Saturday, March 17, 2018

Circling the Sun Book Group Discussion Guide

Book:     Circling the Sun
Author:  Paula McLain
Edition:  Softcover Ballantine Books

Although it’s a novel, I fact-checked major events and found them in line with historical record. McLain’s imagining of how Markham’s relationships with men, with Karen Blixen, with horses and with Africa seem incredibly true. 

Circling The Sun is a beautiful novel to read on a snowy day, envisioning the plains and hills and people of Kenya early in the 20th century and the self-reliance of a very independent woman living beyond her time. What I find even more fascinating is the juxtaposition of this novel with Beryl Markham’s own stories in West with the Night. Together these two books can make for an interesting discussion on truth and memory, what we chose to share about our lives and what we chose to hold close.

Internet Resources

Circling the Sun does not draw attention to the colonial rule and virtual slavery going on during this time period, however reading background on Kenya during the colonial period helps set the place. These three summaries offer very brief descriptions of the time period:
A quick internet search reveals much biographical background on Beryl Markham. This biographical summary is a quick read and highlights significant events.

Major Characters

Beryl Cutterbuck Purves Markham: White, English woman raised in Kenya
Charles Cutterbuck: Beryl’s father
Clara Cutterbuck: Beryl’s mother
Lord and Lady Delamere: Nearest white neighbors who own ranch where Beryl first goes to work as a young woman
Kibii who becomes Arap Ruta: Beryl's childhood Kipsigis friend who returns to work for her as an adult
Emma Orchardson: White, English woman and Charles’ second wife
Jock Purves: Beryl’s first hubsand
Berkeley Cole: White, English settler and sheep farmer
Denys Finch Hatton: White, English man, big game hunter and guide, pilot, individualist, loved by both Karen Blixen and Beryl.
Boy Long: Delamere’s ranch manager and man with whom Beryl has first affair
Karen Blixen: Danish woman who is a coffee farmer in Kenya on the farm Mbogani 
Bror Blixen: Blixen’s Danish husband whom she divorces  
Mansfield Markham: Beryl’s second husband, whom she divorces
Gervase: Beryl’s son with Mansfield 
Tom Campbell Black: Pilot and Beryl’s flight instructor

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for Circling the Sun that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests. 


If you’ve read West with the Night, compare what Beryl Markham includes in her stories with what is include in McLain’s novel.  Markham writes nothing of her relationships although she was married three times. She doesn’t even mention her son who was raised by his father’s mother. She only offers glimpses into the struggles that she must have faced as a young woman working in a man’s world both as a horse trainer and as a pilot. Rather, West with the Night paints a romantic view of Kenya and her life there. 
Which do you think is more true? Why do you think Markham chose to leave out of her book any emotions entwined with her relationships?  Did she have no feeling for relationships? Did she want to erase her relationships from her memory or from her personal history?
What is true? How do your memories and stories alter the truth over time? If a story is told with facts altered or critical facts left out is it still true? What makes truth?

Native Kenyans and White European Settlers

McLain shares glimpses into the excess and power of the white settlers in Kenya in the early 20th century. Do you think Markham was comfortably a part of the gaiety of the white settler community even as she could only barely make ends meet? Did she have blinders on to the plunder and excesses of Europeans in Kenya or was she unsettled by the imbalance? Did any of the white settlers seem unsettled by the devastation they created?


Markham has complex relationships.  She was abandoned by her mother as a child, her father went to another continent when she was barely a young woman and she was separated from her son when he was just a small child.  In the book she has 2 husbands (in fact she was married a third time after her transatlantic flight) and a number of affairs that make the gossip circles.
When Markham sees her mother cheering her on at a horse race she reflects,
“Maybe Berkeley had been right about family— maybe we never survive them, or anyone we love. Not in the truest way.” page 253
What do you think? How plausible are the emotions that McLain paints in the novel? 
Have you survived your family? 


Markham forms strong friendships, perhaps the strongest with Ruta, who follows her from her work as a horse trainer to a pilot. When he returns to her as an adult, Markham thinks,
“Ruta might never fully grasp the choices I’d made, but we didn’t have to agree on everything to help each other.” 
They conclude their conversation with 
“then we will have to build a bigger fire, Beru.”“We will,” I said. We already have. page 242
How did Ruta and Marham’s friendship endure over many years and such a great difference in backgrounds? What do you think was at the core of their friendship?

