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A BOOK CLUB SAMPLER from Simon & Schuster
From memoir to young adult to literary fiction, this sampler features great reading group books from Mira Bartók, Chris Cleave, Lauren DeStefano, Philippa Gregory, Elana Johnson, Kristin Kimball, Mary Alice Monroe, Sarah Pekkanen, and John Corey Whaley.
Visit ReadingGroups.SimonandSchuster.com for more great book club picks!
SOMETHING TO READ ABOUT
A BOOK CLUB SAMPLER from Simon & Schuster
Introduction The Memory Palace: A Memoir, by Mira Bartók Author’s Note & Tip Excerpt Reading Group Guide Incendiary, by Chris Cleave Author’s Note & Tip Excerpt Reading Group Guide The Chemical Garden Trilogy #1: Wither, by Lauren DeStefano Author’s Note & Tip Excerpt Reading Group Guide The Red Queen, by Philippa Gregory Author’s Note & Tip Excerpt Reading Group Guide Possession, by Elana Johnson Author’s Note & Tip Excerpt Reading Group Guide The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, by Kristin Kimball Author’s Note & Tip Excerpt Reading Group Guide The Butterfly’s Daughter, by Mary Alice Monroe Author’s Note & Tip Excerpt Reading Group Guide Skipping a Beat, by Sarah Pekkanen Author’s Note & Tip Excerpt Reading Group Guide Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley Author’s Note & Tip Excerpt Reading Group Guide Reading Group Tips and Resources
Dear Reader, Welcome to the Something to Read About Book Club Sampler from Simon & Schuster. Think of this sampler as a tasting menu for you and your book club, or rather a platter of book d’œuvres, intended to spark your interest and excite your reading palate. Each title featured in this sampler was included for a specific reason: it’s one of those books you won’t be able to stop talking about. From Kristin Kimball’s wonderful memoir about going from NYC rush hour to milking cows, to Chris Cleave’s emotionally raw novel written as a letter to the terrorist who killed her family, to a debut from young adult author John Corey Whaley about second chances and a special woodpecker, these books are perfectly discussable. Each excerpt is accompanied by a collection of bonus materials intended to enrich your reading experience, including discussion questions, suggestions for enhancing your book club, and author interviews. And what book club meeting is complete without food? We asked each author featured in this sampler one question: “What would you serve at a book club discussing your own book?” Their special menu suggestions can be found following each Author’s Note. We compiled this sampler in the hopes of helping you and your book club discover your next won’t-be-able-to-put-it-down, can’t-wait-to-talk-about-it, all-time-favorite read. Like most of the finer things in life, stories are meant to be shared. So here’s to good food, better books, and many happy hours of talk! Thanks for reading, The Simon & Schuster Team of Book Club Enthusiasts
For more book club suggestions and reading group guides, visit ReadingGroups.SimonandSchuster.com
THE MEMORY PALACE: A Memoir
Free Press Hardcover: 9781439183311 eBook: 9781439183335 Available in paperback August 2011: 9781439183328
“Bartók juggles a handful of profound themes: how to undertake a creative life…how we remember...how one says goodbye to a loved one in a manner that might redeem in some small way a life and a relationship blighted by psychosis; and, most vividly and harrowingly, how our society and institutions throw mental illness back in the hands of family members, who are frequently helpless to deal with the magnitude of the terrifying problems it generates. On all counts, it’s an engrossing read.”
The Memory Palace: A Memoir Author’s Note
With [The Memory Palace] I simply set out to explore the connections that I shared with my mother, nothing more, and I set out to do that through pictures, because I am a visual thinker. But yes, the story of mother-daughter love shines through and for me, I think I came to understand that it is a very primal thing, one that is still difficult for me to explain and understand. With memory, the more I researched the subject and explored my own relationship to memory, especially in the light of living with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), the more I found all these arguments about so-called “truth” in memory (and thus, memoir) to be silly. I’m not talking about making up some sensational story so that one can sell a fictional book as a memoir. . .but rather, the idea that just because one remembers something “clearly,” it has to be true is simply false. Ask any neuroscientist, any forensic psychologist, criminal investigator, etc. . . .I personally think the strongest message in the book is about compassion, and the more times I rewrote the book, the more compassion I discovered within myself. —Mira Bartók
We asked the authors what kind of food or drinks they would serve at a book club discussing their own book. Below is a menu suggestion that involves both food and memory for The Memory Palace.
The Memory Palace was written by piecing together memories from notes, drawings, and objects. For your book club meeting, have each member bring in a favorite food item—it can be something as simple as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hummus and chips, or chocolate chip cookies. Sit around a table and taste each item individually. Does the taste or smell bring back any kind of memory? What are you reminded of when you eat, for example, a chocolate chip cookie? Share your memories and thoughts with the group.
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
. . . Climb the mountains, search the valleys, the deserts, the seashores . . . the deep recesses of the earth . . . for in this way and no other will you arrive at . . . the true nature of things. Petrus Severinus, 16th century Danish alchemist
ONE The Subterranean World Even now, when the phone rings late at night, I think it’s her. I stumble out of bed ready for the worst. Then I realize—it’s a wrong number, or a friend calling from the other side of the ocean. The last time my mother called was in 1990. I was thirty-one and living in Chicago. She said if I didn’t come home right away she’d kill herself. After she hung up, she climbed onto the second-floor balcony of my grandmother’s house in Cleveland, boosted herself onto the banister, and opened her arms to the wind. Below, our neighbor Ruth Armstrong and two paramedics tried to coax her back inside. When the call came the next time, almost seventeen years later, it was right before Christmas 2006, and I didn’t even hear the phone ring. The night before, I had a dream: I was in an empty apartment with my mother. She looked like she had that winter of 1990—her brown and gray hair unwashed and wild, her blouse stained and torn. She held a cigarette in her right hand, fingers crossed over it as if for good luck. She never looked like a natural-born smoker, even though she smoked four packs a day. The walls of the apartment were covered in dirt. I heard a knock. “What do you want?” I asked the stranger behind the door. He whispered, “Make this place as clean as it was in the beginning.” I scrubbed the floors and walls, then I lifted into the air, sailing feet-first through the empty rooms. I called out to my mother, “Come back! You can fly too!” but she had already disappeared. When I awoke there was a message on my machine from my friend Mark in Vermont. He had been keeping a post office box for me in Burlington, about three hours from my home in Western Massachusetts. The only person who wrote me there was my mother. “A nurse from a hospital in Cleveland called about a Mrs. Norma Herr,” he said. “She said it was an emergency.” How did they find me? For years, I had kept my life secret from my schizophrenic and homeless mother. So had my sister, Natalia. We both had changed our names, had unpublished phone numbers and addresses. The story unfolded over the next couple days. After the ambulance rushed my mother to the hospital, the red sweater I had sent her for the holidays arrived at the women’s shelter where she had been living for the last three years. Tim, her social worker, brought the package to her in ICU to cheer her up after surgery. He noticed the return address was from me, care of someone in Vermont. He knew I was her daughter. A nurse called information to get Mark’s number and left the message on his machine. How easy it was to find me after all those years. When I called a friend to tell her I was going to see my mother, she said, “I hope you can forgive her for what she did to you.” “Forgive her?” I said. “The question is—will she ever forgive me?”
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
The night before I left for Cleveland, while Doug, my fiancé, was making dinner, I went to my studio above our barn to gather some things for my trip. I did what I always do when I enter: I checked the small table to the left of my desk to see if I had written any notes to myself the day before. It’s there, on my memory table, that I keep an ongoing inventory of what I’m afraid I’ll forget. Ever since I suffered a brain injury from a car accident a few years ago, my life has become a palimpsest—a piece of parchment from which someone had rubbed off the words, leaving only a ghost image behind. Above my desk are lists of things I can’t remember anymore, the meaning of words I used to know, ideas I’ll forget within an hour or a day. My computer is covered in Post-its, reminding me of which books I lent out to whom, memories I’m afraid I’ll forget, songs from the past I suddenly recall. I was forty when, in 1999, a semi hurtled into my car while a friend and I were stopped at a construction site on the New York Thruway. The car was old and had no airbag—my body was catapulted back and forth in the passenger’s seat, my head smashing against the headrest and dashboard. Coup contrecoup it’s called, blow against blow, when your brain goes flying against the surface of your skull. This kind of impact causes contusions in the front and back areas of the brain and can create microscopic bleeding and shearing of neural pathways, causing synapses to misfire, upsetting the applecart of your brain, sometimes forever. Even if you don’t lose consciousness, or, as in my case, don’t lose it for very long. The next days and months that followed I couldn’t remember the words for things or they got stuck in my head and wouldn’t come out. Simple actions were arduous—tipping a cabbie, reading an e-mail, and listening to someone talk. On good days, I acted normal, sounded articulate. I still do. I work hard to process the bombardment of stimuli that surrounds me. I work hard not to let on that for me, even the sound of a car radio is simply too much, or all those bright lights at the grocery store. We children of schizophrenics are the great secretkeepers, the ones who don’t want you to think that anything is wrong.
Outside the glass door of my studio, the moon was just a sliver in the clear obsidian sky. Soon I’d be in the city again, where it’s hard to see the stars. Hanging from a wooden beam to the right of my desk is a pair of reindeer boots I made when I lived in the Arctic, before my brain injury, when I could still travel with ease. What to bring to show my mother the last seventeen years of my life? How long would I stay in Cleveland? One month? Five? The doctor had said on the phone that she had less than six months to live—but he didn’t know my mother. What would she think of the cabinet of curiosities I call my studio: the mouse skeleton, the petrified bat, the pictures of conjoined twins, the shelves of seedpods and lichen, the deer skull and bones? Would she think that aliens had put them there or would she want to draw them, like me? I fantasized about kidnapping her from the hospital. I would open the couch bed and
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
let her spend her last days among the plants, the paints, and the books; let her play piano anytime she wanted. I’d even let her smoke. She could stay up all night drawing charts of tornadoes, hurricanes, and other future disasters, like the ones she used to send me through my post office box. But she would never see this place. She probably would never leave her bed. Lining the walls in my studio was evidence of a life intersecting art and science: books on art history and evolution, anthropology, polar exploration, folklore, poetry, and neuroscience. If I brought her here, would my mother really be happy? There was a cabinet of art supplies, an antique globe, a map of Lapland. I had star charts, bird charts, and a book of maps from the Age of Discovery. Had my mother ever been truly happy? Had she ever passed a day unafraid, without a chorus of voices in her head? The questions I wrote down before I left for Cleveland: How long does she have to live? Does she have a coat? Will she remember me? How will I remember her, after she is gone? *** The next day I flew into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. I almost always travel with Doug now: he is my compass, my driver, my word-finder and guide. How would I fare in this place without him? When I collected my suitcase from baggage claim, I half expected my mother to appear. She had slept on one of the benches off and on for years. Sometimes people came up to her and gave her money but she never understood why. Once she wrote to say: A kind man offered me five dollars at the airport for some reason. A bright moment in a stormridden day. I bought a strawberry milkshake at Micky D’s then pocketed the rest. I had flown to Cleveland just two months before to go to my thirtieth high school reunion. The day after the reunion, Doug and I drove to Payne Avenue near downtown Cleveland to see the shelter where my mother lived. She had given me her address in 2004, not a post office box number like she had in the past. I had no idea she had cancer then, nor did she, even though her body was showing signs that something was seriously wrong. I live in pain on Payne, she had written to me several times. I am bleeding a lot from below. But how to know what was real? Are you sick? I’d write her; she would respond: Sometimes I am taken out of the city and given enemas in my sleep. It’s what they do to Jews. In her last few letters, she always ended with: If you come to see me, I’ll make sure they find you a bed. Doug and I parked across the street from the shelter; I put on dark sunglasses and wouldn’t get out of the car. “I just want to see where she lives,” I said. “If I go in, she’ll want to come home with me, and then what?” I sank low in the seat and watched the women smoke out in front, waiting for the doors to open. It was windy and trash blew around the desolate treeless road. “I wish I could take her home. It looks like a war zone,” I said to Doug as we drove away. “At least I saw where she lives. It makes it more real. But now what?” I felt worse, finally knowing where she lived, knowing exactly what the place looked like. How could I turn my back on her now when her sad life was staring me in the face? And if I didn’t do
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
something soon, what was to stop her from moving on yet again, to another shelter, another town?
I had been communicating with my mother’s social worker for the past year about reuniting us, with a third party present for support. I wouldn’t do it without a third party, without my mother living somewhere under close watch, in a halfway house or a nursing home. Even though she was now elderly, in my mind she was still the madwoman on the street, brandishing a knife; the woman who shouts obscenities at you in the park, who follows you down alleyways, lighting matches in your hair. I had no idea if my sister Natalia would want to see her at all, but planned to ask her when the time came. The organization that was helping my mother, MHS (Mental Health Services for Homeless Persons, Inc.), had been trying to arrange a legal guardianship for her so she could be placed in a nursing home where she could get adequate care. She would finally have an advocate—someone to make decisions for her about finances, housing, and health. But when MHS presented my mother’s case before the court, they lost. It didn’t matter that she slept outside on the wet ground some nights, or that she was incontinent, nearly blind, and seriously ill, or that she had a long history of suicide attempts and hospitalizations. The judge declared my mother sane for three simple reasons: she could balance a checkbook, buy her own cigarettes, and use correct change. It was just like when my sister and I had tried to get a guardianship for her in the past.
I picked up a rental car at the airport and met my childhood friend Cathy at my hotel. We had seen each other for the first time after thirty years when I came to town two months before. Except for a few extra pounds and some faint lines etched around her blue eyes, Cathy hadn’t changed. I could still picture her laughing, leaning against her locker at Newton D. Baker Junior High—a sweet, sympathetic girl in a miniskirt, straight blond hair flowing down to her waist. As we were going up the elevator at University Hospital, I told Cathy about what the doctor had said to me earlier that day on the phone. He had said that my mother’s abdomen was riddled with tumors, and that he had removed most of her stomach and colon. He explained what stomas were, how her waste was being removed through them and how they had to be kept clean. I said, “He claims she’ll never go back to the shelter. They’ll get her into a good nursing home and make her as comfortable as possible before she dies.” “That’s a relief,” she said, taking my hand. “I don’t know, Cathy. I still think she’ll just get up, walk out the door, and disappear.”
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
The door was slightly ajar when we arrived at my mother’s room. I asked Cathy to wait in the hall until I called her in. The lights were off when I entered. I watched my mother sleep for a few minutes; the sun filtered through the slats in the shades, illuminating her pallid face. She looked like my grandfather when he was dying—hollow cheeks, ashen skin, breath labored and slow. Would she believe it was really me? She thought that aliens could assume the shape of her loved ones. “Mom,” I said. “It’s me. Your daughter, Myra.” I used my old name, the one she gave me. She opened her eyes. “Myra? Is it really you?” Her voice was barely audible and her cadence strange. “I brought you a little gift,” I said, and placed the soft orange scarf I had knitted for her around her neck. I sat down and took her hand. How well could she see? She had always written about her blindness, caused by glaucoma, cataracts, and “poisonous gas from enemy combatants.” I wondered if she could see how I had aged. My dark brown hair was cut in a bob, like the last time I had seen her, but I had a few wrinkles now, a few more gray hairs. I still dressed like a tomboy, though, and was wearing black sweatpants and a sweater. “That’s a good look for you, honey,” she said. “You look sporty. Where’s your sister?” “She’ll be here in a couple days,” I said. “She sends her love.” I was relieved that I could say that. What if my sister couldn’t bear to come? What would I have said? When the nurse came in I asked her how much my mother weighed. “Eighty-three pounds. Are you her daughter?” “Yes,” I said, then hesitated. “I haven’t seen her in seventeen years.” I expected the nurse to reproach me, but instead she was kind. “How nice that you can be together now. I hope you two have a great reunion.” My mother brought her hand up to shield her eyes. “Turn that damn light off.” “It’s off,” I said. “Shut the curtains. It’s too bright in here. Where’s my music? When am I going home?” “Where do you want to go?” I asked.
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
“Back to my women.” Did she mean the women’s shelter? Or did she want to be with my sister and me in her old house on West 148th Street? “Where’s my little radio? Did someone steal it again?” The last time I visited my mother in a hospital, it was over twenty years ago. She was in a lockdown ward at Cleveland Psychiatric Institute (CPI) and had asked me to bring her a radio. She had always needed a radio and a certain level of darkness. In her youth, my mother had been a musical prodigy. When I was growing up, she listened to the classical radio station night and day. I always wondered if her need for a radio meant more than just a love of music. Did it help block out the voices in her head? I pulled the curtains shut over the shades. “Is that better?” “Yes, honey. You’re a good girl.” I could smell lunch arriving down the hall—coffee, soup, and bread. Comforting smells in a world of beeping machines and gurneys—the clanking, squeaking sounds of the ICU . “Are you hungry?” I asked. “Not that hungry these days,” she said. “You want something to eat? You’re too thin. Go ask them to make you a sandwich. I’ll pay. Bring me my purse.” My mother was missing all but her four front teeth. I remember her writing me several years before to say that she had had them all removed because disability wouldn’t pay for dental care. According to the Government, teeth and eyes are just accessories, she wrote. Like buying a belt or a brooch. “Where are your false teeth?” I asked. “They’ll be serving lunch soon.” “Someone stole them,” she whispered. “They always steal my teeth.” We sat for a while, holding hands. She drifted in and out of sleep. I put my mother’s palm up to my lips. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t smell cigarettes on her skin. She smelled like baby lotion. She opened her eyes. “You should be proud of me. I quit smoking,” she said. “When did you quit?” “A week ago. When they brought me here.”
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
“Good for you,” I said. “You know, I always loved you, Mommy.” It was the first time I had used that word since I was a child. My sister and I always called her Mother, Norma, or Normie, or, on rare occasions, Mom. It was hard to call her anything maternal, even though she tried so hard to be just that. But in the hospital, as she lay dying, Mommy seemed the only right word to use. “I love you too,” she said. “But you ran away from me. Far away.” “I know. I’m sorry.” “A lot happened,” she said. “A lot happened to me too. But I’m here now.” “Yes,” she said. “I’m glad you came. Now let me sleep. I’m so very tired.”
On Tuesday, my second day at the hospital, a nurse came in and asked me how old my mother was. “She just turned eighty in November,” I said. My mother threw me a nasty look. “It’s a lie!” “How old are you?” I asked. “Not that old,” she said. “I was just kidding,” I said. “Are you in your forties now?” I winked at the nurse. “A little older but not much. A woman should never reveal her age.” “She’s fifty-two,” I said to the nurse but mouthed the word eighty when my mother turned away. Later, the surgeon talked to me outside the room. He said that the pathology report had finally come in. What he originally thought was colon cancer was late-stage stomach cancer, which is more deadly and was moving fast. I bombarded him with questions: “Where else has the cancer spread? Is she too far gone for chemo? How long does she have?” “Well, the good news is that your mother is doing remarkably well!” How can a dying person do remarkably well? I wondered. He added, “She’s recovering great from the surgery but there’s nothing we can really do for her anymore, just keep her comfortable.” “Can you explain what you did?” I asked.
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
The doctor borrowed my notepad and drew a picture. His pen flew over the paper; it was a map of what my mother looked like inside. “Here’s what I did,” he said. “I redirected what’s left of her colon and moved this over here, so that her waste can exit through this stoma, see?” He spoke too fast for my brain, using words like fistula, ileostomy, and carcinomatosis. I had no idea what he was talking about. It looked like he was drawing the map of a city as seen from above. Was this what is inside us, these roads and byways, these rotaries and hairpin turns? “Thanks,” I said. “That explains a lot.” “Super,” said the doctor, perpetually upbeat. “We can talk more later. I want to speak with your mother now.” The doctor and I went back inside her room. “Good morning, Norma! How are you doing today?” She smiled weakly. “All right.” He turned to me. “Her abdomen is completely diseased. We couldn’t take everything out.” I glared at him and put my finger to my lips. The day before I had said on the phone that discussing this with my mother would just upset her and that she wouldn’t really understand. The doctor continued anyway. “It’s much worse than we thought, Norma. People always want to know how long, but I can’t tell them. I could say a few weeks, months, either way I’d be wrong.” He sat down beside her, took her hand in his, and said loudly, “You have cancer, Norma. It’s very bad. Do you understand?” She looked baffled. The night before she had told me it wasn’t anything serious, she just had food poisoning from bad Mexican food. “Don’t eat at Taco Bell,” she had warned me. “They poison the beans there.” The doctor said again, “Norma. Do you understand that you have cancer?” “Get me a Danish,” she whispered in my ear as if it were a secret. She thought for a second. “One with sweet cheese.”
Later that day, my mother suddenly became concerned about her things at the shelter. “Where’s my black backpack? Where’s my purse? Who took them?”
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
I asked Tim, her shy young social worker from MHS, to retrieve her two large garbage bags from the shelter on Payne Avenue. I assumed these were the only things she owned in the world. In the years that we were apart, she often mentioned in her letters that she still had some of our family things in storage. Was it true or did she just imagine they were locked up somewhere for safekeeping? Sometimes she wrote me urgent letters, begging me to come to Cleveland and help her move her things from one place to another, but I suspected that it was just a ploy to get me to come back home. In the hospital parking lot Tim and I rummaged through her bags to see if there was anything she might want. We found her backpack in one of them, filthy and ripped, filled with laundry detergent, toothpaste, damp cigarettes, receipts, a diary, a sketchbook, a medical dictionary, incontinence pads, and a dirty white sock filled with keys. I took the keys and counted them, seventeen in all. Most looked like they went to lockers and storage units. One was a house key. Did it unlock our old red brick house? Back in her room I showed her the sock. “Where do these go to?” I asked. “I’m tired. I don’t know. Let me sleep.” Then she motioned me to come closer. “I have Grandma’s diamond rings for you girls. They’re locked up in a safety-deposit box.” “Where?” I asked. “What box? What are all these keys for?” “Tell you later. Too tired now. Shut lights. Don’t let them steal my pack.” That evening, in the hotel room, I picked up the diary I had found in her backpack. It was a pocket-sized purple notebook with red hearts on the cover, like the diary of a ten-year-old girl. I wondered if she had more of them hidden somewhere. I flipped through the coffee-stained pages. The book had the same faint odor of stale smoke and mildew that her letters had. I turned to her last few entries. Two weeks before the paramedics picked her up from the Community Women’s Shelter, my mother wrote: Magma: Hot liquid rock can be three shapes: spherical, spiral or a rod. It flows out like lava or cools underground. They had told me at the shelter that when they called 911 that day, she couldn’t stop vomiting and her stomach was distended as if she were about to give birth. “That Norma, she didn’t want to go to the hospital,” one woman had said to me on the phone. “She is one stubborn lady.” She had been sick for months, but wouldn’t see a doctor. Finally, the day the ambulance came to take her to the hospital, the women at the shelter convinced her to go. In her diary, my mother wrote: If lava reaches Earth’s surface it turns into igneous rock. Basalt: dark gray rock forms when magma cools into a solid. My mother had been studying geology. I turned back the pages. Before geology, she had reread all of Edgar Allan Poe. Before that she had turned to the stars: Recently, I had a dream of a cataclysm. Was not prepared for study of the planets, which has fevered my imagination once again.
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
Before I left for Cleveland I had been studying geology too. I was in the middle of a book about Nicolaus Steno, the seventeenth century Danish anatomist, whom some call the grandfather of geology. Steno was fascinated by what the oceans hid and left behind. I had read about how one day, in 1666, young Steno was in an anatomical theater in Florence, Italy, dissecting the head of a shark. It wasn’t just any shark but a great white. The shark was a wonder, and Steno’s patron, the Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici, wanted to know what was inside. This was the time when wonder and scientific inquiry were intricately entwined—when collectors collected the rare and the mysterious, the miraculous and mundane, from the bounty that explorers brought back to Europe from the New World. When Steno peered into the monster’s mouth he noticed that the shark’s teeth resembled the little stones people called “tongue stones,” or glossopetrae, the mysterious stones Pliny the Elder said fell from the heavens on dark and moonless nights, what the church said were miracle stones left from Noah’s Great Flood. Steno’s mind leapt from shark to sea to a question that plagued him for the rest of his life: why are seashells found on mountaintops? Even his scientific colleagues thought the fossils were signs from God. Nicolaus Steno laid the foundation for reading the archival history of the earth: How crystals are formed, how land erodes and sediment is made over time. How over centuries, seashells become fossils embedded deep inside the bedrock of mountains. My mother would have liked Nicolaus Steno. She’d marvel at the way his mind flew from one thought to another, uncovering the truth about ancient seas, how he learned to read the memory of a landscape, one layer at a time. The earth is also a palimpsest—its history scraped away time and time again. If my mother were well enough, I would tell her this. She’d light up a cigarette, pour herself a cup of black coffee, and get out her colored pens. Then she’d draw a giant chart with a detailed geological timeline, revealing the stratification of the earth. That Tuesday night I met my sister, Natalia, at the airport. I spotted her cherry-red coat in the thick throng of hurried holiday travelers. She lugged a huge suitcase behind her, walking a fast clip in high black boots. Like me, it had been close to seventeen years since she had last seen our mother, but my sister had made the painful decision never to write to her. When I had called her about our mother dying, I didn’t know whether or not she would come. Her last vision of our mother was a nightmare, indelible in her mind. I was relieved when, without even deliberating, she said she’d join me in Cleveland. “Nattie, I’m so happy you’re here.” I ran up to hug her. I had almost called her Rachel, her birth name before she changed it more than a decade before. Being back in Cleveland made her newer name feel strange on my tongue for the first time in years. Just as well. Around our mother, we’d have to be Myra and Rachel one last time. “How is she?” asked Natalia. “Don’t be shocked. She looks like a survivor from the camps.”
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
“I really want to see her. Let’s go first thing in the morning.” “Before I forget, I wanted to tell you—I found some keys. And receipts from U-Haul. She must have a storage room somewhere.” “What do you think is in there?” “I don’t know. But we can go this week and see. I imagine there’s a lot of junk.” The next morning Natalia woke up early to work out in the gym. She has always kept a strict regimen—a daily exercise routine, a rigorous schedule for writing, teaching, grading her students’ papers before bed. While Natalia was out of the room, I skimmed through my mother’s dairy. She wrote about staying up all night in the rain on a stranger’s porch and trying to sleep at the bus station without getting mugged. Should I read any of this to my sister? When we walked into our mother’s room at the hospital, she looked up at Natalia and said, “Who are you?” She turned to me. “Who’s this lady?” How could my mother not recognize her? Did she look that different seventeen years ago? The last time our mother saw her, Natalia was running away from the house on West 148th Street. Maybe that was how our mother remembered her—a terrified young girl in flight, long hair flying in the cold January wind. “It’s me. Rachel,” said my sister. How could we explain that we had changed our names so she could never find us? That we had been so scared of her all these years? She was the cry of madness in the dark, the howling of wind outside our doors. I had changed my name the year after my sister did, reluctantly, giving up the name signed at the bottom of my paintings so I would be harder to find. But I could never relinquish my first name. I simply exchanged a y for an i. My sister couldn’t give up her first name either and kept it sandwiched between the first and the last: Natalia Rachel Singer. She took Isaac Bashevis Singer’s last name, I took Bela Bartok’s. “Rachel? I thought you were dead.” “I’m not dead,” said my sister. “I’m here, right beside you.” “Is it really you?” Natalia pulled up a chair next to the bed. “It’s really me. How are you feeling?” “You girls have got to get me out of here! We have to go back to the house. There are criminals inside.”
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
“Don’t worry, the house is fine,” I lied to her. “Everything is just like you left it. You can go home as soon as you are better.” After all these years, our mother was still obsessed about her parents’ house she’d sold in 1989. When she signed the papers over to the new owner, she believed that she was only renting it to him for a while. Not long after the sale, and after my sister’s and my last failed attempt to get her a legal guardian and medical treatment, our mother disappeared into the streets. “Do you have a husband?” my mother asked Natalia. “Are you wearing a ring?” “Yes,” said my sister. “I’ll tell you all about him.” Natalia, who had seventeen years of stored-up conversations, began to talk. But after a few minutes, I could tell our mother was too exhausted and frail to listen anymore. “She can’t tolerate that much talking or sound,” I said. “She gets overwhelmed like me. Just sit with her. That’s enough; she’s happy you’re here.” Natalia took out a brush from her purse. “Can I brush your hair?” she asked. “If you like,” said my mother. I looked at them, mother and eldest daughter, strangers for seventeen years. “I’ll leave you two alone,” I said, and left. If you glanced in the room at that moment, you would see two women in tranquil silence, one tenderly brushing the hair of the other, as if she had been doing it her entire life. *** When I called U-Haul, they confirmed our mother had a storage room there. It was at Kamm’s Corners in West Park, not far from our old neighborhood. Early the next day, on Thursday, before heading over to the hospital, Natalia and I drove to the U-Haul on Lorain Avenue. Natalia sat in the passenger’s seat, clutching the map, nervous about getting lost. I expected to get lost. I got lost nearly every day. When we arrived, the man at the counter said, “Norma used to change clothes in there sometimes, even in winter. There’s no light or heat in the rooms. She was one tough broad.” Natalia and I wound our way through the maze of corridors. I could see my breath and regretted not having brought a hat or a pair of gloves. Fluorescent lights hummed, casting a pale, eerie glow on the high metal walls. I wondered how many other homeless men and women used these rooms to store their belongings, to change, or to catch up on sleep. Finally
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
we came to our mother’s room; it was just like all the others, eight-by-eight feet. I pulled the keys out of the sock. We tried them all. The last one fit; the padlock clicked open. I hesitated for a moment before I looked in. I was terribly curious to know what was inside, but I also wished I never had found the key. I was afraid of what we would find, even more afraid to find out what had been lost. Wasn’t it enough that we were here, now, in her final days? I shone my flashlight into the cold dark room. Things were piled up to the ceiling: furniture, boxes, trash, clothes, books, cans of soup. I imagined her changing clothes in the dark, shivering, cursing to herself, taking off one shirt and putting on another, then layering on three more for warmth. Natalia and I began to dig. My sister and I worked fast, sorting things into piles. We needed to get back to the hospital and didn’t have the luxury of taking our time. There was that familiar sense of purpose that I hadn’t felt in years, that old “it’s an emergency, let’s just get the job done” kind of feeling. I was glad not to do it alone. I first tried to separate all the trash from things that we needed to save. I almost tossed out one of my mother’s old grimy pocketbooks when I felt something hard inside. I pulled out a butcher knife. “Jesus, look at this,” I said. “Do you think that’s the one she had when the police caught her at Logan Airport?” said Natalia. “I’m sure she was on her way to find me.” Natalia and I excavated. We found a 1950s Geiger counter, and a bag of our mother’s hair with a note taped to it with instructions on how to make a wig. I found a chart she had drawn showing all the nuclear power plants in the world, similar to one she had sent me when I lived in the Norwegian Arctic ten years before. There were boxes crammed with newspaper articles on cryogenics, alien abductions, radon poisoning, global warming, child abuse, train wrecks, and unsolved murders in Chicago. I discovered a huge box labeled “Scribing Books” filled with notebooks devoted to my mother’s eclectic research: geometry, poetry, chemistry, botany, geography, art history, medicine, fairy tales, zoology, car mechanics, physics, and the Bible. For each subject, she made vocabulary lists with detailed definitions, something I would have done even before my brain injury. Her files could have been my files; her notes, mine. I came across the chiffon scarf I had bought for her in New Orleans years ago. In the same box were many of my favorite books from childhood. I pulled out a collection of Jack London I’d read when I was about eleven. After reading Call of the Wild, I became obsessed with polar exploration. If a man could survive by boiling his boots, or walking out onto the glacial ice with nothing but a few sled dogs and a piece of seal blubber in his pocket, then certainly I could withstand whatever obstacles came my way.
