Five Star Billionaire is a dazzling, kaleidoscopic novel that offers rare insight into the booming world of Shanghai, a city of elusive identities and ever-changing skylines, of grand ambitions and outsize dreams. Bursting with energy, contradictions, and the promise of possibility, Tash Aw’s remarkable new book is both poignant and comic, exotic and familiar, cutting-edge and classic, suspenseful and yet beautifully unhurried.
Below are discussion questions for you and your book club to join as you dip into this vibrant work of fiction. Happy Reading!
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Discuss the roles of money, ambition, and status in the novel. Wealth seems to bring respect. But in what ways are money and success a kind of burden for the characters? At the novel’s conclusion, which character comes out the most successful, and why? How do you think the author defines success?
2. The novel takes its title from a fictional self-help book, Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire, and the chapter titles are mantras such as “Reinvent Yourself,” “Always Rebound After Each Failure,” and “Perform All Obligations and Duties with Joy.” Why do you think Aw chose to frame the novel in this way? How did this structure affect your reading of the book and your interpretation of the characters?
3. “The first rule of success is, you must look beautiful.” How true does this statement ring by the novel’s conclusion? Does a “beautiful” appearance have a positive or negative effect on the lives of the main characters?
4. “Shanghai is a beautiful place, but it is also a harsh place. Life here is not really life, it is a competition.” Five Star Billionaire takes place in Shanghai, a city that changes as quickly as the characters’ lives. In fact, Shanghai is as much the subject of the novel as the characters are. How does the city itself reflect the lives of its characters?
5. One of the chapter titles in the novel is “Nothing Remains Good or Bad Forever.” Another is “Even Beautiful Things Will Fade.” When describing China today, one woman says, “Every village, every city, everything is changing.” Discuss the role of impermanence in the novel.
6. “Like everything in life these days, I suppose you could say it’s a copycat—a fake.” Everything about Phoebe—from her personal history to the designer clothes she wears—is fake. Why does Phoebe portray herself in this way? Is she, as the statement suggests, symptomatic of our modern society? Do you think the entries quoted within Phoebe’s “Journal of My Secret Self ” contain her true nature?
7. When Pheobe finally takes up with Walter Chao, the Five Star Billionaire of the novel, she loses control and finds herself unable to continue her charade. Why do you think things fall apart so quickly for Phoebe? In what ways do the other characters, in addition to Phoebe, struggle to create new identities? Do you think any of the characters ever succeeds in reinventing himself or herself?
8. “She would become like so many other people in cyberspace, hiding behind an image of something other than themselves.” How do the characters in the novel use the Internet, and what do their online habits reveal about them?
9. The characters in the novel seem to be constantly haunted by their pasts, even though they often try to block their memories and pretend that events never happened, in order to thrive in the present. Do you think we can ever truly put the past behind us? Does the characters’ denial help them in any way?
10. With which character did you identify most, and why?
11. “When will you ever be your own man, with your own life? When will you be free?” Family is important to Justin and Yinghui. How do these familial ties affect their lives. Do they, as Yingui suggests here, restrict these characters’ freedom?
12. Five Star Billionaire ends with Gary returning to the stage to sing. In the final passage, Aw writes, “[Gary] feels, for the first time in a big concert, that he is alone in the auditorium, but it is a loneliness that feels calm, as it did many years ago, when he was still small. Only he can fully appreciate the quality of his voice filling his lungs, filling the vast space above him.” Why do you think Aw decided to end the book the way he did? How does this relate back to the Foreword of the book, in which the Five Star Billionaire tells us, “Fortunately, you do get a second chance. My advice to you is: Take it. A third rarely comes your way”?
13. There are many novels that examine the immigrant experience. With its main characters all immigrants from Malaysia, Five Star Billionaire is a fresh examination of the immigrant novel, as the city of hope its characters move to is Shanghai. Discuss Five Star Billionaire as an immigrant novel. By setting the novel in Shanghai, does Aw shed new light on the experience? How does the novel compare to novels about the American immigrant experience?
(An essay as originally published on SouthernLiving.com)
Even after writing eight novels, I am still mystified at the process of writing. Where do the ideas for books really come from? Do writers come up with the ideas on their own? Or are they sent to us from somewhere, or someone, else?
I do know that the idea for Fried Green Tomatoes was literally handed to me in a shoebox. My grandmother’s youngest sister, Bess, ran a little railroad cafe in Irondale, Alabama, a small town on the outskirts of Birmingham. I was raised in the city, and when I was a child I used to love to go out and visit the cafe. At the time, the cafe seemed to be one of the happiest places in the world. Not only was Aunt Bess hilariously funny, but the fried green tomatoes were delicious!
