Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Goldfinch Book Discussion Guide

Book:     The Goldfinch
Author:  Donna Tartt
Edition:  Softcover, Little Brown and Company, 2014

You can purchase The Goldfinch online at Hugo Bookstores.

When I asked book readers about The Goldfinch, I generally received two answers: either “I loved that book," or “I really didn’t love that book.”  So as I read I wanted to ferret out what made the novel so compelling to some, while others chose to skim major sections.

Understanding this dichotomy alone could be a fun and insightful discussion for your book group. The major themes are pretty much laid out in black and white, very little is subtle, so focusing instead on readers’ reactions might offer each member of your book group to share what elements of a book are most important to him or her.

Your group can also pair The Goldfinch with The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes or People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and focus on art ownership, the circuitous paths art can travel and the individual appeal of art works.

Internet Resources

Certainly if you can spend days reading this nearly 1000-page novel then take a few minutes to look at online representations of the artwork at the core of the novel. The painting resides at the  Mauritshuis in the Netherlands and can be viewed online. 

If you are interested in the use of stolen art as currency, the New York Times magazine had an excellent article on the value of stolen art

Major Characters

Theo (Theodore) Decker: a 13-year-old New Yorker at the start of the novel and central protagonist
Andy Barbour: Theo's school friend
Mr and Mrs Barbour: Andy’s parents and wealthy Park Avenue couple with whom Theo goes to live for several months after the explosion
Platt, Kitsey and Toddy Barbour: Andy’s siblings
Hobie: Antique dealer in New York
Welty: Hobie’s business partner who died in the explosion
Pippa: daughter of Welty’s half-sister Juliette, whom Welty raised
Margaret: Welty’s half sister
Larry Decker: Theo’s dad
Xandra: Larry’s girlfriend
Boris: Only child of an alcoholic father and Theo’s only substantive friend while living in Las Vegas
Lucius Reeve: Knocker; swindler who lives in New York and preys upon wealthy, elderly folks, and is blackmailing Theo

Discussion Topics

The topics presented here offer a starting point for a book club discussion. Consider the topics presented in the book discussion guides for People of the Book and The Girl You Left Behind  and weave an artful discussion around the timelessness of art.  Or perhaps focus on readers’ reactions and let your conversation delve into the types of readers that comprise your book group— a great opportunity to get to know one another as readers.

Reaction to the Novel

While gauging the reaction to a book from a variety of readers is interesting with most novels, this book in particular seems to cause more bifurcated reactions than most.  The characters are drawn in great detail from the perspective of an adult (Theo Decker) looking back over his life as a child coming of age. The pace and action of the novel ebb and flow. There may be elements of the story that individuals can identify with strongly or not at all.

What elements of a novel have the most impact on whether you enjoy reading a book?  Perhaps the pace of the plot is most important, or the degree to which you can empathize with the characters, or a writing style draws you in regardless of content. What elements affect whether you recommend a book?  How you recommend a book?  Do you prefer reading a book without knowing anything about it or do you prefer a recommendation that offers a glimpse into the plot or style or mood?

Donna Tartt received the Pulitzer Prize “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” In the Pulitzer summary the novel is described:
The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher's calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.”
Do you agree? Why do you supposed the author won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel?

Major Themes

Many of the strongest themes are spelled out with very little reading between the lines or introspection on the part of the reader.  For instance, in the closing soliloquy Theo says, 
“I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you.  That life— whatever else it is— is short.  That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it.” page 962.
Identify the themes that Theo (and the author) writes down in the missive to us, the readers.  How strongly do you agree or disagree with each perspective?


After Theo takes The Goldfinch there are several opportunities early on where Theo could have revealed what he has done. As a child in a traumatic situation, he would likely receive minimal repercussions. As those opportunities pass how does the nature of the secret change?  At what points in Theo’s life is the secret most destructive?  At what points does Theo find relief from holding his secret?

