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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.”
This month's Food by the Book selection is The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.
Lavinia, a seven-year-old Irish orphan with no memory of her past, arrives on a tobacco plantation where she is put to work as an indentured servant. Placed with the slaves in the kitchen house under the care of Belle, the master's illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her new adopted family, even though she is forever set apart from them by her white skin. As Lavinia is slowly accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles an opium addiction, she finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When Lavinia marries the master's troubled son and takes on the role of mistress, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare and lives are put at risk. The Kitchen House is a tragic story of page-turning suspense, exploring the meaning of family, where love and loyalty prevail..
The recipe offered with is this book is "Belle's Molasses Cake."
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 cup of molasses
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon of ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 dashes of ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inchsquare baking pan.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the molasses. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and salt. Add each of these alternately to the butter mixture, beating well between additions. Spoon batter into the prepared pan.
Bake for approximately 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Enjoy!
It's one-of-a-kind: a list of favorite DISCUSSIBLE books for book groups! Though there are many lists of books and many book awards, not all of the books on them make for the kind of lively, fun, interesting, thought-provoking, unforgettable discussions that reading groups crave. Well, here's your chance - join with thousands of other book group members to tell us which books did all that for your group in 2011. We'll compile and publish the list for you, and let you know how it compares to those chosen in previous surveys.
What worked for your book group this year? Your colleagues want to know! How do you connect with authors, if at all? What do you and your group think of e-books and audiobooks? The survey is up and waiting for these answers too, but it won't take long to complete - we know how busy you are!
And when you complete the short survey, Reading Group Choices will enter your name into a random drawing for $100 to jazz up your next get-together! Five lucky groups will win a $100 prize!
Complete the Survey
You and your group can use the survey results to select some great discussibles that you may not have otherwise chosen. To see what we mean, take a look at past years' lists.
See Past Years' Favorites
Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everytihng in between!
Samuel Park: Congratulations on the release of your book! It's a pleasure to e-meet you and be interviewing you about your work. There was so much in All the Flowers in Shanghai that I could relate to, and I'm delighted that I get to ask you about it.
Duncan Jepson: Thank you very much and thanks for taking the time to read my book and ask me these questions.
SP: You’ve had a successful career in film and documentaries. What inspired you to turn to novels, and what specifically inspired you to tell this particular story? Did your background affect the process at all?
DJ: Storytelling by writing feels to me like planting seeds and then leaving the tending and cultivation to another, the reader and their imagination. I think a good book propels the reader on a journey that is as much theirs as the authors. Film is different, it’s direct and fast, over in a couple of hours. Whether comedy or tragedy, it must be executed precisely enough to suspend disbelief for the duration, taking the viewer away on the filmmakers’ journey. For this story, writing seemed to give me more freedom to explore and immerse myself in the character and ideas than the demands of film.
SP: I really enjoyed your use of a female point of view in the novel. Not only that, but you tell the story in the first person. Could you talk a little about the challenges of doing so, and maybe discuss how one can successfully pull it off?
DJ: Well, I hope I pulled it off successfully. I just tried to s tick to the basic rule of creating a character and remaining true to it. The challenge seemed to be telling the story of a character who is not Western and does not think in a Western manner f or Western readers. For example one of the difficulties is that what Westerners see as “forsaking individuality,” something abhorrent, in Asian cultures at that time and even now it was not questioned because the concept of the “individual” was very much absent, so it wasn’t a sacrifice—it was (and is) simply what happens.
SP: I hope I'm not ruining it for anybody by noting that your author’s note at the end of the book talks a lot about your mother. How did she inspire the book, and how did she affect your experience of writing it?
DJ: My mother had told me that she had not wanted to return to Singapore after she had qualified as a doctor in England in the mid 60s. My grandparents had not required anything specific of her but my mother explained there were expectations and at the very least she wanted to marry someone she loved. I think many Westerners don’t realize that these expectations still exist and are widely felt. I wanted to explore the idea that these expectations are actively passed from mother to daughter, not necessarily imposed by the father, and to understand what it would take for a woman to reject these traditions.
SP: The book contains a lot of very precise descriptions of life in Shanghai. What was the process of researching life in 1930s Shanghai? Were there any discoveries that you made that you weren't expecting?
DJ: In the early 1990s I spent a lot of time in Shanghai, particularly at the Peace Hotel where jazz and Western dancing had been available since the 30s and 40s. I spent much time walking around by myself and listening to people’s experiences. I think the main discovery was just how modern Shanghai had been and how people had embraced the world openly. People (including young Chinese) don’t realize that the Communist dogma and perspective is only recent.
