2019 Book Club Questions

John Boyne – A Ladder to the Sky

  • What do you think of Maurice and how would you describe him? What is his underlying motivation, the force (or is it a need) that drives him? Have you ever met anyone with Maurice’s qualities?
  • John Boyne cleverly hides the intentions behind Maurice’s questioning of Erich about his years under the Nazis. At what point did you begin to suspect Maurice’s duplicity?
  • Once he realizes what Maurice has done to him, Erich says, “I had, quite literally, been the author of my own misfortune.” Do you think he’s right? Is Erich, ultimately, the one responsible?
  • Maurice maintains that he is not exploiting anyone; he believes that everyone gets what they want. What do you think: is Maurice’s assessment clear-eyed, cynical, the mark of a realist … or a sociopath?
  • Boyne takes satirical aim at the literary world. What and/or whom specifically does he satirize—what is he attempting to reveal to his readers?
  • As you read the book, did you find yourself liking Maurice—almost against your will? If so, why?
  • Were you ready for the novel’s twist? Were you surprised or did you see it coming (maybe a little of both)?

John Boyne – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

  • Discuss the relationship between Bruno and Gretel. Why does Bruno seem younger than nine? In a traditional fable, characters are usually one-sided. How might Bruno and Gretel be considered one-dimensional?
  • At age 12, Gretel is the proper age for membership in the League of Young Girls, a branch of Hitler’s Youth Organization. Why do you think she is not a member, especially since her father is a high-ranking officer in Hitler’s army?
  • Describe Bruno’s reaction when he first sees the people in the striped pajamas. What does Gretel mean when she says, “Something about the way [Bruno] was watching made her feel suddenly nervous”? How does this statement foreshadow Bruno’s ultimate demise?
  • Bruno asks his father about the people outside their house at Auschwitz. His father answers, “They’re not people at all Bruno.” Discuss the horror of this attitude.
  • When Bruno and his family board the train for Auschwitz, he notices an over-crowded train headed in the same direction. How does he later make the connection between Shmuel and that train? How are both trains symbolic of each boy’s final journey?
  • Discuss the moral or message of the novel. What new insights and understandings does John Boyne want the reader to gain from reading this story?

Qiufan Chen – Waste Tide

  • Waste Tide highlights the danger of throwaway culture. How closely do you think the writer references real-world issues?
  • Why do you think the author intentionally juxtaposes advanced science with the backward superstition that is apparent within the society of Silicon Isle?
  • What do you think is the role of science fiction when it comes to providing social commentary?
  • Do you think the author is optimistic or pessimistic about the future of China?
  • The author believes that humanity is more important than technology or logic when it comes to solving problems in society. In what ways is humanity shown as the saviour of society in Waste Tide?
  • Have you read any science fiction novels or novels based in China? Do you notice any differences between them and Waste Tide?

Qiufan Chen – The Algorithms for Life

  • Are you familiar with AI-assisted writing? How do you define ‘authorship’ or ‘originality‘ if the book writer is assisted by AI? When you are reading Chen Qiufan’s The Algorithms for Life, can you tell which part is written by AI?
  • In this collection of short stories, Chen discusses topics of surrogate pregnancy, cryonics, romantic relationship with AI. Do you believe these will come true in the future, or do you feel these things are actually happening at this moment?
  • The title of the second story pays tribute to Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece, Brave New World. Since the era of the industrial revolution, the discussion of people’s alienation due to technology has never ceased. In what way does Chen further develop Huxley’s ideas?
  • Compare Chen’s works with his contemporaries in China, for example, Liu Cixin or Han Song. What do you think are Chen’s particularities?
  • Apart from Chen’s concern, what do you think would be the crisis if artificial intelligence permeated every aspect of our lives?

Kit Fan – As Slow As Possible

  • Kit Fan is a widely traveled poet, with his writing and outlook on life tracing transnational experiences. Reflect on your own travel memories. Do you think Fan’s writing accurately captures the spirit of travel? 
  • Temporality is a central thread running through many of Fan’s works. Discuss how different themes about time are conjured in his work, and how they are related to life, for example the past and future, or ideas of “living” and “re-living” without reincarnation.
  • How do you understand the title “As Slow As Possible”?
  • Have you ever written something similarly surreal? How would you define surreal writing?
  • What is your favorite poem in this book and why?
  • What do you think are the main themes of this collection?

