Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Discussion Guide for State of Wonder

Book:      State of Wonder
Author:   Ann Patchett
Edition:   HarperCollins first edition, hardcover.

Warning: these contain spoilers!  Read after you have finished the book.


I recommend reading and viewing the photos in an article from The Atlantic on Ashaninka. Also view a
short BBC clip showing aerial footage of a group of humans in the Amazon that haven’t been contacted by other humans.

In addition, the themes in this book go far beyond the few starting points below.  Follow the current of your own group and let your discussion flow where it may.


Dr. Marina Singh, a medical doctor, now research scientist for Vogel Pharmaceutical, sent to Brazil to track down Dr. Swenson
Dr. Annick Swenson, a medical doctor in her 70s working in the jungles of Brazil and Marina’s former mentor
Anders Eckman, Marina’s lab partner who was sent to the Amazon to track down Dr. Swenson
Karen Eckman, Ander’s wife
Mr. Jim Fox, President of Vogel who sends Anders and then Marina to the Amazon
Milton, driver in Manaus
Rodrigo, Milton’s brother-in-law and local storeowner
Mrs. Barbara Bovender, keeper of the gate to Dr. Swenson, self-proclaimed writer, described as bohemians
Mr. Jackie Bovender married to Barbara, self-proclaimed surfer
Easter, deaf boy who pilots Annick’s boat and takes care of the visiting adults as he craves a parenting figure

Discussion Topics

Ann Patchett describes Marina as overly tall and bony with impenetrable eyes and heavy black hair that set her apart from all the Swedes.  How do you describe her?  Did you find her a likeable character?  Which scenes made her a more believable character?

Marina’s Relationship with Mr. Fox
Throughout the story, Marina refers to Mr. Fox as “Mr. Fox” not his first name, Jim.  Yet she claims she loves him.  How would you characterize their relationship?  How does their relationship change once Marina finds Dr. Swenson? Will Marina’s relationship to Mr. Fox continue in Minnesota?

Marina’s Nightmares
As soon as she starts taking the Larium, Marina’s nightmares of losing her father start up again.  How do Marina’s nightmares reflect her sense of loss? What finally banishes her nightmares?

The Bovenders
At one point, Marina realizes that (page 149) “without the Bovenders there to remind her, she might have forgotten what it was like to be enthralled, to fall hard in love for principles and a singularly remarkable mind.  … there was something in their shiny nature that made them indestructible.”  Have you met people like the Bovenders?

The Bovenders act as the gatekeepers to Dr. Swenson.  How do they shape Marina’s view of Dr. Swenson’s work?  What feelings does Marina have for the Bovenders?

Dr. Swenson
Our first knowledge of Dr. Swenson is through Marina and her memories of her internship and reflects Dr. Swenson’s high standards, lack of sentimentality, and seeming lack of warmth.  (Page 11) “A tiny woman made tinier by distance fixes one hundred people to their seats with a voice that never troubles itself to be raised, and because they are all afraid of her and because they are afraid of missing anything she might say, they stay as long as she chooses to keep them… Marina believes the entire room exists as she exists, at the intersection of terror and exaltation.”   On the boat heading to the Lakashi village, Marina feels like Oliver holding up his bowl as she wants to learn more from Dr. Swenson.

Then we hear the Bovender’s perspective: (page 96) “Once you understand Annick you know there’s nobody like her… She’s such a force of nature… completely fearless, someone who saw the world without limitations.”  When we meet Dr Swenson, she is cut and dry and matter of fact about Anders and his lack of suitability for the rain forest.    Dr. Swenson is referred to as the kingpin to the Lakashi.

Whose perspective better summed up Dr Swenson’s nature for you?   How do your feelings toward Dr. Swenson change or become more fixed through the book? 

Dr. Swenson, Anders and Marina each informally adopt Easter.  How do each of their parent-child relationships differ?  What role does Easter play in the story?

After Marina saves Easter from the snake, Annick tells Marina “you can’t make a hearing boy out of a deaf boy, and you can’t run everyone you meet into an American… He is not available.”  How would you respond?

How did you react to Marina’s decision to leave Easter behind?  Do you think she would have made the same decision had she had more time to think through the situation?

The jungle itself is a character in the book, at once alive with sound and pleasure and dangers.  At times it seems as tight as 20 chain link fences. On page 174 the jungle is compared to an orchestra as Marina tries to rest in the pontoon boat on the way to the lab.  How does Marina’s view of the jungle change over the course of the story?  How does the jungle change Marina?

