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!

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Matrimony Giveaway

cover150x229Matrimony by Josh Henkin is a much read, reviewed, and revered book around the blogosphere. Josh is a great guy and an author that really understands and appreciates the time and effort we book bloggers put into our blogs and our reviews. He is so supportive of bloggers and has done a great job of marketing his book online. He is generous with his time, offering author chats (by phone and in person) to book clubs all over the country. He loooooves getting feedback on his book and sitting in on discussions!

Josh wrote a wonderful guest post for me last year about book clubs that really struck a nerve, judging from the dozens of comments and incoming links to that post. Josh encourages reading groups to think outside the box and choose titles that are a little different. He noticed that book clubs were making selections from the same 10 or 12 titles and missing out on some really interesting stuff by sticking to the tried and true. Josh, I want to thank you for that guest post, and for always providing a link to this blog whenever you refer to it.. whether that is with Shelf Awareness, Book Club Girl, Reading Group Guides, or various other interviews you’ve done. I really appreciate that! For more on Josh’s thoughts on book clubs, check out this article titled Author, Your Group is Calling, from The Philadelphia Enquirer.

So.. Matrimony. Have you read it? It’s about 2 couples: Julian and Mia, and Carter and Pilar. It’s about love and life and birth and death and everything in between. It was a 2007 New York Times Notable Book. A Book Sense Highlight Pick of the Year. A Borders Original Voices Selection. It’s quite the celebrated book!

Josh is offering an inscribed, paperback copy of his book to one lucky commenter! Just leave a comment by Thursday, February 19th. And since we’re just a couple days away from Valentine’s Day, I’d like you to finish this sentence: “Love is … “

Review: Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin is a calm, quiet novel without a lot of flash or fuss.  It’s strength lies in the writing. 

**WARNING!  SPOILERS AHEAD!  PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!!

What is this book about?  Well.. hmmm.  Matrimony is about marriage, sort of.  It’s more about friendship, college life, and writers. 

Two guys- Julian, who is rich, and Carter, at Graymont College thanks to a scholarship- are the most talented students in a writing workshop and soon become best friends, although money is always an issue between them.  Carter has a bit of a chip on his shoulder and seems to resent Julian for his family’s wealth.   But they remain friends and move through their college years together, each finding love (first Carter with Pilar, then Julian with “Mia from Montreal” who the friends first discovered in the school’s facebook). 

The story centers on Mia and Julian, who are serious from the start.  In their senior year, Mia’s mom is diagnosed with cancer.  She asks Julian to marry her so that her mother can attend the wedding before she dies.  I really wanted to attend the wedding too, but the reader doesn’t get to be there.  It is skipped right over, which I found odd considering the title, Matrimony!  We do hear a little bit about it later in the book, thankfully.  Carter and Pilar get married too, but the reader finds out after the fact and the wedding is not written about. 

One thing this author does very, very well is write about grief.  The scenes with Mia and her mom are poignant, touching, and raw but not melodramatic.  We feel Mia’s suffering acutely. 

The novel picks up three years after the wedding in Ann Arbor, where Mia is in grad school to become a psychotherapist.  Julian is teaching and working on his novel (and will be for years) and feels he doesn’t quite fit in with Mia and her friends, all students.  On the occasion of his graduation from law school, Julian visits his old friend Carter in California, where he learns he and Pilar have separated.  A long buried secret is revealed which threatens their friendship and Julian’s marriage.

I felt like this secret needed to be discussed, but Mia and Julian shut down and many things are left unsaid, which I suppose happens a lot in long term relationships.  But I wanted there to be more emotion, more talking-yelling-negotiation-FEELING than what was there.  I also felt that in a real marriage, this sort of 9 year old secret, after years of a seemingly good marriage, could have been forgiven.  Marriage is about compromise, isn’t it?  But Mia and Julian separate with almost no discussion about it, and when Julian returns 18 months later, there is very little discussion about that either. 

Matrimony is well written, honest and appealing.  We follow Mia and Julian through nearly two decades.  We watch them grow and mature, and witness their love, laughter, families, friendships, sadness, grief and anger, in other words- their marriage.  So I guess Matrimony IS about marriage after all. 

