Tag Archives: discussion questions

The Leavers by Lisa Ko ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  352

Published:  May 2, 2017

Format:  Audiobook

Awards: National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction & for Debut Goodreads Author (2017), PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (2016)

 

Stunning, emotionally charged, socially critical novel about a young female Chinese woman and her American born son.  This novel tackles so much and does it well.  It takes place in China as well as in America.  The voice alternates from first person perspective of Peilan Guo and third person perspective of her son, Deming.

Peilan, fled China young and pregnant, in hopes of escaping the boy who impregnated her as well as the pregnancy, only to find she was a few weeks past 7 months and termination would be illegal.  Her son Deming is born and she falls in love with him, but finds there is no way to work with him alongside of her.   So, like so many other Chinese refugees, she sends her son home to live with her father until he is of age to go to school.  He returns at age 6 and finds himself living with his mother, her boyfriend Leon, Leon’s sister Vivian and Vivian’s son Michael.  It’s crowded and they are poor, but there is noise, friendship, sarcasm, and love aplenty.  Peilan and Deming play fun games with each other like choosing similar looking people to themselves to be their doppelgängers.  They create a whole story around this pair.  Michael and Deming are the best of friends.  Like brothers, they understand each other and look out for each other.

One day, Peilan goes to the nail salon where she works and she never returns.  This comes on the heels of an argument with Leon about her wanting to move to Florida and Leon not liking the idea.  No one knows where she has gone and it remains a mystery until the end of the novel.  Leon disappears, leaving for China, 6 months later.  Vivian is left alone with both Michael, Deming and Peilan’s enormous debt.  The money is tight, there is little food and she is very stressed.  She ends up putting Deming in foster care and then signing him over for permanent placement.

Deming is fostered and then adopted by Kay and Peter and life in Ridgeborough, NY is stale and seemingly lonely.  They change Deming’s name to Daniel, saying it will be easier for him that way.  He makes friends with Roland, a fellow musician who is Hispanic, so also seen as a “different” in this very Caucasian town.  Kay and Peter both work at the University, have no friends in town and have strong ideas about what their son should do and be as he grows up.

The novel takes off from this point, as Daniel struggles with his identity.  At the same time his mother, now Polly, has a completely new identity in China.  Daniel’s life comes to an unravelling point as he makes poor choices with gambling and alcohol, seeming to purposely self-sabatoge.  Michael emails him, and after hesitating to respond, he reconnects with Michael which leads him ultimately to his mother.  He finally learns the truth about his mother, how the salon was raided and she spent 18 months in a detention camp prior to being deported.

I felt like I connected with the characters, found the novel incredibly engaging and I enjoyed the historical aspects and learning about the immigrant experience from this perspective.  Although extremely well done overall, there were a couple of holes in the story I didn’t quite believe.  First, I wondered why no one ever went to the nail salon to learn what had happened.  Surely, someone must have known there.   I also wondered why Polly gave up on looking for Deming once she heard he had been adopted.  Yes, Leon felt that something inside Polly had broken, but she went from anguished over the loss to a new life very quickly.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How do name changes in this book affect or influence identity?
  2. Compare and contrast Deming’s relationship with his mother versus his relationship with Kay and Peter.
  3. How does the author portray international adoption in this novel?  How does she portray transracial adoption?
  4. What sorts of prejudice do Polly and Daniel experience in America?
  5. What roles do music and gambling play in Daniel’s identity?
  6. Discuss the parental expectations that Daniel experiences from Kay and Peter.  How does this compare to what he experienced with his own mother?
  7. Why do the school systems in both New York and Ridgeborough seem to have low expectations of Daniel?
  8. Discuss the friendship between Daniel and Angel.  Why do they become so close?
  9. When Polly and Leon are gambling, Polly feels that life is a game.  How is this a theme in the book?
  10. This novel brings up very real concerns regarding for profit detention centers.  Discuss the concerns addressed by this novel. Under current administration, these detention centers are increasing in number.  What effect do you imagine the current administration’s policies will have regarding these institutions?
  11. How do you explain or interpret the character Polly and her many life transitions?

