Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Rent Collector

book The Rent Collector in a pile of leaves
Book: The Rent Collector
Author: Camron Wright
Edition: Hardcover, Shadow Mountain, 2012
The cover of this book belies the nature of the story (not that I should be holding a gavel while selecting books), nonetheless, looking at the photograph of shacks clustered together in a dump, I expected to open to a depressing read. Yet, as the book reminds us, stories don't always take us where we expect.
The characters in the story introduced me to how someone could create their home and find beauty even amid squalor; work hard and form strong relationships in their neighborhood even as they work to find a way out. And certainly, throughout the novel, my view of home broadened.   
The Rent Collector is a quick read and an excellent choice for a book discussion. If one of your participants dismisses the choice as "being too depressing" perhaps that's all the more reason to talk about what's shared in this straight-forward novel and take your group on a discussion of multidimensional poverty— individuals who experience deprivation across areas of health, education and standard of living— such as the families portrayed in the novel.

Internet Resources

The Rent Collector was inspired by real people living at the Stung Meanchey garbage dump in Cambodia. You can peek into their lives in the documentary River of Victory. Watch the full documentary if you can. At a minimum, view the trailer for River of Victory, to glimpse images sharing the lives of this young family.
Photographer Maciej Dakowicz captured photos of the Stung Meanchey garbage dump in 2004 and 2005.
The United Nations Development Programme releases an annual report on poverty called the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). It looks across three key indicators of poverty: health, education, and standard of living. The Phnom Penh Post summarized the findings for Cambodia.


Sang Ly: narrator who has made her home in Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia
Kim Li: Sang Ly’s husband
Nisay: Sang Ly and Kim Li’s son
Sopeap Sin: The Rent Collector, whose story unfolds throughout the novel
Teva Mao: Neighbor at Stung Meanchey
Lena: Sang Ly’s mother
Narin Sok: Sang Ly’s cousin who sometimes watches Nisay
Lucky Fat: orphan boy about 10 years old living at Stung Meanchey
Maly: young girl living at Stung Meanchey whose brother wants to sell her as a prostitute
Rathana: The original Sopeap’s sister
Soriyan Song: Sopeap’s past life

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for The Rent Collector that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests. 


Sang Ly and Kim Li live in Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in all of Cambodia. Sang Ly describes her view of the dump as “unobstructed and occasionally quite spectacular” and goes on to say, “I don’t intend to portray the place as miserable or entirely without joy. On the contrary— in spite of its hardships, there are slivers of time when life at the dump feels normal, almost beautiful.” page 6  
She describes the people living near by as “neighbors”; the entire description invokes the feeling of a neighborhood.
Sang Ly also talks about how shelters are elaborate, and may “become an oasis in the filth, a gathering place.” page 11
Sang Ly’s aunt tells her that the dump provides a way for families to stay together and that it provides nourishment.
And when Sang Ly and Kim Li return to the dump Teva Mao tells her that everyone is glad that they are home.
How did you react to Sang Ly’s description of the dump as beautiful? Before reading the Rent Collector had you imagined considering a dump a home? What makes a home to you? How did the novel alter your views of neighborhood and home?

Being Poor

“The work is grueling in this place where Phnom Penh’s poorest families struggle to build a life from what others throw away— a life where the hope of tomorrow is traded to satisfy the hunger of today.” page 10
How did the novel expand your view of being poor? Which depictions were the most tangible and struck the strongest chord for you?  Where do you encounter poverty in your life? 
Read the 2018 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) which is an annual report on poverty. People who experience deprivation in 1/3 or more of the 10 indicators fall in the category of multidimensionally poor. Consider a group discussion on poverty around the globe, including topics such as where it is most acute, where positive strides have been made in combatting the root causes of poverty and countries where there has been a significant shift.
What are the root causes of poverty? What possible solution are out there? How optimistic or pessimistic are you and your group on the ability for anyone to escape from poverty?


At the core of Sang Ly’s desire to learn to read is to give her son something to look forward to and an opportunity to provide a path out of the dump and change the trajectory of NIsay’s life. 
How has education changed the trajectories of your life and others you know? What is the power of education?
One day Sang Ly is able to string sounds together and read a word.
Do you remember learning to read? Do you remember seeing a child learning to read? How did it make your feel. Share stories among your members of learning to read. 
Sopeap Sin says to Sang Ly, “you do know child.  You just don’t realize it yet.” page 72. 
What do you think about this quote? Have you ever felt this way teaching someone else? 
Sopeap Sin also tells Sang Ly, “Education is almost always good, especially when it brings us to an understanding of our place in the world.” page 93
What do you think? Do you think education helps us understand our place in the world? Is that fundamental to education? An interesting by-product? Or are education and understanding our place not tightly linked at all in your view?

