Tag Archives: coming of age

Swing Time by Zadie Smith ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  453

Publication Date:  November 15, 2016

Format:  Audiobook

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2016), Europese Literatuurprijs Nominee (2017)

 

A sweeping multi-layered novel that reads like a dance through childhood into adulthood, across cultures, exploring race, class and gender issues.  At the heart of this novel is the friendship between two “brown girls” growing up in public housing estates but in school with a largely white community in London.   They see each other at dance class and are immediately drawn to each other, to the same tone of skin, similar but opposites.  They are opposites in that one has a white obese doting mother that lathers her daughter with praise and attention while the other has a black mother subsumed with leftist politics and educating herself seemingly hardly noticing her daughter.  The narrator feels like an accessory to her mother.  She feels barely noticed and out of place until her friendship with Tracey begins.

The narrator is unnamed throughout the novel and her childhood friend is Tracey, who is  boisterous, adventurous, fun loving and narcissistic.  The narrator seems to float through the novel on the energy of others.  First and foremost, there is Tracey’s energy that dictates their play and social lives.  Tracey is a brilliantly talented dancer and though the narrator loves dancing, she lacks Tracey’s talent.  They spend countless hours watching videos of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Michael Jackson to name a few.

The narrator’s Jamaican mother, a modern day Nefertiti, is a left wing feminist and activist studying politics and philosophy.  The father lacks motivation, but is loving and doting towards his family.  This is in sharp contrast to Tracey’s family, where there is an absent father.  Tracey creates stories to explain where he is and what he is doing, but it seems he left them and has a new family.  Though the narrator’s mother criticizes Tracey’s mother and her habits, the narrator enjoys the quiet of Tracey’s home compared to the anger in her own home where her mother no longer wishes to be married to her father.

Jealousies arise and tensions result.  The girls in childhood had written stories of “ballet dancers in peril.”  Tracey would create and dictate these stories while the narrator transcribed.  Always, just as it seemed the happy ending would arrive, disaster would result.  Thus, Tracey’s stories foreshadow the end of the beautiful friendship of Tracey and the narrator.  Tracey tells the narrator a story about her father, which may be fact or fiction, that causes them to cease speaking to each other for over a decade.

The narrator goes off to college and leaves behind Tracey and their friendship.   After a few gigs as a dancer, Tracey’s dancing career fades and she is a single mother to three children all by different fathers and is still living in the public housing estates, a fate the narrator’s mother warned against.  The narrator begins working for a big name singer/dancer named Aimee.  Aimee’s life is large.  She has many people who work for her, numerous boyfriends, children by various men, she travels widely, and becomes interested in opening a girls’ school in an un-named country West Africa.  The narrator again is living in the shadow of another large personality, not living a life of her own, running on the energy of another.  The narrator travels back and forth getting to know the inhabitants this West African country, watching the fall out of diaspora that occurs there as people (especially men) begin to leave.

The narrator is eventually drawn back to Tracey through her mother who has been working for Parliament.  The narrator’s mother reaches out to the narrator pleading with her to ask Tracey to stop harassing her with countless letters that initially ask for help, but then begin to criticize the government, and her mother, and the inability of anybody to help with her situation.  Her mother becomes consumed and tortured by these letters, unable to think of anything else.  She is guilt ridden and seemingly identifying Tracey rather than the narrator as her daughter as she is dying,

When the narrator confronts Tracey, Tracey asks her who she is trying to be.  The narrator’s voice has changed, her life has changed.  After leaking the childhood video, Tracey sends it to the narrator with a note saying, “now everyone knows who you really are.”  Are we our childhood selves?  Is who we are defined by who we connect and interact with?  Is that identity forever changing?  How much of that identity is tied to gender, class and race?  How much of our childhood identity, our moral core, do we keep with us?

