Fiction

City of Girls

Author: 
Gilbert, Elizabeth

"Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are."

Beloved author Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret (but mostly pleasure), City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.

In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar College, owing to her lackluster freshman-year performance. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a flamboyant, crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse.

There Vivian is introduced to an entire cosmos of unconventional and charismatic characters, from the fun-chasing showgirls to a sexy male actor, a grand-dame actress, a lady-killer writer, and no-nonsense stage manager.

But when Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Ultimately, though, it leads her to a new understanding of the kind of life she craves—and the kind of freedom it takes to pursue it.

It will also lead to the love of her life, a love that stands out from all the rest.

Now eighty-nine years old and telling her story at last, Vivian recalls how the events of those years altered the course of her life—and the gusto and autonomy with which she approached it. "At some point in a woman's life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time," she muses. "After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is."

Written with a powerful wisdom about human desire and connection, City of Girls is a love story like no other. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Narrative: Elizabeth Gilbert chooses to tell Vivian’s story in the form of a letter to a younger woman, Angela. How do you think the story benefits from being told in the voice of 89-year-old Vivian, looking back? What did you learn from this vantage? How did it influence your reading experience?

2. Character perspective: In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian’s introduction to life in New York City and within the Lily Playhouse is a shock after her world at Vassar and her family outside of the city. What is so different about it all? What elements of this new city and world shape her the most, do you think? And how might they have struck her differently if she’d come from a different kind of family and class background?

3. Sexuality: Vivian receives an atypical sexual education from her new friends, the showgirls, and from her time with Anthony. How does her time at the Lily shape Vivian’s ideas about sex and love and desire and appetite as a young woman, and how do these ideas sustain and evolve later in her life? How much do you think her adult ideas about female desire are due to her personality or experience? How typical do you think Vivian’s attitudes about sex and love would have been for someone of her age and time?

4. Female friendship, part 1: Consider the portrayal of Vivian’s friendship with Celia Ray, the smoldering showgirl at the Lily Playhouse. How does it compare to her previous experiences of female friendship from school. How much does this friendship influence what happens next for Vivian? Which of these two women, Vivian or Celia, do you think holds the power in their friendship, and why? How do you imagine their friendship would have played out over the years if certain events had not intervened?

5. Female friendship, part 2: How does Vivian’s later friendship with Marjorie compare with her younger friendship with Celia Ray? Would Vivian’s life with Marjorie and her other friends later in life have been possible if not for knowing Celia and the other women at the Lily when she was younger? Do you see her applying any lessons learned by observing the relationship between Peg and Olive and Uncle Billy?

6. Men: Consider the different male characters in the book—Vivian’s father, Walter, Uncle Billy, Mr. Herbert, Arthur, Anthony, Jim, Frank—and their different ideas expectations of women. What accounts for the differences between these men and how they relate to women? In what ways does Vivian meet their expectations or challenge / change them?

7. Fashion: City of Girls is full of descriptions of fantastic costumes and characters with truly original senses of style. What does Vivian learn about fashion and style from the showgirls? From her grandmother? From Edna? Even from Peg and Olive? Consider the role that fashion plays in Vivian’s story and in the various relationships and stages of her life: in boarding school, at the Lily Playhouse, at the Navy Yards, at L’Atelier with Marjorie, and in meeting Angela.

8. Generations: Edna, Olive, and Peg represent an older generation of women. Their views and relationships (with Billy, with Arthur) and behaviors influence Vivian in different ways. Consider what Vivian learns from Peg, Olive, and Billy’s domestic / professional arrangement. What about the dynamics she observes between Edna and Arthur? Think about how Edna treats Vivian after Vivian’s betrayal is revealed. Do you think Edna is justified in her behavior? Ultimately Edna decides to stay with Arthur even after what he has done. Do you think Vivian would have stayed with Arthur if she were in Edna’s position? Would Arthur have stayed with Edna if the positions were reversed?

9. Family: Were you surprised by the kind of life that Vivian builds with Marjorie and Nathan? In what ways can you see it growing out of her experiences at the Lily Playhouse in her twenties, and the lifestyle and values she adopts during and after the war? How does Vivian’s adult family life compare to the family she grew up with? Do you think Vivian ever wants more than the life she attains?

