Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel SISTERLAND goes on sale June 25, 2013 but we have an exclusive sneak peek into the novel with discussion questions for you and your book club. Funny, haunting, and thought-provoking, Sisterland is a beautifully written novel of the obligation we have toward others, and the responsibility we take for ourselves. With her deep empathy, keen wisdom, and unerring talent for finding the extraordinary moments in our everyday lives, Curtis Sittenfeld is one of the most exceptional voices in literary fiction today.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What and where is Sisterland? If you have a sister, do you see any of your own relationship with her reflected in the relationship between Kate and Vi?
2. The novel opens with a description of the 1811 earthquake in New Madrid, although everything that follows is set in the near-present. Why do you think the novel begins in this way? How does the historical context change how we see Kate’s story?
3. Do you believe that people can have psychic powers? Have you ever experienced strong intuitions about events that happened later?
4. Do you understand why Kate tries to escape her powers? Would you prefer, like Kate, to be normal, or to be special, like Vi?
5. Kate transforms herself from Daisy Shramm to Kate Tucker. How do names define and shape us?
6. Near the end of the novel, Kate and Vi make an important discovery about their “senses” that upsets everything they thought they knew. Were you as surprised by this revelation as the twins? How do you think it might change their understanding of their childhood?
7. Do Kate and Jeremy have a good marriage?
8. Were you surprised by Kate’s choices at the end? How will her family’s life in the future be different from what it was in the past? Do you think it’s plausible that she can continue to conceal her secret indefinitely?
9. Twins are intriguing to many people. Do you think the interest they elicit is justified? Have you known twins in your own life? If you are a twin, did Sittenfeld’s portrayal of them strike you as realistic?
10. Have you read any of Curtis Sittenfeld’s other novels? If so, do you think this one is like or unlike her earlier work?
Recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Adam Johnson’s THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON is an exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.
Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the state soon recognize the boy’s loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”
If you haven’t read this fabulous novel yet then we have an opportunity for you! Enter below for your chance to win a copy of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. This copy includes exclusive Random House Reader’s Circle extra content including discussion questions for you and your book club and a Q&A between the author and his editor, David Ebershoff.
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The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen dares to imagine: What if Anne Boleyn had actually given Henry VIII a healthy son who grew up to be king? We couldn’t put this imaginative first book in the series down when we first got it and we hope you feel the same! Enjoy this excerpt from the exclusive Random House Reader’s Circle reading group guide and discussion questions below. More information can be found in the back of the book.
“Gripping . . . Andersen delves into an alternative Tudor England geared to rivet period fans and newcomers alike. . . . Perfect for Philippa Gregory fans.”—Booklist (starred review)
An Interview Between Anne and Minuette
30 April 1554
We are here with Queen Anne in a brief pause before this summer’s festivities. Even briefer than I expected it to be, since William has decided to send me to Mary’s household. The queen, in a burst of sentimentality I would never have predicted, has asked me to sit with her this afternoon and speak of the past. I think she sometimes wishes to mistake me for my mother—at least, I have the sense that she has not had a friend to confi de in for many years. And I am curious enough to take advantage of my likeness to my mother.
ANNE: Well, Genevieve, what shall we speak of? My opinion of the English wool trade, perhaps? The fallacies in Bishop Bonner’s arguments against Protestant reforms? Last year’s failure by the French to
MINUETTE: You are teasing me, Your Majesty.
A: Don’t let my children know. They would not respect me so well if they thought I could tease. Very well, it is the personal you are interested in. As is every seventeen-year-old girl.
M: What personal things interested you at seventeen?
A: At seventeen I had already been years at European courts, in the Netherlands and France. You and I are not entirely dissimilar, for the companion of my girlhood was Princess Claude, later Queen of France. But my world was somewhat more expansive than yours. You’ve never left England, the farthest you’ve ever gone is . . . York?
M: As you know very well. Did you miss your family all those childhood years away?
A: Well, I was often with my sister, Mary. Also, during those years on the continent, my father was a frequent visitor on royal business. I suppose it was my mother I knew the least in those years.
M: And now? There’s only—
A: Only George left. But honestly, we two were always the ones who understood each other. He is the only one who never saw me as a means to an end. For George, I have been an end in myself. That is as family should be and so rarely is. It is a pity you have no siblings.
M: It is diffi cult to miss what one has never had. I have my friends, and I cannot see how even siblings would be dearer to me.
A: Perhaps you are the fortunate one in that. You can choose your loyalties and not have any thrust upon you by blood. So tell me, Genevieve, what loyalties will you choose beyond your friendships with my children and Dominic Courtenay? I am given to understand that there is a young man who grows daily more enamoured. But that is only to
be expected; you are a young woman poised to break men’s hearts. The question is, are you as taken with him?
M: I hardly know, Your Majesty. It is . . . How does one fall in love? In an instant, or through time and experience?
A: You are young, aren’t you? To fall in love is simple. To hold that love . . . Well, that’s the trick. Men fall in love in a rush of desire. Women are more practical. We have to be, since we are so often at the mercy of men’s desires.
M: Are you saying you’ve never been in love?
