Friday, April 27, 2012

Great House

by Nicole Krauss

1. The large and imposing desk in the novel is passed from life to life, moving through space and time to link the characters in the novel to each other and to the past. What does this inheritance represent for each? Is it a burden?

2. A sense of loss—of a child, a parent, a lover, a home, youth, an illusion, and so many other things—suffuses the novel. How do the characters respond to loss, destruction, and change?

3. The novel is composed of intimate and emotional monologues that have the tone of a confession. What does Nadia, or Arthur, or Aaron feel themselves to be guilty of? What role does judgment play in the novel?

4. Many of the characters are haunted by doubt or uncertainty, whether it's moral doubt, or self-doubt, or the doubt that comes with a realization of the limits of how fully known we can ever be to one another, of how often we must live unknown and unknowing. What is the nature of Nadia's doubt, as expressed in the question that afflicts her: What if I had been wrong? What kind of uncertainty did Arthur feel in his marriage? And Aaron, as a father? What about Yoav and Leah Weisz?

5. Why do you think Lotte chose to give her child away? And why did Nadia choose to give up children, her marriage, a social life—everything but her solitude? What other kinds of sacrifices do the characters make?

6. What role does regret play in the novel?

7. What is the significance of the locked and empty desk drawer?

8. How does the story of Ben Zakkai and the destruction of Jerusalem—a response to catastrophic loss that led to a radical reinvention of Judaism that allowed it to survive in the Diaspora—relate to the rest of the novel?

Read more:

Friday, March 16, 2012


by Antonya Nelson

1. Bound begins and ends with Max, Misty and Cattie's dog who survives a car crash and finds a new life in Arizona. What does Max's dog's-eye view add to the novel? How are Cattie, Randall, Catherine and Elise changed by dog ownership over the course of the novel?

2. News of the serial killer BTK winds through Bound. Although we never meet the BTK in the novel, how does his reappearance in Wichita pull all the characters together?

3. Misty dies in the first chapter of Bound, but her life becomes clearer as the novel continues. What first impression does Misty make before her fatal car accident? How does Misty's character come into focus, as we learn more about her early years in Wichita and her midlife successes in Houston?

4. Discuss how Cattie handles the loss of her mother. How does she manage her grief, and at which moments is she overwhelmed with emotion? Consider the feelings of guilt that Cattie expresses when she declares, "the fact remained: her mother had been alive, and sober, when they lived in the same place" (page 30).

5. Consider Oliver's attitude toward the women in his life, including his wives, daughters and "Sweetheart." What is Oliver's philosophy of love and fidelity? Why does his affair with the Sweetheart eventually fizzle? Of all the women from his past, who continues to have the strongest hold on him today?

6. Discuss Catherine's attitudes toward her hometown. Is it surprising that Misty left Wichita instead of Catherine? Why or why not? How does Cattie's move to Wichita help Catherine see Wichita in new ways?

7. Consider the circumstances of Cattie's cross-country road trip with Randall. How does this unlikely pair come together? How does Cattie feel when Randall disappears after they run out of gas? What reasons might Randall have had for leaving Cattie?

8. Oliver and the BTK are both "Wichitans to Watch" in the local newspaper. How does Oliver react to this public link to the serial killer? Why does Oliver feel a private "shiver of troubling recognition" when the BTK is finally caught (page 223)? Which of his own secrets does Oliver recognize within the BTK's rise and fall?

9. Catherine eventually realizes that Cattie "had not been running away, she'd been running home" (page 191). What does "home" mean to Catherine and to Cattie? Does either of them find a true home by the end of the novel? Why or why not?

Read more:

Saturday, January 28, 2012


By Danielle Trussoni

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with the angelologists' decision to withhold knowledge of the Nephilim and their schemes from the general human population?

  2. The Bible's descriptions of angels are very different from the winged cherubs that have grown to dominate the public imagination. Why do you think we're drawn to the idea of angels while, at the same time, we've chosen to play down their fearsomeness?

  3. Celestine seems to lead a half-life after descending into the gorge. In what ways do you imagine mortals would be changed after contact with the divine?

  4. Why do you think the Nephilim have chosen to let their forefathers remain imprisoned?

  5. If you were Evangeline, would you be able to forgive your parents and grandmother from hiding so much from you? Were they really acting in her best interests?

  6. Does Verlaine have the wisdom and courage it takes to be an angelologist?

  7. Were the nuns of St. Rose Convent betraying or upholding their vows in battling the Gibborim?

  8. Should Gabriella have been cast out from the society of angelologists after begetting a child with Percival?

  9. Have you ever visited any of the disassembled lyre's four hiding places? Do you feel that Abigail Rockefeller did a good job of hiding and protecting it?

  10. Spoiler Alert Did you suspect that Evangeline might be Nephilim? What do you think she intends to do with her newfound powers?

