DEAD END GENE POOL Discussion with author Wendy Burden!

Hello, readers!

Tonight we are privileged to welcome Wendy Burden, author of DEAD END GENE POOL, to our Spring Reading Series discussion.  She will be here “live” participating in our discussion and answering questions for one hour beginning at 5 pm PST (8 pm EST) in the comments section of this post.

The conversation got going in this post, where I posed some discussion questions for everyone and asked for questions for Wendy.

I’ve been gathering your questions for Wendy and of course would welcome more.  Here’s what we have so far:

Here’s a comment from Lisa at Lit and Life, followed by a question from me:

One thing I found really interesting was how Wendy’s grandmother just threw money away in some ways (like buying prescription eyeglasses and then just tucking them away in a drawer) but was so tight with money in other ways (like stiffing the cabbies).    Any idea why she was that way?

From Nancy at Bookfoolery and Babble:

I’m curious who is on the cover of the book. Wendy’s mother or grandmother?

From Gaby at Starting Fresh:

Wendy comes across as so witty, intelligent, and spirited in the book.  Is she willing to tell us more about her life after the book ended?  We know that she’s owned and been a chef at Chez Wendy, but who did she marry?  Why did she decide to live in Oregon?  How is she raising her children?  How does she fill her days (aside from writing and touring)?

So many of us dream of money to become financially independent, have the mortgages paid off, take any job that we want, etc.  How has she chosen to shape her life and what makes her happy?  What would a perfect day for her be like?

Who does she like to read?  What is she reading now?

From Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza:

Is your irreverant, and often hilarious sense of humour, a way of covering up any pain you experienced in your unconventional upbringing?

From reader Vance Lancaster:

1. How much wealth was left when your grandparents died and how was it distributed? Did the fact that your brother was a co-executor of the estate affect the distribution or cause any problems?

2. What happened to each of the homes owned by your grandparents? Are they still standing? If so, do you know who owns them now and have you ever re-visited them?

3. I assume that most of your grandparent’s art collection went to MOMA. Was any great art left to you or your brothers or to your uncle? If so can you tell us who got what?

4. What is your most cherished item left to you by your grandparents? Is there anything that you coveted that went to someone else?

5. I understand that one of your uncles is alive and living in CT. Are you in contact with him? Can you describe his life today? Do you know if he has read the book and, if so, what was his reaction?

She'll be here for our discussion-ask her anything!

6. At the end of the book, you discover that Charles Thomas, your mom’s lover, contrary to what your mother told you is still alive. Have you made any attempt to contact him or has he reached out to you since the book was published? Have others that knew your mother or grandparents reacted strongly to the book?

7. Are your mother’s ex-husbands alive and are you in contact with them?

8. I understand that you have two daughters. Are their lives, in any way, similar to yours with your siblings. Do you recognize any of the traits of your relatives in them?

Edited to add:

From Ash at English Major Junkfood:

Did you write these as individual essays and then pull them together for a book, or did you know when you were writing that you wanted this to be a cohesive memoir?

Come by tonight at 5 pm PST (8 pm EST) to say hi to Wendy and see how she answers our questions!  Hope to see you then!

Spring Reading Series: DEAD END GENE POOL Discussion Questions

Hello Spring Readers!

This month we’re reading Dead End Gene Pool, a memoir by Wendy Burden, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt which, according to her website, ‘qualifies her to comment freely on the downward spiral of the blue blood families.’ For anyone interested in the super-rich, this is a fascinating and witty account of growing up surrounded by tremendous wealth, but it’s also a tragic tale of family dysfunction and parental neglect.

We are so fortunate to have Wendy joining us in real time, right here at Books on the Brain, on May 18th at 5 pm PST. If you’ve read Dead End Gene Pool or are curious about it, please mark your calendars and join us as we discuss the book with Wendy!

Here is a synopsis of the book, followed by a few discussion questions:

For generations the Burdens were one of the wealthiest families in New York, thanks to the inherited fortune of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt. By 1955, the year of Wendy’s birth, the Burden’s had become a clan of overfunded, quirky and brainy, steadfastly chauvinistic, and ultimately doomed bluebloods on the verge of financial and moral decline-and were rarely seen not holding a drink. In Dead End Gene Pool, Wendy invites readers to meet her tragically flawed family, including an uncle with a fondness for Hitler, a grandfather who believes you can never have enough household staff, and a remarkably flatulent grandmother.

