Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Goldfinch Book Discussion Guide

Book:     The Goldfinch
Author:  Donna Tartt
Edition:  Softcover, Little Brown and Company, 2014

You can purchase The Goldfinch online at Hugo Bookstores.

When I asked book readers about The Goldfinch, I generally received two answers: either “I loved that book," or “I really didn’t love that book.”  So as I read I wanted to ferret out what made the novel so compelling to some, while others chose to skim major sections.

Understanding this dichotomy alone could be a fun and insightful discussion for your book group. The major themes are pretty much laid out in black and white, very little is subtle, so focusing instead on readers’ reactions might offer each member of your book group to share what elements of a book are most important to him or her.

Your group can also pair The Goldfinch with The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes or People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and focus on art ownership, the circuitous paths art can travel and the individual appeal of art works.

Internet Resources

Certainly if you can spend days reading this nearly 1000-page novel then take a few minutes to look at online representations of the artwork at the core of the novel. The painting resides at the  Mauritshuis in the Netherlands and can be viewed online. 

If you are interested in the use of stolen art as currency, the New York Times magazine had an excellent article on the value of stolen art

Major Characters

Theo (Theodore) Decker: a 13-year-old New Yorker at the start of the novel and central protagonist
Andy Barbour: Theo's school friend
Mr and Mrs Barbour: Andy’s parents and wealthy Park Avenue couple with whom Theo goes to live for several months after the explosion
Platt, Kitsey and Toddy Barbour: Andy’s siblings
Hobie: Antique dealer in New York
Welty: Hobie’s business partner who died in the explosion
Pippa: daughter of Welty’s half-sister Juliette, whom Welty raised
Margaret: Welty’s half sister
Larry Decker: Theo’s dad
Xandra: Larry’s girlfriend
Boris: Only child of an alcoholic father and Theo’s only substantive friend while living in Las Vegas
Lucius Reeve: Knocker; swindler who lives in New York and preys upon wealthy, elderly folks, and is blackmailing Theo

Discussion Topics

The topics presented here offer a starting point for a book club discussion. Consider the topics presented in the book discussion guides for People of the Book and The Girl You Left Behind  and weave an artful discussion around the timelessness of art.  Or perhaps focus on readers’ reactions and let your conversation delve into the types of readers that comprise your book group— a great opportunity to get to know one another as readers.

Reaction to the Novel

While gauging the reaction to a book from a variety of readers is interesting with most novels, this book in particular seems to cause more bifurcated reactions than most.  The characters are drawn in great detail from the perspective of an adult (Theo Decker) looking back over his life as a child coming of age. The pace and action of the novel ebb and flow. There may be elements of the story that individuals can identify with strongly or not at all.

What elements of a novel have the most impact on whether you enjoy reading a book?  Perhaps the pace of the plot is most important, or the degree to which you can empathize with the characters, or a writing style draws you in regardless of content. What elements affect whether you recommend a book?  How you recommend a book?  Do you prefer reading a book without knowing anything about it or do you prefer a recommendation that offers a glimpse into the plot or style or mood?

Donna Tartt received the Pulitzer Prize “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” In the Pulitzer summary the novel is described:
The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher's calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.”
Do you agree? Why do you supposed the author won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel?

Major Themes

Many of the strongest themes are spelled out with very little reading between the lines or introspection on the part of the reader.  For instance, in the closing soliloquy Theo says, 
“I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you.  That life— whatever else it is— is short.  That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it.” page 962.
Identify the themes that Theo (and the author) writes down in the missive to us, the readers.  How strongly do you agree or disagree with each perspective?


After Theo takes The Goldfinch there are several opportunities early on where Theo could have revealed what he has done. As a child in a traumatic situation, he would likely receive minimal repercussions. As those opportunities pass how does the nature of the secret change?  At what points in Theo’s life is the secret most destructive?  At what points does Theo find relief from holding his secret?

Theo’s secrets extended far beyond his theft of The Goldfinch.  Throughout the story, Theo hides his darker self from those closest to him who don’t share his interest in living on the edge. Theo himself states,
 “I’d always worked so hard to screen my double-dealing self from him [Hobie], to show him only the improved-and-polished version, never the shameful threadbare self I was so desperate to hide, deceiver and coward, liar and cheat— ” page 937.
Theo describes his feelings harboring a secret,
“Unsettled heart. The fetishism of secrecy.” page 656.
And later his physical anguish of keeping secrets is expressed after he confronts Kitsey on her relationship with Tom, his own secret still hidden,
“on another [level] I felt nearly suffocated by the weight of everything unknown, and unsaid, pressing down between us” page 747.
Theo is not the only character harboring a secret in the book. There is an undercurrent of deception running throughout the book from Theo’s dad’s life to Lucius Reeve to Kitsey. Which secrets are most destructive?  Which are most personal? Which of the characters find relief from their deception and in what ways? Which characters are most traumatized by their secrets? Which characters are most secret-free? Compare the lives and moods of the individuals harboring secrets with those who are more transparent.