Theo’s secrets extended far beyond his theft of The Goldfinch.  Throughout the story, Theo hides his darker self from those closest to him who don’t share his interest in living on the edge. Theo himself states,
 “I’d always worked so hard to screen my double-dealing self from him [Hobie], to show him only the improved-and-polished version, never the shameful threadbare self I was so desperate to hide, deceiver and coward, liar and cheat— ” page 937.
Theo describes his feelings harboring a secret,
“Unsettled heart. The fetishism of secrecy.” page 656.
And later his physical anguish of keeping secrets is expressed after he confronts Kitsey on her relationship with Tom, his own secret still hidden,
“on another [level] I felt nearly suffocated by the weight of everything unknown, and unsaid, pressing down between us” page 747.
Theo is not the only character harboring a secret in the book. There is an undercurrent of deception running throughout the book from Theo’s dad’s life to Lucius Reeve to Kitsey. Which secrets are most destructive?  Which are most personal? Which of the characters find relief from their deception and in what ways? Which characters are most traumatized by their secrets? Which characters are most secret-free? Compare the lives and moods of the individuals harboring secrets with those who are more transparent.

When has a secret eaten away at you?  How have you found relief from harboring a secret? When have secrets developed from an omission of information? How much time passes before an omission of information turns into a secret?


The relationships that Theo forms with Boris and Andy, Hobie and Pippa, Kitsey and Mrs. Barbour each bring out a different side of Theo.

Of Mrs. Barbour, Theo says, her 
“happiness made me feel reassured and nourished in channels of my heart which had stood scraped dry for years.” page 637.
Mrs. Barbour says that around Theo, Andy 
“was absolutely his best self with you, always.” page 638.
Can a better gift even be given than for someone to be better because of you?  Who brings out the best in you?  For whom are you the person who brings out the best in someone else?

Pippa and Theo’s relationships is based on large part on their shared experience, a horrendous experience that few others can relate to.
“… but still I wanted to know.  Did she have nightmares too? Crowd fears? Sweats and panics?” page 475.
How does the basis of a relationship you have formed influence the relationship itself?  What are the common elements among your most positive relationships?

Timelessness of Art versus Transience of Human Lives

Throughout the novel the timelessness of art and furniture is juxtaposed with the brevity of human life.  For instance, Hobie’s furniture restoration is seen as a timeless endeavor,
“‘Always remember, the person we’re really working for is the person who’s restoring the piece a hundred years from now. He’s the one we want to impress.’” page 519.
While Theo muses about the brevity of human life,
“sidewalks teeming with dead, cadavers pouring off the buses and hurrying home from work, nothing left of any of them in a hundred years except tooth fillings and pacemakers and maybe a few scraps of cloth and bone.” page 557.
Later Theo directly juxtaposes the destruction of art with the the mortality of humanity, 
“For humans— trapped in biology— there was no mercy: we lived a while, we fussed around for a bit and died, we rotted in the ground like garbage.  Time destroyed us all soon enough.  But to destroy, or lose, a deathless thing— to break bonds stronger than the temporal— was  metaphysical uncoupling all its own, a startling new flavor of despair.” page 867.
Theo repeats this explicit comparison when he finally holds the painting again after its tumultuous travels and notes the small chip in it, 
“the painting is “otherwise: perfect. I was different, but it wasn’t.” page 838.
Theo frets over his destruction of The Goldfinch in the hotel in Amsterdam,
“Intentionally or no: I had extinguished a light at the heart of the world.” page 874.
Where in the novel is the transience of human life most vivid to you?  Where is the longevity of art most eloquently expressed?

Our Relationship to Art

A Joan Miró reference in the novel cuts out the first, and powerful, part of the quote:
“In a picture, it should be possible to discover new things every time you see it. But you can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.”
A similar quote in the novel highlights the variety in seeing a painting in different lights at different times,
 “It was one thing to see a painting in a museum but to see it in all those lights and moods and seasons was to see it a thousand different ways and to keep it shut in the dark— a thing made of light, that only lived in light— was wrong in more ways than I knew how to explain.” page 623.
Have you ever had this response to a piece of art?  What about the artwork is captivating to you?  Is it something about the picture itself or the moment in which you first saw the art? How is seeing art in person distinct from seeing a reproduction of the artwork?

Hobie expresses art appreciation as very personal,
“if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art.  It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you,” page 945.
In a moment when Theo senses his mother’s presence while he is distraught in the hotel contemplating the end of his life, he compares the sensation to a great painting:
“There was motion and stillness, stillness and modulation, and all the charge and magic of a great painting.” page 903.
How would you express your response to a piece of art and why or how it called to you?

