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Book Discussion Questions: Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go Bernadette book cover

Title: Where’d You Go Bernadette
Author: Maria Semple
Page Count: 330 pages
Genre: Humorous Fiction
Tone: Offbeat, Exuberant

Summary:
Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

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. How did the epistolary format impact your reading? Did it make it more intimate?

2. Much of the beginning of the book focused on Bernadette’s relationship with Audrey Griffin. What did you think of Audrey? Why do you think she and Bernadette didn’t get along?

3. What did you think of Bernadette and Bea’s relationship?

4. When Bernadette “escaped” from the intervention, she asked Audrey to send all the emails to Bea, and said “I know it’s a lot, but she can handle it. I’d rather ruin her with the truth than ruin her with lies.” What did you think about that?

5. Did Audrey’s character change or did we just get a new perspective?

6. Did your opinion of Bernadette change when you found out she was a successful architect?

7. Paul Jellinak brought up the point that Bernadette only created 2 houses and both were for herself. Do you think she could have had a career in architecture with actual clients?

8. Who’s fault was it that the 20 mile house was destroyed? Did Bernadette have any extenuating circumstances in regards to her actions?

9. Ellie Sito criticized Bernadette for not being tough enough. She would knit as she worked. Do you think woman then or now need to take on male stereotypes to be successful?

10. Why didn’t she fix up her house in Seattle?

11. Did you find any of this novel to be spiritual?

12. In an email to Manjula, Bernadette was discussing how much she disliked Canadians because of how everybody was equal. She said, “Some people are extraordinary and should be treated as such”. What do you think of this statement?

13. Why do you think Bernadette didn’t discuss her feelings of failure with her husband? Why did she write that soul-bearing letter to Paul Jellinac instead?

14. What did you think of Paul’s response: “Are you done?  You can’t honestly believe any of this nonsense.  People like you must create.  If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”

15. What did you think of Elgin Branch’s character? Was there enough meat to him?

16. What were your thoughts on the TED talk?

17. Do you think Elgie loves Bernadette now? Did he love her in the past?

18. Elgie was furious with Bernadette for denuding the hillside and causing the cave-in that destroyed the Griffens house. Why was he so furious? Was he right to be that mad?

19. Why was Elgie so bent on getting Bernadette committed?

20. During the intervention, Elgin let Soo-Lin stay. What are your thoughts on that? Would you have done the same?

21. Why did Dr. Kurtz resign after the intervention?

22. What does the future hold for Bernadette and Elgie’s marriage?

23. How do you think Bernadette will react to Soo-Lin’s pregnancy ?

24. Do you think that there are any true victims in the novel, if so who and why?

25. What did you think of VAV (victims against victimhood)?

26. Do you identify with any of the characters?

Other Resources:

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Book Discussion Questions: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clarke Newell

Cover of Empty Mansions

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

Summary:
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.

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. 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?

Other Resources

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Book Discussion Questions: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Cover of The Round House

Title: The Round House
Author: Louise Erdrich
Page Count: 321 pages
Genre: Coming of Age Stories, Literary Fiction
Tone: Reflective, Moving, Bleak

Summary from publisher:
One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface because Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe’s life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared. While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.

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. The Round House is a book for which a sentence or two summary cannot fully capture the experience it holds. How would you describe the feel of reading this story?

2. As you read, were you conscious of the fact that it was an older Joe looking back on this summer? Did that impact the narrative for you?

3. This work has been described as a coming-of-age story. In what ways are Joe’s experiences universal? In what ways are they specific? Does this category do justice to the narrative?

4. One of the ways a typical adolescence is explored is through sexual curiosity and preoccupation. Were you at all uncomfortable with these depictions in a story that is incited with a brutal sexual assault? Was this intentional?

5. The Round House deals with some deeply troubling themes and struggles. How was that balanced? Were there elements that lightened the story for you?

6. Describe Joe’s friendship with Cappy. What did he add to the story?

7. Is Joe proud of his heritage? What does this narrative have to say about cultural identity?

8. Much of the complication for Geraldine’s case is the question of jurisdiction. How does the legal relationship between the U.S. and the Ojibwe complicate the investigation?

9. Why didn’t Geraldine simply lie and say she knew where it happened? Do you agree with her reasons?

10. When Joe makes his decision, he says it is about justice, not vengeance. What do you think? How does that decision change him? Does his decision change your perception of him?

11. One reviewer shared, “In Erdrich’s hands, you may find yourself, as I did, embracing the prospect of vigilante justice as regrettable but reasonable, a way to connect to timeless wisdom about human behavior. It wasn’t until I put the book down that I recognized – and marveled at – the clever way I had been manipulated.” Was your experience similar to that of the reviewer? Does this affect your assessment of the book and/or the author?

12. How would you describe Father Travis and his role in the story?

13. Near the end of the story (p.306), Joe’s father talks of “ideal justice as opposed to the best-we-can-do justice”. What did he mean? How is this borne out in the story?

14. What else did Joe’s father want him to understand from that conversation? Did he make his point?

15. What was the importance of the wiindigoo motif?

16. Do you feel you have a good understanding of what Geraldine was like before the incident? How does the author convey this?

17. At one literary festival panel, during a discussion of the general lack of strong marriages in fiction, author Lorrie Moore said she felt the marital life of Joe’s parents was a central part of The Round House. In what ways would you agree or disagree with this statement?

18. What were the most uncomfortable scenes for you? Did these lessen your enjoyment of the book as a whole?

19. What was the significance and the symbolism of the Round House? Why choose this as the title?

20. How would you describe the author’s writing style and storytelling choices?

21. At the conclusion of the novel, when Joe’s parents are driving him home and they don’t stop at the roadside café, Erdrich writes, “we passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.” What do you think she meant?

