Thursday, October 29, 2009

1. Toulouse-Lautrec often based his images on women from all walks of life. Who are some of the women who inspired him?

2. Lautrec's greatest artistic achievement was his contribution to the art of lithography. Who were some of his predecessors and contemporaries?

3. Who were the painters among his contemporaries admired by Lautrec? Do you see any similarities bewteen his work and theirs (for example, the works of Degas)?

4. What are some of the themes dealt with by Lautrec in his work?

5 Choose an example of an early work by Lautrec and compare it with an example of a later work.

6 Apart from his achievement as a printmaker, what do you consider to be Lautrec's most important contributions to the history of art?

Friday, October 2, 2009

That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Prouix

1 'Long recitations of local history give a sense if having lingered too long in a county library. 'Do you agree with this estimations of Prouix's novel?

2 Would you describe the sub-stories as 'pointless' or does this judgement miss the point?

3 One critic remarks that Prouix's 'cartoonish names sometimes threaten to topple the novel's sense of reality.' What did you think of the author's nomenclature? Why is Bob Dollar so called?

4 Is the novel realistic? Why/why not?

5 Is Bob Dollar's job morally indefensible? Why/why not?

6 Why does Orlando turn up at Woolybucket?

7 Are hog farms simply another environmental horror in a long chain of horrors? Is 'business' (LaVon's term for capitalism) the culprit? discuss

8 Why does the author portray her main idealist, Brother Mesquite, as a member of a religious order?

9 Orlando's risque means of making a fortune strikes us as a comic ploy, but what comparison might Prouix be making between post modern 'occupation' and the traditional ways she clearly values? (pp249-251)

10 The Old Ace in the Hole is on the whole a 'white' novel. What is Prouix's reason for introducing an old Indian hitchhiker in Chapter 27?

11 Annie Prouix usually doesn't offer and upbeat ending. how does this one fit with the panhandle history of hardscrabble lives that forms the substance of this book? What did you think of the way the novelist rounded everything up?

12 'There is such a longing, on the part of the author and reader, for the panhandlers to beat off Global Pork Rind, that there is a danger, not entirely averted, of the story becoming sentimental. What's your opinion?

13 What hope do you think the author has? What hope do you have in the face of ongoing environmental destruction?

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini

Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them --- in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul --- they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. With heart-wrenching power and suspense, Hosseini shows how a woman's love for her family can move her to shocking and heroic acts of self-sacrifice, and that in the end it is love, or even the memory of love, that is often the key to survival.

1. The phrase “a thousand splendid suns,” from the poem by Saib-e-Tabrizi, is quoted twice in the novel – once as Laila’s family prepares to leave Kabul, and again when she decides to return there from Pakistan. It is also echoed in one of the final lines: “Miriam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.” What do you think it's signifence is to the book?

2. Mariam’s mother tells her: “Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have.” Discuss how this forms Mariam’s life and how it relates to the larger themes of the novel.

3. By the time Laila is rescued from the rubble of her home by Rasheed and Mariam, Mariam’s marriage has become a miserable existence of neglect and abuse. Yet when she realizes that Rasheed intends to marry Laila, she reacts with outrage. Given that Laila’s presence actually tempers Rasheed’s abuse, why is Mariam so hostile toward her?

4. Laila’s friendship with Mariam begins when she defends Mariam from a beating by Rasheed. Why does Laila take this action, despite the contempt Mariam has consistently shown her?

5. Growing up, Laila feels that her mother’s love is reserved for her two brothers. “People,” she decides, “shouldn’t be allowed to have new children if they’d already given away all their love to their old ones.” What lessons from her childhood does Laila apply in raising her own children?

6. At several points in the story, Mariam and Laila pass themselves off as mother and daughter. What is the symbolic importance of this subterfuge? In what ways is Mariam’s and Laila’s relationship with each other informed by their relationships with their own mothers?

7. One of the Taliban judges at Mariam’s trial tells her, “God has made us different, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think like we can. Western doctors and their science have proven this.” What is the irony in this statement? How is irony employed throughout the novel?

8. Mariam refuses to see visitors while she is imprisoned, and she calls no witnesses at her trial. Why does she make these decisions?

9. Among other things, the Taliban forbid “writing books, watching films, and painting pictures.” Yet despite this, the film Titanic becomes a sensation on the black market. Why would people risk the Taliban’s violent reprisals for a taste of popcorn entertainment? What do the Taliban’s restrictions on such material say about the power of artistic expression and the threat it poses to repressive political regimes?

