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Book Discussion Questions: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Cover of Water for ElephantsTitle: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Page Count: 350 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Tone: Nostalgic, Romantic, Bittersweet

Summary:
A novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932. When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. What is the appeal of this novel?

2. What part do the animals play in this novel?

3. Describe Rosie and her personality traits. What is Rosie’s role in the novel? Do you think elephants can really think and act the way that she did?

4. How does Jacob’s life in the nursing home compare to the animals at the circus?

5. Why does Jacob prefer Rosemary to the other nursing home staff?

6. Did you like how the author switched back and forth between the nursing home and the circus story? Did this enhance or detract from the story?

7. Who was your favorite character? Why?

8. Who was your least favorite character? Why?

9. Upon reading the prologue, who did you think murdered August? Was the prologue an effective way to begin the story? How did that opening scene, involving chaos, make you feel about the rest of the story?

10. Describe the difference between how Jacob and August felt about Marlena. What was it about August that attracted Marlena to him. What was it about Jacob?

11. What did you learn about circuses from reading this novel? (reality and illusion) Do you like circuses? Has this novel changed the way you look at them?

12. How do the practices of the circus relate to the modern business world?

13. Would you have liked more detail on what became of Jacob, Marlena and their children? It didn’t sound like Jacob was extremely close to his children. Is that the impression you got? If so, were you surprised by that?

14. In the words of one review, Water for Elephants “explores…the pathetic grandeur of the Depression-era circus.” Do you agree? How does the “pathetic grandeur” describe the world that Gruen creates in her novel?

15. Why did Jacob get so upset at the nursing home patient, McGuinty, said he carried water for the elephants?

Other Resources:

Readers’ Guide
Lit Lovers Discussion Questions
Party Ideas for a Water for Elephants discussion
Writer’s Digest Interview with Sara Gruen


If you like Water for Elephants, you might like…

Cover of Little HeathensCover of Seabiscuit Cover of The Adventures of Miles and Isabel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
The Adventures of Miles and Isabel by Tom Gilling

Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on July 8, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Historical Fiction, Literary

Book Discussion Questions: The Circle by Dave Eggers

Cover of The CircleTitle: The Circle
Author: Dave Eggers
Page Count: 491 pages
Genre: Fiction, Futuristic
Tone: Thought-Provoking, Witty, Quick

Summary:
When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. What messages (if any) did it seem like Eggers was trying to get across? How successful was he? [too subtle, not subtle enough?]

2. What aspects of Mae’s life at the Circle seemed creepy or rubbed you the wrong way? What aspects of Mae’s life at the Circle did you really like?

3. What are people gaining by committing themselves to participating in all of the services the Circle has to offer? What are people losing?

4. Why do you think so many people are choosing to become a part of the Circle? What is so attractive about social media?

5. How do you think Mae would have been treated differently at the Circle if she wasn’t Annie’s friend? Would there even be a difference?

6. When Mae walks onto the campus she sees stones decorating with the following words: Dream; Participate; Find Community; Innovate; Imagine; Breathe. Why these words? How do they compare to the new phrases at the end of the book? (Secrets are Lies, Sharing is caring Privacy is theft)

7. Ty explains how the company had changed from its original start. Has its core values changed from when Mae started to the end of the book?

8. Bailey uses the phrase “All that happens must be known” when he is talking about the SeeChange video project and holding people accountable for their actions. This is a strong statement. In what ways do you agree or disagree with this phrase?

9. Mercer talks about how now that everyone is on social media, “there’s this new neediness.” Did you pick up on that neediness? What does he mean? Why do you think that neediness developed?

10. When Francis videos him and Mae being intimate, he says that that moment was his too and uses that part-ownership as permission to have recorded the moment. Is he implying that people can own events and moments in time? Can they? How does this connect with the direction the Circle is going and what it stands for?

11. Why is Mae so offended that Francis asks for a score on his sexual performance?

12. Do you think Annie always bought into the direction the Circle was heading, or was it just the ancestry project that caused her to see the negative consequences of such a society?

13. Even though there was a lot of negative feedback to the ancestry project and the video of her parents not calling for help when the homeless man fell into the water, there was a lot of support for Annie as well. Why do you think Annie still crumbled?

14. Towards the end at the idea forum, one of the presenters had a malfunction where an alarm went off too loud. Stenton had a big reaction to this, described as being barely able to control his rage, and saying “Turn it off or we walk out of here.” Why did he have such a strong reaction to something that was too loud?

15. Mae makes a lot of mentions to feeling a tear inside of her. Where does this come from? How does she try to fix it? At the end she decides the tear is not knowing (195)- not knowing who would love her and for how long and not knowing who people are. Do you think that’s true?