How do Annick and Marina each interact with the indigenous people?   At one point Annick says, “the question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived.  That is how one respects indigenous people.”  And as she says about Dr. Rapp, “He would have respected the order that was in place.”  Which sits better with you?  How do Annick and Marina walk the tightrope between helping and letting their culture remain undisturbed?

Watch the BBC video In the BBC video, Jose Carlos Meirelles, the man working to maintain land for the tribe says, Their future doesn’t depend on them. It depends on us, our conscious…”  How does Dr. Swenson, Marina and other characters in the novel support or refute this statement.

Meirelles also says, “It’s important for humanity these people exist.  They remind us it’s possible to live in a different way.”  Who in the novel do you think would concur with Meirelles statement?  Who would not?  What do you think?

Annick admits, “by straying into the territory of the biologically young I have been punished.”    And on page 287, “I’ve never believed the women of the world are entitled to leave every one of their options open for a lifetime.”

Should women of all ages be able to have children?  What would be the benefits to the individual and to society?  What would be the difficulties to each?

Loss is a central theme recurring throughout the book.  At times it is heartbreaking, Marina’s and Karen’s initial reaction to Ander’s death and the loss of Easter. Other times the loss is less painful, but still difficult, the loss of Swenson’s baby, Marina’s loss of her life as a doctor, Mr. Fox and the Bovenders getting lost on the river and Marina’s recurring nightmares of losing her father.  And at times the loss is trivial— Marina losing her luggage twice.

On page 269, Marina realizes, “There was no one clear point of loss. It happened over and over again in a thousand small ways and the only truth there was to learn was that there was no getting used to it.”

What do the characters in the book learn from loss?  How are the varying reactions healing?  Which reactions are less helpful?

Life Lessons
Beyond lesson of loss, the story is peppered with reflections on life and how we each approach our lives.  On page 246 Dr. Swenson remarks, “Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.”  While she says this as she is explaining that what she has found is something much greater and much more ambitious that anything hoped for—her work focused on a vaccine for malaria, not only a fertility drug.

Have you ever found you’ve been so focused on one goal, you miss opportunities that are right in front of you?

Orpheus Story
Marina’s story parallels Orpheus (Greek musician who travels to the underworld in an attempt to retrieve Eurydice) as she travels to the darkness of the jungle to bring Anders back from death.  The Bovenders can be seen as the gatekeepers to Hades.  And many of the trials she meets come right from Greek mythology—beheading monsters like the anaconda and trading with cannibal tribes.  Discuss some of the parallels you saw.  In what way was Marina’s journey mythical?

After the Story

What happens in your sequel to State of Wonder?  Will Marina return to the rain forest and continue Dr. Swenson’s work?  Which of Marina’s relationships will persist and which will end (have ended) at the close of the story?  Will her work become reality?  Will Easter be happily reunited with his family or return to one of his foster parents?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Discussion Guide for Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I enjoy leading book groups. When I lead, I write up a discussion guide to use.  Feel free to ask your own questions or discuss your own observations or reactions in the comments section.

All page numbers refer to the first Scribner hardcover edition, May 2009.


Eilis Lacey, pronounced “Eye-lish”, main character who is trained as a bookkeeper and moves from Ireland to Brooklyn in the early 1950s.
Rose, Eilis’ 30 year old, and only, sister
Jack, Pat and Martin, Rose and Eilis’ brothers
Miss Kelly, rigid shopkeeper in Eilis’ hometown of Enniscorthy where Eilis works
Nancy Byrne, Eilis best friend in Enniscorthy
Annette O’Brien, friend in Enniscorthy
George Sheridan, Nancy’s fiancĂ©
Jim Farrell, cool toward Eilis in Part One, wants to marry her in Part Four
Father Flood, Irish priest who now lives in Brooklyn
Mrs. Kehoe, Irish boardinghouse owner
Miss McAdam, Sheila Heffernan, Patty McGuire, Diana Montini, Miss Keegan (leaves the boarding house), Dolores Grace (arrives after Miss Keegan leaves), boarding housemates
Miss Bartocci, daughter of the owner of Bartocci’s where Eilis works in Brooklyn
Miss Fortini, Eilis’ supervisor at Bartocci’s
Tony, Eilis’ boyfriend and then husband

Discussion Topics

Brooklyn centers on themes of home and returning home, going away and coming of age and an immigrant’s life.  There are myriad other facets of the book to discuss and each reader may find connections to his or her life that are great points for jumping off as discussion topics. Below are some starting points of topics.  Peruse them and find which ones are most intriguing to your group’s discussion and develop your own topics for which you want to express your perspective or hear others’ reactions.