When has a secret eaten away at you?  How have you found relief from harboring a secret? When have secrets developed from an omission of information? How much time passes before an omission of information turns into a secret?


The relationships that Theo forms with Boris and Andy, Hobie and Pippa, Kitsey and Mrs. Barbour each bring out a different side of Theo.

Of Mrs. Barbour, Theo says, her 
“happiness made me feel reassured and nourished in channels of my heart which had stood scraped dry for years.” page 637.
Mrs. Barbour says that around Theo, Andy 
“was absolutely his best self with you, always.” page 638.
Can a better gift even be given than for someone to be better because of you?  Who brings out the best in you?  For whom are you the person who brings out the best in someone else?

Pippa and Theo’s relationships is based on large part on their shared experience, a horrendous experience that few others can relate to.
“… but still I wanted to know.  Did she have nightmares too? Crowd fears? Sweats and panics?” page 475.
How does the basis of a relationship you have formed influence the relationship itself?  What are the common elements among your most positive relationships?

Timelessness of Art versus Transience of Human Lives

Throughout the novel the timelessness of art and furniture is juxtaposed with the brevity of human life.  For instance, Hobie’s furniture restoration is seen as a timeless endeavor,
“‘Always remember, the person we’re really working for is the person who’s restoring the piece a hundred years from now. He’s the one we want to impress.’” page 519.
While Theo muses about the brevity of human life,
“sidewalks teeming with dead, cadavers pouring off the buses and hurrying home from work, nothing left of any of them in a hundred years except tooth fillings and pacemakers and maybe a few scraps of cloth and bone.” page 557.
Later Theo directly juxtaposes the destruction of art with the the mortality of humanity, 
“For humans— trapped in biology— there was no mercy: we lived a while, we fussed around for a bit and died, we rotted in the ground like garbage.  Time destroyed us all soon enough.  But to destroy, or lose, a deathless thing— to break bonds stronger than the temporal— was  metaphysical uncoupling all its own, a startling new flavor of despair.” page 867.
Theo repeats this explicit comparison when he finally holds the painting again after its tumultuous travels and notes the small chip in it, 
“the painting is “otherwise: perfect. I was different, but it wasn’t.” page 838.
Theo frets over his destruction of The Goldfinch in the hotel in Amsterdam,
“Intentionally or no: I had extinguished a light at the heart of the world.” page 874.
Where in the novel is the transience of human life most vivid to you?  Where is the longevity of art most eloquently expressed?

Our Relationship to Art

A Joan Miró reference in the novel cuts out the first, and powerful, part of the quote:
“In a picture, it should be possible to discover new things every time you see it. But you can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.”
A similar quote in the novel highlights the variety in seeing a painting in different lights at different times,
 “It was one thing to see a painting in a museum but to see it in all those lights and moods and seasons was to see it a thousand different ways and to keep it shut in the dark— a thing made of light, that only lived in light— was wrong in more ways than I knew how to explain.” page 623.
Have you ever had this response to a piece of art?  What about the artwork is captivating to you?  Is it something about the picture itself or the moment in which you first saw the art? How is seeing art in person distinct from seeing a reproduction of the artwork?

Hobie expresses art appreciation as very personal,
“if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art.  It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you,” page 945.
In a moment when Theo senses his mother’s presence while he is distraught in the hotel contemplating the end of his life, he compares the sensation to a great painting:
“There was motion and stillness, stillness and modulation, and all the charge and magic of a great painting.” page 903.
How would you express your response to a piece of art and why or how it called to you?

Monday, November 10, 2014

How We Learn and Make It Stick

Book:    How We Learn
Author: Benedict Carey

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

Internet Resources

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

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

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

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

Comparing These Books

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

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

Discussion Topics

Don’t use these notes!

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

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

Who Got It Right?

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

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

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

Use What You’ve Learned

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

Expanding the Learning of Others

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


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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Death of Bees Discussion Guide

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

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

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

Major Characters

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

Discussion Topics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.  Any of these can be used as book club discussion questions to get your conversation started.

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.“

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.

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 child'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?

The Rent Collector

Book : The Rent Collector Author : Camron Wright Edition : Hardcover, Shadow Mountain, 2012 The cover of this book belies the na...