16. How has Mae changed from the beginning of the book to the end? How hasn’t she changed?

17. Did you think Mae was a fully fleshed out character? Was her naivety believable, or was it just a mechanism to move the story along?

18. As the reader, were there moments where you ever felt manipulated?

19. The book has no chapters, and is just broken up into three parts. How do you think this added to the story? Why do you think this was done?

20. Eggers has said that he hardly did any research when writing this book. How do you think this helped and/or hindered the story?

21. Mae’s friendship with Annie changed from the beginning of the book to the end. In what ways did it change? Why did it change so drastically?

22. Mae gets really mad at Frances when he volunteers her for the LuvLuv dating demonstration. Why did she have such a negative reaction if she willingly put up all of that information about herself?

23. Who did you think Kalden was?

24. Why was Kalden attracted to Mae? Why do you think Mae trusted Kalden so much?

25. Why does Mae have such a negative strong reaction to Mercer? Why was she so persistent in trying to convince him the value of the Circle?

26. One of the times when Mae went kayaking she met a couple in their early fifties, has a drink with them, and then left. What was their purpose in the story?

27. What would closing the Circle mean?

28. Why did Stenson and Eamon need Mae to help close the Circle?

29. At the end, could Kalden/Ty have said something different to convince Mae to stop trying to help close the Circle, or was she too far gone?

30. NYTimes says, “Mae, then, is not a victim but a dull villain.” How is this true? How is this not true?

Other Resources:

The Circle Pinterest board
Lit Lovers Discussion Questions
The New Yorker article: “Sharing is Caring is Sharing
Interview with Dave Eggers

If you like The Circle, you might like…

Super Sad True Love StoryCover of Notes From the Internet Apocalypse Cover of Terms of Service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Notes From the Internet Apocalypse by Wayne Gladstone
Terms of Service by Jacob Silverman

Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on June 24, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books

Book Discussion Questions: Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Cover of Where'd You Go BernadetteTitle: Where’d You Go Bernadette
Author: Maria Semple
Page Count: 330 pages
Genre: Humorous Fiction
Tone: Offbeat, Exuberant

Summary:
Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. How did the epistolary format impact your reading? Did it make it more intimate?

2. Much of the beginning of the book focused on Bernadette’s relationship with Audrey Griffin. What did you think of Audrey? Why do you think she and Bernadette didn’t get along?

3. What did you think of Bernadette and Bea’s relationship?

4. When Bernadette “escaped” from the intervention, she asked Audrey to send all the emails to Bea, and said “I know it’s a lot, but she can handle it. I’d rather ruin her with the truth than ruin her with lies.” What did you think about that?

5. Did Audrey’s character change or did we just get a new perspective?

6. Did your opinion of Bernadette change when you found out she was a successful architect?

7. Paul Jellinak brought up the point that Bernadette only created 2 houses and both were for herself. Do you think she could have had a career in architecture with actual clients?

8. Who’s fault was it that the 20 mile house was destroyed? Did Bernadette have any extenuating circumstances in regards to her actions?

9. Ellie Sito criticized Bernadette for not being tough enough. She would knit as she worked. Do you think woman then or now need to take on male stereotypes to be successful?

10. Why didn’t she fix up her house in Seattle?

11. Did you find any of this novel to be spiritual?

12. In an email to Manjula, Bernadette was discussing how much she disliked Canadians because of how everybody was equal. She said, “Some people are extraordinary and should be treated as such”. What do you think of this statement?

13. Why do you think Bernadette didn’t discuss her feelings of failure with her husband? Why did she write that soul-bearing letter to Paul Jellinac instead?

14. What did you think of Paul’s response: “Are you done?  You can’t honestly believe any of this nonsense.  People like you must create.  If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”

15. What did you think of Elgin Branch’s character? Was there enough meat to him?

16. What were your thoughts on the TED talk?

17. Do you think Elgie loves Bernadette now? Did he love her in the past?

18. Elgie was furious with Bernadette for denuding the hillside and causing the cave-in that destroyed the Griffens house. Why was he so furious? Was he right to be that mad?

19. Why was Elgie so bent on getting Bernadette committed?

20. During the intervention, Elgin let Soo-Lin stay. What are your thoughts on that? Would you have done the same?

21. Why did Dr. Kurtz resign after the intervention?

22. What does the future hold for Bernadette and Elgie’s marriage?

23. How do you think Bernadette will react to Soo-Lin’s pregnancy ?

24. Do you think that there are any true victims in the novel, if so who and why?

25. What did you think of VAV (victims against victimhood)?

26. Do you identify with any of the characters?

Other Resources:

Lit Lovers’ Reading Guide
Book Club Companion Discussion Questions
Video Interview with Maria Semple
Q and A with Maria Semple
Semple’s exploration of Microsoft

