Check It Out Category: Book Groups

Book Discussion Questions: The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood

The Obituary Writer book cover

Title:  The Obituary Writer
Author:  Ann Hood
Page Count:  292 pages
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Tone:  Reflective, Melancholy, Character-driven

Summary:
On the day John F. Kennedy is inaugurated, Claire, a young wife and mother obsessed with the glamour of Jackie, struggles over the decision of whether to stay in a loveless but secure marriage or to follow the man she loves and whose baby she may be carrying. Decades earlier in 1919, Vivien Lowe, an obituary writer, is searching for her lover who disappeared in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. The surprising connection between these two women will change Claire’s life in unexpected and extraordinary ways.

SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement:  2019 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. The book is entitled THE OBITUARY WRITER, which might imply this is primarily Vivien’s story. Is that intentional? Is it true?

2. What was Vivien’s approach to writing obituaries?

  • What is appealing about this?
  • Were you surprised we weren’t shown any of the obituaries she wrote?
  • How does her role in helping family members to find peace with loss contrast to her own situation?
  • When was this difficult for her, and did this make sense to you?
  • Would you want someone like Vivien to write your story? Why?

3. In an interview Hood references the challenge of using alternating point of views, “that the reader has to reach the end of each section wanting to stay in that time and place every time…I needed the reader to not want to leave Vivien when her section ended, then not want to leave Claire. Every time.”

  • In your opinion, was she successful?
  • Were you equally invested in Claire’s and Vivien’s stories?

4. Were there other characters you were interested to see make additional appearances? Lotte? Kay Pendleton (librarian)? Sebastian? What did each add to the overall narrative?

5. What about the male characters in general?

  • What roles did they play in the story?
  • Is there messaging that can be read into how they were depicted, either individually or collectively?
  • Would you have been interested in learning more about any?

6. How is the topic of infidelity portrayed in the book?

7. Did you suspect that David might indeed be alive? Were you disappointed to learn he was not?

8. The novel is bookended with news of Dougie Daniels.

  • What happened in the beginning of the book? What impact did that have on Claire?
  • When and how does his story re-enter the narrative near the end? What were the ramifications there?

9. In your opinion, do Claire and Vivien bear responsibility for the lives they have? Do you think they own their choices or blame circumstances? Do they take responsibility for the consequences? Should they?

10. In 2002, author Ann Hood lost her 5-year-old daughter unexpectedly to a virulent form of strep throat, an experience she later shared in Comfort: A Journey Through Grief (2008). In what ways might this insight illuminate events or characters in The Obituary Writer (2013)?

11. What difference does it make to different characters that the baby Claire loses was Peter’s? How might the story have been different if it weren’t?

12. Did you guess the connection between the stories of Claire and Vivien?

  • At what point did you suspect and/or become certain?
  • In what ways did the revelation cause you to reflect back on the character of Birdy (or, for that matter, Vivien)?
  • Was this an earned ‘twist’ or did it feel at all contrived?

13. Did Vivien have a hopeful/happy ending to her story? Do you think Claire will?

14. What significance, if any, might there be in the names chosen for the characters? An analysis of story tropes points out interpretations of Vivien, Sebastian, and David.  Are these stretches, or do you see validity?  Any others?

15. In a letter from the author included in the Reading Group Guide, Hood explains how the premise for this novel came about. She’d been in the midst of writing what was intended to be a short story about a young wife during the Kennedy era who was questioning her role as a woman during that time. She talks of always associating the Kennedy inauguration with hopefulness, but then she was confronted with details of a long previous April and the tragedy of the San Francisco earthquake. “I wondered what would happen if I told two stories: one about the hope of January 21, 1961, and the other about the grief of April 18, 1906. In that moment, THE OBITUARY WRITER was born.”

  • How might this ‘origin story’ be surprising?
  • Do you think the effect of juxtaposing these two stories was what the author intended?

16. Why do you think so much of modern writing/publishing, especially in the realm of what might be termed ‘women’s fiction’, uses the structure of dual storylines set in different eras, often in which two seemingly separate characters must be connected somehow?

  • What’s the appeal?
  • Do you enjoy reading stories told in this way?
  • Are there any downsides?

17. The publisher describes THE OBITUARY WRITER as part literary mystery, part love story. How well does the story fit that depiction?

18. Is this a story you will remember? What do you think will stay with you?

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Book Discussion Questions: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

News of the World book cover

Title:  News of the World
Author:  Paulette Jiles
Page Count: 213 pages
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Tone:  Compelling, Lyrical, Character-driven

Summary:
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an elderly widower and itinerant news reader, is offered fifty dollars to bring an orphan girl, who was kidnapped and raised by Kiowa raiders, from Wichita Falls back to her family in San Antonio.

SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement:  2018 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. What might the experience of coming to hear a news reader be like? Did the author’s choice of having a news-reading scene be our first moments of the book help you move into the world of the story?

2. What was your initial impression of Captain Kidd? What details contributed to that impression?

3. Several commentaries offer the observation that News of the World is deceptively simple. What might this mean? Is it a compliment, or is it a neutral observation? Do you agree?

4. Which elements of a traditional Western are evident in News of the World?

5. What do we learn of Kidd’s youth? How does this inform the story? Were you glad to know more about his past?

6. From the first scene in which Johanna is introduced, we are treated to brief moments of her perceptions. How do these glimpses enhance the story? What do we learn?

7. How would you characterize Johanna’s behavior? Is it believable?

8. In what ways does Kidd try to help Johanna become ready for re-assimilation into her new life?

9. Conversely, what does Johanna teach Kidd?

10. Jiles did a great deal of research on captives. Does it show? Does her work make this a better story in any way, or would it not have been much different to either make it up or leave in the background?

11. From what we learn around the edges and from Johanna’s thoughts, would you say the Kiowa are depicted sympathetically?

12. What were some of the memorable encounters along the journey?

13. Describe the reunion between Johanna and her people. How does the Captain try to help? How is he treated?

14. After he left her with family, was the Captain right to intervene?

15. What was your reaction to the lives they created for themselves? Were you surprised? Satisfied?

16. Was John Calley a good man? How would you describe him? What were the three circumstances in which they encountered him?

17. What purpose did the talk Captain and Johanna have on her wedding day serve?

18. Several of the characters, including Britt Johnson and Captain Kidd, are based on true historical figures. Is this surprising? Does this change your perception of them at all?

19. Would you describe this as a realistic story?

20. Where in the novel does the title appear? Does it have significance beyond the literal?

21. What is the primary draw for you about this story: the setting, the bond of characters, the journey?

22. Would you describe this as a quiet novel? Why or why not?

23. What will you take away with you from this novel? What will you remember?

24. What is the significance of the line, “The bones of the Kiowa warriors did not lie in the earth but in the stories of their lives, told and retold – their bravery and daring, the death of Britt Johnson and his men, and Cicada, the little girl taken from the by the Indian Agent, Three Spotted’s little blue-eyed girl”?

25. Jiles asserts that, “using quote marks is like surrounding human speech with barbed wire.” Was the omission of quotation marks distracting or confusing?

26. Does it surprise you to learn Jiles is also a poet? Why or why not?

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Book Discussion Questions: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Title: Lucky Boy
Author:  Shanthi Sekaran
Page Count: 472 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction, Multiple Perspectives
Tone: Sympathetic, Moving

Summary:
A wrenching emotional battle ensues between Soli, an undocumented Mexican single mother, and Kavya, an Indian-American chef who cannot have children, when Soli’s infant son is placed in Kavya’s care during an immigration detention.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement:  2018 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. How would you describe Soli as a character? How would you describe Kavya? In what ways were they similar?

2. Did you relate to one woman more than the other? If so, why?

3. What was Kavya’s reasoning to keep Iggy? What was Soli’s reasoning to keep Iggy?
Who do you think Ignacio should have ended up with?

4. Do you agree with this statement? “This story, this fight for a boy—it wasn’t about the boy. It was about his mothers.”

5. Did Iggy adjust between the change in family okay?

6. Why did the author spend so much time developing the characters on their own before we get into the fight for Ignacio?

7. What makes a person privileged? How does this relate to Kavya and Soli’s stories?

8. What was Soli’s desire to move in the first place? Did anything surprise you about her journey?

9. What did you think of Soli’s employers, the Cassidy’s? Why did they have such a weird relationship with Soli?

10. Does Kavya’s love for Iggy change her understanding of heritage? Does it change her husband’s and parents’ understanding of heritage?

11. Is Silvia a good role model for Soli? Why or why not?

12. Is Silvia’s lie forgivable?

13. Was this an accurate portrayal of motherhood?

14. We explore a lot about Soli and Kavya as mothers. What about their own mothers? How do they act as mothers?

15. Between all of the characters, is there any version of motherhood not shared?

16. How did Rishi plan for Iggy? How did they bond?

17. Was there any symbolism with Rishi’s work with Weebie?

18. How did Kavya’s relationship with Preeti change?

19. What did you think about the scenes with the immigration detention center?

20. Does this story remind you of any stories from the news?

21. From the publisher: “Lucky Boy is an emotional journey that will leave you certain of the redemptive beauty of this world. There are no bad guys in this story, no obvious hero.” Do you agree with that?

