Friday, July 4, 2014

The Art of Racing in the Rain Discussion Guide

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

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

Major Characters

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


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

Discussion Topics

Overarching Theme

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

That Which You Manifest is Before You

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Pg 315 letting Enzo go.

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

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

Living in the present

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

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

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

Interactions Between Characters

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

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

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

Additional Interesting Passages

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

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

What passages and themes struck a chord with you? 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Read it and laugh: Where'd You Go Bernadette

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

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

Saturday, June 14, 2014

People of the Book

Book:     People of the Book
Author:  Geraldine Brooks

You can purchase People of the Book online at Hugo Bookstores.

Online Resources

For this novel I found it helpful and interesting to have each participant in the discussion do some specific research prior to the discussion. I asked each person to pick one of the time and place periods in the books (e.g. Vienna 1940), and do some basic online research to present to the group. While the author presents some context for each, getting a broader historical view of the Spanish Inquisition, for instance, helped us to have a richer discussion. 

Second, I brought in my computer with online images of the Haggadah. You can see photographs of many of the illuminations.  The Seder dinner with the black woman at the table and the creation illumination are both shown on Temple Israel of Westport Library blog. I was not able to find the illumination showing the dark shapes painted over each child’s mouth representing death of the first born. 

Third, I recommend reading The Book of Exodus, an archived article written by Geraldine Brooks from the December 3, New Yorker magazine, which explains the history of the Korkuts and the Haggadah. 

Major Characters

Dr. Hanna Heath, 30 year old conservator, from Australia
Dr. Ozren Karaman, the librarian in Sarajevo—saved Haggadah
Alia, Ozren’s toddler in a coma from gunshot during Bosnian war
Amalie Sutter, entomologist in Vienna, studies butterfly wing
Werner Heinrich, Viennese specialist in Hebrew manuscripts, speculates about losts clasps
Razmus Kanaha, chief conservation scientist at the Fogg museum, studies wine and blood stains
Delilah Sharansky, Hanna’s jewish grandmother
Clarissa Montague-Morgan, forensic specialist who examines hair

Vienna 1940
Lola, jew, laundresses’ and janitor’s daughter, hidden by Kamal’s after her family is taken by Nazis
Dora, Lola’s little sister
Rashelo and Lugo, Lola’s parents
Stela and Serif Kamal, wealthy Muslims who hide Lola and save Haggadah
Ina, Isak’s little sister, escapes with Lola
Josip Boscovic, museum director

Vienna 1894
Franz Hirschfeldt, jewish doctor serving Viennese aristocrats
David, Franz’ fencing brother
Herr Florien Mittl, book binder with syphilis (or other STD), steals sterling clasps to pay for medical treatment
Rosalind, Franz’ mistress
Anna, Franz’ wife

Venice 1609
Giovanni Domenico Vistorini, parish priest and book censor. Kept book from being burned.
Rabbi Judah Aryeh Dona reyna de Serena, fled Portugal as a Jew, ostensibly converted to Christianity. Wealthy, supporter of the Geto community. Received Haggadah from family manservant in Portugal

Tarragona 1492
David Ben Shoushan, Hebrew scribe who wrote the haggadah intended as a gift for his nephew; beaten to death by Spanish soldiers
Miriam, David’s wife
Ruti, Miriam and David’s daughter. Takes Rosa’s son and converts him into a Jew by immersion; saltwater gets on the Haggadah
Rueben, Miriam and David’s son who converted and is tortured by inquisition
Rosa, Rueben’s wife who believes her son is still born

Sevile 1480
Hooman, slave owner
Zahra, unnamed girl slave painter
Kebira, old woman in emir’s palace
Nura/Isabella, Emir’s wife
Pedro, Isabella’s brother
Netane haLevi, Jewish doctor
Benjamin, deaf son of doctor


Hanna Sarajevo, Spring 1996
An Insect’s Wing Sarajevo, 1940; Haggadah is hidden in mountains
Hanna Vienna, Spring 1996
Feathers and a Rose Vienna, 1894; silver clasps etched with feathers enclosing a rose are traded for medical treatment
Hanna Vienna, Spring 1996
Wine Stains Venice, 1609
Hanna Boston, Spring 1996
Saltwater Tarragona, 1492
Hanna London, Spring 1996
A White Hair Seville, 1480
Hanna Sarajevo, Spring 1996
Lola Jerusalem, 2002
Hanna Arnhem Land, Gunumeleng, 2002

Discussion Topics 


"The book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You’ve got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything’s humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize ‘the other’ – it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists… same old, same old. It seems to me the book, a this point, bears witness to all that,” page 195. 
How well did the novel present the Haggadah as being witness to ‘human disaster over and over again’? Historically who was being discriminated against in each of the time periods? What attributes created the discrimination? Who fought against discrimination? What parallels can you draw to discrimination in your own community? How do you believe discrimination best defeated?