What holds your strongest friendships in place over the years?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

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? 

Beartown Book Discussion Guide

Book:     Beartown
Author:  Fredrik Backman
Edition:  Kindle

Internet Resources

There are many good resources to prepare individuals and parents to talk with a survivor. Here is one from BARCC, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. How did the individuals in Beartown communicate with Maya? Where could they have been more effective or more empathetic? 

According to the Chicago Tribune in 2016, “the NHL remains the only league without an openly gay player — past or present — among the many who have donned NHL uniforms.”
Why do you think this is? How does this mesh with the view Beartown presents?

Major Characters

Maya: 15 year-old girl who is raped by Kevin
Leo: Maya’s 12-year old brother
Kira: Lawyer and Maya’s mother
Peter: General manager of Beartown Ice Hockey and Maya’s father
Ana: Maya’s best friend
Kevin Erdahl: Rapist and lead scorer for the junior team
Benji: Kevin’s best friend 
David: Coach of the junior team
Amat: 15-year incredibly fast hockey player
Fatima: Cleaner at the hockey rink and Amat’s mother
Sune: Old man and the A-team coach
Life and Zacharias: Amat’s friends who do not get promoted to junior team
Adri: Kennel owner and Benji’s oldest sister
Ramona: owner of the town pub
Lars: Boy’s team coach
Bobo: Junior team player who has gone from first string to third
William Lyt: member of junior hockey team
Maggan Lyt: William’s mom

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for Beartown that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests and other books you may have discussed.  The topic of secrets in particular is a common theme across novels and can serve as an interesting point of comparison.


Secrets are kept by many of the characters both about themselves and about the rape. Secrets can be overwhelming to protect. Secrets can be powerful when exposed.
"Maya knows all too well that silent can be like water. If you let it make its way too far in, it can freeze into ice and break your heart." Chapter 30
and later Maya reflects, 
“Astonished at how strong she has learned to pretend to be. At the number of secrets she can hold these days.” Chapter 46
Reflect on how each secret holder is impacted by the secret she or he holds. How is each reaction different because of the secret itself and how much is a reflection of who the secret holder is?  What power, both positive and negative, is held by the secrets staying hidden and the secrets being exposed?
What types of secrets have you found most powerful when no longer hidden? What secrets have been most damaging when exposed? When have you or someone you’ve known struggled with keeping something secret? Why and what was the outcome?

Weak and Strong

Much of the struggle in Beartown is around who is powerful and who succumbs to that power. In the narration, we are told
“we developed because the strongest individuals always thrived at the expense of the weak” Chapter 37
Do you agree? Where and when does this belief ring true in your life? Where has an individual or a group or a society been able to turn this around? How can society change the balance of power for the better?


Maya reacts with shame and silence after being raped. And when she does speak up, she finds that
" of all the feelings inside her then, guilt will be the greatest." Chapter 30
In addition, Maya feels that by telling what has happened, 
“now he’s [Kevin] hurt everyone.” Chapter 40
Others who know pieces of the story don’t come forward at first whether it’s Kevin’s mother who believes her son raped Maya, or Amat who came into Kevin’s room or Benji who saw Maya by the road after the rape. What compels them to silence? What brings them forward?
Ana wants to yell at her neighbor that
“And the problem with this town is not only that a boy raped a girl, but that everyone is pretending that he DIDN’T do it. So now all the other boys will think that what he did was okay. Because no one cares.” Chapter 41
When have you stayed silent and wished you had spoken up? When have you spoken up and what were the ramifications?
Look at recent news events around survivors coming forward with their stories of abuse. Where has the power of the many been able to confront the power of the perpetrator? What does it take to reach that tipping point?


Beartown residents are described as resenting the capital and feeling picked upon. 
“The first local saying Peter taught Kira was:’Bears shit in the woods, but everyone else shits on Beartown, so forest people have learned to take care of themselves.’” Chapter 5
“The people of Beartown love the fact that the climate is so inhospitable, because not everyone can handle it: that reminds them of their own strength and resilience.” Chapter 5
How does growing up in Beartown shape each character? 
Throughout the world, our birth city plays a significant role in our path through life. How did your hometown shape you as a person and your outlook on the world? 
How have you seen people buoyed by where they grew up? Where have you seen people trapped by where they grew up? Have you escaped or been caught by your birth city? Bolstered or undermined by where you’ve grown up?


