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Book Discussion Questions: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy book coverTitle:  Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Author:  Bryan Stevenson
Page Count: 349 pages
Genre: NonfictionMemoir, Call-to-Action
Tone:  Inspiring, Explanatory, Sympathetic

Summary:
The founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama recounts his experiences as a lawyer working to assist those desperately in need, reflecting on his pursuit of the ideal of compassion in American justice.

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

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement:  2016 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. Is there anything about which you think or feel differently as a result of reading Just Mercy?

2. Who would you say is the center of this book: Bryan Stevenson or Walter McMillian?

3. Which details of Walter’s case were most difficult for you to accept? Was it difficult to believe that this could really happen?

4. What was your reaction to the fact that Walter’s case took place in Monroeville? How could the very residents who romanticized Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird stand for (or, worse, contribute to) Walter’s trials?

5. In which aspects was Walter’s case the ideal choice to use as the focus of the book? Would a case with a less flagrant miscarriage of justice have been a better way to test the author’s convictions?

6. Are the cases used as examples more about race or about poverty? In your opinion, is that a worthwhile question to ask?

7. Stevenson laments that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty, in too many places, is justice.” How do you feel when you read those words?

8. Do you agree that “wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes” in our justice system?

9. Critics of social justice initiatives complain that too many excuses are being made for those who have done wrong. What relevance might this opening line from The Great Gatsby have in the debate over this issue: “whenever you feel like criticizing anyone… just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had”?

10. How do cases such as Herbert Richardson’s, the man who set a bomb that killed a young girl, test these convictions?

11. Do you believe as Stevenson does, that we are more than the worst thing we have ever done? What effect, if any, should that belief have on the justice system?

12. One of Stevenson’s persistent talking points is that the question is not whether the condemned deserves to die but whether we deserve to kill. How does he explain this? Do you find this compelling?

13. Do you agree that the character of a nation is determined by how it treats the broken, the poor, the oppressed? Is this realistic?

14. In your opinion, is Stevenson against individuals accepting responsibility and/or consequences for their actions? Is there a middle ground?

15. Which other cases were memorable for you? Were you angry? Saddened? Did any moments bring satisfaction?

16. This book is often characterized as a memoir. Does that surprise you? In what ways does it fit that category?

17. What is your opinion of Stevenson as a “character”? Do you feel you know him? Do you understand him?

18. Did you notice the alternating structure of the book in which chapters about Walter’s case were followed by chapters on cases which illustrated different issues? What might the thinking behind that have been? Was it effective?

19. What does it mean to be a “stonecatcher”? What are the implications, both positive and negative?

20. Were you satisfied with the amount of time devoted to how the court system deals with mental illness, women, and children? Are you inspired to learn more?

21. Consider the title. What did you take it to mean before you read and/or what does it mean to you now?

22. The title appears specifically in two passages (p. 294 and p. 314). What is the context? Why “just” mercy in each instance?

23. When asked what effect he hoped Just Mercy would have on readers, Stevenson replied

I hope it makes people more thoughtful about our criminal justice system and the need to prioritize fairness over finality, justice over fear and anger. Many of the problems I describe exist because too many of us have been indifferent or disinterested in the poor and most vulnerable among us who are victimized by our system…

   Looking at your own response, did Stevenson achieve his goal? What do we do with ourselves after reading a work such as this?

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

OTHER RESOURCES:

Official Just Mercy  website, including detailed Discussion Guide and opportunities to Get Involved
Walter McMillian feature on 60 Minutes
Bryan Stevenson TED talk: We Need to Talk About an Injustice
The New York Times review of Just Mercy
NPR interview with author Bryan Stevenson
Equal Justice Initiative website
Discussion guide from University of Wisconsin-Madison Go Big Read program
When Stevenson received the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, Publishers Weekly asked: Is This the Greatest Book Award Acceptance Speech Ever?