Jonathan Fenby – Crucible

  • What did you know already about this book’s subject before you read the book?
  • What new things did you learn?
  • Fenby writes that “the thirteen months of 1947-48 provide trenchant examples of how realpolitik can serve a wider purpose if those in power know how to use it.” Do you think that this statement accurately applies to the current political landscape? If yes, how?
  • Which event mentioned in the book do you think created the greatest impact and changed the world the most?
  • To what extent do you agree that the “personal factor” is able to shape world events?

Anna Fifield – The Great Successor

  • Critics have commented how the book is “not a full-dress portrait of Kim Jong Un or a reported journey inside his ultra-secret regime.” Do you think the criticism is fair? Do you think the author can justify the lack of insight into Kim’s secret regime?
  • What is the most interesting thing you learnt about North Korea or about Kim through reading this book?
  • What point is the author attempting to make by emphasising the luxuries of Kim’s family’s life?
  • To what extent do you agree that Kim’s upbringing made him into what he is today?
  • In what ways is Kim a transformative political figure compared to his predecessors?

Arne Jysch – Babylon Berlin

  • Set in the 1920s, “Babylon Berlin” depicts a unique type of roaring twenties in which the excessive pleasure and artistic freedom of a new German middle-class would, from our perspective, end in WWII and destruction. How does the graphic novel manage this tension? How does it balance the dramatic irony created by an audience with knowledge of history reading about a narrative world without knowledge of its destiny?
  • In a different spin on the topic of “historical time-travel”: Black-and-white represents an aesthetic from the past, focusing on different visual elements than color; one could argue it brings a completely different way of seeing. Color technology revolutionized visual mediums like graphic novels, comics, film, and photography. To go back to a historical black-and-white style is to rewind beyond a technological barrier that in fact cannot be reversed. What does it feel like, reading a black-and-white graphic novel set in the past in our color-saturated age? For those versed with visual works from those eras, how does this nostalgic recreation of the aesthetic differ from works from a time when color was not so common?
  • Is there an appeal in the historical nature of Noir as a genre? For example, Noirs have an association with nostalgic times like the 40s and 50s, popularized by Hollywood Noirs. Are you a fan of noirs or any other genre? Why or why not?
  • For those who read crime novels, what feels different about a crime graphic novel? Is the experience of immersion in the fictional world different? Does it come from different senses, narrative logic or conventions (i.e. of ellipses, and accordingly, reader’s imagination)? What does the graphic novel offer that the novel does not? What does the novel offer that the graphic novel does not?

Cristina Rivera Garza – The Taiga Syndrome

  • In what way do you think this story is a fairytale? How does it resemble or differ from the fairytales you are familiar with?
  • “We all carry a forest inside us, yes,” says the narrator of the story. What kind of forests do you carry within you? What wilderness do you seek to return to?
  • Have you ever been to a Taiga forest (snowy forest in high northern latitudes) or similar places of extreme weather and mysteriousness? If so, do you find the atmosphere evoked in this story analogous to your experience there? 
  • “This form of writing wasn’t about telling things how they were or how they could be, or could have been; it was about how they still vibrate, right now, in the imagination,” writes Garza. Do you find this convincing, giving your reading of this book?
  • Do you feel relatable to the protagonists of this book? Have you experienced similar feelings of dislocation, eschangement and abandonment?

Chessie Henry – We Can Make A Life

  • Discuss the book’s structure and Henry’s use of language and writing style. How does Henry draw the reader in and keep the reader engaged? Does she convey her story with comedy, self-pity, or something else?
  • Henry’s memoir recounts her life as the daughter of two adventurous parents. What do you think she’s referring to with the title We Can Make A Life? And what statement do you think the book makes on heroism and family at large?
  • What do you think motivated Henry to share her life story? How did you respond to Henry’s “voice” and story?
  • Were there any instances in which you felt Henry was not being truthful? How did you react to these sections?
  • Henry’s personal story is the glue that connects the disparate chapters together. What do you think about the segmented format of a family story?
  • What is Henry’s most admirable quality? Is this someone you would want to know or have known?

Pico Iyer – Autumn Light

  • How does the changing of seasons relate to the theme of impermanence of life?
  • In what way is this book an ode to autumn?
  • Iyer asks: “What is the self if so quickly it turns into something it couldn’t recognize two days ago?” It’s not just our bodies that are fragile but our very personalities. How do you reconcile the fear of death in old age?
  • Iyer intends to teach us to reckon with the impermanence of life, do you think he succeeded?
  • Read Gathering Leaves by Robert Frost (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/148658/gathering-leaves). Compare and compare this with Autumn Light— how do both authors convey the cyclical nature of life?