“They all just want what’s best for the town. For the club. They all just want the truth to come out.” Chapter 42
‘They’ want their truth to come out. Where have you seen a group focused on what the group believes is the truth and circling the wagons around their own truth? How can one person go about changing the outlook of the group?


A number of different parenting models are portrayed in Beartown. Kevin’s parents are barely there. Peter and Kira, whose first child dies, struggle with balancing parenting and working. Fatima is a single-mom who is working hard to provide for Amat. Benji’s sisters sometimes serve in the role of a parent.

What do you believe is the role of parenting? Which models do you think were most effective in meeting the goals you believe parents should achieve? Which parents did you most identify with or see some of yourself in the character’s actions?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Red Notice Discussion Guide

Book Red Notice
Book: Red Notice
Author: Bill Browder

Bill Browder recounts how his actions and those of his associates became entangled with enormous corruption and human rights violations by Russian oligarchs. This book was published in 2014 and republished in 2015, well before the U.S. 2016 presidential election and the resulting investigation, yet it is the backstory to at least some of the meetings between the U.S. administration and Russian officials. Browder details the events that led to Russia stopping U.S adoptions of Russian children, the topic that Donald Trump Jr. stated he discussed with Russians. Browder lays out factually how the adoption ban was a direct retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. to sanction foreign government officials (initially Russian officials) implicated in human rights violations. 

Red Notice is a must read for anyone interested in events unfolding in the investigation to presidential election interference or looking for a book focused on standing up to power. 

Online Reading

Every day there are new stories about human rights abuses in Russia or the U.S. government’s support of or retaliation toward Russia’s actions or Bill Browder’s continued crusades. The links here provide a few different directions to consider in bringing the most current news into your book discussion.

While Browder recounts events from his perspective chronologically, it may also be helpful to read a journalists’ third person perspective written at the time of the events. This New York Times article is one of the many article referred to in Red Notice and focuses on Russian officials receiving blame for Sergei Magnitsky’s death. 

Browder testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2017. As described in an Atlantic article preceding the testimony,

“financier Bill Browder has emerged as an unlikely central player in the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney Browder hired to investigate official corruption, died in Russian custody in 2009. Congress subsequently imposed sanctions on the officials it held responsible for his death, passing the Magnitsky Act in 2012. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government retaliated, among other ways, by suspending American adoptions of Russian children.”

The New Yorker wrote about the Russia adoption ban in 2012 and in 2013 Michael Bohm responded to 10 of the myths surrounding the ban and summarizing,

“In the end, the Kremlin's massive propaganda campaign against U.S. adoptions, conducted mostly on state-controlled television, was a big success. Unfortunately, the Kremlin showed that if you repeat lies about U.S. adoptions often enough, many Russians — 76 percent, according to a January VTsIOm poll — will accept them as truth.” 
You can follow Bill Browder on Twitter where he continues to advocate for human rights.  Use any of his tweets as a jumping off point for conversation on current human rights topics or the investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections.


The index in Red Notice is comprehensive and you can find more detail on all of the following people through it. Here is a shortcut to a few of the people that figure prominently.
Bill Browder, author, financier, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, which was largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005. Since 2009 he has been leading a campaign to expose Russia’s corruption and human rights abuses
Vadim, Russian whom Browder hires as his head of research in 1997, leaves Russia
Ivan Cherkasov, Hermitage’s Chief Operating Officer, leaves Russia
Sergei Magnitsky, Russian tax lawyer who stays in Russia and is ultimately imprisoned and tortured to death by Russian officials and for whom the Magnitsky Act is named
Eduard Khayretdinov, Russian criminal defense attorney whom Browder hires initially to defend Ivan; leaves Russia secretly
Vladimir Pastukhov, Moscow lawyer and outside counsel for Hermitage who counsels Vadim to leave Russia and later leaves himself
Jamison Firestone, American managing partner of a Moscow law firm, Browder’s lawyer in Moscow
Edmond Safra, billionaire investor and Browder’s first investor in Hermitage Capital
Beny Steinmetz, billionaire who brought Browder and Safra together
Artem Kuznetsov, corrupt, brutal Interior Ministry official
Major Pavel Karpov, corrupt lead investigator into Ivan Cherkasov's criminal case
Oleg Silchenko, Interior Ministry investigator who tortures Sergei through increasingly horrific living conditions
Congressman Jim McGovern, MA congressman and chairman of Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission who introduces the Magnitsky Act to the House of Representatives.
Senator Cardin, Maryland Senator who writes a letter to Secretary of State Clinton requesting all officials involved in Sergei’s death have US travel privileges permanently revoked and introduces Magnitsky Act to Senate along with Senator John McCain.

