Saturday, October 10, 2015

Themed Groups of Books for your Book Group

As your group selects books, consider reading three or four in a row that have a common element. Here are four examples you might consider:

  1.  Art: The Goldfinch, The Girl You Left Behind and People of the Book are all worthy of in-depth discussion. Each approaches art from a very different perspective. 

  2.  Secrets: Secret-keeping is an incredibly common theme in well-written books— perhaps a secret compels an author to write. The Circle, The Death of Bees, Sarah’s Key, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain are four great choices. The first three are novels, each quite different from the other, the fourth is a non-fiction book which could be read as the first in the series. 

  3. End of Life: God’s Hotel, The Art of Racing in the Rain and Me Before You all incorporate characters facing the end of life both personally and through the eyes of another character. 

  4. Point of View: Eleven, Orphan Train and Let the Great World Spin each offer multiple points of view throughout the novel. But many other books could be added to this list as often an author changes the point of view as the time period shifts back and forth between the past and the present.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Circle Book Discussion Guide

Book:    The Circle
Author:  Dave Eggers
Edition:  Softcover, First Vintage Books, 2014

A novel that hits you over the head with its message of power and the power of controlling information right through the final soliloquy that spells the message out directly. The soliloquy may be directed at the reader who missed the obvious symbolism and direct commentary throughout the book, or, more likely, the reader who skim-read and needs to get the main points for English class tomorrow. 

Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, perhaps more so because I listened to it. The audio book reader is particularly adept conveying the frenetic pace of information overload.

The Circle offers a superb platform for high school English class discussions of the pros and cons of the volume of information collected and stored today and the power wielded by those who control it. Hopefully those youthful discussions can tease out the middle road: how to ensure a glass half full balances the collection, control and use of information today. 

Even though it completely lacks subtly and the primary characters are flat caricatures, adults may well enjoy this book as a launching point for discussing how we can balance the benefits and drawbacks of social media, gathering personal information and tracking individuals. And even more importantly, how to retain the humanity of relationships alongside our consumption of information.

Internet Resources

There are an abundance of resources on the changing face of privacy in the age of ubiquitous technology.  From the multitude of Ted Talks alone, here are two focused on why privacy matters that you can watch before your book discussion or even as a group and discuss them in real-time.

In his Ted Talk, Why Privacy Matters, Glenn Greenwald talks about how the internet has become a zone of mass indiscriminate surveillance and shares directly why there is harm in exposing privacy even when there is “nothing to hide.”

 The second talk is by Alessandro Acquisiti who talks about technology trends in surveillance and how we can do things differently.

The NPR podcast the Ted Radio Hour has a whole podcast on privacy, which includes sections of Acuisiti’s talk.  The show presents differing perspectives around the same issues, and helps to frame a discussion that laypeople can participate in without understanding the technology underlying the online privacy debate.

In addition, there are articles reflecting on all aspects of privacy from relationships to EU entanglements with Google, here are three from Wired:

Major Characters

Mae Holland, new employee to The Circle who becomes a spokesperson when she becomes the second Circler to become transparent
Mercer, one of Mae’s boyfriends in high school and college who doesn't share Mae's views of openness
Vinnie, Mae’s father, suffering from MS
Bonnie, Mae’s mother 
Annie, Mae’s college roommate and in the gang of 40, part of the inner Circle
Jared, Mae’s trainer as a new employee
Ty Gospodinov, The Circle’s boy-wonder visionary and founder, one of the Three Wise Men
Tom Stenton, The Circle CEO, cunning, and one of the Three Wise Men
Eamon Bailey, public face of The Circle, acts the stooge, and one of the Three Wise Men
Kalden, mysterious man whom Mae meets and turns out to be Ty

Discussion Topics

The following are offered as starting points for discussion to see how much variance and awareness there is among your book group members on technology. If you watch the Ted Talks or read the Wired articles or listen to the Ted Radio Hour, you will likely start many threads of conversation before you even have time to glance at the ones that follow.


How do you view relationships and the quality of relationships?  Is there a balance in your view between the quantity and quality of relationships you have? What is required to develop and nurture relationships?  How is this helped or at odds with new technologies?
“Every time I see or hear from you, it’s through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone’s wall…It’s always this third-party assault…. I just want to talk with you directly.  Without you bringing in every other stranger in the world who might have an option about me.” page 131-132


“I have yet to conjure a scenario where a secret does more good than harm. Secrets are the enablers of antisocial, immoral and destructive behavior.” page 291
“when there’s something kept secret, two things happen. One is that is makes crimes possible. We behave worse when we’re not accountable. That goes without saying. And second, secrets inspire speculation. When we don’t know what’s being hidden, we guess, we make up answers.” page 299.
Do you believe these are always outcomes of secrets?  Are there any scenarios you can imagine where sharing a secret is more harmful than beneficial?

If you have read The Death of Bees, People of the Book, or Sarah’s Key talk about the secrets and why they were kept and what harms and benefits followed from keeping or sharing the secret. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, presents a secret as a struggle between competing parts of the brain. 

The March 2014 issue of the Atlantic summarizes six studies on secret keeping in a short article titled "Why You Can't Keep a Secret".