SP: Readers are often fascinated by China. What is it about this country—its customs, history and culture—that you think intrigues people so much? Are there any insights about it that you hope people will get out of the book?
DJ: In the early 90s I met a long-lost relative who was a farmer. He lived in quite a remote part of Fujian Province in China. I was full of passion for events in China such as the Cultural Revolution and when I asked him about living through it he said he’d hardly noticed it. I liked the idea that someone like Feng could live isolated from events simply by virtue of the very culture and traditions that led China to revolution—insularity by the elite. How people thought and behaved is one of the most interesting aspects of history and culture. We live in a small world and we have to start understanding each other better, we’re not all the same and we are not all going to immediately believe in the correctness of one way of living, whatever that may be. I hope by reading the story people will think a little about how different human beings can be at a very fundamental level. China now looms large in the world and we’re all desperate to know what that means.
Thanks Samuel and Duncan!
Samuel Park is an Assistant Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago. He is a graduate of Stanford and the University of Southern California, where he earned his doctorate in English. He is the author of the novella “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (Alyson Books, 2006) and the writer-director of the short film of the same name, which was an official selection of numerous domestic and international film festivals. He currently divides his time between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Duncan Jepson is the award-
winning director and producer of five feature films. He has also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine West East and is a founder and managing editor of the Asia Literary Review. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.
With each New Year, we ask our subscribers to tell us what book(s) generated the liveliest discussions in the year just completed. Many groups also tell us about some of the fun things they did. The results are always interesting, and they help us all to make the book group experience so enjoyable.
This year, we also asked our own Literary Director, Neely Kennedy, to reflect on five of her own favorite discussibles of 2011. Maybe they'll be your book club's favorites too!
The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
In a Balkan country mending from war, Natalia, a young doctor, is compelled to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather's recent death. Searching for clues, she turns to his worn copy of The Jungle Book and the stories he told her of his encounters over the years with "the deathless man." But most extraordinary of all is the story her grandfather never told her-the legend of the tiger's wife.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This intense new novel follows a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about—until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance, one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present. Tony Webster thought he’d left all this behind as he built a life for himself, and by now his marriage and family and career have fallen into an amicable divorce and retirement. But he is then presented with a mysterious legacy that obliges him to reconsider a variety of things he thought he’d understood all along, and to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.
IQ84 by Haruki Murakami
A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell's-1Q84 is Haruki Murakami's most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant best seller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of our most revered contemporary writers.
Kelly O’Connor McNees
Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everytihng in between!
Kelly: Wendy, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books depict the day-to-day tasks that filled the “pioneer life” in the 1880s, especially the work typically done by women. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, while set in long-settled Concord, Massachusetts, during the Civil War, also features details of 19th century young women’s routines: sewing, knitting, embroidering, taking firewood and blankets to the poor, baking, and generally working to make the home a “haven.” Anyone who tried to take my washing machine away would have to pry it from my cold, dead hands—and yet I read these books with a fascination and a sense of longing. What is the deal? Why do we love to read about this stuff?
Wendy: Oh yes—I always find these details and tasks so reassuring somehow. And I remember a line I read in Barbara Walker’s introduction to The Little House Cookbook, something about how all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s extensive descriptions “seemed to compel participation.” In the case of the cookbook, of course, it’s actual hands-on participation, but I think any engaged reader becomes a kind of participant just by following along. These descriptions have such an intimacy to them, because through them you inevitably inhabit Laura or one of the March girls and find yourself daydreaming in their kitchens. I know I can recall butter-making with Ma Ingalls almost as vividly as my own memories of helping my mother peel potatoes.
As for that longing you mentioned—maybe it’s because on some level we recognize that we’re not truly there, that there’s a boundary we can’t fully cross, even while we know we don’t really want to sew seams in muslin sheets. We know, though, that we’re at the edges looking in.
Which leads me to my question to you, Kelly, since you created so many of those descriptions of domestic rituals in your own novel: What were the challenges in writing those scenes? Did you feel like you were actively creating this world—or, as a writer of historical fiction based on real people—simply entering it? Or to put it another way, what side of that divide between reader and character is the writer on?
Kelly: Whoa, Wendy. That is deep.
