Sunday, May 25, 2014

Graduation Speeches Provide Discussion Far Beyond Graduates

Often with the craziness of graduation season, book groups either take a break or end up with half the group having not read the book of the month.  For a less time-consuming alternative, check out the many facets of graduation speeches.  Here are a few ways to select and compare graduation speeches that may be meaningful to your group.

Selecting Graduation Speeches

  1. Have each group member find a graduation speech from his or her own graduation or a relative’s graduation.  Many colleges and some high schools keep a record of graduation speeches online.  More recent graduation speeches are often posted on  
  2. Scroll through speeches selected by NPR as the best commencement speeches, ever. Select a few for the entire group to read or have each member select one that is meaningful to him or her.
  3. Find speeches from some of the frequent commence speakers— presidents, TV personalities, authors— and compare their speeches across the years or across colleges.
  4. Select several graduation speeches from a year 10. 20 or more years in the past (perhaps the era when your book group members graduated high school or college) and compare them to a selection of speeches given this spring.

Discussion Topics

Blast from the Past

Can you find common themes across speeches from past years?  On the whole were the speeches more optimistic or pessimistic across different eras?  Were predictions of the future made?   If so, have those predictions born out or been avoided?

Your Graduation Speeches

What do you recall about the speeches you heard as a student?  Do you remember who the speakers were?  The tone?  The topics?  How were your high school graduation speakers chosen? How would you like high school speakers to be chosen?

The Value of Graduation Speeches

Why do you think the tradition of speeches at college being given by famous (or at least noteworthy) individuals began?  What is the benefit of the speeches to the graduates?  To their supporters?  To the world at large?

Then and Now

Were you able to discern common themes across speeches from a past decade?  What themes do you see emerging in this years’ crop of graduation speeches?  How are themes similar or divergent?  How do the topics and tones of speeches reflect the current era and in what ways are they timeless?

Speaker Potential

Read through Cristina Negrut's NPR blog post on the 25 Most Promising Graduation Speeches of the Year.  Do you agree or disagree with her categorizations?  What is your reaction to the speakers she has singled out?  Which of these speakers would you most like at your child's graduation?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Cannery Row

Book:    Cannery Row 
Author:  John Steinbeck
Edition:  Softcover, Penguin Books, 1992

You can purchase Cannery Row online at Hugo Bookstores.

John Steinbeck’s astute observations of American life is part of his broad appeal and why his novels remain a staple in many high school literature classes.  Cannery Row, one of his most endearing short novels, is ideal for a book group looking for a classic American novel; many of your members may already have the book at home.

The in-depth characterizations are drawn almost as individual vignettes.  As Steinbeck states in the prologue, “And perhaps that might be the way to write this book— to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”  Clearly Steinbeck knew just what bait to use to attract the finest of stories.

There is ample to discuss around each of the characters.  Your group can focus on Steinbeck’s portrayal of the Cannery Row community and the community that Steinbeck personally knew in California during the Great Depression.  Or take your group’s discussion in an entirely different direction and probe the environmental and societal changes in and around Monterey, California between the Great Depression and now.

Internet Resources

There are a wealth of resources to support many different areas of focus for your group.  So many in fact, that rather than providing redundant triggers to get your book discussion started, I recommend looking over the Center for Steinbeck Studies for a selection of discussion topics.

Before beginning your discussion, you may want to watch the speech Steinbeck gave at the Nobel Banquet on December 10, 1962.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”. 

If you are interested in the history of Cannery Row, read this brief overview of the history of the Monterey fishing industry , its rise and collapse.   

For a look at the canneries in 1940, The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a video of the canneries at the height of the sardine industry.  While the characters in Cannery Row come out by and large
when the cannery workers head home, the video will give you a sense for the feel of the activity of those employed in the area and you can imagine well the overwhelming fish smell that likely permeated every corner of Cannery Row from the flophouse to Doc’s laboratory.

If your group is wants to delve into a discussion centered on Doc, the central character and “the conscience of the story” as described by The Center for Steinbeck Studies, then listen to this 2003 Morning Edition story on NPR.  Part 2 in particular focuses on Ed Ricketts, a friend of Steinbeck's from whom he drew the character of Doc, and there is a brief audio segment of Steinbeck reading from the short story The Snake

Finally, two thematic areas that your group might want to explore are humanity and the environment.  Thoughts on Steinbeck’s vision of humanity and the thin fibers that connect us are raised by Dr. Susan Shillinglaw of San Jose State University.  For an environmental look at the change in the sea life populations in Monterey, The Atlantic published Why West Coast Sea Life Has Been Behaving So Strangely in January 2014.

Major Characters

Doc, loosely based on Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, scientist who runs Western Biological Laboratory who, according to The Center for Steinbeck Studies,  “serves as the conscience of the story, as nearly all of the plot’s events, whether directly or indirectly, are processed through his viewpoint.” 

Lee Chong, grocer whose grocery is a “miracle of supply.”

