From the bestselling author of EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, a riveting story that traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town--and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.
Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.
Book Club Discussion Questions
1. The Gargoyle begins with arguably one of the most stunning opening scenes in contemporary literature. How was the author able to make horrifying details alluring? What was your initial reaction to these images?
2. How were you affected by the narrator’s voice and his ability to address you in an intimate, direct monologue? How did his storytelling style compare to Marianne’s? In what ways did these tales balance reality and surrealism?
3. Arrows form a recurring symbol throughout the novel. What are their various uses as tools of war and of love? What makes them ideal for Marianne’s stories?
4. What medical aspects of the narrator’s treatment surprised you the most? Did his gruesome journey change the way you feel about your own body?
5. How did Marianne’s experience of God evolve and mature throughout her life? How do you personally reconcile the concept of a loving God and the reality of human suffering?
6. Marianne uses her body as a canvas. What messages does it convey? How does the narrator “read” bodies before his accident, both in front of the camera and while picking up less-dazzling strangers?
7. Discuss the role of ghosts and memory in The Gargoyle. In what ways does the past repeat itself? How are the characters shaped by past circumstances? When are their painful cycles to be broken?
8. What does Marianne’s copy of The Inferno indicate about the value of books beyond their content? In what way can a book also be an art object, or an artifact of history?
9. Eventually, Nan reveals her own burn scars. What motivates the novel’s healers–including Nan, Marianne, Sayuri, and Gregor? Whom does the narrator heal?
10. Discuss the role of money throughout The Gargoyle. What kept Jack honest? What did it mean for Marianne, a woman, to have far more money than the men in her life, both in the 14th century and in the contemporary storyline?
11. How did you interpret the narrator’s own Dante-esque tour, described in Chapter Twenty-nine? Was he hallucinating, in the throes of withdrawal while he kicked the bitchsnake of morphine, or did he journey to an underworld? Or both? Was Marianne a mere mortal?
12. The novel closes with Marianne’s departure and the marriage of Gregor and Sayuri. The narrator grapples with guilt, trying to understand whether he could or should have saved Marianne. What enabled Gregor and Sayuri to recognize and nurture their love for one another? What determines whether a relationship will become exhausted or perpetually revitalized? Is fate or willpower the greater factor?
13. An old adage, evidenced particularly in Shakespeare’s works, states that a comedy ends with a marriage, while a tragedy ends with a death. Given that The Gargoyle ends with both a marriage and a death, what does it say about the work?
WE'LL PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCING and
In a tour-de-force tapestry of science fiction and historical fiction, Andromeda Romano-Lax presents a story set in Japan and Taiwan that spans a century of empire, conquest, progress, and destruction.
2029: In Japan, a historically mono-cultural nation, childbirth rates are at an all-time low and the elderly are living increasingly longer lives. This population crisis has precipitated the mass immigration of foreign medical workers from all over Asia, as well as the development of finely tuned artificial intelligence to step in where humans fall short.
In Tokyo, Angelica Navarro, a Filipina nurse who has been in Japan for the last five years, works as caretaker for Sayoko Itou, a moody, secretive woman about to turn 100 years old. One day, Sayoko receives a present: a cutting-edge robot “friend” that will teach itself to anticipate Sayoko’s every need. Angelica wonders if she is about to be forced out of her much-needed job by an inanimate object—one with a preternatural ability to uncover the most deeply buried secrets of the humans around it. Meanwhile, Sayoko becomes attached to the machine. The old woman has been hiding secrets of her own for almost a century—and she’s too old to want to keep them anymore.
What she reveals is a hundred-year saga of forbidden love, hidden identities, and the horrific legacy of WWII and Japanese colonialism—a confession that will tear apart her own life and Angelica’s. Is the helper robot the worst thing that could have happened to the two women—or is it forcing the changes they both desperately needed?
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.
In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.
A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.
Brilliantly executed and compulsively listenable, Unsheltered is the story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts. In this mesmerizing story told in alternating chapters, Willa and Thatcher come to realize that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred—whether family or friends—and in the strength of the human spirit.
- What do the living spaces in their various conditions throughout the novel suggest about the people living in them? Figuratively speaking, which foundations turn out to be solid, or precarious?
- Mary Treat tells Thatcher that to be unsheltered is to live in daylight. What does she mean? What kinds of shelter do these characters crave, in their different centuries? How might sheltered lives—or the craving for them—become a hindrance?
- Which of the many challenges confronting Willa are hers alone to bear, and why? What do you see as the foundation of her successful relationship with Iano? How has marriage changed, or not changed, since the time of Rose and Thatcher?
- Why do you think happy marriages so rarely appear in fiction?
- In what ways, if any, do you find Nick's bigotry and anger comprehensible? What accounts for Tig's patience with him, despite their differences? How do the family's conflicts relate to the polarization of present times? What's suggested by Willa's and Nick's argument taking place on the Walt Whitman Bridge?
