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Posts Tagged ‘book clubs’

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.

Stay up to date with Robin Black on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: CARTWHEEL by Jennifer DuBois

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

DuBois_Cartwheel Cartwheel is sure to spark a robust book club discussion, and Random House Reader’s Circle is here to help! Below are our questions and topics for discussion. Read on and enjoy!

QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1. The first paragraph of Cartwheel ends with a chilling statement: “The things that go wrong are rarely the things you’ve thought to worry about.” Why do you think the author makes such a pronouncement at the beginning of the novel? What does she mean? Is this true in your life?

2. The story in Cartwheel is very much of our time. Lily’s case becomes an international sensation because of Facebook, blogs, and the way shocking news and information can travel around the world within minutes. Social media plays a big role in Cartwheel. Does this change your view of social media? How do you use social media to share details of your life? What about your family members?

3. Why do you think Jennifer duBois chose to tell the story from four points of view? How does that affect the experience of reading it?

4. At one point, Lily’s sister Anna says “everyone wants to love Lily,” and that she’s always played by different rules. Why does Anna think this?

5. Lily’s father, Andrew, believes “everything vile about your children was to some degree vile about yourself.” Is this a fair statement? Do Lily’s parents fail her, or is this parental guilt?

6. What impact does her sister’s ordeal have on Anna?

7. The title of the book comes from the cartwheel Lily turned between interrogation sessions. Why did the author choose this image as significant?

8. In what ways are Lily and Katy different? Why does Lily feel Katy’s life was “easy”? Is she being fair?

9. Have you, or someone you know, studied abroad? Do you think it benefits college students to visit other countries? Why do you think Lily wanted to study abroad? What was she looking for?

10. Eduardo, attorney for the prosecution, believes Lily is guilty but that she doesn’t understand why what she did was wrong. Do you agree?

11. Sebastien is an enigmatic character. What do you think Lily is attracted to about him? Where do you think his addiction for obscuring half-irony comes from? What consequences does it have for the unfolding of events?

12. The author uses ambiguity to tell this story. How does that affect your understanding of what happened? Which character do you trust the most?

13. Lily calls her family “repressed,” saying they never learned how to mourn their first child, the sister who died before Lily and Anna were born. Why does she say she and Anna were treated like “replacement children”?

14. Do you believe the whole story comes out at Lily’s trial?

Stay connected with Jennifer on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: & SONS by David Gilbert

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Gilbert_AndSons Wouldn’t it be great if David Gilbert, author of & Sons, could join your book club meeting? With these Random House Reader’s Circle discussion questions written by David, it feels like he is there chatting about the book with you! So, if you are planning the next book club discussion then have no fear- David Gilbert has expert questions and topics to facilitate what is sure to be a robust meeting!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. First of all, thank you for reading the book. Want to get that out of the way. A big thanks. One of the scariest things a person can tell me is “Oh, hey, I’m reading your book.” It makes me want to crawl directly into the nearest hole. Funny choice of career. Here I’ve published a book with a big-time publisher—dream come true— and the knowledge that someone might actually read my book makes me cringe to the point of splitting in two. I’m cringing now. The other scary thing you can tell me is “Oh, hey, I read your book,” particularly if you tweak the verb with a raised eyebrow, like a hairy umlaut. I might smile in return and say, Oh Great, that’s great, but in reality I’m performing a private Seppuku ceremony, a thousand doubts the blade. Anyway, discuss vis-à-vis A. N. Dyer and ask yourself, “Why would anyone want to be a writer?”

2. It took me six years to write this book, which seems a ridiculous amount of time. I mean, it’s a kind of a long book, but six years long? At best three years, maybe three and a half while also maintaining a full-time gig with Doctors Without Borders. Now A. N. Dyer hasn’t written a truly new book in something like twenty years (forgive the vagueness, but it’s been a year since I actually read this book). Why do you think he’s stopped writing? I have my ideas, obviously. I think it has something to do with the breakup of his marriage—duh—but also with the birth of his third son, the young Andy. Has this boy perhaps taken on the role of fiction? What is Andy’s relationship with fiction in terms of his relationship with his father? Did I just answer my own question? I don’t think I’m very good at this.

