Reader’s Guide for On Bittersweet Place
1. What meaning does belonging in “this new country,” America, have for Lena? For her family? What meaning does Belilovka have for Lena and her family?
2. Different types of prejudice are woven through On Bittersweet Place. Which characters feel intolerance for others or judge other people? Do Chaim and Reesa view prejudice in the same way?
3. What role do decisions play in the novel? What do you think of Abie’s and Ida’s decision? What do you imagine the future holds for them? What do you think of Lena’s choice about Max?
4. Discuss the parent and child relationships in the book. Reesa says, “A mother knows her child.” How much do parents and children really know about each other’s lives?
5. Reesa tells Lena, “Everyone in their life is searching for luck.” How does luck factor in the novel? In life?
6. On Bittersweet Place explores displacement and survival. What are the other themes in the book? What role do love and loss play in the story? What are Lena’s views about love? How do other characters view love?
7. What does the novel say about family loyalty and responsibilities? What happens to the Czernitski family’s close bonds by the end of the book?
8. Lena and Simon have secrets. Other characters do, too. Lena thinks, “But sometimes secrets are essential and can’t be helped.” Is she right? How do secrets function in the novel? In life?
9. How does Lena resolve her fears and challenge? Which characters help?
10. What do art and drawing mean to Lena? How do Lena’s drawings “save” her?
11. What has Lena learned about herself and about life at the end of the novel?
Reader's Guide for Schools, On Bittersweet Place
By Mark Santangelo
This assignment is due on the first day of class, Tuesday, September 5. It can be turned in that day or emailed to me.
This novel presents the story of a teenage immigrant girl, Lena Czernitski, a Jewish immigrant from Russia living in Chicago with her family in the 1920s. As Lena grows older and comes to maturity, the crises within her family force her to develop an identity of her own, not just defined by her parents and other relatives. The novel is also very much intended to be a commentary on the experience of immigration and the sense of “outsiderness” felt by many who come to the United States. In this way, it shares a long history with various critiques of the immigration experience in this country, written over the past century and more.
What makes this novel particularly notable is its focus on the specifics of a particular Jewish experience. Lena’s family is not very religious (Uncle Abie being a major exception, and perhaps Lena’s mother as well), but Lena is judged by those around her due to the specifics of her ethnicity and background, and her family’s livelihoods, food, living conditions and worldview are shaped as much by their Jewishness and their Yiddish language/culture as by anything they find in their new country.
One wonders, though: how unique are these experiences to Lena’s time, place, and ethnicity?
Specifically, how would the novel differ if the author’s intent had been to focus on a Muslim protagonist instead of a Jewish one?
A family with origins in Pakistan rather than one from Russia?
A family in the early 21st century instead of the early 20th century?
Would the differences be major or minor? Fiction is an excellent medium for exactly this kind of contemplation and “what if” thinking.
1. Your task is to talk to members of your own family about the immigration experience in the modern US, and think about what you already see around you.
2. And then you are to come up with a bullet-point list of similarities and differences between Lena’s family’s (fictional) story and that of your own family members in contemporary times.
3. Each item on your list will refer to something specific in the text (include page numbers).
4.The complete assignment will have at least five items of similarity and five items of difference.
Please let me know if you have any questions.
Good luck, and have fun!
Reader’s Guide for Second Language
By Holly Saari
“The Coin Collector”
1. Saul says, “People have no pride in anything anymore. Nothing new is meant to last.” Later in the story, Mr. Vespers repeats this feeling. Does this explain anything about Saul or Mr. Vespers? What about the themes of the story?
2. Saul never had the coins appraised, and neither counted nor mounted them. Rather, he “hoarded them,” as Sonia says. The coins have a deeper meaning to Saul. What is that? What do the coins represent?
3. Survival is one of the themes of this story. How does Wineberg show this using Sonia, Saul and Mr. Vespers?
4. When Mr. Vespers again talks about the impermanence in life and searching for a loved one’s soul, Sonia replies, “Sometimes the soul you’re looking for is your own.” How does this go back to coin collecting and encapsulate one of the story’s main ideas?