Joshua Henkin frequently makes himself available for author chats with book clubs.  His website can be found HERE

For a chance to win a copy of Matrimony, see author Josh Henkin’s guest post HERE and leave a comment by May 15th.

Matrimony was also reviewed by Dewey here, Care here, Heather here and Julie here.

 

Guest Blogger: Author Joshua Henkin Talks about Book Groups

In conjunction with a giveaway of a signed, first edition hardcover copy of Matrimony, author Joshua Henkin is sitting in as a guest blogger at Books on the Brain.  Leave a comment on this post by May 15th for a chance to win!

These days, when my four-year-old daughter sees me putting on my coat, she says, “Daddy, are you going to a book group or just a reading?”  My daughter doesn’t really know what a book group is, but in that phrase “just a reading” she has clearly absorbed my own attitude, which is that, given the choice between giving a public reading and visiting a book group, I would, without hesitation, choose the latter.

I say this as someone who has never been in a book group (I’m a novelist and a professor of fiction writing, so my life is a book group), and also as someone who, when my new novel MATRIMONY was published last October, never would have imagined that, seven months later, I’d have participated in approximately forty book group discussions (some in person, some by phone, some on-line), with fifteen more scheduled in the months ahead.  And this is while MATRIMONY is still in hardback.  With the paperback due out at the end of August, my life might very well become a book group.

Part of this is due to the fact that my novel is particularly suited to book groups.  MATRIMONY is about a marriage (several marriages, really), and it takes on issues of infidelity, career choice, sickness and health, wealth and class, among other things.  There is, in other words, a good deal of material for discussion, which is why my publisher, Pantheon/Vintage, has published a reading groups guide and why MATRIMONY has been marketed to book groups.

But I am really part of a broader phenomenon, which is that, as The New York Times noted a few months ago, publishers—and authors—are beginning to recognize the incredible clout of book groups.  I recently was told that an estimated five million people are members of book groups, and even if that estimate is high, there’s no doubt that book groups have the power to increase a novel’s sales, often exponentially.  I’m talking not just about Oprah’s book group, but about the web of book groups arrayed across the country that communicate with one another by word of mouth, often without even realizing it. 

I make no bones about this:  I participate in book group discussions of MATRIMONY in order to sell more copies of my book.  But there’s a paradox here.  On several occasions, I’ve driven over four hours round-trip to join a book group discussion of MATRIMONY.  You add enough of these trips together and it’s not surprising that my next novel, which was due at the publisher last month, is nowhere near complete.  I have spent the last year publicizing MATRIMONY as a way of furthering my writing life (writers need to sell books in order to survive), and yet what I love to do most—write—has had to be placed on hold.

I say this without a trace of resentment.  I lead a charmed life.  I get to write novels and have other people read them, and if I, like most writers, need to do more than was once required of us to ensure that people read our books—if writers now are more like musicians—then so be it.  And in the process, thanks to book groups, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting far more readers than I could have imagined and have learned a lot more than I expected.

So I want to speak up on behalf of book groups, and to offer a few cautions, and a few hopes.  First the good news.  From coast to coast and in between, I’ve found a huge number of careful readers from all ages and backgrounds who have noticed things about my novel that I myself hadn’t noticed, who have asked me questions that challenge me, and who have helped me think about my novel (and the next novel I’m working on) in ways that are immensely helpful.  I’ve certainly learned more from book groups than from the critics, not because book group members are smarter than the critics (though often they are!), but because there’s more time for sustained discussion with a book group, and because for many people the kind of reading they do for a book group marks a significant departure from the rest of their lives, and so they bring to the enterprise a great degree of passion.

Speaking of passion:  I don’t want to give away what happens in MATRIMONY, but something takes place toward the middle of the book that has, to my surprise and pleasure, spawned shouting matches in a number of book groups.  I haven’t been one of the shouters, mind you, but I’ve been struck by the fact that MATRIMONY has proven sufficiently controversial to make readers exercised.  I’ve been trying to determine patterns.  Sometimes the divisions have been drawn along age lines; other times along lines of gender—on those few occasions when there is another man in the room besides myself!