Value of Solitude

When and where do you find solitude? What types of technology are you comfortable invading that space?  None? Your smart phone? Your computer? A friend’s smart phone? A public camera? A drone?

Public Safety versus Individual Privacy

TruYou creates “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person.” page 21.
Baily talks about everyone having “a right to know everything, and should have the tools to know anything” page 288.

The Circle creates ubiquitous, wireless cameras as small as a blade of grass.

How do you see each of these perspectives benefitting life for humanity?  How do you see each hindering our lives, either individually or collectively?  How can we balance the power of technology with the power of humanity and privacy?

How can we balance the value of important issued being raised with the loss of privacy that has emerged with the ubiquity of smart phones and their photographs and video? When and where should we have a right to privacy? When and where should we not expect to be able to be incognito? Do the circumstances vary more by place or by activity or by notoriety of the individual or by another dimension? 

Technology Trade-offs

Beyond safety and individual privacy there are a multitude of others tradeoffs around technology from power to expediency to comfort to control and on and on.  Which aspects of technology do you most value? Which do you find most threatening?

How comfortable are you with sharing information about yourself? Where are you aware of sharing your personal information? Where have you been surprised that your privacy has been invaded in the virtual or physical world?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

All The Light We Cannot See Discussion Guide

Book:    All The Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Edition:  Kindle

The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and a 2014 National Book Award Finalist, All the Light We Cannot See, offers the solitary reader an immersion in the tale of two children whose paths collide during WW II and for groups a palette of images that spur discussion on what feeling alive means to each of us and where we find our place of respite.

The characters quickly draw the reader in, fully realized in pithy image-full chapters. Werner, the child soldier, who, having been a bystander, has to decide whether to reach out to save a life; Madame Manec, wants to be alive before she dies by risking her life to aid the resistance and make a difference and Marie-Laure, who astutely observes, "what are words but sounds these men shape out of breath, weightless vapors they send into the air of the kitchen to dissipate and die," and who, as a child, grasps the inevitability of the world to keep spinning and "not pause for even an instant in its trip around the sun," as lives come and go and atrocities are inflicted upon innocent citizens.

If you want a novel to get to the essence of life and death this may be an excellent choice for your book group.

As a reader, I was reminded of the importance of making mistakes to get to the truth and how passion and making a difference can be invigorating and make a life worth living.

Internet Resources

All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015 and was a 2014 National Book Award finalist.

Look at a photo of Saint Malo to help place you in the village and understand why the Germans were able to hold it for so long.

Read a blog post of a traveler to Saint Malo and her interview with a woman who was 18 during the occupation who shares her memories.

If the theme of being human and being alive is an area you want to explore in more depth, here are two articles that offer additional breadth for your discussion: The Atlantic profiled Jean Vanier, who won an award from Templeton Foundation, on his views of what it means to by fully human— one of the strong themes of this novel.

Oliver Sacks wrote in the New York Times  about his perspective on life after having been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Major Characters

Marie-Laure LeBlanc, 16-year old blind French girl
Marie-Laure’s father, principal locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History and a widower
Uncle Etienne, Marie-Laure’s great uncle who is a WWI veteran and likely suffering PTSD, has visions and is mentally unable to leave his home in Saint Malo
Madame Manec, old housekeeper and caretaker for Etienne
Werner Pfennig, 18-year old German private, an orphan and self-taught radio engineer
Frederick, very skinny bunkmate of Werner’s who is a birder
Frank Volkheimer, large staff sergeant
Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, 41-years old, gemologist who archives confiscated treasures and is pursing the Sea of Flames
Jutta, Werner’s little sister, also an orphan
Frau Elena, Protestant nun who cares for Jutta, Werner and other orphans
Curse of the Sea of Flames: “the keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain… But if the keeper threw the diamond into the sea, thereby delivering it to its rightful recipient, the goddess  would lift the curse.” 

Discussion Topics


The theme of light permeates the novel far beyond the title.
When a lance corporal comes to the orphanage, “his handgun is black; it seems to draw all the light in the room toward it.”    
When Werner is trapped in the cellar following the bombing, he learns, “even total darkness is not quite darkness.”  
Marie-Laure notes that “out on the beaches, her privation and fear are rinsed away by wind and color and light.” 
The voice of Marie-Laure’s grandfather, from the recordings says, “So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?” 
Before Etienne carves a trapdoor out of the back of the wardrobe, all the lights are off both physically and metaphorically.

Finally, when Marie-Laure and Jutta meet as older women, Marie-Laure offers Jutta the one remaining recording of her grandfather, the one about the moon and light.

What does light represent in the novel?  How do you interpret the title of the novel?   What does light mean to you? How does physical light affect your daily rhythms and emotions?  What represents light in your life?


Books are Marie-Laure’s friends as she sits beside her father working and travels with explorers to worlds far beyond her own. They form a strong connection for her to the world around her.
“Marie-Laure reads Jules Verne in the key pound, on the toilet, in the corridors, she reads on the benches of the Grand Gallery and out along the hundred gravel paths of the gardens.  She reads the first half of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea so many times, she practically memorized it.”

For Werner and Jutta the radio is the epicenter of their connection to the outside world as well as Werner’s personal connection to is place in the army.
When Werner first gets the radio working in the orphanage: “the little radio with its four terminals and trailing aerial sits motionless on the floor between them all like a miracle.” 