Monday, November 10, 2014

How We Learn and Make It Stick

Book:    How We Learn
Author: Benedict Carey

Book:     Make It Stick
Authors: Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, Mark McDaniel

Internet Resources

These two books are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discussion of how humans learn. While the information on the internet on human learning seems infinite, our time is not.  Check out wikipedia for a host of learning theory resources. Here are three brief, interesting and very different styles of exploring more on learning.

Sal Kahn wrote an essay for the Huffington Post Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart talking about the growth mindset.

Peter Doolittle's Working Memory Ted Talk is one of many on humans thinking and learning. This talk is a) fun, b) only 10 minutes and  c) talks briefly through strategies focused on working memory capacity to help us process what we encounter.

You can make an interesting comparison between interleaving to learn artistic styles and chicken sexing by reading about how the brain processes when chicken sexing is learned on the job. Read Incognito: The Secret Side of the Brain by David Eagleman.

Comparing These Books

How We Learn and Make It Stick overlap in explaining strategies we can use to improve learning.  They both describe learning, remembering and forgetting, using common examples, often referencing the same research and employing identical terminology (spacing, retrieval, interleaving, fluency trap, self-testing). 

However, How We Learn, has a lighter, interactive style, providing the reader with mini, personal studies to demonstrate a point.  Make It Stick is a broader look at learning include more detail around reflecting and elaborating as a learner, which can be especially powerful tools for learners outside of school. The overlap is so pronounced that you can have some of your group read one book and some the other and enjoy a very rich discussion.

Discussion Topics

Don’t use these notes!

What do you remember from reading these two  books?  Work hard, think about it.  What stuck with you?  

Write down what you each remember independently.  Then talk through what each person remembers and flesh out the learning.

Who Got It Right?

Think back to a coach or teacher who used techniques such as interleaving and spacing, or someone who used quizzing well to reinforce material, perhaps even in advance of teaching it in class.  

What were your frustrations or successes at the time? What have been the longer term benefits or detriments? 

Think about a teacher who used one or two major exams or rehearsing a musical phrase over and over until it was mastered. How did you feel you benefitted from repeated practice versus interleaving and spacing material?

Use What You’ve Learned

Whether you’re a student, a parent, an employee, an artist, a volunteer, a hobbyist, an entrepreneur, anyone interested in expanding your knowledge, you can take what you’ve read and apply it.  
Think of an experience this week that you would like to learn from.  Perhaps attending a workshop on taking better photos or learning a new language or writing a dissertation.  How can you use the techniques of interleaving, spacing and self-testing to improve your learning?  How about reflection and making connections to other areas of understanding?

Expanding the Learning of Others

As a manager, teacher, parent, co-worker, mentor, we all are teaching others around us every day with our words and actions.  Talk about ways you can share what you’ve learned with others. What are some specific strategies you can implement in your classroom, at your dining room table or in your office to help others benefit from these learning strategies?


Carey has a chapter on the benefits of sleep while the authors of Make It Stick barely mention sleep, noting only “sleep seems to play a large role in memory consolidation” page 63. In fact, Carey’s description isn’t particularly clear. He seems to link sleep cycles to times on a clock rather than how much time has elapsed since a person fell asleep. For instance, Carey says it’s better to stay up late to study for a math test and “hit the snooze button in the morning” because the largest dose of REM is in early morning. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Death of Bees Discussion Guide

Book:    The Death of Bees
Author:  Lisa O’Donnell
Edition:  Softcover, Harper Perennial, 2013

You can purchase The Death of Bees online at Hugo Bookstores.

A quick read with strong themes of resilience, secrets and lies, and relationships offers plenty for a good book discussion. Every character drags the weight of trauma, from childhood neglect to a brain tumor from drug use, alcoholism and drug dealing to sexual predation. The multitude of traumas in which every character is seeped underscores the depth of resilience each character holds onto.
The trio of viewpoints from the three primary characters adds dimension to the novel and it's these slightly offset viewpoints that not only draw in the reader, but offer much to discuss.

