Elena Ferrante is an Italian author with three previous novels; this one being the first of a series called the Neapolitan Novels. The book jacket claims she is one of Italy’s greatest storytellers. I looked forward to learning how the lives of the two main characters also told ‘the story of a neighbourhood, a city and a country undergoing momentous change.’
- Did you you find it noticeable that the language had been translated into English from the Italian original? Perhaps it was more noticeable as we began to read then became familiar? What specific wording or idioms stood out?
- What did you think of the main character’s declaration that she felt ‘no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence’? Did you find the scenes of women fighting with each other and men beating their families harrowing or typical of that time and place? How do men and women fall into the character’s stereotypical categories: ‘…men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end’?
- Why does Elena become infatuated with Lila? How does Elena’s perception of Lila affect her life’s path? Are either of the girls autonomous? How do they compete for superiority in various realms of life and who wins?
- Why do you think the author provides milestones in the story by stating things like, ‘then something momentous happened,’ or ‘during that period, things changed,’ or ‘as soon as that happened, I knew things would not be the same’? Do these help move the story along or give a sense of timing to the narrative?
- Who is the brilliant friend, Lila or Elena?
- How does climate play a role in the story? Do the hot temperatures of Naples affect the characters’ behaviour, perhaps reflecting fiery tempers? What impact do the weather descriptions have, such as ‘I went out into the heat that lay on the neighbourhood like a hand swollen with fever in that season …’ ?
- How does the relationship between Elena and Lila reflect Italy’s culture and society? What is Elena trying to express when she relates her learning about Greek writings with her life: ‘I associated it with our dirty streets, the dusty gardens, the countryside disfigured by new buildings, the violence in every house, every family’ ?
- What larger entities or concepts do Don Achille and the Solaras represent?
- The book cover includes a quote describing My Brilliant Friend as a ‘bildungsroman,’ which means a novel of formation, education or coming-of-age story. How does Ferrante’s story fit this definition?
John Steinbeck has been my favorite author for a long time so I’m not sure why it has taken me until now to read this gem. Especially as an American living abroad, I was moved by Steinbeck’s impressions of my country as he encountered people from all walks of life. I can’t say that he paints a flattering picture, but his honest reflections remind us about the issues the nation struggles with even now.
- What role did Charley play in Steinbeck’s travels and the stories he told? How would the memoir have been different if Steinbeck had traveled alone or had not written about his canine companion?
- What were the most memorable scenes in the journey for you? Mine was the depiction of Wisconsin, the dairy state. Steinbeck’s recollection that ‘Cheese was everywhere’ rang very true.
- Did Steinbeck show us aspects of America’s regions and people in ways we might miss if we visited? How did he elicit so much from each person he spoke with on his journey?
- Steinbeck states a few times in the book that he started the journey the find out about America. Do you think he went on the trip with pre-conceived attitudes and opinions about the nation and its people? Was he trying to prove or disprove any particular theories?
- What identifying characteristics of Americans did Steinbeck encounter across the regions he visited? Do you agree that Americans display these traits wherever they live, even outside of America?
- This memoir of Steinbeck’s journey around America focuses more on the Northeast, Midwest and West. Toward the end of his trip, he writes only a little about the South. What impression does this leave with the reader about this region?
- Have you ever thought about or felt a desire to travel the way Steinbeck does across a country? I admired his self-contained vehicle, Rocinante, but wondered if I would miss room service!
- Much has been written about Steinbeck as an author and, in particular, about this book. Did ‘Travels with Charley’ make you want to read more of his work, or read more about his travels?
This book was recommended by a friend with excellent taste in books so I knew it would be good. Several of Nathaniel Philbrick’s books are about the sea and he persuades us to jump aboard the whaleship Essex with authority and charm. I loved the historical accuracy of the true story that inspired Moby Dick and the ‘Ideas, interviews & features’ at the back of the book provides even more learning resources.
- What did you learn about Nantucket and New England that you didn’t know before?
- How does Philbrick explain the characters’ backgrounds and motivations in a way that’s relevant to us today?
- Did you feel any sympathy for the whalers even though they were engaged in a grisly industry? Is it possible to respect them for their knowledge and skill despite how they used their talents?
- As tensions rise on the Essex, much drama unfolds among the crew. Is there an equivalent to this type of group dynamic on shore? Do people still display the fear, greed, panic and heroism shown by some of the crew?
- What type of person would have been drawn to the whaling trade? Do other hunters need that level of bravery in the face of such ferocious and gigantic prey?
- What do you think led to the sperm whale attack of 1820 described in the book? Do you think Philbrick asserts a particular reasoning? What are the other potential outcomes?
- What lessons did whalers learn from the string of disasters that happened on Essex?
- How would modern explorers respond in a similar situation?
- Which scenes were the most difficult to read? Did you finish the book feeling grateful for the solid ground under your feet?
- Why are we compelled to read about disasters such as this dramatic sea story? What do we learn about human behaviour from the crew of the Essex?
Who would have thought that a group of women in Chiswick would have chosen a sports memoir for book group and loved it so much? Well, some in the group are actually quite sporty and into rowing themselves. But it came as a surprise to me. I was drawn in by the extraordinary perseverance of the young rowers. So much that I recall having to tell my children to make their own dinner because I was in the middle of a dramatic and suspenseful race scene. Well done to Daniel James Brown for weaving a compelling sports drama through the Depression and Hitler’s Germany.
- How did the author evoke time and place throughout the book, particularly the desperately poor conditions of Joe’s childhood?
- How did Joe’s experiences exploring forests and working with lumber add to his respect for the shells used for rowing?
