Friday, February 21, 2014

Discussion Guide for Twelve Years a Slave

Book:       Twelve Years a Slave
Author:    Solomon Northrup
Edition:    Kindle

Because this book is an historical account, I recommend reading some of the online resources below to create context before reading the narrative itself.

Twelve Years a Slave is a slave narrative as told to the editor David Wilson, by Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. 

The book was published in 1853 and according to Documenting the American South,  the book “sold over thirty thousand copies. It is therefore not only one of the longest North American slave narratives, but also one of the best-selling.”

Online Resources
There are many outstanding online resources that provide context both from the antebellum period in which the narrative was written as well as modern perspectives that reflect back on slavery in the United States.

The University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sponsors Documenting the American South which has several resources that are helpful to read before or after you read the book.   Not only is the entire text of the book with illustrations online (worth viewing the illustrations if your version didn’t include them), there is also an article from the New York Times in 1853 that preceded the publication of the book.  The New York Times article offers a synopsis of Northrup’s kidnapping and years in slavery and an account of the legal proceedings against Burch.

Documenting the American South also has a Publisher’s Advertisement for Twelve Years a Slave.  The book sold in 1853 as a 350 page volume for $1— comparable to the 99 cent Kindle version (of course the Kindle version doesn’t contain the illustrations).

Slave narratives like Twelve Years a Slave are instrumental in documenting the first person account of slavery.   A comprehensive article in the Guardian, which provides background on the slave narrative as a genre, states “Slave narratives are the most powerful corrective we have to such distortions and evasions, firsthand accounts from some of the people who suffered the atrocities of slavery.”  

In addition to the narratives that were published in the 19th century, the Works Progress Administration created a Federal Writers’ Project to interview surviving ex-slaves during the 1930s.  These interviews became the Slave Narrative Collection which can be read online at the Library of Congress.  

Northrup was kidnapped in 1841 and remained a slave until 1853.  Understanding the Compromise of 1850 and The Fugitive Slave Act provides context for the fear among all blacks free and slave, lack of legal rights for blacks, and increased incentives and obligations for capturing slaves by all citizens.    The slave had no standing as a witness in a court.  As Northrup wrote “had he stabbed me to the heart in the presence of a hundred slaves, not one of them, by the laws of Louisiana, could have given evidence against him.”  At the same time, catching runaway slaves was, as Northrup says, a “money-making business.”

Major Characters
Solomon Northrup, author and free black man who lived in Saratoga Springs, New York (north of Albany).  He was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.
Anne Hampton, Northrup’s wife with whom Northrup had three children.
Henry B. Northrup, a lawyer in Sandy Hill, NY who rescued Northrup as “an agent, with full power to effect” Northrup’s restoration.  Henry Northrup was a relative of the family who owned Solomon Northrup’s father.  Hence Solomon shared his name. 
Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, men who offered Northrup employment by playing his violin at their performances and who then apparently drugged him and sold him into slavery.
James Burch, slave trader in Washington, D.C.  Put on trial for kidnapping and selling Northrup into slavery and acquitted.
Ebenezer Radburn, Burch’s lackey.  Called as a witness for the prosecution against Burch.
Clemens Ray, John Williams, Randall, three other slaves held in the William’s Slave Pen at the time Northrup was brought there.
Eliza and her daughter Emmy, Randall’s mother and sister, brought to the William’s Slave Pen.  Eliza was mistress to a white slave owner, Elisha Berry, for 9 years, and Emily was his child. Berry’s ex-wife’s new husband sold Eliza and her children.  Sold from William’s Slave Pen with Northrup.
Arthur, slave who was also on the boat Orleans being transported to New Orleans, with whom Northrup plotted an escape plan.
Theophilus Freeman, slave pen owner in New Orleans.
William Ford, Baptist preacher who bought Northrup in New Orleans and lived in the Great Pine Woods 12 miles from Lamourie, Louisiana.
John M Tibeats, hideously cruel itinerant carpenter who purchased Northrup from Ford to satisfy a debt for his carpentry work.
Mr. Chapin, overseer on the Ford plantation where Northrup worked for Tibeats.
Peter Tanner, plantation and slave owner across the Bayou Boeuf from his sister Mistress Ford.
Edwin Epps, brutal slave owner who purchased Northrup from Tibeats; often drunk.  Leased a cotton plantation from a relative. It is here that Northrup was enslaved for 10 years.
Mistress Epps, Edwin’s wife who takes all her vengeance out on Patsey.
Patsey, 23 years old when Northrup was purchased by Epps, slave to Epps and “most remarkable cotton picker on Bayou Boeuf.”  Raped by Epps and constantly in danger of being murdered by Epps’ wife—"the enslaved victim of lust and hate."  Her spirit was flogged out of her by a devastatingly cruel whipping while she was staked to the ground.
Abram, slave to Epps, in his 60s, in failing health.
Wiley, 48 year old slave to Epps, silent.  Tried to run away from Epps in 1850 and was severely flogged upon his capture.
Phebe, slave to Epps, wife of Wiley, worked in the big house kitchen.
Bob, Phebe’s 23 year old son by a former husband.
Henry, Phebe’s 20 year old second son by a former husband.
Edward, 13 year old son of Phebe and Wiley.
Armsby, white man who worked in the fields and to whom Northrup confided his history in the hope of having Armsby mail a letter home on his behalf.  Armsby told Epps Northrup’s plan.
Bass, white Canadian abolitionist who traveled and worked at Epp’s plantation building a new house.  Bass develoted himself to securing Northrup’s freedom by writing and mailing letters on Northrup’s behalf.