 

New York Times Review by Gish Jen

Atlantic Review by Amy Weiss-Meyer

Discussion Questions by Lit Lovers

Interview with Lisa Ko in Hyphen Magazine

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  422

Published:  March 12, 2013

Format:  E-book

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee (2013), Sunburst Award for Adult (2014), Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction (2013), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2013), The Kitschies for Red Tentacle (Novel) (2013), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2013), Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Adult Fiction (2013)

This is a beautiful novel that drew me in immediately.  A barnacle encrusted bag washes up on the shores of a quiet island off the coast of British Columbia to be found by Ruth.   Ruth is a character loosely based on the author herself.  Ruth and her husband have lived on the island for decades and never had children.  Her life’s work has been writing, and she is currently working on her autobiography, but she is also suffering memory lapses.  Inside the plastic bag is a diary of a 14 year old Japanese girl written in purple ink on the  pages of what on the outside one would expect to be  Proust’s  A la Recherché du Temps Perdu.  Also in the bag are a second diary written in French, and a watch.   Ruth’s husband, Oliver, immediately questions whether this could be jetsam or flotsam, part of the trash washed into the ocean after the giant tsunami struck Japan years earlier.

Nao, the author of the mysterious diary, states she is writing in these “last days of her life” to tell the story of her grandmother, Jiko.  She never gets to the actual biography of Jiko, but instead details the extreme bullying she has endured, her contemplations of suicide and the spiritual journey she undergoes with her grandmother to develop her own superpower.  Nao spent her younger growing up years in California, but when her father loses his high powered corporate job in Silicon Valley, the family moves back to Japan.  Nao had been living a middle class life, attending school with close friends and enjoying an active social life in California.  Suddenly, she is thrust back to a country whose culture and social norms she is unfamiliar and living with her parents, in a tiny one bedroom apartment.  Her mother initially spends her days staring at jellyfish in the aquarium.  Her father, a seemingly depressed caricature of his former self, is unsuccessful at finding a job and also at suicide.  He actually is arrested for failed suicide.   Nao, although Japanese, is seen as quite different for having grown up in California.  She is mercilessly bullied, both physically and  emotionally, by the students and teachers.

Interestingly, we learn Nao’s story as Ruth is reading it and interacting with it, seemingly affecting changes to the story by actions in her dreams.  In this way the two characters are very much linked in some seemingly real but magical way.  It almost seems like they become one character as the story is being read, two parts of a whole.  This effect is concurrent with the theme of time and Nao being a “time-being.”  Nao, which is pronounced “now,” likes to think of herself as existing in this moment.  The concept and fluency of time within this novel is a key theme.  The connectedness of beings across generations and continents is important.  This is part of the Buddhist philosophy that plays an integral role in the spiritual journey Nao undergoes as the diary unfolds in Ruth’s hands.

Nao’s life is certainly at a pivotal point as she contemplates suicide while sitting in a French cafe trying to avoid “dates” (being pimped out to customers).   However, Ruth also undergoes this spiritual journey alongside Nao.  She had cared for her mother who has recently died and feels like her life is slipping away.  She is contemplating leaving the sparsely populated island and moving to the city.  Reading Nao’s diary has Ruth pondering Buddhist philosophy and engaging in the connectedness of all things.

Nao tells of how she is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother Jiko.  She begins a soul searching journey as she gets to know her grandmother.  She practices zazen meditation, bath rituals, and tries to develop her superpower, because everyone needs a superpower.  She also begins recognizing the superpower in others, even eventually her father whom she viewed as a “freeter.”   Her father becomes an even greater hero, when he finds a new life’s purpose in developing a “mu mu” which will hide one’s past and present on the computer.

I loved the timelessness of this book and the Buddhist philosophy that is life changing for so many of the characters within this novel.  There is real darkness and depths of despair for the characters Nao and Haruki #2 that are overcome through a spiritual journey, where they learn appreciation of ancestors and each other.  They begin to appreciate the duality of all things.  I found it fascinating that the author wrote herself into this book as Ruth, connecting herself with these characters as well.  There are many layers and depths and truths contained within the lovely novel. I highly recommend it to everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the Japanese culture of bullying.  Compare and contrast this with bullying in the United States.  How does cyberbullying take bullying to a whole different level?
  2. Why do you think that Nao participates in bullying Daisuke?  Why do you think the teacher participates?
  3. Compare and contrast American and Japanese cultures in the areas of intensity of schooling, therapy, self improvement and bullying.
  4. Compare and contrast Haruki #1 and Nao.  Consider how they were bullied, their writing, and suicidal ideations.
  5. Haruki #2 wanted to know what defined conscience.  Discuss the reasons that led to the loss of his job.  In what ways are Haruki #1 and #2 similar?
  6. Explain what a “freeter”  is and who in this novel might be perceived as a “freeter?”
  7. How would you say time is defined in this novel?  What does it mean to be a time-being?
  8. What Buddhist philosophies did you agree with or appreciate?
  9. Jiko teaches Nao and guides her on a spiritual journey by teaching her daily practices and rituals.  How do you think these affect Nao?  Do you think Nao would have done better with some other form of therapy?
  10. What does the presence of the jungle crow represent to Ruth and Oliver?  What does it represent to you, the reader?
  11. There is a theme of global connectedness in this novel.  Discuss the ways in which countries and beings across continents are connected.  How does the internet affect this connectedness?
  12. There is also a theme about social and environmental connectedness on a global level.  Discuss the ways in which this was touched on within the novel.