If you like Where’d You Go Bernadette, you might like…

Cover of The Financial Lives of the Poets Cover of Man at the Helm Cover of The Family Fang

 

 

 

 

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on June 10, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Humor

Discussion Questions: The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman

Cover of The Ritual BathTitle: The Ritual Bath
Author: Faye Kellerman
Page Count: 374 pages
Genre:  Mystery
Tone: Atmospheric, Suspenseful

Summary:
Detective Peter Decker is stunned when he learns one of the women in a remote yeshiva community in the California hills was brutally raped as she returned from the mikvah, the bathhouse where the cleansing ritual is performed and Rina Lazarus is also the only one in the sheltered community willing to speak of this unspeakable violation. As Rina tries to steer Decker through the maze of religious laws the two grow closer. Before they get to the bottom of this horrendous crime, revelations come to light that are so shocking that they threaten to come between the hard-nosed cop and the deeply religious woman with whom he has become irrevocably linked.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. Did the author do a good job describing the yeshiva and the mikvah? Did you learn something about the Orthodox Jewish faith that you didn’t know before?

2. What was it about Rina Lazarus that Detective Decker was attracted to? What did you think of him when he fantasized about her being out of yeshiva context?

3. Did the author do a good job of describing the feelings of attraction that both Rina and Detective Decker had toward each other?

4. How did Rina try to discourage Detective Decker from being involved with her? Were there any ways she encouraged him?

5. Were you surprised at how open Rina was with Decker about her religion and why it wouldn’t be a good idea for them to go out with each other?

6. How do Rina and Detective Decker’s decisions affect their own lives and the lives of other characters in the book?

7. Was it believable that Decker’s biological parents were Jewish? Or does it seem too contrived?

8. Did you suspect that Moshe was the rapist/murderer? Were the Jewish people in the Yeshiva blinded by their faith while searching for clues/suspects?

9. Did the author do a good job of planting clues and developing the suspects?

10. Did you guess who the rapist was? Was the rapist a surprise?

11. Was it necessary to have Mrs. Marley, the security guard, murdered?

12. What was the author trying to accomplish with this mystery novel? (Begin a series? Provide entertainment? Send a message?)

13. Is the novel believable?

14. This is classified as a mystery novel. Do you think the mystery was the main point of the novel, or was it the relationship between Rina and Detective Decker?

15. What was the books greatest strength or most serious flaw?

16. How has the author set the book up to continue the series? Have any of you read further in the series? Do you plan on reading other books in this series?

Other Resources

What is a ritual bath?
Article: Reclaiming and re-imagining the ritual bath in 2015
Book discussion resources
Detective Decker and Rina Lazarus series order

If you liked The Ritual Bath, try

Cover of In the Bleak Midwinter Cover of Friday the Rabbi Slept Late Cover of When the Bough Breaks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman
When the Bough Breaks by Jonathan Kellerman

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on May 20, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Mysteries/Thrillers/Suspense

Book Discussion Questions: The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff

Cover of The Kommandant's GirlTitle: The Kommandant’s Girl
Author: Pam Jenoff
Page Count: 395 pages
Genre:  Historical Fiction, Romance
Tone: Mesmerizing, Intrigue

Summary:
Nineteen-year-old Emma Bau has been married only three weeks when Nazi tanks thunder into her native Poland. Within days Emma’s husband, Jacob, is forced to disappear underground, leaving her imprisoned within the city’s decrepit, moldering Jewish ghetto. But then, in the dead of night, the resistance smuggles her out. Taken to Krakow to live with Jacob’s Catholic cousin, Krysia, Emma takes on a new identity as Anna Lipowski, a gentile.
Emma’s already precarious situation is complicated by her introduction to Kommandant Richwalder, a high-ranking Nazi official who hires her to work as his assistant. Urged by the resistance to use her position to access details of the Nazi occupation, Emma must compromise her safety—and her marriage vows—in order to help Jacob’s cause. As the atrocities of war intensify, so does Emma’s relationship with the Kommandant, building to a climax that will risk not only her double life, but also the lives of those she loves.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. A Publisher’s Weekly review called The Kommandant’s Girl “historical romance at its finest”.

Is this a historical romance? Would you categorize it differently? Mira Books, which published the novel, is a division of Harlequin. Did it ever seem like a Harlequin romance novel?

If it is a historical romance, then romance between whom? Emma and Jacob? Or Emma and the Kommandant?

2. Did you believe the romance between Emma and Jacob?

3. Emma and Jacob were married only a few weeks before they were separated. How do you think the story might have been different if they had been married for six months? One year? Five?

4. Was Jacob right to leave the way he did? Do you think he knew what Emma was doing?

5. Did you believe the romance between Emma and the Kommandant? Did the age difference bother you? As Emma wonders, if they had met in a different world, a different time, do you think they could have been happy together? Were they “star-crossed lovers”?

