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Reader’s Guide: EMPTY MANSIONS by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Dedman_Empty MansionsWhen Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. Empty Mansions, a New York Times bestseller, is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance.

This book is great for a book club discussion! If this is in your book club’s queue, then we have the perfect discussion to help frame your chat. Enjoy!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Huguette Clark and Paris Hilton: compare and contrast. Using the theme of the burdens of inherited wealth, in which era would it be easier or harder to be a young heiress, the 1920s or today? Can you imagine being that wealthy and not sharing your opinions and daily adventures on social media?

2. The authors reject easy explanations for Huguette’s eccentricity and reclusive nature, emphasizing that she was always shy, living a life of imagination and art. As they say in the epilogue:

We will never know why Huguette was, as she might say, “peculiar.” The people in her inner circle say they have no idea. Out- siders speculate. It was being the daughter of an older father! It was her sister’s death! Or her mother’s! The wealth! It was autism or Asperger’s or a childhood trauma! Easy answers fail because the question assumes that personalities have a single determinant. Whatever caused her shyness, her limitations of sociability or coping, her fears—of strangers, of kidnapping, of needles, of another French Revolution—Huguette found a situation that worked for her, a modern-day “Boo” Radley, shut up inside by choice, safe from a world that can hurt.

Do you accept the authors’ embrace of complexity and uncertainty? Or do you think of Huguette’s reclusivity as springing from a single cause—e.g., failed romances, her sister’s death, a mental illness?

3. What is your reaction to nurse Hadassah Peri and the $31 million in gifts Huguette gave to her family? Do you agree with readers who say her behavior was despicable, that it’s unethical for a caregiver to receive such gifts, that she should have refused the gifts? Or do you agree with readers who say Huguette certainly knew what she was doing, that Hadassah was her patient’s closest caregiver for twenty years, that the gifts were only a small share of Huguette’s net worth?

4. Was Huguette’s life a happy one? What are the ingredients of a happy life? If you find her life to be sad, how do you reconcile that with her apparent lack of sadness?

5. If you had been on the jury deciding the battle over Huguette’s will and her $300 million estate, would you have
found that she was incompetent and defrauded? Would you have given all her money to her Clark relatives? Or would you have followed the will, giving it all to the nurse, the Bellosguardo Foundation for the arts, the attorney Bock, the accountant Kamsler, Dr. Singman, Beth Israel Medical Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, her goddaughter Wanda, and the personal assistant Chris? Which of those people, on either side, do you trust?

6. Was W. A. Clark an admirable man? Or was he admirable only early on, when he was like a Horatio Alger character working arduously in dangerous circumstances to build a copper fortune? In light of the times in which he lived, was W.A. Clark justifiably vilified for his methods in seeking a Senate seat? Was he actually a robber baron? Is he accountable for environmental waste today from the copper mines he developed in the 1870s? Or was this simply business as usual in the sordid world of politics and development on the Western frontier? If Clark had been as generous to public charities as Carnegie or Rockefeller, would he have been absolved by history, as they largely were, of the sins of his business career?

7. Empty Mansions is based on facts, documents, and testimony. That leaves mysteries in the lives of its characters. Did the uncertainties add or detract from your enjoyment of the story? Would you have preferred that the authors psychoanalyze Huguette, creating dialogue and filling in missing scenes as a screenplay would? Considering the limits of what the authors could learn, what do you most want to know about W.A., about Anna, about Huguette? If you could
have had conversations with Huguette, as author Paul Newell did, what would you have asked her?

8. Is there more to the American Dream than financial security? Does it require making a contribution to society? Did W.A.’s American Dream get out of control? Is Huguette an American Dreamer of another type?

9. On Huguette’s death certificate, her occupation was listed as “artist.” Beginning with W.A., consider what part creativity and imagination play in this story. Was W.A.’s imagination the source of his power? What did Huguette inherit from her father in the way of tastes or interests or capabilities? From her mother? Consider the words of the founder of Huguette’s prep school, Clara Spence, who urged her students:

I beg you to cultivate imagination, which means to develop your power of sympathy, and I entreat you to decide thoughtfully what makes a human being great in his time and in his station. The faculty of imagination is often lightly spoken of as of no real importance, often decried as mischievous, as in some ways the antithesis of practical sense, and yet it ranks with reason and conscience as one of the supreme characteristics by which man is distinguished from all other animals. . . . Sympathy, the great bond between human beings, is largely dependent on imagination— that is, upon the power of realizing the feelings and the circumstances of others so as to enable us to feel with and for them.
Did Huguette follow those words? What role did imagination and sympathy play in her life? What role do they play in yours?

10. Did you like Huguette? Were there points in the book where you were frustrated by her and/or felt sympathy for her? By the end of the book, did you feel as if you knew her well? Did your view of her change throughout the book?

11. Many characters in Empty Mansions have moral dimensions of both good and bad. Do you believe W.A. was more good than bad? What about attorney Wally Bock? Accountant Irv Kamsler? Nurse Hadassah Peri? Personal assistant Chris Sattler? Dr. Henry Singman? Were there any characters who seemed to be simply good or rotten in their relationships with Huguette? Were you engaged or frustrated by the authors’ insistence on showing the good and bad in characters?