Discussion Topics
Clearly there is a great deal to discuss both within the narrative and reflecting upon slavery in the United States.  The following topics are just a beginning to form a conversation around Twelve Years A Slave.  Let your group channel the discussion in ways meaningful to your members.

Northrup’s Account of Slavery as an Institution

For all of the brutality that Northrup was both witness to and victim of, he was surprisingly balanced in where he placed blame for the horrors suffered by slaves.  

Northrup allowed that his first master William Ford was “blinded” to the “inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery.”  He seems to have given his owner a pass for propagating the institution of slavery simply because he was brought up in a society that condoned slavery. 
At the end of Chapter XIV Northrup commented "It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives.  He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave's back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years."  

 As Sarah Churchwell states in her Guardian post, “This is one of the most surprising aspects of Northup's narrative: its clarity about the workings of the ‘peculiar institution’ as a system. Chattel slavery, Northup writes, "brutalised" master and slave alike; this is why slave-owners behaved so monstrously, even against their best financial interests (a dead slave, after all, was lost money). Surrounded by appalling human suffering on a daily basis, slave-owners became inured and desensitised to it, "brutified and reckless of human life"."

How do you or do you not separate the institution of slavery from the slave owners?  In modern times, what institutions provide a similar cover for the players who operate within those institutions?  To what extent are we as individuals pawns on the chessboard of life, unable to change our role let alone the rules of the game, and to what extent are individuals responsible for stopping their actions and reflecting on the morality of social structures that exist?

Voice of the Author

The account is Solomon Northrup's narrative which was written down by his editor, David Wilson.  From the editor’s preface, “the only object of the editor has been to give a faithful history of Solomon Northrup’s life, as he received it from his lips.”  

Northrup was an educated man and we know from his account that he could write.  Why do you suppose then that the editor Wilson says he received the story “from his lips”?  Do you think Northrup wrote any of the account first hand?  To what extent was a white editor necessary to get the account published?  How does having a white editor writing down the narrative change the tone of Northrup’s story?

In Chapter XIV, Northrup wrote, “Let them know the heart of the poor slave—learn his secret thoughts— thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man.”  Do you believe that Northrup’s true thoughts are represented in his narrative or even there did he need to couch his beliefs?

Whose views toward the institution of slavery do you think are being represented— are these the views of a free man sold as a slave or of a white editor representing the institution as an outsider or some combination?  

Regardless of whose views are represented, do you think these views are core beliefs either Northrup or Wilson held or were they softened for publication?  Oh to have a time machine and be able to bring Northrup or Wilson to the present day and talk to them in person to learn what they were truly feeling.  In the absence of a time machine we can speculate about what each may have believed that he did or did not put down in print.

