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For Book Clubs

These Readers Guides were assembled by Random House editors.
Why Do I Love These People?
What Should I Do With My Life? 

The blog Mental Multivitamin (a perennial finalist for best literary blog) used some good pull-out quotes from the text of Why Do I Love These People? as provocative discussion fodder. 

Why Do I Love These People?

These questions are evolving and tend to change over time.

If you'd like to hear me reading from the book's introduction, click here. This is an excerpt from the Simon & Shuster audiobook.

While reading, what memories of your own life came back to you? Do you see those events in any different light, having just read what other families have been through? 

That these are true stories, rather than fiction - how did that affect the way you read the book? 

Would you share this book with your family? With your parents, siblings, spouse, or children? If they could only read one story, which one would you want them to read? What story would be most scary or threatening to share with them?

People commonly invoke that phrase, "You can't choose your family." But in this century, while we might not get to choose who we come from, we do choose whether to live in the same state, how often to call, and whether to see our family once a week or once a year. We fine tune that relationship like a thermostat. In what ways has your relationship to the various branches of your family been a relationship of choice? In what ways has it not been a choice?

In "The Cook's Story," the Louie family's fate turns when they get to visit their childhood home. Have you had any interesting experiences when visiting your own childhood home? 

In "The Trial," Vince Gonzalez writes his mother, "Mundanity can be elevated to the level of art by perception alone." To you, what does that mean? Do you think a key to relationships is the ability to see the beauty in the everyday and ordinary?

In "Bumpkin," Doug Haynes takes thirteen years to go from a young man who neglected his son to a very sensitive man who takes full responsibility for his son. To pull it off, and to build back trust, Doug becomes a listener, never telling Gabe what to do or ordering him around. Where on this spectrum does your own father fall? How about your grandfathers? Has your father changed much over the years, becoming more tolerant, or a better listener? 

Po writes in "The White Guy" that nearly every new couple today feels like they are bringing two different family styles into their marriage. For those of you who have a partner, do you feel you come from different family styles? How have you negotiated assimilating the two?

In "Dorothy's Child," Jarralynne Agee is a trained psychologist, and part of her training is to see dysfunction in the way her family interacts with each other. And yet Po came along and observed, instead, that this chafing is just the scars of a miraculous survival. In essence, when a family has dealt with such enormous challenges as neglect, mental illness, poverty, and racial discrimination, we should see their situation today as a very happy ending indeed, despite a minor amount of normal dysfunction. Do you agree? In what ways do you think we as a society are prone to overdiagnose "dysfunction," rather than accept that some chafing is customary to all families?

The chapter "Boxes" is partly a meditation on romantic love versus pragmatic concerns in choosing a partner. In your personal history, which relationships emphasized the romantic allure, and which were based on pragmatic concerns? Do you tend to chose partners with too little regard for one or the other factors? 

In the chapter "Jamaica?," Po brings up the question of "When is it time to cut someone off?" We try to protect ourselves, and yet we don't want to run at the first sign of trouble. Has the book made you more inclined to hang in there longer with problematic relationships? Or has it made you more inclined to cut people off who mistreat you? 

In "A Cautionary Tale," Po highlights the tension between being realistic about monogamy (not expecting it to be endlessly entertaining) and yet that notion can just make monogamy sound boring. What is your impression of monogamy: do we expect too much? What do you tell your friends, who are concerned about this - whether they are in relationships or they avoid them?  

In "The Butcher's Wife," Po talks about two styles of forgiveness - one that puts the burden on the atoner, one that puts the burden on the forgiver. One voice tells us not to trust again, the other voice tells us how important it is to forgive if just to move on and not hang on to our enmity. Which voice is loudest in your head? Has reading the book affected those voices - has it changed how you see forgiveness?

At the end of "Silent Car Rides," Po writes that every family struggles with the trade-off between familiarity and authenticity, between security and free expression. Between calm and honesty. People don't want to confess their secrets for fear of disturbing the family routine. How does your family handle this tradeoff? Do you think you lean more towards openness, or more towards sweeping it under the rug? Do you think honesty is more important, or is there some level of family routine that's worth hanging on to, even if it means not fully disclosing everything?

In "Some Thoughts," Po describes one of the greatest mothers he has ever met, Mary Naomi Garrett. Then he admits that she rarely hugged her children, and one of her children is missing (or might be dead) due to mental illness. Did that change your impression of Mary, or did you hang on to your admiration for her? Do you have preconceived notions of what a great relationship is supposed to be like? Does that ever get in the way of seeing the good that's there?

If the story of "The Tornado" happened to you, how would you have handled learning that your son has been stealing to support a cocaine addiction? Would you have been more strict than Charlie Taylor, or more lenient? What would you have done earlier, when you saw clues like finding pot in his room? Would you have suspected your son had much bigger problems? 