This novel is beautifully written, incredibly expansive and brings up awesome philosophical questions.  There are so many layers to this novel, that one could go on dissecting this for a very long time.  I highly recommend this book to everyone.  It would make a superb book club book.  My one wish for this novel is that the narrator had more presence, but I think that is part of the point of this book.  She floats on the energy of others, she is visible in the shadows of her relationship with others.  Class, race and gender issues are often seen in reaction to the narrator.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the narrator remains un-named for the duration of this novel?  What effect does this have on the reader?
  2. Compare and contrast the fathers of Tracey and the narrator.   Discuss how Tracey’s story about the narrator’s  father drew a wedge in their friendship.  Do you believe Tracey’s story?
  3. Compare and contrast Tracey and the narrator’s mothers.
  4. The narrator’s mother compares the narrator’s life to slavery.  She is working for Amy and not living a life of her own.  What do you think the narrator really wants from life?
  5. Tracey’s father talks about how there is distinct separation of races inside prison, where on the outside there is mixing.  How much mixing do Tracey and the narrator experience?  Are they fundamentally drawn to like as well?
  6. Discuss the experience of being of mixed race, not being fully white or black as experienced by the narrator and Tracey.
  7. Discuss the complexities of girlhood friendships and how this might change as girls mature into adults?
  8. The narrator’s mother tells the narrator that she is nothing if she uses her body for work rather than her mind.  The narrator tells her mother that she is nothing.  How is this a coming of age moment?
  9. Discuss the relationship the narrator has and the warmth she feels from her father as compared to her mother.
  10. Why does our obsession with celebrities allow for a certain amount of chaos?
  11. Discuss the video made of Tracey and the narrator dancing.  What effect does it have at the time and how does this come back to haunt the narrator?
  12. When the narrator goes to West Africa she is told repeatedly “things are difficult here,” when she tries to go somewhere or do something on her own.  Why?  Why do they treat her with “kid gloves”?
  13. Compare the fates of the women in the West African village to Tracey’s fate.
  14. Discuss the culture and community that the narrator experiences in West Africa.  How does Amy’s presence and the wealth that flows in change things?  Discuss the diaspora that is happening.
  15. The narrator’s mother becomes part of Parliament, but is beaten down and tormented by the letters that Tracey sends.  Why do you think these letters affect her so deeply?
  16. Why does the narrator go to visit Tracey and her children as the novel ends?  What is her intent?

 

 

New York Times Review by Holly Bass

Review in The Atlantic by Dayna Tortorici

Review by Annalisa Quinn for NPR

Interview with Zadie Smith on NPR

 

 

 

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  320

Expected Publication Date:  August 22, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

This book felt like just what I needed!  Funny, warm, and engaging, Young Jane Young captures what it’s like to be a woman at various stages of life.  It highlights the stereotypes and cultural biases that we have not moved much beyond since the days of the Puritans and the writing of The Scarlet Letter.  It characterizes several generations of women within the same family and their varied responses and attitudes toward similar situations.   It is told from multiple perspectives and there is even a section from Jane Young’s perspective that puts the reader in the driver seat in a choose your own adventure format.

Young Jane Young is a twenty-something female who was born Aviva Grossman.  Aviva Grossman works as a summer intern for Congressman Levin, who also happened to be a neighbor of hers when she was a child.  They begin an affair despite the fact that he is much older, married and her employer.  When they are found out, there is huge backlash against Aviva, but very little towards the Congressman.  Aviva is unable to even get a job, which is incredibly disheartening as she was hoping to go into politics and had been doing an excellent job during the internship.  The internet serves as her “scarlet letter” ruining her social life and any chances for a career.  She feels there is nothing left to do except change her name and move out of state.

