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Posts Tagged ‘discussion questions’

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: 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 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: UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY by Nancy Horan

Monday, October 6th, 2014

978-0-345-51654-1Have you read the newest book from New York Times bestselling author Nancy Horan? Under the Wide and Starry Sky, her poignant retelling of the improbable love story of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny, is now available in paperback! There is plenty to discuss in this novel that USA Todaycalled “A richly imagined [novel] of love, laughter, pain and sacrifice…”

1. In order to separate from her unfaithful husband, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne takes her children across the continental U.S. and the Atlantic to study art in Europe. Do you think it’s the wisest choice, given the impact on her children? Would you make a similar decision under the circumstances? Are there other options she could have pursued?

2. At first glance, Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson might seem an unlikely match. Why do you think they are so drawn to each other? Why does their relationship endure?

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a phrase synonymous with the idea of the divided self. At any point in the novel, does Louis seem to live a double life? Does Fanny? In what ways do Fanny, Louis, and other characters struggle with their own identities?

4. After criticizing a story of Fanny’s, W. E. Henley incites a quarrel with Louis that threatens their friendship. Does Fanny deserve the criticism? Do you think she and Louis enhance or hinder each other’s artistic ambitions and accomplishments?

5. “Sargent was down again and painted a portrait of me walking about in my own dining-room, in my own velveteen jacket, and twisting as I go my own moustache; at one corner a glimpse of my wife, in an Indian dress, and seated in a chair that was once my grandfather’s,” wrote Louis, in an 1885 letter describing John Singer Sargent’s painting Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife. “It is, I think, excellent, but is too eccentric to be exhibited.” If you can, look  up  Sargent’s  painting (1885; Steve Wynn collection); or just consider Louis’s description above. What do you think of this portrayal of Fanny and Louis?

6. Many of us feel the need to shape a story out of the facts of our lives. In making these stories, we sometimes create myths about ourselves. Does Fanny invent myths about herself? Does Louis do the same?

7. The Stevensons travel all over the globe in search of the ideal climate for their family, from Switzerland to the South Seas. How do landscape and environment affect each of them?

8. Many of Louis’s friends find Fanny overprotective of her husband. Do you agree or disagree? Are her actions justified?

9. In Samoa, late in their marriage, Louis suggests that the work Fanny does—her gardening for example, of which she writes in her diary, “a blossom on my rose tree is like a poem written by my son”—is not that of an artist. Do you agree with this? What does Fanny consider her art to be, and how does it manifest itself and impact those around her? Do you agree with her views?

10. Why do you think Horan chooses “Out of my country and myself I go” as the epigraph for this book?

11. What is Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary legacy? In what ways does reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky change your view of him and his writing?

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.

Reader’s Guide: THE BURGESS BOYS by Elizabeth Strout

Monday, April 7th, 2014

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

Questions for Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Guide: A DUAL INHERITANCE by Joanna Hershon

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Hershon_Dual Inheritance For readers of Rules of Civility and The Marriage Plot, Joanna Hershon’s A Dual Inheritance is an engrossing novel of passion, friendship, betrayal, and class—and their reverberations across generations.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Compare the changes in Murray Cantowitz’s neighborhood and in Fishers Island throughout the four parts of the novel. Why is this difference important? How does this dichotomy relate to larger themes of the book?

2. Discuss Connie’s role in the novel. What does she symbolize for Ed? Why is she important?

3. How are Rebecca and Vivi similar to their parents? How are they different? Does their resemblance to their parents remind you of anyone in your life?

4. Photography is a recurring theme throughout the novel. How does it connect the characters? What else connects the characters throughout the generations in the story?

5. Why is the scene where Hugh cuts o! his “ngers so striking for Rebecca? What do you think about their relationship?

6. There are a few points throughout the novel where Ed realizes that, depending on his actions, his entire life could have evolved differently. What are these points? Do life-changing moments exist in your life?

7. On page 33, the president of the club tells Hugh “man is tribal.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

8. For years, Ed continues to love Helen despite all odds. Do you think this type of prolonged unrequited love is possible? What does it mean that Ed is able to cut Hugh out of his life, but not his love for Helen?

9. At the end of the novel, we learn that Rebecca and Vivi have found out about Ed and Helen’s relationship. Do you think that Hugh ever learns the truth?

10. How different are Hugh and Ed from the beginning to the end of the novel? How do they change, if at all?

11. If you had to write a sequel, what would happen next?

12. Of all the themes in the novel— friendship, upbringing, family, love, etc.— which resonates the most with you? Why?

13. After reading this novel, how important do you think inheritance is? What are your thoughts on dual inheritance theory? Have Ed and Hugh challenged your understanding?