Major Characters

Marnie: 15-year-old protagonist living in poverty in Glasgow, who buries her parents in the backyard.
Nelly (Helen): Marnie’s 12-year-old sister who is “a wee bit touched”
Lennie: Old man living next door to Marnie and Nelly, whose gay partner, Joseph, has died
Gene (Eugene) Doyle: Marnie and Nelly’s father, buried in their backyard in the prologue to the novel.
Izzy (Isable Ann) Macdonald: Marnie and Nelly’s mother, buried at the same time as their father.
Robert T. Macdonald: Izzy’s father and recently resurfaced “Gramps” to Marnie and Nelly
Mick: Married drug dealer who sleeps with Marnie 
Vlado: Immigrant and Mick’s drug supplier who hires Marnie to clean his apartment
Kimbo: Marnie’s friend who is bipolar
Susie: Marnie’s friend, lives with her granny, terrific actress

Discussion Topics

Point of View
The interleaved viewpoints both move the plot forward quickly and overlap the narrative in welcome redundancy.  Each character is frequently self-deprecating, and often their best traits are revealed only through other characters.  For instance Lennie, “You’d be ashamed of me, Joseph, so ashamed.” page 34 and “How you loved that crumble and I was so mean about it, I wouldn’t give you the recipe in case you left me and made it for someone else.” page 43.  While Marnie describes Lennie as “Old guy’s full of remorse, full of shame…” page 44 and Nelly says he’s “an amusing type of fellow and a real sport,” page 46.  Marnie says of herself, “Truth is I don’t hate anyone.  Just me. Only me,” page 210.

Why do we sometimes see the worst in ourselves while others see the best?  Which is the truth?

While all three characters speak in the first person, Lennie speaks directly to his deceased partner, Joseph.  How does this narration broaden the storyline or change the perspective?  Is Lennie’s narration more or less emotive because of this connection? Who might Marnie and Nelly told their stories to?  How do the overlapping narratives add dimension to the story and the characters?

Every character carries significant trauma. Marnie, herself a victim of extreme neglect, sympathizes with the abuse the newest immigrants face.  Individuals who were “doctors and nurses, teachers and lawyers, educated people forced out of nice homes in beautiful lands… survived rape, starvation and homelessness, to have escaped death at the hands of genocidal maniacs only to end up in a moldy housing estate,” where they “endure the food stamps, the local abuse, the secondhand clothing…” page 21.  

In what ways do we as individuals relate best to and sympathize the most with others dealt a similar plight?

Marnie says, “I suppose I’ve always taken care of us really. I was changing nappies at five years old and shopping at seven, cleaning and doing laundry as soon as I knew my way to the launderette and pushing Nelly about in her wee buggy when I was six” page 9.  Marnie and Nelly were abused by their drug-addicted father and the parents’ neglect forced Marnie to mature at far too young an age.   

From this traumatic upbringing, Marnie is resourceful and humorous.  Where did this come from?  Why do some people have depth of resilience and others so little?  Where does resilience come from?  Who have you known that was resilient?  Where did their resilience grow from?  How can parents, teachers and other role models help instill or nurture resilience in children?

When Lennie takes the girls to Loch, he sees them as the children they are— throwing stones and collecting shells and going for a walk and laughing as they run into the surf. How does this break from their day-to-day life buoy their resistance? 

Secrets and Lies
The dead parents buried behind the house are kept a secret through lie after lie.  Marnie and Nelly lie outright to Lennie, telling him their parents have gone to Turkey.  Similarly when Gramps shows up, Nelly says, “I only have answers, all of them lies.  Lies are imperative these days.”

Nelly even keeps Izzy’s final words a secret from Marnie, until she blurts them out to Gramps.  

At one point, Marnie nearly breaks and nearly feels compelled to tell the truth, “And I want to tell him everything. I want to tell Lennie everything.  I want to tell him Gene and Izzy are burke in the garden.  I want to tell him I’ve been selling ice creams and drugs and shagging a married man.  I want to tell him how tired I am and how I wish I was the one buried in the garden and let it all go,” page 170.

Nelly reflects, “Marnie is not the strength she has been in my life; in fact she is failing me in too many ways.  I hardly see her around these days.  I can’t imagine what occupies her, not whether is work to be done, secretes to be kept, and people to account for,” page 173.

Lennie keeps his brain tumor a secret from the girls. Gramps keeps the fact that Izzy had come to him when the girls were young and turned them away a secret.  Possibly only Bobby, the dog, knows all the secrets.

How do the lies affect Marnie’s and Nelly’s relationship with each other?  How do the lies affect their relationships with Lennie, Gramps, school officials and friends?  Was there a reasonable alternative for the sisters?  If it weren’t for Lennie, do you think the sisters could have escaped from their lie? In what way is the truth revealed?

