Psychological fiction

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

Author: 
Albom, Mitch

From the author of the phenomenal #1 New York Times bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie, a novel that explores the unexpected connections of our lives, and the idea that heaven is more than a place; it's an answer.

Eddie is a wounded war veteran, an old man who has lived, in his mind, an uninspired life. His job is fixing rides at a seaside amusement park. On his 83rd birthday, a tragic accident kills him as he tries to save a little girl from a falling cart. He awakes in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is not a destination. It's a place where your life is explained to you by five people, some of whom you knew, others who may have been strangers.

One by one, from childhood to soldier to old age, Eddie's five people revisit their connections to him on earth, illuminating the mysteries of his "meaningless" life, and revealing the haunting secret behind. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. At the start of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Albom says that "all endings are also beginnings." In general, what does this mean? How does it relate to this story in particular? Share something in your life that has begun as another thing ended, and the events that followed.

2. What initially grabs your attention in The Five People You Meet in Heaven? What holds it?

3. How does counting down the final minutes of Eddie's life affect you as a reader? Why does Albom do this? Other storytelling devices Albom uses include moving from past to present by weaving Eddie's birthdays throughout the story. How do these techniques help inform the story? What information do you learn by moving around in time? How effective is Albom's style for this story in particular?

4. What does Eddie look like and what kind of guy is he? Look at and discuss some of the details and descriptions that paint a picture of Eddie and his place of business. What is it about an amusement park that makes it a good backdrop for this story?

5. Consider the idea that "no story sits by itself. Sometimes stories meet at corners and sometimes they cover one another completely, like stones beneath a river." How does this statement relate to The Five People You Meet in Heaven?

6. How does Albom build tension around the amusement park ride accident? What is the significance of Eddie finding himself in the amusement park again after he dies? What is your reaction when Eddie realizes he's spent his entire life trying to get away from Ruby Pier and he is back there immediately after death? Do you think this is important? Why?

7. Describe what Albom's heaven is like. If it differs from what you imagined, share those differences. Who are the five people Eddie meets? Why them? What are their relationships to Eddie? What are the characteristics and qualities that make them the five people for Eddie?

8. Share your reactions and thoughts about the Blue Man's story, his relationship with his father, and his taking silver nitrate. What, if anything, does this have to do with Eddie? Why does he say to Eddie, "This is not your heaven, it's mine"?

9. How does the Blue Man die? What affect does it have on you when you look at the same story from two different points of view—his and Eddie's? Can you share any events that you have been involved in that can be viewed entirely differently, from another's point of view? How aware are we of other's experiences of events that happen simultaneously to us and to them? Why?

10. Discuss what it means that "That there are no random acts. That we are all connected. That you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind." Even though Eddie hasn't been reincarnated, consider karma in Eddie's life (where Eddie's actions would affect his reincarnation). If it isn't karma, what is Albom telling us about life, and death?

11. Think about Eddie's war experiences and discuss your reactions to Albom's evocation of war. What did Eddie learn by being in war? How did he "come home a different man"? Why did the captain shoot Eddie? Explore what it means when the captain tells Eddie, "I took your leg to save your life." Why does the captain tell Eddie that sacrifice is not really a loss, but a gain? Examine whether or not Eddie understands this, and the significance of this lesson.

12. Discuss what you might say to Eddie when he asks "why would heaven make you relive your own decay?".

13. Examine whether or not you agree with the old woman when she tells Eddie, "You have peace when you make it with yourself," and why. Consider what she means when she says, "things that happen before you are born still affect you. And people who come before your time affect you as well." How does this relate to Eddie's life? Who are some who have come before you that have affected your own life?

14. What is Eddie's father's response each time Eddie decides to make an independent move, away from working at the pier? Examine how Eddie's father's choices and decisions actually shape Eddie's life. Why does Eddie cover for his father at the pier when his father becomes ill? What happens then? Share your own experience of a decision your own parents made that affected your life, for better or for worse.

15. Who tells Eddie that "we think that hating is a weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do we do to ourselves"? What is the significance of this particular person in Eddie's life? Why is this important for Eddie to understand? Is it important for all of us to understand? Why? Discuss whether or not you agree that, "all parents damage their children. It cannot be helped." How was Eddie damaged?