I don’t want to give too much away, but this book comes full circle with redemption, fulfillment, forgiveness and understanding all coming into play towards the end after a bit of a rollercoaster ride.  Aviva is able to triumph over her past, first by escaping it, and later, by facing it head on at a time when she is much stronger and more self assured.   This book is a huge slap in the face to the slut shaming that goes on in situations like these!  This writing is powerfully feminist exposing gender inequalities and casual misogyny in today’s society.  The women have their flaws, no doubt, however, they feel incredibly real and relatable.  Even if the reader may not have made the same choices as these women, I think the reader can empathize with their choices through the context of the writing.  The writing is wonderful, fun and enjoyable.  This is a book out to prove a bit point, but does so with much humor and warmth along the way.  I highly recommend this book to all women, young and old.  It would make an excellent book club book, as there is so much to discuss as well as cheer for!

 

Monica Lewinsky & Bill Clinton, the couple who seemed to be the inspiration for this novel

 

 

Monica Lewinsky, from NBC, where she discusses “the culture of humiliation”

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Compare and contrast Aviva Grossman to Hester from The Scarlet Letter.  In what ways has society and gender bias changed since the writing of that book in 1850  to present day?  How, in effect, does the internet become Aviva’s scarlet letter?
  2. Discuss the fallout of the affair between Aviva and Congressman Levin.    What consequences do each face?
  3. Why do you think Embeth stays by her husband?  Why do you think so many wives in politics stand by their husbands after public outing of affairs?
  4. Compare and contrast the situation of Aviva Grossman and Monica Lewinsky.
  5. Rachel’s husband was cheating on her throughout her marriage.  Why did she put up with it for so long?  Do you think this had an effect on Aviva in her decision to carry on with an affair with the Congressman?
  6. Embeth appears ready to die and even hopeful for it.  She compares her predicament to being a victim of human trafficking at one point.  Do you feel that this is a fair comparison?  Why or why not?
  7. Why do you think that Embeth was never interested in becoming friends with Rachel, when clearly Rachel felt that she had tried?
  8. Why do you think Roz puts her husband’s version of the story (that Rachel kissed him) above Rachel’s version?  Do you think their friendship is mendable?
  9. Do you think Jorge is the father of Jane’s daughter?  Do you think they will ever tell him?
  10. What do you think Wes West’s wife’s secret is?  Why do you think Wes West is such a bully?
  11. Discuss the figure and beliefs of Mrs. Morgan.  How is she pivotal in turning Jane’s life around?
  12. Discuss the meaning of the title.  By the end of the novel, when Jane Young is running for mayor, do you think that Mrs. Morgan would still refer to her as Young Jane Young?  How has she changed or matured?
  13. Did you enjoy the choose your own adventure component to this book?  What do you think it added?
  14. There are so many examples of casual misogyny within this book, such as “douchebag,” and “old wives tales.”  Which other ones can you name from this book and from life?
  15. Aviva and her professor discuss the meaning of feminism.  What is your definition of feminism?

 

Kirkus Review of Young Jane Young

Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk

Gabrielle Zevin’s website

Review by Bookspoils, a fellow book blogger

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages: 480

Expected Publication Date:  March 28, 2017

Format: E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

This was a beautiful story of a father – daughter relationship.  It tells of a past pertaining to the father, Samuel Hawley, from which he is trying to protect his daughter at all costs.  His past is Herculean, it is a time of it’s own, yet it cannot be separated from the present.  He has scars from  twelve bullets.  Twelve bullets are the equivalent of the twelve tasks of Hercules, the twelve hours on a clock.  Hawley’s past is shady, but he is a good man and wants the best for his daughter.  His job now is taking care of his daughter.  The chapters describing the circumstances leading up to each bullet striking him alternate with chapters about his daughter coming of age.  It is a unique intersecting of two lives, one in the past and one in the present.

The setting is Gloucester, Massachusetts, a fishing town that has a renowned greasy pole competition in the summer.  However, the author has renamed Gloucester, Olympus, giving it heroic proportions, suitable for the Hercules of this novel to tackle.  He tackles it with humility and for his daughter.  He does not enter the competition to win glory for himself.  The town is well developed in the novel.  The reader gets a sense of the determination and culture of the fishermen.  This is set against the environmentalists, embodied by Mary Titus and her ex-husband, who are fighting to protect against overfishing.

