Sunday, February 7, 2016

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Discussion Guide

Book: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Author: Claire North
Edition: Redhook Books/Orbit, Hardcover 2014

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of my favorite books. The author combines a unique time travel premise done well, a philosophy on the meaning of life and a phenomenal struggle of wits. If your book group is looking to branch out of the ordinary, and most of your readers can manage time travel books, this is a novel that offers plenty of discussion material rooted solidly in current issues.

Internet Resources

Harry’s history spans the 20th century. As he tells it,
“I am Harry August, born New Year’s Day 1919. I am sixty-eight years old. I am eight hundred and ninety-nine. I have directly killed seventy-nine men, of whom fifty-three died in war of one kind or another, and indirectly murdered through my actions at least four hundred and seventy-one people who I know of. I have witnessed four suicides, one hundred and twelve arrests, three executions, one Forgetting. I have seen the Berlin Wall rise and fall, rise and fall, seen the twin towers collapse in flames and dust, talked with men who scrambled in the mud of the Somme, listened to talks of the Crimean War, heard whispers of the future, seen the tanks full into Tiananmen Square, walked the course of the Long March, tasted madness in Nuremberg, watched Kennedy die and seen the flash of nuclear fire bursting apart across the ocean.” page 360
If you need a reminder of the major world events of the 20th century in which Harry finds himself immersed, an AP study guide is a good place to start. In this guide the section on technology is particularly helpful as a resource for the novel.

If you think that the parallel universes in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August are all stuff of fiction, listen to this story on NPR in which a physicist explains why parallel universes may exist. Or read Professor’s Wiseman’s theory on parallel universes in the Huffington Post.

Claire North is actually Catherine Webb, who has written under three different names, her own as well as Claire North and Kate Griffin. In an online interview, she offers her rationale behind having the protagonist be male as well as her description of childhood memories and wondering how they might be different from the perspective of an adult— as Harry views his childhood.

Major Characters 

Harry August: Born January 1, 1919, a mnemonic kalachakra
Patrick August: Adoptive father
Vincent Rankis or Vitali Karpenko: A mnemonic kalachakra attempting to build the quantum mirror to gain the answer to life
Christa: Kalachakra from the future who tells Harry the end of the world is getting faster
Rory Edmond Hulne: Harry’s biological father
Jenny: woman whom Harry marries in his fourth life
Charity Hazelmere: A kalachakra who gathers up kalachakra children to help them live their lives
Olga : Kalachakra gatekeeper of Leningrad Cronus Club
Akinleye: Kalachakra born in the mid-1920s. Spends her lives traveling, shopping, wining, dining, living on a yacht. She goes through the Forgetting and in her reborn lives helps young kalachakra
Richard Lisle: Linear mortal who murders prostitutes including Rosemary Dawsett. Richard kills Harry in 8th life. Harry pursues him in 9th life and kills Richard in each of his subsequent lives
Franklin Phearson: Tortures Harry to obtain Harry’s knowledge of the future
Virginia: Kalachakra who cares for the kalachakra during their childhoods. Saves Harry from Phearson and introduced him to the Cronus Club. Then under Vincent’s direction, murders kalachakra before they can be born


Major Events
1 First life, lives to be 70 years old
2 Commits suicide at 7 years old
3 Wanders in search of answers
4 Marries Jenny. Tortured by Phearson in psych ward for Harry’s knowledge of future; meets Virginia. Commits suicide to escape Phearson
5 Writes his father as an anonymous soldier, seeking counseling for the torture inflicted upon him by Phearson
6 As a physics professor meets Vincent for first time as his student
7 Professor, meets his former wife Jenny at a conference
8 Killed by Richard Lisle
9 Pursues Richard Lisle
11 Second cataclysm begins: book opens here
12 Heads out at age 6 to unravel mystery of world ending faster. Vincent tortures Harry for his point of origin. Harry poisons himself and Vincent attempts the Forgetting on Harry
13 Cronus Clubs have disappeared; Charity is not waiting for Harry. Harry tracks down Virginia and gives her Forgetting
14 Harry tracks down Vincent as Simon in the United States. Vincent marries Jenny. Harry dies at 68 and Vincent uses the Forgetting on him for the second time
15 Charity is waiting for Harry as a child. Harry grows up as an orphan adopted in Leeds. Vincent hires Harry as his personal secretary. The quantum mirror explodes and in hospital Vincent finally reveals his birth date and place to Harry

Discussion Topics 


The unique model of time travel in this novel, continued rebirth to your own life, provides a fascinating perspective on childhood. Harry is able to view his childhood through the lens of an adult even as he is living it. The author comments on this in an online interview:
As for seeing our families anew… certainly as I've grown up, I've begun to see my family in a different way, but my memories of my parents when I was a child were made when I was a child, if that makes any sense. As a seven year old, I perceived as a seven year old, and made memories as a seven year old, and any reinterpretations I have now are massively subject to my own partialities and the childish context in which those memories were formed. How much I missed, and how much I misunderstood as a child, I can only really guess at, and that badly. My memories would look very different indeed, I suspect, if I went back and made them again with an adult's mind.
How do Harry’s memory of his childhood shape each consecutive childhood? When does he recognize the ironies, deceit and humor in the adult lives around him? How do you think your memories of your childhood would be different if, as the author says, you went back and made them again with an adult’s mind? The author also shares her need for Harry to be telling this story in the first person,
It's then – when the emotion he has spent so much time blocking himself away from, and the history he's spent so much time cataloguing as if it belonged to someone else – comes tumbling out, that Harry's at his most compelling. The fact that the entire story is told, by him, to force himself into doing something he doesn't want to do, is fairly indicative I think of the ongoing battle between what he dispassionately knows needs to be done, and what he emotionally wants to do instead.
Where do you see this struggle Harry faces in the novel? Have you felt this same tug of emotion blocking you from your history and then when viewing your life dispassionately able to better assess your past? Time Time is as much a character in the book as the linear mortals and kalachakra. When Harry first meets Virginia and she explains about kalachakra, she warns him,
“Rule 1: ‘don’t bugger about with temporal events!’, page 100.
The verbs we use with time are very descriptive of our relationship with time. Consider the difference in connotation between acting leisurely and wasting time or lingering and delaying. As Vincent says when he first starts discussion the multiverse with Harry,
“‘Complexity and simplicity,’ he replied. ‘Time was simple, is simple. We can divide it into simple parts, measure it, arrange dinner by it, drink whisky to its passage. … The most if ever seems we know how to do with time is to waste it.’’ page 72.
 In what ways is the luxury of time a detriment? In what ways can a minimum of time be a benefit?