12. If Empty Mansions were made into a movie, what actors would you like to see in the major roles? What movie that you’ve seen should it be most similar to? Would you make it a psychological drama? An epic family saga of Western bonanza wealth? A Gilded Age study of manners and family relationships? What scenes would be the most delicious to write?

Bill Dedman is on Facebook! Join the conversation with him.

Giveaway Opportunity: BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS by Katherine Boo

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Boo_Behind the Beautiful Forevers Readers! We have an exciting giveaway opportunity for you today. Enter for your chance to win BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS by Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo.

In this brilliant and breathtaking book a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human through the dramatic story of families striving toward a better life in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. As India starts to prosper, the residents of Annawadi are electric with hope. Abdul, an enterprising teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Meanwhile Asha, a woman of formidable ambition, has identified a shadier route to the middle class. With a little luck, her beautiful daughter, Annawadi’s “most-everything girl,” might become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest children, like the young thief Kalu, feel themselves inching closer to their dreams. But then Abdul is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power, and economic envy turn brutal.

With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects people to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, based on years of uncompromising reporting, carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds—and into the hearts of families impossible to forget.

Winner of the National Book Award | The PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award | The Los Angeles Times Book Prize | The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award | The New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award

Enter here for your chance to win!

Going Through Old Papers, an Essay by Elizabeth Strout

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Strout_BurgessBoysGoing Through Old Papers

Recently I was going through drafts of old manuscripts, and this is what I found: a scene of the Burgess family emerging from the middle of Abide with Me. I was surprised to see it there. Clearly, I had been thinking about these boys—these Burgess children—for many years, before they finally landed in a book of their own. Abide with Me was my second novel; it took me seven years to write it, and it was published eight years after my first novel, Amy and Isabelle, appeared in 1998. Olive Kitteridge was my third book, published in 2008. After that I sat down and began, or thought I began, The Burgess Boys. So to discover this scene of the Burgess family, sketched out so many years earlier, indicated to me the tenacity of their hold on my imagination. I had no memory of having written anything about the Burgess family that long ago. But now, on notebook paper, in blue ink, here was a scene in which Polly Burgess—who later became Barbara Burgess— seeks out the large-hearted Reverend Tyler Caskey to see if he will perform her husband’s funeral. She sits behind the wheel of her car in the man’s driveway, three small children with her, and Tyler comes to realize that something is very wrong. Polly Burgess is understandably agitated, but Tyler has no way of knowing that one of the children is responsible for the family tragedy. He asks Polly, out of concern and politeness, if she has a church of her own. Polly takes umbrage, interpreting his question as one of castigation, and drives off, one of the boys looking out the rear window. Tyler is haunted by the image.

As it happens, Tyler and the Burgesses are never to meet again.

The two storylines were ultimately separated: Tyler Caskey had his own book, Abide with Me, and the Burgess kids grew up and are with you now. It is always hard for me to clarify and properly remember how a book got its start, but coming across this scene reminded me of just how long images or thoughts can linger in my mind before reaching the final page. And it gave me some clue as to what I had first been drawn to in writing The Burgess Boys, part of which is how different cultures deal with distress. And this has to do, quite naturally, with time and place. Had the Burgess kids been born into an affluent family of today’s New York City, there is a good chance that all three, along with their mother, would have had extensive therapy after the accident that comes to determine so much of the rest of their lives. Or friends might have talked openly about their own pasts, and how they dealt with childhood traumas. But the Burgesses grew up half a century ago in northern New England, where a person’s inner life was traditionally not something for common discussion. “Grit your teeth and bear it” was, and perhaps still is, the maxim children heard as they grew up in this part of the world.

And that’s what the Burgess kids did. They gritted their teeth and went forward, which is actually what most people do in most parts of the world. Surprisingly—surprising to me, anyway—most people bear ostensibly unbearable things. It is the particularities of bearing life that make us distinct and singular. The Burgess siblings each grew in different ways, according to who they were and who they thought they were. The country grew as well. A Somali community emerged in the whitest state of the Union, and people responded to this, as people have responded for years to immigrant populations everywhere. We know that some people carry a strong fear of the unfamiliar. Others are moved to immediately defend a vulnerable population. Most people, I think, fall somewhere in between, balancing their fears with a desire to be decent. And what this means, really, is that change takes time. It takes time, for example, for a town that has traditionally been all white to accept that their high school soccer team has become one mostly of dark-skinned people, to see in the stands women wearing hijabs as they cheer their sons and brothers on. Time is needed to learn that our view of the world is exactly that: our view, and not a view belonging to someone else. And our view is, and should be, continually open to change.

Books help. They help by allowing us to imagine the realities of another person’s inner—and outer—life. Bernard Malamud said that we value man by describing him. So when I describe Jim Burgess, I am aware of—and honor—the anxiety and pain he has lived with his whole life. When I describe Susan Olson, I am aware of the quotidian bravery she maintains. I am aware of Bob Burgess’s steadfast heart, which keeps beating in spite of the cigarettes he smokes. When I describe Abdikarim, I respect and value the terrible violence and disruptions of his history. But I am the writer. Being aware of these aspects of character is my job. That Zachary Olson is only half aware of the severity of his actions seems in keeping with the idea that many of us—as we live our lives without such writerlike examination—are only half aware of what our actions mean. This is where the conversation between reader and writer comes in. Readers can more clearly see aspects of themselves and of others if the writer has been scrupulous in crafting a fictional truth. It is not “good” or “bad” that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives. To present this in the form of fiction helps make our humanness more acceptable to the reader; this is my wish.