A: I’m saying that’s a question you know better than to ask. Did I not teach you discretion?
M: You also taught me boldness. There are still stories of how your father and Wolsey forced you and Henry Percy to separate against your wishes.
A: Youth is made for hopeless romance.
M: So you’re saying it was a romance.
A: I’m saying it was hopeless. It is an important distinction for a woman of the court to make. Do not trust men with your heart— or anything else.
M: How does one know whom to trust?
A: Have you learned nothing in your years at court? Trust is for saints and madmen; all else must look to themselves. A lesson I would have you learn from me, and not through hard experience.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. If “History is written by the victors,” what do you think is the biggest impact of changing a story?
2. William says, “I will be the best because I’ve earned it. I don’t need you to hand me my victories.” (page 12) Do you think this is true? Is William a self-made man? Does your opinion change of him by the end of the book?
3. Why do you think their reputation within the court is so important to people like William and Elizabeth? Why are even conjecture and rumor dangerous? Do you think Min u tte and Dominic
feel the same way?
4. William and Elizabeth are of royal parentage. Dominic is the son of a supposed traitor. Minuette is the daughter of a trusted servant and confidante. How much do you think parentage matters to these characters? Where does it affect them most in life? How have they each overcome the generation before them?
5. The rift between Protestants and Catholics is a huge divide in The Boleyn King. Compare and contrast it to today’s societal divisions in America, such as Republicans and Democrats, or even
between the suburbs and the city.
6. In tweaking history for this story, the author opens up a world of possibilities. What historical event do you think would have the greatest impact if changed? What would that impact be?
7. In the context of this story, what qualities do you think make for an ideal servant? An ideal ruler?
8. In an age where social standing is of the utmost importance, what do you think is the most important reason for a person to be married? Why? Does your opinion change for royalty versus
9. Do you think members of royalty can have friends? What about someone like a present-day world leader? Could you be friends with your boss, or your employees, the way William and Dominic
10. Compare and contrast how each of the four main characters deal with the ideal of castle intrigue.
11. What would be the most unnerving secret message that you could receive? In what manner?
12. Compare and contrast what is deemed public in this novel versus what is deemed private. How does that compare to today’s Internet culture?
13. What is said in letters in this novel versus what is said out loud? Which do you think has more impact? Which method of communication is more important to you?
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It begins with a simple ritual: Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loves to cook walks to his grandmother’s house and helps her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother is Swedish, a retired domestic. The boy is Ethiopian and adopted, and he will grow up to become the world-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson. This book is his love letter to food and family in all its manifestations. Yes, Chef chronicles Samuelsson’s journey, from his grandmother’s kitchen to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four.
But Samuelsson’s career of chasing flavors had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs, and, most important, the opening of Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fulfilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, and bus drivers. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.
“All of these elements—stylistic panache, technical daring, moral weight and an uncanny sense of the current moment—combine in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, the single best work of fiction published in 2012. . . . The book’s cunning, flair and pathos are testaments to the still-formidable power of the written word.” —The Wall Street Journal
Adam Johnson, recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, sits down with his editor, David Ebershoff, for a Q&A about The Orphan Master’s Son.
As an added bonus, we also have discussion questions (below) to help get you and your book club’s discussion started!
A Conversation Between Adam Johnson and David Ebershoff
David Ebershoff: Let’s start with Jun Do, your protagonist. Of the one million and one creative decisions you made when writing this book, he was probably your most important. It’s one thing to think about North
Korea as a subject for a novel, but of course countries and political structures are never really the subjects of good fiction—people are. How did you settle on Jun Do as your guide—and ours—through this frightmare of a world?
Adam Johnson: Much is written about the political, military, and economic aspects of the DPRK, but it was always the personal dimension that interested me. I wondered how families huddled under such repression and how people maintained their identities against the tide of propaganda, and whether lovers, despite the dangers, shared their intimate thoughts. So, from the beginning, my goal in this book was to create a single character that felt fully human to me. I should probably say “capture” as much as “create,” because I used so much research to build the story. The first person I interviewed for the book had been an orphan from the North, and the desperation and sadness of his experience steeped the book’s opening. All the stories of defectors fascinated me, and whether they worked at canning factories or on fi shing boats, they all shared common experiences of mandatory military service, the famine years, loved ones disappearing, and brutality from the state. In a world where expression is measured and spontaneity is dangerous, it was especially important to find moments of intimacy and humor and surprise. Jun Do grew out of this research. As the book opens, he’s an everyman, a character who does what he’s told when he’s told, however grim the task, and he doesn’t ask questions. But by listening to foreign broadcasts and through a chance encounter with American sailors, spontaneity and possibility enter Jun Do’s life. From that point on, he decides to act on his own needs and desires, which will bring him into conflict with every aspect of his society.
DE: I think the first time you break my heart in this book—and you break it many times—is within the first few pages when the reader realizes that Jun Do, who is proud to be the only kid at the orphanage with a parent, is also an orphan. In real life, an orphan’s story can be so overwhelmingly sad that we sometimes see him or her only with pity, rather than with complexity. And yet on the page orphans draw us in, as both readers and writers. Why do you think that is?
