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Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Quindlen_Lots of CandlesDiscussion Questions for LOTS OF CANDLES, PLENTY OF CAKE

1. In the opening lines of the book, Anna Quindlen says about the arc of her life: “First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone, and became her.” Looking back over your own life, do you identify with Quindlen’s experience? Do you think you’ve “invented” yourself as you’ve grown older, or become who you always were? And how would you differentiate between the two?

2. Anna Quindlen loves everything about books—from the musty smell of old bookstores, to the excuse reading provides to be alone. Books, she writes, “make us feel as though we’re connected, as though the thoughts and feelings we believe are singular and sometimes nutty are shared by others, that we are all more alike than different.” What do you most love about books? Be specific: Is it the entertainment, the escape, the sense of connection? Something else entirely?

3. Anna writes hilariously about the small white lies—the cost of a kitchen renovation, for example—that can keep a marriage healthy. Do you agree? If so, fess up: Which of your innocent fibs do you think has spared your relationship the most grief?

4. Anna tells her children that “the single most important decision they will make…[is] who they will marry.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. Anna calls girlfriends “the joists that hold up the house of our existence,” and believes that they become more and more important to us as we grow older. Have you found this to be true? If so, why do you think that’s the case? What do you think close girlfriends offer that a spouse cannot? (more…)

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?

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.
Buy the book or eBook

“Do not miss this book!” – Kathryn Stockett, bestselling author of THE HELP

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

American RoseAmerica in the Roaring Twenties: Vaudeville was king, speakeasies beckoned beyond dimly lit doorways, money flowed fast and free. But then, almost overnight, the Great Depression leveled everything. When the dust settled, Americans were primed for a star who could distract them from grim reality and excite them in new, unexpected ways. Enter Gypsy Rose Lee, a strutting, bawdy, erudite stripper who possessed a preternatural gift for delivering exactly what America needed.

Consider these questions as you read American Rose.

  1. Karen Abbott has said in interviews that she structured American Rose like a striptease: revealing a bit, retreating, then revealing more, moving back and forth through time, until the entire narrative is revealed. Did you think this was the most effective and entertaining way to tell a sweeping story like Gypsy’s? Did you find the book more challenging because of the structure?
  2. Gypsy’s mother, Rose Hovick, is widely considered the original “Stage Mother,” desperate to achieve fame and fortune through her children, at any cost. Do you think her actions were at all justified? Did you sympathize with her at any point? What modern-day mothers might you compare to Rose?
  3. The Minsky brothers considered burlesque to be a viable art form, as culturally important as other American inventions like baseball or jazz. Do you agree that there’s a difference between burlesque and what goes on inside strip clubs? Where you do personally draw the line between art and pornography? The line between promoting female performers and exploiting them?
  4. Gypsy’s rise to fame coincided with the worst economic time in American history. Why did burlesque thrive during the Great Depression? Would you have gone as far as Gypsy did to survive? Do you know any stories about your own family’s circumstances during the Great Depression?
  5. What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like American Rose that can’t be from a novel? In what ways does the book read like a novel?
  6. One of the overarching themes in American Rose is the question of identity: Rose tampers with her daughters’ names and ages; the Minsky patriarch changes his name to escape Russia; Gypsy sheds “Louise Hovick” when she becomes a star. How did these incidents affect each character and inform the way they lived their lives?
  7. Abbott has called vaudeville “the reality TV of the 1920s.” Would you agree with this assessment? Which act in described in the book would you most like to see? If you had been in vaudeville, what would’ve been your “talent”?
  8. The Minsky brothers griped that the showgirls working for “legitimate” Broadway producers such as Florenz Ziegfeld showed just as much skin as Minskys’ stripteasers, yet critics and law enforcement treated them differently: Ziegfeld shows were “art” while Minsky shows were “indecent.” Why do you think there was such a disparity in the way they were viewed? Did you agree with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s decision to shut the Minskys down, or do you think the brothers were victims of censorship?
  9. American Rose explores the idea of sibling rivalry. How did Rose’s treatment of her daughters influence their interactions and relationship? Do you think the sisters were fair to one another? Who did you sympathize with more?
  10. Abbott makes a clear distinction between the girl who was born Louise Hovick and the woman who became Gypsy Rose Lee. How did Gypsy the person view Gypsy Rose Lee, the creation? What did Gypsy like about her creation, and what did she struggle with? How did one affect the other? Do you think Gypsy was ultimately proud of what she’d become?
  11. Gypsy’s story begins at the turn of the 20th century and ends in 1970, unfolding simultaneously with several major events in American history. How did Gypsy affect the times, and how did they affect her? Abbott has called Gypsy “the secret love child of Dorothy Parker and Lady Gaga.” What current personalities would you compare to Gypsy Rose Lee? Why has she captured American’s imagination for so long?
  12. Gypsy obviously had a very complicated relationship with her mother. Do you believe they loved each other? Do you believe either of them was capable of love at all? June called Rose “a beautiful little ornament that was damaged.” Do you think Rose Hovick was merely eccentric, or was she mentally ill?
  13. What was your personal opinion of Gypsy? Did you like her? Find her intimidating? Admire her? Did your feelings toward her shift along the way?