3. You know when you go to the theater and you read the Playbill and there are those bios for the actors and the director and the playwright (I love reading those bios)? Did you know that those bios are actually written by the actors and the director and the playwright? You probably did, but for some reason I didn’t, or not until maybe ten years ago. I just assumed there was a national bio database, very official, probably housed in a suburb of D.C., that fact-checked and sourced and confirmed all this professional information. Yes, yes, Patty St. John did indeed play Fastrada in the Tacoma Players’ 2007 production of Pippin. It wasn’t until I started seeing those personalized messages that suddenly became popular—“Ms. St. John would like to express her gratitude to her Chihuahua Chekhov for teach- ing her how to be human”—that I realized, Wait a sec, these things are actually self-constructed. At first I was shocked. It seemed dubious. And kind of braggy too. How much of this is truly true? But then I found myself digging into these credits, not only to suss out a career but also to suss out a person, and suddenly a deeper appreciation began to emerge from those handmade bios. A trajectory. I mean, how do we compose our lives for public consumption? What do we say? And where are the divergences, the betraying tells? Who is composing who? Or is it whom? And does David Gilbert live in New York City or does he live in Brooklyn or in Queens? Is that a question?

4. I don’t normally like books about writers. A writer writing about a writer writing, well, that sentence alone is tedious. I want to read about someone who does something. Like I wish someone would write the great American novel about scuba diving. That would be cool. Shipwrecks. Sharks. Those giant clams and your foot is suddenly caught. There has to be treasure too. We as a nation deserve a fabulous piece of scuba diving literature. But another book about a writer? And an old privileged white male writer at that? I almost feel as if I should apologize. That said, what interested me was the tension between fiction and life and how we twist our own stories to suit our will. I remember in fifth-grade English class the teacher mentioning in Huck Finn the theme of Appearance Versus Reality, underlined twice on the chalkboard, and I was blown away by the notion—yes, yes, appearance versus reality! It was my Matrix moment. My teenage anthem. Like Jake with Chinatown, it explained all things without explaining a thing. It is, after all, the mother of all themes and introduces by far the most interesting element of any decent piece of writing, the subtext. So: What is the subtext of & Sons? Sorry, that’s a terrible question.

5. Okay, how about this: Who is telling the story? And how is he telling the story? Is this an act of autobiography or an act of fiction, and is there a difference between the two? I mean, we have the one narrator and then we have each chapter divided into three separate character-driven parts (and here I have to acknowledge Richard Powers since I essentially stole that structure from him—a really useful structure by the way, if you’re ever looking for structure— and Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books in the way Zuckerman jumps into other people’s heads yet always remains distinctly individual). I guess the question is: How good a writer is Philip Topping? Also, a follow-up: What writer is the biographer of your life? (For me, it’s Charles Schulz.)

6. Why all the Wizard of Oz allusions? Seriously. I think a lot of readers assume that the writer has relative control of his/her text, but I can tell you that that simply is not true. I mean, that’s not true either, and no need to bring up Derrida or any of the deconstructionists, please God no, though during the eighties I used to say Paul-De-Man instead of You’re Da Man (and got just as many laughs), but in all seriousness, I wrote a draft of this book and looked over it and saw all of these Wizard of Oz references, which I then burnished since it seemed so odd and unexpected and must mean something. So tell me about Dorothy. And Kansas and Oz. Who is the Wicked Witch?

