Monday, March 29, 2010

The Secret River

This is a refreshing look at Aboriginal and colonial clashes. this time the colonisers have unexpected origins and the reader is torn between levels of sympathy with  the protagonist's predicament, background and aspirations and total lack of comprehension for a culture so different in a land so far away and contempt and loathing for most of the protagonists peers. The tale takes a very nasty turn after the women and children begin to tentatively and respectfully reach out.
  1. Grenville handles this issue with intelligence and wisdom. Not only does she put a human face on this dark past, she makes you wonder what would you do if you were put in the same situation, living in a strange land where all the rules have been thrown out the window and the only way you can convince your wife that this slice of paradise is worth holding onto is to make her world safe by any means possible. Are Thornhill's actions logical and understandable? Do you think that this situation would be true of the time and his reactions to it, does Sal seem a believable persona for the times?
2. The dilemna faces by the main character, William Thornhill, is all too real -- even if, tempered by hindsight and 200 years of supposed civilisation, do you agree with his decisions or actions?

3. What constitutes crime and how should criminals be punished?, at what point should a man fight for what he believes in?; when does land ownership become a right and not a provilage?do you have a right to defend your property by force?; and how should one handle cultures in collusion?

4. Grenville has depicted this book without contemporary moralising or political correctness therefore the only real moral centre of the book is Blackwood, whose refrain throughout  is "Give a little, take a little, that's the only way"  Is this correct? Or is there no moral basis at all?

5. Is there an inevitability that the two cultures couldn't live together? There was a chance to learn but fear took over, the native Australian culture just couldn't have absorbed the settlers comfortably, do you think that's the case?

6. Do we have difficulty in facing our history of colonialism and indigenous society? Does the emerging conservative belief of Australian history by various political groups colour the way The Secret river is read? Do we find it easier to view history as an inevitability rather than a choice, and does this effect how the indigenous population is viewed today?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Beware these questions may give some of the story away so you may want to read them after you have finished the book

1. In Susie's Heaven, she is surrounded by things that bring her peace. What would your Heaven be like? Is it surprising that in Susie's inward, personal version of the hereafter there is no God or larger being that presides?

2. Why does Ruth become Susie's main connection to Earth? Was it accidental that Susie touched Ruth on her way up to Heaven, or was Ruth actually chosen to be Susie's emotional conduit?

3. Rape is one of the most alienating experiences imaginable. Susie's rape ends in murder and changes her family and friends forever. Alienation is transferred, in a sense, to Susie's parents and siblings. How do they each experience loneliness and solitude after Susie's death?

4. Why does the author include details about Mr. Harvey's childhood and his memories of his mother? By giving him a human side, does Sebold get us closer to understanding his motivation? Sebold explained in an interview about the novel that murderers "are not animals but men," and that is what makes them so frightening. Do you agree?

5. Discuss the way in which guilt manifests itself in the various characters - Jack, Abigail, Lindsay, Mr. Harvey, Len Fenerman.

6. "Pushing on the inbetween" is how Susie describes her efforts to connect with those she has left behind on Earth. Have you ever felt as though someone was trying to communicate with you from "the inbetween"?

7. Does Buckley really see Susie, or does he make up a version of his sister as a way of understanding, and not being too emotionally damaged by, her death? How do you explain tragedy to a child? Do you think Susie's parents do a good job of helping Buckley comprehend the loss of his sister?

8. Susie is killed just as she was beginning to see her mother and father as real people, not just as parents. Watching her parents' relationship change in the wake of her death, she begins to understand how they react to the world and to each other. How does this newfound understanding affect Susie?

9. Can Abigail's choice to leave her family be justified?

10. Why does Abigail leave her dead daughter's photo outside the Chicago Airport on her way back to her family?

11. Susie observes that "The living deserve attention, too." She watches her sister, Lindsay, being neglected as those around her focus all their attention on grieving for Susie. Jack refuses to allow Buckley to use Susie's clothes in his garden. When is it time to let go?

12. Susie's Heaven seems to have different stages, and climbing to the next stage of Heaven requires her to remove herself from what happens on Earth. What is this process like for Susie?

13. In The Lovely Bones, adult relationships (Abigail and Jack, Ray's parents) are dysfunctional and troubled, whereas the young relationships (Lindsay and Samuel, Ray and Susie, Ray and Ruth) all seem to have depth, maturity, and potential. What is the author saying about young love? About the trials and tribulations of married life?

14. Is Jack Salmon allowing himself to be swallowed up by his grief? Is there a point where he should have let go? How does his grief process affect his family? Is there something admirable about holding on so tightly to Susie's memory and not denying his profound sadness?

15. Ray and Susie's final physical experience (via Ruth's body) seems to act almost as an exorcism that sweeps away, if only temporarily, Susie's memory of her rape. What is the significance of this act for Susie, and does it serve to counterbalance the violent act that ended Susie's life?