Northrup was held as a slave for twelve years and was unable to keep any notes during that time.  The details of his account are extraordinary.  What times in your life have you been able to hold onto minute details of an event or person?  How do you believe the immense stresses Northrup lived under make the accuracy of his account more or less reliable?

Perspective of Slavery from the Inside

Whether or not the veracity of every detail can be proven, as an educated black man, Northrup was able to offer a unique perspective.  As Christopher Orr states in the Atlantic
“His perspective was thus an extraordinary one, experiencing the institution of slavery at once from within and without: enduring its horrors firsthand, yet also as an educated man who had been accepted, even celebrated, among white society in the North.” 
Northrup is one of the most widely read of the slave narratives that were published throughout the 1850s.  Many accounts were carried in newspapers, among them a story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who fled with her husband and children from Kentucky to Ohio.  Before they could flee to Canada via the Underground Railroad they were captured by U.S. Marshalls.   The mother murdered her baby rather than see it forced into slavery.  This is the story that inspired Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Regardless of any of the positive attributions Northrup made about some of the slave owners, he was steadfast in his belief of the value of freedom. 

When he met slaves at the United States Hotel in New York he described them as “well dressed and well provided for, leading apparently an easy life, with but few of its ordinary troubles to perplex them.” And then went on to say, “Almost uniformly I found they cherished a secret desire for liberty.” 
Beginning of chapter V Northrup wrote, “Let not those who have never been placed in like circumstances, judge me harshly until they have been chained and beaten.”
Near the end of Chapter IX he wrote, “I could only gaze wistfully towards the North, and think of the thousands of miles that stretched between me and the soil of freedom, over which a black freeman may not pass.”
Where did you find Northrup’s perspective as a free man who was enslaved offer a unique contrast or perspective?  Where does Northrup contrast his perspective as a free man who has been sold into slavery with the lives of the slaves he meets who have never been free?  

Details of Plantation Life

Throughout his narrative Northrup described in fascinating detail plantation life and the countryside in Louisiana.  Everything from the stocks the slaves were held in when accused of stealing melons, to the bayou “trees of enormous growth, whose wide spreading branches almost shut out the light of the sun” to the meager ‘dinner’ the slave was allowed of corn meal and bacon is described in minute detail.

He detailed precisely how cotton was cultivated from back-furrowing to planting the seeds to hoeing to picking.  Similarly he described cultivating sugar cane and the process by which sugar was made.

He described the fish trap he constructed with a movable bottom so clearly that I could visualize the contraption and see how it would be a very effective device. 

Along with lengthy accounts of plantation life, short snippets like the following create brilliant visuals: 
“They sucked themselves beneath the skin.  It was impossible to brush or beat them off.  It seemed, indeed, as if they would devour us — carry us away piecemeal, in their small tormenting mouths.” Chapter XI. 
At Christmas supper, “The ivory teeth, contrasting with their black complexions, exhibit two long, white streaks the whole extent of the table.” Chapter XV.
Which descriptions were most memorable to you?  What about his descriptions captured the life on the plantation?  

Lack of Expletives

Throughout his narrative, Northrup uses no expletives.  The following are just two of the many times expletives are contracted.
At Goodin’s slave pen, Goodin says, “New York! H—l! What have you been doing up there?” 
Tibeats, “G-d d-n you! I thought you knowed something!”
Yet on the other hand, the horrific treatment of the slaves is described in detail, culminating in Patsey's being staked down and whipped. 

Do you find Northrup’s lack of expletives surprising against the horrific treatments of slavery he described?  How were the readers of the slave narrative likely to be able to read the inhumane treatment of human beings, but be offended by expletives?

After The Story

Little is known about Northrup after the story ends— where he ended up, how he managed living after being victimized, how and when he died.  There is some speculation that he helped with the Underground Railroad and other speculation that maybe he became destitute.  

Mark Robichaux in the Speakeasy blog in the Wall Street Journal, wonders aloud about Nothrup’s life after he reclaimed his freedom:
“There are a few convincing theories on Northup’s final years.  One is that Northup “died destitute, far from family and friends, perhaps under tragic circumstances,” the historians write. There is evidence he could have even “given up, resorted to drink, or sunk below the surface.”
What would be your preference for how Northrup’s life unfolded following his reunification with his family?  What do you think is likely to have happened?  