Pico Iyer – The Art of Stillness

  • Iyer mentions the necessity for stillness for all who have departed from the throbbing juvenile. Do you agree with this idea?
  • How does this book relate to the life journey of Pico Iyer, a person who had spent his younger years travelling around the world and who has now opted to sit quietly in a room to enjoy life?
  • Iyer approaches stillness from a Buddhist perspective: “And it’s only by going nowhere- by sitting still or letting my mind relax- that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.” To what extent do you agree with the statement under the context of an increasingly globalised and digitalised world?
  • To some, solitude can be terrifying; and yet, Iyer attempts to convince us that we should embrace solitude. Are you convinced by him and are you more willing to take steps to engage in solitude after reading his book?

Pico Iyer – Video Night in Kathmandu

  • Do you think it is ironic that Iyer, being an experienced traveller in Asia, laments on how the purity of Asian cultures are corrupted by cultural exchange?
  • The essays are mostly being about travels around 1985. Reading this book in 2019, do you think Iyer’s writings are outdated in regards to globalisation or social values? How have things changed in these 30 years?
  • How is capitalism depicted in this book? Give some examples.
  • Why is the book titled “Video Night in Kathmandu”?
  • Which of Iyer’s travelling experiences or travelled locations to you is the most fascinating and memorable?

Pico Iyer – The Lady and The Monk

  • In a way, this book is a love story as it details how Iyer met his future wife in Japan. He also gives us some advice regarding relationships:  “I began to think how much we need space in those we love, space enough to accommodate growth and possibility. Knowledge must leave room for mystery; intimacy, taken too far, was the death of imagination. Keeping some little distance from her was, I thought, a way of keeping an open space, a silence for the imagination to fill.” Do you agree that benevolent indifference is the route to a successful relationship?
  • The book provides us with a glimpse into the world of Zen. How well do you think does Iyer adhere to the motto of “living in the moment”?
  • How would you describe the way Iyer writes and describes Japan?
  • It is obvious that Iyer has made some more or less questionable choices in his romantic life. Do you judge him for it or do you relate to him more because of it?
  • What do you think of the title “The Lady and the Monk”?

Jeong You-Jeong – The Good Son

  • Are you familiar with the genre of psychological thriller? How is Jeong’s work similar or different from other books representative of this type?
  • How do you think the unreliable narrator functions in the structure of the story? What do you think of the role of the journal in the narrative?
  • Peter Gordon, on the Asian Review of Books, writes that there is nothing “Asian” about this novel – in its English translation, at least – other than a few obscure pop-culture references. Do you agree with him? If so, do you think it is a product of successful translation, or a failed one?
  • Following the last question, what are your opinions on translation as a means of cultural representation? And on a further note, do you think literature can be subordinated to the limits of space? Is it fundamentally regional or universal, in your experience?
  • Who can you trust if you can’t trust yourself? What would be your answer to this question?

Miriam Lancewood – Woman in the Wilderness

  • What distinguishes this book from other wilderness-survival documentaries, TV shows and literary works? 
  • What is your experience with wilderness? If you have stayed in the wilderness for some time, how is your experience different from that of Lancewood?
  • In the book’s Acknowledgement section, Lancewood quotes her husband Peter: “the natural world is the one thing that mind didn’t make.” How does Lancewood distinguishes the natural world from the mind’s creations?
  • The book unfolds from a first-person perspective, which leads readers through an exciting tour in great detail. At the end of the experience, do you think you learned a lesson different from Lancewood?
  • Based on Lancewood’s narration, do you think a life in the wilderness is more ideal than a life in the city? 

John Lanchester – The Wall

  • The opening sentence is “It’s cold on the Wall.” What feeling do you think the writer is trying to evoke? Is it foreshadowing the events to follow?
  • “The Wall” seems to echo different current events. What real-life images come to your mind with the symbol of “The Wall”?
  • Climate change is a main theme in the book. Do you think The Wall’s attempt to dramatise an existential threat is achieved?
  • One critic notes how difficult it is for dystopian writers to imagine the future in an original way that is different from their contemporaries. Lanchester’s The Wall echoes other dystopias, for example, in the way humans are haunted by the dread of terminal demographic collapse, or lost the will to breed (similar to The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984). In regards to the story, do you agree with the critic’s statement? Why?
  • If you have to write a dystopia, how would you imagine the future in a creative and original way?