In case, the mobility of the characters is limited, and each explores a larger world through these physical conduits. What else serves as a link between characters and the world? When are these connections a benefit and when do they become a hinderance? What has helped you or someone you know connect with the broader world when their mobility was limited?

Doing something

“Is it right,’ Jutta says, ‘to do something only because everyone else is doing it?” 
"Doing nothing is as good as collaborating,” Madame Manec states in chapter 84. 
Who among both the French and the Germans acts as the catalyst in going against the flow? How do each of these characters speak or act out, how is their divergence received and how are their lives impacted for better or worse by being a catalyst for change?

The expression of doing something rather than being a bystander has been emphasized as a moral imperative throughout history.

As Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient said,
“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”  

In 1999 he delivered a speech in Washington, D.C., titled, The Perils of Indifference.

In a modern setting Citylab columnist Laura Bliss shares some options for getting involved as a bystander to an assault on a subway.  

Whether standing up against violence against a group anywhere in the world, or standing up for a stranger you see on the street when and where are you comfortable getting involved? When have you stepped in and when have you remained a bystander?

Place of Respite

Marie Laure goes to the beach when she needs renewal.
“Her greatest pleasure is to walk to the north end of the beach at low tide and squat below an island that Madame Manec calls LeGrand Bé and let her fingers whisk around in the tide pools…She simply listens, hears, and breathes,” chapter 74. 

In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Marie reads as Captain Nemo says, “The sea does not belong to tyrants.”

Where do other characters find their place of respite? What other forms do respite take— do characters find renewal in relationships?  In such a dark, hopeless time a spark of hope is retained by the citizens of Saint Malo, especially those joining the resistance. Where did you see hope and renewal in the novel?

Being Alive

“Nearly every species that has ever lived has gone extinct, Laurette.  No reason to think we humans will be any different!”
“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” Madame Manec in chapter 84. 

How does Madame Manec embrace the feeling of being alive?  Who resists her change?  In time, Etienne joins in the resistance as he reads off the messages on the radio in the evening.  How is each representative of being more alive?

In a profile in the Atlantic, Jean Vanier talks about “a heart that is not filled with fear,” as an important aspect of being fully human.  Does this resonate with you? What does it mean to you to be fully alive?

In his Op Ed in the New York Times Oliver Sacks writes, “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour”every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.” 

 How is this line of thinking similar to Madame Manec and how is it in opposition to her action in the face of death? Which is closer to your perspective when you come to grips with the finite aspect of life?


Here are a few quotes that jumped out when I read.  What quotes stuck with you?
“the little radio with its four terminals and trailing aerial sits motionless on the floor between them all like a miracle.”
“open your eyes, concludes the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever.” from a recording created by Marie-Laure’s grandfather.
When eating peaches observing they are like "A sunrise in his mouth.”
"Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the was was memory falls out of the world."

Friday, March 6, 2015

God's Hotel Book Club Discussion Questions

Book:    God’s Hotel
Author:  Victoria Sweet
Edition:  Hardcover, Penguin Books, 2012

The author presents a series of vignettes around her interactions with her patients as well as delving into premodern medicine, etymologies, pilgrimages and hospital bureaucracy, all from the perspective of a doctor healing the whole patient.  I particularly enjoyed her lessons in etymology and the feeling that a word invokes.

The issues Victoria Sweet raises affect the entire ecosystem associated with the person receiving care, from the complex makeup of the human body and spirit to the numerous roles of the individuals swirling around providing care directly and indirectly.  Your book group may find a discussion of God’s Hotel particularly satisfying if your group members have participated in healthcare in different roles from caregiver to patient to doctor to administrator to policy maker.

The one downside I found in the book is the author’s reticence to present the benefits of change in a balanced view.  The doctor alludes to the many negative repercussions of change at Laguna Honda, the increase in staff who are not directly connected to patients, the reticence of the architects to get to know their clients (which, sadly, is a common problem across all business and should be the first pillar of business—get to know your customer in person: watch and listen and follow), the multitude of policy changes which took time away from being with patients. Yet she only tangentially points out some of the negatives of the old building— a patient who fell out of a window, the ongoing use of illicit drugs and frequent smoking among patients and visitors, the noise of the open ward making it more difficult to sleep. Discussing the author’s ability to manage change and how we each react to change may be a lively conversation for your group.

Internet Resources

Online resources abound for many nonfiction books, including God’s Hotel. The Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center has an in-depth website including a 3-minute video which summarizes the rebuilding of Laguna Honda from the perspective of policy makers, administrators, architects and even the resident council. Their perspective presents a view of intentionally creating a green and community-focused space inline with the principles Sweet cherished in the old hospital. There is also a synopsis of its history.

Sweet offers an excellent outline of The System of Fours on page 181.  Medical News Today has a summary of European Medieval and Renaissance Medicine including the four humors and the hospital system both of which align with Sweet’s writing, but may fill in some gaps for the reader or at least summarize the material all in one place.

The British Almshouse Association provides a history of almhouses in the U.K. as well as an understanding of the almshouse movement today.

