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Posts Tagged ‘discussion questions’

Reader’s Guide: THE AVIATOR’S WIFE by Melanie Benjamin

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Benjamin_Aviator's WifeIn 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

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The epigraph for this novel is from Antoine de Saint- Exupéry who, like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was both a celebrated
author and a noted aviator. Do you agree with his statement, “One must look with the heart”? What do you think that means? And do you think it means something different to an artist (author) as opposed to a scientist (aviator)?

2. One of the recurring themes is how Anne will choose to remember Charles. How do you think she concludes she’ll
remember him by the end? How does it change?

3. Anne’s father says, “And there’s Anne. Reliable Anne. You never change, my daughter.” (page 11) How does Anne change over the course of this novel? Or does she?

4. How does Anne’s nomadic lifestyle as the daughter of an ambassador later infl uence her concept of “home” with Charles? What do you think defines home?

5. Anne seems to think of herself as an outsider—someone too shy and insular to make a big impression. Do you agree, or do you think Anne misevaluates herself? Do you think this insularity made Anne appealing to Charles, or do you think he was drawn to her because he saw past it? Is Charles an insular character himself, whether by nature or because he was forced into a “celebrity bubble”?

6. “Had there ever been a hero like him, in all of history?” (page 16) Anne starts her description of Charles with hero worship, comparing him to Columbus and Marco Polo. How does her opinion evolve as she comes to know him better? How did your opinion of Charles Lindbergh evolve throughout Anne’s story?

7. The title of this book is, of course, The Aviator’s Wife. Do you think that’s how Anne views herself upon marrying Charles? Do you think she sees that as a role she’s playing, or as a defi ning characteristic of who she is? Does it change over the course of the book?

8. Have you ever been up in a biplane? Do you think you would ever go, even with an expert aviator at the controls?

9. Compare the relationships Anne has with the men in her life: her brother, Dwight; her father; and Charles.

10. What right to privacy do you think a public figure should have? Can a public fi gure decide what parts of his or her life stay private?

11. Have you ever met someone famous? Did he/she live up to your expectations?

12. Do you think Charles and Anne were in love? Why or why not? Did that change over time?

13. Do you think you could keep the secrets that Anne keeps from her children? Why or why not?

14. What do you think fl ying represents to Anne? How does it compare with writing? Which do you think is more important to Anne?

15. Do you think Charles Lindbergh was a good husband in any ways? What do you think makes for a good partner?

16. Is Anne a hero? Why or why not?

17. If you could ask Anne one question, what would it be?

18. How does Anne’s relationship with her family change after she marries Charles?

19. How would you react to the scrutiny by the press that Anne and Charles endured? Would you want to be famous if it
meant being constantly under the microscope? Would you answer differently if there weren’t social media outlets but
the same type of newspapers and newsreels from Anne and Charles’s lifetime?

Stay connected with Melanie on Facebook and Twitter.

Discussion Questions: ZEALOT by Reza Aslan

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Aslan_Zealot Read the book everyone is buzzing about for your next book club discussion! Reza Aslan, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling book Zealot, prepared these discussion questions for you and your book club.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What is the difference in the ancient mind between Fact and Truth?

2. Discuss the Jewish definition of Messiah. Was this a religious or political office, or both?

3. Define the roles of the Jewish priestly hierarchy in Judea. How would a typical Galilean family like Jesus’ view this group?

4. How did Jesus’ upbringing in Nazareth lead him to a deeper understanding of social justice?

5. Discuss the Roman occupation? How did this political context shape Jesus’ outlook and actions?

6. What role did the Temple of Jerusalem play in the lives of the Jews in Jesus’ time?

7. With the above questions in mind, how do the words of the Gospels reflect Jesus’ relationship with both the Romans and the Jewish hierarchy and his call for social justice?

8. After Jesus’ death, his followers formed two separate camps based on two competing interpretations of his teachings. What are your thoughts on James and Paul?

9. How did James’ and Paul’s differences form the Christian church we know today? Why do you think Paul’s interpretation flourished?

