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Reader's Guides

Reader’s Guide: The Dress Shop of Dreams

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014
RHRC: What do you love most about writing?
MVP: While I fall absolutely in love with my characters, losing myself in their stories (these are often as much a surprise to me as to anyone), most of all I love the words: the way a beautiful sentence feels on your tongue, the delightful surprise of a startling and lovely simile or metaphor. I simply love words.
RHRC: What are some of your favorite books and authors?
MVP: Magical realism has always been my favourite genre. I like to think there’s more to reality than our five senses show us. My favorite author, above all others, is probably Alice Hoffman. I love the magic in her tales, along with the acute realism of the worlds she creates. Other favorite magical-­realism authors include: Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal. Other favorite authors, who don’t write specifically in that genre, include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Neil Gaiman and Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, which I found to be a beautiful book. I’m always on the look out for new authors, so if we share similar tastes and you have any recommendations, please get in touch!

9780804178983Meena Van Praag’s new novel The Dress Shop of Derams is a captivating story of enduring hopes, second chances, and the life-changing magic of true love.

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires. Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry,, and Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

Read Random House Readers Circle’s exclusive conversation with Meena below!

Random House Reader’s Circle: What do you love most about writing?

Meena Van Praag: While I fall absolutely in love with my characters, losing myself in their stories (these are often as much a surprise to me as to anyone), most of all I love the words: the way a beautiful sentence feels on your tongue, the delightful surprise of a startling and lovely simile or metaphor. I simply love words.

RHRC: What are some of your favorite books and authors?

MVP: Magical realism has always been my favourite genre. I like to think there’s more to reality than our five senses show us. My favorite author, above all others, is probably Alice Hoffman. I love the magic in her tales, along with the acute realism of the worlds she creates. Other favorite magical-­realism authors include: Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal. Other favorite authors, who don’t write specifically in that genre, include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Neil Gaiman and Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, which I found to be a beautiful book. I’m always on the look out for new authors, so if we share similar tastes and you have any recommendations, please get in touch!

[Click to read more]

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for The Dress Shop of Dreams

Friday, December 12th, 2014
1. Etta’s dresses give their wearers a magic push to go after their dreams. Have you ever had an item of clothing that especially inspired you to take action that you might not have otherwise? Or perhaps someone or something gave you a push to do something that you might not have initiated on your own?
2. Why do you think Etta’s magic doesn’t work on her?
3. Cora’s father tells her the chemical formula for love is “One proton of faith, three electrons of humility, a neutron of compassion and a bond of honesty.” Do you agree? Would you add anything to this equation?
4. Dylan’s letters bring comfort to many lonely fans of the Night Reader. Do you think that justifies his duplicity?
5. Another possible title for this book was The Night Reader, after Walt and his special secret. Does it change the story for you if you think of Walt as the main character? Which of the characters do you most identify with?
6. On page 142, Cora tells her grandmother that “all the great leaps are made when a scientist thinks of something she can’t yet prove, then dedicates her life to trying.” All of the characters in this book have to make leaps of faith to get something they want. What are some examples?
7. Do you think Etta made a mistake when she decided not to tell Sebastian about their daughter? Would you have made the same decision? Are secrets inherently wrong or sometimes justifiable?
8. Should Henry have fought for Francesca even when she told him she didn’t love him anymore? Do you think she was right to send him away?
9. At the start of the novel, Cora protects herself from pain by focusing on numbers and lab work. But all of the novel’s characters have ways of hiding from their feelings. What do you think these characters are afraid of? Do you ever notice yourself or others around you strategically avoiding difficult truths?
10. As he reads, Walt notices similarities between himself and the characters in his books: he identifies with Emma in Madame Bovary, Marianne from Sense and Sensibility, and Cyrano de Bergerac. Are there other great literary figures you would compare him to? What about Etta? Cora?
11. On page 37, Etta thinks: “It’s a great shame . . . that the heart cannot feel joy without also feeling pain, that it cannot know love without also knowing loss.” Do you agree that it’s true that we cannot love without also suffering?

9780804178983


Meena Van Praag’s The Dress Shop of Dreams is a captivating novel of enduring hopes, second chances, and the life-changing magic of true love.

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires. Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry,, and Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

Discuss this “bighearted, beautiful” novel with your book club this holiday season! (Susan Wiggs)

1. Etta’s dresses give their wearers a magic push to go after their dreams. Have you ever had an item of clothing that especially inspired you to take action that you might not have otherwise? Or perhaps someone or something gave you a push to do something that you might not have initiated on your own?

2. Why do you think Etta’s magic doesn’t work on her?

3. Cora’s father tells her the chemical formula for love is “One proton of faith, three electrons of humility, a neutron of compassion and a bond of honesty.” Do you agree? Would you add anything to this equation?

4. Dylan’s letters bring comfort to many lonely fans of the Night Reader. Do you think that justifies his duplicity?

5. Another possible title for this book was The Night Reader, after Walt and his special secret. Does it change the story for you if you think of Walt as the main character? Which of the characters do you most identify with?