Major Characters

Sweet shares vignettes about a wide variety of patients, doctors and administrators.  Here is a sampling of some. Find the stories that touched you most deeply, which may not be among those listed here.

Dr. S: the author Victoria Sweet
Hildegard of Bingen: 12th century “German mystic, theologian and, amazingly, medical practioner”
Dr. Major: the medical director when Dr. S arrives at Laguna Honda
Dr. Fintner: half-time admitting doctor with whom Dr. S job shares
Dr. Jeffers: doctor in admitting with Dr. S
Mrs. McCoy: patient who arrives on verge of death and whom Dr. S returns to wellness. Mrs. McCoy gives Dr. S a plant.
Jimmy: crazy patient who looked and sounded great once on antipsychotic medications yet who refused to take medications, got himself discharged and died.
Dr. Stein: director of public health, recommends building a new health-care facility
Dr. Curtis: assistant medical director who goes out and buys a patient shoes instead of waiting for Medicaid to approve purchase
Terry Becker: street person, heroin addict, prostitute admitted for rehabilitation following inflammation of the spinal cord with whom Dr. S successfully practices Hildegard’s prescription of fortifying her viriditas and who is discharged in good health to her family in Arkansas
Mr. Bramwell: patient admitted for dementia who dances at the Valentine’s Day Dance exhibiting anima
Lorna Mae: Mr. Bramwell’s sister-in-law from whom Dr. S realizes the true meaning of hospitality
Rosalind: traveling companion with Dr. S on pilgrimage
Paul Bennett: patient with extreme sores who needs to have both legs amputated
Radka Semonovna: Bulgarian-born patient who sees America as a generous country
Meng Tam: patient with a DNR who is "pretty much dead", with his anima half in life, half in death, and returns to the side of life with basic interactions

Discussion Topics

As with so many good book discussions, a conversation starting with God’s Hotel can easily move from stories of specific characters to extensive discussions of policy.  The following topics are intended to offer a sampling from very book-focused topics, to connections with current policy and individuals’ personal experiences with healthcare and more broadly, our reactions to change.  


The author explains a multitude of words associated with the body and soul and care-giving.  A few of those are quoted here.

“Spiritus was breath, the regular, rhythmic breathing of the live body that is so shockingly absent from the dead.  Spiritus is what is exhaled in the last breath.” page 2
Anima is the invisible force that animates the body, that moves it, not only willfully but also unconsciously— all those little movements that the living body makes all the time.” page 3.
Viriditas meant greeness… [Hildegard] used it to mean the power of plants to put forth leaves, flowers, and fruits; and she also use it for the analogous power of human beings to grow, to give birth, and to heal.” page 86
Physis — the individual nature of each person— also gives us the word physician.  The physician is the person who studies physics, the individual nature of his patient, who understands and follows its lead.” page 100
“the root of hospitality is hospes, which can mean either ‘guest’ or ‘host’”… The essence of hospitality – hospes – is that guest and host are identical, if not in the moment, then at some moment. Whatever our current role, it was temporary.” page 175. 
Community comes from the Latin communio, … Communio is a verb from moon — wall — and means ‘to build a wall around.’ So a community is defined by the wall — symbolic or otherwise— around it. Everything inside the wall is the community, and everything outside the wall isn’t… But common as a noun derives from munis — gift; so common also means ‘those who share a gift in common.” page 197.
Which words did you find most intriguing?  How does thinking through the source of a word affect how you think about words and their descendants?


Select several of the characters Dr. S attends.  Which did you find most troubling? Which were most hopeful? How would their outcome have been different if the individual was in a community near you?

Consider the perspective of the varying nurses, policy makers, administrators, and doctors. How does Sweet present a complete picture of each individual for the reader?  Did you feel that the depictions of any of the characters were especially objective or especially biased? How can an author present the most impartial perspective in a work of nonfiction when she is a character in the writing? Do you prefer impartiality or an accounting with personal perspective?

Premodern Medicine

If you are interested in premodern medicine, the author presents the essence of how care-giving for the sick was delivered and the premodern understanding of the body and healing in a very accessible manner for someone who is not versed in medical terminology.

The four basic elements of “Earth, Water, Air and Fire. That is, with good nutrition – tasty food, vitamins, liquids, deep sleep, fresh air, and sunlight,” are a foundation of premodern medicine. Or as Hildegard framed her regimes, what Dr. Diet (eat and drink), Dr. Quiet (exercise and rest) and Dr. Merryman (emotions and sex) would prescribe.  Looking at some of the vignettes you found most appealing, which elements were most important in healing? How were the elements combined with the capabilities of modern medicine to create the most positive outcome? In what ways do you personally adhere to the essence of the four elements? In what ways do you rely on the benefits of modern medicine?


The transition to sterile terminology in healthcare has perhaps led or perhaps followed a transition away from personal care to streamlined, theoretically efficient care. The author challenges whether streamlined care is actually more efficient. What is your perspective on the author’s hypothesis that
“Slow Medicine provides as good a medical outcome as does Modern Efficient Health Care, while being less expensive and more satisfying for patients, families and staff.” page 315 ?
How does Mr. Rapman’s recovery represent a blending of modern medicine and premodern medicine?


