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This reading group guide for Something Red includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jennifer Gilmore. 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.
It’s 1980 in Washington D.C. and the domestic disturbances of the Goldstein family – a son going off to college, a daughter in the throes of adolescence, a mother’s mid-life crisis– inevitably collide with the shifting political landscape of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the end of the Cold War and the grain embargo against the U.S.S.R.
Navigating three generations, Jennifer Gilmore deftly intertwines the lives of her indelible characters as their marriages, faith and politics play out against the backdrop of history – the execution of the Rosenbergs, the Olympic boycott and the Iranian hostage crisis. Something Red is at once a poignant story of husbands and wives, parents and children, activists and spies and a brilliant novel crackling with energy, humor, and intelligence.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1.) Gilmore includes an epigraph selected from Grace Paley’s “Faith in the Afternoon” that reads “If you have something sensible to say, don’t wait. Shout it out loud right this minute.” Do you think these lines effectively capture the tone of the novel? Why or why not?
2.) The political landscape is a presence that directly affects the lives of the characters. Discuss the political events and situations that were relevant at the time? Do you have any memories of these events?
3.) Food plays an enormous role in the novel—from the grain embargo to Sharon’s cooking, to Vanessa’s eating, to Tatiana’s meringue cookies. Discuss the many contexts in which Gilmore uses food, and the significance in each.
4.) How would you compare the public opinion of Carter and his administration in the story with current attitudes towards the U.S. government? Can you relate to any of the characters in respect to this question? Who, and why?
5.) At the forefront of the novel is Sharon’s “mid-life crisis.” She claims that “she had lost touch with the earth, with the actual ground of this planet, with her home and the people in her home, and that she floated, wholly untethered, unsure as to what her role in the world now was and how she would ever get back down to realize it” (21). Do you think that this phenomenon can be seen as unique to her generation of women? Or is her predicament timeless?
6.) The Olympics surface several times in the novel. Sharon attributes a greater power to the tradition, one that is echoed in Ben’s rally later on. She remembers that “it was the Soviets who swept the medals that year. It was 1956, just before she’d moved East, and they’d watched the Russians participate for the first time; it was as if they were watching the very moment they achieved world domination” (27). Do you think Sharon and Ben were right to believe that the Olympics are “outside” of politics? Has our perception and the importance with which we imbue the Olympics changed in the past three decades?
7.) Dennis muses that “socialism hadn’t saved anyone, had it? People were still hungry and poor and cruel and stupid. It hadn’t changed a thing” (42). It is clear that Dennis sees the misfortune of humanity as inevitably fixed. Which characters might disagree with him? What would they argue in their defense?
8.) Vanessa, a teenager struggling with bulimia, recalls a set of Russian dolls from her childhood: “Looking at them in a descending line, she would wonder if all these pieces together constituted one doll, or if they were really twelve different dolls, with separate selves and souls” (47). How do you think this thought reflects Vanessa’s own struggle with self-identity? Do you think this question of multiple selves carries over to any of the other members of her family?
9.) Ben moves from being a high school athlete who hangs out with his teammates to a more radical, lifestyle when he goes to college. How does this change when he chooses to take action against the Olympic boycott? What parts of his personality do you see merge in these scenes?
10.) Sharon and Vanessa liken Ben’s rally speech to the “call and response of synagogue.” How much does Jewish identity play into the novel? Do you think it is overshadowed by their nationalistic loyalties? Why or why not?
11.) When Ben retrieves Vanessa after their night of partying, he wonders, “just as he said it, what it would mean exactly, but still he told his sister, his little sister, “Vanessa,” he said. “Let me take you home.” (246). What do you think this phrase means to Ben, and the rest of his family? How is it similar or different from Dennis and Sharon’s reconciliation at the Ritz?
12.) Discuss the role of music in the novel. How does it highlight both the differences and the similarities in the various members of the Goldstein family?
13.) All the characters seem to be reacting in some way to the past, whether it’s their own childhoods, or the lives of their parents. How does memory function in the novel and how does the past haunt the present? Does it affect the decisions these characters make? Are they running from the past or are they trying in some way to retrieve the past?
14.) Discuss the significance of the Snow Maiden story, a recurring thread throughout the novel: “The Snow Maiden listened to the song and tears rolled down her cheeks. And then her feet began to melt beneath her; she fell onto the earth and then she was gone, a light mist rising from the place she had fallen” (266).
15.) Were you surprised by the end of the novel? Discuss the importance of secrets and trust in the novel.