When have you known someone who has been caught up in a lie and needed an escape route?  How often is the escape through the truth?  

When Lennie finally learns the secret the girls share he muses, “I don’t know how I could have missed it… I return to the shadows they carry in their eyes and reflect on the long gazes they have shared, a gentle hand quietly urging silence upon a shoulder, a cough to interrupt a careless thought hastily replace with another… Mostly I think of them keeping this secret all this time and the burden they have walked with every single day since they have lived here,” page 227.

When have you seen a secret revealed and wondered how you could have missed it when it seems so apparent in hindsight?

Lennie knows they are keeping a secret and let’s them hold on to it, “I’m glad the girls have one another, it’s a lonely journey otherwise and so I leave them with their secrets and the things they share. It bonds them and keeps them strong,” page 66

In addition, Lennie steps in like a father-figure or grandfather-figure offering Marnie and Nelly structure and discipline and nourishing food.  The more Lennie steps in to help the girls the more difficult it is for them to keep their secret from  him.  And the more Marnie is scared of the comforting relationship, “he’s been amazing to us and cares for us, but it scares me.  I don’t know why. Just does.” Why do you think Lennie’s care scares Marnie?

How is the relationships the girls share as sisters stronger or more tenuous than the relationships Marnie has with Mick and Kirkland, Susie and Kimbo, Gramps and Lennie?

End of Life
As Lennie faces his death, he considers, “I have much to organize now. Affairs to get in order a life to tidy away… I hope to die in my sleep, Joseph, not knowing , just closing my eyes and forgetting the things I am leaving behind.  I don’t want to die with my heart breaking.  I don’t want to die at all.” page 161

How do you want to die?  Do you have things to get in order?  Relationships to mend?  Conversations to share?

“In my mind I snapped this image and store it in my memory.” page 234.  How often I have done the same and find that those times I conscientiously hold onto an image are some of my strongest visual memories. page 234

"Courage is what is needed now, courage and stealth, for there is much to fight for and much to let go,”  page 235. How often we confuse what we need to fight for and what we need to let go, and in both cases much courage is required.

"It's actually difficult hiding bodies and money,” page 235. There is a great deal of humor in this book despite the horrors each character is managing.

"People carrying righteousness like a handbag are dangerous." So true.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Girl You Left Behind Discussion Guide

Book: The Girl You Left Behind
Author: Jojo Moyes
Edition: Softcover, Penguin Books, 2012

You can purchase The Girl You Left Behind online at Hugo Bookstores.

Book discussions can head in many directions based upon this novel. Open up a discussion on current events focused on restoring art to its rightful owners. Or take the discussion to a more personal level focusing on what it feels like to be left behind or exposed— both significant themes in The Girl You Left Behind.

While sections of the book, such as extensive dialogue in journal entries or a child from WW I clearly remembering and speaking in a court of law in the present, are overly contrived, the underlying characters and themes are sympathetically presented. The novel is captivating and a fairly quick read.

You can also read both this novel and Me Before You, which Moyes wrote more recently, and compare the writing styles and plot devices of each.

Internet Resources

Many good articles can be found on the challenge of returning looted art to rightful owners following wartime atrocities.

A 2014 article in the New York Times presents some of the challenges in finding rightful owners of a painting.

A second 2014 New York Times article presents some of the debate over restitution when looted art was later purchased in good faith.

The Atlantic published an article following one of the largest discoveries of artwork in Germany.

If you want to go into depth on looted artwork, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers a bibliography of resources in the museum’s collection.

Major Characters

Characters in France in 1916

Sophie Lefèvre: Owner, along with her sister, of Le Coq Rouge, an inn in St Pérronne, a French town occupied by Germans.
Édouard: Sophie’s artist husband fighting on the front
Hélène: Sophie’s older sister
Aurélien: Sophie’s teenage brother
Kommandant: Commander of the German soldiers billeted in St. Pérronne.
Liliane Béthune: Spy for the French resistance branded as a collaborator by the townspeople.
Edith: Liliane’s daughter
Mimi: Helene’s daughter
Jean: Helene’s baby