Learn more about Zealot
Join the conversation with the author on Twitter

Discussion Questions: A THOUSAND PARDONS by Jonathan Dee

Monday, August 5th, 2013

Dee_A Thousand PardonsIf you or your book club is planning a discussion of Jonathan Dee’s novel A Thousand Pardons, then we have some questions to kickstart the meeting!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Scandals seem to be perennially topical. Did you see any parallels in the novel with real-life events?

2. Jonathan Dee’s novels are often described as social critiques. Do you think A Thousand Pardons should be interpreted that way? If so, what is the author criticizing?

3. Helen has a special gift for making powerful men apologize. Why do people respond the way they do to these apologies?

4. Why is Sara drawn to Cutter? Does it have anything to do with why Helen was drawn to Hamilton?

5. Hamilton asks Helen for forgiveness but she thinks, “His whole life was a Method performance, a dream within a dream, but whatever he wanted from her, however preposterous, she was not free to refuse him.” What transaction is being completed when she kisses him?

6. How did Sara’s relationships with each of her parents change throughout the course of the book? Did you find Sara to be sympathetic?

7. Do you think Hamilton will ever find out the truth about what hap- pened to Bettina? Why does Helen hope that he never will?

8. By end of the book, Ben and Helen find themselves back where they started, at the house on Meadow Close. Have they come full circle? How have they grown or changed over the course of the novel?

9. Do you think Sara orchestrated her parents’ reunion? If not, what brought Ben and Helen back together?

10. Do the characters in the novel deserve to be forgiven for their vari- ous transgressions?

11. Was the ending satisfying? What do you think will happen next?

12. Is there anyone in your life who should issue a public apology? Or to whom you’d like to apologize?

Discussion Questions: SISTERLAND by Curtis Sittenfeld

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Sittenfeld_Sisterland“A smart and sophisticated portrait . . . Sittenfeld has an astonishing gift for creating characters that take up residence in readers’ heads.”—The Washington Post

Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel SISTERLAND goes on sale June 25, 2013 but we have an exclusive sneak peek into the novel with discussion questions for you and your book club. Funny, haunting, and thought-provoking, Sisterland is a beautifully written novel of the obligation we have toward others, and the responsibility we take for ourselves. With her deep empathy, keen wisdom, and unerring talent for finding the extraordinary moments in our everyday lives, Curtis Sittenfeld is one of the most exceptional voices in literary fiction today.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. What and where is Sisterland? If you have a sister, do you see any of your own relationship with her reflected in the relationship between Kate and Vi?

2. The novel opens with a description of the 1811 earthquake in New Madrid, although everything that follows is set in the near-present. Why do you think the novel begins in this way? How does the historical context change how we see Kate’s story?

3. Do you believe that people can have psychic powers? Have you ever experienced strong intuitions about events that happened later?

4. Do you understand why Kate tries to escape her powers? Would you prefer, like Kate, to be normal, or to be special, like Vi?

5. Kate transforms herself from Daisy Shramm to Kate Tucker. How do names define and shape us?

6. Near the end of the novel, Kate and Vi make an important discovery about their “senses” that upsets everything they thought they knew. Were you as surprised by this revelation as the twins? How do you think it might change their understanding of their childhood?

7. Do Kate and Jeremy have a good marriage?

8. Were you surprised by Kate’s choices at the end? How will her family’s life in the future be different from what it was in the past? Do you think it’s plausible that she can continue to conceal her secret indefinitely?

9. Twins are intriguing to many people. Do you think the interest they elicit is justified? Have you known twins in your own life? If you are a twin, did Sittenfeld’s portrayal of them strike you as realistic?

10. Have you read any of Curtis Sittenfeld’s other novels? If so, do you think this one is like or unlike her earlier work?

THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE by Ellen Sussman, a Reader’s Guide

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Sussman_The Paradise Guest House_TPA Conversation with Ellen Sussman and Michelle Richmond
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog and No One You Know and the founder of Fiction Attic Press. She lives in Northern California. Her new novel is forthcoming from Bantam.