Mack, “elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment,” page 9, who reside in the Palace Flophouse and Grill.

Perhaps this individual is reading Steinbeck on location
Hazel,  one of Mack’s “boys” who is slow in thought and helps Doc collect specimens.

Eddie, another of Mack’s “boys” and substitute bartender at La Ida. He keeps a winning jug for the boys. 

Hughie and Jones,  two other of the “boys” that live with Mack in the Palace Flophouse and Grill.

Gay, lives at Palace Flophouse a short time, known as a mechanic.

Dora Flood, madam and owner of the local whore house called the Bear Flag Restaurant.

Alfred, watchman and bouncer at the Bear Flag Restaurant.

The Old Chinaman, a mythical character.  “Some people thought he was God and very old people thought he was Death and children thought he was a very funny old Chinaman,” page 23. 

Andy,  a young boy and the only person to ever cross the old Chinaman. 

Frankie, young boy from an abusive home who spends most of his time with Doc.

Discussion Topics

There are a plethora of discussion topics available online.  The Center for Steinbeck Studies has a  list of major themes and essay questions that you can use to get your book group discussion started.  Here are three additional topics that are more outward focused to get your group started on making connections between your reaction to the book and your life experiences.

John Steinbeck

Certainly Steinbeck is a widely recognized and much lauded American author.  All the same, you can form your own perspective on what you like and dislike about his writing.  Be honest— what about his writing drew you in?  What about his style does not appeal to you?

In what ways does Steinbeck’s narrative style draw you in?  Did you find that the stories crawled out to meet you as Steinbeck allowed that perhaps the way to write the book would be to “let the stories crawl in by themselves”?  Did you feel close to any of the characters?  Could you make connections between any of the characters and individuals in your life?

Order, Disorder and Interconnectedness

Steinbeck presents a dichotomy of order and a reason for everything, and the surprise of death and disorder. In Doc’s lab the safe is no longer kept locked for a very good reason as once there was locked in the safe, “an open can of sardines and a piece of Roquefort cheese,” page 26.  And yet in the kitchen, dishes and cooking fat and vegetables are kept in glass-fronted bookcases, “No whimsy dictated this. It just happened,” page 27.  Near the end of the novel, Mack and the boys are “the stone dropped in the pool, the impulse of which sent out ripples to all of Cannery Row and beyond,” page 166.  

How is your view of the universe, aligned or at odd’s with the order and disorder presenting in Cannery Row

Through loosely entwined vignettes such as the ancient Chinaman, and the two boys, Joey and Willard, casually discussing Joey’s father’s suicide, Steinbeck intersperses moments of darkness.  How did these moments of darkness affect your reading?  Were they moments that made you stop and ponder life or simply move on to the next chapter?  Why do you think Steinbeck included these vignettes and how do they imbue the novel with life?

Cannery Row

The hustle and bustle of a multitude of localities ebb and flow over the decades as industries change, people relocate, environments change.  Cannery Row is but one example of a locale that has gone from the activity of a booming industry to falling into disrepair to being rebuilt as a tourist destination.  

What places in your life have you seen go through this cycle and be reborn with a new focus, whether tourism or a burgeoning industry?  What role do you think Steinbeck's writings played in Cannery Row being re-imagined as a tourist destination? Why are some places more successful at transformation after industries die out?  What parallels do you see between the boom and bust of the real life Cannery Row and the flow of life and death in the book?
Looking Out from  Cannery Row 2006


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Me Before You Book Guide

Book:    Me Before You
Author:  Jojo Moyes
Edition:  Softcover, Penguin Books, 2013

You can purchase Me Before You online at Hugo Bookstores.

Me Before You is a beautiful, humorous, emotional and direct portrayal of the daily physical and physiological struggles of Will, a quadriplegic. For some reason, the main character and caregiver, Lou, reminds me of Natalie in the movie Love Actually.   She is easy to like and humorous as she takes the reader on her journey of self-discovery.

This modern novel is ideal for book groups to discuss how quadriplegics are perceived by themselves, by individuals who are close to them and by people who haven’t interacted directly with a quadriplegic.  More broadly, the novel offers opportunity to discuss how we each manage our “otherness” in any capacity, the ways in which barriers are erected between humans and how we can break down the barriers.  In addition, the book serves as a launching point for a discussion of end-of-life issues.

The novel is equally compelling for a personal read, offering many moments to laugh out loud and cry silently as the reader is immersed in the daily emotions of the two primary characters.  As a reader I never felt as if my emotions were being toyed with; every twist and turn felt honest and not exploitative as the author took me on a journey of love and discovery.

Internet Resources

Bioethicist Margaret Battin shares her personal story on NPR’s Fresh Air.  Her husband broke his neck in a bicycle accident in 2008 and now the end-of-life issues that Battin has written about extensively, hit home. This interview offers a personal perspective on a quadriplegic facing ending his own life.  