1. Why is the first person point of view in this story successful?
2. “The Lapse” is about the difficulty of having a spousal relationship with someone with different religious beliefs, but there is more. What are deeper themes that can be seen from this main storyline?
3. One conflict in the story is idealized religion versus progress, such as Joanne puts it. What are the other conflicts seen in the story?
1. This story gives insight into a family struck with cancer. How does Wineberg portray an event such as this so realistically?
2. Alice has a timetable for her life, with the right time for everything, but it is thrown off when she realizes she has cancer. Considering this, what do you think this story says about life?
3. In several of Wineberg’s stories, spirituality and religion are touched on. Alice’s mother, Edna, speaks about it in this story. What do you think about Edna comparing medicines and spirituality as a route for hope?
“After We Went South”
1. Laura states there is “no such thing as a happy or unhappy marriage, of marriages at all.” What does she mean by this?
2. How does your answer to the above question lead you to think about the theme(s) in the story?
3. At the end of the story, Laura’s attitude about her marriage ending has changed. At what point in the story does Laura’s outlook change?
1. Illness occurs in several stories in Second Language. Sheila finds out her mother has cancer and is overwhelmed with the thought of losing her mother. How does she cope with this?
2. What purpose does Jim serve in the story?
3. Why do you think Wineberg chose not to include a section in the story where Sheila meets her mother?
4. Discuss what you think may happen when Sheila meets her parents.
1. Helen is consumed by the piano. When Helen is at the piano she thinks about the nature of love. Does the piano stand for something more in her life? What does it symbolize?
2. What theme do you think Wineberg is trying to present in the story?
1. Wineberg’s book shares its title with this short story. Are there similarities in this story that can be seen in any other stories? Is there one overriding theme that all the stories together advance?
2. Lucy has a second language; it is part of her job and her life. Do you think this is where the title of the story comes from, or is there another meaning for second language?
3. Lucy once read that when you learn another language, you gain another soul. Do you feel this way? How does this pertain to the story as a whole?
1. Searching is an aspect prevalent in Wineberg’s stories. Whether it is searching for hope, comfort or faith, her characters seem always to be searching. This search finds Patrice trying to locate her father. Is Patrice simultaneously searching for something else? What?
2. Wineberg uses point of view well. Why do you think she chooses to have Patrice tell her story in the first person?
1. Infidelity is another characteristic common in this short story collection. Why do you think this is? Does it help develop the main theme(s) common to many of her stories? If so, how?
2. What makes this story interesting is that we see a reverse side of the infidelity seen in “After We Went South.” Oftentimes, a reader can become sympathetic for a main character even when there are not so sympathetic qualities to him or her. How is this achieved in the story?
3. Doris feels that if she can only sell the encyclopedia set, her life will be in order again. At the end of the story, she changes her mind and decides she will keep the set. Why does she do this?
4. At what point in the story does this transformation occur?
1. At the end of the story, Pauline and Cora reconcile their relationship. How is this an effective or ineffective conclusion to the story?
2. Cora thinks a couple different times that life is an arrangement. Why does she see life this way?
3. Pauline says, “After all my searching, it’s just fine where you are.” What does she mean by this, and can this idea be brought into any other stories in the collection?
“Verse of the Han”
1. Why is the Verse of the Han the first thing read? How does it relate to the story?
2. A theme of this story is taking control of your life and doing what needs to be done for yourself. What other main ideas develop from “Verse of the Han?”
“The Night Watchman”
1. What is the function Johnny serves in the story?
2. Why is Sofia so affected by Johnny?
3. Ben says, “But no one has the absolute power. To heal.” How does this relate to the main idea presented in the story? Does Johnny support or oppose this statement?
1. An important idea in this story is friendship. What other thematic concepts do you think deserve discussion?
2. How does the characterization of the two men improve the understanding of the two men’s friendship?
3. Mel finds it difficult to console Herbert when his wife dies, yet still stands by him. What does this say about their friendship and/or friendship in general?
A Question to End
Now that you have discussed each story and have gotten a feel for the book as a whole as well, what do you think about the title?
In the short story, “Second Language,” Lucy realizes the first language is love. Based on the other stories and this one, what do you think the second language is? Why do you think this was chosen as the title of the book?