6. On page 142, Cora tells her grandmother that “all the great leaps are made when a scientist thinks of something she can’t yet prove, then dedicates her life to trying.” All of the characters in this book have to make leaps of faith to get something they want. What are some examples?

7. Do you think Etta made a mistake when she decided not to tell Sebastian about their daughter? Would you have made the same decision? Are secrets inherently wrong or sometimes justifiable?

8. Should Henry have fought for Francesca even when she told him she didn’t love him anymore? Do you think she was right to send him away?

9. At the start of the novel, Cora protects herself from pain by focusing on numbers and lab work. But all of the novel’s characters have ways of hiding from their feelings. What do you think these characters are afraid of? Do you ever notice yourself or others around you strategically avoiding difficult truths?

10. As he reads, Walt notices similarities between himself and the characters in his books: he identifies with Emma in Madame Bovary, Marianne from Sense and Sensibility, and Cyrano de Bergerac. Are there other great literary figures you would compare him to? What about Etta? Cora?

11. On page 37, Etta thinks: “It’s a great shame . . . that the heart cannot feel joy without also feeling pain, that it cannot know love without also knowing loss.” Do you agree that it’s true that we cannot love without also suffering?

Reader’s Guide: The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

9780385343527

The publication ofThe Great Santini, a powerful, painful novel based on the often cruel and violent behavior of Pat Conroy’s father, Marine Corps fighter pilot Donald Patrick Conroy, brought Pat much acclaim, the rift it caused brought even more attention, fracturing an already battered family. But as Pat tenderly chronicles here, even the oldest of wounds can heal. The Death of Santiniis a heart-wrenching act of reckoning whose ultimate conclusion is that love can soften even the meanest of men, lending significance to the oft-quoted line from Pat’s novel The Prince of Tides: “In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.”

The moving eulogy that Pat wrote for his father is immortalized in the paperback edition of the book.

My dear friends and fellow lovers of Santini,

You have written so many letters of condolence since my father died that I’ve been overwhelmed at the task of answering them. But know this: All of them meant something, all of them moved me deeply, all were appreciated, and all were read. Don Conroy was larger than life and there was never a room he entered that he left without making his mark. At some point in his life, he passed from being merely memorable to being legendary.

[Click here to read the rest!]

Reader’s Guide: Q&A with Laura Hillenbrand

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Unbroken MTI

Random House Reader’s Circle: Louie Zamperini is a larger-than-life figure. He enjoyed a measure of fame in his youth—both during his running career and after surviving the POW camps—but was relatively unknown in the second half of the twentieth century. How did you first learn about Louie? When did you realize there was a book in his story?
Laura Hillenbrand: My first book was about the Depression-era racehorse Seabiscuit. While working on it, I pored over 1930s newspapers. One day I was reading a 1938 clipping about the horse when I happened to turn the paper over and find a profile of a young running phenomenon named Louie Zamperini. I started reading. Louie had not yet gone to war, but his story was already so interesting that I jotted his name down in my Seabiscuit research notebook.
Later, I came across Louie’s name again, and this time I learned a little about his wartime odyssey. I was very intrigued, and when I finished writing Seabiscuit: An American Legend, I did some searching, found an address for Louie, and wrote him a letter. He wrote back, I called him, and I found myself in the most fascinating conversation of my life. He told me his story, and I was captivated.
So many elements of Louie’s saga were enthralling, but one in particular hooked me. He told of having experienced almost unimaginable abuse at the hands of his captors, yet spoke without self-pity or bitterness. In fact, he was cheerful, speaking with perfect equanimity. When he finished his story, I had one question: How can you tell of being victimized by such monstrous men, yet not express rage? His response was simple: Because I forgave them.
It was this, more than anything, that hooked me. How could this man forgive the unforgivable? In setting out to write Louie’s biography, I set out to find the answer.

Laura Hillenbrand’s #1 New York Times bestselling book, Unbroken, tells the improbable, inspiring story of Louis Zamperini, childhood delinquent, Olympic runner, and prisoner of war. This Christmas, this unforgettable testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit will premiere as a major motion picture directed by Angelina Jolie. Watch the trailer here, and read our conversation with Laura below!

Random House Reader’s Circle: Louie Zamperini is a larger-than-life figure. He enjoyed a measure of fame in his youth—both during his running career and after surviving the POW camps—but was relatively unknown in the second half of the twentieth century. How did you first learn about Louie? When did you realize there was a book in his story?

Laura Hillenbrand: My first book was about the Depression-era racehorse Seabiscuit. While working on it, I pored over 1930s newspapers. One day I was reading a 1938 clipping about the horse when I happened to turn the paper over and find a profile of a young running phenomenon named Louie Zamperini. I started reading. Louie had not yet gone to war, but his story was already so interesting that I jotted his name down in my Seabiscuit research notebook.

Later, I came across Louie’s name again, and this time I learned a little about his wartime odyssey. I was very intrigued, and when I finished writing Seabiscuit: An American Legend, I did some searching, found an address for Louie, and wrote him a letter. He wrote back, I called him, and I found myself in the most fascinating conversation of my life. He told me his story, and I was captivated.

