Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep Discussion Guide

Book:     The Trouble with Goats and Sheep
Author:  Joanna Cannon
Edition:  Softcover 
While the writing isn't crisp (there are more similes and personifications in each chapter than in a pile of 5th grade essays), the voice of the child protagonist is true, honest and engaging. And when I closed the book I missed Tilly and Grace, their footsteps, their perspective.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, is a quick read, a setting that is timeless in many ways and a read I consider a palette cleanser.
Read the book before reading this guide as there are spoilers.

Internet Resources

One Christian interpretation of the scripture from Mathew 25:31-46, offers plenty of thought for thinking about who are the goats and who are the sheep in this neighborhood. Perhaps it’s less bad and good and more about being much more alike than different regardless of if we are more like sheep or more like goats.
If you really want to delve into the title theme there are numerous sites online that talk about raising goats and sheep. Many blogs, like one from PetMD, purport that sheep tend to be more comfortable in a flock and goats are more independent.  Comparing the relative behavior of these two groups of animals to the behaviors of the neighborhood residents could occupy an entire evening of wine and book discussion.

Major Characters

Margaret Creasy: disappeared one Monday in June, wife of John Creasy 
Grace Elizabeth: part-time narrator and daughter of Sylvia and Derek
Tilly Albert: Grace’s best friend
Walter Bishop: Old man whom neighborhood shuns; house fire in 1967 killed his mother
Mrs. Beatrice Morton: widow who babysits Grace and Tilly regularly
John Creasy: Margaret’s husband, compulsive about counting and being organized
Sylvia Bennett : Grace’s mother
Derek Bennett: Grace’s father, business going bankrupt
Harold Forbes: Angry neighbor, Dorthy’s husband
Dorothy Forbes: Married to Harold; memory not be entirely in tact
Sheila Dakin: Drinks in secret, has her own young teenage secrets
Lisa Dakin: Shelia’s teenage daughter
Thin Brian Roper: Single 43-year old who lives with his mother
May Roper: Brian’s mother
Eric Lamb: widower who cared for his wife suffering from cancer right through her death
Aneesha Kapoor: New neighbors at #14 The Avenue who move in July 1976
Amit Kapoor: New neighbors at #14 The Avenue
Shahid Kapoor: Kapoor’s son

The Neighborhood

House Number
Residents
#2 The Avenue
Thin Brian and his Mother
#4 The Avenue
Grace asdfasf and her parents, Slvie and Derek
#6 The Avenue
Dorothy and Harold Forbes

#8 The Avenue
Margaret and John Creasy
#10 The Avenue
Eric Lamb
#11 The Avenue
Walter Bishop
#12 The Avenue
Sheila Dakin and her 2 children, Lisa and Keith
#14 The Avenue
Aneesh and Amit Kapoor
#3 Rowan Tree Croft
Mrs Morton

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for The Trouble with Goats and Sheep that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests and other books you may have discussed.  Topics such as point of view and secrets are common themes across novels and can serve as interesting points of comparison.

Point of View

Part of the narrative is in the first-person, from Grace and the remainder is in the third person, sharing both the past and the present from the adults’ perspectives. Why do you think Cannon chose this writing style? How does Grace’s view shape the novel and its themes? What does the adult view add that couldn’t be captured by Grace?

Choices

Several of the characters talk about having or not having a choice and being able to make different choices. For instance as Dorothy looks at a photo taken the night the neighbors met at the Legion and talked about Walter Bishop:
“She wished she had known then that one day she would be staring back at herself, wishing the choice they had made had been a different one.” page 35
Mrs. Morton ponders her answer to where Grace was found,
“She can feel it. The big decision, attempting to be nothing, hiding amongst all the small decisions, oping it will be unseen and unimportant. It’s making its way to the front of the queue, carrying everything in its pockets.” page 342
and when she makes her decision and tells the neighborhood she reflects,
“It’s the small decisions, the ones that slip themselves into your day unnoticed, the ones that wrap their weight in insignificance. These are the decisions that will bury you.” page 343.
What momentous choices have you made? In reflection did the choice seem big or small at the time? Has the decision grown or shrunk with time?

Memory

The certainty and the uncertainty of the past bang against one another, sometimes through a known memory loss and sometimes through the imperfections everyone experiences in recalling the past.
“She was around Dorothy’s age when she first started to lose her mind, although Dorothy always thought losing your mind was a such a strange phrase. As if your mind could be misplaced, like a set of house keys, or a Jack Russell terrier…” page 29
Eric’s reflection on memory:
“Everyone was so certain of what had happened, but maybe the present crawled into our memories and disturbed them as well, and perhaps the past wasn’t quite as certain as we would like it to be.” page 294
Where have you seen your certainty of past events conflict with someone else’s certainty? What is truth? What can you depend upon as factual with respect to memory?