Jennifer 8 Lee – The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

  • The problems confronted by American-born Chinese and Chinese immigrants are not exclusive to them, but also concern Chinese in touch with American society in general. Can you relate to similar struggles of “middlemen”?
  • What do you think of American Chinese food like beef with broccoli, sesame chicken, roast pork lo mein, fried wontons and egg rolls and egg drop soup? Do you like them? What do you think is their cultural status?
  • What do you think Chinese in America can do to improve their underrepresented social situation?
  • What are other hybrid cultural products aside from Americanized Chinese dishes?
  • What do you think about the general cultural status that Chinese in America are currently in? What do you think is the future trend for this group, socially and culturally?

Sato Moughalian – Feast of Ashes

  • This is a book a granddaughter wrote about her never-met grandfather who was a renowned ceramicist and lived a life in upheavals. The prelude introduces the personal element of this book, about a granddaughter’s remote familiar love/ nostalgia towards her ancestor, her family and her motherland before her, bridging across time. Would you say the book has succeeded in that aspect?
  • If you have to summarize the book with a couple of words, what would be your choice? For instance, politics, loss, faith, familiar love, art, etc. (Make your own choices of words!)
  • What fascinates you most in the book?
  • It seems to be an exotic topic for Asians, but does it relate you to some far family stories, traditions and happenings you have heard of which are already lost, and other things relevant to our own culture? 
  • What writing techniques used by the author do you appreciate most? Is it her concise writing in the style of a historian, her interests and insights in that part of history, or a half visible thread of hope that attracts you?

Renee Nault – The Handmaid’s Tale

  • What feelings did this book evoke for you?
  • What do you think of the graphics in the book? How well do the artistic or visual details convey what the book is about? Did it capture the essence and spirit of the book?
  • Do you think the graphic novel’s style matches the story? Some critics have mentioned that Nault’s depiction seems more like a “fashion spread than it does an oppressive and dystopian nightmare”. Do you agree with this statement?
  • Aunt Lydia, Janine, and Offred’s mother represent more than themselves. What do each of their characters connote? What do the style and color of their clothes symbolize?
  • The lack of agency of women in controlling their own bodies is a main theme of the book. Do you think the artistic details fully explore the theme? 
  • Do you find any similarities between recent years’ political landscape and the world in Handmaid’s Tale?
  • Do you think the sci-fi genre of The Handmaid’s Tale go well together with such comic book interpretation?
  • What do you think about the ending? Do you think it is satisfactory?
  • Given the open ending of the The Handmaid’s Tale, if you had to write a sequel, what would your story be?

Matt Ottley – Teacup

  • Matt Ottley composes music for his picture books based on his synesthesia. Do you feel anything different reading Teacup while listening to Ottley’s music, compared to reading Teacup on its own? 
  • The “teacup” filled with the earth from where he used to play is one of the few possessions the young boy took with him on his adventure to find a new home. Named after this object, Teacup explores the relationship between the ephemeral past and the unpredictable future. How has your understanding of these two concepts changed after reading this book?
  • The objects in Teacup are highly symbolic, like the teacup, the growing tree with fruits, the broken eggcup — how do you think Ottley’s illustrations contribute to your understanding of these objects?
  • Teacup mentions “daydreaming” on the cozy top of the tree. In what ways would you relate Teacup to daydreaming and the imagination?

Matt Ottley – Parachute

  • How do you understand the symbol of the “parachute”? Aside from its role in providing the protagonist physical support and courage to confront problems, what other symbolic insights do you think Ottley is trying to show?
  • Which illustration in Parachute do you like the most and why?
  • If you were to write a story about change and courage, how would you write about it? Do you agree with Ottley’s interpretation of these themes?

Matthew Polly – Bruce Lee: A Life

  • What was your impression of Bruce Lee before reading this book? How has it changed now? Compare opinions and discuss what makes “a life”.
  • What do you think has contributed most to Bruce Lee’s success as an influential martial artist who has bridged the East and West?
  • Due to his father’s opium addiction, Bruce Lee underwent a tough childhood home life. Would you say Bruce Lee transcended himself from the environment he grew up in? If so, how did he achieve that? If not, why?
  • What aspect of Bruce Lee as a person do you love the most?
  • Can you relate to parts of his story and what have you learned the most from him?

