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. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Unbroken Book Discussion Guide and Discussion Questions

Book:    Unbroken
Author:  Laura Hillenbrand
Edition:  Hardcover, Randomhouse, 2010
You can purchase Unbroken online at Hugo Bookstores.

Internet Resources

There are a plethora of internet resources on Louie Zamperini, the specific battles he fought in and the camps where he was held.  The following are just a couple of the articles that are helpful background reading geared toward the discussion topics below.

On Veteran's Day November 2014 the Atlantic published an interview with Louis Zamperini based on conversations between Zamperini and the article's author in 2010 and 2011.

The New York Times book review of Unbroken presents a viewpoint on the author's writing style that is helpful to consider as one point of view in contrast with a more recent New York Times Magazine article.  The New York Times Magazine published an article on Laura Hillenbrand as an author and as an individual dealing with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  The article also talks about the writing style in this and other contemporary nonfiction writing.

A Japanese student who moved to Australia as a teenager, talks about the history education Japanese students receive today in his BBC article.  Reading this article may provide a segue to a discussion on how history varies dramatically by who is doing the teaching.  

Major Characters

The author’s book website has photos and summaries of the seven of the major characters.  and two of the planes.
Louie Zamperini: 1936 track Olympian and bombardier in Pacific in WWII.  Survived crash of Green Hornet with Phil and Mac.
Lt. Russell Allen Phillips (Phil): pilot of both the Super Man and the Green Hornet when it crashed. On raft and taken prisoner with Louie.
Stanley Pillsbury: engineer and top turret gunner on Super Man.  Leg shredded in battle of Nauru.
Francis McNamara (Mac): Tail-gunner and third man to survive the crash of the Green Hornet. Dies at sea in raft.
Pete Zamperini: Louie’s brother.
Cecy Perry: Phil’s fiancee. 
Payton Jordan: Louie’s best friend at USC and a sprinter.
Lt. William Harris: prisoner at Ofuna with Louie.
Frank Tinker: dive-bomber pilot. At Ofuna, Omori and Naoetsu with Louie. Plans escape from Omori with Louie and Harris, but scuttle plans.
Commander Fitzgerald: at Ofuna, Omori and Naoetsu with Louie. Second POW in rank at Ofuna. Senior POW at Naoetsu.
William (Bill) Harris: at Ofuna and Omori with Louie. Plans escape from Omori with Louie and Tinker, but scuttle plans.
Quack: vicious guard at Ofuna.
Tom Wade: British Lieutenant at Omori and Naoetsu with Louie.
Mutsuhiro Wantanabe (The Bird)psychopathic sadist and Japanese POW camp guard.
Jimmie Sasaki: Japanese friend of Louie’s at USC whose sympathizes are unknown.


Torrance, California: Louie’s hometown.
Kahuku: beachside base in Hawaii where Louie and Phil are stationed after training.
Funafuti: tiny atoll from which the attack of Nauru was launched.
Nauru: tiny atoll 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii which Japan seized in August 1942 where phosphate was mined.
Kualoa: Base from which Louie and Phil take off in the Green Hornet to look for Corpening’s B-24 and then crash.
Marshall Islands: Where Louie and Phil’s raft washes ashore after 46 days at sea in the Pacific.
Kwajalein: Known as Execution Island. First atoll Louie and Phil are transported to after being captured by Japanese. Spend 42 days here. 
Ofuna: Louie and Phil sent here after Kwajalein. Louie spends a year and 15 days in this “secret interrogation center where ‘high-value’ captured men were housed in solitary confinement, starved, tormented, and tortured to divulge military secrets.”
Omori: POW camp outside Tokyo where Louie first meets The Bird.
Naoetsu: Louie’s final Japanese POW camp on distant reaches of Japan.

Discussion Topics


The writing style of this biography is very factual, with little dialogue.  As described in the New York Times magazine December 21, 2014,
“The release of “Seabiscuit” in 2001 coincided with a shift underway in nonfiction writing. Hillenbrand belongs to a generation of writers who emerged in response to the stylistic explosion of the 1960s. Pioneers of New Journalism like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer wanted to blur the line between literature and reportage by infusing true stories with verbal pyrotechnics and eccentric narrative voice. But many of the writers who began to appear in the 1990s — Susan Orlean, Erik Larson, Jon Krakauer, Katherine Boo and Nathaniel Philbrick — approached the craft of narrative journalism in a quieter way. They still built stories around characters and scenes, with dialogue and interior perspective, but they cast aside the linguistic showmanship that drew attention to the writing itself.”
While an earlier New York Times book review in 2010 criticizes the author for the lack of voice of Louie Zamperini:
“But virtually everything about Zamperini is filtered through her capable yet rather denatured voice, and we don’t really hear him. So, while a startling narrative and an inspirational book of a rather traditional sort, “Unbroken” is also a wasted opportunity to break new psychological ground.
How could someone with such access — she interviewed Zamperini 75 times — fall short in this fashion? Hillenbrand may have gotten too close to Zamperini. Writing, even about heroes, must to some degree be an adversarial process.”
How did you react to the writing style? Were you drawn in or held at arms’ distance?  Would you have preferred a more personal voice, or did lack of dialogue hold appeal for you?