Goats and Sheep

If you want to delve into either the Christian perspective of goats and sheep from Mathew 25 or the secular/shepherd’s perspective, check out the internet resources above for 2 examples of contemplating the differences between goats and sheep. Let your book group explore this primary theme in whatever direction works for you.
Perhaps you may take Grace’s view:
“‘I think that’s the trouble,’ I said, ‘it’s not always that easy to tell the difference.’” page 89
or Tilly’s view:
“‘Perhaps that’s why they don’t mix,’ said Tilly, ‘because everyone else is on the other side of the street?’” page 114
Perhaps you might explore the general theme of where individuals see the sameness or the differences among groups creating walls or building bridges. 
Mrs. Morton reflects:
“The estate had always been this way. A parade of people, joined together by tedium and curiosity, passing other people’s misery around between themselves like a parcel.” page 326
Grace wants to belong at school,
“‘If Lisa Dakin likes me, then the rest of the school might like me as well,’ I said.” page 245
Or you might focus on your neighborhoods. Who has been singled out as being different, being an individual? Where have people flocked together for the comfort of belonging? Where have people flocked together to soak in someone else’s misery?
“‘There’s only one problem with a witch hunt,’” he says.‘And what might that be?’He starts to walk back towards his house as he answers her, ‘It doesn’t always catch the witch.’” page 157 
Perhaps your group might explore this theme on a national or global scale, discussing current events which mirror the divisiveness of splitting the neighborhood into goats and sheep and consider groups or events that aim to point out the similarities rather than focus on differences. When have you seen the problem with witch hunts?
“The point is, these people don’t think like the rest of us. They’re misfits, oddballs. They’re the ones the police should be talking to, not people like us. Normal people.” page 113
Or what is normal?

Love

John Creasy reflects:
“Before she disappeared, he never said I love you.I Instead of saying I love you, he said, Take care of yourself, and When will you be back. Instead of saying I love you,  he placed her umbrella at the bottom of the stairs, so it wouldn’t be forgotten, and in the winter he put her gloves on the chair by the door, so she would remember to pull them onto her hands before she left.” page 99
How do you express love? Are you more comfortable with actions or words? Reflect on how you show and share love with a partner, a child, a parent, a friend. When do you favor words? When action? As a recipient of someone’s love which do you prefer?

Listening

Everyone recognizes that Margaret is a true listener and that she is good at connecting with people.
“Finding something in everyone.” page 101
Contrast this way of being with Mrs. Morton carrying on conversations as she continues walking on her errands.
And as Grace says,
“I had discovered that, sometimes, if you held on to the silence, people couldn’t stop themselves from filling it up.” page 111
and later,
“And I realized she was giving me the words. So I took them and held on for a moment, and then I hated them back. ‘No,’ I said, ‘you just never know.’” page 239
Eric reflects:
“She just listened. No one had ever listened to him before, they had only waited until he stopped speaking, so they could burden him with their own stories. … but no one really listens to the murmured words. They’re like punctuation in someone else’s speech, small springboards for another person to bounce their opinion from. Margaret Creasy was different. Margaret Creasy asked questions. The kind of questions you can only ask if you were hearing something in the first place.” page 169
And when Grace and Tilly visit Walter Bishop:
“We sat in silence. I knew straightaway that Walter Bishop was the kind of person you could sit in silence with.” page 193
Are you a silence holder or a silence filler? Where are you most comfortable?
Who do you know in your life who is a true listener? What skills or behaviors make that person a listener? How does it feel to be listened to? How can you become a better listener?

