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Book Discussion Questions: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence book cover

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

 

Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Page Count: 362
Genre: Classic literature, Love stories, Social commentary
Tone: Bittersweet, Moving, Nostalgic, Satirical

 

1.  What do you make of Newland Archer? Is a hero, a victim, or something in between?

2.  Were his motivations selfless or selfish?

3.  Did Newland truly love either May or Ellen?

4.  Why do you think Wharton made Newland the lead character in her novel? How might the story be different if told from the Countess Olenska’s point of view? Or from May’s?

5.  For which character did you feel the strongest, either positively or negatively? Did your opinions evolve as the story progressed?

6.  Would Newland have been happier with Ellen?

7.  How might the story have been different if Newland and Ellen had embarked on a full affair, rather than a fairly conservative flirtation?

8.  Would you have liked to know more about Newland and May’s courtship? What might those details have revealed about the characters, about their marriage?

9.  What does Newland see in May at the beginning of the novel? What does he see in Ellen? What does each woman represent for him? What does each woman see in Newland?

10.  Some critics have described May as one of the great villains of American literature. Does that characterization surprise you? Is it a fair assessment? In what ways might she be considered villainous?

11.  Can you attach any symbolic significance to May’s skill with a bow and arrow? What does this side of her reveal about her character, about her relationship with Newland?

12.  How does the novel portray marriage? How does it portray passion and sexuality? Are the ideas surrounding each applied differently to the male and female characters?

13.  Is this a classic tale of star-crossed lovers, of love unrequited—or is it something else, something more? Is it a story of an affair or of a marriage?

14.  Some critics have called this novel a story of identity. Would you agree? What do you think it has to say about identity? How might this be a story about belonging?

15.  How much of our identity comes from the life we are born into versus the life we create for ourselves? How do you see this question working in the lives and identities of the characters in this novel?

16.  What other characters made an impression on you? How significantly did the peripheral characters influence the lives of Newland, May, and Ellen?

17.  Think about the title of this novel. Is it meant to be taken literally—was it truly an innocent time? Or is the title ironic? Who among these characters could be described as innocent?

18.  Wharton often expressed her dislike of modernity, her unhappiness with the hustle and bustle and lack of courtesy in modern life. Is her novel a piece of nostalgia for the “good old days”? In what ways might it be considered satire?

19.  Upon its publication, The Age of Innocence became an immediate sensation. Why do you think that is?

20.  Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, but only after some controversy where the prize was taken from its original recipient—Sinclair Lewis for Main Street (a biting social satire of small-town America). The Board of Trustees said Wharton’s novel “presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Was their assessment correct?

21.  It’s a novel about the very wealthy. Could a similar story be told about the very poor? What elements would be different? Which would be the same?

22.  It is certainly a novel of its time and place. Would you also consider it a timeless story? Do its themes resonate today?

23.  The novel ends with Newland deciding not to meet with Ellen later in life. Why do you think he made this decision? Did you want him to see her? What would you have done if you were him?

 

Other Resources
Reader’s Guide from the Big Read
The life and legacy of Edith Wharton
Painting believed to have inspired the title of Wharton’s novel
Edith Wharton/Sinclair Lewis Pulitzer Prize controversy
Roger Ebert’s review of Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film adaptation

 

If you liked The Age of Innocence, try…
The Innocents by Francesca Segal
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The Innocents book cover    The Magnificent Ambersons book coverMansfield Park book cover

 

 

 

 

 

By MPPL on July 9, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Literary

Book Discussion Questions: 1776 by David McCullough

1776 book cover

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

 

Title: 1776
Author: David McCullough
Page Count: 386
Genre: Narrative nonfiction, History
Tone: Upbeat, Nostalgic

 

1.  Could King George III have done anything differently in 1776 to avoid war, or was it inevitable at that point?

2.  Did he underestimate the Americans? How so?

3.  What did you learn about George Washington from this book that surprised you? How much of what we know about Washington is a myth?

4.  How important was Washington’s role in American independence?

5.  How did Washington try to overcome his failings? Was he successful?

6.  Why did—and perhaps still do—people respond so positively to him?

7.  How has the reputation of Commander-in-Chief affected wars in our country since Washington’s time?

8.  Was Congress right in not having Washington attack Boston? Why do you think Washington wanted to attack, especially when nobody else thought it was a good idea?

9.  Washington was very concerned about his appearance. McCullogh writes: “And as with everything connected to that role—his uniform, the house, his horses and equipage, the military dress and the bearing of his staff—appearances were of great importance: a leader must look and act the part” (p. 42). How much of Washington’s ideas about appearance and presentation do you suppose was influenced by his living under a monarchy?

10.  What do you think about Washington later deciding to wear civilian (rather than military) clothes when acting as president? Does this reveal anything about his character, his beliefs, etc.? And how much do you think that decision influenced the American people’s view of the Office of the President?

11.  Washington was originally referred to as “His Excellency.” Do you think Americans today want their president to have an air of grandeur, or do they desire a more approachable “commoner” president? What are the pros and cons of both?