Which leads me to my hopes, and my cautions.  First, where are all the men?  True, my novel is called MATRIMONY, but men get married too, at more or less the same rate as women do.  Yet my experience has been that women read fiction and men read biographies of civil war heroes.  And women join book groups and men don’t.  Yet those few co-ed book groups I’ve attended have been among the most interesting.  And if, as seems to be the case, book groups have led to an increase in reading in a culture that otherwise is reading less and less, it would be nice to see more men get in on the act.

Second, if I were allowed to redirect book group discussions, I would urge the following.   Less discussion about which characters are likable (think of all the great literature populated by unlikable characters.  Flannery O’Connor’s stories.  The novels of Martin Amis.  Lolita.), less of a wish for happy endings (Nothing is more depressing than a happy ending that feels tacked on, and there can be great comfort in literature that doesn’t admit to easy solutions, just as our lives don’t.), less of a wish that novels make arguments (Readers often ask me what conclusions MATRIMONY draws about marriage, when the business of novels isn’t to draw conclusions.  That’s the business of philosophy, sociology, economics, and political science.  The business of the novelist is to tell a story and to make characters come sufficiently to life that they feel as real to the reader as the actual people in their lives.)  But this is all part of a longer and more complicated discussion—perhaps one we can have in a book group!

Finally, if I were a benign despot I’d make a rule that no book can be chosen if over half the members of the group have already heard of it.  This would take care of the biggest problem I’ve seen among book groups, which is that everyone’s reading the same twelve books.  Eat, Pray, Love.  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.  Water for Elephants.  Kite Runner.  I’m not criticizing these books, some of which I haven’t even read.  I’m simply saying that there are a lot of great books out there that people don’t know about.  There is a feast-or-famine culture in the world of books (just as in the world of non-books), such that fewer and fewer books have more and more readers.  This is not the fault of book groups but is a product of a broader and more worrisome problem, brought on by (among other things) the demise of the independent bookstore and the decrease in book review pages.  For that reason, it has become harder and harder for all but a handful of books to get the attention they deserve.

Joshua Henkin is the author, most recently, of the novel MATRIMONY, which was a 2007 New York Times Notable Book, a Book Sense Pick, and a Borders Original Voices Selection.  If you would like Josh to participate in your book group discussion, you can contact him through his website, http://www.joshuahenkin.com, or email him directly at Jhenkin at SLC dot edu.

Thanks, Josh, for a great post!  Hooray for book groups!

If you are interested in winning a copy of Joshua Henkin’s 2nd novel, Matrimony, please leave a comment here by May 15th.  Good luck!  Lisa, Books on the Brain

 

Book Club Meeting for Eat, Pray, Love: Wrap-Up

A few Books on the Brain readers, including Danica, Gentle Reader, Tara, and others, some of whom left comments HERE and HERE and HERE, asked if I would post about the Eat, Pray, Love discussion at my book club meeting.  We had an excellent meeting, with 8 of our 12 members attending.  The food was great.. mini pizzas from Trader Joes, a big pasta salad, homemade calzones, wine and chocolate.  Mmmmm.  

We started off the discussion by asking what was each person’s favorite part of the book.  Our hostess, who is relatively new to the group, said the cutest thing.  Her favorite part was when the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, was at the ashram in India and talked about wanting to be The Quiet Girl In The Back Of The Room, because every time she leaves a book club meeting, she feels like she’s talked too much, and she wanted us all to know that she doesn’t think her opinions and comments are any more important than any of ours, and she wanted to apologize if anyone felt she went on and on too much, and she just really likes to talk, and she loves the book club, and and and..  finally her sister said, “Ok!  We get it!  You can stop talking now!”  We all had a good laugh.