Consider views of the ouroborans:
“‘Time has always been our problem in the Cronus Cubs. Always had so much; never learned to appreciate it.’” page 318
 “It isn’t always easy for ouroborans to make bold decisions, spoilt as we are by the luxury of time, but this seemed too good an opportunity to miss, and the consequence of not acting on it too dangerous.” page 156
 How do you view the pauses in time? What phrases do you like using with respect to time? What phrases bother you?

When explaining about some of the difficulty in having such long memories, Virginia says to Harry, 
“However, in my experience, time smooths all. One obtains a kind of neutrality after a while, a battering away at the edges as one begins to perceive through endless repetition that this slight was no such thing, or that love was merely a fancy.” page 113 
Do you think this is true for the karachakra? True for linear mortals? True for you?

Life Choices 

The author uses a wonderful re-invention of the time travel device by having each kalachakra being reborn under precisely the same circumstances from life to life— all threads have the same starting point and then can take an infinite number of directions.

Consider Akinleye who lives her first lives partying and traveling and then after the Forgetting, her lives are focused on caring for young and new kalachakra. In both cases she began from precisely the same moment of birth. When Harry meets her again in her new lives, he muses that she was right to chose to forget:
“I looked over at her, young and bright and full of hope, and recalled the old Akinleye dying alone, laughing as a maid danced out into the waters off the bay of Hong Kong. ‘Yes,’ I said at last. ‘I think you were.’” page 303 
What was the thread the led to Akinleye following such a different path, even having no memory of her prior lives? How much do you think life outcomes are influences by birth location and how much by individual life choices?
As the author adds at the end of the novel:
“if you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice from a life already live, what would it be?” 

Impact of Our Choices 

In a conversation between Harry and the kalachakra soldier Fidel, Fidel muses on the lack of wide-ranging impact ‘insignificant’ events can have on time.
“‘Do you think you’ve ever made a difference to the course of linear events?’ I enquired. ‘Have you, personally, ever affected the outcome of a war?’
'Fuck no!” He chuckled. We’re just fucking soldiers. We kill some guys, they kill l our guys, we kill their guys back - none of i fucking means anything, you know?’” page 217 
And yet, when Harry makes a very minor adjustment to some calculations for the quantum mirror, the final answer results in the destruction of the device:
“I moved the point on the very first page so that my the time the calculations had been worked through, the final answer was nine orders of magnitude out.” page 390. 
Why is killing Richard Lisle so important to Harry? As Akinleye says,
“But prostitutes are murdered all the time! Report Ted Bundy, track down Manson, find the Zodiac— why do you have to waste your time on this one man? Jesus, Harry, is this your idea of making a difference?” page 162 
Does it matter that Harry murders Richard in every life after he first meets him? Where on the spectrum of temporal impact do you find yourself? Does every event, no matter how minor, irrevocably change the future? Do most events add up to more or less the same outcome?
“The world is ending. The message has come down from child to adult, child to adult, passed back down the generations from a thousand years forward in time. The world is ending and we cannot prevent it. So now it’s up to you.” page 116 
This starts the novel. How would this sit with you if you received this message?

Parallel Universes 

 The book hinges on the concept of parallel universes. To help the reader understand, Vincent introduces the concept as a student to Harry as a professor.
“Three: at the very instant he makes the decision to send himself the numbers, a parallel universe is created. In his universe, his linear timeline, he returns home having not won anything at Newmarket in his life, while in a parallel universe his younger self is rather surprised to discover that he's a millionaire and carries on quite happily thank you.” page 70
If you think that the parallel universes in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August are all stuff of fiction, listen to this story on NPR in which a physicist explains why parallel universes may exist.
Or read Professor’s Wiseman’s theory on parallel universes in the Huffington Post.
What do you think of the concept of parallel universes? Intriguing? Horrifying? Incomprehensible? Exciting?

Secrets and Regret 

While working in the Golan Heights, a farmer’s wife comes up to Harry and says he needs to let go of what he carries inside him; this is after Akinleye’s death. 
“‘the past is the past. You are alive today That is all that matters. You must remember, because it is who you are, but as it is who you are, you must never, ever regret. To regret your past is to regret your soul.” page 180 
How does that quote resonate with you? Do you think Harry’s past is like the past for a linear?
 Sometimes the need to share a regret or a secret with a stranger is very strong.
“private Harry Brookes poured his heart out to a distant stranger who made no reply, but I knew that what I needed was not so much the comfort of return , but to speak of what I had been. The telling was all, the reply merely a courtesy.” page 89 
Have you ever felt like Harry, that the telling was all?


Memory plays a significant role in the novel. In particular, the Forgetting is unique to kalachakra. In some ways it is to be feared and in some ways it allows a do-over. Harry tells Akinleye before her Forgetting that,
“A death of the mind, for us, exceeds a death of the body. There would be pain. There would be fear.” Page 262 
Virginia offers this perspective of memory to Harry,
“The mind struggles to re-create the job of a first kiss, but somehow manages to recall the terror of pain, the flush of humiliation and the burden of guild with a startling clarity.” page 109
 How is memory employed in the novel to benefit and to detriment? When do you wish you had clarity of memory and when have you been thankful for the veil that time draws across our memories?


