“One of the things that makes [Andrew] such a terrific comic creation is that he’s both maddeningly self-delusive and scarily self-aware: He’s a fool, but he’s no innocent. . . . Andrew may not be able to enjoy his brain, but Doctorow, freely choosing to inhabit this character’s whirligig consciousness, can.”—The New York Times Book Review
E.L. Doctorow’s latest novel, Andrew’s Brain, takes us on a radical trip into the mind of a man who, more than once, has been the inadvertent agent of disaster. Speaking from an unknown place and to an unknown interlocutor, Andrew is thinking, Andrew is talking, Andrew is telling the story of his life, his loves, and the tragedies that have led him to this place and point in time. As he peels back the layers of his strange story, we are led to question what we know about truth and memory, brain and mind, personality and fate, about one another and ourselves.
Take on the challenge of unraveling Andrew’s Brain with your book club, with the help of these handy discussion questions!
1. Near the beginning of the story, Andrew says that he is indirectly responsible for Briony’s death: “indirect—not directly causal” (page 20). How might he have reasoned that he was responsible for her death? Do you agree or disagree that Andrew ultimately had a hand in it? Why?
2. Andrew switches back and forth between telling the story in the first person and telling it in the third person, sometimes describing what happened to him, sometimes describing what happened to “Andrew.” Why might he do this? Did you notice a pattern in the moments when Andrew switched from one form of narration to another?
3. In speaking to “Doc,” Andrew says, “Your field is the mind, mine is the brain” (page 14). What do you understand to be the difference between the mind and the brain, within the context of this book? Would the meaning of the title have changed for you if the book had been called Andrew’s Mind instead of Andrew’s Brain?
4. Andrew says, “What else can we do as eaters of the fruit of knowledge but biologize ourselves” (page 7)? Does the quest to “biologize ourselves” contain pitfalls or dangers? How might it relate to the tension within the story between the biology of the brain and the more intangible aspects of the mind?
5. Andrew describes the Wasatch mountains as a “mountain bureaucracy,” town rulers that negotiated the light and colonized the townspeople (page 22). Why might Andrew have decided to describe the mountains in such specific and unusual terms? How might this connect with Andrew’s later experience with a different kind of bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.?
6. When Andrew connects Briony to the brain graph machine, he says, “I saw things more intimately Briony’s than if I had seen her undressed” (page 33). What does he mean by this? What are the implications of this “cephalic-invasive” voyeurism for Andrew and Briony’s relationship?
7. Mark Twain is a recurring motif in the book. Why do you think Andrew is so drawn to Twain? Think of when Andrew refers to the “imperial outrages annotated by MT in the last years of his life” (page 54). Twain lived through a different imperialistic era in America (the late 1800s and early 1900s), but how might this resonate with “imperial outrages” in Andrew’s own lifetime?
8. Andrew describes the possibility of humans yearning for a group brain, a larger social mind: “Perhaps we long for something like the situation these other creatures have—the ants, the bees—where the thinking is outsourced” (page 123). He mentions that this kind of thinking “brings us to politics.” What does he mean by this? How might this relate specifically to his encounters in the White House later in the book? What are other instances, in the book and in real life, when humans are drawn to this kind of “group brain” phenomenon?
9. Briony seems to transform Andrew. He speaks of how “watching her lifted me into a comparable state of happiness” (page 77). How do you think Briony manages to rescue Andrew from his “cold clear emotionless pond of silence” (page 77)? What is it about her that inspires such life in him?
10. Andrew also remarks about Briony that he finds “redemption” in “the loving attentions of this girl” (page 77). Then, at the very end of the book, he describes how Mark Twain found a different kind of redemption in the world, when his children “remember this tale and laugh with love for their father” (page 200). What is similar about their two kinds of redemption? What is different?
11. How does love transform Andrew? Is it a permanent transformation, or is it temporary? Andrew describes love as “the blunt concussion that renders us insensible to despair” (page 29). He also describes the happiness that stems from love as a feeling “possibly induced by endormorphin, the brain’s opiate” (page 104). Why do you think Andrew gravitates towards physical metaphors to describe the power of love?
12. By the end of the story, how much did you trust or believe in the literal truth of what Andrew was saying? Did your attitude toward his narrative reliability change at all over the course of the novel?
Anna Quindlen’s newest novel, a “marvelous romantic comedy of errors” (The New York Times Book Review), Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendant, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.
Still Life with Bread Crumbs will be available in paperback on October 28th! Start warming up for your book club’s discussion of this charming, elegant novel with these discussion questions!