16. Alice Sebold seems to be saying that out of tragedy comes healing. Susie's family fractures and comes back together, a town learns to find strength in each other. Do you agree that good can come of great trauma?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


1. What does Azaire's conduct as a businessman say about his character, and what is Stephen's response to it? How does Azaire's treatment of the men who work for him reflect his treatment of his wife?

2. Does Stephen see Isabelle as a captive? Does she see herself the same way?

3. Why does Isabelle leave Stephen? How does her departure affect his identity as a soldier, the way he approaches the war, and the manner in which he conducts himself during it?

4. What premonitions of war and death does Faulks give us in the 1910 section of the book? Where and when does Stephen have visions of death within the lush beauty of prewar Picardy? Do you feel that these visions are simple premonitions, or is the predisposition to such images a part of Stephen's character?

5. How would you describe the character of Jack Firebrace? What do his letters to Margaret reveal about his character, his values, his code of behavior?

6. The soldiers tend to forget very quickly the names and characters of their friends who die. Do you find this shocking?

7. Throughout the war, Stephen feels a real hatred for the enemy. Do you believe that this hatred is genuine, or that Stephen has persuaded himself of it so as to give meaning and order to his existence? How does the fact that it is German soldiers who ultimately rescue him change his life--and theirs?

8. In the life of the trenches, Stephen reflects, "There was only violent death or life to choose between; finer distinctions, such as love, preference, or kindness, were redundant". This is Stephen's view of events, reading his story. Do you find that the soldiers have really lost their sense of finer distinctions?

9. Stephen and Weir enjoy an unlikely but intense friendship. What is it about Weir's character that makes Stephen love him more than any of the others? Does Stephen change in any way after Weir's death?

10. Elizabeth is spurred on in her research by a feeling of the "danger of losing touch with the past". Does her ignorance of recent history surprise you, or do you find it characteristic of her generation? Do you find that you, and the people around you, are similarly detached from the past?

11. What does Elizabeth, the granddaughter, represent? And her baby? In what ways does history repeat itself in her life?

12. Why has the author set this story about war against the backdrop of a passionate affair? Explore the various parallels drawn between desire and death, love and war, in the novel. In what ways are the love scenes similar to some of the battle scenes?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

1. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in a food market that had been erected above the Cimetire des Innocents, the "most putrid spot in the whole kingdom". He barely escapes death at his birth; his mother would have let him die among the fish guts as she had her four other children. But Grenouille miraculously survives. How would you relate the circumstances of his birth to the life he grows up to live?

2.Throughout the novel, Grenouille is likened to a tick. Why do you think Süskind chose this analogy? In what ways does Grenouille behave like a tick? What does this analogy reveal about his character that a more straightforward description would not?

3. What motivates Grenouille to commit his first murder? What does he discover about himself and his destiny ater he has killed the red-haired girl?

4. Do the descriptions of life in eighteenth-century France--the crowded quarters, the unsanitary conditions, the treatment of orphans, the punishment of criminals, etc.--surprise you? How are these conditions related to the ideals of enlightenment, reason, and progress that figure so prominently in eighteenth-century thinking?

5. The narrator remarks, "Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it" [p. 82]. Do you think this is true? Why would an odor have such power? In what ways does Grenouille use this power to his advantage?

6. Does Suskind manage to make Grenouille a sympathetic character, in spite of his murders and obsessions? Or do you find him wholly repellent? to what extent do his exoperiences shape his behaviour? Or do you think he is inherently evil?

7. Grenouille becomes, toward the end of the novel, a kind of olfactory vampire, killing young women to rob them of their scents. "What he coveted was the odor of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love. These were his victims" [p. 188]. Why does he need the scents of these people?

8. How do you interpret the novel's ending, as Grenouille returns to the Cimeti�re des Innocents and allows himself to be murdered and eaten by the criminals who loiter there? What ironies are suggested by the narrator's assertion that Grenouille's killers had just done something, for the first time, "out of love" [p. 255]?

9. Perfume is set in eighteenth-century France and tells an extravagant story of a man possessed with a magical sense of smell and a bizarrely destructive obsession. Do its historical setting and fantastic elements make it harder or easier to identify with? What contemporary issues and anxieties does the story illuminate?

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

As only three (of the seven) members had finished reading the book it seemed a bit pointless following the questions. Instead those who hadn't finished (or started) it gave their reasons why - Christmas preparations being one of them! The issues of bullying and the negative self esteem sat wrongly for some.

For those who had finished reading, their reasons were that they wanted to see if redemption and forgiveness were there at the end - or did Elaine fight back against her tormentors? if at all. Another wanted to see what coping strategies were used.

For me it was a bit of a journey - a bit uncomfortable in places (although thankfully I've never been buried alive etc:) ) but I felt I really needed to finish reading this particular book.