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Posts Tagged ‘novel’

Reader’s Guide: ANDREW’S BRAIN by E.L. Doctorow

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Doctorow_Andrew's BrainThis brilliant new novel by an American master, the author of Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, Billy Bathgate, and The March, takes us on a radical trip into the mind of a man who, more than once in his life, has been the inadvertent agent of disaster. This book hits bookshelves today and we have discussion questions to kick off your book club discussion!

For more information visit the author’s website.

1. Near the beginning of the story, Andrew says that he is indirectly responsible for Briony’s death: “indirect—not directly causal.” How might he have reasoned that he was responsible for her death? Do you agree that Andrew ultimately has a hand in it, or not?

2. Andrew switches back and forth between telling the story in the first person and the third person, sometimes describing what happened to him, sometimes describing what happened to “Andrew.” Why might he do this switching back-and-forth? Did you notice any patterns in the moments at which 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.” What do you understand to be the difference between mind and brain, within the context of this book? Would the meaning of the title have changed for you, if it was 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?” 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 ruling the town, as a “mountain bureaucracy” that negotiated the light and colonized the townspeople. Why might Andrew have decided to describe the mountains in such specific and unusual terms, as a “bureaucracy”? 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.” 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.” 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 a human 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.” 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 with 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.” How do you think Briony manages to rescue Andrew from his “cold clear emotionless pond of silence”? 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.” 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.” 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.” He also describes the happiness that stems from love as a feeling “possibly induced by endormorphin, the brain’s opiate.” 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 towards his narrative reliability change at all, over the course of the novel?

Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets: a letter to book clubs

Monday, July 11th, 2011

tripp_dawnDear readers,

Was there a special game you played as a child? A game you still love now because of what it meant to you then?

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother and my father played cards. They taught me pitch and gin. When my aunt was visiting, they needed a fourth, and so they taught me bridge. But the game I loved was Scrabble. Before I really knew how to play, I would sit with one of them—usually my grandmother—and I would watch her form those disparate letters into words and lay down those words to catch the colored numbered squares and fill the board. It was by watching that I learned the rules. I remember the thrill I felt when I was old enough to keep my own letters, to have my own rack. We would play after lunch and after a game or two, my aunt and father would drift off to something else. “You want to play again, Nana?” I’d ask. And my grandmother would nod, light another cigarette, and start flipping over the tiles. We would play game after game after game. Until it was time for her to fix supper. Then we’d eat, clear the table, wash the dishes, I would dry them for her and then I’d ask to play again.

When I graduated from college, and moved to New York, I would drive to Connecticut to spend the weekend with Game of Secretsher. We’d play a game the night I came in, usually late, we’d only have time for one. The next morning, I’d go for a run while she had her coffee-cake and tea—then we’d start in, and play game after game. We’d pause for lunch and sit together looking out the window at the swans on the lagoon she loved. Then we’d play until supper, then again after, as the light fell. She had been a concert pianist. And sometimes she played Chopin for me in the evenings—I would beg for that—then she’d have a drink, another cigarette, it would be night by then, I’d grab two cookies from the kitchen, and we’d come back once more to the board still laid out the table. One last game.

The idea for this novel came to me years after she was gone. But as I wrote the scenes of the two women, Ada and Jane, playing Scrabble, I remembered the long sweet hours of those childhood days: the stillness of the house, the light tick-tack as she lay down her tiles, the smell of her cigarette balanced on the ashtray, just resting there untended, dwindling down.

And I remembered too things I did not know I had forgotten, things she had taught me over the years as we played. She played Scrabble for the words, as many women in her generation did. I always played for the numbers. How we play a game can reveal so much about how we tick, how we live, who we are. In Scrabble, some play to keep the board open, some play to shut it down. Some play with an eye to the sum of the total scores of all players; some play, simply, to maximize their own score. Most players will look at the board and see the words that fill it. But a really good player, a canny player—and she was one of those—will also see opportunity in the skinny spaces still left open in between.

As I wrote the scenes for this novel, the game for me became the perfect lens for a story about two women, two families bound together and divided by unspeakable secrets—a brutal past, a murder, a love story. Because what are words if not a bridge? Between one person and another. Thought and reality. Past and present, present and future. Words bridge silence. Words, and the stories they comprise, bridge time.

So reader, tell me this:

What was the game you played as a child? Who did you play that game with? What did it mean to you then? And what has it taught you about life as you are living it now?

**
Consider these questions when discussing Game of Secrets.
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The Lights are Stars: the beauty of summer reading

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

hamann_hilary_thayerAnthro of an American GirlHilary Thayer Hamann is the author of the novel Anthropology of an American Girl, available now in paperback.

***

My summer house has floors of iridescent green and ceilings of moveable blue.

There are papered walls—willowy panels of lavender and lilacs, and curtains of roses, imperfect and heavily hanging. There are tapestries of wisteria with threads that wend their way through decaying trellis. Feelers probing, twisting, vining, making their escape, strangling to survive.

I have carpets of sand, swells of sand, rolling, diving—when you go low, you see the surface, how it  makes architecture, a city of rooftops.

In my house the lights are stars.

My living room shifts shape. It is a park, a lawn, a porch, a garden. A dune, a deck, a boat. No—a rooftop with tar that melts beneath my feet. A fire escape abandoned by the midday sun. Now an air conditioned café. Now a European train station, A mosque, a church, a synagogue, a shrine—a shrine.

In inclement weather, my roof is a tent, a shop awning, a boardwalk overhang, a screened porch, an antique carousel, a potting shed built of boards that meet only in part, finished with paint that does not fully cover. Through the gaps I watch the world. Little me, little you.

My furniture is the best that money can provide. There is a hammock, a folding chair, a wrinkled blanket, a damp towel, a rolled sweatshirt, a front stoop, a picnic bench. Yesterday’s newspaper. The bleachers at a softball field, the warm hood of a car, the shelter of his arms. The stereo plays just one song, again and again—Ella Fitzgerald singing “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me.”

I live near water. I swim in a pool, paddle on the bay, surf in the ocean. I walk the banks of a rushing river. I sail on a lake of glass. I ride ferries; I like ferries. Standing beneath waterfalls, I pretend the sky is falling—the entire galaxy crashing down. When I want to be wet, the water is there. I am grateful. The sea spreading out before me—taunting, teasing, grinding, unfolding. Giving and taking. They say that seals are the souls of dead sailors. I like that they say that. It needs to be said. After all, we are not merely human; we are humane.

I live far from water. In the desert, beneath the rain shadow, within a mountain cave, tucked inside a windowless railroad apartment of a tenement building. I stare into fountains, count the cubes in my drink. I contemplate fish as they tour their tanks. I knock on the aquarium glass, whisper through the bubbles on top. I establish eye contact, reminding them of how fortunate they are to be wet, and also, to come in colors, for fish are truly miracles. I long for rain. I clench my fists and shout to the heavens. I make pleas and promises, then dance when my prayers are answered. I walk through neighborhoods—your neighborhood—and listen like a Ninja for the tick-thuck tick-thuck of a garden sprinkler. I dart past the spray remembering what it once was to dart past the spray. I am amazed to find that what it once was is what it always will be. Here, I am sustained by memories of all the waters I have ever known. Here, there is always the possibility of a shower. No lights, no towels, a whole new naked. Stepping into my own private ice, I become more wet than ever before. Reanimated, rebaptized. Relief is so much sweeter when we need it that much.

In summer, my days are long and unsupervised. If there is work: I avoid it. If there is fun, it comes in unfortunate clusters of twos and threes. Rather than try to be everywhere at once, I remain no place at all times. In such freedom I am attended by my sole companion—my soul companion—my lover, my friend, my partner in crime—my book. If in winter there is a book to escape to, in summer there is one to escape with. If it feels safe in a blizzard to remain reading in a window seat, snug in a quilted bed, curled on a cushion near a hearth, in a heat wave, there is safety in the elements, comfort in the unknown. You will find me there, in the light, in the air. Book in hand, mind wide open. Ready for change, awaiting epiphanies. I travel—we travel—me and my book. Edinburgh, Toronto, Sydney, Sao Paolo, Hong Kong, Hamburg, Vienna, Paris, New Orleans. I am a Mexican, a Turk, a Czech, Swede. I am a queen, a peasant, a physician, a student, a hustler, a vandal, a thief. An heiress, an orphan. A philosopher, a fool. I live high, I live low. I pace castle walls, assessing my dominion. I slither through grass, lying in wait. I am loose, I am chaste. Animal, intellectual, everything rising up—all the snakes set free. I am a child. Every child. I am so ancient that I am new, and it hurts sometimes to see.

In the summer, the world is my home, my home the world. Come visit me, and bring something to read. God be praised, books are portable, little kingdoms in hand.

Shoe
Bertelsmann Media Worldwide