Being reborn for a kalachakra can bring tedium, as Harry muses in considering his escape from Pietrok-112 which he knows is likely to be a suicide mission,
“I was prepared to go through with it as long as the information acquired appeared to outweigh the boredom death induced” page 174 
For us linears, who may fondly remember their youth and want to be young again, how does this resonate? Do you think returning to childhood would be tedious? Would it be more tedious if you remembered all you had learned as an adult?


As with the perspective on individual lives and childhoods, the perspective of the arc of history changes in reliving it. As Olga, the Leningrad Cronus Club gatekeeper, shares,
“‘Course now,’ she grumbled, ‘I can see their point of view. Takes having lived through the revolution to notice just how hungry the peasants are, and how angry the workers get then they run out of bread, but at the time, when they pulled the blindfold over my blood-soaked face, I knew I was right. The course of history!” page 151 
Or from a different angle, reliving makes the history itself hold less gravitas, as Virginia states,
“We have the privilege of seeing the present through the wisdom of the past, and frankly such an honor makes it very hard to take anything too seriously at all.” page 113 
The daily news we live or read about may appear vastly different when documented by historians of the future. Think back to a time period you lived and think about how it is now presented as historical. Where do the two align and where do they diverge? How does the perspective of time alter the connections between ‘facts’?

Living as a Kalachakra 

Harry meets many kalachakra with a range of approaches to being able to live multiple lives. From Fidel, who always follows the route of a soldier, to Akinleye, who lives the live of a hedonist to Virginia who cares for other kalachakra, to Harry who tries different professions in each of his lives, each kalachakra takes a unique approach to the ability to be reborn.

In Akinleye’s first lives she tells Harry:
“Then why get involved? For Christ’s sake, just sit back and enjoy yourself.” page 162 
Get involved or enjoy yourself; what kind of lives would you chose as a kalachakra?
Harry surreptitiously turns to his biological father as a soldier in a form of counseling after being tortured by Phearson. In the letter he receives, his father’s life as a solider is in many ways parallel to Harry’s as a kalachakra:
“Ours is the fellowship of strangers who know a secret that we cannot express. We are both of us broken, shattered, hollow and alone,” page 90 
What would it be like to relive the same century and hear glimpses of the future but never get there? Would you chose the life of a kalachakra given the chance?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Purity Book Discussion Guide

Photo of book Purity
Book:     Purity
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, hardcover, 2015

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book here are three reasons you may not. 
  1. If you need a quick read. This is a tome, which is obvious if you purchase a physical copy, but less obvious for an audio book (which I highly recommend). Not only are there a lot of words, but the interconnectedness of the characters, the character development and the weight and complexity of the words all weave together to create a novel that truly takes time and attention to read. 
  2. If you are looking for action. This is a novel about relationships, secrets, identity and trust. The moments of action frame the individual transformations from youthful idealism to practical understanding or rejection of the world we inhabit. 
  3. If you like novels that follow a chronological timeline. If Time Traveler’s Wife confused you with its time shifts, Purity will really mess with your temporal understanding. Characters melt into their past lives to reveal a critical turning point as they grew up and just as seamlessly re-emerge at a future point in time and pass the baton to a new character settling along some past moment on the timeline. 
However, if you're not in any of the above categories then I highly recommend Purity, especially the audio book. I listened to the audio book and the voices of the characters are outstanding and helped me track who was speaking. The only downside was not being able to mark all of the insightful quotes and critical turning points. 

Purity is a novel that deftly weaves together individual stories that resonate along themes of secrets, identity, trust, search for truth, tragedy and shedding youthful idealism. 

Internet Resources 

The Sunshine Project is modeled on Wikileaks and the contrast between the main stream media and the Sunshine Project is a major them throughout the novel. The New York Times has a 2010 blog that offers a good introduction to how Wikileaks was presented to the mainstream media and the New Yorker Magazine offers a good summary of the start of Wikileaks.

A 2011 New York Times article describes how Wikileaks developed and created a “ new paradigm of transparency and accountability” where “Traditional news organizations watched, first out of curiosity and then with competitive avidity, as WikiLeaks began to reveal classified government information that in some instances brought the lie to the official story.” 

The New York Times also offers a summary of stories on Assange.

For background on East Germany in the 1980s, here is a quick, easy-to-read account sharing  childhood memories of life in East Germany  and short descriptions of living in East Germany.

Franzen also incorporated less pivotal historical references such as Andreas’ interaction with Tad Milliken who bears a strong resemblance to the real life John Mcafee. Read this Wired article on Mcafee if you’re interested in Mcafee’s background.

Major Characters 

Pip (Purity) Tyler: 23-year old woman who grew up near Oakland, CA, raised by her single mother and searching for the truth of who her father is. 
Anabel Tyler: Pip’s mother, Tom’s ex-wife; living completely off the grid and on the far edge of the periphery of sanity. 
Stephen: Pip’s married roommate on whom Pip has a crush. 
Andreas Wolf: A man in in 50s who grew up in East Germany. He founded the Sunshine Project which is headquartered in Bolivia, has low scruples and leans strongly toward insanity. 
Katya Wolf: Andreas mother who suffers from mental illness. 
Annagret: Young German woman, molested by her step-father, whom she is complicit in murdering along with Andreas. 
Horst: Annagrets step father whom Andreas murders 
Leila Helou: Pulitzer-prize winning journalist married to Charles and having an affair with Tom. 
Tom Aberant: founder and editor of nonprofit Denver Independent and also Pip’s father 
Charles Blenheim: Author and Leila’s paraplegic husband 

Sections and Point of View 

Purity in Oakland                    Pip
The Republic of Bad Taste       Andreas
Too Much Information             Leila
Moonglow Diary                      Pip
[lelo9n8aOrd}                         Tom
The Killer                               Andreas
The Rain Comes                      Pip

Discussion Topics 

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for Purity which may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests and other books you may have discussed. Topics such as perspective, truth and secrets [link!] are common themes across novels and can serve as interesting points of comparison.


