reading group choices

Book Club Guest Blog: Expectations and Next to Love

May 18, 2012 at 11:48 am , by

Today’s post is by Neely Kennedy of Reading Group Choices, a leading online resource for book club tips and discussible selections. 

In June’s LHJ Book Club pick, Next to Love, author Ellen Feldman tells the heartbreaking, but hopeful story of three women’s lives during the paradigm shift of the Baby Boomer generation—1944-1964, spanning WWII and the war in Vietnam.

Babe, Grace and Millie are young wives whose husbands have been drafted to fight in WWII. When the trajectory of their future is forever changed by war’s tragic events, their imperfect, yet steadfast, friendships prove the only constant in their lives.

In the excerpts from the book below, Feldman illustrates a woman’s instinct for survival—the ability to adapt to whatever twists and turns life may present.

Work: Women are constantly breaking through the barriers of perceived gender inferiority, especially when taking on jobs traditionally (and stereotypically) held by men.

“…her father laughed at her for applying. Who did she think she was? He said the same thing when she went to work at Diamond’s rather than a five-and-dime. Who did she think she was? It was the refrain of her life.”

Marriage: In the thick of a long marriage, there often comes a point at which we recognize our original expectations were somewhat idealized.

“Babe thinks of Claude. It always comes back to Claude. Love may endure a lifetime, but it is less reliable on a day-to-day basis.”

Friendship: Long-lasting friendships are often our greatest source of support, but can also be complicated and painful.

“And here they are all these years later. They love one another with atavistic ferocity, though it occurs to Babe sitting in the sunporch, these days perhaps they do not much like one another.”

Motherhood: As we move from childhood into adulthood, we grow to know our mothers not only as mothers, but also as humans—flawed and imperfect.

“The scene is picture perfect, a spread in one of the women’s magazines she and Millie subscribe to. Except it can’t be because in the world of those glossy pictures, mothers do not ask their daughters to keep secrets.”

Society: Many women struggle to meet the expectations society places on us.

“She is ashamed of being a woman alone in the world without a man, unclaimed, unvalued, a reproach to the laws of society and nature. When she found Charlie, she thought she had taken care of all that for life.”

Book Club Bonus! Ask members to discuss expectations pertaining to each of the topics above: work, marriage, friendship, motherhood, society. What does it means to be in a relationship (romantic or platonic) without imposing your own expectations? How we can find more personal fulfillment through expectations we place on ourselves, instead of through our expectations of others?

Book Club Guest Blog: Signs of Life and the Healing Power of Literature

March 19, 2012 at 12:45 pm , by

Today’s post is by Neely Kennedy of Reading Group Choices, a leading online resource for book club tips and discussible selections.

In the LHJ book club pick, Signs of Life, author Natalie Taylor shares her story of loss, grief and healing following the untimely death of her husband. She finds love and hope in her baby, takes comfort in the support of her friends, and, as a high school English teacher, reflects on the wisdom she’s read in great books.

Here are some brief excerpts from the book that illustrate how Taylor used classic literature as therapy, helping her understand and deal with her grief.

After the death of her husband, Taylor suffers agonizing grief. She relates the shock and disbelief with characters from The Great Gatsby.

“Oh my God, I’m never going to see him again…I will never be able to go back…I know that even now, three months later, my brain hasn’t fully absorbed the concept. That’s what Gatsby and I also have in common. We can’t seem to swallow our own realities.”

When Taylor gives birth to her son, Kai, she is overcome with an a feeling of love and hopefulness that even the greatest poets cannot describe.

“The best way I can say it is that when a baby is born, the ghosts of the world’s greatest poets stand and listen to the cry of a life that just took its first breath and even they can’t find the words.”

As Taylor begins to redefine her life, she is inspired to avoid the ‘W’ of widowhood, like the label ‘A’ for adulterer in The Scarlet Letter.

“Suddenly literature turns into a good movie and you’re standing up in your seat, smiling and clapping in your head. You wish at some point in your life you get to tell someone how you really feel. It makes you wish you had the courage to redefine what your letter stood for.”

As Taylor finally sees the light at the end of the tunnel, Thoreau’s writing helps put her expectations for the future into perspective.

