Check It Out Category: Literary

Book Discussion Questions: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale book coverTitle: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Page Count: 311 pages
Genre: Dystopian Fiction, Literary Fiction
Tone: Complex, Introspective, Disturbing, Reflective

Summary:
Offred, a Handmaid, describes life in what was once the United States, now the Republic of Gilead, a shockingly repressive and intolerant monotheocracy. It is set in the near future in which women are no longer allowed to read and are valued only as long as they are viable for reproduction.

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. Did you find this book relatable and believable, or did you find it far-fetched as Mary McCarthy did in her 1986 New York Times’ book review? What triggered the rise of this theonomy in the pre-Gilead United States? What part did infertility and declining birthrates play? Is this a realistic premise?

2. Let’s talk about taking away the credit cards and freezing the bank assets. Did you understand Offred and her husband Luke’s reaction to the situation? Did you understand Luke’s reasoning that he would be able to help her in spite of the government restrictions? In times of sudden conflict, do people generally try to rationalize rather than react swiftly? Could Offred and Luke have done anything to stop what happened after the coup? As the U. S. government was collapsing, why didn’t Luke and Offred do more to escape?

3. If you read this in 1986 when it was written, would anything resonate differently for you? Did anyone read this long ago? Is history repeating itself, or why has this story made a comeback?

4. What accounts for the Commander’s interest in Offred? Is it genuine? Is genuine possible in Gilead?

5. What do you think of Moira’s placement at the brothel? Why was she not simply killed or made to work in the radioactive fields? What happens to strong women who don’t follow the crowd? Is it different than what happens to strong men who don’t follow the crowd?

6. In this novel handmaids no longer have unique names, but are given the name of the male head of the household, e.g. Of-Fred, Offred. How is that effective in eliminating these women’s identity? Is there any modern day custom in our culture that is similar? What are your thoughts about that?

7. Author Margaret Atwood said, “I didn’t put in anything that we haven’t already done, we’re not already doing, we’re seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress… So all of those things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil.” What means of effective oppression previously used in history did the rulers of Gilead use to keep their system in place?

8. Why, if many of the novel’s plot points were literally true, would people have difficulty finding them believable or relatable?

9. Let’s talk about Serena Joy, the commander’s wife. How did you feel about her? What made her who she was? Talk about her life before Gilead? Was this what she wanted, did she “buy into” the premise of Gilead? Did she have more of voice that the handmaids? Did she have a better position?

10. Ofglen is the first character Offred meets who is a part of the resistance. How does she know Offred would be a potential member of the resistance? Why would any handmaid not be a part of the resistance?

11. How did you feel religion was handled in this book? It is a missive against religion? Atwood said the people running Gilead are “”not really interested in religion; they’re interested in power.” Do you agree?

12. How would you classify this book?

13. As Anna Sheffer writes in The Epilogue of the Handmaid’s Tale Changes Everything You Thought You Knew About the Book, “Pieixoto himself describes the process of naming the transcribed document, saying that “all puns were intentional, particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail; that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of Gileadean society.” The two male researchers take full advantage of their ability to title the manuscript and bestow on it a cheeky name that alludes to and, by making a pun, mocks Offred’s sexual servitude.” How does that make you feel?

14. Offred’s true identity was never discovered, but the commander was believed to have been one of two men, both of whom were glorified for their services to Gilead. How does that resonate with the way in which history is communicated? Does that weaken Offred’s story?

15. This book was written in a way that was less polished and more disjointed than other Atwood books. Why might that be? What is the book supposed to be? How did Offred communicate her story?

16. There was not much written about the powerful people at the top of the government who ran Gilead? Why would that be? In this story we are looking back a couple hundred years in the past. How does that vantage point affect what we’ve learned? How is history illuminated or distorted by the way it is told? Who usually writes history?

17. Are you glad you read this story? Why or why not?

Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!

OTHER RESOURCES:

Why The Handmaid’s Tale Is So Relevant Today” via The BBC
“The Epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale Changes Everything You Thought You Knew About the Book” via Electric Lit
interview with Forbes: “Author Margaret Atwood On Why ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Resonates in 2018
New York Times 1986 book review
SparkNotes literary guide
Margaret Atwood’s official author website
LitLovers discussion guide
Literary Hub interview with Margaret Atwood

READALIKES:

When She Woke book coverWhen She Woke
by Hillary Jordan

1984 book cover1984
by George Orwell

The Silence of the Girls book coverThe Silence of the Girls
by Pat Barker

The Swallows of Kabul book coverThe Swallows of Kabul
by Yasmina Khadra

Future Home of the Living God book coverFuture Home of the Living God
by Louise Erdrich

Brave New World book coverBrave New World
by Aldous Huxley

Books: August Is Women In Translation Month

Books are universal, and as global readers we have translators to thank for bringing great books to us from around the world. August is Women in Translation month, and as such here are some of our favorite authors who have had their words translated into English.

