Between the Lines Book Club: Discussion Questions

between the lines book club logoI hope all my Book Clubbers have been safely indoors, running their air conditioning and reading under a fan! We will have a Zoom meeting on Saturday, September 26, 2020, at 10:30AM to discuss An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Here are some discussion questions (pulled from Oprah’s Book Club and from Book Riot)

  1. Jones named her novel An American Marriage, a title which suggests this novel has something specific to say about marriage in America. What do you think this novel is saying about marriage? What makes the events of this novel specifically American?

2. For Celestial, it seems as if certain behaviors are expected of her as a woman and, even more specifically, as Black woman. What sort of expectations do we see her family and Roy place on her? Are these expectations fair? Do you agree with how she responded to them?

3. This story is told in three alternating perspectives: Celestial, Roy, and Andre. Was there a certain perspective you responded more positively towards? How do you think you would view these characters differently if the story was told only from Celestial’s point of view? Or Roy’s?

4. This novel’s pacing is interesting in that it focuses in on specific moments of time for an extended period, speeds through others through the exchange of letters, and skips over periods of time entirely to move on to the next important moment. Why do you think Jones chose the moments she did to write about in detail? What effect did the fast passage of time have on the narrative?

5. When Celestial asks Roy if he would have waited for her for more than five years, he doesn’t answer her question but reminds her that, as a woman, she would not have been imprisoned in the first place. Do you feel that his response is valid? Do you believe that he would have remained faithful if Celestial had been the one incarcerated? Does this really matter, and if so, why? 

6. You may not have noticed that Tayari Jones does not specify the race of the woman who accuses Roy of rape. How did you picture this woman? What difference does the race of this woman make in the way you understand the novel’s storyline? 

7. Andre insists that he doesn’t owe Roy an apology for the way his relationship with Celestial changed. Do you agree? Why or why not? 

8. There are two father figures in Roy’s life: Big Roy is the one who shepherded him into adulthood and helped him grow into a responsible, capable person, but Walter is the one who taught Roy how to survive. Do you feel these men deserve equal credit? If not, which was the more important figure in Roy’s life and why? 

9. When Roy is released from prison, he first goes to his childhood home and almost immediately makes a connection with Davina. Do you feel that given the tenuous relationship he has with Celestial—who is still legally his wife—he is cheating? Why or why not? And when Roy announces to Davina his intention to return to his wife, do you feel that her anger is justified? 

10. Roy is hurt when Celestial, in discussing her career as an artist, doesn’t mention him or the role he played in giving her the encouragement and freedom to follow her dreams, but Walter argues that she is justified in her silence. Do you agree? Do you think her silence is due to shame, or is she just being practical in how she presents herself to advance her career? 

11. It is obvious that Andre is different from Roy in many ways. Do you feel that he is a better match for Celestial? If so, why? Also, why do you think Celestial and Andre decide against formally marrying? Do you think that as a couple they will be good and nurturing parents? Do you feel that as a couple, they will be better at parenting than Celestial and Roy would have been? If so, why? 

12. Toward the end of the novel, Celestial does a complete about-face and returns to Roy. What do you think her emotions were in coming to that decision? Do you feel that it was the right decision?

13. There are so many beautiful insights about love and the nature of love in this novel. For instance, Jones writes, “Love is the enemy of sound judgment, and occasionally this is in service of the good.” Do you agree with this sentiment? How does love affect characters’ decisions in this novel?

14. How did you feel about the ending of this novel? Was it hopeful at all? Did you want things to turn out differently for these characters, and if so, how? Would the marriage have survived if Roy had not gone to jail?

For more reading, compare this book to James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. Also read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

A Poem For September

Words of wisdom from Walt Whitman, or, as fans of Dead Poet’s Society call him, Uncle Walt. Life is still happening, we are still here – and we still may contribute a verse.

O Me! O Life!

BY WALT WHITMAN

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

  Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Between the Lines Book Club: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

between the lines book club logoHello Dear Book Clubbers! Our September selection is An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. Here is the info for the zoom meeting, which will be held on Sept 26 at 10:30AM:

Carrie Sessarego is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Between the Lines Book Club

Join Zoom Meeting
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/4630495746?pwd=MWNjYm55Mkg5Z1NwRjZsSDhzVE9HQT09

Meeting ID: 463 049 5746
Passcode: 423652

Meeting ID: 463 049 5746
Passcode: 423652

An American Marriage is about the repercussions on a family when the husband is sentenced to prison for a crime he did not commit. For more on this topic, try reading If Beale Street Could Talk, a novel by James Baldwin, or see the movie of the same name. You might also read the non-fiction book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander!

