The new year is the perfect time to set new reading goals! This is my “want to read” list, my “TBR” List, the get off the computer and spend some time reading in the corner of the couch with a cup of coffee and get lost in a land of other worlds. Come along with me, let me know what’s on your TBR list!
Come back often, I will be adding more to this list and also letting you know what I thought of these… (hopefully!)
At the Wolf’s Table: A Novel
by Rosella Postorino
(February 11, 2020)
Summary: Based on a true story, At the Wolf’s Table centers around twenty-six-year-old Rosa Sauer who is conscripted, along with nine other women, to become one of Hitler’s tasters. Resentment and secrets begin to grow as a divide is formed within the group of women: on one side, those who are loyal to Hitler and on the other, those who insist they’re not, even as they risk their lives for him. Soon, everyone begins to wonder if they’re on the wrong side of history.
Want to read this for your book club? Discussion Questions:
ABOUT THE BOOK
They called it the Wolfsschanze, the Wolf’s Lair. “Wolf” was his nickname. As hapless as Little Red Riding Hood, I had ended up in his belly. A legion of hunters was out looking for him, and to get him in their grips they would gladly slay me as well.
Germany, 1943: Twenty-six-year-old Rosa Sauer’s parents are gone, and her husband Gregor is far away, fighting on the front lines of World War II. Impoverished and alone, she makes the fateful decision to leave war-torn Berlin to live with her in-laws in the countryside, thinking she’ll find refuge there. But one morning, the SS come to tell her she has been conscripted to be one of Hitler’s tasters: three times a day, she and nine other women go to his secret headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, to eat his meals before he does.
Forced to eat what might kill them, the tasters begin to divide into The Fanatics, those loyal to Hitler, and the women like Rosa who insist they aren’t Nazis, even as they risk their lives every day for Hitler’s. As secrets and resentments grow, this unlikely sisterhood reaches its own dramatic climax, as everyone begins to wonder if they are on the wrong side of history.
THE DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
Though she risks her life every day for Hitler, Rosa claims not to be a Nazi. Do you agree? How is her involvement in the war similar to or different from her husband Gregor’s, who enlisted to fight?
Rosa imagines her father telling her: “You’re responsible for any regime you tolerate. … Each person’s existence is granted by the system of the state in which she lives, even that of a hermit, can’t you understand that? You’re not free from political guilt, Rosa.” Do you agree? How does this novel address the idea of collective guilt in Germany? Are any of the characters innocent?
Rosa never meets Hitler, but his presence hangs over the entire novel. What role does he play in the story? Discuss the different ways in which the characters view him.
Rosa compares herself to Little Red Riding Hood, and Hitler to the wolf: “I had ended up in his belly. A legion of hunters was out looking for him, and to get him in their grips they would gladly slay me as well.” Do you think the comparison holds up? Are there other fairy-tale elements to Rosa’s story?
Rosa describes her love with Gregor as either “a mouth that doesn’t bite, or the opportunity to unexpectedly attack the other, like a dog that turns against its master.” What does she mean? How do we see that duality—safety and danger—in her relationships throughout the novel?
Rosa keeps secrets from her loved ones from a very early age. She says of her childhood relationship with her mother: “My pain at the wrong I had done to her was so great that the only way to bear it was to love my mother less, to say nothing, to keep it a secret. The only way to survive my love for my mother was to betray that love.” Discuss that apparent paradox. How else do secrets shape Rosa’s life and relationships?
Rosa tells us: “The ability to adapt is human beings’ greatest resource, but the more I adapted, the less human I felt.” What do you think she means? How does this novel address sacrifice and survival?
Rosa never asks Albert directly about his experience at the concentration camps: “I was afraid and couldn’t speak and didn’t want to know.” What do you make of their relationship? What draws them together and keeps them apart? Do you consider Albert a villain in this story? Does Rosa’s romantic involvement with him make her guilty or culpable in some way?
Rosa argues, “There’s no such thing as universal compassion—only being moved to compassion before the fate of a single human being.” Do you think there’s any truth to that? How does the novel either bear out or contradict that statement?
Much of this novel is about female friendship. What is the nature of Rosa’s relationships with the other tasters? How does her outsider status, as a Berliner rather than a villager, play a role? How does this novel address issues of class and status, particularly through Rosa’s friendship with the Baroness?
Yellow Wife: A Novel
by Sadeqa Johnson
(January 21, 2021)
Summary: Called “simply enchanting” by New York Times bestselling author Lisa Wingate, this harrowing story follows an enslaved woman forced to barter love and freedom while living in the most infamous slave jail in Virginia.