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
At the bottom of the box were two big fairy-tale collections our father had sent us sometime after our parents divorced in 1963. I was four and my sister was five. We never saw him again. One book was a beautifully illustrated collection of Russian fairy tales inscribed, To Rachel, from Daddy. The other, a book of Japanese fables, was inscribed to me. It had been years since I had opened them. I stared at the handwriting. Something seemed a bit off. Then it dawned on me— both inscriptions bore my own adolescent scrawl. I had always remembered the books and our father’s dedications as proof of his love for us. Yet, how malleable our memories are, even if our brains are intact. Neuroscientists now suggest that while the core meaning of a long-term memory remains, the memory transforms each time we attempt to retrieve it. In fact, anatomical changes occur in the brain every single time we remember. As Proust said, “The only paradise is paradise lost.” As I paged through the Russian fairy tale book, a piece of paper fell out—a photocopied picture of a piano keyboard. Was this how my mother played music all these years? Did my homeless mother, once a child prodigy, play Bach inside her head, her hands fluttering over imaginary keys? What I found next took my breath away. “Nat,” I said. “She saved my pony.” I took out the old palomino horse I used to call Pony from a torn moldy box. The horse’s right foreleg was broken. My mother had tried to mend it with a piece of packing tape, then wrapped it in a red wool hat I had sent her for her birthday two years before. I put it in my bag to take back to the hotel. In the same box were all the letters I had written my mother over the last seventeen years. There were also photocopies she had made of her letters to me. Natalia glanced over to see what I was looking at. I wondered what she felt as she saw me sifting through the stack. We had barely spoken about our mother for years. At the bottom of the box were thirteen pairs of scissors. Right after her divorce, when I was four, my mother tried to slit her wrists with a pair of cutting shears and was rushed to the hospital. I remember sitting at the foot of the stairs, my grandfather looming over me, puffing on a cigar. He handed me a rag and told me to wipe the blood off each and every stair. At the top of the staircase was the open door to our apartment; inside, a limp frilly blouse draped over an ironing board, on the floor a pair of scissors and a pool of blood. My sister remembers the incident too but neither of us recalls the other being there. Did it even happen? Before the age of ten, children have a kind of childhood amnesia. We lack developed language skills and a cognitive sense of self, especially when we are very young. It’s hard to even know if our memories are real. Even though we feel they are, they might not be. And in family narratives, what if the person you learned your early autobiography from couldn’t tell the difference from reality and a dream? In another box were all the museum date books I had sent my mother over the years. I found a little stuffed owl, a teddy bear, and a children’s book I once sent her called Owl Babies, about a mother owl who disappears but is reunited with her children in the end. There were nursing textbooks and lists of medical schools my mother planned to apply to. When she turned
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
seventy-nine she wrote to tell me that although she was now legally blind she had decided to study medicine: I am thinking of going to nursing school, maybe in a foreign country. That way, if I ever get sick or lose my sight completely, I’ll know what to do. I found a set of her teeth stuck inside an old eyeglass case. I uncovered dozens of legal claims filed by her, accusing various moving companies, housing projects, the Chicago Transit Authority and the city of Cleveland of stealing her teeth, her glasses, her house, her hair, her children, her memory, and her youth. I pulled out stacks of drawings she had made of street scenes, family members, flowers, and fairies. One was titled Rachel Has No Flowers in Her Hair, a desolate stretch of gray land with nothing in it but one scraggly tree. Our mother was expecting us and we had already been at U-Haul for over two hours. My hands were so cold I could barely feel my fingers anymore. I’d been about to suggest leaving when I found the box. “Nattie,” I said. “You better take a look.” We dragged the heavy box out into the hall. It was stuffed with diaries, seventeen years of secrets: typewritten journals in bulging three-ring binders, others pocket-sized and written by hand. I skimmed through them for half an hour or more, but had to stop. It reminded me of when I was a teenager and hid in our grandparents’ attic, digging through boxes, searching for a father who had disappeared, searching for a mother before she lost her mind. Then I saw several papers stapled together, stuck in between two journals. At the top of the page, my mother had written, “Life Story.” It began like this: There was danger imparted to me at birth. The street was well kept and quiet during the day. You hardly saw anyone. In 1945 I suffered a childhood nervous breakdown. I was nineteen. My father and I were supposed to go to a party at my uncle’s, but instead, we went to a foreign film and as we returned home by bus on 148th Street, my father became angry and said something about not liking my uncle’s associates. Leaving the bus I dropped coins in the fare box. My father was angry that I paid for myself. He became more and more enraged and I became mildly hysterical. When we were in the house, he seized a lamp and said, “I’ll kill you” to parties unknown. My early childhood was deprived in some respects. I did not view television until 1963 and now I see that little bits of my life in distorted form have gotten into movie stories. I still have received no compensation for that. Ultimately, what I do know is this: I am a homemaker, my records have never been straightened out, and my need for privacy and house is greater than ever. I write this in a motel room looking out onto garbage bins. I slumped down onto the floor and couldn’t move. I write this in a motel room looking out onto garbage bins. How much more did I really want to know about her life on the street? My brain was done for the day. “Nattie,” I said. “Maybe we should go.” My sister didn’t hear me; she was lost in her own little world. She sprang up into a standing yoga posture, stretching her arms high above her head.
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
Before my injury, I would have been just as resilient. After a few more stretches, Natalia went back in. I gathered my reserves and went back in too. “Look at this!” she said. She pulled out something big, white, and fuzzy from deep within our mother’s den. It was a teddy bear the size of a toddler, dressed in a festive red dress. The red bow around its neck said 2000. “It’s a millennium bear,” I said. I tried to remember where I was on New Year’s Day 2000, but couldn’t. Where was my mother that day? Who gave her this bear? Would she still be here this coming January 1? “Let’s bring the bear,” said Natalia. “We better go back,” she added. “You look tired. Besides, she’s going to think we’re not going to come.” Before we left, we made a stack of things our mother might want at the hospital. My sister placed The Brothers Karamazov on the pile and a torn almanac from 1992. “Definitely this,” she said, holding up our mother’s Glenville High School yearbook from 1945. “She loved looking at pictures of her old friends.” I flipped through the pages to find her maiden name, Norma Kurap. The portrait of her in a simple white blouse was sweet and demure. She was eighteen, and schizophrenia had yet to rear its ugly head. I read the list of activities below her smiling face: Orchestra, Play Production, Choral Club, Accompanist, Student Council, Music Appreciation Club, National Honor Society, the list went on. She was voted “Most Versatile” in the Popularity Poll. Her classmates wrote: Good luck at Carnegie Hall! May your magic piano fingers charm all the hearts of the world. One boy wrote, To my dream girl, the sweetest and prettiest gal at Glenville. Another wrote, So when are you going to teach me how to rumba? And another, It will take more than a war to make me forget you. The introduction to her yearbook, written by a boy named Marvin, is titled “War Baby.” He writes at the end: We are the class of January, 1945—a war class. We leave Glenville, determined to finish the fight. I never realized until then that my mother lost her mind the year we dropped the bomb. Seven months after she graduated, in August 1945, America obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shortly afterward while on a bus coming home from a movie with her father, the voices inside my mother’s head arrived unannounced, in all their terrible glory.
Our mother was wide awake when we arrived. “Where were you? I thought you weren’t going to come. You girls need to help me. We have to get back to the house before it’s too late.” “Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ve got everything under control.”
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
“But I’m so worried about everything.” My mother reached up and touched the back of my head. “And you. What about your little noggin? Does it still hurt?” “My head’s okay,” I said. “Just some problems here and there, you know.” “You should wear a helmet,” she said. “That way, they can’t get you again.” When I injured my brain, I almost didn’t write her about it, but changed my mind. It seemed like the kind of thing a mother should know, even if she was indigent and ill. When I wrote, I spared her the gory details, like I did with most things. “They stole my memory too,” she whispered, as I straightened out her pillows. “They have their tricks.” When the truck hit, I was in the passenger’s seat, leaning over, looking for a cassette. The man driving my car, who suffered whiplash in the accident, was a guy I was dating at the time. We were on our way home from my sister’s house in northern New York. The truck driver, who must have fallen asleep, swerved toward the right and tried to put on his brakes. The next thing I recall was a pair of white-gloved hands reaching in to pull me out of the car. I remember a blur of blinking lights, and the feeling of hot lava dripping down the back of my head. When I eventually told my mother about the accident, I said that I suffered from memory loss, mostly short-term but some long-term memory as well, which isn’t that common with traumatic brain injury. I didn’t tell her about the strange sensations of lost time that one doctor thought might be temporal lobe seizures, or that I no longer could follow directions, that I didn’t know how to leave a tip, and had trouble reading, writing, and doing just about anything that required over ten minutes of concentration. Why tell a homeless woman who slept at the airport that it felt like it was raining inside my body and ants were crawling up and down my legs? My mother thought there were rats living inside her body, aliens in her head.
Natalia and I returned to the storage room before dinner. “We should have worn headlamps,” I said. “It’s like going down into a cave.” “Let’s not stay long,” said my sister. “I want to go back tonight to see her. How are you doing, by the way? You look exhausted.” Even though I usually appear fine to the outside world, when I do too many things, say, shop for food and have coffee with a friend on the same day, I might not be able to drive home or talk to anyone for two days after that. If I’m exhausted, I stutter or shut down. If I go to a noisy dinner party, I can easily press down on the accelerator instead of the brake on my way home. Because I didn’t learn how to drive until I was almost forty, the act of putting my foot on the brake isn’t the same kind of habitual memory as tying my shoe. It’s frightening when the part of
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
my brain that’s supposed to process all those stimuli being hurled at me won’t do its job anymore. I get terribly frustrated with myself and with friends who don’t understand. My judgment isn’t always the best either. I think I’m able to handle much more than I really can. “You have to drive back, you know,” said Natalia. “We didn’t put me down on the rental. Maybe we should do that tomorrow.” “I’m fine. Let’s keep going,” I said. I was packing more journals to take back to the hotel when Natalia found a big black trunk with brass trim. We hauled it out and yanked the top open. “Jesus,” I said. “I thought these were lost.” Inside were family photos we thought we’d never see again: our mother at sixteen, smiling from a tenement window, our father’s black-and-white glossy for his first book, our grandfather standing with a menacing grin in the garden, holding a pair of pruning shears. And nestled in a pile of loose photos was my sister’s and my baby album. I skimmed through the pages till I came to a picture of my sister as a chubby toddler, sitting on top of a baby grand, looking at my mother, eyes closed, playing with abandon. My sister seemed frightened in the picture, as if she were about to fall. I imagined her during the fourteen months before I came into the world—an infant living with a gifted and beautiful mother who lived in an alternate universe, a brilliant father who drank himself to sleep each night. A bit like Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I thought. I put the book aside to bring back to the hotel. Natalia and I continued mining. Inside the trunk, there were pictures I had drawn when I was small, report cards, my art and music awards. I picked up a small plastic grandfather clock to toss into the garbage pile. “Look at this crappy old thing,” I said. “I can’t believe the things she saved.” “There’s too much here,” said my sister. “I can’t take it all in.” “I can come back tomorrow by myself.” “Don’t exclude me. Stop thinking that you have to do everything. It’s annoying.” “I’m sorry it’s just . . . Nattie, there’s something inside this.” I pried open the little glass window below the clock face—inside was a drawing of two little rabbits, and below the rabbits was a drawing of a tiger. “There’s another picture hidden underneath!” On the back of the picture was a list of birth dates for those born in the Chinese Year of the Tiger, which included my mother, and a detailed description of feline carnivores written in tiny
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
script. Underneath the tiger my mother had placed a photo of my sister and me at ages five and six. I look stiff and unhappy; my sister smiles at the viewer and strikes a girlish pose. Behind the photo was yet another picture, cut from a 1960s Life magazine— a still life of red and green Christmas ornaments and holly. Was she trying to protect us? Did she believe a drawing could be a talisman against the forces of evil in the world?
Back at the hotel that night, as my sister and I got ready for bed, I wondered what lay ahead. The next day or the day after that, our mother would be moved to a nursing home for hospice care. How long would she hang on? Days? Weeks? My sister, who suffers from insomnia, performed her nocturnal rituals to calm her nerves. She took an aromatherapy bath, stretched, and read before inserting her earplugs. She put on her eye mask and turned off her lamp. We are both vigilant sleepers: she can’t fall asleep; I wake at the slightest sound. “Good night,” she said. “Night, Nattie. I’ll turn off the light in a little bit. Sleep well.” I pulled a few of our mother’s journals from the pile. As the years passed, I saw how they became smaller and more portable. She daily mulled over her dreams, trying to interpret them and discern if they were real or not. She recorded exactly what she ate each day—mostly donuts, small cups of chili, cheap black coffee, and hamburgers from McDonald’s. She recorded what she spent, down to the penny. She spoke to someone in her head and struggled to understand what was an outside influence and what came from within. She wrote about how light fell on certain trees and described the delicate scents of flowers she saw in the park; she also wrote each flower’s common and Latin names, and drew a picture of it. One sentence stuck in my head and I marked its place in the book. It sounded like something she had written to me in a letter once: Of my life at the piano, I shall say nothing for the time being. I picked up her very last journal, the diary I had found when I looked through her backpack. In the pages I read prescient signs of her living with cancer, unaware. My mother was nauseous, dizzy, incontinent, and had blood in her stool. She doubled over with abdominal pain. She was bloated from a tumor but thought it was because she was overweight, so she tried to eat even less. She ate most meals in hospital cafeterias, the cheapest places, and rode the subway all over the city to get there, no matter how bad the weather. She recorded the weather daily, sometimes every hour. Near the end of her last diary, she wrote: Awoke today with stronger remembrance for loved ones. I knew I should go to bed—it was well past midnight and we wanted to get an early start, but I couldn’t stop reading. She wrote: This a.m. I’m in a hotel I can’t identify, I see so many gray closed doors. I cannot work with poor memory. To note something, a rat will find incentive to report. Caution: I’ve suffered as much as anyone in history. Note: Metamorphic rock means changes deep inside earth from heat and weight of other rocks.
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
I cannot work with poor memory either, I thought. How will I remember these passing days? Once again, I thought of Nicolaus Steno. My mother was dying and yet I turned to history for solace, to ancient geology. I thought of when Steno made his final public appearance as a scientist. These things I remember well, these odd little facts from science, history, and art. That year, in 1673, Steno was dedicating an anatomical theater and gave a speech on the importance of scientific research. He told the audience, “Beautiful is what we see. More beautiful is what we understand. Most beautiful is what we do not comprehend.” Natalia was fast asleep in the bed next to mine, like when we were little and our names were Rachel and Myra. I read about how many nights my mother slept outside in the rain one November, hungry and cold, suffering from a bladder infection and a terrible cough. She had been sleeping in her old backyard while the owner was out of town. This was how she spent her birthday in the fall of 2001, two months after the tragedies of 9/11. I felt sick to my stomach, knowing that my own mother spent so many nights outside in the rain. Why didn’t anyone help her, lead her to safety? I wanted to go back in time and be the person who took her in. In my mother’s very last diary, from the fall of 2006, she returned to the history of the earth: The outer shell . . . is divided into about thirty large and small pieces that fit together . . . called tectonic plates. They move on hot layers of rock within the mantle. Continents sit on top of the plates; plates are also under the ocean floor. As the plates move, the continents and oceans slowly change. What hadn’t she studied these seventeen years? I searched her journals for my name, my sister’s, but she barely mentioned us at all, and even then only obliquely: Long nightmare dream of losses. Bury the nightmare. Bury the losses. Bury the dream.
On Friday morning, Natalia and I sat side by side next to our mother’s bed. My sister graded her students’ English papers while I drew in my sketchbook. It felt like old times. When we were children, Natalia sat on the bed and wrote stories while I sat next to her and made pictures—rare moments of calm in a turbulent world. I still felt at home sitting only a few inches apart, her writing, me drawing, neither of us saying a word. Soon our mother would be moved to a nursing home. We were waiting to find out where she would be placed. She still thought she was going “home.” There was a radio in the room now; one of the nurses had brought it in after I told her how my mother’s favorite classical music station calmed her down, and that she listened to it twentyfour hours a day. Christmas was in three days and every radio station was playing “Jingle Bells.” “Turn that holiday crap off,” said my mother. “I can’t stand it anymore.” “I’ll bring some CDs as soon as I can get a CD player,” I said. “What’s a CD?”
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
“It’s a little record. I’ll get you some classical music. Don’t worry.” “Well, hurry up. This crap is killing me.” I only came home once during Christmastime, the first year after I left for college. My Russian Orthodox grandfather was still alive then and he was the only one in the family who celebrated Christmas. After he died in 1980, our mother always spent the holidays alone, or with our grandmother, the two of them eating corned beef sandwiches, watching sitcoms on TV. I always told myself that it didn’t matter anyway, that they were secular Jews who had no interest in any religious celebrations, Chanukah or otherwise. A neighbor from next door told me that my mother spent her last Thanksgiving in the family house locked up inside. When the neighbor peeked in the window, she saw piles of dishes in the sink and garbage on the floor. “I was afraid to go in but was worried your mother would starve to death.” The neighbor left food in the milk chute, then came back later to retrieve the empty plates. As my mother slept, I tried to draw her face. It was my fourth attempt since I’d arrived on December 18. It had been many years since I had drawn her. When I was in high school, I stayed home on weekend nights sometimes so she wouldn’t be alone. We listened to the radio together or to records. She’d lie on the couch and smoke and I would sketch her. Now I drew her asleep and dying, head tilted back upon the pillow, her mouth open as if in song. I took out the drawing the doctor had made of what my mother looked like inside. It reminded me of choreography, the staging of an intricate dance. It reminded me of my own inevitable demise. There is a Buddhist meditation I do sometimes. I imagine the layers of my body as I sit, mindful of my breath. I picture my flesh falling away, then the muscles and connective tissue, the organs, and finally the bones. I do this once in a while to remind myself of where I’m going. A rather macabre way to comfort myself, I suppose. Sometimes I take it a step further, into deep time—I imagine my bones beneath the earth, crumbling to gypsum, forming into chalk held by a child writing words upon a blackboard. I imagine the words erased by another child’s hand, and still another, breathing in chalk dust, exhaling into air. An aide came into the room to remove my mother’s tray. She had barely touched her eggs. Little by little, we cease to consume, take in food, water, air. My sister glanced up, then jotted something down. What would she remember? What would I? Our brains are built for selective attention—we focus on some things while ignoring a vast array of other stimuli around us. It is those select things that we recall, not the rest. I couldn’t take notes about what was going on around me like Natalia. Just the act of taking visual and auditory information in, processing it, then writing it down, is an act of multitasking, something I don’t do well anymore. I was afraid I would miss something, something so small you can’t see or sense if you are putting words to the page—the subtle twitch of a finger, a swift sideways glance, a snippet of song down the hall. And yet, what does it matter anyway? Memory, if it is anything at all, is unreliable. Even birds, with their minute brains, have better memories than we do. Nuthatches and black-capped
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
chickadees remember precisely where they stored food in the wild. Honeybees have “flower memory” and remember exactly where they already have been to pollinate a flower. They can even recall the colors and scents of their food sources, and the times of day when their food is at its best. We humans are different—our brains are built not to fix memories in stone but rather to transform them. Our recollections change in their retelling. Still, I wondered if I should try to take notes. Without some kind of written record, would I remember these quiet, fleeting days? Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel says we are who we are because of what we learn and what we remember. Who am I, then, if my memory is impaired? And how will I remember my mother after she is gone? Some of my old memories feel trapped in amber in my brain, lucid and burning, while others are like the wing beat of a hummingbird, an intangible, ephemeral blur. But neuroscientists say that is how memory works—it is complex and mercurial, a subterranean world that changes each time we drag something up from below. Every sensation, thought, or event we recall physically changes the neuroconnections in our brain. And for someone who suffers from brain trauma, synapses get crossed, forcing their dendritic branches to wander aimlessly down the wrong road. And yet, I can still walk into a museum and name almost everything on the wall. I can recall pictures I drew, even ones I made as a child. I remember artifacts from museums, fossils, masks, and bones. The part of my brain that stores art and all the things I loved to look at and draw is for the most part intact. Perhaps the visual part of my brain can help retrieve the events that are lost. If neuroscientific research suggests that the core meaning of a memory remains, even if its details have been lost or distorted, then if I find the right pictures, the pictures could lead me to the core. In my mother’s room, while she slept and Natalia wrote, I took out one of my mother’s diaries, one from 1992. That year I had gone to Israel and brought back a bag of stones. One contained an ammonite, a fossilized nautilus hell. When I got home I poured water on it to see what it might have looked like centuries ago in the sea. I wondered how long it had been hidden in the earth, a rock shifting against rocks, rising up over time from primordial sediment. Isn’t that how memory works too? We look at something—a picture, a stone, a bird—and a memory surfaces, then that memory carries us to another, and another. Memory isn’t just mutable, it is associative. Thomas Aquinas once said, “One arrives at the color white through milk, to air from the color white, to dampness from air and on to Autumn.” How, then, would I arrive back at my own past? “Myra?” my mother said, her eyes half shut. “Are you still here?” I hid her journal inside the book in my lap. “I’m still here.” “Where’s your sister?”
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
“She’s here too. She just stepped out for a second but she’ll be right back.” “You won’t run away?” “No,” I said. “I won’t run away.” “Myra?” “Yes?” “Would you do something for your old lady?” “Anything.” “Brush your hair. It’s really a mess.” “I’ll do it right now.” “Good. Because a girl has to put her best foot forward whenever she can.”
We left the hospital late that night. Most of the day had been quiet, just the sound of our mother’s slow breathing and the radio purring in the background. My sister got ready for bed while I pulled out one of the photo albums we’d brought back from U-Haul, our baby book. “You coming?” she asked. She switched off her light and turned her masked face to the wall. “Soon,” I said. “Good night.” I held the photo album up to my nose. It smelled like my mother used to smell—cigarettes and Tabu, her favorite perfume—our sense of smell, the strongest memory trigger of all, the only sense that travels directly to the limbic system in our brain. I thought of my mother’s small white face in the hospital bed, her delicate, cold hands. Then another picture of her rose up in my mind, her hands hovering over mine at the piano—a younger Norma; my mother in the bloom of life, a dark-eyed beauty in a red silk dress, her face unreadable, listening to something no one else can hear. I took out my mother’s last diary. Her final entry was a random list: Hyssop: plant used in bunches for purification rites by ancient Hebrews. Po River: Runs through Italy into Adriatic. Avert: to turn away or aside. Note: My white cane is missing. I dropped my sunglasses on the bus. Then farther down, these words: Chica—drink of Peru. Hecuba—wife of Priam. Baroque Palace—? What palace? What did her last entry mean? A few pages back were little sketches she had made: a leaf, her hand, a shoe.
The Memory Palace: A Memoir, Mira Bartók
I thought of random pictures from my past—paintings from the Cleveland Museum of Art, objects from our grandparents’ house, things I liked to draw. What pictures did I remember? What could I create to contain them all? Was the answer in my mother’s very last page? Hadn’t she herself built a memory cabinet at U-Haul to contain her beautiful, tragic, and transient life? Was there something I could build too? A memory palace. A man named Matteo Ricci built one once. I read about him the year after my accident. Ricci, a Jesuit priest who possessed great mnemonic powers, traveled to China in 1596 and taught scholars how to build an imaginary palace to keep their memories safe. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember. To everything they wanted to recall, they were to affix an image; to every image, a position inside a room in their mind. His idea went back to the Greek poet Simonides, who, one day while visiting friends at a palace, stepped outside for a minute to see who was at the door. As soon as he went outside, the great hall came crashing down. All the people inside were crushed to death and no one could recognize them. Simonides, however, remembered where everyone stood at the party, and recalled them one by one so their bodies could be identified. My mind was full of so many pictures—with each one I could build a different room, each room could lead me to a memory, each memory to another. Since I knew what Ricci didn’t at the time, that memories cannot be fixed, my palace would always be changing. But the foundation would stay the same. Ricci told the scholars that the place to put each picture must be spacious, the light even and clear, but not too bright. He said that the first image they should choose for their memory palace must arouse strong emotions. It was the entranceway, after all. I closed my eyes and opened a door. I turned to the right and there, in a reception room with high arched ceilings, I placed two pictures on opposite walls. The light was clear in the room, the space free of clutter.
The Memory Palace: A Memoir Reading Group Guide
Introduction When piano prodigy Norma Herr was well, she was the most vibrant personality in the room. But as her schizophrenic episodes became more frequent and more dangerous, she withdrew into a world that neither of her daughters could make any sense of. After being violently attacked for demanding that Norma seek help, Mira Bartók and her sister changed their names and cut off all contact in order to keep themselves safe. For the next seventeen years Mira’s only contact with her mother was through infrequent letters exchanged through post office boxes, often not even in the same city where she was living. At the age of forty, artist Mira suffered a debilitating head injury that left her memories foggy and her ability to make sense of the world around her forever changed. Hoping to reconnect with her past, Mira reaches out to the homeless shelter where her mother had been living. When she receives word that her mother is dying in a hospital, Mira and her sister travel to their mother’s deathbed to reconcile one last time. Norma gives them a key to a storage unit in which she has kept hundreds of diaries, photographs, and mementos from the past that Mira never imagined she would see again. These artifacts trigger a flood of memories, and give Mira access to a past that she believed had been lost forever. Topics & Questions for Discussion 1. The prologue describes a homeless woman standing on a window ledge, thinking about jumping. The author writes, “Let’s call her my mother for now, or yours.” How does imagining a loved one of your own in that position change the way you think about the book? Does it help you connect or make the situation more personal? 2. Early in the book, Mira sees her mother for the first time in seventeen years. What is your impression of this hospital visit? What impact does it have on Mira? 3. While their mother is dying at the hospital, Mira and her sister Natalia go through their mom’s storage facility. How did it make you feel to be with the two sisters as they rummaged through the collection? What discovered or rediscovered items touched you most and why. 4. Mira says, “Memory, if it is anything at all, is unreliable.” How does Mira’s own unreliable memory—a lingering effect of her auto accident—underscore the schizophrenic mind of her mother? Do you think it helps her relate to her mother? Why or why not?
5. Mira turns to art as a way to express herself. When Mira visits a Russian Orthodox Church with her grandfather, she sees the “Beautiful Gate” of painted icons and wonders: “Can a painting save a person’s life?” Describe ways in which art is therapeutic in this book. 6. As an illustration of how memory can be unreliable, Mira explains that she vividly remembers seeing the Cuyahoga River burning in Cleveland in 1969, and then admits that she’s almost certain she wasn’t really there, even though the memory of the event is so clear. Can you think of things that are imprinted in your own memory (perhaps from hearing family stories or seeing images onscreen) even though you were not there? Do you think anyone’s memory can be an accurate record of truth? Why or why not? 7. In Italy, Mira takes a job making reproductions of old paintings for tourists. She later learns that they are being sold as authentic antiquities. How does Mira react to this news? What deeper feeling does it evoke in Mira about her life in general? How does this discovery fit into the book’s questions about authenticity? 8. After visiting their father’s grave in the New Orleans area, Mira and Natalia decide to visit a state park. Their heads and hearts filled with emotion, they get lost along the way. But after they find the park and enjoy some peaceful time in nature, the road away from the park seems clear and simple. Describe the role that nature and meditation play in Mira’s life and in this book. 9. When Mira’s husband William is in a fit of depression, Mira feels like “It’s January in 1990 all over again.” Compare and contrast Mira’s characterization of her husband and her mother. How do her experiences with her mother impact the way she responds to William’s depression? 10. At her mother’s memorial service, the director of MHS (Mental Health Services, Inc.) says to Mira, “I know of children who have abandoned their parents for much less than you two have gone through,” but Mira wonders if she and her sister truly did enough. How does this book make you think about the obligations that children have to their parents? Are there limits to what family members owe each other? 11. Mira seems to regard the homeless people she sees on the streets a little differently—as though any one of them could be a mother or father. She wants people to understand the “thin line, the one between their worlds and ours.” Has this book helped you see the homeless in a different light? Why or why not? How has it impacted the way you think about mental illness?
Enhance Your Book Club 1. One purpose of this memoir is to show first-hand what it’s like to live with (and apart from) a person who suffers from a mental illness. Do a little research to find out more about what it’s like to live with this disease. You can start with websites such as www.schizophrenia.com, http://nami.org/, and http://www.healthyplace.com/thoughtdisorders/nimh/world-of-people-with-schizophrenia/menu-id-1154. You might also try typing in the search term “schizophrenia documentary” at YouTube.com in order to see a variety of homemade and televised documentaries about people who suffer from this debilitating mental illness. 2. Mira Bartók is a writer, poet, musician, and artist. She is also a strong advocate for other writers, poets, and artists. She blogs about grants, fellowships, and opportunities for both the established and aspiring. Visit her blog at www.miraslist.blogspot.com. Are there any opportunities there you may want to explore? Share them with the group— and encourage your fellow readers to pursue their own creative interests. 3. The author wants you to understand how thin the line is between one world and another—between what you may consider a “normal” life and a life on the streets or plagued with a mind or mood-altering condition. After reading this book, take a closer look at people you may ordinarily ignore. Look a homeless person in the eye and greet him or her with a salutation as you might any other person. If possible, try volunteering at a local homeless shelter, or better yet, your book club could volunteer as a group. Be sure to share and discuss your experience with your fellow book club members. A Conversation with Mira Bartók You mention that your mother admired the ability of a person to mix words and art. Do you think she would have been proud of this book, which combines your artwork with your writing? Did your mother’s encouragement prompt you to combine words and art, or did you always think you’d be a writer? I think she would have been very proud of me for writing this book, although there are many parts in it that would upset her, too. However, I know she would have liked the artwork and she would have appreciated the great effort it took to create a book like this, given my disability. As far as always thinking I would be a writer, I never thought about that and still don’t think of myself in that way. Although I always wrote—mostly poetry, essays, and short fiction, and also I made artists’ book with images and text—I am an artist first, and that means, for me, that I serve the idea. If the idea, which often starts out as an image, needs to be a story, then I will write a story. If it should be a painting or a film, then I have to follow that trajectory. My next project is an illustrated young adult novel/adult fiction crossover. I have also started to explore creating radio documentaries with my husband, musician and producer, Doug Plavin. Can you tell that I don’t like labels?
You are an accomplished artist, author, poet, and musician. Do you have a favorite medium? My first love was music, and still is, although I am hardly an accomplished musician—more of an amateur. And due to some cognitive deficits from my brain injury, it will take a lot of focused practicing to regain much of my former ability to play music.
How do you choose which form to use when expressing an emotion, theme, or story? I think it chooses me. I have no idea. See my answer to question one!
How did combining art forms using writing and painting help you construct your memoir? Music informed my use of language, art informed the imagistic way I wrote. And when words failed me, I would draw. When I couldn’t draw, I would write. And sometimes, while typing, if words got stuck in my head, I’d bring up an image from my computer to help me along visually.
This book is a very personal and moving testimony to the turbulent and loving relationship between a mother and daughter. Were there certain aspects of your story you were reluctant to share? Yes, definitely. I withheld certain things that might have appeared sensational, particularly violent episodes with our grandfather. I’m not a huge fan of misery memoirs, ones that relentlessly describe one terrible thing after another without any self-examination on the author’s part. I wanted to express beauty as well and I also did not want to contribute to the unfortunate stereotype of a violent schizophrenic; statistically, most schizophrenics are more likely to harm themselves than others. I also decided against sharing a couple of very personal drawings, like the one I did of my mother when she was dying.