 

 

New York Times Review by Leslie Downer

Ruth Ozeki’s website

Reader’s Guide  by Penguin Random House

 

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  256

Published:  September 5, 2017

Format:  Audiobook

 

 

 

 

This is hands down one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read. Rene Denfeld is a child of a difficult upbringing who has worked as a private investor helping sex trafficking victims and innocents in prisons. Denfeld talks about her childhood and family life eloquently in The Other Side of Loss. She, like the main character Naomi, has lived a life trying to help others that have suffered like herself. With this background and incredible talent, she is able to create such complete characters that make sense to the reader. So much of the time when I read thrillers, I don’t fully believe in the characters. Here, the author, invests energy into explaining why the “bad guys” became this way, so there is a degree of empathy the reader feels as they begin to understand why characters might be behaving the way they do. She also invests energy into explaining various actions that may seem incongruous on the part of the victims.

In this thriller of kidnapping and missing children, there are multiple mysteries to be solved. “The Child Finder, ” Naomi Cuttle, works as a private investigator finding missing children, dead or alive. It is her life’s work and passion, even though she has not yet faced the mystery of her own childhood kidnapping. Naomi Cuttle is raised by a foster mother from the age of 9 along with her foster brother, Jerome. She has few friends, devotes her life to her work and wakes up in the middle of the night with nightmares from her forgotten past. The novel is sometimes from Naomi’s point of view and sometimes from the perspective of Madison Culver, a missing child taken at the age of 5 three years ago. Naomi is investigating this case alongside of another one. Madison’s family had travelled to get a Christmas tree deep into the Skookim National Forest and Madison had gone missing, presumed dead by the local police. She had in fact been taken prisoner on the brink of death by cold exposure by a man who had been taken prisoner himself many years before, the cycle of abuse continuing. Madison is able to protect herself by hiding her identity inside a fairy tale, creating a story for herself to feel love and make peace with her situation. She becomes “Snowgirl,” a character from a favorite Russian fairy tale of a girl brought to life by the man who creates her.

There is a secondary mystery that Naomi is trying to solve, one that brings up many issues of the justice system and of inequality. The second case demonstrates the unfortunate culmination of many of these missing children cases.

Rene Denfeld is a masterful story teller. She describes the Oregon scenery with such beauty and attention to detail. She creates characters that come alive for the reader, that feel real and true. The mysteries unravel at a steady pace, leaving the reader with hope for a good outcome in the end. Although the subject matter is heavy and gruesome, Rene Denfeld finds beauty in darkness and gives hope to some of the bleakest of situations. In this lovely novel, the human spirit triumphs over dark and evil.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think Naomi has repressed her childhood prior to living with Mrs. Cottle?
  2. What strategies do victims of kidnapping and abuse use to help them survive terror,  mentally, physically and emotionally?
  3. Discuss how abuse cycles in subsequent generations.
  4. The autistic mother of the missing daughter is charged with a crime against her daughter.  How much of a role does race play in the delay of her autism diagnosis as well as the decision to prosecute her?
  5. What factors contribute to victims’ of abuse/kidnapping/sexual assault having intimate relationships in the future?
  6. Why do you think Naomi encourages Madison’s family to move away once Madison is found?
  7. Discuss the two cases that Naomi takes on.  What outcomes do you think are more typically experienced by PIs working these types of cases?
  8. What effect does a missing child often have on the marriage of the parents of that child?  What can parents do to offset the chances of divorce?
  9. What similarities exist between Naomi’s and Madison’s captivity?
  10. Why does Mr. B become afraid of being found and discovering another world?

