Friday, November 17, 2017

The Far Away Brothers, by Lauren Markham

REVIEW:  This is a great book on multiple levels.   The author presented information in a non-judgmental way.  She did a great job of describing the individual, personal experience as well as the global viewpoint.  I personally learned a lot and also started to think about the immigration situation in the US in a different, more empathetic way.  I highly recommend this book!!  I think it is an important part of our immigration discussion.  I received a complimentary copy of the book for this review.  

El Salvador
Flores Family
Wilbur – father
Esperanza – mother
Ricardo – oldest child
Wilbur Jr. – went to California
Maricela – 2 children

Graciela – Wilbur’s half sister
Don Augustin – Uncle Augustin

Barrio 18

Cesar – father to Maricela’s 2nd baby


Wilbur Jr.
Gabby – girlfriend
Rosalinda – Gabby’s mother
Two children – Jose and Silvia

Sandra – helped boys across border

Oakland International High School (OIHS)
Mr. David – math teacher
Lauren Markham – author

Amy Allen – attorney

Sofia – Ernesto’s girlfriend
Isabella - daughter

For Discussion:
Note:  Page numbers are from hardback edition.

  1. Discuss the positive and negative influences of Facebook for the two brothers.
  2. Their family went into massive debt to send Ernesto and Raul to the United States.  What did you think about them spending money on shoes, jackets, etc. instead of sending more money home?  How was Wilbur able to pay off his debt and the twins were not?
  3. Discuss the sacrifices made by the families and others for Ernesto and Raul:
    1. The Flores family accrued massive debt and eventually had to sell some of their land.
    2. Wilbur Jr. put his own dreams on hold and risked being identified as undocumented to help his brothers.
    3. Sandra put herself at risk even though she had her own family.
  4. What did you think of the incident in chapter 8 when everyone was admiring a beetle and Ernesto stomped on it and killed it.   Is this related to the murder he witnessed on his journey to the United States?  How did that affect him?
  5. Was there anything that could have been done to help the boys stay in school and finish their education?
  6. Two different times in the book the author described how the boys felt inferior.  On page 190 (chapter 9) the boys felt “accused …of being nothing” and on page 213 (chapter 10) she wrote, “Living on the margins of a gentrifying city only underlined to Ernesto what the twins had been told and had fought during their whole lives; that they were less than, and that they didn’t, and shouldn’t expect to, belong.”  Can you understand their feelings?  Were there any way things could have been different?
  7. In the Afterword the author asks the question, “Concerning immigration, the questions we should be asking are: Why is Central America hemorrhaging people?  And what can be done to stop it at the source?” (page 268).  What do you think?
  8. How well did the author present the information without expressing her own opinion?
  9. Did you gain any new insights into the experiences of immigrants in America?
  10. How might you change things in America after reading this book? 
  11. Discuss your reading experience.  Did you like the way the book was organized with alternating sections of the story of the two brothers with more global information?
First Semester Success: Learning Strategies and Motivation for Your First Semester (or Any Semester) of College, by Dr. Arden B. Hamer, is available at, wordassociation,com and  Click on the upper right  link.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

At the Edge of the Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier

Black Swamp, OH 1838
California 1853-1856
James Goodenough
10 Children:
Robert - youngest
Martha – James’ favorite

John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed)

Hattie and John Day



William Lobb – plant collector from England

James Veitch – in England, nurseryman

Billie Lapham – owned sequoia grove
Nancy - wife

Molly Jones

Mrs. Dody Bienenstock – landlady

 For Discussion:

NOTE:  Page numbers are from the paperback edition.