Stay connected with Joanna on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY by Nancy Horan

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Horan_Under the Wide and Starry Sky Nancy Horan has had a big week. Her new novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, went on sale January 21st. The Today Show selected it as their Book Club Pick. And she has kicked off a great book tour!

If you and your book club are reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky, then we have the discussion questions to get the conversation going.

Discussion Questions:

1. In order to separate from her unfaithful husband, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne takes her children across the continental U.S. and the Atlantic to study art in Europe. Do you think it’s the wisest choice, given the impact on her children? Would you make a similar decision under the circumstances? Are there other options she could have pursued?

2. At first glance, Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson might seem an unlikely match. Why do you think they are so drawn to each other? Why does their relationship endure?

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a phrase synonymous with the idea of the divided self. At any points in the novel, does Louis seem to live a double life? Does Fanny? In what ways do Fanny, Louis, and other characters struggle with their own identities?

4. After criticizing a story of Fanny’s, W. E. Henley incites a quarrel with Louis that threatens their friendship. Does Fanny deserve the criticism? Do you think she and RLS enhance or hinder each other’s artistic ambitions and accomplishments?

5. Take a look at John Singer Sargent’s painting “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife” (1885; currently in the Steve Wynn collection). What do you think of his portrayal of Fanny and Louis?

6. Many of us feel the need to shape a story out of the facts of our lives. In making these stories, we sometimes create myths about ourselves. Does Fanny invent myths about herself? Does RLS do the same?

7. The Stevensons travel all over the globe in search of the ideal climate for their family, from Switzerland to the South Seas. How do landscape and environment affect each of them?

8. Many of Louis’s friends find Fanny overprotective of her husband. Do you agree or disagree? Are her actions justified?

9. In Samoa, late in their marriage, Louis suggests that the work Fanny does is not that of an artist. He tells her, “No one should be offended if it is said that he is not an artist. The only person who should be insulted by such an observation is an artist who supports his family with his work.” Do you agree with this? What does Fanny consider her art? Do you agree with her views?

We can’t wait to hear what you think! Join the conversation with us on our Facebook page or with Nancy Horan.

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for THE DEEPEST SECRET by Carla Buckley

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Buckley_Deepest Secret Book clubs: get ready for this one! There is much to discuss with Carla Buckley’s The Deepest Secret (on sale February 4). We have the discussion questions for you and your book club to enjoy.

For fans of Jodi Picoult, Kim Edwards, and William Landay, 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.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What did you think of Eve’s decision not to say anything the night of the accident? Do you think she made the best of a terrible situation, or that she should have confessed immediately? Do you think she might not have confessed if Melissa hadn’t been a suspect, and if Tyler hadn’t planted evidence framing Robbie?

2. Charlotte ultimately says to David that if it were “Tyler lying there and Amy who needed saving…If it were my Amy—I’d have done just what Eve did.” (421) What would you do in the face of such a situation?

3. Discuss the novel’s title, The Deepest Secret. How does it apply to the story? The author stresses that it is human nature to try and keep secrets. But do you think it’s true that all secrets will eventually come out, that it’s also in human nature to want to know—and, to a certain extent, want to confess?

4. The relationship between Tyler and Eve is the backbone of the novel, but it’s a complicated one. Describe the arc of their relationship from the beginning to the end. Were you surprised to find that they were ultimately quite similar in their drive to protect their family?

5. At one point, David reflects that, “Now he sees the grays, the blurry lines. He understands how loneliness might drive a person to make terrible choices.” (171) Do you agree with David’s assessment? What do you feel the novel says about loneliness and its impact on our actions?

6. Holly asks Tyler, “Do you think it’s better to have dreams and lose them, or not have dreams at all?” (178) How would you respond?

7. Throughout the book, there is the recurring idea that we can’t ever truly know what another person is capable of. Do you think this is true? Why or why not?

8. Tyler slips through the night, observing people when they believe they are alone, and is surprised by what he finds. Do you think, in the moments where we are unobserved, we are all different people? That we are more ourselves? How much of our personalities are defined by how others see us?

9. What did you think of the author’s portrayal of parenthood and parent/child relationships? Did it resonate with you?

10. How much of a factor did Eve’s age/experience play into your sympathies for her or lack thereof? If it had been Melissa who had hit Amy, would you have viewed the situation differently? If so, in what ways?

11. Which characters won your sympathy and why? Did this change over the course of the novel? Did your notion of what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?

12. Mourning and loss are themes of the book. How does loss—or the anticipation of loss—affect certain character’s decisions?

13. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? Did it turn out as you expected? Were you satisfied?

Connect with Carla Buckley on Facebook and Twitter!

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