We’ve all been there at book club, ready to talk about the story, the characters, the plot… then silence. How do you drive the conversation? What do you do for those awkward pauses? Here’s some questions that will help facilitate the discussion.
How would you cast the film version of the book?
What character did you hate/love the most in the book and why?
What emotion were you feeling the moment you finished the book? Sad? Satisfied? Searching?
Was there a part of the book you wish you had written? Do you have any favorite lines?
What outcome did you anticipate that didn’t come to light?
Did this book remind you of any others that you’ve read?
If you could talk to the author, what question would you most like to ask him or her?
Did you learn anything?
Have you read similar books and how does this one compare?
Would you recommend this book to others?
Were you immediately engaged with the book, or did it take you a while?
Does the book remind you of any other books or writers?
Who is your favorite character?
Describe the main characters’ personality traits: -How has the past shaped their lives? -Do you admire or disapprove of them? -Do they remind you of people you know?
Discuss the plot: -Is the story interesting? -Is the story plot-driven? -Is the book a “page turner” or does it unfold slowly?
Discuss the book’s structure: -Does the timeline move forward chronologically? -Is it a continuous story – or is it interlocking short stories? -Is there a single viewpoint or shifting viewpoints? -Why did the author tell the story this way?
What main ideas or themes does the author explore?
If you were to guess at a formative experience in the author’s life based on this book, what would you guess?
If you were to sum up this book in one tweet, what would you say in 140 characters?
Is the ending satisfying? Has the book changed you? Have you learned something?
Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the author of We Cast a Shadow, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the PEN/Open Book Award and longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. A recipient of an Iowa Review Award in fiction, he has been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. A native of New Orleans, he is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.
How far would you go to protect your child?
“You can be beautiful, even more beautiful than before.” This is the seductive promise of Dr. Nzinga’s clinic, where anyone can get their lips thinned, their skin bleached, and their nose narrowed. A complete demelanization will liberate you from the confines of being born in a black body—if you can afford it.
In this near-future Southern city plagued by fenced-in ghettos and police violence, more and more residents are turning to this experimental medical procedure. Like any father, our narrator just wants the best for his son, Nigel, a biracial boy whose black birthmark is getting bigger by the day. The darker Nigel becomes, the more frightened his father feels. But how far will he go to protect his son? And will he destroy his family in the process?
This electrifying, hallucinatory novel is at once a keen satire of surviving racism in America and a profoundly moving family story. At its center is a father who just wants his son to thrive in a broken world. Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s work evokes the clear vision of Ralph Ellison, the dizzying menace of Franz Kafka, and the crackling prose of Vladimir Nabokov. We Cast a Shadow fearlessly shines a light on the violence we inherit, and on the desperate things we do for the ones we love.
The Bibliofile (https://the-bibliofile.com/) has said “a good book club book generally needs to be at least somewhat accessible, have some positive buzz (no one wants to read a book everyone says is garbage), and has to strike a good balance between having an eventful plot but also digging into some interesting issues everyone can get excited about discussing. It also helps if the authors are well-known.” I believe that entirely (except for the “well-known authors” part… sometimes there’s something to be said for a new, independent author who has a strong point of view… but I digress).
I also believe these are the books that keep you up till the early hours of the morning, those that you must tell your friends/ family about and “force” them to read it, because you need to talk about it with SOMEONE, and those you can tell you love since it’s carried with you everywhere, dog eared, marked, and scribbled in.
They were meant to be shared, discussed and debated. They do not simply make you feel, they make you think, too – perhaps about something that has not occurred to you ever before. Teaching you a lesson, making you think about things differently, bringing you to a different time / place. It’s a wonderful kind of alchemy; finding a story and set of characters that move, challenge or teach you something, never feels anything less than miraculous.
This is why book club is so important, be it in person at a house, in the coffee shop, or over zoom or some form of technology during the pandemic. It gets you thinking and exchanging ideas and opinions. If you haven’t joined a book club, why not start now!
Winner of the 2019 National Book Award in Nonfiction Named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by the New York Times
“A book of great ambition, Sarah M. Broom’s memoir tells a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America’s most mythologized cities. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against a house’s entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to reckon with the pull that home exerts, even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser-known natives, demonstrating how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure.”
