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Book Discussion Questions: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just-Mercy book cover

Title:  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?

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Book Discussion Questions: Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbott

Liar Temptress Solider Spy book cover

Title:  Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
Author:  Karen Abbott
Page Count: 513 pages
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Collective Biographies
Tone:  Dramatic, Richly Detailed, Compelling

Summary:
One of the most fascinating yet little-known aspects of the Civil War is illuminated in the stories of four courageous women — a socialite, a farm girl, an abolitionist, and a widow — who risked everything to take on a life of espionage.  Their adventures comprise a fascinating quartet of determination and intrigue from both sides of the battle lines.

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

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. How many in the group recall learning about Belle Boyd, Elizabeth Van Lew, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, or Sarah Emma Edmonds prior to this book? Given their individual stories, is that surprising? Why do you think this is?

2. Author Karen Abbott specifically did not want to write about a single individual, instead repeatedly calling on the word tapestry to describe the weaving of multiple stories. Why do you think she chose these four women specifically?

3. Which of the four primary characters most fascinated you or elicited the strongest connection for you? Why? How might you guess Abbott herself answered this question? [Click here to find out.]

4. What factors might influence how we respond to each character? Did the affiliation with North or South matter to you? Personality? Circumstances? Traditional bias toward how women should behave?

5. For each of the four women, what were the most memorable escapades? How effective was each in advancing her cause?

6. Did you feel you had good sense of what in their pasts led these women to these roles? Did any surprise you?

7. What made the women more effective as spies than their male counterparts?

8. How did the women turn societal assumptions or traditions regarding gender to their advantage?

9. How would you describe each character’s relationships with the men in their lives?

10. Which of the supporting characters made an impression? For instance, what did you think of the parts played by Jerome Robbins or Mary Bowser?

11. Is each word in the title intended to correspond to one of the women, or does it hold a different message?

12. How effective is the title in drawing a reader? In establishing a tone for the writer’s approach?

13. The author’s intention was that this history read like a novel. How successful was she? What qualities support or contradict that intent?

14. What is gained by intertwining the four stories in a chronological structure? Would you have preferred to focus on one character at a time in four sections?

15. Abbott begins with the assurance that everything is factual, drawn from primary sources. Some readers question whether this can be true, even if that were her intention. What do you think? Does the issue affect your experience of the book?

16. Most everyone studies the Civil War, but hardly any are taught about Civil War spies, much less women as spies. Why not? What is the value of history instruction beyond battles and traditional leaders? Would you argue for better inclusion of stories like these in general histories?

17. Would you argue that this book holds appeal for both male and female readers? Why or why not?  How do you feel about this?

18. Karen Abbott enjoys writing about unconventional women in history who break the rules. If you have read her other accounts (Sin in the Second City, American Rose), how would you say this work compares?

19. Abbott’s next work is a novel about a real-life female con artist in the Gilded Age. Would you follow her into historical fiction? How do you think she’ll do?

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Book Discussion Questions: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Cover of Beautiful Ruins

Title: Beautiful Ruins
Author: Jess Walter
Page Count: 337 pages
Genre: Fiction
Tone: Romantic, Dazzling

Summary:
From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.

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

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement:  2015 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. What do you think the quotes at the beginning of the book mean? Do they set a tone for the book?

2. What does the title of this book refer to? Does it capture the essence of the book?

3. Beautiful Ruins had several story lines and timelines . How did that affect your reading?

4. What did you think of Porto Vergogna? A place you would go to visit?

5. Did you have a favorite character?

6. At the beginning of the story, Pasquale Tursi is waiting “for life to come and find him.” What do you think he was waiting for?

7. When Pasquale found out his father died there was no question that Pasquale would come home and take care of his mother. Why?

8. How do you think Carlo influenced Pasquale’s life?

9. In reference to the Tennis court that Pasquale wants to build, Pasquale waxed philosophically “Every point ended with someone missing. It seemed both cruel and in some way true to life”. What do you think about that? What did you think about his tennis court?