1. What part of Rebecca Winter’s life do you relate to the most? How did the way Rebecca handled her hardships compare to decisions you’ve made in your own life?
2. One of the themes of Still Life with Bread Crumbs is discovering how to age gracefully. What has been one of your biggest struggles when entering a different stage of life? What is something you’ve enjoyed?
3. Rebecca finds herself living far outside the comfort zone of her former New York City life. What do you think is the most difficult part of moving somewhere new? Have you ever been in a similar situation? How did you handle it?
4. At one point in the book, Jim says that he believes that people live in houses that look like them. How does your own house or apartment reflect your personality?
5. “Language had always failed her when it came to describing her photographs. . . . There was nothing she could say about the cross photographs that could come close to actually seeing them.” Rebecca realizes this after speaking at the Women’s Art League event. Do you ever find it difficult to describe the effect that art—photographs, paintings, writing—has had on you? What might that say about the power of artwork?
6. Throughout the book, Sarah is often the perfect antidote for Rebecca’s unhappiness. Do you have a person like this in your life? Think about one of the times that you were most grateful for him or her.
7. One of the turning points for Rebecca is when Ben tells her, “You will always be Rebecca Winter.” How has Rebecca’s personal identity become entangled with her identity as an iconic artist? What helps her to ground herself?
8. The dog gradually becomes a bigger part of Rebecca’s life as she moves further away from her past self—the “not a dog person” city girl. The dog pictures are even the catalyst for Rebecca’s break with TG. What do you think the presence of the dog means in Rebecca’s life, especially after she discovers his name is Jack? How might the constant company of an animal have a different effect from that of the company of people?
9. When Rebecca finally learns the meaning of the crosses, she wonders if the great artists had ever considered “the terrible eternity of immortality” for their subjects. We live in a culture of camera phones and constant photography. Was there ever a moment when you were particularly grateful to have a certain photograph? Do you ever wish that our lives were less documented?
10. O. Henry’s short story and the story of Rebecca’s mother’s Mary Cassatt both have a bittersweet quality to them. Think about a moment in your life that might have been upsetting or sad. Was there someone who helped you see beauty or happiness in that moment instead?
Lisa Van Allen’s novel, The Night Garden, is a luminous novel of love, forgiveness, and the possibilities that arise when you open your heart.
Nestled in the bucolic town of Green Valley in upstate New York, the Pennywort farm appears ordinary, yet at its center lies : a wild maze of colorful gardens that reaches beyond the imagination. But the labyrinth has never helped Olivia Pennywort, the garden’s caretaker. She has spent her entire life on her family’s land, harboring a secret that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length. But when her childhood best friend, Sam Van Winkle, returns to the valley, Olivia begins to question her safe, isolated world and wonder: Is the garden maze that she has nurtured all of her life a safe haven or a prison?
Chock full of questions about love, family, and secrets, this novel is sure to keep your book club talking. Check out some of our suggested discussion questions to get going!
1. Olivia Pennywort has a unique condition that causes anyone she touches to develop a rash. What would you do if you had Olivia’s condition? How would you cope if you knew there was no way to get rid of it?
2. Olivia keeps her condition a secret at the risk of being perceived as a monster and driving everyone she knows away. What do you think would happen if Olivia was more open about her condition? Is she right to fear the public’s reaction?
3. Because of her condition, Olivia believes she “would be wrong to expect more of her life than what she had” (page 27). Even though she has everything she needs to survive, do you think this is an acceptable attitude? In what ways can expectations shape how you live your life?
4. At the start, Sam’s condition has stripped him of the ability to feel. If you had this condition, which sensations do you think would be the most jarring to lose?
5. When she was younger, Olivia chose not to be with Sam because she was hurting him, even though she still loved him. Did she make the right decision to break up with him? Should she have told him the truth? What would you have done?
6. Sam comes from a family of rescuers and feels pressure to be a rescuer as well. In what ways can a positive family legacy be both a blessing and a curse? To what extent should a person attempt to live up to a family legacy? What happens if this legacy comes at the expense of carving an individual path?
7. A central theme in the novel is temptation, or the idea of desperately wanting what we know may be bad for us or for others. Is there a right way to deal with temptation? In what scenarios would it be okay to give in?
8. Another core theme is the importance of touch. How important is touch and feeling for a happy life? Is it possible to find happiness without it? Do you think you could?
9. Olivia is appalled that her father knew she was becoming poisonous and did not try to stop it. What makes Arthur’s act so reprehensible? Do you think it’s possible to atone for such a destructive act? How would you go about making things right?
