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Posts Tagged ‘reading groups’

A Q&A with Yiyun Li and Mona Simpson

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Li_Kinder Than Solitude Yiyun Li is the author of Kinder Than Solitude, a profound mystery about three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed. She is joined in conversation by Mona Simpson, author of Casebook, a powerful new novel about a young boy’s quest to uncover the mysteries of his unraveling family.

Simpson_Casebook

A Conversation Between Mona Simpson and Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li: The central plot of your new novel, Casebook, is a love mystery and a detective story. I wonder if there’s mystery in the kernel of every love.

Mona Simpson: Love is an experience of yearning. I don’t know if it’s possible to feel completely in love at the same time you feel thoroughly comprehended. And yet, it’s everyone’s dream to be known. Yiyun, the organization of both your novels (The Vagrants and Kinder Than Solitude) emanates from a central dramatic event, a mystery of sorts. The structure is almost a wheel, with spokes coming out. It occurs to me that your novels are structured the way a classic short story is said to be, more than your stories are.

YL: You are right that novels and stories start differently for me: a novel starts with a situation, and a story starts with a character or a set of characters more than a situation. Indeed both novels open with a death that the characters have to deal with. Kinder Than Solitude, for instance, started with a woman who was poisoned, yet who lived in a prolonged state of unnecessary misery for twenty-three years. Who was this woman? Who were the people involved in the case? Why did the case remain unresolved? And what happened when the woman finally died? These questions from that central situation were all mysteries to me when I started the novel. Time in a novel works a little differently: the space provided by a novel allows a writer not only to collapse time—twenty or thirty years in a scene, a century or two in one sentence—but also to dissect a moment without letting anyone off the hook. Perhaps this is the rippling effect you talk about: time can be brief or expansive. I also like to imagine that a novel is like an accordion: when Ruyu in the novel plays the accordion, we see the motion of something being opened and closed, and we wait to hear what kind of tune is produced.

In Casebook, the grownups endeavor to treat the breaking-up of families as normal. That makes the disruption more poignant.

MS: When Henry James published What Maisy Knew (his novel about a contentious divorce) in 1897, the divorce rate in the United States was seven percent. Now, it’s closer to fifty percent. And “normal” is little more than common practice with a bit of moral sugar sprinkled on.

For the most part, legally, we declare divorce “no fault.” We’ve changed the way we live, we’ve changed our laws and so our art changes too. Marriage is no longer until death do us part, and fictionally, there’s no way to make that feel exactly right. What we’ve lost is permanence, the simple happy ending. The forever after of fairytales. If a man sleeps with a young woman in Shakespeare or Cervantes, you can bet by the end of the story, they will have been tricked into marrying each other. The complex reality of marriage enters the novel as early as Middlemarch, a book a friend once told me he loved because the two best people don’t end up together. They not only don’t end up together, they meet many times and aren’t even interested in each other. Dorothea makes a disastrous marriage and when her author lets her off the hook (by killing off her husband), we’re meant to believe that she eventually finds some kind of happiness with Will. And yet, there’s a deflation in the ending. Dorothea and Will are like a couple one grudgingly admits to be happy but doesn’t envy.

We all know that divorce is sometimes unavoidable. Yet for ourselves and our children, we don’t want divorce. We don’t want even that weird modern almost-oxymoron, a good divorce. We don’t hope to be Dorothea and Will. We want a Jane Austen love. We want permanence. We want rightness. But even no fault divorces leave victims. Somewhere in that disparity, between what we still wish for and what we can’t avoid, fiction grows.

YL: This is the first time you have a teenage boy as a first person narrator. His observations come from a place where the tenderness of a boy is not yet replaced by man’s half-heartedness. For instance: “We come into the world whole, all of us, but we don’t know that, don’t know that life will be taking large chunk out of us.” Or: “Love ruined people’s lives, the way our parents said drugs would.”

I would like to know how you’re able to come so close to a young man’s thoughts and feelings and how you’re able to reconstruct them in the exact words.

MS: I have a boy, I love a boy, and though in most of the central parts of this novel, he’s not represented, I’ve used his lingo, his friends’ diction and slang and some of the games they played. The boy I’ve created is, in some ways, a mother’s fantasy. Only a mother could dream up a boy who is obsessed with… his parents. This book started for me with the boy’s vantage. I thought of it as a door open only one small wedge. I wanted to limit the love story, to set it within a family, within a larger life and among people whose main concern was not the lovers’ happiness.

I’m curious about how you reconstructed Beijing in Kinder Than Solitude. The city is almost a character in the novel. It’s a palpable presence. I’ve visited China and spent a week in Beijing, and yet my own sensory impressions of it are far less vivid. Your Beijing has replaced mine. What is it like writing about Beijing in English for an English speaking audience?

YL: When I was working on the first draft of Kinder Than Solitude, I wrote to a friend and said that this novel was also going to be my love letter to Beijing. I have given my fondest memories of Beijing to the three teenage characters, not only the tourist sites where Boyang and Moran took Ruyu (and where visitors go today), but also the fabric of everyday life: old men sitting under a tree and expecting a fresh and forgettable story from Ruyu; Boyang and Moran on bicycles, free as Mongolian children on horsebacks; puddles after the rain; watermelon rinds rotting by the roadside.