Popularity of the Book

Twelve Years a Slave was very popular when it was first published, but fell into relative obscurity until the 2013 movie based up on the memoir was produced.  Unlike The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which has sold millions of copies worldwide, Twelve Years a Slave was virtually unknown before the 2013 movie was created.

Each memoir depicts horrific atrocities committed against human beings, yet the protagonists, the writing style, the subject matter, the time period are all quite different between the two books. Which elements of the book do you think kept Twelve Years a Slave from remaining popular?  

Why do you think Twelve Years a Slave fell into obscurity and The Diary of a Young Girl has become a staple of middle and high school English and History classes?  

You can purchase Twelve Years a Slave online at Hugo Bookstores.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Discussion Guide for Flight Behavior

Book:       Flight Behavior
Author:    Barbara Kingsolver
Edition:    Hardcover HarperCollins First Edition, 2012

I enjoy leading book groups. When I lead, I write up a discussion guide to use. Warning: spoilers within! Read after you have finished the book.

Other Resources
A description of Monarch Butterflies provides a rich, visual and well organized description of Monarchs geared to the lay person.

In March 2015, NPR shared a story on All Things Considered on the Monarch butterfly population after last year's record low.

You can read about specific steps you can take to bring back pollinators from the Xerces Society.  Monarch Watch has a Bring Back the Monarchs site.

The following two videos have beautiful filming of the Monarch’s lifecycle as well as the butterflies in migration and photography of the butterflies on trees—something akin to what Dellarobia witnessed.

Major Characters
Dellarobia Turnbow, Protagonist, 27 or so mother and farm wife living in Feathertown, Tennessee
Cub Turnbow, Dellarobia’s husband and farmer
Preston, Dellarobia’s 8 year old son with a scientific interest
Cordelia, Dellarobia’s toddler daughter
Hester Turnbow, Dellarobia’s mother-in-law sheep farmer who lives next door
Bear Turnbow, Dellarobia’s father-in-law sheep farmer, married to Hester
Pastor Bobbie Ogle, Minister of local church
Ovid Bryon, Professor at Devary University in New Mexico, Entomologist studying Monarch Butterflies
Pete, Mako, Bonnie, Students working with Ovid Bryon
Tina Ultner, News Nine reporter
Dovey, Dellarobia’s high school friend and partner in friendship and second hand shopping

Discussion Topics
Flight Behavior centers on the environment and how climate change has impacted the earth and continues to cause devastation and often unpredictable changes.  Yet at the same time, the novel presents the clash between protecting the environment and carving out a livelihood for individuals.  While this particular stand of trees is saved in the end, and not logged, not all financial pits are so seamlessly filled outside the novel.  Individuals around the globe struggle with making ends meet while sacrificing the environment, while millions of others make choices to sacrifice the environment without a second thought or need to support themselves or their families. 

In particular, Cub and Dellarobia refer to Hester’s tour group proceeds as her ‘butterfly money”.  And the balloon loan payment weighs heavy over all of them.  The logging is a sure-fire way out of their current financial predicament.

Where have you seen this struggle take place?  How can basic human needs be balanced with the long-term needs of our environment?  What incentives can be created for individuals and organizations to alter course and improve the environment rather than continue on a destructive path? What do you see as the most valuable levers in effecting positive change?

At first, Dellarobia sees the butterflies’ appearance as a bonus for her and Feathertown, page 147, “Is that so bad? They’re beautiful. We don’t get a lot of bonuses around her, let me tell you.”  What brings her to understand the larger implications?  Who is she successful in convincing of the larger negative implications?

It is exceedingly difficult for humans to see and grasp and feel connected to events that are outside the scope of our everyday lives. How often have you hear this same sentiment expressed with respect to environmental changes in your life? 

Monarch Lifecycle
The microcosm of the monarch butterfly is explored in detail both through Dellarobia’s research as well as Ovid’s scientific explanations to Dellarobia and to Preston.  What did you learn about this amazing creature?  What was most surprising to you?  Have you ever seen a monarch migration?