LaDivineLaDivine Book Cover by Marie NDiaye (French)

Clarisse Riviere’s life is shaped by a refusal to admit to her husband Richard and to her daughter Ladivine that her mother is a poor black housekeeper. Instead, weighed down by guilt, she pretends to be an orphan, visiting her mother in secret and telling no-one of her real identity as Malinka, daughter of Ladivine Sylla. In time, her lies turn against her.

 

 

 

In the Midst of WinterIn the Midst of Winter Book Cover by Isabel Allende (Spanish)

Richard Bowmaster—a 60-year-old human rights scholar—hits the car of Evelyn Ortega—a young, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala—in the middle of a snowstorm in Brooklyn. What at first seems just a small inconvenience takes an unforeseen and far more serious turn when Evelyn turns up at the professor’s house seeking help. At a loss, the professor asks his tenant Lucia Maraz—a 62-year-old lecturer from Chile—for her advice. These three very different people are brought together in a mesmerizing story.

 

 

Convenience Store Woman Book CoverConvenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Japanese)

Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life, but is aware that she is not living up to society’s expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko’s contented stasis―but will it be for the better?

 

 

The Almond Picker Book CoverThe Almond Picker by Simonetta Hornby (Italian)

The child of poor farmers, La Mennulara became a maid for a well-to-do local family when she was only a girl; by dint of hard work and intelligence, she became the indispensable administrator of the family’s affairs. Still, she was a mere servant, and now (as this story begins) she is dead. As the details unfold about this mysterious woman, The Almond Picker assumes the witty suspense of a thriller, the emotional power of a love story, and the evocative atmosphere of a historical novel.

 

 

 

S. A Novel Book CoverS., A Novel About the Balkans by Slavenka Drakulic (Serbo-Croatian)

Set in 1992, during the height of the Bosnian war, S. reveals one of the most horrifying aspects of any war: the rape and torture of civilian women by occupying forces. S. is the story of a Bosnian woman in exile who has just given birth to an unwanted child—one without a country, a name, a father, or a language. The birth only reminds her of an even more grueling experience: being repeatedly raped by Serbian soldiers in the “women’s room” of a prison camp. Through a series of flashbacks, S. relives the unspeakable crimes she has endured, and in telling her story—timely, strangely compelling, and ultimately about survival—depicts the darkest side of human nature during wartime.

 

 

Beyond Illusions Book CoverBeyond Illusions by Duong Thu Huong (Vietnamese)

A brilliantly spun tale of a young woman who marries her professor because she so admires his idealism. When he sells out everything he believes in order to support her, her love goes. Only when they are both beyond illusions can they try again for a real relationship. Deeply lyrical and wholly believable, this novel is illuminated by the haunting language and unflinching honesty.

Summer Reading: Destination A – Read a New-To-You Author

Have you taken up this summer’s challenge of Reading Takes You Everywhere? If Destination A: Read a Book Written by a New-to-You Author is a stop on your journey, perhaps one of these books will get you there! Check out the first lines of these five books to see if any pique your interest.

“I was happy then.”
American War by Omar El Akkad

 

“Would you like me to repeat the question?”
My Sister’s Bones by Nuala Ellwood

 


“He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview.”
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

 

“The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school.”
The Leavers by Lisa Ko

 

“The match struck and sputtered.”
Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

Book Discussion Questions: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

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?

Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!

OTHER RESOURCES:

Paulette Jiles Rides the Dangerous Trails of 1870s Texas” via The Sacramento Bee
Can a 10-year-old Girl Ever Recover from Years in Captivity?” via The Washington Post
interview with The Dallas News: “Paulette Jiles Explains the Apocalyptic Influence on Her Acclaimed Texas Frontier Novel
National Book Award Finalist content, including author reading, interview, and judges’ citation
New York Times book review
Paulette Jiles official author website
LitLovers discussion guide

READALIKES:

Bohemian Girl book coverBohemian Girl
by Terese Svoboda

True Grit book coverTrue Grit
by Charles Portis

Far as the Eye Can See book coverFar As the Eye Can See
by Robert Bausch

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?

Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!

OTHER RESOURCES:

NPR article, “Immigration and Infertility Bring Two Mothers Over One ‘Lucky Boy'”
Public Radio International article, “The Novel ‘Lucky Boy’ and a Timely Story of Immigration and Motherhood”
Q&A with author Shanti Sekaran
Discussion Guide from LitLovers
Video: author Shanthi Sekaran shares at UC Berkeley
Book review from New York Journal of Books

READALIKES:

A House for Happy Mothers book coverA House for Happy Mothers
by Amulya Malladi

Lawn Boy book coverLawn Boy
by Jonathan Evison

The Same Sky
by Amanda Eyre Ward

Cathleen’s Pick: Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

Cathleen staff picks photoIt’s a hard fall from corporate mogul to sanitorium resident, but Henry Dunbar brought this on himself. In a play for adoration, he gave up control of his company, and now those he rewarded have left him with nothing. Both clever re-imagining of King Lear and contemporary morality tale, Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar exposes the heart of a once-heartless man.

