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Book Discussion Questions: Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Homer and Langley book cover

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


Title: Homer and Langley
Author: E.L. Doctorow
Page Count: 208
Genre: Historical fiction, Biographical novels
Tone: Lyrical, dark, complex


1. In an interview on NPR, E.L. Doctorow said that the first line of this book was pivotal for him; he could not have done this book without this 1st sentence. It implies the texture of the entire text. Does anyone remember the 1st line? What is its importance to the reader?

2. Given this opening, how do you think Homer emotionally and physically handled his blindness? Do you think it was a “normal” reaction?

3. Homer went blind in his last 14 years of life from a stroke, not in his earlier years. Does this change your opinion of him?

4. Do you remember the description of their house? Do you think of the house as a character as well as the setting?

5. Do you think the house’s condition reflects the brothers’ own physical and mental conditions?

6. How would you describe Homer at the beginning of the story? What about Langley? What were their parents like?

7. What events happen in Homer and Langley’s lives that change everything?

8. What was Homer’s reaction to his parents’ death?

9. What effect did the WWI have on Langley? Did it change him? How would the brothers’ lives have been different if there had been no war?

10. What was Langley’s “Theory of Replacements”? Does the theory have any merit?

11. Langley is obsessive in his quest to create one universal newspaper of “seminal events”. What categories were used by Langley so that the newspaper would be “eternally current”? Why was this project so important to him?

12. There was an eclectic assortment of people who came into Homer and Langley’s lives. Do you feel that the brothers collected people the way that Langley collected objects? Did these people have anything in common?

13. Besides Homer and Langley, who are the most memorable character for you and why?

14. At one point, the Collyer brothers host tea dances in their home and charge their neighbors for the opportunity to drink and dance. Are the tea dances connected to Homer and Langley later becoming reclusive? Were they ever raided? If so, what happened after they were raided?

15. When WWII begins, the Hoshiyama’s, American born people of Japanese descent, are persecuted. What happens to them? Why? Is this based on history? What was your reaction to their persecution?

16. After the Hoshiyama’s were sent to an internment camp Langley said, “…We are not free if at someone else’s sufferance…” What did he mean by that?

17. After Harold Robileaux is killed in Africa, Grandmamma goes to New Orleans to be with his wife and baby. “Grandmamma had been the last connection to our past. I had understood her as some referent moral authority to whom we paid no heed, but by whose judgments we measured our waywardness.” Do you think things would still have gotten so bad is she had not left the brothers?

18. What did you think of the gas masks Langley bought? Why did he buy them?

19. Do you think the Collyer brothers tried to be completely self-reliant? What were their tactics? Were they successful?

20. Do you think the brothers were any crazier than the people around them?

21. Why do you think the press became so interested in their predicament?

22. What is the importance of Jacqueline? Did she remind you of anybody of that era? Do you think Jacqueline actually existed?

23. Do you think it was a sacrifice for either brother to stay in the house?

24. As is often the case in historical fiction, the author took liberties with known facts about the Collyer brothers. Why do you think E.L. Doctorow made these changes and how does it affect the dynamics between the two brothers? Do you think these changes made the characters more sympathetic?

25. How heavily did the hoarding take up your attention as a reader? Do you think hoarding is an unsettling disorder to observe? Why or why not?


Other Resources

E.L. Doctorow’s website
Lit Lovers book discussion questions
Cornell University book guide
Weber State University book discussion
WNYC radio interview
Inside the Collyer home
Collyer brothers Wikipedia


If you liked Homer and Langley, try…

Spooner by Pete Dexter
Keepsake by Kristina Riggle
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Gail Steketee

Spooner cover     Keepsake coverStuff book cover

By Readers' Advisor on February 12, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Historical Fiction

Book Discussion Questions: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help 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 Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Page Count: 534
Genre: Historical fiction
Tone: Moving, fast-paced, uplifting


1. Who were the heroes of The Help? Why?

2. What characters did you feel most connected to? Why?

3. Were there moments in The Help where you despised a character? Why? When? Are there any characters in The Help who have no redeeming qualities?

4. Who is Hilly? Do you think she is a good friend? What about a good employer? Do you think she is a good mother? Can the reader connect to Hilly? Why or why not?

5. Who is Elizabeth? Do you think she is a good friend? Is she a good employer? Do you think she is a good mother? Can the reader connect to Elizabeth? Why or why not?