6. Did you find yourself more invested in Jacob or in the Kommandant?

7. Did you find Emma a sympathetic character? heroic? Was she a believable 19-year-old?

8. What was the most difficult challenge faced by Emma? How did her choices affect others?

9. Did her attraction to the Kommandant make her situation easier? What if she had not had feelings for him?

10. Emma struggled not just with betraying her husband, but betraying her faith. Do you think her struggle was portrayed realistically? Would you say she was unfaithful? Given the circumstances, were her actions “right”? In other words, do the ends justify the means?

11. Another review (Booklist) claimed that the author “succeeded in humanizing the unfathomable as well as the heroic”. Would you agree that the Kommandant, for example, was humanized? Did you find him sympathetic? Why or why not? If so, were you uncomfortable (as Emma was) with your sympathy?

12. Was the Kommandant really going to shoot Emma?

13. What was your opinion of Malgorzata and her role in the story?

14. How does Lukasz change the story? What if it had just been Emma and Krysia involved in the deception? What does Krysia add?

15. How was the underground portrayed? Did you feel you understood the danger? What did you think of Alek? Was his death a surprise?

16. How did you feel about Marta? Did your feelings change at any point?

17. Was Jenoff’s choice to have Emma tell the story from her point of view a good one? Was it well-utilized?

18. This is a first novel for Jenoff. Is that apparent? How so? Do you like the author’s style?

19. What was the greatest strength of the book? Its most serious flaw?

20. The book was originally titled A Fine Crack of Light. What do you think that meant? Which title do you prefer?

21. Even among those who like the book, the ending is often singled out as somewhat flawed. Did it end the way you expected? Was it satisfying?

22. How might you respond to other concerns/ criticisms:

-too many coincidences, especially in closing chapters
-language (e.g., Emma’s habitual answering of “okay”)
-not as deep or as evocative as could have been (tells, doesn’t show)
-too-familiar story; market full of WWII fiction titles
-too serious a topic to treat lightly

23. Many authors have an idea and then research the time and place. Jenoff walked the streets, was immersed in stories, and then felt compelled to write. Can you tell? Did that serve the story well?

24. Did the book’s setting enhance the story? What about the individual settings, such as the ghetto?

25. What themes would you say are throughout the story? The publisher suggests “timeless themes of hope, struggle, defiance”; would you agree with these? Are there others you would add? How well were the themes addressed and/or communicated?

26. What was the purpose of the book? Was it to learn about history? Did you?

27. What’s next for Emma? Did she and Jacob have a happy life? Does she change her mind about telling Jacob about the baby? Should she?

28. What life do you predict Lukasz will lead?

Other Resources

Mount Prospect Public Library Discussion Resources
Harlequin Discussion Questions
Lit Lovers Reading Guide
Personal Q&A with Pam Jenoff
Interview with Jenoff about the book
Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website
Kommandant’s Girl backstory

If you liked The Kommandant’s Girl, try…

Cover of The Lost WifeThe Lost Wife
by Alyson Richman

Cover of AnyaAnya
by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

Cover of The Diplomat's WifeThe Diplomat’s Wife
by Pam Jenoff (sequel to The Kommandant’s Girl)

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on May 6, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Historical Fiction, Romance

Book Discussion Questions: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clarke Newell

Cover of Empty MansionsTitle: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
Author: Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, JR.
Page Count: 456 pages
Genre:  Nonfiction, Biographies
Tone: Suspenseful, Extravagant

Summary:
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed a property listing for a grand estate that had been unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled into one of the most surprising American stories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Empty Mansions is a rich tale of wealth and loss, complete with copper barons, Gilded Age opulence, and backdoor politics. At its heart is a reclusive 104-year-old heiress named Huguette Clark. Dedman has collaborated with Huguette’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have had frequent conversations with her, to tell a fairy tale in reverse: the bright, talented daughter who is born into an almost royal family of amazing wealth and privilege, yet who secrets herself away from the outside world. Empty Mansions reveals a complete picture of the enigmatic Huguette Clark, heiress to one of the greatest fortunes in American history, a woman who had not been photographed in public since the 1920s.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. Is it difficult to understand why Huguette chose not to live in any of her beautiful homes for the last 20 years of her life?

2. Huguette preferred solitude for so much of her life, and then apparently enjoyed the hustle & bustle of the hospital environment. Does this make sense to you? Does it help explain her decision to spend so many years in the hospital? What other factors might have contributed to her choice?

3. Is there a “right” way to spend or give money? Do you believe this depends on if you’ve earned the money yourself or if you’ve received it through an inheritance?