Changing Your Understanding

The characters in the novel change their understanding of one another right along with the reader. In particular, Sopeap’s history is slowly revealed to Sang Ly. When Sopeap starts crying when she first sees the children’s book, Sang Ly comments, “I understand that the woman— a person I believed to be beyond feeling— is so awash in anguish and torment that I don’t know what to do.” page 20 
Then when she forgives Sang Ly’s rent, Sang Ly muses, “Sopeap Sin, the Rent Collector, the greediest person I have ever known, has never been concerned about our well-being, and she has certainly never forgiven rent.” page 28
Little by little Sopeap’s background is revealed until the end of the novel when Sang Ly reads the story of the elephant and the old woman and thinks that Sopeap is represented by the old woman. Then Sang Ly’s perspective changes once more and she realizes that in fact, Sopeap is the dying elephant.
When has your perspective changed about someone whose past was revealed to you? Describe a recent event when your perspective changed to the positive as you learned more about someone. What about to the negative? Compare how you felt or reacted in each case.


As Sang Ly recalls how province life is so peaceful, her aunt reminds her that “Memory can be such a pernicious monkey.” page 192
What do you think of memory? When have you reminisced positively about an event that others recalled negatively? Much research has been done on memory and its accuracy. If you want to go deep into a discussion of memory check out resources such as Daniel Kahneman’s Ted Talk on experience versus memory and how that relates to happiness. He talks about how we put so much weight on memory relative to the weight that we put on experiences.


“If people realized someone would be sorting through their trash, would they be more careful in what they throw away?” page 24     
“Fight ignorance with words. Fight evil with your knife.” page 103   
“Only later would I realize that there are no words harsh enough, no paragraphs wide enough, no books deep enough to convey the weight of true human sorrow.” page 220                   

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Educated A Memoir

Book:     Educated A Memoir
Author: Tara Tara
Edition: Hardcover, Random House 2018

I read Educated in just a few sittings, the words tumbling over one another as the author's life tumbled chaotically through childhood and into adulthood. The writing is stellar, the story harrowing and revealing, showing the reader graphically the ambivalence Westover feels toward her family. Readers see love, pain, and Westover’s realization of the incongruity of her upbringing. She is raised so near others who learn mathematics and history along with self-advocacy and ambition, while she is told her place as a female and daughter of a fanatic. I was both captivated by the writing and repulsed by the conflict.

Westover is unbelievably courageous in both her actions and in her writing. I appreciate her revealing her painful memories to shed light on the secrets and suffering hidden in families, and of the shame associated with being found out. Sharing our stories opens doors through which we can rescue one another and heal wounds.

On the flip side, clearly we each have our own view of the past. Some of Westover’s family (through their lawyer) disagree with Westover’s recounting. While the book rings true, you as the reader need to work to determine what you believe is true.

The book is an excellent choice for book groups.

Internet Resources 

By definition this memoir is about Westover’s memories. However, memory can be very fluid. Often many eyewitnesses to the same event have very different accounts. Even one individual’s memory can change significantly over time. Malcolm Gladwell has a pair of podcasts on memory, A Polite Word for Liar and Free Brian Williams, that present how memory evolves and finding that truth isn’t always in the memory. I recommend listening to both.

Not surprisingly, some of Westover’s family share very different memories. Read 'Educated should be read with a grain of salt', to hear their response to the memoire through their lawyer.

Family Members [many of these names are pseudonyms]

Tara: author and youngest of seven siblings [note I use Tara’s first name throughout as all of the family members have the same last name]
Gene: Tara’s father
Faye: Tara’s mother
Tony: oldest brother
Shawn: second oldest and Tara’s abusive brother
Tyler: third oldest
Luke: fourth oldest
Audrey: fifth oldest, Tara’s sister
Richard: sixth oldest
Emily: Shawn’s wife
Benjamin: Audrey’s husband
Stefanie: Tyler’s wife
Kami: Richard’s wife
Drew: Tara’s boyfriend and first boyfriend she tells about the truth of her family

Discussion Topics 


Tara reflects on how she changes what she views as 'home',
“I wonder now if the day I set out to steal that tax return wasn’t the first time I left home to go to Buck’s Peak. That night I had entered my father’s house as an intruder. It was a shift in mental language, a surrendering of where I was from.” page 206
At what points in your life has what you call home changed? At what point in your transition from your birth home to your adult home did “home” change? What are the essential elements that make someplace a home for you now? as a child? as a young adult?

The Brooklyn discussion guide also encompasses the theme of 'home' from a very different perspective and could be a good pairing with Educated.


Memory is very malleable. Every time we recall a memory, we are actually changing its shape and restoring it in our brains. In addition, technology is advancing so rapidly that even images cannot be relied up to display the truth. So how do we know what actually happened?

In Educated, Tara is clear that these are her memories and openly acknowledges that there exists disagreements in who was where, and when. In the stories of Luke’s burn (page 75), Shawn’s fall off the pallet (page 128), Shawn’s motorcycle accident (page 145), and the timeline of her father’s burn (page 219), Tara openly acknowledges that there are differing memories from different people. She discusses this in her note at the end of the book (page 333) emphasizing that what actually happened in two of these cases would change how she and likely the reader viewed the motives of the participants.

When she journals after Shawn drags her from the car and across the gravel parking lot, Tara says she does,
“something I have never done before: I write what happened. I do not use vague, shadowy language, as I have done in other entries; I do not hide behind hints and suggestions. I write what I remember.” page 196 

Writing can record events to keep a memory constant. Whether the original writing reflected the event is in the eyes and pen of the writer.