Just a few quotes from the book that call out acts and results of discrimination toward Jews over the centuries:
"Waidhofen manifesto—a Jew is without honor from the day of his birth," page 114.
Jews were banned from the trade of publishing, page 151.
"Jews and Arabs had been fined, imprisoned, even put to death for lesser blasphemies than these," page 151.
“How many small humiliations had it taken to bow him over into that cringing stoop," page 151.
“Baiting the Jews had been a favorite sport for some of the youths,” page 158.
“[Jews] were allowed to pursue only three trades: pawnbrokers, providing inexpensive credit to poor Venetians’ strazzaria dealers, buying and selling used goods or foreign traders… they were permitted to live only in the small area that had once been the city’s iron foundry, or Geto,” page 15
“Aryeh was unsure how the gondolier would feel about being touched by a Jew,” page 160.
"Venice gives you a safe home, and you do not keep within the few rules she requires of you,” page 187.
During the Spanish inquisition in Tarragona “they have taken the capitulation of Granada as a sign of divine will that Spain be a Christian country," page 229.

Grief and Loss 

Every story is filled with grief and loss. Lola loses her whole family. Mittl’s wife died from syphilis. Hanna’s mother keeps her grief over Hanna’s father’s death a secret. Priest saw his Jewish parents taken away when he was a child. David’s son married a Christian. The girl in Seville was sold as a slave.  How do each of these characters each deal with grief?  Which of the characters were successful at continuing his or her own life beyond grief?  Who succumbed to grief?

Mother/Daughter Relationship 

How does Hanna’s relationship with her mother influence her work and the story? Consider Hannah meeting her mother in Boston from pages 137 to 140.
“When you have fought with someone all of your life, you know where the weaknesses are,” page 344.
“She had never understood me or why what I did mattered, and why I loved it,” page 345.
How has your relationship with your mother influenced your work and your life?  How have you seen others (your own children or friends) influenced by their mothers?  What do you see as the foundation of a successful mother/daughter relationship?  How are mother/daughter relationships unique from mother/son or father/child relationships?

Eleanor Barkhorn offered her perspective on why mothers fight with their daughters in .


Nearly every character is harboring a personal secret. Some share them with a confidant some hold their secret close.

Stela and Serif: Hide Haggadah and Jews including Lola
Mittl: Syphilis
Rabbi: Gambling compulsion
"The secret to Arye’s gambling compulsion was contained in that moment, when the dread began to spread through him like ink in a glass of clear water. For he welcomed the feeling, that dark, terrifying sensation of risk. To teeter on the edge of loss, or to win the hand, the point was the intensity of the sensation. He never felt so alive as he did in those moments,” page 173. 
Vistorini: Alcoholic and son of Jews who were put to death (page 188).
Dona de Serena: Jew posing as a Christian
Hanna's Mother: Keeps identity of Hanna's father a secret until her grandmother dies.
Ruti: Studying Jewish mysticism

How does each respond to keeping a secret?
“Forgiveness also must be sought from, and atonement made to, those who had been damaged by sinful acts,” page 178.

Writing Styl

What did you think of having the present interlaced with the past? Did the interwoven stories help you to better understand the Haggadah or did you find the time changes confusing? What did you think of how the making of the Haggadah went backward in time rather than forward? How did the choice of timeline influence the book?

Interestingly, Hanna chooses to write her narrative forward instead of in reverse, “I tried to give a sense of each of them by explaining the details of their crafts and what medieval pavilions of the book were like and where such artisans fitted into the social milieu. Then I wanted to build up a certain tension around the dramatic, terrible reversals of the Inquisition and the expulsion. I wanted to convey fire and shipwreck and fear,” page 265.


The priest describes the illuminations including concept of earth as round and revolving around sun on page 183.

Separation of light from dark, land from water, garden of eden with spotted leopards and fierce jawed lions is described on page 314.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Graduation Speeches Provide Discussion Far Beyond Graduates

Often with the craziness of graduation season, book groups either take a break or end up with half the group having not read the book of the month.  For a less time-consuming alternative, check out the many facets of graduation speeches.  Here are a few ways to select and compare graduation speeches that may be meaningful to your group.