Several Westerners living in Beijing have commented to me that the city I write about is mostly gone, but its people haven’t changed much. Human nature evolves much more slower than a city, which is heartening, as that’s why I love to read Jane Austen and Dickens. So writing about Beijing in English is like writing about California in English: the landscapes are characters that interact with the people.

Casebook comments on many issues about contemporary life, yet it does not have the self-consciousness that some books do, striving to point out to readers how they are socially aware, for instance. Can you talk about the balance of writing about a society without feeling constrained by the society?

MS: I’ve always written perhaps a little from the inside out, and so I hope the reader will glean all kinds of context that I don’t always overtly provide. I’m extremely interested, though, in what it feels like to be in all the different places on America’s economic spectrum, and how that pinch is felt inside the body and the sensibility.

Yiyun, you’ve cited William Trevor as your primary teacher. Which seems most significant to you—your national history, or your literary legacy?

YL: I often think of one’s national history as one’s genes: something given, something predetermined. Literary legacy is, at least in my case, a choice. I only started writing in my late 20s, and by then I could decide whom to include in my literary genes. Writers I’ve been rereading in the past few years while working on the novel: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen, and of course William Trevor who, as you mentioned, is a primary influence. So my literary legacy comes from Irish literature and Russian literature.

MS: You’ve recently become a US citizen. It’s hard to imagine either Ruyu or Moran becoming naturalized.

YL: I became a citizen in August, 2012. It’s interesting that you say it’s hard to imagine Ruyu or Moran becoming naturalized: I think I knew the immigration status of both characters, and yet I refrained from making it too obvious in the novel. They have both become American citizens (Ruyu needs an American passport and a Chinese visa to return to Beijing). For Moran, her American citizenship offers psychological shelter from the violence she does not understand; for Ruyu, the citizenship is, like everything else in her life, something she accepts and can discard without a second thought. In a deeper sense, however, both of them are so bound to the past that it is hard to imagine that being American citizens would change them in any fundamental way.

Stay connected with Yiyun Li on Twitter and with Mona Simpson on Facebook!

Reader’s Guide: EIGHTY DAYS by Matthew Goodman

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Goodman_Eighty Days “A fun, fast, page-turning action-adventure . . . the exhilarating journey of two pioneering women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, as they race around the globe.”—Karen Abbott, author of American Rose

Random House Readers Circle: How did the idea for Eighty Days originate?

Matthew Goodman: My previous book, The Sun and the Moon, had featured only male characters, so when I began looking around for a new book topic I knew that I wanted the next one to be about a woman. Then one day, during my book explorations, I stumbled across a reference to Nellie Bly; I recognized that name (in part because there used to be a Nellie Bly Amusement Park not far from where I live in Brooklyn), but I didn’t know much about her beyond the fact that she had been a journalist. I began to read more about her, and as I did, I discovered that she wasn’t just any journalist—she was this amazing journalist, who had feigned madness to expose the inner workings of an insane asylum, and so forth. I mean, in an era when the vast majority of female journalists were writing for the women’s pages of newspapers, she was an undercover investigative reporter for the most widely read newspaper of her time.

So I kept on reading, and when I read about how Nellie Bly had undertaken a race around the world in 1889, I knew right away that this was the story I wanted to tell. I thought it was absolutely remarkable that a young woman, unaccompanied and carrying only a single bag, would be daring enough to race around the world, through Europe and the Middle East and Far East, during the Victorian era—and do it faster than anyone ever had before her. (Frankly, I found it almost equally remarkable that no one had written a book about the race before.) I was thrilled to have found such a compelling main character, but as a writer, I was also thrilled by the prospect of being able to write about all those exotic locales. But then, as I continued my research, I discovered something even more astonishing: that in fact Nellie Bly was competing against another young female journalist, by the name of Elizabeth Bisland—a detail that is almost never included in the historical record. I was captivated by the notion of these two young women racing each other around the world, one traveling east, the other west.

RHRC: What was the most fun in writing the story of this incredible journey? What do you hope readers take away from the book?

MG: To be honest, I don’t often experience writing as “fun” (usually there’s too much worry, doubt, and plain old hard work wrapped up in it for me to think of it in quite that way!), but certain scenes in Eighty Days were in fact a great deal of fun to write. I loved writing the story of Elizabeth Bisland’s wild train ride across Utah with Cyclone Bill Downing, for instance; and the scene where Nellie Bly gets to meet Jules and Honorine Verne in their Amiens estate was really fun, because they were all having so much fun with each other. And I took a lot of satisfaction from the pages that described the stokers shoveling coal down in their sweltering fire room; that was a section that I knew I wanted to write from the very beginning, because it was material that I felt very strongly about and hadn’t ever seen described in quite that way before.