So many elements of Louie’s saga were enthralling, but one in particular hooked me. He told of having experienced almost unimaginable abuse at the hands of his captors, yet spoke without self-pity or bitterness. In fact, he was cheerful, speaking with perfect equanimity. When he finished his story, I had one question: How can you tell of being victimized by such monstrous men, yet not express rage? His response was simple: Because I forgave them.

It was this, more than anything, that hooked me. How could this man forgive the unforgivable? In setting out to write Louie’s biography, I set out to find the answer.

Read the rest of their conversation here!

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Thursday, November 6th, 2014
1. Billy Collins has said, “In a poem you have the greatest imaginative freedom possible in language. You have no allegiance to plot, consistency, plausibility, character development, chronology.” Do you agree or disagree? How do you find yourself reading a book of poetry differently than you do a novel? Did you find yourself creating narrative connections between poems in Aimless Love?
2. What patterns can you identify in Collins’s writing? Are there images, subjects, or themes that you see him returning to again and again? What specific images stood out for you?
3. Collins skillfully moves between many emotional tones in his work, from light-hearted to somber, from ironic to sincere, from astonishment and wonder to remorse and grief. How does he achieve such scope in just a few lines? Find your favorite examples of poems with a range of tones.
4. When reading poetry, do you assume it is the writer speaking? Who else might it be? Discuss the role of autobiography in poetry.
5. Collins has said that in his poems he is “speaking to someone I’m trying to get to fall in love with me.” How does Collins get this idea across on the page?
6. Read “Litany.” Now read “Litany” out loud. Now listen to Collins read “Litany”: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56Iq3PbSWZY). Finally, watch three-year-old Samuel recite “Litany”: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVu4Me_n91Y). What did you hear differently? Did your own interpretation of the poem change?
7. Collins has been called “America’s favorite poet.” What do you think defines popularity in poetry? Do you perceive reading poetry as hard work? Did Aimless Love change that perception?
8. Robert Frost said, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Collins hopes that his poems “begin in Kansas and end in Oz.” What do you think each poet means? Do the two statements contradict each other?
9. Collins employs epigraphs of all kinds, including a reference from The Notebooks of Robert Frost in “The Four-Moon Planet” and a line from an article on printing in “Flock.” Did the epigraphs change your reading experience? How? In what other ways does Collins engage with poetry and other literature in his work?
10. Collins wrote his September 11–themed poem, “The Names,” when he was U.S. Poet Laureate of the United States. Do you think poetry as commemoration still serves an important role in society today?
11. Look at the Acknowledgments. Have you read any of those publications? How do you interact with poetry in your everyday life?
12. We speak of the gift of poetry. What does that mean to you? Identify three people in your life and choose a poem from Aimless Love that you would like to share with them.

9780812982671Has your book club ever discussed a book of poetry? By turns playful, ironic, and serious, Collins’s poetry captures the nuances of everyday life while leading the reader into zones of inspired wonder. In the poet’s own words, he hopes that his poems “begin in Kansas and end in Oz.” Touching on the themes of love, loss, joy, and poetry itself, these poems showcase the best work of this “poet of plenitude, irony, and Augustan grace” (The New Yorker). There is plenty to discuss in this lush collection of poems, Collins’ first in nine years. Encourage your book club to try something new, and dive headfirst into Aimless Love:

1. Billy Collins has said, “In a poem you have the greatest imaginative freedom possible in language. You have no allegiance to plot, consistency, plausibility, character development, chronology.” Do you agree or disagree? How do you find yourself reading a book of poetry differently than you do a novel? Did you find yourself creating narrative connections between poems in Aimless Love?

2. What patterns can you identify in Collins’s writing? Are there images, subjects, or themes that you see him returning to again and again? What specific images stood out for you?

3. Collins skillfully moves between many emotional tones in his work, from lighthearted to somber, from ironic to sincere, from astonishment and wonder to remorse and grief. How does he achieve such scope in just a few lines? Find your favorite examples of poems with a range of tones.

4. When reading poetry, do you assume it is the writer speaking? Who else might it be? Discuss the role of autobiography in poetry.

5. Collins has said that in his poems he is “speaking to someone I’m trying to get to fall in love with me.” How does Collins get this idea across on the page?

6. Read “Litany.” Now read “Litany” out loud. Now listen to Collins read “Litany.” Finally, watch three-year-old Samuel recite “Litany.” What did you hear differently? Did your own interpretation of the poem change?

7. Collins has been called “America’s favorite poet.” What do you think defines popularity in poetry? Do you perceive reading poetry as hard work? Did Aimless Love change that perception?

8. Robert Frost said, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Collins hopes that his poems “begin in Kansas and end in Oz.” What do you think each poet means? Do the two statements contradict each other?

9. Collins employs epigraphs of all kinds, including a reference from The Notebooks of Robert Frost in “The Four-Moon Planet” and a line from an article on printing in “Flock.” Did the epigraphs change your reading experience? How? In what other ways does Collins engage with poetry and other literature in his work?

10. Collins wrote his September 11–themed poem, “The Names,” when he was U.S. Poet Laureate of the United States. Do you think poetry as commemoration still serves an important role in society today?

11. Look at the Acknowledgments. Have you read any of those publications? How do you interact with poetry in your everyday life?