AJ: Yes, in real life, our hearts extend. I’d never written about an orphan before, and I was struck by Jun Do’s resilience and inquisitiveness. In fiction, a character like this is a blank slate, one without advocates or champions, a person for whom even the basic notions of love and bonding come as big discoveries. And, of course, in North Korea your primary relationship is with the state. Your loyalties must lie with the regime first and your family second, which makes an orphan of everyone to some degree, and the Kim regime the true orphan master.
DE: Yes, the blank slate of the orphan gives the writer a sort of freedom, I think. When I see someone interesting on the subway—the lady with her new Bible, or the delivery guy holding down a dozen Mylar balloons— my mind goes in two different directions. Where are they coming from? And where are they going? Often the second question is what drives a novel forward. But the first question can also be a source of a novel’s depth. With a character who is an orphan, who will never know his family’s true story, the first question will take you only so far, perhaps. Speaking of which, I’ve seen your pictures of the Pyongyang subway. There are no Mylar balloons and definitely no Bibles. When you went to North Korea you had been working on the book for a few years already. You’d been reading and thinking about it for a long time. What most surprised you when you saw it for yourself?
AJ: Actually, the use of balloons is a common tactic of getting information and miniature Bibles to the citizens in the North. The balloons are large, usually the size of a beach ball, and they’re released south of the DMZ to float north with precious items like wool socks attached, things so rare that North Koreans take great risks to track the balloons down, and this is where they discover pro religious material or antiregime material attached. I had been working on The Orphan Master’s Son for a couple years before I finally found a path to Pyongyang. Few people get a chance to travel there, and my minders—bright, funny, interesting people—did not know what to make of me. Because I was deep into the novel, I knew the sites I wanted to visit, and my minders were thrilled when I asked to view monuments of great national pride like the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery (which figures prominently in the book) or the hothouses where the national flowers kimjongilia and kimilsungia are bred. But when I showed interest in visiting an outdated amusement park, I was met with great suspicion. It didn’t help that I asked why there were no disabled people in the capital, where the fire stations were located, and how did the mail get delivered without mailboxes. When I observed that all the women in Pyongyang wore the same shade of lipstick, it was kind of the last straw. The truly shocking, scary things I noted in Pyongyang I put right into the book: a dump truck filled with “volunteers” headed to the country side, a family scrambling to steal chestnuts from a public park, shock-work whistles, chrome Kalashnikovs, and a night watchman sitting up all night to guard the carp in the fishponds.
DE: Did you get to talk to anyone outside the orchestrated tour?
AJ: That’s a good question. Actually, it’s illegal for a citizen of the DPRK to interact with a foreigner. All the people I met had been through special training to handle American visitors. So there wasn’t room for a genuine interaction. Walking the streets of the capital through crowds of Pyongyangites heading to their destinations, I felt a powerful urge to talk to them, to hear their stories, but that wasn’t possible, so I had to bring their stories to life through fiction.
DE: I wonder if you glimpsed, if even through a car window, anyone experiencing something that might be described as joy. Not joy about the political realities, of course, but just a simple joy like walking with a friend or pausing to feel a breeze.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. How much did you know about North Korea before reading The Orphan Master’s Son? How has it changed your perspective on life there?
2. The Orphan Master’s Son has been characterized as a thriller, a love story, and a political dystopia. How would you classify the novel in terms of genre? How do you think each of these genres manifests itself
in the book?
3. Speaking of genre, Adam Johnson once categorized the novel as a “trauma narrative.” How do you interpret that term? Do you think it suitably describes the novel, and if so, in what ways?
4. How did you feel about the inclusion of Kim Jong Il as a central character in the book? How would you say Johnson depicts him? Were you surprised by his portrayal?
5. Discuss the differences between the fi rst part of the novel, “The Biography of Jun Do,” and the second, “The Confessions of Commander Ga.”
6. How do the propaganda chapters, written as if spoken from a loudspeaker, play into your reading of the novel?
7. What do you feel the first-person narrative contributed to the story? Did you feel more or less removed from a world so closely guarded?
8. Reviewers have drawn comparisons between The Orphan Master’s Son and classic dystopian novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Are these apt comparisons? Does Johnson’s fiction, which is based on fact, have a different impact from that of novels which center on invented worlds?
9. At one point, Dr. Song says to Jun Do, “Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in confl ict, it is the man who must change.” What does this mean in the context of the novel?
10. In one of the most poignant and powerful moments in the book, one of the interrogators remembers the way in which his father explained life in North Korea: “Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.” What does the quote imply about the reality of living in
such a repressive society? How does it speak to humanness in the face of inhumanity?
11. Discuss the significance of “Jun Do” as a homonym for “John Doe,” the Western name for the unnamed and the everyman.
12. Discuss Jun Do’s physical and emotional journey, and his transformation from the beginning of the novel to the end.
13. One critic described The Orphan Master’s Son as “darkly comedic,” and another as, at times, “ridiculously funny.” How do you feel about the use of comedy in conjunction with the brutality of the novel?
14. How should the rest of the world respond to the violence and tyranny of present-day North Korea? Do we have a moral obligation to intervene? What can we do to help the people of North Korea without supporting its government?