6. Does Skeeter want to get married? Who does she find to marry? Do you think it is a good match?

7. What is the outcome of Skeeter and Stuart’s relationship? Why? What was Skeeter’s reaction?

8. Aibileen takes care of Mae Mobley. Do you think the child and Aibileen would have remained close as Mae aged? Do you think Mae would’ve become a racist like her mother? Can you be racist and still care for someone? Is that right or wrong? Is racism a nature or nurture character trait?

9. What was Minny’s revenge against Miss Hilly? Do you think this was right or wrong? Would you have taken revenge this far?

10. Stockett uses dialect when writing her African American characters. What did this add to the story? Did you ever find it hard to read or distracting? Can you think of other good books that use heavy dialect?

11. Did the Caucasian characters speak in dialect? Why or why not? Do you think this is problematic?

12. Racism is an obvious prejudice in The Help. Are any characters discriminated against for other reasons?

13. Do you feel as if Celia’s struggle is equal to Aibileen or Minny’s struggle? Why or why not?

14. Did it surprise you to find out that The Help was written by a Southern, white woman? What was your reaction to learning the author’s heritage?

15. The Help received rave reviews and became a best seller, but it also received negative reviews. What are some reasons that people might not like this book?

16. Some of the negative reviews mentioned that Stockett never truly got inside Aibileen and Minny’s heads. Do you think this is true?

17. Some critics of The Help believe the book to suffer from the “white savior complex”. This is a plot device where a Caucasian character becomes the benevolent benefactor of “helpless” persons of color. For example, think about movies like Avatar, The Blind Side, and Freedom Writers.

•    Critics state that these films are not about justice, they are about having an emotional experience that validates privilege. What does that mean? Does that connect back to The Help?
•    In addition, “…these films capitalize on the stories of people of color, yet instead of telling the film through their eyes, they are presented as stories of the white people who help them.” How is that problematic? Do you see this happening in The Help?

18. Do you think Kathryn Stockett is a good writer? Why or why not? Do you understand why The Help was so wildly popular?

19. Does racism still exist today? In what forms? How can we combat it?

20. What other novels would you recommend that strongly deal with racism? What is the benefit of reading a novel on such a heavy issue?


Other Resources

Kathryn Stockett’s website
Penguin publisher website for The Help
Lit Lovers book discussion questions
CliffsNotes on The Help
Interview with Katie Couric
Interview with Southern Living


If you liked The Help, try…

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Space Between Us by Thrity N.

Secret Life of Bees book cover     To kill a Mockingbird book coverSpace Between Us book cover

By Readers' Advisor on January 29, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books

Book Discussion Questions: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw 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 Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Page Count: 134
Genre: Literary horror
Tone: Ambiguous, leisurely, literary


1. The job: to tend to two orphans in a country mansion full of rarely-seen servants with absolutely no oversight from the children’s remaining family. Do you think this job was unusual for the Victorian era? Why did the governess take the job? Would you have taken the job?

2. Is the Governess the first person to her position or were there others before her?

3. How would you describe the Governess as a person? Do you think she cared for the children?

4. What did you think of the children’s uncle? Do you think he cared for the children? Why do you think he never wanted to be contacted about their conduct or progress?

5. There are several unnamed characters in this book – the Governess and the Uncle. Why do you think Henry James never named them? Did you notice the characters were unnamed? What power does a name have?

6. Who is Mrs. Grose? Do the children trust her? Does the Governess trust her? Does Mrs. Grose trust the Governess?

7. The Governess has an ideal start with Flora and then Miles comes home from boarding school for the summer. A letter appears shortly after from Miles’ school saying he was expelled. Why was he expelled? Did the Governess talk to Miles about his expulsion? Why or why not? Would you have talked to Miles about it?

8. Did the Governess write Miles’ uncle about his expulsion? Why or why not?

9. What are other examples of people being vague or unnecessarily mysterious in The Turn of the Screw?

10. Who is Mr. Quint? Who is Miss Jessel? How were they connected to one another? How did the Governess first come across knowledge of Quint and Jessel?

11. Do you think the ghosts of Quint and Jessel were real?

12. Do you think the children saw the ghosts of Quint and Jeseel?

13. Was the Governess a heroic woman trying to protect the children from evil influence…or do you think she was hallucinating and losing her mind?