16. Why does Marguerite want to be in a place where there are only weddings? How does this relate to her own life, and to her relationship and life with Eddie?

17. Discuss why Eddie is angry at his wife for dying so young. Examine what Marguerite means when she says, "Lost love is still love. It takes a different form. You can't see their smile or bring them food or tousle their hair or move them around on the dance floor. But when these senses waken, another heightens. . . . Life has an end. Love doesn't." Why does she say this to Eddie? Do you think he gets it? Discuss whether or not you agree with her, and why.

18. Why does Eddie come upon the children in the river? What does Tala mean when she says "you make good for me"? Discuss whether or not Eddie's life is a penance, and why. What is the significance of Tala pulling Eddie to safety after he dies? Why is it Tala that pulls him to heaven and not one of the other four?

19. What would you say to Eddie when he laments that he accomplished nothing with his life? Discuss what has he accomplished.

20. Briefly recall the five lessons Eddie learns. How might these be important for all of us? Share which five people might meet you in heaven, and what additional or different lessons might be important to your life. Discuss how Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven has provided you with a different perspective of your life.
(Questions issued by publisher.)

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Author: 
Bohjalian, Chris

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is the story of Emily Shepard, a homeless teen living in an igloo made of ice and trash bags filled with frozen leaves. Half a year earlier, a nuclear plant in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom had experienced a cataclysmic meltdown, and both of Emily's parents were killed.

Devastatingly, her father was in charge of the plant, and the meltdown may have been his fault. Was he drunk when it happened? Thousands of people are forced to flee their homes in the Kingdom; rivers and forests are destroyed; and Emily feels certain that as the daughter of the most hated man in America, she is in danger.

So instead of following the social workers and her classmates after the meltdown, Emily takes off on her own for Burlington, where she survives by stealing, sleeping on the floor of a drug dealer's apartment, and inventing a new identity for herself—an identity inspired by her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.

When Emily befriends a young homeless boy named Cameron, she protects him with a ferocity she didn't know she had. But she still can't outrun her past, can't escape her grief, can't hide forever—and so she comes up with the only plan that she can.

A story of loss, adventure, and the search for friendship in the wake of catastrophe, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is one of Chris Bohjalian’s finest novels to date—breathtaking, wise, and utterly transporting. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Emily says, “Obviously I made some bad choices. I’m still here, however, so I made some okay ones, too” (p. 41). How much does her fate depend on her own decisions, wise or unwise? What role do events beyond her control—in particular, the public’s unrelenting hostility toward her father—play in these decisions (pp. 41, 53)?

2. Emily overhears a National Guardsman saying that “the energy company will want this to be human error. If it’s human error, then nuclear power doesn’t look so bad. . . . And [the Shepards are] both dead by now. There’s not a lot of collateral damage when you have dead people you can blame” (p. 77). Do you think this is an accurate assessment of how industries and perhaps governmental agencies react to disasters? Can you think of real-life examples when this might have occurred?

3. Emily’s descriptions of her life as a runaway and of Cameron’s childhood experiences (pp.162-63, 166) are often grim and graphic. For the most part, Emily presents them in a straightforward, almost flip manner (p. 172, 174-5, 187). How does this illustrate the realities of life on the streets? What do her attachments to Andrea, Camille, and especially Cameron, and her reminiscences about her parents (pp. 113-14, 201, for example) show about Emily’s ability—and need—to deal with the harsh situations she faces? 

4. In telling her story, Emily moves back and forth in time. How does her narrative reveal her state of mind and the ways in which she perceives or filters her experiences? Do the language and the style accurately reflect the voice of a teenage girl? What passages ring particularly true to you?  What is the significance of her noting, “Sometimes when I reread what I’ve written, I find myself creeped out by what’s between the lines. What I haven’t written” (p.48)?

5. Why does Emily divide her story into B.C., “Before Cameron,” and  A.C., “After Cameron”? Does the division represent something more than mere chronology

6. How would you characterize Emily’s decision to return to the Northeast Kingdom? Is she acting foolishly or is her decision understandable, a necessary, essential conclusion to all that has gone before?