Biblical References
Throughout the novel Kingsolver sprinkles biblical references from Dellarobia returning down the mountain after her first encounter with the butterflies like Moses after the burning bush, with a direct reference to a burning bush on page 16.   On page 22, Dellarobia is compared directly to Moses, “But like Moses she’d come home rattled and impatient with the pettiness of people’s everyday affairs.”

In addition, the church itself becomes a character in the novel taking on multiple roles from shining the spotlight on Dellarobia, to providing a framework for a host of minor characters as well as being Bobby Ogle’s place of power.  Dovey’s provides a counter to the standard religious community with her frequent church sign texts and lack of religious affiliation. 
What religious comparisons did you see in the book?  What role did you see Dovey playing with respect to the strength of the church in the community?

Dellarobia and Cub’s marriage is compared and contrasted with Hester and Bear’s throughout the story, but perhaps nowhere more directly than when Hester opens up to Dellarobia near the end of the novel.  How have the choices each made affected their marriages and their lives?  What makes Dellarobia happy in her marriage?  What weighs down on her?  What is the catalyst that leads her in a new direction?

During their trip to the Try It Again Warehouse Dovey and Dellarobia create  marriage stories to go with the items they see such as on page 295 “All those husbands and wives dreaming of a slim, sexy version of the old ball and chain”.  Where did you see references to the positives and negatives of marriage?

Dellarobia draws her own conclusions about Byron’s marriage before meeting his wife.  Did you come to the same conclusions? 

On page 398, “Ovid had turned into someone new, and understood he had become himself, in the presence of his wife.”  How do other partners bring out the best and worst of one another in the novel? 

How do people use the facts they see before them to fit the story they want to believe?  Where does this occur in relationships?  Where else have you seen this occur?

Dellarobia’s parenting style is contrasted sharply with Hester’s.  In the first pages the reader sees Dellarobia return to collect her children from Hester’s where they seem to have been entirely neglected, “All eyes flew up to her as she entered, keen for rescue, the grandmother nowhere in sight.”  Page 30,”A more forgiving grandmother would have let Preston have it [the fleece] for a day of play, since it clearly made him happy.”  How did you view Hester as a grandparent?  What do you think influenced her parenting?  How was Hester as a mother to Cub?

Dellarobia is very focused on her parenting, with Cordie’s and Preston’s needs nearly always forefront in her mind.  Dellarobia’s view of Preston on the school bus is typical of many parents who have waited at a bus stop watching a child ascend or descend the bus steps—waving good-bye or welcoming a child home.

On page 310, Dellarobia sees Preston and the possibilities of his future.  “She felt pierced by his loss.  He would go far… already he had the means and will for the journey.” 

What strengths do you see Dellarobia as a mother?  All parents have their own coping strategies in meeting the constant demands of parenting—what are Dellarobia’s?

Both Dellarobia’s parents died long before the story begins.  Dellarobia remembers them both poignantly, for instance, page 129 “She wished she still had the hand-turned wooden toys of her childhood, things her father made in his shop, a simplicity she’d only recognized as poverty in retrospect, after he died.”  How does not having her parents living affect Dellarobia’s life choices?  How does it affect the storyline?

Dellarobia has to have a very difficult discussion with Preston about his parents’ separating. What was your reaction to how and when she approached this topic?  How did she make the concept relatable to a young child?

Education Gap
The education gap between the kids from Feathertown who are unlikely to continue on to college and the students who arrive with Byron is stark.  What skills and knowledge does Dellarobia bring to the investigation?  In what ways is she more educated than the students?  When is she able to be the teacher?  How does her new found knowledge bolster her self-esteem?

Dellarobia sees the whole town opposed to college, page 305, “the presence of the college [in Cleary] made them prickly, as if the whole town were given over to the mischief of the privileged.” 

Does Dellarobia pin her hopes fairly on a degree?  Do you think that a college degree is within her grasp?  What obstacles will she face in reaching that goal?  How do you see her life panning out?

Where have you encountered these gaps? How realistic is this portrayal of the disparity that exists in the United States and elsewhere today?  Which are the causes and which are the effects among education, poverty, mobility and such?  How can the negative cycles be broken?