Author’s Story

Laura Hillenbrand has her own story of individual struggle and facing adversity. If you are a New Yorker subscriber you can read her story she wrote on her illness,  Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,  or at least read the abstract.
“I asked whether she was ready to begin thinking about a new book, and she smiled. ‘Yeah, I feel so fully alive when I’m really into a story,’ she said. “I feel like all my faculties are engaged, and this is where I’m meant to be. It’s probably what a racehorse feels like when it runs. This is what it’s meant to do, what its body is meant to do.” She paused. ‘This is what my mind is meant to do.’”


Hillenbrand uses the word “hero” and “heroism” very sparingly. The following are nearly the only times hero is used.  Glenn Cunningham is referred to as Louie’s hero.  The airmen in general are referred to as heros. Phil is referred to as a hero twice and Commander Fitzgerald, also in the POW camp, was noted as recognized for his heroism. In two instances, Japanese are referred to as heros— once some civilians and once a POW camp guard.
“Louie has his hero,“ page 16, referring to Glenn Cunningham.
“He had hoped to pad around with Glenn Cunningham, but his hero proved too mature for him,“ page 35, again Zamperini’s view of Cunningham.
“News of the raid broke, and the men were lauded as heroes,” page 77, after the Wake Atoll raid.
“Chaplain Phillips had carried clippings about the raid to the offices of a local newspaper, which had run a story on Allen’s heroism,“ page 136.
“After the war, some POWs would tell of heroic Japanese civilians who such them food and medicine, injuring ferocious beatings from guards when they were caught,” page 225.
When Fitzgerald got home, he would be honored with the Navy Cross and the Silver Star for his heroism in combat and in the POW camp, page 318 footnote referring to the Commander John Fitzgerald, ranking officer who stayed behind in the POW camp with the sickest POWs after liberation.
“Four weeks later, in a wedding ceremony officiated by Reverend Phillips at Cecy’s parents’ house, the hero finally got the girl,” page 328 referring to Allen Phillips, ‘Phil’.
“Of the postwar stories of the men who ran the camps in which Louis had lived, the saddest was that of Yukichi Kano, the Omori private who’d risked everything to protect the POWs and had probably saved several prisoners’ lives… Kano was a hero, but when the Americans came to liberate the camp, two of them tried to rip the insignia off his uniform…Kano was arrested and jailed as a suspected war criminal…He was mentioned in many POW affidavits and, in everyone, was lauded for his kindness.” page 357.
At the end of her interview on NPR, Hillenbrand says, “I feel like anybody who puts on a uniform and fights for their country is heroic, that’s an amazing self-sacrifice… I don’t though want to separate him from all the other men around him who did the same thing.  They are all extraordinary. I want him to be representative of all of them, rather than somebody who stands apart from them.”

What does hero mean to you? How do you think the meaning of hero as changed over the years? Do you think as Hillenbrand states that “anybody who puts on a uniform and fights for their country is heroic?” Is your definition broader or more narrow? Whom do you know personally who has been a hero in your life?

Moving Forward After Loss

Loss was extraordinary for the servicemen and women serving, for families at home, for civilians and countries, for everyone during World War II.  Zamperini sank into alcoholism to deal with his loss. Many individuals committed suicide; rage was bottled up or violently expressed depending on the individual affected.  Similarly whole communities and countries responded to their loss and continued to come to terms with actions and repercussions decades afterwards. Hillenbrand traces some of these stories, the individual and the country-wide responses, in her epilogue. 

Talk through responses you have expressed or witness responding to loss. How is an individual’s loss similar to and distinct from the loss experienced by a community or a country? How can we reach out and support those who have experienced loss, or reach out and receive support for our own loss?