7. Many of the stories we read about teens in crisis explore the lives of those raised in crime-ridden, poverty-stricken areas. Emily comes from an educated, upper-middle-class family, and lives in a “meadow mansion.”  What does she share with troubled teens from less fortunate backgrounds? In what instances do Emily’s reactions to her circumstances embody the positive aspects of her upbringing?

8. Did you know where the title of the novel came from before it was revealed (p. 238)? Why do you think Bohjalian chose this phrase as his title? How does it relate to Emily’s philosophy about the world and the challenges she faces over the course of the novel?

9. How would you describe the overall mood and tone of the novel? How does Bohjalian balance the darkness at the heart of the story with an engaging, often humorous portrait of its protagonist? Would you call Emily a heroine? Why or why not?

10. How do the quotations from Emily Dickinson throughout Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands illuminate the themes of the novel? Consider the relevance of “I’m Nobody! Who are You?,” one of Dickinson’s best-known poems (p. 59), as well as the extracts on pages 19, 78-79, 134, and 154. Does the use of Dickinson’s poetry enrich your experience as a reader? Why is Dickinson’s life, as well as her poetry, so appealing to Emily?

11. Several serious accidents have occurred at the nuclear plants on Three Mile Island, and in Chernobyl and, most recently, at Fukushima Daiichi. What is your opinion on Emily’s assertion about the public’s reaction to these and similarly horrific events: “We watch it, we read about it, and then we move on. As a species, we’re either very resilient or super callous. I don’t know which” (p. 139)?

12. Close Your Eyes, Hold Handsdeals with some of the most difficult issues of our times: the possibility of nuclear catastrophe, homelessness, drug dealing, prostitution, and child abuse. In what ways does it offer insights that news reports and official studies cannot duplicate?

The Burgess Boys

Author: 
Strout, Elizabeth

Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could.

Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

With a rare combination of brilliant storytelling, exquisite prose, and remarkable insight into character, Elizabeth Strout has brought to life two deeply human protagonists whose struggles and triumphs will resonate with readers long after they turn the final page. Tender, tough-minded, loving, and deeply illuminating about the ties that bind us to family and home, The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout’s newest and perhaps most astonishing work of literary art. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Talk about how Bob, who at the age of four was held accountable for his father's death. To what degree has that childhood trauma shaped his subsequent life? The family never mentions the fatal accident. Why?

2. What about the personalities and life trajectories of the three siblings—and the differences between them? Start with Jim and Bob; then Bob and his twin sister, Susan. How do they feel about one another—and how do they treat each other? How do those relationships change by the end of the story?

3. What do you think of Helen? Are you sympathetic to her?

4. This novel is very much about place and sense of home. How do the physical manifestations of the sibling's homes, their houses or apartments, reflect their inner lives? How do the brothers view their Maine hometown...and how does Susan view New York City? How do the Somalis view Maine and their new (perhaps temporary) home in Shirley Falls.

5. How has Shirley Falls changed over the years since the three siblings grew up and the two brothers moved away? Is Shirley Falls typical of small-town America?

6. What prompts Zach to throw the pig's head into the mosque? He later explains his action as a "dumb joke." What do you think of Zach? Does a 19-year-old boy deserve to be arrested and charged with a Federal hate crime?

7. Discuss the relations between the locals and the Somali Muslim population living in Shirley Falls. How do the two populations view one another? What humiliations do the Muslims undergo at the hands of the native Mainers?

8. Zach finds an unlikely ally in Abdikarim. What is it about Zach that encourages the older man to feel sympathy for him? What are Abdikarim's own demons? Talk about the differences in the two worlds of Abkikarim: the colorful market of the Al Barakaat in Somalia and the drab greyness of the small town in Maine.

10. Talk about the way in which the prevailing political pressures shape legal strategy.

11. Why is Bob so hesitant to accept Jim's view of the accident?

Bel Canto

Author: 
Patchett, Ann

Winner, 2002 Orange Prize
PEN/Faulkner Award

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, a powerful Japanese businessman. Roxanne Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening—until a band of gun-wielding terrorists breaks in through the air-conditioning vents and takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different countries and continents become compatriots.

