The Illusion of Separateness – Discussion

connectedIn a 2011 article Simon Van Booy stated,

“For me, I think words allow us to hold hands with strangers. They remind us that one person’s experience is everyone’s. With that in mind, to love another is to love one’s self. To insult or injure another is to insult or injure one’s self. I read somewhere that we live solely to overcome the illusion of our separateness. Stories and language allow us to live without living, and to die without dying, which is why I think the modern Holy books are rooted in language and not pictures.”

How does Van Booy convey this feeling in the novel?  Do you agree?

Van Booy is both a philosopher and a poet, and both permeate the novel.  Did the shorter, almost staccato, sentences and phrasing add to or detract from your reading experiences?

In another article Van Booy discusses the quote from Thich Nhat Hanah, his inspiration for the novel:

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness. And I thought that was compassionquite interesting. You know, of all the things one hears in a day, isn’t it quite wonderful that some things stick, they resonate. It’s almost like a bell, you know, you hear the chiming long after, you know, the actual note has been struck. And so for days and weeks after I considered that I was connected to everybody, even when I was stuck in traffic and not particularly happy, I thought, well, you’re connected to that person next to you, you know, the person cutting in front of you.”

Do you agree that we are all connected? Do you believe that our “contentedness” will encourage compassion?  Does it work for the characters in the novel?

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Simon Van Booy Videos


A very beautiful short video Simon Van Booy wrote


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Simon Van Booy

simon-van-booy-partySimon Van Booy was born in Great Britain and grew up in rural Wales.  He is the author ofThe Secret Lives of People in Love, Love Begins in Winter (winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award) and the novel, Everything Beautiful Began After.  His latest novel is The Illusion of Separateness.

He is the editor of three philosophy books, titled Why We Fight, Why We Need Love, and Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter.  His essays have appeared in the New York TimesThe Daily TelegraphThe Times, The Guardian, and ELLE Men, (China), where he has a monthly column. He has also written for the stage, National Public Radio, and the BBC.

Simon teaches part-time at SVA in Manhattan, and is involved in the Rutgers Early College Humanities Program for young adults living in under-served communities.  In 2013, he founded Writers for Children, an organization which helps young people build confidence in their talent, through annual writing awards.

He was a finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, and his work has been translated into more than fifteen languages.

He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

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Our Next Selection

illusionThe Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy.

From the cover:

The characters discover at their darkest moments of fear and isolation that they are not alone, that they were never alone, that every human being is a link in a chain we cannot see. .  This gripping novel – inspired by true events-tells the interwoven stories  of a deformed German infantryman; a lonely British film director; a young, blind museum curator;two Jewish American newlyweds separated by war; and a caretaker at a retirement home for actors in Santa Monica.  They move through the same world but fail to perceive their connections until, through swimmingly random acts of selflessness, a veil is lifted to reveal parts they have played in one anther’s lives, and the illusion of their separateness.

Copies are available at the library.

Please come back and join the discussion.

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The Cellist of Sarajevo

pigeonQuestions to ponder.

Which character has the greatest conflict with himself/herself?

 What do the ‘men on the hills’ represent?

Dragan sent his wife and son away but remained in the city to try to keep his job and protect his apartment.  Why did some people refuse to leave Sarajevo when it was still possible?

What do the details about Kenan’s trips to get water tell us about war?

What is your most valued possession? Would you pay 20 times the price to have it?

Explain the comparison between Kenan and a pigeon.

I have had comments that this was a very depressing read.  In the end did you think it depressing or was there any glimmer of hope?

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The Cellist of Sarajevo

A beautifully done video by the Toronto Public Library

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The Cellist of Sarajevo – Discussion Question – What’s in a name?

MP900385375[1]As we begin part one we have been introduced to the cellist and Arrow.  While the character of the cellist is based upon an actual person Galloway chooses not to provide a name for him. Why do you believe that he chose not to give the cellist a name?

We meet the cellist as he watches his friends and neighbors wait for bread in the market below his window – “playing until he feels his hope return.”  A hope dismantled by the destruction of his city, his opera house and his family as they slept in their beds. He is unaware that a mortar is about to descend upon the market, “It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort.”  Galloway chose to tell the story from multiple perspectives.  How does this help or hinder the telling of the story?

arrowArrow is introduced to the reader as she contemplates which soldier on the hill to target. We learn that she has chosen to shed her true name and her reasoning for this is explained on pages 6 and 7.

“…Arrow believes they took these names so they could separate themselves from what they had to do, so the person who fought and killed could someday be put away.  To hate people because they hated her first, and then to hated them because of what they’ve done to her, has created a desire to separate the part of her that will fight back, that will enjoy fighting back, from the part that never wanted to fight in the first place.  using her real name would make her no different from the men she kills.”

