Monday, March 31, 2014

Tenth of December Discussion Guide

Book:       Tenth of December
Author:    George Saunders
Edition:    Random House hardcover, 2013

Online Resources

Most of these stories have appeared in the New Yorker along with many other of his short stories, so you can find a treasure trove of insights on The New Yorker online .  I recommend two particularly fascinating interviews.  The discussion he has with the New Yorker about The Semplica Girl Diaries offers a range of insights for discussion.  In January 2013, a discussion on Tenth of December explores Saunders as a writer and how creating “semi-fantastical worlds” elevate his writing.

In May 2013, George Saunders delivered the commencement address at Syracuse University.  While his speech may not be directly intertwined with a discussion around this book, it’s a) a wonderfully emotive and full-hearted prescription that can be enjoyed by many far beyond college seniors garbed in caps and gowns and b) seeing and hearing the author provides a perspective on the soul behind the pen. 

Story Synopses

Victory Lap, a boy watches the attempted abduction of the girl next door and needs to decide whether to act.
  Characters: Alison and Kyle.

Sticks, 2-page story of a metal pole a dad drapes with sentiments of life.
  Character: dad.

Puppy, two mothers, one trying to raise a child with severe issues and a second trying to love her kids better than she felt loved by her mother, meet over a puppy.
  Characters: Marie, mom looking for puppy; Callie, mom selling puppy.
Escape from Spiderhead, pharmaceutical experiments change feelings into lust and the title character, Jeff,watches and meets death.
  Characters: Abnesti, manager administering experiments; Jeff, Heather, Rachel, Rogan, Keith all experiment subjects. 
Exhortation, a memo from a boss creates an analogy between unnamed work in a dysfunctional company and cleaning a shelf.
 Character: Todd, memo-writer.
Al Roosten, a deluded man participates in a charity benefit and keeps a running commentary of his daydreams.
  Characters: Al Roosten, title character; Larry Donfrey, local business owner also in charity benefit.
The Semplica Girl Diaries, a diary kept by a dad in a parallel dimension details the chasm between the haves and the have nots and the oppressed as well as the similarities we share in the lengths we will all go to for family happiness.  
  Principal characters:  Dad, narrator; Pam, wife; Lilly, daughter for whom party is made; Eva, daughter who releases SGs.
Home, a soldier returns home to live with his mother and tries to make sense of the rift between his past life and the present.
  Principal characters: Mike, narrator; Ma, Mike’s mother; Harris, Ma’s boyfriend; Renee, Mike’s sister.
My Chivalric Fiasco, an employee witness his boss rape a colleague and is given a promotion to keep quiet.
 Principal characters: Ted, narrator; Martha, work colleague who is raped; Don, boss.
Tenth of December, in the title story an awkward boy unknowingly heads toward a cancer patient planning to commit suicide by freezing in the wilderness and soon the tables are turned.
 Principal characters: Robin, boy; Don Eber, old man.

Discussion Topics

The following topics are just a beginning to form a conversation around Tenth of December.  Let your group channel the discussion in ways meaningful to your members.  If there is one story or one theme that is particularly captivating for your group start there and see where you wander.  Or if you have group members who can’t always set aside time for reading, you may want to select several stories in advance, ensure everyone reads them, and delve into those.   

Collection of Stories

Short stories, as with any work of fiction and often non-fiction, can be read on so many levels from the straightforward pleasure found in slipping into someone’s else’s tale to unpacking the complex emotions and connections that the stories raise in your psyche.  How did you read this collection?  Did the depth of your involvement waver from story to story, or as you read more of the stories?  Did you read them sequentially or in some other order?

How did having these stories bound together enhance or detract from your reading pleasure?  

What commonalities across the stories appeared to you as you read? 

Which of the stories most struck a chord, positive or negative, with you?   

After reading through the New Yorker interview with Saunders, did you see other similarities?  

There are ten stories in this collection.  How intentional do you think that is given the title of the book?

Writing Style

Whether in the first person or third person, Saunders often employs a running commentary going on in the characters’ minds to show both the action and the characters’ reaction to what is happening.  
  • In both Victory Lap and Puppy,  there are two principal characters.  Although written in the third person, as the viewpoint shifts from one to the other, we, as readers take in the world through the thought process of the character controlling the perspective.   
  • Escape from Spiderhead and Home are both written in the first person as a running commentary of what the protagonist is seeing and feeling, with interspersed dialogue.  
  • Exhortation and Semplica Girl Diaries are both written as a correspondence, the first a memo and the second a journal.

How does this running commentary shape your feelings towards the principal characters?  Do you like this style?

Ties to Your Life

Many of these stories have futuristic or science-fiction elements.  Yet all are grounded in emotions of human beings.  Which of these stories seemed most grounded in realism to you?  Which aspects of the stories drew upon emotions you have encountered as an employee?  As a parent? As a human?  How did the science fiction elements of the stories intensify or minimize those emotions?