Selecting Graduation Speeches

  1. Have each group member find a graduation speech from his or her own graduation or a relative’s graduation.  Many colleges and some high schools keep a record of graduation speeches online.  More recent graduation speeches are often posted on  
  2. Scroll through speeches selected by NPR as the best commencement speeches, ever. Select a few for the entire group to read or have each member select one that is meaningful to him or her.
  3. Find speeches from some of the frequent commence speakers— presidents, TV personalities, authors— and compare their speeches across the years or across colleges.
  4. Select several graduation speeches from a year 10. 20 or more years in the past (perhaps the era when your book group members graduated high school or college) and compare them to a selection of speeches given this spring.

Discussion Topics

Blast from the Past

Can you find common themes across speeches from past years?  On the whole were the speeches more optimistic or pessimistic across different eras?  Were predictions of the future made?   If so, have those predictions born out or been avoided?

Your Graduation Speeches

What do you recall about the speeches you heard as a student?  Do you remember who the speakers were?  The tone?  The topics?  How were your high school graduation speakers chosen? How would you like high school speakers to be chosen?

The Value of Graduation Speeches

Why do you think the tradition of speeches at college being given by famous (or at least noteworthy) individuals began?  What is the benefit of the speeches to the graduates?  To their supporters?  To the world at large?

Then and Now

Were you able to discern common themes across speeches from a past decade?  What themes do you see emerging in this years’ crop of graduation speeches?  How are themes similar or divergent?  How do the topics and tones of speeches reflect the current era and in what ways are they timeless?

Speaker Potential

Read through Cristina Negrut's NPR blog post on the 25 Most Promising Graduation Speeches of the Year.  Do you agree or disagree with her categorizations?  What is your reaction to the speakers she has singled out?  Which of these speakers would you most like at your chld's graduation?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Cannery Row

Book:    Cannery Row 
Author:  John Steinbeck
Edition:  Softcover, Penguin Books, 1992

You can purchase Cannery Row online at Hugo Bookstores.

John Steinbeck’s astute observations of American life is part of his broad appeal and why his novels remain a staple in many high school literature classes.  Cannery Row, one of his most endearing short novels, is ideal for a book group looking for a classic American novel; many of your members may already have the book at home.

The in-depth characterizations are drawn almost as individual vignettes.  As Steinbeck states in the prologue, “And perhaps that might be the way to write this book— to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”  Clearly Steinbeck knew just what bait to use to attract the finest of stories.

There is ample to discuss around each of the characters.  Your group can focus on Steinbeck’s portrayal of the Cannery Row community and the community that Steinbeck personally knew in California during the Great Depression.  Or take your group’s discussion in an entirely different direction and probe the environmental and societal changes in and around Monterey, California between the Great Depression and now.

Internet Resources

There are a wealth of resources to support many different areas of focus for your group.  So many in fact, that rather than providing redundant triggers to get your book discussion started, I recommend looking over the Center for Steinbeck Studies for a selection of discussion topics.

Before beginning your discussion, you may want to watch the speech Steinbeck gave at the Nobel Banquet on December 10, 1962.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”. 

If you are interested in the history of Cannery Row, read this brief overview of the history of the Monterey fishing industry , its rise and collapse.   

For a look at the canneries in 1940, The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a video of the canneries at the height of the sardine industry.  While the characters in Cannery Row come out by and large
when the cannery workers head home, the video will give you a sense for the feel of the activity of those employed in the area and you can imagine well the overwhelming fish smell that likely permeated every corner of Cannery Row from the flophouse to Doc’s laboratory.

If your group is wants to delve into a discussion centered on Doc, the central character and “the conscience of the story” as described by The Center for Steinbeck Studies, then listen to this 2003 Morning Edition story on NPR.  Part 2 in particular focuses on Ed Ricketts, a friend of Steinbeck's from whom he drew the character of Doc, and there is a brief audio segment of Steinbeck reading from the short story The Snake

Finally, two thematic areas that your group might want to explore are humanity and the environment.  Thoughts on Steinbeck’s vision of humanity and the thin fibers that connect us are raised by Dr. Susan Shillinglaw of San Jose State University.  For an environmental look at the change in the sea life populations in Monterey, The Atlantic published Why West Coast Sea Life Has Been Behaving So Strangely in January 2014.

Major Characters

Doc, loosely based on Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, scientist who runs Western Biological Laboratory who, according to The Center for Steinbeck Studies,  “serves as the conscience of the story, as nearly all of the plot’s events, whether directly or indirectly, are processed through his viewpoint.” 