At the heart of the story is Wendy’s glamorous and aloof mother who, after her husband’s suicide, travels the world in search of the perfect sea and ski tan, leaving her three children in the care of a chain- smoking Scottish nanny, Fifth Avenue grandparents, and an assorted cast of long-suffering household servants (who Wendy and her brothers love to terrorize). Rife with humor, heartbreak, family intrigue, and booze, Dead End Gene Pool offers a glimpse into the fascinating world of old money and gives truth to an old maxim: The rich are different.

SO READERS- let’s get the discussion started! These are just a few questions to get you thinking- you don’t have to answer them all. Please feel free to add your own questions, and respond to each others answers, too.

1. What was your overall view of the book? Was it what you expected?

2. Were there parts of this book that were difficult to read?

3. What aspect of the book did you enjoy most?

4. In the synopsis it says that Dead End Gene Pool gives truth to an old maxim: The rich are different. The rich ARE different, but in what ways are they different? How are they the same?

5. Wendy’s grandparents placed a higher importance on her brother’s education than on hers. Have you experienced that type of inequity in your own family? If so, was the sibling relationship damaged as a result?

6. Do you think Wendy’s mother was essentially ‘bought off’ by the grandparents, bullied into making her children available to them for long stretches of time, over holidays, etc? Or was she just a really neglectful parent?

7. Who do you think was the most influential adult in Wendy’s childhood? In what way?

She'll be here for our discussion-ask her anything!

8. Wendy almost seemed to raise herself. How did she cope?

9. Often you hear about people who have come into money either through inheritance or the lottery, and blow through it really quickly. They sometimes find the money doesn’t make them any happier. Why do you think unearned money can be so difficult for people to manage?

10. What adjectives would you use to describe this book?

We can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Dead End Gene Pool. Thanks for reading along with us. And don’t forget to join us on May 18th for our discussion with Wendy!

Do you have questions for Wendy? Leave them here in the comments or email me with them and I will pass them along, for her to consider before our discussion.

Winter Reading Series: KEEPING THE FEAST Discussion Questions

Hello Winter Readers!

This month we’re reading Keeping the Feast by Paula Butturini, a beautiful and inspiring memoir of food, depression, marriage, and family that took us on a journey from the dinner table in her childhood home in Connecticut all the way to the open air markets in sun-drenched Italy.  We are so excited to have Paula here in real time answering any questions you might have on Monday, February 22, at 5 pm PST (which is my time zone- she lives overseas but will be in Washington, DC, on the day of our discussion).  If you’ve read Keeping the Feast, or are curious about it, please mark your calendars and join us as we discuss the book with Paula!

Here is a synopsis of the book, followed by a few discussion questions:

Keeping the Feast is a story of love, trauma, and the personal and marital healing that can come from a beautiful place and its simple traditions. It’s a memoir about what happens when tragedy and its psychological aftershocks strike a previously happy marriage and a couple must stubbornly fight to find its bearings. Most significantly, it is a book about the power of one of the most fundamental rituals – the daily sharing of food around a family table. Food — the growing, shopping, preparing, cooking, eating, talking, sharing and memory of it — becomes the symbol of a family’s innate desire to survive, to accept and even celebrate what falls its way.

SO READERS- let’s get the discussion started! These are just a few questions to get you thinking- you don’t have to answer them all. Please feel free to add your own questions, and respond to each others answers, too.

1. What was your overall view of the book?  Did you enjoy it?  Was it what you expected?

2.  Were there parts of this book that were difficult to read?

3.  What aspect of the book did you enjoy most?

4.  John and Paula’s marriage was brand new when tragedy struck.  It might have been easier to leave than stay, yet they got through it.  Would you have had the strength to stay, given the circumstances?

5.  What role do you think Rome and rituals played in their recovery?

6.  What role does food play in your family?  Do you live to eat or eat to live?

7.  While reading Keeping the Feast, did you ever get frustrated with Paula?  With John?

8.  Paula had firsthand experience with depression through her relationship with her mother before it overtook her husband.  Were you surprised that she handled her husband’s bouts with depression the way she did, given her history?

We can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Keeping the Feast. Thanks for reading along with us.  And don’t forget to join us on February 22nd for our discussion with Paula!