In his interview on Tenth of December, Saunders states,
“even though the settings and situations in the stories were sort of cartoonish and overwrought, my real beliefs and anxieties were being mapped out onto these fictive worlds more powerfully and exactly (albeit inadvertently and in a sort of fun-house manner) than they ever had in anything more “real-life” that I’d written. And, in fact, the weird thing was that these new stories were sort of leading me to understand what I believed about the life I was living, in a way that no amount of rational thought could have done.”
So often we see ourselves in contrast to similar individuals around us whether our colleagues, or classmates, volunteers we work with or neighbors we meet on the block.  Making comparisons with individuals who are similar to us might be an ego-booster or ego-buster. Yet when we are apart from our usual circle, our reflection can change markedly.  Where in your life have you seen your self-awareness refined through a contrast with an out-of-the ordinary experience or against an atypical backdrop?   

Connections Between Stories 

Some stories are similar in perspective of writing style, others are similar in content.  For instance Victory Lap and Tenth of December  both focus on two characters who have a life-saving impact on one another.  Both swerve toward a cliff and teeter on the edge before taking a step back. In what ways is the life-saving a two-way street in each?  How does each character fundamentally change another’s life?  Where do the two stories diverge from one another?

In an interview with the New Yorker discussing the short story Tenth of December, Saunders comments, 

“So that was interesting to me, and also I felt this story to be somehow connected to another one—“Victory Lap”—which ran in the magazine a couple of years ago; I could feel both stories asking questions like: Given the nature of the life (nasty, brutish, short), how is it that good does, in fact, manage to get done? Or: when goodness manifests, how does it manifest? What does it look like and sound like, what are the qualities of the people who do it?”

Escape from Spiderhead and My Chivalric Fiasco use trademarked pharmaceuticals as a means to drastically change an individual’s feelings and inhibitions.   How did the drugs place the time period or universe of the story?   How did these pharmaceuticals connect the stories?  If these drugs did not have an health risks aside from those exhibited in the story, would you take them?  In what situations?

Did you see these stories as connected?  Were there other stories that seemed connected to you?

Emotional Response to the Stories

Novels can certainly take a reader through a full circle of emotions, yet short stories often pull on our emotions more quickly and more unexpectedly.  Overall, how similar or disparate were your emotional reactions across this collection?  On the whole were you hopeful, distraught, relieved, frustrated, angry?  Or was your reaction to each story stand alone and disconnected from the others?

In an interview with the New Yorker in 2011 Saunders says, 
“I started to feel that, at certain points in some of the stories, the most interesting aesthetic motion—the plot twist, if you will—was the one that swerved away from what I might call the habitually catastrophic.”  

Would you agree or disagree as you consider your reaction to each story and the collection as a whole?

You can purchase Tenth of December online at Hugo Bookstores .

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain Discussion Guide

Book:       Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain 
Author:    David Eagleman
Edition:    Pantheon Books hardcover edition, 2011

Online Resources
In The War on Reasonan article in the March 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Paul Bloom presents an opposing viewpoint to "human beings are little more than puppets of their biochemistry".  Definitely worth reading for a fuller discussion of the essence of this book.

In the April 28, 2014 issue of the New Yorker, Michael Kingsley writes an article on his diagnosis of Parkinson's disease with a humorous slant that explores our reactions to measuring and understanding what is going on in our heads.

National Geographic has a number of recent articles on the brain available online.  National Geographic may require registration to view some of their articles:

Major Characters
Your Brain

Discussion Topics
The following topics are just a beginning to form a conversation around Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.  Let your group channel the discussion in ways meaningful to your members.

Your Brain in Action

Many experiments and brain functioning scenarios are presented in the book.  Which of the brain functions could you most identify with?  Do you see a calendar floating in front of you?  (Page 81) Do you have a wider spectrum of color recognition than most?  Do you drive home from work and not remember taking the exit off the highway?  Do you ever play the observation game and try to remember what a particular person or place looks like?  Have you ever been hit by another car and the other driver said, “He wasn’t there”? 


As part of his writing style to help the book appeal to the lay reader, Eagleman offers many analogies between the brain and areas of life including the following:
  •  a comparison to a newspaper (page 6)
  • an analogy comparing the consciousnesses to the brain as earth compares to the Milky Way or the universe (page 19)
  • a comparison to a young monarch giving no credit to the workers running the kingdom (page 99)
  • an analogy relating the brain functions to a government with rivalries (page 107)
Which of these analogies worked best for you?  Which opened up new ways to think about the brain—its vastness, its multiple and overlapping subroutines?  Is there another that is more effective for your understanding?

Future Self / Present Self

Eagleman writes about the time shifting of the brain in several ways.  One is the comparison of an individual in the present to the same individual in the future facing different inputs.  When have you made a Ulysses contract (page 122) with yourself to keep your future self from going down the wrong track?


When is it hardest for you to keep a secret?  How did Eagleman’s presentation of a secret as a struggle between competing parts of the brain (page 147) help you understand secrets—yours or ones that have been shared with you?