Much of the fun that I had with Eighty Days came from the research for the book, from discovering things that I hadn’t known before (who could have ever guessed that Wisconsin used to have thirty-eight time zones?) and which I felt confident would help to make a better story. As you would expect, a lot of this research involved the lives of the two main characters, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, both of which proved to be more complicated and surprising than I had originally anticipated. Lots had already been written about Nellie Bly, of course—much of it, as it turns out, not entirely accurate—but very little was known about Elizabeth Bisland (no one had ever written a book about her before), and I very much enjoyed the process of ferreting out old books and other documents that contained odd bits of information that could add a piece to the puzzle, and help me come to know her across the decades. After the book was published I got an e-mail from Elizabeth Bisland’s grandnephew that said, in part, “Thank you so much for sharing Elizabeth with the public, since she was indeed so reticent to do that herself.” I found that incredibly gratifying.

And I guess—and this is a long way around to answering your question—what I most hope that readers take away from this book is a deeper understanding of these two remarkable women. Though they were very different from each other in many ways, they were both independent and committed to their work, and they were able to support themselves as writers at a time when that was very unusual for women. If by writing Eighty Days I can introduce a new generation of readers to Elizabeth Bisland, and reintroduce them to Nellie Bly, then I’ll be very pleased.

RHRC: As you unraveled their story, did you find yourself relating to (or rooting for!) either woman in particular?

MG: This is actually a question I hear a lot from readers—who was I rooting for to win the race? The thing is, unlike readers (or most of them, anyway), I knew right from the beginning who had won! So for me, it wasn’t really a question of rooting for either Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland to win the race; rather, when I began work on the book I was rooting for them to turn out to be characters as complex and as compelling as possible. And in that respect, both women ably fulfilled my wishes for them.

As I’ve met readers, at book events and so forth, it’s been enjoyable for me to hear about how some of them were rooting for Nellie Bly while others were rooting for Elizabeth Bisland. That’s very much what I wanted for Eighty Days; I certainly didn’t want to be writing a book about a race between a hero and a villain—then you’re verging on melodrama—or even a book in which one of the characters is clearly more sympathetic or more interesting than the other. So I’ve been pleased to discover that the audience’s sympathies have been pretty well divided. I think that’s because each woman had certain admirable qualities that the other tended not to have. Nellie Bly was physically courageous (her stint inside the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum made that very clear), independent, ambitious, socially concerned, and fully determined that as a female journalist she could do anything her male colleagues did; Elizabeth Bisland was erudite (the number of subjects about which she could write intelligently was truly astonishing), artistically inclined, sensitive, deeply curious about the world and its inhabitants. And they each had a number of flaws as well—among those flaws, certainly, a kind of reflexive, unconscious racism that was pretty endemic in the society of the time. So I think that a reader will tend to like one or the other woman depending on the particular set of qualities he or she tends to prefer generally.

RHRC: What was your research process like in preparing to write Eighty Days?

MG: I spent eighteen months basically living in libraries before I wrote a single sentence of Eighty Days. In writing this book I wanted readers not just to know what had happened during the race, but to experience it as well—to feel like they were right there with Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland on the back of a rickshaw, or in the stateroom of a steamship during a storm, or walking along the Tanks in Aden in the moonlight. I needed the world in which they were living to be as vivid as possible in my mind, so that I could make it as vivid as possible on the page.

Not surprisingly, the first thing I did was to read the books that the two women wrote about the race: Nellie Bly’s Around the World in Seventy-two Days and Elizabeth Bisland’s A Flying Trip Around the World. It was a great boon to me that each wrote a book about the race, not only because it allowed me to hear their respective voices, but also because it gave me access to their internal worlds as well as the external world through which they were racing. From there I read everything else that they had ever written, or at least everything that I could get my hands on—books, essays, articles, reviews; this helped me to gain a clearer sense of what they cared about, how they thought, how they changed over the course of their lives. I immersed myself in the newspapers of the time. (Interestingly, I found that the most useful parts of the newspapers were not the news sections, but rather the advertisements.

Advertisements, after all, give a sense of the daily life of a society—they tell what people ate and wore, and what they read and how they furnished their house; they tell how much commodities cost; they tell the kinds of things people liked to do in their spare time.) I read biographies of the other significant characters in the book, such as Jules Verne and Joseph Pulitzer; I read everything I could about all the places that the two women visited during the race, including other travelers’ accounts, histories, guidebooks. Guidebooks are especially helpful, because they’re designed to acquaint the traveler with an unfamiliar destination—and a historian is very much like a traveler, except that you’re journeying through time as well as space.

For more of this Q&A plus questions and topics for your book club discussion, check out the paperback of EIGHTY DAYS by Matthew Goodman.

Stay connected with Matthew on Facebook.

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?

Giveaway Opportunity: THE ALL YOU CAN DREAM BUFFET by Barbara O’Neal

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

ONeal_All You Can DreamPerfect for fans of Kristin Hannah and Susan Wiggs—Barbara O’Neal’s new novel of food, friendship, and the freedom to grow your dreams brings together four very different women longing to savor the true taste of happiness.

Popular blogger and foodie queen Lavender Wills reigns over Lavender Honey Farms, a serene slice of organic heaven nestled in Oregon wine country. Lavender is determined to keep her legacy from falling into the profit-driven hands of uncaring relatives, and she wants an heir to sustain her life’s work after she’s gone. So she invites her three closest online friends—fellow food bloggers, women of varied ages and backgrounds—out to her farm. She hopes to choose one of them to inherit it—but who?