Michelle Richmond: The Paradise Guest House is loosely based on terrorist bombings that rocked Bali in 2002. So often, we hear about these tragic events, they linger briefly on the edge of our consciousness, and then, very quickly, we forget. What was it about the Indonesia attacks that compelled you to write this story?

Ellen Sussman: My husband and I visited Bali right after the terrorist attacks. Friends suggested we cancel our trip but we were determined to see the country. In some ways it was the best of times and the worst of times. There were very few tourists—-great for us, lousy for Bali. The landscape is astonishingly beautiful but it felt haunted by the horror of those bombings. The Balinese themselves, famous for their smiles and for their peaceful outlook on life, were clearly suffering. The country was struggling to understand what had happened to them and to learn how to move on.

It was the plight of the Balinese that captured my attention. Unlike the rest of us, they couldn’t forget what had happened to their lovely country. They’re still struggling with the consequences of those terrible acts of violence ten years later. In writing The Paradise Guest House, I wanted to take a closer look at terrorism and how it affects us. I also wanted to examine our notion of paradise and why we’re so drawn to places like Bali. There’s a wild disconnect between that act of terrorism and the beauty of Bali. As difficult as it was, I wanted to live there in my imagination.

MR: You spent time in Bali with survivors and family members of the victims. How did your conversations and relationships with these people shape your story? Are any of the characters in your book directly inspired by real–life persons?

ES: When I returned to Bali years later I contacted an organization called YKIP. They arranged the interviews, and a lovely young woman, Ida (Sri Damayanti), accompanied me as interpreter. I could not have written The Paradise Guest House without that experience. I got a chance to talk to many survivors and family members of the victims. One woman took me into her one–room house, held her baby in her lap, and described her struggle to survive after she was severely burned in the bombing. Another woman talked about waiting for her husband to come home the night of the bombings—-many years had passed, but she could still barely tell the story. Her young daughter stepped in and, holding her mother’s hand, described the way the village took care of them for the weeks after her father was killed when he drove his motorcycle by the clubs that night. The stories I heard made the event real for me—-they put a very personal face on the tragedy. I’m so appreciative to all of those brave people who shared their stories with me.

It’s odd—-none of those people directly inspired the creation of my fictional characters, and yet all of them did. They whispered to me every day as I wrote, urging me on.

MR: In your bestselling novel, French Lessons, you explored the magical city of Paris. Bali holds a different kind of magic—-a lush green landscape that, for all its beauty, cannot help but remind Jamie of the tragedy she witnessed there. What role has travel played in your life, and how have your experiences abroad made you a better writer?

ES: I lived abroad for five years, something I’d recommend to absolutely everyone! The experience changes you—-it helps you understand who you are in a way that you can’t quite grasp if you’ve never left your home country. And it gives you a perspective on the world—-how big it is, how diverse, how complicated—-that we Americans, especially, often fail to appreciate.

I was in my early thirties when I lived in Paris for five years—-since then I’ve traveled a great deal. I’ve spent time in Bhutan, Thailand, Argentina, Italy, Morocco, Peru, Spain, Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico, and many other wonderful places. I travel to learn the world and to learn myself. I travel so that my eyes are always wide open.

It’s funny—-a writer has to have a kind of split personality. We live our lives and take notes on our experiences, watching it even as it happens. (I once read that Philip Roth took notes at his grandmother’s funeral!) Traveling strengthens that ability for me. My senses are heightened in foreign lands, my attention is sharp. Even as I’m having a grand time, part of me is observing, tucking images and memories away for use in my fiction. And it’s not always a grand time—-we come up against all kinds of obstacles in unfamiliar places. That’s rich material for me.

I leave tomorrow for a hiking trip in the Pyrenees. In January I’m headed to Chile. What am I searching for? More. More of the world, more rich experiences, more insight into myself. I need it for every novel I write.

MR: Do you travel to places that you want to write about, or do you write about places to which you have traveled?

ES:
Both. I didn’t know that I’d write about Bali when I first traveled there. I had the idea for the novel by the time my vacation ended—-and that idea wouldn’t let go. Years later I went back to spend a month there so that I could learn Bali as well as I could.

