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What’s in a Book Title?

July 7th, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers_Rachman Tom Rachman discusses how he came up with the unique title of his novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers….

Naming a novel is painstaking, agonizing, delicate. But does the title matter?

It certainly feels consequential to the author. After several years’ battle with your laptop keyboard, after 100,000 words placed so deliberately, you must distill everything into a phrase brief enough to run down the spine of a book. Should it be descriptive? Perhaps make it catchy. It has to be expressive, too. And honest. And serious. And amusing. And . . .

When writing my latest novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (I’ll explain that title shortly), I filled a pad with notes on my expanding story: character histories, timelines, plotlines—-plus a single sheet of possible titles. The page remained bare throughout my first draft. By the second, I had a dozen possibilities. By the third, the page was crammed with contenders, every line occupied, titles curling up the margins, pushing each other aside, thrusting themselves forth like forefingers poking my breastbone. Some were all right—-yet not quite right. Others were perfect—-but not for this book. Many were stinkers.

Then a flutter went through me. I had it.

I wrote this one down, hung quotation marks on either side, as if to plump it up for scrutiny. The title of my previous novel, The Imperfectionists, had produced a similar effect, redounding within the book itself, accentuating ideas I’d previously only sketched in. That title and this one guided me during subsequent drafts, identifying which lurking details merited more space and which deserved the snip.

Some books start from a title alone, but I’d guess that these are rare. You’d risk drafting a concept rather than a novel. Better to allow the writing to bolt out at first—-to be gathered and groomed and artfully tamed later. A name is best attached, I think, only once you know the story well.

However, choosing the title is also a matter of fashion. A glance at nineteenth–century classics reveals a propensity for naming books after the protagonist: Madame Bovary or Oliver Twist or Anna Karen-ina. Writers of the twentieth century employed poetry: Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck, citing Robbie Burns); A Handful of Dust (Waugh, quoting T. S. Eliot); For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway, lifting from John Donne). Nowadays, one vogue is for the quirky–lyrical—-titles such as (and I’m making this up) The Strange Tenderness of Mr. Plimpsol’s Songbook. The clunkers are pretentious and vague; the best are intriguing.

Turning to my novel, it is a book about a bookseller, Tooly Zylberberg, who runs a dusty shop in the Welsh countryside, surrounded by millions of pages but few customers. Her past is odd: She grew up around the world, whisked from one country to another by a peculiar trio of adults. They fed her, taught her—-then disappeared. In the years since, she has never understood her own past. Then someone from the old days messages her, prompting Tooly—-a lifelong lover of stories—to piece together the story of herself.

Now to my title.

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers has three meanings. It refers to the rise and fall of powers over the course of life, as one gains in strength as a kid, reckons with oneself during adulthood, declines in old age—-all of which are stages that key characters confront in this novel. A second meaning is the rise and fall of influences during one’s life, be they relatives whom you once overlooked but later admire or ideas that once enchanted you that now seem preposterous. Finally, “great powers” has the traditional sense too, meaning the empires or forces of political change that sway the world—-and which characters in this book watch, wondering what role if any they hold in their own times.

In The Imperfectionists, I wrote intimate stories with a backdrop of the clash between the digital age and the old ways. In The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, I’m again telling an intimate story at the margins of the world, now with a backdrop of the past quarter–century, from the ’80s, when the Cold War was ending; to the turn of the millennium, during the peak of American dominance; to the radical tech and social changes of today. The story leaps back and forth among these three periods, contrasting where we were and where we’ve ended up.

My editors, very sensibly, asked whether a nonfiction–sounding title risked confusing the reader. And, they noted, it recalled the title of a bestselling 1987 history by Paul Kennedy. What if Web searches caused my novel to vanish behind this twenty–seven–year–old volume on world politics? Was the title—-no matter how resonant for me—-worth the risk?

Even the upstanding George Orwell once changed the name of a novel, The Last Man in Europe, to his publisher’s preference, 1984. Apparently, The Great Gatsby could’ve ended up as Trimalchio in West Egg. And Catch–22 started out as Catch–11, only for the number to be doubled for marketing reasons.

