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Posts Tagged ‘cultural fiction’

Reader’s Guide: FIVE STAR BILLIONAIRE by Tash Aw

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Aw_FiveStarBillionaire LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND BOOKPAGE

Five Star Billionaire is a dazzling, kaleidoscopic novel that offers rare insight into the booming world of Shanghai, a city of elusive identities and ever-changing skylines, of grand ambitions and outsize dreams. Bursting with energy, contradictions, and the promise of possibility, Tash Aw’s remarkable new book is both poignant and comic, exotic and familiar, cutting-edge and classic, suspenseful and yet beautifully unhurried.

Below are discussion questions for you and your book club to join as you dip into this vibrant work of fiction. Happy Reading!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Discuss the roles of money, ambition, and status in the novel. Wealth seems to bring respect. But in what ways are money and success a kind of burden for the characters? At the novel’s conclusion, which character comes out the most successful, and why? How do you think the author defines success?

2. The novel takes its title from a fictional self-help book, Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire, and the chapter titles are mantras such as “Reinvent Yourself,” “Always Rebound After Each Failure,” and “Perform All Obligations and Duties with Joy.” Why do you think Aw chose to frame the novel in this way? How did this structure affect your reading of the book and your interpretation of the characters?

3. “The first rule of success is, you must look beautiful.” How true does this statement ring by the novel’s conclusion? Does a “beautiful” appearance have a positive or negative effect on the lives of the main characters?

4. “Shanghai is a beautiful place, but it is also a harsh place. Life here is not really life, it is a competition.” Five Star Billionaire takes place in Shanghai, a city that changes as quickly as the characters’ lives. In fact, Shanghai is as much the subject of the novel as the characters are. How does the city itself reflect the lives of its characters?

5. One of the chapter titles in the novel is “Nothing Remains Good or Bad Forever.” Another is “Even Beautiful Things Will Fade.” When describing China today, one woman says, “Every village, every city, everything is changing.” Discuss the role of impermanence in the novel.

6. “Like everything in life these days, I suppose you could say it’s a copycat—a fake.” Everything about Phoebe—from her personal history to the designer clothes she wears—is fake. Why does Phoebe portray herself in this way? Is she, as the statement suggests, symptomatic of our modern society? Do you think the entries quoted within Phoebe’s “Journal of My Secret Self ” contain her true nature?

7. When Pheobe finally takes up with Walter Chao, the Five Star Billionaire of the novel, she loses control and finds herself unable to continue her charade. Why do you think things fall apart so quickly for Phoebe? In what ways do the other characters, in addition to Phoebe, struggle to create new identities? Do you think any of the characters ever succeeds in reinventing himself or herself?

8. “She would become like so many other people in cyberspace, hiding behind an image of something other than themselves.” How do the characters in the novel use the Internet, and what do their online habits reveal about them?

9. The characters in the novel seem to be constantly haunted by their pasts, even though they often try to block their memories and pretend that events never happened, in order to thrive in the present. Do you think we can ever truly put the past behind us? Does the characters’ denial help them in any way?

10. With which character did you identify most, and why?

11. “When will you ever be your own man, with your own life? When will you be free?” Family is important to Justin and Yinghui. How do these familial ties affect their lives. Do they, as Yingui suggests here, restrict these characters’ freedom?

12. Five Star Billionaire ends with Gary returning to the stage to sing. In the final passage, Aw writes, “[Gary] feels, for the first time in a big concert, that he is alone in the auditorium, but it is a loneliness that feels calm, as it did many years ago, when he was still small. Only he can fully appreciate the quality of his voice filling his lungs, filling the vast space above him.” Why do you think Aw decided to end the book the way he did? How does this relate back to the Foreword of the book, in which the Five Star Billionaire tells us, “Fortunately, you do get a second chance. My advice to you is: Take it. A third rarely comes your way”?

13. There are many novels that examine the immigrant experience. With its main characters all immigrants from Malaysia, Five Star Billionaire is a fresh examination of the immigrant novel, as the city of hope its characters move to is Shanghai. Discuss Five Star Billionaire as an immigrant novel. By setting the novel in Shanghai, does Aw shed new light on the experience? How does the novel compare to novels about the American immigrant experience?