The Burgesses’ story is an American story. We are a country built on the continuing influx of a variety of cultures, and we are also a country in which the dream of reinventing ourselves continues to thrive. Running away—especially to a city—has long been attractive to those who want to leap from their pasts. Our American, and changing, sense of family reflects confusion about what the individual is entitled to, and what our responsibilities may or may not be to those we leave behind. In a different culture, in a different time, these confusions would play out another way, or not even be confusing at all: For example, there was a time in rural New England when children were expected not to leave but instead to marry and remain nearby, helping with the family farm, or perhaps the family business. There was a time when a child grew up and worked in the same textile mill that his father and mother had worked in. But most of those mills are now gone. The mill that the Burgess father worked in has long been closed. And so this story belongs to the Burgess boys. It belongs to their sister as well, but it is the boys who have attempted, with desperation and arguably some success, to get ahead of that determinative sunny day when they were small children in the town of Shirley Falls, Maine.

I wrote the story, but you will bring to it your own experience of life, and some other reader will do the same, and it will become a different story with each reader. I believe that even the time in your life when you read the book will determine how you receive it. Our lives are changing constantly, and therefore not even our own story is always what we think it is. The mutability of life—our losses, our loves, our fears—can at times be overwhelming. I hope that reading The Burgess Boys makes this changeability become, if even only for a few moments, more manageable. No one is alone in wondering: How did that happen? How did I get to this place right now? History, our own and the world’s, continues to be made, and the accuracy of history continues to be questioned. As the Burgess kids discover, we are what we remember—and what we don’t remember, too. But in the complementary acts of writing a book and reading a book, you and I share the commemoration of lives, each in our own way construed.

From the Random House Reader’s Circle extra content.

Join the conversation with Liz Strout on her Facebook and Twitter!

Giveaway Opportunity: REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Johnston_ THIS ONE_ RMLTBret Anthony Johnston, the award-winning author of Corpus Christi: Stories delivers a breathtaking debut novel, Remember Me Like This, to us on May 13, 2014. Ready to get your hands on a copy? You’re in luck! Enter HERE for your chance to win an advance reader’s edition from RHRC!

“It is as a writer that I admire the architecture of Remember Me Like This, the novel’s flawless storytelling. It is as the father of three sons that I vouch for the psychological authenticity of this depiction of any parent’s worst fears. Emotionally, I am with this family as they try to move ahead—embracing ‘the half-known and desperate history’ that they share. I love this novel.”—John Irving

About the Book:
A gripping novel with the pace of a thriller but the nuanced characterization and deep empathy of some of the literary canon’s most beloved novels, Remember Me Like This introduces Bret Anthony Johnston as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today. With his sophisticated and emotionally taut plot and his shimmering prose, Johnston reveals that only in caring for one another can we save ourselves.

Four years have passed since Justin Campbell’s disappearance, a tragedy that rocked the small town of Southport, Texas. Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Did he drown in the bay? As the Campbells search for answers, they struggle to hold what’s left of their family together.

Then, one afternoon, the impossible happens. The police call to report that Justin has been found only miles away, in the neighboring town, and, most important, he appears to be fine. Though the reunion is a miracle, Justin’s homecoming exposes the deep rifts that have diminished his family, the wounds they all carry that may never fully heal. Trying to return to normal, his parents do their best to ease Justin back into his old life. But as thick summer heat takes hold, violent storms churn in the Gulf and in the Campbells’ hearts. When a reversal of fortune lays bare the family’s greatest fears—and offers perhaps the only hope for recovery—each of them must fight to keep the ties that bind them from permanently tearing apart.

Enter HERE to win an advance reader’s edition of Remember Me Like This.

Reading Guide: MOTHER DAUGHTER ME by Katie Hafner

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Hafner_Mother Daughter Me Last week, Katie Hafner’s Mother Daughter Me went on sale in trade paperback. We are excited to share these questions and topics for discussion with you below.

Questions and Topics for Discussion:

1. Do you find Hafner’s mother to be a sympathetic character? Why or why not? Do you think the author herself is a sympathetic character? Why or why not?

2. Hafner often finds herself in the middle of arguments between her mother and her daughter. Do you think it was possible for her to effectively mediate, while also working out her own difficulties with her mother?

3. Money plays a significant role in the book. Discuss why money can be such a flashpoint for families. Why do you think it was a point of contention in Mother Daughter Me?

4. Objects, such as the piano, also held great emotional significance throughout. Did the piano and other gifts carry different meanings for Hafner and her mother? How did their different understandings of the symbolism of those tangible objects lead to conflict?

5. Hafner is a longtime journalist who turned to memoir writing. How do you see her skills as a journalist employed in the writing of Mother Daughter Me?

6. Memory—and the presentation of memories—can be tricky when writing memoirs. Many of Hafner’s childhood memories emerge during sessions with the therapist Lia. Others surface when she finds letters and other documents from the past. How do you think Hafner handles the reliability of her own memo- ries, especially from her early childhood? How do you think she handles the issue of memory when her recollections differ from her mother’s?