12.  What were some of the biggest differences between the warring armies, and how did they affect the battles?

13.  What about the American army surprised you? Were there any ways in which the inexperience of the American troops and their leaders were helpful to the cause?

14.  In what ways did the technology of the time cause problems for the patriots that could have been avoided with today’s technology?

15.  What formalities of war existed during Revolutionary times, and how does this differ from how wars are waged today?

16.  What wins a war? Number of troops? Talent? Leadership?

17.  Is it necessary for the enlisted to truly believe in the cause in order to win the war?

18.  Are there any parallels to be drawn between the American Revolution and our current military conflicts?

19.  Is it important for Americans to know the history of the Revolution? Why or why not?

20.  How do you think modern English citizens would feel about this book and its portrayal of their history?

21.  McCullough wrote this history as narrative nonfiction. Was he successful? Were you more interested or engaged reading this than you would have been with a more academic take on the subject?

22.  The author chose to focus on a single year: 1776. Was this adequate to tell a compelling and clear story? Do you feel like there are things you still want to know, background information you wish you’d had?

23.  After reading this, do you find it miraculous America gained its independence?

24. Do you think you would have joined the American cause or stayed loyal to England?

 

Other Resources
Radio interview: Author discusses researching and writing 1776
The Declaration of Independence at the Library of Congress
Images from the American Revolution
George Washington biography

 

If you liked 1776, try…
American Gospel by Jon Meacham
Hallowed Ground by James McPherson
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

American Gospel book cover    Hallowed Ground book coverTeam of Rivals book cover

 

 

 

 

 

By MPPL on June 25, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Nonfiction

Book Discussion Questions: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room book cover

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

 

Title: Room
Author: Emma Donoghue
Page Count: 321
Genre: Literary fiction, Psychological fiction
Tone: Suspenseful, Haunting, Moving

 

1.  Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, called Room “a book to read in one sitting. When it’s over,” she said, “you look up: the world looks the same but you are somehow different and that feeling lasts for days.” Is this how you experienced the book? Do you agree or disagree? How so?

2.  What do you think of the author’s choice to use five-year-old Jack as the narrator of this story? What qualities does he lend to the story that an older narrator might not have?

3.  What about Jack shows him to be a typical five-year-old boy? What makes him unlike others his age? Is he/his voice convincing?

4.  How did you react to Jack’s difficulty distinguishing between what’s real (in Room) and what’s on the television? Did you find his changes in perception and understanding feel authentic to you?

5.  Donoghue creates a unique world for Jack—and by extension, for us, the readers. What details of her setting most impressed you? Was she successful in her creation of this unique world? Could you really see Room in your mind as the story progressed, or would including diagrams in the book have helped?

6.  Ma is shown only through the eyes of young Jack. Is she mysterious as a character? Are there things you wish you knew about her?

7.  Are there any examples of Ma’s resourcefulness that especially stood out for you? What can we learn about her from seeing how she raises her son?

8.  What does the focus on Ma’s teeth and Jack’s dental routine reveal?

9.  Donoghue deliberately keeps the kidnapper—or the villain—out of the spotlight. How would this story be different if he’d been more present in these pages, if we’d been privy to his thoughts, his motivations, or even his name? Why do you think she chooses not to focus on Old Nick? Did you want to know more about him?

10.  Many people—including the author herself—view Room as a book with two halves, the climax taking place hallway through. Do you see it this way? Did you prefer one half over the other?

11.  Did the author build suspense well leading up to the climax? Did you think Ma’s plans would work?

12.  How would you characterize the doctors’ and nurses’ treatment of Ma and Jack? Was the care what you’d expect?

13.  Often stories focus on the captivity of women and children and not on the pain of their re-entry into the outside world. What were some of Ma’s and Jack’s biggest struggles, and how did they work against each other?

14.  How was Jack shaped by his ordeal? Did any of his struggles to adjust to Outside surprise you?

15.  Did Ma’s behavior Outside make you think differently about her character?

16.  How does Ma’s family react to Ma and Jack? How do strangers react to the mother and son?

17.  The chapters on re-entry turn into something of a commentary on life itself, exploring what is necessary, important, strange, etc. What examples stood out the most for you?

18.  Was the choice to have Ma and Jack return to Room a surprising one? Was this an effective closing scene? Did you want or expect something different?

19.  Are this story and its characters relatable? Donoghue said she thinks a tragic story like this can illuminate the human condition, that Ma and Jack’s story might be everybody’s story. What do you think she means? Do you agree with her?

20.  Both motherhood and childhood, the author has said, can sometimes feel like a locked room. How is this reflected in the novel?

21.  Is this a book where you are left wanting to know what happens to the characters in the future? Why or why not?

22.  Room deals with some difficult and disturbing topics. Why would anyone want to read it? Is the novel sensationalistic in its portrayal of these characters’ lives? Why has it been so popular?

 

Other Resources
Official book site, features Room diagrams and Ma and Jack’s library
Author site, includes reviews and interviews
NPR (audio) interview with the author
New Yorker interview with the author

 

If you liked Room, try…
The Bear by Claire Cameron
Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley
A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

The Bear book cover    Amity & Sorrow book coverA Stolen Life book cover

 

 

 

 

 

By MPPL on June 11, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books

Book Discussion Questions: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio book cover

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

 

Title: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
Author: Terry Ryan
Page Count: 351
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, Family stories
Tone: Humorous, Heartwarming, Inspirational

 

1.  Much of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio takes place in the 1950s. What in particular demonstrates how people and/or attitudes were different during that time?