4. Why did Huguette prefer giving to individuals versus institutions?

5. Why do we care how wealthy people spend their money?

6. Consider Andrew Carnegie’s theory (pg. 113) of the three stages of life – education, making money, and giving all the money away. What are your thoughts on this when applied to W.A. Clark and Huguette?

7. How important was control to Huguette (with her environment and in her relationships for example)?

8. Her wealth aside, was there anything unusual about Huguette?

9. What traits of Huguette are to be admired? What traits of hers were not so admirable? What were some of her gifts? How about her limitations?

10. What makes her a challenging biographical subject? Does her limited circle of contacts make her more or less interesting to read about? What makes her a good biographical subject?

11. Do you believe Huguette suffered from mental illness? What is the authors’ stance on this?

12. What lingering mysteries about Huguette remain? Does this book answer questions or raise additional questions?

13. Huguette is reported to have said “we are all a little peculiar” — do you agree? What does the term “eccentric” mean to you? Do you believe the term has an association with wealth or not necessarily?

14. The authors point out at the end (pg. 354) that Huguette was not necessarily as isolated as we might think – she had regular visitors, had nurse Hadassah, was pen pal to many, etc. What are your thoughts on this?

15. Here we have a book written about someone who intensely guarded her private life and went to great lengths to avoid the spotlight (for example, avoiding selling items out of fear of attention it might draw). Are there any ethical issues to consider with this book?

16. Consider the title — Do you find empty houses troubling or wasteful? If so, does the size or value of the house affect your level of concern? (Fancy vs. plain, huge vs. modest, unique vs. ordinary)

17. Do you believe the title was a good choice? Does it reflect the content of the book? Would you describe Huguette’s life as mysterious? Is it fair to single out Huguette’s “spending of a great American fortune” when she wasn’t his only heir and her share of W.A.’s estate was just one-fifth?

18. What was your response to the detail of gifts and donations – fascinated? Disgusted? Puzzled? Wonder? Why do you think the authors included such detail? (examples: page 247, 261, 264-5)

19. Why did the authors devote a large portion of the book to W. A. Clark?

20. In what ways did Huguette differ from her father? What character traits did she have that resembled his?

21. Do you like how the book was structured? It is not always chronological; did you like this or not?

22. How did the “Conversations with Huguette” sections affect your reading experience?

23. What did the authors hope to achieve by writing this book? Do you think they succeeded? What do they want us to know about Huguette?

24. Are the authors objective and balanced in their portrayal of Huguette? Do you think other authors might have presented a more sensational account of her life?

Other Resources

Images from Huguette’s life
Lit Lovers’ Discussion Questions
Video Interview with Bill Dedman
NPR article on auction of Huguette’s items

If you liked Empty Mansions, try…

Cover of The Secret Rooms Cover of A Curious Man Cover of The Phantom of Fifth Avenue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey
A Curious Man by Neal Thompson
The Phantom of Fifth Avenue by Meryl Gordon

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on April 22, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Nonfiction

Book Discussion Questions: The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore

Cover of The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-EatTitle: The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat
Author: Edward Kelsey Moore
Page Count: 369 pages
Genre:  Women’s Lives and Relationships
Tone: Humorous, Moving, Relational

Summary from publisher:

Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat diner in Plainview, Indiana, is home away from home for this inseparable trio.  Dubbed the “Supremes” by high school pals in the tumultuous 1960s, they’ve weathered life’s storms for over four decades and counseled one another through marriage, children, happiness and the blues. Now, however, they’re about to face their most challenging year yet.

Proud, talented Clarice is struggling to keep up appearances as she deals with her husband’s humiliating infidelities; beautiful Barbara Jean is rocked by the tragic reverberations of a youthful love affair; and fearless Odette is about to embark on
the most terrifying battle of her life.  Join these strong, funny women as they gather each Sunday at the same table at Earl’s diner for delicious food, juicy gossip, occasional tears and uproarious laughter.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. What did you think when you realized Odette was speaking with her dead mother?

2. If you were regularly visited by the ghosts would you tell anyone? If so, whom would you tell?

3. What did you think of Mrs. Roosevelt? Why do you think Moore chose Mrs. Roosevelt? Did this add to the story in your mind? Did it bother you to see her as kind of a goof or were you amused?

4. Author Edward Kelsey Moore said, “The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat is rooted on fond memories I have of a childhood spent eavesdropping on the women of my family as they talked at family gatherings. Even when I was too young to fully understand the often very adult subject matter of their conversations, I was struck by how quickly the topics veered from heartbreakingly tragic to wildly hilarious….. My intention in writing The Supremes was to celebrate the joy of true friendship and to invite readers to remember the funny, strong and smart women in their lives.”

Did he accomplish this?

5. Does he do a good job conveying the feelings of women accurately? Were there certain points in particular that you thought he captured any of the women’ thought lives very well?