22. Was Ignacio a lucky boy?

23. Was there anything that surprised you about this book?

24. What made these characters real rather than just symbols? Were there any characters that felt like just symbols?

25. Does the author make a moral claim/vote for what she believes is right?

26. Which character developed the most?

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Book Discussion Questions: Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain

Necessary Lies book cover

Title: Necessary Lies
Author:  Diane Chamberlain
Page Count: 343 pages
Genre:  Domestic Fiction
Tone:  Compelling, Haunting

Summary:
Set in the 1960s, the little-known North Carolina’s Eugenics Sterilization Program is brought to light as twenty-two year old Jane Forrester defies societal pressure and begins work as a social worker. Although they seem worlds apart, she becomes linked with fifteen-year-old Ivy Hart as both are haunted by tragedy and are confronted with the question, “How can you know what you believe is right, when everyone is telling you it’s wrong?”

SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement: 2017 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. In the first chapter, a woman named finds “Ivy & Mary was here” carved in the wall. Where did you think this book was going?

2. Initially we are introduced to Jane, a young woman who is getting married and is applying for a job as a social worker. What did you think about her? Did you find her character relatable?

3. What were your initial thoughts of Robert? Did you feel the same way about him throughout the book?

4. Robert desperately wants Jane to fit in, why do you think that is?

5. Out of Ivy, Nonni, Mary Ella, and baby William, who did you find to be the most sympathetic? The most interesting?

6. If you believe that Mary Ella was mentally challenged, do you think it was in Mary Ella’s best interest to have the procedure?

7. What did you think of Nonni’s ability to raise the family?

8. What did you think of Baby Williams care?

9. Did you think that Baby William should be taken away?

10. Mr. Gardiner did not want the police coming out to look for baby William (he said this was “private farm business”). Why?

11. Initially we did not know who Baby William’s father was, although fingers pointed to Eli. Did you believe that or did you have other theories?

12. Were you surprise Eli was Mary Ella’s brother?

13. How could you compare the Jordan family to the Harts? Which family was better off?

14. Lita had 4 sons and a daughter. People said all her children had a different daddy. Did that line in the book leave you with preconceived notions of her?

15. Why did you think Lita sent Sheena away?

16. What did you initially think of Henry Allen’s relationship with Ivy? Did your perspective change?

17. Jane did not love the idea of eugenics and she definitely didn’t want to do it behind her clients back.  In response to this, the director said “your self-righteousness is getting in the way of your duty to your clients.” What did you think of his comment?

18. Mary Ella wanted more children. She had no idea she had been sterilized. Jane decided to tell Mary Ella that she had been sterilized. Should she have? Why/Why not?

19. Why did Mary walk in front of Mr. Gardiner’s truck?

20. Do you think Ivy would be a legitimate candidate for the procedure?

21. When Ivy is told that she is pregnant she is please by this news after the shock. She says, “thank God for this little baby”. What did you think of her reaction?

22. What did you think of Henry Allen’s reaction to the pregnancy?

23. It seems the only real difference between Henry Allen and Ivy was a class distinction. Do you think things would have worked out differently if they were both of the same socioeconomic background?

24. There was a lot that come out at Mary Ella’s funeral. What did you think when Eli disclosed that Mr. Gardiner was Baby William’s and Rodney’s father?

25. What did you think of Jane taking Ivy to her home?

26. Why was the social worker, Paula, so insistent on finding Ivy and prosecuting Jane?

27. A side story was Jane’s relationship with Lois Parker. What drew her to Lois? What did you think about their relationship?

28. How did you like the ending?

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Book Discussion Questions: The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The Nest book cover

Title:  The Nest
Author:  Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Page Count: 353 pages
Genre:  Contemporary Lit, Dysfunctional Family Fiction
Tone:  Sardonic, Moving

Summary:
Years of simmering tensions finally reach a breaking point after an ensuing accident endangers the Plumbs’ joint trust fund, which they are months away from finally receiving. Brought together as never before, Leo, Melody, Jack, and Beatrice must grapple with old resentments, present-day truths, and the significant emotional and financial toll of the accident, as well as finally acknowledge the choices they have made in their own lives.

SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement: 2017 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. Is this book funny? Is it romantic (in world-view)? One review compared it to Nancy Meyers movies – (e.g., Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated); would you agree?

2. Multiple reviews compared the opening chapter in some way to a movie-ready hook with action, sex, and drama. Was this an effective way to set the story in motion? Did you find it irresistible or off-putting?

3. In an interview with BookPage, Sweeney says she’s always described the book as being about family and that it surprised her to hear it described by other people as a book about money. Does it surprise you that she didn’t predict others’ perception?

4. In that same conversation, Sweeney points out the book has given people the opportunity to talk about something that is important in everyone’s life but rarely discussed in public. In your opinion, is this true?

