Non-fiction

Evicted : Poverty and Profit in the American City

Author: 
Desmond, Matthew

Winner, 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award
Winner, 2017 Pulitizer Prize

From Harvard sociologist and MacArthur "Genius" Matthew Desmond, a landmark work of scholarship and reportage that will forever change the way we look at poverty in America

 
In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge.

Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.

The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, "Love don’t pay the bills." She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers.

In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced  into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.

Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem.

Its unforgettable scenes of hope and  loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.(From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. Why was Arleen evicted from her apartment on Milwaukee’s near South Side? Were you surprised that her landlord made the decision to evict the family after the apartment door was damaged? Arleen later found an apartment where the rent, not including utilities, was 88% of her welfare check. How might a family like Arleen’s manage to cover rent, utilities, and all other expenses on such a small income? What kind of sacrifices do you think families in this situation must make in order to make ends meet?
 
2. Tenants are often given two options while being evicted from their residence­—their possessions can be loaded into a truck and checked into bonded storage or movers can pile their belongings onto the sidewalk. What challenges and consequences may a tenant or family face when experiencing one of these two scenarios? If you were suddenly faced with the decision to move or store your possessions, which option would you choose?
 
3. Sherrena Tarver claimed to have found her calling as an inner-city entrepreneur, stating “The ’hood is good. There’s a lot of money there” (page 152). How did Sherrena profit from being a landlord in poor communities? Do you think her profits were justified? What responsibilities do landlords have when renting out their property? What risks do they take? Do you sympathize with Sherrena? Why or why not?
 
4. In Milwaukee, evictions spike in the summer and early fall and dip in November when the moratorium on winter utility disconnections begins. When tenants are unable to pay both the rent and the utilities, how might they make a decision about which expense to pay first? If you were forced to choose between paying rent or heat, which would you choose?  
 
5. In an average month at the College Mobile Home Park, nearly 1/3 of tenants were behind on their rent. Why did park landlord Tobin Charney select a handful of tenants to evict each month? How did some tenants escape eviction? Tobin lived 70 miles away from the trailer park he owned. How might this kind of distance benefit a landlord? What problems might it create?
 
6. How did Tobin benefit from offering his tenants the “Handyman Special” (page 46)—giving families their trailers for free but charging them for lot rent? Why might tenants see this as a better deal than paying the equivalent in rent? How did the high demand for low-cost housing impact Tobin’s decisions about whether or not to repair property or forgive late payments? What incentives could be put in place to motivate landlords to maintain their properties? What risks do tenants take when filing a report with a building inspector?
 
7. Many Americans still believe that the typical low-income family lives in public housing. But only one in four families who qualify for housing assistance receive it. What challenges did Arleen face when trying to get approved for subsidized housing? Assistance programs in Milwaukee either require that tenants have dependent children or have experienced a sudden loss of income. How do these services assist people experiencing short-term crises but not those facing more serious long-term poverty? Are there other forms of housing assistance available to low-income individuals and families?
 
8. How does the process of screening tenants lead to a “geography of advantage and disadvantage” (page 89)? How can landlord decisions impact neighborhood characteristics like schools, crime rates, and levels of civic engagement? How can a criminal background or history of past evictions impact a person’s ability to rent property? Do you think a tenant should have to disclose this information? Why or why not?
 
9. Why do you think landlords like Sherrena rely so heavily on hiring tenants and jobless men to maintain their property? Do you think this affects the employment prospects for people in the neighborhood?
 
10. What benefits do landlords like Sherrena receive when they rent to tenants who have housing vouchers? Why do some tenants who spend more than 30% of their income on housing receive assistance while others do not? How do landlords like Sherrena and Tobin benefit financially from the Fair Market Rent set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development? How does this program bring large gains to landlords? How does it prevent gains in racial and economic integration?
 
11. Why do you think Crystal made the decision to let Arleen and her sons stay until they found another residence? How do tenants like Crystal and Arleen rely on friends and extended kin networks to get by? Does this do anything to lift them out of poverty or distress?
 
12. Desmond writes, “No one thought the poor more undeserving than the poor themselves” (page 180). How do you see this attitude reflected in residents of the trailer park? Do you see it reflected in Arleen’s actions?
 
13. What motivated Crystal to call 911 after hearing a domestic disturbance upstairs? How did this strain her relationship with her landlord, Sherrena? What risks do landlords incur once their property becomes a designated nuisance? Should landlords be penalized for their tenants’ behavior? Why or why not?
 
14. Crystal was diagnosed with a wide range of mental illnesses. What struggles did Crystal face throughout her search for stable housing? How might mental illness present additional challenges to a person already living in poverty? How might mental illness contribute to a person’s history of eviction? What protections do people with mental illnesses have?
 
15. Why do you think Larraine chose to spend all of her food stamps on expensive food like lobster and king crab? What personal reaction did you have to her decision? Do you agree with Pastor Daryl that Larraine is careless with her money because she is operating under a “poverty mentality”? Why might it be difficult for Larraine to lift herself out of poverty by practicing good behavior or self-control? What options do you believe Larraine has?
 
16. Landlords repeatedly turned down Pam and Ned’s rental applications because they have children. Why? Do you think families with children should receive any protection when seeking housing? Why do you think families with children were not considered a protected class when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968? Do you think it is fair for landlords to charge tenants with children monthly surcharges and children-damage deposits? Why or why not?
 