12. We speak of the gift of poetry. What does that mean to you? Identify three people in your life and choose a poem from Aimless Love that you would like to share with them.

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for THE DEEPEST SECRET

Monday, October 27th, 2014
1. How do you think Melissa’s and Tyler’s involvement in the crime (Melissa as a suspect and Tyler planting evidence) impacted Eve’s actions? Would she have confessed if her children had not been involved?
2. Eve’s efforts to guard her son from light are sometimes considered excessive—by her son, her husband, and her neighbors. Notably, Eve’s determination to prevent Sophie from installing outdoor lights on her house leads to a neighborhood fight. What do you think of Eve’s protective instincts? Does she take things too far, or is she behaving as any concerned parent would?
3. At one point, Holly asks Tyler “Do you think it’s better to have dreams and lose them, or not have dreams at all?” How would you respond? What do you make of Holly and her relationship with Tyler?
4. David wants to move the family to Washington, but Eve -considers this impossible given Tyler’s condition. Is David’s desire to move selfish, or is he looking out for the family’s best interests?
5. What sacrifices does Eve make for the sake of her family? Are they necessary? Is it worth it?
6. Describe the relationship between Tyler and Eve. In the end, Tyler’s desire to protect his sister led him to make questionable choices. How are his choices similar to Eve’s? How are they different?
7. Discuss the nature of secrets. Is it human nature to keep secrets? Do our secrets define us? Is it human nature to want to know the secrets of others and to confess our own? Do you believe that all secrets eventually come to light? What is The Deepest Secret?
8. Tyler learns some surprising truths about his neighbors during his nighttime wanderings. How do people change in the moments during which they believe themselves to be alone? During unobserved moments, are people more themselves? How much of life is a performance, and to what extent are we defined by the external perceptions and behavioral expectations of others?
9. How much did you sympathize with Eve? Would you feel differently about her actions if she had not been texting at the time of the accident? What if Tyler had not been burned while playing basketball with David? Would you have felt differently about Eve’s behavior if Melissa had been the one to hit Amy?
10. How would you describe Eve’s relationship with Melissa? Melissa’s needs in her family are often viewed as secondary to Tyler’s, given his illness. How do you think this attitude impacted her psychologically? How did it affect her relationships with Tyler, Eve, and David?
11. It seems clear by the end that a number of people played some role in Amy’s death, including Charlotte, Robbie, and Eve. Who, if anyone, do you hold responsible?
12. What do you consider appropriate punishment for the driver in a hit-and-run accident? Can there ever be extenuating circumstances, such as Tyler’s condition, that justify fleeing the scene of a deadly accident? If so, what are those circumstances?
13. Toward the end of the novel, Charlotte says, “If it were my Amy—I’d have done just what Eve did.” What do you think of this statement? If you had been in Eve’s position, how would you have acted on the night of the accident? In the weeks following?
14. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? Did it end as you expected it to? Were you satisfied?

9780553393736For fans of Jodi Picoult, Kim Edwards, and William Landay, Carla Buckley’s The Deepest Secret is part intimate family drama, part gripping page-turner, exploring the profound power of the truths we’re scared to face . . . about our marriages, our children, and ourselves. Fraught with emotional and moral choices, this book is full of juicy topics for your book club to discussion.

1. How do you think Melissa’s and Tyler’s involvement in the crime (Melissa as a suspect and Tyler planting evidence) impacted Eve’s actions? Would she have confessed if her children had not been involved?

2. Eve’s efforts to guard her son from light are sometimes considered excessive—by her son, her husband, and her neighbors. Notably, Eve’s determination to prevent Sophie from installing outdoor lights on her house leads to a neighborhood fight. What do you think of Eve’s protective instincts? Does she take things too far, or is she behaving as any concerned parent would?

3. At one point, Holly asks Tyler “Do you think it’s better to have dreams and lose them, or not have dreams at all?” How would you respond? What do you make of Holly and her relationship with Tyler?

4. David wants to move the family to Washington, but Eve -considers this impossible given Tyler’s condition. Is David’s desire to move selfish, or is he looking out for the family’s best interests?

5. What sacrifices does Eve make for the sake of her family? Are they necessary? Is it worth it?

6. Describe the relationship between Tyler and Eve. In the end, Tyler’s desire to protect his sister led him to make questionable choices. How are his choices similar to Eve’s? How are they different?

7. Discuss the nature of secrets. Is it human nature to keep secrets? Do our secrets define us? Is it human nature to want to know the secrets of others and to confess our own? Do you believe that all secrets eventually come to light? What is The Deepest Secret?

8. Tyler learns some surprising truths about his neighbors during his nighttime wanderings. How do people change in the moments during which they believe themselves to be alone? During unobserved moments, are people more themselves? How much of life is a performance, and to what extent are we defined by the external perceptions and behavioral expectations of others?

9. How much did you sympathize with Eve? Would you feel differently about her actions if she had not been texting at the time of the accident? What if Tyler had not been burned while playing basketball with David? Would you have felt differently about Eve’s behavior if Melissa had been the one to hit Amy?