12. While the first three parts of the novel are written in the past tense, the final part is written in present tense. What do you think was the author’s intent in making this shift? How does it change the effect of this final section?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

For somebody who organises a book-group, I don't read too many novels these days; however, in the past fortnight I have managed to read the first 3 books in the Twilight Saga, The Girl with the Pearl Earring and now, The Time Traveller's Wife. I think it is escapism. Housework and children who won't get ready for school in the morning or go to sleep at night are getting me down. Did I mention in the last post that I am shallow? Because these are all love stories and now I am going to compare leading men. Well, Edward, the vampire, is creepy and doesn't do it for me at all. Jacob is lovely and light, but one summer would be enough. The painter in The Girl with the Pearl Earring is self-centred and weak. So that leaves Henry, the librarian who keeps fit and can cook...Hi, Honey, I'm home.

Once I got my head around the time-travel thing, I really enjoyed this book. I raced through it and now I need to go back and re-read the details. I found a few sets of discussion questions on the web for this book, but I think the following are most suited to our book-group (having trouble posting a link to the original source). See you Tuesday.

1. Why do you think that the book was titled "The Time Traveler's Wife" and not "The Time Traveller"?

2. The story is sometimes told by Clare, sometimes by Henry. Did you like how it was organised? How did their different persepctives help you understand their love?

3. For Clare, there is always a sense of waiting. Discuss the different ways she is waiting throughout the story. What roles do longing, anticipation and absence play?

4. Who is your favourite character and why?

5. How does their desire for a child affect their relationship? How did you feel about the chapters where they were trying desperately for a child?

6. Do you believe that Alva will have a better life than Henry? How is her perspective on time travel different than his?

7. How is their relationship changed by the fact that they experience different events at different times?

8. Is this story fatalistic?

9. Do you agree with Henry's rule of keeping the future a secret from himself so he can live as normal a life as possible? Discuss the times that he breaks this rule and whether you think those are good decisions.

10. Did you like the ending?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Running Amok by Mark Bowling

This book tells the story of Mark Bowling, an ABC foreign correspondent, during his years as Indonesian correspondent, 1998 - 2002.

Reading this book reminded me of an embarrassingly-less-than-profound moment I had a few years ago. In the year that I had my third child, quite shortly after my second and first children, I decided that life was just too full-on and something had to go. I considered the options and decided on "the news". The world would have to go on without me keeping tabs. It was a conscious and effective decision, and when we got to the end of the year and I checked back in to read the-year-in-pictures, I was surprised at how few of the photographs I recognised. Slowly life got a bit easier and one day I decided to tune back in. I would start with an episode of Foreign Correspondent. That night I sat down in front of the television and tried really hard to concentrate on the stories. Half-way through the first story I found myself thinking "Gee, that bloke looks really good in a black shirt. Perhaps I should get Peter a black shirt". Hmm, so much for tuning back into world news.

I had the same sort of experience reading this book. Part of me wanted to follow the story. I recognised the names, the places, was vaguely familiar with the events, but I just couldn't concentrate on the "news". Really, I wanted to hear more about his wife and children, and how they coped, and what support is offered to families of the foreign correspondents. I found myself skipping to the references to his family, which were rather sketchy. Mark Bowling was quite the work-a-holic, as is somebody very close to me, so it was interesting to hear a lot of my suspicions confirmed. Work really does mean more than family, for all the assurances that it doesn't.

So, I have skipped large chunks of this book. However, being the dutiful bookclub secretary that I am, I will still come up with a list of discussion questions. Forgive me if they are rather generic.

(And if anybody is wondering...I did get Peter a black shirt).

1. As a bookclub, we have read a number of books written by foreign correspondents (Our Woman in Kabul, Lost in Transmission, Holy Cow (well, Sarah was not a foreign correspndent but she was living with one)). How does this behind-the-scenes insight affect your interpretation of news stories as they are presented?

2. Were you familiar with the events and characters in the book? Did the book offer any additional insights? Give an example where this book may have changed your interpretation of events.

3. Do you remember the story of the Taman Safari animals? Mark expresses his frustration that animal stories can "capture the imagination of TV viewers more readily than poor and hungry humans" (p68). Do you agree with this statement? If so, how do you think the media can negate our apathy to poor and hungry humans?

4. Overall, how do you think Mark's wife and children would have viewed their time in Indonesia? Did you get enough of Kim's story, or would you like to know more? Foreign correspondents often put their lives at risk in search of a story. What are your thoughts on balancing work commitments (risks) with responsibilities to their families ? (The same question could be asked of adventurers...the balance between the need to fulfill personal ambitions with the responsibilities of having children).