When I was eleven, we moved away from Birmingham, and I only saw Aunt Bess a few more times, but I had grown up hearing stories about her that I would never forget—stories of how her humor and generous spirit had helped everyone in the town get through the Great Depression.
After high school and one year of acting school, I headed to New York and got caught up in my own life, as we do. Years later, somewhere along the way, I remember hearing from my mother that Aunt Bess had sold the cafe. Then one day came the sad news that she had passed away.
Over a decade later, on a nostalgic trip back home to Alabama, I decided to drive out and see the old cafe and say hello to the McMichael family, who had bought the little cafe from Aunt Bess. After I visited the cafe, I thought I might drive by the old family home across the railroad tracks, where Bess had lived.
When I knocked on the door, a lady answered. I introduced myself as Bess’s niece. She knew who I was and said, “Oh, Fannie, I’m so glad you stopped by. Before she died, your Aunt Bess left you something and she asked me to make sure it got into your hands. I’ve been keeping it for you for all these years.” I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t imagine what it could be.
As it turned out, what Aunt Bess had left me was a shoebox full of memorabilia from her life—old photos, her birth certificate, recipes, a child lock of hair, and programs from the funerals of her cooks who had worked for her for over forty years. At the time, I was struck that a small box of papers was all that was left of a life that had been so full and had meant so much to so many people. I thanked the lady and left, but I was still baffled why Aunt Bess wanted me to have these things. She had so many other nieces and nephews that she was much closer to. Why had she left those things to me? I can’t say for sure, but from that shoebox came the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
Cut to 1999. I was living in California, and one day quite out of the blue, I called Mrs. McMichael in Alabama, the new owner of the cafe, to ask her a question. By then, because of the success of the movie, the cafe had become somewhat of a tourist attraction. When we were talking, Mrs. McMichael said, “Oh, by the way, we have quite an interesting group coming in for lunch today. They are the last living members of the WASPs, who are in town for a reunion.”
Intrigued, I asked, “Who are the WASPs?”
It’s a bunch of gals that used to fly military planes during the Second World War.”
I had never heard of the WASPs before, but being a white-knuckle flyer, I was very impressed and decided to buy the gals lunch. They earned it!
I had completely forgotten all about it until a year later when I was sent a book about the WASPs written by Nancy Batson Crews. Nancy had been at the reunion lunch at the cafe that previous year. At this time, I was in the middle of writing a book and didn’t have time to sit down and read it, but I did look at the photographs and was fascinated about the idea of maybe writing about the WASPs one day.
Almost twelve years later, I had finished I Still Dream About You and, as usual, I was wandering around the house, trying to come up with an idea for a new book. I suddenly found myself staring at my bookcase, and I spotted the book about the women service pilots. I opened it and saw a handwritten message to me that was written by Nancy Batson Crews’s co-writer.
Nancy Batson Crews’s final instructions to me when I left her for the last time were to put an autographed copy of The Originals in your hands. She so appreciated the reunion luncheon at the cafe! I will sign both our names on the title page, as she would have done had she lived long enough.
Thank you from the surviving WASPs.
Sarah Byrn Rickman and Nancy Batson Crews
Needless to say, when I read that note, my hair stood up. Why had I not seen this before? Was it a coincidence that I happened to call the cafe on that particular day in 1999? Was it a coincidence that years later, I happened to pick up that particular book? And if Aunt Bess had not left me that shoebox, would the WASPs have been at that cafe for lunch? Would I ever have known about these brave women if they hadn’t been there the day I called? What is fate and what is simply luck?
Of course, I can’t know anything for sure, but sometimes I wonder if some stories just want to be written and they go out looking for someone to write them. I believe this one did, and I hope you think so too.
Send Fannie a note on her Facebook page!
…And that’s just one bit of praise about this summer’s romantic feast for the senses. A Wedding in Provence by Ellen Sussman
When Olivia and Brody drive up to their friend’s idyllic inn—nestled in a valley in the Mediterranean town of Cassis—they know they’ve chosen the perfect spot for their wedding. The ceremony will be held in the lush garden, and the reception will be a small party of only their closest family and friends. But when Olivia and Brody’s guests check in, their peaceful wedding weekend is quickly thrown off balance.
If this is on your reading list, then we hope you’ll check out these questions and topics for discussion from your friends at Random House Reader’s Circle. Happy Reading!
