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Reader's Guides

An Essay from Fannie Flagg

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Flagg_AllGirlsWriting The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion

(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.

Fannie,

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!

Reader’s Guide: A WEDDING IN PROVENCE by Ellen Sussman

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Sussman_Wedding in Provence“Utterly charming and wildly romantic.”—Christina Baker Kline, New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train

…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?

Stay connected with Ellen on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: ENON by Paul Harding

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Harding_ENONA Conversation Between Paul Harding and Shelf Unbound

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!

Reader’s Guide: UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Hillenbrand_Unbroken 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?

Share your Unbroken book reading memory or thoughts with us on our Facebook page!

Reader’s Guide: THE BOLEYN RECKONING by Laura Andersen

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

Andersen_Boleyn ReckoningGather round, my lords and ladies of Random House Reader’s Circle. We have discussion questions for your royal book club gatherings for months to come! Laura Andersen’s Boleyn trilogy comes to a close with The Boleyn Reckoning. Join us for the final installment as William Tudor- known as William IX- fights battles both within his heart and for England itself.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The Duke of Norfolk declares:“William is his father all over again—what he wants, he gets” (page 257). Do you agree with Lord Norfolk’s assessment? Why or why not?

2. Elizabeth tells William that she can always be trusted to put England’s good before her own personal interests (page 367). Are her actions in England’s best interest? Do you agree with her assessment of her motives, or is she serving her own personal interests? Had William not murdered Robert Dudley and confined Elizabeth to the Tower, do you think she would still consider William’s death and her own ascension to be in England’s best interest? What are Elizabeth’s defining characteristics that make her a more desirable monarch than William?

3. Discuss the theme of loyalty in this book. William and Eliza- beth often are faced with choices related to balancing loyalty to their family versus loyalty to their country’s interests. Minuette and Dominic are forced to choose between loyalty to each other and their own personal happiness and loyalty to their life-long friends and personal senses of honor and duty. What choices would you have made in their positions? Which character do you consider to be the most loyal?

4. On page 278, Minuette asks herself: “Am I whore, or am I savior?” What do you think of her bargain with William? Are her actions disloyal to Dominic? What would you have done in her position? Does Minuette’s history with William and the fact that her heart,“so long twined with William in friendship,would demand its share of [that] hour” (page 278) color your opinion of her actions? Why do you think Minuette later refuses to make a similar bargain with William in exchange for Dominic’s life?

5. After William had all-but announced his engagement to Minuette, was there any reaction he could have had to the news of her secret wedding and miscarriage (short of labeling her a traitor) that would have enabled him to save face at court? How could he have reacted differently without becoming a laughing stock in England and abroad? Considering how much he fought for the right to marry her (with his council and foreign ambassadors pushing for a strategic marriage) was his reaction reason- able in the context of the time? How would you react if similarly betrayed by a close friend?

6. On page 224, Minuette asks herself “At what point could pain have been avoided?” How would you answer this question? Was there a moment at which Minuette could have acted differ- ently in order to spare William’s pride and feelings? If so, what should she have done?

7. At one point, the Duke of Norfolk tells Dominic “You were a traitor the moment you took [Minuette] from [William]” (page 261). Do you agree? Was Dominic a traitor? If so, at what point did his actions become treasonous? If not, what label would you give his choice to deceive the King?

8. What do you make of Minuette’s refusal to tell William the last lie that could have granted herself and Dominic safety? Considering they had been lying for a year, why do you think she chose the moment before they were scheduled to flee to come clean?

9. William had to make several difficult decisions regarding the lives of family members, significantly his half-sister Mary and his uncle George Boleyn; how do you think those decisions impacted him? Did they pave the way for his later decisions to convict Dominic and Minuette of treason, and to imprison his sister? What would you do if a family member or close friend posed a serious threat to your position, success, and happiness, personally or professionally? What if the threat were to your country?

10. How have the various relationships between the four central characters evolved over the course of the series? Compare the William in The Boleyn King to the one who rides to battle the Duke of Norfolk in The Boleyn Reckoning. How has his leadership style changed over the course of his reign? To what do you attribute these changes?