How has your understanding of memory evolved? What events do you believe you recall precisely and have found evidence that they didn’t unfold in the way you recall?

Malcolm Gladwell has a pair of podcasts on memory, A Polite Word for Liar and Free Brian Williams that present how memory evolves and finding that truth isn’t always in the memory.

Check out The Trouble with Goats and Sheep discussion guide for a very different book that also can guide your book group in a discussion of memory.


The core of the memoir recounts Tara’s abuse, both physical and mental, and she lays out the facts and her emotions as she recalls them without sugar-coating.

When Tyler witnesses the abuse Tara reflects,
“The only thing worse than being dragged through the house by my hair was Tyler’s having seen it.” page 119 
And Tara often covers up her abuse by laughing and pretending Shawn is just joking around even as he is nearly killing her. When Charles sees Shawn yanking Tara, he comes to her defense and when he asks if she is okay, Tara responds with a laugh and that Shawn is being funny, and slaps playfully at Shawn page 189.

After Shawn drags Tara through the parking lot, Tara writes in her journal and reflects,
"I begin to reason with myself, to doubt whether I had spoken clearly: what had I whispered and what had I screamed? I decide that if I had asked differently, been more calm, he would have stopped. I write this until I believe it, which doesn’t take long because I want to believe it. It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.” page 195 

When Audrey hears in Tara’s words, a phrase she had heard from Shawn as her abuser, she emails Tara,

“I should have helped you, Audrey wrote. But when my own mother didn’t believe me, I stopped believing myself.” page 269 
As an adult reflecting back on the abuse, Tara realizes,
“In it [my memory] I saw myself as unbreakable, as tender as stone. At first I merely believed this, until one day it became truth... How I had hollowed myself out. ...that its not affecting me, that was its effect.” page 111 

 In many ways individuals who are abused hide the abuse from others and from themselves. Sometimes for safety, real or perceived, sometimes due to being embarrassed by others seeing the abuse, sometimes to lie to themselves, along with a myriad of other reasons.

Why do we as humans so often feel the need to keep abuse secret? How does hiding the abuse keep the abused sane? How does hiding abuse help the abused feel in control? How can a family member support someone who has suffered abuse? How can a friend be supportive?

How can the cycle of abuse be broken?  How can we as a society bring abuse out from the shadows and confront it directly?

Beartown is a novel that also deals with abuse and whether to keep the secret or bring it out in the open. If your book group wants to delve into this topic more deeply, Beartown is an excellent book for discussion.

Secrets and Family 

“Tyler was an outsider now. He’d been gone for so long, he’d been shifted to that category of people who we kept secrets from. Who we kept this from.” page 117 
Tara recounts in an interview with the Guardian,
“What broke us was not me going to college against my father’s will or even leaving home to go to Cambridge. It was me speaking openly about my brother Shawn being violent and abusive to me. My parents couldn’t deal with that so they turned the other way and made me look like the bad person. In families like mine there is no crime worse than telling the truth.” 

In a CBS This Morning interview  Tara says, “One of the reasons I wrote the book is because of the gaslighting I experienced from my parents… I think the tragedy here isn’t that bad people do bad things. I think the tragedy is what good people do keep secrets.”

Have you known families like this? How do secrets hold families together and how have you seen secrets tear families apart?

Many novels have secrets at their core. Here are a few that may encourage your group to weave together a very rich discussion on secrets across your book choices:


The book jacket offers this view of what an education is and what it offers:
 “the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.” 
What is education to you?

Monday, June 11, 2018


Book: Americanah
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Edition: Softcover First Anchor Books 

Americanah is a novel full of universal truths— the highs and lows and challenges and joys people everywhere face in relationships, especially in romantic relationships, simultaneously intertwined with the specific truths of individuals in a time, in a place, in a body. 

I listened to the audio version, which I preferred over the printed version, as the reader creates seemingly over a 100 different character voices that are incredibly engaging. As an American who hasn’t traveled to Nigeria, I doubt I would have come close to correctly pronouncing recurring Nigerian phrases.  Even the blogging voice changes from a fairly flat American voice in the American blog to a localized, nuanced voice in the Nigerian blog. 

Much of the book is dialogue so really hearing the characters’ voices brings them all to life. And as someone who typically enjoys more action than dialogue, I doubt the printed text would have held me chapter upon chapter. 

On top of that there is a lot of humor woven in that had me laughing out loud. I may not have felt the humor so deeply had I read the print, as vocal tone and delivery of humor have a much greater impact on me than a humorous comment in print. 

While the content at times is written like a lecture on a particular facet of bias or stigma, hearing the voices is what took me out of the lecture hall and into the living room or salon or bedroom or workplace of the characters. I enjoyed the novel as a novel and I appreciated hearing the vignettes to open my eyes and reinforce to me the biases as they are experienced by individuals everyday both in the United States and in Nigeria (and a very small glimpse into the United Kingdom). 