5. Did you happen to learn the idea that sparked this book?

… she got the idea for the book while walking through Manhattan one day, on her way to meet her own family for brunch. “I was noticing all of these people sitting in the window with their drinks, on every street corner,” she says. “And I just had an image in my head of family members who are about to get together, but they’re having a separate drink …and the image really stuck with me. And I just started thinking about who the people would be and why they needed courage to see one another, and why they couldn’t drink in front of one of another, and what was difficult about this meeting they were about to have. And once I started started answering those questions, that’s how the story started to take shape. (NPR: All Things Considered)

What did the moments in the story prior to the lunch meeting reveal about each character?

6. Did you like spending time with the characters? Does that matter? Were there those you were more excited to read about or with whom you could better identify?

7. Were the siblings wrong to make plans for the anticipated money? Do you blame them?

From The Washington Post: An organization called Wealth-X (world’s leading ultra-high net worth intelligence firm) issued report about what it calls “looming wave of wealth transfers”.  Baby Boomers are expected to bequeath some $16 trillion to their children over the next three decades…For rich, this holds little suspense, but for upper-mid-class Americans balancing mortgage payments, tuition bills, and retirement plans on a brittle tower of monthly paychecks, this bounty looms with the promise of salvation.

Does this frame change your answer at all?

8. Is Leo believable as a character? Do you have any sympathy for him?

9. Are the Plumb characters well-rounded?

10. What about the siblings’ partners? Are the non-Plumb characters too idyllic?

11. Many readers express an affinity for Stephanie. Why do you think that is? Were you rooting for her and Leo to be together? Would you have wanted to read even more about her?

12. What about the subplots with Miranda, Vinnie, and Tommy? Were you invested in these stories as much as those of the Plumbs?

13. The New York Times Book Review piece on The Nest opens with this line: “’The Nest’ is a novel in the Squabbling Sibling genre.” Do you think of this as a genre?

14. Another behind-the-scenes tidbit:

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s agent sent her novel to publishers the Monday after Thanksgiving. As readers who had likely spent long weekends with their own dysfunctional families, he told her, they would be especially receptive to her book’s dysfunctional Plumb clan. The plan worked, and the 55-year-old’s debut landed a seven-figure advance. (The Atlantic)

Do you admire the calculated timing, or does it seem coincidental?  In your opinion would the book have been just as well received without the proximity to the holidays?

15. The Nest is about a group of privileged group of people – upper-middle-class white siblings – yet would you say that it is successful in touching on issues more universal? How so?

16. It’s also been described as a “New York novel”, a category that though lauded in literary circles is criticized for being too navel-gazing (esp. with authors and agents included!). Would you place it in this category? What makes it so? What transcends those boundaries?

17. The Nest is about inheritance, and upon hearing that word we immediately think of money, objects, or property. What about the intangibles we inherit from family? Consider the siblings and what is illustrated about how we inherit a place in a family and all that entails. What do you think?

18. Walker is fascinated that a group of adults could use the term ‘the Nest’ in all “earnestness and never even casually contemplate the twisted metaphor of the thing, and how it related to their dysfunctional behavior as individuals and a group.”(260) What did he mean?

19. Walker also observes that the issue with Leo and the money sparked a different dynamic between the siblings, that they were “making casual forays into one another’s lives”…and held out hope that they might ”…move on, try to forge relationships with one another that weren’t about the inheritance.”(261) Did you notice this, too?  Do you think this would have happened without the situation with Leo?

20. Late in the book, Melody asks, “when did Leo start hating us?…How was it so easy for him to leave?…Was it really just about money? Was it about us?”(291)  We’ve seen things from Leo’s perspective; can we answer those questions?

21. How did the scenes with Louisa and Nora add to the overall story? What, if anything, do the sisters – both individually and together (esp. as twins!) illuminate regarding family and individual dynamics?  Did you see these forays into the ‘next’ generation as distraction or complements?

22. Melody has an epiphany about herself (with Walt’s help) at the Chinese restaurant outing (300). Do you remember what she realized?  Do you think her life will be different going forward?

23. How did you feel about the final scenes of looking for Leo? About the scene from Leo’s perspective?  Should Paul or Bea or Leo have acted differently?  Did you understand their actions?

24. Were you hoping that Leo would redeem himself? Does the author’s choice seem believable?

25. Did the epilogue resolve everything a little too neatly, or did you find it satisfying?

26. NYT Critic “Janet Maslin argued that the primary flaw of the novel was that it was unable to break out of the tropes of dysfunctional family literature.” Would you agree? Whether or not you agree, did this affect your experience of the book?

27. One book podcast recommended this title for a woman who doesn’t read but who loves reality TV such as the Real Housewives franchise. In your opinion, is this a good fit?

28. To whom might you recommend this book?

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