  1. At the beginning of the novel there was a discussion of numbers.  James felt that keeping numbers and records comforted him and “made you feel in charge” (page 7).  On the other hand, “They bothered Sadie like wasps” (page 7).  How do you feel about numbers?
  2. How did you feel reading Sadie’s part of the narrative?  Did the lack of punctuation bother you?
  3. Were you able to understand both James and Sadie’s view of their life in Ohio?  Do you think it would have ever been possible for them to find common ground?
  4. Sadie kept hinting that Charles, James’ brother, was Robert’s father.  What did you think?  How would this make a difference?
  5. Molly and Robert thought of Calaveras Grove in two different ways – Molly thought it was about the people and Robert thought it was about nature.  What did you think?  Can it be both?

  1. When Molly asked Robert why he had never told her anything about his family, he said, “If I don’t tell people about it, I don’t have to think about it…” (page 238).   Molly replied, “Ain’t it better to be open about it?  Then at least you’re honest, so you don’t have it diggin’ at you, deep inside” (page 238).  Can you understand each point of view?  What are the positives and negatives of each?
  2. Molly told Robert, “You can choose to be different from your past” (page 280).   Do you agree?  Can we make that choice?
  3. Discuss Robert going so rapidly from his solitary life to living with Molly and Jimmy.   Were you able to relate?  Did the author do a good job describing his transition.
  4. Why do you think Molly was able to connect with Dody when she didn’t seem to connect with anyone else?
  5. Discuss the various characters.  What were their admirable qualities?  What did you find annoying?  Who would you want to be friends with? 
  6. Did this book help you appreciate nature?
  7. Discuss the author’s writing, the format of the book, and your reading experience.
First Semester Success: Learning Strategies and Motivation for Your First Semester (or Any Semester) of College, by Dr. Arden B. Hamer, is available at, and  Click on the upper right link.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Spokane Indian Reservation
Reardon High School
Arnold Spirit, “Junior”
Mary Runs Away – sister
Grandmother Spirit
Oscar - dog

Rowdy – best friend

Mr. P. – geometry teacher

Billionaire Ted
Earl – father

Roger the Giant – basketball player

Gordy – study partner

For Discussion:

NOTE: The page numbers are from the 2007 paperback edition.

  1. What is the meaning of the quote by W. B. Yeats at the beginning of the book, “There is another world, but it is in this one.”
  2. On page 5 the author compared reading words and pictures and wrote that words are unpredictable and limited and that people who speak another language than the one you wrote in will not be able to understand, “But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it.”   What did the pictures add to this book for you?
  3. Discuss the importance of best friends.  Arnold said that, “I think Rowdy might be the most important person in my life.  Maybe more important than my family.  Can your best friend be more important than your family?” (page 24).
  4. What did you think about Mr. P and his confession that the educational system was, “…supposed to make you give up being Indian” and that “We were trying to kill Indian culture” (page 35).
  5. When Arnold told Rowdy that he was leaving Wellpinit and going to Reardon to school, Rowdy reacted by becoming very angry and punched Arnold.  Is that an expected reaction?  Is there anything Arnold could have done to soften the announcement?
  6. Discuss the difference between Arnold feeling that he was betraying his tribe and his desire to improve himself.
  7. When Arnold first started at Reardon, Roger made a racist joke about Indians and Arnold punched him.   Arnold thought that incident may have been, “…the most important moment of my life.  Maybe I was telling the world that I was no longer a human target” (page 65).  What did you think of the incident?  What did Arnold learn from the incident?
  8. Were you surprised that Roger became a good friend to Arnold?  Why do you think this happened?
  9. Discuss the basketball game when the entire reservation turned their back on Arnold. Did you feel that the behavior of the people off the reservation was better than of those on the reservation?  Can you understand the motives of the reservation people?
  10. How important are our expectations of others and ourselves?  Playing basketball at Wellpinit, Arnold, “…wasn’t expected to be good so I wasn’t.  But in Reardon, my coach and the other players wanted me to be good…They expected me to be good.  And so I became good” (page 180).  How important are our expectations of ourselves and other people’s expectations of us?
  11. On page 189 the coach said to Arnold before the basketball game with Wellpinit that, “You can do it.”   Arnold reflected those were, “…the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together.”  Why was it so important for Arnold to hear those words?
  12. Discuss the character of Gordy.  How influential was he to Arnold’s success?
  13. What was the point of adding Billionaire Ted to the novel at Grandmother Spirit’s funeral?
  14. Rowdy was crying and told Arnold that he, Arnold, was responsible for Mary’s death (page 211).  How do you explain Rowdy’s feelings and actions?  Should Arnold feel responsible?
  15. Contrast the tribe’s actions (eating all food and getting drunk) and Rowdy’s (blaming Arnold and running away) treatment toward the grieving family with how Arnold felt when he returned to Reardon (“They were worried for me…I was important to them” [page 212].) 
  16. Arnold listed all of the tribes he belonged to including basketball players, bookworms, etc. (page 217). Did this enhance or diminish his membership in the tribe of Spokane Indians?
  17. How do you think a teenager would read this book compared to your reading as an adult?
  18. How were the Indians portrayed in this novel?  What problems were highlighted?  What positives were displayed?
  19. What messages do you think the author wants the reader to take from this novel?
First Semester Success: Learning Strategies and Motivation for Your First Semester (or Any Semester) of College, by Dr. Arden B. Hamer, is available at, and  Click  on  the upper right link.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Lauras, by Sara Taylor