 

 

Rene Denfeld’s website

Rene Denfeld discusses The Child Finder on Omnivoracious

Kirkus Review of The Child Finder

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  307

Published:  January 31, 2017

Format:  Audio Book

 

 

 

 

This thriller alternates between the perspectives of two women, Adele and Louise.  It also alternates between Adele’s past and present.  Louise is a divorcee and single mother who begins an affair with her married boss, David.  Soon after, she literally bumps into Adele, David’s wife, and they start a friendship.  From Adele’s perspective, we know the the meeting was not mere coincidence.  However, the reader is unsure what secrets lurk beneath the surface nor the reasons behind the forced meeting.  Louise is charmed and won over by both Adele and David.  Adele pleads with Louise to keep their friendship secret because David prefers to “compartmentalize” and Louise gladly agrees, as this allows her to spend time with both members of this couple whom she views as such wonderful creatures.

Despite the fact that Louise finds Adele and David to be so wonderfully charming, the reader (or at least me) found all three of the characters to be unlikeable.  David appeared to be a shell of a person, making poor choices, hiding away secrets and drinking constantly.  Adele appeared to be manipulative, two-faced, self-absorbed, and mentally unstable.  Louise was perhaps the craziest of them all, having only accidentally stumbled into this couple and immediately getting wrapped up in their drama.  She was an easy target, dishonest, easily manipulated, and having an affair with her so called best friend.  She dropped Sophie, her best friend of years, after befriending Adelle and not liking the advice Sophie had given her regarding Louise’s relationships with this couple.

The story line and writing were ok, but not great. I was intrigued in the beginning, but found the story lacking in depth.  Louise and Adele were so enraptured with David, however, I did not feel his character was developed enough to understand why.  Yes, David felt trapped by Adele, but why feel it is his obligation to stay with her?  I found it difficult to see how and why he felt he could control her, as repeatedly Adele proved he couldn’t.  Then, when the thriller took a trip into the paranormal with it’s twists at the end, I really felt cheated of a normal ending.  It felt like the author was writing this as if we should believe that type of thing is entirely possible.  Many parts of this book, with both the coincidences and the choices the characters made required a leap of faith to accept.  Then, to add a paranormal ending, for me, required  tremendous suspension of reality.  I know many people loved this book and the ending and it is one of the best selling books this year, but for me it was not great.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Which of the three main characters did you like best?  Did you find Adele or David more believable?  Did this change as the novel progressed?
  2. How did you feel about the choices that Louise made?  Could you justify to yourself why she was keeping up the charade and getting closer to both Adele and David?
  3. What were your suspicions about what the ending might be?  Would you ever have imagined the ending that came?  How did you feel about the ending?
  4. When Adele seems to know what is happening between David and Louise, what are your suspicions on how she is spying?
  5. There is a side story of Louise’s son Adam, Louise’s ex-husband and his pregnant girlfriend.  What does this side story add to the novel?
  6. Adele is fixated on improving Louise.  She gets her a gym membership and has her switch to e-cigarettes.  Why did you imagine Adele was so invested in Louise?
  7. Adele teaches Louise how to use lucid dreaming to control her night terrors.  This evolved into out of body experiences.  How did you feel about this paranormal evolution on lucid dreaming within the context of the novel?
  8. The meaning of the title does not become apparent until the end of this novel.  What did you think the meaning of the title was prior to getting to the end of the book?
  9. Would you recommend this novel to a friend?  Why or why not?

 

Negative Review by Zoe at The Sporadic Reviews of a Beginner Blogger

Positive Review by Luccia Gray at Rereading Jane Eyre

 

 

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  544

Publication Date:  August 29, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

Joan Ashby, a talented writer, who at a young age vows not to let a husband or children get in the way of her art, ends up married, then pregnant.  Joan falls in love with her first baby, not so much with second.  Her first son has the gift of writing, but stops when he discovers at age 11 his mother is a brilliant writer and he compares himself to her and feels like a failure.  He feels she has crushed his dreams.  His father is a brilliant neuro-ocular surgeon traveling the world restoring people’s vision.  His younger brother drops out of school at age 14 to design his own software program used throughout the world in hotels and is worth billions.  The family dynamics and sibling rivalry conspire against him to make him feel small.

