’s good to be smart, it’s better to be lucky.” What do you think about that statement after finishing the novel? If you had to choose, would you rather be lucky or smart?

3. Iris’s ambition is what sets Eva and Iris on the road at the beginning of the novel. How does Eva’s ambition differ from Iris’s? Which sister, do you think, is more successful?

4. Eva and Iris find themselves having to constantly reinvent their identities as they travel around America. Has there ever been a time when you’ve reinvented yourself? Was it difficult to do?

5. Though so much of the novel focuses on Iris’s search for love, the relationship between Eva and Gus also becomes a central pillar. What do you think of their love for each other? How does their relationship compare with Iris’s experiences?

6. At one point, Eva says, “I looked for mothers the way drunks look for bars.” Do you think Eva ever found her mother figure? If so, who was it? If not, what family figures did she create instead?

7. Iris writes to Eva about memory: “I remember some things at a gallop, some moments from Ohio bearing down upon me in huge detail, and other things that are no more than small leaves floating on a stream. Memory seems as faulty, as misunderstood and misguided, as every other thought or spasm that passes through us” (p. 97). Do you think Iris is right about memory here? How do memory and forgiveness tie into each other?

8. Who was your favorite addition to Iris and Eva’s family and why? Francisco? Clara? Danny? Gus?

9. Each chapter is titled with song lyrics from the period, evoking the richness of the music during that era. What connection do you find between music and reading? How can music add new dimensions to a story?

10. The adventures of the novel begin after a few photographs on a beach surface. The novel ends with another photograph on a beach. How have the roles of Eva and Iris changed since then, and how has the role of photographs changed? Can a photograph ever fully capture a moment?

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