2.  There’s a popular saying: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Was there anything you read that you can relate to life today?

3.  If this book were written today, what would be different?

4.  How would you describe Evelyn as a “character”? What was her most admirable trait? What about her was not so admirable?

5.  Evelyn very much believed in destiny. How do you see this belief playing out in her life?

6.  What do you think of Kelly, Evelyn’s husband? Did you feel any sympathy for him?

7.  Why do you think Kelly started drinking?

8.  Would you label Kelly as abusive? Why or why not?

9.  The concept of domestic violence didn’t exist in the 1950s (though the act certainly did). How might Evelyn and Kelly’s relationship be received today, in light of our modern understanding of domestic violence?

10.  Why did Evelyn never leave Kelly? Should she have? Would she today?

11.  At one point in the book, Evelyn tells daughter Tuffy it would be a waste of time to stand up to Kelly. What does she mean by this? Do you agree?

12.  Do you think the author – Terry Ryan – was too tough in her portrayal of her father?

13.  This is a work of nonfiction. Do you think the author took any creative license when telling her family’s story?

14.  What do you think Ryan’s motivation was for writing this book?

15.  What might be different about the book if it were an autobiography written by Evelyn herself?

16.  How would you describe the tone of this book? Do you think the tone was appropriate for the topics discussed in the book?

17.  Evelyn was a religious woman, and she respected clergy as representatives of God. Do you think the clergy in her story deserved such high regard?

18.  There are several integral supporting characters in this story – particularly Aunt Lucy. What was her role in Evelyn’s life?

19.  What do you think would have happened to Evelyn and her family if she hadn’t discovered contests and used her writing talents?

20.  After Evelyn won the Dr. Pepper contest, the children knew “From then on . . . there could never be a problem bigger than Mom’s ability to solve it” (p. 334). What would it have felt like, growing up as a child in the Ryan household? How did Evelyn’s children view her?

21.  Evelyn wrote a letter to college admissions, intimately discussing her family’s troubles. Why did she do this? What does it reveal about the kind of woman she was?

22.  After Evelyn died, her children discovered she “had” to get married. How do you think a lack of options affected Evelyn, her marriage, and how she raised her children?

23.  What are your thoughts on Kelly’s “legacy of atonement” (i.e., $60,000)? Why didn’t Evelyn spend it?

24.  On her deathbed, Evelyn said of Defiance: “It was a nice place to be. A saving place” (p. 341). What do you think she meant by that? How do you see the town of Defiance, Ohio?

 

Other Resources
Q&A with author Terry “Tuffy” Ryan
Lit Lovers’ book discussion questions
Website dedicated to Evelyn’s life (includes photos and Evelyn’s notebooks)
Roger Ebert’s film review for The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
Washington Post obituary for Terry Ryan

 

If you liked the Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, try…
Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley
The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan
Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls

Losing Mum and Pup book cover    The Longest Trip Home book coverHalf Broke Horses book cover

 

 

 

 

 

By MPPL on May 28, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Nonfiction

Book Discussion Questions: Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

Lone Wolf book cover

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

 

Title: Lone Wolf
Author: Jodi Picoult
Page Count: 421
Genre: Contemporary, Issue-driven, Relational
Tone: Bittersweet, Thought-provoking, Moving

 

1.  At the core of Lone Wolf is Luke, a character who is revealed solely through flashbacks and others’ recollections. How would you describe him? Are we as readers supposed to admire him? Did your opinion of him change throughout the story?

2.  One reviewer stated that “understanding [Luke] is the key to accepting the story.” Do you agree this is true? Was the author successful in helping you understand Luke?

3.  What would motivate a man to live in the wild with a wolf pack for a year? Do you know of any true-life examples of this?

4.  What did you learn about wolves from the book? How did this enhance the story? Were there any experiences that you found especially fascinating?

5.  What is the distinction between a lone wolf and pack wolves? Why is this important?

6.  In what ways do the lessons about wolf life mirror the circumstances and issues of the human family?

7.  Early in the book, Luke complains that some people tend to attribute human emotions and motivations to animals. How is his explanation of wolf behavior different?

8.  Picoult’s trademark style involves multiple first-person narrators contending with a difficult ethical issue. What are the advantages of this approach? Do all sides receive fair play, or do you think one or more viewpoints weren’t given as much weight? Is the author’s personal bias evident?

9. With which of the characters did you most easily empathize? Is this different from the character(s) you liked best?

10.  Are there characters with whom you had trouble empathizing, even when you were hearing their own thoughts and feelings?

11.  Were there any twists or developments that took you by surprise?

12. Throughout the book we’re given hints that more happened at the accident than we know. When the truth is revealed, does this help explain Cara’s actions? Would you have wanted to know this earlier in the story?