10. How would you describe Eve’s relationship with Melissa? Melissa’s needs in her family are often viewed as secondary to Tyler’s, given his illness. How do you think this attitude impacted her psychologically? How did it affect her relationships with Tyler, Eve, and David?

11. It seems clear by the end that a number of people played some role in Amy’s death, including Charlotte, Robbie, and Eve. Who, if anyone, do you hold responsible?

12. What do you consider appropriate punishment for the driver in a hit-and-run accident? Can there ever be extenuating circumstances, such as Tyler’s condition, that justify fleeing the scene of a deadly accident? If so, what are those circumstances?

13. Toward the end of the novel, Charlotte says, “If it were my Amy—I’d have done just what Eve did.” What do you think of this statement? If you had been in Eve’s position, how would you have acted on the night of the accident? In the weeks following?

14. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? Did it end as you expected it to? Were you satisfied?

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for Andrew’s Brain

Friday, October 24th, 2014
1. Near the beginning of the story, Andrew says that he is indirectly responsible for Briony’s death: “indirect—not directly causal” (page 20). How might he have reasoned that he was responsible for her death? Do you agree or disagree that Andrew ultimately had a hand in it? Why?
2. Andrew switches back and forth between telling the story in the first person and telling it in the third person, sometimes describing what happened to him, sometimes describing what happened to “Andrew.” Why might he do this? Did you notice a pattern in the moments when Andrew switched from one form of narration to another?
3. In speaking to “Doc,” Andrew says, “Your field is the mind, mine is the brain” (page 14). What do you understand to be the difference between the mind and the brain, within the context of this book? Would the meaning of the title have changed for you if the book had been called Andrew’s Mind instead of Andrew’s Brain?
4. Andrew says, “What else can we do as eaters of the fruit of knowledge but biologize ourselves” (page 7)? Does the quest to “biologize ourselves” contain pitfalls or dangers? How might it relate to the tension within the story between the biology of the brain and the more intangible aspects of the mind?
5. Andrew describes the Wasatch mountains as a “mountain bureaucracy,” town rulers that negotiated the light and colonized the townspeople (page 22). Why might Andrew have decided to describe the mountains in such specific and unusual terms? How might this connect with Andrew’s later experience with a different kind of bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.?
6. When Andrew connects Briony to the brain graph machine, he says, “I saw things more intimately Briony’s than if I had seen her undressed” (page 33). What does he mean by this? What are the implications of this “cephalic-invasive” voyeurism for Andrew and Briony’s relationship?
7. Mark Twain is a recurring motif in the book. Why do you think Andrew is so drawn to Twain? Think of when Andrew refers to the “imperial outrages annotated by MT in the last years of his life” (page 54). Twain lived through a different imperialistic era in America (the late 1800s and early 1900s), but how might this resonate with “imperial outrages” in Andrew’s own lifetime?
8. Andrew describes the possibility of humans yearning for a group brain, a larger social mind: “Perhaps we long for something like the situation these other creatures have—the ants, the bees—where the thinking is outsourced” (page 123). He mentions that this kind of thinking “brings us to politics.” What does he mean by this? How might this relate specifically to his encounters in the White House later in the book? What are other instances, in the book and in real life, when humans are drawn to this kind of “group brain” phenomenon?
9. Briony seems to transform Andrew. He speaks of how “watching her lifted me into a comparable state of happiness” (page 77). How do you think Briony manages to rescue Andrew from his “cold clear emotionless pond of silence” (page 77)? What is it about her that inspires such life in him?
10. Andrew also remarks about Briony that he finds “redemption” in “the loving attentions of this girl” (page 77). Then, at the very end of the book, he describes how Mark Twain found a different kind of redemption in the world, when his children “remember this tale and laugh with love for their father” (page 200). What is similar about their two kinds of redemption? What is different?
11. How does love transform Andrew? Is it a permanent transformation, or is it temporary? Andrew describes love as “the blunt concussion that renders us insensible to despair” (page 29). He also describes the happiness that stems from love as a feeling “possibly induced by endormorphin, the brain’s opiate” (page 104). Why do you think Andrew gravitates towards physical metaphors to describe the power of love?
12. By the end of the story, how much did you trust or believe in the literal truth of what Andrew was saying? Did your attitude toward his narrative reliability change at all over the course of the novel?

“One of the things that makes [Andrew] such a terrific comic creation is that he’s both maddeningly self-delusive and scarily self-aware: He’s a fool, but he’s no innocent. . . . Andrew may not be able to enjoy his brain, but Doctorow, freely choosing to inhabit this character’s whirligig consciousness, can.”—The New York Times Book Review

9780812980981E.L. Doctorow’s latest novel, Andrew’s Brain, takes us on a radical trip into the mind of a man who, more than once, has been the inadvertent agent of disaster. Speaking from an unknown place and to an unknown interlocutor, Andrew is thinking, Andrew is talking, Andrew is telling the story of his life, his loves, and the tragedies that have led him to this place and point in time. As he peels back the layers of his strange story, we are led to question what we know about truth and memory, brain and mind, personality and fate, about one another and ourselves.

Take on the challenge of unraveling Andrew’s Brain with your book club, with the help of these handy discussion questions!