When you wrote your memoir, how did you feel about scenes that involve your sister or other featured characters who may read it? How does the unreliability of memory come into play in these scenes, given the different perspectives of people who may have experienced the same moments in different ways? What has it been like to share these memories with the people who lived through them with you? I think that the only person I was worried about was my sister, Natalia Singer, because of her very private nature and her difficult personal choice not to write our mother during those seventeen years of separation. I was just worried about bringing to light, in a public way, a very painful part of our family history. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to write the book and hoped
that ultimately, her reading it would be a healing experience for both of us—and I really think it was. After she read it, she called to say that she loved it and that I was very brave to have written this book. And aside from that, she had written her own memoir a few years ago, called Scraping by in the Big Eighties, about how she tried to rise above our difficult past to make it as a struggling writer during that decadent era of big hair and junk bonds. She never, to my recollection (ah…memory again!) asked me to help her recall any events from that period while she was writing her book, nor do I think she should have. Basically, I tried hard not to think of anyone reading the book until I was done. At one point, while I was working on an early draft, my sister asked me if I was going to show her the book before I was finished so she could check my memories and make sure they were right. I thought that was pretty funny, given that my book was about how unreliable memory was. I thanked her but told her that I was more interested in what things we miss-remember and why. I was and still am very intrigued by how family members recall things differently. It’s the psychology behind what we choose to forget and the neuroscience that I am interested in, not some journalistic approach to memoir. Also, most people who read memoirs know that conversations and scenes are condensed and altered in the interest of time and telling a good story. But what we don’t often see in memoir is the exploration of memory itself, how it functions, and how in the retelling of an event, the telling transforms not only the memory but it changes our brain as well. One thing almost everyone says after reading the book is: how could you write a book like that if you have such a problem with memory? What I think they don’t understand is that for many years, from the time I was fourteen, I have been keeping very detailed journals, dream diaries, and sketchbooks. Also, with TBI, much of our long-term memory returns. It’s the short-term memory that is most compromised with me (and still is). All that aside, the funny thing is that when certain family members or friends from childhood read the book, they all said how close their memories were to my own. I didn’t expect that at all.
There is a difference between the unreliability of memory and the conscious effort to stretch truth into fiction. There have been some high profile allegations in the memoir genre in recent years. Were you at all concerned about this sort of scandal? Never. My book is hardly scandalous. If anything, it is a story about the transformative power of empathy.
Did you ever consider writing about your experiences in a fictional way? Actually, before I wrote this book I was writing a novel but the mother character (a minor figure in the novel) kept getting in the way so I thought I would just write about my mother and be done with it! My next book has some bits and pieces of autobiographical material but more related to place since it is set in northern Norway where I lived for a time.
Why do you think your mother requested that you contact Willard Gaylin? Have you had any additional contact with him besides the single message in the book? I think that my mother really respected him and remembered him from her past as a kind, gentle, and helpful man. In her journals and her letters to me, she often talked about her need to find an “advisor” and I think he probably fit the bill in her mind for some reason. And no, I haven’t had any more contact, however, he’s on my Goodreads ‘friend’ list and when the book comes out I will definitely send him a copy!
Your mother wrote, “Everyone is guaranteed the right to be deprived of the pursuit of happiness.” Do you think she believed that in the end? I don’t know. Sometimes she made up these darkly funny phrases but I don’t know how much she believed in them. I would imagine she was commenting on this American belief that everyone has a right to the pursuit of happiness, while for those who are poor and disenfranchised, it is extremely arduous for them to not only find happiness but to even pursue it, especially if they are living on the street.
Do you? I think that unfortunately, many Americans think happiness means entitlement—being able to drive gas-guzzling cars, and consume as much as we want, usually at the expense of another human being’s suffering (i.e., working in sweatshops). Nothing is ever enough and therefore, they can never truly be happy. Personally, I think true happiness comes from trying to alleviate the suffering of others. I also think it comes from always remembering what you love—paying attention to and recreating that sense of wonderment that we experienced in childhood but often about as we grow older.
Part three of your memoir is aptly called “Palimpsest.” Do you feel as though writing this book was a new beginning for you? Absolutely!
Did the book’s publication create a transitory moment similar to or different from the feeling you had when you finished writing it? It’s a different feeling. Finishing the book felt like a monumental thing for me, but monumental on a personal level. Publishing it makes the story public and creates this odd (and powerful) connection to a larger world, i.e., an audience. I found that after I finished the book I was incredibly relieved and felt like now I can go on and write fiction, make radio documentaries,
make prints and paintings, etc. But the reality is that now that the book is out there, I have to go full-steam ahead and promote it—do events, engage with readers, etc. It’s a bit overwhelming and stressful, although incredibly exciting too.
As a practiced author and artist, can you briefly describe your creative process? Do you practice daily, or in fits of inspiration? Do you approach visual art differently than writing? I often start writing when I am walking in the woods with my dog. I bring a hand-held voice recorder with me, and speak/write as I walk. I get some of my best writing ideas in the morning when I’m out in nature but if I don’t record them right away they probably will disappear from the memory bank by the time I get home. As far as practicing daily goes, I write every day when I am working on a literary project. However, because I live with a brain injury, if I have dinner with friends the night before, that means I don’t write the next day. Or if I speak at a conference and have to travel there and back, I am usually so mentally fatigued that I probably won’t write for a couple or few days. I have to measure everything I do very carefully. It goes the other way around too—if I write one day I might not be able to drive my car the next. As for making art, though, I find it very hard to start something (starting projects is very difficult for people with TBI) but once I do, it takes less mental energy and can be quite meditative. I approach both art and writing in a similar way, though—with strong images. I usually get inspired to write or draw by looking at an image or remembering one. I then write, or draw myself into the discovery of what that image means to me. I also get a lot of ideas from my very wild, mythic, and adventurous dreams! I see images I have to write down or I hear the first line in a poem, right before I wake up.
Describe how you came to title this book The Memory Palace. Do you feel like writing this memoir was a memory palace in itself? How did you put together the bits and pieces until they made a more sensible whole for you? I originally thought of structuring this book as a kind of cabinet of curiosities, given my background in museum collections and taxonomy, but then I remembered this ancient Renaissance system of memory recall and bingo—it was perfect. Also, I had been making these pictures for each memory so they all ended up on a giant canvas on my studio wall. And by using the Memory Palace motif as a way to architecturally contain the book, it provided the perfect background to weave in musings about memory itself and the brain. In order to make sense of the whole thing (and not lose my mind in the process!), I created an actual cabinet in my studio, with openings for each chapter. That way, if I wrote something one day or jotted down a note or sketched a picture, I could place it in its drawer (since I probably would forget about it the following day). So in this way, my own creative process was a building of a palace— on my wall, in this cabinet, in the book.
Your memoir is very intense and moving. What do you hope readers will take away from The Memory Palace? I never have an agenda for anything I create. I didn’t write this book to teach anyone a lesson about brain injury or mental illness or the plight of the homeless population. I wrote it because I needed to, and also, I knew it was one hell of a good story. That said, if readers walk away from this book with more empathy for those less fortunate or if they gain a more compassionate understanding of mental illness and the other issues I bring up, then that is the icing on the cake. Like I say in the book, there is a thin line between the world of homelessness and “our” world. And each and every woman out there, trying to survive on the street is someone’s mother, daughter, sister, or friend. I also hope my friends and family will understand my struggles with living with a brain injury a little bit better. Even after over ten years, most people still don’t get it when I tell them I need to not talk on the phone or see people for a while in order to rest my brain. I think it’s very hard to see someone who looks and sounds normal and accept that there is something seriously wrong. And I certainly hope that friends and family of others living with TBI, as well as those living with other invisible disabilities, such as Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Lyme Disease, etc., will be more understanding toward their loved ones. And last but not least, I hope that, even though I revealed some very dark things about her, my mother’s memory is honored in some way, and that readers will go away with the feeling that she was a beautiful, gifted, and extraordinary human being. And the best thing is, the shelter that she lived in the last three years of her life has recently been renamed in her honor. It is now a bright, shiny new facility called The Norma Herr Women’s Center! I am now working with the shelter to hopefully raise money to create a community garden near the shelter for the women there to grow their own food. How is that for a happy ending?
Simon & Schuster Paperback: 9781451618495 eBook: 9781451618495
“A mesmerizing tour de force: ragged, breathless, full of raw emotion, the blackest of humor and relentless action…The power of this novel lies in its extraordinary momentum, which sweeps us along a concatenation of events that follow the bombing.”
—The Washington Post Book World
Incendiary Author’s Note
Dear Reader, Incendiary was my first book, and I still like it the most. I love it not because it’s the most polished or well-behaved novel, but because I wrote it in a state of raw emotion following the birth of our first child—and it is a never-to-be-repeated intensity of experience. The novel is about the love a mother has for her child, but it’s also a novel about our times because the mother is writing to Osama bin Laden, who took her child away. She thinks she can make Osama stop hating, using only the power of her words. She tells him, “I want you to see what a human really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind.” That’s the point of the novel—it’s an open letter from a woman who understands love to a man who doesn’t. If you read Incendiary, I hope you’ll enjoy it. I’ve always wanted to start conversations with my writing, rather than to have the last word—so I’d be delighted if you wanted to discuss it in your book group, or to join in the discussion on www.chriscleave.com. I am also on Twitter @chriscleave. I’m very grateful to American readers for the welcome they have given to my work. If you are someone who read Little Bee or if you sent me one of the very many insightful and kind messages I’ve received, my sincere thanks. I hope you enjoy Incendiary just as much. I wrote Incendiary because as a parent I want to see a world where our first instinct is to fight violence with humor and persuasion, rather than with more violence. For that reason, it’s a political novel too. Do let it fall into enemy hands. With good luck and good wishes, Chris Cleave
We asked the authors what kind of food or drinks they would serve at a book club discussing their own book. Chris Cleave’s menu suggestion below will make all the more sense after reading Incendiary. “Gin and fish fingers, with an optional couple of Valium on the side. Terms and conditions apply. Please consult your physician before taking any medicines.”
Incendiary, Chris Cleave
Sometimes the sun would be up before my husband came home. The breakfast show would be on the telly and there’d be a girl doing the weather or the Dow Jones. It was all a bit pointless if you ask me. I mean if you wanted to know what the weather was doing you only had to look out the window and as for the Dow Jones well you could look out the window or you could not. You could please yourself because it’s not as if there was anything you could do about the Dow Jones either way. My whole point is I never gave a monkey’s about any of it. I just wanted my husband home safe. When he finally came in it was such a relief. He never said much because he was so tired. I would ask him how did it go? And he would look at me and say I’m still here ain’t I? My husband was what the Sun would call a QUIET HERO it’s funny how none of them are NOISY I suppose that wouldn’t be very British. Anyway my husband would drink a Famous Grouse and go to bed without taking his clothes off or brushing his teeth because as well as being QUIET he sometimes COULDN’T BE ARSED and who could blame him? When he was safe asleep I would go to look in on our boy. Our boy had his own room it was cracking we were proud of it. My husband built his bed in the shape of Bob the Builder’s dump truck and I sewed the curtains and we did the painting together. In the night my boy’s room smelled of boy. Boy is a good smell it is a cross between angels and tigers. My boy slept on his side sucking Mr. Rabbit’s paws. I sewed Mr. Rabbit myself he was purple with green ears. He went everywhere my boy went. Or else there was trouble. My boy was so peaceful it was lovely to watch him sleep so still with his lovely ginger hair glowing from the sunrise outside his curtains. The curtains made the light all pink. They slept very quiet in the pink light the 2 of them him and Mr. Rabbit. Sometimes my boy was so still I had to check he was breathing. I would put my face close to his face and blow a little bit on his cheek. He would snuffle and frown and fidget for a while then go all soft and still again. I would smile and tiptoe backwards out of his room and close his door very quiet. Mr. Rabbit survived. I still have him. His green ears are black with blood and one of his paws is missing. Now I’ve told you where my boy came from Osama I suppose I ought to tell you a bit more about his mum before you get the idea I was some sort of saint who just sewed fluffy toys and waited up for her husband. I wish I was a saint because it was what my boy deserved but it wasn’t what he got. I wasn’t a perfect wife and mum in fact I wasn’t even an average one I was what the Sun would call a DIRTY LOVE CHEAT. My husband and my boy never found out oh thank you god. But I can say it now they’re both dead and I don’t care who reads it. It can’t hurt them any more. I loved my boy and I loved my husband but sometimes I saw other men too. Or rather they saw me and I didn’t make much of an effort to put them off and one thing sometimes led to another. You know what men are like Osama you trained thousands of them yourself they are RAVENOUS LOVE RATS.
Incendiary, Chris Cleave
Sex is not a beautiful and perfect thing for me Osama it is a condition caused by nerves. Ever since I was a young girl I get so anxious. It only needs a little thing to get me started. Your Twin Towers attack or just 2 blokes arguing over a cab fare it’s all the same. All the violence in the world is connected it’s just like the sea. When I see a woman shouting at her kid in Asda car park I see bulldozers flattening refugee camps. I see those little African boys with scars across the tops of their skulls like headphones. I see all the lost tempers of the world I see HELL ON EARTH. It’s all the same it all makes me twitchy. And when I get nervous about all the horrible things in the world I just need something very soft and secret and warm to make me forget it for a bit. I didn’t even know what it was till I was 14. It was one of my mum’s boyfriends who showed me but I won’t write his name or he’ll get in trouble. I suppose he was a SICK CHILD PREDATOR but I still remember how lovely it felt. Afterwards he took me for a drive through town and I just smiled and looked out at all the hard faces and the homeless drifting past the car windows and they didn’t bother me for the moment. I was just smiling and thinking nothing much. Ever since then whenever I get nervous I’ll go with anyone so long as they’re gentle. I’m not proud I know it’s not an excuse and I’ve tried so hard to change but I can’t. It’s deep under my skin like a tat they can never quite remove oh sometimes I feel so tired. I’ll tell you about one night in particular Osama. You’ll see it isn’t true I always used to wait up for my husband. One night last spring he got called out on a job and while I was waiting up for him the telly made me very anxious. It was one of those politics talk shows and everyone was trying to talk at once. It was like they were on a sinking ship fighting over the last life jacket and I couldn’t stand it. I ran into the kitchen and started tidying to take my mind off things only the problem was it was already tidy. The trouble is when I get nervous I always tidy and I get nervous a lot and there’s only so much tidying a small flat can take. I looked around the kitchen I was hopping from foot to foot I was getting desperate. The oven was clean the chip pan was sparkling and all the tins in the cupboards were in alphabetical order with their labels facing outwards. Apple slices Baked beans Custard and so on it was a real problem it was effing perfect I didn’t know what to do with myself so I started biting my nails. I can bite till my fingers bleed when I get like that but very luckily just then I had a flash of genius I realized I never had alphabetised the freezer had I? I’m good like that Osama sometimes things just come to me. So I opened up the freezer and dumped out all the food onto the floor and put it back in its right order from top to bottom. AlphaBites Burgers Chips Drumsticks Eclairs Fish Fingers I could go on but the point is all the time I was doing this I was very happy and I never once imagined my husband cutting the wrong wire on a homemade nail bomb and being blown into chunks about the size of your thumb. The trouble was as soon as all the packets were back in the freezer that’s exactly what I started seeing. So then I did what anyone would do in my situation Osama I went down the pub. Actually that isn’t quite true. What I did first was open up the freezer again and take out the bag of AlphaBites and open them and put all the AlphaBites into alphabetical order and put
Incendiary, Chris Cleave
them back into the freezer and then I went down the pub. There was nothing else for it I just had to get out of that flat and close the door behind me. I know they say you should never leave a child alone in the home but there you go. The people who say that I wonder what they would do if it was them left all alone and it was their husbands making a bomb safe and all their laundry was done already and all their AlphaBites were in perfect order. I think they might of popped out to the pub like I did. Just to see a few friendly faces. Just to drink a little something to take the edge off. So off I toddled down the road to the Nelson’s Head and I got a G&T and I took it to the corner table nearest the telly projector and I sat there watching Sky like you do. They were showing all the season’s greatest goals which was fine by me. I know you’d rather watch blindfolded lads having their heads hacked off with knives Osama well that’s the main difference between you and me I suppose we have different opinions about telly. If you’d ever spent an evening in front of the box with me and my husband there’d of been a lot of squabbling over the remote control. Anyway my point is I was happy minding my own and I sat there all alone good as gold and the old granddads sat at the bar talking about the footie and everyone let me be. Now I may be weak Osama but I am not a slut. I never asked for Jasper Black to sit down at my table and interrupt me gawping at action replays. I never came on to Jasper Black he came on to me there’s a difference. You could tell straight away Jasper Black had no business being in the East End. He was one of those types who fancied a spot of Easy Access To The City Of London And Within A Stone’s Throw Of The Prestigious Columbia Road Flower Market. The Sun calls them SNEERING TOFFS. Usually they live about 3 years in Bethnal Green or Shoreditch then move to the suburbs to be with their own kind. I watched a documentary once about salmon swimming up rivers to spawn and that’s what they’re like those people. You turn around one day and they’ve upped sticks and gone and all you’re left with is this fading smell of Boss by Hugo Boss on your nice T-shirt and a Starbucks where the pie shop used to be. Including him there were 3 SNEERING TOFFS on Jasper Black’s table it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to spot them. I was looking at Sky trying not to catch their eye but I could feel them looking up from their pints and giving each other these little secret grins on account of I was a bit of local colour. Like it was okay I was wearing a Nike T-shirt and trackie bottoms but they’d of preferred it if I’d been dressed as a Pearly Queen or maybe the little match girl from Oliver! The Musical. If they’d been just a bit more pissed they’d probably of taken a photo of me on their mobiles for those web sites I told you about. They thought they were very clever. My whole point is they weren’t very nice and you could of blown up as many of them as you liked Osama you wouldn’t of heard any of us complaining. Anyway Jasper Black left his table and came over to mine and it was quite a surprise. Normally I’d of told him where to shove it but I couldn’t help noticing he had nice eyes for a SNEERING TOFF. I mean most of them have dead eyes like they’ve been done over with electric shocks like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or some of them have these little excited
Incendiary, Chris Cleave
eyes like they’ve got a chinchilla up their bum like Hugh Grant in. Well. All his films. But Jasper Black wasn’t like that. He had nice eyes. He looked almost human. I looked back at the slowmotion goals on Sky. I knew it was dangerous to look at Jasper Black at least give me that much credit. —Football fan are you? said Jasper Black. —What do you think? —I think you’re beautiful, said Jasper Black. So do my friends. They bet me 20 quid I couldn’t get your name. So tell me your name and I’ll split the cash with you and never bother you again. He was smiling. I wasn’t. —20 quid? —Yes, he said. 20 English pounds. —Listen carefully. I’ll say this slowly. Your friends are WANKERS. Jasper Black didn’t even blink. —So help me take them for the money, he said. We’ll go halves. 10 quid each. What do you say? —I don’t need 10 quid. Jasper Black stopped smiling. —No, he said. Neither do I really. Well maybe I can just talk with you? —I’m married. I’m waiting for my husband. I picked up my G&T and I made sure he got an eyeful of my wedding band. My wedding band is not silver actually Osama it’s platinum it’s a cracker. My husband chose it himself and it cost him a month’s wages. There are some things you just can’t skimp on he always used to say. I still wear it today on a little silver chain around my neck. It’s as wide as runway number 1 at Heathrow Airport and it flashes like the sun but apparently Jasper Black couldn’t see it at all. —Are you here all on your own? he said. —No. Well yes I suppose I am. Like I say I’m waiting for my husband he’s a copper he’s a rock he’s never let me down we’ve been married 4 years 7 months we have a boy he is 4 years 3 months old he still sleeps with his rabbit the rabbit is called Mr. Rabbit.
Incendiary, Chris Cleave
—Are you okay? said Jasper Black. It’s just that you seem a little overwrought. —Overwhat? —Overexcited. —Oh really what makes you say that?
Incendiary Reading Group Guide
Introduction A distraught woman writes a letter to Osama bin Laden after her four-year-old son and her husband are killed in a massive suicide bomb attack at a soccer match in London. In an emotionally raw voice alive with grief, compassion, and startling humor, she tries to convince Osama to abandon his terror campaign by revealing to him the desperate sadness and the broken heart of a working-class life blown apart. But the bombing is only the beginning. While security measures transform London into a virtual occupied territory, the unnamed narrator, too, finds herself under siege. At first she gains strength by fighting back, taking a civilian job with the police to aid the antiterrorist effort. But when she becomes involved with an upperclass couple, she is drawn into a psychological maelstrom of guilt, ambition, and cynicism that erodes her faith in the society she’s working to defend. And when a new bomb threat sends the city into a deadly panic, she is pushed to acts of unfathomable desperation—perhaps her only chance for survival. Topics & Questions for Discussion 1. Incendiary opens with “Dear Osama,” and is framed as a novel-length letter from a devastated mother of a terror-attack victim to Osama bin Laden. How does the epistolary structure impact your appreciation of the narrator’s plight? Is the narrator’s run-on narrative style intended to be indicative of a semi-literate upbringing, or to convey the urgency of her situation, or to suggest that she is psychologically unbalanced? 2. “And when I get nervous about all the horrible things in the world I just need something very soft and secret and warm to make me forget it for a bit.” How is the narrator’s sexual promiscuity connected to her anxiety? To what extent does her sexual encounter with Jasper Black on the day of the stadium attack seem reprehensible? 3. How does their shared awareness of class differences establish an immediate boundary between the narrator and Jasper Black? What is it about their social and cultural differences that makes them especially attractive to each other? 4. How does the setting of Incendiary in London resonate for you as a reader? Does London function as a character of sorts in the novel, as it undergoes changes as a result of the attacks? 5. “Well Osama I sometimes think we deserve whatever you do to us. Maybe you are right maybe we are infidels. Even when you blow us into chunks we don’t stop fighting each other.” How does the narrator’s disgust with some of the Arsenal and Chelsea bombing
victims reveal her own awareness of her society’s failings? Why does the author choose to include details from the attack and its aftermath that are unflattering to the victims? 6. How did you interpret the narrator’s interactions with her deceased son? To what extent do you think the author intended these glimpses of the boy as evidence of the narrator’s post-traumatic mental condition? How might they also function as a kind of magical realism? 7. “I am someone who is having a surreal day,” she said. “This afternoon I had a light lunch with Salman Rushdie. We drank Côte de Léchet. We discussed V.S. Naipaul and long hair on men.” To what extent is Petra Sutherland a caricature of a self-involved snob? Does she transcend that characterization through her involvement with the narrator? What does her behavior in light of the narrator’s discoveries about the May Day attack suggest about her true character? 8. In the text of her letter to Osama, the narrator imagines newspaper headlines that comment directly on her experiences. How is this propensity connected with the narrator’s sense that her life offers the kind of spectacle that others only read about? How does it relate to her relationships with the journalists Jasper Black and Petra Sutherland? 9. “Yes,” she said. “We have better sex when I look like you.” How is Jasper Black’s love triangle with the narrator and his girlfriend, Petra Sutherland, complicated by their similar appearances? How does Petra’s pregnancy change the narrator’s relationship with her? Does Jasper Black’s staging of a dirty bomb in Parliament Square reveal his social conscience or his stupidity? 10. How does Terence Butcher’s revelation about the truth behind the May Day attack impact his relationship with the narrator? What does his decision to tell the narrator the truth suggest about his feelings for her? To what extent do you feel his behavior before and after the attack is justifiable? 11. “A thousand City suits die and it’s good-bye global economy. A thousand blokes in Gunners T-shirts die and you just sell a bit less lager.” How do the social concerns introduced in Incendiary hint at the tensions between working-class and middle-class London in the twenty-first century? 12. Why doesn’t author Chris Cleave give his narrator a name? To what extent does her anonymity impact your ability to identify with her as a reader?
Enhance Your Book Club 1. Did you know that Chris Cleave’s novel, Incendiary, was made into a feature film starring Michelle Williams as the young mother and Ewan McGregor as Jasper Black? At the next meeting of your book club, after everyone has had an opportunity to read the novel, hold a movie night. You might want to jump-start discussion of the novel by comparing the book to the film. Which characters are left out of the cinematic version, and why? 2. Are you interested in reading more by Chris Cleave? In addition to his book, Little Bee, Cleave’s parenting column for The Guardian, “Down with the Kids,” is still available on the newspaper’s website. Click this link to read more: www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/series/down-with-the-kids. “Down with the Kids” offers an intimate view into Cleave’s personal parenting style, and his unique perspective on raising three kids in a turbulent time in our world’s history. Your book club members may want to share their favorite anecdotes from the column. 3. All of the events in Incendiary take place in London, a city with its own remarkable history and culture. Book club members might have their own ideas of what the city looks like, based on the author’s descriptions, but how do they match up with reality? What is the Eye, the tourist attraction where Terence Butcher reveals the truth about May Day to the narrator? What does the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square, where Jasper Black stages a fake attack on the city, look like? Where is Bethnal Green, home of the narrator of Incendiary, located with respect to Emirates Stadium, where the fictional attacks take place? To explore some of the fascinating details from the setting of the novel, or to view the city in greater detail, go to www.visitlondon.com. A Conversation with Chris Cleave You drafted Incendiary “during six insomniac weeks” after the birth of your first child. To what extent is this kind of creative torrent typical of your literary output? Why did this book come to you so quickly, do you think? I work pretty fast when I’m fired up about an issue, and then I repent—or edit—at leisure. For Incendiary I worked quickly because the world was in crisis and it precipitated a crisis in me, in my susceptible state of new parenthood. I was writing in the spring of 2004, in the immediate aftermath of the Al Qaeda–inspired bombings in Madrid—in which over 200 people died—and during the period when details were emerging about the horror of the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq. I was thus writing at a period when atrocities were being committed by people on both sides of what was then being called the “War Against Terror.” I became interested by the notion that when the civilized nations declare war on a noun, writers become combatants whether they like it or not. I believe in the effectiveness of persuasion rather than coercion, so I felt that it ought to be possible to use words, rather than heavy ordnance, to effect attitude change on both sides of a war that seemed insane to me, both in its conception and in its
execution. Incendiary was my attempt at that persuasion. My objective was to prove, giving examples and showing my working, the sanctity of human life on both sides of the conflict. Maybe it was a naive aim, and certainly my execution was imperfect. All I can say is that it seemed extremely urgent to me, so I didn’t spare myself until it was done. I probably pushed myself too hard—I had some health problems afterwards—but I’m still proud of the book and the intent behind it. I’m glad I managed to raise my hand at the time the War Against Terror was being waged and to say, “Excuse me, but this is insane.”
The publication of Incendiary in Britain on July 7, 2005, coincided with a series of coordinated terrorist attacks on mass transportation in London. How did this eerie accident of timing impact you personally and professionally? I still think about the coincidence but I no longer comment on it, for the simple reason that 56 people died on that day and hundreds more were injured, which means that 7/7 is their day and not mine.
How did the pandemonium you envisioned in Incendiary (mass panic, public curfews, racial discrimination backlash, etc.) compare to the aftermath of the actual July 7, 2005, bombings in London? Despite the difference of two orders of magnitude between the scale of my imagined attack and the scale of the real attacks of 7/7, people are fond of telling me that I wrongly predicted Britain’s reaction to a terrorist atrocity. The prevalent view now is that Britain’s response to 7/7 was stoical and reminiscent of the spirit of the Blitz, during which a shell-shocked London refused to buckle under the Luftwaffe’s nightly bombing raids. After 7/7, the very strong position of my nation’s leaders was that “these people will not change our way of life.” At the same time that this rhetorical line was being held, our way of life was of course changing rapidly. Civil liberties were curtailed, the British Muslim community was ostracized, and Britain redoubled its incomprehensible military involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan on the false premise that our armed engagement there made London’s streets safer. The cost of that sustained and still-ongoing military engagement is a major reason why we in Britain can no longer afford a free university education for our children, for example. So I tend to give a wry smile when I’m told that 7/7 did not change Britain, and that the sentiments in my novel were false.
What were some of the challenges you encountered as a male author, narrating a novel from the perspective of a woman? I like writing female characters—it forces me to think more deeply about my protagonist and to work harder at my research, rather than simply recycling autobiographical elements from my own life. In any case when I write a character I’m not particularly aware of writing from a
“male” or a “female” point of view, whatever that might involve. Instead I ask four questions of my characters: • What was the best day of your life? • What was the worst day of your life? • What do you hope for? • What are you afraid of? If I can answer those four questions honestly, I feel that I know my characters well enough to help them through their scenes. They’re also interesting questions to ask of oneself or one’s friends in real life.
You worked as a columnist for The Guardian in London. In your skewering of journalists Jasper Black and Petra Sutherland, were you at all concerned that you might be “poisoning the well,” so to speak, by exposing your profession to ridicule? I feel that you have to write it how you see it, and to hell with the consequences. In any case I don’t think it’s news to journalists that a great many fellow journalists are insincere and selfserving, just as there are a great many fellow journalists who work diligently to serve their readers and to print only the truth. Like politics, it’s a profession that’s split right down the middle with regard to its practitioners’ positions on truth and integrity. I liked working for The Guardian because I felt they made a particular effort to employ the good guys.
How would you characterize your everyday experience of the differences between the upper classes and working classes in London? Well, I’m writing this sentence in a small attic room of a rural farmhouse where I’ve come to spend some time working quietly on my own, if that answers your question. I don’t really have everyday experience at the moment. I’m either on tour with work, embedded in some situation that I’m researching, or writing in seclusion. I spent many years living and working in central London, and my feelings about the class differences there found a focus in Incendiary. I don’t think I belong to a particular social class anymore, in the sense that I now feel clumsy in all of them.
How did the idea of an epistolary novel first come to you? Is it a genre you particularly admire? The epistolary form is interesting because the first-person narrator is not directly addressing the reader. Instead, they are addressing an absent third person, while the reader is a fly-on-the-
wall and can choose to sympathize with the narrator or not. There is none of the sense of obligation toward the narrator that comes when the reader is being appealed to directly. In this way the epistolary form respects the reader and allows them to come to their own conclusions. It’s the difference between having someone talk directly at you while looking into your eyes across the small table of a claustrophobic meeting room, and being an invisible ghost going for a country walk with that person while they talk to the fields and the sky. By being less direct, the form is more intimate.
Incendiary was made into a major motion picture. What was that experience like for you as its progenitor? It was fun. I’m always happy when someone takes a piece of my writing to another level, whether that be through art, or on the stage, or in this case in a movie. I’ve always wanted to start conversations through my work, rather than to have the last word. Often people will surprise you by seeing your work more clearly than you did, or by bringing new elements to it that make it much better. I was mesmerized by Michelle Williams’ interpretation of the female narrator of Incendiary. She was unbelievably good in the movie.
While many of your readers in America are familiar with your novel, Little Bee, Incendiary was your literary debut. How would you compare the experience of writing both books? They were very different books to write. Incendiary drew deeply on my personal experience of living and working in London and featured a narrator whose thought processes were close to mine, while Little Bee required a huge amount of research and had two narrators whose lives and voices were worlds apart from my own. I had to raise my game to write Little Bee. It took much longer, too—two years compared with six weeks. I had to learn the skill of working alone for periods of months and years. Two years is long enough for self-doubt to become your greatest enemy, and the psychological knots you get yourself into can sometimes work themselves so tight that you basically have to give up unpicking them and use scissors on them instead. When I wrote Incendiary I naively imagined that my writing would change the world, but when I had written Little Bee I realized that what had actually happened was that writing had changed me.
You recently concluded your parenting column for The Guardian. What are you doing with your time these days? Writing a novel that I hope will justify my readers’ kindness and patience, trying to be a help to my family, and attempting to not appear weird in social situations.
The Chemical Garden Trilogy #1
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers Hardcover: 9781442409057 eBook: 9781442409118
“A harrowing debut…DeStefano has an observant and occasionally pitiless eye, chronicling the cruelties, mercies, and inconsistencies of her young characters… It will be intriguing to see how DeStefano develops [the larger world] as this promising trilogy progresses.”
The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither Author’s Note
I have been asked “Where did the idea from Wither come from?” as many times as I have been asked, “How old ARE you?” and both answers involve a grin and a shrug. Okay, I mean, I know how old I am, and when I wrote Wither I was even younger, but as far as the idea? Okay. The glamorous answer is that it is an amalgamation of a few components I had lurking around in my head, like ghosts of lives lived somewhere else, sometime else, and their incessant chain dragging led me to type their story. The unglamorous truth? I dunno. I was bedridden with the flu, for starters, and I was getting frustrated with an adult writing project I had going. My agent suggested that I try something out of my comfort zone, something that I would normally never write, and then Wither came pouring out faster than the Thera-flu from the teapot. What I can say is that as far as where the next two books in the series are coming from, the characters have started to basically write the book for me, and I am just as thrilled as any reader to see what they will do next! —Lauren DeStefano We asked the authors what kind of food or drinks they would serve at a book club discussing their own book. Below is a menu suggestion from Lauren DeStefano that may just make you want to stay in bed, eat pancakes, and keep reading. There’s that scene in Wither where Rhine and Linden have breakfast in bed, waffles with blueberries—so try out breakfast or a brunch book club meeting. See below for a recipe for pancakes with strawberries and blueberries, since fresh fruit is so rare where Rhine came from, but so abundant at the mansion!
