Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: Discussion

The act of writing taps into something that’s different from sitting and thinking. For example, if I set out to write a piece on something I’ve taken a fancy to, I might have a very good idea of what I want to write. But when I (physically) sit down and start writing, what emerges is slightly mysterious. It comes from the right brain, and you couldn’t have found it otherwise. Call it the muse…” — author and physician, Abraham Verghese

Hi all,

Welcome to our discussion of Cutting for Stone, a mesmerizing, beautifully written novel that brings death and life—-to life for readers.

To start our discussion, I am offering the following questions:

  1. Verghese taps personal experience and memory to inform and inhabit this novel. How does his own childhood in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia adding to this narrative? What about his own experiences as a physician?
  2. How effective is Verghese’s use of imagination in telling a new fictional story? How does the style of his writing change between Marion’s time at Missing vs. his time at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour?
  3. In his acknowledgments, Verghese specifically cites the various sources: people (including surgeons and experts), scientific literature and other readings, and experiences (including observation of surgeries) he uses to create scenes and describe medical cases and outcomes. How effective is this? Why does this seem so important to him?
  4. What are your thoughts on the relationships between the characters (and his depiction of those characters as well as their interactions): Ghosh and Hema, Marion and Genet, Marion and Shiva? What did you find most compelling?
  5. Discuss the shifts in point of view, from first person (I) for Marion, and third person for other characters, including Thomas Stone. Does this work?
  6. What are some examples of especially lyrical writing?  How effective is the novel’s opener and ending, or other elements of the book you would like to highlight?
  7.  Overall, what ‘talking point’ comments do you have to spark discussion?

IFN Discussion “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer

Welcome to our discussion.

Into the Wild is a vivid retelling of the life and death of Chris McCandless, who sought survivalist strife and the solace of nature via a personal Walkabout in his early ’20s. The following are a few prompts to spark our discussion. Feel free to use these or start your own thread. Go ahead and hit the comment link, and then follow other’s comments for your responses. 

1. How does Jon Krakauer reconstruct the story and bring it to life. What sources does he use and how effective are they?

2. Despite the fact that the ending is known, that McCandless dies, how does Krakauer build tension and suspense? What answers does he leave delayed?

3. Cite favorite examples of gems in language or description, by Krakauer or others. What about  phrases that offer the ‘nut’ of the story? One of mine is the father’s quote from p. 109 re: Chris: “He didn’t think the odds applied to him. We were always trying to pull him back from the edge.”

4. Some of Chris McCandless’ choices are clearly ill-advised, yet he was unsatisfied with the way most people live their lives. Is there a draw to his philosophy, especially in relation to today’s connected/tracked society?

5. How did this book make you feel? What does it make you want to do? Or not do?

Memory and Story: An IFN Discussion

Quote of the Day: Authors do not supply imagination, they expect their readers to have their own and use it. 

— Nella Larsen, American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance.

Memoirs and personal essays offer storytelling venues that allow readers into a writer’s unique world—in ways no other genre can provide.

Philip Gerard’s book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, emphasizes the courage required to do so in his chapter titled: “Putting Yourself On the Line.”

“We always write after mystery, looking for an answer we don’t have, trying to resolve what troubles us, to understand what seems beyond comprehension.”

That search for answers can lead us to write about the death of a moth on a windowsill (Virginia Woolf)* or a man’s ethereal suffering during a hunger strike (Wole Soyinka)*. What other advice or thoughts does Gerard offer about the form, in terms of exploring the freedom of your own voice; avoiding the boorishness of the ego; zeroing in on a given memory; or writing about family and friends.

Another author we’ve read, William Zinsser, meanwhile, describes the memoir form in his succinct, direct style: “What gives [memoirs] their power is the narrowness of their focus. . . Think narrow, then, when you try the form. Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph.”

See also, snippet from this chapter, noted by Bea: (

What is the essence of memory? How do memories take the form of stories you tell other people?

Feel free to comment or answer these prompts, or add any other thoughts or questions you might have on “Putting Yourself on The Line” or related readings on memoir, plot, etc. (which we’ll delve into later as well. Good to get a handle on plot as we look for stories). Please be sure to note at least your first name when first commenting.

Cheers, JCS

See also: “The Death of The Moth,” by Virginia Woolf via Google  &

Or Wole Soyinka’s “Why I Fast,” in the collection Art of the Personal Essay. Online via Google Books.