Culture Clash
Kingsolver draws a stark contrast between the lives of Dellarobia’s family and the visiting students and professor.  Page 110, “At ten minutes to six Dellarobia felt embarrassed by everything in her kitchen” as she gets ready to entertain Ovid.  She notices Mako’s coat has a wrecked zipper and offers to repair it.  Mako is stunned by the idea of repairing rather than throwing or giving away. 

While Mako and the students seem superior in their knowledge of environmental change, who is having the biggest negative impact on the environment in the story?

Page 153, in reference to the students, “Worldly maybe, and heedless of their good fortune, to be sure. But in some ways they seemed young for their age….” Yet, “she was embarrassed to invite these people into her house that was the long and short of it.”

Page 162, referring to the students, “Their days here were like channel-surfing the Hillbilly Network;” 

And in the Try It Again Warehouse, Dellarobia sees a girl with a “fat, sparkly diamond on her necklace and probably a daddy paying her tuition. She didn’t need to be here.”

On page 315, Dellarobia has a conversation with an environmentalist who refers to the citizens of Feathertown, and perhaps all communities unlike his own, as “You people”.  Which is followed up on page 321 with a direct conversation between Dellarobia and Ovid on how people sort themselves out “Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own.  The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive . They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants.”  And later “People shut out the other side. It cuts both ways” page 323. 
Where did you see the strongest contrast?   What do you think of Mr. Atkins sustainability pledge?  (page 326)

Where have you experienced that type of culture clash?  How did someone on the other side of the divide make you feel more comfortable or more apart?  How can children be shown to be aware of people from a different economic strata or different culture?  Do you agree with Dellarobia’s assessment? What rings true? Where do you take issue?

A variety of characters come from away to see the butterflies.  Most stand out in stark contrast to the central characters.  How are outsiders viewed and received in Feathertown?  How does Kingsolver describe them in their dress and mannerisms to indicate the divide between insider and outsider?  Dellarobia wrestles with the lack of welcome offered to Ovid Bryon by the townspeople.  Page 257, “She thought of how Bobby Ogle moved people, persuading them with his demeanor, so loving and forthright. … Ovid had the same air about him… It made no sense that people would embrace the one and spurn the other.”

Where did you find Feathertown residents accepting outsiders and where were they viewed askance?    Consider Dellarobia’s interaction with Dimmit near the butterflies. Which is followed by her conversation with Mr. Atkins. How do the conversations contrast with one another?  How is Dellarobia’s interaction with Dimmit shaped by knowing him and where he came from?

Economic Gap
The economic gap between Dellarobia and the students is stark and clear.  Kingsolver goes into great detail describing first Dellarobia and Cub’s acrid trip to the Feathertown dollar store for Christmas shopping and then Dellarobia and Dovey’s trip to The Try It Again Warehouse for a greater selection of second hand shopping.  Each trip is explored in detail.  Which details formed the strongest impression as you read?  How did Dellarobia and Cub’s argument mirror their trip through the dollar store?

These purchases stand in stark contrast to the scientific equipment Ovid brings to set up to monitor butterflies.  How did that juxtaposition sit with you? 

Hester’s Past Life
Why is Hester’s past life important to the storyline and Dellarobia’s life in particular?  How is Hester a catalyst in Dellarobia’s life?  How does her being Pastor Ogle’s mother and his not knowing influence the story?  Why do you think Kingsolver added this piece to the puzzle?

How often have you not been aware of someone’s life history and when finding it out discovered it isn’t as neat and clean as all appears on the outside?  How has another’s revelation changed the course of your life?  How have you changed the course of others’ lives?

Parallels between butterfly migration and Dellarobia’s Life
In many ways Dellarobia’s life parallels the butterflies’.  She is awakened by their appearance and from that moment on her life takes a new turn.  In some ways it’s as if she’s emerging from her own cocoon and seeing her life from a completely new angle.  Even as she leaves her home in the first chapter, walking up through the sheep pastures, “From here it all looked fixed and strange, even her house, probably due to the angle.” Page 3. 

She finds her way back home as do the butterflies in their miracle migration.  Although Dellarobia knows where her home is, or does she?  How does she break free and is reborn?
Where does Dellarobia’s migration take her both literally and figuratively?