Lee Chong, grocer whose grocery is a “miracle of supply.”

Mack, “elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment,” page 9, who reside in the Palace Flophouse and Grill.

Perhaps this individual is reading Steinbeck on location
Hazel,  one of Mack’s “boys” who is slow in thought and helps Doc collect specimens.

Eddie, another of Mack’s “boys” and substitute bartender at La Ida. He keeps a winning jug for the boys. 

Hughie and Jones,  two other of the “boys” that live with Mack in the Palace Flophouse and Grill.

Gay, lives at Palace Flophouse a short time, known as a mechanic.

Dora Flood, madam and owner of the local whore house called the Bear Flag Restaurant.

Alfred, watchman and bouncer at the Bear Flag Restaurant.

The Old Chinaman, a mythical character.  “Some people thought he was God and very old people thought he was Death and children thought he was a very funny old Chinaman,” page 23. 

Andy,  a young boy and the only person to ever cross the old Chinaman. 

Frankie, young boy from an abusive home who spends most of his time with Doc.

Discussion Topics

There are a plethora of discussion topics available online.  The Center for Steinbeck Studies has a  list of major themes and essay questions that you can use to get your book group discussion started.  Here are three additional topics that are more outward focused to get your group started on making connections between your reaction to the book and your life experiences.

John Steinbeck

Certainly Steinbeck is a widely recognized and much lauded American author.  All the same, you can form your own perspective on what you like and dislike about his writing.  Be honest— what about his writing drew you in?  What about his style does not appeal to you?

In what ways does Steinbeck’s narrative style draw you in?  Did you find that the stories crawled out to meet you as Steinbeck allowed that perhaps the way to write the book would be to “let the stories crawl in by themselves”?  Did you feel close to any of the characters?  Could you make connections between any of the characters and individuals in your life?

Order, Disorder and Interconnectedness

Steinbeck presents a dichotomy of order and a reason for everything, and the surprise of death and disorder. In Doc’s lab the safe is no longer kept locked for a very good reason as once there was locked in the safe, “an open can of sardines and a piece of Roquefort cheese,” page 26.  And yet in the kitchen, dishes and cooking fat and vegetables are kept in glass-fronted bookcases, “No whimsy dictated this. It just happened,” page 27.  Near the end of the novel, 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,” page 166.  

How is your view of the universe, aligned or at odd’s with the order and disorder presenting in Cannery Row

Through loosely entwined vignettes such as the ancient Chinaman, and the two boys, Joey and Willard, casually discussing Joey’s father’s suicide, Steinbeck intersperses moments of darkness.  How did these moments of darkness affect your reading?  Were they moments that made you stop and ponder life or simply move on to the next chapter?  Why do you think Steinbeck included these vignettes and how do they imbue the novel with life?

Cannery Row

The hustle and bustle of a multitude of localities ebb and flow over the decades as industries change, people relocate, environments change.  Cannery Row is but one example of a locale that has gone from the activity of a booming industry to falling into disrepair to being rebuilt as a tourist destination.  

What places in your life have you seen go through this cycle and be reborn with a new focus, whether tourism or a burgeoning industry?  What role do you think Steinbeck's writings played in Cannery Row being re-imagined as a tourist destination? Why are some places more successful at transformation after industries die out?  What parallels do you see between the boom and bust of the real life Cannery Row and the flow of life and death in the book?
Looking Out from  Cannery Row 2006


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Me Before You Book Guide

Book:    Me Before You
Author:  Jojo Moyes
Edition:  Softcover, Penguin Books, 2013

You can purchase Me Before You online at Hugo Bookstores.

Me Before You is a beautiful, humorous, emotional and direct portrayal of the daily physical and physiological struggles of Will, a quadriplegic. For some reason, the main character and caregiver, Lou, reminds me of Natalie in the movie Love Actually.   She is easy to like and humorous as she takes the reader on her journey of self-discovery.

This modern novel is ideal for book groups to discuss how quadriplegics are perceived by themselves, by individuals who are close to them and by people who haven’t interacted directly with a quadriplegic.  More broadly, the novel offers opportunity to discuss how we each manage our “otherness” in any capacity, the ways in which barriers are erected between humans and how we can break down the barriers.  In addition, the book serves as a launching point for a discussion of end-of-life issues.

