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Posts Tagged ‘family saga’

A new book club gem: Melanie Benjamin’s Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

978-0-385-34415-9IN HER NATIONAL BESTSELLER ALICE I HAVE BEEN, Melanie Benjamin imagined the life of the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Now, in this jubilant new novel, Benjamin shines a spotlight on another fascinating female figure whose story has never fully been told: a woman who became a nineteenth century icon and inspiration—and whose most daunting limitation became her greatest strength. Full of history and intriguing relationships, this book is perfect for book clubs, so here is a handy Reading Group Guide to help move along the discussion.

Also, be sure to check out Kathy Patrick’s Beauty and the Book chat with author Melanie Benjamin for more about the novel:

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin: Reading Group Guide Questions

1. What are the parallels between Vinnie’s celebrity and the definition of celebrity today?

2. Why did Vinnie determine to only communicate her optimism – what was she trying to hide behind, or hide from herself, by choosing not to dwell on the many obstacles in her way?

3. Why did Vinnie go along with Barnum’s humbug concerning the infant?

4. Which is the true love story of the book – the story of Vinnie and Barnum, Vinnie and Charles, Vinnie and Minnie, or Vinnie and the public?

5. Why do you think the notion of the Tom Thumb wedding so swept the nation that, even today, there are reenactments with children?

6. What was the most interesting historical fact in the book for you?  Which was the most startling?

7. Sylvia points out a photograph in the window of a store.  It’s of PT Barnum.  “Really?”  I was surprised and, I confess, a little disappointed; the man in the photograph looked so very…ordinary.  Curly hair parted on the side, a wide forehead, a somewhat bulbous nose, an unremarkable smile.  He resembled any man I might have passed in the street; he certainly did not resemble a world-famous impresario.  Colonel Wood, I had to admit, looked much more the part than did this man (p. 88). Vinnie is used to people making immediate assumptions about her based on her appearance.  What assumptions, though, does Vinnie make about people for the same reasons?  Are pre-conceived notions about people something that is ingrained in us?

8. What do you think it means to live one’s life in the public eye, as Vinnie and Charles did?  How would you react to being scrutinized by the press for your every action?  Compare how you may have felt in Vinnie’s day compared to today’s twenty-four hour news and gossip cycle.

9. For Vinnie, what do you think was the best part of being famous?  What was the worst?

10. Toward the end of her stage career, Vinnie asks herself, “had I ever been simply Lavinia Warren Stratton?  To anyone—even myself?” (p. 385) Do you think Vinnie chose this life for herself, or did she essentially hop on a ride and couldn’t get off?  Was the price she had to pay for her fame and fortune her own chosen identity?

An interview with Monica McInerney, author of At Home with the Templetons

Friday, April 8th, 2011

At Home with TempletonsRandom House Reader’s Circle: How did you come up with the idea for this book? And how long did it take you to write it?

Monica McInerney: The starting point for the novel was the idea of life in a stately home tourist attraction—or more to the point, the idea of after- hours life there. I’ve always loved the idea of what goes on behind the scenes in places like restaurants and bed & breakfasts (as I wrote about in Greetings from Somewhere Else), or in hotels (The Alphabet Sisters), or even businesses like travel agencies (Family Baggage). What I love exploring is what happens when the public have gone home, when the polite facade is dropped, when reality takes over. And what could be more intriguing than a stately home run as a living museum by a family who appear to have arrived quite out of nowhere? In the early stages of writing, I visited a stately home in the north of England. As I toured the huge rooms with the rest of the group, I as struck by how little anyone listened to the guide. People seemed to be whispering to one another about what they’d had for breakfast, what they wanted for lunch, where they’d be going next, while the poor guide kept valiantly reciting facts and figures about the history of the house and the family who had lived in it for centuries. I remember thinking, That guide could be telling these people anything—making it up as he goes along, in fact—for all the attention they’re paying him. And so the idea for the rest of the novel was born. . . . I thought about the novel for more than six months before I started writing it, imagining my ideal stately home, deciding where to locate it, casting my characters, plotting my story. The actual writing took twelve months. I watched the four seasons pass by through my Dublin office window, looking out at a rainy Irish summer, a crisp, windy autumn, the low dark skies of winter—Ireland’s coldest in years—the streets outside covered in snow, me at my desk with a hot water bottle on my lap. Spring arrived as I was doing the final edits.

RHRC: By the end of At Home with the Templetons, the main characters are spread out around the world, living in places like Australia, England, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United States. What is it that draws you to these locales? Do you do a lot of traveling yourself ? And is there much research involved?

MM: I’ve definitely drawn on my own travel experiences in At Home with the Templetons. I visited nearly all the McInerney_Monicaplaces featured in the book—some specifically for research (Yorkshire, Scotland, Sligo, the goldfields of Australia), others I’d been to for different reasons and then decided to use as locations. For example, I was in Chicago and Woodstock on a book tour in 2008 and knew within minutes of arriving in both places that I wanted to feature them as locations for this book. My research initially involves a lot of walking around, taking photos, talking to local people—general sightseeing on the surface, but there’s always another sound track playing in my mind, imagining my characters walking those same streets, seeing what I’m seeing, eating in the same restaurants, talking to the same people. . . . I rely on memory rather than photographs once I’m back at my desk writing, but then I go back to the photos and guidebooks during the editing process to make sure I have my facts right.

RHRC: You tend to write about large families. Did you grow up in a big family? And were there any similarities to the Templetons?

MM: I’m the middle child in a family of seven, and grew up in what I’d call a cauldron of words—there was always lots of action, drama, conversations, and laughter in our house. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my novels are always full of characters—as I know well, the more people there are, the more drama unfolds, often in very unexpected ways. Like the Templetons, I grew up in quite an unusual house—the railway stationmaster’s house in Clare, South Australia. It was a long way from being a stately home in the Victorian goldfields, but it was a beautiful, big house (it needed to be, for the nine of us), located on the edge of the town, up on a height, across from the railway station, beside the hills, with a large, rambling terraced garden. Living in a distinctive house definitely left its mark on me. I loved that it was special, that people knew it as “the railway house,” that it had so many quirks and architectural touches, with its high roof and carved veranda posts, ivy- covered walls, and tree- filled garden. A local person once confessed to my mother that she always used to hurry past our house on winter evenings, convinced it was a haunted house. “It is, but with kids, not ghosts,” Mum sighed. Apart from that, and the fact that there were lots of us, too, there are no real similarities between my family and the Templetons. I’m very careful to make my fictional families as different as possible from my real one!

Check out the rest of our interview with Monica McInerney in the back of the paperback.

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