10. Did Shane Wheelers parents stunt his growth?

11. Claire Silver, the chief development assistant for legendary film producer Michael Deane, was enchanted by the magic of Hollywood when she saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s two days before her tenth birthday. How do you think this movie shaped who she became? Was it for better or for worse? Is it the idea of fame that draws people to Hollywood, or something else? Is Hollywood as influential on lives today as it was through much of the twentieth century?

12. Claire Silver is portrayed as a go-getter, what did you think of her character?

13. What do you think about this line: “Guilt is sometimes a kind of envy” (pg. 59)?

14. How do you think that the concept of the”American dream” applies in this novel? Do you think it is still attainable? How much of our notions of the American Dream are shaped by Hollywood? Is faith enough—or hard work—to make our dreams come true? Can we truly be, achieve, or do anything we desire?

15. This novel has many artistic inlets using storytelling itself as the story. Did any of them resonate with you?

16. When Pasquale came to Michael Deane’s office all those years later to find Dee, did you believe that Micheal had an altruistic motive to help him?

17. What did you think about Michael Deane? Is there any good in him?

18. Discuss the reunion of Dee and Pasquale. Dee asks Pasquale, “what took you so long?” To which Pasquale answers, “I’m sorry. There was something important I had to do.” Is true love timeless?

19. Pasquale left Dee to go to Amadea and led a good life. What would you have done? What do you think his life would have been like if he stayed?

20. When Amedea told Pasquale that she was pregnant, was she hoping he would marry her? (Pg. 120)

21. Do you think Pasquale would have went back to Amadea if he had not met Dee?

22. Pat Bender was the son of Dee Moray and Richard Burton. What did you think about him? Did he remind you of his father?

23. Why use the movie Cleopatra as the center of the novel?

24. Why do you think Dee kept track of Richard Burton’s career ?

25. What do you think about Dee not telling Pat who is real father was until the end?` pg 211

26. Pat was 45 and running off to Europe in the hopes of finding success. What did you think of this?

27. How are Pat and Shane Wheeler different?

28. Pat talks about living the life he should be living versus the one he actually is living. How is the way your life is dictated come from and where does “the should” come in?

29. How are our identities shaped by the culture we live in? Who shapes our culture in the first place? How did they get the power?

30. What did you think of the Richard Burton Character?

31. Richard Burton said “of course any right blighter would choose being a great actor over being a household word if the stacks were the same.” What do you think the relationship is between fame and art?

32. What did you think of the ending? The author said he wanted to give each of his stories one more moment in the present.

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Book Discussion Questions: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

Cover of Destiny of the Republic

Title: Destiny of the Republic
Author: Candice Millard
Page Count: 339 pages
Genre: Biography, Nonfiction
Tone: Detailed, Compelling

Summary:
James A. Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, and a renowned and admired reformist congressman. Nominated for president against his will, he engaged in a fierce battle with the corrupt political establishment. But four months after his inauguration, a deranged office seeker tracked Garfield down and shot him in the back. But the shot didn’t kill Garfield. The drama of what hap­pened subsequently is a powerful story of a nation in tur­moil.

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

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement: 2015 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. When you first saw the cover and learned the subject, what expectations did you have for your reading experience?

2. You are at a party and mention you read this book. Someone asks you what was so interesting about President Garfield. What would you answer?

3. What was better about living in that time than now? What was worse? Would you swap?

4. Let’s talk about Garfield’s life. At the opening of Destiny of the Republic, Millard claims that Garfield, born into “desperate poverty” overcame the odds with a passionate love of learning.   If his mother had not been an educated woman herself, would this still have been possible just based on values and interest?

5. Canal drivers were considered a pretty rough crowd. If we could look in a crystal ball and see that someone like this would become our future president, would you be full of wonder or alarm?

6. James marries fellow student Lucretia Rudolph. Even in their courtship, James has deep concerns about what he sees as Lucretia’s lack of demonstrativeness. A few years into their marriage, James has an affair, which he confesses. In this instance, has he been basically honest or dishonest?