There’s Ginny, the freckle-faced Kansas cake baker whose online writing is about to lead her out of a broken marriage and into a world of sensual delights. And Ruby, young, pregnant, devoted to the organic movement, who’s looking for roots—and the perfect recipe to heal a shattered heart. Finally, Val, smart and sophisticated, a wine enthusiast who needs a fresh start for her teenage daughter after tragedy has rocked their lives. Coming together will change the Foodie Four in ways they could never have imagined, uniting them in love and a common purpose. As they realize that life doesn’t always offer a perfect recipe for happiness, they also discover that the moments worth savoring are flavored with some tears, a few surprises, and generous helping of joy.

Join the conversation with Barbara on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: EIGHTY DAYS by Matthew Goodman

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Goodman_Eighty Days “A fun, fast, page-turning action-adventure . . . the exhilarating journey of two pioneering women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, as they race around the globe.”—Karen Abbott, author of American Rose

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In the book’s prologue Matthew Goodman writes, “Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were not only racing around the world; they were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian age.” What do you think he meant by this? In what way did Bly and Bisland’s race illustrate some of the larger social issues of the time?

2. In what ways were Elizabeth and Nellie similar, and in what ways were they dissimilar? Did they have differing views of themselves as women, as writers, as Americans? How might this have colored their attitudes about the around-the-world race?

3. Almost every story of the time mentioned the fact that Nellie Bly carried only a single handbag for her trip around the world. How do you think you would pack for such a trip? What would you consider the essentials to bring along?

4. How might other female journalists of the time have viewed Bly and Bisland’s race around the world? Do you think they would have been supportive or critical?

5. Throughout the book Goodman intersperses the narrative of the race with discussions of historical issues—such as the hardships faced by women journalists, the power of the railroads, and the working conditions of stokers on the steamships. Why do you think he did this? Did you feel that this added to or detracted from the book as a whole?

6. Did you find yourself rooting for one of the women to win the race? Which of the women would you rather have as a traveling companion? In what ways would you say each of the women changed over the course of the race?

7. How do you think that Nellie Bly’s difficult childhood might have helped to shape some of the choices she made as an adult?

8. Eighty Days is an example of the genre called “narrative history”—that is to say, a work of history that adopts some of the techniques generally associated with fiction writing. In what ways does this book read like a novel? How was Matthew Goodman able to accomplish this? Did you ever find yourself momentarily forgetting that it was a true story?

9. Visiting the Tanks of Aden in the moonlight, Elizabeth Bisland has a profound moment in which she comes to understand what the trip has given her: “the vividness of a new world, where one was for the first time, as Tennyson had written, Lord of the senses five, where the light of night and day had a new meaning, where years of indifference could fall away like a dried-up husk and every sense respond with the keenness of faculties newborn.” Have you ever had an experience like that while traveling? Which of the places described in the book would you most like to visit?

10. The very first story that Bly proposed to The World was to sail across the Atlantic in steerage, so that she could report firsthand on the conditions endured by the passengers there. Yet during her around-the-world race, when she had the opportunity, she did not write about steerage passengers. Why do you think this was? Do you think that she had changed as a journalist, and if so, in what ways?

11. Might Eighty Days be viewed as a kind of cautionary tale about celebrity? How so?

12. The book’s epilogue describes the very different lives led by Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland in the decades after the race. Were you surprised by the way that things turned out for them? Why or why not? How would you answer the question posed about Nellie Bly at the end of the final chapter: “She had outraced Elizabeth Bisland; but now, looking back, it was not entirely clear which of them had won.”

13. The story told in Eighty Days took place more than 120 years ago. An around-the-world trip that once required two and a half months to complete could be accomplished today in a matter of days. Are there other ways in which society has changed far less dramatically since 1889?

Connect with the author on Facebook!

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!

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

Monday, February 24th, 2014

Dom_Lullaby “A coming-of-age tale of three young Polish women [that is] brimming with teary epiphanies, betrayal and love, as well as the grit of both New York and Kielce. [It’s] Girls with a Polish accent.”—The New York Times

Random House Reader’s Circle brings you an interview featuring Dagmara Dominczyk and Adriana Trigiani:

On Fiction, Friendship, and the F Word: An Interview with Dagmara Dominczyk by Adriana Trigiani and Christine Onorati

Adriana Trigiani is an award–winning playwright, television writer, and documentary filmmaker. Her books include the New York Times bestseller The Shoemaker’s Wife, the Big Stone Gap series, Very Valentine, Lucia, Lucia, and the bestselling memoir Don’t Sing at the Table. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

Christine Onorati is the owner of WORD, an independent bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that has recently opened a second location in Jersey City. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband and son.