Hawley’s past is tainted.  It is rough and difficult, full of narrow escapes.  The daughter, Loo, is youthful, more innocent.  Their relationship is full of respect and love.  She doesn’t fully understand who he is and what his past is made of, but she is starting too.  She may be innocent, but even she carries pieces of his past within her without even knowing it.  She often feels that sour taste rising in the back of her throat driving her to violence.  In returning to her mother’s hometown, she is subject to bullying, but learns to fight for herself.  She falls for a boy.  She starts a waitressing job.  She is coming of age, understanding her father better and the world at large.

This is a beautiful book which I highly recommend!  I loved the intersection of an exciting shoot ’em up novel combined with a  coming-of-age story and the subtle shift in the relationship between father and daughter.  It was beautifully executed and seemingly timeless.  It was  tender and sweet plus keep-you-on-your-toes, exciting.   

 

Photo from obs-us.com

 

 

 

 

 

Photo from Boston.com

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  The author states in the afterward that the 3 themes she is trying to develop are time, death and love.  How are these developed throughout the novel?  Which theme do you think is most important?
  2. In exploring the theme of time, how does the past influence the present and the future in this novel?
  3. Discuss the comparison between Samuel Hawley and Hercules.  How are they similar?  How are they different?
  4. Who are the heroes in this novel?
  5. What were your feelings toward Samuel Hawley?
  6. How does the grandmother feel about Samuel?  Why do you think she does not confront him with her suspicions?
  7. Why does Principal Gunderson become Loo’s ally?
  8. How is the backdrop of the fishing town important to the story?
  9. What elements do each bullet story all have in common?

Interview with Hannah Tinti conducted by NPR

Review by Ron Charles in the Washington Post

Review by Jo’s Book Blog

The Girls by Emma Cline ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

26893819

 

 

Pages: 355

Published: June 14, 2016

Format: Audiobook

 

 

 

What an awesome premise for a novel!  Who isn’t intrigued by cult culture and the brutal Manson murders.  This story is told from the point of view of one of “the girls,”  one who does not participate in the murders, but nonetheless becomes drawn in by them and a part of their group.  It is told from the perspective of adulthood in a way, that makes the allure and enchantment of being part of this group understandable for girls lacking close bonds in their life.  But, the perspective of the town and those not drawn in is also interspersed within the novel to remind the reader of the real conditions there, the filth, squalor, and wickedness.

Evie, the narrator was easy prey to fall into the cult.  Her parents had divorced.  She wasn’t feeling particularly close to either one of them and she and her best friend were on the outs.  She had been carelessly dismissed by the boy she had a crush on.  She was lonely and looking for close companionship.  When she saw Suzanne, she was immediately intrigued by her easy free manner.  She began feeling the allure of belong to a group that took care of each other, that laughed together and teased each other.  A group that had tremendous freedom from the outside world and its rules.

Evie, the fictional narrator of this story is coming of age at a time when her home environment is dysfunctional and lonely.  She begins to spend more and more time at the ranch with “the girls” who really were that, girls in their late teen years, mostly runaways with no where else to go.  She participates in the drug culture, the sex, the thievery and deception.  She feels like she is willing to do whatever is asked for the group and puts them above all else.  They do not include her in the murders, kicking her out of the car at the last minute, which begs the question, could she have been capable of committing the heinous murders as well?  Were these girls inherently evil or was it the cult setting and the drug culture?  These questions and mysteries stay with Evie into adulthood, as she wonders what might have been.