This would be a great book for a group ready for a long read, especially a group of individuals of different races, to provide structure for a discussion on race and racism today. There is much to use as a discussion starter on the role of individuals in erasing or compounding biases, and the benefits and detriments of hanging out primarily with people that share your background. 

Internet Resources 

Online resources abound as references both for a discussion on racism and a discussion on differing perspectives. Here are just a few to get you started. 

One Bay Area educator set up a blog with a whole host of online resources about diversity, equity and inclusion that goes far beyond race and includes ableism, gender, LGBTQ, and on and on. 

In 1987, Dr. Peggy McIntosh (whom Ifemelu refers to in the novel) founded the National SEED Project, “a peer-led professional development project that creates conversational communities to drive personal, organizational, and societal change toward greater equity and diversity.” She also wrote “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."

There are a number of online resources that delve specifically into the topic of the differing perspectives of black Americans and Africans. Aisha Harris offers a blog in Slate on the distinction between black American and African American
“For the Kenyans I interacted with, having black skin also means being African. For me, being black means, well, being black.”  
The relationship between Africans and African Americans and the movie Black Panther is discussed by the Washington Post’s Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah and Kenyan journalist and broadcaster Larry Madowo.
“It was very indicative of the current relationship between Africans and African Americans. There’s so much animus or competition that I have never quite understood. Both groups use derogatory names to refer to each other. In Africa, African American culture is very big and influential in terms of how people speak and dress. But in creating “Black Panther,” Africans and African Americans came together to create art that black people around the world are proud of. But in everyday life, there is no such unity. I think it’s a vision for what can be possible when the two groups work together.” 
And if you really want to dive deep into this topic there is a Coursera course, Americans Through Foreign Eyes, with a module on America Through African Eyes. One chapter uses this author’s fiction as a means to discuss Africans and race in America.  

Major Characters 

Ifemelu: protagonist, Nigerian blogger on race in America 
Obinze: Ifemelu’s long-time Nigerian love interest who heads to London 
Kosi: Obinze’s wife 
Aunty Uju: Ifemelu’s father’s much younger cousin. Ifemelu grows up as an younger sister to Aunty Uju 
Dike (pronounced DEE-Kay): Aunty Uju’s and The General’s son; calls Ifemelu Coz 
The General: Aunty Uju’s rich and married lover 
Ginika: Nigerian childhood friend of Ifemelu’s who is now studying law in the U.S. 
Kimberly: white American whose children Ifemelu babysits 
Taylor and Morgan: Kimberly’s children 
Curt: Kimberly’s white cousin whom Ifemelu dates for awhile in the states 
Blaine: Black American academic and Ifemelu’s partner after breaking up with Blaine 
Shan: Blaine’s sister 
Kayode: Nigerian childhood friend of Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s who moves to Baltimore 
Cleotilde: European Union (Portuguese) woman Obinze is set up to marry to get his EU citizenship 
Nicholas: Obinze’s cousin who is now living legally in London 
Ojiugo: Nicholas’ Nigerian wife who got British papers as a graduate student 

Discussion Topics 

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for Americanah that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to where your book group is in discussing racism, diversity, equity and inclusion, secrets, romantic relationships or other topics that rose to the forefront as you read. 


With ample opportunity in this novel to launch into a discussion about racism, find a starting point that works for your group. Perhaps you can chose one of Ifemelu’s blogs and ask for reactions, or, after breaking up with Curt, Ifemelu’s reflection on how she and Curt talked about race (page 360), or the reaction to Ifemelu’s first diversity talk, which is to an all-white audience (page 377) or Peggy McIntosh’s test for White Privilege, which Ifemelus includes in a blog (page 430). 

Share your reactions to what you’ve read, or racist scenes you’ve witnessed, or your own struggles with experiencing or discussing racism. If this is an especially difficult topic for your group, you may want to offer a few reminders at the start, to listen openly for instance, remind everyone to hear one-another’s point of view even if there is disagreement. 

Black Americans and American Africans 

Adichie also highlights the experience of black Americans and black individuals who have recently immigrated to the United States from African countries. Ifemelu has a blog on non-American blacks being black in America, page 273. 

She raises this distinction in multiple conversations throughout the novel such as 
“'Maybe when the African American’s father was not allowed to vote because he was black, the Ugandan’s father was running for parliament or studying at Oxford,' Ifemelu said." page 207 
“I came from a country where race was not an issue. I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.” page 359 
Later, Blaine’s sister Shan says of Ifemelu: 
“'You know why Ifemelu can write that blog, by the way… Because she’s African. She’s writing from the outside. She doesn’t really feel all the stuff she’s writing about. It’s all quaint and curious to her. So she can write it and get all these accolades and get invited to give talks. If she were African American, she’d just be labeled angry and shunned.'” page 418 
Do you have the perspective from one of these viewpoints? Do you know people who do? How do you interact with one group differently than the other? How can we move towards greater inclusion? 

