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Posts Tagged ‘reading guides’

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.

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: 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!

Reader’s Guide: UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY by Nancy Horan

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Horan_Under the Wide and Starry Sky Nancy Horan has had a big week. Her new novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, went on sale January 21st. The Today Show selected it as their Book Club Pick. And she has kicked off a great book tour!

If you and your book club are reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky, then we have the discussion questions to get the conversation going.

Discussion Questions:

1. In order to separate from her unfaithful husband, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne takes her children across the continental U.S. and the Atlantic to study art in Europe. Do you think it’s the wisest choice, given the impact on her children? Would you make a similar decision under the circumstances? Are there other options she could have pursued?

2. At first glance, Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson might seem an unlikely match. Why do you think they are so drawn to each other? Why does their relationship endure?

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a phrase synonymous with the idea of the divided self. At any points in the novel, does Louis seem to live a double life? Does Fanny? In what ways do Fanny, Louis, and other characters struggle with their own identities?

4. After criticizing a story of Fanny’s, W. E. Henley incites a quarrel with Louis that threatens their friendship. Does Fanny deserve the criticism? Do you think she and RLS enhance or hinder each other’s artistic ambitions and accomplishments?

5. Take a look at John Singer Sargent’s painting “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife” (1885; currently in the Steve Wynn collection). What do you think of his portrayal of Fanny and Louis?

6. Many of us feel the need to shape a story out of the facts of our lives. In making these stories, we sometimes create myths about ourselves. Does Fanny invent myths about herself? Does RLS do the same?

7. The Stevensons travel all over the globe in search of the ideal climate for their family, from Switzerland to the South Seas. How do landscape and environment affect each of them?

8. Many of Louis’s friends find Fanny overprotective of her husband. Do you agree or disagree? Are her actions justified?

9. In Samoa, late in their marriage, Louis suggests that the work Fanny does is not that of an artist. He tells her, “No one should be offended if it is said that he is not an artist. The only person who should be insulted by such an observation is an artist who supports his family with his work.” Do you agree with this? What does Fanny consider her art? Do you agree with her views?

We can’t wait to hear what you think! Join the conversation with us on our Facebook page or with Nancy Horan.

Giveaway Opportunity: EMPRESS OF THE NIGHT by Eva Stachniak

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Stachniak_Empress of the Night Perfect for readers of Hilary Mantel, Alison Weir, and Philippa Gregory, Empress of the Night is Eva Stachniak’s engrossing new novel, told in the voice of Catherine the Great as the Romanov monarch reflects on her ascension to the throne, her rule over the world’s greatest power, and the sacrifices that made her the most feared and commanding woman of her time.

A critically acclaimed historical drama and instant #1 international bestseller, The Winter Palace brilliantly reimagined the rise of Catherine the Great through the watchful eyes of her clever servant Varvara. Now, in Eva Stachniak’s enthralling new novel, Catherine takes center stage as she relives her astonishing ascension to the throne, her rule over an empire, and the sacrifices that made her the most feared and commanding woman of her time.

As the book opens, the charismatic monarch is in her final hours. From the fevered depths of her mind, Catherine recalls the fateful trajectory of her turbulent life: her precarious apprenticeship as Russia’s Grand Duchess, the usurpers who seek to deprive her of a crown, the friends who beg more of her than she was willing to give, and her struggle to know whom to trust and whom to deceive to ensure her survival.

“We quarrel about power, not about love,” Catherine would write to the great love of her life, Grigory Potemkin, but her days were balanced on the razor’s edge of choosing her head over her heart. Power, she learns, is about resolve, strategy, and direction; love must sometimes be secondary as she marshals all her strengths to steer her volatile country into a new century and beyond—to grow the Romanov empire, to amass a vast fortune, and to control a scheming court in order to become one of history’s greatest rulers.

Gorgeously written with vivid detail and lyrical prose, Empress of the Night is an intensely intimate novel of a woman in charge of her fortunes, who must navigate the sorrows, triumphs, and hopes of both her soul and a nation.

Connect with the author on Facebook and Twitter!

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Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for THE DEEPEST SECRET by Carla Buckley

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Buckley_Deepest Secret Book clubs: get ready for this one! There is much to discuss with Carla Buckley’s The Deepest Secret (on sale February 4). We have the discussion questions for you and your book club to enjoy.

For fans of Jodi Picoult, Kim Edwards, and William Landay, The Deepest Secret is part intimate family drama, part gripping page-turner, exploring the profound power of the truths we’re scared to face . . . about our marriages, our children, and ourselves.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What did you think of Eve’s decision not to say anything the night of the accident? Do you think she made the best of a terrible situation, or that she should have confessed immediately? Do you think she might not have confessed if Melissa hadn’t been a suspect, and if Tyler hadn’t planted evidence framing Robbie?

2. Charlotte ultimately says to David that if it were “Tyler lying there and Amy who needed saving…If it were my Amy—I’d have done just what Eve did.” (421) What would you do in the face of such a situation?

3. Discuss the novel’s title, The Deepest Secret. How does it apply to the story? The author stresses that it is human nature to try and keep secrets. But do you think it’s true that all secrets will eventually come out, that it’s also in human nature to want to know—and, to a certain extent, want to confess?