Going Away and Arriving

Shortly after she arrives in Brooklyn, Eilis has both strong feelings of absorbing the newness around her and strong feelings of homesickness.  How did you react to each of these emotions as Eilis dealt with them and characters around her offered their insights?
Eilis express that
“For each day… she needed a whole other day to contemplate what had happened and store it away,” page 60
When have you felt feelings of newness and a need for time to absorb them? 
On dealing with homesickness, Jack tells Eilis,
“In the first few months I couldn’t find my way around at all and I was desperate to go home.”  Page 38
Eilis express one facet of her homesickness on page 69,
“She was nobody here.”
Did you find Eilis’ feelings of homesickness rang true? 
Miss Fortini’s perspective on homesickness is very matter of fact as is Father Flood’s reaction.
“But the sadness won’t last so we’ll see what we can do for you.” Page 76.
“You’re homesick, that’s all.  Everybody gets it… And the rule is to have someone to talk to and keep busy.” Page 78.
Eilis thinks of managing her homesickness as
“it would be like covering a table with a table cloth, or closing curtains on a window;” page 79.
In time Eilis homesickness diminishes.  What led to that change?
Summer camp directors often share the wisdom of offering distraction and immersion to deal with homesickness in campers.  How did Eilis manage her homesickness?

When have you dealt with homesickness and what strategies have you employed?

Historical Insight

What were the clues Toibin used to show the time period and setting?  Was it difficult for you to figure out when the novel took place?

Some of the scenes the author paints to show facets of life in Brooklyn in the 1950s are the description of how laundry was managed in the boarding house (page 58), how sales were conducted in a store (page 63), the mix of ethnicities at Brooklyn College (page 82), selling nylons to black women (page 114), going to Singing in the Rain (page 143), going to Coney Island (page 164), going to a Dodger’s game (page 170).

Which of these or others were most helpful in setting the time and place of the novel?  How was your enjoyment of the novel expanded or diminished by these insights into life in Brooklyn?

Eilis’ Choices

Beyond getting a job, why do you think Eilis went to America? How did her relationship with her family frame that choice each of the two times she set out for America? 

How did what Eilis shared and withheld from her letter writing shape her relationship with her family?  How did her letter shape her experience in Brooklyn?  Facebook is often analyzed as a place where people share only the good bits in their lives, creating a false impression of how happy every one is.   This is very similar to Eilis’ letter writing approach.  Do you think this is a natural human tendency?  What are the range of reasons that people chose not to share a complete account of their lives?
When have you chosen to share less than a full account of your encounters?

How were Eilis’ reasons for choosing to return to Brooklyn different from the first time she left for Brooklyn?  Did Eilis have more or less involvement with her decision the second time?  Do you think Eilis would have returned to America if she hadn’t gotten married to Tony?  
How do you think her life will unfold? 
What choice would you have made?

Pairs of Contrast

Throughout the book there are pairs of contrast:
  •   Leaving home and arriving in Brooklyn
  •  Excitement at the newness of Brooklyn and sadness of homesickness
  •  The boarding house girls who are extroverts and live it up and those who are restrained
  •  Tony and Jim
What contrasting pairs did you find in Brooklyn?  How do these contrasts shape Eilis as a character?  Are there two sides to Eilis’ character?  Are there multiple contrasting elements of her character?

Eilis’ Personality

How did you view Eilis?  Were you sympathetic to her as a character?  Did you see her as having or lacking passion?  How was she shaped by her family life and by the time period in which she grew up?  In what ways does Eilis control her life and in what ways do others control her life? 

When have you let your life be controlled by others?  When have you taken control?

Book Structure

The book is told in four parts.  Each part begins a new stage of Eilis’ life:
Part One: Eilis in Enniscorthy
Part Two: Eilis new to Brooklyn
Part Three: Eilis moves to the basement room
Part Four: Eilis arrives back in Ireland
How did each of these parts map to Eilis’ transformation as a character?  Which section did you enjoy the most?