Evie’s story is juxtaposed with her modern day life far into adulthood, in which she is housesitting for her friend Dan.  Dan’s son, who has sociopathic tendencies, shows up at the house with his very young, perhaps 14 year old girlfriend.  This young girl is vulnerable and accepting of circumstances and treatment that she does not deserve from Julian (Dan’s son) and his friend Zev.  Evie tries to impart some wisdom, however it falls upon deaf ears.  How easy is it for young girls to be swept up along the wrong path, to accept the cruelty of boys and men as they are learning who they are at a point when they are being women and may not have close relationships with family, friends, or mentors to help them through.

The story is thrilling and exciting.  It keeps you on the edge of your seat.  It makes you rethink what it was like to have been one of “the girls.”  It is a very loose interpretation that largely ignores the racist implications of Charles Manson’s mission as well as some very horrific ways in which he treated the girls in his quasi-commune.  However, it is excellently written, fun to read, and brings up some great moral questions.  images-2

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Charles Manson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the courthouse.  Susan Atkins is on left behind the guard.

 

 

charles-manson-312Some Manson family members at the Spahn Ranch.

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How are young Evie and Sasha alike and dissimilar?  Do you think Evie sees younger self in Sasha?
  2. How has the grown Evie changed from her young self?
  3. Why do you think that Evie is not angry at her father for cheating and leaving her mother?
  4. Why do you think Evie pities her mother?
  5. How would you describe Evie’s friendship with Connie?  With Suzanne?  How do these differ?
  6. How do you feel about Evie’s introduction to sex?
  7. Why do you think that Evie cannot see the Ranch for the broken down trash heap that it is?
  8. What is the allure of this group to Evie and others?  What keeps them there when things start to fall apart?
  9. When the police finally come, why do you think Russell runs and the girls don’t?
  10. Why do you think that Evie never says anything to anyone about her knowledge of the murders over those months when they were searching for the killer/s?
  11. Who is Evie’s bond to?  Why is this important?
  12. Suzanne imparts looks to Evie many times through the course of the novel, which are difficult to interpret.   How do you think Suzanne feels about Evie?  Why do you think Suzanne was hesitant to bring Evie to the ranch initially?  Why do you think Suzanne distances herself from Evie after Evie’s rendezvous with Russell? Why do you think Suzanne pushed Evie from the car prior to the murders?
  13. Evie saw a growing side to Suzanne with time that was full of hatred.  What do you think fueled this hatred?  Do you think that Suzanne was inherently evil or was made evil by her affiliation with Russell and the culture on the ranch?

Outline of the Manson murders with prison times served for all involved

Discussion Guide by LitLovers

New York Times Review of “The Girls”

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

27213163

 

 

Pages: 192

Published:  August 9, 2016

Format:  E-book

 

 

 

 

Exquisite!  Such a beautifully written piece of work, that it felt like poetry, both in the flow and the content.  It has an ethereal dreamy quality and is full of rich metaphors.

I have been struggling with my review of this book, because whatever I seem to write doesn’t really do the book justice.  It is such a unique beautiful piece of writing.  The story begins with August, the narrator, returning by train to visit her dying father.  She catches a glimpse of Sylvia, a childhood friend and memories come flooding back to her.  The ethereal quality of the book has in part to do with the fact that the narrator is looking way back on an earlier part of her life;  in part that she is remembering her childhood, one in which she could not comprehend or accept the death of her mother; and thirdly the poetic quality to the writing.

The idea that August thinks her mother will return and convinces her younger brother of the same, feels so honest, so real, so a part of how children really cope with the loss of a parent.  Within the book, different cultural rites of death are mentioned reminding the reader that death is there, but not letting us know the actual circumstances of the mother’s death until later.

Once August arrives in Brooklyn with her father and brother, the father cages the children in the house worried about the dangers of the outside world.  This backfires as her younger brother falls through the glass window injuring his arm in his attempts to watch the outside world.   At this point, August and her brother are allowed outside to experience the world.