13.  Is Edward’s sexuality important to the story? For much of the book, the reader (and most of the characters) believe that his coming out to his father was the reason he left the family. Does using this as a red herring undermine the importance of the topic?

14.  The issue of medical advocacy is examined in several facets. Even though she was only 17, should Cara have been named her father’s proxy? How much weight should the handwritten document from years ago have carried?

15. What was your prediction when Luke opened his eyes and watched Cara move around the bed? How might this have impacted the story?

16.  In your opinion, who really had Luke’s best interests at heart? Is it possible to make these decisions without our own baggage getting in the way?

17.  What do you think Luke would have wanted?

18.  What other issues related to quality of life were raised? Should more time have been taken before a decision was made? Should the fact that his organs were candidates for donation affect the decision?

19.  How well did Picoult depict a family struggling with loss?

20.  During the debate, contrasting arguments were made based first on Luke’s animal activism and later on the secret abortion. Do these actions have relevance to the decisions being made about his life? How might you weight them?

21.  Georgie’s loyalties seem to change from one point in the story to another. Is this believable? Did you agree with her actions?

22.  Were you surprised by Joe’s involvement? What did you think of his role?

23.  How does Picoult portray her male characters as opposed to her female characters? Is this intentional? Have you noticed this in her other work?

24.  Often Picoult’s books are described as page-turners, ones that are hard to put down and that are accessible due to the short chapters and different perspectives. Would you say this is true for Lone Wolf?

25. Are animals portrayed as equal to–or even superior to—people? In this story or in general?

26.  Regardless of whether you had a strong reaction one way or the other, did it make you think? Is that a goal for which writers should strive?

 

Other Resources
Simon & Schuster reading group guide
author website resource page for Lone Wolf
The Huffington Post interview with Jodi Picoult
video interview with author
Discovery Channel documentary
NPR:  “Why Are Wolf Scientists Howling at Jodi Picoult?”
The Washington Post review

 

If you liked Lone Wolf, try…
The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley
The Man Who Lives with Wolves by Shaun Ellis
While My Sister Sleeps by Barbara Delinsky

Promise of Stardust book cover    Man Who Lives with Wolves book coverWhile My Sister Sleeps book cover

 

 

 

 

 

By Readers' Advisor on May 14, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books

Book Discussion Questions: Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell

Claude and Camille book cover

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

 

Title: Claude and Camille
Author: Stephanie Cowell
Page Count: 338
Genre: Historical, biographical fiction
Tone: Lush, leisurely

 

1. In the beginning of Claude and Camille, Monet’s mentor Boudin said “The only thing I see you lack Claude, is humility. When you learn that, you will do your best.” Do you believe that Claude ever learned humility? Was it necessary for him to succeed? Would Monet have been as successful if Boudin hadn’t challenged him?

2. Where did Claude Monet first see Camille? What was his reaction to her? Is Camille Claude’s muse?

3. What did  you think of the sexuality displayed in Claude and Camille? Did it surprise you?

4. Do you think Camille ever actually intend to marry her fiancé? What would lead you to that conclusion?

5. Claude and Camille ran off together and spent a week in Sevres (which, by the way, is Mt. Prospects Sister City). Claude had painted a picture of Camille (Women in the Garden) and as it was time to go back, he packed the picture away. He said, “My love is inside there now, my love is rolled away in darkness.” What do you think he meant by that? Was he talking about Camille or was the painting his love?

6. Camille is from a wealthy family and had a life of privilege. Do you think Camille realized how much her life would change when she defied her parents to live with Monet? If she had realized do you think she would have made the same choices?

7. What did Camille see in Claude? Why do you think they lived together and didn’t immediately get married?

8. What did you think of Camille’s parents’ attitude towards Claude? How would you feel if she were your daughter?

9. A recurring theme throughout Monet’s life is his refusal to take a job and his insistence on pursuing his art fulltime. What did Camille think about this? What do you think of this? Did you ever admire or agree with Claude’s choice to remain solely an artist? As an artist, do you think he could have achieved the success he did without solely concentrating on his art?

10. Do you think Claude’s father should have helped him more financially? What would you do if you had a budding Monet?

11. Did you wonder if Camille was mentally unstable?

12. When Camille thinks she is pregnant, Claude is clearly not happy, why is that? Why didn’t Claude and Camille marry when she discovered she was pregnant?

13. Claude goes to Le Havre to ask his father for more money after they learned of the pregnancy but he stayed there for quite some time. Why? What did you think of Camille’s reaction?

14. Camille’s first lover was Frédéric Bazille. He lets the cat out of the bag on the day Claude and Camille get married. Why then? Were you surprised to learn who Camille’s 1st lover was? Does Claude have a reason to be upset? Do you think Camille would have had a “better” life had she married Bazille?

15. There is a suggestion that Bazille was in love with Monet and Monet accepts this. What are your thoughts?

16. Was there any way that Claude could have prevented Bazille from going to war? If Frédéric had not died in the war would they have resumed their friendship?

17. Camille tells Claude that she gave up the Theatre for him. Is this a true statement? Why or why not?

18. After Claude and Camille’s argument at the house in Le Havre, Claude goes off to paint and Camille leaves the baby and goes to the shack where they made love. Claude comes home to find the baby crying and cold and angrily goes in search of Camille. What are your thoughts on both of their actions? Who do you sympathize more with?