7. Is this tedious?

8. Why did I write this book? Finally, a question for me. I wrote this book because I have a son and a father and I myself am a son and a father and this funhouse mirror effect has been interesting, to say the least. Raising children is an act of love as well as an act of fiction in which the characters slowly free themselves from the supposed author. I remember being scared about having a boy. There seemed so much pressure involved. How would I teach someone how to be a man when I had no idea how to be a man myself? My own father is a wonderful guy, very impressive, an intimidating figure to me when I was growing up, as well as bit distant. He himself was the product of a strict family, raised by a stepfather after his own father’s early death. Anyway, my dad had a successful career in banking, and I remember when I was in my early thirties and just starting my own family, I was at an event and my father had to get up and say a few words and he was as always confident and charming, a commanding presence, and this old friend of his was sitting next to me and she leaned over and said, “It really is amazing, seeing your dad in these situations, so comfortable and at ease, considering how painfully shy he was as a boy. I mean, he could barely look you in the eye and had a bit of stammer. Amazing, the transformation.” Now this surprised me. I’ve always known him as a reserved and self-contained man, a bit unknowable, but never as a shy and awkward boy, and so I remember imagining: What if I could meet him when he was younger, say seventeen? How would my impressions change? That was the impetus behind & Sons. Hence this follow-up question: What if you could meet your father when he was five, or ten, or fifteen, at the height of his vulnerability? How would your feelings for the man change? We all reinvent ourselves with our children.

9. Let’s talk about the book within the book, Ampersand. Go ahead, I’m listening.

10. Okay, the women in the book—I know, what women? But hey, the book’s called & Sons, what did you expect? That said, there are women, in particular Isabel Dyer and Eleanor Topping, and they do play their part. How do these women function within this world of boys (notice I didn’t use the word men)? Does it ring true? I really wanted to make Richard’s wife, Candy, a bigger character and there was a scene in an early outline where she bonded with A. N. Dyer (much to the frustration of Richard), but I couldn’t quite find the narrative space for its inclusion. I’m curious, did I get away with my impersonation of Alice Munro in that Isabel chapter? I’m a fan of her stories and I loved trying to write in her particular style, not just overtly but covertly (and setting some action on a train). That said, is there a deeper purpose to my impersonation? What does it say about the fluid nature of authorship?

11. The novel has a prologue and an epilogue, though thankfully not tagged as prologue and epilogue since I myself always skip prologues and epilogues. I’ve never understood their purpose. Just start the book and end the book. I’ve never read a prologue and said, “Wow, now that’s a great prologue.” And an epilogue is like that awkward encounter with a friend after you say goodbye and depart down the street in the same direction. “Oh, yeah, hey [awkward laugh].” That said, I am guilty of writing a prologue and epilogue (italicized, no less). For me to stoop to this shame, there must be a reason . . . I hope.

12. Does Phillip Topping work as a narrator? I mean, yeah, he’s kind of unreliable, (unreliable narrator is like Subtext 101), but do you believe him? I know, I know, I just said he’s unreliable, but how much of what he says is believable? The same with A. N. Dyer. I know, I know, A. N. Dyer is being filtered through Phillip, his big- gest fan, who at the same time is trying to channel A. N. Dyer—so many layers of fiction. I guess the question is: Who is the dog and who is the tail?

13. Do you like the letters? Regardless, they look great. The Random House interior designers did an incredible job to create that sense of reality. That was very important to me, to maintain a tight grip on the real, just like all the locations in New York and beyond are very real places, the same with the schools. That reality was key. Why do you think I cared so much? Sometimes I think of A. N. Dyer as a spider who has spun his web in the corner of these realities, a beautiful and intricate construction, lovely to behold, and not once does he think of the poor creatures who blindly fly into these traps and find themselves stuck and immobilized, a sudden character in one of his dramas. What stories do you tell yourself about your own life that you know are untrue, those exaggerations that have become fact? How much of who we are is what we steal? And if fiction can bring a family together, do we care about the truth?

14. If you called someone up and told them to come find you in front of your favorite work of art, where would you be standing?

15. With Richard in the beginning, when he’s at the movie studio and feels as if his dreams are about to come true, Richard playing the fantasy forward and then discovering, too late for his ego, that he has misread the situation, can you relate to this mortifying situation? I certainly can. I once thought a girl was madly in love with me but actually she was in love with my best friend— wait, is that me or a movie I saw? How much of our memory is collage? games interest you? If they do, play on.