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked in Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Wouldn’t To Kill a Mockingbird read as sweet if it were Atticus, as Harper Lee once considered calling it? One grafts names onto objects and people, then experiences the titles as inevitable, just as the name of one’s mother (think of yours now) seems to encapsulate her, though she’d have been the same woman were she Hilda or April or Millie.

But no! Your mother was never Hilda or April or Millie—-she couldn’t have been any name but her own! A book title can feel as indelible.

Nevertheless, upon hearing my editors’ concerns, I turned to my original page of possible titles and reconsidered each in turn. I even mocked–up book jackets with alternatives, to see how they looked.

None other felt right. When people read this novel, I hope some might contemplate its name, perhaps discuss it with friends, possibly perceive extra shades of meaning because this is The Rise & Fall of Great Powers and nothing else.

So I stuck with it. It just seemed like the title. And now it is.

Originally published by The Huffington Post in June 2014

Discussion Questions: Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

June 30th, 2015

Lisette's List_Vreeland

From Susan Vreeland, bestselling author of such acclaimed novels as Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Luncheon of the Boating Party, and Clara and Mr. Tiffany, comes a richly imagined story of a woman’s awakening in the south of Vichy France—to the power of art, to the beauty of provincial life, and to love in the midst of war.

1.    Why did the novel need to begin with Lisette meeting Pascal? How was he an important presence throughout the novel and an influence on Lisette’s deepening character?

2.    What were the differences in the qualities that Lisette appreciated about André and Maxime? Did these differences affect her love for both of them? How?

3.    As Lisette becomes more comfortable in Roussillon, what does she find in it that she likes, or even loves? As a reader, did you want her to make this adjustment, or were you holding out for a complete and speedy return to Paris? If she had moved back to Paris right after the end of the war, what would she have lost in addition to the paintings?

4.    Why is Lisette so conflicted about Bernard? What allows her even to speak to him? Since every gift he gives her has consequences, should she have rejected and destroyed each one as she does the stockings? What did you think of Bernard? Did you sympathize with him?

5.    Should Bernard have been punished for his actions during the war and removed from his post? In your opinion, did his motives in siding with the Occupiers justify his stance? At one point Lisette says, “I could charge you not just as a thief but as a collaborator.” Why doesn’t she? Do you consider André’s mother, Héloïse, to be a collaborator? Why or why not?

6.    In Chapter 23, Maxime speaks at length about what makes a painting great. Do you agree with his assessment? Is there any criterion that he overlooks? Select a painting you love by any painter and apply Maxime’s criteria to it. What insightful observation about life or the world or yourself does the painting offer you?

7.    How do the peripheral characters—Maurice, Sister Marie Pierre, Héloïse, Louise, Odette, Madame Bonnelly, Aimé Bonhomme—complement one another in influencing Lisette?

8.    The letter by Marc Chagall to the artists of Paris is historically accurate except that it mentions the cause of Bella’s death. What effect does this letter have on Lisette, not just in terms of her emotional reaction but also on her subsequent thinking and -actions?

9.    In what way does Lisette’s List of Hungers and Vows differ from the popularized “bucket list” of contemporary usage? What is its purpose for her? Why wasn’t “Participate in the art world in Paris” on her list?

10.  In Chapter 16, Lisette considers whether it might be a higher art to invent a painting by assembling elements from one’s heart, as Chagall did, rather than by painting only what one actually sees. She imagines such a painting of her own. What elements of her own life are reflected in her painting? What elements in your life might be reflected in such a painting if you were to paint your own Chagall?

11.  What are the biggest lessons Lisette learns throughout the course of the novel? Do they concern art or life? Does learning about art teach Lisette to live a fuller life? Or does living a fuller life teach her to better understand and appreciate art?

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The Guest Cottage by Nancy Thayer: Discussion Questions

June 18th, 2015

Guest Cottage_ThayerNancy Thayer whisks readers back to Nantucket in a delightful novel about two single parents who accidentally rent the same summer house—and must soon decide where their hearts truly lie.