When I’m traveling I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. Or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to return to that country for a longer research trip!

MR: A few years ago, you edited the well–received anthology Bad Girls. There’s a nod to that book in The Paradise Guest House, when Jamie goes swimming with the niece of her host and a posse of “Indonesian bad girls.” While Jamie’s acts in the immediate aftermath of the bombing are heroic, in the days that follow, she does not exactly follow the “good girl” path. I thought it was brave of you to have Jamie respond in a way that, in its realism and complexity, might cast her, for some readers, in a negative light. What inspired you to write Jamie’s relationship with Gabe in the way that you did?

ES: I’m so glad you asked that question—-I’m sure this will be a controversial issue for many readers. As far as my “bad girl” inclinations, it’s true that I’m willing to break rules or to take chances in my fiction that might displease some readers. I believe Jamie’s actions in the days after the bombing. I also believe that when two people meet each other during chaos or tragedy their connection can run very deep. It might move them to surprising actions. (I’m trying not to give anything away here! Please read the novel before you read this interview!)

But I will say this: I read that more babies were born in Manhattan nine months after 9/11 than at any other time.

Sometime it’s our ability to connect deeply with another person that saves us.

MR: In a previously published autobiographical essay, you write about jumping naked into the ocean as your first husband and his shocked colleagues looked on. In The Paradise Guest House, Jamie dives into the sea. For a moment she considers disrobing, but she recalls that she is a foreigner in Bali, and she isn’t a teenager anymore. Are you, like Jamie, particularly drawn to water? Beyond that, how much of yourself do you find in the character of Jamie, and in what ways do you differ?

ES: Funny that you picked up on that! I put together a collection of short stories when I was in high school and I only noticed after I read it as a whole that swimming featured in every story! (And skinny–dipping was pretty common.) I’m not a great swimmer, but I love hot tubs and baths and floating in the pool. And yes, I prefer all of that without my clothes on. (Note to neighbors: our fences are very high.) There’s something so sensual about the water, and so soothing.

As for Jamie and me—-well, she might be a version of who I wish I had been at her age. She’s more independent than I am—-tougher, scrappier, and even more athletic. I’m probably just as competitive, though! If I could start over, I’d love to be an adventure guide, traveling the world.

MR: The book has a beautiful economy. As a writer, I’m very curious how many pages or chapters were left on the editing–room floor. How different is the finished novel from the first draft? Did you lose any characters or scenes that, at some point in the writing of the book, seemed essential?

ES: Oh, you can’t imagine the cutting–room floor on this one! Gabe had a new wife and a baby—-poor things got trashed along with an offer of marriage by Nyoman. The mistakes I made! The drafts that no one will ever see! After one draft I started over completely—-without even looking at the previous draft. It’s never easy. We writers think we learn how novels get written and then the next novel changes all the rules of the game. Grrrr. But I suppose that’s best—-it’s learning how to write each new novel that keeps us fresh and creative.

MR: There is an incredibly harrowing scene in which you describe the bombings and the immediate aftermath. What kind of research did you do to write this scene? Also, when you’ve written an emotionally exhausting scene such as this one, how do you step out of your writing mindset and reenter your life with family and friends? Do residual emotions from the fictional world you’re so immersed in linger as you go about your day?

ES: I did a great deal of research about the bombings in Bali in 2002. In addition to my conversations with survivors, I read many firsthand accounts that I found in books, articles, and on the Internet. I looked at horrifying photos, mostly on the Internet. And yes, it haunted me day in and day out. When I went to visit the memorial site in Bali, I was as shocked as Jamie on her visit: I expected to see the scenes of those clubs ravaged and burned.

I’m the kind of person who works hard and lives hard. At the end of a writing day, I put the project aside and immerse myself in my daily life with family and friends. But during the writing of The Paradise Guest House, I did have my share of nightmares. I felt a little like Jamie, unable to tuck the experience away.

MR: This novel is coming out soon after the publication of French Lessons. Do you work on more than one book at a time, or do you completely finish a book before moving on to the next?