READALIKES:

Between the World and Me book coverBetween the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Staff Pick- Communion: A True Story

Communion A True Story book coverLarry from Fiction/AV/Teen Services suggests Communion: A True Story by Whitley Strieber

Whitley Strieber, better known for his fiction with paranormal, science fiction, and horror themes, wrote a nonfiction book about what he experienced when he was abducted by aliens from outer space.  In Communion: A True Story, the author tells of his haunting and unsettling feelings of lost time and flashback recollections of encounters with strange beings.  Seeking help through medical treatment and hypnosis, he decides that he was recalling what he came to believe were real interactions with extraterrestrials that chose him to be an object of their research.  This book reads like fiction with its well-crafted storytelling, descriptive scenes, and suspenseful tones.  So, is the story really true or just another tale from an imaginative fiction writer?  Read the book and decide for yourself.
 

Interested in Communion? Try these other stories concerning aliens!

Chariots of the Gods- Unsolved Mysteries of the Past book coverChariots of the Gods?: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past by Erich von Daniken

When this nonfiction book was published, it stimulated public interest in the possibility that we are not alone in the universe.  The author presents his theory that Earth was visited by extraterrestrials that helped ancient civilizations build their magnificent structures and establish their culture.

 

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers book coverInvasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

Mill Valley was a peaceful place before some of the townspeople began to act in ways other than themselves.  As the town’s doctor sees that these distinct but subtle changes in personality are spreading, he realizes that something sinister is happening that will forever change life in the valley.

 

 

War of the Worlds book coverWar of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

One of the groundbreaking authors of science fiction presents a story of Mars’ invasion of Earth.  Fine storytelling with action and suspense presents a tale of clashing forces and the fight for survival.

 

 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind dvd coverClose Encounters of the Third Kind, DVD

With the peaceful arrival of spaceships from another planet, Roy Neary becomes obsessed with the newcomers from outer space and searches for meaning in this event.

 

 

 

Cocoon dvd coverCocoon, DVD

A group of senior citizens living a mundane life find rejuvenation when visitors with other-worldly powers from a distant galaxy befriends them.

Graduation Addresses from Great Authors

We at the Library think of June as the start to Summer Reading, but it also signals a different kind of commencement: graduation season! You may not recall the words of wisdom offered at your own ceremony, but some speeches become so popular that they are later published as small books.

Try one of these titles for wit and inspiration, and, since most are less than 150 pages each, your choice can help you meet one of the Adult Summer Reading Challenge goals!

Make Good Art Speech book coverThe Make Good Art Speech
Neil Gaiman
80 pages

World Is Waiting for You book coverThe World Is Waiting for You: Graduation Speeches to Live By from Activists, Writers, and Visionaries
Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin,
Anna Quindlen, and more!
208 pages

 

Join the Summer Reading Challenge.
Print your events list and scorecard here.
Not sure how to get started?  We have advice!

For reading suggestions, email us at readers@mppl.org or tweet at us @MPPLIB

Regardless of what you read and how you choose to read it, share your picks using #MPPLsummer16

 

Help! How Should I Design My Reading Challenge?

Calling all Adults 18+, this summer you get to design your own reading challenge! Pick from categories provided by the Library, and choose any book that will fulfill that category. Categories include, “Read a book that was made into a movie,” “Read a mystery novel,” “Read a book you’ve been meaning to read for years,” and more.

For every round you complete, enter to win one of the many prizes offered (up to three times). To complete a round you need to read or listen to three books.

Now comes the hard part… choosing what to read! Here are a few Readers’ Advisor tested methods to narrow down what to read this summer.

1. Start with what books you’re interested in.

sUMMER rEADING 2Brainstorm all of the books you want to read this summer and write down every category it would fit in. Then, highlight which category you will count it toward (you can not count a book for more than one category!). Finally, circle the 9 books you want to make a priority to read.

Don’t get rid of the other books on your list yet! You’ll want to keep those as back-ups if you are having time getting into one of your chosen books.