1. Near the beginning of the story, Andrew says that he is indirectly responsible for Briony’s death: “indirect—not directly causal” (page 20). How might he have reasoned that he was responsible for her death? Do you agree or disagree that Andrew ultimately had a hand in it? Why?

2. Andrew switches back and forth between telling the story in the first person and telling it in the third person, sometimes describing what happened to him, sometimes describing what happened to “Andrew.” Why might he do this? Did you notice a pattern in the moments when Andrew switched from one form of narration to another?

3. In speaking to “Doc,” Andrew says, “Your field is the mind, mine is the brain” (page 14). What do you understand to be the difference between the mind and the brain, within the context of this book? Would the meaning of the title have changed for you if the book had been called Andrew’s Mind instead of Andrew’s Brain?

4. Andrew says, “What else can we do as eaters of the fruit of knowledge but biologize ourselves” (page 7)? Does the quest to “biologize ourselves” contain pitfalls or dangers? How might it relate to the tension within the story between the biology of the brain and the more intangible aspects of the mind?

5. Andrew describes the Wasatch mountains as a “mountain bureaucracy,” town rulers that negotiated the light and colonized the townspeople (page 22). Why might Andrew have decided to describe the mountains in such specific and unusual terms? How might this connect with Andrew’s later experience with a different kind of bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.?

6. When Andrew connects Briony to the brain graph machine, he says, “I saw things more intimately Briony’s than if I had seen her undressed” (page 33). What does he mean by this? What are the implications of this “cephalic-invasive” voyeurism for Andrew and Briony’s relationship?

7. Mark Twain is a recurring motif in the book. Why do you think Andrew is so drawn to Twain? Think of when Andrew refers to the “imperial outrages annotated by MT in the last years of his life” (page 54). Twain lived through a different imperialistic era in America (the late 1800s and early 1900s), but how might this resonate with “imperial outrages” in Andrew’s own lifetime?

8. Andrew describes the possibility of humans yearning for a group brain, a larger social mind: “Perhaps we long for something like the situation these other creatures have—the ants, the bees—where the thinking is outsourced” (page 123). He mentions that this kind of thinking “brings us to politics.” What does he mean by this? How might this relate specifically to his encounters in the White House later in the book? What are other instances, in the book and in real life, when humans are drawn to this kind of “group brain” phenomenon?

9. Briony seems to transform Andrew. He speaks of how “watching her lifted me into a comparable state of happiness” (page 77). How do you think Briony manages to rescue Andrew from his “cold clear emotionless pond of silence” (page 77)? What is it about her that inspires such life in him?

10. Andrew also remarks about Briony that he finds “redemption” in “the loving attentions of this girl” (page 77). Then, at the very end of the book, he describes how Mark Twain found a different kind of redemption in the world, when his children “remember this tale and laugh with love for their father” (page 200). What is similar about their two kinds of redemption? What is different?

11. How does love transform Andrew? Is it a permanent transformation, or is it temporary? Andrew describes love as “the blunt concussion that renders us insensible to despair” (page 29). He also describes the happiness that stems from love as a feeling “possibly induced by endormorphin, the brain’s opiate” (page 104). Why do you think Andrew gravitates towards physical metaphors to describe the power of love?

12. By the end of the story, how much did you trust or believe in the literal truth of what Andrew was saying? Did your attitude toward his narrative reliability change at all over the course of the novel?

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014
1. What part of Rebecca Winter’s life do you relate to the most? How did the way Rebecca handled her hardships compare to decisions you’ve made in your own life?
2. One of the themes of Still Life with Bread Crumbs is discovering how to age gracefully. What has been one of your biggest struggles when entering a different stage of life? What is something you’ve enjoyed?
3. Rebecca finds herself living far outside the comfort zone of her former New York City life. What do you think is the most difficult part of moving somewhere new? Have you ever been in a similar situation? How did you handle it?
4. At one point in the book, Jim says that he believes that people live in houses that look like them. How does your own house or apartment reflect your personality?
5. “Language had always failed her when it came to describing her photographs. . . . There was nothing she could say about the cross photographs that could come close to actually seeing them.” Rebecca realizes this after speaking at the Women’s Art League event. Do you ever find it difficult to describe the effect that art—photographs, paintings, writing—has had on you? What might that say about the power of artwork?
6. Throughout the book, Sarah is often the perfect antidote for Rebecca’s unhappiness. Do you have a person like this in your life? Think about one of the times that you were most grateful for him or her.
7. One of the turning points for Rebecca is when Ben tells her, “You will always be Rebecca Winter.” How has Rebecca’s personal identity become entangled with her identity as an iconic artist? What helps her to ground herself?
8. The dog gradually becomes a bigger part of Rebecca’s life as she moves further away from her past self—the “not a dog person” city girl. The dog pictures are even the catalyst for Rebecca’s break with TG. What do you think the presence of the dog means in Rebecca’s life, especially after she discovers his name is Jack? How might the constant company of an animal have a different effect from that of the company of people?
9. When Rebecca finally learns the meaning of the crosses, she wonders if the great artists had ever considered “the terrible eternity of immortality” for their subjects. We live in a culture of camera phones and constant photography. Was there ever a moment when you were particularly grateful to have a certain photograph? Do you ever wish that our lives were less documented?
10. O. Henry’s short story and the story of Rebecca’s mother’s Mary Cassatt both have a bittersweet quality to them. Think about a moment in your life that might have been upsetting or sad. Was there someone who helped you see beauty or happiness in that moment instead?