19. After his suicide attempt, Claude writes Camille the most passionate letter of his life and then he leaves her to go to Le Havre. Why did he leave her? Why doesn’t he take Camille with him?

20. Camille’s uncle suffered a heart attack and she takes over the book store. She and Jean move into the rooms above it. Claude has been writing her sporadically. He writes her passionately and she is silent for three days and then her letter, when it comes, is “cautious.” How does Claude react to this? What does his reaction say about him?

21. How did you feel about Claude taking his family to London to wait out the war? Pissarro said, “…Our friends are safe and so are we….living our lives with the sole justification to paint…” What did you think of the artists? Do you think they were more important than common workers?

22. Monet and Camille were happy when Monet gets a lucrative commission from Ernest Hoschedé to paint some panels on the wall of the gazebo at his wife’s chateau. While there he becomes attracted to Alice Hoschedé. What do you think attracted him to her? Was she attracted to him?

23. Claude claimed to love Camille deeply. He had the example his father set of what happens to a relationship when there is infidelity and yet Claude had a tryst with Alice? Your thoughts?

24. Claude seemed very upset at the idea of Alice’s husband mismanaging her fortune and losing all those things she held dear. How is this different from how Claude took Camille away from her life of privilege and why does he feel so badly for Alice?

25. Claude eventually married Alice. Why? How was Claude and Alice’s relationship different than Claude and Camille’s?

26. Claude seemed genuinely upset over the death of Camille. He was an artist and he painted her on her deathbed as a way to keep her with him. Why was Camille’s sister Annette so horrified to see the picture Claude painted?

27. In the first  interlude Monet  is an old man working on his famous Water Lillies. He is having a difficult time and says, “What can these paintings of water lilies which are such a struggle for me have to do with my long lost love?” What do you think the lillies had to do with Camille? And why were they such a struggle for him?

28. Monet is writing to Camille’s sister Annette asking if she knows about Camille’s old love letters.  Why does he want to see letters written to another man? Why did Annette hate Claude? Why did Annette blame Claude for Camille’s death?

29. Did reading this novel affect how you regard Claude Monet? How?

30. Do you think it is necessary to understand art to love it? Can learning too much about an artist ruin your art appreciation? Explain.

 

Other Resources
Stephanie Cowell’s official book discussion questions
Lit Lovers‘ book discussion questions
Chocolate and Croissants interview
Huffington Post interview
Passages to the Past interview
Monet documentary

Be sure to stop at the second floor Reference Desk to ask about Claude Monet art history and coffee table books.

 

If you liked Claude and Camille, try…

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-wives of Cézanne, Monet, and Rodin by Ruth Butler
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

The Painted Girls book cover     Hidden in the Shadow of the Master book coverThe Art Forger book cover

By Readers' Advisor on April 23, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Historical Fiction

Book Discussion Questions: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

My Stroke of Insight book cover

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

 

Title: My Stroke of Insight
Author: Jill Bolte Taylor
Page Count: 183
Genre: Medical Memoir
Tone: Fast-paced, popular science

 

1. Why did the Jill Bolte Taylor want to write My Stroke of Insight? What response do you think Taylor wants out of her readers?

2. Who can benefit from reading this memoir (or other medical memoirs)? Do you think medical memoirs are important, why or why not?

3. What are other must-read medical memoirs?

4. What was the most surprising thing you learned about having a stroke in My Stroke of Insight?

5. Do strokes only affect the elderly? How old was Taylor when she had her stroke?

6. What made Taylor want to go into brain science? How did she continue her brain science career after her stroke?

7. What did you think of the pace of this book? Was it a fast read for you?

8. Were there any chapters you would cut? Was there anything about Taylor’s stroke or recovery you wanted to hear more on?

9. Have any of you seen Jill BolteTaylor’s Ted Talk? How was hearing her story live a different experience than reading it?

10. What are the warning signs of having a stroke? (p. 26)

11. When and how did Taylor realize she was having a stroke? (p. 37) How big did her blood clot end up being? (p. 35)

12. At one point, Taylor talks about her thinking process like this:

“…I visualize myself sitting in the middle of my brain, which is completely lined with filing cabinets. When I am looking for a thought or an idea or a memory, I scan the cabinets and identify the correct drawer. Once I find the appropriate file, I then have access to all of the information in that file.”  (p. 48)

Do you have a similar thought process? How does your thought process differ from Taylor’s?

13. Taylor sometimes refers to thoughts as “brain chatter”. How do you calm your mind when your brain chatter is going in overdrive? Has My Stroke of Insight given you any techniques to quiet brain chatter?

14. How long did it take Taylor to call for help, once she realized that she was in physical harm? Why did it take her so long to call for help? Who does she end up calling?

15. When Steve and Taylor arrived at Mount Auburn Hospital, staff put Taylor in a wheelchair and then put her in the waiting room. Were you surprised by this? Did Taylor have to wait long, why or why not?