Without the demands of the world to shape their days, life on the inside becomes more beautiful than anything they had ever known before. At once riveting and impassioned, the narrative becomes a moving exploration of how people communicate when music is the only common language. Friendship, compassion, and the chance for great love lead the characters to forget the real danger that has been set in motion and cannot be stopped. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Describe Roxane Coss. What is it about her that makes such an impression on the other hostages and the terrorists? Is it merely that she is famous? How does her singing and the music relate to the story?

2. Even though he is given the opportunity to leave the mansion, Father Arguedas elects to stay with the hostages. Why does he decide to stay when he risks the possibility of being killed? As the narrative states, why did he feel, "in the midst of all this fear and confusion, in the mortal danger of so many lives, the wild giddiness of good luck?" (pg. 74). Isn't this an odd reaction to have given the situation? What role does religion play in the story?

3. are numerous instances in the story where Mr. Hosokawa blames himself for the hostages' situation. He says to Roxane, "But I was the one who set this whole thing in motion." Roxane replies with the following: "Or did I?" she said. "I thought about declining…. Don't get me wrong. I am very capable of blame. This is an event ripe for blame if I ever saw one. I just don't blame you." Is either one to blame for the situation? If not, who do you think is ultimately responsible?

4. Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa speak different languages and require Gen to translate their conversations. Do you think it's possible to fall in love with someone to whom you cannot speak directly?

5. "Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa, however improbable to those around them, were members of the same tribe, the tribe of the hostages.... But Gen and Carmen were another matter" (pg. 294). Compare the love affairs of Gen and Carmen and Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa. What are the elements that define each relationship?

6. We find out in the Epilogue that Roxane and Gen have been married. How would you describe their relationship throughout the story? Thibault believes that "Gen and Roxane had married for love, the love of each other and the love of all the people they remembered" (pg. 318). What do you think of the novel's ending? Did it surprise you? Do you agree with Thibault's assessment of Gen and Roxane's motivations for marrying?

7. The garua, the fog and mist, lifts after the hostages are in captivity for a number of weeks. "One would have thought that with so much rain and so little light the forward march of growth would have been suspended, when in fact everything had thrived" (pg. 197). How does this observation about the weather mirror what is happening inside the Vice President's mansion?

8. At one point Carmen says to Gen, "'Ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?'" (pg. 206). And towards the end of the story it is stated: "Gen knew that everything was getting better and not just for him. People were happier." Messner then says to him, "'You were the brightest one here once, and now you're as crazy as the rest of them'" (pg. 302). What do you think of these statements? Do you really believe they would rather stay captive in this house than return to the "real" world?

9. When the hostages are finally rescued, Mr. Hosokawa steps in front of Carmen to save her from a bullet. Do you think Mr. Hosokawa wanted to die? Once they all return to their lives, it would be nearly impossible for him to be with Roxane. Do you think he would rather have died than live life without her?

10. The story is told by a narrator who is looking back and recounting the events that took place. What do you think of this technique? Did it enhance the story, or would you have preferred the use of a straight narrative?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

Atonement

Author: 
McEwan, Ian

Winner, 2001 National Book Critics' Circle Award

Ian McEwan’s symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative and the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose.

On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives–together with her precocious literary gifts—brings about a crime that will change all their lives.

As it follows that crime’s repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century, Atonement engages the reader on every conceivable level, with an ease and authority that mark it as a genuine masterpiece. (From the publisher.

Discussion Guide: 

1. What sort of social and cultural setting does the Tallis house create for the novel? What is the mood of the house, as described in chapter 12? What emotions and impulses are being acted upon or repressed by its inhabitants? How does the careful attention to detail affect the pace of Part One, and what is the effect of the acceleration of plot events as it nears its end?

2. A passion for order, a lively imagination, and a desire for attention seem to be Briony’s strongest traits. In what ways is she still a child? Is her narcissism—her inability to see things from any point of view but her own—unusual in a thirteen-year-old? Why does the scene she witnesses at the fountain change her whole perspective on writing? What is the significance of the passage in which she realizes she needs to work from the idea that—other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value? Do her actions bear this out?