I think in historical fiction there is a fine line between immersion and suffocation. Just the right amount of carefully selected detail and context and atmosphere can create a vivid world. But too much of this—too much exposition and description of every object, gown, and housekeeping chore that might seem foreign to a modern reader—and we are overwhelmed by the weight of it all. Too much of this and the story gets lost. I felt as the writer I was always walking that line, trying to figure out when to expand on something (like the scene that goes into great detail about how Louisa and Anna make candles) and when to scale back to keep the story moving forward, to maintain the tension that makes characters real people to us. I think I succeeded some and probably failed some at that task. It is an ongoing negotiation. But you don’t want the reader to see that struggle—you want to polish the story to a high shine so that the way it is appears seems to be the only way it could have been—if that makes any sense! So I would say I wanted it to seem as if the reader and I were just entering this world that already existed, when in fact I had to work very hard to create it in a particular way.
Speaking of craft, I have a question about your approach to memoir. A novel offers the writer ultimate control—we can change and shape every single detail. But nonfiction in its commitment to truth is much more like life: messy and asymmetrical, it can resist a tidy narrative. And yet your true story is such a compelling read! I want to know how you did it! When you first made a list of the places you wanted to visit and the people you wanted to meet in your efforts to examine the connection you and so many of us share with the Little House books, I imagine you had some idea in mind of what you would find and perhaps an idea of what shape the book would take. But as you went through the journey, I imagine that some of those expectations were thwarted. Was it difficult to make the book adapt as your understanding of Laura culture changed and deepened? Were there any experiences that worked out so differently, you couldn't include them? What dictated the structure of the book?
Wendy: It's been a strange process, Kelly, trying to shape lived experience into narrative, especially with this book. With my first memoir, I’d had a few years’ perspective on the events I was writing about, and time served as a very good editor, filtering out irrelevant details.
It was definitely harder with The Wilder Life, where I had less time to ruminate on every experience AND I went into every trip knowing I’d be writing about it a month or two later. Sometimes I really had to struggle with my own instincts when I did all these things, especially when they were weird and uncomfortable (as with the weekend with the end-times-obsessed folks). I had to decide whether it was better to doggedly stick it out for the sake of the book, or just go with my gut. Usually I wouldn’t know whether or not I made the right decision until I went back and tried to write about it later. Thus some of things I did for the sake of the book got left by the wayside—getting fitted for a corset, for example—because in the end it just didn’t feel interesting enough to be worth recollecting.
And then there were experiences that didn’t turn out anything like I’d hoped but were extremely crucial. De Smet, South Dakota, was one of the most important destinations in my homesite trips, and yet I left early. For lack of a better phrase, something “wasn’t working” about being there—something didn’t feel right—and after one full day there, I found myself impulsively hitting the road instead of staying another night like I’d planned. About an hour after I left, I thought, “what did I just do?” I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d blown it, that I’d made a huge mistake. It was hard to go back and write about it and figure out my reasons for leaving, but it was extremely useful, too, and I’m glad I let go of my expectations.
Speaking of expectations: What happens when your characters change course on you? Do you have a sense of where someone’s story is going, or do they take the lead? I only have to worry about myself as a protagonist, but I imagine that with fiction it’s much different . . .
Kelly: Fiction writers tend to fall into two camps: planners (the outliners) and pantsers (the writers who fly by the seat of their pants). I’m always a little embarrassed to admit this for some reason—maybe it feels a little like cheating—but I am a planner, in writing and in life. I can’t go to the grocery store without a list, and I can’t start a novel without an idea about what’s going to happen. That said, even when I do have grand plans for my characters, sometimes they surprise me. One of the characters in a novel I am working on right now recently did this. Rowena is an upper-class woman who, because of her husband’s death in the Civil War and her father’s deteriorating mental health, has lost all her money and is trying to figure out what to do with her life. I knew she would be pretty angry about what happened, since it was completely out of her control, and I knew she would start to resent her friends who continued to live comfortable lives. But I wasn’t sure exactly how she would express what she was feeling. Then one day I was writing a scene in which a friend comes to visit, and out of nowhere, Rowena steals a brooch off the woman’s coat as she hangs it up in the hall. I thought it was an isolated incident, but a few scenes later she was stealing again. I had not planned for this, but Rowena has a mind of her own.
Those little surprises happen, I think, when the character becomes real enough to be a whole person who (strange as it sounds) really is capable of acting independently of your will. The trick is to have a plan but a loose plan, so that the characters can change it.
Last question for you, Wendy—what are you working on now?