Want to read this for your book club? Discussion Questions:
ABOUT THE BOOK
Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown has lived a relatively sheltered life. Shielded by her mother’s position as the estate’s medicine woman and cherished by the Master’s sister, she is set apart from the others on the plantation, belonging to neither world.
She’d been promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday, but instead of the idyllic life she imagined with her true love, Essex Henry, Pheby is forced to leave the only home she has ever known. She unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half Acre, a jail in Richmond, Virginia, where the enslaved are broken, tortured, and sold every day. There, Pheby is exposed not just to her Jailer’s cruelty but also to his contradictions. To survive, Pheby will have to outwit him, and she soon faces the ultimate sacrifice.
THE DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
When Pheby is moved to work in the house for Missus Delphina, she has a moment where she sits in Missus Delphina’s chair and uses her hairbrush. She looks in the mirror and muses “with a little rouge and a proper gown, I could fit in like a member of the family.”Why would Pheby want to fit in like a member of the family? In what ways did this scene foreshadow what would happen to Pheby in adulthood?
Why do you think Miss Sally took an interest in Pheby? In what ways do you think that her influence affected Pheby’s personality and outlook on her future predicaments?
When Pheby is serving dinner to Master Jacob and Missus Delphina, she is instructed to stand against the wall and pretend not to listen. She says, “Mama always said the way to keep peace with white folks was to be available and invisible at the same time.” How does this resonate with modern times and what are the current socio-political implications of this?
Though Missus Delphina is aware that Pheby is Master Jacob’s daughter, she seems to take her wrath out on Pheby rather than her mother Ruth.Why do you think this is?
In the novel, children are portrayed oftentimes as either a source of joy for a family, a blessing or a source of sorrow and tragedy.There are many scenes of mothers losing children in a myriad of ways. Discuss the sacrifices enslaved mothers had to make during this time in history.
Compare and contrast Pheby and Essex’s treatments as a man and woman within the institution of slavery. In what way was their different modes of survival different based on their genders?
What was it about Pheby that made the Jailer choose her? Even when he fathered children with other enslaved women, why do you think he chose to keep Pheby as the mistress of the jail?
Many times, Pheby wants Monroe to speak “properly” like her. Monroe is afraid to do so in case he is punished for it. She says to him: “People will judge you on the way that you speak.” To which Monroe responds: “Silver-head man did not like me speaking like white folk…told me to watch my uppity ways.” Discuss speaking styles such as improper or proper ways of speaking and what it means for Monroe and Pheby’s survival. In what ways does the way we talk or how we use language define us?
Pheby is anything but a damsel in distress.Where do you think her strength and resilience comes from? How do you think she endures her life with the Jailer in the parts of her story we don’t get to know?
Pheby describes the Jailer as looking at her with love in his eyes. Historians of slavery, particularly black feminist historians, have fiercely contested narratives (both fiction and nonfiction) that encourages such an interpretation, insisting that there could be no love between master and enslaved. Most see these “romantic” relationships as simply rape. What are your thoughts on their relationship? Could the Jailer, as Pheby’s oppressor, actually love her?
What were the dangers of Pheby’s daughters passing as white women in post-bellum society? Why do you think Birdie chose to stay with her mother and to not pass for white? Compare and contrast Birdie and Hester’s childhood and personalities and why they chose their own separate paths.
The Starless Sea
by Erin Morgenstern
“What if, when you were at that age when you fall down rabbit holes or you find your door to Narnia, you didn’t take that opportunity when it was given? What if you didn’t follow that rabbit down the rabbit hole? Does that rabbit haunt you years later? Do you still think about the rabbit?” —Erin Morgenstern
In her follow-up to The New York Times bestselling novel, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea tells a timeless love story set in a secret underground world — a place of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a starless sea.
Summary: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks.
As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood.
Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth.
What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians—it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead.
Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction.
Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life. (From the publisher.)
Want to read this for your book club? Discussion Questions:
1. Talk about the underground realm of the Starless Sea. How would you describe the library to someone who has never read the book?
2. Three of the book’s most prominent symbols, in a book full of them, are a sword, a key, and a bee. What is the role each symbol plays in the book and what does each signify, or represent?
3. One of the novel’s central ideas is that we are our stories. How does this theme unfold during the course of the story?
4. (Follow-up to Question 3) In what way is this book about Zachary’s life story—that as a child he made a choice not to open a magical door? What does he learn throughout this book about how that decision altered his life? What about turning points in your own life. Do you think back on some of them and wonder how a different decision might have led you on a completely different path?