August reminisces about her female friendships from this era in her life.   She had developed a close-knit group of girlfriends who become her “home, ” her family, and this allows her feel alive again, after feeling cooped up in their Brooklyn apartment.  Together these girls feel stronger and braver.  Their friendship gives them a sense of safety, of home, of togetherness that is lacking from their actual home environments.  They grow into puberty together, date, experiment with sex.  They confide in each other about  things that they do not feel safe confiding to their own parents.

August’s mother’s words about not trusting female friendships keep echoing back to her.  “Don’t trust women, my mother said to me. Even the ugly ones will take what you thought was yours.”  August learns how this can be true as the friendships begin to slip and in some cases fracture.  However, for a time, the friendships are a beautiful thing and allow the girls to feel powerful in a world where they are vulnerable, on account of being female, minorities and poor.

This reflection is of Brooklyn in the 1970’s in a neighborhood that is turning from white to black.  While August finds comfort in her friendships, her father finds comfort in religion.  It is a stunning look at this place and time period, the struggles these girls faced as they came of age and the hope and courage needed to face it.   I highly recommend this to everyone.  images

 

biaframap

 

 

Biafra  – map

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think August did not realize her mother was dead or did she just not accept it?
  2. Discuss the role of friendship in the novel.
  3. Discuss the role of religion in this novel.
  4. Discuss race relations in Brooklyn in the 1970s as described in this novel.
  5. Compare their Brooklyn to life as described in Biafra.
  6. Why do you think that August does not find comfort and hope with her father?
  7. Why does Jennie disappear each time her children return?
  8. Why can’t Gigi tell her parents about the soldier?  Why does she think they won’t believe her?
  9. Did her mother’s prophecy about friendships become true?
  10. Discuss the ugliness of the surroundings contrasted by the beauty of the friendships.

 

Jacqueline Woodson’s website

Review by Ron Charles in the Washington Post

Review by Tayari Jones in the New York Times

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

20971472

 

Pages:  208

Published:  March 10, 2015

Format:  Audiobook

 

 

 

 

Lovely, delicious, mystical, tender, coming-of age story by an author I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.  I listened to the audible version with my children on a road trip, and given it’s target audience, the plot is somewhat simplistic, so I still look forward to reading some of her more acclaimed adult novels.

Nightbird is the story of a 12 year old girl who lives with her mother and her winged brother, a product of the “Fowler family curse.”   It is a story of friendships developed, fears overcome, pasts and futures colliding.  It has beautiful fantastical, mystical and magical elements.  It is infused with the beauty and the tastes of the Berkshires.  The message of the book is kind and loving.  I would recommend this book especially to girls aged 8-14.  images-2

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How did Twig grow in this novel?
  2. Discuss the attire of Miss Larch and Julia.  Why do they dress this way and how does it relate to the story?
  3. Discuss the role of the ornithologist.  What clues does he give to Twig to help solve her mystery.
  4. Did you realize that Mr. Rose was the father right away?  What were the clues?
  5. Both Twig and her mother say they want to go back in time.  What do they each mean?
  6. In what ways to pasts, presents and futures collide in this novel?
  7. Discuss the two romances in the novel:  Agnes and the original Fowler who went off to war, Agate and James.  How are these romances similar?  How are they different?
  8. Discuss the role secrets play in the Nightbird.
  9. What role does fear play in the novel?  How is fear overcome?
  10. How is the play important to Sidwell?  What does it mean to Twig’s family?  How do you think Twig rewrites it?

Pink Apple Pie

Create a lovely pink apple pie with two different toppings, including a crumble-top variation. Best if shared with a friend. But isn’t everything?

Pastry Ingredients

1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
4 1/2 tablespoons cold water

You can also use two premade 9-inch crusts bought at the market. Or see below for crumble-top variation.*

Filling Ingredients

6 to 8 medium apples
1 cup seedless strawberry jam
3 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam

Making the Pastry

Preheat oven to 375˚F. Butter a nine-inch pie plate.