About the Author:
Sarah M. Broom is a writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Oxford American, and O, The Oprah Magazine among others. She was awarded a Whiting Foundation Creative Nonfiction Grant in 2016 and was a finalist for the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction in 2011. She has also been awarded fellowships at Djerassi Resident Artists Program and MacDowell. She lives in New York.
At the opening of the story, Sarah Broom describes the lot where the Yellow House once stood from fifteen thousand feet above, saying that from those great heights, her brother Carl, who tends the space, would not be seen.
Have you ever brought up a Google Earth image of your house from above and zoomed out? What impact did seeing your home, your street, your state, your country shrink in comparison to the world have on your perspective?
On birth order:
When the author calls her eldest brother, Simon, in North Carolina “to explain all the things I want to know and why, he expresses worry that by writing this all down here, I will disrupt, unravel, and tear down everything the Broom family has ever built.” He tells her he’d like to live in the future and forget about the past. (p. 8)
The twelfth of twelve children, Broom works hard to reconstruct the life that came before her and to cleave it to the life she knew in the Yellow House and after, to make sense of a whole and to connect it to place. What role do you think birth order plays in her desire to preserve vs. Simon’s need to forget? Who is the keeper of the history in your family and who places more value on the present?
On place vs. story:
Sarah Broom’s brother Carl, the seventh of twelve, occupies the space—keeps the space—where the Yellow House sat long after it’s gone. She describes this occupation (p. 3): “Sometimes you can find Carl alone on our lot, poised on an ice chest, searching the view, as if for a sign, as if for a wonder.” She says he is “babysitting ruins. But that is not his language or sentiment; he would never betray the Yellow House like that.”
Do some people in your family tend to place—to “babysit ruins”—and others to story? Have you ever tried to keep a place alive by occupying it after the circumstances that led you to being there in the first place ended? What do you think it means to Carl to stay?
The author refers to Hurricane Katrina throughout as “the Water.”
Why do you think she made this choice? Describe what “the Water” communicates to you, and how it changed over the course of the book. Do you think it will be the same for every reader?
On family firsts:
On p. 57, Broom writes: “Mom paid for her house with money from Webb’s life insurance policy. She was nineteen years old, the first in her immediate family to own a house, a dream toward which her own mother, Lolo, still bent all of her strivings.”
Who accomplished these kinds of firsts in your family? Were they long-ago accomplishments or more recent? What kinds of sacrifices or good-willed pitching in were made and by whom to help make them possible?
On the growing-up world:
In the chapter “Map of My World,” the author describes five points on the map that make (p. 117) “my growing-up world.”
What are some of the places that you can still inhabit vividly in your mind’s eye? Why do you think those stuck and not others? Why do you think the points in the author’s growing-up world stuck with her so strongly?
On the long-term impact of catastrophe:
During the Water, Broom writes, “All told, we scatter in three cardinal directions, nine runny spots on the map.” Even after it recedes, most remain dispersed. How do climate events like the hurricane impact families, employment, housing prices? What effect do you think this kind of scattering after climate crises has on regional culture?
On Chef Menteur Highway:
Chef Menteur Highway plays an integral, “sinister” role in The Yellow House. On p. 6 the author states: “The name, translated from French, means ‘chief liar.’ ”
What are the truths we think we know about New Orleans compared to the story Broom tells? What other cities present the same kinds of half truths? Have you ever stumbled into a neighborhood in a city you thought you knew that told a different story?
On John McDonogh Day:
The author tells us, “John McDonogh was a wealthy slave owner who in 1850 bequeathed half of his estate to New Orleans public schools, insisting that his money be used for ‘the establishment and support of free schools wherein the poor and the poor only and of both sexes and classes and castes of color shall have admittance.’” We are then told how the black students must wait in the heat on the day that celebrates McDonogh, while white students pay tribute to him first.
Are there widely accepted/institutionalized holidays or rituals you can think of that exclude or erase certain people, or situations in which symbolism has been deemed more important than the wellness of the participants? Thinking about the role of symbolism and ritual in cultural bonding, whose culture is McDonogh Day intended to bond, and at what cost?