REVIEW:  I have mixed thoughts about this book.  The author did an outstanding job presenting Alex’s conflict about gender roles and choices.  I thought it was very insightful that Ma and Alex had no conflict, it was the rest of the world that felt the need to assign everyone to a specific designation.  While the character of Ma was excellent in how she dealt with Alex’s sexuality, I thought she was irresponsible in the lifestyle she included Alex in, including changing school so often and extensive lack of supervision.  Keeping in mind that this is fiction and some rules can be bent, the story line at times seemed unrealistic.  (Of course, my background colored my reading.  This story may well resonate with others.)  All that said, I did enjoy my reading experience and wanted to keep reading to find out how everything was resolved.  In the end, isn’t that what we want in a book - to enjoy the reading experience and maybe gain some new or deeper understanding in the human experience?  This book fulfilled that expectation.  I received a complimentary copy of this book for this review.

Alex – 14 when novel begins

First Laura – friends with Ma, ages 9 – 12

Second Laura – group home in New Jersey, age 14

Third Laura – group home in PA, age 15

Man in car - molested Alex

Fletcher – owned Tattoo Parlor and club

Fourth Laura – artist, gave Ma Cadillac

Fifth Laura – Hood College, Maryland

Mr. Panagopoulos – Anthony’s grandfather
Anthony – from foster home, Ma sprinkled ashes in ocean
Deceased infant daughter

Margaret-Mary Rue
Anna-Maria – daughter, ran away with Ma’s help

Simon – met Alex when he was working at Cojones, drag club

Carla – Sixth Lara, Ma’s daughter given up for adoption when she was a teenager

Final Laura - Canada
West Virginia – waitress

Florida - waitressing in two bars

Harrison County, Mississippi

Texas – rescued Anna-Maria

Reno -bartending
Alex attacked at school


Canada – end of Ma’s Quest

Alex – back to Virginia to see father

 For discussion:

NOTE: Page numbers are from hardback edition.