Rhine’s Breakfast in Bed Pancakes Ingredients 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour 3 ½ teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon white sugar 1 ¼ cups milk 1 egg 3 tablespoons butter, melted
Directions 1. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk, egg, and melted butter; mix until smooth. 2. Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium high heat. Pour or scoop the batter onto the griddle, using approximately ¼ cup for each pancake. Brown on both sides and serve hot. 3. Top with whipped cream, syrup, and your favorite fruit: blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries.
The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither, Lauren DeStefano Chapter 1 I WAIT. They keep us in the dark for so long that we lose sense of our eyelids. We sleep huddled together like rats, staring out, and dream of our bodies swaying. I know when one of the girls reaches a wall. She begins to pound and scream—there’s metal in the sound—but none of us help her. We’ve gone too long without speaking, and all we do is bury ourselves more into the dark. The doors open. The light is frightening. It’s the light of the world through the birth canal, and at once the blinding tunnel that comes with death. I recoil into the blankets with the other girls in horror, not wanting to begin or end. We stumble when they let us out; we’ve forgotten how to use our legs. How long has it been— days? Hours? The big open sky waits in its usual place. I stand in line with the other girls, and men in gray coats study us. I’ve heard of this happening. Where I come from, girls have been disappearing for a long time. They disappear from their beds or from the side of the road. It happened to a girl in my neighborhood. Her whole family disappeared after that, moved away, either to find her or because they knew she would never be returned. Now it’s my turn. I know girls disappear, but any number of things could come after that. Will I become a murdered reject? Sold into prostitution? These things have happened. There’s only one other option. I could become a bride. I’ve seen them on television, reluctant yet beautiful teenage brides, on the arm of a wealthy man who is approaching the lethal age of twenty-five. The other girls never make it to the television screen. Girls who don’t pass their inspection are shipped to a brothel in the scarlet districts. Some we have found murdered on the sides of roads, rotting, staring into the searing sun because the Gatherers couldn’t be bothered to deal with them. Some girls disappear forever, and all their families can do is wonder. The girls are taken as young as thirteen, when their bodies are mature enough to bear children, and the virus claims every female of our generation by twenty. Our hips are measured to determine strength, our lips pried apart so the men can judge our health by our teeth. One of the girls vomits. She may be the girl who screamed. She wipes her mouth, trembling, terrified. I stand firm, determined to be anonymous, unhelpful. I feel too alive in this row of moribund girls with their eyes half open. I sense that their hearts are barely beating, while mine pounds in my chest. After so much time spent riding in the
The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither, Lauren DeStefano darkness of the truck, we have all fused together. We are one nameless thing sharing this strange hell. I do not want to stand out. I do not want to stand out. But it doesn’t matter. Someone has noticed me. A man paces before the line of us. He allows us to be prodded by the men in gray coats who examine us. He seems thoughtful and pleased. His eyes, green, like two exclamation marks, meet mine. He smiles. There’s a flash of gold in his teeth, indicating wealth. This is unusual, because he’s too young to be losing his teeth. He keeps walking, and I stare at my shoes. Stupid! I should never have looked up. The strange color of my eyes is the first thing anyone ever notices. He says something to the men in gray coats. They look at all of us, and then they seem to be in agreement. The man with gold teeth smiles in my direction again, and then he’s taken to another car that shoots up bits of gravel as it backs onto the road and drives away. The vomit girl is taken back to the truck, and a dozen other girls with her; a man in a gray coat follows them in. There are three of us left, the gap of the other girls still between us. The men speak to one another again, and then to us. “Go,” they say, and we oblige. There’s nowhere to go but the back of an open limousine parked on the gravel. We’re off the road somewhere, not far from the highway. I can hear the faraway sounds of traffic. I can see the evening city lights beginning to appear in the distant purple haze. It’s nowhere I recognize; a road this desolate is far from the crowded streets back home. Go. The two other chosen girls move before me, and I’m the last to get into the limousine. There’s a tinted glass window that separates us from the driver. Just before someone shuts the door, I hear something inside the van where the remaining girls were herded. It’s the first of what I know will be a dozen more gunshots. I awake in a satin bed, nauseous and pulsating with sweat. My first conscious movement is to push myself to the edge of the mattress, where I lean over and vomit onto the lush red carpet. I’m still spitting and gagging when someone begins cleaning up the mess with a dishrag. “Everyone handles the sleep gas differently,” he says softly. “Sleep gas?” I splutter, and before I can wipe my mouth on my lacy white sleeve, he hands me a cloth napkin—also lush red. “It comes out through the vents in the limo,” he says. “It’s so you won’t know where you’re going.” I remember the glass window separating us from the front of the car. Airtight, I assume. Vaguely I remember the whooshing of air coming through vents in the walls.
The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither, Lauren DeStefano “One of the other girls,” the boy says as he sprays white foam onto the spot where I vomited, “she almost threw herself out the bedroom window, she was so disoriented. The window’s locked, of course. Shatterproof.” Despite the awful things he’s saying, his voice is low, possibly even sympathetic. I look over my shoulder at the window. Closed tight. The world is bright green and blue beyond it, brighter than my home, where there’s only dirt and the remnants of my mother’s garden that I’ve failed to revive. Somewhere down the hall a woman screams. The boy tenses for a moment. Then he resumes scrubbing away the foam. “I can help,” I offer. A moment ago I didn’t feel guilty about ruining anything in this place; I know I’m here against my will. But I also know this boy isn’t to blame. He can’t be one of the Gatherers in gray who brought me here. Maybe he was also brought here against his will. I haven’t heard of teenage boys disappearing, but up until fifty years ago, when the virus was discovered, girls were also safe. Everyone was safe. “No need. It’s all done,” he says. And when he moves the rag away, there’s not so much as a stain. He pulls a handle out of the wall, and a chute opens; he tosses the rags into it, lets go, and the chute clamps shut. He tucks the can of white foam into his apron pocket and returns to what he was doing. He picks up a silver tray from where he’d placed it on the floor, and brings it to my night table. “If you’re feeling better, there’s some lunch for you. Nothing that will make you fall asleep again, I promise.” He looks like he might smile. Just almost. But he maintains a concentrated gaze as he lifts a metal lid off a bowl of soup and another off a small plate of steaming vegetables and mashed potatoes cradling a lake of gravy. I’ve been stolen, drugged, locked away in this place, yet I’m being served a gourmet meal. The sentiment is so vile I could almost throw up again. “That other girl—the one who tried to throw herself out the window—what happened to her?” I ask. I don’t dare ask about the woman screaming down the hall. I don’t want to know about her. “She’s calmed down some.” “And the other girl?” “She woke up this morning. I think the House Governor took her to tour the gardens.” House Governor. I remember my despair and crash against the pillows. House Governors own mansions. They purchase brides from Gatherers, who patrol the streets looking for ideal candidates to kidnap. The merciful ones will sell the rejects into prostitution, but the ones I encountered herded them into the van and shot them all. I heard that first gunshot over and over in my medicated dreams.
The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither, Lauren DeStefano
“How long have I been here?” I say. “Two days,” the boy says. He hands me a steaming cup, and I’m about to refuse it when I see the tea bag string dangling over the side, smell the spices. Tea. My brother, Rowan, and I had it with our breakfast each morning, and with dinner each night. The smell is like home. My mother would hum as she waited by the stove for the water to boil. Blearily I sit up and take the tea. I hold it near my face and breathe the steam in through my nose. It’s all I can do not to burst into tears. The boy must sense that the full impact of what has happened is reaching me. He must sense that I’m on the verge of doing something dramatic like crying or trying to fling myself out the window like that other girl, because he’s already moving for the door. Quietly, without looking back, he leaves me to my grief. But instead of tears, when I press my face against the pillow, a horrible, primal scream comes out of me. It’s unlike anything I thought myself capable of. Rage, unlike anything I’ve ever known.
The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion 1. Rhine is snatched off the streets by Gatherers and wakes up in a satin bed in a mansion owned by a House Governor. What does she remember about being taken captive? Why is she being held in the mansion? Why is she considered to be one of the lucky girls? 2. In Rhine’s world, women die at the age of twenty and men die when they reach twentyfive. What accounts for this short lifespan? Why is early marriage encouraged by the wealthy? 3. Who is Lady Rose and why is she ill? How does her character contribute to the story’s plot? To Rhine’s understanding of her new life? 4. Describe Rhine’s life prior to being taken by the Gatherers. Who were her parents? Explain what happened to them. How did she and her twin brother, Rowan, survive on their own? 5. Rhine initially feels disdain for Linden, her new husband and son of the House Governor. Why is she contemptuous? How do her feelings change as she gets to know him? What information does she eventually learn that enables her to see him in a different light? In what way is Linden a victim? 6. Rhine is one of three new brides for Linden. Compare and contrast Rhine, Cecily, and Jenna. How does each view being forced into marriage? How do the wives grow together as time passes? How does each adjust to and/or cope with her new lifestyle? 7. How does Rhine become Linden’s first wife? How does this role enable her to plan her escape? 8. Rhine becomes attracted to Gabriel, a house servant. What draws them together and how is their relationship dangerous? How does Gabriel help Rhine? 9. House Governor Vaughn claims to be working on an antidote that will cure future generations of the virus that kills young men and women in their prime years. What mysteries surround the basement of the mansion? What fears does Rhine have about his intentions? 10. What physical feature sets Rhine apart from the other two new brides? Why might this physical attribute be desirable? 11. Compare and contrast House Governor Vaughn and his son, Linden. How does each view the three wives?
12. Rhine has multiple dreams in the story. How do the dreams contribute to the story and to the reader’s understanding of Rhine? 13. One can argue that the mansion represents an ideal world. Rhine, Jenna, and Cecily have everything they can possibly imagine. They have stunning clothes and amazing foods to eat and a beautiful home with gardens. Holograms are even used to export them to other experiences and places. Are any of the three girls suited for this life? If so, who and why? In what way has Linden been sheltered by this lifestyle? 14. When Rhine is discussing escaping with Gabriel, she says, “You’ve been captive for so long that you don’t even realize you want freedom anymore.” How might this statement apply to Cecily? How might it apply to Linden? Cite examples in the story in which Rhine is almost taken in by her new surroundings. What thoughts pull her back to reality? 15. How do Rhine and Gabriel plot to escape? What character traits enable Rhine to go through with the plan?
THE RED QUEEN
Touchstone Hardcover: 9781416563723 eBook: 9781416563938 Available in paperback June 2011: 9781416563730
“Confident, colorful, convincing, and full of conflict, betrayal, and political maneuvering… like Margaret Beaufort, Gregory puts her many imitators to shame by dint of unequalled energy, focus, and unwavering execution.”
The Red Queen Author’s Note [In The Red Queen], I think what these women demonstrate is the range of responses that were possible for women and that this range is probably wider than we as readers of the period might generally think. Because the history of the period has been mostly written by men (for two reasons: that until the twentieth century almost all historians were men since only men attended universities, and that histories of war seems to attract mostly male historians), we have only scanty records of what women were feeling, thinking, and even doing. And those reports we have are often biased against women who sought power. Thus we simply don’t know the extent of the involvement of Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort in the Buckingham rebellion or the Tudor invasion; we can only deduce that they were deeply involved. But we do have very negative views of Elizabeth Woodville as a mother failing to protect her children, as a panic-stricken woman fleeing into sanctuary, and as a hard-hearted manipulator sending her daughters to the uncle who may have killed her sons. That these views of her are exaggerated and indeed contradictory does not seem to trouble some historians whose view of her are determinedly negative. . . .In this book I suggest that Princess Elizabeth fell in love with King Richard, her uncle. This is based on a letter which was seen by a historian but is now missing, and it would suggest that she also had the courage and passion to try to choose her own life. These are women of exceptional courage and determination, but I think they show that, even in a society where women are repressed both legally and culturally, that there are still women who will find ways to express themselves. —Philippa Gregory
We asked the authors what kind of food or drinks they would serve at a book club discussing their own book. Below are two party ideas (fit for a queen) from Philippa Gregory. A Feast Fit for a (Red) Queen To Eat A spread of red appetizers Sweet and Spicy Stuffed Peppers: Stuff jarred piquillo peppers with your favorite soft cheese. Goat cheese, blue cheese, and ricotta all work well. Roasted Red Pepper and Cannellini Bean Dip: Combine a jar of roasted red peppers, a can of Cannellini beans, two garlic cloves, and olive oil in a food processor to make a delicious dip. Season to taste with salt, pepper, cumin, and paprika. Serve with pita chips, carrots, and celery.
Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus: Cook asparagus in simmering water until just tender (5 to 7 minutes). When cool, wrap spears with thin slices of provolone and prosciutto.
To Drink The Bloody Margaret Replace Tabasco with red Sriracha chili sauce to give this classic drink an even spicier finish! Ingredients 2 ounces Vodka 4 ounces tomato juice ½ ounces fresh lemon juice ¼ teaspoon freshly grated horseradish 2 pinches celery salt 3 dashes Sriracha Chili sauce (or more to taste) 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce Celery stalks and lime wedges (for garnish)
Preparation 1. Add the first seven ingredients to a large glass. 2. Add ice and roll the glass to combine ingredients. This is not a shaken cocktail. 3. Strain into an ice-filled glass and garnish with a celery stalk and lime wedges.
Tea Party with a Twist To Eat Wars of the Roses Cookies: Mix up a batch of your favorite sugar cookies and decorate with red and white icing to signal your loyalties to the House of Lancaster or York. Cucumber Mint Tea Sandwiches: Spread butter, cream cheese, and finely diced mint leaves on whole wheat bread. Add thinly sliced cucumbers and top with another slice of bread. Cut off the crusts and cut each sandwich into quarters to serve.
To Drink The Royal-Tea Cocktail Raise a toast to the Plantagenets with this twist on England’s national beverage. Ingredients 2 ounces gin 2 ounces brewed and chilled Earl Grey Tea Squeeze of lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar Lime wheels for garnish
Preparation 1. Pour the ingredients into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. 2. Garnish with lime wheels.
The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory
SEPTEMBER 1483 I go to bed uneasy, and the very next day, straight after matins, Dr. Lewis comes to my rooms looking strained and anxious. At once I say I am feeling unwell and send all my women away. We are alone in my privy chamber, and I let him take a stool and sit opposite me, almost as an equal. “The Queen Elizabeth summoned me to sanctuary last night, and she was distraught,” he says quietly. “She was?” “She had been told that the princes were dead, and she was begging me to tell her that it was not the case.” “What did you say?” “I didn’t know what you would have me say. So I told her what everyone in the city is saying: that they are dead. That Richard had them killed either on the day of his coronation, or as he left London.” “And she?” “She was deeply shocked; she could not believe it. But Lady Margaret, she said a terrible thing—” He breaks off, as if he dare not name it. “Go on,” I say but I can feel a cold shiver of dread creeping up my spine. I fear I have been betrayed. I fear that this has gone wrong. “She cried out at first and then she said: ‘At least Richard is safe.’” “She meant Prince Richard? The younger boy?” “The one they took into the Tower to keep his brother company.” “I know that! But what did she mean?” “That’s what I asked her. I asked her at once what she meant, and she smiled at me in the most frightening way and said: ‘Doctor, if you had only two precious, rare jewels and you feared thieves, would you put your two treasures in the same box?’ ” He nods at my aghast expression. “What does she mean?” I repeat.
The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory
“She wouldn’t say more. I asked her if Prince Richard was not in the Tower when the two boys were killed. She just said that I was to ask you to put your own guards into the Tower to keep her son safe. She would say nothing more. She sent me away.” I rise from my stool. This damned woman, this witch, has been in my light ever since I was a girl, and now, at this very moment when I am using her, using her own adoring family and loyal supporters to wrench the throne from her, to destroy her sons, she may yet win, she may have done something that will spoil everything for me. How does she always do it? How is it that when she is brought so low that I can even bring myself to pray for her, she manages to turn her fortunes around? It must be witchcraft; it can only be witchcraft. Her happiness and her success have haunted my life. I know her to be in league with the devil, for sure. I wish he would take her to hell. “You will have to go back to her,” I say, turning to him. He almost looks as if he would refuse. “What?” I snap. “Lady Margaret, I swear, I dread going to her. She is like a witch imprisoned in the cleft of a pine tree; she is like an entrapped spirit; she is like a water goddess on a frozen lake, waiting for spring. She lives in the gloom of sanctuary with the river flowing all the time beside their rooms, and she listens to the babble as a counsellor. She knows things that she cannot know by earthly means. She fills me with terror. And her daughter is as bad.” “You will have to summon your courage,” I say briskly. “Be brave, you are doing God’s work. You have to go back to her and tell her to be of stout heart. Tell her that I am certain that the princes are alive. Remind her that when we attacked the Tower, we heard the guards taking them back from the door. They were alive then, why would Richard kill them now? Richard has taken the throne without killing them, why would he put them to death now? Richard is a man who does his own work, and he is hundreds of miles away from them now. Tell her that I will double my people in the Tower and that I swear to her, on my honor, that I will protect them. Remind her that the uprising will start next month. As soon as we defeat Richard the king, we will set the boys free. Then, when she is reassured, when she is in her first moment of relief, when you see the color come to her face and you have convinced her—in that moment quickly ask her if she has her son Prince Richard in safety already. If she has him hidden away somewhere.” He nods, but he is pale with fear. “And are they safe?” he asks. “Can I truly assure her that those poor boys are safe and we will rescue them? That the rumors, even in your own household, are false? Do you know if they are alive or dead, Lady Margaret? Can I tell their mother that they are alive and speak the truth?”
The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory
“They are in the hands of God,” I reply steadily. “As are we all. My son too. These are dangerous times, and the princes are in the hands of God.” *** That night we hear news of the first uprising. It is mistimed; it comes too early. The men of Kent are marching on London, calling on the Duke of Buckingham to take the throne. The county of Sussex gets up in arms, believing they cannot delay a moment longer, and the men of Hampshire beside them rise up too as a fire will leap from one dry woodland to another. Richard’s most loyal commander, Thomas Howard, the brand-new Duke of Norfolk, marches down the west road from London and occupies Guildford, fighting skirmishes to the west and to the east, but holding the rebels down in their own counties, and sending a desperate warning to the king: the counties of the south are up in the name of the former queen and her imprisoned sons, the princes. Richard, the battle-hardened leader of York, marches south at the fast speed of a York army, makes his center of command at Lincoln, and raises troops in every county, especially from those who greeted his progress with such joy. He hears of the betrayal of the Duke of Buckingham when men come from Wales to tell him that the duke is already on the march, going north through the Welsh marches, recruiting men and clearly planning to cross at Gloucester, or perhaps Tewkesbury, to come into the heart of England with his own men and his Welsh recruits. His beloved friend, Henry Stafford, is marching out under his standard, as proudly and as bravely as once he did for Richard; only now he is marching against him. Richard goes white with rage, and he grips his right arm, his sword arm, above the elbow, as if he were shaking with rage, as if to hold it steady. “A man with the best cause to be true,” he exclaims. “The most untrue creature living. A man who had everything he asked for. Never was a false traitor better treated; a traitor, a traitor.” At once he sends out commissions of array to every county in England demanding their loyalty, demanding their arms and their men. This is the first and greatest crisis of his new reign. He summons them to support a York king; he demands the loyalty that they gave to his brother, which they have all promised to him. He warns those who cheered when he took the crown less than sixteen weeks ago that they must now stand by that decision, or England will fall to an unholy alliance of the false Duke of Buckingham, the witch queen, and the Tudor pretender. It is pouring with rain, and there is a strong wind blowing hard from the north. It is unnatural weather, witch’s weather. My son must set sail now if he is to arrive while the queen’s supporters are up and while Buckingham is marching. But if it is so foul here, in the south of England, then I fear the weather in Brittany. He must come at exactly the right moment to catch the weary victor of the first battle and make them turn and fight again, while they are sick of fighting. But—I stand at my window and watch the rain pouring down, and the wind lashing the
The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory
trees in our garden—I know he cannot set sail in this weather, the wind is howling towards the south. I cannot believe he will even be able to get out of port. *** The next day the rains are worse and the river is starting to rise. It is over our landing steps at the foot of the garden, and the boatmen drag the Stanley barge up the garden to the very orchard, out of the swirling flood, fearing that it will be torn from its moorings by the current. I can’t believe that Henry can set sail in this, and even if he were to get out of harbor, I can’t believe that he could safely get across the English seas to the south coast. My web of informers, spies, and plotters are stunned by the ferocity of the rain, which is like a weapon against us. The roads into London are all but impassable; no one can get a message through. A horse and rider cannot get from London to Guildford, and as the river rises higher, there is news of flooding and drowning upstream and down. The tides are unnaturally high, and every day and night the floods from the river pour down to the inrushing tide and there is a boiling surge of water that wipes out riverside houses, quays, piers, and docks. Nobody can remember weather like this, a rain storm that lasts for days, and the rivers are bursting their banks all around England. I have no one to talk to but my God, and I cannot always hear His voice, as if the rain is blotting out His very face, and the wind blowing away His words. This is how I know for sure that it is a witch’s wind. I spend my day at the window overlooking the garden, watching the river boil over the garden wall and come up through the orchard, lap by lap, till the trees themselves seem to be stretching up to the heavy clouds for help. Whenever one of my ladies comes to my side, or Dr. Lewis comes to my door, or any of the plotters in London ask for admittance, they all want to know what is happening: as if I know any more than them, when all I can hear is rain; as if I can foretell the future in the gale-ripped sky. But I know nothing, anything could be happening out there; a waterlogged massacre could be taking place even half a mile away, and none of us would know—we would hear no voices over the sound of the storm, no lights would show through the rain. I spend my nights in my chapel, praying for the safety of my son and the success of our venture, and hearing no answer from God but only the steady hammer of the torrent on the roof and the whine of the wind lifting the slates above me, until I think that God Himself has been blotted from the heavens of England by the witch’s wind, and I will never hear Him again. Finally, I get a letter from my husband at Coventry. The king has commanded my presence, and I fear he doubts me. He has sent for my son Lord Strange too and was very dark when he learned that my son is from his home with an army of ten thousand men on the march, but my son has told nobody where he is going, and his servants only swear that he said he was raising his men for the true cause. I assure the king that my son will be marching
The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory
to join us, loyal to the throne; but he has not yet arrived here at our command center, in Coventry Castle. Buckingham is trapped in Wales by the rising of the river Severn. Your son, I believe, will be held in port by the storm on the seas. The queen’s men will be unable to march out on the drowned roads, and the Duke of Norfolk is waiting for them. I think your rebellion is over; you have been beaten by the rain and the rising of the waters. They are calling it the Duke of Buckingham’s Water, and it has washed him and his ambition to hell along with your hopes. Nobody has seen a storm like this since the Queen Elizabeth called up a mist to hide her husband’s army at the battle of Barnet, or summoned the wind to blow him safely home. Nobody doubts she can do such a thing, and most of us only hope she will stop before she washes us all away. But why? Can she be working against you now? And if so, why? Does she know, with her inner sight, what has befallen her boys and who has done it? Does she think you have done it? Is she drowning your son in revenge? Destroy what papers you have kept, and deny whatever you have done. Richard is coming to London, and there will be a scaffold built on Tower Green. If he believes half what he has heard, he will put you on it and I will be unable to save you. Stanley
*** OCTOBER 1483 I have been on my knees all night, but I don’t know if God can hear me through the hellish noise of the rain. My son sets sail from Brittany with fifteen valuable ships and an army of five thousand men and loses them all in the storm at sea. Only two ships struggle ashore on the south coast, and they learn at once that Buckingham has been defeated by the rising of the river, his rebellion washed away by the waters, and Richard is waiting, dry-shod, to execute the survivors. My son turns his back on the country that should have been his and sails for Brittany again, flying like a faintheart, leaving me here, unprotected, and clearly guilty of plotting his rebellion. We are parted once more, my heir and I, this time without even meeting, and this time it feels as if it is forever. He and Jasper leave me to face the king, who marches vengefully on London like an invading enemy, mad with anger. Dr. Lewis vanishes off to Wales; Bishop Morton takes the first ship that can sail after the storms and goes to France; Buckingham’s men slip from the city in silence and under lowering skies; the queen’s kin make their way to Brittany and to the
The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory
tattered remains of my son’s makeshift court; and my husband arrives in London in the train of King Richard, whose handsome face is dark with the sullen rage of a traitor betrayed. “He knows,” my husband says shortly as he comes to my room, his traveling cape still around his shoulders, his sympathy scant. “He knows you were working with the queen, and he will put you on trial. He has evidence from half a dozen witnesses. Rebels from Devon to East Anglia know your name and have letters from you.” “Husband, surely he will not.” “You are clearly guilty of treason, and that is punishable by death.” “But if he thinks you are faithful—” “I am faithful,” he corrects me. “It is not a matter of opinion but of fact. Not what the king thinks—but what he can see. When Buckingham rode out, while you were summoning your son to invade England, and paying rebels, while the queen was raising the southern counties, I was at his side, advising him, loaning him money, calling out my own affinity to defend him, faithful as any northerner. He trusts me now as he has never done before. My son raised an army for him.” “Your son’s army was for me!” I interrupt. “My son will deny that, I will deny that, we will call you a liar, and nobody can prove anything, either way.” I pause. “Husband, you will intercede for me?” He looks at me thoughtfully, as if the answer could be no. “Well, it is a consideration, Lady Margaret. My King Richard is bitter; he cannot believe that the Duke of Buckingham, his best friend, his only friend, should betray him. And you? He is astonished at your infidelity. You carried his wife’s train at her coronation, you were her friend, you welcomed her to London. He feels you have betrayed him. Unforgivably. He thinks you as faithless as your kinsman Buckingham, and Buckingham was executed on the spot.” “Buckingham is dead?” “They took off his head in Salisbury marketplace. The king would not even see him. He was too angry with him, and he is filled with hate towards you. You said that Queen Anne was welcome to her city, that she had been missed. You bowed the knee to him and wished him well. And then you sent out messages to every disaffected Lancastrian family in the country to tell them the cousins’ war had come again, and that this time you will win.”
The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory
I grit my teeth. “Should I run away? Should I go to Brittany too?” “My dear, how ever would you get there?” “I have my money chest; I have my guard. I could bribe a ship to take me. If I went down to the docks at London now, I could get away. Or Greenwich. Or I could ride to Dover or Southampton . . .” He smiles at me and I remember they call him “the fox” for his ability to survive, to double back, to escape the hounds. “Yes, indeed, all that might have been possible; but I am sorry to tell you, I am nominated as your jailer, and I cannot let you escape me. King Richard has decided that all your lands and your wealth will be mine, signed over to me, despite our marriage contract. Everything you owned as a girl is mine, everything you owned as a Tudor is mine, everything you gained from your marriage to Stafford is now mine, everything you inherited from your mother is mine. My men are in your chambers now collecting your jewels, your papers, and your money chest. Your men are already under arrest, and your women are locked in their rooms. Your tenants and your affinity will learn you cannot summon them; they are all mine.” I gasp. For a moment I cannot speak, I just look at him. “You have robbed me? You have taken this chance to betray me?” “You are to live at the house at Woking, my house now; you are not to leave the grounds. You will be served by my people; your own servants will be turned away. You will see neither ladiesin-waiting, servants, nor your confessor. You will meet with no one and send no messages.” I can hardly grasp the depth and breadth of his betrayal. He has taken everything from me. “It is you who betrayed me to Richard!” I fling at him. “You who betrayed the whole plot. It is you, with an eye to my fortune, who led me on to do this and now profit from my destruction. You told the Duke of Norfolk to go down to Guildford and suppress the rebellion in Hampshire. You told Richard to beware of the Duke of Buckingham. You told him that the queen was rising against him and I with her!” He shakes his head. “No. I am not your enemy, Margaret; I have served you well as your husband. No one else could have saved you from the traitor’s death that you deserve. This is the best deal I could get for you. I have saved you from the Tower, from the scaffold. I have saved your lands from sequestration; he could have taken them outright. I have saved you to live in my house, as my wife, in safety. And I am still placed at the heart of things, where we can learn of his plans against your son. Richard will seek to have Tudor killed now; he will send spies with orders to murder Henry. You have signed your son’s death warrant with your failure. Only I can save him. You should be grateful to me.” I cannot think, I cannot think through this mixture of threats and promises. “Henry?”
The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory
“Richard will not stop until he is dead. Only I can save him.” “I am to be your prisoner?” He nods. “And I am to have your fortune. It is nothing between us, Margaret. Think of the safety of your son.” “You will let me warn Henry of his danger?” He rises to his feet. “Of course. You can write to him as you wish. But all your letters are to come through me, they will be carried by my men. I have to give the appearance of controlling you completely.” “The appearance?” I repeat. “If I know you at all, you will give the appearance of being on both sides.” He smiles in genuine amusement. “Always.”
The Red Queen Reading Group Guide
Introduction Heiress to the red rose of Lancaster, Margaret Beaufort never surrenders her belief that her house is the ruler of England and she has a great destiny before her. Married to a man twice her age, quickly widowed, and a mother at fourteen, Margaret is determined to turn her lonely life into a triumph. She sets her heart on putting her son on the throne of England regardless of the cost. As the political tides constantly shift, Margaret charts her way through two more loveless marriages, treacherous alliances, and secret plots. She masterminds one of the greatest rebellions of all time, knowing that her son has grown to manhood, recruited an army, and now waits for his opportunity to win the greatest prize. Topics & Questions for Discussion 1. In the beginning of The Red Queen, Margaret Beaufort is an extremely pious young girl, happy to have “saints’ knees” when she kneels too long at her prayers. Discuss the role of religion throughout Margaret’s life. What does she see as God’s role for her? 2. Margaret wants to live a life of greatness like her heroine, Joan of Arc. However, her fate lies elsewhere, as her mother tells her, “the time has come to put aside silly stories and silly dreams and do your duty.” What is Margaret’s duty and how does she respond to her mother’s words? 3. At the tender age of twelve, Margaret is married to Edmund Tudor and fourteen months later she bears him the son and heir of the royal Lancaster family line. During the excruciating hours of labor, Margaret learns a painful truth about her mother and the way she views Margaret. Discuss the implications of what Margaret learns from her mother. What is “the price of being a woman.” 4. How does Jasper Tudor aid Margaret in her plans for herself and her son, Henry? What does he sacrifice in order to keep Henry Tudor safe? In what ways are Jasper and Margaret alike? 5. After the death of Edmund Tudor, Margaret marries the wealthy Sir Henry Stafford. How is Stafford different from Edmund? Margaret laments that she is “starting to fear that my husband is worse than a coward.” What are her reasons for this? Do you see any sense in Stafford’s careful diplomacy? 6. On Easter 1461, violence breaks out between the armies of Lancaster and York.
This time, Sir Henry Stafford goes out to fight for Lancaster, only to witness a terrible battle. What does he understand about war and politics and why are these truths so difficult for Margaret to grasp? 7. Ever since she was a young girl, Margaret believed she was destined for greatness. How does her pride in her destiny manifest itself throughout the story? Identify key moments where Margaret’s pride overwhelms her judgment. 8. In the spring of 1471, Stafford sides with York and supports Edward in his quest to take the throne of England once and for all. Do you understand Stafford’s reasons for doing this? Is Margaret’s rage at her husband’s decision understandable? 9. Sir Henry Stafford suffers a mortal wound in battle. After his death, Margaret decides she must be strategic in her next marriage and so she approaches Thomas, Lord Stanley, who Jasper describes as “a specialist of the final charge.” What does Jasper mean? How is Stanley different from Stafford and what does it mean for Margaret that she decides to unite her fortunes with this man? 10. In April 1483, Margaret tries to enlist Stanley in helping to get her son, Henry, and Jasper back on English shores. An argument ensues between the two of them, and the ever-shrewd Stanley confronts Margaret with his view of her true nature, much to her horror. Do you think Stanley’s assessment of her is correct? Why is this so significant? 11. Discuss Margaret’s feelings toward the White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville. Why does she cause her so much anger? How does Margaret’s view of Elizabeth change as she becomes her lady-in-waiting, and then as she actively plots with her—and against her—for the throne of England? 12. Once King Richard has installed himself on the throne, Margaret and Lord Stanley scheme to replace him with her son, Henry Tudor. Margaret must make the difficult decision about whether to sacrifice the two princes in the Tower for her own ambitions. Is there any way to justify Margaret’s actions? Do you sympathize with her plight? 13. In the winter of 1483–84, Margaret despairs when her plans fail miserably. Under house arrest by the king, she looks back on her schemes and declares, “the sin of ambition and greed darkened our enterprise.” Discuss Margaret’s conclusion about her behavior. Do you think she takes responsibility for her actions? What blame does she place on Elizabeth Woodville? 14. As the fortunes of England shift once again, Margaret finds herself playing host to the young Lady Elizabeth, the beautiful daughter of Elizabeth Woodville.