14. Why do you think the governess was so slow to write the children’s uncle? Did she ever actually write him? If she did, what happened to the letter?

15. Did the children write their uncle? What happened to their letters? Is there a reasonable explanation for why the Governess did not post them?

16. Did you find the children, Miles and Flora, to be lovely or sinister?

17. Did the children ever turn on the Governess? If so, how and why?

18. Miles asks the Governess when he is going back to school. It is here that we start to see his personality. What is Miles like? How does the Governess respond to his inquiries?

19. Corruption is a word often used by the Governess. What do you think this word means to her and to this story?

20. The Governess and Mrs. Grose find Flora playing outside. The Governess swears she sees the ghost of Miss Jessel across a stream from them. Can Flora see the ghost? What happens to Flora and the Governess’ relationship after this sighting?

21. Where does Mrs. Grose take Flora?

22. What happens between Miles and the Governess while Mrs. Grose and Flora are gone?

23. Do you think Miles’ death was an accident? Do you think it could have been averted?

24. What are words you would use to describe The Turn of the Screw? What genre is it?

25. What makes a good suspense novel? What makes a good horror novel? Did The Turn of the Screw make a good horror or suspense novel?

26. What is the meaning of the title?

27. Have you seen (and would you recommend) any of the movies based on The Turn of the Screw?


Other Resources

Random House book discussion questions
Goodreads reviews
The New Yorker review
SparkNotes for the book
Wikipedia page for the book


If you liked The Turn of the Screw, try…

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The White People and Other Weird Stories by Arthur Machen

The Woman in Black book cover     The Haunting of Hill House coverThe White People and Other Weird Stories cover

By Readers' Advisor on January 15, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Horror

Book Discussion Questions: Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

Sin in the Second City book cover

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


Title: Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul
Author: Karen Abbott
Page Count: 356
Genre: Nonfiction
Tone: Engaging, dramatic, well-researched


1. Do you see the Everleigh sisters as criminals?

2. The sisters elevated their craft. Down another path in history this elevation could have led to legalization and taxation of prostitution in Chicago. How different do you think Chicago would be were that to have happened?

3. Do you think sex work was empowering or exploitive to the butterflies? Explain. Do you think sex work was empowering for other brothel house workers?

4. Do you think more women were “white slaves” or prostitutes during this era?

5. Would you have considered becoming an Everleigh butterfly?

6. Why do you think the sisters outshined their competition so fiercely?

7. Do you think there was a stronger sister?

8. Why do you think the sisters didn’t ever (re)marry?

9. Was there a madam in this book you admired?

10. What about a madam you hated?

11. Are there any heroes in this story?

12. What about villains?

13. What do you think of the reformers’ techniques? Were they effective?

14. What do you think of Ernest Bell, the preacher? Did you find him more often in the wrong or in the right?

15. What did you think of Clifford Roe, the lawyer obsessed with white slavery?

16. Some folks believed that brothels and prostitution kept “respectable” women safe from rape and the “baser” fantasies of their husbands. What is your reaction to this?

17. Were you surprised by the caliber of patrons at the Everleigh Club? (Ex: Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, the Prince of Prussia, etc.)

18. How did the Everleighs handle racial issues at their club?

19. Do you think people’s sexuality has changed all that much since the Everleighs’ time?

20. Do you think the Everleigh sisters would be successful today? How do you think their business might be different?

21. Does this book mirror present day society at all?

22. Would you have wanted to live in Chicago during this era?

23. Sin in the Second City is a work of nonfiction. Do you think you would’ve enjoyed it more as a novel? Why or why not?

24. Has your perspective of sex workers changed? Elaborate.

25. What is one story you can take away from Sin in the Second City and use for cocktail party chatter?


Other Resources

Sin in the Second City website
Book discussion questions at Reading Group Guides
Claire Zulkey interviews Karen Abbott
Freakonomics interviews Karen Abbott
Windy City Writers interviews Karen Abbott
New York Times review of Sin in the Second City


If you liked Sin in the Second City, try…

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry
The Last Madam by Chris Wiltz

Devil in the White City book cover     Girls of Murder City book coverLast Madam book cover

By Readers' Advisor on January 1, 2014 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Nonfiction

Book Discussion Questions: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Book Thief 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 Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Page Count: 552
Genre: WWII fiction, coming-of-age stories
Tone: Haunting, lyrical, leisurely-paced


1. Why do you think Markus Zusak chose to use Death as the narrator?

2. Did you see Death as a certain gender?

3. Did you have any preconceptions about Death? Did the character match or differ from these notions?

4. Would you consider this book as a Young Adult or an Adult title?

5. Do you think teens and adults have differing reactions to The Book Thief? What elements might appeal to teens? Are those elements different than what would appeal to an adult?