7. In its piece on Mother Daughter Me, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of children of parents who drink, “While their parents black out and forget, they remember, and their memories, their stories, matter. More than assigning blame, this is Hafner’s point—and her memoir is a brave manifestation of it.” Do you agree with the writer? Do you think Hafner steers clear of assigning blame? To what extent do you think it is necessary make a parent confront the details of a difficult past?

8. After Hafner’s husband, Matt, dies suddenly, Hafner tells the reader, she quickly does everything wrong. Instead of waiting to make any big changes, she acts hastily and, as she admits, inappropriately. What is your opinion of Hafner’s hasty decision to make large life changes? Are you sympathetic?

9. Bob, the man Hafner starts to date during the year chronicled in the book, is an anchor of sanity and stability throughout the book. How do you think Hafner was able to let another person into her life in during this year of such chaos and tumult? What role did you see Bob playing as he entered the family?

10. Hafner discusses the difficulty that subsequent generations often have in not repeating the mistakes of their parents, especially when it comes to inflicting trauma on one’s children. Do you think Hafner succeeds in breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma that her own mother was unable to break?

11. Hafner discusses the long-term effects of divorce on children, citing Judith Wallerstein’s book The Legacy of Divorce. Why do you think she chooses to discuss divorce at such length, when alcohol might seem to be the bigger problem?

12. Hafner’s father comes off as a complex, much-loved, but muted character in the book. Why do you think Hafner chose to keep him in the background of the narrative?

13. Do you think Hafner has created a balanced view of herself and her mother? Was she even in a position to do so? Are there examples of why or why not?

14. Why do you think the author’s sister had a life that was so deeply troubled, while Hafner herself, despite coming from the same background, was able to make different, healthier choices earlier in life?

15. Despite being in many ways a typical, occasionally difficult teenager, Zoë also shows herself to be surprisingly adult and insightful at times. What role do you think she plays in the choices that Hafner makes once Zoë’s grandmother comes to live with them?

16. Hafner describes in detail her relationship with her daughter, and the fierce attachment between the two. What do you think drew them so close? Does their bond add to the challenges they faced that year?

17. The mother-daughter relationship is inherently complicated, which Hafner makes very clear in the book. What are your thoughts on what makes the mother-daughter bond so complex, and often so fraught?

18. Toward the end of the book, Hafner states that instead of feeling the need to act as the constant pleaser and appeaser, she can finally “have relationships with all of the people that I love without having to connect the dots between them.” Does this insight seem like a good life lesson? Is there a contradiction in loving two people while knowing they may never reconcile? How does Hafner confront this question?

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Reader’s Guide: TAPESTRY OF FORTUNES by Elizabeth Berg

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Berg_Tapestry of FortunesAs you and your book club prepare your discussions of Elizabeth Berg’s Tapestry of Fortunes, we’d like to share this special Random House Reader’s Circle material to get the conversation going. Enjoy!

QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1. Cecelia is a motivational speaker who preaches that “getting lost is the only way to find what you didn’t know you were looking for” (8). Do you think Cecelia is able to take her own advice? How does moving in with Lise, Joni, and Renie help her explore this philosophy?

2. Throughout the novel, Cecelia and the other women often rely on her box of fortunes to help them search for answers to their big questions. How do these answers affect their decision-making? Do their fortunes make a difference, or is it something else that ultimately guides them to these answers?

3. “I, the motivational speaker, have not been able to motivate myself into making a new life without her,” Cecelia says, referring to Penny’s death (10). What eventually changes for Cecelia and enables her to start a new life? Does Penny play a part in this change, even after her death?

4. When Brice, Penny’s husband, tells Cece that he is getting re- married, she is initially surprised, but also happy that he is moving on. “People with people, good. People alone, bad,” Penny always used to say to Cece (35). Is it difficult for Cece to heed this advice? Why might it be easier for Brice?

5. Soon after Cece receives the postcard from Dennis, she decides to go visit him. What makes Cece so certain about seeing him again? Do you ever get over your first love? How might this relate to Lise’s situation?

6. When Cece moves into the house, Renie is initially defensive and skeptical. Her career as a columnist, too, highlights her skeptical and sarcastic tendencies. Why do you think Renie shows only this side of herself for much of the novel? How are the other women eventually able to uncover the more sensitive side of Renie?

7. When Cece volunteers at the Arms and meets Michael, she opens up to him about Penny’s death. She explains that it was “one of the most beautiful experiences” of her life (124). What does Cece mean about Penny’s death being beautiful? How does that beauty continue to influence Cece’s life?

8. Renie asks the women whether they believe in the truth of the saying “Be kind, for everyone is carrying a heavy burden” (174). Wanda, the waitress they meet during the road trip, asserts that although not everyone carries a heavy burden, everyone does carry the burden of fear (175). How is this “burden of fear” a theme throughout the novel?

9. Mother-daughter relationships are central to the story: Renie struggles with meeting her estranged daughter; Lise’s daughter urges her not to reunite with her ex-husband after their divorce; Cece grows annoyed with her mother for acting more like a girlfriend than a parent (110). What makes a mother-daughter relationship so special? What makes it so fraught, and sometimes difficult?