Discuss the interaction between these two headstrong women. How does Lady Elizabeth treat Margaret and what does she say that leaves Margaret stunned into silence? 15. Discuss the final battle scenes in The Red Queen. How does Henry Tudor, young and inexperienced, eventually gain the upper hand, and how does King Richard lose his throne and his life? 16. By the end of the book, Margaret, now Margaret Regina, the king’s mother, has achieved all she wanted. Do you respect her and her ideals? Do you think her achievement justifies her actions?
Enhance Your Book Club 1. Learn more about the Wars of the Roses, Richard III, and the fall of the house of York at the homepage of the Richard III Society, http://www.r3.org/. 2. Conduct a mock investigation of the murder of the princes in the Tower. Review the suspects and determine motive and guilt. Resources can be found at www.castles.me.uk/princes-in-the-tower.htm and www.r3.org/bookcase/whodunit.html. 3. Visit Philippa Gregory's website, www.philippagregory.com, to learn more about the author, view the Plantagenet family tree, and read background information on The Red Queen. A Conversation with Philippa Gregory Margaret Beaufort is a very different character from the protagonist Elizabeth Woodville, of The White Queen. Was it difficult for you to shift perspective and write in the voice of a woman who is the enemy of the main character of your previous book? One of the most difficult things I have ever done in writing was shift my perspective so that, after three years of thinking entirely from the point of view of Elizabeth Woodville and from the point of view of the house of York, I had to convert to the view of Margaret Beaufort and the house of Lancaster. I thought at the time that the only way to do it would be to find some sort of key to the girl that Margaret was, in order to understand her as a woman. There are three extant biographies of her and I read them all and then thought that the secret to Margaret is her genuine and deep faith. That led me to the picture of this very precocious and serious little girl, and once I could imagine and love her, I could imagine the woman that her hard life and disappointments create.
Margaret’s mother tells her “since you were a girl you could only be the bridge to the next generation.” Do you feel sympathy for Margaret and her thwarted ambition? What would her life have been like if she were born a man? Of course I feel intense sympathy for Margaret who is used by her family, as so many women of this period were used—as a pawn in a game of dynasties. However, to be cheerful about it, if she had been a man, she would almost certainly have been killed in a battle or in an attack—all the other heirs on the Lancaster side were killed and she sent her son away to keep him safe. Perhaps the greatest disappointment for Margaret was that she was not allowed a religious life. There is no doubt in my mind that she would have made a wonderful abbess both as a landlord and community leader and as a scholar.
Taken together, The White Queen and The Red Queen present very different portraits of marriage in the fifteenth century. Was either woman’s experience more indicative of the time? Margaret has the more typical life of a woman of her class. Many of the noblewomen of this time were placed in arranged marriages for the advantage of their families, she was exceptionally young, but most noblewomen could expect to be married at sixteen. What is unusual about Margaret is that it seems likely that her third marriage was indeed arranged by herself, to position herself at the York court and to give her son a stepfather of immense wealth and influence. In this she was very powerfully taking control of her own destiny, and this was unusual, even for widows. Elizabeth Woodville’s first marriage is also very typical of the time. Her marriage was arranged when she was about sixteen to the wealthy heir of a great estate in a neighboring county. The Grey family gained the Woodville’s connections at court and the royal and noble connections of Elizabeth’s mother, and the Woodvilles got their daughter into a wealthy house. Elizabeth’s second marriage was, of course, unique. She was the first English commoner to marry a king of England, and the first queen married for love. They married in secret without the knowledge the king’s advisor and mentor. It was an extraordinary marriage.
Sir Henry Stafford is an interesting contrast to so many of the striving, power-hungry men and women in this novel. How much of his thoughts did you base on real life and how much was your own interpretation of his character? Sir Henry, like so many men and women of his time, has left little or no record of his thoughts and only scanty records of his actions. I had to look at what we knew about him: his age, his decision not to take part in any of the many battles of the wars, except when he went out for Lancaster in 1561 and for York a decade later. Therefore I had to consider why a man would have fought in the sixth and the fifteenth battles, but no
others and why a man tied to the house of Lancaster by family and habit would change his mind so completely as to fight for York. That was all I had to go on, as well as my general reading about the feelings of so many men who were forced to take difficult decisions about their private and family hopes and fears at a time of constant challenge.
How does history remember Margaret Beaufort? Do you feel that she is dealt with fairly by historians and writers? There are two main opinions on Margaret Beaufort that have emerged for me from my reading. One, very positive, is based on the Tudor hagiography that sees her as the matriarch of the house and a woman who spent her life in the service of her son. It follows the sermon preached by Archbishop Fisher, who stressed her suffering as a young woman, and her very early sense of destiny, when she believed that she was advised by the saints to marry Edmund Tudor and thus have a Tudor heir to the Lancaster throne. This view sees her as a divinely inspired matriarch to a family called by God, and was incorporated into the Tudor history of their own line. The other, more modern view of her, is less admiring of her as a spiritual woman but emphasizes her political ambitions and her powers of manipulation. In this view she is sometimes regarded critically as a woman of excessive ambition and greed and suggests that she dominated the household of her son, and influenced the upbringing of her grandsons.
Can you tell us a little about the next book in the series? Is Lady Elizabeth going to feature prominently? The next book tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, who is glimpsed in this novel. She was Jacquetta, daughter of the Count of Luxembourg, and kinswoman to half the royalty of Europe, who was married first to John Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI. Widowed at the age of nineteen she took the extraordinary risk of marrying Richard Woodville, a gentleman of her household for love, and then carved out a life for herself as Queen Margaret of Anjou's close friend and a Lancaster supporter—until the day that her daughter Elizabeth York fell in love, and married the king Edward IV. Of all the littleknown but important women of the period, Jacquetta’s dramatic story is the most neglected.
Simon Pulse Hardcover: 9781442421257 eBook: 9781442423916
Vi knows the Rule: Girls don’t walk with boys, and they never even think about kissing them. But no one makes Vi want to break the Rules more than Zenn…and since the Thinkers have chosen him as Vi’s future match, how much trouble can one kiss cause? The Thinkers may have brainwashed the rest of the population, but Vi is determined to think for herself.
Possession Author’s Note
Possession was born from a combination of two things: the question, “What if we couldn’t make our own choices?” and the fact that I’d just read my first (amazing) dystopian novel. I distinctly remember finishing the story and saying, “I want to write a book like this.” So I sat down and figured out what made a novel dystopian. I chose to build a world with brainwashing because free will is something I wouldn’t want to live without. I mean, what kind of world would have to exist for choice to be eliminated? I sort of think teens live a life of limited choice as it is, so it seemed a natural fit to drop someone who’s desperate to carve her own path into a society where that’s entirely unacceptable. —Elana Johnson We asked the authors what kind of food or drinks they would serve at a book club discussing their own book. Below is a menu suggestion for thick, chewy granola bars from Elana Johnson. When on the run, Vi and Jag eat TravelTreats to give them energy and stay full—they’re similar to protein or granola bars and come in fruit and nut or chocolate varieties. Vi & Jag’s TravelTreats Ingredients 1 ⅔ cups quick rolled oats (if gluten intolerant, be sure to use gluten-free oats) ½ to ¾ cup granulated sugar (use more for a sweetness akin to most purchased bars; use less for a mildly sweet bar) ⅓ cup oat flour (or 1/3 cup oats, processed till finely ground in a food processor or blender) ½ teaspoon salt ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon 2 to 3 cups dried fruits and nuts (total of 10 to 15 ounces) ⅓ cup peanut butter or another nut butter (optional) 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional) 6 tablespoons melted butter ¼ cup honey, maple syrup, or corn syrup 2 tablespoons light corn syrup 1 tablespoon water
Preparation Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line an 8″ x 8″ x 2″ pan in one direction with parchment paper, allowing it to go up the opposing sides. Lightly grease the parchment paper and the exposed pan, or coat with a nonstick spray. Stir together all the dry ingredients, including the fruit and nuts. In a separate bowl, whisk together the vanilla, melted butter or oil, liquid sweeteners, and water. Toss the wet ingredients with the dry (and peanut butter, if you’re using it) until the mixture is evenly crumbly. Spread in the prepared pan, pressing the mixture in firmly to ensure it is molded. (A piece of plastic wrap can help with this, as you press down on the back of it). Bake the bars for 30 to 40 minutes, until they’re brown around the edges. Cool the bars in their pan completely on a cooling rack. Once cool, use a serrated knife to cut the bars into squares. If bars seem crumbly, chill them (still in the pan) in fridge for 30 minutes, which will fully set the “glue,” then cut them cold. To store, wrap the bars individually in plastic or stack them in an airtight container. In humid weather, it’s best to store bars in the refrigerator. They also freeze well.
Possession, Elana Johnson Chapter One Good girls don’t walk with boys. Even if they’re good boys—and Zenn is the best. He strolled next to me, all military with his hands clasped behind his back, wearing the black uniform of a Forces recruit. The green stripes on his shirtsleeves flashed with silver tech lights, probably recording everything. Probably? Who am I kidding? Those damn stripes were definitely recording everything. Walking through the park in the evening is not technically against the rules. Good people do it all the time. But walking through the park with a boy could get me in trouble. When darkness fell, another rule would be broken. The whir of a hovercopter echoed high above the trees. In this park, the saplings stood an inch or two taller than me. Some trees in the City of Water are ancient—at least a century old. But the forest is off-limits, and even I know better than to break that rule. The filthy charcoal shade of the sky matched the impurities I’d filtered from the lake in class today. I imagined the color to be similar to the factory walls where my dad worked, but I had never been there and hadn’t seen him for years, so I couldn’t say for sure. People don’t return from the Badlands. “Vi, I’m glad you finally answered my e-comm,” Zenn said, his voice smooth, just like his skin and the perfectly fluid way he walked. “You know my mom.” I didn’t have to elaborate. Not with Zenn. “I told her I was coming whether she said yes or not.” I tried to hide how desperate I’d been to see him, how happy his e-comm invitation had made me. He could’ve asked me to the moon and I would’ve gladly gone. And taken whatever punishment followed. I’d left school during the afternoon break. The Special Forces compound is a two-hour walk south of the City of Water. I’d crossed the border and trekked for half a mile in the Fire Region just to see him. Crossing borders is also against the rules, but Zenn was worth every step. I watched the hovercopters circle closer, comfortable in the silence with Zenn. Sometimes it said more than we did. The sidewalks had stopped functioning thirty minutes ago, clearly curfew for this park. As one hovercopter dipped nearer, it took every ounce of courage I had to keep from reaching out, grabbing Zenn’s hand, and running. Before, I might have done it. But there was something different about him. Something that
Possession, Elana Johnson made me think he wouldn’t run with me this time. Another quick glance confirmed it. His eyes. They held no sparkle. No life. Maybe the Forces worked him too hard. My sweet, wonderful Zenn. I hoped he was okay here. His eyes worried me. “Well, now that you’re here, I’ve got something for you,” he said, smiling. I angled my body toward him. Zenn’s e-comm had said he had a surprise for me—surely something he’d tinkered with until it was absolutely perfect. Like he was. “The Forces have kept me busy,” Zenn continued, reaching into his pocket. He didn’t seem concerned about the circling hovercopters, but he wasn’t always living one breath away from getting arrested. “But we might not get to see each other again for a while. Your birthday is in a couple weeks, and you’re my—” “You down there!” An electronic voice cut through Zenn’s throaty tone. I flinched and took a half step behind Zenn. A one-manned tech-craft, the hovercopter was invented especially for ruining lives. No one ever escapes from one. Not even me. On the bottom rudder, a red rose winked through the twilight. My breath shuddered through my chest—I’d been caught by this hovercopter before. Maybe since Zenn was a Forces recruit and had invited me here, I wouldn’t get in trouble. Yeah, right. Fairness isn’t something the Director cares about. “Cards!” the mechanical voice shouted. Zenn pulled out his lime green activity card and held it straight up. An electric arm grew from the side of the police vehicle and flew down to scan the bar code on the back of Zenn’s card. I slowly retrieved my own ID. No one in the Goodgrounds can so much as step onto the sidewalk without an electronic record of their activity. My card was blue for the City of Water. I raised it halfway as the arm jangled at me, trying to get a better angle to scan the bar code. Then I’d be busted for being out of bounds—after dark. Zenn watched me with a wary eye. “Vi. Don’t give them a real reason to lock you up.” He stepped close enough for his body heat to permeate my senses. Touching was against the rules, but he’d broken that one lots of times. I smiled, even though he was right. Lock Up is not a fun place. The stench alone is enough to set rule-breakers straight. Still, I almost threw my activity card into the brambles where no one would ever find it.
Possession, Elana Johnson Zenn’s face stopped me, his mouth drawn into a fine line. My bar code would be attached to his—we were in the park after dark (gasp!)—and if I got into serious trouble, he might not be able to advance in the Special Forces. And I couldn’t have that weighing on my conscience. I rolled my eyes at Zenn, something he didn’t see because of my oversize straw hat—another rule, one I actually followed. The scanner beeped, and a horrible squeal erupted from the hovercopter. “What have you done now?” Zenn’s voice carried a hint of laughter amidst the exasperation. “Nothing,” I answered. “I’ve done nothing this time.” I’d been good for two months. “This time?” he asked. “Violet Schoenfeld, stay where you are!” the mechanical voice boomed. “The Green demands a hearing.” “Vi! The Green? Seriously, what have you done?” “Can I have my present now?” *** Everyone knows the Green is just a fancy name for the Thinkers. They’re the ones who broadcast the transmissions and categorize the people. The ones who do the thinking so regular people won’t have to. Zenn would join Them when he finished training with the Special Forces. He’d wanted to be a Greenie for as long as I’d known him, but that didn’t stop our friendship. This arrest might—SF agents didn’t hang out with criminals. Inside the hovercopter, large panels with multicolored buttons and complicated instruments covered the dashboard. Glass encased the entire bulb of the body, allowing the pilot to spot rule-breakers from any angle. A window in the floor beneath the single—and occupied—metal chair provided a good view of the ground below. Since I had nowhere to sit, I stood next to the tiny doorway. I felt trapped in a bubble, with the charcoal sky pressing down around me. My throat tightened with each passing second. After cuffing me, the pilot scowled. “This return trip will take twice as long. We usually send transports for arrests.” I made a face at the back of his head. Like I didn’t know that. Almost as bad as Lock Up,
Possession, Elana Johnson transports are twice as uncomfortable as the cramped hovercopter. And the filth and stink? Nasty. With my extra weight on board, the pilot maneuvered the craft awkwardly and zoomed back toward the towers on the south end of the Goodgrounds. “I have a break in twenty minutes. I don’t have time for this.” Then let me out. I watched Zenn fade to a distant dot, hoping it wouldn’t be the last time I saw him. The hovercopter slowed and the pilot turned to glare at me. “Don’t try your tricks on me, girlie.” I had no idea what he meant. I gripped the handle above the doorway as he swung the hovercopter to the left. Toward the towers. The Southern Rim is only accessible to Goodies with special clearance or important business. I’d never been there, not that I hadn’t tried. No one I knew had ever been—water folk didn’t make trouble. True fear flowed in my veins as we approached. Maybe sneaking to see Zenn had been a bad idea. The thought felt strange, almost like it didn’t belong to me. It grew, pressing me down with guilt. You shouldn’t have risked your freedom to see Zenn. The voice in my head definitely wasn’t my own. Damn Thinkers. I shook the brainwashing message away. Zenn had risked his freedom for me last summer. Below me, fields wove together in little squares, some brown, some green, some gold. Crops grown in the Centrals provided food for those in the Southern Rim and the rest of the Goodgrounds. The fields gave way to structures standing two or three stories high. Constructed like the other buildings in the Goodgrounds—gray or brown bricks, flashing tech lights, and red iris readers in every doorway. Windows were blinded off from the outside world. We certainly don’t want any sunlight getting in. No, that would be bad. According to the Thinkers anyway. Sunlight damages skin, no matter what color. Our clothes cover us from wrist to chin, ankle to hip, and everywhere in between. Suits for the business class. Jeans and oatmeal-colored shirts for everyone else. Wide-brimmed hats must be worn at all times. Goodies are walking paper dolls, devoid of personality—and brains. Yeah, that doesn’t work for me. I don’t want to be a paper doll. That’s why I broke the rules and
Possession, Elana Johnson stopped plugging in to the transmissions. The pilot swerved and twisted around the tall buildings. I’d never seen the city up close. My eyes couldn’t move fast enough from one shiny structure to the next. The pilot steered toward the last and tallest building on the border of our land. The one with the symbol that can be seen anywhere in the Goodgrounds. The olive branch is the symbol of good. It signals our allegiance to the Association of Directors. More like Association of Dictators, if you want my honest opinion. But no one does. “So now you’ve seen the Southern Rim,” the pilot said. “Was it everything you expected?” I didn’t know how to answer, so I kept my mouth shut—a first for me. That was the Southern Rim? No magic, no golden pathways, no perfect escape from my sucky life. The wall now towered in front of me, closing off any thought of freedom. The hovercopter hung in midair as a door slid open in the wall. Darkness concealed whatever waited inside. And what would I find on the other side? Could I come back? Maybe I would never see Zenn again. My mouth felt too dry. “We’re going in there?” I asked. “After I process your file,” the pilot said. He made a note on a small screen. A long list popped up. “I’ve cited you before,” he said, smiling slowly. I remembered the last time: I’d left the City of Water after dark, crossed through the crops growing in the Centrals, and tried to enter the Southern Rim. I’d dressed up real nice in a fancy white dress and old platform shoes—which were the reason I’d been caught. No one can run in shoes like that. I endured six rounds of questioning until I admitted I’d stolen the shoes from the basement of a house in the Abandoned Area—another off-limits place—another violation of the rules. Wearing contraband (which I didn’t know about at the time) from an illegal area, trying to enter another forbidden district, and then there was all that nasty business about lying. Like it’s the worst thing on the planet or something. You see, Goodies don’t lie. Ever. Honesty is sort of bred into us, but somehow mine got outbred. Maybe when I stopped listening to the transmissions. Or maybe because I just don’t give a damn. And I’m a good liar, but that’s all been properly documented in my file, which the pilot was now reading with interest. “Mm-hmm,” he said. “A liar, a thief, and now the Green wants you. It’s no small wonder, Vi.”
Possession, Elana Johnson I absolutely hate it when strangers use my nickname like we’re old friends. I ignored him as he eased the hovercopter closer to the wall. A red beam scanned the rose on the bottom and a signal flashed. The pilot steered into a long tunnel with black walls, hardly a wall and more like a building. As we careened through it, panic spread through me—something I hadn’t felt since learning Zenn would be leaving me behind to join the Special Forces. I wished he’d given me my birthday present before the stupid pilot arrested me. When we finally cleared the tunnel, I gasped at the view below me. A second city loomed behind that wall—an entire city. People swarmed in the streets. Silver instruments and shiny gadgets winked up at me from the vast expanse below. My stomach clenched painfully, and I forced myself to keep breathing so I wouldn’t faint. The fierceness of the advanced tech burned in my brain. I can feel technology, I’ve always been able to. And this whole new part of the Goodgrounds produced some serious tech buzz. My head felt like it was in a particle accelerator set on high. “So here we are,” the pilot said. “The Institute—the birthplace of tech.” No wonder I felt like throwing up.
Possession Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion 1. There is an ongoing conflict in Possession between what it means to be good or bad. Although Vi comes from the Goodgrounds, she wonders if she belongs in the Badlands. The Greenies sometimes hurt Vi, while the Baddies sometimes help. Why has the line in this world become so blurred? Do you think Vi would have turned out differently if she were born elsewhere? Does Vi belong in either group? 2. Many characters in Possession who claim to love Vi leave or betray her, including Zenn, Jag, and Ty. They all say it is to protect her. Which characters do you believe? Why do you think everyone keeps Vi in the dark about their true intentions? If you were Violet, who would you trust? 3. The dystopian world in Possession is governed by Thane and his group of Directors who use transmissions, technology and mind control to keep the society organized. They claim that without the control the world would be too unsafe and chaotic. What level of control do you think is acceptable in order to keep people safe? How do our modern laws compare to the world in Possession? 4. Technology in the Goodgrounds is used for many purposes, including tracking people and transmissions. With technology in our modern world rapidly improving, do you think it’s possible technology will ever begin to be used in our world as they do in the Goodgrounds? How would you feel about repeat legal offenders being tagged with GPS chips? Or prison bars that are controlled like electric fences? 5. Violet is supposed to plug into transmissions each night while she sleeps. The transmissions are personalized to each listener in the Goodgrounds. It seems as though Vi is one of the few who rebel against this. Do you think it’s mind control that keeps people plugging in or do you think it’s a matter of the need to follow rules? If you had your own personal transmission, what do you think it would say? 6. At the end of Possession, Vi’s father has modified her memory and she no longer remembers Jag, only what she feels is a “blank space.” Do you think she is now working for her father as he hoped all along? Do you think Zenn remembers Jag or is he being controlled? Were you surprised by this ending?
A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love
Scribner Paperback: 9781416551614 eBook: 9781439187142
THE DIRTY LIFE:
“The Dirty Life is a delightful, tumultuous, and tender story of the author’s love affair with the man who becomes her husband and the farm they work together to restore. With wisdom and humor, Kristin Kimball describes how she abandoned her career in New York City, leaving behind everything she thought was important, for a hard, distinctly unglamorous existence that turns out to be the most fulfilling thing she’s ever done.”
—Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love Author’s Note
In 2002, I was single and living an unencumbered life in New York City. I read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and became interested in what looked like a trend: educated, ambitious young people who were striving to become farmers at a time when conventional wisdom said farming was a dead-end sucker’s line of work. I heard about a woman who had just graduated from Vassar and was living in a tent in the Hudson Valley, making a go of an acre of vegetables. Then I noticed others, all through the valley, setting up small, sustainable farms, supplying the farmers markets and local stores. These young farmers and their projects sounded like a good story to me, and I thought I’d try to write a book about what they were doing. One of the first people I interviewed was Dan Guenther, who had started the college farm at Vassar and had inspired many young farmers. Dan said I should probably talk to his son, Mark, who was farming in Pennsylvania. So I drove out to meet Mark, who was too busy that day to grant me an interview. Instead, he handed me a hoe and pointed me toward the broccoli patch. That was the first time I actually did any farmwork—we didn’t even have a garden growing up— and something happened. I fell in love with the work. Although I had set out to gather research, I ended up with a husband, a farm, and an entirely new life—as far from my old one as it’s possible to get. When Mark and I started Essex Farm, I put the book idea aside for three years because there was no time. When I picked it back up, it was a different story—more personal. I’d married it. Luckily, I had been keeping notes, and writing a weekly farm newsletter for the members, so those things became a handy record of events for the book. In terms of writing, I would start really early: leave the farm at four a.m. to go down the road to the volunteer fire department, where I had a desk in the broom closet. That was my island of calm away from the farm. I’d write from four to seven, then go home to get our daughter up and dressed. I’ve always loved words, cared about and paid attention to them. I plucked inspiration from a few of my favorite writers: For humor and honesty, I looked to Mary Karr’s memoirs, all of them, and to the wonderful Jeannette Walls. For the ability to write a true sentence, I love Joan Didion. For writing about farming and rural life, there’s Wendell Berry and also Verlyn Klinkenborg; I love the texture of his language. But writing is a solitary activity. I love talking about other people’s writing, but I don’t talk about my own too much. Farming, on the other hand, I talk about all the time. My job on the farm right now is milking the cows. As a nursing mother, I feel a certain empathy. The cows and I get along just fine. —Kristin Kimball
We asked the authors what kind of food or drinks they would serve at a book club discussing their own book. Here are a few farm-to-table suggestions from Kristin Kimball. Fruit and cheese love each other. Serve fruit in season, and match it to a locally produced cheese. Think about pears with your local form of blue, apple with something like a cheddar, strawberries with crème fraîche. Every region has its own perfect couple in this category. The wine to serve would depend on the cheese. But wine. Definitely wine.
Make your own simple herbed cheese: Mix a quart of yogurt with a little salt and pour it into a colander lined with cheesecloth. Set the colander over a bowl in the fridge for six to twentyfour hours, until the whey drains out and the yogurt is the consistency of spreadable cheese. You might need to scrape the cheesecloth a few times to help it drain. Mix with salt and ground pepper to taste, plus fresh herbs of your choice. You can also add chives or a little bit of minced garlic. Serve with crackers or raw vegetables and Gewürztraminer.
Local eggs are usually easy to come by, and deviled eggs are terribly underrated. Help them stage a comeback. Serve with Chardonnay, or if you make a spicy version, with beer.
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, Kristin Kimball
PROLOGUE Saturday night, midwinter. The farmhouse has been dark for hours and the crew has all gone home. We light a fire and open two bottles of our friend Brian’s homemade beer, and as I wash up the milking things Mark begins to cook for me, a farmer’s expression of intimacy. He is perfectly sure of himself in the kitchen, wasting no movement, and watching him fills me with a combination of admiration and lust, like a rock star’s groupie. He has chosen a fine-looking chuck steak from the side of beef we butchered this week and has brought an assembly of vegetables from the root cellar. Humming, he rummages through the fridge and comes out with a pint of rich, gelatinous chicken stock and a pomegranate, the latter a gift from my friend Amelia, who brought it up from New York City. Mark gets busy, his hands moving quickly, and half an hour later he sets two colorful plates on the table. The steak he has broiled medium rare and sliced thin across the grain and drizzled with a red wine reduction. There is a mix of leek, carrot, and kale, sautéed in butter and seasoned with juniper berries, and next to this, vibrating with color, a tiny pile of this year’s ruby sauerkraut, made from purple cabbages. We are out of bread, but he found a little ball of pastry dough in the fridge, left over from making a pie, and he rolled it out and cut it in triangles and cooked it in a hot skillet, and voilà, biscuits. But the unlikely star of the plate is the radish. Mark went a little crazy planting the storage radishes last summer and put in a thousand feet of them, a lark for which I have teased him mercilessly, but they grew so beautifully and are storing so well that now I see we might actually put a small dent in the supply by the end of the winter. The variety is called Misato Rose. Creamy white with shades of green on the outside, and bright pink on the inside, they are about the size of an apple, and, when you cut them, they look like miniature watermelons. These are a favorite appetizer served raw with a little sprinkling of salt. They look so fruitlike the biting taste is always a surprise, a disagreement between the eye and the palate. Tonight, Mark braised them in stock, which hardly dimmed their brilliant color but mellowed out their flavor. He added a dash of maple syrup and balsamic vinegar, and at the end tossed in a handful of the tangy pomegranate seeds, the heat bursting some and leaving others whole to amuse the tongue. This is why I love my husband: given these opposites to work with, the earthiest of roots and the most exotic of fruits, he sees harmony, not discord. We eat the meal, my eyes half closed in pleasure, and sip the bitter, hoppy beer, and kiss, and before my friends in the city have even dressed to go out for the evening, we slip off to bed. I’ve slept in this bed for seven winters, and still, sometimes, I wonder how I came to be here, someone’s wife, in an old farmhouse in the North Country. There are still moments when I feel like an actor in a play. The real me stays out until four, wears heels, and carries a handbag, but this character I’m playing gets up at four, wears Carhartts, and carries a Leatherman, and the other day, doing laundry, a pair of .22 long shells fell out of her pocket, and she was supposed to act like she wasn’t surprised. Instead of the lights and sounds of the city, I’m surrounded by five hundred acres that are blanketed tonight in mist and clouds, and this farm is a whole world darker and quieter, more beautiful and more brutal than I could have imagined the country to be.
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, Kristin Kimball
Tonight, curled against Mark’s body under the goose-down comforter, I hear cold spring rain begin to fall. Mark is already asleep, and I lie awake for a while, wondering if any of the cows will have the bad luck to calve in such nasty weather, if the pigs have enough straw in their hut to stay warm, if the horses are comfortable in the pasture or if they’d be better off in the barn. I worry that the rain is melting the snow cover, exposing the garlic and the perennials to the harsh cold that is sure to come back to bite them before the threat of frost is over. These are the kinds of thoughts that have occupied the majority of the human race—the agrarians—for most of the history of the world. And I am one of them now. It’s as surprising to me as radishes and pomegranates. Mark and I are both first-generation farmers. The farm we’ve built together could be described as antique or very modern, depending on who you ask. The fertility comes from composted manure and tilled-in cover crops. We use no pesticides, no herbicides. The farm is highly diversified, and most of the work is done by horses instead of tractors. Our small fields are bordered by hedgerow and woodlot. We have a sugar bush, the beginnings of an orchard, an abundance of pasture and hay ground, and perennial gardens of herbs and flowers. We milk our cows by hand and their milk is very rich and the butter we make from the cream is taxicab yellow. We raise hogs and beef cattle and chickens on pasture, and at butchering time we make fresh and dried sausages, pancetta, corned beefs, pâtés, and quarts of velvety stock. The food we grow feeds a hundred people. These “members” come to the farm every Friday to pick up their share of what we’ve produced. Our goal is to provide everything they need to have a healthy and satisfying diet, year-round. We supply beef, chicken, pork, eggs, milk, maple syrup, grains, flours, dried beans, herbs, fruits, and forty different vegetables. For this our members pay us $2,900 per person per year and can take as much food each week as they can eat, plus extra produce, during the growing season, to freeze or can for winter. Some members still shop regularly at the grocery store for convenience food, produce out of season, and things that we can’t provide like citrus fruit, but we and some of the others live pretty much on what we produce. I’ve learned many things in the years since my life took this wild turn toward the dirt. I can shoot a gun, dispatch a chicken, dodge a charging bull, and ride out a runaway behind panicked horses. But one lesson came harder than any of those: As much as you transform the land by farming, farming transforms you. It seeps into your skin along with the dirt that abides permanently in the creases of your thickened hands, the beds of your nails. It asks so much of your body that if you’re not careful it can wreck you as surely as any vice by the time you’re fifty, when you wake up and find yourself with ruined knees and dysfunctional shoulders, deaf from the constant clank and rattle of your machinery, and broke to boot. But farming takes root in you and crowds out other endeavors, makes them seem paltry. Your acres become a world. And maybe you realize that it is beyond those acres or in your distant past, back in the realm of TiVo and cubicles, of take-out food and central heat and air, in that
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, Kristin Kimball
country where discomfort has nearly disappeared, that you were deprived. Deprived of the pleasure of desire, of effort and difficulty and meaningful accomplishment. A farm asks, and if you don’t give enough, the primordial forces of death and wildness will overrun you. So naturally you give, and then you give some more, and then you give to the point of breaking, and then and only then it gives back, so bountifully it overfills not only your root cellar but also that parched and weedy little patch we call the soul. This book is the story of the two love affairs that interrupted the trajectory of my life: one with farming—that dirty, concupiscent art—and the other with a complicated and exasperating farmer I found in State College, Pennsylvania.
