This reading group guide for
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Human Blues includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elisa Albert, intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
What should we do when we don’t get what we want★ Scorn the universe★ Use everything in our power to push back against our lot★ Or accept what we’re given—and not given★ Singer-songwriter Aviva Rosner is settled in a sweet marriage, but she can’t get pregnant. Like any good artist, she mines her frustration and ambivalence, goosing the status quo and raising plenty of uncomfortable questions about fertility, culture, money, and power. This is the internal-turned-external conflict that drives Elisa Albert’s blistering and virtuosic Human Blues
. Capacious, profane, searching, messy, and electrically funny, Human Blues
takes on the subject of the ego as it relates to creation and procreation, life force and death drive, resistance and surrender, all while asking: Which is the right path for Aviva★ Aviva’s singular voice carries readers across the sometimes-brutal waves of nine fruitless menstrual cycles, while an unexpected obsession with the iconic Amy Winehouse comes to anchor her ambivalence. Notwithstanding any preconceived notions about the costs, risks, and benefits of the fertility industrial complex, it’s a riveting, daring tale. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. There are nine chapters in Human Blues
, with titles like “Fame,” “Breath,” “Fashion,” and “Song.” Think about these titles as a whole: What do you make of their progression★ What are they suggesting or encapsulating★ Think about each chapter/cycle in the context of its title: Why do you think Elisa chose that particular word★
2. Brainstorm some adjectives you would use to describe Aviva, Sam, Jerry, Barb, Chuck, the Rabbi, the unconceived child, Amy Winehouse, and other characters that interest you. Do they share any traits in common★ What aspects of their personalities resonate with you★
3. From Mike’s wife, “What’s-Her-Face,” to Holly and Barb and Mum, Elisa gives us many distinct examples of femaleness and motherhood in Human Blues
. Is there a depiction of a “type” of woman or mother that you find most compelling or relatable★ Is there one that makes you feel uncomfortable★ Why★
4. How does Aviva wield profanity and humor to deal with grief and heartache and rage and frustration★ What are some quips that shocked you, or that made you laugh★
5. Out of all the conversations that Aviva has in Human Blues
, those with her therapist, the Rabbi, engage most directly with her quandary. Do you think the Rabbi does a good job of guiding Aviva★ If you were Aviva’s therapist, what advice would you
6. Consider Aviva’s past and present romantic and sexual partners, like Jeff, the Cracker, the Love Fiend, and Marcus Copeland. What attracts her to each of them★ Why do you think Aviva and Sam are ultimately together, and how do you feel about their relationship by the end of the novel★
7. Why does Aviva become so obsessed with Amy Winehouse★ What does the novel gain from mining this obsession in conversation with Aviva’s fertility struggles★ What does Winehouse represent to Aviva, and what does her story have to do with the baby Aviva so badly wants★ How would you describe the clarity Aviva gains from her time with Winehouse’s Mum★
8. Whether or not you’ve navigated your own fertility issues, in what ways do you identify or empathize with Aviva’s struggles and questions★ Was there anything she experienced or expressed in her quest that you hadn’t considered before★ Did reading Human Blues
give you any new perspectives★
9. By the last page of the book, do you think Aviva arrives at a place of peace and fulfillment★ Did you as the reader experience catharsis or resolution★ Did the ending conform to your expectations★ Enhance Your Book Club
1. Think about other books that deal with motherhood, music, desire, trauma, family, feminism, infidelity, drugs, and religion (not necessarily all at once). How is Human Blues
What do you especially appreciate about Elisa’s approach★ What challenged you★
2. Albert made a Spotify playlist
for Human Blues
featuring “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift, “Binary” by Ani DiFranco, “Phone Down” by Erykah Badu, “Life’s a Bitch” by Nas, and “Foolish Little Girl” by The Shirelles. What songs would you choose if you were to make a sequel★ Come up with three to five each, discuss your selections, and make a new playlist for other readers to enjoy.