17. When I started & Sons I wrote a single word on a Post-it note and stuck it to the wall in front of my desk. What was that word? Five dollars to anyone who guesses right.

Have more to say about the book? Connect with David Gilbert on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: THE TELLING ROOM by Michael Paterniti

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Paterniti_TheTellingRoom In The Telling Room, Michael Paterniti showcases his storytelling craft to tell the tale of the world’s greatest piece of cheese.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. This book starts in a deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and leads to a small village in Spain, all in a quest for some cheese. What do you make of the author’s impulsivity, and does it resemble a seemingly random decision in your own life that somehow led to an unexpected result?

2. Do you agree with the author’s assessment of modern society as TK? If so, what might be a solution, short of moving to a small village in Spain?

3. When Mike first meets Ambrosio in the telling room, the cheesemaker expounds on the importance of taking time to cultivate food, to prepare it, to enjoy it, and — finally — to pass that food from our bodies as waste. How much do you agree with Ambrosio’s way of living? Do you believe that what we consume and the way we consume it has such a pronounced effect on our lives?

4. Ambrosio’s slow-food style of living proves deeply seductive to the author—carrying him back again and again to Spain. Would you say such a lifestyle is equally feasible in our convenience-oriented society? How might it be achieved?

5. Do you have a place that you return to, and if so, what is it that you find there?

6. On page 71, the author includes the following footnote: “I would soon find out that digression was a national pastime in Castile, that to get to the crux of any matter you had to listen for hours, weeks, months, years.” What do you think is his intention by including this note to the story? How did it affect the way that you read the footnotes that followed?

7. Ambrosio has a phrase, “the disability of memory,” which he defines by saying, “Everything is rushing forward, so I must go back.” In what ways is Ambrosio’s story emblematic of this idea? Why do you think this idea captured Mike’s imagination so completely?

8. Can you name some more of the many conflicts in the book?

9. When Mike first returns to Guzman, he writes that “[I didn’t] care to hold myself to the normal journalistic standard, for I wasn’t entirely playing a journalist here. I was playing myself for once.” Do you think that, by entering the story simply as himself, different opportunities were open to Mike than if he had maintained his journalistic distance? What issues might have been avoided had he been more of an objective observer? How might a more objective book about Ambrosio feel different than the one Mike ultimately wrote? Have you ever started something as your job that ultimately became something deeply personal?

10. In THE TELLING ROOM the idea of memory takes many forms, such as Luis’s keys, or the cheese itself. Why do you think memory becomes such an important theme as the book goes on?

11. When Ambrosio gives Mike a key to the telling room, he says that it’s where Mike will write “their” book. Who do you think the book ultimately belongs to? In what ways is the story more Ambrosio’s, and in what ways Mike’s? What does it mean to own a story?

12. What obligation does the writer have to his or her subject?

13. At the outset, Ambrosio is portrayed as a mythic figure, and is later revealed to be, simply, a man. How does this shift occur? What parts of Ambrosio the man have to be cloaked so that we can believe in Ambrosio the myth? Why does the author slowly pull back the curtain like this?

14. The idea of fatherhood is another recurring theme, and particularly the ways that children carry on the traditions, ideas, and lives of their parents. On page 195, Paterniti writes, “This was one form of enlace, too, the attachment of the child to the father, and with the passing of time the father to the child, so that even in death one lived on, carrying the ghost of the other like a baby inside.” How are Ambrosio and Michael each defined by their roles as fathers? As sons?

15. The whole of Castile shares a fascination with the legend of El Cid, a story that likely glosses over some harsher truths. How does the story of El Cid relate to Paterniti’s relationship to Castile? How does it relate to his relationship with Ambrosio?

16. On page 204, Paterniti describes a scene in which the mistranslation of a word – barber for sheep shearer – leads him to “float away with the myth,” imagining a barbershop for animals. What are some other instances of “floating away with the myth” in this book?

17. Sara, Mike’s wife, describes the idea that some people see the world as being clearly delineated (1 + 1 = 2), while other see it as a web of possible connections and fruitful contradictions. Do either of these outlooks match up with your own worldview?