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, Kristin Kimball
PART ONE Leaving The first time I laid eyes on Mark, we were in the run-down trailer that served as his farm office and his home. I had driven six hours from Manhattan to interview him for a story I was pitching, about the young farmers who were growing the kind of local organic food that more and more people wanted to eat. I knocked on his front door during what turned out to be the after-lunch nap. When nobody answered, I let myself into the kitchen and called out, and after a minute the bedroom door banged open and Mark strode down the hallway, buckling his belt. He was very tall, and his long legs propelled him toward me with a sort of purposeful grace. He wore scuffed leather work boots, blue jeans gone white at the thighs, and a devastated white dress shirt. He had lively green eyes, a strong and perfect nose, a two-day beard, and a mane of gold curls. His hands were large and callused, his forearms corded with muscle and wide blue veins. He smiled, and he had beautiful teeth. I smelled warm skin, diesel, earth. He introduced himself, shook my hand, and then he was abruptly gone, off on some urgent farm business, the screen door banging shut behind him, promising over his shoulder to give me an interview when he got back that evening. Meantime, I could hoe the broccoli with his assistant, Keena. I recorded two impressions in my notebook later on: First, this is a man. All the men I knew were cerebral. This one lived in his body. Second, I can’t believe I drove all this way to hoe broccoli for this dude. That first night, instead of doing an interview with him, I helped Mark slaughter a pig. I’d been a vegetarian for thirteen years, and I was wearing a new white agnès b. blouse, but he was shorthanded, and being on his farm without helping felt as unnatural as jumping into a lake and not swimming. I’d never seen an animal slaughtered before, and I could not look when he shot the pig—a sow named Butch with black-and-white spots, like a porcine character in a children’s story. Once she was still I regained my equilibrium. I helped hoist the carcass on a gambrel and make the eviscerating cut from breastbone to belly, holding the steaming cavity open while Mark cut the organs free from their moorings. I was not disgusted but enlivened by what we were doing. I was fascinated by the hard white purse of the stomach, the neat coil of intestines, the lacy white caul fat, the still-bright heart. After the carcass was halved we hauled it in a cart to a walk-in cooler near the road. One hundred yards from us was a development of grandly scaled houses on small lots. They had carefully clipped lawns, and geraniums in pots at the ends of the driveways. In the falling dark Mark draped the now-headless pink half body over his shoulder. It was bulky and heavy and awkward to carry, just like dead bodies on TV. I held on to the slippery back trotters and helped get the pig into the cooler and hung on a hook from the ceiling. The cars zipping by had their headlights on by then, and the lights were coming on in the houses across the road. I wondered if anyone could see us, and if they would call the police.
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, Kristin Kimball
I stayed at a chain hotel in town that night and soaked the pig grease off of me in a bathroom that seemed shockingly white and sterile. I felt like I’d been on a long trip to a very foreign country. The next morning I got up at dawn and went back to the farm. Mark’s crew was gathered for breakfast: cornmeal pancakes and homemade sausage drizzled with warm maple syrup. I ate a double helping of sausage, and that was the end of my life as a vegetarian. Mark disappeared again right after breakfast, the pig in the back of a borrowed Explorer, off to his Amish friends’ butcher shop. He’d be back in the afternoon, he said, and we could conduct a proper interview then. In the meantime, I could rake rocks in the tomatoes with his other assistant, Michael. Michael did not look optimistic about my work capacity. I had traded my white blouse for a vintage Cheap Trick T-shirt, tight jeans, and a pair of thrift-store Dingos with chunky little heels. It was the kind of ironic-chic outfit that worked well in the East Village but looked strange and slightly slutty in a field in Pennsylvania. I thought of myself as extremely fit and, as I phrased it to myself, strong for my size, which was a slight five two including the heels on the Dingos, even though my most vigorous exercise at that time came from regular games of pinball. I was already sore from the previous day’s exertions, but I am cursed with a physical competitiveness that goes beyond reason. I inherited this trait from my father, who, by way of example, detached a hamstring attempting to muscle his way through a standing dock start while waterskiing at the age of seventy-three. Michael handed me a hard-toothed rake, and we set off in adjacent rows. Penn State was just down the road, and Michael, a film major, had graduated that spring. He’d begun volunteering weekends at Mark’s farm to see if, as he put it, hard work would make him a man. When he graduated, Mark had hired him full-time. Michael’s father was an accountant and his girlfriend was about to start law school and the lot of them had a fairly dim view of farming and were hoping that Michael would soon get it out of his system. I asked a lot of questions, to cover my puffing, and took every opportunity to lean on the rake in a pose of intense listening. The July sun stung like a slap on the face and raised up around us the sharp, resinous smell of tomato. The plants were as tall as I was and heavy with fruit, held upright by twine and oak stakes. To a person used to growing nothing bigger than herbs in a window box, they seemed vaguely menacing. The soil between the rows was dry and clumped and heavily studded with rocks. Michael told me to ignore the rocks smaller than an egg and rake the rest into piles, then shovel the piles into a wheelbarrow to be dumped in the hedgerow. I was shocked by the weight of each shovel full of rocks, and I flipped the wheelbarrow on my first trip. Rake, shovel, dump. Two interminable hours passed in this way, until it occurred to me that, if this went on much longer, I’d seize up entirely and be unable to depress the clutch in order to drive myself home.
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, Kristin Kimball
In desperation, I offered to go in to cook lunch for everyone. I tried to make the offer sound casual. I couldn’t quite believe how much damage I’d done to myself in so short a time. There were blisters rising between my left thumb and first finger, I couldn’t fully straighten my back, and my crotch, imprisoned in the tight jeans, felt chafed beyond repair. I wasn’t much of a cook back then. I appreciated good food, but I didn’t have a steady relationship with it. Food was more like a series of one-night stands, set in front of me at a restaurant or delivered in little white cardboard containers by a guy on a bicycle. I wasn’t sure the oven in my apartment was functional, since in the seven years I’d lived there, I’d never used it. The refrigerator worked, but in my small studio it was more valuable to me as storage space than as a kitchen appliance. I kept the dog’s kibble in there, and a Brita pitcher of water, and, bookshelf space being dear, the Manhattan phone book, which in my memory of those years will always be heavy and cold. The freezer held a tray of shrunken ice cubes and a bottle of Polish vodka. Mark’s kitchen took up half the trailer and reminded me of a market in a third-world country. It was stuffed full of colorful and unpackaged things, the smells of milk and meat and dirt and vegetation mingling together in an earthy perfume that was strong but not unpleasant. I opened doors, peered cautiously at the high shelves. The cabinets held gallon jars of black beans and dried apples, wheat and rye berries, small, dry ears of corn. The cupboard above the stove was full of bundles of herbs and unlabeled bottles of some fizzy, amber liquid. I opened the refrigerator and found an uncovered pot brimming with soft, bloody things I recognized as Butch’s internal organs, and a wire basket of scuffed brown eggs. In the crisper were Ball jars of butter and cottage cheese, a pile of golf ball–looking things that may have been turnips, and some carrots, unwashed. I quickly shut the refrigerator door and grabbed a basket and a knife and went back out to the field where Michael had finished raking rocks and was now busy mulching the rows of tomatoes with bales of half-rotted straw. I looked at all the food that was there for the picking. New potatoes, broccoli, lettuce, herbs, peas, beets, and blackberries. There was a cow grazing with her calf, a flock of hens pecking away at some compost, another pig rooting through a pile of leaf litter. Everywhere I looked, there was plenty. I felt some ideas moving around in my head, big and slow, like tectonic plates. This was only a six-acre plot, the size of a large playground, but there were vegetables here for two hundred families. It all seemed so much simpler than I’d imagined. Dirt plus water plus sun plus sweat equaled food. No factories required, not a lot of machinery, no poisons or chemical fertilizers. How was it possible that this abundance had always existed, and I had not known it? I felt, of all damn things, safe. Anything could happen in the world. Planes could crash into buildings, jobs could disappear, people could be thrown out of their apartments, oil could run dry, but here, at least, we would eat. I filled my basket with tomatoes and kale and onions and basil, calculating in my head the hefty sum all those vegetables would have cost at the farmers’ market in New York City, and went back inside hoping to do them justice.
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, Kristin Kimball
I found two tools in the kitchen that are so familiar to me now they’re like old friends: a teninch soft steel chef ’s knife with a very sharp blade and a cast-iron skillet so big I could barely get my two arms around it. I set to work, cutting ribs out of the kale and chopping tomatoes and onions without knowing exactly where the meal was going. I did know that, if the rest of the crew was as hungry as I was, I had better aim for quantity. I heated the skillet on two burners and sautéed onion in butter, adding some diced carrots and the tomatoes and a bit of water to steam the kale. I covered the skillet with something that looked like a manhole cover, and when the kale was soft I dug shallow divots in it and cracked a dozen eggs into the holes to poach. Then I minced some garlic and basil together and mashed it into a knob of butter and spread that on slices of bread I’d found in the cupboard. I put the garlicky bread under the broiler, and just as the crew walked in from the field I pulled the tray of fragrant toasts out of the oven with a flourish, dealt pieces onto plates, topped them with the kale and poached eggs, and crowned each with a spoonful of cottage cheese and a grind of black pepper. When we were all seated and served I took my first trepidatious bite, and then sat back. It was, I thought, astoundingly delicious—the kale a fresh, green backdrop to the hot, sharp bite of garlic and basil—and I felt very clever to have made it. I looked around the table, expecting raves and compliments, but there was only the flash of silverware, the purposeful movement of several jaws. “Please pass the salt,” Michael said, eventually. It wasn’t that my lunch was bad, I realize now. In fact I bet they thought it was pretty good. But pretty good is just not that impressive to farmers who eat like princes every day. Food, a French man told me once, is the first wealth. Grow it right, and you feel insanely rich, no matter what you own. It was evening again before I managed to intercept Mark’s orbit. Michael and Keena and a handful of volunteers who had been buzzing around the fields had all left for the day, but Markwas still working. I’d begun to wonder if this guy was ever still. Now he was literally running between jobs on those long legs of his, drawing on what seemed to be a boundless reserve of energy. He checked the irrigation in the carrots, jotted notes for the next day, bent to pull a clump of innocuous-looking weeds from the edge of the strawberries, tested the deer fence for charge and then baited it with cotton balls soaked in apple scent, so the deer would get a good, strong shock on the nose. I trotted along after him, juggling a notebook and pen with a screwdriver and pieces of broken hose that he absentmindedly handed me. He talked the whole time, at a pace and with a dexterity that surprised me. I thought farmers were supposed to be salt-of-the-earth-type people, not dumb, exactly, but maybe a little dull. He didn’t like the word work. That’s a pejorative. He preferred to call it farming, as in I farmed for fourteen hours today. He did not own a television or a radio and figured he was probably one of the last people in the country to know about September 11. Still doesn’t listen to the news. It’s depressing, and there’s nothing you can do about most of it anyway. You have to think locally, act locally, and his definition of local didn’t extend much beyond the fifteen acres of land he was farming. The right thing was to try to understand how you were affecting the world around you. At first he’d been against just plastic, but he was becoming suspicious of any metal that he couldn’t mine and smelt himself. In fact, when it was time to build himself a house, he’d like to build it with no nails, no metal at all, so that it could compost itself down to
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, Kristin Kimball
nothing after he was dead. He had never owned a car. He biked or hitchhiked where he needed to go. He had recently turned against the word should, and doing so had made him a happier person. He found the market economy and its anonymous exchange boring. He’d like to imagine a farm where no money traded hands, only goodwill and favors. He had a theory that you had to start out by giving stuff away—preferably big stuff, worth, he figured, about a thousand dollars. At first, he said, people are discomfited by such a big gift. They try to make it up to you, by giving you something big in return. And then you give them something else, and they give you something else, and pretty soon nobody is keeping score. There is simply a flow of things from the place of excess to the place of need. It’s personal, and it’s satisfying, and everyone feels good about it. This guy is completely nuts, I thought. But what if he’s right?
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love Reading Group Guide Topics & Questions for Discussion 1. Kristin was a freelance writer in New York City, which gave her the opportunity to travel around the world. When she first met Mark on his farm, she felt like a foreigner. In what ways do you think this feeling comforted her? Were you surprised when the situation flipped and Kristin felt foreign to the life she used to lead in the city? 2. In what ways did Kimball’s yearning for a home sway her decision to leave the city and start a new life with Mark? If you were put in a similar situation, do you think you would have made the same decision? Why or why not? What is your own personal definition of “home”? 3. Mark and Kristin start a farm that aims to provide a whole diet for their year-‐round members. If a farm in your area did the same thing, would you become a member? How would it change the way you cook and eat? 4. The first year on Essex Farm was full of trial and error. Kristin had never farmed before and much of her knowledge came from her neighbors and from books. In what ways did all of the mishaps shape Kristin and change her perspective? 5. One of the biggest adjustments Kristin has to make when moving to Essex Farm is learning to live with the absence of instant gratification. She finds that a farmer must continuously put forth effort in order to reap benefits. How does Kristin respond to this new kind of work? How does her definition of “satisfaction” change? Would you be able to accommodate a similar change? 6. The Dirty Life is segmented into seasons. What are the underlying issues that take place within each season and how do they relate to the year in full? 7. Have your views on sustainable farming changed after reading about the trials and triumphs of Essex Farm? Have your views on farm-‐fresh food versus supermarket food changed? 8. Kristin repeatedly finds that her prior assumptions about farming and farmers are false. Do you think her stereotypes were the same as those of most Americans or just people who live in urban areas? 9. As a new farmer, Kristin struggles with where she fits in the socioeconomic spectrum. It bothers her when a neighbor brings over some kitchen things because she thinks Kristin
is needy. Later, Kristin writes that farming makes her feel rich even though she’s not. What makes people feel poor or rich? How much is the feeling related to money? 10. Why do you think Kristin goes from being a vegetarian to an omnivore after helping Mark slaughter a pig? 11. Kristin writes that there are two types of marriages: the comfortable kind and the fiery kind. Do you agree? Enhance Your Book Club 1. Take a trip to a local farm with your book group to observe the work that goes into its daily management and production. Visit www.pickyourown.org to find a farm near you! 2. Kristin and Mark raise a variety of produce. Kristin recalls the monotonous pleasures of planting, weeding, and harvesting. Try planting a garden at home to gain a greater understanding of the challenges and rewards of growing your own produce. 3. Make a meal with your book group using only locally grown and seasonal food. If possible, talk to the farmer who grew it. How does this change your experience of cooking and eating it? 4. Kristin spends part of the harvest season putting up food for winter. Consider buying a quantity of food in season and getting together with your book group to preserve it. Visit www.learntopreserve.com for tips and ideas. 5. Listen to Kristin Kimball discuss The Dirty Life on NPR’s All Things Considered by going to http://www.npr.org/2010/11/12/131268939/-‐the-‐dirty-‐life-‐from-‐city-‐girl-‐to-‐hog-‐ butcher?ft=1&f=1032. Learn about how Kristin came up with the title, the best way to eat a potato, and see pictures of Essex Farm!
THE BUTTERFLY’S DAUGHTER
Mary Alice Monroe
Gallery Books Hardcover: 9781439170618 eBook: 9781439171028
New York Times bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe creates a lush, lyrical novel of a transformational journey of four women chasing monarchs, myths, and love across the United States to Mexico.
The Butterfly’s Daughter Author’s Note Dear Reader, Who doesn’t love butterflies? They are joy with wings. It is the joy that I witnessed 10,000 feet high in the mountains of Mexico when millions of monarch butterflies burst into the air like orange confetti that gave me the theme for The Butterfly’s Daughter. As a story-teller, I look for the human parallels to inspire my themes, characters, and metaphors, and to add depth to the novel. The monarchs’ unique migration and metamorphosis, and their genetic memory; inspired the story’s strong bond between a grandmother and her granddaughter and a young woman’s journey to understanding her family, culture, and traditions—even as she takes steps to forge her own identity. Don’t we all look for familiar family traits in ourselves and in our children? Also, to fully understand the story of the characters I raised dozens of monarchs from egg to butterfly—a magical experience. Only by personal observation did I truly appreciate the miracle of metamorphosis and understand why so many cultures and religions use it as a symbol for rebirth. Most people think only the butterfly is beautiful. I believe it is the courage to go into the darkness to change that is the true miracle. The story of a young woman’s journey to self-discovery is no less wondrous. I hope you’ll visit my website (www.maryalicemonroe.com) to see photographs of my trip to Mexico, raising butterflies, and much more. Warm regards, Mary Alice Monroe
We asked the authors what kind of food or drinks they would serve at a book club discussing their own book. Mary Alice Monroe has some festive suggestions and shares a recipe for (drum roll please) the “Best Ever Refritos.” In The Butterfly’s Daughter Luz travels to Mexico and discovers her roots. What could be more entertaining for your book club than either a colorful Cinco de Mayo (May 5) party, or a festive Day of the Dead party to bring culture, good food, and fun to the club meeting? Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican national holiday, but has developed as a colorful, fun celebration of Mexican heritage in the spring. Dia de los Muertos is held on November 1 and 2 and celebrates life and the return of the beloved departed. In Mexican culture, many believe that the monarch butterfly is the
spirit of someone recently departed. So science and culture meet as the holiday coincides with the monarchs’ return to their overwintering grounds. For your book club meeting, set up an ofrenda (altar) in your home similar to the one Luz observed in the novel. Cover a table with a tablecloth and place on it colorful skulls (candy or painted), paper cutouts (papeles picado), white candles, marigolds or mums, fruit, water, and sweets. Don’t forget the butterflies! Deepen the impact of the evening by selecting a theme for your ofrenda that everyone can participate in. For example: each member could bring an offering that represents her favorite book. Or she might bring something personal to commemorate a lost loved one. For ambience, light candles and play a selection of Latin music. Remember, despite its name, the Day of the Dead is a very festive and upbeat time. It’s not the same as Halloween, so you don’t have to dress up in costumes. Traditional Mexican attire— colorful shawls, long braids with ribbons, floral embroidered blouses—might be fun. I’m sharing with you the best refried beans recipe ever! It was given to me when I was first married, and I’ve handed it down to my friends, family, and children all these many years. It makes a lot! To drink? Margaritas, of course! Salt or no salt? Have a selection of cold Mexican beers on hand, too. Best Ever Refritos (Refried Beans) Ingredients 2 cups raw pinto beans (beans must be soaked overnight) 1½ teaspoons salt 1½ cups chopped onion 3 cloves garlic, crushed ½ cup minced green pepper 2 teaspoons ground cumin ¼ teaspoon black pepper ¼ teaspoon coriander (optional)
Preparation Cook beans per package instructions. Over-cooking is desirable. Reduce liquid. Mash beans with potato masher.
Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in skillet. Add onions, garlic, and peppers and sauté until translucent. Add cumin, salt, and pepper. Add beans to vegetables and seasoning in skillet and mix well. If too soupy, the liquid may be reduced over a low flame. That’s all! Serve hot and enjoy!
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
ONE Each fall, millions of delicate orange and black butterflies fly more than two thousand miles from the United States and Canada to overwinter in the mountains of central Mexico. The annual migration of the monarch is a phenomenal story—a miracle of instinct and survival. Esperanza Avila had told the story so many times over the years that it was accepted as truth— even by herself. She’d meant only to blanket her granddaughter’s frightening loss, not to mislead her. She saw the story she’d created as a safe, happy cocoon for her to grow up in. But in the end, she’d created a lie. Now she was caught in her own trap of deception. The only way out was to tell Luz the truth, no matter how painful that truth might be. Esperanza counted the strokes as she brushed her long, white hair in front of the bureau mirror. Morning light fell in a broken pattern across her room. Her gaze fell upon an old sepiatoned photograph of herself and her second husband, Hector Avila. She paused her brushing as she gazed at his brilliant smile, his hair that waved like the ocean he loved, and his eyes that were as impossibly blue. Hector Avila had been the love of her life, taken too soon from her. When she was a younger woman her raven hair flowed down her back to swirl around her hips. Hector had loved her hair, whispered to her how it was like a waterfall at night that captured the reflection of the stars. He used to wind her hair in his hands, wrap himself up in it when they made love. Even after all these years, closing her eyes, she could remember the feel of his skin, and her hair like silk pressed against her body. Opening her eyes again, she saw that her long hair was no longer the lustrous skein that Hector had relished. So many seasons had passed since those halcyon days, so many joys, and so much sadness. Her hair was a blizzard of snow falling around her shoulders. She pressed the brush to her heart as it tightened. Where did the time go? Suddenly the room felt like it was tilting. Esperanza closed her eyes and grasped the bureau for balance. She was tired, she told herself. She didn’t sleep well the night before. Ever since she’d received that phone call from her daughter Maria, old memories and worries had plagued her. They spilled over to her dreams, haunting her, and lingered after the pale light of dawn awakened her. Her troubled gaze traveled across the other photographs on her bureau, resting on a small silver frame that held the treasured photograph of her daughter Mariposa, aglow with happiness. In her arms she carried her baby. Luz couldn’t have been six months old but already her pale eyes shone as bright as the sun. Tears filled Esperanza’s eyes as her heart pumped with love for this child, who’d been a gift to her in her later years, after Mariposa had vanished. “Hector,” she said aloud. “I need your wisdom, now more than ever. I could bear this hardship alone. But Luz . . . she is twenty-one, no longer a child. Still, I can’t endure to see her hurt. I’ve
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
told Luz so many stories about her mother. But now this! What words can I say to make her understand this truth?” She shook her head with grief. “How will she not hate me?” She finished gathering her long locks in fingers that were gnarled from age and hard work. While she methodically wound the hair like a skein of wool, her mind reviewed her plan to tell Luz the truth about her mother. She needed uninterrupted time and a safe place to tell her granddaughter the story from beginning to end. Her hands trembled as she finished pinning the thick braid of hair securely at the base of her head. Taking a steadying breath, she opened her drawer and pulled out the amber plastic medicine bottle she kept hidden behind socks and underwear. She didn’t tell Luz about the pills that kept her heart from skipping its beat. Luz already had to worry about too many things for a girl her age. There was a fine line between being responsible and being burdened. That thought strengthened Esperanza’s resolve. She pried open the bottle and shook out the last pink tablet into her palm, then sighed. She needed to get the expensive prescription refilled. How would she pay for it after today? She placed the pill on her tongue and washed it down with a glass of water. Tomorrow she’d worry about that. Today her course was clear. With great care Esperanza applied smudges of rouge to her cheeks and dabbed on some lipstick. The ruby color added fullness to her thinning lips. She cast a final, assessing glance in the mirror. There were times when she looked at her reflection that she caught a peek at the girl she once was, trapped deep inside of her, barely visible behind the wrinkles and sunken cheeks. That young girl shone bright in her eyes this morning, excited for the task ahead. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she put on her tennis shoes, then slipped down to her knees. Usually she’d pull out her rosary for her morning prayers, but today she reached her arm under her mattress all the way to her shoulder and began groping. The mattress was heavy and Esperanza panted with the effort. At last, her fingers clutched the small leather pouch and pulled it out. She sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, catching her breath, and then gingerly opened the worn, hand-sewn purse that had traveled with her from her small village in Mexico all the way to Milwaukee so many years before. Her fingertip traced the image of a butterfly etched into the golden leather. Without hesitating further, she opened it and pulled out a thick wad of bills. She counted the dollars in her lap, smoothing each bill. Her ruby lips spread into a satisfied grin. She had enough. Esperanza put on her black trench coat and slipped a triangle of red silk scarf over her head, a gift from Luz. Before leaving, she made sure the coffee machine was turned off and the iron was unplugged, then made a fervent sign of the cross in front of the framed portrait of La Virgen de Guadalupe in the front hall. With a puff, she extinguished the candle and pulled the door closed behind her.
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
A north wind hit her face and she tugged the collar of her coat higher around her neck. Fall came early in Wisconsin and spring took its time. She made her way down the stairs to the cracked cement sidewalk. “You off?” Esperanza turned toward the throaty voice of her neighbor, Yolanda Rodriguez. She was dressed for the weather in a thick black sweater and gloves as she raked leaves from her tiny front yard. Yolanda stood with her head cocked and her dark eyes gleaming, like a crow at the fence line. “Yes,” Esperanza called back with conviction as she walked closer to the chain-link fence that divided their front yards. At the sound of her voice, two small black-and-white mixed-breed dogs rushed to the fence, barking wildly. Yolanda hushed them, then paused to lean on the rake. “This is a good thing you’re doing,” she said, nodding her head for emphasis. “Luz is not a little girl anymore. She should know.” “She will know soon.” “You should have told Luz the truth long ago. I told you so!” Esperanza held her tongue but felt her heart squeeze in anxiety. “You still planning on driving to San Antonio?” Yolanda’s voice was filled with doubt. “Yes.” Yolanda shook her head doubtfully. “I still think you should fly. It’s faster. Not so much trouble. Not so dangerous.” “It’s better this way. And I did it before, don’t forget. I have it all planned. It will take only three days to drive to San Antonio. It’s perfect, don’t you see? That will give Luz and me enough time to talk, where it is quiet and safe.” Yolanda snorted. “And Luz won’t be able to bolt like Mariposa.” Esperanza frowned and looked off into the biting wind. She thought how sharp words could sting when they held the truth. “Perhaps. I must go now.” “Do you want me to come with you?” “No, no, that’s kind of you. I want to do this on my own.”
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
Yolanda caught a note in her voice and reached out to gently pat Esperanza’s shoulder in commiseration. “It’s a good plan. I will say a prayer to the Virgencita that it will succeed. ¡Buena suerte!” she said with a farewell wave, then returned to her raking, muttering curses under her breath at the gust of wind that brought a fresh torrent of leaves to her yard. Esperanza hurried to the street corner to catch the bus she saw cruising up the block. She found a seat and looked out the window at the familiar scenery of bungalow houses, brown brick buildings, and fast-food restaurants. There were so many people, she thought. In cars, on foot, in the windows—all strangers and all with their hands rammed into pockets and their faces set in hard frowns. Her mind flitted back to the small village in the mountains where she’d grown up. Everything was green and she knew everyone’s name. Esperanza shivered and tightened her coat. Even after all these years she couldn’t get used to these cold northern winters. No coat was warm enough. She longed for the warmer climate and the simple tranquility of her home. Stepping off the bus, she felt the chill of the winds off Lake Michigan clear to her bones. It took her a minute to get her bearings. She consulted the small piece of paper on which she’d written the directions, then began to walk. After a few blocks, she sighed with relief at seeing the enormous sign: NICE USED CARS. It wasn’t much of a car lot. It was an old filling station surrounded by a long line of wire tethered between buildings, affixed with colored plastic flags flapping in the breeze. Beneath was a small collection of random cars, some with new coats of paint that didn’t do a good job of covering rust. The salesman didn’t see her walk onto the lot at first. She knew the moment he spotted her, though, because he instinctively fixed his tie. “Are you in the right place, dear?” “I’m where I need to be,” she replied. “Are you going to show me some cars or do I have to look myself?” The salesman was a short, beady-eyed man in an ill-fitting suit. He smiled and led her to a midsize sedan. After looking at the sticker, Esperanza shook her head. “Oh no, I can’t afford this car. Please, something more . . .” She didn’t want to say cheap. What was the better word in English? “Affordable.” “I can do that,” he replied cheerfully, though his smile was more forced now. He led her to the far side of the lot, where the prices dropped significantly. She peered into the windows of a Ford Taurus. “That’s a nice car there. You’ve got good taste.”
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
“I don’t know anything about cars.” “May I ask why you’re looking for a car now?” She looked at the man as though he was addled. “I need one!” she said, then turned to move down the line of cars. “Are you really here to buy, ma’am? Or just kicking tires.” Esperanza didn’t know what he meant by that, so she didn’t reply. She walked down the first line of sad-looking cars, feeling her heart drop into her shoes. Each looked worse than the next. When she turned to the second row she saw the car she’d come for. The battered orange Volkswagen was very much like the one that her first husband, Luis, had found abandoned on the side of the road. He’d spent hours repairing it, then he’d taught her how to drive along dusty roads as she ground the gears. “You like that one?” the persistent man asked as he approached again. “I dunno. Maybe you shouldn’t be looking at a manual transmission.” “No,” she said, feeling as though fate had just smiled on her. “This is the one.” Luz Avila looked out the wall of grimy industrial windows at the foundry to see thick, gray clouds gathering in the sky. She reached up to tug at the elastic of her ponytail, then shook her head to free her long mane of black hair. Then, slipping into her brown corduroy jacket, she took her place in a long line of employees waiting with vacant stares to enter their numbers into the employee time clock. One by one they moved forward, but she felt they were all really just stuck in one place. “You wanna go out tonight?” the young woman behind her asked. Dana was only a year older than Luz but already married and divorced. Her short, spiky hair was an unnatural shade of red and she liked to experiment with varying shades of green and blue eye shadow. “We thought we’d hook up at O’Malley’s.” Luz shook her head. Dana wouldn’t understand that she was saving every dollar she could to finish college. Or that her conservative Mexican grandmother didn’t approve of freewheeling single girls who went out to bars alone. “Sully and I have plans. But thanks.” Dana shrugged. “See you at the grind tomorrow, then.”
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
“Yeah,” she replied dully. The foundry paid a good wage but Luz felt trapped inside its walls, unable to see a brighter future for herself. The best part of her day was clocking out. Luz stepped out into an October wind tinged with acrid industrial scents. She wrinkled her nose and walked quickly toward the parking lot, where she knew her boyfriend would be waiting for her. Sully’s face burst into a grin under his baseball cap when he spotted her. Sullivan Gibson was a traditional midwestern boy of German-Irish farming descent, evident in his six-foot-three-inch height, his broad shoulders, his penchant for basketball and beer, and his polite manners toward a lady. His long arm pushed the truck door open for her as she approached, and she climbed into the warm compartment just as an icy northern rain began. “God, I hate this rain,” she said. “At least it’s not snow.” The air in the truck was close and reeked of stale cigarette smoke—she couldn’t get Sully to break his habit. She leaned across the seat to meet his lips. Sully’s brooding blue eyes sparked to life when they kissed, like his truck when he fired the ignition. Beneath Sully’s rough exterior beat the steady, generous heart of a gentle man. He worked at an auto repair shop in Milwaukee. It was a small garage but it had a sterling reputation and a waiting list for appointments. Sully felt lucky to have been offered a job there, but Luz knew that his diligence, reliability, and honesty meant that the garage was the lucky one. Sully already had his own roster of clients. He made a good living with the promise of raises, promotions, and if his dreams were realized, his own shop someday. He was a man ready to settle down with a wife and raise a family. They’d been dating for three years and Sully was her rock. She felt safe when he slipped a possessive arm around her shoulders and drew her close as they pulled out from the parking lot. Every day after work Sully drove Luz to her home on Milwaukee’s south side. He pulled to a stop in front of her unassuming A-frame bungalow, one of many identical houses bordering the narrow street. It was a modest neighborhood, mostly Hispanic. A neighborhood where the residents couldn’t afford improvements to the houses and the city didn’t bother to improve the streets. But there were pots of brightly colored geraniums on front porches, well-tended shrubs, bicycles chained to a railing, and soccer balls lying in the yard. This was a close-knit neighborhood of families. Sully let the engine idle and bent to deliver a slow, probing kiss that took Luz’s breath away. She pulled back, blinking in a daze. “What was that for?”
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
His lips curved shyly, cutting deep dimples into his cheeks. “I was going to ask you. You’re awful quiet today.” Luz’s grin slipped and she looked out the windshield. “It’s Abuela,” she said, referring to her grandmother. In her mind’s eye she saw Abuela as she was early that morning. She hadn’t been in the kitchen humming over the stove as usual. Luz had searched and found Abuela shivering outdoors in the damp chill, her nightgown billowing at her ankles and her long, white hair streaming tangled down her back. She’d stood motionless, like a stone statue in the garden. “What’s the matter with her?” “I’m worried about her,” she said, and immediately his gaze sharpened with concern. “She wasn’t herself this morning. She seemed so distracted and her face was chalky and tired, like she didn’t sleep a wink. I know she’s upset about something but she won’t talk about it.” Sully’s dark brows immediately gathered over a frown. “Maybe I should drive her to the doctor.” Luz’s heart softened. Sully loved Abuela and in turn, Abuela doted on her granddaughter’s tall and tender-hearted boyfriend. The two shared a bond that endeared Sully to Luz. Abuela was always asking Sully to drive her to the grocery store or the mall or to pick something up because they didn’t have a car. Sully was gallant and never refused her. In exchange, Abuela invited him to dinner regularly, knowing he lived alone, and always had a bag of leftovers or cake for him to take home. “I don’t think it’s her health,” Luz replied. “Something happened yesterday.” “What?” he asked, and shifted the gear to Park. The big engine rumbled loudly, rocking them gently, and Luz could at last confess the worries she’d carried all day. “When I came home from work yesterday she was on the phone. But she got off real quick when I came in, like she didn’t want me to overhear. When I asked her who it was she said it was my tía Maria, but she wouldn’t look at me, and her look was kind of guilty, you know the kind I mean? She just went out to her workroom and began sweeping. I tried to find out what happened but Abuela brushed me off, saying we’d talk about it later.” “Sounds like it was just a fight.” “Maybe. Abuela and my aunt are always fighting about something. But this was different. It’s big, whatever it is. I’ve never seen Abuela so . . .” She stumbled for a word, trying to put a name to the sullen expression she’d seen in Abuela’s eyes. “Upset?”