4. The relationship between Tyler and Eve is the backbone of the novel, but it’s a complicated one. Describe the arc of their relationship from the beginning to the end. Were you surprised to find that they were ultimately quite similar in their drive to protect their family?

5. At one point, David reflects that, “Now he sees the grays, the blurry lines. He understands how loneliness might drive a person to make terrible choices.” (171) Do you agree with David’s assessment? What do you feel the novel says about loneliness and its impact on our actions?

6. Holly asks Tyler, “Do you think it’s better to have dreams and lose them, or not have dreams at all?” (178) How would you respond?

7. Throughout the book, there is the recurring idea that we can’t ever truly know what another person is capable of. Do you think this is true? Why or why not?

8. Tyler slips through the night, observing people when they believe they are alone, and is surprised by what he finds. Do you think, in the moments where we are unobserved, we are all different people? That we are more ourselves? How much of our personalities are defined by how others see us?

9. What did you think of the author’s portrayal of parenthood and parent/child relationships? Did it resonate with you?

10. How much of a factor did Eve’s age/experience play into your sympathies for her or lack thereof? If it had been Melissa who had hit Amy, would you have viewed the situation differently? If so, in what ways?

11. Which characters won your sympathy and why? Did this change over the course of the novel? Did your notion of what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?

12. Mourning and loss are themes of the book. How does loss—or the anticipation of loss—affect certain character’s decisions?

13. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? Did it turn out as you expected? Were you satisfied?

Connect with Carla Buckley on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: EMBERS OF WAR by Fredrik Logevall

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Logevall_Embers of War tp Fredrik Logevall’s Pulitzer prize-winning Embers of War is written with the style of a great novelist and the intrigue of a Cold War thriller. This landmark work that will forever change your understanding of how and why America went to war in Vietnam.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Scholar A.J. Langguth writes, “These days, any history of Vietnam, no matter how scholarly and objective, will be read for what it teaches us now.” Do you agree that the history of Vietnam primarily teaches us about war today? How does that approach expand your reading of Embers of War?

2. Logevall engages seriously with counterfactual history: “The story of the French Indochina War and its aftermath is a contingent one, full of alternative political choices, major and minor, considered and taken, reconsidered and altered.” What are some of the major forks in the road that Logevall points to? How does the concept of choice versus inevitability change your understanding of the major players?

3. Two sides of Ho Chi Minh – nationalist and communist – struggle for prominence in his historical legacy. Which interpretation does Logevall lean towards? What about you? How does his identity shape your understanding and opinions of the War’s outcomes?

4. On the other side of the same coin, the U.S. grappled with anti-colonial and anti-communist instincts. For the U.S., how was the conflict in Indochina a part of the cold war and how was it not?

5. Domino theory played a role in U.S. decision-making in Vietnam. However, a 2007 study of over 130 countries in the 20th century found that states are rarely influenced by changes in their neighbors’ internal governmental structures. What does Logevall find flawed about the domino theory? What was so seductive about the concept in the 1950s?

6. In what ways does Logevall show individual leaders – determined, passionate, flawed – driving historical outcomes? Is it possible to separate the role of a single person from larger global forces?

7. The battle of Dien Bien Phu was the first time in the history of colonial warfare that Asian troops defeated a European army in fixed battle. In the early days of the First Indochina War, the French and the Viet Minh seemed mismatched militarily, the French having a large advantage. What changed between 1945 and 1954, and why might the initial assessment of the French advantage have been wrong?

8. General Westmoreland, who commanded US military operations in Vietnam from 1964 to 1972 said, “Why should I study the lessons of the French? They haven’t won a war since Napoleon.” How did the Americans see themselves as different from the French? In terms of goals? National identity? Military prowess? From today’s perspective, how do you think the Americans were different from the French, if they were at all?

9. We all know the ending of Logevall’s story. How does Logevall create suspense while avoiding sensationalism in a familiar historical narrative?

10. Logevall writes a good deal about Graham Greene and The Quiet American. What does the novel say about America’s eventual fate in Vietnam? What kind of observer does Logevall show Greene to be? Why do you think a novelist was able to read the circumstances in Vietnam more clearly than others, including journalists and military and political leaders?

11. Look over Logevall’s endnotes. Where did most of his research come from? How do you think these sources shaped his conclusions? Do you notice any trends in both his primary and secondary source? Does anything surprise you?

Reader’s Guide: INNOCENCE by Dean Koontz

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Koontz_Innocence In Innocence, #1 New York Times bestselling author Dean Koontz blends mystery, suspense, and acute insight into the human soul in a masterfully told tale that will resonate with readers forever.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What do you make of the epigraph by Petrarch, “Rarely do great beauty and great virtue dwell together?” Would you agree with this statement? How does it play out in the novel? What other juxtaposed qualities figure into the story—for example, arrogance versus humility—and what do these themes imply about human nature and our world at large? How did the epigraph inform your idea of the story at the onset, and did that idea take on new meaning by the end?

2. What does Addison mean when he says to Gwyneth: “We hold each other hostage to our eccentricities.”? Do you find this applicable to your own relationships?

