Reading Group Guide for
Castle of Concrete
The novel is titled Castle of Concrete. Why? What does the “castle” symbolize? What happens there? How does this image tie to Sonya’s journey? What other symbols have you spotted throughout the story and what is their significance?
Describe Sonya’s feelings for her mother and how they evolve. How does Sonya’s relationship with her mother mirror her changing understanding of her “Jewishness”?
To Sonya, what does it mean to be Jewish? What makes being a Jew a challenge? What are the rewards?
If you were Sonya’s friend in the story’s beginning, what would you tell her? How do you think she would respond?
“What’s the matter?” Ruslan asks Sonya, when he first meets her. “Scared?” Throughout the novel, Sonya strives to be brave. In your opinion, is she?
In the beginning of the story, Sonya thinks of Ruslan as her “Russian hero.” “No traditional Russian beard on this rescuer, just a thin line of hair emerging above the lip, the eyebrows thin and golden, barely brown, like his hair. A real-life hero, better than in any fairytale.” When Ruslan is away at a demonstration, Sonya finds herself needing another “rescuer,” and Misha comes through. How does Ruslan “save” Sonya? How does Misha? Does he, actually? In what ways does Sonya try to rescue both Ruslan and Misha? Does it work? Finally, how does Sonya save herself?
How would you describe Sonya and Ruslan’s relationship? What attracts them to each other? What are the differences in how Sonya relates to each of the boys? Do you think Sonya has romantic feelings for Misha? What kinds of feelings does he have for her?
Consider these words Sonya says to Ruslan as they dine together in a newly opened McDonald’s in Moscow: “‘Don’t you ever wish you were an American? I mean,’ I add, trying to think, blushing harder, “They have all kinds of people over there, and they all seem to belong.’ He squeezes his eyebrows together like my words don’t make sense. ‘I mean,’ I rush on, before he interrupts me again, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to be like them? Loud? Brave? Not caring what other people think of you? Smiling?’” As seen through the eyes of Sonya, Ruslan, and Sonya’s mother, what are some ways Russians seem to view America? How much of their perception is accurate?
One other thread the story explores is the idea of appearances vs. reality. “Under the sun the snow shines, a soft rug sewn with diamonds. But in those patches covered with shadows the snow is not quite black in its dullness. I now notice pieces of ice underneath it, dotted with soot from someone’s cigarette. Why do I have to¾notice?” How does this relate to the journeys of the story’s most important characters?
The novel is realistic historical fiction, but if you look closely you will find lots of threads of magic underneath. What are the many ways magic is infused into and portrayed in Castle of Concrete?
The story starts with Sonya’s hopeful arrival in Moscow and ends with another Moscow trip¾to the barricades. How do these two episodes mirror each other? What do the Moscow scenes in the novel’s beginning and at the novel’s end have in common, and what’s different? What do these “bookends” suggest about the arc of Sonya’s story?
The singing at the school assembly scenes serve as yet another set of “bookends.” What are the similarities between Sonya’s performance at the beginning and at the end of the novel? What do the differences tell us about the change in Sonya, her country, and her relationship with the world?
Ruslan is clearly the main antagonist of the story. But is he purely evil? Where does racial, national, and religious intolerance come from? Why do people hate “the other?” Can these distances ever be bridged? Is there hope for someone like him? For all of us?
Reading Group Guide for
The Solace of Trees
The book’s opening scene might almost be out of a political thriller. Is The Solace of Trees more than that or, rather, a nuanced work of literature chronicling the fate of one young refugee, and yet a story with unavoidable political overtones? Is it a political book at all?
What key episodes of Amir’s childhood in Bosnia help shape him into the young man he becomes—someone who can draw on an inner reserve to facilitate his healing from trauma, adapt to a new homeland and family, and, ultimately, endure the second tragedy that awaits him?
Discuss the main characters during Amir’s time in Bosnia, and their importance to him e.g. his father, Asaf; his mother, Amina; his sister, Minka; and his friend, Josif.
The description of Zoran and Sonja Ćosić, the couple whose farm Amir finds precarious refuge on, is riveting and disquieting. Discuss the relationship between Zoran and Sonja. Can you find the metaphor the author uses to compare an act of Zoran’s to that of acts of inhumanity carried out in war?
Comment on Amir’s friendship with Josif, and how its tragic end affects him and shapes his healing process.
Why does Pia, at the UN refugee camp, decide to help Amir from among so many other refugees in the same situation? What do you imagine your own reaction might be if you were in her position?
When he is relocated to the United States, Amir is placed in the foster care of an older, widowed woman, Margaret. Hence he is raised “American.” Even though Margaret, given her professional background as a psychologist, may have been better-positioned to guide him toward healing, would it have been better for Amir to have been placed with a Bosnian family of similar background to his?
Soon after taking Amir into her home, Margaret ponders his sudden place in her life: “Watching him struggle up the small rise to the orchard, Margaret strained to feel some tangible sense of the child as her foster son, or even just of him as a person called Amir.” What are some key points in the growing bond between her and Amir that culminate in a mother-son relationship?
Comment on the relationship between Amir and Alice, Margaret’s daughter, and Paul, Alice’s husband. How does Amir’s bond with them, his awareness of having an extended family in America, sustain him late in the book?
Comment on Amir’s relationship with Professor Ashrawi. Is Amir naïve to agree to help out on Ashrawi’s internet media projects in support of the Palestinian cause? Is Zach Ashrawi unfairly targeted by the FBI? Discuss what you know of Israeli-Palestinian politics in the United States?
Why is it significant that Amir focuses on film once he enters college? How does his choice relate to his past, and does he in fact seem on the path toward becoming a truly accomplished, objective filmmaker, or is he motivated by subjective concerns that might compromise the quality of his work?
Is Harold Tillman, the film department chair, fair in his assessment of Professor Ashrawi and Amir? In his place, how would you respond to the FBI, to Agent Tillman?
Amir’s relationship with Jadranka is made all the more complex because of what each of them went through in the Bosnian war. Comment on the differences you see that shared experience bringing to their relationship compared with that of an average young American couple forming a relationship.
Is the book fair in its assessment of the US government and its War on Terror? Too harsh? Not harsh enough? Discuss the point of view of Berger, one of Amir’s interrogators at the prison. Is there any place for conscience in a soldier’s role during an armed conflict?
Much of the narrative unfolds in “silence,” deep within the thoughts of Amir and the book’s other characters. This silence echoes nature, as well as the deafness that afflicts Amir after a paramilitary throws a grenade in his family home. In what ways does it help shield Amir? In what ways does it relate to his profound connection with the natural world, to his memories of the forest in rural Bosnia? How do these memories help sustain him later as a prisoner?
Discuss the story in the context of your knowledge of the Bosnian War and, more broadly, the wars in the former Yugoslavia that, in the 1990s, as most of Eastern Europe transitioned to democracy amid relative peace, marked Europe’s worst armed conflict and refugee crisis since World War II?
Relate the story of Amir to the Syrian War and other conflicts, contemporary or otherwise, that have repeatedly brought the situation of the world’s refugees to the forefront of the news. How has The Solace of Trees helped shape your understanding of the issue?
Is the ending hopeful? Too hopeful? Not hopeful or definitive enough? How do you imagine the weeks and months that follow?