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
“Worse. Shaken.” She saw Abuela’s face again, so pale and drawn, and unbuckled her seat belt. “I better go in and check on her.” Luz moved to leave but Sully tugged at her elbow, holding her back. “Uh, Luz,” he began, and cleared his throat. “There’s something I should tell you.” Luz heard the seriousness in his tone and she grew alert. She settled back against the cushion. “Okay.” “You know how your grandmother asks me to run a few errands for her?” “Yeah.” “Well, for a while now she’s been asking me to go to the pharmacy to pick up her medicine.” “Her medicine? What medicine?” Luz asked, alarmed. She hadn’t known Abuela was taking any prescriptions and was seized with a sudden fear. Her grandmother was her world. After her mother died when Luz was only five, Abuela had raised her singlehandedly, giving Luz the only home she knew. “She never told me she was taking medicine. Sully, if anything ever happened to her, I don’t know what I’d do. I can’t even think about it without getting teary-eyed.” “See? That’s why she didn’t want you to know. She asked me not to tell you, but you’re worried about her, and well, I thought you should know.” He looked at her anxiously. “I hate to break a promise.” Luz took a shaky breath and exhaled. “No, Sully, you did the right thing to tell me. Especially if . . . I won’t tell her I know.” She looked out anxiously at the house. “I better go in and check on her.” “Do you still want me to pick you up tonight? Maybe you should stay home.” She shook her head. “I’m probably making too big a thing out of all this. I’ll be ready.” Luz leaned in for a quick kiss, then climbed from the truck. She heard the sudden roar of the engine as Sully pulled away. A light rain chased her up the stairs to her front door. Her grandmother’s brown brick bungalow appeared dreary and dull from the outside, but once she was inside, the little house pulsed with life. Abuela’s vibrant spirit breathed in every brightly painted room. Metal and ceramic icons from Mexico hung on the walls and in a place of honor in the living room was a large, framed painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Luz set her purse down on the small tile-topped hall table. She heard sounds of children’s laughter and, lifting her nose, caught the unmistakable scent of maize. An involuntary smile eased across her face.
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
“I’m home!” she called out. “¡Aquí!” She followed the voice to the kitchen, where the rich smells of dark roasted coffee, maize, and cumin embraced her. A wooden bowl overflowed with limes, oranges, and the avocados Abuela adored. She told Luz tales of enormous aguacate trees growing on her family farm in Mexico, ripe with avocados she could pick by the bushel. Fragrant steam rose from a pot on the stove, rattling the lid. Abuela was surrounded by two girls and a boy around seven years of age. Looking up, Esperanza caught Luz’s eye, then with a quick smile she clapped her hands. “Time to go, mis niños! Your mothers will be calling you for dinner,” she sang, herding the children toward the door. “No, no, the butterflies are gone. They flew off to Mexico. Lo siento. I’m sorry. But don’t worry. They’ll be back in the spring, eh? Sí, sí, yo prometo.” Luz leaned against the doorframe, relieved to see her abuela back to her normal self. She crossed her arms and watched the hectic scene unfold. Abuela was called La Dama Mariposa, the Butterfly Lady, in the neighborhood because she raised butterflies. Monarchs in particular. For as long as Luz could remember there had always been children hovering near Abuela, especially during the summer, when the monarchs were bursting from chrysalises or being released into the garden. At last the door closed and Abuela turned to face Luz, clasping her hands tightly. Her dark eyes sparkled with mysterious excitement. “I have something to show you! A surprise!” Luz dropped her arms and straightened, alert. “A surprise? For me?” “For us! Come!” Abuela laughed with the enthusiasm of a child. She reached out to pull her black shawl from the back of a chair. Luz couldn’t help the ear-toear grin that spread across her face. She’d thought it was such a rainy, gloomy day, but now Abuela was laughing and talking about surprises. She laughed to herself as she followed Abuela outdoors. The rain had slowed to a faint drizzle, more a mist that fell soft on her face. She tucked her arm under Abuela’s as they made their way down the six cement steps to the front sidewalk. Abuela detoured across the short expanse of city grass to stop before an old Volkswagen Bug at the curb. Dropping Luz’s arm, she dug into her pocket. Her face beamed in triumph as she pulled out a key. “Surprise!”
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
Luz’s mouth slipped open in a gasp. “A car? ” “Come, take a look!” Abuela exclaimed, placing the key in her hand and nudging her toward the curb. “What do you think?” Words failed Luz as she took in the small burnt orange car at the curb. Abuela clasped her hands together near her breast. “You were surprised, right?” “Ah, yeah,” Luz sputtered. “I knew you would be. I could not wait to see your face.” Luz walked across the soggy soil closer to the car. Under the yellow glow of the streetlight, she could see that the old VW Bug had lived a hard life. Multiple small dents and spots of rust were like a pox across the faded orange metal. When she peeked in the window, everything looked more spindly and less plush than in newer cars. She shook her head, wondering to herself what surprised her more: that Abuela had actually bought a car, or that Abuela had somehow managed to unearth the ugliest, sorriest car on the planet. And yet, something about it was utterly vintage, and she had to admit she liked it. “You bought a car!” she said, and knew a moment of giddiness. Abuela cocked her head at Luz’s hesitation. “You wanted a car, right?” “Oh, yes,” she agreed with a shaky smile. She’d had a savings account for several years, just to buy a car, but it never seemed to get past a thousand dollars. “I wanted a car. But . . .” Luz bit her lip and hesitated. She didn’t want to appear ungrateful, yet niggling worries about money dampened the fire of her enthusiasm like the cold rain. Luz was frugal and knew to the penny how much—or how little—was in their family checking account and how much they currently owed on their credit card. Since she was the only one employed, the responsibility for paying those bills fell on her shoulders. How could Abuela just go out and buy a car? she wondered, feeling her shoulders stiffen. “So, what do you think?” “Abuela, where did you get the money for a car?” Abuela waved her hand in a scoff. “It’s not so much.” Luz looked at the ancient VW with dents in the fenders and patches of touched-up rust and hoped her sweet grandmother wasn’t fleeced. “How much did you pay?” Abuela sniffed and lifted her chin. “It isn’t polite to ask how much a gift cost. This does not concern you.”
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
“I’m sorry. But, Abuela, it does . . .” Luz took a deep breath. “Did you charge it on the credit card?” She had to ask. The credit card company had just raised its rates and she was already wondering how long it would take for her to pay it back. “No. I had money.” Luz’s brows rose. “You did? From where?” Abuela’s gaze diverted. “I have a secret place . . .” Luz imagined a sock filled with dollar bills, coins hidden in a coffee can. She suppressed a chuckle at her grandmother’s old-fashioned ways. “How much do you have?” Abuela put out her hands toward the car with pride. “Enough for this!” Luz struggled to find words that were respectful and wouldn’t hurt her grandmother’s feelings. But she had to be practical and think of their future. “Abuela, you know we’re cutting things close to the bone. We could’ve used the money to pay off our debt. Those interest rates are killing us. And besides, Sully always says buying a car is like buying a puppy. The purchase price is the cheap part.” Abuela tugged at the ends of her black crocheted shawl. “I thought maybe Sully could look at it.” There it was. Poor Sully, Luz thought. “That car is a beater. It might take more time than he has to offer.” Not to mention money that he’d never bill them for. “How many miles does it have?” “I don’t know.” “You don’t know? And you bought it?” “It is a good car. I can tell.” God help me, Luz thought. Abuela’s back straightened and her smile slipped. Once more Luz saw the cloak of anxious worry slip over her grandmother’s usually serene expression. Abuela clasped her small hands before her, like a woman in prayer, and when she spoke her voice was grave. “Luz, we need this car.” Luz felt the morning’s anxiety stir again. “Why?”
The Butterfly’s Daughter, Mary Alice Monroe
“We must go on a trip.” “A trip? Where?” “To San Antonio.” “Does this have to do with that phone call?” Abuela’s eyes widened with surprise that the phone call was mentioned, then her eyes shifted and after a pause, she delivered a quick, tentative nod. Luz thought as much. “Is there an emergency? Is Tía Maria sick?” “No. Not that.” “Then why the hurry?” “You must trust me, querida. We just have to go to San Antonio.” “Oh, Abuela . . .” Her grandmother had always planned to take Luz to visit her daughter and family in San Antonio. Unfortunately, money was always short and trips were as unrealized as Luz’s dreams. “I’d love to go. But right now, we just don’t have enough money.” It was the truth, but as soon as she said the words she saw Abuela’s face fall. “But if we’re careful and save our money, we can go next year.” Abuela clutched Luz’s hand. Her dark eyes flamed and her voice broke with emotion. “No, not next year. This year! Right away!” Luz rushed to wrap her arms around her grandmother. Abuela was barely five feet tall, slim in the shoulders and barrel-waisted. Luz was only four inches taller but she had to lean over her. Closing her eyes, she smelled in her hair the scents of corn and vanilla and all things safe and secure. “Okay, Abuelita,” she said reassuringly. “I’ll find a way, I promise. Don’t worry. I’ll get a second job. But let’s go inside now. It’s starting to rain again and you’re shivering. Your hands are like ice.” With one arm wrapped around Abuela’s shoulders she shepherded her back to the house. Luz didn’t know how she was going to keep her promise, but she’d figure that out later. Now she had to bring Abuela back inside, where it was warm. “I’m cold,” Abuela said. “I must go home.”
The Butterfly’s Daughter Reading Group Guide
Introduction In The Butterfly’s Daughter, four women embark on a journey of self-discovery that follows the monarch butterflies’ migration to Mexico. The story begins when Luz Avila’s grandmother, the local butterfly lady, purchases an old VW Bug for a road trip back home to Mexico. When she unexpectedly dies, Luz is inspired to take her abuela’s ashes home. Following her grandmother’s beloved butterflies, Luz meets a collection of women—each on a journey of her own. But nothing can prepare Luz for what she finds along the way. Rich with lyrical detail and insight, The Butterfly’s Daughter embraces the notion that life is more about the journey, than the destination. Topics & Questions for Discussion 1. The author writes, “The annual migration of the monarch is a phenomenal story—a miracle of instinct and survival.” Do you think this quote also applies to Luz and her friends’ journey? Where else in The Butterfly’s Daughter are there parallels between nature and the novel’s characters? 2. Before she dies, abuela tells Luz, “True courage comes from the heart. Tu corazón. Sometimes, it takes more courage not to jump and to stand strong.” Later, Luz wonders whether courage is “nothing more than taking wing and staying the course.” How do you define courage? 3. Abuela believed that “a monarch butterfly was the soul of the recently departed.” What kinds of myths or superstitions does your own family believe in? What kind of purpose do you think these beliefs serve? What did you think about Ofelia and Luz’s different interpretation of the use of Xochiquetzal in the creation myth? 4. Luz followed the butterflies to Mexico both literally and figuratively—often discovering a butterfly or some other kind of sign at the moment when she most needed help and guidance. What do you think these signs represent? Have you ever felt like you were receiving signs to aid you along your way? 5. Why do you think abuela lied to Luz about her mother’s death? Early in the novel the author writes that abuela “had told the story so many times over the years it was accepted as the truth—even by herself. Do you think she was right to lie, or should she have told Luz the truth from the beginning? Are lies of any kind acceptable in a family? 6. When Luz arrives in Texas and discovers that her mother, Mariposa, is still alive, she’s filled with a mix of emotions—hurt, anger, joy, betrayal, panic. She’s furious with Mariposa for leaving and disappointed that her mother is not the woman she’d
fantasized about. What do you think about Luz’s reaction to meeting her mother? Discuss how they ended the journey at the airport. Do you think that Luz and Mariposa will ultimately be able to have a mother/daughter relationship? 7. Margaret’s mother told her that she had to make her own luck, and this is one of the reasons she decides to join Luz on her journey. Do you agree that you make your own luck? 8. In The Butterfly’s Daughter the author shows both Mariposa’s struggles to turn her life around and the negative effects she’s had, whether intentional or unintentional, on the people in her life. Do you think she is ultimately a sympathetic character? 9. Once she arrives in Texas, Luz sees herself in the mirror and “marveled at how the changes she felt occurring inside herself were reflected outside as well.” In what ways does she mature internally? How did she most change? What was the most significant lesson she learned? 10. As they travel toward Mexico, Luz and her friends make an ofrenda for abuela with scraps that signify each woman—the baby booties Ofelia made, dried flowers, Stacie’s artwork. Discuss Mariposa’s opinion that Luz’s ofrenda was disrespectful. How do her actions reveal the breakdown of verbal and nonverbal communication between a mother and daughter? Was Luz’s fury a response to feeling disrespected, or to her feeling that she was neither seen nor heard by her mother? 11. During the course of their journey, many of the characters emerge from their own “cocoons”—Luz leaves behind her sheltered existence, Margaret breaks free of her own rigid boundaries, Ofelia ends an abusive relationship, and Mariposa lets go of her guilt. In what ways did the women help one another with their individual metamorphoses? 12. Mariposa visits her garden when she needs peace and strength, because it makes her feel “rooted to a profound source that connect[s] her to a greater whole.” Discuss different ways you find peace and strength when needed. Where else in The Butterfly’s Daughter do the characters turn to nature for healing? 13. In Mexico, Luz celebrates the Day of the Dead with her family. The family creates an altar to honor the departed and share stories of the deceased’s life. What similarities and differences do you see between this tradition and the way that other cultures honor their dead? 14. Mariposa asks Sam, “Why does everyone always think only of the butterfly as beautiful? It’s the change itself—the metamorphosis—that is the true wonder.” Do you agree? Discuss the notion that true beauty lives not in the final result but in the act of transformation. How does this relate to Luz’s journey and the discoveries she makes about herself? 15. A major theme of the novel is genetic memory. For the monarch butterfly, the fourth generation of monarch butterfly acts on instinct to make the journey. What traits and
similarities—physical and behavioral—were carried on in Luz’s family? In your own family?
Enhance Your Book Club 1. To learn more, visit Mary Alice Monroe’s website (www.maryalicemonroe.com) and the websites Monroe used to research monarchs: Journey North (www.Learner.org/jnorth) and Monarch Watch (www.MonarchWatch.org). 2. Invite members of your book club to build an ofrenda, an offering to someone you’ve loved and lost. Use different items that are significant to your relationship with that person or that remind you of him or her. 3. Bring elements of a Day of the Dead celebration into your book club by making some of the foods abuela made or incorporating some of the traditional customs. You can find recipes and suggestions at http://mexicanfood.about.com/od/history/a/dayofthedead.htm.
SKIPPING A BEAT:
Washington Square Press Paperback: 9781451609820 eBook: 9781451609837
“Sarah Pekkanen explores the impossible choice between true love and the trappings of success. She is masterful at creating nuanced, complex characters deadlocked with emotional conflict, and the story culminates in an ending that will leave readers breathless.”
—Jen Lancaster, author of Bitter is the New Black
Skipping a Beat: A Novel Author’s Note For me, ideas take shape gradually. I knew I wanted to write about a married couple forced to reexamine their relationship after the husband’s near-death experience, but other pieces of [Skipping a Beat]—like Noah’s character, the specifics of Michael’s company, and Julia’s love of opera—didn’t snap into place immediately. I think gearing up to write a book is like cooking soup on the back burner of your stove. Soup, like writing, works best if you swirl in a few ingredients and let it simmer for a long time (I’m sort of making this up, because I’m a terrible cook, but I’m pretty sure that’s how they do it on the Food Network). It’s actually more productive for me to open myself up to ideas by reading lots of newspapers and books, chatting with people, and daydreaming. Then I let my subconscious sort through ideas while I do things like grocery shop, do laundry, and walk the dog before sitting down to write. —Sarah Pekkanen We asked the authors what kind of food or drinks they would serve at a book club discussing their own book. Sarah Pekkanen suggests Sangria. Or rather Skipping Sangria. There’s a scene in my book where Julia and her best friend are sipping Sangria and talking about how it’s a beverage in the ‘aaah. . .’category (because of the sound it ends with). So how about Sangria? Skipping Sangria Ingredients
1 bottle of red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Rioja, Zinfandel, or Shiraz are recommended) 1 lemon, cut into wedges 1 orange, cut into wedges 1 lime, cut into wedges 1 small can of diced pineapple (with juice) 2 tablespoons sugar Splash of orange juice or lemonade 2 shots of gin or Triple Sec (optional) 4 cups ginger ale 1 cup of raspberries or strawberries (may use thawed or frozen)
Preparation Pour wine into a large pitcher and squeeze the juice from the lemon, orange, and lime wedges into the wine (leaving out seeds if possible). Toss in the fruit wedges and pineapple. Stir and add sugar, orange juice, and gin. If you can, chill your Sangria overnight, so the juices can marinate! If you’d like to serve right away, use chilled red wine and serve over ice. Add ginger ale, berries, and ice just before serving.
Skipping a Beat, Sarah Pekkanen
ONE When my husband, Michael, died for the first time, I was walking across a freshly waxed marble floor in three-inch Stuart Weitzman heels, balancing a tray of cupcakes in my shaking hands. Shaking because I’d overdosed on sugar—someone had to heroically step up and taste-test the cupcakes, after all—and not because I was worried about slipping and dropping the tray, even though these weren’t your run-of-the-mill Betty Crockers. These were molten chocolate and cayenne-pepper masterpieces, and each one was topped with a name scripted in edible gold leaf. Decadent cupcakes as place cards for the round tables encircling the ballroom—it was the kind of touch that kept me in brisk business as a party planner. Tonight, we’d raise half a million for the Washington, D.C., Opera Company. Maybe more, if the waiters kept topping off those wine and champagne glasses like I’d instructed them. “Julia!” I carefully set down the tray, then spun around to see the fretful face of the assistant florist who’d called my name. “The caterer wants to lower our centerpieces,” he wailed, agony practically oozing from his pores. I didn’t blame him. His boss, the head florist—a gruff little woman with more than a hint of a mustache—secretly scared me, too. “No one touches the flowers,” I said, trying to sound as tough as Clint Eastwood would, should he ever become ensconced in a brawl over the proper length of calla lilies. My cell phone rang and I reached for it, absently glancing at the caller ID. It was my husband, Michael. He’d texted me earlier to announce he was going on a business trip and would miss the birthday dinner my best friend was throwing for me later in the month. If Michael had a long-term mistress, it might be easier to compete, but his company gyrated and beckoned in his mind more enticingly than any strategically oiled Victoria’s Secret model. I’d long ago resigned myself to the fact that work had replaced me as Michael’s true love. I ignored the call and dropped the phone back into my pocket. Later, of course, I’d realize it wasn’t Michael phoning but his personal assistant, Kate. By then, my husband had stood up from the head of the table in his company’s boardroom, opened his mouth to speak, and crashed to the carpeted floor. All in the same amount of time it took me to walk across a ballroom floor just a few miles away. The assistant florist raced off and was instantly replaced by a white-haired, grandfatherly looking security guard from the Little Jewelry Box.
Skipping a Beat, Sarah Pekkanen
“Miss?” he said politely. I silently thanked my oxygen facials and caramel highlights for his decision not to call me ma’am. I was about to turn thirtyfive, which meant I wouldn’t be able to hide from the liverspotted hands of ma’am-dom forever, but I’d valiantly dodge their bony grasp for as long as possible. “Where would you like these?” the guard asked, indicating the dozen or so rectangular boxes he was carrying on a tray draped in black velvet. The boxes were wrapped in a shade of silver that exactly matched the gun nestled against his ample hip. “On the display table just inside the front door, please,” I instructed him. “People need to see them as soon as they walk in.” People would bid tens of thousands of dollars to win a surprise bauble, if only to show everyone else that they could. The guard was probably a retired policeman, trying to earn money to supplement his pension, and I knew he’d been ordered to keep those boxes in his sight all night long. “Can I get you anything? Maybe some coffee?” I offered. “Better not,” he said with a wry smile. The poor guy probably wasn’t drinking anything because the jewelry store wouldn’t even let him take a bathroom break. I made a mental note to pack up a few dinners for him to bring home. My BlackBerry vibrated just as I began placing the cupcakes around the head table and mentally debating the sticky problem of the video game guru who looked and acted like a thirteen-yearold overdue for his next dose of Ritalin. I’d sandwich him between a female U.S. senator and a co-owner of the Washington Blazes professional basketball team, I decided. They were both tall; they could talk over the techie’s head. At that moment, a dozen executives were leaping up from their leather chairs to cluster around Michael’s limp body. They were all shouting at each other to call 911—this crowd was used to giving orders, not taking them—and demanding that someone perform CPR. As I stood in the middle of the ballroom, smoothing out a crease on a white linen napkin and inhaling the sweet scent of lilies, the worst news I could possibly imagine was being delivered by a baby-faced representative from the D.C. Opera Company. “Melanie has a sore throat,” he announced somberly. I sank into a chair with a sigh and wiggled my tired feet out of my shoes. Perfect. Melanie was the star soprano who was scheduled to sing a selection from Orfeo ed Euridice tonight. If those overflowing wineglasses didn’t get checkbooks whipped out of pockets, Melanie’s soaring, lyrical voice definitely would. I desperately needed Melanie tonight.
Skipping a Beat, Sarah Pekkanen
“Where is she?” I demanded. “In a room at the Mayflower Hotel,” the opera rep said. “Oh, crap! Who booked her a room?” “Um . . . me,” he said. “Is that a prob—” “Get her a suite,” I interrupted. “The biggest one they have.” “Why?” he asked, his snub nose wrinkling in confusion. “How will that help her get better?” “What was your name again?” I asked. “Patrick Riley.” Figures; put a four-leaf clover in his lapel and he could’ve been the poster boy for Welcome to Ireland! “And Patrick, how long have you been working for the opera company?” I asked gently. “Three weeks,” he admitted. “Just trust me on this.” Melanie required drama the way the rest of us needed water. If I hydrated her with a big scene now, Melanie might miraculously rally and forgo a big scene tonight. “Send over a warm-mist humidifier,” I continued as Patrick whipped out a notebook and scribbled away, diligent as a cub reporter chasing his big break. “No, two! Get her lozenges, chamomile tea with honey, whatever you can think of. Buy out CVS. If Melanie wants a lymphatic massage, have the hotel concierge arrange it immediately. Here—” I pulled out my BlackBerry and scrolled down to the name of my private doctor. “Call Dr. Rushman. If he can’t make it over there, have him send someone who can.” Dr. Rushman would make it, I was sure. He’d drop whatever he was doing if he knew I needed him. He was the personal physician for the Washington Blazes basketball team. My husband, Michael, was another one of the team’s co-owners. “Got it,” Patrick said. He glanced down at my feet, turned bright red, and scampered away. Must’ve been my toe cleavage; it tends to have that effect on men.
Skipping a Beat, Sarah Pekkanen
I finished placing the final cupcake before checking my messages. By the time I read the frantic e-mails from Kate, who was trying to find out if Michael had any recently diagnosed illnesses like epilepsy or diabetes that we’d been keeping secret, it was already over. While Armani-clad executives clustered around my husband, Bob the mail-room guy took one look at the scene and sped down the hallway, white envelopes scattering like confetti behind him. He sprinted to the receptionist’s desk and found the portable defibrillator my husband’s company had purchased just six months earlier. Then he raced back, ripped open Michael’s shirt, put his ear to Michael’s chest to confirm that my husband’s heart had stopped beating, and applied the sticky patches to Michael’s chest. “Analyzing . . . ,” said the machine’s electronic voice. “Shock advisable.” The Italian opera Orfeo ed Euridice is a love story. In it, Euridice dies and her grieving husband travels to the Underworldto try to bring her back to life. Melanie the soprano was scheduled to sing the heartbreaking aria that comes as Euridice is suspended between the twin worlds of Death and Life. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that Euridice’s aria was playing in my head as Bob the mail-room guy bent over my husband’s body, shocking Michael’s heart until it finally began beating again. Because sometimes, it seems to me as if all of the big moments in my life can be traced back to the gorgeous, timeworn stories of opera. Four minutes and eight seconds. That’s how long my husband, Michael Dunhill, was dead. Four minutes and eight seconds. That’s how long it took for my husband to become a complete stranger to me.
Skipping a Beat: A Novel Reading Group Guide Introduction What would you do if your husband suddenly wanted to rewrite the rules of your relationship? Julia and Michael met as high school students in their small, poverty-‐stricken West Virginia town. Both products of difficult childhoods—Julia’s father is a compulsive gambler and Michael’s mother abandoned his family when he was a young boy—they find a sense of safety and mutual understanding in each other. Shortly after graduation they flee West Virginia to start afresh. Now thirty-‐somethings, they are living a rarefied life in their multimillion-‐dollar Washington, D.C., home. From the outside it all looks perfect—Julia has become a highly sought-‐after party planner, while Michael has launched a wildly successful flavored water company worth $70 million. But one day Michael stands up at the head of the table in his company’s boardroom—then silently crashes to the floor. More than four minutes later, a portable defibrillator manages to jump-‐start his heart. Yet what happened to Michael during those lost minutes forever changes him. Money is meaningless to him now—and he wants to give it all away to charity. A prenuptial agreement that Julia insisted upon back when Michael’s company was still struggling means she has no claim to his fortune, and now she must decide: Should she walk away from the man she once adored, but who truthfully became a stranger to her long before his near-‐ death experience—or should she give in to her husband’s pleas for a second chance and a promise of a poorer but happier life? Topics & Questions for Discussion 1. When a teenaged Julie asks Mike where he sits in class, he responds, “I’m right behind you, Julie. I always have been.” Does this statement remain accurate for their entire relationship? 2. Why is Julia so reluctant to hear about Michael’s near-‐death experience? 3. “I had no doubt Michael would be successful, but as much as I loved him, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t bring myself to gamble on him.” Why does Julia feel this way? Why does she insist on a prenuptial agreement? 4. When Michael leaves Julia a card telling her that he loves her, she crumples it in her hand and thinks, “I wanted to hurt him. He was ruining everything.” Considering how unhappy she is in their marriage, what exactly is Michael ruining?
5. How did her parents’ relationship affect the one she shares with Michael? Does Julia trust anyone? 6. Michael is often described as jittery. Why does he seem to never stay still for very long? 7. Michael senses that he doesn’t have much time left. Does Julia believe him? Why does she have nightmares that she is losing him? 8. Throughout the novel, Julia frequently mentions her favorite operas. Why are they so important to her? 9. What significance do you see in Noah’s restaurant riddle? 10. Michael frequently laments that success changed him for the worse, from taking risks with the exploding glass bottles to the “Let’s see you bastards ignore me now” checks for his family to Scott’s law-‐suit and the many other examples of hush money. Do you agree that money changed him? Was he always a good man, or did power truly corrupt him? 11. What do you think the future holds for Isabelle and Beth? Will they stay in touch? 12. “‘I never went with you to visit your mother.’ This was what Michael and I had been heading toward ever since he’d fallen to that conference room floor, I realized.” Why is it so important for both of them to visit Julia’s mother? 13. Why does Julia confess her affair to Michael? Why had they never discussed Michael’s assumed affair? 14. What does giving her jewelry to Michael symbolize? Does this decision mean that Julia wants to stay married? 15. At the novel’s end, why does Julia return to her father’s house? Does she forgive him? 16. Discuss how things could have been different if Michael had never collapsed in the conference room. Would he still be married to Julia? Enhance Your Book Club 1. Did Noah’s riddle stump you? Challenge your fellow book club members with your favorite head-‐scratchers and see who can solve the most!
2. At one point Julia contemplates the fate of Scarlett O’Hara, saying she’s protected herself so she’ll never have to make a dress out of drapes. Discuss which other famous literary characters Julia reminds you of, if any. 3. Michael feels confident that he only has a short time left. Discuss among yourselves what you would do if you knew you only had a few weeks left to live. 4. Julia is an opera enthusiast who frequently draws parallels between her own life and La Bohème, Arabella, and others. While discussing Skipping a Beat, play some of her favorite arias to discover why they’re so important to Julia. 5. Author Sarah Pekkanen has a significant online presence. Visit her website (www.sarahpekkanen.com/index.html) to read her bio, find out about upcoming events, and more. You can also follow her on Twitter (@sarahpekkanen) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/pages/Sarah-‐Pekkanen/215202723761). A Conversation with Sarah Pekkanen As the novel unfolds and the reader discovers more of Julia and Michael’s backstory, their perspective on the couple’s marriage might change. Why did you decide to structure Skipping a Beat in this manner? How did you decide when to reveal certain aspects of Julia and Michael’s relationship? As Skipping a Beat opens, Julia and Michael are thrust into a crisis, and it’s unclear whether their marriage will survive. In order to move forward, they also need to look back at the decisions and moments, both big and small, that shaped their relationship. So I wove in scenes from their past to show how complicated their life together has become, and to reveal why Julia feels so conflicted. But there are two sides to every story—so even though everything is unfolding from Julia’s point of view, it’s not necessarily the complete picture. She, like the readers, discovers how much more there is to the story of her marriage. When Julia is recalling her favorite parties, she remembers the affinity she felt for a woman who said, “How can I be eighty years old when I’m still a girl?” Of course you’re a safe distance from eighty, but do you ever relate to her statement of still being a little girl? Absolutely! I do feel young at heart and hope I always will. I saw a quote on one of those refrigerator magnets recently that said something like, “How old would you be if you didn’t know your age?” My age would probably be nine or ten.
If you believed you only had three weeks to live, how would you spend your remaining time? I didn’t have to think about this one for longer than a second—the answer is, with my family. I’d take photographs and film some moments, but mostly it would be cuddling and talking and storing up as much love as possible. You used to work as a journalist covering Capitol Hill. Do you have a favorite story from that era of your life? Probably the most memorable moment would be the time an elderly senator’s thumb and index finger made contact with my rear end as I got out of an elevator and he got into it. I’ve since learned I’m not the only one he pinched, but I laughed it off. He was a frail old guy, and if I’d exhaled vigorously, I could’ve blown him over. I’m proudest of my yearlong investigation into the tangled, highly illegal activities of a U.S. congresswoman from Detroit. I uncovered evidence that she set up a college scholarship fund for poor kids from her district, then used the donated money to go shopping. Not only did she get voted out of office, the Justice Department, House Ethics Committee, and Federal Election Commission launched simultaneous investigations as well. I’m so lucky that I get to dust off my old reporting skills as a fiction writer. For example, for Skipping a Beat, I interviewed the founder of the Honest Tea company to learn how my main character could invent a successful beverage company from scratch. Of course, as the head of my fictional company, Michael did some underhanded things—which is not at all the case for the very reputable Honest Tea company. Those scenes were purely imaginary, but I loved learning about the origins of the company and weaving realistic details into my book. How much of your own personality do you imbue in your heroines? Do you also celebrate your successes with chocolates and margaritas? I’ve heard that a writer’s “voice” is similar to her personality, and for me, that’s true. I love to laugh, so I try to inject humor into my novels, but I’m also sentimental. I cry easily, and sometimes I laugh so hard that I cry (causing my husband great confusion and the desire to go do something simple and manly, usually involving power tools). And no celebration would be complete without margaritas and chocolate! Even minor triumphs—like successfully navigating the pickup line at my kids’ school every day, or writing a line of dialogue—should be rewarded with chocolate. Lots of chocolate.