Sift flour into bowl. Mix in butter (with your fingers!), smooshing it into flour. Add sugar and mix. Add cold water a little at a time (you may not need it all). Mix until it forms a dough.

Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill in fridge for 20 minutes.

Remove dough from refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature for a few minutes if necessary until slightly softened.

Divide pastry into two balls and roll out with rolling pin. Put one crust into pie plate and form to the plate’s size. Save the second crust for the top of the pie.

Making the Filling

Peel, core, and slice apples. Mix in strawberry jam and place the apple/jam mixture in pastry in pie plate. Dollop with spoonfuls of raspberry jam.

Cover apple mixture with second pastry crust. Pinch crusts together with wet fingers around the sides.

Pierce top of pie with fork (you can make a design if you’d like) to release air as it bakes.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 375˚F.

*Variation: Crumble Topping

If using this topping, make half the pastry recipe above (3/4 cup flour, 6 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 1/4 tablespoons cold water). This will make one crust. Fill the crust as above, then add topping.

1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar

Mix the flour with cut-up butter (with your fingers!) until it forms crumbs. Add sugar and mix. Sprinkle on top of pie.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 375˚F.

Alice Hoffman’s Website

New York Times Review of “Nightbird”

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

26131641

 

Pages: 272

Expected Publication: April 12, 2016

Format:   E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

This stream-of-consciousness style story of a small town written from the perspective of a 65 year old woman looking back on her life beginning in childhood was a beautiful portrayal of her life and her closest connections.  I was disappointed at points that there wasn’t more emotion.  I wasn’t sure if the lack of emotion had to do with a high level of emotional maturity on the narrator’s part or if it had to do with the book being a reflection back of more than 40 years.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the story line and the portrayal of a family with ever-changing dynamics.  They live in Miller’s Valley which is threatened by increasing floods by the misplanned Roosevelt’s dam. There is much mistrust of outsiders, yet everyone hopes to escape themselves.   The narrator is Mimi, who grew up with two best friends in town, LaRhonda and Donald.  Donald moves away to California and Mimi discovers that LaRhonda isn’t much of a friend.

Mimi is the youngest of three children in the family.  Ed, her oldest brother, goes to college and then marries a woman from somewhere else.  He returns from time to time, but is viewed like an outsider.  Tommy, is the most beloved and the middle child.  However, after enlisting in the Vietnam War, he returns a very changed/damaged person.  Mimi’s aunt, (her mother’s sister), Ruth lives in the house behind them, locked in by her own fears, as in a prison.  Interestingly, Mimi’s father is her biggest defender and then after his stroke which leaves him aphasic and weak on one side of his body, he chooses to spend most of his time at Ruth’s.  Mimi spends her time researching the dam and the ultimate fate of Miller’s Valley for her science project her senior year in high school.  She keeps mostly very quiet about her findings, not wanting to rock the boat in the the small town or disrupt her family life.

It was an enjoyable read,  about a small town, about a family, about returning home and remembering what is important in life. It would definitely appeal more to women than men.  images-2

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Compare and contrast Donald and LaRhonda.
  2. Compare and contrast Ed and Tommy.
  3. What is the significance of Miller’s Valley in this novel?
  4. Why do you think Ruth hides away?
  5. Why do you think that Mimi’s father spends all his time at Ruth’s house after his stroke?
  6. Why were Ruth’s father and Donald’s father so attached to Miller’s Valley?
  7. What do you think became of Tommy?
  8. What was Mimi’s mother’s thoughts on physicians?
  9. What were your thoughts on Steve?
  10. Did you expect him to cheat on Mimi?
  11. Were you surprised that Mimi never discussed her abortion with anyone?
  12. Who do you think was the father of the baby found in Ruth’s attic?
  13. Do you think Mimi’s mother had any idea about Ruth’s baby?
  14. Do you think that the government people were purposely letting the water flow out of the dam a little at a time to get the residents of Miller Valley to move?
  15. If Ruth and Buddy were in love, do you think Miriam knew?
  16. What is the moral of this story?
  17. What is the meaning of “home” in this novel?