Pip begins the novel, sharing her perspective in the third person. Then the narrative thread is carried by Andreas, Leila and Tom in turn. In addition to switching narrators, the timeline shifts forward and backward both between sections and repeatedly within sections.

How did you find the language and tone change from Pip to the other three perspectives? How did having multiple perspectives enhance the completeness of the novel and your understanding of past lives? Which voice made the strongest impression on you? Which voice did you enjoy reading the most?

The sections told from the perspectives of Pip, Leila, and Andreas are all told in the third person, whereas Tom’s section is told in the first person. How did this change your reading of that section?

Trust, Search for Truth and Secrets 

Trust, truth and secrets are intertwined throughout the novel. From Pip’s search for the truth of who her father is to Leila’s search for the truth of the warhead story to the claim that the Sunshine Project shows light on truth, the power and elusiveness of truth is exposed.

Yet there is a fine line between truth and trust, between trust and secrets. As Pip tells Andreas (page 259),
“The more you try to tell me the truth the weirder this gets.”
Secrets and truth, lies and trust are intricately layered from the start to the end of the novel. Pip and Andreas’ relationships begins, unbeknownst to Pip, in deceit. Andreas has intentionally sought her out to have power over Tom. Yet, their initial emails talk about sharing a secret to ensure they will trust one another.

Similarly, Horst intertwines secrets and trust to gain power over Annagret, page 93, “Tell me a secret of your own, then I’ll know I can trust you,” Horst tells Annagret. and And in the end, Pip lies to both her mother and father about how she discovered the identity of her father.

After discovering who her father is, Pip thinks about, “how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power.” page 539.
Andreas only tells Pip and Tom his and Annagret’s secret of murdering Horst. Why does he reveal his secret to each of these individuals? How does it change his relationship with each of them?

Andrea’s biological father points out the irony in Andreas’ line of work, “pride and a certain gloating satisfaction, given that the last time we met, you were so uninterested in learning secrets. How the world turns, eh? Now secrets are your business.” page 475.

Contrast the personal secrets two individuals share with one another to the secrets the East German government keeps and the secrets the Sunshine Projects tries to expose.

How does secret keeping and secret revealing strengthen and ruin relationships in the novel? How can we minimize the detrimental effects of secrets in our own lives, while preserving relationships?

Parent Child Relationships 

Like truth and deceit, parent-child relationships are a strong pillar of the novel. Three parent- child relationships in particular are explored in detail: Pip and her mother, Annabel and her father, and Andreas and his mother.

In addition, neither Andreas nor Pip learn about their other biological parent until they are adults.

As she floats in the river in Belize, Pip thinks of her mother’s love, “the love that was a granite impediment at the center of her life was also an unshakable foundation; she felt blessed.” page 250. Later Cynthia points out to Pip that Pip’s mother, “created you to be what no one else can be for her.” page 539. And Pip agrees, Her mother had needed to give love and receive it. This was why she’d had Pip. Was that so monstrous?” page 540.

Andreas’ muses, “Mostly he heated her, but the potential for compassion continued to lurk in him.” page 479. And later, “She’d always liked everything about him. She, then world’s shittiest mother, was the best mother in the world for him.” page 504.

How does Franzen use layers of time and perspective to unveil the complexities of each of these parent-child relationships? How do your sympathies as a reader shift between the parent and child in each relationship as more detail is revealed?

Male-Female Power Opposition 

Balance of power in male-female relationships is portrayed graphically throughout the novel. Pip reflects on this as she reads about the Sunshine Project, page 58, and is “struck by how many of the exposures had to do with the oppression of women: not just big issues like rape as a war crime and wage inequalities as a deliberate policy but stuff as small as the luridly sexist emails of bank manager in Tennessee.”

Colleen describes her relationship with Andreas, page 254, “Have you even seen a man ballroom dancing with a woman who’s passed out? I feel like that woman. He moves my arms, he leads me around the floor. My head’s flopping like a rag doll’s, but I’m doing this usual dance moves. Like everything’s OK.” Pip has a similar perspective and ponders how Andreas’ fame and confidence reveals Pip’s willingness to submit and obey, page 260. And how “she liked taking orders from him. Liked it more than anything else about him.” page 287

How does Colleen escape from this oppression? Does Pip ever fully escape?


“The irony of the Internet… is that it’s made the journalist’s job so much easier You can research in five minutes what use to take five days. But the Internet is also killing journalism. There’s no substitute for the reporter who’s worked a beat for twenty years, who’s cultivated sources, who can see the difference between a story and a non-story. Google and Accurint can make you feel very smart, but the best stories come when you’re out in the field.” page 204.

And in an interview Leila comments, “The leakers just spew. It takes a journalist to collate and condense and conceptualize what they spew. We may not always have the best of motives, but at least we have some investment in civilization. We’re adults trying to communicate with other adults. The leaders are more like savages.” page 493

How does Leila’s perspective as a journalist relate to your view as a news consumer? Which news sources do you most value? What types of information outside of your community do you rely on? To what extent does the source of the story affect your reaction to a news story? How do you think various news consumers are affected by the source of a news story?