10. When Sam comes to rescue her out of the poisonous garden maze, Olivia realizes that “when a person could find happiness, she should seize it without question, without a single thought for the future, and with a steady resolve never to become bitter once it was lost” (page 307). Does her reasoning make sense? Is this the best way to live your life?
11. When the boarders ask Olivia what they will do without the maze, Olivia replies, “The only thing that stands in the way of your inner wisdom is your fear of it” (page 312). Do you agree with Olivia? Why do you think it’s so hard to figure out what we really want?
12. If you had a magical maze that could help you figure out what to do, what would you want it to help you with?
13. Why do you think Gloria continually tries to change the Pennywort farm? What do you think her actions suggest about how we respond to what we don’t understand?
New York Times bestselling author Anna Quindlen’s seventh novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, goes on sale in paperback next week! Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.
Read on for a Q&A between Anna and her longtime editor, Kate Medina!
Kate Medina: What does a woman want? is an age-old, supposedly unanswerable question. I think Still Life with Bread Crumbs illuminates some answers to that question. We would love your thoughts!
Anna Quindlen: Well, we could go on and on about that question, and the short snappy answer is that there are as many responses as there are women. But I do think that after a certain point, women seek authenticity. There’s an essential phoniness to the way we sometimes present ourselves, physically and socially—wearing uncomfortable clothes that someone, somewhere, has deemed fashionable, being nice to people we don’t even like. How many times has someone said to me about their much older mother, or grandmother, “You wouldn’t believe what comes out of her mouth!” Maybe that’s a response to a lifetime’s worth of so-called social graces.
KM: Still Life with Bread Crumbs is your seventh novel. You write both bestselling fiction and nonfiction. How are the processes different for you, if they are? How do you decide which one to write next?
AQ: I always mean to sound purposeful when we talk about things like that, but it’s all pretty unexamined and intuitive. My last nonfiction book, the memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, came to life with an offhand comment I’d made to my daughter and a piece of data I stumbled across when writing my last Newsweek column. I’d been very satisfied writing novels, and I had no intention of moving back into nonfiction. Right now I’m juggling a novel in its nascent stages and a nonfiction book, as you know, and the most obvious difference is that on the first, I eventually plunged right into the writing, but on the second I’m still doing the reporting. Sometimes the reporting is an excuse not to write; other times it is such an aid to composition because, unlike the material in the novels, it is in your notes or on tape and doesn’t have to be excavated from the sometimes hard rock of imagination.
Carla Buckley’s suspenseful family drama The Deepest Secret goes on sale in paperback next week! Kimberly McCreight, the New York Times bestselling author of Reconstructing Amelia, called the book “Elegant, poignant, and utterly riveting . . . a suspenseful tale of love, forgiveness, and sacrifice that will leave you asking how far a mother really should go to protect her family and wondering about the cost of the secrets we all keep, even from ourselves.”
Kimberly, who is at work on her second novel, How I Lost Her, chatted with Carla about The Deepest Secret. Read their entire conversation here!
KM: This is your third novel. How is The Deepest Secret similar to or different from The Things That Keep Us Here and Invisible? How has your writing process changed—if at all—over time?
CB: I would say that all my novels have the drumbeat of a thriller with the heartbeat of a family drama. I came to write this way almost by accident.
I’d written eight unpublished traditional mysteries when I decided to change course and tackle a question that had been haunting me for some time: how would I protect my family if the worst came to pass and the H5N1 flu strain in China turned pandemic? That story became The Things That Keep Us Here, a novel set entirely in one family’s living room as a pandemic rages around them. In my second novel, Invisible, I asked myself how much hardship a family could sustain before it broke apart. I set that story in a fictitious northern Minnesota town reeling from a deadly environmental contamination.
In some ways, The Deepest Secret is like both of my previous works. In it, I also follow a family already in crisis forced to their breaking point by a devastating event. I explore the same themes of community and moral obligation; I ask, who are we when no one’s looking—or when we think no one’s looking? But in other ways, The Deepest Secret ventures into new territory for me. There’s no global threat, no impending doom hovering overhead. I focused more sharply on a much smaller scale—eight suburban houses ranged along a cul-de-sac—and to my surprise, found my story expanding into something much bigger.
At heart, The Deepest Secret is about one boy growing up and the impact that one small life can have on so many others. It’s a story about love in all its guises and in the end, love prevails—which is the happiest ending of all.
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