Sensible thirty-six-year-old Sophie Anderson knows her role in life: supportive wife of a successful architect and calm, capable mother of two. But on a warm summer night, as the house grows quiet around her and her children fall asleep, she wonders what’s missing from her life. After her husband leaves her, she impulsively rents a guest cottage on Nantucket and leaves Boston for a family vacation, minus one.

Also minus one is Trevor Black, a software entrepreneur who has recently lost his wife. Trevor did not imagine himself raising a little boy like Leo—smart and sweet, but grappling constantly with his mother’s death–on his own. Hoping a quiet summer on the Nantucket coast will help him reconnect with Leo, Trevor rents a guest house on the beautiful island from his friend Ivan Swenson.

Best-laid plans run awry when Sophie and Trevor realize they’ve mistakenly rented the same house. Still, determined to make this a summer their kids will always remember, the two agree to share the Swensons’ Nantucket house. But as the summer unfolds and the families grow close, Sophie and Trevor must ask themselves if the guest cottage is all they want to share.

Discussion Questions for The Guest House by Nancy Thayer

1. On page 80, Sophie thinks to herself, “When one door closes in your life, another door opens. But what if the entire house comes down?” For Sophie and Trevor, a summer in Nantucket holds so much more than fun in the sun. They resolve unfinished business, get to spend time with their kids, and even learn to love again. Do you think any of this would have happened if they hadn’t had to share the guest cottage?

2. Living under the same roof, Sophie and Trevor are forced to compromise. Do you think they’re the better for it? Have you ever thought of a compromise you’ve had to make as an opportunity to grow?

3. Compare Trevor and Sophie’s parenting styles. What do you think each of their approaches say about them? What do they do differently? Do you think they learn anything from each other?

4. At Sophie’s dinner party in chapter 19, Connor tells the story of Wooly Bully, a stubborn bull that his wife succeeded in taming on their farm. Why do you think he tells this story to the Andersons and the Blacks?

5. On page 238, Trevor muses that perhaps the traditional family “never existed except on Christmas cards.” Do you agree with Trevor?

6. Similarly, in chapter 32 Trevor’s son Leo asks Sophie, “Are you my family?” How do you define family? How do you think it is defined in The Guest Cottage?

7. Sophie admits that she never loved Zack as much as she loved music, and Trevor acknowledges that he was drawn to Tallulah for superficial reasons. Do you think their reasons for marrying the first time were similar or different?

8. On page 204, Trevor observes that sometimes “people marry the wrong people to get the right children.” What do you think about that statement?

9. When Sophie sees the piano in the music room, her dreams of becoming a concert pianist come flooding back to her. Although music has always been her first love, she hasn’t played a note since she froze on stage as a teenager. Why do you think Sophie froze? What do you think enables her to play again?

10. Have you ever rediscovered something you were passionate about? What made you revisit it?

11. Throughout The Guest Cottage, Leo struggles to play the song his mother used to sing to him on the piano. Why do you think Sophie is the one who recognizes the song he is attempting to play?

12.  Sophie rents the guest cottage with help from the inheritance left to her by her unsinkable Aunt Fancy. Aunt Fancy was a woman of many mottos. “If I’ve gotta go down, I’m gonna go down in style,” Sophie remembers her saying. Even in memory, she inspires Sophie to love life and take chances. Does Aunt Fancy remind you of anyone who tells you, in one way or another, “If the horse throws you, climb right back on”?

Discussion Questions: Nantucket Sisters by Nancy Thayer

June 12th, 2015

Nantucket Sisters_ThayerFriendship takes center stage in New York Times bestselling author Nancy Thayer’s captivating, emotionally charged novel featuring all the tenderness and wit, drama and romance that readers have come to expect from this insightful, much-loved writer.