9780812976892Anna Quindlen’s newest novel, a “marvelous romantic comedy of errors” (The New York Times Book Review), Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendant, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.

Still Life with Bread Crumbs will be available in paperback on October 28th! Start warming up for your book club’s discussion of this charming, elegant novel with these discussion questions!

1. What part of Rebecca Winter’s life do you relate to the most? How did the way Rebecca handled her hardships compare to decisions you’ve made in your own life?

2. One of the themes of Still Life with Bread Crumbs is discovering how to age gracefully. What has been one of your biggest struggles when entering a different stage of life? What is something you’ve enjoyed?

3. Rebecca finds herself living far outside the comfort zone of her former New York City life. What do you think is the most difficult part of moving somewhere new? Have you ever been in a similar situation? How did you handle it?

4. At one point in the book, Jim says that he believes that people live in houses that look like them. How does your own house or apartment reflect your personality?

5. “Language had always failed her when it came to describing her photographs. . . . There was nothing she could say about the cross photographs that could come close to actually seeing them.” Rebecca realizes this after speaking at the Women’s Art League event. Do you ever find it difficult to describe the effect that art—photographs, paintings, writing—has had on you? What might that say about the power of artwork?

6. Throughout the book, Sarah is often the perfect antidote for Rebecca’s unhappiness. Do you have a person like this in your life? Think about one of the times that you were most grateful for him or her.

7. One of the turning points for Rebecca is when Ben tells her, “You will always be Rebecca Winter.” How has Rebecca’s personal identity become entangled with her identity as an iconic artist? What helps her to ground herself?

8. The dog gradually becomes a bigger part of Rebecca’s life as she moves further away from her past self—the “not a dog person” city girl. The dog pictures are even the catalyst for Rebecca’s break with TG. What do you think the presence of the dog means in Rebecca’s life, especially after she discovers his name is Jack? How might the constant company of an animal have a different effect from that of the company of people?

9. When Rebecca finally learns the meaning of the crosses, she wonders if the great artists had ever considered “the terrible eternity of immortality” for their subjects. We live in a culture of camera phones and constant photography. Was there ever a moment when you were particularly grateful to have a certain photograph? Do you ever wish that our lives were less documented?

10. O. Henry’s short story and the story of Rebecca’s mother’s Mary Cassatt both have a bittersweet quality to them. Think about a moment in your life that might have been upsetting or sad. Was there someone who helped you see beauty or happiness in that moment instead?

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for The Night Garden

Friday, October 17th, 2014
1. Olivia Pennywort has a unique condition that causes anyone she touches to develop a rash. What would you do if you had Olivia’s condition? How would you cope if you knew there was no way to get rid of it?
2. Olivia keeps her condition a secret at the risk of being perceived as a monster and driving everyone she knows away. What do you think would happen if Olivia was more open about her condition? Is she right to fear the public’s reaction?
3. Because of her condition, Olivia believes she “would be wrong to expect more of her life than what she had” (page 27). Even though she has everything she needs to survive, do you think this is an acceptable attitude? In what ways can expectations shape how you live your life?
4. At the start, Sam’s condition has stripped him of the ability to feel. If you had this condition, which sensations do you think would be the most jarring to lose?
5. When she was younger, Olivia chose not to be with Sam because she was hurting him, even though she still loved him. Did she make the right decision to break up with him? Should she have told him the truth? What would you have done?
6. Sam comes from a family of rescuers and feels pressure to be a rescuer as well. In what ways can a positive family legacy be both a blessing and a curse? To what extent should a person attempt to live up to a family legacy? What happens if this legacy comes at the expense of carving an individual path?
7. A central theme in the novel is temptation, or the idea of desperately wanting what we know may be bad for us or for others. Is there a right way to deal with temptation? In what scenarios would it be okay to give in?
8. Another core theme is the importance of touch. How important is touch and feeling for a happy life? Is it possible to find happiness without it? Do you think you could?
9. Olivia is appalled that her father knew she was becoming poisonous and did not try to stop it. What makes Arthur’s act so reprehensible? Do you think it’s possible to atone for such a destructive act? How would you go about making things right?
10. When Sam comes to rescue her out of the poisonous garden maze, Olivia realizes that “when a person could find happiness, she should seize it without question, without a single thought for the future, and with a steady resolve never to become bitter once it was lost” (page 307). Does her reasoning make sense? Is this the best way to live your life?
11. When the boarders ask Olivia what they will do without the maze, Olivia replies, “The only thing that stands in the way of your inner wisdom is your fear of it” (page 312). Do you agree with Olivia? Why do you think it’s so hard to figure out what we really want?
12. If you had a magical maze that could help you figure out what to do, what would you want it to help you with?
13. Why do you think Gloria continually tries to change the Pennywort farm? What do you think her actions suggest about how we respond to what we don’t understand?