In "The Tornado," did you think Charlie Taylor was more lenient on his children because his wife Susan had given him a second chance? How would you have handled learning that your 15 year old daughter is pregnant? Would you have taken her out of school, as Susan did?

The chapters of this book are separated by questions that are meant to help us see all sides of family life. Questions such as, "Do I need to have been taught what love is to give it to someone else?" Or, "Is it harder for them to accept you, or for you to accept them?" Did any of these questions stop you and make you think, either about the story you'd read or how it related to your own family?

Many of the protagonists in these stories are people who've made mistakes. They are portrayed as noble and Po clearly admires them, and yet they have hurt their families, too - one neglected a son, several committed adultery, many of the parents disciplined their children physically, and several couldn't make their marriage work. How did Po manage to keep you from disliking these people or judging them? Is Po simply recording the reality that nobody's perfect? Did you ever find yourself judging them when Po abstained? If these people were your friend, rather than a stranger on a page, would you judge them the same way?

Po talks about how some family problems are external, while some family problems are internal. External is where the world puts the family in crisis, and they can bond together or be broken apart by that external challenge - such as poverty, culture, migration,  discrimination. Internal is where their personality differences and actions upon each other cause the crisis. These families show an abundance of both factors causing strain in these families. Pick a story, and talk about which are the external forces and which are internal.  

A number of the stories involve families who leave their homelands.  How did the families' migration transform the families?  

What is the role of higher education in affecting family relationships? How did getting a university degree affect the family lives of Uma Thangaraj, Yvonne Witter, and Denise Hughes? How about Doug Haynes? Did their education bring them closer to family, or push them away? Even if it pulled them away from their family, did it ultimately allow them to create stronger bonds? 

While many families heal with the help of professional therapists and psychiatrists, there are some notable examples of individuals surviving and healing without any professional resources. Most notably the story of Kraig Emery, healing from his son's death, and the story of Brian Olowude surviving via a strategy no therapist would ever recommend - by harboring a fantasy. Do you think our society looks too much, or too little, for professional help? Do you think we undervalue our homespun, "non-professional" survival methods?

Most of these families sought religious and spiritual guidance when facing their hardest times. How did their religious faith help them? Does it vary, or is it reasonably consistent story to story? Some stories involve a particular faith's interpretation of a general concept - such as the way Doug Haynes rethinks Redemption, in "Bumpkin," or the variations on forgiveness raised by "The Butcher's Wife." In what ways have your own notions of redemption, atonement, and forgiveness been affected by your religious background?

Brian Olowude and Steve Murphy both grew up emotionally confused by their families -- alone in a fantasy world of a movie theatre and a daydream.  But as adults, they woke up into a reality of huge, highly involved families from dramatically different cultures. Can you imagine what an incredible change that must have been?  Would you have been able to consider these sudden hordes of strangers your family as easily as Brian and Steve did?  Which do you think would be the most significant barrier to feeling like you really belonged to these new families -- the foreign cultures or the fact that you'd grown up without these people?  How would you overcome the years of separation from them -- physical, emotional, and temporal?

Who is the person in the book you most wonder, "What happened after that?" -- after his or her story ends?  Why are they the ones you are curious about -- what is it in their personalities or stories that makes you want to know more?  

Po hasn't really told the story of entire families, but instead chose to focus on the relationship between two particular people in the family.  Were there other people in the families you wished you had learned more about?  Po, especially in his own story, Blue Blankets, suggests that having a particular relationship with a single person may save that person's relationship with the entire family.  Do you agree?  Do you have any personal experiences that are similar to that, where a family member may be close to just one or two others, but is estranged from everyone else?

Po has said that he hopes this book will give encouragement to those who have been dissuaded from having a family because of endless reports on rising divorce rates, single parenting, etc.  Are you one of the people he's talking about?  If so (and even if not) do you think the book will help change that perspective?

In "The Tornado," the Taylor family fully considers it Robin Taylor's personal choice of what to do about her pregnancy at age fifteen. However, Robin chooses to carry the baby - rather than abort - and later decides to put the baby up for adoption. Did you find this part of the story taking one or another side on this deeply divisive topic? If so, which side did you think it endorsed? In general, families cannot escape the political issues of the day. Did you sense one or another ideology behind the book?

In the Butcher's Wife, Denise and Brian Hughes have to overcome the weight of history to raise their family.  What sort of historical forces did they have to overcome?  Personal?  Cultural?  Political?  What others?  Do you think that you would be able to overcome history as successfully as they did?  How does history effect your family relationships -- both the family you have now and the relationships you don't yet have?

Who in the book did you most expect you would relate to? Who did you least expect you would relate to? Did those expectations come true - or did you find yourself relating to people you did not imagine you would?

The statistics in the Halftime chapter paint a picture of a glass half full. Why do you think it is that in the media, the glass is always half empty, or worse?  