Joan ever intuitive when it comes to her children is able to sense when things are well and when things are awry.  She understands her children far better than her husband.  She understands their strengths and weaknesses.  She gets swept up in motherhood and in helping her children build on their strengths and supporting them through difficult times.

Joan hides her writing.  She keeps it a secret, not wanting to have to share what she is writing about with her husband.  She feels like a prisoner in motherhood, only able to eek out stolen hours to write her newest novel that gets hidden in a box for two years before she is ready to have it published, because life (her family and their needs) get in the way.  In the meantime, her book is published in its entirety, except for a gender change by her son, under a pseudonym and in two parts.

There are three parts to this novel.  The first and third are told by a third person narrator, but the focus is mostly on Joan.  The second section is recordings made by Joan’s son, Daniel, that he will eventually send to Joan as explanation for his actions.  Interspersed within these pages are short stories written by Joan as well as the beginnings of another novel Joan is working on during part three.  In addition, there are writing samples from Joan’s writing students.

Joan is so hurt by Daniel’s actions, publishing her novel without her knowing about it, that she flees to India, a country she has always wanted to visit and the place where Eric had retreated after sobering up and selling his company.  In India, Joan is able to rediscover herself, realize her present day wants and needs, as well as forge a closer relationship with her younger son.

The writing is amazing.  Each short story seems publishable on it’s own.  The story of Paloma that Joan is writing in the third part was particularly intriguing to me.    However, I felt like all of these stories within the actual novel detracted from what constituted this novel.  It seemed like I was constantly readjusting to new stories within the original and back out again.  For me, it was too much bulk.  The writing is great though, and I never wanted to skim.  I just wish the author had constructed this novel differently.  I felt way too happy to be finished reading this book.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How is Joan’s genius evident?
  2. Why does Joan hide her previous literary success from her children?
  3. Why does Joan feel she must keep her art a secret?
  4. Discuss how the short stories within the novel add/detract from the novel as a whole?
  5. What were your feelings about Joan’s trip to India?  Do you feel that she did this to escape or to rebuild herself?  Did you see strength or cowardice in this?
  6. Do you feel that Joan’s plight of giving up her career for so many years is something experienced broadly by women?  Do you think Joan sees positives and negatives in her choices?
  7. Why do you think Joan was so annoyed by Martin’s line of questioning about what she was writing?
  8. Discuss the title and possible religious connotations of it.
  9. Why do you think Daniel feels justified in his actions?
  10. Discuss the character of Kumar.  Could this be the same Kumar interacting with both Joan and Daniel?
  11. What are your thoughts about Joan’s marriage with Martin?  Is Martin a good husband?

 

Kirkus Starred Review

Review by The Bookstalker Blog

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

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  337

Published:  August 28, 2014

Awards:  National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (2014), Newbery Honor (2015), Sibert Honor (2015), Coretta Scott King Award for Author (2015), Claudia Lewis Award for Older Readers (2015) Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Middle Grade & Children’s (2014), YALSA Award Nominee for Excellence in Nonfiction (2015), Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor for Nonfiction (2015) .

Format:  E-book

This is a beautifully written memoir set in poetry by the much acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson.  Jacqueline’s aunt Ada, a genealogist and family historian, provided Jacqueline with tremendous family history with which this book begins that adds depth and history to the memoir.   There is always a contrast between the north an south running like a current through this book.  Jacqueline and her family begin in Ohio visiting South Carolina in the summer.   They ultimately begin alternating between Brooklyn and South Carolina.

Jacqueline Woodson is so eloquent in ascribing the haziness of memory and how feelings and emotions at the time become the more important element.  The poetic format for placing these snippets of memory seems so honest and heartfelt.

This is a small volume, yet contains so much.  There is so much history, especially regarding the Civil Rights Movement, written into these pages.  There is the effect of teachers on a young girl’s self-confidence when they praise her writing.  There is the love of a family; the complete trust and vulnerability of young children knowing that they are safe with family they love.  There is the beauty of forever friendships, these early friendships that are so important and make life so much more enjoyable.  This is a book about race, about growing up as a Jehovah’s witness, about dreams in childhood that have so wonderfully come to fruition for Jacqueline Woodson.