Very cool "playlist" Danielle Trussoni put together for the NYT as a compilation to describe her book, Angelology:

Playlist for Angelology via NYT

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada

Discussion Questions

  1. In what way does the apartment house at 55 Jablonski Strasse represent Berlin society as a whole? Do the occupations and character of the individual residents and their placement in the building reflect power structures or class systems within German culture at the time? Could you imagine an American equivalent?
  2. When we first meet Otto and Anna Quangel we have the sense that their relationship is very static. Does their relationship change over the course of the novel? How does it change? Many would call Every Man Dies Alone a love story. Would you agree?
  3. Hans Fallada brilliantly creates an atmosphere of fear, where all the characters are afraid of something. What are the different kinds of fear that effect them all? What role does fear play in controlling and motivating Borkhausen? Persicke? Enno Kluge? The judge? Otto? Inspector Zott? Trudel?
  4. One of the foundational fears instilled in the leading characters is based on their growing awareness of the murder of Jews - from Anna and Otto witnessing the death of Frau Rosenthal to Eva Kluge learning that her son in the SS was committing atrocities. How does this awareness effect them? What does it motivate them to do?
  5. Why did Otto Quangel conceive of the plan to write and drop the postcards? What did he think the cards would accomplish? Does Otto’s thinking about the postcards change over the course of the novel? Does Anna’s?
  6. Enno Kluge is a shirker and a gambler, and behaves reprehensively in some instances. But he seems motivated more by laziness and selfishness than inherent evil. What do you think Fallada meant to represent with this character and his fate? How is Enno different from his some-time colleague Emil Borkhausen?
  7. Although Inspector Escherich is a Nazi, is he meant to be a sympathetic character? Does his character change, and what brings about that change? Why do you think Escherich kills himself?
  8. When Otto sees the map with all the pins on it in Inspector Escherich’s office and learns that most of the cards were turned in, he becomes distressed. Did Otto come to believe that the postcard campaign was in vain? What meaning did he and Anna find in their campaign? What meaning do you the reader find? Did you think their campaign was futile?
  9. For most of his lifetime, Otto preferred to keep to himself and avoid interactions with other people. In prison he is confronted with many types of people. How do these experiences change him? 10. Anna Quangel seems to draw her strength from her husband. Does she also provide him with strength? Towards the end of the novel, Anna seems to be transformed by her love for her husband. What do you think Fallada means by this transformation? Do you think Anna’s end is merciful? Why?
  10. Much of the novel is about fractured families - The Quangels, Eva Kluge and her husband and sons, the Borkhausen’s and the Persickes. How does Fallada use the condition of the family to express the condition of the society?
  11. Fallada seems to set up a dichotomy between the country and the city. Why do you think he places the final, redemptive scene in the countryside, after staging the overwhelming majority of the book in Berlin?
  12. At the end of the novel, Fallada says he wants to end on a hopeful note. How does the new family of Eva Kluge, and the transformation of Kuno-Dieter Borkhausen into Kuno Kienschaper represent hope? Does this seem plausible to you?
  13. Which characters in Every Man Dies Alone do you believe transcend their circumstances? How?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sag Harbor

by Colson Whitehead

Discussion Questions
1. How does each of Benji’s comrades (Reggie, NP, Randy, Bobby, Marcus, Clive) contribute to the group? What challenges do they face as friends?

2. Explain the differences between Benji’s age group and that of his sister. During these years, why is the disparity between high school and college so acute?

3. Benji comments that “the rock” on the beach near his beach house serves as a racial barrier. White people won’t walk much further past it. What similar examples can you think of that exist today or in your own community? How have racial barriers changed in the last 20 years? How are they still the same?

4. The emergence of hip-hop is a strong influence in the lives of Benji and his friends. In what ways does music affect their generation? In what ways has music affected your own life?

5. Benji grapples with his identity throughout the novel. At one point he states:
“According to the world we were the definition of a paradox: black boys with beach houses. A paradox to the outside, but it never occurred to us that there was anything strange about it.” (Pg. 57)
How is this community a paradox? How is Benji’s identity shaped by the two worlds he inhabits, both during the school year, and then during the summer season?

6. Benji often refers to the handshake, song, and/or dance he will surely conquer by the “end” of the summer. To what degree is he constantly trying to reinvent himself?

7. What do you think are the characteristics of a typical 1980’s adolescent? How does Benji fit the stereotype? How is he different?

8. Benji clearly realizes toward the end of the summer that what he loves, is perhaps not the girls he pines after, but his beach home and “what he put into it.” He reflects back on a tender moment with his family and the fond memories of being a child. What is it about our childhoods that evoke such special memories within us? Is there a place from your own past that touched your life as Sag Harbor touched Benji?

9. Throughout the novel there looms a hint of darkness behind the relationship between Benji’s father and his family. His father seems to have a violent strain. How does this affect Benji and his family? What is the role of the father in a young man’s coming of age?

10. From Catcher in the Rye to Stand By Me, the coming-of-age novel is a perennial in American literature. What do you think is so appealing and universal about this genre?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Museum of Innocence

by Orhan Pamuk

1. Kemal says he has become "with the passage of time—the anthropologist of my experience." Talk about what he means by this remark—what he collects, preserves and his reasons for doing so. What objects do all of us hold onto from our past and why? What do we want them to provide us?