18. Towards the end of the book, Paterniti describes the act of telling stories to his children as one that unites them as a family, and as “some way of saying, ‘History repeats.’ And: ‘You’re going to be alright.’” Do the stories you remember hearing as a child and the stories you tell now have a similar impact on you? What other ways do stories – and the act of storytelling itself – affect us?

19. Ultimately, what do you think of Ambrosio, the myth and the man? Do you think that the author finds what he’s looking for?

Are you planning a book club discussion for The Telling Room? Invite Michael Paterniti to join your chat. Email rhrc (at) randomhouse (dot) com to request a Skype visit from the author! Scheduling depending.

Author Spotlight: Ellen Feldman, author of THE UNWITTING

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Feldman_TheUnwitting Ellen Feldman touched the hearts of readers with her novel Next to Love. Her latest, The Unwitting, is historical fiction set in the literary Manhattan of the 1950s while the Cold War looms ominously over the lives of American citizens.

Ellen Feldman is no stranger to the page. She is a Guggenheim fellow and the author of four novels (one of which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction). Today, Ellen joins us to share her thoughts on writing…the things she loves and the things she hates.

Four Things I Hate about the Writing Life; Four Things I love about the Writing Life

Four things I hate:

Solitude: For years I wrote in the lonely silence of my apartment, but after finding myself still in my jammies at five o’clock in the evening more often than was sane or even hygienic, I began haunting writers’ rooms in the New York Public Library and the New York Society Library. The latter is a subscription library fourteen blocks from my home, which turns out to be the perfect walk to get the words flowing in the morning and cool me down in the evening. Though I’m not alone in either of these venues –- the rooms are filled with writers tapping feverishly at their laptops, a phenomenon I can usually ignore, unless I’m sitting there mournfully pressing the delete key -– and we exchange greetings and the odd piece of publishing gossip in the halls, for long hours at a stretch, each of us is isolated in the faraway realms of our individual imaginations.

Beginning a new novel: It has been my experience, and that of most of my writing friends, that after we’ve finished a book we’re sure we’ll never be able to write another. In its worst form, this neurosis, for it’s nothing less than that, entails the proverbial writer’s block. In its milder configuration, it takes the form of what I’ve dubbed “last book syndrome.” You keep trying to write the last book you wrote, again and again and again. This maddening spiral can take months to escape.

Research: Probably the only thing worse than not being able to find information you need for a book is having found the information and somehow misfiled it or not written it down at all because at the time you came across it you thought it wasn’t relevant to what you were working on. Some writers simply fudge it, but I admit to being too compulsive to risk that. I have spent days, sometime weeks, on quests that result in nothing more than tears of frustration.

Publication: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crackup that “at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and … in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” That’s pretty much what the publishing process feels like. For months or years you’ve been in control. Now everything is out of your hands. You lie awake imagining all the things that can go wrong in the process of getting the book into stores and on line. (In my youth I worked for a publishing house that once printed a mystery without the last page.) You don’t believe the good reviews and are sure bad ones are on the way. You end up in lonely hotel rooms far from husband and dog having nightmares about looking down in the middle of a talk to discover you’re stark naked. You wonder why you ever thought publishing a book was a good idea.

Four things I love:

Solitude: While my days are not spent in the company of other real people, when I’m writing, and I’m always writing in my head, my imagination is crowded with characters, some of them already good friends, others auditioning for a role in the book. When I was writing The Unwitting, I occasionally slipped and called my husband Charlie. My husband’s name is Stephen. Most men would suspect adultery. Stephen has been living with me for long enough to know it was only obsession. The husband in the book is called Charlie.

Beginning a new novel: A blank screen is an intimidating sight. That’s the reason for the last-book-syndrome I mentioned above. A first line is a recalcitrant animal. The crucial thing is to remember the delete button. Anything you write now can be struck later. But once the words begin to come, once your characters start whispering in your ear in their own voices and doing things you had never expected them to do, you are off on a thrilling adventure, one that often takes you places you never expected to go.