10. Love: What kind of love does Vivian have for Frank, and how does this love change the course of her life? How does Vivian’s love for Frank differ from her youthful love of Anthony? How does it compare with any of her other friendships or romantic relationships? How do you think Vivian would describe the difference between a "love" and a "lover"? Can you imagine Frank and Vivian having a physical relationship? How might that have changed Vivian’s life and story?

11. Values: On page 377, Vivian states: "I could have spent the rest of my life trying to prove that I was a good girl—but that would have been unfaithful to who I really was. I believed that I was a good person, if not a good girl." What does this quote mean to you? Is there a difference between being a good girl and being a good person? Does Vivian live up to this ideal in your opinion?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Author: 
Zevin, Gabrielle

In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Gabrielle Zevin’s enchanting novel is a love letter to the world of books—and booksellers—that changes our lives by giving us the stories that open our hearts and enlighten our minds.

On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto "No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World." A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.

A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island—from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude.

Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, but large in weight. It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A. J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew.

It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.’s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming.

As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. At the beginning of the story, Amelia says she is considering quitting online dating. How would you compare the act of buying books online to the act of dating online? Is it relevant to the story that Amelia meets her eventual husband in a very analog location, a bookstore?

2. Consider the setting. Why do you think the author chooses to set the book on an island? How does the island setting reflect A.J.’s character?

3. Perhaps oddly, vampires are a recurring motif in the story: for example, when A.J.’s wife throws the vampire prom and when A.J. watches True Blood to court Amelia. What do you make of the references to vampires?

4. Lambiase moves from an occasional or nonreader, to a reader, to a bookseller. How do you think becoming a reader changes him? Consider the scene where he decides not to Questions for Discussion 9 confront Ismay about the backpack. Do you think Lambiase’s reaction is different than it would have been if he hadn’t taken up reading?

5. The author chooses to begin each chapter with a description of a short story. Discuss some of the ways the stories relate to the chapters with which they are paired. Is A.J. creating a canon for Maya? How does the book itself function as a kind of canon? If these are A.J.’s favorites, what do they say about A.J. as a reader and as a man?

6. Did you find Ismay’s motivations for stealing Tamerlane to be forgivable? How do you think she should pay for her crime? Why do you think Lambiase lets her off?

7. At one point, Maya speculates that perhaps “your whole life is determined by what store you get left in” (page 85). Is it the people or the place that makes the difference?

8. When did you become aware that Leon Friedman might be an imposter? What did you make of Leonora Ferris’s reasons for hiring him?

9. How do you think Daniel Parrish might have changed if hehad lived? Do you think some people never change?

10. Were you surprised by the outcome of the short story contest? What do you think of A.J.’s comments to Maya about why certain books and stories win prizes and others don’t? Does the knowledge that a book has won a prize attract you to reading it?

11. Compare Maya’s “fiction” about the last day of her mother’s life to Ismay’s version. Which do you consider to be more accurate and why?

12. How do you think the arrival of the e-reader is related to the denouement of the story? Is A.J. a man who cannot exist in a world with e-books? What do you think of e-books? Do you prefer reading in e- or on paper?

13. At one point, A.J. asks Maya, “Is a twist less satisfying if you know it’s coming? Is a twist that you can’t predict symptomatic of bad construction?” What do you think of this statement in view of the plot of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry? Did you guess who Maya’s father was? If so, what were the clues?

14. The author chooses to end the novel with a new sales rep coming to an Island Books that is no longer owned by A.J. What do you make of this ending?

