Book Club Discussion Guides

Novels:

Come Landfall: A Novel
By Roy Hoffman

Overview:

The worlds of three women and the men they love come together in this novel of war and hurricanes, loss and renewal. Christiane, or Nana, reliving the past in her eighties, her granddaughter Angela, working at a Biloxi casino in her twenties, and their teenage friend Cam, the daughter of a Vietnamese shrimper, form a deep connection. As they face heartbreak, their bonds nurture and sustain them. Ordinary people impacted by the shifts of history—Come Landfall is a southern story with a global sensibility.

Inspired by true events, Roy Hoffman’s novel has its seeds in the saga of his uncle, Maj. Roy Robinton, US Marine Corps, a WWII prisoner of war in the Philippines who disappeared as captive on a Japanese “hellship.” His young bride, back home, was ground down, waiting.

What’s taken from Nana, Angela, and Cam (and so many others when storms make their landfall), what’s given back, and what’s kept forever sit at the heart of this intimate yet expansive novel.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Hoffman sets his novel on the coast of Mississippi, with its juxtaposition of Old South and New South, and its history of hurricanes. How does the setting of Come Landfall play into the overall drama of this story?
  2. What is the meaning, to you, of the title, Come Landfall?
  3. Three women, three loves, three wars – in what way are Nana, Angela, and Cam, each in her own way, impacted by World War II, Iraq, and Vietnam? Are these historic conflicts far away, or close to home? Or both? How so?
  4. What binds together these three women?
  5. How does Angela cope with the challenges in her life? Consider her father, her relationship with Frank, her connection to her grandmother – how does she negotiate all these relationships in a way that enables her to stay strong, to remain nurturing? Or does she maintain that strength?
  6. In what ways does Christiane — Nana — in her 80s, offer glimpses of what she was like as a young woman? Do we feel that she has changed in the course of her long life, or that, at heart, she’s the same woman?
  7. Does Cam receive the respect she deserves? And what does she experience as a teenager, as the daughter of new Americans, and as someone whose faith tradition is different than the majority of people around her?
  8. What does “Come Landfall” ask us to consider about memory? Is it a positive, nurturing, sustaining phenomenon – to hold onto the past – or can it also be limiting? Constricting? Do we have a choice as to what we remember? Or how we remember?
  9. With war looming over these characters, even in the distance, what are different attitudes about war? About heroism? About sacrifice?
  10. How do Angela and Frank feel about the present war in the novel, and how does it shape their love? Are they drawn together? Pulled apart? In what ways?
  11. In the last chapter, Angela has a realization about her relationship to the many characters and experiences in the novel, and its impact on her inner life. What do you feel that realization is? How do you interpret the very last line of the novel?
  12. Are the experiences of the characters in Come Landfall ones that resonate in ways in your own life?

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Chicken Dreaming Corn: A Novel
By Roy Hoffman

Overview:

In 1916, on the immigrant blocks of the Southern port city of Mobile, Alabama, a Romanian Jewish shopkeeper, Morris Kleinman, is sweeping his walk in preparation for the Confederate veterans parade about to pass by. “Daddy?” his son asks, “are we Rebels?” “Today?” muses Morris. “Yes, we are Rebels.” Thus opens a novel set, like many, in a languid Southern town. But, in a rarity for Southern novels, this one centers on a character who mixes Yiddish with his Southern and has for his neighbors small merchants from Poland, Lebanon, and Greece.

At turns lyrical, comic, and melancholy, the tale takes inspiration from its title. This Romanian expression with an Alabama twist is symbolic of the strivings of ordinary folks for the realization of their hopes and dreams. Set largely on a few humble blocks yet engaging many parts of the world, this Southern Jewish novel is, ultimately, richly American.

Discussion Questions:

  1. The novel opens in 1916 with Morris Kleinman, a Romanian Jew, sweeping a sidewalk in south Alabama, anticipating a parade of Confederate veterans. Does this strike you as an unusual juxtaposition of images? Does a scene like this one seem in keeping with the usual notion of a “Southern novel”?
  2. Harper Lee has said of Chicken Dreaming Corn that it portrays “characters who represent some of the best aspects of our Southern heritage.” What do you think she means by that statement?
  3. Has Chicken Dreaming Corn shown you any aspects of the South, good or bad, that you find surprising? Has the novel changed your sense of the South in terms of the diversity of its population? Has it altered your perceptions of Jewish culture in terms of the story’s setting?
  4. Is Morris Kleinman an outsider in Mobile? Does his status as “insider” or “outsider” change in the course of the novel? What about Miriam? The children?
  5. Morris and Miriam, separately, go through phases in their convictions that home is either far away, in Brooklyn or Romania, or, by contrast, right beneath their feet, in Mobile and the Gulf Coast. How do they show this? What incidents take place that affect their feelings about home and where home truly is?
  6. Hoffman dedicates his novel, in part, to the memory of his grandparents, who, he writes, “journeyed so far to find home.” What kinds of journeys, of the body or the spirit, take place in Chicken Dreaming Corn? Where do these journeys lead the characters in terms of geography of place, and also of the heart?
  7. Do Abe and Herman journey together, or apart? Both?
  8. Morris tells Abe that his ambition, as a store owner, is “to make a living, not a killing.” How do Morris and Abe differ in their business attitudes? Do they achieve any reconciliation?
  9. Why do you think Donnie McCall seems at first to be Morris’s friend, then turns against him? Is there anything in particular about Morris that especially aggravates McCall? Is there anything about McCall that Morris finds disturbing?
  10. Pablo Pastor’s cigars take on significance in many ways in the course of the novel. How so?
  11. Does Morris grow in the course of this novel? Do Miriam, Abe, Herman, and Hannah?
  12. What perspective do Benny and Fanny offer on the Kleinman family? On Alabama and the South?
  13. Does Lillian’s fate hold a deeper meaning for the family? Does it contribute to their emotional changes in the course of the narrative?
  14. What is the role of religious belief in the novel? How do the various denominations—Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism—shape the narrative?
  15. What do you think the theme is of Chicken Dreaming Corn? Hoffman includes an author’s note at the start of the book explaining the title. Is it an effective title? Is it a metaphor that resonates, in any way, in your own life?

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Almost Family, a novel
by Roy Hoffman

Overview:

Nebraska Waters is black; Vivian Gold is Jewish. In an Alabama kitchen where, for nearly thirty years, they share cups of coffee, fret over their children, and watch the civil rights movement unfold on the TV screen and out their window, they are like family – almost.

As Nebraska makes her way, day in and day out, to Vivian’s home where she cooks and helps tend the Gold children, the bond between the women both strengthens and frays. The “almost” threatens to widen into a great divide.

The two women’s husbands affect their relationship, as do their children. This is particularly true of the youngest children, Viv Waters and Benjamin Gold who, born the same year, are coming of age in a changing South.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the title Almost Family mean to you? Do you think that Vivian and Nebraska would answer this question differently? What about other characters in the novel?
  2. Much of this story takes place in the kitchen of the Gold home, and the civil rights movement is, in terms of geography, far away. What brings the civil rights movement close to these two women? What impact do public events have on their private lives?
  3. The first line of the novel is, “What you think is so different ‘bout them?’ How do the pressures of being “different” affect the characters of this novel? Do they come to understand what those differences are? Or do those differences act as a barrier?
  4. Have you ever had an experience where, for whatever reason, you feel “different,” and how have you dealt with that? Can we learn any strategies from Vivian and Nebraska?
  5. How does being Jewish define Vivian? What about Edward, and the rest of the family members? Does being Jewish in Alabama – a religious minority – shape their lives?
  6. There are places in the novel where faith comes up for discussion, as in a scene between Nebraska and the Gold children. Does faith separate characters, or bind them together? In what ways?
  7. As an employee in Vivian’s home, Nebraska is there because she is doing work, and she is getting paid. But what occurrences are there that also make a work relationship a personal one, too? Does a work relationship limit a personal relationship?
  8. Nebraska’s daughter, Viv, is uncomfortable with Vivian’s attempt to be “almost family.” Do you feel that Viv is justified in her reaction? Do you understand Vivian’s feelings?
  9. How do the changing generations impact each other in Almost Family? Do Vivian’s children, and Nebraska’s children, really get to know one another? If so, how. If not, why not?
  10. What does Almost Family tell us about people’s efforts to connect, in a deep way, with people of other backgrounds?
  11. Are the lessons of Almost Family ones of the past, or are they relevant today? If so, in what ways?

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Nonfiction Books:

Alabama Afternoons: Profiles and Conversations
By Roy Hoffman

Overview:

Alabama Afternoons is a collection of portraits of many remarkable Alabamians, famous and obscure. These profiles preserve the individual stories that help to define one of the most distinctive states in the union.

Hoffman recounts his personal visits with writer Mary Ward Brown in her library in Hamburg, with photographer William Christenberry in a field in Newbern, and with storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham and folk artist Charlie “Tin Man” Lucas at their neighboring houses in Selma. He profiles figures in the civil rights movement, from Johnnie Carr, president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, to Teresa Burroughs, a Greensboro beautician trampled in the Selma march. Some of his subjects are famous, others, as he writes, “famous on their block,” such as Sarah Hamm, preserving the fading Jewish culture in Eufaula; Edward Carl, chauffeur to Bellingrath Gardens founder Walter Bellingrath in Theodore; domino players in the 25th year of an ongoing game, and caretakers of a coon dog cemetery.