10. After Michael dies, Cece remembers a conversation that she and Penny once had: Cece asked, “What’s the point in loving anything when it will just change or be taken away?,” and Penny replied, “The point in loving is only that. And when you lose something, you have to remember that then there is room for the next thing. And there is always a next thing.” (213) How does this idea relate to the broader theme of the novel? What is the “next thing” that Cece, Phoebe, and the other characters manage to find?

11. Toward the end of the novel, Cece mentions something that Dennis said about photography, which she feels reverberates in her own life: “The greatest understanding of a thing is when you can’t reduce it any further.” (217) How does this statement relate to Cece’s views on love and friendship? How might it relate to your own?

12. Lise, Joni, Renie, and Cecelia are all very different. What do you think makes their relationships with one another thrive, in spite of their differences? Consider how this relates to the quote at the end of the novel: “We are a convergence of fates, a tapestry of fortunes in colors both somber and bright, each contributing equally to the Whole.” (218–19)

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Reader’s Guide: Katherine Boo in Conversation with Kate Medina

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Boo_Behind the Beautiful Forevers Katherine Boo, author of the Pulitzer prize winning BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS, sits down with her Random House editor, Kate Medina, to discuss her inspiration for exploring the distribution of poverty in India, gaining the trust at Annawadi, choosing the stories to tell in her book, and what she hopes you- the readers- will take away from your reading. The paperback went on sale April 8th, and we are so excited to share this interview with you.

KATE MEDINA: For two decades, and currently at The New Yorker, you’ve written about the distribution of opportunity, and the means by which people might get out of poverty, in America. What inspired you to start asking the same kinds of questions in India?

KATE BOO: My husband is an Indian citizen, and since we met in 2001, I’ve been watching the landscape of his country transform as its economy grows. Some of the change is staggeringly obvious, like the skyscraping luxury condominiums with stirring views of other skyscraping luxury condominiums. But I couldn’t quite make out what had and hadn’t changed in historically poor communities. I generally find issues of poverty, opportunity, and global development to be over-theorized and under-reported. And it seemed to me that in India, as in the U.S., some of the experts most ready to describe how lower-income people are faring weren’t spending much time with those people.

KM: What made you focus your reporting on Mumbai?

KB: It’s the city in which I’ve spent most time, for one. But I also found the Mumbai of film and book to be a slightly lopsided cosmos. For all the lush and brilliant depictions of wild festivals, megalomaniacal gangsters, and soulful prostitutes, I felt stinted of some everyday truths. I wanted to know more about the domestic lives of women and girls, about improvisational labor in a temp-job city, about the educational options available to the poor—stuff like that. Economic growth had brought unprecedented opportunities for the less privileged, officially. But I longed for a fuller sense of how those on-the-books opportunities were being experienced on the ground.

Over the years I’d find myself sighing as I read descriptions of the spicy Mumbai air—the cardamom and saffron that’s supposedly wafting everywhere. Sure, why not? But to me a signature smell of Mumbai is the same as that in many other developing cities. It’s the smell of sweat—of people hustling and maneuvering to find a niche in the global economy. Of course a writer’s senses will gravitate to the un- usual, the aberrant. But a preoccupation with the exotic can also blind you to what is more universal.

KM: Speaking of aberrant: You stood out, working at Annawadi. How did you earn the trust of Annawadians, and get close enough to them to be able to portray them with such intimacy and precision?

KB: Never trust a person who tells you with certainty why other people came to trust her! I cringe to imagine how Annawadians sized me up behind my back. I was just relieved that we all managed to adjust to one another after a while. Many people were game to let me hang around if I didn’t get in the way of their ability to make a living, but in the beginning I was too much of a freak attraction to practice the unobtrusive, watch-and-listen style of reporting I prefer. As I walked through the airport slums, crowds of people would follow, some of them looking concerned and shouting, “Hyatt! Intercontinental!” They imagined I’d lost my way while going from the international airport to one of the luxury hotels.

KM: Was there a particular moment when you felt that you could do the kind of reporting you prefer to do? That people had become comfortable with your presence?

KB: I knew the novelty of my presence had worn off one night when Annawadi boys started mocking kids from another slum who got excited when they spied me sitting in Abdul’s storeroom. The Annawadi boys were so used to having a journalist taping and transcribing what they said that they couldn’t imagine why other kids would find it interesting.

KM: What was it about the stories you tell in this book that appealed to you more than other stories you saw or heard in Annawadi? How did you choose the people you would write about?

KB: When I start a project, I follow as many people as I can—go where they go, do what they do, whether they’re stealing or teaching kindergarten or running a household. The larger the pool of people I get to know, the better I can distinguish between anomalous experiences and shared ones. I’m not looking for the most flamboyant tales, or for the most virtuous and super-talented people. I’m looking for resonant stories—stories that might illuminate something about the structure of a society. And it’s difficult to predict in the beginning which individuals’ experiences, months or years later, will come to shed that light.

For instance, when I first began hanging out with Abdul, I had no idea that his story would have anything to do with questions of criminality or justice. I was simply intrigued that the excesses of the city and a surging global demand for recyclables had helped turn his stigmatized work profitable. It was something I didn’t know, hadn’t read about. I was also struck by his watchfulness, and his silence. I often find, in my reporting life and outside it, that the people most worth knowing are hard work to know.