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. A Wedding in Provence starts by introducing a happy couple on the way to their idyllic wedding. How did this affect your expectations for the book? Were you nervous about how events would unravel?
2. Nell is clearly a loose cannon. What were your initial thoughts when she decided to bring Gavin to the wedding? Did you think he was dangerous, or just a fun-loving, spontaneous stranger?
3. Were you surprised when Carly took off with Gavin? Why or why not?
4. In many ways Carly is Nell’s opposite, but the two sisters end up attracted to the same man, however briefly. Is it possible that they aren’t actually as different as they seem? Do you think they share any other qualities?
5. At the beginning of Chapter Sixteen Olivia and Emily are discussing Nell’s vulnerability. Was Emily’s advice to Olivia helpful? How would you have suggested Olivia manage her daughters’ differences?
6. After learning that Sebastien cheated on Emily, Olivia is clearly rattled. She says “We’re brave old fools…. We still choose love when we know everything that can happen,” (pg.19). Do you think a marriage can survive infidelity?
7. What did you think of Sam leaving Fanny after fifty-five years of marriage and refusing to come to Brody’s wedding? Were you surprised when you found out why?
8. Throughout the novel Olivia and Brody are faced with numerous obstacles that threaten to ruin their low-key wedding weekend. From Nell’s surprise guest, to Carly’s disappearance, to Sebastien’s infidelity, which do you think caused the biggest stir? Why?
9. Of all the characters in the novel, which one did you most sympathize with?
10. Even though Olivia’s big day is the backbone of the plot, the narrative rotates between her perspective and each of her daughters’. Was there ever a time when you felt drawn to one of the three points of view more than the others? If so, when and why?
11. As Olivia and Brody get ready to commit to marriage, they witness their friends and family struggling with relationships. Is their love tested by these struggles? Do you think it’s hard to say yes to love when we know everything that might go wrong in a marriage?
12. Of all the themes present in this novel – love, loss, starting fresh – which resonated with you the most? Why?
The following is excerpted from an interview that appeared in the February/March 2014 issue of Shelf Unbound.
Shelf Unbound: You dispense with the obvious plot line in the first chapter: Charlie Crosby’s thirteen-year-old daughter is killed in an accident and his wife leaves him.The rest of the novel unfolds the myriad ways Charlie attempts to distance himself from his pain but not from the memory of his daughter. How did you go about structuring the novel?
Paul Harding: Pretty much just as you describe. I wanted to lay all of the cards on the table, right up front, so there was nowhere to hide.The first paragraph is like the opening of an old newspaper article: who, what, why, when, where. It’s one thing to know all of the facts, one thing to understand the facts intellectually, abstractly, as, say,“tragic.” It’s another thing, though—the job of a novel, a work of art—to describe the human implications of those facts, the experience of them by a particular, imperfect human being. It was also one of those challenges you set for yourself as a writer, because such challenges are why you write; the language and the art are there because they have the capacities to explore the impossible facts of human experience, in this case of tragedy. How possibly to express the impossible fact of losing your daughter? A voice breaks the silence and begins an attempt at an account. . . .
The structure of the novel emerged as I listened to Charlie tell the story, one sentence at a time. I think of the book as a confession, like St. Augustine’s—one voice speaking intimately and directly, in good faith, to the reader, trying to account for the speaker’s actions, as flawed and troublesome as they might be. I didn’t want there to be any layers of narrative between the reader and Charlie’s experience. It had to be direct, because so much of the book is about Charlie trying to figure out how to be equal to the tragedy of losing his child, how to improvise a new language, a new perspective, a new, heartbroken humanity out of what remains. His response is fragmented and off-balance and radically disoriented, full of advances and retreats and redoubts and descriptions of how, to paraphrase Shakespeare, his heart is not confederate with his hand, and that is reflected in how the book is structured. There’s no overseeing narrator next to or, perish the thought, above him, tidying things up, smoothing things over for the reader. It’s raw, in real time.The book was also always a monologue—again, a single voice speaking directly to the reader. It is meant to read like a book fromtation.
SU: Your debut novel, Tinkers, won the Pulitzer in 2010. How did the weight of expectation for Enon impact your experience of writing it and perhaps even the novel itself?
PH: I was lucky in that Random House had bought Enon and I was seventy-five or so pages into a draft before Tinkers won the Pulitzer. That and the fact that the editor who bought the book, Susan Kamil, had not read Tinkers before she picked up Enon helped a lot. Whenever the gravitational pull of Tinkers threatened to distract me from the particular difficulties of composing Enon, I was able to go back to those first seventy-five pages and remind myself, whatever the solution, it lies in here, not in Tinkers.