Throughout is interwoven humor. Two humorous quotes that I appreciated:
“A drawback of email was that you could only delete it once: couldn’t crumple it up, fling it to the floor, stomp on it, rip it to shreds, and burn it,” page 59. 
“Texans looked down on the other forty-nine states with a gracious kind of pity.” page 173
What quotes stuck with you?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Themed Groups of Books for your Book Group

As your group selects books, consider reading three or four in a row that have a common element. Here are four examples you might consider:

  1.  Art: The Goldfinch, The Girl You Left Behind and People of the Book are all worthy of in-depth discussion. Each approaches art from a very different perspective. 

  2.  Secrets: Secret-keeping is an incredibly common theme in well-written books— perhaps a secret compels an author to write. The Circle, The Death of Bees, Sarah’s Key, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain are four great choices. The first three are novels, each quite different from the other, the fourth is a non-fiction book which could be read as the first in the series. 

  3. End of Life: God’s Hotel, The Art of Racing in the Rain and Me Before You all incorporate characters facing the end of life both personally and through the eyes of another character. 

  4. Point of View: Eleven, Orphan Train and Let the Great World Spin each offer multiple points of view throughout the novel. But many other books could be added to this list as often an author changes the point of view as the time period shifts back and forth between the past and the present.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Circle Book Discussion Guide

Book:    The Circle
Author:  Dave Eggers
Edition:  Softcover, First Vintage Books, 2014

A novel that hits you over the head with its message of power and the power of controlling information right through the final soliloquy that spells the message out directly. The soliloquy may be directed at the reader who missed the obvious symbolism and direct commentary throughout the book, or, more likely, the reader who skim-read and needs to get the main points for English class tomorrow. 

Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, perhaps more so because I listened to it. The audio book reader is particularly adept conveying the frenetic pace of information overload.

The Circle offers a superb platform for high school English class discussions of the pros and cons of the volume of information collected and stored today and the power wielded by those who control it. Hopefully those youthful discussions can tease out the middle road: how to ensure a glass half full balances the collection, control and use of information today. 

Even though it completely lacks subtly and the primary characters are flat caricatures, adults may well enjoy this book as a launching point for discussing how we can balance the benefits and drawbacks of social media, gathering personal information and tracking individuals. And even more importantly, how to retain the humanity of relationships alongside our consumption of information.

Internet Resources

There are an abundance of resources on the changing face of privacy in the age of ubiquitous technology.  From the multitude of Ted Talks alone, here are two focused on why privacy matters that you can watch before your book discussion or even as a group and discuss them in real-time.

In his Ted Talk, Why Privacy Matters, Glenn Greenwald talks about how the internet has become a zone of mass indiscriminate surveillance and shares directly why there is harm in exposing privacy even when there is “nothing to hide.”

 The second talk is by Alessandro Acquisiti who talks about technology trends in surveillance and how we can do things differently.

The NPR podcast the Ted Radio Hour has a whole podcast on privacy, which includes sections of Acuisiti’s talk.  The show presents differing perspectives around the same issues, and helps to frame a discussion that laypeople can participate in without understanding the technology underlying the online privacy debate.

In addition, there are articles reflecting on all aspects of privacy from relationships to EU entanglements with Google, here are three from Wired:

Major Characters

Mae Holland, new employee to The Circle who becomes a spokesperson when she becomes the second Circler to become transparent
Mercer, one of Mae’s boyfriends in high school and college who doesn't share Mae's views of openness
Vinnie, Mae’s father, suffering from MS
Bonnie, Mae’s mother 
Annie, Mae’s college roommate and in the gang of 40, part of the inner Circle
Jared, Mae’s trainer as a new employee
Ty Gospodinov, The Circle’s boy-wonder visionary and founder, one of the Three Wise Men
Tom Stenton, The Circle CEO, cunning, and one of the Three Wise Men
Eamon Bailey, public face of The Circle, acts the stooge, and one of the Three Wise Men
Kalden, mysterious man whom Mae meets and turns out to be Ty

Discussion Topics

The following are offered as starting points for discussion to see how much variance and awareness there is among your book group members on technology. If you watch the Ted Talks or read the Wired articles or listen to the Ted Radio Hour, you will likely start many threads of conversation before you even have time to glance at the ones that follow.


How do you view relationships and the quality of relationships?  Is there a balance in your view between the quantity and quality of relationships you have? What is required to develop and nurture relationships?  How is this helped or at odds with new technologies?
“Every time I see or hear from you, it’s through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone’s wall…It’s always this third-party assault…. I just want to talk with you directly.  Without you bringing in every other stranger in the world who might have an option about me.” page 131-132


“I have yet to conjure a scenario where a secret does more good than harm. Secrets are the enablers of antisocial, immoral and destructive behavior.” page 291
“when there’s something kept secret, two things happen. One is that is makes crimes possible. We behave worse when we’re not accountable. That goes without saying. And second, secrets inspire speculation. When we don’t know what’s being hidden, we guess, we make up answers.” page 299.
Do you believe these are always outcomes of secrets?  Are there any scenarios you can imagine where sharing a secret is more harmful than beneficial?

If you have read The Death of Bees, People of the Book, or Sarah’s Key talk about the secrets and why they were kept and what harms and benefits followed from keeping or sharing the secret. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, presents a secret as a struggle between competing parts of the brain. 

The March 2014 issue of the Atlantic summarizes six studies on secret keeping in a short article titled "Why You Can't Keep a Secret".

Value of Solitude

When and where do you find solitude? What types of technology are you comfortable invading that space?  None? Your smart phone? Your computer? A friend’s smart phone? A public camera? A drone?

Public Safety versus Individual Privacy

TruYou creates “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person.” page 21.
Baily talks about everyone having “a right to know everything, and should have the tools to know anything” page 288.

The Circle creates ubiquitous, wireless cameras as small as a blade of grass.

How do you see each of these perspectives benefitting life for humanity?  How do you see each hindering our lives, either individually or collectively?  How can we balance the power of technology with the power of humanity and privacy?