3. What kind of a person is Emily Tallis? Why does McEwan decide not to have Jack Tallis make an appearance in the story? Who, if anyone, is the moral authority in this family? What is the parents’ relationship to Robbie Turner, and why does Emily pursue his conviction with such single-mindedness?

4. What happens between Robbie and Cecilia at the fountain? What symbolic role does Uncle Clem’s precious vase play in the novel? Is it significant that the vase is glued together by Cecilia, and broken finally during the war by Betty as she readies the house to accept evacuees?

5. Having read Robbie’s note to Cecilia, Briony thinks about its implications for her new idea of herself as a writer: No more princesses! . . . With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in her excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help. Why is Robbie’s uncensored letter so offensive within the social context in which it is read? Why is Cecilia not offended by it?

6. The scene in the library is one of the most provocative and moving descriptions of sex in recent fiction. How does the fact that it is narrated from Robbie’s point of view affect how the reader feels about what happens to him shortly afterwards? Is it understandable that Briony, looking on, perceives this act of love as an act of violence?

7. Why does Briony stick to her story with such unwavering commitment? Does she act entirely in error in a situation she is not old enough to understand, or does she act, in part, on an impulse of malice, revenge, or self-importance? At what point does she develop the empathy to realize what she has done to Cecilia and Robbie?

8. How does Leon, with his life of agreeable nullity, compare with Robbie in terms of honor, intelligence, and ambition? What are the qualities that make Robbie such an effective romantic hero? What are the ironies inherent in the comparative situations of the three young men present Leon, Paul Marshall, and Robbie?

9. Lola has a critical role in the story’s plot. What are her motivations? Why does she tell Briony that her brothers caused the marks on her wrists and arms? Why does she allow Briony to take over her story when she is attacked later in the evening? Why does Briony decide not to confront Lola and Paul Marshall at their wedding five years later?

10. The novel’s epigraph is taken from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which a naïve young woman, caught up in fantasies from the Gothic fiction she loves to read, imagines that her host in an English country house is a villain. In Austen’s novel Catherine Norland’s mistakes are comical and have no serious outcome, while in Atonement, Briony’s fantasies have tragic effects upon those around her. What is McEwan implying about the power of the imagination, and its potential for harm when unleashed into the social world? Is he suggesting, by extension, that Hitler’s pathological imagination was a driving force behind World War II?

11. In McEwan’s earlier novel Black Dogs, one of the main characters comes to a realization about World War II. He thinks about the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than anyone could ever begin to comprehend. Does McEwan intend his readers to experience the war similarly in Atonement? What aspects of Atonement make it so powerful as a war novel? What details heighten the emotional impact in the scenes of the Dunkirk retreat and Briony’s experience at the military hospital?

12. When Robbie, Mace, and Nettle reach the beach at Dunkirk, they intervene in an attack on an RAF man who has become a scapegoat for the soldiers’ sense of betrayal and rage. As in many of his previous novels, McEwan is interested in aggressive human impulses that spin out of control. How does this act of group violence relate to the moral problems that war creates for soldiers, and the events Robbie feels guilty about as he falls asleep at Bray Dunes?

13. About changing the fates of Robbie and Cecilia in her final version of the book, Briony says, "Who would want to believe that the young lovers never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?" McEwan’s Atonement has two endings —one in which the fantasy of love is fulfilled, and one in which that fantasy is stripped away. What is the emotional effect of this double ending? Is Briony right in thinking that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end?

14. Why does McEwan return to the novel’s opening with the long-delayed performance of The Trials of Arabella, Briony’s youthful contribution to the optimistic genre of Shakespearean comedy? What sort of closure is this in the context of Briony’s career? What is the significance of the fact that Briony is suffering from vascular dementia, which will result in the loss of her memory, and the loss of her identity?

15. In her letters to Robbie, Cecilia quotes from W. H. Auden’s 1939 poem, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," which includes the line, "Poetry makes nothing happen." In part, the novel explores the question of whether the writing of fiction is not much more than the construction of elaborate entertainments—an indulgence in imaginative play—or whether fiction can bear witness to life and to history, telling its own serious truths. Is Briony’s novel effective, in her own conscience, as an act of atonement? Does the completed novel compel the reader to forgive her?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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