This book has been marketed as middle grade, but I would recommend it to everyone.  It is a remarkably beautiful collection of poetry, rich in history.  I think it is so hard to write from a child’s perspective and honestly capture the thoughts and perspective from that time in life, but Jacqueline Woodson does so brilliantly.  I love how within this book, Jacqueline talks about how she does not read quickly like her sister.  She takes her time with books, reading, thinking, re-reading, enjoying.  This, I believe, is how one should read Brown Girl Dreaming,  There is so much to take away and enjoy from each chapter/poem.

I loved this book for being a beautiful heartfelt collection of poetry, for moving me in ways I did not expect to be moved, for giving young girls hope and reason to dream, for beautifully describing family, and so much more.  Beyond that, I also appreciate that this adds to the growing body of diverse literature, especially for young people.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who are the strongest influences on Jacqueline’s identity?  How do they help her find her voice in writing?
  2. Discuss the title of the book.  Why do you think the author chose this title?
  3. Discuss the importance of family within this book.   How important is family to Jacqueline Woodson and to this collection of poems?
  4. Discuss the effect of the poetic format and writing style on the overall content of this book.  Did you enjoy the format?  Why or why not?
  5. Discuss the racism experienced by the family members within this book.  How do the characters within this book respond to racism at different historical points?
  6. There seems to be a great contrast between the north (Ohio and Brooklyn) and the south (where her grandparents are in South Carolina).  Compare and contrast the feelings and attributes ascribed to these places from the book.
  7. Woodson talks about finding a book filled with brown people at the library.  How do you think this has affected her and her passion for increasing the number of diverse books in the world?
  8. “Maybe there is something, after all, to the way some people want to remain – each to its own kind,  But in time maybe everything will fade to gray.”  What do you think Woodson means by this?
  9. What effect do you see being a Jehovah’s Witness had on Woodson?

Review by Veronica Chambers in the New York Times

Jacqueline Woodson’s Website

Interview with Jacqueline Woodson conducted by Terry Gross on NPR

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  462

Published:  September 6, 2016

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2016)

Format:  Audiobook

 

 

This was a gorgeously written book reminiscent All the Light We Cannot See in the beauty of its writing and the descriptiveness of its prose.  Count Alexander Rostov has come before a tribunal in the year 1922 because of a controversial piece of poetry written back in 1905.  If found guilty of inciting action against the current Bolshevik regime through the writing and distribution of this poem, which he is,  he could be killed or sent to Siberia.  However, instead, he is  placed under house arrest.  As he had been living in the Hotel Metropol, this is where he will remain.  Upon receiving his sentence he is moved up to a small room in the attic and out of his luxurious suite.  He must  choose among his belongings which to take with him.

After the tribunal, the Count seems to shrink himself away and even contemplates suicide briefly,  However, very soon he returns to life again and the reader begins to know the real Count.  The Count is first and foremost a gentleman.  He is a man of intellect, with exquisite manners and refined tastes, a loyal friend, and a man who believes in doing things the right way.  He is charming and charismatic.  He is a man to love throughout this novel.  When he takes on a task, he does it to his utmost ability.  Once he has come to terms with life within the confines of the hotel, it becomes a mini city for him.  Young Nina, the Eloise of the hotel, becomes his tour guide creating a playground of the landscape.  Willowy Anna Urbanova becomes his lover.  He begins to work in the Boyarski, one of the hotel’s restaurants.  He develops close relationships with Emil the chef, Andrey the matre’ d, and Vasily the concierge and they begin to have nightly meetings together.

It is within the confines of the hotel, that the Count must view Russia, the war and it’s changing political landscape.  His friend Mishka from school visits off and on, and seems to suffer from the changing times.  Nina, the ultimate pragmatist, grows up and marries.  Years later, she returns asking the Count to care for her daughter, Sofia,  while she seeks out her husband who has been taken away.  These are just a couple of the Count’s visitors through whose eyes the Count must view the outside world.  The Count while under house arrest for these 30 years, actually seems to be the  one who has been privileged.  He has escaped World War II.  He has escaped the replacement of a Tsarist aristocracy with Bolchevism.  Within the Hotel, the Count gains privilege as the head waiter of the Boyarsky.  He sets table arrangements for members of the Communist party and gains access to their conversations.  At the same time he is secretly councils one of the high ranking Soviet apparatchik in American and European language and culture.