Can changing one’s name erase the past, or eliminate future pain?  Do you think it would it be possible for Arrow to shed her past and the life she has lived during the siege once peace returned?

Galloway has given the other main characters names – why has he?  What effect does the naming have upon the reader? Does giving something a name make you care more about/for it?

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The Siege of Sarajevo began twenty-two years ago, in April 1992, and lasted until February
1996—the longest siege of any capital city in the history of modern warfare. Sarajevo, now
capital of the independent nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been a cultural, religious,
and commercial hub of the Balkans since the 15th Century. The siege was part of the Yugoslav
Wars—a series of complex ethnic conflicts fought between 1991 and 1995 following the
disintegration of Yugoslavia. The siege broke out when the European Community (now the
European Union or EU) recognized Bosnia’s independence. An estimated 18,000 Serb rebels,
led by Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, began bombarding Sarajevo with sniper shots and
shellfire from the hills surrounding the city. Their goal was to create a new Serbian state,
Republika Srpska.
Prior to the conflict, the city was a cosmopolitan center of 525,980 inhabitants that
was approximately 50% Muslim, 30% Serb, 10% Yugoslav, 7% Croat and 3.5% Jewish.
According to a report for the United Nations Commission of Experts, nearly 10,000 persons
were killed or went missing during the siege, including over 1,500 children. An additional
56,000 persons were wounded, including nearly 15,000 children. An average of 329 shell
impacts hit the city each day, causing extensive damage to both civilian and cultural property;
the Council of Europe’s Committee on Culture and Education concluded that most
of the buildings in the city had been damaged to a greater or lesser degree. UNICEF
reported that of the estimated 65,000 to 80,000 children in the city, at least 40% had been
directly shot at by snipers; 51% had seen someone killed; 39% had seen one or more family
members killed; 19% had witnessed a massacre; 48% had their home occupied by someone
else; 73% had their home attacked or shelled; and 89% had lived in underground shelters.
The area has since stabilized, but the effects of the siege will no doubt be felt for generations.
• Bassiouni, M. Cherif, ed. Study of the battle and siege of Sarajevo, Final report of the United Nations
Commission of Experts. Bristol, UK: University of the West of England,
• “Chronology: What happened during the war in Bosnia?” Reuters 21 July 2008.

• Richards, Rogers. “Remember Sarajevo.” Digital Journalist, December 2003.

• Sarajevo Under Siege, 1992-1996.

I have copied information from the One Maryland One Book 2012 booklet.

If you are a teacher and are considering adding The Cellist of Sarjevo to your curriculum there is a wealth of information to be gleaned.  You may also find information via the Jericho Public Library databases.  All you need to unlock these databases is you Jericho Public Library card.

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Steven Galloway

University of British Columbia writing instructor Steven Galloway is the author of three novels: Finnie Walsh, the story of two friends who grow up playing hockey in northern Canada; Ascension, the tale of a Hungarian-born tightrope walker who comes to America and founds a family of circus performers; and The Cellist of Sarajevo, based on stories from the long-running siege of the Bosnian capital during the horrific civil war of the 1990s. “I’m a creative writing professor,” Galloway states on his MySpace page, entitled “StevenGalloway, Unicorn Lover.” “I teach my fiction students that good writing comes not from the head or the heart, but from one’s alicorn,” the unicorn’s horn that brings healing and promotes intimacy. “I also tell them that a good story should have the shape or ‘arc’ of the rainbow trail that unicorns leave when they prance across the sky.” (source: Gale Literature Resource Center – a database available through the Jericho Public Library with your library card)

He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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Our Next Selection – The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

CellistWe’ve moved on from The Last Brother and are now switching gears from the Island of Mauritius  in 1945 to the Sarajevo during the siege.

From the book jacket:

In a city under siege, four people whose lives have been upended are ultimately reminded of what it is to be human. From his window, a musician sees twenty-two of his friends and neighbors waiting in a bread line. Then, in a flash, they are killed by a mortar attack. In an act of defiance, the man picks up his cello and decides to play at the site of the shelling for twenty-two days, honoring their memory. Elsewhere, a young man leaves home to collect drinking water for his family and, in the face of danger, must weigh the value of generosity against selfish survivalism. A third man, older, sets off in search of bread and distraction and instead runs into a long-ago friend who reminds him of the city he thought he had lost, and the man he once was. As both men are drawn into the orbit of cello music, a fourth character—a young woman, a sniper—holds the fate of the cellist in her hands. As she protects him with her life, her own army prepares to challenge the kind of person she has become.

Please visit the Jericho Public Library and pick up your copy.

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