June 28 -
August 10, 2002
Salzman graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude from Yale in 1982
with a degree in Chinese Language and Literature. From 1982 to
1984, Mr. Salzman lived in China where he taught English at Hunan
Medical College. In 1985 he was the only non-Chinese invited
to participate in the National Martial Arts Competition in Tianjin.
January 1987 Random House published his first book, Iron and Silk,
an account of the two years he spent in China. The book was a
finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, received the
Christopher Award and the New York Public Library Literary Lions
Award, and has since been translated into twelve languages.
Mr. Salzman wrote the screenplay and starred in the critically
acclaimed film version of Iron and Silk, which was shot
entirely on location in China. His second book, The
Laughing Sutra, a novel, was published that same year. His
third book, The Soloist, a novel about two cello prodigies of
different generations, was published in January 1994, also received
a Pulitzer nomination, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times
Book Prize for fiction. His memoir of growing up in suburbia
during the 70's, Lost in Place, was published in 1995.
Alfred A. Knopf published his novel Lying Awake in September
of 2000, which became a national bestseller, and he was awarded a
Guggenheim fellowship for the year 2000-2001 to work on his next
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“I’ll be thirty-six old this spring which is
young for a retired concert soloist but old for a virgin.”
With these words, we are introduced to Renne Sundheimer who
at a young age had a promising career as a concert cellist. His talent, coupled with a strong stage mother, thrust him
into a brilliant performing career.
Suddenly at age eighteen his ears became overly sensitive
to his playing, affecting his sense of pitch.
Renne, a perfectionist, was no longer able to tolerate his
own cello playing. He becomes a cello teacher at a large university in Southern
California, teaching uninspired students as he waits for his
musical gift to return. With
the arrival of an unexpected young student, jury duty, and a
possible love interest, Renee faces a remarkable upheaval in his
Through Renne’s teaching of a nine-year-old
Korean student, whose gift mirrors his own, memories of his old
cello teacher and their relationship are awakened.
As the events unfold, Renne begins to tell us about his
childhood and adolescence and his brilliant performing career.
The issues and difficulties involved in raising gifted
children are brought out.
The jury experience opens Renne’s eyes to other
people’s foibles and personalities as he learns to cope with
their conversations and perceptions.
The contrast between the congenial personality of the male
defense lawyer and the sharpness of the female prosecutor and
Renne’s reaction to them is telling.
“I felt myself resisting her arguments for the same
reason that I don’t like being talked into things by ungraceful
people.” And when
Renne becomes the possible love interest of a fellow juror, his
insecurities with women surface.
In addition, the reader learns about Renne’s past
relationships with childhood friends, concertgoers and even his
colleagues at work.
experience as a juror on the trial of a student accused of killing
his Buddhist teacher becomes a defining experience.
Issues of mental illness, religion and parenting contribute
to Renne’s awakening and changing perceptions of himself.
Renne becomes the lone voice against a guilty but insane
plea and learns to handle his fellow jurors’ hostility.
events prompt Renne to examine his life bringing him an acceptance
and inner peace about who he has become.
Mark Salzman, while showing us the struggles of a concert
cellist, raises issues that will resonate in the reader’s mind.
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critic says, “All of Mark Salzman’s characters are beautifully
It’s true that good books often have characters that seem
like people we might meet in real life.
Do you agree with the critic, or do you think some characters
are more “beautifully drawn” than others?
all the mentor-pupil relationships in the novel.
VonKemper/Renne/Kyung-hee are the obvious ones.
But what about Renne and the beautiful juror (Marie-Teresa)
with whom he tries to have an affair?
What about Renne and the cat?
Notice how the mentor becomes the pupil and vice-versa.
like you and I might choose a suit or dress one day, jeans and
sweatshirt another, authors may choose a writing style that suits
their novel’s subject or theme.
Salzman’s style in The
Soloist has been called “simple yet exquisitely fluid.”
Assuming the quote is accurate, why is a style like this just
right for this story?
of the book’s points is that Sundheimer was too harsh and critical
of himself. Some
readers may see themselves in Sundheimer and, perhaps, try to take
life a little less seriously. Do
you think a book’s message is what makes it valuable or good?
What about a novel that is not well written but has an
the relationship between Renne and his mother and between Kyung-hee
and his mother as it relates to the quote:
“When do you let children follow their own instincts, and
when do you push them to do what you wish you had done yourself?”
the trial, Mr. Weber takes responsibility for the crime committed by
his son. To what degree
are parents responsible for their children’s failures?
