This reading group guide for
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Tasha includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author
Brian Morton. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
In an effort to preserve his relationship with his mother, Tasha—willful, meddlesome, wickedly funny—Brian had long held her at a distance. But when Tasha’s faculties begin to decline as she reaches the end of her life, her son must reckon with his responsibility to the woman who one night left him twenty-seven voicemails . . . when he was in his late twenties. Tasha
is Brian’s tribute to a whip-smart woman who could be as outrageous as a Philip Roth character, as well as an unsparing account of caring for her in a country that offers little support for the elderly or the people invested in their well-being. In precise and unsentimental prose, Brian knits together family lore, meditations on masculinity, and anecdotes that are uproarious and upsetting in equal measures to paint a truthful portrait of his mother: the first-ever copy girl at the Daily Worker
, a revolutionary educator, and the woman who, when she left her Bronx home at age sixteen, changed her name from Esther to Tasha. For readers of Bettyville
and The End of Your Life Book Club
, this memoir is a poignant depiction of what mothers teach their sons in life and death. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the first few chapters, Brian introduces us to his mother as well as to his perception of her, writing that Tasha
is an endeavor “to try to see her whole, as I didn’t succeed in doing when she was alive” (p. 15). Beginning with this radical honesty, in what ways does Brian’s portrait of Tasha expand and complicate as the book progresses?
2. Teaneck is a “bedroom community” that boasts a history of progressive policies and community engagement, and Tasha is a “patriot” of the town (p. 39). How does her deep commitment to Teaneck and the people in it shape our understanding of her character?
3. As crabby as Tasha could be, she was quick to form both brief and enduring kinships with people who came into her life: Amelia (her father’s mistress), Naomi (Brian’s former student and her companion at Gabe’s birthday party), and Cece (her morning aide at Van Buren), to name a few. Which relationship do you find the most affecting?
4. Do you agree with Brian’s claim that it’s more difficult for a man to identify with his mother than his father, or do you think that this thinking is a vestige of another era, as he concedes might be the case (p. 65)?
5. The eighteenth-century Dutch Colonial in which Tasha lived for decades in mounting squalor is almost a character in itself, trapping her while paradoxically serving as a point of pride indicative of independence (in her mind, at least). If you were in Brian’s shoes, how would you have dealt with the question of Tasha’s house, both when she was alive and after she passed?
6. When Marcia, the Five Star Residence representative, invokes the word community
during her conversation with Tasha, Brian uses this moment as a time to reflect on what that word means in theory and practice (pp. 88–90). What are some different examples of community in Tasha
7. In some ways, the tone of Brian’s prose evolves as Tasha the person and Tasha
the book near their ends. Can you identify certain places in the text where you noticed a shift in the tenor of the narrative?
8. Brian offers many scenes and stories to illustrate the kind of person Tasha was: two dead mice in the living room (p. 22); an argument over angel cake that ends in a tearful embrace (p. 40); a slow but steady escape from the Five Star Residence tour (pp. 92–95). What is your favorite Tasha anecdote, and why?
9. There is also a trove of Tasha quips from which to choose: “Brian? This is your former mother . . .” (p. 9); “Eighty-six is just a kid!” (p. 77); “You wouldn’t be
here if not for me” (p. 144). Which is your favorite, and why?
10. For readers who have never experienced caring for an aging parent: Why do you think Brian felt moved to share his experience, and what did you learn from it? Did you begin reading with expectations about how the story would unfold? Were there moments and decisions throughout the book that surprised you?
11. For readers who have experienced caring for an elderly parent: What did you appreciate about Brian’s depiction, and is/was your experience similar or different? How so? Enhance Your Book Club
1. The original title of Tasha
was The Woman Who Leapt from the Train
, after the scene in which Tasha does just that (pp. 2–3). Split up and brainstorm alternative titles, then come together to make a case for your favorite in front of the wider group.
2. Write down a list of other memoirs that deal in parent-child relationships, end-of-life care, motherhood, small-town life, or the lives of the elderly. Using these works as means to compare and contrast, consider how style and content affect your readings of these topics. What did you appreciate about Brian’s approach?
3. Imagine you are on the casting team for a film based on Tasha
. Who would play Tasha, Brian, Heather, and Melinda? What about more minor characters like Dick, Sigismund Laster, Rabbi Zierler, and Winnie? A Conversation with Brian Morton Tasha is your first memoir after having published five novels. What are some challenges of the genre that you had not yet encountered as a novelist?
Weirdly, while I was writing the book, I wasn’t thinking about the challenges posed by a different genre. I was feeling a lot of freedom and ease.