Alex Blaszczuk is a law student and amateur photographer.  In the fall of 2011, a car accident en route to a camping trip left Alex paralyzed from the chest down, unable to use her hands. Alex shares her story from within a Google Glass promotion on YouTube. What I found intriguing about watching this short video is the extent to which technology affords Alex the ability to take on basic tasks such as navigating and photography that she lost when she had her accident.  It is a promotional piece and not an in-depth story, yet you can see parallels with Will interacting with the technology that Lou helps him discover.

Major Characters

Will Traynor: young, wealthy banker, now living with his parents, who has been confined to a wheelchair as a quadriplegic since an accident in 2009.

Louisa (Lou) Clark: primary character and Will’s new caretaker 

Nathan: Will’s daily nurse

Katrina (Treena) Clark: Lou’s younger sister, single mother to Thomas

Patrick: Lou’s boyfriend

Bernard/Dad: Lou’s father

Josie/Mom: Lou’s mother

Camilla Traynor: Will’s mother

Steven Traynor: Will’s father

Georgina Traynor: Will’s sister

Alicia: Will’s ex-girlfriend

Rupert: Alicia’s fiance

Discussion Topics

Point of View

The novel is almost entirely told from Lou’s point of view.  However, the author, Jojo Moyes, intersperses four chapters from other perspectives.  The first of these is from Camilla’s perspective (page 105) when she describes how she came to offer support to her son in ending his life. Nathan has a brief chapter following Alicia and Rupert’s wedding (page 266). Steven has a short chapter with his mistress, sharing his hopes for Will’s planned adventure trip (page 289). Finally, Treena has a chapter right near the end of the novel, when Lou is back at home and Will is in Switzerland (page 335).

How do each of these round out the story for you?  Did you feel more or less sympathetic with each of the characters after reading a chapter from his or her perspective?  Did these chapters alter or expand your understanding of Lou?  How do you compare these snippets of other voices with other books you may have read which have multiple points of view such as Sarah’s Key or Orphan Train or Let The Great World Spin or any of a myriad of others?

Noticeably absent is any chapter told by Will.  In A Conversation with Jojo Moyes, at the end of the book, Moyes comments, “The only person whose mind I couldn’t enter was Will’s, because I wanted his intentions to be one of the central tensions of the book.”  How do you believe the novel would have been altered had the story been told from Will’s point of view?


Jojo Moyes relates the specifics of Will and Lou and Nathan as they manage moving Will, tending to him, taking him on outings.  In Lou’s first outing to the racetrack, starting on page 140, the author explores many physical challenges encountered in managing a wheelchair both due to Lou’s lack of experience and the track’s lack of accessibility.

Where have you encountered individuals with needs that are poorly accommodated in our public spaces?  Do you often see individuals using wheelchairs or other mobility devices in spaces you frequent?  What strides have been made in improving access for all?  Where do you notice the most significant physical barriers?

End of Life

In the Fresh Air interview, Margaret Battin speaks about the process of end-of-life and the issues swirling around it, the mind versus the body, the elements of eating, the individual reflection that each person faces in thinking about end-of-life issues and her discussions and feelings she shares with her husband. 

In the novel we hear directly from Camilla as to how she came to agree to support Will in his decision to end his life.  Did hearing Camilla from within her own mind, as it were, enhance or limit your view of her choice?  Were you able to sympathize with her situation or would you have made a difference choice? Who does Will involve in his decision and at what point?  

How do you personally feel about Will’s choice?  How would you respond if Will was a member of your family?  How would you feel if you were in Will’s situation?  

Do you know anyone who has faced such a choice?  How were you able to support that individual or not?

Lou’s Journey

At the outset of the novel, Lou says, “The thing about being catapulted into a whole new life— or  at least, shoved up so hard against someone else’s life that you might as well have your face pressed against their window— is that it forces you to rethink your idea of who you are” page 58.

How does Lou rethink her idea of who she is?

Lou makes significant personal discoveries throughout the story.  In what ways did she make the discoveries herself and in what ways were Will and Treena instrumental in her self-reflection?  

Lou is battling her own deep secret.  Why do you think Moyes chose to include that facet of the story?  How is Lou’s hidden anguish juxtaposed against Will’s very visible anguish?  

Interpersonal Barriers

The moment Lou and Will meet, page 31, Will throws up his defense and Lou is, not surprisingly, repelled.  What role does each of Lou, Will and others play in breaking down the barriers between Will and Lou?

Where does Will encounter individuals who are uncomfortable around him?  Who is comfortable around Will?  How does each group show their discomfort or ease?  

Where have you encountered individuals who made you or others uncomfortable with their differences? What strategies have you found helpful for becoming more at ease with someone who had a physical difference whether a medical concern or a mental condition?

When have you or a close friend been the one with the difference?  How did you feel?  What did you notice strangers doing to embrace or avoid interaction? What reactions were most helpful?  Which ones were hurtful?

How can we each help break down barriers of difference whether as a bystander, a friend or an individual with a distinction?

The Rent Collector

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