15. What do you think the future holds for physical books and bookstores?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

Olive, Again

Author: 
Strout, Elizabeth

The #1 New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout continues the life of her beloved Olive Kitteridge, a character who has captured the imaginations of millions of readers. Prickly, wry, resistant to change yet ruthlessly honest and deeply empathetic, Olive Kitteridge is a compelling life force (San Francisco Chronicle). The New Yorker has said that Elizabeth Strout animates the ordinary with an astonishing force, and she has never done so more clearly than in these pages, where the iconic Olive struggles to understand not only herself and her own life but the lives of those around her in the town of Crosby, Maine. Whether with a teenager coming to terms with the loss of her father, a young woman about to give birth during a hilariously inopportune moment, a nurse who confesses a secret high school crush, or a lawyer who struggles with an inheritance she does not want to accept, the unforgettable Olive will continue to startle us, to move us, and to inspire moments of transcendent grace.Advance praise for Olive, AgainThere's no simple truth about human existence, Strout reminds us, only wonderful, painful complexity. 'Well, that's life, ' Olive says. 'Nothing you can do about it.' Beautifully written and alive with compassion, at times almost unbearably poignant. A thrilling book in every way.-Kirkus Reviews

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. Olive Kitteridge is a fascinating character. Some readers might see her as abrasive and unlikeable; others might see her as honest and sympathetic. How do you characterize Olive? What do you appreciate about her? What irks you about her? Is she someone you’d like to meet in real life?

2. If you read Olive Kitteridge, do you feel Olive has changed in Olive, Again? If so, in what ways? If not, what about her has stayed the same?

3. During a fight with her son, Christopher, Olive realizes "that she had been frightened of her son for years." How does she come to this realization? How does it influence how Olive thinks of herself as a mother?

4. Watching Ann yell at Christopher, Olive realizes she had yelled at her late husband, Henry, in much the same way. What does she come to accept about herself as a person? How does she ask for forgiveness?

5. In today’s climate of increased awareness about sexual harassment, how did you feel reading "Cleaning," the chapter about Kayley and Mr. Ringrose? Would you qualify it as a type of harassment, or did you feel Kayley was empowered and exploring her sexuality? Does the fact that Mr. Ringrose left Kayley money complicate any of your feelings?

6. Consider this passage: "These were openings into the darkness of a relationship one saw by mistake, as if inside a dark barn, the door had been momentarily blown off and one saw things not meant to be seen." Do you think all relationships have a secret darkness that outsiders don’t see, or do only troubled relationships have this?

7. Strout writes that there were a few nights during Jack’s marriage to Olive where "he had sat on the front porch and had—half drunk—wept, because he wanted to be with Betsy instead." How did you interpret this? Did it feel like a betrayal (even involuntarily) to you, or simply a fact of life?

8. Bernie and Suzanne have an interesting relationship. What are the different secrets and experiences that bond them together? How did they both help each other? Do you think it’s rare to see an emotionally—but not physically—intimate relationship like theirs in fiction? What about in real life?

9. Bernie tells Suzanne she doesn’t need to tell her husband about her affair. She clearly believes it’s a mistake and isn’t planning to repeat it. Do you agree with Bernie’s advice? Is it ever smarter to keep a secret like that, or do you believe one must always tell the truth?

10. Olive and Cindy, who might be terminally ill, have an interesting conversation about death. They both admit to being afraid of it, but Olive—in her special way—comforts Cindy by reminding her, "The truth is—we’re all just a few steps behind you. Twenty minutes behind you, and that’s the truth." Was this notion a comfort to you? What do you think would happen if people, even those who aren’t terminally ill, started speaking more openly about death?

11. When Olive is talking about her marriage to Jack with Cindy, she says, "Imagine at my age, starting over again." Then she adds, "But it’s never starting over, Cindy, it’s just continuing on." Why do you think she corrects herself in this way? What different connotations do those two phrases—starting over and continuing on—hold?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

The Giver of Stars

Author: 
Moyes, Jojo

Set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond, from the author of Me Before You and The Peacock Emporium Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt's new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically. The leader, and soon Alice's greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who's never asked a man's permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Horseback Librarians of Kentucky. What happens to them--and to the men they love--becomes a classic drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. Though they face all kinds of dangers, they're committed to their job--bringing books to people who have never had any, sharing the gift of learning that will change their lives. Based on a true story rooted in America's past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope. At times funny, at others heartbreaking, this is a richly rewarding novel of women's friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond-- Provided by publisher.

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. While writing and researching The Giver of Stars, author Jojo Moyes visited Kentucky several times, stayed in a tiny cabin on the side of a mountain, rode horses along the trails, and met the people of Kentucky. Did the characters and sense of place feel authentic to you?