Everyone liked certain aspects of the book.  We agreed that Gilbert is talented and that the book was well written.  One member, who I know didn’t really care for the book, said good things about it before she went on her rant about “paying for Gilbert’s therapy by buying this book”.  A couple of us were critical of the India section and the “fake God moment” when she declares she is one with God and actually IS God.  We all thought there were a few coincidences that were probably mostly BS and just thrown in because she was writing a book.. like when she was praying about her nephew and his nightmares and learned later they had abruptly stopped at the same time.. or when she wrote a letter to God about finalizing her divorce, and then suddenly she gets the call that her husband finally signed the papers.  

Many of us thought she could have filled us (the reader) in a bit more about why her divorce was so horrible.. to me it was hard to work up any real sympathy for her because she doesn’t say why it was so awful, so so so hard, really really hard (WHY?)  Divorce sucks, but in the big scheme of things.. it’s not like having cancer or losing a child or whatever.  We all thought she needed some perspective.  If the worst thing that ever happens to you is something that really isn’t all that horrible, it’s still the worst thing ever TO YOU.  But stop trying to convince me (without actually TELLING me) that it was SO BAD, so horrible and hard.  On a funny side note, Liz Gilbert has now married her Brazilian lover Felipe, who she met in Bali, and her next book is about marriage.  BWAAHHAAHAHAHAHA!

 Anyway.   Overall I’d say the book was liked more than disliked.  I asked members to give me a “wrap up” of what they thought and got a few responses.  Here they are:

From TD:  EPL was a well-written, somewhat comical memoir of Gilbert’s travels and search for spiritualism and balance.  As the book progressed, I could see that she changed from a self-absorbed needy woman to a more self-controlled, happier person.

I would rate it 3.5.

From DD: Rating: ***

In total, I did not hate or love the book.  I could not relate to Gilbert’s depression, so I had little sympathy while reading about her divorce trauma.  If all of her whining was removed from the book, I would’ve liked the book better.  Gilbert is a good writer and has a fun way of describing her adventures in all three countries.  I came away learning a little about Italian cuisine and language, Indian ashrams and meditation, and the culture of Bali – a plus.  Some of her events were a little contrived and far-fetched, but I guess it was felt that they were needed to “spice up” the book.

From KD: 4*’s

Gilbert’s travels were very educational.  EPL is a wonderful book to read for those who have an open mind about someone who has mental illness. Gilbert wants to get well (without drugs) and find her inner peace. A beautiful book!!!

From EL: I would give it 4 stars.

Elizabeth Gilbert is a witty writer and very easy to read.  I enjoyed reading about her personal journey, as well as the cultures, geography of the places she visits.  She was especially informative about meditation and the ashram in the India section.  Readers will love the book if you can get past two things: 1) she is often whiney and self absorbed, especially about her failed relationship with David (bleh!), and 2) since she is upfront with the reader that the trip (and thus book) was conceived before she began her journey, the reader may often feel like some of the events that she experiences are fake and contrived.  Otherwise, I really did love the book. 

From JT:

I enjoyed it although I was ready to leave India- it got a little long and I felt the author was so self-absorbed on and off throughout.  I enjoyed Italy most of all- I like her writing style and she is very likable and fun.

From SA:  I can’t say I loved or hated this book – my feelings about it fall somewhere in the middle.  On one hand, like many working mothers, I had a bit of a problem relating to the author, her life, and the premise that she “needed” to spend one year away from the States (in order to heal herself and cure her depression).  On the other hand, I did enjoy and appreciate her wit, her obvious intelligence, and her talent as a writer.  While reading the book, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own life, dreams, disappointments, and future goals. I think that was a good side effect of this book, and it is not something I can say about most of our other book-club picks. So, I don’t regret reading it. But I’ll be careful about who I recommended it to in the future.  4 Stars

My Funny Valentine

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At least my daughter remembered it was Valentine’s Day this morning!   (That’s more than I can say for her father!)  I was very touched by her little note and the massive hug and kiss she gave me before she went to school. 

Tonight the girls want to pretend that our dining room is a fancy restaurant complete with tablecloth and candles.  The menu is Bob’s favorite:  teriyaki steak, potatoes, corn, crescent rolls, and lemon meringue pie for dessert.  The girls will be the waitresses and serve dinner to Bob and me.   I still get to be the cook, though! 