KM: Did the Annawadians want to know about you, too?

KB: They were more curious about my Indian husband. In the months before they got to know him, they were whispering about how he must not love me, since he was permitting me to hang out alone in a slum in the middle of the night.

KM: Did your presence ever change the events you write about? Or the people you write about?

KB: A reporter’s presence is bound to change things. My efforts to understand Annawadians’ views of the world probably made some of them more introspective. And Abdul suspects that my frequent appearances at the juvenile detention facility contributed to his being released on probation—that justice officials didn’t want me poking around there. It’s not always easy to pinpoint how one’s presence alters events, though. There’s no control group.

KM: You used thousands of official documents to supplement your taped and written notes. What did those documents bring to the narrative?

KB: The documents helped me describe particular incidents, of course, but they also helped more generally. For instance, after finding false causes of death tagged to several poor people at Annawadi, I started investigating more broadly, comparing deaths that I could document in several slums with official records I secured through the Indian Right to Information Act (which is not unlike the U.S. Freedom of Information Act). The reader won’t see that or my other research obsessions in the book, but the document work allowed me to write certain passages with a conviction I wouldn’t otherwise have had.

KM: Are there audiotapes or videotapes you found yourself returning to again and again as you wrote?

KB: One set of recordings I go back to are from a night, not long after the Mumbai terror attacks, when Abdul suddenly starts talking about what sort of lives count. The boy to whom he makes this passionate speech isn’t the least bit interested, and all around him is the usual late-night music of Annawadi—fights between stoned thieves, the weeping of a woman who has just tried to hang herself, the organ music of a Tamil soap opera, and many agonized negotiations over garbage, the price of which had plummeted. The easy thing to say is that Abdul’s insight was unexpected in context. But I think the context creates such insights, and gives them their force.

KM: In the book there is such a remarkable juxtaposition between moments of hope and insight, and moments of desperation. Were some moments particularly painful to witness?

KB: Hundreds of moments—some of the losses of life and promise that are in this book, and other losses, too. When I talk to friends about Annawadi experiences that haunt me, they’ll sometimes ask, Why didn’t you write about that? But I was intent that this book not be some dolorous registry of the most terrible things that had ever happened at Annawadi. A book like that wouldn’t have done justice to what Annawadi felt like, day to day. Annawadi life was also about flagpole ring-toss and tell-all sessions with a best friend at the toilet and parents comforting and delighting in their children. It was Sunil and Sonu the Blinky Boy and the way they applied their rich imaginations to gathering trash and figuring out their place in the world.

Sunil and Sonu have tough, tough lives but if a reader comes away from this book thinking of them only as pathetic socioeconomic specimens I’ll have failed as a writer. They’re cool, interesting kids, and their partnership was an inspiring thing to be around. I want the reader to sense that, too. Because we can talk all we want about how corruption or indifference rob people of opportunity—of the promise our societies squander—but if we don’t really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we’re not going to grasp the potential that’s being lost.

KM: Were there moments in your reporting when you felt a little too alone, or threatened?

KB: Sure. During a brutal eviction that I describe in Chapter 16, for one. But I was never as scared in Annawadi as I was in the Sahar Police Station. Though my experiences in the station were Ferris-wheel rides relative to the experiences of some Annawadians, I did come to understand in a deeper way what it feels like to be silenced and at the mercy of officials whose private agendas are very different than their public ones. Educational experiences, but ones I would have gladly foregone.

KM: You’ve left such “educational experiences” out of the book. Why?

KB: As a reader, I often find that the I character becomes the character—that the writer can’t quite resist trying to make the reader like him just a little better than anyone else in the book. And I think that impedes the reader’s ability to connect with people who might be more interesting than the writer, and whose stories are less familiar.

Which is not to say that the narrative without an I is a paragon of omniscience and objectivity. Does it still need saying that journalism is not a perfect mirror of reality, that narrative nonfiction is a selective art, and that I didn’t write this book while balanced on an Archimedean ethical point? My choices are reflected on every page, and I look forward to discussing with readers whether those choices were justifiable ones. But I long ago decided I didn’t want to be one of those nonfiction writers who go on about themselves. When you get to the last pages of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I don’t want you to think, even for a second, about me sitting beside Abdul in that little garbage truck. I want you to be thinking about Abdul.

KM: Do you see him, Manju, Sunil, Asha, and the other people you’re writing about as representative of other Indians, or other low-income people in the world?

KB: I’ve been waiting years to run into a representative person. Sadly, all I ever meet are individuals. But I do see an enormous amount of connective tissue among those individuals, qualities that transcend specificities of geography, culture, religion, or class.

I mean, I see so much of myself in the people I write about, whether it’s Fatima’s fury at being defined by a physical difference or Asha’s self-rationalizing or Abdul’s fear of losing what he has, which is so much stronger as an impulse than his fear of not getting what he wants. My hope, at the keyboard, is to portray these individuals in their complexity—allow them not to be Representative Poor Persons—so that readers might find some other point of emotional purchase, a connection more blooded than pity. Maybe somewhere in the book they might even start asking, What would I do, under these circumstances, if I were Asha or Sunil or Meena? That’s what I’m always asking myself.

KM: Is that sense of connection and compassion what you hope readers will take away from this book?