“…although Thoreau’s narrative of ice melting may not wow the average twenty-first century audience, the process itself is really amazing when you think about it. Nature understands that things take time. You can’t rush certain things if you want them to work correctly…Sometimes I really look forward to how I will feel in ten years.”


During your Signs of Life book club discussion, ask your members to:

  • Share the three books that have made the biggest impact in their lives. What meaningful lessons did the books offer?
  • Write his/her own six-word memoir.  For Example: Hope triumphs death; life goes on.


Book Club Guest Blog: Illusions and Vaclav & Lena

February 17, 2012 at 11:35 am , by

Today’s post is by Neely Kennedy of Reading Group Choices, a leading online resource for book club tips and discussible selections. 

In the LHJ book club pick, Vaclav & Lena, author Haley Tanner tells the story of a young Russian immigrant boy’s obsession with becoming a great magician. While Vaclav studies and practices his magic, his best friend, love interest and assistant, Lena, hides behind the illusions of her horrific home life. It’s a delight to read how Tanner skillfully marries the literal theme of magic with a deeper metaphor and exploration of illusions.

When discussing the book with your club, ask members to identify examples of the use of illusions. What are the tricks behind them? How might we be using illusions in our own lives to hide or protect ourselves? What magic in life is worthwhile? Here are some brief excerpts from the book that illuminate the theme to get your conversation going.

When Vaclav and Lena are reunited as teenagers, they both reveal more self-awareness in trying to control the unmanageable parts of their lives.

“’Same thing’, he says, meaning same thing as when you left, meaning still magic, still trying to take care of you with my mind, still trying to control events using supernatural powers.”

When Lena finally settles into a relatively normal life with her new mother, she has a hard time maintaining the mirage of happiness, as she is haunted by her past.

“This is especially difficult when she must lead a meeting of the student council or the art club, or rally her teammates at soccer practice, but she gets through it, one minute at a time, by pretending.”

During a moment of introspection and clarity while escaping to a bathroom stall in her school, Lena realizes how she uses the illusion of different personas as a coping mechanism.

“She decides that the spots are keys to living a life as a complete person, not as a disjointed puzzle person made up of many different people trying to masquerade as one person.”

This leads Lena to another observation. She’s not the only one masquerading—everyone around her is projecting an ideal self-image to hide behind, an illusion to mask their perceived inadequacies.

“Everyone wants to go about as if they were a fantastic superhero, born into the world complete; no one wants to acknowledge that they are self-consciously creating themselves, but everyone is. Everyone is, Lena thinks.”

Book Club Guest Blog: Motives, A Character Discussion

January 13, 2012 at 10:33 am , by

This week’s post is by Neely Kennedy of Reading Group Choices, a leading online resource for book club tips and discussible selections. 

In the LHJ Book Club pick for February, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, author Elizabeth Stuckey-French explores the motives that propel her characters to act in very strange ways in this wonderfully quirky novel. The main character, Marylou, is a woman hell-bent on exacting revenge for a secret government medical study that caused the death of her eight-year-old daughter.

Motives are a critical component in character development for compelling story telling, and in a book club setting, one of the most important focuses of discussion.  A gifted author skillfully develops characters that intrigue us, and keep us turning the pages to find out the “why” behind the characters’ actions. Similarly, a good writer will allow the characters’ motives to unfold in a way that, even if we find their actions morally questionable at the beginning of the book, we will gradually start to understand them, sympathize with them and, usually, forgive them for their flaws.

These descriptions of the characters in The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady are followed by brief excerpts that provide glimpses into the real emotions underlying the motives of each of Stuckey-French’s characters. This is a technique you can use as a tool to provoke fascinating book-club discussions of almost any title.

Marylou’s Motive: Revenge

Marylou’s underlying emotions of deep anger, grief, and loneliness stem from the loss of her daughter to bone cancer because of a ghastly radioactive cocktail she was instructed to drink during her pregnancy.

Desperation was the mother of invention. By the time she got back to Reeve’s Court, Marylou had devised a brand-new attack plan. She would continue with her efforts to make Wilson remember and apologize, but she would also take steps to destroy his family, the way he’s destroyed hers. It would surely make him miserable to watch his family suffer, the way she’d had to watch Helen and Teddy suffer.