Did you learn something about your own marriage while writing Skipping a Beat? I tend to take on the emotions of the scenes I’m writing, so I learned I had to be careful not to snap at my husband when Julia was annoyed at Michael! I think marriages are so fascinating; no one really knows what goes on inside of them except for the two people involved. It seems like many marriages contain mini-‐marriages—times when the relationship goes through a high, then a low, emotional cycle. My own father says it best: When asked how long he and my mother have been married, he often replies, “Forty-‐five wonderful years. And three not-‐so-‐ good ones. And two really bad ones.” They’re about to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and they’ve never been happier. Julia notes that “Sometimes following the path that looked the safest was what led to the most hurt.” Do you feel the same way? Sure; if you don’t follow your heart, for example, but only do what others expect of you, that’s a powerful recipe for unhappiness. I think the things we regret most in life are the things we don’t do—the challenges we shy away from. For me personally, writing a book was a huge gamble. I knew I could make a decent salary and have some success as a freelance writer, but I couldn’t stop dreaming about writing a novel, even though there was no guarantee it would ever be published. On your website you list “writers [you] love,” such as Jennifer Weiner, Lisa Tucker, Emily Giffin, Jodi Picoult, and Marian Keyes. What have you learned from these women? So much! Especially Jennifer’s books. After I read them for pleasure, I go through them again to marvel at how she puts together scenes and develops characters. My husband once asked me if it took away from my reading enjoyment when I scrutinized books I love to uncover plotting secrets and the author’s use of elements like tension and character development. I said it actually increased my enjoyment—it’s like being an art history major and going to the Louvre. You just look at things differently. Have you ever met someone who claims to have had a near-‐death experience? Did it change them? How? What do you imagine happens to someone during that time? Yes, my maternal grandmother. During a near-‐death experience, she said she traveled through a tunnel, then was greeted by a sister who had died years earlier. My grandmother said the experience was wonderful, and not at all scary (and, incidentally, my grandmother, who was quite vain, said one of the best parts was how young and beautiful she felt). I wish my grandmother were still alive so I could ask her more about the experience. She told my mother about it right after it happened, and I’ve never forgotten it. I find it so comforting.
What message about marriage do you hope readers will take away from Skipping a Beat? I hope it doesn’t sound sappy, but the message is that love is the most important thing in this world. At a time when there are so many competing demands for our attention, and so many external stressors in life, it’s easy to lose sight of that.
WHERE THINGS COME BACK
John Corey Whaley
Atheneum Hardcover: 9781442413337 eBook: 9781442413351
In the summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year, a nominally depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. But as absurd as the town’s carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.
Where Things Come Back Author’s Note
Where Things Come Back is a novel about second chances. So, it makes sense that it would be inspired heavily by the reemergence of a thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker in Arkansas, right? But, it isn’t just about a bird. Actually, it has very little to do with the Lazarus Woodpecker. What the novel is really about is a teenage boy who just so happens to have been raised in a place he absolutely hates with a town full of people he’d rather not know. While I’ll admit that much of the story reflects my own teenage years in a small, southern town, the general idea behind Cullen Witter’s story came to me by accident. I’d heard a radio story about a singer, Sufjan Stevens, writing a song based on interviews about a small Arkansas town wherein, lo and behold, a woodpecker that had been declared extinct sixty years prior had allegedly been resurrected. This got me thinking about my own small town, which was in Louisiana, and how impossible I thought it was to exist and grow up in a place like that. I’ve always been interested in (some may say obsessed with) coming-of-age stories and I thought that, for the first time, I had a story idea that wasn’t just my own retelling of the typical teenage struggle to figure out life. I had an unspoken motto during my writing of the first draft: How does one grow up in an impossible world? When the town Cullen despises is flooded with strangers who are desperately searching for a lost species of woodpecker, Cullen’s world, which he barely understands in the first place, reaches its pinnacle of madness. And Cullen is supposed to decide what to do with the rest of his life under these ridiculous circumstances? Now add in a recently deceased cousin and a close younger brother whose sudden disappearance throws the lives of Cullen and his family into utter chaos. With this novel, I set out to write a story not only about the possibility of second chances, but about the people who crave them the most. —John Corey Whaley We asked the authors what kind of food or drinks they would serve at a book club discussing their own book. Below is the recipe for The Lazarus Mini-Burger (or really the Number 3 without cheese) from John Corey Whaley. Ingredients Bun o Baguette o Butter Patty o Ground meat of your choice (½ pound of extra-lean ground beef made 10 miniburgers)
o Garlic powder, black pepper, salt (all to taste) Spread o Ketchup o Mayonnaise o BBQ sauce
Preparation Cut a baguette horizontally into thin slices. Two slices per mini-burger. Butter one side of each baguette slice. Preheat a skillet to medium high. Place baguette slices butter side down and cook until golden. Brown one side only. This can also be done on the grill. You can also use spray oil. For the patty, season ground meat to taste. Form seasoned meat into patties the same size as your baguette slices. TIP: Sprinkle salt on patties just before grilling. The salt helps form that seared yummy-ness. On a hot grill, skillet, or griddle, cook patties. Patties cook extremely quickly. About two minutes total. To build your Lazarus mini-burgers, layer baguette with ketchup, mayonnaise, BBQ sauce, and patty. Top with another baguette slice and serve!
Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley Chapter 1 All the Idealism in the World Couldn’t Shake This Feeling I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body. It wasn’t my cousin Oslo’s. It was a woman who looked to have been around fifty or at least in her late forties. She didn’t have any visible bullet holes or scratches, cuts, or bruises, so I assumed that she had just died of some disease or something; her body barely hidden by the thin white sheet as it awaited its placement in the lockers. The second dead body I ever saw was my cousin Oslo’s. I recognized his dirty brown shoes immediately as the woman wearing the bright white coat grasped the metallic handle and yanked hard to slide the body out from the silvery wall. “That’s him,” I said to her. “You sure?” “Positive.” His eyes were closed. His lips purple. His arms had bruises and track marks. Nothing was hidden from view, as he had died in a sleeveless white T-shirt, one of the same he had worn nearly every day of his life. There was something white in the corners of his mouth, but I didn’t ask what it might be. I didn’t really say much after that. The woman waited there for me to cry or say “I’m done,” or something. But I didn’t do a thing. I just stared at him. And I’m not sure if I was thinking anything at that moment either. I wasn’t thinking about missing him or pitying him or even about how angry I was at him. I was just standing there like some ass-hat, mouth halfopen and eyes glued to one spot. Eventually the white coat woman broke the silence. “Do you need any more time?” she asked. “No thanks. I’m good.” My mother cried on the way home. My little brother, Gabriel, looked anxious, but he kept his headphones on and didn’t say much for the duration of our trip. I drove, but I didn’t want to because I thought it might rain. I hate driving in the rain. I’d wanted my dad to come along so I wouldn’t have to play man for the evening by driving the whole way and making sure everyone ate and all. I didn’t so much mind the body identifying. That part was bound to happen, one way or another. Oslo had been shooting shit into his arm since I could remember. He had also frequently been an inconvenience to me. Picking him up at truck stops or crack houses. Telling lies to his mom to cover up his dumb-ass behavior and save him an argument. Loaning him ten dollars here and there and hoping he would buy food with it, but knowing he probably wouldn’t. I did it all. We all did. Me. My dad. Even my aunt Julia gave him money so long as he showed up every other day or so, long enough to make her forget that she had failed to raise him right, long enough to make her love him again.
Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley My dad couldn’t come because he got a call around five thirty that afternoon to haul some oil well equipment up to Harrison. That’s what he does. He hauls things that I don’t know anything about and never really care to. All I know is that somebody needs these large pieces of metal that have something to do with pumping oil as soon as possible when they call him. And so he goes at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes he sits at the house for days, reading the paper or novels about deadpeople (because, apparently, men in their forties are only interested in reading about the lives of presidents, explorers, or criminals). Sometimes we don’t see him for two weeks at a time, only hear the sound of him switching trailers in the backyard at three in the morning or leaving messages on the machine to remind Mom to fill a prescription or pay the mortgage. When we got home from Little Rock, Dad was still gone and the kitchen light was the only thing we could see from the driveway. Gabriel had fallen asleep about twenty minutes before and Mom wasn’t far behind him. She leaned over and kissed the side of my head before she got out of the car and walked toward the house. Opening the back door, I kicked at the bottom of Gabriel’s shoe. He shot up quick and threw his arms up, as if someone were about to cut his throat. I looked at him the way you look at someone when you’re waiting for them to come to their senses—like you’re both frustrated with and feeling sorry for them—and then I helped him get his footing. I followed him into the house and Mom was already in his bedroom, already crying again as she talked to a half-asleep Aunt Julia. Soon there was one more crying voice, and Gabriel and I sat up on my bed and listened through the wall as Aunt Julia rambled on and on about wanting to die. Gabriel was asleep within minutes and the voices in the room next door had nearly gone silent. If they were still talking, they had decided to whisper, perhaps taking into consideration the two teenagers in the next room who had to get up and go to school the next day. Before lying down, I grabbed my leather-bound journal off the nightstand and turned to the first blank page I could find. I jotted down Oslo After Death. This would be a great title for a book, I thought. That is what I do sometimes. I jot down titles for books that I one day intend to write. Oslo After Death was #71. I closed the journal, turned off the lamp, and looked at my brother to make sure I hadn’t stirred him. He still slept, an impossibly sincere smile on his face. He had a habit of shutting out the world. Habits like this meant that he didn’t look up when he walked down the hallway at school. If you look up, then you can avoid being pushed or running into someone or being the convenient target for some ass-hat standing by the water fountain waiting intently for innocent-looking freshmen to walk by with their heads down. My problem was that I wasn’t big or tough enough to really protect or defend my little brother in any manner save for my sometimes creative use of sarcasm as distraction. Lucas Cader, though, was quite effective in staving off those common shitheads who liked to pick on Gabriel and his friends. I think, in a way, Lucas felt like it was part of his duty in the world to protect those kids. I’m glad, because it wasn’t mine. You see, Lucas had power. He walked down the hall and you noticed him. You noticed his six-two swimmer’s build and his messy brown hair that always looked like it was ready for a photo shoot. You noticed how he smiled at the pretty girls but always managed to
Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley say something nice or sweet to the not-so-pretty ones. Lucas was the only other guy besides Gabriel that I could stand to be around, simply for the fact that I just didn’t like guys all that much. I liked girls and women, but guys really put me off most of the time. Everything is a pissing contest with most guys. With Lucas, I could be my insecure shell of a man and not feel threatened. And Gabriel could walk down the hall and not risk having his backpack thrown into the trash can. And Elizabeth Strawn could feel good about herself for maybe the only time that day she had a huge zit on her cheek. Being seventeen and bored in a small town, I like to pretend sometimes that I’m a pessimist. This is the way it is and nothing can sway me from that. Life sucks most of the time. Everything is bullshit. High school sucks. You go to school, work for fifty years, then you die. Only I can’t seem to keep that up for too long before my natural urge to idealize goes into effect. I can’t seem to be a pessimist long enough to overlook the possibility of things being overwhelmingly good. But as I lay there in my bed that night with my brother asleep beside me, I couldn’t seem to muster up any sort of idealism. The phone call at three that afternoon. The drive to Little Rock. And then the revelation of death. It was all too real. Nothing idealistic about seeing your only cousin ghost white and stone dead. Not much to idealize when you know your aunt is crying herself to sleep next door and nothing can be done. Like most teenage boys, I, Cullen Witter, was in love with a beautiful girl who had a big, burly boyfriend who would just as soon kick my ass as look at me. His name was Russell Quitman, and I didn’t care too much for his brother or parents, either. But I sometimes dislike people by association. The girl’s name was Ada Taylor, and she could have probably kicked my ass too. (If you haven’t figured it out yet, just about everyone you know could probably kick my ass.) If you lived in Lily, Arkansas, which we all did, then you knew Ada, or at least knew about her. I’m pretty sure even some of the kids in Little Rock and Memphis heard stories about Lily’s own black widow. You see, Ada Taylor had a grim history. As a sophomore in high school, when I was just a freshman, Ada was dating this ass-hat by the name of Conner Bolton. Conner was a senior and made it his personal mission to make every freshman in the school terrified to be caught walking alone or near the bathrooms, lockers, or trash cans. But alas, he died before Christmas break in a car accident. Ada was the only other passenger. She walked away without a scratch. Then, the next year, Ada was dating this guy who I used to play G.I. Joes with on the floor of my mom’s hair salon. His name was Aaron Lancaster. He didn’t even make it to Thanksgiving before he up and drowned in the White River during a thunderstorm. His dad found his empty fishing boat. A search party found his body four days later. I heard it looked like he had been microwaved. After that, it almost seemed like a ridiculous thing to date Ada Taylor, or even go near her. But that didn’t matter much to the young men of Lily, even me. The unspoken philosophy of all those in love with Ada was something like this: If I have to die to get that, then death it is. But there we were with one week of school left and Russell Quitman was still breathing up all the air around him and taking up all the extra table space around him in the lunchroom with his
Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley monstrous biceps. I had bet Lucas that Russell wouldn’t last past Easter. That cost me ten bucks. You might think it sadistic to bet on an eighteen-year-old boy’s death or to talk about it like I wanted it to happen or something. This would just further prove that you’d never met Russell Quitman. Certain people are supposed to be the ones who burn up in fiery crashes or drown in the rapids of a river in the middle of the night. These are the Russell Quitmans of the world. Dr. Webb says that most people see the world in bubbles. This keeps them comfortable with their place and the places of others. What he means is that most people, in order to feel okay about who they are and where they stand in relation to others, automatically group everyone into stereotypical little bunches. This is why boys who don’t like sports or don’t have promiscuous sex are always called gay, people who make good grades without studying are always called nerds, and people who seem to have no worries in the world and have a little bit of money are always called preps. As a straight-A student who hated football, I fit into two of these bubbles. This left me with things like Post-it notes saying “Cullen Witter’s a fag” stuck to my locker and big black glasses being drawn onto my photo in everyone’s yearbooks. Dr. Webb also says that the only way of dealing with the close-minded nature of most southern-born, conservative-leaning people is to either completely ignore their ignorance or to perpetuate it by playing into the set of standards that they subconsciously hold for each particular bubble. In short, if I would have whined about being called a fag, then I would have just been called a fag more often. And if Sara Burch would have ignored the boys in fifth grade when they called her a bookworm, then she might not have become the glorified slut she is today. There are some, however, who seem to be immune to this epidemic of bubbles. They are people like Gabriel Witter, who is perhaps the most interesting person I’ve ever known, and I don’t say that just because he’s my brother. I say it because every morning since he turned eleven or so he would wake up before anyone else in the house, go out onto the porch, and read a chapter of a book. I say it because he listened to bands no one ever heard of. And he had amassed a collection of nearly fifty ties by the time he got into junior high, ties he wore to school every single day. I guess the most interesting thing about Gabriel was that he didn’t seem to care at all what people were thinking about him. He walked down the hallway at school with his head down not because he wanted to avoid being seen or dissuade social predators or anything, but simply because he didn’tsee any reason to lift up his head. It took me a while to get to the point where I would walk both down the middle of the hallway and with my head upright. Of course, walking beside or behind Lucas always made this much easier. Given the choice between looking at Cullen Witter and looking at Lucas Cader, anyone would choose the latter. I called Russell the Quit Man for two reasons. The first one was obvious, his last name. That’s a no-brainer. But the other reason I called him this was much more related to his character. It was because the most frequent thing heard when near Russell Quitman were the cries of whatever prey he was putting into a headlock or holding upside down or tripping in the hallway. “Quit, man. Quit!” How is it that Russell Quitman, the Quit Man, could be so cruel, such a huge douche bag, and still manage to go out with the prettiest girl in town? I call this the
Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley Pretty Paradox. Pretty girls always want guys who treat them, and most everyone else, like complete shit. It is perhaps one of the most baffling phenomena in history. Book Title #72: Good Things Happening to Bad People. I’m not sure why anything like the existence of the Quit Man or girls liking him surprised me in a place like Lily. Living in Lily, Arkansas, is sometimes like living in the land that time forgot. We do have things like Burger King and McDonald’s, and we even have a Walmart, but if you are looking for much more than that, you’ll just have to keep on driving through. Like most Arkansas towns, Lily does have an abundance of one thing: trees. Lily is all trees and dirt sliced into circles by curved roads. Lily is also water, though. The White River runs right along the edge of town and all the way across the state and over to the Mississippi. If you’ve never been to Lily, and I bet you haven’t, then you need to know that it is located almost exactly halfway between Little Rock and Memphis. There are 3,947 people, according to the faded green sign on the side of the road as you drive into town, and most of those people are complete ass-hats who tried and subsequently failed to leave this place behind.One unique thing about Lily is that, for a small town in the middle of nowhere, it seems to be a very clean, well-kept sort of place. Lily is the kind of place you’d like to move to some short time before you die. If at any other time in your life you think you need the peace and quiet of Lily, Arkansas, then you should either see a therapist or stay there for a week and try to find anything half-entertaining to do. Because I have few inner resources, I often found it very difficult to deal with the boredom brought on by living in Lily. My brother never seemed bored, and that only further angered me at the fact that I was most of the time unsettled and unfulfilled in everything I did. Gabriel was happy just reading a book or listening to music or walking around town with Libby Truett, his best friend. Well, I can only sit around listening to music or reading a book for so long before my mind starts to wander and picture images of Ada Taylor diving off Tilman’s Dock or flirting with the Quit Man outside of Burke’s Burger Box. On this particular day, two days after my trip to the morgue, I decided to call Lucas and see what he had planned. “I’m bored to death.” “Wanna go for a drive?” he asked immediately. “You driving?” “I’ll pick you up in five minutes.” If you had to put Lucas Cader in a bubble, and you might be one of those people who has to do such a thing, then he would fit right smack dab in the middle of the preps. Now, keep in mind
Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley that I hate hate hate using stereotypical terms like prep and preppie, but it is unavoidable. These were the words my people, as it were, used to describe those high schoolers who dressed nice, bathed regularly, drove a nice vehicle (or, in Lily, drove a vehicle at all that wasn’t their parents’), or were on the football team. Feel free to apply whatever term you yourself would use to refer to this group if you were in my place. Lucas wasn’t much like me at all. He played football, for one thing. For another, he had a girlfriend. Her name was Mena Prescott, and she reminded me of the redhead from The Breakfast Club. She also made me uncomfortable by always hugging on me or kissing my cheek, always doing something that I assume she thought I would find flattering or sexy, but instead just found annoying and offensive. I also hated her accent. I understand that everyone who lives anywhere can be expected to have an accent, especially those of us down here in the South, but honestly, hearing her voice made me ashamed to be human, much less southern. Here’s an example: “Hey, y’all! I went o-ver th-a-y-er la-yast wayeek.” Try saying that three times fast. Lucas pretended to love her as much as she thought he did. But it was all bull, really. As he pulled into my driveway, I let the screen door go with one finger and listened as it tap-taptapped on the door frame when it shut. The smell of cologne in Lucas’s car was overpowering. “Did you bathe in that shit?” I asked, waving my hand before my face. “How’s your aunt?” Lucas did this all the time. You would ask him a question, serious or not, and he would manage to skillfully deflect it by bringing up something very important and distracting, out of the blue, and your previous thoughts would be left in the dust, just as my house was as we sped down Eighth Street toward town. “She’s a little better. She’s eating now.” “And Gabe?” “Seems the same to me.” I thought about my answer. It seemed wrong in some way. “You know, he’s a good kid,” Lucas said. “I like him all right,” I joked. “I mean, you’ve got all these kids around here doing bad things. Getting into trouble and getting kicked out of school and all that mess. And then you’ve got Gabriel. He just sticks out, ya know? Like he’s better than this place or something. Know what I’m saying?” “Yeah,” I said. I did not know what he was saying. “I almost think of him as my little brother sometimes,” Lucas said in an oddly serious manner.
Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley
“Sell him to you for fifty bucks?” One could always tell when Lucas was doing that thing where he was lost in his own thoughts, as would often happen when the topic of brothers came up. His eyes would get this certain strength about them, like they were really focusing on what was in front of them. And his lips would purse a little like he was getting ready to whistle. And one could only be left to sit back and witness this spectacle, waiting to see if anything brilliant or cathartic would come about. Usually it all ended within a few minutes, when Lucas would realize that he had gotten himself into an awkward position and made others around him feel uncomfortable. Lucas Cader was not in the habit of making others feel anything but comforted. As soon as we pulled up to Burke’s Burger Box, Mena Prescott ran up to his car window, leaned inside, and kissed him on the cheek. Then she walked around to my side, knocked on the window, waited for me to roll it down, and kissed me on the cheek as well. As she climbed into the backseat, I wiped her saliva and lipstick off my face. “Did you really have to see his body, Cullen?” She began her questions before Lucas could roll the windows back up and pull out of the parking lot. “I really did,” I said blandly. Mena Prescott had a past that did not involve innocent, good-natured boys like Lucas. It did, however, involve my overdosed cousin Oslo. Let me sum up their relationship like this: They met at a party when she was a freshman and he was a senior. They made out, both drunk, and then ran into each other one week later at the grocery store. They dated off and on for several weeks before Mena realized, I presume, that Oslo Fouke was nothing more than a drug addict and a bum. That moment in the car would be the last time Mena Prescott would ever mention Oslo Fouke, at least around me anyway. When one is sitting in the passenger seat of his best friend’s car as an overly enthusiastic hillbilly is ranting in the backseat about being snubbed by a cheerleader at lunch, his mind begins to wander and think about zombies. Here’s the thing about zombies: They are supposed to be killed. You just have to do it. Humans are obligated to kill zombies, just as zombies have an obligation to seek out humans and feast on their flesh. It is for this reason that I was imagining Russell Quitman and his friend Neil as zombies, wreaking havoc on Lily and killing men, women, and children. They crept down Main Street, dragging their feet, each having one ankle completely limp and dangling behind him. A woman screamed from a store window. A car sped by and crashed into a nearby tree. The scene was a gruesome one until I arrived. Walking slowly and with much confidence, I approached the Quit Man and his minion with a shotgun in one hand and an ax in the other. After idly blowing off Neil’s slobbering head, I tossed the shotgun aside and double-gripped the ax. The Quit Man was upon me—his teeth more visible
Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley than anything else and his smell causing me to gag. I dug the ax into his leg. He fell to the ground, grasping at my pants as I tried to back away for a good, clean swing at him. I tripped, falling down beside him. Just as his teeth were about to pierce the flesh of my neck, his head was smashed in by a black boot. I looked up to see Lucas Cader, smiling and reaching a hand down. Crowds gathered around us and cheered loudly. The zombies had been defeated. “Lucas! Lucas! Lucas!” The sounds surrounded us as I reestablished my footing and scanned the crowd for my brother. He sat alone on the edge of the sidewalk. He had been crying. Lucas put his hand on my shoulder and whispered into my ear, “He’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine now.” Book Title #73: You May Feel a Slight Sting.
Where Things Come Back Reading Group Guide Topics & Questions for Discussion 1. The Book of Enoch, Gabriel, and the Fallen Angels are themes that tie together many of the main characters in complex ways. How do you view and interpret this element of the book—as it relates to specific characters’ lives, to the meaning of religion, and to the intelligence and potential of humankind? 2. Cabot Searcy takes on a mission he believes was Benton’s idea. Why do you think Cabot becomes so obsessed with the Book of Enoch? Was he crazy? A religious zealot? Or was he simply a misguided soul looking for his own second chance? 3. Over the course of the novel, Cullen exhibits cynicism, hope, idealism, and sometimes despair. Is he acting out the stages of grief over “losing” his brother, or is he simply a typical, unhappy teenager trying to figure out his life? Think of the other missing brothers and sons in the novel (Oslo, Lucas’s brother, Benton Sage)—what is the significance of these characters’ stories? How do they relate to the themes of desperation and second chances that are explored in the story? 4. Cullen has a very deep and loving connection with his brother, Gabriel. In what ways do Cullen and Gabriel appear to be a typical pair of teenage brothers? In what ways does their relationship strike you as unique or special? 5. Lily, Arkansas, is a town where things come back—both in a positive and negative sense. Discuss both sides of this theme and the implications for the town of Lily. Do you think that Cullen Witter will end up staying in Lily? 6. The author calls Where Things Come Back a book about second chances. What are some of the second chances that characters get in this novel? Specifically consider John Barling and Benton Sage, in addition to the main characters. Are they always successful? Do things always turn out as they hope? 7. What is the significance of the Lazarus woodpecker—the bird that caused such excitement in the town of Lily, but which never actually existed there? How can the Lazarus be interpreted symbolically? 8. The author describes many different kinds of love in this story: parental love, fraternal love, romantic love, and love for God. What does the novel say about each? 9. Consider the somewhat secondary female cast of Where Things Come Back—Ada Taylor, Alma Ember, and others—and their influence on the male characters of the story.
10. Cullen and Gabriel both find comfort in music throughout the novel. What is the significance of the various lyrics quoted within Cullen’s narrative, and how do they relate to the scenes in which they are used? 11. Consider the format of the novel and the movement of time: how we alternate between Cullen’s, Benton’s, and Cabot’s stories, and between first and third person narrators, until the storylines converge at the very end. How did the author’s approach to time affect your reading and comprehension of the novel? How did you anticipate that the various narrative threads would intersect or be resolved? 12. Discuss the quirks of Cullen’s voice—for example, his lists, his fantasies, his third person phrasing. How did Cullen’s voice influence your view of his story? How does it help us understand his mindset as the narrator? 13. Cullen keeps a running list of titles for books that he could write in the future. Consider your own life—both important events and inconsequential moments, like Cullen does. What are some titles that would fit your personal story? 14. Where Things Come Back is Cullen’s final title idea and becomes the title of this novel. What is the significance of this title being the final line of the book? What does it imply about what happens at the end of the novel?
Reading Group Tips and Resources A story is always better if you have someone to share it with. Enter the book club. It’s your place to meet with friends and talk books. Like stories themselves, book clubs are completely unique. Remember, there are no rules! Whether you are starting, joining, or refreshing your current book club, we hope these tips, reminders, hints, and resources help liven up the discussion. The Club If you are starting a new club, consider what kind of atmosphere you and your club want to cultivate. The tone of your group is just as important as the setting. Do you want your group to be more academic in nature or more lighthearted and social? Setting some ground rules for your meeting can help make the discussion and gathering run smoothly. Here are some questions to consider when forming your book club: • • • • • Do you want to designate leaders for you group discussions? If so, what will the group leader be in charge of? How often will the group meet? What time do you want to meet? Establishing a set time and date provides consistency. Where will you meet? Do you want to change the location of each group meeting? How big do you want your group to be? Usually, smaller groups (somewhere between 6 and 8 people) work best, because they allow everyone a chance to join in on the conversation. However, large groups allow for greater diversity. Why do you want to start a book club? What do you and your members hope to get out of your book club? What type of books do you want to read in your group? Do you want to focus on certain genres, bestsellers, or a specific theme? Or mix it up each month?
Getting the details straight will set the foundation for a long, prosperous, and chatty book group!
The Book So many books, so little time! Choosing books for your book club may seem like a daunting task, but don’t fret. You may want to consider selecting titles by genre or by a certain author or by theme—i.e., a specific time period, character, or setting. If you and your group are having trouble picking your next book selection, you could: • • Check the bestseller lists, from the weekly New York Times Book Review, to the IndieBound Bestseller list, to USA Today’s Best-Selling Books! Look up recent award-winning titles, such as the National Book Awards, the Man Booker Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN, the New York Times Best Books of the year, or the Orange Prize for fiction. Listen for recommendations—ask your coworkers, friends, local librarian, bookseller, or family members what they suggest reading next. You can get global recommendations by signing on to Twitter and following the #fridayreads conversation every Friday. Visit ReadingGroups.SimonandSchuster.com for new (and old favorite!) book club recommendations. And of course, try reading one of the titles featured in the Something to Read About sampler!
If you and your group still can’t agree on a pick, try some of these fun techniques: • • • • Have each member in your club bring a “top five” list of books to read to your first meeting and vote on the suggestions—the title with the most votes wins. Pay tribute to your playground days and simply take turns! Let the host or discussion leader choose the title or decide who gets to pick by order of birthdays, alphabetically, etc. Leave it up to book club chance—have each member write down the book they want to read, put it in a bowl, and draw your next selection. Seasonalize your book club choices—for instance, pick a title about African American heritage in honor of Black History month in February or read an Irish author in March for St. Patrick’s Day.
The Meeting Mapping out the meeting logistics will make the actual meeting all the more enjoyable. Here are some details to consider when planning your book club meeting: • • • Where will the group meet? Will you be serving food and drink? Do you want to establish a period of “social time” before starting the discussion?
If you want to change up the feel of your book club, try some of these meeting locations: • • • • • • • A restaurant or bar Your local library A coffee shop A park (weather permitting!) Your local bookstore A museum Your living room!
The Discussion You’ve read the book—now it is time to start talking! A lot of book group titles come with a set of questions for discussion. If the reading group guide is not included in the book itself, try visiting the publisher’s website to see if you can find the accompanying guide online. Consider sending out the discussion questions in advance, so all of the members will be prepared to chat it up. Included below are some ever-green questions that apply to any book and are guaranteed to jumpstart your conversation: • • • • • • • Describe the character development. Which character(s) did you identify with? Did your opinions about any of the characters change? How? What was the dialogue like? How do the characters speak to one another? What is the voice or tone like? How would you characterize the author’s use of language? Did the book’s characters, story, or style remind you of another book? If there was one thing you took away from the book, what was it? How would you sum up the book in one word? What is the significance of the title? How did the setting and time period influence the novel? Could the story have taken place anywhere else? Or at any other time? Did you have a favorite passage or quote from the book? If so, share it with your group.
If some members of your group are reading e-books, while some readers are reading print editions, getting on the same page (literally) may seem to be an issue when trying to reference page numbers and cite favorite parts. Not to worry! In most e-readers, you can search for occurrences of words and phrases. In most e-readers, page numbers are available in addition to the progress bar. Remember that the page numbering in a e-book depends on the size and font style of the text. Still looking for ways to enhance you book club meeting and to keep the discussion going? Try some of these tips: • • • • Have each member come up with an alternate title for the book. Go around the group and explain your new title choice. Start a blog or a Facebook page for your book club. Have members submit three questions by e-mail to the group host or leader prior to your meeting, creating an instant, personalized reading group guide. Make a book club recipe box! Have each member write their notes, questions,
thoughts, and opinions on a note card to save in a recipe box. • Get on the same page (literally)! Have each member read the same book and make different notations as you read. When it is your turn to read, you will also be reading your member’s notes and questions, creating a read-as-you-go book club experience. Bring the book to your meeting and discuss the experience of sharing one book and reading each other’s thoughts. Decide on one question that will be asked at each book club meeting. When you answer this staple question, be sure to discuss how your answer has changed since the last meeting and since the last title you read. Have each member select a character name out of a hat and act out a favorite passage in the book. Keep a book club log! Bring a notebook or journal to your book club get-together to keep track of the book read, what was discussed, your club rating, where your group met, what kind of wine was served, etc. Visit the author’s website to learn more about their background. Sometimes authors are available to call-in to book club meetings. Authors will also often provide contact information on their websites or on their publisher’s website. While inviting the author to your book group alters the discussion, it is a unique experience and one your group may want to consider. Check your local listings to see what authors are on tour and plan to attend a book-signing or reading as a group. Bring your book to life by taking a related field trip with your club members to someplace that echoes the theme or setting of your recent read—maybe it’s volunteering at an animal shelter, taking painting classes, or going on a bike ride! Food (of course) makes any gathering better. Consider cooking a recipe that ties into the subject of your book club pick or doing a potluck where each member brings in a favorite dish.
Most important, sit back, relax, and enjoy both the discussion and the company of your book club members.
The Extras The web is a great place to find book club resources. For more book club tips, suggestions, guides, and information, try visiting the following online, book-specific communities: • • • • • • • • ReadingGroupGuides.com Shelfari.com LibraryThing.com GoodReads.com BookMovement.com ReadingGroupChoices.com BookBrowse.com BookClubCookBook.com
Happy Book Clubbing!
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