ES: I can work on only one book at a time. I immerse myself so thoroughly in the world of the novel that it would be impossible for me to switch gears. But I do like to know what my next project is—-so that it’s brewing somewhere in the back of my mind. That way, when one is done I’m ready to dive into the next. (I’m happiest when I’m writing. Really.)

I’m able to write quickly because I’m a very disciplined writer. I write every day, five or six days a week. I produce one thousand words a day, and I move through a first draft pretty steadily. I love living in the world of that first draft. I turn off the noise of my critical brain and just luxuriate in the storytelling. It’s the many rewrites that are grueling for me.

MR: We all want to know: What’s your next destination, and what’s your next book?

ES: I’m back to France, though this time I’ve landed in the south of France. It’s too soon to say much about the novel. I’m really in the discovery phase—-who are these people? What will happen to them? What draws me into their circle? But I’ll say this much: There’s a wedding. And there’s mayhem.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Jamie works as an adventure guide, but her experiences in Bali left her with panic attacks and a fear of crowds. If you were Jamie, would you have been able to go back to Bali? Have you ever had to return to the scene of some difficulty in your life?

2. What do you think helped Jamie more—-coming back to the site of her trauma for healing or searching for the man who helped save her life?

3. Jamie gives Bambang a chance even after the wallet–stealing incident. What does that say about Jamie?

4. Nyoman tells Jamie, “I will be your Ganesh,” referring to the statue in his garden of the Hindu deity with the head of an elephant, who is said to protect his believers from demons. In what ways did Nyoman protect Jamie? And how did her presence at the Paradise Guest House change him?

5. Jamie sees her boss, Larson, as a father figure of sorts. What does she see in him that she doesn’t see in her biological father?

6. What did you make of Jamie’s rejection of Miguel’s proposal?

7. How might Jamie and Gabe’s shared experiences in the bombing have changed their feelings for each other? Do you think they would have felt the same way if they had met under different circumstances? Do you think that a relationship that is created during a traumatic event might have a deeper bond?

8. Do you see Gabe’s time in Bali as his way of running from what happened in Boston with his son, Ethan, or as his running to something unknown and new? Or both?

9. How did Gabe’s response to the bombing differ from Jamie’s? How did it differ from that of the residents of Bali?

10. What did you think of the structure of the book? How did the alternating sections from 2002 and 2003 work to advance the narrative in unusual or unexpected ways?

11. There are many themes in this novel—-love, healing, second chances. What struck you as the most important theme? What do you think was ultimately the book’s lesson?

12. What do you imagine happens after the end of the novel?

THE ORHPAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson: A Reader’s Guide

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Johnson_Orphan Masters_TP “A daring and remarkable novel.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the state soon recognize the boy’s loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”

In this epic, critically acclaimed tour de force, Adam Johnson provides a riveting portrait of a world rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.

QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION: THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON

1. How much did you know about North Korea before reading The Orphan Master’s Son? How has it changed your perspective on life there?

2. The Orphan Master’s Son has been characterized as a thriller, a love story, and a political dystopia. How would you classify the novel in terms of genre? How do you think each of these genres manifests itself in the book?

3. Speaking of genre, Adam Johnson once categorized the novel as a “trauma narrative.” How do you interpret that term? Do you think it suitably describes the novel, and if so, in what ways?

4. How did you feel about the inclusion of Kim Jong Il as a central character in the book? How would you say Johnson depicts him? Were you surprised by his portrayal?

5. Discuss the differences between the first part of the novel, “The Biography of Jun Do,” and the second, “The Confessions of Commander Ga.”

6. How do the propaganda chapters, written as if spoken from a loudspeaker, play into your reading of the novel?

7. What do you feel the first-person narrative contributed to the story? Did you feel more or less removed from a world so closely guarded?

8. Reviewers have drawn comparisons between The Orphan Master’s Son and classic dystopian novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Are these apt comparisons? Does Johnson’s fiction, which is based on fact, have a different impact from that of novels which center on invented worlds?