Discussion Topics

Bill Browder's Transformation

Bill Browder unapologetically describes his wealth creation in Russia through the first part of the book. By the end he has become a human rights activist.

How did you view his transformation? Does the origin of his wealth from the same system that perpetrated human rights abuses color your view of his human rights efforts?

Do you know individuals personally who have transformed from taking advantage of a situation to speaking out against the same power?

Congressional System to Pass Magnitsky Act

Browder presents a non-politician’s view of getting the Magnitsky Act passed in Congress. What did you think? How effective and how equitable is the U.S. system of creating law?

Adoption from Russia

Do you know anyone who has adopted a child from Russia? What is their reaction to the Magnitsky Act and the retaliatory adoption ban? Read Michael Bohm’s response in the Moscow Times to myths surrounding the ban.

On-going Presidential Election Meddling Investigation

Browder describes how Russia passed a law in 2012 to ban the adoption of Russian children by American families (page 357- 362) as retaliation for the Magnitsky Act. In 2017-18 these are topics that figured in Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Did this book give you more insight into an element of the Mueller investigation? Did the story of Sergei Magnitsky change your view of how you believe Russia acted leading up to the U.S. presidential election of 2016?

Current Events

Check out Bill Browder’s Twitter account and get up-to-date on one of his areas of focus this week. Look at both sides of the issue. A jury is usually instructed by the judge to decide the facts in the case based upon the testimony heard. What does your book group see as the facts in Browder’s current issue?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Man Called Ove Discussion Guide

Book:        A Man Called Ove
Author:    Fredrik Backman
Edition:    Softcover

Moving and humorous, poignant and soothing, well worth reflecting upon and also a palette cleanser, loved every aspect of this book. I highly recommend the audiobook as the reader's timbre and pace animate each and every character, most especially Ove.

Additional Resources

Consider watching the movie A Man Called Ove as a group for your discussion and compare your views of the movie and the book. 

Major Characters

Ove: Recently widowed, Saab-driving, curmudgeonly protagonist 
Sonja: Ove’s wife who has recently died
Anders: 40 year-old Audi-driving neighbor who is on steering group of Resident’s Association
Parvaneh: New neighbor has 2 daughters and is pregnant
Patrick, aka The Lanky One: Parvaneh’s husband
Jimmy: Ove’s 25-year old next-door neighbor
Rune: Ove’s contemporary who lives two doors down, suffering from dementia 
Anita: Rune’s wife
Lena: journalist 
Adrian: young man who wants to fix up a bike for his girlfriend
Mirsad: son of cafe owner

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for A Man Called Ove that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests and other books you may have discussed.  Consider reading one of Backman’s other books to discuss consistencies and differences.


Throughout the novel, Backman has wonderful descriptions of laughter. Here are three:
When Parvaneh meets Ove and corrects him that she is Persian not Arbian, Ove refers to Farsi as Farsical and Parvaneh starts laughing. 
“Her laughter catches him off guard. As if it’s carbonated and someone has poured it too fast and it’s bubbling over in all directions…It’s an untidy, mischievous laugh that refuses to go along with rules and prescriptions.” page 60
After Sonja’s accident when Ove tells the nurse in no uncertain terms that he will be taking Sonja home to live and then throws a shoe out the door, Ove hears Sonja laugh for the first time since the accident, 
“She laughed and laughed and laughed until the vowels were rolling across the walls and floors, as if they meant to do away with the laws of time and space.” page 203
When the doctor tells Parvaneh that the issue is that Ove’s heart is too big,
“…she starts to laugh. First it’s more like a cough, then as if she’s holding back a sneeze, and before long it’s a long, sustained, raucous bout of giggling.” page 328 
Sometimes laughter breaks tension or sadness. Sometimes it’s shared across strangers. Sometimes it comes from a shared history. How are these three moments of laughter distinct and how is that distinction captured in the words chosen? 