Secrets and Lies 

Multiple layers of secrets are kept between characters, the one that looms largest in Ifemelu’s life is her sexual encounter with a tennis coach to pay the rent. Not only does Ifemelu keep her secret from Obinze, severing their relationship for decades, she sinks into a deep depression. When Ifemelu finally tells Obinze after she returns to Nigeria she says, 
“‘It’s so strange now to actually talk about it. It seems a stupid reason to throw away what we had, but that’s why, and as more time passed, I just didn’t know how to go about fixing it.’” page 543
Ifemelu’s lies become entangled with her secret. She lies when she returns to Nigeria, saying that Blaine will be joining her soon. 
 “Sometimes she believed her own lies. She could see it now, she and Blaine wearing white on a beach in the Caribbean,” page 493 
Many characters carry secrets, sometimes thinking they are protecting someone such as Aunty Uju not telling tell Dike about his father. When Dike visits Ifemelu in Nigeria, he says, 
“‘I can’t believe Mom hid from me for so long that she was his mistress.’” page 523 
Have you kept a secret and thrown away something good by keeping it? When has a secret gotten harder to reveal as time passed? How have you felt holding a secret? Revealing one? How have lies and secrets intertwined in your life? What strategies have helped you or others you know disentangle them and get out from under the burden of a secret? 

Romantic Relationships 

Ifemelu and Obinze have a very deep, loving relationship. Yet miles and secrets apart, Ifemelu forms romance relationships with other men including Curt. 
“it was also true that she had longed, with Curt, to hold emotions in her hand that she never could.” page 355 
When she and Curt break up, Ifemelu muses, 
“It puzzled her, the ability of romantic love to mutate, how quickly a loved one could become a stranger. Where did the love go? Perhaps real love was familial, somehow linked to blood, since love for children didn’t die as romantic love did” page 357 
How do you see romantic love ebbing and growing? How have you nurtured romantic love in your life? 
“What I really had in mind was Aunty Uju and The General. That relationship destroyed her. She became a different person because of the General and she couldn’t do anything for herself, and when he died, she lost herself.” page 521 
Do you think Aunty Uju’s relationship with The General destroyed her? Did she grow from that relationship or as Ifemelu comments, “when he died, she lost herself.”? 

As Obinze opines over marrying Kosi even while he was still in love with Ifemelu, Obinze’s friend says, 
“‘many of us didn’t marry the woman we truly loved. We married the woman that was around when we were ready to marry.’” page 582 
Do you agree? Is it possible to counsel others away from a marriage lacking in love? 


When Ifemelu returns to Lagos, she is greeted with ‘Welcome back, aunty,’ to which Ifemelu thinks, 
“He had not merely said ‘welcome’ but ‘welcome back,’ as though he somehow knew that she was truly back.” 

“she ached with an almost unbearable emotion that she could not name. It was nostalgic and melancholy, a beautiful sadness for the things she had missed and the things she would never know.” page 478 
Later she reflects, 
“She spent weekends with her parents, in the old flat, happy simply to sit and look at the walls that had witnessed her childhood” page 489 
Have you ever returned to a place you considered yourself from, whether a room, a home, a region, a country? How did it feel to return? Do the feelings of nostalgia and melancholy resonate with you? 


Two of quotes that stuck with me: 
"Racism should never have happened and so you don't get a cookie for reducing it" Chapter 33
which reminded me of my very young daughter realizing that she was expected to be good and didn't get ‘bonus points’ for being good. 
Some people are "content rather than curious about the world." Chapter 54 
I really like this juxtaposition. Both can be a wonderful way of being. I often think that partnerships where the ambitions of the two individuals are balanced are most likely to be successful, which in some ways mirrors the comparison of content and curious. What quotes resonated with you?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere

Book Cover of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Book:     Little Fires Everywhere
Author:  Celeste Ng
Edition:  Hardcover Penguin Press 2017

Little Fires Everywhere beautifully layers backstories with enough detail and dialogue to connect the reader to each character and his or her turmoil. Ng carefully pulls back the curtains on a few homes, letting the reader see the choices made, the words said and unsaid, the angst and the love all hidden in homes with their neatly manicured lawns.
As truths are exposed to the reader, they remain hidden between characters. Consequently my heart ached by the time I read the final page. Yet I wasn't left with hopelessness, just the simple truth of the complexity and intersections of our lives and the secrets and longings we each hold.
Little Fires Everywhere would make a strong book group choice for a group looking to read a modern novel and reflect on multiculturalism as well as the gaps between the lives we see and the lives our neighbors and families live.

Internet Resources

Reviews of Little Fires Everywhere ranged substantially, some finding the book too cold or lacking in heat as in the Washington Post's review  or The Guardian’s review. Most focus on the racial themes; some such as Vox's review, focus on the theme of motherhood.
I recommend reading a range of reviews after you have formed your own opinion of the novel, to get a glimpse of how others’ views may have aligned or contrasted with yours.
Racial bias and colorblindness is a strong theme. I recommend reading Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism in Psychology Today, which not only discusses why colorblindness is a form of racism, it offers an alternative in multiculturalism