The novel is equally compelling for a personal read, offering many moments to laugh out loud and cry silently as the reader is immersed in the daily emotions of the two primary characters.  As a reader I never felt as if my emotions were being toyed with; every twist and turn felt honest and not exploitative as the author took me on a journey of love and discovery.

Internet Resources

Bioethicist Margaret Battin shares her personal story on NPR’s Fresh Air.  Her husband broke his neck in a bicycle accident in 2008 and now the end-of-life issues that Battin has written about extensively, hit home. This interview offers a personal perspective on a quadriplegic facing ending his own life.  

Alex Blaszczuk is a law student and amateur photographer.  In the fall of 2011, a car accident en route to a camping trip left Alex paralyzed from the chest down, unable to use her hands. Alex shares her story from within a Google Glass promotion on YouTube. What I found intriguing about watching this short video is the extent to which technology affords Alex the ability to take on basic tasks such as navigating and photography that she lost when she had her accident.  It is a promotional piece and not an in-depth story, yet you can see parallels with Will interacting with the technology that Lou helps him discover.

Major Characters

Will Traynor: young, wealthy banker, now living with his parents, who has been confined to a wheelchair as a quadriplegic since an accident in 2009.

Louisa (Lou) Clark: primary character and Will’s new caretaker 

Nathan: Will’s daily nurse

Katrina (Treena) Clark: Lou’s younger sister, single mother to Thomas

Patrick: Lou’s boyfriend

Bernard/Dad: Lou’s father

Josie/Mom: Lou’s mother

Camilla Traynor: Will’s mother

Steven Traynor: Will’s father

Georgina Traynor: Will’s sister

Alicia: Will’s ex-girlfriend

Rupert: Alicia’s fiance

Discussion Topics

Point of View

The novel is almost entirely told from Lou’s point of view.  However, the author, Jojo Moyes, intersperses four chapters from other perspectives.  The first of these is from Camilla’s perspective (page 105) when she describes how she came to offer support to her son in ending his life. Nathan has a brief chapter following Alicia and Rupert’s wedding (page 266). Steven has a short chapter with his mistress, sharing his hopes for Will’s planned adventure trip (page 289). Finally, Treena has a chapter right near the end of the novel, when Lou is back at home and Will is in Switzerland (page 335).

How do each of these round out the story for you?  Did you feel more or less sympathetic with each of the characters after reading a chapter from his or her perspective?  Did these chapters alter or expand your understanding of Lou?  How do you compare these snippets of other voices with other books you may have read which have multiple points of view such as Sarah’s Key or Orphan Train or Let The Great World Spin or any of a myriad of others?

Noticeably absent is any chapter told by Will.  In A Conversation with Jojo Moyes, at the end of the book, Moyes comments, “The only person whose mind I couldn’t enter was Will’s, because I wanted his intentions to be one of the central tensions of the book.”  How do you believe the novel would have been altered had the story been told from Will’s point of view?


Jojo Moyes relates the specifics of Will and Lou and Nathan as they manage moving Will, tending to him, taking him on outings.  In Lou’s first outing to the racetrack, starting on page 140, the author explores many physical challenges encountered in managing a wheelchair both due to Lou’s lack of experience and the track’s lack of accessibility.

Where have you encountered individuals with needs that are poorly accommodated in our public spaces?  Do you often see individuals using wheelchairs or other mobility devices in spaces you frequent?  What strides have been made in improving access for all?  Where do you notice the most significant physical barriers?

End of Life

In the Fresh Air interview, Margaret Battin speaks about the process of end-of-life and the issues swirling around it, the mind versus the body, the elements of eating, the individual reflection that each person faces in thinking about end-of-life issues and her discussions and feelings she shares with her husband. 

In the novel we hear directly from Camilla as to how she came to agree to support Will in his decision to end his life.  Did hearing Camilla from within her own mind, as it were, enhance or limit your view of her choice?  Were you able to sympathize with her situation or would you have made a difference choice? Who does Will involve in his decision and at what point?  

How do you personally feel about Will’s choice?  How would you respond if Will was a member of your family?  How would you feel if you were in Will’s situation?  

Do you know anyone who has faced such a choice?  How were you able to support that individual or not?

Lou’s Journey

At the outset of the novel, Lou says, “The thing about being catapulted into a whole new life— or  at least, shoved up so hard against someone else’s life that you might as well have your face pressed against their window— is that it forces you to rethink your idea of who you are” page 58.

How does Lou rethink her idea of who she is?

Lou makes significant personal discoveries throughout the story.  In what ways did she make the discoveries herself and in what ways were Will and Treena instrumental in her self-reflection?  