9. At one point, Dr. Song says to Jun Do, “Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.” What does this mean in the context of the novel?

10. In one of the most poignant and powerful moments in the book, one of the interrogators remembers the way in which his father explained life in North Korea: “Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.” What does the quote imply about the reality of living in such a repressive society? How does it speak to humanness in the face of inhumanity?

11. Discuss the significance of “Jun Do” as a homonym for “John Doe,” the Western name for the unnamed and the everyman.

12. Discuss Jun Do’s physical and emotional journey, and his transformation from the beginning of the novel to the end.

13. One critic described The Orphan Master’s Son as “darkly comedic,” and another as, at times, “ridiculously funny.” How do you feel about the use of comedy in conjunction with the brutality of the novel?

14. How should the rest of the world respond to the violence and tyranny of present-day North Korea? Do we have a moral obligation to intervene? What can we do to help the people of North Korea without supporting its government?

THE DEVIL IN SILVER by Victor LaValle: A Reader’s Guide

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

LaValle_Devil in SilverNew Hyde Hospital’s psychiatric ward has a new resident. It also has a very, very old one.

Pepper is a rambunctious big man, minor-league troublemaker, working-class hero (in his own mind), and, suddenly, the surprised inmate of a budget-strapped mental institution in Queens, New York. He’s not mentally ill, but that doesn’t seem to matter. He is accused of a crime he can’t quite square with his memory. In the darkness of his room on his first night, he’s visited by a terrifying creature with the body of an old man and the head of a bison who nearly kills him before being hustled away by the hospital staff. It’s no delusion: The other patients confirm that a hungry devil roams the hallways when the sun goes down. Pepper rallies three other inmates in a plot to fight back: Dorry, an octogenarian schizophrenic who’s been on the ward for decades and knows all its secrets; Coffee, an African immigrant with severe OCD, who tries desperately to send alarms to the outside world; and Loochie, a bipolar teenage girl who acts as the group’s enforcer. Battling the pill-pushing staff, one another, and their own minds, they try to kill the monster that’s stalking them. But can the Devil die?

The Devil in Silver brilliantly brings together the compelling themes that spark all of Victor LaValle’s radiant fiction: faith, race, class, madness, and our relationship with the unseen and the uncanny. More than that, it’s a thrillingly suspenseful work of literary horror about friendship, love, and the courage to slay our own demons.

Follow Victor LaValle on Twitter

Discussion Questions for The Devil in Silver:

1. Pepper arrives at New Hyde Hospital in handcuffs, led inside by three cops. What are your first impressions of Pepper because of this? What assumptions do you make about him? How long does it take for those initial impressions to change?

2. New Hyde’s psychiatric unit, Northwest, is located in a public hospital in Queens. In what ways does the author overturn or undermine your ideas of what a psychiatric unit will look like and how it will be run? In what ways does he confirm your ideas?

3. During his intake meeting Pepper learns that he’ll be held for observation for seventy-two hours. He reacts badly to this. How do you imagine you might react upon learning that you were trapped within this system? What might you do differently? Do you think it would help?

4. Dorry explains that she makes a point of greeting all newly admitted patients when they arrive at New Hyde. Why does Dorry do this? How would you imagine you would react to meeting Dorry when you first arrived? Why do you think Pepper and Dorry bond in the way they soon do?

5. Though Pepper protests that he isn’t mentally ill he’s still forced to take medication which has a severe effect on him. How did the introduction of the medications affect Pepper’s behavior? Does our society seem too quick to prescribe pharmaceutical drugs these days? What affect might they be having on all of us?

6. Within days Pepper has met most of the other patients. Coffee, his roommate, seems particularly scared of something on the unit. What did you think of Coffee’s fears before Pepper was attacked and then afterward? What did you think of Coffee’s mission to reach someone, anyone, in the outside world who could help? Was he foolish or hopeful?

7. Do the members of the staff—Dr. Anand, Miss Chris, Scotch Tape, Josephine, and the other nurses and orderlies—seem to be trying to harm the patients? Is the mistreatment of the patients intentional? If not, how might the staff be seen as “suffering” inside of New Hyde, too?