9780345537836Lisa Van Allen’s novel, The Night Garden, is a luminous novel of love, forgiveness, and the possibilities that arise when you open your heart.

Nestled in the bucolic town of Green Valley in upstate New York, the Pennywort farm appears ordinary, yet at its center lies : a wild maze of colorful gardens that reaches beyond the imagination. But the labyrinth has never helped Olivia Pennywort, the garden’s caretaker. She has spent her entire life on her family’s land, harboring a secret that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length. But when her childhood best friend, Sam Van Winkle, returns to the valley, Olivia begins to question her safe, isolated world and wonder: Is the garden maze that she has nurtured all of her life a safe haven or a prison?

Chock full of questions about love, family, and secrets, this novel is sure to keep your book club talking. Check out some of our suggested discussion questions to get going!

1. Olivia Pennywort has a unique condition that causes anyone she touches to develop a rash. What would you do if you had Olivia’s condition? How would you cope if you knew there was no way to get rid of it?

2. Olivia keeps her condition a secret at the risk of being perceived as a monster and driving everyone she knows away. What do you think would happen if Olivia was more open about her condition? Is she right to fear the public’s reaction?

3. Because of her condition, Olivia believes she “would be wrong to expect more of her life than what she had” (page 27). Even though she has everything she needs to survive, do you think this is an acceptable attitude? In what ways can expectations shape how you live your life?

4. At the start, Sam’s condition has stripped him of the ability to feel. If you had this condition, which sensations do you think would be the most jarring to lose?

5. When she was younger, Olivia chose not to be with Sam because she was hurting him, even though she still loved him. Did she make the right decision to break up with him? Should she have told him the truth? What would you have done?

6. Sam comes from a family of rescuers and feels pressure to be a rescuer as well. In what ways can a positive family legacy be both a blessing and a curse? To what extent should a person attempt to live up to a family legacy? What happens if this legacy comes at the expense of carving an individual path?

7. A central theme in the novel is temptation, or the idea of desperately wanting what we know may be bad for us or for others. Is there a right way to deal with temptation? In what scenarios would it be okay to give in?

8. Another core theme is the importance of touch. How important is touch and feeling for a happy life? Is it possible to find happiness without it? Do you think you could?

9. Olivia is appalled that her father knew she was becoming poisonous and did not try to stop it. What makes Arthur’s act so reprehensible? Do you think it’s possible to atone for such a destructive act? How would you go about making things right?

10. When Sam comes to rescue her out of the poisonous garden maze, Olivia realizes that “when a person could find happiness, she should seize it without question, without a single thought for the future, and with a steady resolve never to become bitter once it was lost” (page 307). Does her reasoning make sense? Is this the best way to live your life?

11. When the boarders ask Olivia what they will do without the maze, Olivia replies, “The only thing that stands in the way of your inner wisdom is your fear of it” (page 312). Do you agree with Olivia? Why do you think it’s so hard to figure out what we really want?

12. If you had a magical maze that could help you figure out what to do, what would you want it to help you with?

13. Why do you think Gloria continually tries to change the Pennywort farm? What do you think her actions suggest about how we respond to what we don’t understand?

Reader’s Guide: Q&A Between Anna Quindlen and Her Editor

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

9780812976892New York Times bestselling author Anna Quindlen’s seventh novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, goes on sale in paperback next week! Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.

Read on for a Q&A between Anna and her longtime editor, Kate Medina!

Kate Medina: What does a woman want? is an age-­old, supposedly un­answerable question. I think Still Life with Bread Crumbs illuminates some answers to that question. We would love your thoughts!

Anna Quindlen: Well, we could go on and on about that question, and the short snappy answer is that there are as many responses as there are women. But I do think that after a certain point, women seek authenticity. There’s an essential phoniness to the way we sometimes present ourselves, physically and socially—­wearing uncomfortable clothes that someone, somewhere, has deemed fashionable, being nice to people we don’t even like. How many times has someone said to me about their much older mother, or grandmother, “You wouldn’t believe what comes out of her mouth!” Maybe that’s a response to a lifetime’s worth of so-­called social graces.

KM: Still Life with Bread Crumbs is your seventh novel. You write both bestselling fiction and nonfiction. How are the processes different for you, if they are? How do you decide which one to write next?

AQ: I always mean to sound purposeful when we talk about things like that, but it’s all pretty unexamined and intuitive. My last nonfiction book, the memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, came to life with an offhand comment I’d made to my daughter and a piece of data I stumbled across when writing my last Newsweek column. I’d been very satisfied writing novels, and I had no intention of moving back into nonfiction. Right now I’m juggling a novel in its nascent stages and a nonfiction book, as you know, and the most obvious difference is that on the first, I eventually plunged right into the writing, but on the second I’m still doing the reporting. Sometimes the reporting is an excuse not to write; other times it is such an aid to composition because, unlike the material in the novels, it is in your notes or on tape and doesn’t have to be excavated from the sometimes hard rock of imagination.

Click here to read the rest of the Q&A! And don’t forget to keep up with Anna on her Facebook page.

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