Secrets

Everyone in the neighborhood has shared a secret with Margaret and is worried their secrets will now come back to haunt them. Margaret knows about Shelia’s drinking. She knows about Brian’s illiteracy. She knows about Dorothy and the fire. She knows about Derek’s financial woes.  She knows about Eric and Elsie’s end of life. She knows what all the neighbors thought of Walter and may even know about Mrs. Morton and the day she took Grace.
“‘She’s coming back with all our secrets. She’s got a bagful of them. She knows everything.” page 324
Secrets are a common theme throughout the novel. Grace thinks,
“Because I had already decided it was a secret that needed to be unwrapped.” page 175
When Eric tells Margaret about Elsie he feels,
“…immediately afterwards, he had felt a relief, as though saying the words out loud had leaded away some of their power.” The secret had been trapped in his head, shifting the perimeter, pushing at the sides and carpeting all the other thoughts until they became silent… he had experienced an absolution so strong, it felt like a chemical reaction.” page 171
How does the feeling of relief at the moment of sharing a secret contrast with the secret revealer’s feelings knowing that Margaret may in turn reveal his or her secret?
When does a secret need to be unwrapped? Have you ever revealed a secret? How did it feel afterwards? What compelled you to share the secret? 
Have you ever been the recipient of a secret that needs to be released? What brought the secret to the surface? What did it feel like to receive the secret? What do secrets hold power? When is that power positive and when is it destructive?

Childhood Observations

As a narrator, Grace offers observations from a child’s point of view,
“I watched Mrs. Morton’s mouth trying to choose words.” page 43
“I thought I would like a job where inquiring about everyone else’s private business was considered perfectly routine.” page 45
“Sometimes, with grown-ups, the gap between your question and their answer is too big, and that always seems like the best place to put all your worrying into.” page 28.

What observations or quotes stuck with you?

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow Discussion Guide

Book:     A Gentleman in Moscow 
Author:  Amor Towles 
Edition:  Hardcover 


What appeared at first to be a delightful series of intertwined vignettes became a novel of humor and history with characters that made me want to step into the lobby of the Metropol Hotel, run up and down the staircases and dine in the Boyarsky.
Animated alliterations pepper the novel and every word seems carefully selected to maximize pleasure for the reader:
“With the instincts of convicts who discover the gates of their prison open, the individual oranges rolled in every direction to maximize their chances of escape.”
I highly recommend visiting A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towels.

Internet Resources

Hotel Metropol was the fanciest hotel in Moscow when it opened in 1905. The grand hotels of 1900s, as pointed out in the novel, were siblings in many ways having similar architecture, an international restaurant and an American bar, and were often the first hotels  in their cities with heat in the rooms.
There are many interviews with Amor Towles on YouTube, one that has more depth than most along with a nice mix of how Amor Towles writes, his writing process, his characters and his challenge of making an aristocrat likable. 

Major Characters

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov: a Russian aristocrat arrested when he was 30 years old and sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol by the Bolsheviks.
Nina Kulikova: First makes the Count’s introduction as a young girl living at the Metropol with her bureaucrat father.
Anna Urbanova: Movie star who frequents the Metropol and becomes the Count’s paramour
Mishka: Poet and revolutionary friend of the Count’s
Sofia: Nina’s daughter, “adopted” by the Count
Helena: Count’s sister who died of scarlet fever
The Bishop: Villainous waiter who becomes headwaiter of the Boyarksky
Emile Zhukovsky: Head Chef at the Boyarsky
Andrey: MaĆ®tre d’ at the Boyarsky
Triumvirate: Emile, Andrey and the Count
Marina: Coat checker and seamstress at the hotel
Richard Vanderwhile: Works for American State Department, meets the Count in the Shalyapin
Audrius: Bartender at the Shalyapin
Osip Glebnikov: Party member who engages the Count to teach him western habits 

Sections

Section
Time Period

Book 1
1922
Beginning with the day the Count is arrested
Book 2
1923
Precisely one year after the Count’s arrest, the Count makes the acquaintance of Anna Urbanova
Book 3
1930
8 years along and the Count has become the head waiter at the Boyarsky, he Count meets Osip, the Triumvirate make their bouillabaisse. In 1938, Nina brings her 5-year old daughter Sofia to live with the Count. Sofia falls in the stairwell at 13 years old.
Book 4
1950
Sofia, now 17, has become a virtuoso pianist. 
Book 5
1954
Sofia is off to a cultural musicians’ exchange in Paris

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for A Gentleman in Moscow which may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests and other books you may have discussed.  Topics such as perspective and place are common themes across novels and can serve as interesting points of comparison.

Point of View

The novel itself unfolds as a series of vignettes, the geese let loose in the hotel, Nina testing the laws of physics dropping items off the balcony, the making of the bouillabaisse. Which were your favorite vignettes? Which have stuck with you since you turned the last page and what about the writing or the content etched the scene in your memory? Perhaps you were reminded of a game you played as a child, or a place you have visited or a moment you gathered with friends.
While the novel is told in the 3rd person from the Count’s point of view through most of the novel, there is a secondary narrator watching the hotel from outside.  This narrator, through footnotes and critiques, offers the reader a glimpse into the historical activities occurring in parallel with the story.  Even the slight turns of repeated phrase such as 
“let her dress slip to the floor with a delicate whoosh” which goes on to ask “What’s this! When we last left this pair in 1923, did not Anna Urbanova dismiss the count with a definitive instruction to 'draw the curtain’?” page 191 
allude to a third person watching the scene.
What insights does this narrator offer?  What would you have missed as a reader without this narrator popping in?