Research: I love libraries. I love ferreting around in old books and papers and archives. I love learning about people and events and states of mind. And on the rare occasions when I unearth an anecdote or turn of events or fact that has not been written about before, I feel a little like Columbus discovering the New World.

Publication: For all the fear, for the occasional heartbreak, there is nothing like looking up on a plane or in a library and seeing your book in someone else’s hands. On second thought, there is something even better. Hearing from readers that your book has taken root in their lives.

If you are a writer yourself, we’d love to hear your thoughts! What are the things you love and hate about the writing life? Share with us on our Facebook page!

Reader’s Guide: THEN AND ALWAYS by Dani Atkins

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Atkins_ThenandAlways The early feedback for THEN AND ALWAYS by Dani Atkins has been stellar! Readers and book clubs alike are flocking to this book. The suspense will keep you on the edge of your seat page after page, and the conclusion leaves plenty of room for book club discussions.

Here at Random House Reader’s Circle, we have the book club questions and topics for discussion to get your conversation going. Be sure to mark your calendars for May 20th- this is a read you won’t want to miss!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Three accidents seem to shape this novel. To what extent is Rachel’s future affected by events outside her control?

2. Why do you think Rachel feels so responsible for the outcome of the restaurant accident? Do you think she would feel differently if Matt had died in Jimmy’s place?

3. Would you feel differently about Rachel if the book began as she woke up in the hospital? Why do you think the author chose to begin the novel where she did?

4. What did you think really happened when Jimmy showed up in Rachel’s hospital room? Did you question your logic throughout the novel?

5. The characters encounter mirrors and reflections at several points during the story. Do you think the idea of mirror images relates to the way the author organizes the novel?

6. Which of Rachel’s relationships do you think is most im- portant to her in her personal life and in her career? Does that change over the course of the book?

7. How do you interpret the seeming intersection between fate and free will in this novel? Do you believe in fate? Or do you believe we control our own destinies?

8. Rachel has deep feelings for Jimmy even when she is with Matt. Do you think it’s possible to be in love with two people at the same time?

9. Despite their imperfections, did you feel any sympathy for Matt or Cathy by the end of the novel?

10. Were you surprised by the ending? Do you think there is more than one way to interpret the events at the end of the book?

11. Did you pick up on any of the specific clues in the novel that foreshadow the ending? What were some clues that
you noticed?

12. Did you ever come to a crossroads in your life when you felt the choice you made impacted your life in unimaginable ways? If you could go back, would you choose differently and why?

Join Dani Atkins on Facebook and Twitter!

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

Friday, April 18th, 2014

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

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

Questions and Topics for Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giveaway Opportunity: BLOSSOM STREET BRIDES by Debbie Macomber

Friday, January 17th, 2014

Maomber_Blossom Street BridesIs your book club looking for a new read? Enter below for your chance to win Blossom Street Brides by bestselling author Debbie Macomber for your ENTIRE book club!

#1 New York Times bestselling author Debbie Macomber has won the hearts of millions of readers with her moving and inspiring stories. Now wedding bells are ringing in the tight-knit community that gathers around A Good Yarn, a store in a pretty Seattle neighborhood. Knitters come to the store to buy yarn and patterns but somehow they leave richer in friendship and love.

Lauren Elliott has waited years for her long-term boyfriend, Todd, to propose, yet he seems more focused on his career than their relationship. When Lauren learns that her younger sister is pregnant before she herself even has an engagement ring, she feels overjoyed yet disheartened. Knowing she can’t put her future on hold, Lauren prepares to make a bold choice—one that leads her to a man she never dreamed she’d meet.

Newly married to her second husband, Max, Bethanne Scranton is blissfully in love. But with Max’s job in California and Bethanne’s in Seattle, their long-distance marriage is becoming difficult to maintain. To complicate matters, Bethanne’s cunning ex will do anything to win her back.