If you were mapping your life so far into parts, where would you make the transitions between the segments in your life story?

Going Home

Perhaps one of the most evident themes in the book is the age-old question of whether we can ever return home.  The pull toward home is evident not just in Part Four of the book where Eilis is drawn back into her home life, but in her initial homesickness in Brooklyn and in her letters back and forth to her family. 
Where else do you recognize the theme of returning home in the novel?  How does each of these events shape the idea of being able to return home? 
How did Eilis answer this question in her life?

How would you answer this question for yourself?

What novels have you read where this theme was highlighted?  If you are looking for a “going home” theme in books to discuss with your group I suggest Tony Morrison’s, Home and on the lighter side, Breakfast with Buddha.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Direct Ad for a Movie Deceptively Veiled as a Book: The Butler

Every reader should know before reading this book what it is and is not about.

It is not about Eugene Allen as a butler who served 8 presidents.

The first chapter deceptively titled "The Butler's Journey" is about the 18 months when the author Wil Haygood knew Eugene.

The second chapter, titled "Moving Image", is a brief account of the history of black images in Hollywood and an account of how the movie the Butler was produced. My takeaway from that chapter was all sorts of people piled on just to be part of the film.

There are photos of Eugene Allen in the White House and there are photos from the film. Sadly, not only is the title and its premise deceptive-- I would love to have read a story of history unfolding before a black butler in the White House-- but the writing isn't even compelling. It is as if the author was given an assignment that he didn't have his heart in and he was under deadline.

We are fortunate that Wil Haygood sought out Eugene Allen as a witness to history and Wil's original Washington Post article is pretty much the first chapter of the two chapter book (although with a much better editor). The most interesting part of the book are the all-too-brief two page summaries of one issue around black history for each of the eight presidents under which Eugene served.

So unless you need a high level synopsis of the history of blacks in Hollywood or want the images bound in a print book rather than looking at them on your internet device, stick with the Washington Post article. Sadly, I wanted to see the movie, but after this direct advertisement deceptively veiled as a novel, I won't. I'll wait for some one to write the real novel of Eugene Allen, Witness to History.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Let The Great World Spin Discussion Guide

I enjoy leading book groups. When I lead, I write up a discussion guide to use. Thought my guides could be helpful to other book groups. So I will post them here as I compose them.  Warning: these contain spoilers!  Read after you have finished the book.

Topics for Let the Great World Spin
By Colum McCann

Ciaran and Corrigan are brothers from Ireland.
Corrigan ministers to Jazzlyn, Tillie and the other street walkers.
Corrigan and Adelita fall in love.
Adelita works at a nursing home with folks Corrigan takes out in van.
Lara and Blaine hit the van Corrigan and Jazz are driving.
Gloria lives near Corrigan, knows Jazz’s kids, adopts them.
Gloria and Claire are in a group for mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam.
Claire’s husband is the judge who sentences Tillie and Jazz. He also sentences tightrope walker.
Lara marries Corrigan.
Programmer Sam calls to witness second hand the tightrope walker walking.
Photographer gets the ultimate tag—the photo of tightrope walker and airplane that Jazz’s daughter keeps with her.

Watching the tightrope walker
So many strangers are all watching the same event. Each is unaware of the others until a pigeon swoops (page 5).
And on page 7 “the air felt suddenly shared”.
Where has this occurred in your life? Perhaps while you watched fireworks or waited in an airport security line or watched a public event unfolding. How did it feel?

Tightrope walker as a common thread
How does the tightrope walker link the stories? Literally? Figuratively? Are all of the characters walking a tightrope? In what ways?
Are you?

Dublin at the starting place for the book
Why does the book start in Dublin? Is it to show literally that we come from different places? Is it a comment on the interconnectedness of the world, especially post 9/11? All the characters have different backgrounds? New York is a city of immigrants? All of the above? More?

Interrelationships among the characters
Pg. 5: ‘Perfect strangers touched one another at the elbows.”
Pg 170: “It’s a mystery to him if the writers ever get to see their own tags, except for maybe one step back in the tunnel after it’s finished.”
Pg 197: [pay phone call] “ It’s about being connected, access, gateways, like a whispering game where if you get one thing wrong you’ve got to go all the way back to the beginning.”
Pg 325: “The collision point of stories.”
How aware are the characters in how they have each touched one another's lives?
Do we ever know how we have touched one another's lives?