DAGMARA DOMINCZYK: When Random House asked me to come up with an interview as part of the Reader’s Guide, I immediately asked both Adriana and Christine if they would take part. Adriana Trigiani, aside from being a bestselling novelist, has become a writing mentor to me and without her encouragement I might have never finished The Lullaby of Polish Girls. Christine Onorati is not only the owner of WORD, one of the best independent bookstores in the country, but she also happens to be a very close friend. These two women have been there for me throughout my entire writing/publishing process. Since all three of us are mothers with little time to spare for lengthy phone conversations, we exchanged a series of thought–provoking and insightful emails over the course of a few days.

ADRIANA TRIGIANI: I’m always fascinated by why a person becomes a writer. What was the first story you wrote?

DD: I don’t remember the first story, but I do remember a poem I wrote in the sixth grade about a sad little Christmas tree. It was a kind of ballad, told from the tree’s point of view, and I believe it rhymed, which was quite a feat for an eleven-year-old. Anyway, I remember that one because the teacher loved it and made me read it in front of the class. I liked how the words sounded spoken in my funny Brooklyn-Polish-accent, which all of a sudden resounded with a newfound strength. That was the first time my words, shared with an audience, gave me a backbone.

Writing, to me, has always been a means of survival and sustenance. I came to the United States when I was seven years old, with parents who didn’t speak a word of English, and from our very first day in New York City, it was sink or swim. Immigrant children learn to fend for themselves because there is no other option. What my parents couldn’t teach me or help me with, I learned from books. Reading led me to writing; reading was my gateway to learning a new language and a new way of life, an American one. I basically lived in my local library. My first bout with “serious” writing was when I was ten and I started a diary. That diary was the beginning of a countless string of journals, spanning my whole childhood and adolescence. For a while I mostly wrote poetry and then I graduated to writing folklorish stories about people I knew: character profiles with a bit of magical realism thrown in. One of my stories, called “Shell,” about a depressed father who one day moves into a giant eggshell that appears in the living room, was published in my high school literary magazine, which was beyond thrilling. Even early on, I liked giving a voice to characters that seemed to have no voice in real life. As a writer, I was innately drawn to the underdog.

AT: What do you remember about your immigration experience, and how did that help you when you sat down to write Lullaby?

DD: I remember an immeasurable sense of loss. Loss of home, familiarity, language. I saw that loss and longing on my parents’ faces, though they never spoke about their own feelings of alienation. All I knew was that my parents constantly fumbled for words, cleaned houses for cash, drove taxis, and rarely ventured from our public housing apartment complex in Brooklyn. However, underneath the sadness that I saw in the daily toil of their life in America, there was a sense of possibility and adventure that my sisters and I felt. I stood out, for sure—my lunchbox was full of lard and bacon sandwiches or salted cucumbers, and my clothes were bought by the pound from a second-hand warehouse called Domsey’s. In school, my last name was ridiculous and clunky next to all the melodious Italian and Irish ones. I felt like an outsider but I didn’t let my existence end there. My American friends were drawn to my otherness because I embraced it. I was never ashamed of my roots, of my Polishness. It was so easy to tap into that Slavic pride when I started writing Lullaby. I knew these Polish girls. I knew their broken, bent hearts. I knew the things they were brave enough to say, and imagined all the things they were too afraid to utter. And I purposefully left some Polish words in the book, unexplained, with not a hint of translation. I suppose I wanted English–speaking readers to viscerally know what it felt like not to understand, to have to go running to a dictionary, like my parents and I’d done for so much of our lives.

AT: It seems that Anna, Kamila, and Justyna dramatize different aspects of the American dream. What does the American dream mean to each of them?
DD: That’s an interesting observation. Anna is the most obvious vehicle in that regard; her American dream is a long time coming and the most typical. Her dream actually does come true, at least for a while. She has her brush with fame and fortune, and it both eggs her on and fills her with an odd guilt tied to her family and friends back in Poland. I think for Anna, America represents the future. A future in which anything is up for grabs. America is about doing everything you can today to ensure a better tomorrow. I mean, that’s the nuts and bolts of it. Americans thrive on individuality and independence. This appeals to Anna on many levels. Also, there’s that nagging voice inside a child of immigrants: we must succeed in this country so that our parents’ upheaval was good for something. In that respect, America is payback.

For Kamila, America means escape. It is a place where one can shed her old skin, find a new one, and wear it boldly out in public. You come to America not to make a new life per se, but to forget your old one. The most obvious way this plays out is when Kamila goes to that bar in Detroit and assumes another name, a different back-story, and ends up in bed with a strange American man. It is only after this encounter, where for a moment she became the woman she always dreamed of—sexy, sensual, and fearless—that she finds the courage to go back home to Poland and face her problems. America, then, shows her the possibility of another self.

Justyna is another story; her America is a fantasy, the stuff of movies; there’s nothing real about it. The concept of America, in her case, implies a new beginning, being a total stranger in strange surroundings, and none of that holds any appeal to someone like her. In an earlier draft I had a whole section describing how Justyna never envied Anna’s life in New York City, never wanted to leave Kielce, let alone Poland. She was a homegrown girl and was perfectly satisfied with that. I don’t even know what would have become of Justyna had she ended up in the States. I think she would have moved to Greenpoint and gone to Klub Europa every Saturday. She might have never gone into Manhattan.