16.) In her last moments with Dennis and her husband, Tatiana feels it necessary to clarify that it was, indeed, Helen singing at a Workers Party years before. Why does she do this? What do you make of the rest of her confession? Can you sympathize with her? In what sense?
Tips for Enhancing your Book Club
1.) Visit www.jennifergilmore.net to learn more about Jennifer Gilmore’s past, present and future projects. You can even arrange to have her join your book group’s discussion!
2.) Host a screening of the movie Miracle, which chronicles the 1980 United States Ice Hockey team’s defeat of the Russians and brings to life Cold War tensions.
3.) If in the area, visit Brandeis University to learn more about its unique activist background.
4.) Bake meringue cookies to share with your book club. Here’s a link to some Tatiana might have made: http://www.marthastewart.com/recipe/cherry-pecan-meringues
5.) Want to be brave and try cherries jubilee, a la Sharon’s Food Matters party? Be careful! Here’s an easy recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/rachael-ray/cherries-jubilee-recipe/index.html
A Conversation with Jennifer Gilmore
1. Where did you come up with the idea for Something Red? Was there a character or a scene that you envisioned first?
I grew up in Washington and have always been fascinated about how close I was to the “center” of things, and yet how far I was from affecting any real kind of change. I was always very aware of how Washington operated —many of our friends were the children of senators or lobbyists kids or government officials—and it seemed distinctly different than how “inside the beltway” was portrayed in the media.
My father works in foreign food policy and my mother worked her whole career for the state department, involved in food aid. (When my sister was young, she thought my mother was a waitress!) I became interested in food as a “global” issue, as well as how it plays out in a family. Food is “used” in so many ways—especially now with the rise of “foodies” and issues of sustainability—and I wanted to explore it as identity, disease, power, the way it brings families together, and drives nations apart.
The era was informed by the Cold War, and so I wanted to deal with Russia in some way, largely, because, as in my last book, I am very interested in the way history affects families. Russia was the “mother country” for so many immigrants, but what was really happening there? What was left behind and what was taken? I became fascinated by the politics of the era—which stemmed from the Soviet Union as well—and how progressivism evolved into 60’s activism and then into post-sixties radicalism, which seemed to be less about real causes and more about music and lifestyle. I wanted to investigate how being a radical is defined differently for and by each generation.
These are all just ideas that started me going, but I wanted to be sure I had real characters the reader could relate to intimately so it did not seem like it was just loaded with ideas. Hopefully that’s what I ended up with.
2. The political backdrop of the novel is incredibly vivid in the minds of your characters. Why did you choose this era?
1979, a year I was too young to remember clearly, mind you, seemed like a seminal moment in history, fraught with endless fictional possibilities. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Iranian hostage crisis was in full bloom, there had been a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Disco was dying, and so was punk rock in its hardcore form, culminating with the death of Sid Vicious. And yet, punk’s more popularized version had reached our shores with the release of the Clash’s London Calling. Women’s oppression seemed to be waning, made concrete by Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” shown that year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Culturally, the world was thriving: Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song were released in 1979. So was Manhattan, The Rose, Apocalypse Nowand Breaking Away. Then, on Christmas Day, Soviet deployment of its army into Afghanistan began. And on January 4, 1980, Carter announced the US grain embargo against the Soviet Union. Which is when my novel begins.
3. How did you go about your research for the novel? What were your preferred sources?
History releases me from my own experience and jogs my fictional imagination. For instance, I read a great biography on Ethel Rosenberg, and in addition to her chronicling her life with Julius and in their political beliefs, it mentioned she was a singer. An alto. For some reason this let me see her clearly, and it became a small plot point in the book. So I read a lot of biographies, a lot of Irving Howe to better understand how movements emerged from movements. I read pop culture stuff too, books about punk rock in DC, and Joni Mitchell, and I looked up a zillion Grateful Dead set lists on-line, to be sure that played this song at this particular concert. I read a lot of cookbooks from the era, like Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie, the blue New York Times Cookbookby Craig Claiborne. And I also looked on line all the time, at old newspapers and Time Magazine articles, pieces on the Soviet Union. As much as I can read about it now, reading what happened in that time, with journalists reacting immediately, without hindsight, is invaluable. Really, I read anything that could put me in that time, including fiction, which is often the most reliable source of real, felt information. E.L. Doctorow’s, The Book of Daniel, was a revelation to me, because it was a fiction writer reacting, not immediately per se, but certainly a lot closer to the Rosenberg’s execution and the rise of the 60’s than I am now. His characters in that book were like the ones mine might have been haunted by.