Where and why does laughter enter your life? When does laughter uplift? When does it soothe? How would you describe laughter?


Death is ever present in this novel both through Ove’s grief over Sonja’s death as well as his efforts to take his own life. In addition, the loss of a loved one is present through rejection, as Mirsad faces, or  through aging and memory as Anita faces. 
“You miss the strangest things when you lose someone. Little things. Smiles. The way she turned over in her sleep. Even repainting a room for her.” page 56
Where have you lost a relationship whether through death or rejection or memory? How do those loses compare? 
“Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the greatest motivations for living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury. Some need its constant presence to even be aware of its antithesis. Others become so preoccupied with it that they go into the waiting room long before it has announced its arrival.” page 325
And from an interview with Fredrik Backman, Backman says,

“Well, fear of dying is crucial in all of my writing, it seems, and I really don't know why. I just end up at that question over and over: How do you live a life?”
How do you view death? Does it linger in the periphery? Is it out of mind? Are you in the waiting room long before it has announced its arrival?


Sonja’s death is overwhelming for Ove in particular because of the great love they shared. Yet to many of their friends, they couldn’t see why these two were together.
“People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.” page 45
Do you know couples who are happily in love and seem to be opposites in every way? How does love change over time, both loves that lessen and those that deepen? 

Who We Are

Ove reflects on the day that he returned a lost wallet he found on the floor as a boy working. 
“Had Ove been the sort of man who contemplated how one became the sort of man one was, he might have said that this was the day he learned that right has to be right.” page 44
Are there moments that made you the person you are? Think about moments that changed how you think or act at work or at home or in public. Consider who you were with, what was happening, how old you were. What about those times were impactful?


“‘All people want to live dignified lives; dignity just means something different to different people,’ Sonja had said.”  Page 274
What is dignity to you?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep Discussion Guide

Book:     The Trouble with Goats and Sheep
Author:  Joanna Cannon
Edition:  Softcover 
While the writing isn't crisp (there are more similes and personifications in each chapter than in a pile of 5th grade essays), the voice of the child protagonist is true, honest and engaging. And when I closed the book I missed Tilly and Grace, their footsteps, their perspective.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, is a quick read, a setting that is timeless in many ways and a read I consider a palette cleanser.
Read the book before reading this guide as there are spoilers.

Internet Resources

One Christian interpretation of the scripture from Mathew 25:31-46, offers plenty of thought for thinking about who are the goats and who are the sheep in this neighborhood. Perhaps it’s less bad and good and more about being much more alike than different regardless of if we are more like sheep or more like goats.
If you really want to delve into the title theme there are numerous sites online that talk about raising goats and sheep. Many blogs, like one from PetMD, purport that sheep tend to be more comfortable in a flock and goats are more independent.  Comparing the relative behavior of these two groups of animals to the behaviors of the neighborhood residents could occupy an entire evening of wine and book discussion.

Major Characters

Margaret Creasy: disappeared one Monday in June, wife of John Creasy 
Grace Elizabeth: part-time narrator and daughter of Sylvia and Derek
Tilly Albert: Grace’s best friend
Walter Bishop: Old man whom neighborhood shuns; house fire in 1967 killed his mother
Mrs. Beatrice Morton: widow who babysits Grace and Tilly regularly
John Creasy: Margaret’s husband, compulsive about counting and being organized
Sylvia Bennett : Grace’s mother
Derek Bennett: Grace’s father, business going bankrupt
Harold Forbes: Angry neighbor, Dorthy’s husband
Dorothy Forbes: Married to Harold; memory not be entirely in tact
Sheila Dakin: Drinks in secret, has her own young teenage secrets
Lisa Dakin: Shelia’s teenage daughter
Thin Brian Roper: Single 43-year old who lives with his mother
May Roper: Brian’s mother
Eric Lamb: widower who cared for his wife suffering from cancer right through her death
Aneesha Kapoor: New neighbors at #14 The Avenue who move in July 1976
Amit Kapoor: New neighbors at #14 The Avenue
Shahid Kapoor: Kapoor’s son