2. Start with what categories you’re interested in.

sUMMER rEADING 1

After choosing the categories you want to read from, make a list of all the books you would be interested in reading. Highlight your first, second, and third picks from each category, or wait until you’re ready to read from the category!

3. Read ALL the books.

Picture of Read All the Things Meme

Just keep reading and reading and reading! You’re bound to read a books from at least nine different categories if you read everything, right?

Regardless of what you read and how you choose to read it, share your picks using #MPPLsummer16! For reading suggestions, email us at readers@mppl.org or tweet at us @MPPLIB.

Sign up for Summer Reading today!

Staff Pick: Undead by Kirsty McKay

Picture of ColleenUndead by Kirsty McKay is a fantastic read for anyone who is a fan of zombies! Filled with action and gore, it follows two teens that are stranded on a school ski trip in Scotland when their classmates are infected with a mysterious illness that leaves them craving flesh.

6 Books to Read About a Character Facing a Mental Illness

According to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “1 in 5 Americans will be affected by a mental health condition in their lifetime and every American is affected or impacted through their friends and family.” To finish out May as mental health awareness month, try one of these fiction books below that follow a character facing a mental illness.

We Are Not Ourselves book coverWe Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas
Following the independent Eileen as she builds a life for herself in Queens during the later 20th century, a surprise diagnosis given to her husband at 51 disorients their life. The star reviews for this 2015 give special attention to the vibrant portrayal of Eileen and her strength.
The Art of Falling book coverThe Art of Falling
by Kathryn Craft
28-year-old Penelope Sparrow is a dancer on the rise, when she falls fourteen stories and is now in the hospital recovering. Was it suicide? Was it an accident? Penelope doesn’t even know. What she does know is she must come to terms with a new life and face her disordered eating head-on.

 

Hausfrau book cover Hausfrau
by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Anna is an American who has been living with her Swiss husband in Switzerland for nine years. With little knowledge of the language she has become isolated and is beginning to spiral out of control, when a tragic event causes the possibility that she might just tip over.
Regeneration book coverRegeneration
by Pat Barker
Dr. William Rivers is a psychiatrist helping shell-shocked British soldiers acclimate to coming home from World War I. However, the more he works with the soldiers the more he realizes there might be something bigger than “shell shock” going on.

 

Every Shallow Cut book coverEvery Shallow Cut
by Tom Piccirilli
Life has spiraled for Piccirilli’s unnamed narrator. He is leaving behind a once promising, now fizzled literary career, a foreclosed house, and a broken marriage to trek across America to see his estranged brother with only his bulldog for company.
This intimate story begins with 16-year-old Deborah heading to the hospital after self-harming herself. There, she is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and begins the slow journey of understanding herself.

 

New Arrivals: The Lives of Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre  has captured many a heart with its classic heroine’s journey from crushing past to independence and love. We ache with her trials, admire her resilience, and cheer when she defiantly stands up for herself. Jane’s voice has inspired countless new works over the generations, and this season sees the trend in full flourish.

Jane Steele book coverJane Steele: A Confession
by Lyndsay Faye

There are many eerie similarities between Jane Steele’s life and that of her favorite literary character, but her own choices embrace the macabre in this even darker take on the gothic tale: “Reader, I murdered him.”

Reader I Married Him book coverReader, I Married Him
edited by Tracy Chevalier

This collection of 20 original stories by today’s finest women writers — including Tracy Chevalier, Elizabeth McCracken, Audrey Niffenegger, and more — takes inspiration from one of the most famous lines in Charlotte Brontë’s beloved novel.

Madwoman Upstairs book coverThe Madwoman Upstairs
by Catherine Lowell

The last remaining descendant of the Brontës discovers a believed-to-be-destroyed copy of Jane Eyre and embarks on a scavenger hunt for her ancestors’ legacy, one which has ties to events in the authors’ lives and to their classic stories.

 

Still can’t quit Jane? Reach back and try one of last year’s entries into this literary homage trend.