Optimists and truly happy people
Pg 18 Corrigan’s “theme was happiness.” Pg 20 “When he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same.” Pg 21 “He would rather die with his heart on his sleeve than end up another cynic.” Pg 154 “he made people become what they didn’t think they could become.” Contrast the Judge seeing the worst in people in his courtroom (page 257) with Corrigan seeing best (with respect to Tillie and Jazz it’s the exact same people).
Do you know people like this?

Post 9/11 perspective
Reading the Colum McCann's Walking an Inch Off the Ground in the reader's guide, provides reader's with a glimpse into how this novel came to be.  How does the fact that the book was written post 9/11 about a pre-9/11 era shape the book?  Which characters and which events pre-echo the 9/11 tragedy?

References to God
Throughout the book there are many notes and references to God.
Pg 20: “Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where he was supposed to go. He stayed where He was needed…”
Pg 27:” “That’s what I like about God. You get to know Him by his occasional absences.”
Pg 30: “God listens back. Most of the time. He does.”
Pg 50: “when you’re young, God sweeps you up. He holds you there. The real snag is to stay there and to know how to fall. All those days when you can’t hold on any longer. When you tumble. The test is being able to climb up again.”
Pg 230: Tillie: “I don’t know who God is but if I meet Him anytime soon I’m going to get Him in the corner until He tells me the truth.”
How does each of the characters relate to God?

Fear is an on-going theme. Corrigan announces in first chapter, “They just don’t know what it is they’re doing. Or what it is being done to them. It’s about fear. You know? They’re all throbbing with fear. We all are.” And then, “If we’d stop to take account of it we’d just fall in despair. But we can’t stop. We’ve got to keep going.”
Where do the characters show fear? Does each face a fear of rejection?
Corrigan— how does he show his fear of loving someone more than his God? What else does he fear?
Claire— how does Clair express her fear of not saying right thing, of not being accepted by group? What other fears does she face?
Lara— has a specific fear of facing family of the man and woman who died. What greater fears does she face?
Pg 156 [ and title of chapter] “There is, I think, a fear of love. There is a fear of love.”
How do they overcome fear? Telling their story? Opening up?
Pg 321 [Claire taking Gloria home] “I reached across and held her hand. I had no fear now.”
Who or what is antithesis of fear? Is fear part of what enthralls the onlookers?
How do you overcome your fears?

Point of view
Throughout the book, the chapters vary from 1st person to 3rd. Why? How would the first section change if written from Corrigan’s point of view rather than his brother’s? How would the book change if told by only one person?
Corrigan: 1st person as told by Ciaran
Claire: 3rd person
Lara: 1st person
Photographer: 3rd person
Phone call: 1st person
Tillie: 1st person
Judge Soderberg: 3rd person
Adelita: 1st person
Gloria: 1st person
Who would you choose to tell the story if you could pick only one? Why?

Funambulist compared with the story line
How is the tightrope walker similar and different to the unfolding of story line?
Is his movement similar or different from the timing and pacing of the story —forward, backward, hopping, dance, laying down, running?
How about time?
How do the ordinary and extraordinary compare in the funambulists walk and the people watching him? And the characters?
How is fear similar or different between the tightrope walker and the characters?
How does your life feel like or not feel like the tightrope walker’s journey?

The storyline hops, and jumps forward and back just as the tightrope walker does. At times it lays down in time, as does the funambulist, and draws the reader into the moment, the here and now.
Pg 181-189: sitting, lying down, hopping, dancing, back and forth.
Pg 251:” He had hopped, He had danced. He had virtually run across from one side to the other.”
Ciaran telling story of his mother shows us the detail of a moment in the past
Claire’s story when she learned that her son had died lays the reader down in the past.
Pg 104: so NOT in the moment—Claire isn’t listening to women in her home, thinking her own thoughts and concerns
Pg 116: Lara totally lays down in time as she describes the face of Corrigan during the accident
Pg 118: Back in time—Lara and Blaine a year early moving to upstate New York
Pg 134: painting having been rained on: “we allow the present to work on the past.”
Pg 202: Tillie in jail hopping quickly back and forth between her story in the past and her present in the cell. Tillie’s story goes far into future—knows Ciaran and Lara fell in love.
Pg 287: “but things don’t begin and end really I suppose; they just keep on going”
How does time feel to you?