On parenting then and now:
On p. 37, the author writes about children’s place in an adult world and the role adults played in teaching them the facts of life: “In those days, children did not speak openly to their parents. ‘Get out from grown folks’ business,’ you were told. Whatever we found out, we found out on our own.”
Who were your youthful “teachers”? Tell one story about a friend/sister/ brother who schooled you on something parents didn’t talk to their kids about when you were young. How solid was the advice? Parents pride themselves on being open with their kids these days, but has something been lost?
On hard memories vs. good ones:
Broom writes almost in the same breath of harsh memories like having racial epithets hurled at them by their transient white neighbors in the trailer park, Oak Haven, across the street, and of the weekly parties Ivory Mae and Simon threw and movies projected on the not-yet-Yellow House (p. 68), “the side of the house becoming, for a night, the greatest movie screen.”
What kinds of institutionalized or other hardships are you able to square with happier memories from your childhood? What bright memories stick out as balancing more difficult times? What seem the most difficult circumstances to square for the Broom family before the Water?
On unspoken boundaries:
The author states that the adults on the street for the most part stayed out of each other’s houses (p. 87), “unless there was good cause,” like when “Ms. Octavia’s . . . husband, Alvin, died.”
Do you have friendly longtime neighbors whose houses you’ve never been in until there was some kind of emergency? What makes people draw the line at the front door with people they’ve chatted on the lawn with for years?
Likewise, during the eldest daughter, Deborah’s, wedding reception, the author says (p. 98) it “mostly held to the outdoors, but people still wandered inside, to the bathroom, and then others went in just to see what we had, Mom was convinced.” Ivory Mae felt that “the objects contained within a house spoke loudest about the person to whom the things belonged. More than that, she believed that the individual belonged to the things inside the house, to the house itself.” For Ivory Mae, this intrusion began what the author calls “the shifty settling in of shame.”
Sometimes objects simply reveal surprising details about a person. Are there objects that expose a part of you that you hold sacred and prefer to protect? Are there common objects in plain sight that reveal everything to close friends but nothing to strangers? What are the objects in the Yellow House that reveal the most about the characters?
On land development:
Talking about the land deals that never come to fruition in New Orleans East, the author writes that (p. 88): “there were more paved roads than walkways— certain parts of the East were best driven through. Landscapes communicate feeling. Walking, you can grab on to the texture of a place, get up close to the human beings who make it, but driving makes distance, grows fear.”
Are there parts of your town that have been developed in such a way that they suppress a sense of community rather than inspire it? Alternately, have you seen development that made an abandoned or wrecked part of your city or town suddenly come alive? Was there anything that could have been done differently on the swath of land in New Orleans East that would have changed the outcome?
On Simon’s death:
After Simon dies, the house, with so many children and so much responsibility, falls into chaos. Routines fall apart. The boys get in trouble. Ivory Mae has to depend on public transportation or rides to get anywhere. She says (p. 114), “I was a little pathetic at first. I needed to make myself know things.” When she finally learns to drive after a couple of failed strategies, she says, “It was my Independence Day.”
Has there ever been a time in your life that has forced you to recalibrate, to remake yourself into someone who’s brave in a novel way in order to meet challenges in unfamiliar territory or in territory that has suddenly been rendered unfamiliar by an event? What does this reveal about Ivory Mae?
On the ground:
The author speaks frequently of the “squishy earth” (p. 123) being “eaten by it.” Something as ordinary and foundational as the earth beneath her feet is routinely described as being untrustworthy. She writes: “In our child-wise minds, the seal between deep ground and our present reality above that ground is string thin.”
What real threats/facts of life did you and the kids around you know when you were growing up that turned out to be spot-on and not just boogie men or childhood exaggeration?
On selective vision:
The author is nearly legally blind and describes living in a “blurry” world until she is ten years old. When her mother discovers her vision problem, Ivory Mae buys glasses for Sarah, who up until that point has been perhaps mercifully shielded from some of the details in her life. Then, walking home from school one day, with twenty-twenty eyesight for the first time, “one detail overwhelms them all.” She writes (p. 135): “Our side of Wilson Avenue, the short end, seems a no-matter place where police cars routinely park, women’s heads bobbing up and down in the driver’s seat.” After that, she tries “not to see what is right in front of my face. Sometimes, when I want the world to go blurry again, I remove my glasses when passing by these scenes. In this way, I learn to see and to go blind at will.”