8. How did your understanding of the “Devil in Silver” change as the novel progressed? By the end of the novel did you have any sympathy for “the Devil?”

9. Pepper and Sue enjoy a brief but intense love affair while inside New Hyde. How does Pepper’s time with Sue change his character? Did he help Sue, in the end?

10. Why is Vincent Van Gogh referenced so often in this book? How did Van Gogh’s story come to seem important to Pepper? Why was it relevant to the novel as a whole?

11. Whose death affected you most in this novel? Why?

12. Does Pepper ever get out of New Hyde Hospital? Where do you imagine Loochie is now?

Watch the book trailer:

Discussion Questions for TRUE BELIEVERS by Kurt Andersen

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Andersen_True Believers“Kurt Andersen’s best yet. The man is operating on some far-out level that bends time and space to his will. True Believers hits all the right notes and reads like a goddamn dream.” — Gary Shteyngart

In True Believers, Kurt Andersen—the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Heyday and Turn of the Century—delivers his most powerful and moving novel yet. Dazzling in its wit and effervescent insight, this kaleidoscopic tour de force of cultural observation and seductive storytelling alternates between the present and the 1960s—and indelibly captures the enduring impact of that time on the ways we live now.

Discussion Questions and Topics for Discussion

1.  The epigraph of True Believers contains the following lines from Wordsworth: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven,” which encapsulate the sentiments of empowerment and enthusiasm driving idealistic supporters at the dawn of the French Revolution. How does Karen’s own Vietnam-era experience — one distinguished by a widespread dissatisfaction and social unrest among youth — mirror the emotions fueling these words?

2.  The blurring of fiction and reality is a major theme throughout the novel, both in terms of how the characters define themselves and how they interpret the world around them. Karen makes an interesting point that the emergence of modern entertainment and its obsession with turning events of the recent past into salable media commodities created a phenomenon in which “the people who lived through the events were tricked into believing they had experienced the fictions and docudramas.” In what ways has this manipulation and glamorization of the facts influenced the characters and period that Andersen explores? How does this continue to be an issue today?

3.  Alex, Chuck and Karen’s infatuation with the works of Ian Fleming led them to believe that the extreme and outrageous happenings in the world of government and at large meant that life was imitating — and even anticipating — art. Do you think this made it easier for them to justify their own extreme behaviors, perhaps by creating a dissociation between the severity of their actions and a world they began to see as phantasmagorical?

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Discussion Questions for Charles Frazier’s NIGHTWOODS

Friday, June 8th, 2012

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DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR YOUR BOOK CLUB

1. Luce’s strategy for dealing with her troubled past is to withdraw from her community, her emotions, and in some sense from life itself. Does Luce find this an effective coping mechanism for dealing with trauma? How does it help her, and how does it hurt her? In our digital world, is it still possible for someone to withdraw in this way?

2. Luce feels obligated to care for her sister’s children even though she admits she is not a maternal person and does not love the children. Discuss this choice. How is Luce’s sense of obligation informed by her relationship with her own mother and father?

3. Think about Luce’s connection to her elder friends. What is it about Luce that draws her toward Maddie, old Stubblefield, and her grade school teachers?

4. Think about the scene in which Luce tells Lit about the rape. Is he only being insensitive and rude, or is there a part of him that is actually trying to protect Luce from more pain and disruption, albeit in an insensitive way?

5. Luce and Stubblefield are alike in some ways, and in others they are very different. Why do you think they are attracted to each other? Discuss which character changes the most over the course of the novel.

6. Discuss the children, and their eccentric and violent behavior. Are they misunderstood? Mentally or emotionally disturbed? How do they function as a narrative engine? In today’s environment, a caretaker of these children would probably look for some kind of diagnosis. Apart from abuse, think about what might drive the kids’ behavior that may have been misunderstood in the early 1960s. What are the challenges of raising children without the medical or psychiatric support we take for granted today?