11. Is it possible for royalty to have true friendships, or is William right in thinking otherwise? Is it necessary for those in power to have an attitude toward mistrust? If so, can friendships exist anyway, or is perfect trust required for true friendship?

12. What is your reaction toWilliam’s decision to execute Mary Tudor? Was this the right choice for his government? What about for him on a personal level?

13. What impact (if any) did the death of Jane and the loss of his son have on William?

Reader’s Guide: Q&A with Meg Waite Clayton, author of THE WEDNESDAY DAUGHTERS

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Clayton_WednesdayDaughters

An Interview with Meg Waite Clayton and Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, and eight other novels. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.

Caroline Leavitt: Meg, you and I have been friends for quite a while—since 2002, I think. We met on Readerville, but we didn’t meet in person until 2011, at the Gaithersburg Book Festival. Which is fitting because so much of your new novel, The Wednesday Daughters, is about friendship. Sometimes I think that our deepest friends really become our family, often because we can’t reach our family with enough depth to also make them our friends. Would you agree with this?

Meg Waite Clayton: It’s so hard to move aside the cobwebs of our childhoods, isn’t it? I’m only fifty-five, though, so perhaps there’s still hope! I suppose my parents and perhaps even my brothers know me better than I like to think, but the people I can really talk to are my closest friends. And it’s a lovely place of safety from which to write, friendship. I’m pretty sure my friend Jenn, for example—having put up with me as a roommate for three years of law school and stayed with me through all sorts of unpleasantness over three decades now— is with me for life, as I am with her. I imagine she’s chosen to love me even with my faults, or because of them. That’s certainly how I feel about her. We don’t have much choice about our families, but the love we feel for friends, that’s a love we choose every day, and the love is all the stronger for the choice.

CL: What made you return to the daughters of The Wednesday Sisters? Did anything surprise you in the writing?

MWC: I didn’t actually mean to write a sequel. I wrapped up The Wednesday Sisters with an epilogue, and thought I was done with their stories. Then I was talking with someone about his children, who are biracial, and it dawned on me that Ally’s daughter, Hope, would likely have faced the kinds of identity issues many children of mixed race do. I thought those issues would be really interesting to explore in themselves and as a metaphor for the sense of non-belonging that so many of us experience. And readers had been asking if I would do a sequel, so one that involved the daughters of the original five friends seemed somehow meant to be.

Two things that surprised me in the writing were the role Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter ended up playing in the novel, and the fact that Kath—the character in The Wednesday Sisters with the misbehaving husband—would not bend to my will in this book, either. I appear to be no better at making her behave than she is at making her husband do so!

It turned out to be such a warm pleasure to revisit these old friends—and to see them through the eyes of their grown daughters— that I find myself wondering if there might be another Wednesday book of some sort, someday.

CL: There’s something so mesmerizing about the relationship of mothers and daughters—what we think we know versus what we need to find out. As Hope and the other Wednesday Daughters go through Hope’s recently deceased mother’s letters, they don’t just confront her life, they confront their own. What do you think makes our a new way to navigate those relationships?

MWC: It’s impossible for a parent not to have dreams for her children, and impossible or nearly so for a child to fully let go of the need to please her mother. It’s particularly complicated, I think, for women of my generation, who grew up with 1950s-era mothers and are now trying to negotiate the twenty-first century. Some of us have chosen paths our mothers abhor. Some of us feel pressure to live the lives our mothers couldn’t. The expectations for our two generations are so different despite the very few years that separate us.

It seems life would be so much easier if we could talk freely with our parents, and yet that’s so much more difficult than it seems it should be. I try to bring out this contrast in Hope’s and Anna Page’s interactions with their moms. Anna Page turns to Hope’s mom, and Hope turns to Anna Page’s, but neither is that good at talking honestly with her own mother. The burden of expectation is hard to set aside.

And yet, at some point, we have to let go of our parents’ expectations for us. And when it’s our turn, we have to let our children loose to make their own mistakes. And that bit—letting your children make mistakes—is really tough.

CL: What I loved so much about both The Wednesday Sisters and The Wednesday Daughters is that you look at the mother-daughter bond from the viewpoint of each. Did being a mother, as well as a daughter, color what you wrote? (I know being a mother certainly has changed the way I look at my own mother-daughter relationship.)