Hoffman’s compilation of life stories creates an engaging look into what it means to be from, and shaped by, place, wherever that might be.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are there one or two life stories in particular that reach out to you and hold you in a special way in Alabama Afternoons? If so, what are the qualities of the people profiled that are meaningful to you?
  2. “Kathryn and the Tin Man,” about Kathryn Tucker Windham and Charlie Lucas, is a story about art and friendship. How has the friendship between these two unusual and creative people touched their art-making? What other stories about friendships are there in Alabama Afternoons, and what is the impact of those relationships?
  3. There are several profiles of authors in the book – Howell Raines, Winston Groom, Diane McWhorter, Frye Gaillard, Sena Jeter Naslund, Mary Ward Brown, Gay Talese, E.B. Sledge. They are all different in their voices and their careers, and represent a variety of genres. What similarities do they share? How is their work affected by their connection to Alabama?
  4. “Deliver Us From Evil,” exploring the shifting dynamic between two strikingly different men – one Jewish, the other a Klansman – is about many topics, including bullying, growing up, and reconciliation. What are the points in this relationship where these changes are seen? How are they different as teenagers, and as grown men? What lessons does their story teach us?
  5. Could the life stories of Alabama Afternoons take place elsewhere? To what degree does place, indeed, shape their experiences? And what about the impact of history?
  6. Hoffman writes that, “Although I appear in these profiles and conversations rarely as ‘I,’ I, of course, am there.” How is the author present as the narrator of these stories, even when he seems to be off-stage? Why do you think he decided to include one personal family essay, “Windows,” as the last piece in the collection?
  7. What are some of the ways that people speak in this collection that suggests sense of place? Some of the expressions?
  8. Hoffman writes: “Alabama Afternoons, I like to think, is a small part of the even bigger question of what it means to be an American.” Do these stories, thus, translate outside of the home state of the subjects? Are there larger American stories at work here?
  9. After reading Alabama Afternoons, do you have ideas of people in your own community who would make good subjects for a profile? If so, what are the qualities they share that make them worth writing about?
  10. What is the difference between writing somebody else’s story, and writing your own? What perspective is gained in both cases?

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Back Home: Journeys Through Mobile
By Roy Hoffman

Overview

In Back Home: Journeys through Mobile, Roy Hoffman
 tells stories–through essays, feature articles, and memoir–of one of
 the South’s oldest and most colorful port cities. After living in New York City for 20 years, he returned home and took a long, second look at his childhood town and the place it had become. Like a photo album, Back Home presents close-up 
portraits of everyday places and ordinary people.

There are meditations 
on downtown Mobile, where Hoffman’s grandparents arrived as immigrants 
a century ago; the waterfront where longshoremen labor and shrimpers work 
their nets; the back roads leading to obscure but intriguing destinations. 
Hoffman records local people telling their own tales of race relations,
 sports, agriculture, and Mardi Gras celebrations. Fishermen, baseball players,
 bakers, authors, political figures–a strikingly diverse population walks 
across the stage of Back Home. 
Throughout, Hoffman is concerned with stories and their 
enduring nature.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In Back Home, Hoffman writes: “When buildings are leveled, when land is
 developed, when money is spent, when our loved ones pass on, when we take
 our places a little farther back every year on the historical time-line, 
what we have still are stories.” How does that observation apply in this book? What ways does it apply to the place you grew up? Where you live now?
  2. Is Back Home a memoir? A work of journalistic reporting? A blend of the two?
  3. What stories in particular engage you in Back Home, and why? What are the qualities of the characters you find most intriguing?
  4. Many of the pieces in Back Home involve a look-back from adulthood to childhood, as in the pieces “Old Highway 90,” “Our Daily Bread,” and “Tommie Littleton: Gentleman Boxer.” What does Hoffman gain from a perspective of now and then? Are there topics in your own life that gain from contemplating the changes between the past and present?
  5. Do we understand experiences differently in relation to how much time has passed?
  6. Do the pieces in “Back Home” bring to mind reactions to your own home town, wherever that might be?
  7. In the section, “Newcomers Among Us,” Hoffman writes of Hispanic field workers and Southeast Asian seafood workers, all newly arrived in south Alabama. How does their experience differ from those of long-rooted folks like those in “King Cotton’s New Face?” What do you think the lives of the next generation will be like? Will they become rooted, too, into the new place, and one day write their own “back home” stories?
  8. Alma Fisher, the heroine of “Out of Auschwitz,” tells her story at her residence in an apartment building in Mobile. Is hers a hometown story? A global story? Do the two forces join as she contemplates the horrors of World War II, while also very much a part of her south Alabama town? She says she was reluctant to share her story for many years, but chose to do so now. What do you believe readers can gain from her story?
  9. The last essay in the collection, “Welcome, Millenium,” is set on Jan. 1, 2000. Are the questions and concerns Hoffman expresses in that essay still relevant as the 21st century unfolds?
  10. Whether your hometown is Mobile, or a city thousands of miles away, do you feel that all stories about going home have elements in common? Do we ever truly leave behind the geography of our youth, the atmosphere of the cities, towns, and villages where we’ve been raised?

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