The themes in God’s Hotel go far beyond medicine. At the core, this is a book about the essence of care and relationships, which the author directly acknowledges, and importantly about a reticence to accept change, which the author clearly feels, though doesn't address head-on. Change is hard.  And when you are not the instigator of the change, it can be exceedingly difficult to accept the opportunity that change brings, instead focusing only on what has been discarded.   Sweet talks about Miss Lester’s involvement in encourage a “yes” vote,
“She wrote: ‘… I am convinced that Laguna Honda must forever be part of our city.  Vote Yes on Proposition A,’” page 178. 
Who else took a stand on one side or the other as the hospital was transformed? How did the author participate in the ongoing changes at Laguna Honda?

When Dr. Talley starts as the new medical director, she tells the doctors that
“it was time for medicine to say yes instead of no to change,” page 327.  
How had medicine been saying no to change? When have you been an active proponent of change?  When have you actively resisted change? When have you stayed on the sidelines? In public policy? At work? In your family? Which role was easiest?  Most difficult? Most frustrating? Most satisfying?

What do you see as some of the basic elements to create acceptance of change when you believe change is for the better?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

3 Light-hearted Romance Novels for Valentine's Day

Snowed in for the weekend and your valentine is snowed out?  Fifty Shades of Grey not your choice for light romantic reading? Here are three quick weekend reads for your light-hearted reading indulgence. 

Blessed Are the Cheesemakers by Sarah-Kate Lynch 

Falling in love comes alive on so many levels in this quick and witty read.  I was unable to contain my laughter and a tear or two reading this light-hearted tale. And it's great for a re-read.  Even as the snow piles up outside the reader can be transported to green pastures in Ireland.

Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray

The couple in this romance are in their 60s and living in Somerville outside of Boston, so if you happen to fall into either of those two categories you will likely find much to connect with. But even for younger readers who live elsewhere, Julie and Romeo is a good reminder that romance is ageless.

Attachements by Rainbow Rowell

This quick read is sweet— fun, laugh out loud, true, romantic.  If you remember the 1990’s as a college graduate, remember being first married, remember falling in love before you actually had a conversation with the aim of your affection, remember your first big breakup, then open this book and smile.

All three are a bit fairytale-like, but then if you’re avoiding shoveling the snow, you could probably use a good fairytale. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Unbroken Book Discussion Guide and Discussion Questions

Book:    Unbroken
Author:  Laura Hillenbrand
Edition:  Hardcover, Randomhouse, 2010
You can purchase Unbroken online at Hugo Bookstores.

Internet Resources

There are a plethora of internet resources on Louie Zamperini, the specific battles he fought in and the camps where he was held.  The following are just a couple of the articles that are helpful background reading geared toward the discussion topics below.

On Veteran's Day November 2014 the Atlantic published an interview with Louis Zamperini based on conversations between Zamperini and the article's author in 2010 and 2011.

The New York Times book review of Unbroken presents a viewpoint on the author's writing style that is helpful to consider as one point of view in contrast with a more recent New York Times Magazine article.  The New York Times Magazine published an article on Laura Hillenbrand as an author and as an individual dealing with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  The article also talks about the writing style in this and other contemporary nonfiction writing.

A Japanese student who moved to Australia as a teenager, talks about the history education Japanese students receive today in his BBC article.  Reading this article may provide a segue to a discussion on how history varies dramatically by who is doing the teaching.  

Major Characters

The author’s book website has photos and summaries of the seven of the major characters.  and two of the planes.
Louie Zamperini: 1936 track Olympian and bombardier in Pacific in WWII.  Survived crash of Green Hornet with Phil and Mac.
Lt. Russell Allen Phillips (Phil): pilot of both the Super Man and the Green Hornet when it crashed. On raft and taken prisoner with Louie.
Stanley Pillsbury: engineer and top turret gunner on Super Man.  Leg shredded in battle of Nauru.
Francis McNamara (Mac): Tail-gunner and third man to survive the crash of the Green Hornet. Dies at sea in raft.
Pete Zamperini: Louie’s brother.
Cecy Perry: Phil’s fiancee. 
Payton Jordan: Louie’s best friend at USC and a sprinter.
Lt. William Harris: prisoner at Ofuna with Louie.
Frank Tinker: dive-bomber pilot. At Ofuna, Omori and Naoetsu with Louie. Plans escape from Omori with Louie and Harris, but scuttle plans.
Commander Fitzgerald: at Ofuna, Omori and Naoetsu with Louie. Second POW in rank at Ofuna. Senior POW at Naoetsu.
William (Bill) Harris: at Ofuna and Omori with Louie. Plans escape from Omori with Louie and Tinker, but scuttle plans.
Quack: vicious guard at Ofuna.
Tom Wade: British Lieutenant at Omori and Naoetsu with Louie.
Mutsuhiro Wantanabe (The Bird)psychopathic sadist and Japanese POW camp guard.
Jimmie Sasaki: Japanese friend of Louie’s at USC whose sympathizes are unknown.