Tomoka Shibasaki – Spring Garden

  • The sense of loneliness and alienation fills the whole book, pivoting around the about-to-be-demolished apartment in Tokyo city. How much would you relate these themes with the traditional Japanese aesthetics? Do you think the book also passes a sense of beauty, despite the imagery of decaying?
  • Do you think individuals, immersed in the great flood of oblivion and blurring, a different force from war and sudden change in life, can transcend themselves from it, if not because of it?
  • Which protagonist do you like more, Taro or Nishi? Why?
  • What have you gained most from the book after reading – is it an aesthetic experience, a mood, a feeling, a contemplation of urbanization and the people influenced, or others? What strikes you the deepest?
  • Anything that has surprised you during the reading, that occurs jarring and unusual?

Lindsay Varty – Sunset Survivors

  • Do the lives of “sunset survivors” appear familiar to you, and do you think Varty provides enough understanding about them?
  • What do you feel about the lives of “sunset survivors” and their professions in general? If you feel sympathetic to their situations as survivors in HK, this modern metropolis, what do you think we should do?
  • Based on your personal experience, do you think that the “sunset survivors” and their professions have provided convenience or comfort to your life as described in some of the stories?
  • Do you think “sunset survivors” and the “old Hong Kong” represent a significant part of Hong Kong culture? If so, why? If not, do you feel this part of culture is being seriously threatened by the skyrocketing prices and pressure of modern life?
  • Can you relate to any other aspects of Hong Kong cultures that are decaying for the same reason?

Nury Vittachi – The First of Everything

  • What is your “the first of” question? How have you tried to find the answer to it?
  • Which “the first of” question interested you the most when you were reading? Why?
  • The idea of “the first of” something preconditions a developmental event with a beginning. That is, there is a start that precedes every happening after. But this is not the logic everything sticks on to. What “the first of” question do you think would lead to an answer that destroys the idea of “first”?
  • The book introduced a wide range of methods about how to conduct accurate research. Which one appears to be the most useful to you, or anything that sticks out to you?
  • How do you usually use library resources? Do you think you need to know more information of this respect? By what means? 

Jennifer Wong – Goldfish

  • In the poem, “Gobbling Down Auspicious Chinese Dishes,” Jennifer Wong invokes a mouthwatering list of traditional Chinese dishes and the auspicious messages they convey: “abalone: fat pockets of prosperity” “lettuce sounds exactly like money-making” “smiling sesame balls”. What kinds of “auspicious dishes” do you have where you live, and what do they represent? What memories and special meanings do they evoke for you?
  • In this anthology, Wong has included a series of English versions of classical Chinese poems, with titles renamed, such as “Chinese Valentine” (based on “Yuan Xi” by Xin Qi-Ji) and “To My Wife” (based on ‘Jin Shi” by Li Shang-yin). What do you think of translation as a form of creation? If art is an activity that combines originality and appropriation, what would be a proper ratio, in your opinion? Or, what exactly is artistic creation?
  • How do Jennifer Wong’s poems reflect the themes of cultural liminality and exchange in the city of Hong Kong? Do you find them relatable? Convincing?
  • How do we draw the line between faithful representation and exoticization of traditional culture? Could culture be represented authentically to an “outsider” audience?
  • Why do you think Wong has named this anthology “Goldfish”? You might refer to her poem titled “Goldfish”, or draw on the cultural associations of goldfish.
  • In the epigraph, Jennifer Wong alludes to a Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” What kind of journey do you think is undertaken by this collection of poems?