Story Ending
Were you pleased with how Kingsolver ended the novel? What felt true and right to you?  What took a different turn than you anticipated?  How would you have concluded the story?

Other Quotes
Page 165, “Everyone wanted to be inside the fold rather than out; maybe life was that simple.”
Page 353 “You never knew which split second might be the zigzag bolt dividing all that went before from everything that comes next.” 

 What other quotes jumped out at you?

You can purchase Flight Behavior online at Hugo Bookstores

Monday, February 10, 2014

Curl Up With a Book and Find Your Childhood

Book:          The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author:        Neil Gaiman

This is a book to own and to wrap your hands around and to feel how the letters are embossed on the book jacket after you have read the last page and need to hold on to the characters and their tale.  This story transcends genre; it is the definition of story.  A story that brings out the child in all of us, or at least our memory of childhood and the nightmares that accompany childhood.  As Maurice Sendak is quoted in the epigraph, "I remember my childhood vividly... I knew terrible things.  But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them." Neil Gaiman deftly transported me into my own childhood memories.

Some of the images (no spoilers) of childhood thoughts that rang so true...

The main character, a young boy, discovers a hole in his foot, "I do not know why I didn't ask an adult about it.  I do not remember asking adults about anything, except as a last resort." 
In the recounting of his tale that is the stuff of dreams and nightmares, the narrator says, "Why do I find the hardest thing for me to believe, looking back, is that a girl of 5 and a boy of 7 had a gas fire in their bedroom?" 
Describing a black and white TV, "The vertical hold was unreliable, and the fuzzy black-and-white picture had a tendency to stream, in a slow ribbon: people's heads vanished off the bottom of the screen as their feet descended, in a stately fashion, from the top." 
"Peas baffled me.  I could not understand why grown-ups would take things that tasted so good when they were freshly-picked and raw, and put them in tin cans, and make them revolting." 
"Adults should not weep, I knew.  They did not have mothers who would comfort them."

I took a journey with these characters and was left wanting more, but knowing that more could easily spoil the gift I had been given by an incredibly talented author.

Curl up with a book and find your childhood.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Discussion Guide for Gone Girl

Book:     Gone Girl
Author:  Gillian Flynn
Edition:  Kindle

I enjoy leading book groups. When I lead, I write up a discussion guide to use. Warning: spoilers within! Read after you have finished the book.

I read this on a Kindle without page numbers so I don’t have page number references included here; sadly that’s one of the downsides of some Kindle books.
Major Characters
Amy Elliott: protagonist gone missing, Nick’s wife
Nick Dunne: protagonist and accused murder, Amy’s husband
Go Dunne: Nick’s sister
Marybeth and Rand Elliot: Amy’s parents and authors of Amazing Amy children’s book series
Detective Rhonda Boney: detective investigating Amy’s disappearance
Detective Jim Gilpin: detective investigating Amy’s disappearance
Andie: Nick’s mistress
Tanner Bolt: Nick’s lawyer
Tommy O’Hara: One of Amy’s old boyfriends and prior accused
Hilary Handy: One of Amy’s high school friends and prior accused of stalking Amy
Desi Collings: One of Amy’s old boyfriends, prior accused and in the end Amy’s fall guy
Greta and Jeff: Transients at cabins where Amy’s hides out
Rebecca: Reporter who gets video interview of Nick

Discussion Topics
Narrative Style
Early on Nick says, “I’m pretty sure I don’t need to say this, but you are not Go, you might misconstrue.”  Here he is talking directly to reader.  Similarly Amy through her diary speaks directly to the reader. 

In Nick Dunne: One Day Gone, Nick says, ““me and go, Mom and Dad, watching the festivities from the very back of the crowd in the vast tarred parking lot, because our father always wanted to be able to leave quickly, from anywhere… But this time our faraway vantage was desirable, because we got to take in the full scope of the Event…”  Do you feel that as a reader you were far enough away to take in the full event?  Why or why not?

Why do you think Gillian Flynn employed this tactic?  Did you feel more drawn to the characters than you otherwise would have if they hadn’t been speaking directly to you?  Do you think they appeared more or less believable in this direct narrative?