MWC: I only have sons, but I have to say that being a parent has completely changed my view of my mom. Who knew when we were growing up how hard what she did for us was? The Wednesday Sisters was certainly meant as an homage of sorts to my mom and her friends. It gave me an excuse to talk to her and explore what her life was like. Trying to put myself in her skin really changed my view of her—for the better. And I do carry her mothering and my own into everything I write. I even lift some moments from my journals, and then fictionalize them. Quite a bit of what children do in my novels has been done by my sons.

CL: So much of both these books is about writing—what it means to us, how it frees and sustains us. How much of what you think and feel about writing finds its way into your characters?

MWC: I think the best writing comes from exploring what we are passionate about, and I’m certainly passionate about writing. I’ve come to know myself so much better as a writer than I ever did before. I dip into that emotional space pretty regularly through my characters— I suppose in part to invite readers to try writing themselves. (Really, jump in, the water is fine!)

But like most writers, I came to writing first as a reader, and much of how I think and feel about writing has roots in my love of reading, and in the books that have made me who I am, or at least brought out whatever good there is in me.
When I sit down to write, one little part of me is Scout Finch.

For more of the Q&A be sure to check out the back of your trade paperback copy of The Wednesday Daughters! Join the conversation with Meg on Facebook and Twitter.

Reader’s Guide: ENON by Paul Harding

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Harding_ENON We can’t say enough things about Paul Harding’s novel Enon. The story is emotional and heartwrenching, yes, but his prose is outstanding! We hope you and your book club agree.

“Harding conveys the common but powerful bond of parental love with devastating accuracy. . . . Enon confirms what the Pulitzer jury decided: Paul Harding—no longer a ‘find’—is a major voice in American fiction.”—Chicago Tribune

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Enon begins with Kate’s death. Why do you think Paul Harding put her death up front? How did facing her death on the first page affect your reading of the novel and your expectations for the plot?

2. Much of the story involves Charlie’s family history and connections to the past, but without Kate and Susan, Charlie is the last Crosby in Enon: “My whole family made a circumference of ghosts, with me the sole living member in the middle.” How does this fact add to and change how he mourns his daughter?

3. What role has the town of Enon itself played in Charlie’s life? How does the place contain and amplify his grief?

4. As Charlie spirals deeper into his despair and into addiction, he feels shame for what he has become and how his life has decayed. What does Charlie’s story have to say about the personal responsibility of a grieving person? To whom does he feel responsible? Are there boundaries to dealing with loss?

5. While remembering Kate, Charlie also imagines differ- ent scenarios in which she is alive, including a scene where he imagines multiple Kates. How do these imagined scenes reflect Charlie’s grief or his real life in any given moment?

6. Harding writes many beautiful passages to convey Charlie’s inner life. How does Harding’s writing immerse readers directly in Charlie’s life? Are there any passages in particular that made his experience real for you?

7. At the end of the book, Charlie faces two anniversaries—a year since Kate’s death, and her fourteenth birthday. He is then recovering from his addictions. What turned Charlie toward recovery? How does he begin to turn things around?

8. Charlie lets Susan go with relatively little struggle. It becomes clear early on that while Susan and Charlie loved each other, Kate bound them together. What do you think of the way Susan’s response to Kate’s death is portrayed, and of her separation from Charlie?

9. How do drugs change Charlie and how he handles loss?

10. Throughout the novel, Charlie creates routines to help him get from day to day. How do his routines help him cope with his loss? How do they serve both to isolate him from the world and, later, to help him reenter it?

Reader’s Guide: THE ALL-GIRL FILLING STATION’S LAST REUNION by Fannie Flagg

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Flagg_AllGirls We love her and we love her some more. (And we know you agree!) Fannie Flagg’s latest bestselling novel The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion is out in paperback next week. If you and your book club have it on the to-read list, then be sure to check out our discussion questions below. And stop by Fannie’s Facebook page to tell her hello! She loves hearing from readers like you!!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. A lot of Southern identity is wrapped up in one’s family history. “Now, just who are your people?” is an oft-quoted phrase around the region. Sookie’s biggest crisis comes when she realizes that her “people” aren’t actually who she thought they were. How does Sookie’s discovery of her true family affect her identity? How does your own heritage affect your identity?