A reading group guide for John Grisham’s FORD COUNTY: Stories

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Ford County“These stories were revelatory. They showed how much verve, suspense, instruction and moral ambiguity Mr. Grisham could pack into bare-bones plotlines. He could accomplish in 40-page virtual synopses what he normally does in 400-page novels.” – Janet Maslin, The New York Times

1. How do the small-town lawyers in Ford County compare to some of the high-powered attorneys featured in John Grisham’s other works? What struggles and temptations do they all have in common?

2. When Roger, Aggie, and Calvin decided to travel to Memphis to give blood in “Blood Drive,” what were they each hoping to gain? Was Calvin the only one who lost his innocence on the trip? What ultimately was your impression of Bailey—the character we only meet through hearsay?

3. In “Fetching Raymond,” Inez Graney and her sons Leon and Butch don’t see Raymond’s situation in quite the same way. What accounts for the difference between Raymond and his brothers? What determines whether someone will end up on the wrong side of the law?

4. John Grisham’s first work of nonfiction, The Innocent Man, recounted the story of Ron Williamson, who was sentenced to death for the 1982 murder of an Oklahoma waitress despite a spurious trial. In the fictional Raymond Graney’s case, we’re told on page 75 that he confessed to Butch, and that Butch and Leon knew their brother had ambushed Coy. Nonetheless, was it right for Raymond to receive the death penalty?

5. What drove Mack Stafford to go to such great lengths of dishonesty in his “Fish Files” escape? Was his life in Mississippi beyond salvage? Did he do any real harm in executing his brilliant plan?

6. What is Sidney Lewis’s best ammunition against Bobby Carl Leach? What really ruined Sidney and Stella’s marriage? Did money put it back together again at the end of “Casino,” or was something else at play?

7. In “Michael’s Room,” was Stanley in fact facing enormous lies of his past, or had he simply presented a different version of the truth in the courtroom? Why did Jim Cranwell lose his case? Could any amount of legislation have ensured a victory for him?

8. How did your perception of Gilbert Griffin change as you read “Quiet Haven”? What were your first impressions of him? Were you hoodwinked as well? Could someone like him dodge prosecution forever?

9. What does “home” mean to Emporia and Adrian in “Funny Boy”? What does their friendship prove about the people who make Clanton’s most powerful families feel threatened? What is Adrian’s greatest legacy to his newfound friend?

10. How do the residents of Ford County imagine city life—Memphis, San Francisco, New York? What determines whether they fear it or crave it?

11. What does Ford County tell us about the nature of small towns? What makes them safe havens? What makes them dangerous?

12. Whose lives are changed for the better by the legal agreements and maneuvers described in Ford County? What is the most significant factor in whether the law is a force for good or evil in these stories?

13. Tort reform has received much publicity in recent years. Discuss the question of damages raised in stories such as “Fish Files,” “Michael’s Room,” and “Quiet Haven.” When should an injured person be entitled to financial compensation? What should drive the dollar amount of that compensation?

14. Adrian reads much fiction by William Faulkner, who also created a fictional southern locale (Yoknapatawpha County) as the setting for many of his works. How does Grisham’s take on small-town Mississippi compare to Faulkner’s? What aspects of Ford County have remained unchanged since Grisham created it for A Time to Kill?

15. What makes Grisham’s approach to storytelling so appropriate for short fiction? Linked by time and place, do the stories in Ford County form a novel, in a way?


Friday, October 15th, 2010

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetAfter a year in paperback, Jamie Ford’s bestselling debut novel enters the top 10 on the New York Times paperback fiction bestseller list. To celebrate (and to continue celebrating National Reading Group Month) we wanted to share the reading guide, video with readers who haven’t yet discovered this gem of a novel. And for those who have, check out Jamie’s never-ending book tour!

“Explores the age-old conflicts between father and son, the beauty and sadness of what happened to Japanese Americans in the Seattle area during World War II, and the depths and longing of deep-heart love. An impressive, bitter, and sweet debut.”
-–Lisa See, bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

1. Father- son relationships are a crucial theme in the novel. Talk about some of these relationships and how they are shaped by culture and time. For example, how is the relationship between Henry and his father different from that between Henry and Marty? What accounts for the differences?