Weekend Update: Vegas with the Old Guy

A few posts ago, I did a Travel Reading Meme to get some ideas for reading material for a road trip to Vegas, celebrating the old guy’s big birthday, but at the last minute, we decided to fly. It’s such a quick trip from Long Beach that I hardly did any reading at all, taking advantage instead of Jet Blue’s nice comfy seats and satellite tv.

I watched a hilarious Millionaire Matchmaking show on Bravo (a channel we don’t get at home), laughing at the way these bimbos were pimping themselves out to the highest bidder. It kind of went like this: “I’m a beauty with giant boobs, and I have expensive tastes, so I deserve a man with money.” And the guys.. “I have no personality or fashion sense, and I’m not very good looking, but I have a lot of money. I want a beautiful woman with giant boobs!” Not a love match, perhaps, but a match nonetheless.

We arrived in Vegas in the early evening. The city was pulsating with people and lights and energy, and we got really caught up in it. As soon as we checked in at our hotel downtown, we tossed our bags into our room and hit the casino. GACK&^%$%# the smoke was nasty!! It was so poorly ventilated in the main casino that you could see the smoke hanging in the air. It stung my eyes and made it hard to breathe, and I just could not be there. We found another area near the sports book that was better, situated close to a door that was open to Fremont Street. I parked myself at a blackjack table and hardly moved all weekend.

My brother arrived Saturday and we had fun playing black jack together. He plays like I do (the RIGHT way) so he was not annoying to be with at the table, unlike the old guy, who splits 10s and stays on soft 14. We cannot play at the same table because his life is in danger from the possibility that I might KILL him!

My brother was able to get tickets for The Ultimate Fighting Challenge at the Mandalay Bay Saturday night, so he and the old guy went. Apparently it was a BIG DEAL fight (?) with Brock somebody or other who was famous for something else (you can see how much attention I paid to the two of them as they babbled on about it). It’s too violent and testosterone-laden for me, so I stayed behind at the black jack tables. Please don’t feel sorry for me for being left behind. I had a blast and even won a few hundred dollars.

Super Bowl Sunday is the one day all year that I’m a football fan, and it was fabulous!! What a game! We didn’t attend the party that our hotel put on (standing room only) but instead found comfy fat leather seats in a noisy bar adjacent to the sports book and watched the game there. We took the Giants with the points and were thrilled to see them win. My ears are still ringing from the old guy screaming into them (he gets worked up over football). I briefly felt a tiny bit bad for Tom Brady and the Patriots for blowing their history making undefeated season… until we cashed in our winnings.. then it was back to celebrating!

On Sunday night we saw a weirdly cool show at the Wynn called Le Reve. It was part theater, part acrobatics, part water show, synchronized swimming, pyrotechnics, lights, smoke, angels, devils, heaven and hell… fabulous!! At first we were trying to understand it, analyzing the symbolism and trying to figure out the message, but we were making ourselves crazy. At some point we each decided (I found out later) to stop trying to figure it all out and just enjoy it. It was quite something, but I’m not entirely sure what!

The kids (oh, yeah, I forgot I had kids!) stayed with Grandma, and by Sunday night were missing us pretty badly. L. invented a leg injury at bedtime and called me crying about it. I got her calmed down and feeling better, then K. got on the phone. She was fine and was chuckling about L. getting upset, so I said, “She’s ok, she just misses me.” and K. said, “I miss you too, Mama!” and burst into tears. If I hadn’t been all liquored up from the Super Bowl, I might have been more sympathetic, but it was hard not to laugh (of course, I didn’t laugh out loud at my babies-I did it silently, in my head, and again with the old guy after I hung up with them!) This is the longest I’ve ever been away from them.

We had a great time, but on Monday we were ready to come home. I love Vegas in small doses and 3 days is enough. It was good to get away, though. The kids survived and it was fun to just be a couple for a few days. The old guy and I decided we need to get away more often.