2. What kind of character is Kemal? What kind of narrator is he? (Is there a difference?) How would you describe him?

3. Why is Kemal so drawn to Fusun? Why doesn't he break off his engagement with Sibel? How does his obsession with Fusun shape (or misshape) his life, perhaps stop him from grasping "the ordinary beauty of things"?

4. What kind of young woman is Fusun? And what about Sibel? What does Sibel mean when she comments, "It's because she was a poor, ambitious girl that you were able to start something so easily?"

5. What do you make of the fact that Pamuk puts himself into his story? When he shows up at Kemal and Sibel's engagement party, Kemal tells us, "Those interested in Orhan Bey’s own description of how he felt while dancing with Fusun should look at the last chapter, entitled ‘Happiness.'" What's the game about?

6. How does Kemal describe his social circle?

7. What is the political context that surrounds this story? Why does Kemal seem blind to the dire circumstances around him—the bombs, riots, crackdowns and jailings? Is it apathy, love-sickness, or innocence that distracts him?

8. What does Kemal mean when he says, "This is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul”?

9. Do you find the ending satisfying...or does it smack of manipulation? Do you wish for more...or does the story end as it should?

10. 1. In the book's opening pages, when Kemal and Fusun are in bed together, Kemal wonders: "had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently?" Later he muses that we never understand happiness when we are in its midst, believing the future holds even brighter moments. Do you agree with that assessment? Is it part of human nature—to believe something better is on the horizon, while we pass over what is within our grasp?

11. What is the significance of the book's title? What does it refer to? Why "innocence"?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

By Geoff Dyer

Discussion Questions with a little help from the New Yorker

1. Was our hero in Jeff in Venice the same person as the narrator of Death in Varanasi?

2. Were these pieces presented in chronological order?

3. Some things are mirrored back and forth between the two pieces, for instance:

a. Near the beginning of the narrator’s stay in Varanasi, he looks through a book of photographs by Michael Ackerman, entitled “End Time City,” in the safety of his hotel bar;
(The book End Time City is a frantic photo essay on Varanasi)

From Michael Ackerman’s ”End Time City” (Scalo).

b. Sexual involvement in Venice vs. sexual apathy in Varanasi

c. In Part 1, Jeff and Laura have their picture taken by a passerby: “They took off their sunglasses and stood with their arms around each other, smiling….Birds skittered by…” In Part 2, the narrator, who by this point has become a kind of permanent passerby, photographs Lal and Darrell: “They took off their sunglasses and stood with their arms around each other, smiling. Birds skittered by.”

d. the artwork of the water-logged red boat in a sea of Murano glass by the Finnish artist in Part 1 becomes a reality in Part 2: “The river was completely calm, flat as wrinkled glass. On an impulse, I asked the boatman to row across the river instead. The bottom of the boat was painted dull red and leaked slightly.”

e. Laura buys an expensive glass for Jeff in Part 1, “pale blue with tiny bobbles of orange,” and says it should not be treated like shrine. In Part 2 he comes across a blue shrine with an orange blob of Hanuman in the middle.

f. Giorgione’s “The Tempest” in Part 2 is matched by that painting by Shivalal in the museum in Varanasi of a procession crossing a flooded river in the monsoon, complete with lightning flashing overhead.

g. Ganoona is part otter, which chimes with the Venetian description of the escalating weather (“’otter”).

h. The hero of part 1 is Jeff Atman:
atman: noun Hinduism .
1. the principle of life. 2. the individual self, known after enlightenment to be identical with Brahman. 3. ( initial capital letter the World Soul, from which all individual souls derive, and to which they return as the supreme goal of existence.

4. How did each character enhance his experiences, i.e. chemicals/madness/enlightenment.

5. How do you think Jeff in Venice reflects Thomas Mann’s work Death in Venice?

6. The author compares the narrator’s encounter with the holy man in Varanasi with the moment when Jeff in Venice photographs Laura and zooms in on Laura’s face until it is a “galaxy of exploding pixels.” How are these moments similar?

7. Incidentally, the author tells the New Yorker, ”The music I had in mind when writing the scene of the violin concert at the Ganges View was N. Rajam playing the Raga Malkauns. And the voice I was imaginatively hearing during the other concert was the South Indian singer Ramamani. Well, somebody might be interested!”

8. Does the following quote indicate madness or enlightenment? “Ganoona is identified as ‘All that which is not anything else. But it’s also that which is everything else.’ A very tough concept for us Westerners to get our heads around.”

9. The author tells the New Yorker in 2009,”I promise I’m not being difficult or coy, but when it comes to the larger meaning of the book I just don’t have a clue. And the book does not have any kind of message that I’m aware of.” And “…certain things crop up, apparently beyond your conscious control.”Do you think a work of art can have a life of its own this way; a meaning unknown by its author?