There are many developments and twists as the story evolves, so I will say no more. It is an excellent book with well developed characters and interesting historical backdrop.  I listened to this, however, I would have much preferred to have read it.  Given the lengthy descriptions, I found myself tuning out at times and thinking of other things.  This is a novel that demands a lot of attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the Count was ordered to house arrest rather than a more severe punishment?
  2. What does Nina teach the Count?
  3. How do you think the Count was able to get away with meeting all the various people that he did?
  4. Who wrote the poem for which the Count is arrested?  Why do you think the Count protects his friend?  Why does he feel that by protecting his friend, he was actually the more protected?
  5. Describe life for Mishka during the Count’s 30 years in the hotel.  Compare and contrast this with the Count’s life.
  6. Why are the wine labels removed?
  7. Why do you think the Count is allowed as much autonomy as he does under house arrest?  Do you think this is realistic?
  8. What qualities make the Count a gentleman?  How do society’s negative connotations of aristocracy compare to the positive qualities of a gentleman?
  9. Why do you think Casablanca the Count’s favorite movie?  What does it suggest about the Count’s perception of his situation?
  10. Discuss the Count’s role as a father.
  11. At one point, the Count is accused of keeping all of his eggs in separate baskets.  Explain this.
  12. Discuss the scene on the rooftop with the beekeeper.
  13. Why is the reader asked to remember Prince Petrov?  How is his role important towards the end of the book?
  14. Discuss the ending of the book.  Where do you think Sofia and the Count will end up living?

 

Craig Taylor’s New York Times Review

Amor Towles Website

LitLovers Discussion Questions

Penguin Random House Discussion Guide

 

We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  288

Expected Publication Date:  July 4, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

I thought this book was quite brilliant, very literary, and highly intriguing.  It takes place over a few days, however, there are flashbacks to earlier times such that the reader gets a much longer and larger view into the lives of the characters.

The setting is July 1964 during the era of McCarthyism on Seven Island in northern Maine.  Seven is a fictional island home to two very wealthy families whose history is interconnected dating back to  the 1700s.  In present day, each family owns a beautiful house on the island, one yellow and one white.  There is a barn for the animals and outbuildings for the staff, all in bright red.  The Hillsingers are in one house and the Quicks are in the other.  Interestingly, although their histories are connected and the men of these houses married two sisters, their lives have been very separate until these 3 days spent on the island where past and present collide.  There is a huge cast of characters which includes  Billy Quick, Jim Hillsinger, their immediate families, their guests, and the staff.  Within each chapter past and present are described  and the narration jumps from one situation to another.  At first I found this confusing and difficult to track, but fairly quickly on, I had figured out who was who and reading this book was like watching a movie unfold.  It really had a cinematic quality of switching from one scene to another as in a movie.  I can’t compare this quality of the book to another like it, it seemed quite unique.  The effect was tantalizing and compelling, making this a very quick read.  The storyline builds and compounds as the novel progresses reaching the crescendo point by the end.

I won’t say much more as I don’t want to give too much away.  I would definitely recommend this book.  It would make a great beach read as well as a great book club choice.  It contains many historical elements without feeling like it is beating you over the head with them.  They simply exist in the book only because they are important to explaining the characters and their situation.    There are no wasted words in this novel.  It is written succinctly, beautifully and intentionally.   However, the reader, needs to pay close attention, or will miss something.  In short, well written, well researched and well worth the read!

Discussion Questions:

  1.  John Wilkie says “Seven Island is impossible.”  What does he mean by this?  Why does lila enjoy this comment?
  2. In the ARC version, lila’s name is not capitalized while the other characters names are.  Why do you think this is?  What effect does it have on the reader?
  3. “We shall not all sleep” is part of 1 Corinthians “Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”  which is also part of the dedication of this novel.  Explain the title and it’s meaning in the context of this novel.
  4. Jim Hillsinger’s father is referred to only as “Old Man.”  Why do you think this is?  Does this have the effect of building him up or diminishing him?
  5. Catta dreams of an eagle dropping out of the sky hunting a rabbit.  Why do you think this it?
  6. Why was it important to Catta to know whether or not the eagles’ nest was a lie or not?
  7. Why was it important for the Old Man to have Catta spend the night on Baffin?
  8. Why does lila find herself now in love with Billy Quick when previously she had merely tolerated him?   What has changed?
  9. In the final conversation between Jim and Billy, Billy is left with the impression that Jim had traded his wife for a list of names.  What do you think the future holds for Billy, Jim and Lila?  Where will there relationships go from here?
  10. Describe the character of James.  Why does he get away with his violent schemes?