  1. Did it bother you that the first three Laura’s were presented out of order (1st, 3rd, 2nd)?  Why do you think the author did that?
  2. In chapter VII (page 81-81), did you understand the explanation of why all the women in the stories Ma told Alex were all called Laura?
  3. In chapter VIII (page 93), Alex thought that “There were stories that she couldn’t tell.  Everyone has then; most people pretend that they’ve been forgotten.”  Do you think most people have hidden stories?
  4. What did you think about Ma dragging Alex with her on the Quest?  Did you wonder why she didn’t leave Alex with his father?
  5. Discuss the long-term effect on Alex of the molestation by the man in the car while Alex was hitchhiking home from sending a post card to the father (chapter V).
  6. In chapter XVIII there was a story about how the mother and father differed in their approach to Alex getting in trouble (Ma yelling and then Dad taking Alex for a ride to talk and buying a milkshake).  Was one more effective than the other?  Did they work well together?
  7. Discuss how you felt about Alex and Ma as their stories unraveled.  Did your thoughts and your sympathies change?
  8. In chapter XVIII Alex worked at Cojones, a drag club.  Should Ma have been more vigilant and allowed Alex to do this?
  9. Who did you think the final Laura in Canada was?  Any of the previous ones?
  10. Did the author do a good job describing Alex’s feelings of asexuality?  Was that important to the story?  As you were discussing or thinking about the book, did you have a hard time not referring to Alex as either “he” or “she?”
  11. Did the author do a good job of explaining and describing Ma’s and Alex’s restlessness?  Were you able to empathize with how they felt?  Given how young Alex was, do you think Ma should have been so permissive?
  12. The book dedication is, “To Laura, who left a hole in me.”   How did you interpret this?
  13. Could this story have been real?
First Semester Success: Learning Strategies and  Motivation for Your First Semester (or Any Semester) of College, by Dr. Arden B. Hamer, is available at, and   Click on the  upper right link.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult

NOTE:  One of my favorite quotes is “No two persons ever read the same book” by Edmund Wilson (1895-1971), a literary critic and writer.  My book group had a very interesting discussion about this book.  (We are all female, white, upper middle class and retired.)  The members who were nurses had trouble with the post-it note, saying that it was definitely against protocol in the hospitals where they had worked.   Another member was not able to finish the book because she found it too upsetting.  I have heard Peggy McIntosh speak (see the Bibliography) so had some previous experience with the idea of invisible racism.   I thought the book was extremely well written, important and addressed a topic that many people have not even considered.  It will be interesting to see how it is received by future generations.

Ruth Jefferson
Edison – son
Rachel >> Adisa – sister

Hollowell family – employed Ruth’s mother as a maid
Christine – daughter – childhood friend of Ruth’s

Turk Bauer – White Supremacist
Brittany – first wife
Davis – deceased infant
Tanner – Turk’s brother, killed in auto accident with black man
Francis Mitchum – Brittany’s father

Kennedy McQuarrie – Public Defender
Micah – husband
Violet – daughter

Wallace Mercy – TV host

Odette Lawton - prosecutor

Marie – Charge Nurse
Corinne – friend

Raine Tesco – introduce Turk to White Supremacist Group, later dropped out

Howard – new to Public Defenders Office, black

Roarke Matthews – Turk’s lawyer

Deborah – Turk’s second wife
Carys – daughter

Judge Thunder

 For Discussion

NOTE:  Page numbers are from the hardback edition.

  1. Discuss the significance of the title.  Was it appropriate?
  2. On page 49, Ruth thought that having a newborn and a teenager are similar because both are “…incapable of saying exactly what it is that’s causing pain.”  Do you think this is a good analogy?
  3. What did you think Ruth should have done when Davis stopped breathing?
  4. Should Marie or Corinne share some of the blame because they left Ruth alone with the baby?
  5. Compare Ruth’s and Kennedy’s account of their luncheon meeting.  Kennedy’s chapter is on pages 188-197 and Ruth’s on 198-204.
  6. Review Ruth’s explanation about how she feels in Kennedy’s chapter after Ruth’s statement in court (Pages 407-408).  For example, one thing Ruth says is that “But did you ever think our misfortune is directly related to your good fortune.”   Did the author do a good job of showing Ruth’s feelings?  Were you able to understand how she felt?
  7. Kennedy said on two different occasions that she doesn’t even see color.  Do you think this is realistic or possible?
  8. After their shopping trip when Kennedy and Ruth were sharing true confessions, Ruth stated that, “The reason we don’t talk about race is because we do not speak a common language” (page 265).  Do you think this is true?
  9. Discuss the different characters.   Which character would you like to talk to in real life?  What were their various points of view and how did they change, if at all, throughout the novel?  Did the author do a good job of showing each character’s views?  
  10. Was the ending and Brit’s discovery realistic?   Why would Brit’s father still pursue White Supremacy knowing about Brit’s mother?
  11. Did the book make you think of race differently?  Were there any specific events in the book that surprised you or made you think?
  12. Do you think the book would change anyone’s mind?
  13. Would you have read this book differently if the author was a different race instead of white?   Would readers of different races understand the book differently?
  14. How do you think this book will be discussed 20-30+ years from now?
First Semester Success: Learning Strategies and Motivation for Your First Semester (or Any Semester) of College, by Dr. Arden B. Hamer, is available at, and   Click on the upper right link.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende

NOTE:  This was an interesting book with a lot of story lines, so my discussion guide it quite long.  I think it will lead to great discussions!
Lark House
Families and others
Irina Bazili (Elisabeta) - aide

Hans Voigt – director

Lupita Farias - head of cleaning staff

Dr. Catherine Hope – 2nd level resident

Alma Mendel Belasco – 1st level resident, silk screen artist, Belasco Foundation, parents killed in WWII

Jacques Devine “Frenchie” - died and left estate to Irina

Lenny Beal – 1st level new resident

Larry (Alma’s son) and Doris
Seth – lawyer, author, Alma’s grandson
Pauline – lawyer, granddaughter

Lillian and Isaac Belasco – took in Alma during WWII
Daughters – Martha, Sarah
Son - Nathanial - married Alma

Samuel Mendel – Alma’s brother

Takao – gardener for Isaac Belasco, family interned during WWII
Heideko – wife, blossomed in internment camp
Charles – killed in war
James – arrested in camp
Ichimei – Alma’s life-long love

Delphine – Ichimei’s wife

Boyd Anderson – guard in internment camp, married Megumi

Ron Wilkin – FBI Agent, rescued Irina

Radmila and Jim Robyns – Irina’s mother and step-father

For discussion:
NOTE: Page numbers are from the paperback edition of the book.

  1. The author made many observations about the elderly.   Do you think she was correct?  For example:
    1. On page 31 she wrote “We want our loved ones to be safe, Seth.  But what they want for themselves is autonomy.”
    2. On page 7 and 8, Dr. Hope observed that, “The elderly are the most entertaining people in the world…They have lived a lot, say whatever they like, and couldn’t care less about other people’s opinion.”
    3. Page 13: “ …in itself age doesn’t make anyone better or wiser, but only accentuates what they have always been.”
    4. Page 60: Dr. Hope said she was content, “Because I have time to spare, and for the first time in my life nobody expects anything of me.  I don’t have to prove anything, I’m not rushing everywhere; each day is a gift I enjoy to the fullest.”
    5. Page 65: “However old one is, we need a goal in our lives.  It’s the best cure for many ills.”
  2. Do you think a place like Lark House exists?  Would you be willing to move there?
  3. One of the projects of the Belasco Foundation was to create green spaces in at-risk neighborhoods.  The Foundation felt that the green spaces transformed the neighborhood (page 23).  Is this realistic?
  4. Isaac Belasco felt that doing good deeds was important and said that, “there is only one aristocracy, that of decency, and that this was not inherited or bought with money or titles, but was only gained through good deeds” (page 71).
  5. When Alma first moved in with the Belasco’s she was very unhappy and cried every night.  Isaac stated that, “Childhood is a naturally unhappy period of our existence, Lillian.  It was Walt Disney who invented the notion that it has to be happy, simply to make money” (page 44).   Do you agree?
  6. On page 31, the story said that Alma’s personality changed in a matter of two hours after a nap.  What do you think happened to change Alma?
  7. Did you learn any facts or new insights about the Japanese internment during WWII?
  8. Discuss Irina.   Did you pick up any hints early in the novel that all was not as it seemed with her?  How did you think she should respond to Seth’s offers of marriage?
  9. On page 199, Irina starts a “Letting Go Group” because she saw that those with lots of possessions were more anxious than those with few possessions.  What did you think about this?
  10. Discuss Alma regarding the following descriptions and information.  Did any of them change your thinking about Alma? 
    1. Were you surprised when she did not want to marry Ichimei when she became pregnant?
    2. In self-reflection on page 232, Alma realized that, “her greatest prejudice was that of social class.”
    3. On page 252 she reflected that, “She never sacrificed herself for another person or an ideal: self-denial was not one of her virtues.”  How would Isaac react to this? (See #4)
  11. Was it realistic that both Nathaniel and Delphine both ignored or supported the love affair between their spouses?
  12. Were you surprised by the revelation of Nathaniel’s affair with Lenny?  Were you suspicious that there was more to Nathaniel’s story from the beginning?
  13. When Seth told Alma about his father’s observations of Ichimei, he said that he had a kind of an aura (202) and that he could control his pulse and temperature (202).  What did you make of these observations?
  14. What did Samuel’s story add to the novel?
  15. Discuss your reading experience.   What were you thinking and anticipating as you were reading?
First Semester Success: Learning Strategies and  Motivation for Your First Semester (or Any Semester) of College, by Dr. Arden B. Hamer, is available at, and  Click on the upper right link.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Wildflower Hill, by Kimberly Freeman