Major Characters

Mrs. Elena Richardson: mother to the 4 Richardson children, whose house burns down in the opening chapter
Lexie Richardson: oldest Richardson child, senior in high school 
Trip Richardson: second oldest Richardson child, junior in high school
Moody Richardson: third oldest Richardson child, sophomore in high school
Izzy Richardson: youngest Richardson child, freshman in high school
Mia: photographer, 36 years old, Mrs Richardson’s upstairs tenant on Winslow Road and her house cleaner
Pearl: Mia’s daughter, sophomore in high school
Mr. Yang: Mrs. Richardson’s downstairs tenant on Winslow Road
Brian: Lexie’s boyfriend
Pauline Hawthorne: well-known photographer who takes photos of Mia with Pearl as a baby
Anita Rees: New York City Gallery owner who represents Pauline Hawthorne and Mia
Bebe Chow: waitress at Lucky Palace with Mia, and May Ling’s biological mother
May Ling/Mirabelle: Bebe’s baby found at fire station in January
Mrs. Linda McCullough: close friend of Elena’s and adoptive mother of Mirabelle

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for Little Fires Everywhere that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests. 

Racial and Cultural Biases

Racism and cultural bias is a strong theme throughout the book. Ng, in a book reading in Ann Arbor, comments that 
“We often suppress these feelings [racial and cultural biases] in ourselves, though we can identify them in someone else.”
In Little Fires Everywhere, Lexi Richardson comments,
“ ‘I mean, we’re lucky! No one sees race here.’ ‘Everyone sees race, Lex,’ said Moody. ‘The only difference is who pretends not to.’ ” page 42.
When Lexie brings up having a baby with Brian, Brian thinks she’s crazy saying, 
“ ‘You know what people would say? Everybody would say, oh look, another black kid, knocked a girl up before he even graduated from high school… No way am I going to be that guy.’ ” page 175
Later in the novel, Serena Wong's mother forcefully tells a reporter,
“ ‘To pretend that this baby is just a baby— to pretend like there’s no race issue here— is disingenuous,’ Dr. Wong had snapped, while Serena fidgeted at the edge of the shot. ‘And no, I’m not ‘playing the race card.’ Ask yourself: would we be having such a heated discussion if this baby were blond?’ ” page 152
How do the characters in Little Fires Everywhere reveal and suppress their cultural biases?
Our justice system is built on the idea that being blind is the same thing as being fair. Is it? 
In Colorblindness is Counterproductive, an opinion piece in The Atlantic, Adia Harvey Wingfield states that when people claim  
“that they do not see race, they also can avert their eyes from the ways in which well-meaning people engage in practices that reproduce neighborhood and school segregation, rely on 'soft skills' in ways that disadvantage racial minorities in the job market, and hoard opportunities in ways that reserve access to better jobs for white peers.”
And that it’s important to move away from the colorblind ideology as an important step in breaking down racism.
What do you think? Do you notice biases based on skin color in others? In yourself? How do you respond when you hear someone say “I don’t see color?” 
The Washington Post Review of Little Fires Everywhere sums up that the Asian characters are 
“never afforded the same depth of emotional life — however limited — that the white characters are. It’s a huge disappointment. Without fully giving voice to the community central to the inciting incident of the novel, Ng risks reinforcing their marginal nature and fortifying middle-class myopia instead of imploding it.”
What do you think? Did this novel open up stereotypes for you? Did it reinforce your perceptions? How might Ng have more aggressively broken apart Asian stereotypes? What stereotypical racial views do you hold and how do you work to dismantle your own stereotypical racial views?


Mothers are presented and contrasted sharply through Mrs. Richardson, Mia, Bebe, Linda, and Lexie, who opts for an abortion without informing Brian. 
We hear snippets of the importance of motherhood from many of the characters. For instance, Mia reflects that 
“The idea that someone might take a mother’s child away: it horrified her. It was as if someone had slid a blade into her and with one quick twist hollowed her out, leaving nothing inside but a cold rush of air.” page 121
Mrs. Richardson thinks about the yearning for motherhood,
“how deep that longing to be a mother— that magical, marvelous, terrifying role— ran in her friend.” page 269
And from a father and husband’s perspective, Mr. Richardson reflects about his wife,
“For her it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One had followed the rules, and one had not.” page 269

How do you think each mother would describe what makes a mother and what is important in motherhood? Does each align their view of motherhood with their actions? Do the mothers in your live align their stated feelings about motherhood with their actions?


Ng contrasts the perfect order of Shaker Heights with the hidden selves of the characters. Just like the garbage cans and garage doors in the Shaker Heights housing rules, true feelings are kept out of sight. Through our narrator, the reader watches as one secret after another piles up, some uncovered wholly or partially, many remaining secret and resulting in erroneous assumptions getting made that lead to heartbreak, detachment and loss.
The exposure of the photo of Mia holding Pearl as an infant, ultimately leads to Mia and Pearl leaving Shaker Heights, the place Mia promised they would finally stay. Early in the novel, after Pearl questions her mother about this photo with Lexie, Moody and Izzy present, she reflects,
“Already she saw her mistake; this was a private thing, something that should have been kept between them, and by including the Richardsons she had breached a barrier that should not have been broken.” page 97
Which secrets in the novel protect and which harm characters? Sometimes the two are so intertwined that protecting one individual, wrecks havoc upon another.
What secrets have you held to keep others safe that have turned out to be more harmful than helpful? What secrets have you seen exposed that improved a relationship or destroyed one? What secrets do you hold mostly closely? Why?