2. Though Sookie tells us that Lenore’s nickname, “Winged Victory,” came from the way she entered a room—as if she were the statuesque piece on the hood of a car rushing in—how might “Winged Victory” reflect Lenore’s personality in other ways? Does her representation as a classical goddess serve to heighten the air of history and tradition that surrounds her? How might the image of a winged woman tie Lenore in with the ladies of the WASPs?

3. One of the things that we hear repeatedly from Sookie is that she can never stand up for herself—especially to Lenore. We see Fritzi, on the other hand, repeatedly breaking down barriers in her own time. How would you characterize the different kinds of courage that Fritzi and Sookie exhibit? In what ways are they similar and in what ways different?

4. Sookie’s best friend, Marvaleen, is constantly trying different suggestions from her life coach, Edna Yorba Zorbra. From journaling to yoga to the Goddess Within group, which meets in a yurt, Marvaleen tries every method possible to get over her divorce. How does Sookie’s approach to dealing with her problems differ from Marvaleen’s? Do you think her friendship with Marvaleen might have helped push her to confront the question of her mother?

5. In The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, we learn about a mostly unknown part of American history—the WASPs of World War II. These women went for thirty-five years without recognition because their records of service were sealed and classified. Were you surprised to learn about this? What parts of the WASPs’ story spoke to you?

6. As Sookie comes to terms with her new identity, so must the rest of her family. Sookie’s realization that “Dee Dee may not be a Simmons by birth, but she was certainly Lenore’s granddaughter, all right” becomes a comforting thought. Have there been times in your life when you have felt so connected to people that you considered them family? What types of circumstances can create such a bond?

7. Sookie tells her friend one day, “I’m telling you, Dena, when you live long enough to see your children begin to look at you with dif- ferent eyes, and you can look at them not as your children, but as people, it’s worth getting older with all the creaks and wrinkles.” Have you experienced this change yet with your own parents or children? If so, what were the circumstances in which you began to see them in a different light? How did this make your relationship even more special?

8. “Blue Jay Away,” Sookie’s brand-new invention, keeps Sookie’s house finches and chickadees fed, while also making Sookie famous. Who do you think have been the blue jays in Sookie’s own life? Has she learned to manage them successfully?

9. As Pat Conroy says, Fannie Flagg can make even the Polish seem Southern. A large part of Southern and Polish identity is found in their culture—the food, the music, the values. What are some of the things that are unique to your culture? How do they help bring people together?

10. Throughout the book, Dee Dee and Lenore often represent many characteristics that Sookie finds frustrating about being a Simmons, such as the time Dee Dee had to be driven to the church in the back of a moving van so that her Gone with the Wind wedding dress wouldn’t be messed up. Once Sookie gains perspective on her family, however, she comes to love and accept Dee Dee’s obsession with their history. Have there been times when your own friends or family have frustrated you with their opinions? How were you able to gain perspective and accept their differences?

11. A major theme in this book is accepting your home. Sookie experiences a homecoming many times—after she first meets Fritzi and returns to Point Clear, when she goes to Lenore’s bedside at Westminster Village, and when she flies to Pulaski for the All-Girl Filling Station’s last reunion. What is your favorite part about going home? Who are the people who make home a home for you?

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for Dean Koontz’s THE CITY

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Koontz_TheCity Diving into the latest Koontz this summer? Join us with these questions and topics for discussion. Happy Reading!

1. Jonah recounts his story beginning when he’s eight years old, but in present time, he’s an older man reflecting on and retelling the story of his childhood self. How do you think time and distance have affected Jonah’s retelling of his story? Do you find that the more time you are removed from experiences in your own life, your story—or your view of it—changes? If so, how? What advantages, and challenges, might telling the story from such a perspective bring to an author?

2. Jonah begins his story asserting: “The last thing I am is a closet pessimist. I’m an optimist and always have been. Life’s given me no reason to expect the worst.” As you read, you learn that Jonah’s life hasn’t exactly been easy and he’s experienced real tragedy. Why do you think he’s such an optimist? Which relationships in his life contribute to that? Do you find that your own difficult life experiences make you more optimistic, or conversely, more pessimistic?