Characters in the present

Liv Halston: widow and current owner of the painting The Girl You Left Behind
David Halston: Liv’s husband who died unexpectedly four years ago.
Mo: Liv’s classmate from an art class and temporary housemate
Paul McCafferty: Owner of a business that works to return looted art works to rightful owners
Greg McCafferty: Paul’s brother and bar owner
Janey: Paul’s business partner at Trace and Return Partnership
Sven: David’s prior business partner and current firm owner
Marianne Johnson: woman who sold Liz and David the painting as she was cleaning out her recently deceased mother’s home
Fran: homeless woman who lives by Liv’s building

Discussion Topics and Discussion Questions

Some of the most prominent themes in The Girl You Left Behind are being left behind, feeling exposed, the other side of the story and the bare essence of what makes life worth living.  Any of these can be used as book club discussion questions to get your conversation started.

Point of View

Sophie’s story is told in the first person while Liv’s story is told in the third person. Often a first person narrative is more intimate and relies exclusively on the narrator’s perspective. How does seeing the world exclusively through Sophie’s eyes affect your empathy with Sophie? Third person allows the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters to be expressed. Does hearing the current story told through both Liv’s and Paul’s perspective affect where your allegiance lies or allow you to understand a broader spectrum of the story than you might if you only heard the story from one or the other?

On Being Left Behind

The title of the book not only refers to the painting, but also to the two central and multiple supporting characters in the book. Sophie was the girl Édouard left behind when he went to the front. Liv was the girl David left behind when he died. Liv acknowledges that feeling directly, “She no longer sees the friends she ahd back then the Cherry’s, the Jasmines. The women who would remember the girl she had been.” page 138

Liv’s association to the painting is both as the girl who David left behind as well as a touchstone to that past. “It is time to live in the present. She is more than the girl David left behind.” page 187.

In what ways does the fullness of the girl in the painting contrast with the woman that each character becomes when she is left behind? Where in the novel do you see that contrast being drawn most directly? How does being left behind affect who each of Sophie and Liv become? What or who helps each character continue on?

Have you ever been the left behind? Was the person you were stronger or weaker than who you became? Who or what helped you continue on?

Personal Exposure

The Glass House is symbolic of many aspects of Liv and her situation. What are some of the symbols you see in the Glass House?

Living in the Glass House not only exposes the occupants to others, but makes them feel exposed. Sophie is exposed to the townspeople of St. Péronne as she is taken away when Aurélien shouts out, “I know what you did! I know why you did with that German!” page 120. Similarly Liv feels the eyes, anger and physical ferocity of the crowd upon her as she attempts to get into the courthouse page 307.

When has your life seem exposed? What are the most difficult elements of feeling or being exposed to those who don’t know you?

Other Side of the Story

Look at some of the unshared stories of which the reader is aware, but not the other characters in the novel.

In addition to the two main characters, Sophie and Liv, both of whom are perceived by their contemporaries very differently from the narrative the reader sees, many supporting characters have a hidden side. Consider Liliane, a member of the French resistance, who is viewed by the townspeople as a collaborator and consequently treated cruelly.

When have you seen only one side of a story only to find out later the other side and regret a judgment or perception? When you you been the victim of someone only knowing one side of a story and opposing you? What efforts have you gone to to get your side of the story known or ferret out someone else’s full story?

Bare Essence of Life

Fran lives by Liv’s building with “an endless collection” of plastic bags “which she endlessly sorts and rearranges.” page 144.

How does the inclusion of Fran as a homeless woman living by Liz’s building emphasize or deemphasize the feeling of exposure? How does Liv’s relationship with Fran help Liv re-engage with life?

Returning Stolen Art

Look into an actual case of art stolen and returned. Can you empathize with both the descendants of the original owner and the current owner?

With all of the cases of stolen art from WW II why do you think Moyes chose to based her novel on the events of WW I? Was the longer elapsed time critical to the story line or is it possible the author was trying to separate her novel from WW II recoveries? in an interview Moyes says that she “realized I had heard so little about this part of history [the First World War],” making it sound as she was simply interested in researching the First World War. How do you think having the novel set during WW II would have altered the investigation, the conflict or the parallels between Liv and Sophie?

How common do you think it’s the case that a current art owner is unaware of the provenance of his or her art? Is the core of the novel plausible? How likely is it that a modern day individual came by a valuable and possibly looted painting innocently?