6. Has reading a book considered by some to be a Young Adult title made you more inclined to read other YA titles?

7. How did you feel about the bold interruptions in the story? (Ex: lists, characterizations, Death occasionally setting the scene)

8. What are some examples of foreshadowing in The Book Thief? It seems like Death is constantly letting the plot out of the bag. Did this bother you? Did you like it? (Ex: Knowing Rudy was going to die hundreds of pages before it happened)

9. The Book Thief is divided into 9 sections each titled with a book Liesel received. The section title pages list the chapters within each section. Some of these reveal parts of the plot. Did you notice? How did you feel about it?

10. The Gravedigger’s Handbook, Shoulder Shrug, The Whistler, Dream Carrier, Word Shaker - these are some of the fictitious titles Liesel received. Do you think there is significance to the titles?

11. The text is broken in several places by Max’s picture books to Liesel. What do you think these stories added to The Book Thief? Could you have done without them?

12. What did you notice about the language Zusak used?

13. What do you think the symbolism of the cover is? (Re: dominoes about to be pushed over)

14. What characters seemed most developed? Were there any throw away characters you could do without?

15.  There was an emphasis on words and literature. What was the difference between how Hitler used his words and how Liesel used hers?

16. Were there any scenes in the book that overwhelmed you? What scenes stood out?

17. Hitler’s burning of books was a form of censorship. Is the censorship of books ever acceptable?

18. How do you feel about the relationship between Max and Liesel?

19. This book continuously alternates between great sorrows and small joys. As an example, Max is forced to hide in Liesel’s basement, but Liesel builds him a snowman inside. What are other examples of the ups and downs of The Book Thief? Do you think Zusak had a purpose in this alternating?

20. How does The Book Thief add (or subtract) from the wide variety of literature already written about WWII? Do you think it stands out?


Other Resources

Markus Zusak’s website
Greenwich Library book discussion questions
One Book, One Chicago resources
Random House readers’ guide
Part I, Part II, and Part III of Markus Zusak at the Sutherland Library
New York Times review of The Book Thief
The Guardian interviews Markus Zusak


If you liked The Book Thief, try…

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

History of Love book cover     Maus book coverBriar Rose book cover

By Readers' Advisor on December 25, 2013 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Historical Fiction

Book Discussion Questions: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge book cover

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


Title: Olive Kitteridge
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Page Count: 286
Genre: Novel-in-stories
Tone: Leisurely, haunting, character-driven


1. Olive Kitteridge is built from stories that jump through time to different characters’ points of view. What do you think of the “novel in stories” structure? Was it easy or hard to fall into the rhythm of this book? Would you have enjoyed this collection of stories more if it were a traditionally structured novel?

2. What is the difference between a novel in stories and a book of short stories?

3. How often did Olive Kitteridge appear in this book? Do you think she should have made fewer or more appearances?

4. Were there any stories you absolutely loved? What about stories that you disliked? Was there a story that you thought didn’t fit in the collection?

5. Olive Kitteridge won a Pulitzer Prize. Does the fact that Olive Kitteridge won a Pulitzer Prize make you feel the need to like it? Would your experience with this book make you want to read more literary prize winners?

6. Do you think “Pharmacy” was a good opening story for the book? Why do you think Strout picked it as the opener? Would you have started the collection with a different story?

7. In “A Different Road” Henry and Olive get held up by drug addicts in a hospital. Did you think this story fit in with the others? Was it too “overboard”?

8. What keeps Olive and Henry together over the years? Is there anything that almost tears them apart?

9. What specific moments make you like Olive? What specific moments make you dislike her?

10. Why did Olive steal and destroy some of Dr. Sue’s clothes during “A Little Burst”? Did you see any similarities between Olive and Sue? Did Olive’s behavior to Dr. Sue change your opinion of Olive? Why do you think Olive hates Dr. Sue so much?