That is all I can come up with for the moment...but I'm sure we'll find other things to talk about. See you Wednesday, at Outback Jacks.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Hmm, I'll get back to this later

Friday, April 17, 2009

Three Dog Night

  1. Is Martin's hostility to introduced plant species justified?
  2. Is Martin more sinned against than sinning? Is he a likeable narrator?
  3. Does Marin unconsciously collaborate with Felix's seduction of Lucy?
  4. Are Felix's actions in any way defensible?
  5. What motivates Lucy? Is it credible that she and Felix become lovers?
  6. How far do you think the characters' actions are influenced by their bodies? How much does the body determine behaviour and personality?
  7. What do you make of Goldsworthy's portrayal of the Warlpiri?
  8. Is Felix's death heroic?
  9. Does Martin murder Felix? If so, does he deserve imprisonment?

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Verge Practice

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you characterise the relationship between Brock and Kolla?
  2. Maitland introduces many more or less peripheral characters into the novel, but who nevertheless, play a considerable role. Analyse the contribution of one or more of the following characters: Suzanne Brock, George Todd, Madelaine Verge, Paul Oakley
  3. Maitland's plotting talents have been noted. As one example, see if you can find the clues to the evential revelation of the way in which Charles Verge has changed his appearance. (A starting point might be p53)
  4. Do you find the eventual revelation of Luz Diaz's true identity credible? Is there anything prior to the last chapter which offers the readers a clue? For instance, consider Kathy's thoughts of p72 about the similarity of the ways in which Charles Verge and Leon Desai have been brought up (by dominent mothers)
  5. Would this novel havelost anything if al the episodes relating to the Crime Strategy Working Party had been deleted? Trawl through them and see for yourself.
  6. Why does Kathy suddenly decide to go to Barcelona? 'This time, right or wrong, she would set the agenda.' (p267)
  7. What is the significance of the book, The Complete Works of Luis Domench i Montaner?
  8. Maitland wrote in the interview quoted earlier that he believes 'crime fiction often leads sthe way in dealing with issues of comtemporary life. The investigation allows the detectives to open door and probe any life, and for this reason I think the crime novel is a particularly good vehicle to explore current ideas and relationships.' How far do you think this is true of this novel in particular and of the genre in general?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Secret Life of Bees

First things first: I found out what grits are. They are ground corn, made into porridge - similar to polenta. For more information, click here.

Now: the discussion questions

1. Were you surprised to learn that T. Ray used to be different, that once he truly loved Deborah? How do you think Deborah's leaving affected him? Did it shed any light on why T. Ray was so cruel and abusive to Lily?

2. Had you ever heard of "kneeling on grits"? What qualities did Lily have that allowed her to survive, endure, and eventually thrive, despite T. Ray?

3. Who is the queen bee in this story? What do the bees mean to the story? What is "the secret life of bees?"

4. Lily's relationship to her dead mother was complex, ranging from guilt to idealization, to hatred, to acceptance. What happens to a daughter when she discovers her mother once abandoned her? Is Lily rightwould people generally rather die than forgive? Was it harder for Lily to forgive her mother or herself?

5. Lily grew up without her mother, but in the end she finds a house full of them. Have you ever had a mother figure in your life who wasn't your true mother? Have you ever had to leave home to find home?

6. What compelled Rosaleen to spit on the three men's shoes? What does it take for a person to stand up with conviction against brutalizing injustice? What did you like best about Rosaleen?

7. Had you ever heard of the Black Madonna? What do you think of the story surrounding the Black Madonna in the novel? How would the story be different if it had been a picture of a white Virgin Mary? Do you know women whose lives have been deepened or enriched by a connection to an empowering Divine Mother?

8. Why is it important that women come together? What did you think of the "Calendar Sisters" and the Daughters of Mary? How did being in the company of this circle of females transform Lily?

9. May built a wailing wall to help her come to terms with the pain she felt. Even though we don't have May's condition, do we also need "rituals," like wailing walls, to help us deal with our grief and suffering?

10. How would you describe Lily and Zach's relationship? What drew them together? Did you root for them to be together?

11. Project into the future. Does Lily ever see her father again? Does she become a beekeeper? A writer? What happens to Rosaleen? What happens to Lily and Zach? Who would Zach be today?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

February Book - The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

The blurb on the back of this book says that "Not only is it the epic love story of two people of insight and imagination seeking escape from the cant and tyranny of their age, The French Lieutenant's Woman is also a brilliantly sustained allegory of the decline of the twentieth-century passion for freedom"

Dearie me, we have had a run of them lately, haven't we? Is it just coincidence that this book is set near the Chesil Bank (see p232) or did Ian McEwan (On Chesil Beach) take his inspiration from this book? That would also account for the multiple endings and author-narration in Atonement.

Let's hope that next month is a page-turner.

(Of course, if your viewpoint differs from this, feel free to post about it!)