5. (Follow-up to Question 4) The novel asks the question, if a single decision can alter the direction of our lives, to what degree are we in charge of our own stories/lives? Are our lives subject to fate, or destiny?
6. In what way is The Starless Sea also about how stories take over our lives? Zachary, for instance is presented with “a labyrinthine of tunnels and rooms filled with stories.” How can he (or we) not be drawn in?
7. Morgenstern has packed her novel with literary allusions. Even Zachary’s own name contains three of them. Can you unpack others: consider works by Lewis Carroll, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Jules Verne. Can you identify others? Are the literary references clever “affectations,” or do they actually affect the plot of the novel?
8. Which of the mysterious characters were you most puzzled by… intrigued by… or drawn to? Take any one of the following, for instance: Rhyme, the Keeper, Mirabel (is she Fate…or is she the Moon?), Allegra, Eleanor, and Simon. Any others?
9. Zachary observes at one point that reading a novel is like “playing a game where all the choices have been made for you ahead of time by someone who is much better at this particular game.” Care to comment on that statement?
10. What was your experience reading The Starless Sea? Was it what you had hoped for? More than you’d hoped for? Less? Did you find yourself entering a world of enchantment… or a cluttered, confusing world? In other words, were you pleased or disappointed? How would you compare this book to Morgenstern’s first, The Night Circus?
The Vanishing Half: A Novel
by Brit Bennett
(June 2, 2020)
Summary: “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett is one of the most talked about books of the year — a stunning page-turner about twin sisters, inseparable as children, who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds: one black, and one white. It’s a powerful story about family, compassion, identity and roots.
ABOUT THE BOOK
An Instant #1 New York Times Bestseller and GOOD MORNING AMERICA Book Club Pick!
From The New York Times-bestselling author of The Mothers, a stunning new novel about twin sisters, inseparable as children, who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds, one black and one white.
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.
THE DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
The title of this novel is The Vanishing Half. Why do you think the author selected that title?
Stella and Desiree Vignes grow up identical and, as children, inseparable. Later, they are not only separated, but lost to each other, completely out of contact. What series of events and experiences leads to this division and why? Was it inevitable, after their growing up so indistinct from each other?
When did you notice cracks between the twins begin to form? Do you understand why Stella made the choice she did? What did Stella have to give up, in order to live a different kind of life? Was it necessary to leave Desiree behind? Do you think Stella ultimately regrets her choices? What about Desiree?
Consider the various forces that shape the twins into the people they become, and the forces that later shape their respective daughters. In the creation of an individual identity or sense of self, how much influence do you think comes from upbringing, geography, race, gender, class, education? Which of these are mutable and why? Have you ever taken on or discarded aspects of your own identity?
The town of Mallard is small in size but looms large in the personal histories of its residents. How does the history of this town and its values affect the twins and their parents; how does it affect “outsiders” like Early and later Jude? Do you understand why Desiree decides to return there as an adult? What does the depiction of Mallard say about who belongs to what communities, and how those communities are formed and enforced?
Many of the characters are engaged in a kind of performance at some point in the story. Kennedy makes a profession of acting, and ultimately her fans blur the line between performance and reality when they confuse her with her soap opera character. Barry performs on stage in theatrical costumes that he then removes for his daytime life. Reese takes on a new wardrobe and role, but it isn’t a costume. One could say that Stella’s whole marriage and neighborhood life is a kind of performance. What is the author saying about the roles we perform in the world? Do you ever feel you are performing a role rather than being yourself? How does that compare to what some of these characters are doing? Consider the distinction between performance, reinvention, and transformation in respect to the different characters in the book.
Desiree’s job as a fingerprint analyst in Washington DC is to use scientific methods to identify people through physical, genetic details. Why do you think the author chose this as a profession for her character? Where else do you see this theme of identity and identification in the book?
Compare and contrast the love relationships in the novel –Desiree and Early, Stella and Blake, and Reese and Jude. What are their separate relationships with the truth? How much does telling the truth or obscuring it play a part in the functionality of a relationship? How much does the past matter in each case?
What does Stella feel she has to lose in California, if she reveals her true identity to her family and her community? When Loretta, a black woman, moves in across the street, what does she represent for Stella? What do Stella’s interactions with Loretta tell us about Stella’s commitment to her new identity?
Kennedy is born with everything handed to her, Jude with comparatively little. What impact do their relative privileges have on the people they become? How does it affect their relationships with their mothers and their understanding of home? How does it influence the dynamic between them?