The Neighborhood

House Number
#2 The Avenue
Thin Brian and his Mother
#4 The Avenue
Grace asdfasf and her parents, Slvie and Derek
#6 The Avenue
Dorothy and Harold Forbes

#8 The Avenue
Margaret and John Creasy
#10 The Avenue
Eric Lamb
#11 The Avenue
Walter Bishop
#12 The Avenue
Sheila Dakin and her 2 children, Lisa and Keith
#14 The Avenue
Aneesh and Amit Kapoor
#3 Rowan Tree Croft
Mrs Morton

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for The Trouble with Goats and Sheep that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests and other books you may have discussed.  Topics such as point of view and secrets are common themes across novels and can serve as interesting points of comparison.

Point of View

Part of the narrative is in the first-person, from Grace and the remainder is in the third person, sharing both the past and the present from the adults’ perspectives. Why do you think Cannon chose this writing style? How does Grace’s view shape the novel and its themes? What does the adult view add that couldn’t be captured by Grace?


Several of the characters talk about having or not having a choice and being able to make different choices. For instance as Dorothy looks at a photo taken the night the neighbors met at the Legion and talked about Walter Bishop:
“She wished she had known then that one day she would be staring back at herself, wishing the choice they had made had been a different one.” page 35
Mrs. Morton ponders her answer to where Grace was found,
“She can feel it. The big decision, attempting to be nothing, hiding amongst all the small decisions, oping it will be unseen and unimportant. It’s making its way to the front of the queue, carrying everything in its pockets.” page 342
and when she makes her decision and tells the neighborhood she reflects,
“It’s the small decisions, the ones that slip themselves into your day unnoticed, the ones that wrap their weight in insignificance. These are the decisions that will bury you.” page 343.
What momentous choices have you made? In reflection did the choice seem big or small at the time? Has the decision grown or shrunk with time?


The certainty and the uncertainty of the past bang against one another, sometimes through a known memory loss and sometimes through the imperfections everyone experiences in recalling the past.
“She was around Dorothy’s age when she first started to lose her mind, although Dorothy always thought losing your mind was a such a strange phrase. As if your mind could be misplaced, like a set of house keys, or a Jack Russell terrier…” page 29
Eric’s reflection on memory:
“Everyone was so certain of what had happened, but maybe the present crawled into our memories and disturbed them as well, and perhaps the past wasn’t quite as certain as we would like it to be.” page 294
Where have you seen your certainty of past events conflict with someone else’s certainty? What is truth? What can you depend upon as factual with respect to memory?

Goats and Sheep

If you want to delve into either the Christian perspective of goats and sheep from Mathew 25 or the secular/shepherd’s perspective, check out the internet resources above for 2 examples of contemplating the differences between goats and sheep. Let your book group explore this primary theme in whatever direction works for you.
Perhaps you may take Grace’s view:
“‘I think that’s the trouble,’ I said, ‘it’s not always that easy to tell the difference.’” page 89
or Tilly’s view:
“‘Perhaps that’s why they don’t mix,’ said Tilly, ‘because everyone else is on the other side of the street?’” page 114
Perhaps you might explore the general theme of where individuals see the sameness or the differences among groups creating walls or building bridges. 
Mrs. Morton reflects:
“The estate had always been this way. A parade of people, joined together by tedium and curiosity, passing other people’s misery around between themselves like a parcel.” page 326
Grace wants to belong at school,
“‘If Lisa Dakin likes me, then the rest of the school might like me as well,’ I said.” page 245
Or you might focus on your neighborhoods. Who has been singled out as being different, being an individual? Where have people flocked together for the comfort of belonging? Where have people flocked together to soak in someone else’s misery?
“‘There’s only one problem with a witch hunt,’” he says.‘And what might that be?’He starts to walk back towards his house as he answers her, ‘It doesn’t always catch the witch.’” page 157 
Perhaps your group might explore this theme on a national or global scale, discussing current events which mirror the divisiveness of splitting the neighborhood into goats and sheep and consider groups or events that aim to point out the similarities rather than focus on differences. When have you seen the problem with witch hunts?
“The point is, these people don’t think like the rest of us. They’re misfits, oddballs. They’re the ones the police should be talking to, not people like us. Normal people.” page 113
Or what is normal?