Whom do you think holds a stronger moral claim on a piece of stolen art— the descendants of the original owner from whom it was stolen to a current owner who purchased the artwork legitimately?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Books Where Myth and Reality Blur

The fall solstice occurs tomorrow and for one instant our planet will incline neither towards nor away from the sun, a passing moment of time and space balance for the resents of earth.  Here are three novels that tip that balance, offering stories that slide gently through you hands, often slipping back and forth in time and between myth and reality.  

The Tiger’s Wife

I never expected that a book so focused on death could be so enjoyable to read. Death in the present, death in the near past, death in the distant past, the death of reality and the myth that grows up around death. One of its pleasures, which also makes it an excellent choice for book groups, is the gaps the author intentionally leaves. Why did a character act as he did? What occurred and what was added in the retelling of a story? What is the truth behind the myth? 

Yet there is far more substance than gap. Much is revealed through myth-telling and memory and backstory-- marvelous backstories of ancillary characters. Stories that stand on their own as compelling and captivating as the novel as a whole, which is one aspect of the book that can make it difficult to read chunks at a time. With so many backstories, it is easy to lose track of the two primary tales being told and difficult to remember which characters are in which timeframe. However, knowing the characters is very important to enjoying the fullness of the story. And precisely because of the backstories, I was able to vividly picture and consequently remember each of the characters and how they related to the thread woven through the entire novel.

In addition, the author's omission of a precise city name, allows the novel to be more timeless and less tied to a specific geography. The myths and conflicts that occur in this novel could easily have occurred in another time or place. Much is sadly relevant to conflicts throughout human history.
I said: "I'm sorry," and regretted it immediately, because it just fell out of my mouth and continued to fall, and did nothing. 
"When men die, they die in fear," he said. "They take everything they need from you, and as a doctor it is your job to give it, to comfort them, to hold their hand. But children die how they have been living-- in hope. They don't know what's happening, so they expect nothing, they don't ask you to hold their hand-- but you end up needing them to hold yours."

An Invisible Sign of My Own

Readers need to be comfortable on the periphery of the centricity of reality to enjoy this book. For instance, what math teacher would be allowed to hang a sharpened ax on her wall to represent the number 7? 

But if you're there, tiptoeing along the edges, knocking on wood through life, craving order in life and death, not wanting to have the future come crashing down because you relied on a certain outcome, then you may find a deep connection with An Invisible Sign of My Own

Or if you can relate to the wonderful peculiarities and honesty of children in an elementary classroom and a teacher who keeps a tenuous hold on their interest, then you may laugh out loud while reading this book. 

Or if you have a deep relationship with someone and knock on wood that your lives will remain intertwined through all time, then you may find a lump in your throat as you close the book.

But if you need straight up or down, reality or fantasy, all black and white, then let your gaze drift past this binding and reach for words that won't dance before your eyes, just out of reach, not quite able to be pinned down.

The Emperor of Paris

A story can begin with a word or by stepping onto a book or with the glimpse of an object or with the stroke of a paintbrush or with the uncovering of a scar. Let The Emperor of Paris unwrap its story for you.
“The place I call there is not as cruel as you may think and you don’t have to go far to reach it. Sometimes all you need do is walk to the end of the street and turn the corner. And remember, no matter how far you wander, here will always be here.“

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Art of Racing in the Rain Discussion Guide

Book:     The Art of Racing in the Rain
Author:  Garth Stein
All page numbers refer to the first Harper paperback published 2009.

You can purchase The Art of Racing in the Rain online at Hugo Bookstores.

Major Characters

Enzo, Dog narrator
Denny, Enzo’s owner, race car driver
Eve, Denny’s wife
Zoe, Eve and Denny’s young daughter
Annika, 15 year old teen who accuses Denny of felony
Mike, Denny’s close friend
Tony, Mike’s partner
Craig, Garage owner where Denny works
Maxwell and Trish, aka the twins, Eve’s parents
Mark Fein, Denny’s lawyer
Skip, Fenn, garage mechanics


Primarily Seattle
Methow Valley—cabin in mountains where Denny and Zoe went during school vacation

Discussion Topics

Overarching Theme

Life, like race car driving, isn’t about going fast. The importance of being in the present is one similarity between racing well and living well. Many other parallels between race car driving and living life are drawn. What are some that you noticed? For instance, the first paragraph of chapter 10 (page 48) draws a parallel between life and racing both being unpredictable. Page186 (end of chapter 31) “If he had a steering wheel to hold on to, everything would be all right.” What is your rock?