The February 2014 issue of the Atlantic summarizes 6 studies on secret keeping.  Maybe J.K Rowling tapped into the essence of our brains and secrets as she created Secret-Keepers in her Harry Potter series.

Chicken Sexers

On page 57 Eagleman describes the ability of individuals to separate male and female chickens and how this seems to be done entirely by the subconscious.  Is there anything that you find yourself doing more in the subconscious than the conscious?  Would you call that a hunch? (Page 66) Have you ever known the answer but been unable to explain how you came to it?


Eagleman recounts the story of Arthur Alberts recording voices in Africa and the natives finding the tape recorder counterintuitive (page 3).  Throughout time the currently unknowable has appeared magical. 

What moments in history are the most vivid to you of times when humans were unable to comprehend what we now understand?

Eagleman also discusses the umwelt (page 78), the environment, and the umgebung, the bigger reality.

What do you want to know a lot about, but feel is unknowable? If you could accelerate the learning in just one area of science so you could find ‘answers’ in your lifetime, which area would you chose?  Why?  What do you think about that you wish you could comprehend – a 5th dimension?  An infinite universe?  An infinite time scale?

Speed and Energy Efficiency and Evolution

On page 72 Eagleman writes that the advantage of having an activity hardwired in the brain are speed and energy efficiency. 

How does this balance with your view of evolution and the brain?  What about with our ability to create artificial intelligence?

Religion and Emotion

Religion and emotion, both of which many consider stuff of the human brain, aren’t explored in great detail beyond emotion of criminal acts.  How do you integrate religion and emotion into the physical stuff of the brain?

Criminal Justice System

Eagleman devotes an entire chapter to what all this means to the criminal justice system. Some readers have reacted negatively to this analysis.  Here are two quotes from Goodreads:
"Eagleman uses a "slight of hand" writing style. Just as he describes how magic tricks deceive the brain, Eagleman uses this entertaining little book to advocate for a social and justice system that disregards civil rights…Our criminal justice system, in fact our whole legal framework, is based on the underlying assumption that individuals have the right to control their own bodies. Even when they have forfeited the right to be physically free and are imprisoned, our government does not have the right to force medical treatment and that includes psychological treatment. Eagleton is advocating for "treating" criminals. This should send a chill up his readers' spines. Our sordid history of "treating" criminals includes institutionalizing gays and lesbians and "treating" them for their "disorder", medical experiments with African American prisoners, and institutionalizing people with developmental disabilities for the minor offenses."
"I found, though, that the chapter on culpability in relation to crime rubbed me the wrong way, somehow. He built his theories up to the point where it seemed as though he wanted to take any responsibility for anything we do away from us, attributing every bad action to neurological irregularities. He even seemed to discount any sociological outside factors, landing firmly on the nature side of the nature vs. nurture argument, virtually reducing human beings down to a series of electrical impulses in the brain."
Whether his use of the term ‘warehouse’ or his seemingly slippery slope of a criminal not being responsible for acts his brain controls, these readers have difficulty calmly reflecting on what Eagleman is putting forth.  In addition, Eagleman focuses on the accused in the criminal justice system, but what about the witnesses? 

How did you react to his view of the criminal justice system with respect to the human brain?  If the witnesses are recounting what they saw, heard or sensed, how reliable is their testimony in light of what Eagleman presents about the human brain and perception?


Eagleman presents that the value of consciousness from an evolutionary perspective is to allow us to be cognitively flexible (page 142).   What is consciousness to you?  What do you see as the value of consciousness? Do other animals have consciousness?  Eagleman offers his perspective on page 144.


On page 167 Eagleman states “however, at this point, no one can see a clear way around the problem of a nonphysical entity (free will) interacting with a physical entity (the stuff of the brain).”  He does admit that this is “predicated on what we know at this moment in history, which will certainly look crude a millennium from now.” 

How does lack of freewill sit with you?  Do you agree that at this point in time the essence of free will makes no sense?  Do you believe we will gain understanding that will show free will as scientifically existing?  Is free will a scientific question to you?

True Self

Eagleman presents many studies that have shown conflict between what one consciously does and what one unconsciously does.  For instance, consider the experiment on page 60 for subjects to note what they like and dislike. Or chapter 5, The Brain is a Team of Rivals.    In the end he comes back to this question (page 203) discussing the you and soul and finally on page 224 that there is so much we don’t know about our brains that indeed it seems like magic.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Book for Book Lovers: Step Out Of Time

Book:     The Emperor of Paris
Author:  CS Richardson

A book I am delighted to own; to hold; to re-read.  But not a story for everyone—the reader needs to be comfortable with holding the threads of multiple characters as they slide between the pages of the book and drift from the present to the past, creating ripples as they gently bump against one another; each telling his or her own story and also sharing the story of stories. 

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.  Each character shares her own personal way of stories and lets the reader become deliciously wrapped up in them, a chuckle here, a tear escaping there, a sigh.

The Emperor of Paris is as different from The Ocean at the End of the Lane as can be and yet they share the essence of story.  Curl up with this book and let the story be unwrapped 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." page 172

The Rent Collector

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