John Creasy reflects:
“Before she disappeared, he never said I love you.I Instead of saying I love you, he said, Take care of yourself, and When will you be back. Instead of saying I love you,  he placed her umbrella at the bottom of the stairs, so it wouldn’t be forgotten, and in the winter he put her gloves on the chair by the door, so she would remember to pull them onto her hands before she left.” page 99
How do you express love? Are you more comfortable with actions or words? Reflect on how you show and share love with a partner, a child, a parent, a friend. When do you favor words? When action? As a recipient of someone’s love which do you prefer?


Everyone recognizes that Margaret is a true listener and that she is good at connecting with people.
“Finding something in everyone.” page 101
Contrast this way of being with Mrs. Morton carrying on conversations as she continues walking on her errands.
And as Grace says,
“I had discovered that, sometimes, if you held on to the silence, people couldn’t stop themselves from filling it up.” page 111
and later,
“And I realized she was giving me the words. So I took them and held on for a moment, and then I hated them back. ‘No,’ I said, ‘you just never know.’” page 239
Eric reflects:
“She just listened. No one had ever listened to him before, they had only waited until he stopped speaking, so they could burden him with their own stories. … but no one really listens to the murmured words. They’re like punctuation in someone else’s speech, small springboards for another person to bounce their opinion from. Margaret Creasy was different. Margaret Creasy asked questions. The kind of questions you can only ask if you were hearing something in the first place.” page 169
And when Grace and Tilly visit Walter Bishop:
“We sat in silence. I knew straightaway that Walter Bishop was the kind of person you could sit in silence with.” page 193
Are you a silence holder or a silence filler? Where are you most comfortable?
Who do you know in your life who is a true listener? What skills or behaviors make that person a listener? How does it feel to be listened to? How can you become a better listener?


Everyone in the neighborhood has shared a secret with Margaret and is worried their secrets will now come back to haunt them. Margaret knows about Shelia’s drinking. She knows about Brian’s illiteracy. She knows about Dorothy and the fire. She knows about Derek’s financial woes.  She knows about Eric and Elsie’s end of life. She knows what all the neighbors thought of Walter and may even know about Mrs. Morton and the day she took Grace.
“‘She’s coming back with all our secrets. She’s got a bagful of them. She knows everything.” page 324
Secrets are a common theme throughout the novel. Grace thinks,
“Because I had already decided it was a secret that needed to be unwrapped.” page 175
When Eric tells Margaret about Elsie he feels,
“…immediately afterwards, he had felt a relief, as though saying the words out loud had leaded away some of their power.” The secret had been trapped in his head, shifting the perimeter, pushing at the sides and carpeting all the other thoughts until they became silent… he had experienced an absolution so strong, it felt like a chemical reaction.” page 171
How does the feeling of relief at the moment of sharing a secret contrast with the secret revealer’s feelings knowing that Margaret may in turn reveal his or her secret?
When does a secret need to be unwrapped? Have you ever revealed a secret? How did it feel afterwards? What compelled you to share the secret? 
Have you ever been the recipient of a secret that needs to be released? What brought the secret to the surface? What did it feel like to receive the secret? What do secrets hold power? When is that power positive and when is it destructive?

Childhood Observations

As a narrator, Grace offers observations from a child’s point of view,
“I watched Mrs. Morton’s mouth trying to choose words.” page 43
“I thought I would like a job where inquiring about everyone else’s private business was considered perfectly routine.” page 45
“Sometimes, with grown-ups, the gap between your question and their answer is too big, and that always seems like the best place to put all your worrying into.” page 28.

What observations or quotes stuck with you?

Circling the Sun Book Group Discussion Guide

Book :     Circling the Sun Author :  Paula McLain Edition :  Softcover Ballantine Books Although it’s a novel, I fact-checke...