Most of the stories are built around an indelible image that works metaphorically - Andrew's tree, Jen's bracelet, Andy's greenhouse, silent car rides, a tornado, the river of family life, Brian's palace, Uma's boxes. Did it surprise you to see such a literary technique applied in a work of nonfiction? Which ones did you think worked particularly well?

The people included tended to work out their problems one way or another, but in the meantime they went through some very sad, often scary years. Did you find the overall picture to be rosy or tragic? 

Po warns of the danger of aggrandizing the present, and pretending that we have problems today that are so much worse or harder than the challenges of previous generations. Do you know much about the challenges your parents and grandparents went through? How did their challenges compare to yours of today?

Most of the stories Po tells are ones of reconciliation, but some of the stories involve breaking away from the one person who most tortured the main character. Reading the book, did you find yourself considering who in your life to hold closer, or who in your life to push away?

Po's work does not fit easily into traditional book categories. Po calls his book "a social documentary." Do you think that's a good way to describe it? How would you describe it?

What do you think the family of the future will look like? In 40 years, do you think the percentage of children living in single-parent households will be higher or lower? Do you think the average child will be getting a better education or worse education? 

Some of the stories tell of events that happened years earlier, while still others are about events which unfolded while Po was interviewing them over the years writing this book.  How do you think the families' memories colored their stories?  How are these older stories different from those that were told contemporaneously?  How does the passage of time color the stories of your own family? Does it give you a better perspective - where you found out why something happened years afterwards, or later experiences had taught you what the person must have been going through?   Or does time distort reality (making events better or worse than they really were)? 


What Should I Do With My Life?

If you'd like to hear me reading from the book's introduction, click here. This is an excerpt from the Simon & Shuster audiobook.

Artistic Choices
Strategies & Macro Influences
Finding Your Story


1. Po chose to weave in fragments of his life when his memories were triggered by the stories of others. How did this enhance or detract from your experience of reading the book? Did his doing so encourage you to think about your own memories, or did it get in the way?

2. Journalists are supposed to be impartial. They’re not supposed to overtly care for the people they write about. In rejecting that method, Po seemed to be suggesting that caring for others is necessary for a meaningful life. Do you agree? What would Po have gained or missed if he had adopted a journalist’s customary detachment?

3. Most of the stories have positive outcomes, but the subjects have to endure a painful period to get there, and they’re still tinged with regret and uncertainty afterwards. Did you find the overall picture rosy or sad? Did you expect otherwise?

4. Po chose to include several stories of people who are still struggling, or who have found only part of their solution. He also chose ordinary people, rather than famous ones. Why do you think he made these choices? How does it influence the overall tone of the book?

5. Was part of your enjoyment the fantasy of being welcomed into the intimate lives of strangers? Was part of your enjoyment the sense that there’s someone out there who would be willing to listen to your life story? How important to your enjoyment was getting concrete wisdom from the stories?

6. Po recorded the stories of over 900 people. That suggests he wanted to be encompassing and representative of everyone, but he freely admits that his research was biased heavily towards the kind of person he used to be (and the kind of people he used to write about). Does this influence the legitimacy of his conclusions? In what ways has your perspective also been limited by where you come from?

7. Po categorized the stories in a way that highlighted the psychological issues we have in common. He rejected methods of categorization that would have sorted people by profession, age, or class. Thus, the story of an electrician is followed by a political appointee, and the story of a mother is followed by a trucker, etc. What is the author trying to say about the way people usually identify themselves?

8. Po clearly chose not to write a How-To guidebook. But he seems torn between two ambitions – his desire to be a serious chronicler, which dictated recording the stories straight, and his desire to help readers, which lead him to distill helpful insights. When did he cross over too far, in either direction? Do you work in a field where wanting to help others means you are taken less seriously?


9. Did you think any of these people should have stayed put, rather than leave their old life behind? Whose choices did you question or criticize? For instance, did you question Carl Kurlander’s decision to write Louie Anderson’s autobiography, rather than his own? Did you accept or reject Mark Kraschel’s appreciation for Muslim culture? Did you respect Katt Clark’s decision to set aside her Olympic dreams for her daughter a second time?

10. Many of these people left professions where they would have made a lot of money, and in some cases did. What message do you extract from this – that it’s necessary to resist the temptation of money, and the sooner the better, to avoid being locked in by golden handcuffs? Or does their example suggest that it’s possible to follow in their path, aiming for money now and postponing your calling until later?

11. Katherine James, Warren Brown, Debbie Brient and Jennifer Scott were among the many who believed they were being steered towards the right decision. Do you believe in destiny, or a guiding hand? If so, what should one do when the universe seems to be making it very, very hard to succeed? – is that a sign you’re going in the wrong direction?