3. Both Jonah’s grandfather and Mr. Yoshioka serve as father figures to him. How are their ways of relating to him similar? How different? What are the most important lessons and examples that each impart? What scenes best captured these central relationships? Describe Jonah’s relationship with his mother. What makes their relationship so special? What scenes between them did you find most telling? Most affecting? Do you see such a mother-child relationship reflected in other works of literature? In your experience?

4. Jonah calls his narration an “oral history,” as he’s recording himself “shooting off his mouth.” How do you feel about Jonah as a narrator? Did knowing that his recitation is meant to be more conversational than formal color your relationship with the story in any way? Do you feel more affected by a story told from such an intimate point of view, rather than a story told at a remove, say by an omniscient narrator? How would the story have changed, told from another perspective? Jonah also admits that he plans to edit his recording to “spare the reader all the you-knows and uhs and dead-end sentences, also to make myself sound smarter than I really am.” He says this in jest, but in what ways might we all be guilty of editing our own stories? Consider the way we present ourselves through social media and online profiles. Did this admission make Jonah any less trustworthy as a narrator, considering the things we might leave out of our own narratives? Or did it make him more authentic?

5. Music is such a powerful, pervasive, magical part of this story, and there’s a scintillating soundtrack in the background, transporting us to another time. How did this contribute to your reading experience? What types of music do you envision might reflect Jonah’s later life? Consider what music means to you. What songs or styles of music might comprise the score for the movie of your life?

6. Thinking back, Jonah says, “all children are prone to voodoo thinking because they’re essentially powerless and because they lack so much knowledge of how the world works….” Jonah, of course, believes in juju to some extent, deeming his pendant capable of providing the “ultimate protection,” and safeguarding treasured objects in the La Florentine box. Did you have any of your own superstitions as a child? Ones that may seem silly now or that you still cling to in whatever way? Did you have your own “La Florentine box” and if so, what are some of the objects you valued most dearly? How did Jonah’s beliefs play out thematically in the book? Is there a connection between these so-called “childish” beliefs and belief of a deeper nature, as reflected by Miss Pearl?

7. The “all-seeing eye” is a major theme throughout the novel. There’s the faux eye that must have sprung from a stuffed toy, which Jonah keeps, sensing it has “some ominous significance”; there’s the magazine clipping that Fiona Cassidy contributed to Jonah’s box, having drawn in the eyes with a color that matched her own; and there’s the Fabritius painting, The Goldfinch, the eye of which Jonah feels all of nature peering through, seeing all sides of him and all the lies he’s ever told. In each case, Jonah feels equally unnerved, as though these eyes are portals through which some presence can analyze and judge him. Does he seem to feel the same anxiety when being viewed through each set, or is there an important difference between them? In some ways, do you think he’s attributing his own self-reflection to these “artificial eyes?” Have you ever encountered a set of “eyes” that provoked something in you in the same way? That made you uncomfortable or brought you face-to-face with a truth you wouldn’t have seen otherwise? Can you name similar symbols in other works of literature?

8. What did you make of the haikus strewn throughout the novel? Were you surprised by how moments of great joy and sorrow are captured so sparingly? How did this help put order and simplicity in Jonah’s world, as he was coming of age during a time of such turmoil? What lessons did they instill? Was there one poem in particular that stood out as especially inspirational or beautiful?

9. Jonah remarks on the fact that there weren’t many heroes for him to emulate growing up, as most prominent African Americans in pop culture were either sports stars or musicians, never the champions who took down the bad guys, and “taking down bad guys is fundamentally what you want in your model of a hero.” That definition changes for him over time, and the everyday heroes he comes to worship include his mother, his grandfather, Mr. Yoshioka, and Vermeer, to name a few. How do these figures influence the person he becomes, enabling him to persevere in the face of hardships and ultimately inspiring him to maintain his optimism where others might have given up under the circumstances? Do you have your own unsung heroes who’ve inspired you to do the same? In what ways does the influence of such individuals ripple outward, extending beyond their immediate circles to the wider world, in the novel and in reality?