As far as the worldly distractions of following up a successful debut and so forth, I didn’t let them worry me much. Publishing is a rowdy, contact sport, and I’m just as opinionated as the next reader about what books I think are solid works of art or clever, depthless sleight of hand. After the feel-good story behind Tinkers, I knew that no matter what there’d be some, um, blowback, so I just ignore it. Tinkers took guff before and after the prize, Enon will take its fair share of guff, too, and that’s how it is. I always tell my writing students, don’t write your books for readers who won’t like them, and don’t write your books for bad readers. Enon is consistent with its own terms, not Tinkers’s terms, and that’s bound to fluster some people. I was a drummer in a kind of second-or third-tier touring rock band for years, and once you’ve had the piss taken out of you by, for example, the English rock press, a snippy notice from, as William Hazlitt described it, a reviewer engaging in irrelevant smartness at the writer’s expense seems downright quaint. Really, I should be so lucky that my biggest problem is dealing with following up a Pulitzer Prize–winning debut novel, you know?
SU: Charlie is the grandson of the main character in Tinkers. Why did you decide to revisit this family and to continue exploring themes of time, loss, and nature?
PH: Well, the book came to me as a visual image accompanied by a version of that first paragraph. Or the first paragraph contains the fundamental facts that I understood from the visual image, which was a sort of black paper silhouette cutout of a steep hill studded with gravestones and the figure of a man skulking across its crown, under the moon and stars. I knew all at once that it was the Enon cemetery, that the man was Charlie Crosby, that he was scurrying home after a night of misadventure, that his daughter was buried below at the bottom of the hill, and that he was sneaking behind her grave because he was ashamed of who he had become since she died. It was a fairly traditional, classic, mythical, legendary story, like Orpheus, like Persephone. From there it was just a matter of quietly listening for, then to, his voice, of listening and watching as he attempts to reckon with what happened.
Thematically, time, loss, nature, memory are what I find myself always obsessing over.Those things are the hallmark mysteries of our fraught human careers. They are essential and irreducible. With Enon, I also found myself putting pressure on things like belief. In what do we believe? How is belief constructed? How does it persist or corrode? What is belief? What happens when the world in which we believe, or think we believe, assume we believe, evaporates? Charlie enacts all of these improvised personal rituals; it’s like he conjures or improvises a religion based on the worship of his dead daughter, something he understands is bad news, but in which he nevertheless persists for some time. And that fascinated me, too—the discrepancy between what we know and what we do. He knows better than he acts. It’s St. Paul, the evil which I do not want to do is that which I do, and the good I mean to do is that which I do not do.
Check out the back of your trade paperback copy of ENON for more of this interview as well as questions and topics for your book club discussion!
We’ve been holding our breath. Cherishing our hardcover copies. Reading the news updates. And now watching the movie trailer. There’s no doubt about it- Unbroken is the unparalleled book for readers of all interests. After more than three years on the New York Times bestseller list, we’re looking forward to seeing the paperback on bookshelves starting next Tuesday, July 29th.
Fan of the book? New to the book? Doesn’t matter! We have the discussion questions to keep the conversation going for years to come. Enjoy!
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Louie’s experiences are singular: It’s unlikely that one person will ever again be in a plane crash, strafed by a bomber, attacked by sharks, cast away on a raft, and held as a POW. And yet the word most often used to describe him is “inspiring.” What does Louie’s experience demonstrate that makes him so inspirational to people who will never endure what he did? What are the lessons that his life offers to all of us?
2. Is Louie a hero? How do you define heroism?
3. In Louie’s boyhood, he was severely bullied, then became a delinquent and hell-raiser. In these experiences, did he already display attributes that would help him survive his wartime ordeal? Did he also show weaknesses or tendencies that foreshadowed the struggles he would face postwar?
4. Do you think Louie’s athletic career helped prepare him for what he would face in war?
5. Louie was especially close to his brother, Pete, who devoted himself to him. If Pete hadn’t been there, what do you think would have become of Louie? Does Pete deserve credit for shaping Louie into a man who could endure and survive his Odyssean ordeal?
6. Hillenbrand explores the extraordinary risks faced by America’s World War II airmen: 52,000 men killed in combat, 36,000 killed in noncombat aircraft accidents, and a stunning 15,000 killed in stateside training—at times, an average of 19 per day. Men faced a 50 percent chance of being killed during combat tours of only 30 to 40 missions. Were you aware of the dangers faced by airmen in the Pacific war? What facts and stories were most surprising to you?