4. How would you compare the public opinion of the U.S. government in 1980 with that of modern day? Do you think the particular issues that the Goldstein family copes with transfer? Why or why not?
Writing my way into that era, I was really struck by how little had changed and really, how little we look at the past, as a nation, to make decisions. The Afghanistan issue has hardly diminished. Food prices spiked right when I finished the book, just as they had in anticipation of that first grain embargo, and this was all related to ethanol and oil. And of course our dependence on oil has not diminished either. Even footage of the fashion of the era is startling in how similar it was to what might be fashionable now.
On a domestic level though that’s an easier question, largely because an inner-life is timeless. So what Vanessa and Ben, the kids, experience in 1979, is not that different than now, though they are not texting or listening to iPods. And issues of keeping a stressed marriage together, and how we manage our work lives and our home lives, who we are in the world versus who believe we should be in the world, well, these conflicts endure.
4. It has been said that you are part of a new generation of Jewish-American novelists. How do you think Judaism figures in the lives of your characters?
Let me start by saying I’m really proud to be part of this incredible and long literary tradition. Judaism as a religion has less of an effect on these characters, though, than Judaism as a culture. There has been much talk about what it means to be culturally Jewish in this country, but in this book, I think my characters are more concerned by what that means politically. And of course, it’s hard to separate the Jewish American experience from an American Immigrant experience, and my characters are grappling with issues that all immigrants deal with, depending on how long they’ve been in this country. This is why I like to see characters of a family, developing over generations. We can see what is passed down and what’s lost. And what’s gained. This family is Jewish, and so where they come from—Eastern Europe—and how they left, why they left, figures into each generation’s stories significantly.
5. Your novel incorporates three very distinct generations of Americans. And yet, often they seem more similar than they are different. For instance, at one point a character states that, “I’ve got the same problems my mother did. Only she got to take Valium” (51). Do you think that some things are inevitably passed on from one generation to the next?
I think the way things traits, tragedies, flaws, joys are passed down over the generations is fascinating. In Something Red, the Goldstein’s activism is something that every generation—grandparent, parent, child—deals with, but what that term means gets transformed by time. The difference comes from how long they’ve been in this country, the way the world changes over time, the development of technology, the change in popular culture. But at the crux of it, these characters’ urges to believe they are effecting change is what drives them, however futile or wrong-headed, or pure that impulse might be.
6. Who were the most influential authors in your development as a writer? Do you have any current favorites?
When I think of who I’ve looked to over time, it doesn’t always match with what my work looks like on the surface. But there are some writers who give you permission when you are young and casting your net. I admire Mary Gaitskill a lot—she takes incredible risks, the same way Jayne Anne Phillips can. So those writers gave me permission to be brave in my characters’ emotional lives. I would put Leonard Michaels and some Saul Bellow in that category as well. Grace Paley, who I quote in the epilogue, let me hear dialogue for what seemed like the first time. The way her characters speak to one another was revelatory to me in regards to audience. Characters don’t always have to be telling the reader a story; just like in life, eavesdropping can be much more fun. The use of scope—of looking outside the self and daily life—it goes to the men, though the reason for this is many-fold. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Plot Against America, and the way he uses history to create plot and illuminate his characters, was thrilling. But as a writer, I was raised on short stories, and for good sentences and stories, Raymond Carver and Harold Brodkey and Tim O’Brien, they’re who I look at over and over again.
7. Are you working on anything new? Do you think you will ever return to 1980?
1980 was a weird and wonderful moment in time—what came after was a whole new era. The 60’s and 70’s seem so distant when we get into the 80’s and 90’s in America. Never say never, but were I to revisit that year, I would have to come at it from a new angle. From where I sit now, I can’t imagine what that would be. I am working on something new, and it moves back and forth in time between the more current day and the far past, but it’s in the early stages and this could change. I am not a writer who has a structure in place that stays—it shifts as the characters move and grow. I tell my students that every novel is historical. One can never write about the moment we’re in, because, of course, it is instantly the past. It’s impossible to keep up with right this moment. I think about this when considering when to set a book; how present is the present and when does it become the characters’—or my own—past?
Jennifer Gilmoreis the author Golden Country, a 2006 New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Jewish Book Award, and Something Red, a New York Times Notable Book of 2010. Her work has appeared in Allure, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Vogue, and The Washington Post. She lives in Brooklyn.