What kinds of things have you tried not to see in your own city or neighborhood? What do you think the author was genuinely aware of before the glasses?
On middle school:
The author writes about smiling “with abandon, goofy-like” (p. 136) when she is in sixth grade and proudly posing with her Edward Livingston Middle School honors sash. In the next breath, middle school goes Lord of the Flies. The “school hallways hold contests of a lurid sort.” And (p. 140) “some days we have substitute teachers who seem called in from off the street. Many times, the substitute puts a movie into the VCR that has nothing to do with the subject matter or with learning. Everything in the world feels stupid then.” Later, “We had become a horde, to be gathered and made to ‘act right,’ indistinguishable from one another.” Overnight honors students become fighters, cynicism creeps in replacing goofy pride, and order dissolves into chaos.
What moments in middle school stick out to you as being turning points? What messages do you think these students are responding to? How does Broom describe her evolution when she changes from Livingston Middle School to Word of Faith? Is Word of Faith a “good school”? Reflect, as well, on times you have moved from one social situation to another and how you could, or could not, decide how to present yourself.
Throughout The Yellow House the author repeats Ivory Mae’s words: “You know this house not all that comfortable for other people.” But further she says: “My mother was raised by my grandmother Lolo to make a beautiful home; I love to make beauty out of ordinary spaces. I had not known this back when I was living inside the Yellow House, but I knew it in my adult years when I created rooms that people gravitated to, the kind generally described as warm. Once, a friend came to one of these made places, an apartment in Harlem, and sat in the parlor looking around. The room had made him feel alive, even happy to be alive, he said. And then, ‘You have things to make a home with.’ People are always telling me this.” At the same time she writes about the shame of bringing people to the house she grew up in because of its deteriorating condition, of the friends she and her sister never make because of the inherent threat of having to invite them over. But (p. 148): “America required these dualities anyway and we were good at presenting our double selves. The house, unlike the clothes our mother had tailored to us, was an ungainly fit.”
What kinds of duality do you live with? Are some kinds easier to live with than others?
On “the Water”:
The events of the Water are described as they are occurring in real time, often through Broom’s interviews with her siblings and mother. We see Carl awaken to the storm flooding his house and flee to the attic from which, by daybreak, he has to cut his way out through the roof. Or the author narrates her brother Michael in the midst of the chaos (p. 207): “The men foraged for food and other items from broken-in stores, eventually finding an air mattress and two boats. Whatever you needed and the last thing on earth you needed could be found, it seemed, in the dirty, fetid water.” Meanwhile in Harlem, Broom is desperately scanning the news channels in search of (p. 202): “Carl’s white cotton socks pulled up high, size 13 feet.” Searching for the faces of “my beloveds.”
How does the switch in narrative tone impact you as a reader? When Michael and his group are rescued (p. 207) does it seem to you that they can truly feel safe? Can you see yourself braving “fetid water” to find food and essential supplies for your family, or imagine being unable to contact your “beloveds” in catastrophic circumstances? With this in mind, think about Broom’s trip to join her family in California at last, and hiding in her brother Byron’s bathroom (p. 210) “writing scenes into a notebook instead of feeling.” Does this differ from her description of writing prior to this? What information does Broom give us about the fate of New Orleans’s population after the storm that was new to you?
Discuss how The Yellow House both upholds and subverts the conventions of the memoir genre
Reader/s should be able to analyze how Broom writes about her family’s history in the years before she was born, as well as how this inclusion of family history is a departure from the traditional memoir style which is featured in the rest of the book.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING:
Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, Notes of a Native Son, Going to Meet the Man, Giovanni’s Room Richard Campanella, Bienville’s Dilemma J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood Joan Didion, Where I Was From Bessie Head, A Woman Alone Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place, Autobiography of My Mother Albert Murray, South to a Very Old Place Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants, Austerlitz Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns
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 TheNew 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?