How about their successes?
critics found Renne Sundheimer’s lack of sexual experience hard to
believe. Salzman made
this character up. The
author could have made Renne less innocent.
Why didn’t he? Why
is it important to the novel to have its narrator and main character
so sexually naïve?
who were once very successful in their native country must sometimes
take menial jobs in this country because of language difficulties,
non-transferable educational degrees, etc.
In what way do you think this might affect their sense of
How might this influence their hopes for their children’s
How might it affect how their children see their own future?
Zen master Lin-chi was once asked by a monk, ‘What would you do if
you were going somewhere, and you suddenly met the Buddha in the
Lin-chi answered, ‘If you meet the Buddha in the road and
he stands in your way, kill him!
If you meet the great Zen teachers of the past, kill them!
If you meet your parents, kill them!
That is the only way to be free!’ ” (p. 109)
What do you think this means? What do you think this means to Renne? What do you think this means to Philip?
- “In life, one must show both strength and
gentleness.” (p. 57) How is this demonstrated in Renne’s life?
Does this seem true in your life?
- “We all crave a sense of dignity in our lives,
but most of us find it an elusive goal.” (p. 284) Why was a sense
of dignity (or self-worth) so hard for Renne?
Why is it for most of us?
- How do we deal with not
fulfilling our early dreams? Is
this much harder for a prodigy or is it true for everyone?
Is it related to the impossibility of the goal (perfect
intonation, pure Zen enlightenment) or imperfections in ourselves?
- Dr. Libertson gives the opinion that “religious
experiences are episodes of nervous exhaustion brought on by sensory
deprivation…” (p. 124) How does one tell the difference between
a religious vision and euphoric delirium?
- Renne speaks of music having texture.
“When I was very young one of the reasons I was able to
hear a piece of music and then play it right back without having to
look at a score was that for me each musical phrase had not so much
a color or flavor as a texture, and if I could remember the sequence
of textures, I could automatically reproduce the sounds.” (p. 154)
What other senses can come into play when we listen or create music?
- Do you believe that music/art can build bridges
between cultures? If
you think that justice was served in this case? Does
our current system of jury selection guarantee a “jury of our
peers” and therefore a just outcome?
Mr. Graham reminds the court “mental illness by itself does not
automatically make a man legally insane.” (p. 131) If someone has
a mental illness such as schizophrenia, should they be held
responsible for a crime they may commit?
- Has there been a time you felt pressure to go along
with others? What are
some of the challenges and issues encountered by standing up for
your moral convictions?
cannot make great music happen, you can only prepare yourself for it
(p. 274) Why did forcing himself to “go deeper” make
Renne unable to play at all?
Can this also apply to other areas of our lives, such as
sports, work, or relationships?
- In what way was Renne’s experience
in the trial his “graduate recital?” (p. 275)
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Book Club How To
setting up a book discussion group from the Washington Center for the
Book at the Seattle Public Library
Preplanning and organizing the first meeting:
clear what is expected of participants:
Careful reading, active participation in selecting and discussing
books, and having fun.
- Decide what types of books your group wants to read:
Only fiction? Prize winners? Classics? Anything and everything? Does
the book have to be available in paperback?
- Figure out the logistics:
How long should the meetings be? (We find that the best discussions
last between 45 and 90 minutes.) Will you meet at a library? Coffee
shop? Private homes? Do reminder messages need to be sent out by
email, mail, or phone?
how the book club will be run:
Will you have a leader? Will the same person be in charge for each
meeting, or will you rotate leaders? Some groups bring in an outside
“expert” (who may need to be paid). Do you want the leader to give
a brief biography of the author and a selection of reviews of the book
the books to discuss:
Choosing what books to read is one of the hardest, most enjoyable,
frustrating, and important activities the group will undertake.
Members of the group should be prepared to compromise and to read
outside their regular areas of interest. (Some people will drop out if
the books chosen are not what they want to read; don’t worry, this
is a normal occurrence.) Go with the majority opinion, but remind
people that there can be a big difference between “a good read”
and “a good book for a discussion.” (See next section.) Choose
books well in advance (at least three months). People need to know
what’s coming up so they can read ahead. In addition, you don’t
want to have to spend time at each meeting deciding what to read next.