1. Maggie and Emily come from two different worlds—-while Maggie’s family lives on Nantucket year round, Emily is whisked off to a very different island, New York City, at the first sign of the summer’s end each year. Although the two girls build a world of their own each summer as “Nantucket sisters,” eventually the outside world lets itself in. Do you think Maggie and Emily are their best selves together? Have you ever had a friendship with someone from a different background? Did it make you see the world differently?

2. Emily and Maggie spend golden summers together building castles in the sand, creating magical worlds of their own, and forging grand plans for their future. What other relationships in Nantucket Sisters take place far from the eyes of the outside world? Why do you think they do?

3. Do you find yourself identifying more with Maggie or Emily? Why?

4. Emily’s mother, Cara, always disapproved of Emily’s summer friendship with Maggie and Ben, whose mother is a local seamstress. She encourages Emily to take sailing lessons and attend fundraisers where she will associate with “summer people” instead. How do you think the environments we grow up in and parental expectations affect us later in life?

5. Emily is passionate about the environment, especially that of Nantucket, and environmental preservation is about keeping the past and the future alive in Nantucket Sisters. Why do you think Emily lets her passion for the island fade? Does it correspond with emotional changes in her life?

6. Similarly, we find out in chapter 22 that against his family’s wishes Ben plans to build on the land his stepfather, Thaddeus, left him. What motivates his decision? Do you think he’s trying to block out his memories of Emily or be what she wanted him to be?

7. In chapter 10, Ben and Emily fight over expectations for their engagement. On the surface, the fight is about money, a source of tension that affects many relationships in Nantucket Sisters. Ben and Emily have gotten past this issue before—-what do you think is really at stake?

8. Maggie and Emily approach their pregnancies very differently—do you think the choices they make about raising their children reflect their personalities? What do you think you would do in either of their places?

9. Maggie’s grandmother Clarice has a motto, “You can’t keep a good woman down.” Clarice seems to grow more and more resilient as she ages, remaining a lively, supportive presence in Maggie’s life. Does she remind you of anyone you know?

10. Tyler comes back into Maggie’s life unexpectedly. Have you reconnected with a friend or a crush, years later? Did it surprise you?

11. As girls, Maggie and Emily work on a novel together, Siren Song, and Maggie grows up to be a writer, working on her novel on cozy winter evenings. What roles do you thinking writing and storytelling play in Nantucket Sisters?

12. Nantucket Sisters begins and ends with “a morning in heaven” on the beach. Is there a place that has always been special to you? Why is it meaningful to you?

A Conversation Between Mira Jacob and Joanna Rackoff

June 10th, 2015

Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing_JacobsWith depth, heart, and agility, debut novelist Mira Jacob takes us on a deftly plotted journey that ranges from 1970s India to suburban 1980s New Mexico to Seattle during the dot.com boom. The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is an epic, irreverent testimony to the bonds of love, the pull of hope, and the power of making peace with life’s uncertainties.

Celebrated brain surgeon Thomas Eapen has been sitting on his porch, talking to dead relatives. At least that is the story his wife, Kamala, prone to exaggeration, tells their daughter, Amina, a photographer living in Seattle.

Reluctantly Amina returns home and finds a situation that is far more complicated than her mother let on, with roots in a trip the family, including Amina’s rebellious brother Akhil, took to India twenty years earlier. Confronted by Thomas’s unwillingness to explain himself, strange looks from the hospital staff, and a series of puzzling items buried in her mother’s garden, Amina soon realizes that the only way she can help her father is by coming to terms with her family’s painful past. In doing so, she must reckon with the ghosts that haunt all of the Eapens.

Joanna Rackoff: This novel, I know, was a decade in the works. What was it like to work on a project of this scope? Did you ever despair of finishing it? Or was it more the opposite, that working on it sustained you?

Mira Jacob: Oh, those questions really get to everything all at once. Let me answer the easier question first. Yes, I did despair of finishing it at several points. I worked a series of corporate jobs while getting this book done, and most of the time I wrote from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., when my young son (and the rest of the world) was asleep. I’m pretty up front about the fact that this book took me ten years to write, because I think there are a lot of people like me—-people with dreams bigger than their day jobs—-and I want them to know they are not crazy for keeping at it.