Ava’s Motive:  Acceptance

Ava is admired for her beauty, but overprotected and misunderstood because of her Asperger’s Syndrome, she is desperate to be independent and live a life of relative normalcy.

It was depressing to realize that she didn’t fit in here, and she sure didn’t fit in with the so-called typical people. So what was left? Living with her mother for the rest of her life? She’d rather kill herself.

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Guest Blog: How Sisters Shape Our Lives, a Book Club Discussion

November 22, 2011 at 2:53 pm , by

Today’s post is by Neely Kennedy of Reading Group Choices, a leading online resource for book club tips and discussible selections.

The special bond of siblings can often be the longest and most important relationship in our lives, transcending friends, jobs, parents, and sometimes even marriage. This month’s LHJ Book Club pick, The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen, tells the story of sisters Milly and Twiss and the heartbreak, sacrifice, love and secrets that they share through childhood, adulthood and old age.

Here are some tips to enrich your book club discussion, exploring how your sibling relationship has influenced the trajectory of your own life. Encourage members who are only children to participate, as they offer a fresh perspective to the discussion.

Back to the Sand Box: Tell a specific story from childhood that recalls a vivid memory about your sibling. Sharing personal anecdotes can make great ice breakers to get a group discussion flowing! Add some depth by asking members to bring along pictures of their sisters or brothers to share.

The sight of the Mason jars led her back to the town fair. She could see Twiss rearranging her jars of Purple Prairie Tonic from a simple line into a pyramid, trying to sell them with a manic energy and an equally manic twinkle in her eye. She could see her mother and father strolling along in the late light, untwining their fingers, it seemed, just so they could entwine them again. And she could see Bett.

Stiff Competition:  Competition for mom or dad’s attention is often at the heart of sibling issues. Was this the case in your family? How do you think birth order affects sibling relationships?

“Beauty gives you choices,” their father said to Milly. “Ugliness doesn’t.”… “What about me?” Twiss said. “Your hands belong on a golf club,” their father said.

Compare & Contrast: Identify the similarities and differences between you and your sibling. How have they shaped your personality?

Although Milly was the one who earned perfect grades term after term, Twiss was the one with all of the creativity and the daring. Milly may have known how to balance both ends of Mr. Stewart’s chemistry equations without making a mistake, but Twiss was the one who possessed the heart to be a real scientist.

Life Lessons: What life lessons have you learned together?

Twiss traced the rim of the teacup. “Remember what she used to say?”… The two sisters lingered in front of the sideboard, as if waiting for their mother to appear and caution them, before they took up their lists and went about their chores. “Bone china is like your heart. If it breaks, it can’t be fixed.”

The topic of sibling relationships offers so much to ponder; I hope that your book club enjoys a rich and rewarding discussion of The Bird Sisters.

Guest Blog: Life Choices, a Book Club Discussion

October 18, 2011 at 10:29 am , by

Today’s post comes from leading book club resource Donna Paz Kaufman of Reading Group Choices. “There is so much we learn from the characters in books, and many stories involve circumstances we will all deal with at some point in our lives.”

This month’s LHJ Book Club pick, The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass, tells the story of Percy Darling, a man dealing with his grief after the loss of his wife, and how it influences his relationships and decisions. When he decides to offer the use of his barn to a trendy preschool, he goes through yet another major life transition that brings his choices into question.

Ask your book club members to relate a story of someone they know who has lost a spouse and what they have learned by observing how the widow/widower handled the life transition. Sharing our personal experiences can be interesting and even therapeutic!

Here are some conversation starters to use when a character’s choices are curious or controversial. Some discussion questions relating to the The Widower’s Tale readers’ guide are in italics to help your book club dig into this book—find more here.

Describe the character’s perspective
How do they hear, see, and perceive the situation? Talk about the baggage they might be carrying to this situation and how their view of the situation may be clouded.

How do Percy’s age, background, and profession shape the way he thinks about the world? How does the way he sees himself differ from the way other characters see him? How has being a single father and now an involved grandfather defined him? How do you think he would have been a different father and man had Poppy lived?

Identify the choices
There are usually a variety of choices we can make when faced with a decision. Does the character see and consider them all?

Why do you think Percy chose to avoid romantic or sexual involvement for so many years after Poppy’s death? Why do you think he falls so suddenly for Sarah after all that time alone? Why now?

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