What makes a good book for discussion:
People often ask what qualities make a book a good candidate for book
discussion. Probably the most important criteria are that the book be
well written, have an interesting plot and three-dimensional
characters. Good book discussion books present the author’s view of
an important truth and sometimes send a message to the reader. A good
book discussion book often stays in the reader’s mind long after the
book is finished and the discussion is over. These books can be read
more than once, and each time the reader learns something new.
During a book discussion, what you’re really talking about is
everything that the author hasn’t
said – all those white spaces on the printed page. For this reason,
books that are plot driven (most mysteries, westerns, romances, and
science fiction/fantasy) don’t lend themselves to book discussions.
In genre novels and some mainstream fiction (and often in nonfiction)
the author spells out everything for the reader, so that there is
little to say except, “Gee, I never knew that” or “Isn’t that
interesting.” Librarians, booksellers, and friends can often supply
you with suggestions of good books to discuss.
(Incidentally, this “everything that the author hasn’t said”
idea is why poetry makes such a rich topic for discussion.)
Recommended Books for Discussion,
The very best books are those that insinuate themselves into your
experience: They reveal an important truth or provide a profound sense
of kinship between reader and writer. Searching for, identifying, and
discussing these truths deepen the reader’s appreciation of the
questions, reading carefully, imagining yourself in the story,
analyzing style and structure, and searching for personal meaning in a
work of literature all enhance the work’s value and the discussion
potential for your group.
- Make notes and mark pages as you go:
Reading for a book discussion – whether you are the leader or simply
a participant – differs somewhat from reading purely for pleasure.
As you read a book in preparation for a discussion, ask questions of
yourself and mark down pages you might want to refer back to. Make
notes like, “Is this significant?” or “Why does the author
include this?” Making notes as you go slows down your reading but
saves you the time of searching out important passages later.
tough questions of yourself and the book:
Obviously, asking questions of yourself as you read means you don’t
know the answer yet, and sometimes you never will discover the
answers. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions because often the
author is presenting difficult issues for that very purpose. Look for
questions that may lead to in-depth conversations with your group and
make the book more meaningful.
attention to the author’s message:
As with any skill, critical reading improves with practice. Remember
that a good author uses every word in a text deliberately. Try to be
aware of what the author is revealing about herself and what she wants
you to learn about life from her perspective.
Try to analyze the important themes of a book and to consider what
premise the author started with. Imagine an author mulling over the
beginnings of the story, asking himself, “what if … ” questions.
to know the characters:
When you meet the characters in the book, place yourself at the scene.
Think of them as you do the people around you. Judge them. Think about
their faults and their motives. What would it be like to interact with
them? Are the tone and style of their dialogue authentic? Read
portions aloud to get to know the voices of the characters.
the structure of the book:
Sometimes an author uses the structure of the book to illustrate an
important concept or to create a mood. Notice how the author
structured the book. Are chapters prefaced by quotes? If so, how do
they apply to the content of the chapters? How many narrators tell the
story? Who are they? How does the sequence of events unfold to create
the mood of the story? Is it written in flashbacks? Does the order the
author chose make sense to you?
comparisons to other books and authors:
Compare the book to others by the same author or to books by other
authors that have a similar theme or style. Often, themes run through
an author’s works that are more fully realized by comparison.
Comparing one author’s work with another’s can help you solidify
your opinions, as well as define for you qualities you may otherwise
Leading the discussion:
Research the author using resources such as Current
Biography, Contemporary Authors, and Something
About the Author. Find book reviews in Book
Review Digest and Book
Review Index. The Dictionary
of Literary Biography gives biographical and critical material.
These resources are probably available at your local library. The
World Wide Web is another good source for reviews of the book,
biographical information about the author, and questions for
prepared with 10 to 15 open-ended questions. Questions that can be
answered yes or no tend to cut off discussion quickly.
ask each member of the group to come with one question. Readers will
focus on different aspects of the book, and everyone will gain new
insights as a result.
should be used to guide the discussion and keep it on track, but be
ready to let the discussion flow naturally. You’ll often find that
the questions you’ve prepared will come up naturally as part of the
participants that there are not necessarily any right answers to the
be afraid to criticize a book, but try to get the group to go beyond
the “I just didn’t like it” statement. What was it about the
book that made it unappealing? The style? The pacing? The characters?