Wendy: I’d love to say I’m working on a book, but the truth is that I’m working on planning my wedding next month! But at my job at Albert Whitman and Company, we’ve just launched our young adult imprint, so in between all the craft store shopping excursions, I’m still getting my new-book excitement fix in. Hoping that once the dust and the petals settle, I can start on something new, the way you are.
Kelly: Oh, boy. Planning a novel has nothing on planning a wedding. Wishing you and your sweetie a lifetime of happiness, with lots of time for reading and writing!
Thanks Kelly and Wendy!
Kelly O'Connor McNees is a former editorial assistant and English teacher. Originally from Michigan, she now resides with her husband in Chicago.
Wendy McClure has been writing about her obsessions online and in print for nearly a decade. In addition to her 2005 memoir, I'm Not the New Me, she is a columnist for BUST magazine and has contributed to The New York Times Magazine. McClure holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She lives in Chicago, where she is a senior editor at the children's book publisher Albert Whitman & Company.
Please welcome Kater Alcott, author of The Dressmaker, to On the Bookcase! She tells us about her personal attachment to Pinky—a character in her novel—as well as some undercover work she has done as a journalist.
An Inside Look at Pinky Wade
By Kate Alcott
As I wrote The Dressmaker, Pinky—the spirited female reporter who befriends Tess while covering the Titanic for the New York Times—was the only fictional character who jumped out of my head first almost fully formed. At the end, I was a bit startled to realize almost all of Pinky’s story was derived not from historical record, (like Lady Lucile Duff Gordon) nor inspired by an individual who was actually involved in the Titanic, (like Tess, who was modeled after Lucile’s secretary) but from my own life. I guess that’s not totally a surprise. I am a reporter, and Pinky, more than any other character, reflects my own traits and career ambitions.
Pinky, you were my pal. I know how it feels to clutch a notebook and write as fast as possible while I’m quizzing a source. I’ve found myself getting snarled in a story—most memorably, getting caught between demonstrators hurling rocks and a phalanx of cops in full riot gear (I escaped by crawling out between the legs of one cop who took pity on me). I know how it feels to muster bravado and argue my way into places I’m not supposed to be, and to write furiously to make newspaper deadlines and to love it all—except when it comes to asking for a raise. That’s when women, to this day, have a hard time demanding to be paid what they’re worth.
There’s a scene in the novel where Pinky confronts her editor and stubbornly insists on being paid equally with the male reporters. With great pleasure, I gave her lines I wish I’d had the courage (years ago) to speak myself. Go, Pinky!
Of course, I may have also been subconsciously inspired by Nellie Bly, the wonderfully brave and feisty reporter most famous for retracing the path of Jules Vernes’ Around the World in 80 Days. How any woman could make her way in journalism at that time amazes me. It was hard enough to get serious political assignments when I was starting out in 1966, but Nellie laid out a template that—I like to think—inspired women like Pinky to dream their own versions of going round the world in eighty days. (Nellie did it in a little over 72 days.)
But, she did more than that. Nellie, (whose real name was Elizabeth Cochran) actually faked insanity so she could be incarcerated in the New York insane asylum on Blackwell Island for a story. I too once went undercover to expose abuses in a mental hospital, but as a hospital aide, not by getting myself institutionalized. I remember looking out through a barred hospital window one grim afternoon, admiring the courage Nellie must have had to do it her way.
After creating Pinky, I was curious whether there were any real-life women who covered this hugely important disaster. There was one, a Canadian reporter named Mary Adelaide Snider of the Toronto Evening Telegram. I couldn’t find any stories with her byline. But I was even more pleased to have set Pinky elbowing her way forward from my imagination to the printed page, her satchel flopping against her side, determined to show she could do the job too.
Kate Alcott was a reporter covering politics in Washington D.C., where she and her husband still live.
How Sisters Shape Our Lives, a Book Club Discussion by Neely Kennedy
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.
Want to delight everyone in your book club with a gift at your holiday get-together? Just order a copy of the new Reading Group Choices 2012: Selections for Lively Book Discussions for everyone – and (shhhh, don’t tell anyone) save at the same time! This month only, you can get 5 or more copies for only $2.95 each! Order the “stocking stuffer special” online – even “mix and match” your order with editions from previous years if you want.
The 2012 edition is filled with 70 discussible titles, complete with Conversation Starters and lots of additional information. See what's new from Lisa See, Marisa de los Santos, Cathy Lamb, Douglas Kennedy, Adrienne McDonnell, Shobhan Bantwal, and Marie Bostwick and ponder the unique ideas of Adrienne Sharp, Evelyn Toynton and Marie Mutsuki Mockett.