(Links too long to paste. 🙂 )

IFN Discussion: The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway is a tense and engaging novel based on the nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. The story focuses on city residents’ efforts to survive and retain their dignity and humanity in the midst of war. To spark a discussion, I’ve listed a few questions below. Feel free to answer or spin off a thread from one of your own talking points. Please cite specifics when you can, and contribute at least three comments or more for a lively discussion.

1. Among the novel’s primary themes: Sarajevans’ belief that they “are not haters,’  and that the spirit of the city would be destroyed if they became like the snipers and others attacking the city. As Arrow notes on p. 130: “the ideas that made Sarajevo worth fighting for cannot and should not be abandoned in the fight to save it.”

Discuss this theme or others evident in the novel.

2. The Cellist of Sarajevo details, via characters’ internal monologues, the things people focus on when trying to survive: the mindset of a stray dog, dreams of what life could have been, evidence of war-time corruption. Do you see other examples of this? What do these details show? How is this similar to The Things They Carried?

3. The novel relies on the characterization of four survivors in the city. How effective is this approach? How well are these people drawn as characters. Do they change or evolve? What about the cellist? Should he appear again, via a chapter, in the novel or not?

4. Much of the language is direct and active, though there are some lyrical and insightful passages, including the lines on p. 163: “In the hills behind him a shell falls. He hears the rattle of automatic gunfire, and then another shell falls. It’s a language, a conversation of violence. . . . Dragan sits and listens to the men on the hills and the defenders in the city argue with projectiles.”  What other examples resonate?

5. What are some of the weaknesses of the novel, in terms of language, theme or plot? Give an example.

6. This novel is based a great deal on reality, as well as imagination. There was an actual cellist, though this is not about him, and the siege details are very real,  such as Sniper Alley (see siege maps online). Galloway also researched the perspective of Sarajevans during the siege, and overall. Are the links to reality effective? Do they help or hinder the story or plot?

And lastly, 7. How does a fictional account of violence gripping a city shed light on other real-life events, such as this week’s riots in Baltimore (see ‘Mobtown Blues’ post below) or hooligan violence detailed in Among the Thugs? What does it teach us?

Please make comments and respond, including your first name, within the class time alloted. Six o’clock to 7:30.


Note at 7:39 p.m. Our discussion overall will be open a bit longer. For those who did not tune in, or add three or so comments or replies, I will take comments until noon tomorrow. The good thing is that, for those who might tend to speak less in class, the eloquent posts here can prove helpful for class participation grades. Great work!

IFN Discussion “Burmese Days” by George Orwell

Orwell’s first novel has been described as a caustic work about the waning days of British imperialism. Much of the story is based on his real-life observations: Orwell was born in India and served in the Burmese Police force, where he witnessed characters and events similar to those in this novel. The following are a few prompts to spark our discussion. Feel free to use these and/or start your own thread. Go ahead and hit the comment link, and then follow other’s comments for your responses. Be sure to add your first name so we know who is speaking.

1. Describe the relationship and conflict between Elizabeth and Flory. How does it mirror the colonial environment? For example, Elizabeth and Flory seem to bond primarily over the killing of animals native to the region–birds and leopards. Why?

2. Along those lines, does Flory represent a middle ground in the class conflicts sparked by colonial rule? How else do class issues play out, for example: what role does The Club play?

3. How does Orwell reveal the culture of brutality among the imperialists, and what does that show us about how genocide is allowed to happen, as in King Leopold’s reign of slavery and murder in the Congo? How does fiction differ from nonfiction in telling such stories?

4. How is imperialism, as described in “Burmese Days” like a dictatorship or even an occupying power? What parallels can we find today: Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine. . .

5. Overall, what are some issues of plot. How do the characters change, or do they? What about the ending, in terms of fate. Is the ending surprising, yet inevitable? Why do they seem destined for such ends. Or, maybe, might things have gone another way . . .

March for Science

Here is a chant already underway for Saturday’s March For Science, a protest in D.C. and nationwide against the anti-science policies of the Trump Administration:

“What do we want???  Evidence-based science!!”

“When do we want it?? After Peer Review!!!!”

Even with the future of humankind and the Earth in the balance, scientists demonstrate their sense of humor too.