Torrance, California: Louie’s hometown.
Kahuku: beachside base in Hawaii where Louie and Phil are stationed after training.
Funafuti: tiny atoll from which the attack of Nauru was launched.
Nauru: tiny atoll 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii which Japan seized in August 1942 where phosphate was mined.
Kualoa: Base from which Louie and Phil take off in the Green Hornet to look for Corpening’s B-24 and then crash.
Marshall Islands: Where Louie and Phil’s raft washes ashore after 46 days at sea in the Pacific.
Kwajalein: Known as Execution Island. First atoll Louie and Phil are transported to after being captured by Japanese. Spend 42 days here. 
Ofuna: Louie and Phil sent here after Kwajalein. Louie spends a year and 15 days in this “secret interrogation center where ‘high-value’ captured men were housed in solitary confinement, starved, tormented, and tortured to divulge military secrets.”
Omori: POW camp outside Tokyo where Louie first meets The Bird.
Naoetsu: Louie’s final Japanese POW camp on distant reaches of Japan.

Discussion Topics


The writing style of this biography is very factual, with little dialogue.  As described in the New York Times magazine December 21, 2014,
“The release of “Seabiscuit” in 2001 coincided with a shift underway in nonfiction writing. Hillenbrand belongs to a generation of writers who emerged in response to the stylistic explosion of the 1960s. Pioneers of New Journalism like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer wanted to blur the line between literature and reportage by infusing true stories with verbal pyrotechnics and eccentric narrative voice. But many of the writers who began to appear in the 1990s — Susan Orlean, Erik Larson, Jon Krakauer, Katherine Boo and Nathaniel Philbrick — approached the craft of narrative journalism in a quieter way. They still built stories around characters and scenes, with dialogue and interior perspective, but they cast aside the linguistic showmanship that drew attention to the writing itself.”
While an earlier New York Times book review in 2010 criticizes the author for the lack of voice of Louie Zamperini:
“But virtually everything about Zamperini is filtered through her capable yet rather denatured voice, and we don’t really hear him. So, while a startling narrative and an inspirational book of a rather traditional sort, “Unbroken” is also a wasted opportunity to break new psychological ground.
How could someone with such access — she interviewed Zamperini 75 times — fall short in this fashion? Hillenbrand may have gotten too close to Zamperini. Writing, even about heroes, must to some degree be an adversarial process.”
How did you react to the writing style? Were you drawn in or held at arms’ distance?  Would you have preferred a more personal voice, or did lack of dialogue hold appeal for you?

Author’s Story

Laura Hillenbrand has her own story of individual struggle and facing adversity. If you are a New Yorker subscriber you can read her story she wrote on her illness,  Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,  or at least read the abstract.
“I asked whether she was ready to begin thinking about a new book, and she smiled. ‘Yeah, I feel so fully alive when I’m really into a story,’ she said. “I feel like all my faculties are engaged, and this is where I’m meant to be. It’s probably what a racehorse feels like when it runs. This is what it’s meant to do, what its body is meant to do.” She paused. ‘This is what my mind is meant to do.’”


Hillenbrand uses the word “hero” and “heroism” very sparingly. The following are nearly the only times hero is used.  Glenn Cunningham is referred to as Louie’s hero.  The airmen in general are referred to as heros. Phil is referred to as a hero twice and Commander Fitzgerald, also in the POW camp, was noted as recognized for his heroism. In two instances, Japanese are referred to as heros— once some civilians and once a POW camp guard.
“Louie has his hero,“ page 16, referring to Glenn Cunningham.
“He had hoped to pad around with Glenn Cunningham, but his hero proved too mature for him,“ page 35, again Zamperini’s view of Cunningham.
“News of the raid broke, and the men were lauded as heroes,” page 77, after the Wake Atoll raid.
“Chaplain Phillips had carried clippings about the raid to the offices of a local newspaper, which had run a story on Allen’s heroism,“ page 136.
“After the war, some POWs would tell of heroic Japanese civilians who such them food and medicine, injuring ferocious beatings from guards when they were caught,” page 225.
When Fitzgerald got home, he would be honored with the Navy Cross and the Silver Star for his heroism in combat and in the POW camp, page 318 footnote referring to the Commander John Fitzgerald, ranking officer who stayed behind in the POW camp with the sickest POWs after liberation.
“Four weeks later, in a wedding ceremony officiated by Reverend Phillips at Cecy’s parents’ house, the hero finally got the girl,” page 328 referring to Allen Phillips, ‘Phil’.
“Of the postwar stories of the men who ran the camps in which Louis had lived, the saddest was that of Yukichi Kano, the Omori private who’d risked everything to protect the POWs and had probably saved several prisoners’ lives… Kano was a hero, but when the Americans came to liberate the camp, two of them tried to rip the insignia off his uniform…Kano was arrested and jailed as a suspected war criminal…He was mentioned in many POW affidavits and, in everyone, was lauded for his kindness.” page 357.
At the end of her interview on NPR, Hillenbrand says, “I feel like anybody who puts on a uniform and fights for their country is heroic, that’s an amazing self-sacrifice… I don’t though want to separate him from all the other men around him who did the same thing.  They are all extraordinary. I want him to be representative of all of them, rather than somebody who stands apart from them.”

What does hero mean to you? How do you think the meaning of hero as changed over the years? Do you think as Hillenbrand states that “anybody who puts on a uniform and fights for their country is heroic?” Is your definition broader or more narrow? Whom do you know personally who has been a hero in your life?