People make incorrect assumptions about people repeatedly.
Ciaran assumes Corrigan is using drugs (pg 47).
Judge assumes Corrigan is a pimp. (pg 269)
Nurse assumes Lara is a friend collecting Corrigan’s things.
Claire and Gloria each have assumptions about the other until they get to know one another (pg 320)
Why are these assumptions made? How are they overcome or not?
Why do we draw assumptions about others? Is this helpful or hurtful?

Family, Love, Caring
Throughout the stories, love is shown and shared in unexpected ways. Tillie, Jazz and Angie threw a non-dead party for Corrigan (pg 53)
Pg 213 “It’s no less love if you’re a hooker, it’s no less love at all.”
Pg 215: Story of cop walking 20 paces behind couple celebrating anniversary in Central Park so they will be safe.
Pg 275: “The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own.”
Pg 289: “I used to think it was difficult for children of folks who really loved each other, hard to get out from under that skin.”
Pg 305: Woman doesn’t reach out when she sees Gloria was mugged (lack of caring)
Pg 329 “sometimes there was more beauty in this life than the world could bear.”
Which quotes ring true to you on love? What does the quote you picked say to you?

A quote that particularly stuck with me:
Pg 55 “Pain’s what you give, not what you get.”
What quotes stick with you?

Ordinary and extraordinary
Pg 242: It is the ordinary that is the stuff of life: “Rather it was the ordinary steps that revisited him. The ones done without flash.”
Pg 256 “a part of the Parts.” [judge in court system]
Pg 266: all of the court cases show the ordinary in the day on a day of the extraordinary.
Pg 305: “all I wanted to do was to make my life thrilling for awhile; to take the ordinary objects of my days and make a different argument out of them.”
How does ordinary and extraordinary compare in your life?

The world spins
On the last page of the novel: “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.” So many lives intertwined. Each stumbles on. Each finds his or her own moments of happiness amidst fear and loss and struggles. Is it enough?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Book Discussion Guide for The Buddha in the Attic

Discussion Guide for The Buddha in the Attic
By Julie Otsuka

I enjoy leading book groups. When I lead, I write up a discussion guide to use. Feel free to ask your own questions or discuss your own observations or reactions in the comments section.

All page numbers refer to the paperback First Anchor Books Edition, March 2012.

Discussion Topics

Entry Quotes
Re-read the two quotes at the start of the novel:
“There be of them that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be, which have no memorial, who are perished, as though they had never been, and are become as though they had never been born, and their children after them.”
“Barn’s burnt down—
I can see the moon.”
What do recall thinking about these quotes before reading Otsuka’s novel? How do you react to these words now?

Otsuka’s narrative creates incredibly powerful images yet seeing historical photos of the Japanese internment can add an important dimension to discussion of the novel. Here are some from the Library of Congress and National Archives.

From the National Archives description: Mr. and Mrs. K. Tseri have closed their drugstore in preparation for the forthcoming evacuation from their home and business.

From the Library of Congress description: A large sign reading "I am an American" placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas.

From the Library of Congress, Centerville, Cal., April 1942 - a Japanese farmer harvesting cauliflower on a ranch near Centerville - he will be housed in a war relocation authority center for the duration of the war.

From the Library of Congress here is an Ansel Adams collection of photographs taken in Manzanar.

Narrative Style
Much of the emotion and passion within the novel is drawn from Otsuka’s writing style. The novel moves from past tense as we read about the lives of the Japanese brides and then to the present tense for the final chapter from the point of view of the white Americans. In addition, most of the book is presented as a series of lists—lists of people, lists of images, lists of places, lists of scenes.

Why do you think Julie Otsuka employed this tactic? When and with whom did you connect with among the faceless characters? Did any of the characters have dimension in your mind? Did any reappear as you read the narrative, if not by name, then by image or place? Were you drawn to a particular Japanese bride, creating a thread of life as a migrant worker or the life of a city maid?

Perhaps the phrases washed over you independently. How were you emotionally affected by Otsuka’s writing style?