Book Review: The Bone Shard Daughter, by Andrea Stewart

It’s September, readers, and I still haven’t taken the time to play with this new WordPress system, but I HAVE been writing book reviews! Every now and then I write a review for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books that doesn’t work for them because of scheduling issues or because the book doesn’t match our audience. Here’s one of those reviews to get you started with your September reading! The book comes out on September 8, 2020.

The Bone Shard Daughter promised and delivered an #OwnVoices, Asian-based fantasy with a f/f romance. It also promised, as stated in the press release, “a talking aquatic kitten.” It delivered. However, I was too distracted by the promise of an aquatic kitten to notice in advance that this is grimdark fantasy, and full of triggers. I was not prepared for the large amount of child abuse and death, ableism, and incest.

We follow three main characters in alternating chapters and learn about the world and the conflicts as they go about their business:

  • Lin is the daughter in the title, the daughter of the Emperor of the Phoenix Empire. Lin is determined to overthrow her father since he spends all his time building constructs (more on constructs later) and does not rule the kingdom effectively. Also he’s just generally an asshole. 
  • Jovis is a smuggler who has spent years searching for his true love who was kidnapped by an unknown person. Through a complicated series of events he winds up with the talking ocean kitty, Mephi. He does not want to join a rebellion; he just wants to find his girlfriend. I’m sure you can guess where that’s going.
  • Phalue is the daughter of a governor and is in love with Ramani. Ramani is a fisherwoman and a rebel who wants Phalue to join the rebellion. These two women have an established relationship and their problems are related to politics, class, and family loyalty. While this kingdom has many problems, apparently (and refreshingly) homophobia is not one of them. They have the only romance in the book.

The Emperor rules by using “constructs.” These constructs start off as animals that are grown? Engineered? I didn’t understand. They are organic, not automatons and they are usually hybrid (for instance, there’s a spy construct that is part crow and part fox). There’s no explanation of how any of this works, either in terms of how they are created or in terms of how they live. Are they, technically, alive? Does what happens to them count as animal abuse? My husband and I interpreted this differently – I thought of the constructs as engineered animals with feelings despite what I must admit is a glaring lack of evidence, and my husband say them as non-sentient. Regardless, I loathed this idea with every fiber of my being, people, and it gets worse because…

GROSSGROSSSGROSS

….Every child in the kingdom has a piece of bone removed from their skull. Most, but not all, survive the operation, which is carried out without anaesthetic as part of a public ritual.

 The Emperor carves instructions on the bone shards and reaches into the constructs (this involves magic) and just shoves the shards right into their bodies. Lin’s quest for power involves reprogramming as many of her father’s constructs as possible. To me this process seemed like animal abuse. At least some of the constructs appear to be at least as aware and intelligent as a dog or cat and several use language and the whole thing just squicked me the hell out and that’s before we get to the reveal that there are human constructs who work as slaves.

CLEARLY this book is better suited for grimdark fantasy fans than for me. I’m just here for the mercat! As far as recommending this book to grimdark fans, it’s a mixed bag. The actual plot is pretty basic and predictable – Lin tries to win her dad’s approval and, failing that, to depose him, Jovis and Phalue try (separately) to avoid becoming freedom fighters, and we wait for Book 2. 

This might be too simplistic for some grimdark fans, and there’s a lot of optimism in the story so maybe it’s not so much “grimdark” as it’s “slightlyseriousdark.” It also depends big time on “because magic” as an explanation for things as opposed to dealing with the practical ramifications of, for instance, creating animal hybrids. This is a big mileage-will-vary thing – some people have no problem with aspects that drove me up the wall. Just know that that’s how this book works.

The exploration of the world from different geographical and class perspectives is interesting, and everything is laid out skillfully without giant infodumps. I kept wanting to know what would happen next, which is quite an accomplishment for a book that consists entirely of setting all the pieces on the board (this is very much an “intro to the series” book). Even though the plot is predictable, there were certain revelations that weren’t, and that added to the suspense. It’s very refreshing to see a fantasy story that isn’t set in a quasi?-European background, and the debates about ethics and privilege are certainly relevant. 

As with most series, it’s hard to recommend this one without knowing how things will wrap up eventually. However, I know that many of our readers are very triggered by animal abuse and I interpreted the making of and controlling of constructs as abusive. The book is undeniably good at creating a horrific situation, one in which the lives of an Empire’s subjects are drained literally (using a bone shard slowly drains life from the person it came from) and figuratively (most of the Empire’s subjects are worried about future invasion from another force and live in poverty). It’s concerns are all too relevant.

Should you read this book, do so knowing that it has a lot of triggers and ends on a cliffhanger. It also has islands and smugglers in boats and a talking aquatic cat, all of which are excellent things. There’s an actual cave hideout. There’s a lot of great sounding food. And even though I realized very early that I would not enjoy reading this book, I could not stop. This book is the first in the “Drowning Empire” series.