Crimes Against Humanity

   The States Parties to this Statute,
         Conscious that all peoples are united by common bonds, their cultures pieced together in a shared heritage, and concerned that this delicate mosaic may be shattered at any time,
         Mindful that during this century millions of children, women and men have been victims of unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity,
         Recognizing that such grave crimes threaten the peace, security and well-being of the world,
         Affirming that the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished and that their effective prosecution must be ensured by taking measures at the national level and by enhancing international cooperation,
         Determined to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes and thus to contribute to the prevention of such crimes,
         Recalling that it is the duty of every State to exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes,
         Reaffirming the Purposes and Principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular that all States shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations,
         Emphasizing in this connection that nothing in this Statute shall be taken as authorizing any State Party to intervene in an armed conflict or in the internal affairs of any State,
         Determined to these ends and for the sake of present and future generations, to establish an independent permanent International Criminal Court in relationship with the United Nations system, with jurisdiction over the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole,
         Emphasizing that the International Criminal Court established under this Statute shall be complementary to national criminal jurisdictions,
         Resolved to guarantee lasting respect for and the enforcement of international justice,      
Have agreed as follows.”
In addition to the crimes during World War I and World War II, the Slave Trade, Apartheid, Rwanda, the Armenian Genocide, and Pol Pot sadly represent a few of the unimaginable atrocities that have threatened the peace, security and well-being of the world. 

How does humanity have the capacity for such atrocity? How can we work to reduce and eliminate this human capacity?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Eleven Book Discussion Guide

Book:    Eleven
Author:  Mark Watson
Edition:  Softcover, Scribner, 2011

You can purchase Eleven online at Hugo Bookstores.
Eleven by Mark Watson, offers up themes of moving forward after a loss and the interconnections among people akin to the butterfly effect of a small distant change causing large changes at a later point in time.  These effects are like a web of connections that we are either trapped in or spinning as we go depending on your perspective. The characters are realistic and the humor of London lives bubbles gently throughout, even as the protagonist wrestles with his own loss and connections.
Your book group may enjoy this as a quicker read after a lengthy novel or paired with The Emperor of Paris which is like holding the threads of multiple characters as they slide between he pages of the book and drift from the past to present to past, creating ripples as they gently bump against one another; each telling his or her now story and also sharing the story of storiesTwo very different writing styles, two different European capitals, one excellent theme to explore.

Internet Resources

Xavier’s need to retrieve his darkest memory from “the vault” is akin to the real life story of Martin Pistorius “leaning into those dark thoughts” in order to move forward.  Listen to Martin’s story on and his work at re-engaging with his thoughts, similar to what the fictional Xavier needed to do to move forward.
The Buddhist short story of Indra’s Net and can be a launching point for a discussion of how your book group members views interconnectedness and whether the connections are predestined or created by human choice.
Huffington Post article summarizes the story of Indra’s net and compares the interconnectedness it espouses to the internet and modern events. This very short article may stimulate conversation on the connected nature of world events.

Major and Intertwined Characters

Xavier Ireland: Protagonist and late nigh DJ (was Chris Cotswold when he lived in Australia)
Murray : Xavier’s sidekick who has a stammer
Pippa: professional cleaner who meets Xavier speed dating
Clive Donald: depressed teacher who calls in to Xavier’s late night show
Frankie Carstairs: young teenage boy who is a victim of bullying where Xavier only half-heartedly intercedes
Jacqueline Carstairs: Frankie’s mother and food journalist who skewers Chico’s restaurant in a review
Andrew Ryan: owner of Chico’s
Julius Brown: Obese high school student in Clive’s class who loses his restaurant job at Chico’s
Ollie Harper: realtor for Frinton and man whose BlackBerry Julius steals
Roger Willis: Ollie’s boss whom Ollie accidentally texts, and client of Maggie Reiss
Dr. Maggie Reiss: psychotherapist to the rich and famous, who exposes her clients’ secrets
Stacey Collins: Journalist and friend of Maggie’s
Edith Thorne: well-known TV presenter whose affairs Maggie exposes to Stacey and Stacey publishes
Alessandro Romano: barman with whom Edith had an affair
Jamie: three-year-old boy who lives in flat below Xavier Mel: Jamie’s mother
Tamara: council officer who lives in flat above Xavier
Bec, Matilda and Russel: Xavier’s best friends when he lived in Austraila. Bec and Russel married and had a son, Michael
Vijay: Usual winner at the monthly Scrabble tournaments Xavier competes in
Wendy: Pippa’s sister
Iris: caller to radio show reading the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire who mentions encounter with Tony 50-plus years ago.
Gemma: woman Xavier meets speed dating who attends movie with him, they enjoy a one-night stand and realize they have little in common

Discussion Topics

The softcover edition has some particularly good launching points for a book group discussion at the back of the book.  The following topics expand upon those questions and compare this novel to other stories of fact and fiction that also deal with similar themes such as moving forward after loss, the interconnectedness among humans, and having a positive impact on a stranger or a friend.