Book Club Tips for Author Chats

Stephanie at The Written Word is the one who got me started with blogging. My book club had an author chat with Laura Fitzgerald, author of Veil of Roses. Laura pointed me to The Written Word, where she’d done an interview with Stephanie. Several lengthy emails followed, and it got me thinking, maybe this is something I should try. I was so intrigued by the idea of blogging that I started my own blog a few days later, and here we are!

Stephanie has a book club, too, and they are preparing for their first “live” chat with an author. Since our book club has done three of these, she asked if I’d put together some tips for book clubs to use.

Author chats are a great way to add an interesting dimension to your book club meetings and gain a deeper understanding of the book you’ve read.  Many authors are willing to speak with book clubs via speaker phone, and they are surprisingly easy to arrange.   Most authors have websites, and usually they have contact information listed there.  Take a chance and send the author an email.  Let them know that your club has selected their book, when your meeting to discuss their book will take place, how many people are in your book club, and ask them if they would be willing to attend. If an author’s schedule doesn’t allow for a phone chat, they may still be willing to answer your club’s question via email.

Here are some tips for conducting an author chat with your book club.

1.  Read the book!  Seems obvious, but after speaking to a number of people in various book clubs, I’ve learned that many people view the club meeting as more of a social thing than an actual book club.  I’m always surprised to hear someone say that very little book discussion went on at their meeting.  While I’m all for being social, books are the reason for the club, right?  If you’re going to have an author in attendance, it’s important (and respectful) to read the book.

2.  Make your members aware of the chat.  Email the club members in advance to alert them to the author chat, and ask them to have their questions ready.

3.  Do your homework!  Read the author bio. on the book jacket, search the internet for any information or interviews you can find, know what else the author has written.

4.  Pick a discussion leader.  It’s good to have one person be the facilitator for the conversation with the author.  Everyone can chime in, but it’s good to have a point person so the chat doesn’t turn into a free for all.  Unless you like that sort of thing.

5.  Wait 30 minutes.  Plan to call the author about 30 minutes into your meeting, allowing time for everyone to get settled and get their food and drinks.  This is a good time for your discussion leader to compile a list of questions from everyone. Ideally, your club members will have questions in mind, because you alerted them in advance.

6.  Make sure your cell phone is working!  Is your battery charged?  Do you know how to use the speaker phone feature?

7.  Start off with a compliment.  Even if your group doesn’t love the book, you can always find something positive to say.  Praise before criticism!

8.  Go beyond basic questions about the book.

Here are some questions that you can ask of any author, regardless of what they’ve written:

Ask about the writing process.  How long did their book take to write?  To get published?

Does the author sit down at a desk to write for 8 hours a day, for example, or do they wait until the mood strikes?

Do they have an office?  What is it like?  Do they write in longhand?  On a laptop?  (The first draft of Brian Groh’s Summer People was written completely in longhand).

Who are their favorite authors? Who inspires them?

When did the author know he/she was a “real” writer?  At what point were they able to quit their day job? Was their family supportive?

Ask about the cover.  Did the author have any say in the design?  Is there more than one cover? (We were surprised to learn that Laura Fitzgerald had no say in the cover of her book, Veil of Roses. Luckily, she liked it!)

All of our authors were Target Bookmarked authors (Laura Fitzgerald/Veil of Roses, Jennie Shortridge/Eating Heaven, and Brian Groh/Summer People).  We asked what they were doing and how they felt when they found out they’d been selected by Target.  If the author you’re speaking with has won an award, you could ask how the award changed their lives.

Ask about character development.  How is this done?  Are characters based on real people?  Are events based on actual events?  (We found out through questions like these why Laura Fitzgerald/Veil of Roses writes under a pen name).

Had the author ever considered a different ending to the story?  If possible, would they go back and change anything?

Is a movie in the works?  (We learned that Jennie Shortridge’s Eating Heaven was optioned for a movie).

If they had a choice, what actor would they cast in the leading role?

And the question we usually ask last is:

What are you working on now?  (We learned Jennie Shortridge has a new book called Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe coming out May 2008).

The authors we’ve spoken with have been extremely gracious and kind, answering all our questions and giving insight into the writing process.  With a lively group and a little preparation, an author chat is really fun and could be the highlight of your book club year!  Give it a try!