Black History Month Spotlight: Yaa Gyasi

February is here, and with it comes our celebration of Black History Month. This year we will be casting a spotlight on various African American authors you might not yet be familiar with, though their literary contributions are important to recognize.

Yaa Gyasi author photo

Our first author spotlight is on Yaa Gyasi, who won the 2017 PEN/Hemingway award for her book Homegoing. Born in Ghana and raised in the United States (where she lived for a time in Illinois before moving to Alabama), Ms. Gyasi holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Stanford University and a Master of Fine Arts from the Univeristy of Iowa’s Iowa Writer’s Workshop. According to her publisher, Penguin Random House, the five books that inspired Ms. Gyasi are Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.

Homegoing book coverGhana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing  follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation. (Penguin Random House)

Staff Pick: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

Rachel from South Branch suggests The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

The Book of Unknown Americans book coverThe Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez, is written as a series of interconnected stories, each of which could stand on its own. The book tells the story of several immigrant families from countries in Central and South America who end up in Delaware. We learn their backstory, what brought them to the US, and a little about how they got here, as well as getting a vivid picture of what life here is like for them living as immigrants in a country with a culture and language so distinct from their own and one in which immigrants are not always openly welcomed.

The families all live in the same apartment complex, owned by another immigrant, and their lives are at once interconnected and isolated, each family with its own challenges and obstacles to overcome. The core of the stories involve a family who comes to the US to provide educational opportunities to their daughter, who was brain damaged in an accident, and her relationship with the son of another tenant. At the same time, Henríquez interweaves this story with that of the other tenants, who face language barriers, economic hardship, and discrimination, among other challenges.

Henríquez’s writing draws you into the lives of her characters and you feel their disappointments and frustration and their small moments of joy as well. When you finish the book, you will be left hoping there will be a second book so you can continue following their stories.

Like this? Try These!

Girl in Translation book cover
Girl in Translation
by Jean Kwok
Emigrating with her mother from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, Kimberly Chang begins a secret double life as an exceptional schoolgirl during the day and sweatshop worker at night, an existence also marked by her first crush and the pressure to save her family from poverty.
A Manual for Cleaning Women book cover
A Manual for Cleaning Women
by Lucia Berlin
Taking place in the American Southwest, an anthology of short stories, celebrating the author’s trademark blend of humor and melancholy, finds miracles in everyday life and uncovers moments of grace in cafeterias, laundromats, homes of the upper class and hotel dining rooms..

 

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents book coverHow the García Girls Lost Their Accents
by Julia Alvarez
Forced to flee their native Caribbean island after an attempted coup, the Garcias–Carlos, Laura, and their four daughters–must learn a new way of life in the Bronx, while trying to cling to the old ways that they loved.
We Never Asked for Wings book coverWe Never Asked for Wings
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
After fourteen years of working multiple jobs to make ends meet, Letty Espinosa must learn to be a mother when her parents, who have been raising Letty’s teenage son and six-year-old daughter, decide to return to Mexico.
The Leavers book coverThe Leavers
by Lisa Ko
One morning, eleven-year-old Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job and never comes home. Deming is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town. This is a poignant story of a boy who struggles to find his footing in a new world. It’s also an unflinching look at the difficult decisions a mother faces.

Readalikes for “Cat Person”

Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story that went viral, “Cat Person,” has sparked long arguments on social media, think pieces, declarations that Roupenian is genius for shedding light on something hard to characterize and critiques that her story is too commonplace and not worth the attention. A major draw to the story for many readers is Roupenian’s ability to sink into the mind of a twenty-year-old woman and tell the story of a potential budding relationship with a thirty-four year old man from her perspective. If that close narration was something you enjoyed about “Cat Person,” one of these female-focused story collections is bound to strike your fancy.

Her Body and Other Parties book coverHer Body and Other Parties
by Carmen Maria Machado
An eclectic range of stories exploring womanhood, power, and more.
Single-Carefree-Mellow book coverSingle, Carefree, Mellow
Katherine Heiny
Most of the women in these stories are not single, carefree, or mellow, resulting in a fascinating look at how complex the mind can be.
no one belongs here more than you book coverNo One Belongs Here More Than You
Miranda July
July draws close to the inner workings of her characters in this quirky collection.
Barbara the Slut book coversBarbara the Slut and Other People
Lauren Holmes
Taking slices out of life, Holmes mixes humor with the unexpected for a spread of wildly different personalities and situations.

Fiction: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Following four lives in a small Italian villa at the end of World War II, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje solemnly paints the emotional aftermath of war. The story has accumulated several awards between the book winning the Booker Prize and the film sweeping the 1997 Academy Awards with nine awards, including best picture.