Has the author written other books that you liked better? Did it
remind you of another book that you liked or disliked? Remember that
many of the best book discussions center on books that many group
to keep a balance in the discussion between personal revelations and
reactions and a response to the book itself. Of course, every reader
responds to a book in ways that are intimately tied to his or her
background, upbringing, experiences, and view of the world. A book
about a senseless murder will naturally strike some sort of chord in a
reader whose mother was killed. That’s interesting, but what’s
more interesting is how the author chose to present the murder, or the
author’s attitude toward the murderer and victim. It’s often too
easy to let a group drown in reminiscences. If that’s what the whole
group wants to do, that’s fine, but keep in mind that it’s not a
Some suggestions for participants:
A good discussion depends in large part on the
skills we develop as participants. Here are some suggestions (based on
the New York Public Library’s book discussion program):
UP! Group discussion is like a conversation; everyone takes part in
it. Each speaker responds to what the person before him said. Nobody
prepares speeches; there should be a spontaneous exchange of ideas and
opinions. The discussion is your chance to say what you think.
thoughtfully to others! Try to understand the other person’s point
of view. Don’t accept ideas that don’t have a sound basis.
Remember, there are several points of view possible on every question.
BRIEF! Share the discussion with others. Speak for only a few minutes
at a time. Make your point in as a few words as possible. Be ready to
let someone else speak. A good discussion keeps everyone in the
YOUR VIEWPOINT AND EXPERIENCE! Don’t expect to be called on to
speak; enter into the discussion with your comments of agreement or
disagreement. When you find yourself disagreeing with other people’s
interpretations or opinions, say so and tell why, in a friendly way.
Considering all points of view is important to group discussions.
WITH YOUR OWN QUESTIONS IN MIND! As you read the selection, make note
of the points on which you’d like to hear the comments of group
What should you be thinking about when you read a
book for discussion? What kinds of questions make for interesting
discussions? These are important questions because they lead to the
heart of what book groups do: read, think about, and discuss
literature. You don’t have to have a background in literary
criticism to be in a book group. Here is a list of some common
questions to think about when reading a book for a reading group.
How do the characters function in this book?
Are they thin and uninteresting, or well developed, with many
different facets of personality? Are certain characters more
“real” than others? Why or why not?
Is the protagonist sympathetic or
What themes – motherhood, self-discovery,
wilderness, etc. – recur throughout the book? How does the author
use these themes? Do they work?
Why do certain characters act the way they
act? What motivates a character to do something that she would not
normally do? Does she have an axe to grind, a political ideology, a
religious belief, a psychological disorder? Is there anything that you
would call “out of character”? Does the character grow over the
course of the story?
What types of symbolism are in this novel?
What do these objects really represent? How do characters react to and
with these symbolic objects?
Think about the broader social issues that
this book is trying to address. For example, what does the author
think about anarchy versus capitalism as a means of life? How is a
particular culture or subculture portrayed? Favorably? Unfavorably?
How do you feel about these characters? Do
their experiences fit or clash with your own experiences? How so?
Which character do you identify with? Is it possible to identify with
any of these characters?
Where could the story go from here? What is
the future of these characters’ lives? What would our lives be like
if we lived in this story? Could the civilization portrayed really
exist? What if?
What does that character mean when he says
“…”? How does the author use certain words and phrases
differently than we would normally use them? Does the author make up
new words? Why would he do that?
How does the arrangement of the book help or
detract from the ideas in the novel? Does the arrangement contribute
to themes or symbols? How is the book structured? Flashbacks? From one
or multiple points of view? Why do you think the author chose to write
the book this way?
Does this book fit into or fight against a
literary genre? How does the author use [science fiction, humor,
tragedy, romance] to effect in the novel? Does this book typify a
regional (southern, western) novel? How?
How does this book relate to other books you
have read? Would this book make a good movie? Is there a film
adaptation of this book? How does the film compare to the book? What
is brought out or played down in the film version?
Is the setting of the book important to the
theme? Why? How realistic is the setting?
What did the author attempt to do in the
book? Was it successful?
What is the author’s worldview?
Were the plot and subplots believable? Were
they interesting? What loose ends, if any, did the author leave?
What is the great strength – or most
noticeable weakness – of the book?
For more information, contact:
Washington Center for the Book
at the Seattle Public
800 Pike Street
Seattle, WA 98101
This guide for book discussion groups was
developed by the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public
Library. The Washington Center for the Book is a member of the
Audiences for Literature Network, made possible by the
Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds – eight leading centers dedicated to
building and sustaining audiences for literature.
City, One Story (2002) would like to thank the Washington Center for
the Book for permission to use this guide.
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