16. Taylor says, “Despite the overwhelming presence of the engulfing bliss of my right mind, I fought desperately to hold on to whatever conscious connections I still retained in my left mind.” It is a striking realization, that something that feels beautiful and light could be so harmful. Were there any other passages in this book that felt powerful to you?

17. What does the right brain mainly control? What does the left brain mainly control? How are they different?

18. How many years did it take for Taylor to recover from her stroke? (8 years – p. 35)

19. Who helps Jill Bolte Taylor recover from her stroke? Does this person live-in with her? How would Taylor’s outcome been different if she did not have a support system?

20. What other lucky breaks did Taylor have in her recovery? (Rose Hulman Institute of Technology hired her to teach anatomy in her 2nd year of recovery, p. 126)

21. What are a few of the 40 things Jill Bolte Taylor said she needed most when she was recovering from her stroke? (Appendix B)

22. Taylor said, “…I learned that I had the power to choose whether to hook into a feeling and prolong its presence in my body, or just let it quickly flow right out of me.” (p. 120)  and then goes on to explain that it takes 90 seconds for a feeling to physically run through your body, causing a negative or positive response. If it takes only 90 seconds for a first wave of anger to exit the body, why do so many people stay angry for years?

23. Does Jill Bolte Taylor see herself as completely recovered? (p. 131)

24. Have you ever felt a deep inner peace like Taylor talked about? What helps you get to that mindspace?

25. Did Jill Bolte Taylor have a typical stroke experience? Does a typical stroke exist? Do you think this book will help stroke victims and their friends/families?

26. Are you an organ donor? Would you consider donating your brain?

 

Other Resources

My Stroke of Insight website
Jill Bolte Taylor’s TedTalk
Oprah interview
RealitySandwich interview
Jill Bolte Taylor’s list of 40 Things Need for her Recovery

 

If you liked My Stroke of Insight, try…

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly book cover     The Brain That Changes Itself book coverLeft Neglected book cover

By Readers' Advisor on April 9, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Nonfiction

Book Discussion Questions: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Big Brother book cover

 

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

 

Title: Big Brother
Author: Lionel Shriver
Page Count: 373
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Tone: Issue-driven, dramatic, reflective

 

1. Who is Big Brother dedicated to? Why? Do you think this is autobiographical fiction?

2. What did you think of Pandora? Was she likable? Did you connect with her?

3. How would you describe Fletcher, Pandora’s husband? Do you think that the two of them were happy together before Edison? What about after Edison?

4. Why do you think Fletcher dislikes Edison so much?

5. What would your reaction have been if you went to pick up a family member from the airport and they were three times the size you last saw them at? Is there a right or wrong reaction to have to in a situation like that?

6. Describe Edison. Was he a likable character? Did you connect with him?

7. What is the cause of Edison’s obesity?

8. Why do you think Edison never tried to reconnect with his ex-wife or son? Did this change your feelings about him?

9. Edison and Pandora had a LA childhood living with a TV star father. Do you think they liked their childhood? How did this altered upbringing affect them? Do you think that their nostalgic storytelling shut people out or invited them in? Explain.

10. What is Pandora’s company? Is it successful? Can she admit this? What does the admittance of success or failure show about Pandora’s character?

11. Would you every give a Baby Monotonous doll as a gift? Why? Would you like it if you received a doll? Why?

12. What does Fletcher do for a living? How does his business affect the family? Is it a successful business? How does its success or failure affect Fletcher and the way he interacts with his family?

13. Is Edison a successful jazz piano player? Was he ever a success? What do you think the turning point (for good or bad) was in Edison’s career?

14. Did reading Big Brother make you want to go listen to some jazz or to avoid it completely?

15. How would you describe Cody? How would you describe Tanner? Are they similar siblings or quite different? What is their relationship like compared to Pandora and Edison growing up?

16. Do you think that Tanner ran away because Edison filled his head dreams of stardom? Would Tanner have still quit high school if Edison hadn’t been in the picture?

17. Who is Oliver? What is his relationship with Pandora? How did this relationship make you feel? How do you think it made Fletcher feel?

18. Pandora took the drastic step of living with her brother for an entire year to be there to cheerlead and coach him to weight loss. How did this affect Pandora’s own family? How would you have reacted if you were Fletcher? Is this something you would have done if you were in Pandora’s shoes?

19. Was there ever a point you were worried about Pandora and her own weight loss? Do you think Edison noticed that his sister’s weight loss had gone too far? Did he say something to her? Why or why not? Did Fletcher say something to her about her extreme weight loss? Who ended up telling Pandora she had to eat more? Why do you think this voice came from outside the family unit?

20. Did you think that Edison would be able to take off all the weight? Did he take off all the weight? Did he keep it off? Why or why not?

21. There is a twist at the end of the novel – a twist that reveals that Pandora has made up the whole story. Edison is her brother and he is a larger man, but she never tried to live with him for a year to help him lose the weight. What did you think of this twist?

22. If Pandora made up the entire weight loss story, why would she end her tale with Edison gaining his weight back? Why didn’t she allow herself a happy ending? How did Edison die in Pandora’s real version of events?

23. What ending did you want? Does it match what ending the author gave?

24. Lionel Shriver often writes issue-driven fiction. What is your reaction to reading such a hot button book of fiction? Do you feel like Shriver is graceful or preachy when writing about obesity? Would you pick up other books by her?

25. Were there any parts of Big Brother that were shocking to you?

26. How would you describe the tone and pace of Big Brother to a friend? How did it make you feel? How quickly did it read?

27. Near the end of the novel, Pandora says, “However gnawing the deficiency, satiety is worse. So here is the thought: We are meant to be hungry.” What does the mean? (p. 372)

28. If one of your friends enjoyed Big Brother, what other books similar to it would you recommend to them?

29. Did reading Big Brother make you want to make changes in your own diet?

30. Why do you think obesity is such a large issue in America? Is it only about willpower? What are causes outside of willpower that might affect weight gain in America? (processed foods, marketing, food science, cost of food, portion sizes, etc.)

 

Other Resources
HarperCollins Reading Group Guide
Interview at Politics and Prose
Interview on English Pen
Interview with Here and Now
Interview with The New York Times
Profile of Shriver by Elle Magazine
Shriver writes on obesity for The Telegraph
Shriver writes on her brother for The Guardian

 

If you liked Big Brother, try…
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
Heft by Liz Moore
Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss

Middlesteins book cover     Heft book coverSalt Sugar Fat book cover

By Readers' Advisor on March 26, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books

Book Discussion Questions: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Great Gatsby book cover

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

 

Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Page Count: 172
Genre: Modern classic
Tone: Lyrical, atmospheric

 

1. Rarely does anyone write a book hoping it will be deconstructed in a lit classroom.  Authors write to provoke thought and feeling and to create a story that will speak to readers. So, in those respects, how was this reading experience for you?

2. Who is in the running for the most tragic character(s)?

3. What distinguishes Gatsby and Tom? Would you argue they are more alike or different? What about Daisy and Myrtle? Do you find yourself more accepting of certain characters’ behavior? Are we supposed to?

4. What about the book is relevant to our post-Great Recession world?

5. How would you characterize the tone of the novel? Fun? Sad? Idyllic? Angry? Something else?

6. Have you seen the latest film adaptation? Reportedly, the budget for Luhrmann’s film was over $120 million. Is that fitting? Ironic? What did you think of the film? Did you see the Robert Redford version? Which did you like better? Are the films similar in tone?

7.    Robert Redford explains that he wanted to play Gatsby because at the time he had not before “played a desperate man.” Would you agree this is a defining characteristic for Gatsby?

8. In his 1931 essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald wrote, “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.” How are these perceptions reflected in The Great Gatsby?

9. Did you find any humor in the story?

10. One word often mentioned in regards to The Great Gatsby is “romantic”. What do you think?

11. What do you know of Fitzgerald’s life? In what ways could The Great Gatsby be considered autobiographical? What might explain our fascination with this era and/or the Fitzgeralds in particular?

12. The Great Gatsby’s title was not Fitzgerald’s choice and never his favorite. How would the book’s reception be changed if it were instead called Trimalchio in West Egg, The High-Bouncing Lover, Gold-Hatted Gatsby, or Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires?

13. Critic Thomas C. Foster argues that this book isn’t about Gatsby. It’s about watching, seeing, and blindness (Twenty Five Books That Shaped America). What do you think he means?

14. Who is the protagonist of the book? Is it Gatsby? Nick?

15. How would you characterize Nick Carraway? Do you trust his perceptions? Is Nick Carroway an outsider, or is he one of them? Is this consistent throughout the story? How does this affect us as readers?

16. Could Daisy and Gatsby have had a happily-ever-after?

17. Is Daisy more a symbol than a character? What does her statement, “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” reveal about Daisy?

18. “[Gatsby’s] death preserves his greatness, and justifies the title of his story, a title that is anything but ironic.” (Harold Bloom, Jay Gatsby) Yet, other sources specifically point out the irony. What do you think?

19. In your experience, which of the other characters made the greatest impression on this reading:  Jordan, Tom, Myrtle, Wilson, Meyer, Mr. Gatz?

20. Is The Great Gatsby an indictment of the American Dream? Or is Fitzgerald championing it?

21. In what ways are illusion and disillusionment prevalent in the novel?

22. Would this have worked just as well (or even better) as a short story?

23. What did you notice about the language? The dialogue?

24. Gertrude Stein bestowed the label the Lost Generation on the group of American expatriate artists of the ‘20s. What qualities does this bring to mind? How does it inform the characters of The Great Gatsby?

25. Would you say that this is a fable of the 1920s? Are the characters merely caricatures? Either way, does this add to or detract from the story?

26. Do any of the characters learn a lesson? Change for the better or for the worse?

27. What are we to take away from the ending, especially considering who survives the book? Is it better not to dream? To be a Tom? What does the book have to say about being great? About being successful?

28. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, more than four years before the Wall Street crash. Why might this affect our understanding of the story and themes? Would it mean as much if it were published in the 1930s?

29. Why is this book so often taught to teenagers? What does it have to say to us at that age? How might your experience with the story differ as an adult?

30. Final words:  “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” With what thoughts or feelings does this leave the reader?

 

Other Resources
The Big Read reading group guide
Simon and Schuster reading group guide
Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library reading group guide
F. Scott Fitzgerald documentary
NPR interview with Baz Luhrmann
Reading The Great Gatsby as an adult
24 Things You Might Not Know about The Great Gatsby
7 Life Lessons from The Great Gatsby

 

If you liked The Great Gatsby, try…
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Fowler
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Z book cover     Object of Beauty book coverRules of Civility book cover

 

 

 

 

 

By Readers' Advisor on March 12, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Literary

Book Discussion Questions: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel book cover

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

 

Title: Infidel
Author: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Page Count: 353
Genre: Political autobiography
Tone: Candid, thought-provoking, impassioned

 

1. Was this book what you expected?  How so? How did it surprise you?

2. The publisher’s description reads, “Ultimately a celebration of triumph over adversity, Hirsi Ali’s story tells how a bright little girl evolved out of dutiful obedience to become an outspoken, pioneering freedom fighter. As Western governments struggle to balance democratic ideals with religious pressures, no story could be timelier or more significant.” Is this a fair representation of the book?

3. In your opinion, who is the intended audience for this book?

4. The Guardian published an article entitled, “Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Taking the Fight to Islam” in which it addresses the claim that Ayaan moved from one extreme to the other primarily because she was ‘traumatized’ by her upbringing. Ayaan responded that she finds this idea patronizing and wrote Infidel partly to combat that assumption. In her words, “People can see that there is not much trauma in my story.”

a. Is there trauma in her story?
b. Does it surprise you that she would characterize her experiences this way?
c. How does the way she relates difficult events illustrate her perspective?
d. She even acknowledges that her account is subjective, that her family may remember things differently. Do you trust Ayaan’s story?
e. Do you think her past experiences color her present activism? Even if so, does that make her points any less valid?

5. Were there actions Ayaan took at any point in her life that you questioned or that made you uncomfortable? If so, does that color your opinion of her character or politics?

6. What stood out about her family relationships?

7. Contrast the character arcs of Ayaan and her sister Hawaye.

8. Did Ayaan have friends?

9. Did the events of Ayaan’s life shock you? Did they seem real? Does reading about this have impact for American readers?

10. What would you say are some of the more memorable scenes or events from her life?

11. Are there any respects in which you might say Ayaan has had a fortunate life?

12. Was there a country or setting that seemed a little more vivid to you? Was it her depiction of the area or the events that happened there?

13. Would you go so far as to characterize Ali as a role model? For whom?

14. The fact she lies on her application for Dutch citizenship becomes a recurring issue. Do you agree with her decision to do so? Would you have done the same? How did you feel when that was explained away – both at the time and when it caused difficulty as a political leader?

15. Hirsi is a self-described rationalist. How is this evident in her life and relationships?

16. How did you react to her inclusion of her father’s letter?

17. What would you say is her “big idea(s)”? What argument is she trying to advance?

18. Even Ayaan’s allies and friends tried to caution her that she was being too provocative; too explosive in her comments and criticisms. Why didn’t she just back off a little, espouse a little more tact? Should she have? Does she help the cause? Harm it?

19. The event that brought her notoriety outside of her home was the brutal murder of Theo. Discuss him, their project, the reaction, and the repercussions of his murder.

20. How did you feel about the security issue – the around-the-clock bodyguards, housing issues, loss of freedom. How did Ayaan adjust?

21. Did you find the style of writing to enhance the narrative? How would you characterize it?

22. Is this a personal story? Do you feel you know her?

23. Maria Golia, an Egyptian-based academic, wrote in the NYT supplement that “Hirsi Ali seems far more interested in indicting Islam than helping damaged women, whose horror stories she conveniently trots out whenever she needs to bludgeon home a point.” Based on what you know, is there any truth to this?  Does it matter?

24. Does she speak for Muslim women? Does she believe she does?

25. Is there room for feminism in Islam?

26. At a time when we are urged to embrace tolerance, especially as Americans, Hirsi Ali seems set on exposing Islam as flawed [at least in current state]. On Colbert, “I want us to judge.  We should say that one religion is better than another; one culture is better than another.” How do you feel about this?

27. Does the fact that she was devout when younger give her the right to criticize Islam? The credibility?

28. In your opinion, does her persona advance or inhibit her agenda? Would her ideas be received the same (pro or con) if she were male? Older? Less forthright? Less striking?

29. Did you like Ayaan?

30. Infidel spent 31 weeks on the NYT bestseller list. What explains the interest? The appeal? Do you think it has/had/will have a lasting impact? In what way? Is it a positive contribution to the ongoing conversation?

 

Other Resources
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Wikipedia page
AHA Foundation
AHA Foundation reading group guide
Lit Lovers book discussion questions
Interview with the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne
Interview with the Boston Phoenix
Infidel reviews on Goodreads
Infidel review by The New York Times

If you liked Infidel, try…
Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi
The Road to Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Iran Awakening book cover     Road of Lost Innocence book coverPersepolis book cover

By Readers' Advisor on February 26, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Nonfiction