22. The Round House won the National Book Award and was later selected for Book Crossing, a shared reading program between Mount Prospect Public Library and our sister city, Sèvres, France. What elements make this book a good choice for discussion?

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Book Discussion Questions: Quiet by Susan Cain

Cover of Quiet the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking

Title: Quiet
Author: Susan Cain
Page Count: 352 pages
Genre:  Non-Fiction
Tone: Thought-provoking, Reflective, Accessible

Summary from publisher:
Passionately argued, impressively researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. Taking the reader on a journey from Dale Carnegie’s birthplace to Harvard Business School, from a Tony Robbins seminar to an evangelical megachurch, Susan Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the twentieth century and explores its far-reaching effects.

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. Quiet has had a lot of popularity and has been on numerous bestseller lists, including the NYT bestseller list for sixteen weeks. Why do you think Quiet has been a bestseller of this magnitude?

2. How did your perception of introversion and extroversion change or not change after reading Quiet?

3. Why do you think Western society evolved from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality?

4. Is it better to have people perceive you as a “competent leader” or overlook your leadership?

5. Why do you think we’re more inclined to follow those who initiate action?

6. What are ways we can look past sparkly speaking skills on a group level? How about when you are speaking with an individual?

7. What studies or facts surprised you?

8. Cain uses a lot of anecdotes to back up her claims. Would you count anecdotes as a credible source?

9. How do you think Cain did writing a book on the strengths of introverts without discounting the value extroverts bring to society?

10. What are the advantages of being an introvert? What are the advantages of being an extrovert?

11. One of the anecdotes Cain shares is of a tax lawyer who had trouble performing speaking events with very short notice. She thought it spoke poorly of her skills and knowledge, but it turns out she needed more advance notice for speaking. Cain writes, “But once Esther understands herself, she can insist to her colleagues that they give her advance notice of any speaking events” (126). This is one example of one of the kinds of tweaks, Cain suggests introverts make for their success. How do we begin to understand ourselves, so we can make these kinds of tweaks in our own lives?

12. How realistic do you think those tweaks are that we might make in our daily life? How about in the tweaks Cain talks about in the workplace?

13. Cain shares a statement by a woman from Taiwan who attended graduate school at UCLA, “Oh in the U.S., as soon as you start talking, you’re fine.” How does this statement ring true in the U.S.? How does it differ? Are there situations when this could be of benefit or of detriment?

14. There is a part of the book where Cain talks about fixed and free personality traits, basically saying that there are some personality traits that we are not stuck with having, and there is more flexibility in our personalities. She asks the question, “But if we’re capable of such flexibility, does it even make sense to chart the differences between introverts and extroverts?” (206) How would you answer that question?

15. What lessons did you glean from Quiet about interacting with the people around you, whether you’re an extrovert, introvert, or ambivert?

16. What are ways you can modify your behavior to better connect with introverts? How about extroverts?

17. Do you think introverts or extroverts tend to use the internet to communicate more, whether it be email or social networks like Facebook?

18. Who wouldn’t like this book? Who would disagree with it?

19. This book was divided in four different parts discussing essentially the workplace, the biology of introversion, Western culture and other cultures, and finally relating to others. What section or sections did you find most useful or interesting?

20. Do you think Quiet will have any lasting power? It’s popular now, but will it still be popular/enlightening/necessary in ten years from now? How about twenty? Or forty?

21. Cain is advocating for the Quiet Revolution in which we go about in life paying more attention to introverts. What would be risked if we pay more attention to introversion? What would be gained?

22. Do you see the emphasis on groups appearing in places other than work or school?

23. Do you trust Susan Cain as the author? Why or why not?

24. Do you have any suggestions of interesting psychology/science nonfiction books?

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Book Discussion Questions: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Cover of The Orphan Train

Title: Orphan Train
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Page Count: 278 pages
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Tone: Thoughtful, Poignant, Sobering

Summary from publisher:
Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse…

As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

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. Were the orphan trains a good thing? Why or why not? What, if any, better options were available at the time?

2. What did you notice about the style of writing and how this story was put together?

3. Thinking back on the children that were highlighted in the book, Carmine, Dutchy and Niamh, what were the motivations of the families who took in these orphans? How did these differing motivations affect the children’s lives?

4. What similarities or differences are there between the past as shown in the story and our present foster care system?

5. In what ways are Molly and Vivian similar? How are they different?

6. Do you have things that you don’t use or are stored away but you can’t part with? What are those things and why do you keep them?

7. What would a timeline of Vivian’s life look like? Use a white board to diagram this or just do it verbally. What characterizes each segment of her life?

8. What would a timeline of Molly’s life look like? What characterizes each segment of her life?

9. “You can’t find peace till you find all the pieces.” How is this true in Vivian’s life? How is it true in Molly’s life?

10. Molly’s charms on her necklace are mentioned throughout the story. What is their significance? What did Vivian’s Claddagh cross and Molly’s charms mean to them?

11. How has Molly changed Vivian’s life? How has Vivian changed Molly’s life?

12.  Read the prologue aloud to the group. Having read the book and rereading the prologue what does this tell you about Vivian’s view of the people in her past? What does this show about her character?

13. How did you feel about the way the author ended the story? Is Vivian’s happy ending enough?

14. If you were to write additional chapters to the book what would happen to Vivian, to Molly?

15. The American Experience, a PBS show, has a program on the orphan trains. There was also a movie made in 1979 called The Orphan Train. Do you think this book will come to the big screen? Would you want to see it?

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