AT: Explain the concept of te˛sknota. Is there an American equivalent
for it?

DD: When Anna returns to Poland that first time, in 1989, she falls in love with the place and the people right away. It’s a reawakening for her; suddenly she is flooded with memories and feelings that lay dormant for six years. When she has to leave again, after three short days, she’s not even past Kielce’s outskirts and already the desire to go back overcomes her. This is te˛sknota: an intense longing for something that one wasn’t aware existed, a longing for something you can’t ever have again. The best English equivalent would be nostalgia. I always thought that aside from the three main characters, there was a fourth one in the book and that was Poland itself—-or if I were to go further, the idea of home. All three girls feel te˛sknota: Anna for her youth, Kamila for self–esteem, and Justyna for her dead husband. Te˛sknota brings back that lost love and that feeling of belonging. And sometimes this yearning bears down on you so hard that you are forced to go looking for the very thing that no longer exists. For Anna it means hopping on a plane, for Kamila it means confronting Emil, and for Justyna it means justice for Paweł’s murder. All three girls are haunted by te˛sknota. They dream of a past where everything seemed perfect.

AT: What is your writing routine? And how do you stick to it, as a mother of young sons?

DD: Well, I have to say that you, dear Adriana, gave me my first ever official deadline to finish the Lullaby manuscript, and it turns out this was the best thing for me. I was a day late, I remember, but I did it. In the midst of the daily chaos of running after kids, it helps to have a structure to my writing, a schedule, as mercurial as it gets. I write in the mornings after I drop the kids off at school. I can write for two, three hours and then in the evenings, after the kids have gone to sleep, I edit what I wrote that day. This is a basic routine. It helps of course to have a wonderfully supportive husband who lets me slink off to my office and shut the door. It helps to have a mother who visits often, and a part-time nanny. It helps to have amazing friends who will take time out of their hectic days to read ever-changing drafts (thank you, Christine). But even on the days when it’s just me and the boys, I find a moment to sneak off. There are lapses in my writing, of course; life gets in the way of many things we as women long to do, and this includes finishing that damn chapter. But it’s important to carve out time, and it can be done. Plus, after years spent on sets and onstage, it’s nice to have a solitary means of expression, no one looking over my shoulder telling me I’m not hitting my mark. In this way writing has become a beloved respite from the madness of being of an actor, and also from the wonderful bedlam of being a mother. Adriana, you said it best: “I want you to worry about sentence structure, not cheekbone structure.” It was a freeing moment, and I took it and ran. And here I am now, almost done with a second novel, which, just FYI, doesn’t even have the word Poland in it.

For more of the interview and additional material check out the trade paperback of THE LULLABY OF POLISH GIRLS.

Giveaway Opportunity: WAKE by Anna Hope

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Hope_Wake Wake is a tender and timely novel, full of compassion and quiet insight. The author gives us a moving and original glimpse into the haunted peace after the Great War, her characters drawn by the gravity of the unmarked, the unknown, and perhaps, finally, the unhoped for.”—Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee

Anna Hope’s brilliant debut unfolds over the course of five days, as three women must deal with the aftershocks of World War I and its impact on the men in their lives.

Wake: 1) Emerge or cause to emerge from sleep. 2) Ritual for the dead. 3) Consequence or aftermath.

London, 1920. The city prepares to observe the two-year anniversary of Armistice Day with the burial of the unknown soldier. Many are still haunted by the war: Hettie, a dance instructress, lives at home with her mother and her brother, who is mute after his return from combat. One night Hettie meets a wealthy, educated man and finds herself smitten with him. But there is something distracted about him, something she cannot reach. . . . Evelyn works at the Pensions Exchange, through which thousands of men have claimed benefits from wounds or debilitating distress. Embittered by her own loss, she looks for solace in her adored brother, who has not been the same since he returned from the front. . . . Ada is beset by visions of her son on every street, convinced he is still alive. Helpless, her loving husband has withdrawn from her. Then one day a young man appears at her door, seemingly with notions to peddle, like hundreds of out-of-work veterans. But when he utters the name of her son, Ada is jolted to the core.

The lives of these three women are braided together, their stories gathering tremendous power as the ties that bind them become clear, and the body of the unknown soldier moves closer and closer to its final resting place.

Enter below for your chance to win!

Michelle Richmond’s GOLDEN STATE Playlist

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Richmond_Golden State “A breathtaking read and one I’ll not soon forget.”—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife

Golden State began with the idea for a single scene: a husband and wife at the end of their marriage, spending their final night together in a San Francisco radio station, where the husband works as a late–night deejay. As the story developed, the one thing that remained constant in my mind was the sound of the music from the radio station. Early drafts of the novel contained a number of songs that didn’t make it into the final draft. Here are the songs that, for me, capture the spirit of the novel and of the place that has become my home:

Admiral Radley, “I Heart California” California has inspired many great songs over the years, and, like “California Dreaming,” this one is a personal favorite. The product of a one–off local California indie super–group combination, comprising members of Grandaddy and Earlimart, this song is an unapologetic celebration of the true spirit of California.

