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This reading group guide for Here Comes Another LessonbyStephen O’Connor includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Here Comes Another Lesson is a surprising, playful, and stirring collection of stories ranging from the wildly inventive to the vividly realistic. The utterly original stories feature characters who are all idealists, in one way or another, but who cannot live according to their ideals. They yearn for love and fulfillment, often against fantastical, semi-apocalyptic backdrops whose strangeness only serves to make these lives more familiar, and deeply affecting. This exciting literary showcase simultaneously laments a sane and gentle world that can never exist and celebrates human hopefulness in the face of that fact.
1. In this collection, some stories are firmly grounded in reality and others make use of fantastical situations or backdrops to evoke real emotion. As you read, did you find yourself connecting with one style of story over another? Use examples from the book to explain your opinion.
2. In “Ziggurat,” what was it about the New Girl that caused the Minotaur to treat her differently than all the other humans he’d encountered? Why do you think she reacted to him the way she did? What was your reaction to their relationship?
3. The Minotaur expresses that all human “beliefs about destiny and justice, all their rituals, injunctions, inhibitions, and plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face truths” were “trash, irrelevant, wrong” (p. 8). Why do you think the Minotaur feels this way? Do you think his opinion changes by the end of the story? Why or why not?
4. In “White Fire,” why do you think Davy tells a war story to his young children even as he keeps everything from his wife and parents? Describe some of the things that strike Davy as strange after he returns home; what things show he has changed?
5. Many of the stories in this collection seem to say, “Things are not what they seem.” For example, Tim, the main character of "Disappearance and..." goes through the story expecting to die at the end of the day, but does not. In "Aunt Jules," Jules keeps a life-long secret to protect the perfect marriage of her sister and the man they both love...but later discovers that her sister knew for years about their affair, and the marriage was by no means perfect. Where else do you see this theme being played out in the stories?
6. The narrator’s mother in the story “All in Good Time” sums up that people are innately selfish: “They are filled with their hate and their jealously and their fear, and so they are vile and disgusting. But somehow they still want to be good” (Page 38). She says that what people really want more than anything else is “one single moment of peace” (Page 38). Do you agree with her about these two conflicting sides of people? Why or why not? Which other stories in the book illustrate this idea? Compare and contrast their treatment of it.
7. Why do you think the author selected the name “Bestiary” for the story of Paul and Bea? Is the implication that man is essentially a beast, illustrated by the actions of these characters? Do you agree with this idea? Why or why not?
8. The narrator in “Man in the Moon” seems to learn more outside “Big Head School” than in the classroom. “The Lesson is: Never worship anything. The lesson is: the love in the hate and the hate in the love. The lesson is: it all evens out. If we are lucky. If we wait long enough.” (Page 73) What leads him to form these conclusions? How are these ideas illustrated in other stories in the book?
9. In “The Professor of Atheism: Paradise,” Charles not only discovers that the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil leaves much to be desired, but he also finds that things he once desired have become less interesting now that they are no longer forbidden. Do you find this is true in the real world? Give some examples to support your opinion.
10. “Love” is a beautiful story in which Alice falls in love with Ian, the old boyfriend of a deceased college friend. When Alice escapes to a cabin to complete her dissertation, she imagines that a perverted “secret admirer” is stalking her, but Ian assures her she’s just imagining it—that it’s just a bear. What else does Alice exaggerate in her mind, only to discover later that it was a figment of her imagination? Why do you think she does this?
11. “Sawed-in-Half Girl” features two characters who happen to meet during their travels. In what ways is the girl incomplete? In what ways is the boy incomplete? Do you think the two are able to complete one another in any way? Explain your opinion.
12. Charles gets a glimpse of what seems to be a poetically just Hell in “The Professor of Atheism: Department of Refutation”: his suicidal mother playing solitaire, his father with his hand on the breast of the woman he cheated with, a neighbor who was killed in war now killing animals because they have no souls. In the end, do you think the dose of Hell Charles is given is his own just reward? Why or why not?
13. In “Disappearance and …,” Tim finds out he will soon die. Despite this, he decides not to change anything about how he lives his life. What does this say about the kind of life he lives? Would you change anything about your own life if a cormorant paid you a visit?
14. As the collection’s title implies, many stories in this book seem to offer a lesson to readers. Consider the "Professor of Atheism" stories as the good intentions of Charles are constantly unrewarded; how in "White Fire" Davy returns home from war and finds that what used to matter no longer does; "I Think I'm Happier" when a dead father decides to wait for his son because love and death are the same; and how normal restrictions are put on hold for a movie version of life in "Based on a True Story." What do you think the common lesson is for these stories? How do you feel about this message? Do you agree or disagree?
Enhance Your Bookclub
1. The author has given us several misadventures of Charles, the “Professor of Atheism.” Although they do relate, they are also independent of one another. Draw a map or timeline of Charles’ adventures and lessons and see if you can spot the themes that are also present in other stories throughout the book. Either in writing or in discussion, can you come up with another scenario that might teach Charles another lesson?
2. No matter which story in this book is your favorite, chances are it ended in a way that allows you to imagine what might come next. Share your favorite story with your bookclub members and discuss what you think would happen after the last line.
3. Stephen O’Connor has written a wide range of different types of work, including fiction, poetry, memoir, essays, social analysis, and narrative history. Some of his works are included at his website, www.stephenoconnor.net. Visit his site, where you can read some of his other short works. Compare and contrast these works to Here Comes Another Lesson. Identify and discuss any recurring styles or themes you find.
Stephen O’Connor is the author of three books: Rescue (a collection of short fiction and poetry), Will My Name Be Shouted Out? (a work of memoir and social analysis), and Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed (a narrative history). His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Conjunctions, The Quarterly, Partisan Review, The New England Review, and elsewhere. His poetry has been in Poetry Magazine, The Missouri Review, Agni, Knockout, and Green Mountains Review. His essays and journalism have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere.
O’Connor is the recipient of the Cornell Woolrich Fellowship in Creative Writing from Columbia University, the Visiting Fellowship for Historical Research by Artists and Writers from the American Antiquarian Society, and the DeWitt Wallace/Reader's Digest Fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. He teaches in the writing MFA programs of Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence. For eight years he directed and taught in Teachers & Writers Collaborative’s flagship creative writing program at a public school in New York City. He has received a B.A. from Columbia University, and an M.A. from the University of California at Berkeley, both in English literature. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City.