Rochester Reads 2016: Discussion Points for Queen of the Fall

Discussion Points for Queen of the Fall

 

The Author’s Craft

  • What are the possible meanings of the title of the book? How do the varying themes of nourishment and religion and womanhood come into play in the title?
  • Prologues are often used in novels and memoirs to set the tone or focus the reader on symbolism that will occur throughout the book. In her introduction, titled “The Memory of Trees,” how does Livingston inform the reader about what is to come?
  • How does each epigraph set the tone for each section?
  • What is the difference in tone or content of each of the book’s three sections?
  • How are the personalities of the author’s various friends and family revealed through small details?
  • How are the complications of family relationships depicted? How do they change over time?
  • How are sexual relationships, outside and within marriage, represented?
  • How does the author balance her coming-of-age story with the more expansive story of being a woman in modern America?
  • Discuss how the writing is imagistic or visual. In what ways is it cinematic?
  • There are several instances of the author being both self-reflective and self-reflexive, and even speaking directly to the reader as she breaks the “fourth wall.” How do these rhetorical strategies affect the audience?
  • Discuss the author’s writing style, including sentence structure, diction, tone, setting, narrative structure, and use of imagery and figurative language such as metaphors.
  • What research did the author do for certain essays?
  • What is the function of the book’s Coda?
  • In ending the essay on writer and educator Judith Kitchen (who passed away in 2014, and in whose memory the book is dedicated), Livingston asks about her mentor’s writing, “What to do with such language? What to do but take it in a line at a time, stopping now and again for breath? What to do but swallow it whole, until saplings take root?” Livingston, too, displays virtuoso prose skills. Find an example or two of your favorite sentences or passages in this book and discuss why they stand out for you. Look especially for rich descriptions and unique metaphors. Then find passages from other favorite books….

 

Characters/Subjects and Motivation

  • Discuss the challenges the author faces throughout the life stories she shares in the book.
  • This book in many ways a coming-of-age story. Explore how this is evident. Discuss what coping mechanisms the young Sonja uses.
  • How do pop culture icons affect young Sonja?
  • How do these figures from pop culture differ from Sonja’s feelings about the historical figure Susan B. Anthony?
  • How is Sonja changed by the people she interacts with, the experiences she has? What lessons does she learn? Looking back on her youth and young adulthood, how does the author reconsider her life, her choices, her conception of family and motherhood, her thoughts about the future? Track her emotional and psychological shifts.
  • How are secrets kept by the book’s characters/subjects? How is information revealed?
  • How is the issue of acceptance addressed? How is survival broached?
  • How do the different people in Sonja’s life look differently at the workings of faith and identity and personal empowerment and of their own actions in forming their own identities and futures?

 

Issues and Themes

  • Memory is necessarily a theme of the memoir genre and this holds true in Queen of the Fall, with the Introduction being titled “The Memory of Trees.” How and where else are the complications of memory directly addressed?
  • Several variants of the word “fall” are used in the Introduction. How do they set up the reader for what is to come?
  • What different female icons are present in the book? How does the author approach each as a figure of womanhood?
  • What different kinds of friendships and familial relationships are evident?
  • How are women among men—and their various relationships—portrayed?
  • How are such issues as virginity, sex, motherhood, and fertility explored by the author both in her life and in the book?
  • What is the significance of losing her virginity and becoming a “bad girl”?
  • What role does religion play in the author’s life? What examples does the author provide?
  • What cultural references that Livingston writes about have meaning for you too and why? What stories could you tell related to them?
  • How do the essays progress through the book? Can you see a pattern, a rationale for the order?
  • How does the book differ from other memoirs or essay collections with which you are familiar?
  • One writer stated that Livingston writes about “sorrow and sacredness, and the beauty that is found in both.” Where can you find examples of sorrow, and of sacredness, coupled with beauty?
  • How is the element of discovery revealed through Livingston’s experiences?
  • How do different individuals cope with the same issues as Livingston faces? What are their reactions and their strategies for survival?
  • Discuss how the following play out in the memoir and how each affects the characters of the story: femininity, family, and fertility.
  • What defines a memoir and how does Queen of the Fall fit that definition?
  • What differentiates a collection of essays from a memoir?
  • What does the book say about the importance of storytelling?

 

Speculative Questions for Discussion or Writing

  • What do you think the author’s motivations were in writing this memoir?
  • Would this story affect older readers differently than people from a younger generation? Male-identified readers differently from female-identified readers? Those who grew up in the US compared to those who grew up elsewhere? Why?
  • How do stories function in a society and for the individual? What are the purposes of telling and retelling stories to ourselves and to others?

 

Related Writing Projects

  • Write about your own childhood or coming-of-age experience.
  • Take a cultural reference from the book and write about your own relation to it. Examples include Madonna, Nancy Drew, Ally McBeal, Pop Tarts, Land O’Lakes butter, and Land of the Lost.
  • When asked in school what she wants to do when she grows up, Livingston comes up with the dream career of “mythologist.” Thinking back, what did you “want to be” when you grew up? How have those goals been met (or not)?
  • Write about a woman (famous or not) who has influenced you.
  • Write a first-person (creative nonfiction) essay connecting an element of your own history or contemporary life or thought with an issue in a broader social context.

 

Memoir Writing Prompt by Sonja Livingston

As children and teens, most of us look to others (television or literary characters, popular classmates, artists, athletes, teachers, or rock stars) to help us better understand who we are and to imagine who we might become.

            Queen of the Fall explores the various icons one girl considered on her path to becoming a woman, including Susan B. Anthony, 1980s Madonna, the Virgin Mary, the maiden on the Land O’ Lakes butter box, and many more.

Who did you look to? Who did you admire and why? What did they represent and what does that say about the woman or man you have become? Write a brief creative essay inspired by one of your childhood icons.

For added power, try writing in present tense so that we feel like we’re standing beside you as you describe the summer you plastered your bedroom with posters of Leif Garrett or got a nose ring and a used guitar and tried your best to mimic Ani DiFranco, the season you wanted to be Roberto Clemente or one of the Partridge kids, the time in 4th grade you lost yourself in Nancy Drew mysteries, or the way you spent most of your childhood envying your cousin Gina with the perfect hair.

 

 

 

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