Bronte Plot book coverThe Brontë Plot
by Katherine Reay

More tribute than re-telling, this story centers on a bookseller who, while visiting famous author sites in England, discovers new revelations of truth in the moral dilemmas and relationship wisdom represented in her favorite novels.

Re Jane book coverRe Jane
by Patricia Park

A half-Korean, half-American orphan takes a position as an au pair for two Brooklyn academics and their daughter, but a brief sojourn in Seoul, where she reconnects with family, causes her to wonder if the man she loves is really the man for her.

 

Looking for new nonfiction? Head here for new and forthcoming titles.

Staff Pick: Oscar

Cathleen staff picks photoA farcical comedy-of-errors with rhythms of a crackling stage play, Oscar is the screwball story of “Snaps” Provolone, a top-tier gangster who promises to go straight. Supporting cast Tim Curry, Chazz Palminteri, and Peter Riegert tickle with humor that bounces between droll dialogue and broad slapstick. Ridiculous fun.

Fiction: Romances Set During College

Bring a little romance to your final exams…

Upside Down book coverUpside Down
Lia Riley
For the next six months, 21-year-old Natalia Stolfi will be acting like a carefree exchange student in Australia, not a girl sinking under the weight of painful memories. Everything is going according to plan until she meets a brooding surfer with hypnotic green eyes and the troubling ability to see straight through her act.
Beautiful Oblivion book coverBeautiful Oblivion
Jamie McGuire
As the baby sister of four rowdy brothers, fiercely independent Cami believes she’ll have no problem keeping her new friendship with Trenton Maddox strictly platonic. But when a Maddox boy falls in love, he loves forever-even if she is the only reason their already broken family could fall apart.

 

Caged in Winter book cover Caged in Winter
Brighton Walsh
Winter is exactly 76 days away from graduating college, and if she can hold it together that long, she’ll finally be able to rise above the crappy hand she was dealt. But now, every time she turns around, Cade is there, ready to push her, smile at her, distract her from her plans. Winter knows she can’t afford to open up–especially to a man she’s terrified to actually want.
My Sweetest Escape book coverMy Sweetest Escape
Chelsea M. Cameron
For reasons Jos can’t begin to fathom, the newly reformed campus bad boy seems determined to draw her out of her shell. If she’s not careful, his knowing green eyes and wicked smile will make her feel things she’s no longer sure she deserves.

 

 

Looking beyond college?

Follow these twenty-somethings navigating life on their own and romance.

Charlie Glass’s Slippers book coverCharlie Glass’s Slippers
Holly McQueen
When Charlie’s beloved father, iconic shoe designer Elroy Glass, dies he surprises everyone by leaving his fashion empire to Charlie, his youngest-and plumpest-daughter. Before she can run the company, Charlie decides she needs to make a few changes in her life but as she’ll soon discover there’s more to reinvention-and running a fashion empire-than meets the eye.
November 9 book cover November 9
Colleen Hoover
Fallon meets Ben, an aspiring novelist, the day before her scheduled cross-country move. Their untimely attraction leads them to spend Fallon’s last day in L.A. together, and her eventful life becomes the creative inspiration Ben has always sought for his novel.

 

 

For more suggestions, stop by the Fiction/AV/Teen desk, email us at readers@mppl.org, or tweet at us!
Summaries from publisher

Book Discussion Questions: A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton

A Map of the World book coverTitle: A Map of the World
Author:  Jane Hamilton
Page Count: 389 pages
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Tone: Dark, melancholy, reflective

Summary:
A loner by nature, Alice is torn between a yearning for solitude coupled with a deep need to be at the center of a perfect family. On this particular day, Emma has started the morning with a violent tantrum, her little sister Claire is eating pennies, and it is Alice’s turn to watch her neighbor’s two small girls as well as her own. She absentmindedly steals a minute alone that quickly becomes ten: time enough for a devastating accident to occur. Her neighbor’s daughter Lizzy drowns in the farm’s pond, and Alice – whose own volatility and unmasked directness keep her on the outskirts of acceptance – becomes the perfect scapegoat.