- How are Mary Treat's eccentricities related to her strengths? In what ways is her friendship especially valuable to Thatcher? What is the role of the scientist in times of social upheaval?
- What are some of the "old mythologies" discussed by Mary and Thatcher, to which people cling for comfort even when they're no longer true? Are any of these still popular in the modern era?
- Mary tells Thatcher she is "astonished at how little most people can manage to see." Specifically, which realities in her century, and ours, do people find it difficult to see? What are the costs? Is it possible to view ourselves objectively in our own time?
- When Thatcher sees the world "divided in two camps, the investigators and the sweeteners," what is he observing? Which of the novel's characters are the former, and which are the latter? Where would you place yourself?
- Consider the creative names and botanical character identities throughout the novel. What do they reveal? How have the various characters' education or backgrounds shaped their perspectives? Why do you think a select few of them are able to think outside of what Tig calls "the cardboard box," or Mary, "the pumpkin shell?"
- What family dynamics might have made Tig and Zeke so different and combative, while Jorge and his siblings are close and supportive?
- How do the characters in two centuries variously understand and connect with the natural world? When Willa's phone causes "thousands of birds [to burst] from their tree skyward like a house going up in smoke," what does this potent image suggest? What about the ants that seem to inhabit the neighborhood outside the boundaries of time?
- When Willa complains that "the rules don't apply anymore," what does she mean? How are Zeke and Tig preparing differently for a future in which they will have less than their parents? Did the novel move you to any new insights about generational difference?
- How does the powerful experience of loss affect this novel's characters, at personal and societal levels? Is the nature of grief constant across human experience? How might "the loss of what they know" influence people's political behavior?
- The novel's epigraph quotes a Wallace Stevens poem, "The Well Dressed Man with a Beard." How does the epigraph relate to the novel, and how might Christopher Hawk (a well-dressed man with a beard) serve as its pivot point? Why do you think the author chose to set the story in two different centuries? And why these two in particular?
- In shifting between chapters, what changes did you notice in the characters' language, or the narrative tone? In what ways did you find the two separate narratives connected?
- What is the "precise balance of terror and mollycoddling" that Charles Landis manages? How, when, and why do you think people respond to this leadership style?
- The shooting of Uri Carruth by Charles Landis, and subsequent not-guilty verdict, are actual historical events. Is the anecdote relevant to the present? What is the role of journalism in a healthy society? Who is responsible for its integrity?
- As they shift from parent-child to a more adult relationship, what does Willa learn from her daughter? How might "the secret of happiness" be "low expectations?" How does this relate to the lost-and-found quote about happiness from Willa Cather's My Àntonia?
- Thatcher settles finally on seeing Mary Treat as "a giant redwood: oldest and youngest of all living things, the tree that stood past one eon into the next." Do you agree?
In the spirit of Loving Frank and The Paris Wife, acclaimed novelist Melanie Benjamin pulls back the curtain on the marriage of one of America’s most extraordinary couples: Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
When Anne Morrow, a shy college senior with hidden literary aspirations, travels to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family, she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his celebrated 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Enthralled by Charles’s assurance and fame, Anne is certain the aviator has scarcely noticed her. But she is wrong. Charles sees in Anne a kindred spirit, a fellow adventurer, and her world will be changed forever. The two marry in a headline-making wedding. In the years that follow, Anne becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States. But despite this and other major achievements, she is viewed merely as the aviator’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.
Wednesday 12/18/19 SKIPPING CHRISTMAS BY JOHN GRISHAM at Marilyn's - Holiday Gift Exchange - $20 - I forgot the theme!
Skipping Christmas by John Grisham
Imagine a year without Christmas. No crowded shops, no corny office parties, no fruitcakes, no unwanted presents. That's just what Luther and Nora Krank have in mind when they decide that, just this once, they'll skip the holiday altogether. Theirs will be the only house on the street without a rooftop Frosty the snowman; they won't be hosting their annual Christmas Eve bash; they aren't even going to have a tree. They won't need one, because come December 25 they're setting sail on a Caribbean cruise. But, as this weary couple is about to discover, skipping Christmas brings enormous consequences - and isn't half as easy as they'd imagined.
A classic tale for modern times, Skipping Christmas offers a hilarious look at the chaos and frenzy that has become part of our holiday tradition.
Born into a world of wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all. A loving daughter to her father, a US senator, with her own ambitious career as a lawyer and a handsome fiancé waiting for her in Baltimore, she has lived a charmed life.
But when Avery returns to Aiken to help her father weather a health crisis and a political attack, a chance encounter with May Crandall, an elderly woman she's never met before, leaves Avery deeply shaken. Avery's decision to learn more about May's life will take her on a journey through a hidden history of stolen children and illegal adoption. A journey that will reveal a secret that could lead to devastation...or redemption.