Anna Quindlen’s website

My Sunshine Away by M. O. Walsh ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

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Pages:  306

Published:  February 10, 2015

Awards:  An NPR best book of the year, New York Times best-seller

Format:  E-book

 

 

My Sunshine Away is a coming-of-age mystery novel set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  The narrator is a young boy who falls in love with his friend and neighbor, Lindy.  His love is persistent throughout the transformations of identity that Lindy undergoes in the aftermath of being raped.  This young boy is also dealing with other big issues:  divorced parents, a neglectful father, and the death of a sibling.

The mystery in this novel is who the rapist might be.  There are several unsettling characters in the book that are suspects.  The narrator himself briefly appears to be a suspect.  He is hiding something, but we do not know what.

I enjoyed the lush descriptions of Baton Rouge immensely:  the culture, the food, the people, the nature, the impact of Andrew and Katrina.  Some of the chapters that were about Baton Rouge could have been stand-alone short stories, and very good ones at that.

The book is written from adulthood, reminiscing back about 20 years, but he also spends time speaking of his current life:  adulthood, marriage, his wife’s pregnancy.  These adulthood chapters were less interesting to me.  I felt that there was a comparative lack of passion, or maybe even disingenuousness,  when the narrator was describing his adult life.   Yes, it was nice to have the complete picture of how everyone turned out, but it felt  unnecessary to me.   The narrator also inserts certain facts about children who have been raped, children who have grown up with divorced parents or suffered the death of a sibling, as well as facts about the foster system.  The facts felt instructive, yet were interesting.

I give this book:  3-stars , well 3.5.   It was well written, had great character development and dealt with some weighty coming-of-age issues.  Saying that, I did not feel deeply affected by it.  I would definitely categorize it more as a young adult read, and I think for the younger reader, it would be more pertinent and affective, more of a 4 star read.  I also think reading about a girl’s experience of rape, from the perspective of a prepubescent boy who is “in love” with her, only added distance to the horror of it.  Perhaps, to the male reader, it would be more meaningful.

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Baton Rouge, LA

 

 

 

 

crawfish & corn

 

 

“All I saw were drunk and sweaty people, sucking the heads off insects,”  says the narrator’s friend from Michigan

Spanish_moss_at_the_Mcbryde_Garden_in_hawaii

 

 

Spanish moss (with lice)

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  It seemed like there were no consequences to Bo Kearne’s behavior.  How do you think this affected him?
  2. Did you ever think while reading the novel that it could have been the narrator who committed the crime?  Why or why not?
  3. What were your thoughts about Lindy’s parents approaching potential suspects with the police?
  4. How does Lindy change after the rape?  Is it immediate or is there a delay?  How do you feel the “outing” of the rape affects her?
  5. What is the effect of group therapy on Lindy?
  6. Jason Landry is the “anchor” of his foster family.  What are your thoughts on foster families doing this with one of their foster children?
  7. What do you perceive as the abuses suffered by Jason and the other Landry foster children?
  8. How do you perceive the relationship of the narrator and his father?  What do you make of the father and his 18 year old girlfriend?
  9. Why do you think the narrator remains un-named throughout the novel?
  10. How does Lindy manifest the “rape trauma syndrome?
  11. Is the narrator really listening to Lindy during all those late night conversations?  Why or why not?  What is he hoping to hear from her?  How is he hoping the conversation will go?
  12. What do you make of Uncle Barry’s role in the novel?  Why do you think the narrator’s mother wanted to minimize his influence?
  13. What do you make of the narrator’s choice of wife?
  14. How does the narrator hope to raise his son?  What kind of father does he plan to be?
  15. How would you explain the meaning of the title?

 

M. O. Walsh’s website

Interview with M. O. Walsh published in Huffington Post

Disscussion Questions by Penguin Books