7. Bud and Lit manage to form an unlikely bond. What is Bud looking for in Lit? And what is Lit looking for in Bud? What draws the two men apart, and ultimately leads to Lit’s death?

8. Blood is a prominent symbol in Nightwoods. How does the metaphor of blood affect your interpretation of the story, and how does it shape Bud’s confused worldview?

9. The beautifully rendered Appalachian landscape plays a central role in Nightwoods. Is the landscape merely a setting for the story? Or is it something more? A symbol? A kind of character? And what do you think the giant pit in the woods represents?

10. In the end, Luce opens up to Stubblefield and accepts that he intends to be a permanent fixture in her life. The children also seem to have accepted him. What do you think of this unlikely, cobbled-together family? What does it say about what makes a family? Will they be successful in making each other whole again?

11. What do you think happened to Bud? Does he continue to represent a threat to Luce, Stubblefield, and the kids?

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The Girl in the Blue Beret by Bobbie Ann Mason: A Reader’s Guide

Friday, May 18th, 2012

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My father-in-law was a pilot. During World War II, he was shot down in a B-17 over Belgium. With the help of the French Resistance, he made his way through Occupied France and back to his base in England. Ordinary citizens hid him in their homes, fed him, disguised him, and sheltered him from the Germans. Many families willingly hid Allied aviators, knowing the risks: They would have been shot or sent to a concentration camp if they were dis- covered by the Germans.

In 1987 the town in Belgium honored the crew by erecting a memorial at the crash site, where one of the ten crew members died. The surviving crew was invited for three days of festivities, including a ?yover by the Belgian Air Force. More than three thousand Allied airmen were rescued during the war, and an extraordinarily deep bond between them and their European helpers endures even now.

My father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, spent a couple of months hiding out in France in 1944, frantically memorizing a few French words to pass himself off as a Frenchman, but his ordeal had not inspired in me any ?ction until I started taking a French class. Suddenly, the language was transporting me back in time and across the ocean, as I tried to imagine a tall, out-of-place American struggling to say Bonjour. Barney had a vague memory of a girl who had escorted him in Paris in 1944. He remembered that her signal was something blue—a scarf, maybe, or a beret. The notion of a girl in a blue beret seized me, and I was off.
I had my title, but I didn’t know what my story would be. I had to go to France to imagine the country in wartime. What would I have done in such circumstances of fear, deprivation, and uncertainty? What if my pilot character returns decades later to search for the people who had helped him escape?

Writing a novel about World War II and the French Resistance was a challenge both sobering and thrilling. I read many riveting escape-and-evade accounts of airmen and of the Resistance networks organized to hide them and then send them on grueling treks across the Pyrenees to safety. But it was the people I met in France and Belgium who made the period come alive for me. They had lived it.

In Belgium, I was entertained lavishly by the people who had honored the B-17 crew with the memorial, including by some of the locals who had witnessed the crash landing. I was overwhelmed by their generosity. They welcomed me with an extravagant three- cheek kiss, but one ninety-year-old man, Fernand Fontesse, who had been in the Resistance and had been a POW, planted his kiss squarely on my lips.

In a small town north of Paris I met Jean Hallade. He had been only ?fteen when Second Lieutenant Rawlings was hidden in a nearby house. Jean took a picture of Barney in a French beret, a photo to be used for the fake ID card he would need as he traveled through France over the next few months, disguised as a French cabinetmaker.

And in Paris I became friends with lovely, indomitable Michèle Agniel, who had been a girl guide in the Resistance. Her family aided ?fty Allied aviators, including Barney Rawlings. She takes her scrapbooks from the war years to schools to show children what once happened. “This happened here,” she says. “Here is a ration card. This is a swastika.” She pauses. “Never again,” she says. The characters in The Girl in the Blue Beret are not portraits of actual people, but the situations were inspired by very real individuals whom I regard as heroes.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Discuss the special bond between Allied aviators and their European helpers. Why did it take so long for many of them to reunite after the war?

2. What does ?ying mean to Marshall? Discuss Marshall’s failed B-17 mission and the effect it had on his life. (more…)

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