Shelly Wood – The Quintland Sisters

  • Were you already familiar with the story of the Dionne Quintuplets? If so, how did you first learn about the sisters? If not, what surprised you about their story?
  • Did your opinion of Dr. Dafoe, the Canadian Government, or the Dionne parents change over the course of the novel? Who was in the right? Who was in the wrong?
  • Normal motherhood is absent in Quintland. Real or substitute mothers in the book can’t or don’t ‘mother’ according to conventional norms and would-be mothers are eager to get their hands on the magical “quintstones.” Emma herself insists she has no intention of becoming a mother. What are the essential components of motherhood and how were these present or absent in the lives of the quintuplets?
  • Emma insists she’d be happy to stay at the Dafoe Nursery for as long as she possibly can, but what are her motives for staying? Are they purely altruistic, or are they selfish?
  • Emma tries, with pencils and paintbrushes, to capture the true individuality of each Dionne girl in her art. But Emma’s art also helps to perpetuate a fairytale, make-believe world. Discuss how Emma’s progress as an artist serves as a metaphor for the deepening tensions at the heart of Quintland.
  • Quintland, we learn at the outset, consists of archival ‘fonds’—as if these official documents, in some way, represent a formal record of events. How do these documents both support and undermine the central ‘facts’ of the Dionne story? What do we gain from seeing this world from Emma’s vantage point? What do we lose?
  • Emma prides herself on noticing quirky details, yet her eyes are so focused on her young charges that she fails to fully see what’s going on around her. At the same time, the people in power in Quintland work hard to make sure the public sees only the official version of events and nothing more. What echoes does Emma’s predicament share with modern day celebrity and those who work in the margins of fame?
  • Imagine the Dionne sisters being born today, under similar circumstances, but in the era of social media and a 24-hour news cycle? Would they have fared better or worse?

Luke Wright – The Toll

  • The Toll is about surviving the inevitable life beyond disillusionment. Which poem within the collection do you find most hopeful?
  • A lot of Wright’s poems are the breaking down of relationships, something that almost everyone has experienced. Which poem do you relate to the most?
  • What do you think about the language of the poems? (Refer especially to the composition of univocal lipograms using only single vowels such as ‘U’ or ‘I’).
  • Wright enjoys coming up with humorous sounding lines like ‘Burt spurts hummus up Ruth’s mum’s rump’ and ‘this piss-dripping fright-witch’. What do you think these lines contribute to the overall tone of their respective poems?
  • Wright aims to construct characters that are relevant and life-size. Which character(s) do you relate to the most?
  • England in Wright’s poems are depicted as miserable and grubby. Why do you think that he keeps writing about England despite his distaste in the country he lives in? Do you think he is proud of the country’s traditions or current state?

Helen Zia – Last Boat Out of Shanghai

  • A key conclusion she stresses is that Chinese identity is not a monolith; individuals are formed within complex intersections of classes, regions, and cultures. Does internal contrast of a group like “the Chinese exodus” inspire nuanced thinking about the group and its members? To what extent? And does it bring us away from abstracting and reducing (hence dehumanizing) human beings?
  • What is the value in the individual hero story in an ocean of “faceless crowd” stories, and what is Helen Zia trying to resist with this deeply personal form?
  • There is an impressive amount of specificity in the events, conversations, and thoughts, even though the events are from seventy years ago. Although it is a product of hundreds of hours of interviews and research, we can’t help but wonder: where is the line of non-fiction credulity? What type of truth is certain even through “creative retelling” or the natural “embellishment” of memory and the literary form, intent and structure? Are there truths that inherently cannot be certain in non-fiction works, whatever the medium (literary, film, photography, etc.)? To extend the question, are the truths revealed in non-fiction of the same nature as those in fiction works? What is that “same nature”?
  • Is creative work about the Chinese exodus reflexive of the general Chinese population? To what extent? Can we compare citizens of different areas of China with members of the diaspora, and if we can, in what ways? Are the two mirrors, cousins, twins? Is the former to the latter as anchor to boat, departure to arrival, home to exile, or something else?
  • What is an appropriate metaphor or image for the relationship between the diaspora, Hong Kong and Mainland – both in the 40s and 50s and now? Try to make a comparison that you find productive.

Markus Zusak – Bridge of Clay

  • The book starts with a striking scenario: “In the beginning there was one murderer, one mule and one boy…” What expectations did this give you for the novel? Do you think this is representative of the story as a whole?
  • Penny’s and Michael’s upbringings are very different. Do you see reflections of their childhoods in the way they choose to bring up the boys? What do you think was the purpose of focusing on their family history?
  • Why are Michael, and later Clay, determined to build the bridge? Do you believe that they are doing it for different reasons?
  • Each of the Dunbar brothers seems to be connected to one of the pets. Can you draw connections between these relationships and the animals’ literary names?
  • Clay and Carey’s relationship is a cornerstone of his story—why do you think he was able to tell her things that he couldn’t tell his brothers? How do you think her death affected the remainder of his story?
  • The action that makes up the bulk of the novel has already happened when Matthew tells us the story. Were you still surprised by the conclusion and where all the boys ended up?