2. Alice, a Brit, is an outsider, but eventually acclimates to her new home in Appalachia, and even falls in love with her new home. She grew up in a rarefied world in England, so the change to "unremarkable" Baileyville proved quite the shock to her system. Have you ever moved to a distinctly different location? What was that transition like? How did you adapt?

3. Literacy and censorship are significant issues in The Giver of Stars, issues that affect the women of the novel very differently from the men. Why do you think Moyes chose to focus on these topics?

4. Moyes has said she wanted to write a book about women who had agency and who actually did something worthwhile, rather than simply existing in a romantic or domestic plotline. Margery is the unofficial leader of the librarians and Alice eventually inherits that role when Margery is jailed. Yet throughout the book, most of the women do have their moments of agency. Which of these moments struck you most intensely? Did you ever wish a character had taken action when she hadn’t? If so, when, and what could she have done different?

5. The novel features families from vastly different backgrounds, and one of the central issues in the book is that of class inequality. In which scenarios did you see these dynamics play out, and between which characters?

6. There are numerous ways in the book in which the acquisition of knowledge changes characters’ lives: protecting their homes, educating their families, liberating themselves from marriages. Have you ever experienced such a shift—after gaining new knowledge—in your own life? How did it happen? If not, what held you back from making a change?

7. The relationships between men and women in this book vary greatly—from Margery and Sven’s loving, mutual respect and passion, to Bennett and Alice’s bewildered lack of understanding to the true love affair that blossoms between Alice and Fred. How did you come to understand the differences among these relationships? Did you relate to any of them in particular or to any of the problems these women faced in their romantic relationships?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

American Dirt : a novel

Author: 
Cummins, Jeanine

"También de este lado hay sueños. Lydia Quixano Perez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable. Even though she knows they'll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with four books he would like to buy--two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia's husband's tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same. Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia-trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier's reach doesn't extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?"-- Provided by publisher.

Discussion Guide: 

1. Throughout the novel, Lydia thinks back on how, when she was living a middle-class existence, she viewed migrants with pity:

All her life she’s pitied those poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option. That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get ,to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them (chapter 10, page 94).

   Do you think the author chose to make Lydia a middle-class woman as her protagonist for a reason? Do you think the reader would have had a different entry point to the novel if Lydia started out as a poor migrant? Would you have viewed Lydia differently if she had come from poor origins? How much do you identify with Lydia?

2. Sebastian persists in running his story on Javier even though he knows it will put him and his family in grave danger. Do you admire what he did? Was he a good journalist or a bad husband and father? Is it possible he was both? What would you have done if you were him?

3. Lydia looks at Luca and thinks to herself: "Migrante. She can’t make the word fit him. But that’s what they are now. This is how it happens" (chapter 10, page 94). Lydia refers to her and Luca becoming migrants as something that happened to them rather than something they did. Do you think the author intentionally made this sentence passive? Do you think language allows us to label things as "other," that is, in a way, tantamount to self-preservation? Does it allow us to compartmentalize things that are too difficult to comprehend?

4. When Lydia is at the Casa del Migrante, she learns the term cuerpomatico—"human ATM machine"—and what it means. Were you surprised to learn how dangerous the passage is, and for female migrants in particular?

5. When Lydia, Luca, Soledad, and Rebeca are at the Casa del Migrante, the priest warns them to turn back: "If it’s only a better life you seek, seek it elsewhere…. This path is only for people who have no choice, no other option, only violence and misery behind you" (chapter 17, page168). Were you surprised that he would be issuing such a dire warning when he must know how desperate they are to be there in the first place? Under what conditions might you decide to leave your homeland?

6. When they get to the US–Mexican border, Beto says, "This is the whole problem, right? Look at that American flag over there—you see it? All bright and shiny; it looks brand-new. And then look at ours. It’s all busted up and raggedy" (chapter 26, page 273). Later he says, "I mean, those estadounidenses are obsessed with their flag" (chapter 26, page 274). Do you agree with Beto? Do the flags symbolize something more than just the countries they represent?