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  272

Published: April 25, 2017

Format: E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

5 HUGE STARS!  AMAZING!  INCREDIBLE!  FULL OF KINDNESS, COMPASSION AND HUMANITY!

I have been looking forward to this book ever since I heard it was coming out.  It is a companion book to ‘My Name is Lucy Barton which was published last year.  ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ largely involves conversation between Lucy Barton and her mother in the hospital where Lucy remains hospitalized with complications of appendicitis. It is what is unsaid that is so powerful in that book. The reader becomes aware of extreme poverty and abuse in Lucy’s childhood. Lucy and her siblings were mostly shunned by the other children of their town. However, Lucy has made it out of Amgash, Illinois. She is married though that marriage is failing. She is a writer. She is looking forward, but during this time with her mother, she is also looking back. ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ is so intriguing, but it leaves the reader with so many questions. So, I could not have been any happier upon hearing that this book was being published.

Anything is Possible, published about one year after My Name is Lucy Barton is told in short stories focusing on different people’s lives in adulthood who had lived in the town Lucy had grown up in. It reminds me so much of Olive Kitteridge in the manner in which it is written. Each short story could be published in it’s own right, however, the flow of these stories and their connections to each other make for an incredible read.

It is heartrendingly beautiful, so full of life and heartache. It is so full of humanity.. of the human experience. It describes feelings, emotions, nuances of relationships so well. You experience the pushes and pulls of family, town and the world on the individuals in these stories. Amgash is a small poor town in rural Illinois. There are not many opportunities for upward mobility if one ends up living in town. Those who escape lead vastly different lives, but their pasts continue to haunt them.

Each story is intense in it’s own right. Each tells of a realization of self or family that is immensely important and a turning point in that person or family’s life. Some of these stories had me sobbing, they were that emotional and real. They are all deeply affecting stories, each and every one. They were so compelling that I would not want to stop reading at night. Despite wanting to keep moving ahead, I could have read the same sentence over and over and extracted more meaning from it each time. Each sentence was so loaded and powerful.

But, really what is most special about the book is the message or maybe the many messages. This book tells us that loving imperfectly is ok. Loving imperfectly can be lovely. It tells us that no one is alone, there are always others with shared similar experiences. It demonstrates how a simple small act of compassion can have such a huge impact and effect on the lives of others. It teaches us that feeling pain is actually a gift, for were we not to feel pain, that would be the real tragedy. This novel is about reconnecting with the past and making amends before death. It is about recognizing heroes and heroines, masked in normal everyday clothing. And of course, Elizabeth Strout does all this so eloquently and lovingly. This is a must read.. definitely my favorite book this year!

 

Elizabeth Strout’s website

Review by Heller McAlpin for NPR

Review by Anthony Domestico in the Boston Globe

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What is the meaning of the title?
  2. Discuss the relationship of this book to ‘My Name is Lucy Barton.’ Do you think this book was a necessary counterpart?  Is this book worthy of standing alone, aside from reading ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’?
  3. Was there a particular character in these stories you most enjoyed or related to?  Who and why?
  4. Discuss the effects of extreme poverty and abuse on various characters in this novel?  How was Pete affected? Lucy?
  5. Discuss Lucy Barton’s father?  How did his past affect the way he treated his children?  How are Pet and his father similar?
  6. Discuss the secret Tommy keeps from his wife after the fire.  What happens when Tommy shares this secret with his wife?
  7. Discuss the theme of sexual inability or lack of sexual desire as relates to childhood experiences.  (Pete, Patty, Siggy)
  8. Discuss the pain that Charlie and Siggy share.  Do you think this is what attracts Patty to each of them?
  9. Discuss Linda Nicely’s complicity in Jay’s escapades.  Why is she complicit?  Why does she stay with him?
  10. Discuss the effect of compassion on someone who is not expecting it:  Patty towards Lila Lane and Karen-Lucie towards Linda Nicely.
  11. Discuss the “Hit-Thumb Theory” (the spaciousness of calm before the crash and crush of real pain) and how it relates to this novel.
  12. Compare and contrast Mary Mumford’s life in Italy as and aging woman to what it would have been in Amgash.  What is it that causes Angelina to finally recognize the heroine in her mother?
  13. Dotty owns a B&B and gets to know the guests in different ways.  Why does she feel used by Shelby and her husband yet endeared to Charlie?
  14. Annie feels a closeness with and upon understanding her father better.  Explain this.