Point of View

Ng’s narrator is a presence in its own right, asserting commentary such as,
“Mrs. Richard, of course, could not know all of this.” page 236
“Ng doesn’t miss an opportunity to linger over a minor character, even those we meet for only a moment (the neighbor, the doorman, the bailiff) whose voices might otherwise be rendered in parentheses. At the same time, she offers a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of those terrified of losing power. It is a thrillingly democratic use of omniscience.”

How did the narrator enhance or detract from the novel for you? Could the same messages have been carried with a single point of view, for instance solely by Lexie or by Mia? Some authors artfully employ alternating voices such as in Orphan Train or in the five points of view Barbara Kingsolver uses in The Poisonwood Bible. How does the omniscient narrator in Little Fires Everywhere influence your reading of the book? Do you feel closer or more distant from the characters? Do you have a stronger or more muted reaction to the themes? Do you respond more logically or emotionally?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Circling the Sun Book

Book:     Circling the Sun
Author:  Paula McLain
Edition:  Softcover Ballantine Books

Although it’s a novel, I fact-checked major events and found them in line with historical record. McLain’s imagining of how Markham’s relationships with men, with Karen Blixen, with horses and with Africa seem incredibly true. 

Circling The Sun is a beautiful novel to read on a snowy day, envisioning the plains and hills and people of Kenya early in the 20th century and the self-reliance of a very independent woman living beyond her time. What I find even more fascinating is the juxtaposition of this novel with Beryl Markham’s own stories in West with the Night. Together these two books can make for an interesting discussion on truth and memory, what we chose to share about our lives and what we chose to hold close.

Internet Resources

Circling the Sun does not draw attention to the colonial rule and virtual slavery going on during this time period, however reading background on Kenya during the colonial period helps set the place. These three summaries offer very brief descriptions of the time period:
A quick internet search reveals much biographical background on Beryl Markham. This biographical summary is a quick read and highlights significant events.

Major Characters

Beryl Cutterbuck Purves Markham: White, English woman raised in Kenya
Charles Cutterbuck: Beryl’s father
Clara Cutterbuck: Beryl’s mother
Lord and Lady Delamere: Nearest white neighbors who own ranch where Beryl first goes to work as a young woman
Kibii who becomes Arap Ruta: Beryl's childhood Kipsigis friend who returns to work for her as an adult
Emma Orchardson: White, English woman and Charles’ second wife
Jock Purves: Beryl’s first hubsand
Berkeley Cole: White, English settler and sheep farmer
Denys Finch Hatton: White, English man, big game hunter and guide, pilot, individualist, loved by both Karen Blixen and Beryl.
Boy Long: Delamere’s ranch manager and man with whom Beryl has first affair
Karen Blixen: Danish woman who is a coffee farmer in Kenya on the farm Mbogani 
Bror Blixen: Blixen’s Danish husband whom she divorces  
Mansfield Markham: Beryl’s second husband, whom she divorces
Gervase: Beryl’s son with Mansfield 
Tom Campbell Black: Pilot and Beryl’s flight instructor

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for Circling the Sun that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests. 


If you’ve read West with the Night, compare what Beryl Markham includes in her stories with what is include in McLain’s novel.  Markham writes nothing of her relationships although she was married three times. She doesn’t even mention her son who was raised by his father’s mother. She only offers glimpses into the struggles that she must have faced as a young woman working in a man’s world both as a horse trainer and as a pilot. Rather, West with the Night paints a romantic view of Kenya and her life there. 
Which do you think is more true? Why do you think Markham chose to leave out of her book any emotions entwined with her relationships?  Did she have no feeling for relationships? Did she want to erase her relationships from her memory or from her personal history?
What is true? How do your memories and stories alter the truth over time? If a story is told with facts altered or critical facts left out is it still true? What makes truth?

Native Kenyans and White European Settlers

McLain shares glimpses into the excess and power of the white settlers in Kenya in the early 20th century. Do you think Markham was comfortably a part of the gaiety of the white settler community even as she could only barely make ends meet? Did she have blinders on to the plunder and excesses of Europeans in Kenya or was she unsettled by the imbalance? Did any of the white settlers seem unsettled by the devastation they created?


Markham has complex relationships.  She was abandoned by her mother as a child, her father went to another continent when she was barely a young woman and she was separated from her son when he was just a small child.  In the book she has 2 husbands (in fact she was married a third time after her transatlantic flight) and a number of affairs that make the gossip circles.
When Markham sees her mother cheering her on at a horse race she reflects,
“Maybe Berkeley had been right about family— maybe we never survive them, or anyone we love. Not in the truest way.” page 253
What do you think? How plausible are the emotions that McLain paints in the novel? 
Have you survived your family? 


Markham forms strong friendships, perhaps the strongest with Ruta, who follows her from her work as a horse trainer to a pilot. When he returns to her as an adult, Markham thinks,
“Ruta might never fully grasp the choices I’d made, but we didn’t have to agree on everything to help each other.” 
They conclude their conversation with 
“then we will have to build a bigger fire, Beru.”“We will,” I said. We already have. page 242
How did Ruta and Marham’s friendship endure over many years and such a great difference in backgrounds? What do you think was at the core of their friendship?