One of Amy’s past suitors and accused, says “Amy likes to play God when she’s not happy.  Old testament God.”  How about the author?  How does Flynn take on the role of God?  How do authors in general become omnipresent or invisible?
Empathy Toward Amy and Nick
How did your empathy for each character change over the course of the book?  Where did your allegiance lay when you began the novel?  At what points did your allegiance swing one way or the other?  Whose perspective was more believable during the first section of the book as we alternated between Amy’s diary and Nick’s account of each day?  Were you able to hold onto what was likely fictitious once you learned that Amy had fabricated her diary?

How does each set of parents influence the expectations going into the marriage?  Nick says his good stuff he got from his mom.  But he feels his “father’s rage rise up in me in the ugliest way”.  Did hearing about Amy’s and Nick’s upbringings affect your feelings toward either?
When Amy says to the reader “I hope you liked Diary Amy.  She was meant to be likable.  Meant for someone like you to like her.  She’s so easy to like.”  How did that make you feel?  Are the readers’ emotions becoming part of the storyline at this point?

Nick parrots back to his lawyer Tanner, that he needs to be “One hundred percent canned yet totally genuine” just like Amy.  Only the fake characters are likable.  Did you find that true in the novel?  At what point was each character most likable? 
Fact and Fiction, Reality and Not
In Nick Dunne: Two Days Gone, Boney says to Nick, “People want to believe they know other people.  Parents want to believe they know their kids.  Wives want to believe they know their husbands.”  Isn’t that what readers want as well?  Don’t we want to believe we know the characters we are reading about better than they know one another?  How was this borne out in the novel?  How was this need completely turned on its head?

In Nick Dunne: One Day Gone, Nick laments that “The secondhand experience is always better.  The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore.”  To what extent is that what occurs in this book?  How was the fiction of the novel making the image crisper?  How was the author manipulating the readers’ emotions?  Did you feel manipulated?

And in the same chapter, “It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.”  Isn’t this exactly what the author is doing?
What Did You Believe and When
As you read Amy’s diary which rang truer?  Her view of Amy and Nick’s relationship or his?  Does your allegiance or lack of allegiance to Amy’s diary entries affect how you view Amy later in the book? 

Here are some of Amy’s quotes from her diary:
“I have never been a nag.  I have always been rather proud of my un-nagginess.  So it pisses me off, that Nick is forcing me to nag”
“He doesn’t talk to me, he behaves as if the act of talking physically pains him and I am a vicious woman to ask it of him.”
“I was the bitter voice that needed to be squelched”
Amy even pretends to talk responsibility in her diary for the downfall of her marriage, “I knew what I was doing.  I was punching every button on him.  I was watching him coil tighter and tighter.”  Did her humility and apparent acceptance of blame draw you in?  Were you skeptical of the diary yet?
What actions or words changed your allegiance as you continued through the novel?  How did you view the author as you continued?

In Nick Dunne: One Day Gone, Nick comments on Amy’s headshot, “Amy’s pictures gave a sense of her actually watching you.“  At any point did you as a reader suspect Amy was actually watching the whole event unfold?

In Amy Elliott Dunne: The Day of, when Amy starts narrating in the present and tells the reader “Don’t fret, we’ll sort this out: the true and the not true and the might as well be true.”  What did you believe at this point? 

At some point most readers may recognize that the storyline is headed nowhere but down.  Where did you first suspect this was the case?  Where did you grasp at hope that perhaps there could be vindication or at least comeuppance for the characters?  Perhaps when Marybeth tells Nick there’s something missing inside him to act the way he’s been acting?  Sooner? Later when Amy is down to her last quarter and dime?  What triggers led you to view the direction of the novel to be downward?  Did you want it to spiral down?  Did you hold out for hope? Eight Days Gone
Story Ending
How did you react to the ending?  What aspects of the novel kept you turning the pages?  What irritated you about the book?  Would you consider this an addictive thriller?  How does it stack up with other thrillers you have read?
Other Quotes
“But there’s no app for a bourbon buzz on a warm day in a cool, dark bar.  The world will always want a drink.”

The Rent Collector

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