Josh Rouse, “Sweetie” This one comes from Rouse’s 2007 record, Country Mouse City House. For me, the best love songs contain just a pinch of melancholy. When I picture Julie and Tom working through their complicated relationship, I always hear this song and think of Rouse’s great line “crooked couple standing side by side / Is that you? Is that me?”

Tom Petty, “California” Like Julie, Tom Petty is a transplant to California from the South. For years, his identity was intertwined with his birthplace in Gainesville, Florida, and his stories seemed to emanate from there. Listening to his albums over the years, I’ve always been interested to hear how his southern identity has slowly evolved and reconciled itself with his adopted home. With the short, direct, and brilliant “California,” from 1996, the evolution seems complete. This song is highly personal for me. Like Petty, my roots are deeply southern, but I have made my home and my adult life on the West Coast.

Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit in the Sky” Another California transplant, Greenbaum moved to California at the age of twenty–three. He wrote and recorded this classic four years later in San Francisco. A Jewish kid from Massachusetts, Greenbaum reportedly penned his fun, funky, celebratory “friend in Jesus” song in less than fifteen minutes. By some accounts, he was never really sure what the song meant. I can never figure out what it means either. I don’t know what it would’ve been like to live in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, but I imagine that the vibe was very similar to what is captured in this song.

Scorpions, “Wind of Change” Written by Klaus Meine during a trip to Russia in 1989, this song celebrated the imminent fall of the USSR. Since then, of course, it has become an anthem for
large–scale movements that topple unjust regimes. At the heart of Golden State, for me, is the idea that huge, unexpected political and social shifts often seem inconceivable and impossible until the moment they happen. More important, though, this song rocks. I dare you to listen to it without feeling inspired. Long live the Scorpions.

The Mendoza Line, “Aspect of an Old Maid” As the radio plays throughout Golden State, I wanted to establish the melancholy soundtrack of mature breakup songs. No one does a bittersweet, super–complicated breakup song like the Mendoza Line. If we lived in a world where all things were fair, the Mendoza Line’s classic album Lost in Revelry would have sold as many copies as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. This is one of their later songs, and it comes from their last disc, 30 Year Low.

Kirsty MacColl and Evan Dando, “Perfect Day” Though the Lou Reed original of this song is a classic, I’m always drawn to this version by MacColl and former Lemonhead Dando. You can find it on MacColl’s disc From Croydon to Cuba.

Steve Forbert, “Goin’ Down to Laurel” I can’t imagine anyone other than Steve Forbert being able to write a great song about Laurel, Mississippi. I first saw Forbert at Mercury Lounge in New York City, then at Maxwell’s in Hoboken (which now, sadly, is closed). Years later, I saw him play at a little church in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. Forbert has a gift for writing heartbreaking songs and delivering them with his unforgettable voice. He’s another musician with one foot in the South (he’s from Meridian, Mississippi) and one foot in the wider, urban world.

Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells, “The Copper Top” For me, this is one of the saddest songs ever written. Everything is getting older.

Dire Straits, “Telegraph Road” Lasting more than fourteen minutes, the storytelling in this song covers a span of well over a hundred years and tells the tale of a single Detroit, Michigan, road from beginning to end. When I first started writing Golden State (which was originally titled California Street), this song was on a mix disc in my car. At the time, my son, in the back seat, always wanted the volume louder, and whether we had arrived at our destination or not, we always had to sit there until the song was over. Someday I will clean out the car, and when I do, I hope to find this disc among the Tootsie Roll wrappers and lost tubes of lipstick—and in working order.

Badly Drawn Boy, “The Way Things Used to Be” Quick, obvious songs of infatuation (think early Beatles) have never done it for me. I’m always drawn to songs about long, messy, complicated relationships (isn’t that the only kind of relationship worth having?). In that category, this Badly Drawn Boy number is one of the best.

Elbow, “August and September” What can I say? I love cover songs, and this is one of my favorites. It’s a cover of the nearly–as–good original by The The, and I found it seven years ago on a Q magazine 1986 tribute disc. It’s another sad breakup song, and although it didn’t make the final edit of Golden State, it always seemed to fit in well with the sound the novel made in my head.

Graham Parker, “Anniversary” Another song celebrating a long relationship. The words are so nice and happy; why, then, does the song sound so ominous and desperate? During the early period
of writing Golden State, I had a CD in my car with a collection of Graham Parker songs, and -the mood and spirit of this one, “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” and “Haunted Episodes,” seemed to seep into the mood of the book somehow.

Johnny Cash, “Further On Up the Road” Johnny Cash singing a Bruce Springsteen song about graveyard boots and looking for a light up ahead . . . what could be better?

Lambchop, “Let’s Go Bowling” This one is from the 1994 Lambchop album with the confusing mix of two different titles—-I Hope You’re Sitting Down and Jack’s Tulips. Although the record was their debut, it appeared with a rustic, world–weary sound that made it seem like it had been around forever. The story is a nice, foggy piece about a couple on a trip to Greece, taking pictures, wandering through the ruins of their life.

Lesley Spencer, “Childhood Revisited” My husband frequently plays this song while doing the dishes. I often hear it oozing out of the kitchen, working its way downstairs to my writing room. I love instrumentals that somehow tell a story, as this one does.