7. What are your feelings about Mac? Do you feel sympathy for him? Anger? If you endured the trauma of a plane crash and were placed in a situation that you knew very few men survived, might you have reacted as he did? In the end, do you think he redeemed himself?
8. When Louie, Phil, and Mac were on the raft, a key factor in their survival was optimism. All three men were young and able-bodied, veterans of the same training, experiencing the same hardships and traumas, yet Louie and Phil remained optimistic while Mac was hopeless, seemingly doomed by his pessimism. Why are some people hopeful and others not? How important are attitude and mind-set in determining one’s ability to overcome hardship?
9. What did you find most remarkable about the things Louie and Phil did to survive on the raft?
10. After more than forty-seven days on the raft, the men lost half their body weight and were rendered mere skeletons. Yet they refused to consider cannibalism, which had not been uncommon among castaways before them. Would you, in the same situation, ever consider cannibalism? If it could ensure that two men survived, when otherwise all three would almost certainly perish, would it be a moral decision?
11. Louie believed he was the beneficiary of several miracles, among them his escape from the wreckage of his plane, the fact that he and the other men were not hit with bullets when their rafts were strafed, and the appearance of the singers in the clouds. What is your interpretation of those experiences?
12. The POWs took enormous risks to carry out thefts, sabotage, and other acts of defiance. Men would risk their lives to steal items as trivial as pencil boxes. What benefit did they derive from defiance that was worth risking death, or severe beatings?
13. In the 1930s and 1940s, Germany and Japan carried out what are arguably among the worst acts of mass atrocity in history. What leads individuals, and even whole societies, to descend to such a level? What motivated the notoriously sadistic POW camp guards in Japan, particularly the Bird? Do you think we all carry the capacity for cruelty?
14. After the war, Louie would say that of all the horrors he witnessed and experienced in the war, the death of the little duck, Gaga, was the worst. Why was this event especially wrenching for him and the other POWs?
15. Louie, Frank Tinker, and William Harris planned to escape from Ofuna, walk across Japan, steal a boat, and make a run for China. It was a plan that very likely would have ended in their deaths. Was it foolish, or did it offer a psychological benefit that was worth the enormous risk?
16. Louie joined a plot to kill the Bird. Was he justified in doing so? Would it have been a moral act? Do you think Louie could have found peace after the war had he killed the Bird?
17. Unbroken reveals that, under the “kill-all order,” the Japanese planned to murder all POWs, a plan that was never carried out because of the dropping of the atomic bombs. The book also explores the lengths to which the Japanese were prepared to go to avoid surrender. How did the book make you feel about America’s use of the atomic bomb on Japan?
18. “Anger is a justifiable and understandable reaction to being wronged, and as the soul’s first effort to reassert its worth and power, it may initially be healing,” Laura Hillenbrand wrote in an article for Guideposts magazine. “But in time, anger becomes corrosive. To live in bitterness is to be chained to the person who wounded you, your emotions and actions arising not independently, but in reaction to your abuser. Louie became so obsessed with vengeance that his life was consumed by the quest for it. In bitterness, he was as much a captive as he’d been when barbed wire had surrounded him.” Do you agree?
19. Many of us struggle to forgive those who have wronged us, especially since forgiveness is often so difficult to find. What makes it so hard to let resentment go?
20. “What the Bird took from Louie was his dignity; what he left behind was a pervasive sense of helplessness and worthlessness,” Hillenbrand continued in her Guideposts article. “As I researched Louie’s life, interviewing his fellow POWs and studying their memoirs and diaries, I discovered that this loss of dignity was nearly ubiquitous, leaving the men feeling defenseless and frightened in a world that had become menacing. The postwar nightmares, flashbacks, alcoholism and anxiety that were endemic among them spoke of souls in desperate fear. Watching these men struggle to overcome their trauma, I came to believe that a loss of self-worth is central to the experience of being victimized, and may be what makes its pain particularly devastating.” Do you agree?
21. Hillenbrand wrote that among the former POWs she interviewed, forgiveness became possible once each POW had found a way to restore his sense of dignity. Was this what Billy Graham gave to Louie? If so, what was it about that experience, and that sermon, that gave Louie back his self-worth?
22. Do Louie Zamperini’s wartime and postwar experiences give you a different perspective on a loved one who was, or is, a veteran?
23. Why do you think most World War II literature has focused on the European war, with so little attention paid to the Pacific war?
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