How can we balance the value of important issued being raised with the loss of privacy that has emerged with the ubiquity of smart phones and their photographs and video? When and where should we have a right to privacy? When and where should we not expect to be able to be incognito? Do the circumstances vary more by place or by activity or by notoriety of the individual or by another dimension? 

Technology Trade-offs

Beyond safety and individual privacy there are a multitude of others tradeoffs around technology from power to expediency to comfort to control and on and on.  Which aspects of technology do you most value? Which do you find most threatening?

How comfortable are you with sharing information about yourself? Where are you aware of sharing your personal information? Where have you been surprised that your privacy has been invaded in the virtual or physical world?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

All The Light We Cannot See Discussion Guide

Book:    All The Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Edition:  Kindle

The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and a 2014 National Book Award Finalist, All the Light We Cannot See, offers the solitary reader an immersion in the tale of two children whose paths collide during WW II and for groups a palette of images that spur discussion on what feeling alive means to each of us and where we find our place of respite.

The characters quickly draw the reader in, fully realized in pithy image-full chapters. Werner, the child soldier, who, having been a bystander, has to decide whether to reach out to save a life; Madame Manec, wants to be alive before she dies by risking her life to aid the resistance and make a difference and Marie-Laure, who astutely observes, "what are words but sounds these men shape out of breath, weightless vapors they send into the air of the kitchen to dissipate and die," and who, as a child, grasps the inevitability of the world to keep spinning and "not pause for even an instant in its trip around the sun," as lives come and go and atrocities are inflicted upon innocent citizens.

If you want a novel to get to the essence of life and death this may be an excellent choice for your book group.

As a reader, I was reminded of the importance of making mistakes to get to the truth and how passion and making a difference can be invigorating and make a life worth living.

Internet Resources

All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015 and was a 2014 National Book Award finalist.

Look at a photo of Saint Malo to help place you in the village and understand why the Germans were able to hold it for so long.

Read a blog post of a traveler to Saint Malo and her interview with a woman who was 18 during the occupation who shares her memories.

If the theme of being human and being alive is an area you want to explore in more depth, here are two articles that offer additional breadth for your discussion: The Atlantic profiled Jean Vanier, who won an award from Templeton Foundation, on his views of what it means to by fully human— one of the strong themes of this novel.

Oliver Sacks wrote in the New York Times  about his perspective on life after having been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Major Characters

Marie-Laure LeBlanc, 16-year old blind French girl
Marie-Laure’s father, principal locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History and a widower
Uncle Etienne, Marie-Laure’s great uncle who is a WWI veteran and likely suffering PTSD, has visions and is mentally unable to leave his home in Saint Malo
Madame Manec, old housekeeper and caretaker for Etienne
Werner Pfennig, 18-year old German private, an orphan and self-taught radio engineer
Frederick, very skinny bunkmate of Werner’s who is a birder
Frank Volkheimer, large staff sergeant
Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, 41-years old, gemologist who archives confiscated treasures and is pursing the Sea of Flames
Jutta, Werner’s little sister, also an orphan
Frau Elena, Protestant nun who cares for Jutta, Werner and other orphans
Curse of the Sea of Flames: “the keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain… But if the keeper threw the diamond into the sea, thereby delivering it to its rightful recipient, the goddess  would lift the curse.” 

Discussion Topics


The theme of light permeates the novel far beyond the title.
When a lance corporal comes to the orphanage, “his handgun is black; it seems to draw all the light in the room toward it.”    
When Werner is trapped in the cellar following the bombing, he learns, “even total darkness is not quite darkness.”  
Marie-Laure notes that “out on the beaches, her privation and fear are rinsed away by wind and color and light.” 
The voice of Marie-Laure’s grandfather, from the recordings says, “So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?” 
Before Etienne carves a trapdoor out of the back of the wardrobe, all the lights are off both physically and metaphorically.

Finally, when Marie-Laure and Jutta meet as older women, Marie-Laure offers Jutta the one remaining recording of her grandfather, the one about the moon and light.

What does light represent in the novel?  How do you interpret the title of the novel?   What does light mean to you? How does physical light affect your daily rhythms and emotions?  What represents light in your life?


Books are Marie-Laure’s friends as she sits beside her father working and travels with explorers to worlds far beyond her own. They form a strong connection for her to the world around her.
“Marie-Laure reads Jules Verne in the key pound, on the toilet, in the corridors, she reads on the benches of the Grand Gallery and out along the hundred gravel paths of the gardens.  She reads the first half of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea so many times, she practically memorized it.”

For Werner and Jutta the radio is the epicenter of their connection to the outside world as well as Werner’s personal connection to is place in the army.
When Werner first gets the radio working in the orphanage: “the little radio with its four terminals and trailing aerial sits motionless on the floor between them all like a miracle.” 

In case, the mobility of the characters is limited, and each explores a larger world through these physical conduits. What else serves as a link between characters and the world? When are these connections a benefit and when do they become a hinderance? What has helped you or someone you know connect with the broader world when their mobility was limited?

Doing something

“Is it right,’ Jutta says, ‘to do something only because everyone else is doing it?” 
"Doing nothing is as good as collaborating,” Madame Manec states in chapter 84. 
Who among both the French and the Germans acts as the catalyst in going against the flow? How do each of these characters speak or act out, how is their divergence received and how are their lives impacted for better or worse by being a catalyst for change?

The expression of doing something rather than being a bystander has been emphasized as a moral imperative throughout history.

As Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient said,
“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”  

In 1999 he delivered a speech in Washington, D.C., titled, The Perils of Indifference.

In a modern setting Citylab columnist Laura Bliss shares some options for getting involved as a bystander to an assault on a subway.  