6. The book went back and forth between Odette narrating and scenes described in the third person.   Did that work for you? Why do you think Moore chose Odette to narrate? How would the book have been different if narrated by Clarice or Barbara Jean?

7. How do you think the structure added to the story? (moving back and forth from character to character and through the decades) How did it detract?

8. What character and/or story were you drawn to the most?

9. In the reviews many people commented that they had trouble remembering who was who. Did you have trouble distinguishing between the characters?

10. Much of the book takes place at Earl’s diner with Earl being a guiding source in the background. His character is never fully explored though and we don’t really get to know Earl. Why do you think Moore did that?

11. All three friends had unusual circumstances around their births. What were they and how were they important to their identity? Why was this important to the story?

12. Moore is an African American and the three women are African-American as well. How important is race to this story?

13. How does growing up black in a small town in the 70’s impact their lives? (how they walk home, who they hang out with, small town: grownups who know them, knowing people’s habits)

14. Is it easy to envision some of the relational aspects of the book working in a story with three white women?

15. How does Moore illustrate the mother daughter tension throughout the story? All of the women expressed a fear of becoming their mother. Who do you think ended up being most like her mother?

16. Clarice stayed with Richmond in part because of her mother’s expectations of how a lady should behave. Barbara Jean marries Lester and we read that it was hearing her mother’s voice that led to her break up with Chick. Granted, she’s a teen when this happens, but at what point in a woman’s life does her mother stop being to blame for what she does or says?

18. Did Barbara Jean make a wise decision to not stay with Chick? Do you think it was the right one for her? Was it fair of her to marry Lester while she was in love with someone else?

19. We don’t get access to the inner thoughts of James, Lester and Richmond. In what ways did Moore show us what kind of men each of them are and what they value?

20. Moore shows us inside their three different marriages. Was there love in each of these marriages? How would you describe their relationships?

21. In high school Clarice seemed to have the prize boyfriend, yet years later it is when she sees James try to style Odette’s hair that Clarice gains the determination to leave Richmond. Why do you think this moment was a game changer for her?

22. How did people respond to Clarice’s decision to move out? How did you respond?

23. Why does Barbara Jean find that good memories weigh as much as the bad and need to be drunk away?

24. All three friends seem to be in different places in their spiritual life. What is going on with them? How is religion handled in the story?

25. What did you think of Odette’s initial decision to keep her diagnosis to herself?

26. Leaning Tree is a small town. In what ways does this book show the good and bad of living in a small town?

27. Who were your favorite secondary characters?

28. The diner itself served as a character. What impact do you think it had on the overall story, the characters and the community?

29. What did you think about the ending? Did it fit well with the rest of the story?
Other Resources

Covers of the International Editions
Reading group guide
Video of Edward Kelsey Moore on The Supremes
Q&A with Edward Kelsey Moore
Interview with Edward Kelsey Moore

If you liked The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, try…

Cover of Far From the TreeCover of Who Asked You? Cover of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far From the Tree by Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant
Who Asked You? by Terry McMillan
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

 

 

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on April 8, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Humor

Book Discussion Questions: Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Cover of Half the SkyTitle: Half the Sky
Author: Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Page Count: 294 pages
Genre: Nonfiction, Social Issues
Tone: Inspirational

Summary from publisher:

With Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake an odyssey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there, among them a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. Drawing on the breadth of their combined reporting experience, Kristof and WuDunn depict our world with anger, sadness, clarity, and, ultimately, hope. They show how a little help can transform the lives of women and girls abroad.

 

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. Half the Sky is not the first book to raise worldwide social issues. What about this work makes it stand out? Why do you think it has taken hold, even sparked a movement?

 2. Would you describe Half the Sky as a difficult book to read? A worthwhile one? Believable? Tragic? Overhyped?

3. From the introduction: “Many of the stories in this book are wrenching, but keep in mind this central truth: ‘Women aren’t the problem, but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity.’” Do they make their case?

4. How did you read this book? In large chunks? Small sections? Audio? How do you think that impacted your experience?

5. Have any of you seen the documentary before or after reading Half the Sky? Before or after? How did that complement your experience? Any significant differences?

6. How did you respond to the writing style and the book structure? Would you say these choices are what makes it accessible?

7. Gender politics and issues can be tricky. Do the authors succeed in moving this beyond a “women’s issue” to a “human rights issue”? Would the case have been more difficult to make if two women were writing about the issues?

8. “Frankly, we hesitate to pile on the data, since even when numbers are persuasive, they are not galvanizing. A growing collection of psychological studies show that statistics have a dulling effect, while it is individual stories that move people to act. In one experiment…”

Is this a fair representation? Do we rise to stories but nod-and-pass too easily with statistics? Is it true across the board or do you think it differs according to individual? Were there numbers that shocked you?