- How did the depiction of Nazi Germany just before the war add to your knowledge of that period in history? Did you think more could have been done by the International Olympic Committee to uncover the discrimination and corruption?
- How would Joe and his crewmates have been different people if they had not grown up during the Depression? What impact did the crushing economic downturn have on their determination to win?
- What did George Pocock’s quotes at the beginning of each chapter add to the book?
- What role do university sports programmes play in building young students into men and women?
- Do we have a modern-day equivalent to the 1936 US Olympic rowing crew? Could we ever?
- As the story was told mostly from Joe’s perspective, was there a voice you missed? Another character whose perspective would have added to the descriptions of events?
- What do you think motivated Judy, Joe’s daughter, to tell this story through the author?
- What makes ‘underdog’ stories so compelling? Why do we root for the plucky team coming up from the back and why are we so thrilled to see them overcome adversity?
Anne Tyler’s writing is so accessible and this story is no exception. We’re asked to believe, or at least observe, the protagonist’s visions of his recently departed wife. Following the trail of the characters’ courtship and marriage lets us wonder why we fall in love and what happens if the loved one disappears.
- Did you have a particular reaction to the story because it was told from a man’s perspective? Did the internal dialogue ring true? How might it have been different from a woman’s point of view?
- Where did your sympathies lie, with Aaron or Dorothy? Did you recognise their feelings?
- Could you believe that Aaron really saw and spoke to Dorothy after she died? What did you feel toward Aaron when he reported these sightings?
- What would have motivated Dorothy to come back and visit Aaron after her death? As Aaron suggests, did one of them or both have ‘unfinished business?’
- Why do you think the author chose the title, ‘The Beginner’s Goodbye?’ Did you think Aaron was consciously saying goodbye to Dorothy through the story?
- Why did the author include Nandina’s story line? How was her life juxtaposed against Aaron’s? Was it important for Aaron to see his sister in a relationship/moving on after Dorothy’s death?
- What impression did you have of Aaron regarding his desire not to be ‘mothered’ or comforted by the women in his life? Was this pretence or a genuine need? How was his life built around this need?
- What role did Aaron’s work colleagues play in the story? How did each of them help him move through his grief?
- What did you think of Aaron’s male friends who offered support? How did Gil, Luke and Nate help Aaron?
- How did you feel about Aaron and Peggy at the end of the story? What purpose did it serve to describe Aaron in a parental role? How had the characters changed over time?
Liane Moriarty’s story was a winner in our book group. The characters were recognisable even though they were dealing with secrets beyond any of our experiences. Issues of sisterhood, forgiveness and parental guilt gave us plenty to discuss.
- What did you think of the chapter structure moving you through the days of the week?
- How did the image on the front cover of a butterfly in a jar relate to the story?
- Was this story set only in the described time period or could the same tale have been told during a different timeframe?
- Was this story particular to Australia or could the book have taken place in another location?
- Did you relate to or sympathize with any of the characters? Why or why not?
- How did the story focus on mistakes that had been made by the characters? Did the characters expect forgiveness? Were they prepared to live with being unforgiven? How did this expectation or state of being unforgiven add to the tension in the story?
- Were the characters able to keep secrets without impacting their lives? Did any of the characters feel it was better not to tell their secrets?
- What role did stereotypes play in the story? How much did you expect particular characters to be found guilty or not guilty? Did any of the characters fall prey to their prejudices about other characters?
- Did you think any of the characters were putting up a façade or false front to portray their lives in a particular way? Why did they not tell other characters how they really felt or what they really knew?
- What did you think of the sister relationship in the story? Would it have survived the events described?
What a spot-on title! This story of high-powered Sherman McCoy brought to his knees by greed and arrogance is one of Tom Wolfe’s classics. Some in book group felt it was too long and I’d have to agree that it takes a while to read. But it’s worth your time for the incisive and vivid writing.
- Was this story of vanity and greed timeless or does it only work in the 1980’s?
- Similarly, did the story need to be set in New York or could it have worked anywhere else?
- How does Bonfire of the Vanities compare to other Tom Wolfe novels?
- How does the author paint a picture of particular scenes to elevate the dialogue and action?
- What were your favourite scenes where the story was brought to life? Mine involved Styrofoam peanuts, the pronunciation of ‘Shuhman,’ the shoe shine man, guests laughing at the dinner party and Sherman’s father as the lion of Wall Street.
- How did the depiction of the Bronx judicial system add to the complexity of the story? Did the hierarchy of the characters there reflect the class structure in Sherman’s world?
- What role did politics play in Sherman’s undoing?
- At the beginning of the story, Sherman’s identity is constructed from his wealth, reputation, power and class. Is he the same person at the end of the story? How does he define himself differently?
- The journalist Peter Fallow is portrayed as a feckless drunk. Is this deserved? What stereotypes are played upon within Peter’s story line? Do other characters fit neatly into stereotypical categories?
- Is there such a thing as an accidental crime?
- Is Bonfire of the Vanities a story of good vs evil? Is Sherman evil or a good person?
- How would you have responded in a similar situation?
Reading is a treat for me. I’ve always been a bookworm ever since I was small and my mother worked in a bookstore. She brought home treasures full of daring characters and exotic worlds that encouraged my imagination to escape from the everyday.
I still love the comfort of a good book and now I can dive even deeper into stories by discussing them with my book group. Someone suggested that I come up with a few questions for our get togethers, so I’m sharing our guides here.
Caitlin Moran wrote a column describing reading as an act of co-creation with authors. I loved her description of reading as the ‘firing of your neurones that makes every book come alive.’ I agree that reading is not just a passive hobby and hope my suggestions help you become an active participant in your books!