Lydia Goetz, too, is wonderfully happy with her husband, Brad, though lately she worries about the future of A Good Yarn. As she considers how to bring in business, she discovers that someone has beaten her to the punch. Baskets of yarn are mysteriously popping up all over town, with instructions to knit a scarf for charity and bring it into Lydia’s store. Never before has her shop received so much attention, but who hatched this brilliant plan?

As three women’s lives intersect in unexpected ways, Lydia, Lauren, and Bethanne realize that love heals every heart, and the best surprises still lay ahead.

Reader’s Guide: EMBERS OF WAR by Fredrik Logevall

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Logevall_Embers of War tp Fredrik Logevall’s Pulitzer prize-winning Embers of War is written with the style of a great novelist and the intrigue of a Cold War thriller. This landmark work that will forever change your understanding of how and why America went to war in Vietnam.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Scholar A.J. Langguth writes, “These days, any history of Vietnam, no matter how scholarly and objective, will be read for what it teaches us now.” Do you agree that the history of Vietnam primarily teaches us about war today? How does that approach expand your reading of Embers of War?

2. Logevall engages seriously with counterfactual history: “The story of the French Indochina War and its aftermath is a contingent one, full of alternative political choices, major and minor, considered and taken, reconsidered and altered.” What are some of the major forks in the road that Logevall points to? How does the concept of choice versus inevitability change your understanding of the major players?

3. Two sides of Ho Chi Minh – nationalist and communist – struggle for prominence in his historical legacy. Which interpretation does Logevall lean towards? What about you? How does his identity shape your understanding and opinions of the War’s outcomes?

4. On the other side of the same coin, the U.S. grappled with anti-colonial and anti-communist instincts. For the U.S., how was the conflict in Indochina a part of the cold war and how was it not?

5. Domino theory played a role in U.S. decision-making in Vietnam. However, a 2007 study of over 130 countries in the 20th century found that states are rarely influenced by changes in their neighbors’ internal governmental structures. What does Logevall find flawed about the domino theory? What was so seductive about the concept in the 1950s?

6. In what ways does Logevall show individual leaders – determined, passionate, flawed – driving historical outcomes? Is it possible to separate the role of a single person from larger global forces?

7. The battle of Dien Bien Phu was the first time in the history of colonial warfare that Asian troops defeated a European army in fixed battle. In the early days of the First Indochina War, the French and the Viet Minh seemed mismatched militarily, the French having a large advantage. What changed between 1945 and 1954, and why might the initial assessment of the French advantage have been wrong?

8. General Westmoreland, who commanded US military operations in Vietnam from 1964 to 1972 said, “Why should I study the lessons of the French? They haven’t won a war since Napoleon.” How did the Americans see themselves as different from the French? In terms of goals? National identity? Military prowess? From today’s perspective, how do you think the Americans were different from the French, if they were at all?

9. We all know the ending of Logevall’s story. How does Logevall create suspense while avoiding sensationalism in a familiar historical narrative?

10. Logevall writes a good deal about Graham Greene and The Quiet American. What does the novel say about America’s eventual fate in Vietnam? What kind of observer does Logevall show Greene to be? Why do you think a novelist was able to read the circumstances in Vietnam more clearly than others, including journalists and military and political leaders?

11. Look over Logevall’s endnotes. Where did most of his research come from? How do you think these sources shaped his conclusions? Do you notice any trends in both his primary and secondary source? Does anything surprise you?

Giveaway Opportunity: THE AVIATOR’S WIFE by Melanie Benjamin

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Benjamin_Aviator's Wife Don’t let 2013 slip away without reading Melanie Benjamin’s bestselling novel, The Aviator’s Wife. In the spirit of Loving Frank and The Paris Wife, acclaimed novelist Melanie Benjamin pulls back the curtain on the marriage of one of America’s most extraordinary couples: Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

“The history is exhilarating. . . . The Aviator’s Wife soars. . . . Anne Morrow Lindbergh narrates the story of the Lindberghs’ troubled marriage in all its triumph and tragedy.”—USA Today

“Fictional biography at its finest.”—Booklist (starred review)

Enter below for your chance to win! And join the conversation online with Melanie Benjamin via Facebook and Twitter.

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