March 1 - March 31, 2007
Bo Caldwell has published short stories in
numerous literary magazines. Her essays have appeared frequently in the
Washington Post Magazine. She is a former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at
Stanford University, and now lives in Northern California with her husband,
novelist Ron Hansen, and her two children.
(Source: press release, by permission of Harcourt, Inc.)
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DISTANT LAND OF MY FATHER opens, Anna, the narrator, is living in a storybook
world: exotic, pre-World War II Shanghai, with handsome young parents, wealth,
and comfort. Her father, the son of missionaries, is a charming — though
secretive — man, whose greatest joy is sharing his beloved city with his only
daughter. Yet when Anna and her mother flee Japanese-occupied Shanghai to return
to Los Angeles, he stays behind, believing his connections and a little bit of
luck will keep him safe.
The story travels to California, where Anna, and her mother, try to rebuild
their lives, with the memory of Anna’s father hovering over them — and the
constant wait for him to rejoin the family.
Through Anna’s vivid memories and her father’s journals we learn of his fall
from charismatic millionaire to tortured prisoner. A breathtaking and richly
lyrical story of betrayal and reconciliation that spans several years across
continents, THE DISTANT LAND OF MY FATHER unfolds to reveal an enduring family
love through tragic circumstances.
(Source: press release, by permission of Harcourt, Inc.)
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Print study guide
Q> What kinds and what degrees of actual and
imagined disloyalty, from the political to the personal, occur in the novel?
What kinds and what degrees of actual and imagined betrayal? What does the
author appear to be saying about disloyalty and betrayal, and about the
possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness?
Q> Anna says of her father, "I had a landmark of my own, a place I always
started from to get wherever I was going, a reference point for everything I
did." (8) What are the advantages and disadvantages of making one person such a
landmark in one's life? What burdens might it place upon that other person, and
what dangers might it pose for oneself?
Q> After Joseph's kidnapping, Anna's mother tells her, "Your father is somewhat
unpredictable. . . . He has strong ideas and people don't always agree with
those ideas, and he does what he wants, whether people like it or not. And
sometimes it gets him into trouble." (48) What does get Joseph Schoene into
trouble, and how? What are the consequences of his doing what he wants? To what
extent is he irresponsible in not thinking through the impact of his actions?
Q> In what ways might the contrast between the street scenes during the Battle
of Shanghai and the reception at the Cercle Sportif emphasize the perennial
differences between the haves and the have-nots of this world? What other
manifestations of this theme occur in the novel? What contemporary or historical
parallels might there be with the attitude of the European and American
businessmen and the wealthy Chinese in 1937 Shanghai?
Q> What notion and what actuality of home are cherished by each of the Schoenes
and the other important characters? How might we explain the differences or
attitude and perception among them and the consequences of those differences?
How would you define home?
Q> Anna says of her father's refusal to leave Shanghai, "There was too much
money to be made, too much opportunity, to just walk away." (133) What are the
personal, social, political, and moral consequences of basing one's decisions,
values, and actions solely on business and money-making opportunities?
Q> "We were both so good at catering to him, at revolving around him," Anna says
of her and her mother's relationship to Joseph. (203) What model of family life
does Caldwell present? Is it a model with which you are familiar? Is it a model
that seems widespread in the United States today?
Q> After Joseph's "breezy" telegram arrives from Shanghai at the end of
September 1945, Anna's grandmother tells her: "Your father is a difficult man.
I'm sure he has his good side, and I suspect his heart is sometimes in the right
place. But his intentions never become actions . . . It's not a question of
love. It's a question of who he is, and what he wants." (216) Do these
statements and the observations that follow constitute an accurate assessment of
Joseph Schoene and his behavior? Is it, with him, never a question of love? To
what extent is it true that "he has no vision . . . and always will be an
Q> What specific capabilities make Genevieve "a master of adaptability" and
self-transformation (249) How would you describe Joseph Schoene's skills at
adapting? What adaptations and self-transformations does each undertake? What
incidents show most dramatically or most convincingly the reasons,
circumstances, and consequences-and the limitations-of their adaptive powers?
How and why do others undergo transformations? With what results?
Q> "Anything is possible in these times. There is no limit to what is now
possible," says the Russian trustee, Nikolai Petrovich, in Ward Road Jail. (280)
In addition to his most immediate reference, what are the possible implications
of his statement in the world of the jail and the world of the second half of
the twentieth century? What personal implications might the statement have for
Joseph Schoene? What limits disappear within the time scope of the novel?
Q> What kinds of love occur in The Distant Land of My Father? Between or among
whom? From what circumstances do these loves spring, what circumstances nourish
some of them, and what circumstances jeopardize or destroy others?
Q> Two of the old Chinese cook Chu Shih's sayings have later resonance in the
novel: Hsin chong yu shei, shei chiu p'iaoliang and His hua hua chiehkuo, ai liu
liu ch--ngyin. The first-"Whoever is in your heart is beautiful"-is repeated to
Anna by her dying mother as the basis for forgiving her father. Joseph quotes
the second-"Love and attention make all things grow"-as he works in the South
Pasadena garden. How do these two Shanghai adages apply to each main character
and the characters' interrelationships? In what ways might they apply to the
novel overall? What instances of unusual love, attention, beauty, and growth are
there in the novel, and what instances of their opposites?
Q> Anna recalls that, listening to Dr. Pearson's explanation of Joseph's death,
"I wanted causes and events, reasons why, a sense of order." (350) To what
extent might these three desires motivate all the characters? The author
herself? All of us?
Q> What does Joseph Schoene's final residence, its furnishings and appliances,
the books it contains, and its "decorations" reveal about his life and his
Copyright (c) 2002. Published by Harcourt, Inc.
Written by Hal Hager & Associates, Somerville, New Jersey
Used with permission of Harcourt, Inc.
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Book Club How To
Print "How To"
setting up a book discussion group from the Washington Center for the
Book at the Seattle Public Library
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.
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,
Reader from <
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
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
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 (2007) would like to thank the Washington Center for
the Book for permission to use this guide.