What holds your strongest friendships in place over the years?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Book:     The Art of Racing in the Rain
Author:  Garth Stein
All page numbers refer to the first Harper paperback published 2009.

You can purchase The Art of Racing in the Rain online at Hugo Bookstores.

Major Characters

Enzo, Dog narrator
Denny, Enzo’s owner, race car driver
Eve, Denny’s wife
Zoe, Eve and Denny’s young daughter
Annika, 15 year old teen who accuses Denny of felony
Mike, Denny’s close friend
Tony, Mike’s partner
Craig, Garage owner where Denny works
Maxwell and Trish, aka the twins, Eve’s parents
Mark Fein, Denny’s lawyer
Skip, Fenn, garage mechanics


Primarily Seattle
Methow Valley—cabin in mountains where Denny and Zoe went during school vacation

Discussion Topics

Overarching Theme

Life, like race car driving, isn’t about going fast. The importance of being in the present is one similarity between racing well and living well. Many other parallels between race car driving and living life are drawn. What are some that you noticed? For instance, the first paragraph of chapter 10 (page 48) draws a parallel between life and racing both being unpredictable. Page186 (end of chapter 31) “If he had a steering wheel to hold on to, everything would be all right.” What is your rock?

That Which You Manifest is Before You

On page 41, Denny recalls a driver saying, "That which you manifest is before you." How does Enzo interpret this statement? How is this concept played out in the book? How do you interpret this statement within your life? How much can we control or lose control of our lives?

Other related passages are on pages 41, 50 and 83 (correcting what we anticipate), 162, 218 (why we don’t want to hear negative diagnoses), 253

Read the final paragraph of chapter 8 (page 44) What is your rain?


The stuffed zebra on page 53 is shown as a symbol for the demons in our lives. What demons are each of the characters dealing with? Who and how do they keep their demons at bay? What other words do we use for the stuffed zebra in our lives? Do you agree with Enzo that as humans we tend to close our eyes to demons (pg 66)? What is the demon in your life? Who helps protect your from the ghouls in your life?

References to demons can be found throughout book. Some are on pages 53, 66, 82, 127, 143, 161, 164, 227 (zebra returns), 264

Specific questions in response to these references include:
Page 127: Who helps you, who keeps your demons away?
Page 164: Enzo’s reaction to demons is to run and destroy. What is your reaction?
Page 264: The zebra as our personal flaw. Is your demon inside or outside?


Clearly death is a central theme in the book. What are your thoughts on facing and acknowledging death? To what extent do you think people need permission to let go from their family members before they can die? How can we let go and help others let go? When have you felt shut out of others' pain? When have you shut other's out? Why? When have you let others see your pain? How does it feel to be shut out? Let in? Shut others out? Let others in?

Passages referring to dealing with death—letting go, being shut out— occur on pages 2,5,8, 47, 131, 161, 218, 257, 310.

Page 308 how to respond to others offers of condolence. What offers of condolence have been most helpful to you? What offers have you made that have been most appreciated?

Pg 315 letting Enzo go.

There are many references to reincarnation, imprinting ourselves upon our soul, our souls after our death including passages on pages 3, 98, 162, 239, 250, 257, 314. What are your beliefs with respect to reincarnation?

Children and dealing with death: Zoe’s emotional chaos is not always front and center in the book. However, Enzo does see Zoe’s confusion, how she grieves, how she repeats what she has heard about grieving, and her profound sadness (page 222)

Living in the present

There are many references to living in the present including passages on pages 13, 14, 29. What passages did you find? Which struck the most true to you?

Similar themes of being a good friend, listening, focusing on the present are through the book including passages on pages 101, 102, 122, 133, 160, 188, 202, 254.

When do you find yourself most immersed in the present? When is it hardest for you to stay present?

Interactions Between Characters

Throughout the book the interactions between characters strike a myriad of emotions in the reader, from anger over how Denny is being treated to grief for a child whose mother is dying. There are also more subtle emotions—the kindness of a stranger to do something wonderful for Denny (page 277), Denny taking the high road with Annika (page 284) and with the twins (page 305). Me: emotional over kindness of a stranger to do something wonderful for Denny pg 277. Denny’s taking the high road with Annika pg 284 and with twins 305. On page 312 Enzo talks about how he will reach out to those in need when he is human. Is this a purely human quality? When do you reach out to others? When have others reached out to you?

On page 131, a stranger reacts to Denny’s grief by “making himself busy talking to other people or checking his cell phone.” Have you ever received this type of response? Given this response? How best to respond to someone’s grief?

How do Denny’s parents compliment the story—what does that dimension add? Denny’s intense desire to keep his child? Knowing what it feels like to be rejected and reclaimed?

Additional Interesting Passages

Page 277: There is no dishonor in losing the race, there is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose

Page 288: You take good care of him – command or acknowledgment, vagueness of our language is its beauty

What passages and themes struck a chord with you? 

The Rent Collector

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