Whether standing up against violence against a group anywhere in the world, or standing up for a stranger you see on the street when and where are you comfortable getting involved? When have you stepped in and when have you remained a bystander?

Place of Respite

Marie Laure goes to the beach when she needs renewal.
“Her greatest pleasure is to walk to the north end of the beach at low tide and squat below an island that Madame Manec calls LeGrand Bé and let her fingers whisk around in the tide pools…She simply listens, hears, and breathes,” chapter 74. 

In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Marie reads as Captain Nemo says, “The sea does not belong to tyrants.”

Where do other characters find their place of respite? What other forms do respite take— do characters find renewal in relationships?  In such a dark, hopeless time a spark of hope is retained by the citizens of Saint Malo, especially those joining the resistance. Where did you see hope and renewal in the novel?

Being Alive

“Nearly every species that has ever lived has gone extinct, Laurette.  No reason to think we humans will be any different!”
“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” Madame Manec in chapter 84. 

How does Madame Manec embrace the feeling of being alive?  Who resists her change?  In time, Etienne joins in the resistance as he reads off the messages on the radio in the evening.  How is each representative of being more alive?

In a profile in the Atlantic, Jean Vanier talks about “a heart that is not filled with fear,” as an important aspect of being fully human.  Does this resonate with you? What does it mean to you to be fully alive?

In his Op Ed in the New York Times Oliver Sacks writes, “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour”every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.” 

 How is this line of thinking similar to Madame Manec and how is it in opposition to her action in the face of death? Which is closer to your perspective when you come to grips with the finite aspect of life?


Here are a few quotes that jumped out when I read.  What quotes stuck with you?
“the little radio with its four terminals and trailing aerial sits motionless on the floor between them all like a miracle.”
“open your eyes, concludes the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever.” from a recording created by Marie-Laure’s grandfather.
When eating peaches observing they are like "A sunrise in his mouth.”
"Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the was was memory falls out of the world."

Friday, March 6, 2015

God's Hotel Book Club Discussion Questions

Book:    God’s Hotel
Author:  Victoria Sweet
Edition:  Hardcover, Penguin Books, 2012

The author presents a series of vignettes around her interactions with her patients as well as delving into premodern medicine, etymologies, pilgrimages and hospital bureaucracy, all from the perspective of a doctor healing the whole patient.  I particularly enjoyed her lessons in etymology and the feeling that a word invokes.

The issues Victoria Sweet raises affect the entire ecosystem associated with the person receiving care, from the complex makeup of the human body and spirit to the numerous roles of the individuals swirling around providing care directly and indirectly.  Your book group may find a discussion of God’s Hotel particularly satisfying if your group members have participated in healthcare in different roles from caregiver to patient to doctor to administrator to policy maker.

The one downside I found in the book is the author’s reticence to present the benefits of change in a balanced view.  The doctor alludes to the many negative repercussions of change at Laguna Honda, the increase in staff who are not directly connected to patients, the reticence of the architects to get to know their clients (which, sadly, is a common problem across all business and should be the first pillar of business—get to know your customer in person: watch and listen and follow), the multitude of policy changes which took time away from being with patients. Yet she only tangentially points out some of the negatives of the old building— a patient who fell out of a window, the ongoing use of illicit drugs and frequent smoking among patients and visitors, the noise of the open ward making it more difficult to sleep. Discussing the author’s ability to manage change and how we each react to change may be a lively conversation for your group.

Internet Resources

Online resources abound for many nonfiction books, including God’s Hotel. The Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center has an in-depth website including a 3-minute video which summarizes the rebuilding of Laguna Honda from the perspective of policy makers, administrators, architects and even the resident council. Their perspective presents a view of intentionally creating a green and community-focused space inline with the principles Sweet cherished in the old hospital. There is also a synopsis of its history.

Sweet offers an excellent outline of The System of Fours on page 181.  Medical News Today has a summary of European Medieval and Renaissance Medicine including the four humors and the hospital system both of which align with Sweet’s writing, but may fill in some gaps for the reader or at least summarize the material all in one place.

The British Almshouse Association provides a history of almhouses in the U.K. as well as an understanding of the almshouse movement today.

Major Characters

Sweet shares vignettes about a wide variety of patients, doctors and administrators.  Here is a sampling of some. Find the stories that touched you most deeply, which may not be among those listed here.

Dr. S: the author Victoria Sweet
Hildegard of Bingen: 12th century “German mystic, theologian and, amazingly, medical practioner”
Dr. Major: the medical director when Dr. S arrives at Laguna Honda
Dr. Fintner: half-time admitting doctor with whom Dr. S job shares
Dr. Jeffers: doctor in admitting with Dr. S
Mrs. McCoy: patient who arrives on verge of death and whom Dr. S returns to wellness. Mrs. McCoy gives Dr. S a plant.
Jimmy: crazy patient who looked and sounded great once on antipsychotic medications yet who refused to take medications, got himself discharged and died.
Dr. Stein: director of public health, recommends building a new health-care facility
Dr. Curtis: assistant medical director who goes out and buys a patient shoes instead of waiting for Medicaid to approve purchase
Terry Becker: street person, heroin addict, prostitute admitted for rehabilitation following inflammation of the spinal cord with whom Dr. S successfully practices Hildegard’s prescription of fortifying her viriditas and who is discharged in good health to her family in Arkansas
Mr. Bramwell: patient admitted for dementia who dances at the Valentine’s Day Dance exhibiting anima
Lorna Mae: Mr. Bramwell’s sister-in-law from whom Dr. S realizes the true meaning of hospitality
Rosalind: traveling companion with Dr. S on pilgrimage
Paul Bennett: patient with extreme sores who needs to have both legs amputated
Radka Semonovna: Bulgarian-born patient who sees America as a generous country
Meng Tam: patient with a DNR who is "pretty much dead", with his anima half in life, half in death, and returns to the side of life with basic interactions

Discussion Topics

As with so many good book discussions, a conversation starting with God’s Hotel can easily move from stories of specific characters to extensive discussions of policy.  The following topics are intended to offer a sampling from very book-focused topics, to connections with current policy and individuals’ personal experiences with healthcare and more broadly, our reactions to change.  