Friendship

Friendship is a recurring theme and what one will do for a friend.  
When Nina arrives and asks the Count to take in Sofia:
“When such a friend has sought one out to ask for aid — particularly one for whom asking favors in a time of need does not come naturally— then there is only one acceptable response.” page 235
When Mishka arrives at the Metropol:
“On the one hand, there was that specialty of seeing a friend from youth unexpectedly— a welcome event no matter when or where.” page 287
In the Shalypin:
“Some might wonder that the two men should consider themselves to be old friends having only known each other for four years, but the tenure of friendships has never been governed but the passage of time. These two would have felt like old friends had they met just hours before. To some degree, this was because they were kindred spirits— finding ample evidence of common ground and cause for laughter in the midst effortless conversation; but it was almost certainly matter of upbringing.” page 333
In what ways is the Count buoyed by his friendships? What is the essence of friendship to you? Do you have friends for whom ‘there is only one acceptable response’?  Are you a friend to someone whom you could ask the world? To take in and raise their child for instance? What qualities to you want in your friendships?

Place

Through Nina’s explorations (and her key) we are taken to far more nooks and crannies of the hotel than any guest would see, and even much of the staff would not seek out.  At the same time the hotel is described as an extension of the city. 
Consider talking with your discussion group about the allure of secret places that you discover and the connection to place that is comfortable because it feels known as an extension of a place you know. How does each type of place appeal to you?

Living in the Present

Emile, Andrey and the Count wait patiently for all elements to align to create the perfect bouillabaisse.  As they savor the bouillabaisse, they simultaneously savor conversation among friends, 
“feeling that this moment, this hour, this universe could not be improved upon.” page 224.
This scene so beautifully unfolds time, with the precious present the only moment in mind for these three friends.  
When are you so absorbed in the present that nothing else intrudes?  Was that a time of joy or sorrow, calm or excitement? What do you savor when you are completely immersed in the present?

Sense of Purpose

Even with his limited space, the Count seemed to find a sense of purpose throughout his house arrest. From taking in Sofia to being a waitstaff at the Boyarsky, from knowing who could be seated near whom even to his education of Osip, and most importantly, to the very last detail he planned in Sofia’s defection and his escape, the Count sought out purpose. Do you see his sense of purpose as an outcome of his house arrest or was he able to manage his house arrest because he came in as someone who found purpose every day? Did the Count seek out his purpose or did purpose find the Count?
Where do you find your purpose? In what ways do you seek out purpose and when has purpose found you?

Parallels with the movie Casablanca

For a fun discussion evening consider watching Casablanca and discussing parallels between the movie and A Gentleman in Moscow.  Along with the movie being directly referenced and watched in the novel, consider the similarities between Rick’s somewhat self-imposed house arrest in Casablanca where he can’t leave and the Count’s house arrest.
As you watch look for the scene the Count defends where Rick says:
“I’m sorry there was a disturbance, folks, buti t’s all over now. Everything’s all right. Just sit down and have a good time. Enjoy yourself. All right, Sam.” page 425
This scene is near the beginning of the movie.  
The Count's friend Viktor reflects at the end of the novel,
“the saloonkeeper’s cool response to Ugarte’s arrest and his instruction for the band to play on could suggest a certain indifference to the fates of men. But in setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t he also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world?” page 459
How is Rick’s sense of purpose similar and dissimilar from the Count’s?

Contrast with Rules of Civility

If you have read Rule of Civility, spend some time comparing the intersections of these two novels.  Rules of Civility focuses almost exclusively on characters who are coming of age while A Gentleman in Moscow draws strength from the intergenerational relationships that are formed.  Where else do they contrast?  
The essence of propriety is a centerpiece of each novel.  What else do they have in common? 

Quotes

“Whoa,” she shouted, “whoa!” Apparently unfamiliar with equine commands, the wolfhounds leapt again. page 111 
With the instincts of convicts who discover the gates of their prison open, the individual organs rolled in every direction to maximize their chances of escape. page 220
What quotes stuck with you?

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