Reader’s Guide: THE LULLABY OF POLISH GIRLS by Dagmara Dominczyk

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Dom_Lullaby In celebration of Dagmara Dominczyk’s on sale date (today!!) we wanted to share some questions and topics of discussion for her book The Lullaby of Polish Girls. We hope you’ll choose this beautiful work of literary fiction as you and your book club plan upcoming reading picks.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The Lullaby of Polish Girls explores issues of identity in many different ways. In what ways do Anna, Justyna, and Kamila struggle to define themselves? What events in their individual lives throw those definitions into question?

2. What does Anna originally find so alluring about Ben and their potential as a couple? Why do you think her hopes and possibilities for their relationship ultimately fall short, and how does this relate to her internal struggles throughout the novel?

3. Anna’s first trip back to Poland gives her life a new focus. What seems at first to be a dramatic teenage decision to return—“She’ll work after school and buy her own airplane ticket if she has to. . . . If her parents don’t let her come back next year, she will probably kill herself.”—turns out to be a solemn vow. Why do you think her short, unexpected trip has such a profound effect on Anna’s life? How do her Polish family and friends play a role in that shift? What needs does her Polish life fulfill that her American life doesn’t, and vice versa?

4. Why do you think Anna is drawn to acting, and what about her personality and circumstances make her especially successful? During a lunch meeting with her agent, Anna seems to realize that things are different for her now and that, for the time being, she is no longer willing to make the sacrifices she would have to in order to put her acting career back on course. Why has Anna’s attitude changed, and do you think she will ever be able to view acting—and the industry surrounding it—though the rose-colored glasses she had at the beginning of her career?

5. At first blush, Justyna appears to be a character that follows her own rules and does exactly as she pleases, regardless of her reputation or public opinion. But there are several moments in the novel when Justyna is unable to act on her desires. For instance, the passage after Paweł’s funeral, when Elwira tells Justyna that she plans to move out (p. 63):
For a second, Justyna wants to get down on her hands and knees and beg her sister to stay. To confess that she can’t face these four walls alone haunted by the past. . . . “Do what you wanna do, -Elwira,” Justyna says quietly. “Just don’t leave me alone tonight. Please.”
Why does Justyna have trouble acting in this emotional situation? What are some other important moments in the novel where Justyna is unable to act on her desires or ask for help?

6. Anna, Justyna, and Kamila have a complex friendship. They fight, talk behind one another’s backs, and go without communicating for several years. Yet when Justyna endures a devastating loss, Anna and Kamila are immediately thrown into emotional turmoil, and Justyna is shocked at how much she cares whether or not her friends send wreaths to the funeral. Why do you think these women share such a surprisingly strong connection, and return to each other in times of crisis? Do you think this is a realistic depiction of friendship?

7. Dominczyk certainly does not shy away from hard subjects or dirty language. All three of the girls talk tough and experiment with sex and intimacy throughout the novel, yet the scene at the Te˛cza Basen belies a certain amount of innocence behind their bravado. How does that naïveté come into play later in the chapter when Lolek rapes Anna, and what lasting effect does that moment have on both Anna and Justyna?

8. Arguably, Kamila is the character most devoted to molding herself into her ideal persona. What drastic measures does she take to control the way others see her and, when she is forced to realize that Emil is gay, what beyond her failed marriage is Kamila forced to acknowledge?

9. When Anna’s mother had her fortune read, she was told, “Things will break apart and it will always be your job to put them back together.” There are countless instances of things falling apart in The Lullaby of Polish Girls; consider some of these moments from the novel. Who shoulders the burden of putting things back together and how successful are they? Is patching things up always the best choice the characters can make?

10. Anna, Justyna, and Kamila have very different relationships with their parents. In what ways do each of the girls’ parents influence the women that they become? How does each girl’s perception of her parents change throughout the course of the novel?

11. The title, The Lullaby of Polish Girls, suggests that Polish girls require a different type of soothing. How does that idea resonate in this story?

12. The novel ends mid-scene, as the clock strikes twelve and the three women are on the brink of making decisions about how to rebuild their lives. What do you think each character is likely to do? Do you think this moment actually marks a sea change in each of their lives? Each has been stripped of her armor over the course of the novel. What identity is each woman left with?

Join the conversation with Dagmara on Twitter!

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