Detective John Skaggs could be the intrepid hero cop of your favorite mystery novel. He has an imposing physical presence, he is an extreme perfectionist working within an ailing system, and he is equally compassionate and relentless. Murder may be his beat, but he believes in investigating every homicide, no matter the victim, as if it were the biggest media event of the year. In Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, Jill Leovy reports one tragic case in gripping true-crime style and exposes the larger sociological issues we as a nation have allowed to take root. Few nonfiction crime books tell the story equally well from both sides of the crime tape. This one does, and it doesn’t stop there.
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Medieval historian-turned-mortician Caitlin Doughty brings a unique blend of historical perspective, practical training, and newbie experiences to her exploration of modern death in the U.S. The essays in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes include some gory details, but also honest accounts of a new mortician sometimes fumbling her way in the space after death.
Title: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
Author: Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, JR.
Page Count: 456 pages
Genre: Nonfiction, Biographies
Tone: Suspenseful, Extravagant
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed a property listing for a grand estate that had been unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled into one of the most surprising American stories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Empty Mansions is a rich tale of wealth and loss, complete with copper barons, Gilded Age opulence, and backdoor politics. At its heart is a reclusive 104-year-old heiress named Huguette Clark. Dedman has collaborated with Huguette’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have had frequent conversations with her, to tell a fairy tale in reverse: the bright, talented daughter who is born into an almost royal family of amazing wealth and privilege, yet who secrets herself away from the outside world. Empty Mansions reveals a complete picture of the enigmatic Huguette Clark, heiress to one of the greatest fortunes in American history, a woman who had not been photographed in public since the 1920s.
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.
1. Is it difficult to understand why Huguette chose not to live in any of her beautiful homes for the last 20 years of her life?
2. Huguette preferred solitude for so much of her life, and then apparently enjoyed the hustle & bustle of the hospital environment. Does this make sense to you? Does it help explain her decision to spend so many years in the hospital? What other factors might have contributed to her choice?
3. Is there a “right” way to spend or give money? Do you believe this depends on if you’ve earned the money yourself or if you’ve received it through an inheritance?
4. Why did Huguette prefer giving to individuals versus institutions?
5. Why do we care how wealthy people spend their money?
6. Consider Andrew Carnegie’s theory (pg. 113) of the three stages of life – education, making money, and giving all the money away. What are your thoughts on this when applied to W.A. Clark and Huguette?
7. How important was control to Huguette (with her environment and in her relationships for example)?
8. Her wealth aside, was there anything unusual about Huguette?
9. What traits of Huguette are to be admired? What traits of hers were not so admirable? What were some of her gifts? How about her limitations?
10. What makes her a challenging biographical subject? Does her limited circle of contacts make her more or less interesting to read about? What makes her a good biographical subject?
11. Do you believe Huguette suffered from mental illness? What is the authors’ stance on this?
12. What lingering mysteries about Huguette remain? Does this book answer questions or raise additional questions?
13. Huguette is reported to have said “we are all a little peculiar” — do you agree? What does the term “eccentric” mean to you? Do you believe the term has an association with wealth or not necessarily?
14. The authors point out at the end (pg. 354) that Huguette was not necessarily as isolated as we might think – she had regular visitors, had nurse Hadassah, was pen pal to many, etc. What are your thoughts on this?
15. Here we have a book written about someone who intensely guarded her private life and went to great lengths to avoid the spotlight (for example, avoiding selling items out of fear of attention it might draw). Are there any ethical issues to consider with this book?
16. Consider the title — Do you find empty houses troubling or wasteful? If so, does the size or value of the house affect your level of concern? (Fancy vs. plain, huge vs. modest, unique vs. ordinary)
17. Do you believe the title was a good choice? Does it reflect the content of the book? Would you describe Huguette’s life as mysterious? Is it fair to single out Huguette’s “spending of a great American fortune” when she wasn’t his only heir and her share of W.A.’s estate was just one-fifth?
18. What was your response to the detail of gifts and donations – fascinated? Disgusted? Puzzled? Wonder? Why do you think the authors included such detail? (examples: page 247, 261, 264-5)
19. Why did the authors devote a large portion of the book to W. A. Clark?
20. In what ways did Huguette differ from her father? What character traits did she have that resembled his?
21. Do you like how the book was structured? It is not always chronological; did you like this or not?
22. How did the “Conversations with Huguette” sections affect your reading experience?
23. What did the authors hope to achieve by writing this book? Do you think they succeeded? What do they want us to know about Huguette?
24. Are the authors objective and balanced in their portrayal of Huguette? Do you think other authors might have presented a more sensational account of her life?
If you liked Empty Mansions, try…
Paging through Carnet de Voyage is like a virtual backpack trip through Europe and Morocco. Craig Thompson’s sketchbook travel diary depicts in simple yet telling detail the moments, individuals, and local color that made indelible impressions on him during a combination book tour and search for exotic new inspiration.
Over the past forty years, Mary Oliver has accumulated praise and awards for her poetry and prose, including a Pulitzer Prize. Her recent collection of poems, Blue Horses, builds upon her previous explorations of nature and spiritual considerations. Observations about her surroundings twist into keen insights of what it means to live on earth and what she yearns for. Strong imagery pierces through Oliver’s unassuming conversational tone, turning nameless feelings into something tangible as she grapples with how she fits in the world. “I’m not trying to be wise, that would be foolish,” she writes. “I’m just chattering.” Whether intentional or not, Oliver exudes wisdom, as she meditates on the material world and beyond.
