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Reader’s Guide: THE BURGESS BOYS by Elizabeth Strout

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Strout_BurgessBoys Tomorrow is a big day! Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys hits bookshelves in paperback. We are so excited to continue sharing her writing with you and your book club. Happy discussing!

Questions for Discussion

1. How did the narrator’s introduction telegraph your expectations about the Burgess family?

2. Jim and Bob Burgess both left Shirley Falls for New York City. Why there, when they could have gone anywhere? And why did Susan stay behind?

3. The Burgess siblings have lived with a childhood trauma their whole lives. How has each one compensated for this in his or her personal and professional adult life?

4. Which Burgess brother, Jim or Bob, did you find more sympathetic? Did you find yourself changing your mind as the story unfolded?

5. To many readers, Jim may seem more competent than Bob in dealing with Zach’s “prank.” Do you agree? If not, why not?

6. What did you learn about the Somali population in Shirley Falls? How do you see this as a particularly American story, if you do? And if not, why not? Initially, each of the Burgess siblings reacts uniquely to the Somali population. What do you think causes each individual response, and how do you see it change?

7. When Jim reveals his own childhood secret, what journey does Bob have to take to first separate from and then return to his brother, Jim? What about their relationship has changed? What, if anything, remains the same?

8. What do you think compelled Zach to throw the pig’s head into the mosque?

9. Both Burgess brothers are lawyers. How do their inner lives reflect their very different professional choices?

10. How do Helen and Susan’s roles as mothers define them?

11. How does the Burgess family’s multigenerational history in Shirley Falls add to the siblings’ emotional challenges?

Want more? Stay up to date with Elizabeth on her website and via Twitter!

Giveaway Opportunity: SOMEDAY, SOMEDAY, MAYBE by Lauren Graham

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Graham_SomedaySomedayMaybeLauren Graham is known widely and beloved by her fans for her roles on Gilmore Girls and Parenthood. Now, the actress adds another line to her long list of talents- author!

This witty, charming, and hilariously relatable debut novel is about a struggling young actress trying to get ahead―and keep it together―in New York City. The trade paperback just hit bookshelves, but enter here for your chance to be a lucky winner!

It’s January 1995, and Franny Banks has just six months left of the three-year deadline she set for herself when she came to New York, dreaming of Broadway and doing “important” work. But all she has to show for her efforts so far is a part in an ad for ugly Christmas sweaters, and a gig waiting tables at a comedy club. Her roommates―her best friend Jane, and Dan, an aspiring sci-fi writer―are supportive, yet Franny knows a two-person fan club doesn’t exactly count as success. Everyone tells her she needs a backup plan, and though she can almost picture moving back home and settling down with her perfectly nice ex-boyfriend, she’s not ready to give up on her goal of having a career like her idols Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep. Not just yet. But while she dreams of filling their shoes, in the meantime, she’d happily settle for a speaking part in almost anything—and finding a hair product combination that works.

Everything is riding on the upcoming showcase for her acting class, where she’ll finally have a chance to perform for people who could actually hire her. And she can’t let herself be distracted by James Franklin, a notorious flirt and the most successful actor in her class, even though he’s suddenly started paying attention. Meanwhile, her bank account is rapidly dwindling, her father wants her to come home, and her agent doesn’t return her calls. But for some reason, she keeps believing that she just might get what she came for.

Someday, Someday, Maybe is a story about hopes and dreams, being young in a city, and wanting something deeply, madly, desperately. It’s about finding love, finding yourself, and perhaps most difficult of all in New York City, finding an acting job.

Enter the giveaway here.

“Warm and funny, charming and smart.”—Diane Keaton, New York Times bestselling author of Then Again

Stay connected with Lauren Graham on Twitter!

A Conversation between Joanna Hershon and Joshua Henkin

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Hershon_Dual Inheritance Joanna Hershon, author of A Dual Inheritance, sits down with Joshua Henkin to discuss her novel, the characters, her influences, and more!

A Conversation Between Joanna Hershon and Joshua Henkin

Joshua Henkin: A Dual Inheritance has been praised as a novel of ideas and as a book that explores big themes of class, privilege, and ethnicity. Yet one of the things that strike me most about the book is how deeply it is about character. Could you say something about the relationship between character and theme in this novel? Because it seems to me that a writer as good as you can’t think too much about theme without making her characters a whole lot more schematic than these characters are.