When I write a novel, I feel as if I’m trying to give birth to a whole cast of characters and everything that goes along with them—their life histories, their worldviews, their clothes, their apartments, their pets. With Tasha
, the stories were all there in my memory, ripe for the taking. Remembering felt easier than imagining usually does. You wrote a version of your mother in The Dylanist, and in Florence Gordon the titular character is a strong-willed, independent seventy-five-year-old. How did those experiences inform how you wrote the Tasha that appears in Tasha?
, I talk about how I painted an almost purely comic picture of her in The Dylanist
. I wanted to paint a fuller portrait of her this time around. That was important to me.
About Florence Gordon
—I didn’t see any similarity to Tasha when I was writing the Florence book, and I didn’t see any similarity to Florence when I was writing the Tasha book. But at one point during the editing process with Tasha
, Lauren Wein, who was my editor for both books, underlined this sentence: “Old, frail, disoriented, she nevertheless retained an unbendable intensity of sheer will, trained on the one clear goal of living her own life.” And she made a note that said something like, “Remind you of anyone?” I still think Tasha and Florence are more different than they’re alike, but this helped me see that Tasha and Florence had more in common than I’d realized. And that maybe, in writing about Florence several years ago, I was getting ready to write about Tasha. There is a tremendous specificity to Tasha, especially in the barbed banter that so defines Tasha as a character. How did you ensure a truthful portrayal of past events?
My mother was very quotable, so a lot of the things she says in the book are things I remember her saying. But my main goal was to try to re-create the feeling
of what talking to her was like. Tasha is relatively slim, yet it feels complete. Is there a story or character that you wanted to include but ended up omitting? If so, why? And if not, is there anything you wish you’d had more room in the narrative to explore?
The older you get, the more you appreciate short books. At least that’s how it’s been with me. Part of the fun of writing Tasha
was trying to tell a story that felt complete in very few pages. So I was happy to try to be suggestive rather than exhaustive. While Tasha is of course the central figure in the book, your family members and other minor characters populate the periphery. What decisions do you make when attempting to encapsulate a whole person in a few sentences?
Well, first of all, I object to your calling my family members minor characters!
That said, I knew from the beginning that this book was going to focus closely on my mother and on my relationship with her, but I didn't want to give the impression that I was taking care of her all by myself. So I felt it was important to try to make everybody else who came into the book as memorable as possible.
And also, it’s probably just a novelist’s habit. The habit of trying to illustrate how everyone is the center of a world. The habit of remembering that no one is a minor character in their own life. I had a student at Sarah Lawrence who put it well. He said that when he writes about minor characters, he wants to do it in a way that shows that each of them deserves their own spin-off.
And finally, maybe it was a way of honoring what I wrote about as Tasha’s attitude toward life—“her belief that everyone is equal and we’re all in this together.” As you were developing and writing Tasha, did you turn to any other books or media that inspire you? If so, what are they and how did they influence you?
Rereading Philip Roth’s Patrimony
, his memoir about his father, was helpful. After I started thinking about writing about my mother, I felt stymied for a while, because trying to choose among all my memories felt overwhelming. Finally, things got clearer when I decided to focus entirely on the last five years of her life. Sometime after I decided to do it this way, I picked up Patrimony
, which I’d liked when I read it shortly after its publication in 1991, but which I didn’t remember. I’d forgotten how tightly Roth focused on a very short period of time. It reassured me that you could convey a sense of a loved one’s long life by writing about a brief, intense corner of it. Is there a scene or section in Tasha of which you are especially proud or fond?
I suppose I’m fondest of the section in which she takes over the narration, because it was the scene that most completely took me by surprise. I had no idea it was coming.The most stylistically and tonally divergent part of Tasha is when you reflect on her last words and then embody her voice in a stream-of-consciousness tirade. In what ways do you imagine this passage contributes to Tasha and its purpose?
When I wrote the section, I felt almost as if I were channeling her. It wasn’t premeditated, and I had no idea why I was writing it. But all through the process of working on the book, I’d been worrying about whether I was representing her fairly, seeing her as she really was. Eventually I came to think that this chapter (along with the section in which I include some passages from her diaries) was the closest I could come to letting her speak in her own voice. If you could guarantee that readers think more deeply about one idea or concept in your book, what would it be and why?
At first I was going to answer this by saying something about the scandal of eldercare in the United States, or about the relationships of mothers and sons. But really, my hope is just that readers will feel as if they spent a little time with Tasha. My hope is that when they finish the book, they’ll feel like they knew her.