Mark Mulcahy, “A Smack on the Lips” How does love happen? What’s the magic, unnamable thing that brings two people together? I was twenty–four when I met my husband. We’ve been together for most of my adult life. While my husband is definitely not Tom, and Golden State is “purely a work of fiction,” as they say, the passion and stability of a long–term partnership is something that, fortunately, I know well. If you want to tell your spouse you’d do it all over again, play this song!

The Handsome Family, “A Thousand Diamond Rings” Albuquerque’s Handsome Family seems to know a thing or two about complicated relationships. For me, this one and “So Much Wine” are classics.

Richmond Fontaine, “A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses” I would love this great Portland band even if we didn’t share a name. “A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses” is a weird one, almost spoken word. It’s a nice tribute to the importance of being able to remember the high points in a relationship, especially when you are at a low point.

Woodpigeon, “Enchantée Janvier” Canada’s Woodpigeon was an infatuation I had during the early versions of Golden State. If you’re in need of a great, uplifting song, this is it.
Tracey Thorn, “Sister Winter” This is a pretty cover of the lesser–known Sufjan Stevens not–exactly–happy Christmas song.

Billy Idol, “Sweet Sixteen” I fell head over heels for Billy Idol as a fifteen–year–old girl in Alabama. My bedroom was pretty much wallpapered with pictures of him. It was like running into an old crush when, quite by accident, he walked into Golden State. This song goes a bit further than his others—-it’s catchy and hummable, yes, but also sad, with an indescribable vein of melancholy weaving its way through. For years, I thought this song was about a guy who’s in love with a sixteen-year-old girl. Only recently did I come to realize that this is a song about the long haul, about a man who has loved the same woman for a very long time, and who now feels the threat of losing her.

Author Feature: 5 Books Robin Black Loves

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Black_Life Drawing Happy Valentine’s Week! We are kicking things off full of love for books and sharing our love for books. Random House Reader’s Circle author Robin Black shares 5 books she loves right now. Her upcoming novel, Life Drawing, is on sale July 2014.

Solace, by Belinda Mckeon

Solace is always now the first novel I recommend, especially to Americans who are less likely to know about it than are people in McKeon’s native Ireland where it won a slew of awards including being named Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year 2011 at the Irish Book Awards. It is a book about loss (this is going to turn out to be a theme in my list, I’m afraid) but also about gains – if that makes sense. In my own work, I am always trying to convey that balance between grief and the spirit, the determination that makes the unendurable endurable. Set largely in the Irish countryside, the book is also a fascinating look at that milieu, certainly an unfamiliar one to me. Just a great, beautifully written book.

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

When I recently read The Sense of an Ending, I had no idea the book’s own ending would come so soon. I was reading an e-copy, not tracking pages, and didn’t realize it is well under 200 pages long. I say this, not because its brevity is by itself a virtue – not exactly – but because what Barnes accomplishes in those pages is simply extraordinary. It is a neat puzzle of a book, a kind of clockwork-precise meditation on certain kinds of love, of attachment, of loss (that word again!), of self-delusion, but though an extremely precise, well-structured book, it left me, in all the best ways, with a sense of how messy life is, how full of misunderstanding and crossed wires. It has the feel of a magic trick, a kind of “How on Earth did he do that?” book.

Ancient Light, John Banville

What is remembered and what invented – for any of us? That’s the question at the heart of Ancient Light, and it’s a question that fascinates me, both as a writer and as a person (though those aren’t entirely different things). I think that for many of us, at a certain point in life, you begin rerunning the oldest reels of memory, constructing your own narrative, trying to make sense of it all. Ancient Light, about an “older” actor, newly cast in a role after a time away from his career, explores all these issues of permanency and its opposite when it comes to knowledge of our own distant – maybe not so distant – past.

Someone, Alice McDermott

I enjoyed Someone, enjoyed the story a lot, but I also admit I dip back into this one for the sheer craft of it. The particular way McDermott weaves a present day narrative with a story of the past is wonderfully effective, and, for a writer (since we writers are always on the prowl for new techniques) wonderfully instructive too. But it isn’t at all a technically flashy book, and McDermott’s insights into love, heartache – of many sorts – and also into the role death plays sociologically as well as emotionally within a community, are not only wise, but also very beautiful.

The Understory, Pamela Erens

This is the book I am reading now, soon to be rereleased, after Erens made such an impression with her recent novel The Virgins. The Understory was a critical success when it first appeared some years ago, but never found the audience it deserved. I am reading an advance copy, and so far what strikes me – as I was similarly struck when reading The Virgins – is the intelligence and certainty with which Erens evokes the world she describes. Every sentence is well-turned and accomplishes a lot. Her prose is what people like to call, “muscular,” meaning just that she does a lot with no waste. The pages positively bubble with evocative details. The narrator is a man whose psyche is peculiar – he obsessively or maybe compulsively collects sightings of identical twins, for example – yet, for all his oddity, he is immediately accessible, compelling. Only a couple of chapters in, I have a feeling that this time around a lot more people are going to know and love this book.

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