12. Po concludes that a calling isn’t something you know, in the absence of experience, it’s something you grow into. Many of the people in this book weren’t able to figure out where they really belonged until the second half of their life. How should this influence the way we counsel students, who want to find their answer now, not later?

13. Every industry has a culture. And every culture is driven by a value system. Po urges us to recognize how these value systems have shaped us, for better or worse. What is the culture of the industry in which you work? What does it value in a person, and what doesn’t it value?

14. How have you and your spouse (or partner) helped each other in your pursuit? How have you hindered each other? Have you chosen partners because they helped you succeed? Po confesses that he used the support of his first wife like a crutch – that he didn’t take sole responsibility for his own situation. Do you agree that generous support can lead to neglect of responsibilities?

15. Roughly half the people in the book are parents. The other half aren’t – at least yet (either because they’ve delayed doing so, or they haven’t found their partner). Did you read their story differently if they had children? Did you relate to them differently?

16. When you’ve had to counsel friends or family who are facing an agonizing decision, how have you balanced the need to be supportive against the need to be realistic? To what extent is your counseling strategy reflective of your own successes and failures?

17. Po says that we’re all struggling to transcend the way our class defines us. He seems to be saying that the inequity between classes is a wound in our collective psyche. Do you think it’s that relevant – does it really affect our individual enjoyment of life?

18. At LSU, Mike Blandino’s Buddhism taught him to find his answers in his state of being, not doing. In Indiana, Barry Brown was influenced by the sermons of an old-time Calvinist. Mike Jenzeh was guided by Isaiah 58 of the Old Testament. At the Unity Church in Bandon, John Butler taught that what we consider our strengths are limiting beliefs compensating for our biases and weaknesses. At St. Agatha’s in Los Angeles, Father Joe preached that helping others is the way to serve God. How does your religion affect your pursuit of this question? Do you agree with your church’s teaching?


19. What have you been called to, over the course of your life? Have you listened to those calls? Which have you acted upon, and which have you chosen not to?

20. Write a one-page memory of a time during your childhood or teen years that you managed to succeed at something that you were afraid of trying or convinced you would fail at.

21. In the first section, Po portrays various ways of arriving at "a sense of rightness," such as analyzing your skills, or watching for synchronicity, or wanting to help others who have suffered similar tragedies and losses. Po also says we’re as likely to simply stumble into a place that feels right as arrive there by reasoned planning. Which of these ways have you used when telling your story to others? Could you tell your story using the other methods?

22. Po concludes that it’s in hard times that we’re forced to overcome the fears and doubts that normally give us pause. To what extent have the changes in your life been self-selected, during good times, or been forced upon you, during hard ones? When you’ve suffered hardship, has it altered what you consider important? Has hardship changed your life, or have you fought to get back to "normal"?

23. Po warns against editing out important pieces of our story in order to make our story more presentable to others. "Embrace your luck, pain and ghosts," he suggests in one chapter; in another he writes, "look backward even more than forward, and chase away preconceptions of what our story is supposed to sound like." He contrasts the Resume Version with the Work-In-Progress Version. How do you describe yourself in a public situation? How do you do so differently in a private situation? What failures do you rarely bring up? Do you agree that we should be more revealing of our "real story" in public situations?

24. In the chapter "The Brain Candy Generation," Po says the true search is for what you believe in – what kind of world you want to live in. In what ways are you making the world a better place – even if it’s just one quality interaction at a time?

25. Po tells Tom Scott that happiness is too easy a test; rather, we should ask what will be fulfilling. Leela de Souza found that fulfillment when she stopped asking what would make her happy, and instead asked "to what could she devote her life?" Mike Jenzeh’s life improved when he gave up that it was all about himself. Yet these stories are balanced by the likes of Warren Brown, who stopped suppressing what made him happy, and Kurt Slauson, who had been denying himself permission to enjoy his life. Have the most fulfilling periods of your life also been happy ones? Is happiness essential?

26. Bart Handford tells Po the parable of the three bricklayers building a cathedral, suggesting that even menial work can be meaningful if it’s contributing to something you believe in. Have your most meaningful accomplishments required a lot of menial work?

27. Po suggests that temptations can come in many forms: in the form of money, respect, love, and convenience. Write a one page memory about a time in your adult life that you resisted one of these temptations.

28. In the chapter "The Ungrateful Soldier," Po recounts C.S. Lewis’s assertion that belonging to an Inner Ring is a powerful, wayward desire. Po asks Tim Bratcher who’s sitting at that table – who’s in his Inner Ring. Are there ways you’ve used status as a surrogate for individual expression? What elusive ring do you long to belong to? Are there people in your life (or in your past) that you don’t respect, yet are still trying to prove wrong?

29. Both Stephen Lyons and Chi Tschang tell Po that if you can develop into a person of good character, your chances of succeeding in life improve dramatically. What do they mean by "character"? What’s an example from your own life of good or bad character?