Joanna Hershon: While I certainly set out to address certain issues in this book, the themes evolved from the characters’ individual journeys, and how those journeys intersected or very often chafed against each other. I think I’m inherently a writer who pays close attention to characters’ interior worlds, and I’m fascinated by small gestures and a generally intimate scope. With that starting place, this book was particularly exciting because it did spiral out of the more familiar, domestic realm into the larger, global one. As I understood the characters on a deeper level with each successive draft, the themes you mention became more pronounced and articulated.

Henkin: Details magazine called A Dual Inheritance “the best book about male friendship written this young century.” Certainly many of the female characters (Rebecca and Vivi come to mind) are as vivid as the males, but the men do feel front and center in this book. On the other hand, you are a woman. This, of course, is the novelist’s task: to imagine characters who are different from herself. Is writing across gender any more of a challenge (or less of a challenge) than writing across race, class, temperament, or anything else?

Hershon: I like the way you put this—the novelist’s task is to imagine characters that are different—because it seems that readers (including me, sometimes) often expect a novel’s protagonist to be a version of the writer. And of course this expectation makes sense—all our characters come from us, they are some version (however subconscious) of ourselves—but it seems to me that we all contain multitudes of selves. For instance, the character of Ed Cantowitz: Who would have known that a short, aggressive, blue-collar-raised, financial wizard of a man (I am, as far as I know, none of these things) would be one of the most natural characters for me to inhabit? I loved writing his character, and it never felt like a stretch for me to create his point of view. I’ve always written from a male perspective as well as a female one, and this doesn’t seem particularly notable. I’ve always had close relationships with men—my father, several friends, former boyfriends, my husband, my young sons—with all of them offering up their thoughts and feelings over the years. I think writing across race and class can be trickier. I fear being presumptuous; I wish I didn’t fear this, but I do.

Henkin: A number of people have compared A Dual Inheritance to the big social novels of the nineteenth century. Were there particular novels that influenced your writing of this book, whether nineteenth-century social novels or others?

Hershon: I really was not aware of any novels influencing this one, but of course I’ve been influenced by a lifetime of reading and I do love the big sprawl of a nineteenth-century story. Favorites include Anna Karenina, The Portrait of a Lady, The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth.

Henkin: Significant portions of A Dual Inheritance take place before you were born and in places that, I’m guessing, you may not have spent a lot of time. Cambridge, Ethiopia, New York City, Tanzania, Haiti, Fishers Island: Did you have to do research to write about these places or are you simply very well traveled? Can you talk about the role research played in your writing of this book?

Hershon: I did a tremendous amount of research, which mostly took the form of conversation. I sought out people, asked nosy questions, and listened to their (often remarkable) stories. I ended up conducting my own crackpot anthropology project, and it was both challenging and extremely enjoyable.

Henkin: Could you talk a little about the role of coincidence in fiction generally, and in this book particularly? I’m thinking, in this instance, of the fact that Ed and Hugh, who were close friends in college, have daughters who end up in the same prep school and become close friends themselves despite not knowing of their fathers’ friendship. In lesser hands, this coincidence would seem convenient and contrived, yet I was convinced. When people say “truth is stranger than fiction,” what they’re also pointing to, whether they realize it or not, is that fiction is held to a stricter standard of truth than reality. The only standard for reality is whether it actually happened, whereas fiction has to be both plausible and convincing. Did you struggle with the coincidences in this novel?

Hershon: I understand that it might seem contrived to some readers that the daughters meet in prep school, but I feel strongly that it isn’t contrived, because it’s rooted in very real motivations that are thematically tied to the larger story. Also, in an intuitive way—at the risk of being too simplistic—it just felt right. From Hugh’s point of view, he never imagined sending any child of his to the boarding school he attended with great misery, but he chose to raise his daughter in locations with limited educational resources and, at the end of the day, where would his daughter beg him to send her? Where would it be easiest for her to gain acceptance? I’ve seen that story play out more than enough times in one way or another and I’m fascinated by how—try as Hugh might—he can never quite outrun his background; there ’s a magnetic pull. And, across the globe, where would Ed think to send his own daughter to boarding school? What school would he deem the best? Even if it irked him to think it? Coincidence is a fact of life. Sometimes, at its best, a coincidence can feel magical, even if there are perfectly good reasons for it. My personal life has always been full of ridiculous coincidences, so maybe I’m more susceptible to a bit of magical thinking than most, but if that’s the case, so be it.