April is National Poetry Month! Stop by the Fiction/AV/Teen Services desk on the second floor or email email@example.com to help you find poetry, prose, and everything in between.
Title: Half the Sky
Author: Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Page Count: 294 pages
Genre: Nonfiction, Social Issues
Summary from publisher:
With Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake an odyssey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there, among them a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. Drawing on the breadth of their combined reporting experience, Kristof and WuDunn depict our world with anger, sadness, clarity, and, ultimately, hope. They show how a little help can transform the lives of women and girls abroad.
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.
1. Half the Sky is not the first book to raise worldwide social issues. What about this work makes it stand out? Why do you think it has taken hold, even sparked a movement?
2. Would you describe Half the Sky as a difficult book to read? A worthwhile one? Believable? Tragic? Overhyped?
3. From the introduction: “Many of the stories in this book are wrenching, but keep in mind this central truth: ‘Women aren’t the problem, but the solution. The plight of girls is no more a tragedy than an opportunity.’” Do they make their case?
4. How did you read this book? In large chunks? Small sections? Audio? How do you think that impacted your experience?
5. Have any of you seen the documentary before or after reading Half the Sky? Before or after? How did that complement your experience? Any significant differences?
6. How did you respond to the writing style and the book structure? Would you say these choices are what makes it accessible?
7. Gender politics and issues can be tricky. Do the authors succeed in moving this beyond a “women’s issue” to a “human rights issue”? Would the case have been more difficult to make if two women were writing about the issues?
8. “Frankly, we hesitate to pile on the data, since even when numbers are persuasive, they are not galvanizing. A growing collection of psychological studies show that statistics have a dulling effect, while it is individual stories that move people to act. In one experiment…”
Is this a fair representation? Do we rise to stories but nod-and-pass too easily with statistics? Is it true across the board or do you think it differs according to individual? Were there numbers that shocked you?
9. The authors do rely on stories to bring the issues to life. Which ones stood out? Even if you don’t recall names — which situations, images, atrocities have stayed with you? What proposed solutions excited you or seemed most promising?
10. Did it surprise you at all that so many were willing to share such painful stories with a male American journalist? In what ways does owning and telling the story empower the individual?
11. “Rescuing girls is the easy part…the challenge is keeping them from returning.” How could this be true?
12. How does a book like this affect how you view the world?
13. Were you surprised by the extent to which women were involved in oppression or abuse of other women? Why or why not?
14. Did you find the book balanced in revealing what doesn’t necessarily work/unintended consequences without cherry-picking results?
15. Some raise the concern that journalism of this type can be sensationalistic, voyeuristic, or even endanger the subjects. In what ways are these valid? Does the good outweigh the bad?
16. Did you sense any political agenda or bias in the writing?
17. Even though the book focuses on Africa and Asia, many of the problems addressed occur in Europe and the U.S. as well. How are these issues similar across regions, and how do they differ?
18. The writers address the idea of cultural imperialism: “If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, food-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths or cultures.” How do you respond? How do we walk a tightrope in terms of telling another culture what they believe is right or wrong?
19. From the documentary: “Sometimes people want to do too much, so they do nothing. They say, ‘I cannot help.’ Everyone can help. Everyone can do one thing.” Is there truth in this? How do we overcome those mental obstacles?
20. The book was first published in 2009. Do you think anything has change? Have you heard of the “movement” before reading Half the Sky?
21. When we feel convicted or inspired by a work such as Half the Sky, how do we keep that active? How do we keep ourselves from forgetting or sinking back into complacency?
Half the Sky Movement webpage
Lit Lovers Discussion Questions
Videos produced by Half the Sky Movement
Discussion facilitation guide for Half the Sky
Video interview with Kristof and WuDunn
Extended interview with Kristof and WuDunn
Article: What’s So Scary About Smart Girls?
If you liked Half the Sky, try…
David Margolick describes the lives of two girls in the famous photograph from Little Rock Central High School’s desegregation in 1957: a stoic African-American girl walking on the first day of school followed by a white girl, her face distorted as she screams racial epithets. Elizabeth and Hazel is a thought provoking and memorable exploration of how this experience affected their lives in attempts to reconcile the painful, traumatic experience within themselves and with each other.
With spring on the way, it’s time to get started on the household DIY projects that have been set to the side. Sherry and John Petersick share more than 200 ways to decorate and update a variety of living spaces. Mixing photographs with drawings and humor with helpful tips, the couple presents ideas ranging from using a Sharpie to spruce up a shelf to more complicated projects like creating sink backsplashes. Sherry and John spread the wealth of where they receive inspiration from by listing their favorite websites and magazines plus featuring guest bloggers throughout. With such a range of ideas, Young House Love will be sure to inspire a variety of crafters, from the inexperienced to the more seasoned.
Academy Award Best Picture runners-up Selma, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and American Sniper have something else in common. Though each claims to be based on actual events, all have come under fire for taking too many liberties with the facts. These are hardly the first dramatizations to cause a stir. In Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, enthusiastic experts consider how specific films have skewed our understanding of historical events. From Gandhi to Malcolm X, Gone with the Wind to JFK, and even Jurassic Park to Dr. Strangelove, films have the power to change what we think we know to be true. Don’t know much about history? Watch a movie! Just bear in mind that events may have unfolded a bit differently than as portrayed.
Every Friday the Library will bring you short lists of buzz-worthy books in a rotating series of popular genres.
For these and other fresh reads, stop by the second floor Fiction/AV/Teen desk. While there, talk to a Readers’ Advisor about new and old titles tailored to your taste.
New: Fiction Books
New: Nonfiction Books