KB: I’m always thrilled when readers sense the connections and get drawn into the dilemmas faced by the people I write about, because in this age of high walls and security gates it’s pretty easy not to see and think about those people at all. But I’m interested in structures as well as stories, and as I report, I’m sometimes asking myself a set of questions inspired by the philosopher John Rawls: How would I design a society if I didn’t know where in its hierarchy I would be placed—if I didn’t know whether I would be a person of wealth and power, or a poor and vulnerable person? What system would I create that would be fair? I would be elated if a few readers of Behind the Beautiful Forevers were inclined to ask themselves similar questions.

In the end, though, I’m not a utopian. Most of the people I write about don’t have the leisure in which to think about how they might design an ideal society. They’re trying to survive and get ahead in manifestly unfair societies. I take that context very seriously. If we don’t have all the time in the world to make things perfect, we can still make incremental, and meaningful, improvements. And seeing what’s wrong—seeing it clearly—seems to me a crucial part of beginning to set it right.

For more information, visit Katherine’s website or stay connected with her on Facebook.

Reader’s Guide: NEVER SAY GOODBYE by Susan Lewis

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Lewis_Never Say Goodbye Susan Lewis delivers a deeply moving novel in Never Say Goodbye about finding friendship and love in the most unexpected of places. If you are a fan of Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenjauf, or Elizabeth Flock then this just may be the perfect read for your book club. Below are the questions and topics for discussion.

For more information, stay up to date with Susan on her Facebook and Twitter.

Questions and Topics for Discussion:

1. How would Josie’s life have been different if she had been able to tell her family about her condition immediately? Do you think her life would have been better or worse if she had?

2. Have you ever had a secret you felt you had to keep from those closest to you in order to protect them? How did you deal with it?

3. Did you relate to one of the two main characters, Josie and Bel, more than the other? Which one, and why?

4. Why did Josie take her husband, Jeff, back after he cheated on her? Did he deserve it? Would you have done the same? Do you think he redeemed himself in the end?

5. Bel is upset when Nick and Kristina get married so soon after the death of her sister, which puts her off to a rocky start with Kristina. What brings Bel and Kristina together in the end?

6. Do you think Josie’s son, Ryan, actually committed the crime he was accused of?

7. Why does Bel push Harry away?

8. In what ways do Bel and Josie complement each other? Do you think they would have discovered a friendship if horrible circumstances hadn’t thrust them together? Has their friendship changed them by the end of the book?

9. Which of the many themes of the novel (friendship, family ties, love, and loss, among others) struck you as most important?

10. Were you surprised by the ending? What did you think would happen?

11. Did you learn anything you didn’t know before about breast cancer because of reading the novel? Did the book change your thinking in any way?

12. How did Bel’s volunteer work affect her life? Have you ever volunteered with or would you ever consider volunteer- ing with an organization like Breast Cancer Care?

Reader’s Guide: THE BURGESS BOYS by Elizabeth Strout

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Strout_BurgessBoys Tomorrow is a big day! Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys hits bookshelves in paperback. We are so excited to continue sharing her writing with you and your book club. Happy discussing!

Questions for Discussion

1. How did the narrator’s introduction telegraph your expectations about the Burgess family?

2. Jim and Bob Burgess both left Shirley Falls for New York City. Why there, when they could have gone anywhere? And why did Susan stay behind?

3. The Burgess siblings have lived with a childhood trauma their whole lives. How has each one compensated for this in his or her personal and professional adult life?

4. Which Burgess brother, Jim or Bob, did you find more sympathetic? Did you find yourself changing your mind as the story unfolded?

5. To many readers, Jim may seem more competent than Bob in dealing with Zach’s “prank.” Do you agree? If not, why not?

6. What did you learn about the Somali population in Shirley Falls? How do you see this as a particularly American story, if you do? And if not, why not? Initially, each of the Burgess siblings reacts uniquely to the Somali population. What do you think causes each individual response, and how do you see it change?

7. When Jim reveals his own childhood secret, what journey does Bob have to take to first separate from and then return to his brother, Jim? What about their relationship has changed? What, if anything, remains the same?

8. What do you think compelled Zach to throw the pig’s head into the mosque?

9. Both Burgess brothers are lawyers. How do their inner lives reflect their very different professional choices?

10. How do Helen and Susan’s roles as mothers define them?

11. How does the Burgess family’s multigenerational history in Shirley Falls add to the siblings’ emotional challenges?

Want more? Stay up to date with Elizabeth on her website and via Twitter!

Feature Essay: Elizabeth Berg, author of TAPESTRY OF FORTUNES, on Visiting a Psychic

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Berg_Tapestry of Fortunes Elizabeth Berg is the author of many bestselling novels as well as two works of nonfiction. Tapestry of Fortunes is a New York Times bestseller and follows four women as they venture into their pasts in order to shape their futures, fates, and fortunes. Today, she shares a special story with us about a time when she went to visit a psychic!

THE “HOLD ON A SECOND” PSYCHIC BY ELIZABETH BERG

When I wrote Tapestry of Fortunes, I knew I wanted to include aspects of divination. It was for whimsical as well as more serious reasons. I wouldn’t say I believe entirely in the prognostic statements of Runes or Tarot cards or people who call themselves psychics, but there can be times when readings are eerily dead on. One of the first times I went to a psychic, I had a lot of fun with a pretty eccentric character. But there was something about the experience that let me know there was more to the business of inquiring of the oracle than I had thought. Here’s what happened.