9. The authors do rely on stories to bring the issues to life. Which ones stood out? Even if you don’t recall names — which situations, images, atrocities have stayed with you? What proposed solutions excited you or seemed most promising?

 10. Did it surprise you at all that so many were willing to share such painful stories with a male American journalist? In what ways does owning and telling the story empower the individual?

11. “Rescuing girls is the easy part…the challenge is keeping them from returning.” How could this be true?

12. How does a book like this affect how you view the world?

13. Were you surprised by the extent to which women were involved in oppression or abuse of other women? Why or why not?

14. Did you find the book balanced in revealing what doesn’t necessarily work/unintended consequences without cherry-picking results?

15. Some raise the concern that journalism of this type can be sensationalistic, voyeuristic, or even endanger the subjects. In what ways are these valid? Does the good outweigh the bad?

16. Did you sense any political agenda or bias in the writing?

17. Even though the book focuses on Africa and Asia, many of the problems addressed occur in Europe and the U.S. as well. How are these issues similar across regions, and how do they differ?

18. The writers address the idea of cultural imperialism: “If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, food-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths or cultures.” How do you respond? How do we walk a tightrope in terms of telling another culture what they believe is right or wrong?

19. From the documentary: “Sometimes people want to do too much, so they do nothing. They say, ‘I cannot help.’ Everyone can help. Everyone can do one thing.” Is there truth in this? How do we overcome those mental obstacles?

20. The book was first published in 2009. Do you think anything has change? Have you heard of the “movement” before reading Half the Sky?

21. When we feel convicted or inspired by a work such as Half the Sky, how do we keep that active? How do we keep ourselves from forgetting or sinking back into complacency?

Other Resources

 Half the Sky Movement webpage
Lit Lovers Discussion Questions
Videos produced by Half the Sky Movement
Discussion facilitation guide for Half the Sky
Video interview with Kristof and WuDunn
Extended interview with Kristof and WuDunn
Article: What’s So Scary About Smart Girls?

If you liked Half the Sky, try…

Cover of Paradise Beneath Her FeetCover of A Call to Action Cover of The Blue Sweater

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paradise Beneath Her Feet by Isobel Coleman
A Call to Action by Jimmy Carter
The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on March 25, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Nonfiction

Book Discussion Questions: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Cover of The Round HouseTitle: The Round House
Author: Louise Erdrich
Page Count: 321 pages
Genre: Coming of Age Stories, Literary Fiction
Tone: Reflective, Moving, Bleak

Summary from publisher:
One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface because Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe’s life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared. While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. The Round House is a book for which a sentence or two summary cannot fully capture the experience it holds. How would you describe the feel of reading this story?

2. As you read, were you conscious of the fact that it was an older Joe looking back on this summer? Did that impact the narrative for you?

3. This work has been described as a coming-of-age story. In what ways are Joe’s experiences universal? In what ways are they specific? Does this category do justice to the narrative?

4. One of the ways a typical adolescence is explored is through sexual curiosity and preoccupation. Were you at all uncomfortable with these depictions in a story that is incited with a brutal sexual assault? Was this intentional?

5. The Round House deals with some deeply troubling themes and struggles. How was that balanced? Were there elements that lightened the story for you?

6. Describe Joe’s friendship with Cappy. What did he add to the story?

7. Is Joe proud of his heritage? What does this narrative have to say about cultural identity?

8. Much of the complication for Geraldine’s case is the question of jurisdiction. How does the legal relationship between the U.S. and the Ojibwe complicate the investigation?

9. Why didn’t Geraldine simply lie and say she knew where it happened? Do you agree with her reasons?

10. When Joe makes his decision, he says it is about justice, not vengeance. What do you think? How does that decision change him? Does his decision change your perception of him?

11. One reviewer shared, “In Erdrich’s hands, you may find yourself, as I did, embracing the prospect of vigilante justice as regrettable but reasonable, a way to connect to timeless wisdom about human behavior. It wasn’t until I put the book down that I recognized – and marveled at – the clever way I had been manipulated.” Was your experience similar to that of the reviewer? Does this affect your assessment of the book and/or the author?

12. How would you describe Father Travis and his role in the story?

13. Near the end of the story (p.306), Joe’s father talks of “ideal justice as opposed to the best-we-can-do justice”. What did he mean? How is this borne out in the story?

14. What else did Joe’s father want him to understand from that conversation? Did he make his point?

15. What was the importance of the wiindigoo motif?

16. Do you feel you have a good understanding of what Geraldine was like before the incident? How does the author convey this?

17. At one literary festival panel, during a discussion of the general lack of strong marriages in fiction, author Lorrie Moore said she felt the marital life of Joe’s parents was a central part of The Round House. In what ways would you agree or disagree with this statement?