That Which You Manifest is Before You

On page 41, Denny recalls a driver saying, "That which you manifest is before you." How does Enzo interpret this statement? How is this concept played out in the book? How do you interpret this statement within your life? How much can we control or lose control of our lives?

Other related passages are on pages 41, 50 and 83 (correcting what we anticipate), 162, 218 (why we don’t want to hear negative diagnoses), 253

Read the final paragraph of chapter 8 (page 44) What is your rain?


The stuffed zebra on page 53 is shown as a symbol for the demons in our lives. What demons are each of the characters dealing with? Who and how do they keep their demons at bay? What other words do we use for the stuffed zebra in our lives? Do you agree with Enzo that as humans we tend to close our eyes to demons (pg 66)? What is the demon in your life? Who helps protect your from the ghouls in your life?

References to demons can be found throughout book. Some are on pages 53, 66, 82, 127, 143, 161, 164, 227 (zebra returns), 264

Specific questions in response to these references include:
Page 127: Who helps you, who keeps your demons away?
Page 164: Enzo’s reaction to demons is to run and destroy. What is your reaction?
Page 264: The zebra as our personal flaw. Is your demon inside or outside?


Clearly death is a central theme in the book. What are your thoughts on facing and acknowledging death? To what extent do you think people need permission to let go from their family members before they can die? How can we let go and help others let go? When have you felt shut out of others' pain? When have you shut other's out? Why? When have you let others see your pain? How does it feel to be shut out? Let in? Shut others out? Let others in?

Passages referring to dealing with death—letting go, being shut out— occur on pages 2,5,8, 47, 131, 161, 218, 257, 310.

Page 308 how to respond to others offers of condolence. What offers of condolence have been most helpful to you? What offers have you made that have been most appreciated?

Pg 315 letting Enzo go.

There are many references to reincarnation, imprinting ourselves upon our soul, our souls after our death including passages on pages 3, 98, 162, 239, 250, 257, 314. What are your beliefs with respect to reincarnation?

Children and dealing with death: Zoe’s emotional chaos is not always front and center in the book. However, Enzo does see Zoe’s confusion, how she grieves, how she repeats what she has heard about grieving, and her profound sadness (page 222)

Living in the present

There are many references to living in the present including passages on pages 13, 14, 29. What passages did you find? Which struck the most true to you?

Similar themes of being a good friend, listening, focusing on the present are through the book including passages on pages 101, 102, 122, 133, 160, 188, 202, 254.

When do you find yourself most immersed in the present? When is it hardest for you to stay present?

Interactions Between Characters

Throughout the book the interactions between characters strike a myriad of emotions in the reader, from anger over how Denny is being treated to grief for a child whose mother is dying. There are also more subtle emotions—the kindness of a stranger to do something wonderful for Denny (page 277), Denny taking the high road with Annika (page 284) and with the twins (page 305). Me: emotional over kindness of a stranger to do something wonderful for Denny pg 277. Denny’s taking the high road with Annika pg 284 and with twins 305. On page 312 Enzo talks about how he will reach out to those in need when he is human. Is this a purely human quality? When do you reach out to others? When have others reached out to you?

On page 131, a stranger reacts to Denny’s grief by “making himself busy talking to other people or checking his cell phone.” Have you ever received this type of response? Given this response? How best to respond to someone’s grief?

How do Denny’s parents compliment the story—what does that dimension add? Denny’s intense desire to keep his child? Knowing what it feels like to be rejected and reclaimed?

Additional Interesting Passages

Page 277: There is no dishonor in losing the race, there is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose

Page 288: You take good care of him – command or acknowledgment, vagueness of our language is its beauty

What passages and themes struck a chord with you? 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Read it and laugh: Where'd You Go Bernadette

     If you are, or were, a Microsoft employee or in the high tech industry, if you have ever been in a parent pickup line at your child's school, if you know, or are, a neurotic parent, if you have lived in or fantasized about living in Seattle, then you will chuckle while reading Where'd You Go Bernadette book. And if you fall into more than one of the above categories then you will likely laugh out loud.

     Where'd You Go Bernadette is ideal for a palette cleanser, in other words, a great book to read when you've finished a heft historical novel and just want to delve into someone else's life, laugh and not have to think too much.