7. The term "American" only appears once in the novel. Did you notice? Why do you think the author made this choice?

8. When Luca finally crosses over to the United States, he’s disappointed:

The road below is nothing like the roads Luca imagined he’d encounter in the USA. He thought every road here would be broad as a boulevard, paved to perfection, and lined with fluorescent shopfronts.This road is like the crappiest Mexican road he’s ever seen. Dirt, dirt, and more dirt (chapter31, page 329).

Discuss the significance of the title, "American Dirt." What do you think the author means by it?

9. Read the passage below from the novel. Then consider: Do you think the narrator intends for the reader to wholeheartedly censure Lydia in this scene? Do you think Lydia is a stand-in for the reader and that the author is sending a broader message? After reading the author’s note, do you think the author includes herself in this group?

Lydia had been aware of the migrant caravans coming from Guatemala and Honduras in the way comfortable people living stable lives are peripherally aware of destitution. She heard their stories on the news radio while she cooked dinner in her kitchen. Mothers pushing strollers thousands of miles, small children walking holes into the bottoms of their pink Crocs, hundreds of families banding together for safety, gathering numbers as they walked north for weeks, hitching rides in the backs of trucks whenever they could, riding La Bestia whenever they could, sleeping in futbol stadiums and churches, coming all that way to el norte to plead for asylum. Lydia chopped onions and cilantro in her kitchen while she listened to their histories.They fled violence and poverty, gangs more powerful than their governments. She listened to their fear and determination, how resolved they were to reach Estados Unidos or die on the road in that effort, because staying at home meant their odds of survival were even worse. On the radio, Lydia heard those walking mothers singing to their children, and she felt a pang of emotion for them. She tossed chopped vegetables into hot oil, and the pan sizzled in response.That pang Lydia felt had many parts: it was anger at the injustice, it was worry, compassion, helplessness. But in truth, it was a small feeling, and when she realized she was out of garlic, the pang was subsumed by domestic irritation. Dinner would be bland (chapter 26, pages276–77).

10. Read the below passage from the novel. Then consider: If you were writing the rules for asylum eligibility, what would they be.

'I heard if your life is in danger wherever you come from, they’re not allowed to send you back there.'

To Lydia it sounds like mythology, but she can’t help asking anyway, 'You have to be Central American? To apply for asylum?'

Beto shrugs. 'Why? Your life in danger?'

Lydia sighs. 'Isn’t everyone’s?' (chapter 26, page 277)

11. Toward the end of the novel, Soledad "sticks her hand through the fence and wiggles her fingers on the other side. Her fingers are in el norte. She spits through the fence. Only to leave apiece of herself there on American dirt" (chapter 28, page 301). Why do you think Soledad spits over the border? Is doing so a victory for her?

12. "Luca wonders if they’re moving perpendicular to that boundary now, that place where the fence disappears and the only thing to delineate one country from the next is a line that some random guy drew on a map years and years ago" (chapter 30, page 317). In his 1971 book Theory of Justice, the philosopher John Rawls came up with what he called the "veil of ignorance." Rawls asked readers to think about how they would design an ideal society if they knew nothing of their own sex, gender, race, nationality, individual tastes, or personal identity. Do you think the decision-makers of the borders might have made a different decision if they had donned the veil of ignorance? Do you think borders are a necessary evil or might their delineation serve a societal good? Do you think that the world would be a better place if we all brought Rawls’s thought experiment to bear in our everyday individual and collective decision making?

13. Why do you think there are birds on the cover of the novel?

14. Read the passage below from the novel. Then consider: Do you think Lydia is better or worse off for not having known about the moment of her boundary crossing? What importance do rituals have in marking milestones in our lives? Can the done be undone, the past rewinded?

But the moment of the crossing has already passed, and she didn’t even realize it had happened. She never looked back, never committed any small act of ceremony to help launch her into the new life on the other side. Nothing can be undone. Adelante (chapter 30, page323).

15. Was Javier’s reaction to Marta’s death at all understandable? Humanizing? Do you believe that he didn’t want Lydia dead? Is what he did, in the name of his daughter, any less paternal than what Lydia does for Luca is maternal? (Questions issued by the publisher.)

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