Highlighted Quotes
Particular phrases among the lists are in the first or second person and in italics as if spoken.  There are many such quotes.  Here are just a few examples.
“My parents married me off for betrothal money.” Page 8 
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life crouched over a field?” Page 16 
“These folks just drift, we don’t have to look after them at all.” Page 29 
“Let’s go beat up some Filipinos.” Page 76 
“He talks to her all day long.” Page 107 
“I hear he used to be Charlie Chaplin’s personal valet.” Page 110
Perhaps Otsuka is trying to invoke images of a conversation between two of the Japanese brides—a snippet of dialogue that was overheard by the narrator. Perhaps she is trying to help the reader conjure images of one individual talking to another. Maybe you see a hand cupped to an ear to offer up a whisper or two heads touching in a conspiratorial exchange. Do these particular phrases stand out from the others? Do you find other phrases that could also have been used for emphasis? Why do think Otsuka emphasizes these phrases?

Regret and Envy
Regret for paths not chosen and envy of others’ lives is a consistent theme throughout the book.
“But for the rest of her life she would wonder about the life that could have been.” Page 15 
“We loved them. We hated them. We wanted to be them.” Page 39
What emotions and conditions bring out the strongest feelings of regret in the novel? In your life?
“… for hadn’t we always dreamed of becoming our mother?” Page 16
Did this resonate? Did you dream of becoming one of your parents or perhaps quite the opposite?

Violence of Sex
Many facets of sex are presented through a minimum of words. Nearly all of the sexual images depict sex as violent.
“They took us violently, with their fists,…” page 19.
Few show tenderness or love. This violence both contrasts sharply with and reinforces the submissive exterior that the whites see in their characterizations of the Japanese around them.

What depth did these depictions of ‘being taken’ add to the novel? How did they add dimension to the Japanese brides?

Juxtaposition of Spring with the Removal of the Japanese
As the Japanese are being taken away to the internment camps, Otsuka juxtaposes their departure with the arrival of spring.
“In February the days grew slowly warmer and the first poppies bloomed bright orange in the hills. Our numbers continued to dwindle.” Page 94 
“Spring arrived. The almond trees in the orchards began dropping the last of their petals and the cherry trees were just reaching full bloom. Sun poured down through the branches of the orange trees. Sparrows rustled in the grass. A few more of our men disappeared every day.” Page 97 
“Pale green buds broke on the grapevines in the vineyards and all throughout the valleys the peach trees were flowering beneath clear blue skies. Drifts of wild mustard blossomed bright yellow in the canyons. Larks flew down from the hills. And one by one, in distant cities and towns, our older sons and daughters quit their jobs and dropped out of school and began coming home. “ Page 100
Often in writing, signs of spring are used as a metaphor for rebirth. Why do you suppose Otsuka uses these beautiful descriptors of the arrival of spring alongside the images of the Japanese disappearing? How does that juxtaposition make you feel?

Parallels Between Japanese Lives and Their Removal
Over and over again the novel shows the invisibility of the Japanese brides. Their husbands speak for them. Most of the whites view them collectively and compare them as a unified group. Even the brides themselves are shells,
“But is was not we who were cooking and cleaning and chopping, it was somebody else. And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared.” Page 37
How did the Japanese become more visible as they departed and after they were taken to the internment camps?
“We begin to long for our old neighbors, the quiet Japanese.” Page 126
Can what we leave behind be more representative of who we are than the lives we led?

The title of the book The Buddha in the Attic is referenced directly on page 109 ,
“Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.”
Sometimes a single object left behind can create a scene that appears more empty than emptiness—a school swing without a child on it, a single shoe dropped in the street. Emptiness can feel emptier with a hint of the memory of fullness. How does the image of a Buddha left behind laughing resonate with the streams of Japanese quietly being taken away?

The Buddha is referred to elsewhere as well, such as the following:
“It was like looking into the eye of the Buddha.” Page 13 
“We made Buddhist altars out of overturned tomato crates that we covered with cloth, and every morning we left out a cup of hot tea for our ancestors.” Page 34 
“We forgot about Buddha.” Page 37 
“We’re just a bunch of Buddhaheads.” Page 77 
“Every evening, at dusk, we began burning our things: old bank statements and diaries, Buddhist family altars, wooden chopsticks, paper lanterns, photographs of our unsmiling relatives back home in the village in their strange country clothes.” Page 86 
“In Autumn there is no Buddhist harvest festival on Main Street.” Page 127
Buddha is a touch point that in many ways mirrors the lives of the Japanese brides from arriving to being taken away. What objects serve as these mirrors of the storyline in other novels you have read or movies you have seen or in your life?  What objects serve as these mirrors in your life?

The Rent Collector

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