As for the scope and the scale—-the spooky truth is that when I started the novel, I thought I would be writing a purely fictional book about a father receding from the world. I imagined him -having -Alzheimer’s, or maybe just some kind of nonspecific dementia. I had a great father character in the original draft, and I was putting him through those paces when my real–life father was diagnosed with cancer. You know what isn’t the easiest thing in the world? Writing a father character into demise while your own father is growing weaker every day. So I put the book away for three years, and in those years I watched my father die slowly and painfully, and, well, it took a toll. Just how much of a toll it took became evident a year after he died, when I tried to go back to the book I had been writing, and instead of writing the father as a character, I kept writing my father—-his mannerisms, his way of moving through the world. At first I tried to resist it, but then I just gave in, and it was cathartic. I realized much later that it was my way of getting to say goodbye on my own terms.

JR: Most annoying question ever: You mention, in the acknowledgments, that you hope no one will mistake your mother and brother for Kamala and Akhil. Does the novel draw from your own cultural, geographical, or familial background? Is the world of the novel the world from which you come?

MJ: The world of the novel is absolutely where I come from: Syrian Christian South Indian living in the American Southwest, to be specific. Given that, and the fact that I put my actual father in the book, I felt like I needed that disclaimer in there, especially for my mother, who was a very cool force of culture and feminism and political thought in my life—-quite the opposite of Kamala. And my brother, while heavily into metal, never had the identity problems Akhil had.

JR: The story arc of the novel is somewhat unusual. What novels, or other works, influenced you in its development?

MJ: I like a novel with an emotional mystery at its center. To that extent, books like Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao were great guides. But as far as the structure goes—-the unwinding of parallel story lines—-that was something I stumbled into when initial drafts weren’t going over well. In short, I was told to remove the entire high school section of the book because it came as one big, long chunk in the middle of the narrative and slowed down the pace. I talked to my husband, who is a filmmaker, and he told me about storyboarding, which is something I had never tried before. I sat down one day with a bunch of colored Post–its and the tandem story lines became beautifully clear.

JR: This is obviously a story about first–generation Americans, their struggles and conflicts. Do you see this as a universal story or a specifically Indian one?

MJ: It’s funny, because I know that reviewers have latched on to this as an immigrant story—-which it is, of course—-but in my mind, it’s mostly a people–dealing–with–loss story. That was at the heart of this for me: how to move forward in a world that keeps erasing itself behind you, how to find your footing in a slippery future when you haven’t made peace with your past. It’s also about relationships in families, those very specific dynamics that happen between people you can never get away from. And the reaction from readers has been surprisingly gratifying in this respect—-the number of nonimmigrants who have reached out to say, “You told the story of my family,” has been stunning.

JR: The novel, of course, is very much about sleep, and tries to get at the complex dynamic between our sleeping and waking lives. One character sleepwalks and, in doing so, finds the courage to do all he can’t in his waking life. Another, similarly, falls asleep when tensions rise. How did you become interested in sleep? How does sleep function in the novel?

MJ: Sleep is a human universal, something we all have to do to function no matter where we are located or what else is going on in our lives. In its best moments, it’s restorative, regenerative, and in its worst, it becomes a subconscious reckoning. All of the Eapens on either side of the globe spend their days contorting around their realities—-whether that’s being stuck in a life they can’t stand or a country that won’t see them—​so it made sense to me that at night, when their guards are down, sleep would wreak havoc on their lives.

JR: This is also very much a novel about the complex emotional web between parent and child. You became a parent while working on the novel. Did this affect your depictions of the parents and children in the novel?

MJ: Both my father’s death and my son’s subsequent birth had enormous ramifications on my perspective while writing the novel. It’s a little simplistic to say one devastated me and the other rebuilt me; the truth would be closer to saying that both of them were deeply untethering and also very bracing. They put me in my current bones. So, yes, it very much affected the novel, adding new layers of perspective, disappointment, fury, and forgiveness. You know, life.

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