1920s – 1960s
Beattie Blaxtant-Hunter
Henry MacConnell – lover, common-law husband
Lucy – daughter

Cora - friend

Molly – Henry’s wife

Beattie’s father – fired professor of natural philosophy
Mother – ill

Margaret Day

Doris Penny – neighbor

Tilly and Frank Harrow – general store owners

Wildflower Hill:
Charlie Harris – Aborigine
Mikhail – driver, married Catherine
Alice – housekeeper
Raphel Blanchard – original owner
Terry – farm manager
Leo Sampson - lawyer
Emma Blaxtant-Hunter
Nana Beattie
Ray – grandfather, Beattie’s husband
Louise Blaxtant – Hunter – mother
Uncle Mike

Adelaide – personal assistant

Wildflower Hill:
Monica Taylor
Penelope Sykes – Historical Society

Jimmy Farquhar – owned adjacent farm

Hollyhocks – dance troupe
Mina Carter
Raymond Carter – Mina’s father

 For discussion:
Note: Page numbers are from the paperback 2011 edition.

  1. When Beattie left Henry and escaped to Tasmania, was Margaret Day’s immediate kindness realistic?
  2. What motivation drove the various characters?  Margaret?  Molly? 
  3. Discuss Beattie’s and Molly’s relationship concerning Lucy.   Was there anything that could be done to make it better?
  4. Later in her life, do you think Beattie should have told Ray about Lucy and her previous life?
  5. Discuss the choices the different characters made.  Did they really have a choice?  Is there anything they could have done differently?  Consider Henry and Beattie moving with Lucy, Beattie leaving Henry, Henry reuniting with Molly and taking Lucy, Lucy telling Beattie not to contact her, the townspeople’s reaction to Beattie?
  6. Given the historical time period, were people’s actions regarding Charlie and Beattie understandable? 
  7. Could you understand Mina’s father’s actions and his resistance to attending the ballet performance?
  8. The cover of my edition showed a picture of a young girl from the shoulders down and wildflowers at the bottom.   What do you think an appropriate cover for this book would be?
  9. My edition included an interview with the author.  The final question was about what happened to Emma and Lucy after the story ends.  The author responded that she had no plans for a sequel and wrote the following in a reader’s book who was upset that the ending was open-ended, “And Lucy took Emma inside and loved her to pieces.”   Do you think this is what happened?  Why or why not?
First Semester Success: Learning Strategies and Motivation for Your First Semester (or Any Semester) of College, by Dr. Arden B. Hamer, is available at, and  Click on the upper right link.