Henkin: I was particularly impressed by the dialogue in A Dual Inheritance, by how well and how deeply it characterizes. Can you talk about the writing of dialogue and its place in this novel and in your work in general?

Hershon: I imagine that my background in theater probably helps with writing dialogue. I loved doing improvisation in drama camp and acting school, and it’s probably my favorite part of writing, though, having tried my hand at playwriting and screenwriting, I realize it’s the shifting back and forth between a character’s words and his interior life, the ability to reveal and conceal by writing sensually alongside the dialogue— that’s what I love most, and it’s where I seem to thrive.

Henkin: A Dual Inheritance is a long and rich book, with many different strands. Did you map the novel out in advance and, if you didn’t, how much did you know before you started and how much did you discover as you went along? To the extent that the book was a discovery for you, what was the biggest surprise?

Hershon: I took all kinds of notes for months before writing, which did amount to an outline, but it took writing the first couple of chapters and getting a handle on the characters in order to really map out the book. It’s honestly difficult to remember when I knew what and when because now it all feels so inevitable, but I’d say the biggest surprise was the nuanced relationship between Rebecca and Hugh. When I mapped it out, their relationship seemed to invite a will they or won’t they kind of question, but as I wrote their scenes, and as the characters and their chemistry felt utterly real to me, I realized, happily, that it was a far more nuanced situation than a simple question of exploring a taboo. And not only was it nuanced, but the subtlety of their relationship felt more complicated and heated than I’d expected.

Henkin: Another process question. Which character or section of the book came most easily to you and which character or section posed the greatest difficulty, and why?

Hershon: As I mentioned previously, the character of Ed came naturally. The end of Part One—Ed goes to East Hampton and comes home to find Helen waiting for him—was thrilling to write. Another section that came without much difficulty and with some exhilaration was the chapter in which the Shipleys take Rebecca to Anguilla. I identify with that giddy sense of being young and entering another world—realizing that there are all kinds of plausible ways to live and that there are also dark sides to most glittery situations. Conversely, the chapter set in China was a beast in terms of research. Writing about Shenzen, China, in the late 1980s felt almost like writing my last book, which was set in the American Wild West during the mid-1800s. There were few reliable sources and much was based on hearsay and scraps of articles and a heavy dose of imagination.

Henkin: Could you speak about your revision process? Kurt Vonnegut once said that writers are either swoopers or bashers. “Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one.” Are you more of a basher or a swooper?

Hershon: I’m more of a basher, though sometimes—out of sheer drive and necessity—I become a swooper. For instance, I was heavily invested in figuring out what Hugh did career-wise. I was stuck on learning the minutiae of various professions in the developing world, convinced I couldn’t move on with the story until I really understood the details of several career paths so I could make informed choices for his character. Finally I realized I knew the emotional beats of what needed to happen in each relevant chapter, and so I forced myself to write “swooper style ” and then return to the chapters after I’d learned more. Working this way was difficult but it was also a revelation. The chapters were rough but they worked, and they helped me understand where I truly needed to focus my attention in terms of research.

Henkin: I often think of novels as being like relationships: One is a re-bound from the next. Is this true for you too? If so, how was A Dual Inheritance a response to the experience of having written your previous novel, The German Bride, and how is it leading to future projects? Which may just be another way of saying, What’s next for you?

Hershon: After my first two novels, for which I did little to no research, I wanted to write a book that would require me to learn a tremendous amount of concrete information. The urge to research, in other words, came first. What happened through that process was that I found the research somehow freeing up my writing, or at least that was the way it felt. Entering into truly unknown worlds enabled me to be more daring, and my prose gained more confidence. A Dual Inheritance was born out of wanting to write a contemporary, multi-generational, sprawling story with a larger cast of characters to play with. I followed my interests and my anxieties and they all made their way into the story. Right now, I’m not sure what’s next but I have the initial spark and it’s decidedly contemporary. I’m not sure I’ll ever shake the research bug, but I’d like to pare down next time. We’ll see.

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book; Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book; and, most recently, The World Without You, which was named an Editors’ Choice Book by The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and is the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. His short stories have been published widely, cited for dis- tinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and directs the MFA program in fiction writing at Brooklyn College.

Stay up to date with Joanna on Facebook, Twitter, and through her website.

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.


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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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