3. In what ways are you satisfied or dissatisfied with mainstream cultural conversations around menstruation, fertility, and the intersection of medical technologies with the reproductive body★ Are you comfortable sharing your own experiences as a person in a menstruating body★ In what ways have you felt empowered or disempowered in this context★ Have you ever felt mistreated, confused, ignored, or condescended to as a person with a menstrual cycle★ What kinds of legacies do you think you inherited around discussing or not discussing your reproductive health and life★ A Conversation with Elisa Albert How and when did the idea of menstrual cycles as a framework for the novel strike you★ What was it like working within that structure★
Very early on I knew that Aviva’s story would have to center her menstrual cycle, because it just seemed super obvious: A person trying to conceive experiences time through the lens of their cycle. I was delighted with this idea right up until I hit the second chapter, at which point it dawned on me that I had bit off quite a ridiculous lot to chew! Is there an Amy Winehouse tidbit that didn’t make it into the book★
A friend who once worked as an assistant fashion stylist in London told me a story about some special designer bra-top that she delivered to Amy for a photo shoot, but then the thing went missing and my friend got into some mild trouble over it. Not terrifically illuminating, but there you have it.
And I do always want to reiterate the fact that when Amy was alive, at the peak of her fame, she was so
reviled and mocked and baited in the press. Dying young conferred her angel/martyr status, but the poor girl was harangued and put down and insulted a lot
during her life. It’s important to remember that women who don’t “play nice” are often roundly punished. Easy to forget once they’re safely dead and sainted. Is there a minor character in Human Blues that is of special interest to you, one that you might have explored further if you’d had the time or space within the world of the novel★ If so, why★
Any minor character within any narrative has the potential to be at the heart of a different narrative. I can imagine a scathing novel illuminating Mike and how and why he lives his life in such opposition to how his sister lives hers. But truly, for any character of any size, there’s a whole complex story there, for sure. It would be a relief, frankly, after building this huge Aviva tale, to relegate her to the margins of someone else’s story! How do control and release interact in the context of Aviva’s worldview★
Knowing what to hold on to and what to let go of, and when, and how—these are the big questions of life. Aviva wants to live authentically, be awake, outwit shame. What she finds is that there is no prefab road map. No easy answers. Only more questions! We all have to puzzle through the hard stuff for ourselves, while we’re on our own journey. Is there a moment, sentence, or section in Human Blues that you found especially fun to write★
So many, I couldn’t begin to count. Once I locked in on Aviva’s voice and the larger structure, I found a lot of freedom and vitality in following where she led me. I wanted nothing to be off limits. The more dangerous the territory, the more fun to explore (at least in the relatively “safe” realm of narrative). Do you think Aviva handles her celebrity well★ Would you ever like to be her level of famous★
Aviva loathes fame. She finds it false and shallow and just a bizarre garbage dynamic of projection and power imbalance. Artists are “supposed” to respect and admire and covet fame. It’s purportedly the “goal” of any creative pursuit. Aviva calls bullshit.
She paraphrases Rilke’s idea that fame is just the accumulation of misunderstandings surrounding a name. This is part of what fascinates her about Winehouse, whose icon status doesn’t do her humanity any favors.
I like musician Kristin Hersh’s take on the matter: “Fame’s for dorks.” As you were developing and writing Human Blues, did you turn to any other books or media for inspiration★ If so, what are they and how did they influence you★
I’m a voracious reader and consumer of high and low and in-between culture. It all goes into the stew. Philip Roth’s novel Sabbath’s Theater
, which features one of his thorniest, most unrepentant narrators to maximum effect, was definitely a source of “permission” and a lot of joy. And I fully ascribe to what Adrienne Rich said about art: that it “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.” Literature is a gorgeous way to explode the political/cultural/social status quo. If readers could think more deeply about one idea or concept in your book, what would it be and why★
In what ways is the female reproductive body powerful★ What does that power look like★ Feel like★ What diminishes or invalidates that power★ Who or what does that power threaten★ How are we complicit in our own degradation, and why★ What role do shame and ignorance play in how we form and access ideas about these things★ Who do we trust when it comes to understanding our bodies★ How can we become more embodied, more honest, and less fearful★ What does that look and feel like★
I guess that’s more than one idea . . . sorry not sorry.