The author explains a multitude of words associated with the body and soul and care-giving.  A few of those are quoted here.

“Spiritus was breath, the regular, rhythmic breathing of the live body that is so shockingly absent from the dead.  Spiritus is what is exhaled in the last breath.” page 2
Anima is the invisible force that animates the body, that moves it, not only willfully but also unconsciously— all those little movements that the living body makes all the time.” page 3.
Viriditas meant greeness… [Hildegard] used it to mean the power of plants to put forth leaves, flowers, and fruits; and she also use it for the analogous power of human beings to grow, to give birth, and to heal.” page 86
Physis — the individual nature of each person— also gives us the word physician.  The physician is the person who studies physics, the individual nature of his patient, who understands and follows its lead.” page 100
“the root of hospitality is hospes, which can mean either ‘guest’ or ‘host’”… The essence of hospitality – hospes – is that guest and host are identical, if not in the moment, then at some moment. Whatever our current role, it was temporary.” page 175. 
Community comes from the Latin communio, … Communio is a verb from moon — wall — and means ‘to build a wall around.’ So a community is defined by the wall — symbolic or otherwise— around it. Everything inside the wall is the community, and everything outside the wall isn’t… But common as a noun derives from munis — gift; so common also means ‘those who share a gift in common.” page 197.
Which words did you find most intriguing?  How does thinking through the source of a word affect how you think about words and their descendants?


Select several of the characters Dr. S attends.  Which did you find most troubling? Which were most hopeful? How would their outcome have been different if the individual was in a community near you?

Consider the perspective of the varying nurses, policy makers, administrators, and doctors. How does Sweet present a complete picture of each individual for the reader?  Did you feel that the depictions of any of the characters were especially objective or especially biased? How can an author present the most impartial perspective in a work of nonfiction when she is a character in the writing? Do you prefer impartiality or an accounting with personal perspective?

Premodern Medicine

If you are interested in premodern medicine, the author presents the essence of how care-giving for the sick was delivered and the premodern understanding of the body and healing in a very accessible manner for someone who is not versed in medical terminology.

The four basic elements of “Earth, Water, Air and Fire. That is, with good nutrition – tasty food, vitamins, liquids, deep sleep, fresh air, and sunlight,” are a foundation of premodern medicine. Or as Hildegard framed her regimes, what Dr. Diet (eat and drink), Dr. Quiet (exercise and rest) and Dr. Merryman (emotions and sex) would prescribe.  Looking at some of the vignettes you found most appealing, which elements were most important in healing? How were the elements combined with the capabilities of modern medicine to create the most positive outcome? In what ways do you personally adhere to the essence of the four elements? In what ways do you rely on the benefits of modern medicine?


The transition to sterile terminology in healthcare has perhaps led or perhaps followed a transition away from personal care to streamlined, theoretically efficient care. The author challenges whether streamlined care is actually more efficient. What is your perspective on the author’s hypothesis that
“Slow Medicine provides as good a medical outcome as does Modern Efficient Health Care, while being less expensive and more satisfying for patients, families and staff.” page 315 ?
How does Mr. Rapman’s recovery represent a blending of modern medicine and premodern medicine?


The themes in God’s Hotel go far beyond medicine. At the core, this is a book about the essence of care and relationships, which the author directly acknowledges, and importantly about a reticence to accept change, which the author clearly feels, though doesn't address head-on. Change is hard.  And when you are not the instigator of the change, it can be exceedingly difficult to accept the opportunity that change brings, instead focusing only on what has been discarded.   Sweet talks about Miss Lester’s involvement in encourage a “yes” vote,
“She wrote: ‘… I am convinced that Laguna Honda must forever be part of our city.  Vote Yes on Proposition A,’” page 178. 
Who else took a stand on one side or the other as the hospital was transformed? How did the author participate in the ongoing changes at Laguna Honda?

When Dr. Talley starts as the new medical director, she tells the doctors that
“it was time for medicine to say yes instead of no to change,” page 327.  
How had medicine been saying no to change? When have you been an active proponent of change?  When have you actively resisted change? When have you stayed on the sidelines? In public policy? At work? In your family? Which role was easiest?  Most difficult? Most frustrating? Most satisfying?

What do you see as some of the basic elements to create acceptance of change when you believe change is for the better?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

3 Light-hearted Romance Novels for Valentine's Day

Snowed in for the weekend and your valentine is snowed out?  Fifty Shades of Grey not your choice for light romantic reading? Here are three quick weekend reads for your light-hearted reading indulgence. 

Blessed Are the Cheesemakers by Sarah-Kate Lynch 

Falling in love comes alive on so many levels in this quick and witty read.  I was unable to contain my laughter and a tear or two reading this light-hearted tale. And it's great for a re-read.  Even as the snow piles up outside the reader can be transported to green pastures in Ireland.

Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray

The couple in this romance are in their 60s and living in Somerville outside of Boston, so if you happen to fall into either of those two categories you will likely find much to connect with. But even for younger readers who live elsewhere, Julie and Romeo is a good reminder that romance is ageless.

Attachements by Rainbow Rowell

This quick read is sweet— fun, laugh out loud, true, romantic.  If you remember the 1990’s as a college graduate, remember being first married, remember falling in love before you actually had a conversation with the aim of your affection, remember your first big breakup, then open this book and smile.

All three are a bit fairytale-like, but then if you’re avoiding shoveling the snow, you could probably use a good fairytale.