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

Questions composed by MPPL Staff

1. Alice and Therese seem to be two very different woman; what do you think connected them?

2. Alice describes her mothering and her life one way, yelling at kids and trying to control herself, and Howard describes her in a very different way, as a navigator. Who did you think the real Alice was?

3. What did you think of Therese’s feelings toward Alice after Lizzie dies?

4. What did you think of Alice’s reaction at the funeral?

5. Alice wondered why Howard did not come after her when she ran out of the funeral. Should he have?

6. What did you think about Therese’s ability to forgive?

7. What do you think Alice wants? (Forgiveness? Could she accept it?)

8. Albert talked to Therese about the “quality of mercy” (pg. 223: mercy blesses the giver and receiver). What did you think about this? What do you think Mercy is?

9. Is it possible for the “average person” if there is such a thing to forgive, when the death of a child is involved?

10. Is all of the blame for accident one-sided? Therese did tell Lizzie she was going swimming and that she was a good swimmer…

11. Why do you think Therese received so much comfort from her visit to the former priest, Albert Satinga?

12. Albert asked Therese to tell him about Lizzie’s life. Why did it help her to tell him Lizzie’s life story?

13. What did you think about Robbie MacKessy? Was there anything in the book that led you to believe he wasn’t a normal six-year-old?

14. Why do you think the charges were brought against Alice?

15. In the beginning of the book Alice described Robbie as a disturbed boy that enraged her every time she saw him. Why did Alice dislike him so much?

16. At the end of the book during the trial, Robbie’s preschool teacher described him as a belligerent troubled child and that her staff had repeatedly suggested that the Mackessys have him evaluated. Alice thought to herself, “Oh, but Robbie wasn’t that bad. Truly he wasn’t so awful. They were drawing him as a budding psychopath based on his performance at preschool.” Why the change of heart?

17. Do you think Alice would have been accused of molestation if Lizzie hadn’t drowned?

18. What did you think of Alice’s confession to the police?

19. Therese was very upset over Alice’s incarceration and felt she was being railroaded. Did that surprise you? Why do you think she was so upset?

20. From Howard’s point of view in the story, he was mystified by Alice’s behavior: her calmness when she was taken into custody and how animated she was during his visits. What is your take on this? Howard was afraid Alice would withdraw more into herself when she was arrested, but once she was put in jail, she was communicating like her old self (pg 148). Why?

21. What do you think about Alice’s time in prison? What did you think of the other prisoners?

22. Why do you think Alice did so well in jail?

23. Do you think Howard believes in Alice’s innocence?

24. Do you think that once you are accused of abuse, there is anything you can do to save yourself?

25. Initially Alice insisted that Rafferty be her defense attorney and really seemed to “love” him, yet Howard seemed to detest him. What do you think was going on with that?

26. What did you think of Howard and Therese’s relationship?

27. Therese told Howard she loved him and he is “everything that’s good” (pg 259). This is in direct contrast to some of Alice’s statements, saying Howard had been betraying her, and “leeching from me what was my strength” (pg 286). Alice also said Howard was so methodical and even-tempered that in his shadow anyone would have been erratic and moody (pg 286). Who is the real Howard?

28. What did you think of the nebulous character, Dan?

29. Why did Howard sell the farm? Why was Alice so adamant that he not sell it?

30. Do you agree with Howard that they had to leave Prairie Water because they would be guilty even if proven innocent?

31. Should Howard have told Alice about the state interviewing the girls to see if they were abused? What do you think Alice would have said had she known Therese encouraged him not to?

32. Do you think the setting mattered for the storyline? Why do you think Hamilton used this setting in particular?

33. What did you think of the ending. Did everything work out?

OTHER RESOURCES:

Breakfast Club book discussion questions
Reading Group Guide
BookBrowse interview with Jane Hamilton
Video of Jane Hamilton talking about her work

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

readalikes:

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Half a Life by Darin Strauss
First Desire by Nancy Reisman
Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult