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Posts Tagged ‘reader’s guide’

Reader’s Guide: The Dress Shop of Dreams

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014
RHRC: What do you love most about writing?
MVP: While I fall absolutely in love with my characters, losing myself in their stories (these are often as much a surprise to me as to anyone), most of all I love the words: the way a beautiful sentence feels on your tongue, the delightful surprise of a startling and lovely simile or metaphor. I simply love words.
RHRC: What are some of your favorite books and authors?
MVP: Magical realism has always been my favourite genre. I like to think there’s more to reality than our five senses show us. My favorite author, above all others, is probably Alice Hoffman. I love the magic in her tales, along with the acute realism of the worlds she creates. Other favorite magical-­realism authors include: Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal. Other favorite authors, who don’t write specifically in that genre, include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Neil Gaiman and Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, which I found to be a beautiful book. I’m always on the look out for new authors, so if we share similar tastes and you have any recommendations, please get in touch!

9780804178983Meena Van Praag’s new novel The Dress Shop of Derams is a captivating story 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.

Read Random House Readers Circle’s exclusive conversation with Meena below!

Random House Reader’s Circle: What do you love most about writing?

Meena Van Praag: While I fall absolutely in love with my characters, losing myself in their stories (these are often as much a surprise to me as to anyone), most of all I love the words: the way a beautiful sentence feels on your tongue, the delightful surprise of a startling and lovely simile or metaphor. I simply love words.

RHRC: What are some of your favorite books and authors?

MVP: Magical realism has always been my favourite genre. I like to think there’s more to reality than our five senses show us. My favorite author, above all others, is probably Alice Hoffman. I love the magic in her tales, along with the acute realism of the worlds she creates. Other favorite magical-­realism authors include: Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal. Other favorite authors, who don’t write specifically in that genre, include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Neil Gaiman and Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, which I found to be a beautiful book. I’m always on the look out for new authors, so if we share similar tastes and you have any recommendations, please get in touch!

[Click to read more]

Reader’s Guide: The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

9780385343527

The publication ofThe Great Santini, a powerful, painful novel based on the often cruel and violent behavior of Pat Conroy’s father, Marine Corps fighter pilot Donald Patrick Conroy, brought Pat much acclaim, the rift it caused brought even more attention, fracturing an already battered family. But as Pat tenderly chronicles here, even the oldest of wounds can heal. The Death of Santiniis a heart-wrenching act of reckoning whose ultimate conclusion is that love can soften even the meanest of men, lending significance to the oft-quoted line from Pat’s novel The Prince of Tides: “In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.”

The moving eulogy that Pat wrote for his father is immortalized in the paperback edition of the book.

My dear friends and fellow lovers of Santini,

You have written so many letters of condolence since my father died that I’ve been overwhelmed at the task of answering them. But know this: All of them meant something, all of them moved me deeply, all were appreciated, and all were read. Don Conroy was larger than life and there was never a room he entered that he left without making his mark. At some point in his life, he passed from being merely memorable to being legendary.

[Click here to read the rest!]

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: Q&A Between Anna Quindlen and Her Editor

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

9780812976892New York Times bestselling author Anna Quindlen’s seventh novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, goes on sale in paperback next week! Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.

Read on for a Q&A between Anna and her longtime editor, Kate Medina!

Kate Medina: What does a woman want? is an age-­old, supposedly un­answerable question. I think Still Life with Bread Crumbs illuminates some answers to that question. We would love your thoughts!

Anna Quindlen: Well, we could go on and on about that question, and the short snappy answer is that there are as many responses as there are women. But I do think that after a certain point, women seek authenticity. There’s an essential phoniness to the way we sometimes present ourselves, physically and socially—­wearing uncomfortable clothes that someone, somewhere, has deemed fashionable, being nice to people we don’t even like. How many times has someone said to me about their much older mother, or grandmother, “You wouldn’t believe what comes out of her mouth!” Maybe that’s a response to a lifetime’s worth of so-­called social graces.

KM: Still Life with Bread Crumbs is your seventh novel. You write both bestselling fiction and nonfiction. How are the processes different for you, if they are? How do you decide which one to write next?

AQ: I always mean to sound purposeful when we talk about things like that, but it’s all pretty unexamined and intuitive. My last nonfiction book, the memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, came to life with an offhand comment I’d made to my daughter and a piece of data I stumbled across when writing my last Newsweek column. I’d been very satisfied writing novels, and I had no intention of moving back into nonfiction. Right now I’m juggling a novel in its nascent stages and a nonfiction book, as you know, and the most obvious difference is that on the first, I eventually plunged right into the writing, but on the second I’m still doing the reporting. Sometimes the reporting is an excuse not to write; other times it is such an aid to composition because, unlike the material in the novels, it is in your notes or on tape and doesn’t have to be excavated from the sometimes hard rock of imagination.

Click here to read the rest of the Q&A! And don’t forget to keep up with Anna on her Facebook page.

Reader’s Guide: Recommended reads from the author of THE NIGHT GARDEN

Friday, October 10th, 2014
I’ve always had a fascination with poisonous plants. I think it started when I was a little kid and my siblings and I used to play in the woods, swinging from vines and carving forts out of thick brambles. A bush of small red berries grew “down back”; they were bright, tempting little things, but we were told under no circumstances were we allowed to eat them. We didn’t, of course. But sometimes we liked to pretend they were food, tossing them into fake salads as we provisioned ourselves for grand journeys into imaginary lands. I’m not sure that I ever stopped wondering what those berries would taste like—everything about them said, Eat me!, as if they might make a person grow very tall or very small.
As an adult, of course, a person encounters other kinds of temptations, the allure of things that we know are bad for us but that we cling to or desire anyway. The allure of poisonous plants never stopped calling to me. And so when my wonderful editor asked for my next proposal, I decided it was time to indulge in my fascination—from the safe distance of the written word!
Alas, only about half a percent of the research I did actually ended up in the story (the characters demanded most of the book’s “real estate,” and rightly so). But there’s a great, fascinating world of folklore and science surrounding poisonous plants out there, and if you’re curious, or if you’re just looking for your next read based on something that sparked your curiosity in The Night Garden, here are a few books I’d recommend.
Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne—This was the tale that started it all, twenty years ago when I first read it in high school. The story is about a beautiful and mysterious woman who flits about an enchanted Italian garden and can kill insects with her breath. “This lovely woman . . . had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them, that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element of life. With that rich perfume of her breath, she blasted the very air. Her love would have been poison!—her embrace death! Is not this a marvellous tale?” I loved the concept, and wanted desperately to love the story, but for various reasons, I just couldn’t. The ending got me. (You should read it, seriously. It’s short, and worth discussion). For a very long time, the story haunted me, even bothered me—I thought about it again and again over the years. The Night Garden was, I suppose, an effort to reconcile my feelings about the story as well as a chance to indulge my curiosity about poisonous plants.
The North American Guide To Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms by Nancy J. Turner and Patrick von Aderkas—I bought this book when I first started getting serious about The Night Garden, and I left it sitting on the dining room table one day when my husband got home. He picked it up, looked at me, and asked, “Is there something I should be worried about?” For many years he’s been incredibly patient on walks through the woods with me as I’m constantly stopping to either consult my various guidebooks or take pictures for future identifications. This book is a bit too big to cart into the woods, but it’s a great read for a serious-minded student of poisonous and dangerous plants.
Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart—If you’re looking for a wild, fun, fascinating, thrilling, unbelievable read about all the incredible factoids in the world of dangerous and obnoxious plants, this is your book. I adored it, front to back. It’s a brief, highly readable look at the science and stories that emerge when humans and plants collide. Oh, and apparently the author has a garden of poison plants, which just proves the adage that life is stranger than fiction.
Turn Here Sweet Corn by Atina Diffley—I read this book as one of many that I hoped would give me a glimpse into farm life. Some of my own family members were farmers, and I have childhood memories of running through the fallow fields of an old family farm that has since been sold to a developer. Atina’s book is intimate, emotionally generous, authentic, and engaging. The story of how she lost a farm to urban expansion is heartbreaking, but her family’s perseverance is an inspiration. I think of her often when I’m in the grocery store and looking at the produce section, wondering (at her prompting) why it’s the organic vegetables that get labeled, instead of the other way around. This book was a huge eye-opener and if you’re interested in farm life, the organic food movement, and environmentalism, give this a read.
The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman—One of my favorite books in recent years, this short story collection traces the life of a Massachusetts town from its frontier settlement days to the present. It’s chocked full of folklore with hints of magic—and to me, these stories feel quintessentially American. I swear, reading it fills your nose with the smells of forest soil and freshly sawn wood. This is on my keeper shelf to read again and again.
Thanks for reading The Night Garden. I would love to hear from you by email on my website (www​.WriterLisaVanAllen​.com) or on my Facebook page. And if your book group reads this story, please be in touch! I may be able to Skype or call in.

9780345537836Author Lisa Van Allen’s second novel, The Night Garden, went on sale earlier this week! To celebrate, we asked her to share some of her favorite books — and if you enjoyed The Night Garden, we think you’ll be interested in her suggestions.

I’ve always had a fascination with poisonous plants. I think it started when I was a little kid and my siblings and I used to play in the woods, swinging from vines and carving forts out of thick brambles. A bush of small red berries grew “down back”; they were bright, tempting little things, but we were told under no circumstances were we allowed to eat them. We didn’t, of course. But sometimes we liked to pretend they were food, tossing them into fake salads as we provisioned ourselves for grand journeys into imaginary lands. I’m not sure that I ever stopped wondering what those berries would taste like—everything about them said, Eat me!, as if they might make a person grow very tall or very small.

As an adult, of course, a person encounters other kinds of temptations, the allure of things that we know are bad for us but that we cling to or desire anyway. The allure of poisonous plants never stopped calling to me. And so when my wonderful editor asked for my next proposal, I decided it was time to indulge in my fascination—from the safe distance of the written word!

Alas, only about half a percent of the research I did actually ended up in the story (the characters demanded most of the book’s “real estate,” and rightly so). But there’s a great, fascinating world of folklore and science surrounding poisonous plants out there, and if you’re curious, or if you’re just looking for your next read based on something that sparked your curiosity in The Night Garden, here are a few books I’d recommend.

Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne—This was the tale that started it all, twenty years ago when I first read it in high school. The story is about a beautiful and mysterious woman who flits about an enchanted Italian garden and can kill insects with her breath. “This lovely woman . . . had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them, that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element of life. With that rich perfume of her breath, she blasted the very air. Her love would have been poison!—her embrace death! Is not this a marvellous tale?” I loved the concept, and wanted desperately to love the story, but for various reasons, I just couldn’t. The ending got me. (You should read it, seriously. It’s short, and worth discussion). For a very long time, the story haunted me, even bothered me—I thought about it again and again over the years. The Night Garden was, I suppose, an effort to reconcile my feelings about the story as well as a chance to indulge my curiosity about poisonous plants.

The North American Guide To Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms by Nancy J. Turner and Patrick von Aderkas—I bought this book when I first started getting serious about The Night Garden, and I left it sitting on the dining room table one day when my husband got home. He picked it up, looked at me, and asked, “Is there something I should be worried about?” For many years he’s been incredibly patient on walks through the woods with me as I’m constantly stopping to either consult my various guidebooks or take pictures for future identifications. This book is a bit too big to cart into the woods, but it’s a great read for a serious-minded student of poisonous and dangerous plants.

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart—If you’re looking for a wild, fun, fascinating, thrilling, unbelievable read about all the incredible factoids in the world of dangerous and obnoxious plants, this is your book. I adored it, front to back. It’s a brief, highly readable look at the science and stories that emerge when humans and plants collide. Oh, and apparently the author has a garden of poison plants, which just proves the adage that life is stranger than fiction.

Turn Here Sweet Corn by Atina Diffley—I read this book as one of many that I hoped would give me a glimpse into farm life. Some of my own family members were farmers, and I have childhood memories of running through the fallow fields of an old family farm that has since been sold to a developer. Atina’s book is intimate, emotionally generous, authentic, and engaging. The story of how she lost a farm to urban expansion is heartbreaking, but her family’s perseverance is an inspiration. I think of her often when I’m in the grocery store and looking at the produce section, wondering (at her prompting) why it’s the organic vegetables that get labeled, instead of the other way around. This book was a huge eye-opener and if you’re interested in farm life, the organic food movement, and environmentalism, give this a read.

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman—One of my favorite books in recent years, this short story collection traces the life of a Massachusetts town from its frontier settlement days to the present. It’s chocked full of folklore with hints of magic—and to me, these stories feel quintessentially American. I swear, reading it fills your nose with the smells of forest soil and freshly sawn wood. This is on my keeper shelf to read again and again.

Thanks for reading The Night Garden. I would love to hear from you by email on my website (www​.WriterLisaVanAllen​.com) or on my Facebook page. And if your book group reads this story, please be in touch! I may be able to Skype or call in.

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: WITH OR WITHOUT YOU by Domenica Ruta

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Ruta_With or Without You “A luminous, layered accomplishment.”—The New York Times Book Review

With or Without You is the story of Domenica Ruta’s unconventional coming of age—a darkly hilarious chronicle of a misfit ’90s youth and the necessary and painful act of breaking away, and of overcoming her own addictions and demons in the process. In a brilliant stylistic feat, Ruta has written a powerful, inspiring, compulsively readable, and finally redemptive story about loving and leaving. We have discussion questions for you and your book club to enjoy.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Ruta begins her book with a scene from her childhood, when Kathi takes her along with her when she goes to destroy someone’s car. Why do you think Ruta chose to begin her book with that scene? What does it tell you about Kathi? How are the themes that it sets out subsequently explored throughout the rest of the book?

2. The dedication of With or Without You is “For Her.” Why do you think that is her dedication?

3. In her late twenties, Domenica worked for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “If only all battered wives could be so conveniently sympathetic,” Ruta writes. “The real picture is something more complicated, a prism that captures the full spectrum of good and evil and shatters it into fractured pieces of color and light” (p. 43). How does With or Without You explore this theme?

4. In a quietly momentous scene in the book, Domenica sees her sister lying on Carla’s stomach and whispers a single word. “It wasn’t until much later that I understood what had happened that day,” Ruta writes. “Inside me was someone new waiting to be born . . . someone who would devote her life to describing such moments in time” (p. 53). What does Ruta mean? Why is that moment so significant?

5. What do you consider Kathi’s biggest betrayal?

6. What would you consider Kathi’s best attribute?

7. What do Kathi and Domenica have in common?

8. The extended Ruta family is almost continuously burdened with debt. Explore the theme of debt, both literal and metaphoric, in the book. How do debts affect their relationships and hold them back?

9. Why does Domenica enjoy working in the dementia ward?

10. When Domenica is recovering, how does she find solace?

11. While in Austin, Domenica falls in love with another writer. “It was just as awful as my mother had said it would be,” Ruta writes. “It was even worse that she was right” (p. 145). What is Ruta referring to? What is the larger significance of Domenica’s realization?

12. Near the end of the book, Ruta wonders why she can’t have compassion for Kathi. Do you think that Kathi is deserving of Domenica’s compassion? Do you believe that Domenica does not have compassion for Kathi?

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

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join the conversation with Dagmara on Twitter!

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