3. Gwyneth wears a nose ring fashioned as a snake devouring its own tail, which is a commonly recognized symbol of recurrence, recreation and renewal, or the emergence of an inextinguishable primordial force. In what ways do we see that meaning manifest in the story?

4. Both Addison and Gwyneth cloak themselves in an attempt to go largely unnoticed. While Addison perceives Gwyneth’s Goth look more as a type of courage than a costume, his own cover is necessary to ensure his very survival. But as Addison notes, there are others who hide their “corruption and pitiless cruelty” behind masks of their own creation. Discuss the importance of veils and how they are applied throughout the novel. Does this seem to imply that everyone has something to hide from the outside world? What qualities do you feel are most reviled (and thus concealed) and most celebrated in our contemporary world and how is this reflected in the novel?

5. Addison says of Gwyneth that “although she led a severely circumscribed life…she had vastly more experience than I.” Why is it that Gwyneth seems not only more in tune with the workings of the world, but primed to confront the evils within it, when both she and Addison have been exposed to its horrors in equal amounts? How are their attitudes toward the world both similar and different, and what influences have shaped them to that end?

6. Do you agree with Father’s theory that “there is no chance” in the universe, “only choice, no luck, but only consequences,” that what happens to us is of “our own election”? How does this belief change Addison’s perspective and guide his decisions from then on? Do you feel that Father is less innocent than Addison?

7. Addison describes Father’s sacrifice and says “knowing how the sight of his face and eyes would consume their attention, he offered his life for mine, and when he said ‘Endure,’ he meant many things.” What things did Father mean? What enables Addison to go on in the wake of such a loss, and do you think he would have continued to endure indefinitely on his own?

8. Addison says that “although this story is of the Modern Age, I have not written it for the Modern Age.” What does he mean by this and who is his intended audience?

9. Throughout the book, Addison mentions his “terrible difference” and when asked what he is, Addison calls himself “a miscreation, freak, abomination.” What did you think this “terrible difference” was and why? Were you surprised by what it was revealed to be?

10. Discuss the marionettes and Father’s theory about the Princess and Frog music box and similar objects. Do you feel that the creative spirit behind works of art—whether transcendent or transgressive—manifests itself in the wider world?

11. The interconnectedness of all things is a major theme of Innocence. What elements of the story most vividly illustrated that theme for you?

12. Ultimately, do you think this is a cautionary tale or a message of hope?

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with Anna Quindlen, author of STILL LIFE WITH BREAD CRUMBS

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Quindlen_Still Life with Bread CrumbsAnna Quindlen is beloved by all readers and book clubs alike! From her “Last Word” column in Newsweek to her irresistible New York Times bestselling books such as Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake and One True Thing (to name a few!), Quindlen has truly captured the minds of of her readers.

We are so happy to share this Q&A between Anna Quindlen and Kate Medina, her editor, with you in anticipation of her upcoming novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs.

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

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

People love to know where the inspiration for a novel comes from. Would you say something about Still Life with Bread Crumbs in this regard?

It’s not one thing. It’s never one thing. I’ve thought a lot about the nature of art, and why women’s art, particularly if it arises from domestic life, is minimized, or denigrated—why, for instance, we pay less attention to the work of Alice McDermott, a genius miniaturist whose novels reflect the quiet everyday, then we do to the more sprawling, outward-facing work of Philip Roth. Some of my thinking on that is embodied in Rebecca’s photography and public reaction to it. I’m 61 years old, and I’ve thought a lot about aging, and the stages of a woman’s life, and that’s in there, too. From a purely mechanical point of view, I try to do some essential thing in each novel that I haven’t done before. In this book it was twofold: I’ve never written a love story, and I haven’t written a book with a happy ending, and this material lent itself to both. Anna-Quindlen-Author-Photo

We’ve been working together for 25 years, on a wide range of your books—fiction, nonfiction, memoir. We are both often asked about the editorial process between writer and editor. Might you comment briefly about that process? What is the heart of it for you?

Oh, Kate, you broke me in. I cringe when I remember the first draft of Object Lessons. You said the writing was lovely, and the characters memorable, but not much happened in the course of the book. And I replied, “That’s how real life is.” You said, so sweetly, “And that’s why we call this a novel.”

The heart of the editing process is a fresh pair of sensitive and informed eyes. By the time I’m done a draft, I have no clue. Is it the best thing I’ve ever done? Is it a complete disaster? Depends on which day you ask me. But more than that, I am so close to the material that I not only can’t get out of the weeds, I can’t figure out where they are. That’s where you come in. You read and read again and then send me your long memo, which always begins “I love this book!” Then come the buts—about murky character development, fallow areas, missed opportunities. I’m not going to go into detail and thus illuminate my own dopiness, but sometimes you ask a question about something I’ve done, or failed to do, and I want to smack myself in the head, it’s so obvious.

Of course, a critical part of this process is the trust between us. You speak fluent Quindlen and you don’t try to edit me into someone else. And once our dialogue begins, I become more confident about my own work in that I know where you are right about changes, cuts, amendments, and where I disagree and will leave well enough alone.

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