18. What were the most uncomfortable scenes for you? Did these lessen your enjoyment of the book as a whole?

19. What was the significance and the symbolism of the Round House? Why choose this as the title?

20. How would you describe the author’s writing style and storytelling choices?

21. At the conclusion of the novel, when Joe’s parents are driving him home and they don’t stop at the roadside café, Erdrich writes, “we passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.” What do you think she meant?

22. The Round House won the National Book Award and was later selected for Book Crossing, a shared reading program between Mount Prospect Public Library and our sister city, Sèvres, France. What elements make this book a good choice for discussion?

 

Other Resources
LitLovers guide
Video of National Book Award honors
NY Times Q&A with Louise Erdrich
Resource guide from Minnesota Book Awards
University of North Carolina questions for reflection
Another perspective: book response

If you liked The Round House, try…

Thirteen Moons Canada Perfect

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier
Canada by Richard Ford
Perfect by Rachel Joyce

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on March 11, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Literary

Discussion Questions: Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord

Cover of Spring MoonTitle: Spring Moon
Author: Bette Bao Lord
Page Count: 464 pages
Genre:  Historical Fiction, Family Saga
Tone: Lyrical, Poignant, Moving

Summary from publisher:
Behind the garden walls of the House of Chang, Spring Moon is born into an exclusive world of luxury and privilege. Her servant, Plum Blossom, attends to her every need and inadvertently alters the course of her life forever. Her uncle, Bold Talent, who has returned to China from the United States with radical new ideas, educates her against the wishes of the family, and intervenes at the moment when Spring Moon most needs his help. But the tempests of change sweep Spring Moon into a new world — one of hardship, turmoil, and heartbreak; one that threatens to destroy her husband, her family, and her darkest secret love.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. What was Bette Bao Lord’s purpose in writing this novel?

2. One review (New York Times 12/1/81) felt that Lord covered too much history in her novel and that it overwhelmed her characters. Do you agree or disagree?

3. What was Lord’s reason for providing the stories in italics at the beginning of each chapter? Did it add or detract from the story?

4. What was Spring Moon’s role in this story? Was Spring Moon the main character of the novel?

5. How would you describe the relationship between Spring Moon and Lustrous Jade? How did that relationship change throughout the years?

6. On page 350, why did Spring Moon demand that Lustrous Jade kneel before her? Why was it so difficult for Lustrous Jade to kneel before her mother, yet she easily kneeled before shopkeepers and others to get them to join her cause?

7. Did you feel that August Winds and Lustrous Jade belonged together as man and wife?

8. How did the role of the family change or not change in China?  Consider the theme of devotion to family versus devotion to one’s principles. What characters were more devoted to family? What characters were devoted to their principles? Was it possible for them to be devoted to both?

9. What were the differences in the love Spring Moon had for her first husband, Glad Promise, and the love she had for her lover Bold Talent?

10. Do you think the clan suspected the love between Bold Talent and Spring Moon? Were they jealous of Spring Moon’s ability to read?

11. Did Bold Talent love his wife, Golden Virtue?

12. Do you think Bold Talent knew that Enduring Promise was his and Spring Moon’s son? What about Golden Virtue?

13. On page 248, Spring Moon was about to leave Bold Talent to return to her mother-in-law, and Bold Talent talked about what was wrong with the Chinese. He said, “Do you not see what is wrong. In the end, we always yield – to tradition, to foreigners, to family, to authority, to duty. To everything and everybody, living and dead-except our needs, our dreams, our passions! If we do live for ourselves, it is not for long. A moment here, a month there. As long as no one knows. As long as nothing is truly changed. Then, once more we yield. Once more we live as others would have us live.” Do you agree with this assessment?

14. How did you feel when Spring Moon took her son away from Dummy and her husband?

15. What was the relationship between Lustrous Jade and August Winds? How about between Lustrous Jade and Resolute Spirit? How were they similar and how were they different?

16. On page 383, in a letter to Bold Talent talking about parading elders in dunce caps across public squares, Noble Talents asks, “Is this what revolution means?” What did revolution mean to Lustrous Jade?

17. How did you feel when Bold Talent, Lustrous Jade and Resolute Spirit left Bold Talent’s body behind in order to smuggle Lustrous Jade and Resolute Spirit to safety?

18. How did the women of the Chang family change throughout the years?

Other Resources

Lit Lovers’ Discussion Questions
Interview with Bette Bao Lord
Video interview with Bette Bao Lord

If you liked Spring Moon, try…

Cover of Twentieth WifeCover of Snowflower and the Secret Fan Cover of The Bathing Women

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
The Bathing Women by Tie Ning

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on February 25, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Historical Fiction