2. If you were Henry, would you be able to forgive your father? Does Henry’s father deserve forgiveness?

3. From the beginning of the novel, Henry wears the “I am Chinese” button given to him by his father. What is the significance of this button and its message, and how does Henry’s understanding of that message change by the end of the novel?

4. The United States has been called a nation of immigrants. In what ways do the families of Keiko and Henry illustrate different aspects of the American immigrant experience?

5. If a novel could have a soundtrack, this one would be jazz. What is it about this indigenous form of American music that makes it an especially appropriate choice?

6. Henry’s mother comes from a culture in which wives are subservient to their husbands. Given this background, do you think she could have done more to help Henry in his struggles against his father? Is her loyalty to her husband a betrayal of her son?

7. Compare Marty’s relationship with Samantha to Henry’s relationship with Keiko. What other examples can you find in the novel of love that is forbidden or that crosses boundaries of one kind or another?

8. What struggles did your own ancestors have as immigrants to America, and to what extent did they incorporate aspects of their cultural heritage into their new identities as Americans?

9. What sacrifices do the characters make in pursuit of their dreams for themselves and for others? Do you think any characters sacrifice too much, or for the wrong reasons? Consider the sacrifices Mr. Okabe makes, for example, and those of Mr. Lee. Both fathers are acting for the sake of their children, yet the results are quite different. Why?

10. Was the U.S. government right or wrong to “relocate” Japanese Americans and other citizens and residents who had emigrated from countries the U.S. was fighting in WWII? Was some kind of action necessary following Pearl Harbor? Could the government have done more to safeguard civil rights while protecting national security?

View the complete reading guide here.

October is National Reading Group Month!

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association, National Reading Group Month is a celebration of book clubs, encouraging their growth and promoting the love of literature. As they say, “It’s an opportunity for reading groups to reflect on their accomplishments and plan for the future — the perfect time to join or start a group.”

Throughout October, we’ll be posting reading guides of some of our favorite Random House book club picks, both older and newer. Today we kick off with Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, originally published in February 2009. Just the other day we got some incredible feedback about this debut novel from Carla Jimenez, a bookseller at Inkwood Books in Tampa, Florida:

American Rust

“I missed this stunner in hardcover until I heard more than one author I love call it the best novel they’d read in years–and they were right. A once-prosperous, now very depressed steel town is home to best friends Isaac English, caring for his invalid father rather than off at a prestigious college, and Billy Poe, past his glory days in high school football. The economic landscape adds to the inevitable ricocheting of every bad choice, for these stumbling young men and the other compelling characters. Comparisons to Steinbeck, McCarthy and Lehane and appropriate and deserved, and as Library Journal says, there’s ‘a Pandora’s box of debate for book clubs in this heartbreakingly beautiful book.’ “

Consider these questions while reading American Rust:

1. In what ways does seeing the novel through the eyes of six different characters affect your experience of the book? How would the book be different if seen through the eyes of only one character? Which characters would be more or less likable if the reader saw them only from the outside? If you had to choose one character, whom would you choose to narrate the novel? Why?

2. Does your opinion of various characters change throughout the book? How and why?

3. Isaac, Poe, Lee, Grace, and Harris are all faced with important decisions that will affect not only their own lives but the lives of their loved ones. Discuss their various choices and what is at stake. Does each character make the right decision, in your opinion?

4. One of Isaac’s obsessions is the question of what differentiates humans from other animals. What does he ultimately conclude, and why? Do you agree with him?

5. When the book begins, Poe, despite his athleticism, considers himself a coward. Do you agree with his assessment? Does he change by the book’s end?

6. Harris, by most conventional measures, is a good man at the book’s beginning. Does he change by the book’s end? Is he still a good man? Would society agree with you?

7. Lee, according to her own words at the beginning of the novel, abandoned her family to save herself. Do you agree with this self-assessment? Does your opinion of her change between the beginning and the end of the book? What would you do in her shoes?

8. Many of the characters in American Rust believe that they are not doing as well as their parents did—that their lives are less stable and their quality of life and job security are much worse than what their parents enjoyed. Is there any possibility of hope for these characters in the novel? Do you view the novel as ultimately grim or do you see it as hopeful?

9. Isaac’s plans change after a chance encounter with a group of indigents. What do you imagine his future might have been had he made it out of town? How much does fate determine Isaac’s future, and how responsible is Isaac for his own fate? How does the novel address the theme of fate?

10. Discuss the role of friendship in American Rust. Though Isaac and Poe seem to have little in common, they feel a strong sense of loyalty to each other. What kinds of sacrifices do they make for each other? How would you compare their relationship, which is based on a deep sense of fidelity, to other relationships in the novel?

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