Moving Forward After Loss

Loss was extraordinary for the servicemen and women serving, for families at home, for civilians and countries, for everyone during World War II.  Zamperini sank into alcoholism to deal with his loss. Many individuals committed suicide; rage was bottled up or violently expressed depending on the individual affected.  Similarly whole communities and countries responded to their loss and continued to come to terms with actions and repercussions decades afterwards. Hillenbrand traces some of these stories, the individual and the country-wide responses, in her epilogue. 

Talk through responses you have expressed or witness responding to loss. How is an individual’s loss similar to and distinct from the loss experienced by a community or a country? How can we reach out and support those who have experienced loss, or reach out and receive support for our own loss?

Crimes Against Humanity

   The States Parties to this Statute,
         Conscious that all peoples are united by common bonds, their cultures pieced together in a shared heritage, and concerned that this delicate mosaic may be shattered at any time,
         Mindful that during this century millions of children, women and men have been victims of unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity,
         Recognizing that such grave crimes threaten the peace, security and well-being of the world,
         Affirming that the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished and that their effective prosecution must be ensured by taking measures at the national level and by enhancing international cooperation,
         Determined to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes and thus to contribute to the prevention of such crimes,
         Recalling that it is the duty of every State to exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes,
         Reaffirming the Purposes and Principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular that all States shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations,
         Emphasizing in this connection that nothing in this Statute shall be taken as authorizing any State Party to intervene in an armed conflict or in the internal affairs of any State,
         Determined to these ends and for the sake of present and future generations, to establish an independent permanent International Criminal Court in relationship with the United Nations system, with jurisdiction over the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole,
         Emphasizing that the International Criminal Court established under this Statute shall be complementary to national criminal jurisdictions,
         Resolved to guarantee lasting respect for and the enforcement of international justice,      
Have agreed as follows.”
In addition to the crimes during World War I and World War II, the Slave Trade, Apartheid, Rwanda, the Armenian Genocide, and Pol Pot sadly represent a few of the unimaginable atrocities that have threatened the peace, security and well-being of the world. 

How does humanity have the capacity for such atrocity? How can we work to reduce and eliminate this human capacity?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Eleven Book Discussion Guide

Book:    Eleven
Author:  Mark Watson
Edition:  Softcover, Scribner, 2011

You can purchase Eleven online at Hugo Bookstores.
Eleven by Mark Watson, offers up themes of moving forward after a loss and the interconnections among people akin to the butterfly effect of a small distant change causing large changes at a later point in time.  These effects are like a web of connections that we are either trapped in or spinning as we go depending on your perspective. The characters are realistic and the humor of London lives bubbles gently throughout, even as the protagonist wrestles with his own loss and connections.
Your book group may enjoy this as a quicker read after a lengthy novel or paired with The Emperor of Paris which is like holding the threads of multiple characters as they slide between he pages of the book and drift from the past to present to past, creating ripples as they gently bump against one another; each telling his or her now story and also sharing the story of storiesTwo very different writing styles, two different European capitals, one excellent theme to explore.

Internet Resources

Xavier’s need to retrieve his darkest memory from “the vault” is akin to the real life story of Martin Pistorius “leaning into those dark thoughts” in order to move forward.  Listen to Martin’s story on and his work at re-engaging with his thoughts, similar to what the fictional Xavier needed to do to move forward.
The Buddhist short story of Indra’s Net and can be a launching point for a discussion of how your book group members views interconnectedness and whether the connections are predestined or created by human choice.
Huffington Post article summarizes the story of Indra’s net and compares the interconnectedness it espouses to the internet and modern events. This very short article may stimulate conversation on the connected nature of world events.

Major and Intertwined Characters

Xavier Ireland: Protagonist and late nigh DJ (was Chris Cotswold when he lived in Australia)
Murray : Xavier’s sidekick who has a stammer
Pippa: professional cleaner who meets Xavier speed dating
Clive Donald: depressed teacher who calls in to Xavier’s late night show
Frankie Carstairs: young teenage boy who is a victim of bullying where Xavier only half-heartedly intercedes
Jacqueline Carstairs: Frankie’s mother and food journalist who skewers Chico’s restaurant in a review
Andrew Ryan: owner of Chico’s
Julius Brown: Obese high school student in Clive’s class who loses his restaurant job at Chico’s
Ollie Harper: realtor for Frinton and man whose BlackBerry Julius steals
Roger Willis: Ollie’s boss whom Ollie accidentally texts, and client of Maggie Reiss
Dr. Maggie Reiss: psychotherapist to the rich and famous, who exposes her clients’ secrets
Stacey Collins: Journalist and friend of Maggie’s
Edith Thorne: well-known TV presenter whose affairs Maggie exposes to Stacey and Stacey publishes
Alessandro Romano: barman with whom Edith had an affair
Jamie: three-year-old boy who lives in flat below Xavier Mel: Jamie’s mother
Tamara: council officer who lives in flat above Xavier
Bec, Matilda and Russel: Xavier’s best friends when he lived in Austraila. Bec and Russel married and had a son, Michael
Vijay: Usual winner at the monthly Scrabble tournaments Xavier competes in
Wendy: Pippa’s sister
Iris: caller to radio show reading the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire who mentions encounter with Tony 50-plus years ago.
Gemma: woman Xavier meets speed dating who attends movie with him, they enjoy a one-night stand and realize they have little in common

Discussion Topics

The softcover edition has some particularly good launching points for a book group discussion at the back of the book.  The following topics expand upon those questions and compare this novel to other stories of fact and fiction that also deal with similar themes such as moving forward after loss, the interconnectedness among humans, and having a positive impact on a stranger or a friend.