Lou is battling her own deep secret.  Why do you think Moyes chose to include that facet of the story?  How is Lou’s hidden anguish juxtaposed against Will’s very visible anguish?  

Interpersonal Barriers

The moment Lou and Will meet, page 31, Will throws up his defense and Lou is, not surprisingly, repelled.  What role does each of Lou, Will and others play in breaking down the barriers between Will and Lou?

Where does Will encounter individuals who are uncomfortable around him?  Who is comfortable around Will?  How does each group show their discomfort or ease?  

Where have you encountered individuals who made you or others uncomfortable with their differences? What strategies have you found helpful for becoming more at ease with someone who had a physical difference whether a medical concern or a mental condition?

When have you or a close friend been the one with the difference?  How did you feel?  What did you notice strangers doing to embrace or avoid interaction? What reactions were most helpful?  Which ones were hurtful?

How can we each help break down barriers of difference whether as a bystander, a friend or an individual with a distinction?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sarah's Key Discussion Guide

Book:     Sarah's Key
Author:  Tatiana de Rosnay
Edition:  St. Martin's Griffin Edition: October 2008

You can purchase Sarah's Key online at Hugo Bookstores.

Major Characters

Sarah Starsynski (known as Sirka until she stays with Genevieve and Jules): 10 year old French Jewish girl taken in the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup July 16, 1942
Michel: Sarah’s 4 year old brother
Rachel: girl with whom Sarah escapes from Beaune-la-Rolande
Genevieve and Jules Dufaure: French couple who take Sarah in after her escape

2002 to present:
Gaspard Dufaure: grandson of Jules and Genevieve
Julia Jarmond: An American journalist living in Paris in 2002
Zoe: Julia’s 11 year old daughter
Bertrand: Julia’s French husband
Mame Tezac: Bertrand’s grandmother
Edouard: Bertrand’s father, Mame’s son
Joshua: Julia’s American editor, living in Paris
Bamber: Photographer working with Julia
Frank Levy: Head of association organizing commemorations for 60th anniversary of the roundup.


26, rue de Saintonge: Sarah’s family’s apartment. Tezacs move in in July 1942, after the round up.
Velodrome d’Hiver: Where Jewish families were taken after Paris roundup in July 1942 and kept for several days before being sent to camps
Beaune-la-Rolande: The Loiret camp where Sarah and her parents were taken and from where Sarah escaped

Discussion Topics


How much of the historical story were you aware before reading the book? How did having the historical elements integrated into a novel affect your understanding, awareness and reaction to the Velodrome d'Hiver roundup?

Point of view

For the first half of the book the chapters alternate between Sarah’s story, told in the 3rd person, with Julia’s story, told in the first person. Then when Edouard tells his memory of Sarah arriving at his apartment and finding her brother’s body, the book shifts to only Julia’s point of view (page 156).

It is as if Sarah’s story is now in the present because someone in the present is sharing the story. The story can be revealed by characters in the present.  No longer is the story hidden.

How does the author use each point of view to convey the story? What is crucial in Sarah’s point of view? In Julia’s?

The Key

The key is used as a symbol for Sarah’s secret, both in her life and after her death.  The key is both physically the opening of a secret and metaphorically—Sarah hides it in her pocket and keeps the secret, she brings it out to share the secret. When Sarah tells her father about her brother she shows him the key (page 22). When Sarah reveals the key to red haired policeman she tells him that she locked her brother in the closet (page 90)

What keys have been revealed to you? What keys have you kept hidden and later revealed?

Secrets and Communication

Secrets are kept throughout the book. A number of individuals know pieces of Sarah’s story, but keep them hidden. Edouard isn’t even aware that his mother knew about Sarah until Zoe tells him after Mame’s stroke. Other secrets are kept as well—Sarah’s parents had not told Sarah of the true danger they were in before the roundup. Or why. Page 40: “If they had told her, if they had told her everything they knew, wouldn’t that have made today easier?”

In the short term the secrets make it hard for Sarah to understand what is happening. In the longer term the secrets are shown to age and eat away at the secret keepers.

Julia often blurts out information she has learned without thinking through either the ramifications or how to best communicate what she knows.  How do Julia's revelations help and hurt her and those she shares them with?

How can we achieve a balance between sharing the weight of our burdens and minimizing pain to those we love?  Especially in this age of immediate communication, when is better to refrain from exposing a feeling, an act, an event witnessed or at least pause to consider the impact our revelation may have?  When do secrets long held become a burden?

What themes struck you in the book?