Point of View

The omniscient narrator frequently foretells the future, sharing that Jamie will “one day develop an antibody against two types of cancer” down to the day “in twenty-three years’ time that he’ll submit a Ph.D. proposal leading to the work which achieves a small breakthrough against two types of cancer.” page 99,  or the death of the Indian shopkeeper in “three years time,” page 160.
How does this voice magnify the novel’s themes? Did you find it irritating? Comforting? Did you even notice the forays into the future? How would the book have changed if it were told by Xavier or another character?

Interconnectedness among people and taking responsiblity 

The first half of the sequence of actions is described:
“but now is the moment, because Roger got angry over her bathroom visit, because he’s upset over a text, mis-sent because of an unfamiliar phone, used because another phone was stolen, because a boy was sacked over a tantrum provoked by a review, which was fuelled by anger at a beating-up which Xavier failed to stop on that cold day a few weeks ago.” page 156.
How does the remainder of the sequence play out?  What other sequences of unknown or known interconnectedness did you note? Which characters took responsibility for their situation and corresponding actions?

As a teacher, Clive’s impact through his connections is summed up:
“he realizes that every person is connected to every other, and therefore that every lesson he teaches — all those poxy graphs, those weary reprimands to the fat-necked youth eating crisps at the back — has its consequences. Everything has a chance of mattering.” page 256
Edith sums up her philosophy,
“Really you can be responsible for anyone’s feelings, thinks Edith, approving of her face in the mirror.  You can’t be responsible for what happens to other people. You just have to live your life.” page 265
How are “everything has a chance of mattering” and “you can’t be responsible for what happens to other people” opposed?  How are they complimentary? Are they two sides of the same coin? Or, perhaps they can’t be neatly boxed, 
“This is where the story could end, but it doesn’t; life isn't so neat” page 256.
The concept of interconnectedness has been explored for millennia.  Read the story of Indra’s net which is simply retold online as a workshop story.  

The concept and play of the same name, Six Degrees of Separation, explores the theory that everything is separated from every other person by six or fewer degrees or steps.  Compare these concepts of connections to the chain of 11 events. What metaphor do you like to use for expressing the impacts that we have on one another of which we aren’t even aware? Do you ever think about the individuals who have had a significant impact on your life who are not even aware of their impact or the impact you have had on others of which you are not aware?

Moving Forward After Loss

Listen to NPRs All Things Considered story on Martin Pistorius who fell into a mysterious coma and had only his own thoughts as his mind began to awaken.  
Compare the interviewer’s description of Martin first trying to disengage from his thoughts to Xavier sealing his memory from Australia in a vault. From the interview:
“You don’t think about anything, you simply exist.” 
“You are in a sense allowing yourself to vanish.” 
Martin’s interviewer explains how Martin made a “decision to lean into those dark thoughts," described at the following time intervals in the online interview:
At time 7:39 “Now when a dark thought came up instead of just letting it float by he would take it on.”At 8:17 “Martin found a way to reframe, reinterpret even the ugliest thoughts that haunted him.”At 8:49 “Overtime Martin began re-engaging with his thoughts.”
At 10:05 “Martin thinks it may have been his decision to lean into those dark thoughts that helped him to get the very best thing in his life”
Compare this expression with Xavier’s allowing 
“himself to retrieve from the vault the full memory of 11 July 2003,” page 180.
When have you had to revisit, or lean into dark thoughts, in order to move forward after loss?  When has it been helpful to revisit a difficult memory?  What are the negative consequences of returning to a particularly painful memory? 

Comparisons to Other Stories

Eleven offers the opportunity to be paired with another book such as Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, The Emperor of Paris by C.S. Richardson or I am the Messenger Markus Zusak, or the movie Love Actually. Pair Eleven with any book or movie where seemingly unrelated human lives are loosely interwoven, often without the individuals involved even aware of the connections.
While the primary characters are common through Cannery Row, there are a series of connected vignettes that have parallels to the connections among the strangers in Eleven. Near the end of Cannery Row, Mack and the boys are "the stone dropped in the pool, the impulse of which sent out ripples to all of Cannery Row and beyond." Couple a discussion of Cannery Row with Eleven.  How is your view of the universe aligned or at odd's with the order or chaos present in both Eleven and Cannery Row
I am the Messenger has parallels to this novel as characters tangentially related to the protagonist stream through the pages.  Both offer omniscient narrators, and both Ed, in I am the Messenger, and Xavier are generally likable characters whose roles center on helping out friends and strangers.
Love Actually is a romantic-comedy whose characters are linked to one-another, some more, some less, and the viewer is aware of the connections while the characters are only tangentially aware of many of the relationships.


What quotes jumped out as you read?
“She whips out her BlackBerry — people all over the room are doing this each time they move between conversations, as if the gadgets contain instructions on how to move” page 126

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 MirĂ³ 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.