Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Goldfinch Book Discussion Guide

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

You can purchase The Goldfinch online at Hugo Bookstores.

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

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

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

Internet Resources

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

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

Major Characters

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

Discussion Topics

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

Reaction to the Novel

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

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

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


Major Themes

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

Secrets

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

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

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

Relationships

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

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

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

Timelessness of Art versus Transience of Human Lives

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

Our Relationship to Art

A Joan MirĂ³ reference in the novel cuts out the first, and powerful, part of the quote:
“In a picture, it should be possible to discover new things every time you see it. But you can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.”
A similar quote in the novel highlights the variety in seeing a painting in different lights at different times,
 “It was one thing to see a painting in a museum but to see it in all those lights and moods and seasons was to see it a thousand different ways and to keep it shut in the dark— a thing made of light, that only lived in light— was wrong in more ways than I knew how to explain.” page 623.
Have you ever had this response to a piece of art?  What about the artwork is captivating to you?  Is it something about the picture itself or the moment in which you first saw the art? How is seeing art in person distinct from seeing a reproduction of the artwork?

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

How We Learn and Make It Stick


Book:    How We Learn
Author: Benedict Carey


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



Internet Resources

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

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

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

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

Comparing These Books

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

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

Discussion Topics

Don’t use these notes!

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

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

Who Got It Right?

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

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

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

Use What You’ve Learned

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

Expanding the Learning of Others

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

Sleep

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




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