Monday, November 10, 2014

How We Learn and Make It Stick

Book:    How We Learn
Author: Benedict Carey

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

Internet Resources

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

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

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

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

Comparing These Books

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

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

Discussion Topics

Don’t use these notes!

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

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

Who Got It Right?

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

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

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

Use What You’ve Learned

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

Expanding the Learning of Others

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


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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Death of Bees Discussion Guide

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

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

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

Major Characters

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

Discussion Topics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Girl You Left Behind Discussion Guide

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Resources

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

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

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

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

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

Major Characters

Characters in France in 1916

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

Characters in the present

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

Discussion Topics and Discussion Questions

Some of the most prominent themes in The Girl You Left Behind are being left behind, feeling exposed, the other side of the story and the bare essence of what makes life worth living.

Point of View

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

On Being Left Behind

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

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

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

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

Personal Exposure

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

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

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

Other Side of the Story

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

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

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

Bare Essence of Life

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

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

Returning Stolen Art

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Books Where Myth and Reality Blur

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

The Tiger’s Wife

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

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

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

An Invisible Sign of My Own

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

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

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

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

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

The Emperor of Paris

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

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Art of Racing in the Rain Discussion Guide

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

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

Major Characters

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


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

Discussion Topics

Overarching Theme

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

That Which You Manifest is Before You

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Pg 315 letting Enzo go.

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

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

Living in the present

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

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

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

Interactions Between Characters

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

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

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

Additional Interesting Passages

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

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

What passages and themes struck a chord with you? 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Read it and laugh: Where'd You Go Bernadette

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

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

Saturday, June 14, 2014

People of the Book Discussion Guide

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.