Claire Brightwater is the proprietor of Earth Dancer Gallery. This is a shop situated over a shoe store and next to a weight loss clinic. You can buy all kinds of Native American things there: kachina dolls, beautiful stones, feathers, books and tapes, blankets and jewelry and medicine wheels. Also, you can take advantage of Claire’s psychic abilities. You know she has them because of the sign in her window. PSYCHIC, it says.

So I make an appointment for a reading. And when I arrive, I’m a little late and apologetic and out of breath. “Sorry,” I say. “Sorry.” She holds up her bracelet-laden arm. “No problem.” She pulls a chair up next to her desk. “Here,” she says. “Sit down. Center yourself.” She has long, flaming-red hair. She is wearing a purple shawl and a colorful, long skirt and many rings. She is a wonder to behold, one of those women who look so good overweight that you want to be overweight, too. I put my jacket and purse on the floor and she says, “No, you have to get centered,” and puts my purse under me and my jacket behind me. “There,” she says. “Now, I’ll just pay some bills here while you hold some crystals.” She puts a pink one in my right hand and a purple one in my left. While she makes out checks, I hold the crystals tight. I see another homemade sign against one of the counters. NO PLASTIC. CHECKS OKAY. BARTERING OKAY. In a little while, she looks up. “Okay?” I nod. She checks the pink crystal. “This is for love,” she says. “Your heart is full of love.” She nods, agreeing with herself. “Yes. Very beautiful.” Then she takes the purple crystal. “This is for stress,” she says. “This is cold. You got a lot of stress.” Now I nod, thinking, Well, I’m alive on the earth. Why wouldn’t I have stress? Claire’s advice to me about stress is this: “You need to go back to the earth. You need to lie down on it, first on your back, arms and legs spread out. Then lie on your front, and listen to the pulse of the earth.” This sounds like fine advice to me. I used to do it all the time when I was a kid. And I had much less stress then, come to think of it.

She tells me she sees a lot of oscillating around me. “You’re going back and forth, back and forth inside, aren’t you?” We stare intently at each other. The phone rings. “Excuse me,” she says. Then, into the phone, “Hello, Earth Dancer Gallery.” I’m thinking, wait a minute. What kind of reading is this? But she takes care of the call and is back to me. She tells me to pull an I Ching card, and I get “Retreat.” That sounds good, I tell her. Yes. I definitely need a vacation. Claire suddenly jerks her head up, stares into space. “No . . . note . . .NOTORIETY!” she says. She looks at me. “This word, it just came to me! Are you trying to be famous or something?”

“Well,” I say, “I guess we’d all like to be famous. But I don’t know if notoriety is the word I’d pick.”

The UPS man comes. Claire tells me to hold on, she’ll be right back. She goes over to the counter to pay the man, has a little chat with him. Sixty dollars I paid for this, I’m thinking. Jeez.

Next we do animal cards. Claire is an all-around kind of psychic. Turns out I’m an owl. “You need to go into the dark for the light,” Claire tells me. “That’s what this card is saying.” Well, I’m all for op- posites. You know, the blond beauty, held in the arms of the strong, handsome man, says, “Oh, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” just before she kisses him to death. There’s something to opposites.

The phone rings again. Claire tells the caller, “He’s not here. Can I take a message?” She writes something down, hangs up. “It’s time for you to wear a feather in your hair, yes?” she asks me. She picks one out for me. Two dollars.

Now, I know how this is sounding. But the notion of wearing a feather is actually quite appealing. As is lying on the earth. As is a retreat. I’m starting to feel kind of happy. I ask Claire what music is playing in the background. It’s very, very soothing. I want it. It’s “Lazaris Remembers Lemuria,” she tells me. Just so happens I can buy one from her.

“Have you been feeling tired?” Claire asks.

“Yes!” I say. And I really have. Not just I don’t want to do the dishes tired. I’ve been deep tired.

She nods. “All the women around here are tired,” she says. “It’s because of our connection to the earth. The earth is having a very hard time giving birth to spring this year, and we all feel it.”

A customer comes in, a woman just looking. “I’m doing a reading,” Claire says, “but just let me know if you need any help.” A few minutes later, there’s another phone call, someone wanting to know about the upcoming pipe ceremony. Claire tells them all about it.

“Your work, you need to pay attention to what comes from the heart.” She looks at me, shakes her head. “You will have great success.”

Another customer, a teenage boy wearing a T-shirt featuring crystals, looking for bumper stickers. No bumper stickers. But Claire sells him some little rocks.

We finish up and I realize I am feeling calmer and more centered than I have in a long time. Some of what Claire said felt silly. And some of it felt scary-true. Whatever has happened, I feel better than I ever have after any therapy session. Plus I got a feather and a tape and permission to lie down on the earth.

I guess what I believe is that there is much to the unconscious that we can learn from and be guided by. Is using some tool for fortune telling one of them? Maybe you should find out for yourself. If you’re not enlightened, you’ll at least be entertained. That’s my prediction.

Stay up to date with Elizabeth Berg on Facebook! Tapestry of Fortunes hits bookshelves in paperback on April 8th.

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