10. Consider the role of race and identity throughout the narrative, and what it means to different characters. Think about Jonah’s narration as an African American boy coming of age during a time of national unrest, when race riots were the norm. What special insights into the era did you gain from Jonah’s unique perspective? Did anything about his attitude or his family’s attitude about race surprise you? What did you make of Mr. Yoshioka’s Manzanar “posse” and the relationships among them? How did the core values of the various characters inform their approach to this element of their lives?

11. The question of fate versus free will takes center stage in this novel, with Jonah coming to believe that “There is no fate, only free will.” Consider the instance in which he decided to see for himself who Tilton was eating lunch with at The Royal, and wondered what course his life would have taken if he had followed his instinct to run instead. Have you ever been at a crossroad in your life where events could have gone very differently had you taken the road untraveled? Do you consider the outcome of these instances fate, or like Jonah, do you believe that it was one of the times that you listened to the “small voice” that “wants only what is best for us?” What are other critical moments of decision in the novel? How did you feel about the fates of the various characters? What did you make of Miss Pearl’s special relationship with Jonah and her actions toward him at the end of the novel in terms of the question of destiny?

12. On the interpretation of art, Amalia says, “when it comes to what it means, no stuffy expert in the world has a right to tell you what you should think about a painting. Art is subjective. Whatever comfort or delight you get from a painting is your business.” Do you agree with this? Do you think there’s a tendency for people to find art intimidating or prohibitive because they’re supposed to take a specific meaning away from it, or arrive at it with some type of context? Is it liberating to embrace this idea that art should stand on its own and that we gravitate toward certain pieces for a reason? Are there works that you’ve found particularly evocative or moving based on your own experience at any given time? Has there been someone in your own life responsible for introducing you to beauty in the same way that Amalia does for Jonah? Do you see the world of art, or music, or architecture, or other forms of artistic expression, any differently because of this story?

Author Spotlight: Robin Black and J. Courtney Sullivan

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Black_Life DrawingJ. Courtney Sullivan joins Robin Black to ask her a few questions about her upcoming novel, Life Drawing, on sale next week!

Courtney: Robin, I first fell in love with your work while reading your nonfiction essays about the writer’s life. In the novel, you extend these observations on the indecision, inspiration, and doubt that all artists experience. Was it therapeutic in a way to write about these ideas through your characters?

Robin: I’m so glad you’ve liked the essays. Thank you! I love writing about the creative process in essays, and blog posts, and also in fiction. And you’re right that in a way it is therapeutic to describe what it feels like to be consumed by a creative project or abandoned by one. Those states—both of them, the exhilarating and the depressing—are lonely ones. It’s been important for me to find ways of sharing the sensations since they so often define my daily life.

Courtney: The novel begins with two powerful epigraphs–one from Victor Hugo and one from George Eliot. How did you choose them? Were they part of the inspiration for the story, did they come first, or did you find them a fitting start to a tale you’d already created?

Robin: I found the epigraphs after writing the book. I hadn’t titled it yet and was cruising through quotations looking for relevant phrases, partly to spark title ideas, possibly to use a quote as the title. I think of these two quotations as representing the two gravitational centers of Life Drawing: one being about “our dead,” the ghosts and shades we all carry, and the other being relevant to the evolution and survival of long-time romantic relationships, what it means for a person to be loved in a clear-eyed, realistic way rather than idealized. When I found those two lines and they dovetailed so perfectly with these two aspects of the work, I just had to use them.

Courtney: Novelists have so many choices when it comes to structure. I’m intrigued by the decision-making that goes into such choices. We know about a very big plot point that comes much later from the first sentence of the book. Why did you choose to tell us about that up front? I think it’s a brilliant choice. Did you ever consider doing it differently?

Robin: Strangely enough, the first paragraph was originally the start of another piece of fiction about entirely different people, with a completely different plot. But seventy pages in, I had hit a wall, big time. A writer friend asked me what, if anything, I liked about the work and I said: “Just the first paragraph. ” So I lifted it and started all over. Then, as I was writing the novel that became Life Drawing, I forbade myself to change those lines or take out the plot disclosure. I liked the challenge of finding my way back to it, and I liked what I think of as the tautness of a circular plot. I’m hearing from readers now that many of them forget about opening, and I’m delighted that the early disclosure hasn’t seemed to limit the suspense or surprise of the book, because that was a risk.

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