Based on one of America's most notorious real-life scandals--in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country--Lisa Wingate's riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.
But that past has caught up with her.
Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424 — one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system.
From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance.
Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there
2. How would you describe the prison culture—its hierarchy and values. What must Piper learn in order to adapt to, or even survive, prison life? Discuss about how Piper's relationships changed—both inside the prison walls and outside prison.
3. Do you have favorites among the inmates? Least favorites? Are there any inmates you come to admire? if so, why? Are there inmates who don't deserve to be in prison?
4. Talk about the relationship of the inmates with the guards and prison authorities.
5. In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story. What are the ways in which prison changes Piper? What does she come to learn about who she is?
6. Has reading Orange Is the New Black altered your views of the criminal justice system? Or does the memoir basically confirm what you believed?
7. Why is being sent to prison frequently referred to as "disappearing down the rabbit hole"?
8. Does our criminal justice system work? Does prison work? If you could, what would you change about the legal and/or the prison system?
9. Watch the Netflix film adaptation—either selected clips or in its entirety. How does it compare with the book?
10. Talk about homosexuality, both in Piper's life and as it exists in prison.
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel based on the true story of the death of William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln, a son of United States President Abraham Lincoln. In 1862, Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever at the age of 11. The novel opens in the bardo, which is an intermediary state between life and the afterlife. Willie Lincoln materializes in the bardo and is greeted by Hans Vollman—a deceased printer who was killed at the age of 46 by a falling support beam—and Roger Bevins III—a young man who took his life after being rebuffed by a young man named Gilbert with whom Bevins was in love.
Through the use of real and invented historical sources, the novel relates the story of Willie’s death. The doctor believed that Willie was merely sick with a cold and would soon recover. Thus, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln proceeded with the state dinner they had planned. In the White House, they entertained many important diplomats, politicians, and military officers while Willie lay sick in his bed. Willie died not long after this night, as it turned out that he was sick with typhoid fever.
In the bardo, everyone that Willie meets is a person has died and been buried in the same cemetery as Willie, and even though they are in the bardo, they are able to view the cemetery around them. They also believe that they are not dead but merely sick. However, Vollman and Bevins encourage Willie to pass on to the next stage of the afterlife, as they know that the bardo is a dangerous place for young people. They knew a young person in the bardo—a young woman named Elise Traynor—who stayed in the bardo for too long and became trapped there forever. However, before Willie decides to pass on, his father arrives in the cemetery and looks at Willie’s body in the mausoleum where it lies. Lincoln hugs the body and speaks to it before leaving. This gives Willie and the other people in the bardo hope that Willie may be able to return to his former state with the help of his father. The people of the bardo tell Willie their stories so that he may help them once he has returned to his life.
However, Willie is soon grabbed by a malevolent tendril, as had happened to Elise Traynor when the bardo began to consume her. Vollman and Bevins follow Lincoln, merge with him, and try to get him to return to Willie’s mausoleum so that Willie can either be saved by his father or be convinced to pass on to the next stage of the afterlife. Lincoln returns to the mausoleum because he realizes he forgot to lock it. While Vollman and Bevins are away from the mausoleum, Willie converses with the Reverend Everly Thomas, another occupant of the bardo. It is revealed to the reader that, unlike the other people in the bardo, Reverend Thomas actually knows that he is dead. However, when he died and sat for judgment in the afterlife, he was cast back into the bardo for some inscrutable reason. Reverend Thomas believes that it is because he has committed some unrealized sin that he must account for.
Abraham Lincoln arrives at the mausoleum again to lock it. Vollman and Bevins urge Willie to merge with his father to hear his thoughts, but before Willie can do so, Abraham Lincoln begins to walk away. Then, more tendrils burst from the ground to grab Willie. They are possessed by the spirits of unrepentant sinners. Hearing these voices describe their crimes without remorse, Reverend Thomas becomes more confident in his own sense of morality, and he tricks the tendrils into letting go of Willie for a moment. Thomas then grabs Willie and attempts to run with him to safety. The tendrils knock them down, and Thomas is rewarded for his bravery by being allowed to pass into the next stage of the afterlife. Vollman then picks up Willie and brings him to the cemetery’s chapel, where his father sits.
In the chapel, Willie merges with his father and realizes that he is dead. He declares this to the other people of the bardo and then passes on to the next stage of the afterlife. At the same time, Lincoln is able to overcome his grief for his son, and he recommits to his resolutions as President in the midst of the Civil War. Greatly affected by Willie’s pronouncements, many more inhabitants of the bardo accept the fact of their deaths and allow themselves to pass into the afterlife. This includes Vollman and Bevins.
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
We’ve been together since 1997.