Here are some discussion points I have adapted from and some adapted from their list of generic questions

  1. Overall—how did you experience the book while reading it? Were you immediately drawn into the story—or did it take a while? Did the book intrigue, amuse, disturb, alienate, or irritate, you? Who skipped ahead to the ending? Who was waiting to watch the movie?
  2. Charles Smithson (Fowles is playing here with James Smithson, the founder of the Smithsonian museum) is hunting fossils and meditating on Darwin's challenge to the old scientific order when he stumbles upon a new species—Sarah Woodruff. How does the idea of a new vs. old order pervade this book in terms of its characters and in terms of Fowles's reworking of fiction?
  3. What is your attitude toward the book's different endings? What is Fowles trying to do? Which ending do you prefer or is there another ending you wanted to read? What endings are possible in a love story...a happy ending, a tragic ending, or boring together-forever future...or something else?
  4. Are you willing to give up on a narrator's or writer's authority to control events of a story? Are you comfortable or uncomfortable with that idea? You might also consider Ian McEwan's Atonement—how that story also offers competing versions of "reality."
  5. Freedom from societal conventions is an overriding theme in this novel. How do the each of the characters respond to the social constraints of Victorian society? How does Fowles, as an author, confront the constraints of traditional storytelling?
  6. Discuss the characteristics of Charles, Tina, and Sarah. Is Charles worthy of Sarah?
  7. Were there any other characters that caught your fancy?
  8. Can you pick out a passage that strikes you as particularly profound or interesting?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Discussion Questions on Atonement

These are the questions Julie found for us on

1.  What sort of social and cultural setting does the Tallis house create for the novel?  What emotions and impulses are being acted on or repressed by its inhabitants? (For example, on page 46, Cecilia lights a cigarette as she descends the staircase, "knowing that she would not have dared had her father been home.")  

2.  A passion for order, a lively imagination, and a desire for attention seem to be Briony's strongest traits.  Why does the scene she witnesses at the fountain change her whole perspective on writing?  What is the significance of the passage in which she realises she needs to work from the idea that "other people are as real as you"? 

(On page 36, during a break in the rehearsals of her play, Briony wonders: "was everyone else really as alive as she was?  For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was?"  Then on page 40, Briony thinks to herself that "[in her stories] there did not have to be a moral.  She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive.  It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.  And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value.  That was the only moral a story needed to have.")

3.  What kind of person is Emily Tallis?  Who, if anyone, is the moral authority in this family?

4.  What symbolic role does Uncle Clem's precious vase play in the novel?  Is it significant that the vase is glued together by Cecilia, and broken finally during the war by Betty as she readies the house to accept evacuees?

5.  Why is Robbie's uncensored letter so offensive within the social context in which it is read?  (It is read first by Briony, then Cecilia, then later Briony - without Cecelia's permission - shows it to the police, her brother Leon and her mother.  It is also read by Paul Marshall).  Why is Cecilia not offended by it?  

6.  The scene in the library (page 135 - 138) is one of the most provocative and moving descriptions of sex in recent fiction. (Do you agree?  Have you read anything more 'provocative' recently?).  How does the fact that it is narrated from Robbie's point of view affect how the reader feels about what happens to him shortly afterwards?  Is it understandable that Briony, looking on, perceives this act of love as an act of violence?

7.  Why does Briony stick to her story with unwavering committment?  At what point does she develop the empathy to realise what she has done to Cecilia and Robbie?

8.  How does Leon, with his life of 'agreeable nullity' (page 103), compare with Robbie in terms of honor, intelligence and ambition?  What are the ironies inherent in the comparative situations of the three young men present - Leon, Paul Marshall, and Robbie?

9.  Lola has a critical role in the story's plot.  What are her motivations?  Why does Briony decide not to confront Lola and Paul Marshall at their wedding five years later?

10.  What aspects of Atonement make it so powerful as a war novel?  What details heighten the emotional impact in the scenes of the Dunkirk retreat and Briony's experience at the military hospital?

11.  When Robbie, Mace and Nettle reach the beach at Dunkirk, they intervene in an attack on an RAF man who has become a scapegoat for the soldiers' sense of betrayal and rage.  How does this act of group violence relate to the moral problems that war creates for soldiers, and the events Robbie feels guilty about as he falls asleep at Bray Dunes?  (On page 262, as he falls asleep, Robbie feels guilt for walking past the dismembered leg of a small boy and not giving the boy's remains a proper burial.  He also starts to feel guilty for not saving a Flemish woman and her child, though he sort of talks himself out of that guilt because he did try to save them.)

12. Is Briony's novel effective, in her own conscience, as an act of atonement?  Does the completed novel compel the reader to forgive her?

There are more questions at www.