7. How would you describe Lucretia Rudolph Millard?

8. Why do you think Lucretia went through with a marriage to Garfield when she was afraid that he was marrying her out of a sense of duty?

10. During the Civil War, what did Millard show us of Garfield’s talents and character?

11. What was Garfield’s stance on black civil rights? Do you think things would have been different for African Americans if he had been able to fulfill his presidency? Why or why not?

12. Garfield did not run for US senator, but got that seat. He did not run for President, but got nominated. In his stirring speech, for which the book is named, Garfield says that, “not here… is the destiny of the republic to be decreed for the next four years…but by four million republican firesides.”

How much do you agree with his description of how the public decides on a president

A president is chosen by…

-thoughtful voters, with their wives and children around them.

-voters with the calm thoughts inspired by love of home and country.

-voters with the history of the past and the hopes of the future in mind.

-voters with reverence for the great men who have adorned and blessed our nation in days gone by burning in their hearts.

13. When he wraps up with, “Who do we want?” and a voice shouts, “We want Garfield!” do you think there was anything he could have done to shut down his nomination?

14. Would it be possible any more for a candidate to sit out his campaign?

15. What leaders would people travel great distances to hear speak? Do we think of anyone any more as wise?

16. When Garfield was elected, he felt sad. Why do you think he felt sad?

17. A good deal of time is spent on Alexander Graham Bell. What did you learn about him?

18. Bell was clearly pretty driven and intense: insisting on not being interrupted, resisting sleep, playing piano late late at night, but also very smart, caring, committed to the well being of the deaf. Did his wife have a catch or a lemon for a husband?

19. It’s interesting that Bell would blame his neglect for his infant son’s death and then throw himself into his work. Do you think his work ethic was a free choice or a compulsion?

20. Bell was devoted to helping save the president. Can you think of other people, famous or not, with that sense of commitment?

21. Millard also spends a lot of time on Charles Gitteau. Was this necessary? What aspects of Gitteau’s life stand out in your mind?

22. Both Gitteau and Garfield had one thing in common. They had been spared drowning and felt it had been through divine intervention. How did it impact their lives?

23. Do you agree that Gitteau was insane? If yes, then do you think his life should have been spared?

24. Who do you think is more morally responsible for Garfield’s death? Dr. Bliss or Charles Gitteau?

25. Dr. Bliss was clearly not open to new ideas from Europe. Could you see the same thing happening today? Do you think the American medical establishment is open to ideas from other countries or healing traditions?

26. What particularly stands out about Garfield’s time and treatment after he was shot? What feelings did you have from the time of his being shot until he dies?

27. Describe Vice President Arthur. Did he deserve the hatred that came his way after Garfield had been shot? There are many passages that describe him crying. Was your impression that he was crying for Garfield or himself? Did you expect him to be the kind of president he was?

28. The mysterious Julia Sand writes letters to Arthur, giving him a very needed pep talk. Who would you most like to encourage? On the flip side, would you enjoy having a mystery letter writer advise you or would you find it creepy?

29. How did the country respond to Garfield’s shooting?

30. There are two moments of silence described after the shooting. One is the agreement to keep the news criers and people silent so the Garfield boys won’t learn of the shooting while traveling. The next is the silent pushing of Garfield’s train car up the hill to Elberon. Can you think of a public moment of spontaneous quiet?

31. On one of the last days of his life, Garfield asks Rockwell, “’Do you think my name will have a place in human history?’ ‘Yes,’ his friend replied,’ a ‘grand one, but a grander place in human hearts.'” (p. 264)   If you had to choose, which would you prefer: to leave a legacy that impacts generations to come, or to be embedded in the hearts of the currently living?

32. How do you judge the quality of a historical retelling? By your own standards, how would you rate this book?

Other Resources:

Readalikes:

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Book Discussion Questions: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle book cover

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

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

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

Questions composed by MPPL Staff

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement:  2015 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23. Who did you think Kalden was?

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

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

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

27. What would closing the Circle mean?

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

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

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

Other Resources:

If you like The Circle, you might like…

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