11. Olive hears Dr. Sue and friends talking down about her at the wedding, why doesn’t she respond from her secret hiding place?

12. Why do you think Olive never committed suicide? First when her father died, next when Jim O’Casey died, finally when Henry died.

13. Why do you think Olive responds so fully to Nina in “Starving”?

14. In “Starving”, how did Harmon and Daisy go from casual sex to falling in love? Why do you think Harmon won’t immediately leave his wife? Do you think he’ll ever get divorced?

15. Why does Olive go to visit Louise Larker in “Tulips”?

16. In the story “Ship in a Bottle” Anita threatens to disown her daughter, Julie, if she lives with her boyfriend rather than marrying him. Is there ever a reason to disown a child? What about if you were in Louise Larkin’s position in the story “Tulips”?

17. In “Piano Player” Simon comes back to see Angie. Why does he bring up an awful memory about Angie’s mother coming to visit him?

18. In the story “Security” Olive goes to visit her son in New York City. Do you think Olive liked Christopher’s new wife, Ann? Would you have liked Ann?

19. Also in “Security,” what event caused Olive to want to leave Christopher’s home early? Did Olive choose to leave or did Christopher kick her out?

20. How does Olive view her relationship with Christopher? How does Christopher view his relationship with his mother? How do you think they came to be so disconnected?

21. Does your opinion of Christopher change, knowing that he only visited his father once in the nursing home, never called to check up on him and never offered to help his mother with the situation? What reasons do you think Christopher had for staying away from his parents?

22. Why did Strout include the story “Criminal”? Did you like the story – why or why not? How did it connect to Olive?

23. What is Olive’s relationship with Jack Kennison? Will their relationship last?

24. What does it say about Olive that not one time in her marriage did she ever say “sorry”?

25. Do you think Olive has changed by the end of the book? If so, how?


Other Resources

Elizabeth Strout’s website
Denver Post book club resources
Failbetter interview with Elizabeth Strout
On Point interview with Elizabeth Strout
Colgate’s Living Writers: Elizabeth Strout appearance


If you liked Olive Kitteridge, try…

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman
Monkeys by Susan Minot

Winesburg, Ohio book cover     Blackbird House book coverMonkeys book cover










By Readers' Advisor on December 11, 2013 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books

Book Discussion Questions: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried 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 Things They Carried
Author: Tim O’Brien
Page Count: 246
Genre: Autobiographical war fiction, Short stories
Tone: Gritty, character-driven, thought-provoking


1. Was The Things They Carried a work of fiction or nonfiction? Did the author do anything to muddy the waters between the two categories?

2. Why do you think Tim O’Brien titled the book as he did? What physical objects did the soldiers carry and what did these objects mean to their survival and mental health?

3. The Things They Carried is full of different points of view – re: the use of first person (“I”), the use of second person (“You”), and the use of third person (“He, She, They”). Why do you think O’Brien slipped back and forth between different points of view? How did it affect your reading experience?

4. What was O’Brien’s job before he went to war? How did this job prepare him for war? Why does O’Brien go to war? Is it about bravery?

5. Do the soldiers ever fight each other? Why do they fight? How is that fighting different than what goes on with the enemy?

6. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien says,

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue.”

What is your reaction to that quote? Can you think of other movies, poems, novels, or short stories that hold this same sentiment?

7. Do soldiers today deal with the same issues that soldiers in Vietnam dealt with in The Things They Carried?

8. Was your understanding of war expanded by reading this book? How? What were some startling or surprising elements you learned about?

9. How did it make you feel to read this book? How did your brain react? How did your body react? What about your heart?

10. What were some examples of black humor in The Things They Carried? Why do you think the soldiers had such dark humor? What did it accomplish?

11. What are words you would use to describe this book? Think about the tone and about the pacing.

12. How many stories deal with Kiowa’s death? What is the purpose of each story? Why do you think the author chose to separate Kiowa’s death into so many different parts? In the end, who do you think is responsible for Kiowa’s death?

13. O’Brien uses repetition as a storytelling device. How does this writing technique affect the narrative?

14. O’Brien says, “Stories can save us.” What does that mean? Do you think it is a true statement? Can you think of a story that saved you at one time or another?

15. Recall a passage or an image that has stuck with you from this book. Retell it in as much detail as possible for us. Why did this moment stick with you?

16. Many book clubs have read a plethora of fiction and nonfiction books on WWII. How might reading about WWII be easier for participants than reading about Vietnam or more current conflicts?

17. In our current culture, there are a flood of fiction and nonfiction books written about WWII or with WWII as the backdrop. There are not nearly as many popular novels and nonfiction tales set against Vietnam. What do you think that is?

18. Yet, there are many, many Vietnam movies out there. Why do you think movies about the Vietnam War may be more popular than novels or nonfiction bout it?

19. Do you think voluntarily enlisting in a war versus being drafted into a war will change the type and tone of stories told about that war? How does that possibility ring true for Vietnam War stories that have been told?

20. Many high school students are assigned to read The Things They Carried. Why do you think this book ends up on required reading lists? Do you think it is an appropriate read for that age group?

21. What were the hardest parts of The Things they Carried for you to get through?

22. The Things They Carried is only 246 pages. Was it a fast read? Did it feel longer than it was?

23. Would you read more by the author Tim O’Brien?

24. Who would you recommend this book to and why?


Other Resources

California State University Northridge’s book discussion questions
National Endowment for the Arts’ guides to The Things They Carried
Reading Group Guides’ book discussion questions
Tim O’Brien on C-SPAN
Tim O’Brien on NPR
Tim O’Brien’s archive


If you liked The Things They Carried, try…

Fire and Forget edited by Matt Gallagher
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Fire and Forget book cover     Matterhorn book coverYellow Birds book cover


By Readers' Advisor on November 27, 2013 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books

Book Discussion Questions: The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

The Other Wes Moore 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 Other Wes Moore
Author: Wes Moore
Page Count: 233
Genre:  Memoir, pop sociology
Tone: Moving, fast-paced, thoughtful


1. What drove author Wes Moore to write to the prisoner Wes Moore? Why do you think prisoner Wes Moore wrote the author back?

2. Have you ever, or would you ever, write a prisoner? Why or why not?

3. What was the fate of author Wes Moore’s father? Do you think his father might have survived under other circumstances? (p. 15)

4. What was the fate of prisoner Wes Moore’s father?

5. What significance did fathers play in the lives of both Wes Moores?

6. Did both Wes Moores have strong mother figures? Do you think both mothers tried their best? Is there anything that either of them could have done differently?

7. Do you think one Wes Moore had a stronger family unit or a better support system while growing up? How can having a strong support system change a child’s life?

8. Outside of his family, who warned author Wes Moore about the bad path he was on? (police officer after he got caught tagging) Did Moore heed this warning? For how long? Why didn’t the change stick?

9. Author Wes Moore states, “Later in life I learned that the way many governors projected the numbers of beds they’d need for prison facilities was by examining the reading scores of third graders.” (p. 54) How did reading this make you feel? Why?

10. What allowed author Wes Moore to go to better schools than prisoner Wes Moore?

11. Author Wes Moore states, “Soon it became clear that the Riots were about more than the tragic death of Dr. King. They were about anger and hurt so extreme that rational thought was thrown out the window – these were people so deranged by frustration that they were burning down their own neighborhood.” (p. 19) Does this “deranged frustration” make sense to you? Are there places today’s America that feel like this?

12. Author Wes Moore talks about the Bronx in the 1980s and early 1990s as an apocalyptic place to be with drugs, burned out buildings, and crime everywhere. Are there still cities like this today? What causes cities to crumble like this? How does living in a neighborhood like this affect a person?

143. At what ages did both Wes Moores start to “go wrong”? Were you surprised by how young they were? What kind of crimes was author Wes Moore into? What about prisoner Wes Moore?

14. What was your first impression of author Wes Moore? What about your first impression of prisoner Wes Moore?

15. How did each Wes Moore respond to danger and aggression? Were their reactions the same?

16. How did Tony try to dissuade prisoner Wes Moore from following his illegal path? Why did it work or not work?

17. At one point, Mary, prisoner Wes Moore’s mother, flushed his drugs down the toilet. What did you think of her actions? Was it enough? Would you have done anything different?

18. Military school obviously benefited author Wes Moore. Do you think there were any other paths that could have set him on the straight and narrow?

19. Prisoner Wes Moore joined Job Corps. Did it help him? What did he go on to do after he exited the program? Why?

20. Prisoner Wes Moore continued to proclaim innocence, saying he wasn’t there for the robbery. Do you think the author believed him? Did you believe him? Do you think he should have been sentenced to life in prison?

21. What did author Wes Moore go on to do after exiting military school?

22. What do you think was the defining factor of why author Wes Moore stepped out of his cycle of destruction and prisoner Wes Moore did not?

23. What does education have to do with the path that each Wes Moore landed on then continued on?

24. What does racial privilege have to do with the stories of both Wes Moores?

25. What does economic privilege have to do with the stories of both Wes Moores?

26. Are racial privilege and economic privilege tied together? How so or how not?

27. Was there a topic you wished the author delved deeper into?

28. After the epilogue, there is “A Call to Action”. What is this section about? Why do you think the author put it in the book? Did reading The Other Wes Moore make you feel called to action? What other books have made you want to take action in the world?

29. If someone enjoyed reading The Other Wes Moore, what books would you recommend to them?

30. Are there any documentaries you would recommend to someone who enjoyed this book?


Other Resources

Author Wes Moore’s website
Lit Lovers’ book discussion questions
Wikispace guide to The Other Wes Moore
Brooklyn Public Library hosts Wes Moore
Interview with the Open Society Foundation
Interview with Oprah
Interview with Salon


If you liked The Other Wes Moore, try…

There are no Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz
Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough

There Are No Children Here book cover     Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria book coverWhatever it Takes book cover

By Readers' Advisor on November 13, 2013 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Nonfiction

Book Discussion Questions: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Shadow of the Wind 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 Shadow of the Wind
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Page Count: 486
Genre: Historical fiction
Tone: Literary, intricate, mysterious


1. What did you think of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books?  Would you like to explore such a place?

2. Before you began the book, did you have any expectations?  How did this meet, exceed, or disappoint them?

3. It is said that each of us reads a different book, because we all bring our own experiences and preconceptions and thoughts to our reading. What book did you read? There’s so much to absorb in this book; what stands out to you?

a. The love story (-ies)?
b. The mystery of Julian Carax?
c. The Javert-like Inspector Fumero?
d. Other?

4. “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.” (p. 215) Do you agree? In what ways was this your experience while reading The Shadow of the Wind?

5. Why do you think the novel (and the fictional novel by Julian Carax) is called The Shadow of the Wind?

6. The character of Fermin plays many roles in the course of the story. What are they? How does he impact the plot?

7. In what ways are Daniel and Fermin good for each other?

8. What roles do Daniel’s parents play in the story?

9. What are some of the significant turning points in the book?

10. How did Daniel’s first encounter with Lain Coubert affect him? What did you make of this shadowy character? At what point did you realize his true identity?

11. What is the significance of Victor Hugo’s Mont Blanc pen?

12. How would you characterize Zafon’s use of language?

13. How are women portrayed in the book?

14. How does Daniel’s life begin to parallel Carax’s? How did you feel about this?

a. Though they follow very similar trajectories, one ends in tragedy and the other in happiness. What are the differences that allow Daniel to avoid tragedy?
b. What is the relationship between Carax and Daniel?

15. Did Julian deserve for Miguel and Nuria to lay down their lives for him?

16. How does the setting – Spain under Franco – affect the story? Could the story have taken place somewhere other than Barcelona?

17. How are the sins of the fathers and mothers visited upon different characters?

18. Who would you say is the pivot around which the events of the story revolve: Carax or Fumero?

19. How would you describe the tone of The Shadow of the Wind?

20. How do suspense and humor work together in the novel? Does the existence of one reduce the impact of the other, or is the book enhanced by the use of both?

21. What is the view of evil within the book as a whole? What does it see as evil? What does it see as the solution to evil?

22. Which values and perspectives are encouraged by this book? Which does it discourage?

23. Did the story keep your interest throughout? Did your feelings about it change as you read it?

24. What did you think of the ending, in which Daniel introduces his son Julian to the Cemetery?

25. What are some criticisms of the book? Why might someone not like it?


Other Resources

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s website
Reading Group Guide discussion questions
Buttery Books’ book club party ideas
Telegraph interview with Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Carlos Ruiz Zafón on bookstores closing
Wikipedia entry on the Spanish Civil War


If you liked The Shadow of the Wind, try…

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell book cover     Gargoyle book coverClub Dumas book cover


By Readers' Advisor on October 30, 2013 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Historical Fiction

Book Discussion Questions: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Language of Flowers 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 Language of Flowers
Author: Vanessa Diffenbough
Page Count: 322
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Tone: Engaging, emotional


1. The story starts with a fire. What happens to Victoria? How does she react?

2. The Language of Flowers goes back and forth in time and each section is titled. What’s the first section called and how does it fit Victoria?

3. What do you think of Meredith, Victoria’s caseworker? Could she have done more for Victoria?

4. What flower does Victoria choose to give Meredith? Is Victoria’s assessment fair?

5. Meredith leaves Victoria with $20 and the advice to get a job. What does Victoria do instead? Why do you think she is so unconcerned with her future?

6. Why does Elizabeth begin trying to reconnect with her sister? Did you sympathize with Elizabeth’s focus on this?

7. How does Victoria test Elizabeth at the beginning? What happens after this initial testing period? What does Elizabeth tell Victoria about her behavior?

8. What characters come into Victoria’s life? Did you like them? Why or why not? What did you think of the “flower vendor” at first? Did your opinion change?

9. Victoria doesn’t recognize Grant at the flower market. What does he give her and how does she respond?

10. Victoria ends up in the library to find out the meaning of white poplar. What other discovery does she make and why is this problematic?

11. Is Victoria able to see nuances in life? Elaborate.

12. How does Grant court Victoria? Why does he persist with her? Are there any signs at all that she wants a relationship?

13. Grant learns to cook, lets Victoria sleep in his home and nurtures her interest in creating a flower book of her own. Is he an unrealistic character or do you think he’s a good guy and she got lucky?

14. Things are going well for Victoria at the flower shop. What talent does she discover that she has?

15. Do flowers really have the power to change outcomes for people? What do you think happened with Earl and Bethany?

16. What keeps Elizabeth from adopting Victoria? What did you think of her ennui? Why did Elizabeth say she couldn’t go through with the adoption? Was Elizabeth fit to be a mom?

17. How does Grant respond when Victoria tells him that they will never be like that old couple? What brings them back together? Why do you think Victoria keeps coming back to Grant when she so adamantly insists that she can’t love?

18. What sparks Victoria to make love with Grant? She initiated the encounter, but where is her mind during it? How does she respond to the news that she is pregnant?

19. What struck you as realistic and not realistic inVictoria’s pregnancy and delivery scenes? Were you surprised that Victoria avoided Mother Ruby as a source of help? As her labor became intense, who did Victoria want with her and why?

20. What flower does Victoria give Grant when she leaves? What does it mean?

21. Where did Victoria get the idea to set the fire and why did she do it? Why does she never speak up, even when Elizabeth is accused?

22. Did Victoria change when she became a mother? How do you know? Did motherhood change how Victoria views others? How comfortable were you with Victoria’s experience as a new mom?

23. How does the baby react after Victoria’s night in the woods?

24. What did you think of the end of The Language of Flowers?

25. Victoria said, “I wanted more than anything to be Elizabeth’s daughter.” She doesn’t mention being Grant’s wife. Was one relationship more pivotal than the other? Do you think this reflects the author’s views?

26. In your opinion, was this book realistic? Did parts of it seem more true to life than others?

27. Victoria’s life so easily could have had a different outcome. To your mind, who was the most instrumental in helping her have a fulfilling adulthood? Was it just one person?

28. Is this book an annual – something enjoyed for a season – or is it destined to be a perennial – something people come back to year after year?

29. Diffenbaugh said she wrote this book because she has strong feelings about the foster care system. What do you think her views are after reading this book? Do you think this book can make a difference in the foster care system? How?

30. In the end, Victoria answers the question Diffenbaugh posed – can someone who’s never been loved learn how to do so? Do you believe this is true or is it wishful thinking?



Other Resources

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s website
Oprah’s book discussion questions
Daily Beast interview
Bookreporter interview
Washington Post review
AV Club review
Wikipedia entry on floriography


If you liked The Language of Flowers, try…

White Oleander by Janet Fitch
Being Lara by Lola Jaye
Wrecker by Summer Wood

White Oleander book cover    Being Lara book coverWrecker book cover

By Readers' Advisor on October 16, 2013 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books