Point of View

The omniscient narrator frequently foretells the future, sharing that Jamie will “one day develop an antibody against two types of cancer” down to the day “in twenty-three years’ time that he’ll submit a Ph.D. proposal leading to the work which achieves a small breakthrough against two types of cancer.” page 99,  or the death of the Indian shopkeeper in “three years time,” page 160.
How does this voice magnify the novel’s themes? Did you find it irritating? Comforting? Did you even notice the forays into the future? How would the book have changed if it were told by Xavier or another character?

Interconnectedness among people and taking responsiblity 

The first half of the sequence of actions is described:
“but now is the moment, because Roger got angry over her bathroom visit, because he’s upset over a text, mis-sent because of an unfamiliar phone, used because another phone was stolen, because a boy was sacked over a tantrum provoked by a review, which was fuelled by anger at a beating-up which Xavier failed to stop on that cold day a few weeks ago.” page 156.
How does the remainder of the sequence play out?  What other sequences of unknown or known interconnectedness did you note? Which characters took responsibility for their situation and corresponding actions?

As a teacher, Clive’s impact through his connections is summed up:
“he realizes that every person is connected to every other, and therefore that every lesson he teaches — all those poxy graphs, those weary reprimands to the fat-necked youth eating crisps at the back — has its consequences. Everything has a chance of mattering.” page 256
Edith sums up her philosophy,
“Really you can be responsible for anyone’s feelings, thinks Edith, approving of her face in the mirror.  You can’t be responsible for what happens to other people. You just have to live your life.” page 265
How are “everything has a chance of mattering” and “you can’t be responsible for what happens to other people” opposed?  How are they complimentary? Are they two sides of the same coin? Or, perhaps they can’t be neatly boxed, 
“This is where the story could end, but it doesn’t; life isn't so neat” page 256.
The concept of interconnectedness has been explored for millennia.  Read the story of Indra’s net which is simply retold online as a workshop story.  

The concept and play of the same name, Six Degrees of Separation, explores the theory that everything is separated from every other person by six or fewer degrees or steps.  Compare these concepts of connections to the chain of 11 events. What metaphor do you like to use for expressing the impacts that we have on one another of which we aren’t even aware? Do you ever think about the individuals who have had a significant impact on your life who are not even aware of their impact or the impact you have had on others of which you are not aware?

Moving Forward After Loss

Listen to NPRs All Things Considered story on Martin Pistorius who fell into a mysterious coma and had only his own thoughts as his mind began to awaken.  
Compare the interviewer’s description of Martin first trying to disengage from his thoughts to Xavier sealing his memory from Australia in a vault. From the interview:
“You don’t think about anything, you simply exist.” 
“You are in a sense allowing yourself to vanish.” 
Martin’s interviewer explains how Martin made a “decision to lean into those dark thoughts," described at the following time intervals in the online interview:
At time 7:39 “Now when a dark thought came up instead of just letting it float by he would take it on.”At 8:17 “Martin found a way to reframe, reinterpret even the ugliest thoughts that haunted him.”At 8:49 “Overtime Martin began re-engaging with his thoughts.”
At 10:05 “Martin thinks it may have been his decision to lean into those dark thoughts that helped him to get the very best thing in his life”
Compare this expression with Xavier’s allowing 
“himself to retrieve from the vault the full memory of 11 July 2003,” page 180.
When have you had to revisit, or lean into dark thoughts, in order to move forward after loss?  When has it been helpful to revisit a difficult memory?  What are the negative consequences of returning to a particularly painful memory? 

Comparisons to Other Stories

Eleven offers the opportunity to be paired with another book such as Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, The Emperor of Paris by C.S. Richardson or I am the Messenger Markus Zusak, or the movie Love Actually. Pair Eleven with any book or movie where seemingly unrelated human lives are loosely interwoven, often without the individuals involved even aware of the connections.
While the primary characters are common through Cannery Row, there are a series of connected vignettes that have parallels to the connections among the strangers in Eleven. Near the end of Cannery Row, 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." Couple a discussion of Cannery Row with Eleven.  How is your view of the universe aligned or at odd's with the order or chaos present in both Eleven and Cannery Row
I am the Messenger has parallels to this novel as characters tangentially related to the protagonist stream through the pages.  Both offer omniscient narrators, and both Ed, in I am the Messenger, and Xavier are generally likable characters whose roles center on helping out friends and strangers.
Love Actually is a romantic-comedy whose characters are linked to one-another, some more, some less, and the viewer is aware of the connections while the characters are only tangentially aware of many of the relationships.


What quotes jumped out as you read?
“She whips out her BlackBerry — people all over the room are doing this each time they move between conversations, as if the gadgets contain instructions on how to move” page 126

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