17. Why did Doreen choose not to call Sherrena when the house was in desperate need of repair? Do you agree that “The house failed the tenants, and the tenants failed the house” (page 256)? What effects does living in a home that is not decent or functional have on a person’s psychological and emotional health?
 
18. Why did Vanetta participate in an armed robbery? Do you think the 81-month sentence Vanetta received was too harsh? Why or why not? What challenges do you think Vanetta will face while serving a 15-month prison sentence? What challenges will she face while serving 66 months on parole? Why do you think Vanetta’s public defender failed to mention that she was attending GED classes, providing childcare, and looking for housing every morning? How might that information have impacted her sentencing?
 
19. What challenges did Scott face while maintaining his sobriety? Do you think the process for Scott to get his nursing license back was reasonable? Why or why not? What relief did Scott receive after receiving subsidized housing and county-subsidized methadone treatment?
 
20. Arleen received 89 negative responses and one positive from prospective landlords. What impact did this have on her children, Jori and Jafaris? How do children expose families to eviction rather than shield them from it? What happened to Arleen when she was evicted from her apartment? After losing her possessions in storage and having her welfare case closed, what options did Arleen have?
 
21. If you were unexpectedly evicted from your home, what would the fallout be? How would this impact your education, employment, and relationships? How might a sudden change like eviction affect your physical and mental well-being?
 
22. Why do you think 90% of landlords are represented by attorneys in housing courts while 90% of tenants are not? What would you do if you were facing eviction and in need of legal assistance? Do you think attorneys should be provided to low-income tenants at no cost?
 
23. Why did Desmond believe it was important to live in the Milwaukee communities most affected by eviction? How did his presence impact the lives of his neighbors? How was his personal experience different from the experiences of the people he interviewed?
 
24. Why do you think there is so much research on public housing and other housing policies but very little research on the private rental market? What solutions to the lack of affordable housing does Desmond propose? Do you have other ideas for how this issue could be addressed in your community?(Questions issued by the publisher.)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers : Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Author: 
Boo, Katherine

In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.
 
Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl”—will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”

But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths,the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.

With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget. (From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. Barbara Ehrenreich calls Behind the Beautiful Forevers “one of the most powerful indictments of economic inequality I’ve ever read.” Yet the book shows the world of the Indian rich—lavish Bollywood parties, an increasingly glamorous new airport—almost exclusively through the eyes of the Annawadians. Are they resentful? Are they envious? How does the wealth that surrounds the slumdwellers shape their own expectations and hopes?

2. As Abdul works day and night with garbage, keeping his head down, trying to support his large family, some other citydwellers think of him as garbage, too. How does Abdul react to how other people view him? How would you react? How do Abdul and his sort-of friend, Sunil, try to protect themselves and sustain self-esteem in the face of other people’s contempt?

3. The lives of ordinary women—their working lives, domestic lives, and inner lives—are an important part of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The author has noted elsewhere that she’d felt a shortage of such accounts in nonfiction about urban India. Do women like Zehrunisa and Asha have more freedom in an urban slum than they would have had in the villages where they were born? What is Meena, a Dalit, spared by living in the city? What freedoms do Meena, Asha, and Zehrunisa still lack, in your view?

4. Asha grew up in rural poverty, and the teenaged marriage arranged by her family was to a man who drank more than he worked. In Annawadi, she takes a series of calculated risks to give her daughter Manju a life far more hopeful than that of other young women such as Meena. What does Asha lose by her efforts to improve her daughter’s life chances? What does she gain? Were Asha’s choices understandable to you, in the end?

5. The author has said elsewhere that while the book brings to light serious injustices, she believes there is also hope on almost every single page: in the imaginations, intelligence and courage of the people she writes about. What are the qualities of a child like Sunil that might flourish in a society that did a better job of recognizing his capacities?

6. When we think of corruption, the examples tend to be drawn from big business or top levels of government. The kind of corruption Behind the Beautiful Forevers show us is often described as “petty”. Do you agree with that characterization of the corruption Annawadians encounter in their daily lives? Why might such corrruption be on the increase as India grows wealthier as a nation?

7. Does Asha have a point when she argues that something isn’t wrong if the powerful people say that it’s right? How does constant exposure to corruption change a person’s internal understanding of right and wrong?

8. Shortly before Abdul is sent to juvenile jail, a major newspaper runs a story about the facility headlined: “Dongri Home is a Living Hell.” Abdul’s experience of Dongri is more complex, though. How does being wrenched away from his work responsibilities at Annawadi change his understandings of the hardships of other people? Are terms like liberty and freedom understood differently by people who live in different conditions?

9. Fatima’s neighbors view her whorling rages, like her bright lipsticks, as free comic entertainments. How has her personality been shaped by the fact that she has been defined since birth by her disability—very literally named by it? Zehrunusa waivers between sympathy for and disapproval of her difficult neighbor. In the end, did you?

10. Zehrunisa remembers a time when every slumdweller was roughly equal in his or her misery, and competition between neighbors didn’t get so out of hand. Abdul doesn’t know whether or not to believe her account of a gentler past. Do you believe it? Might increased hopes for a better life have a dark as well as a bright side?

11. Many Annawadians—Hindu, Muslim, and Christian—spend less time in religious observance than they did when they were younger, and a pink temple on the edge of the sewage lake goes largely unused. In a time of relative hope and constant improvisation for the slumdwellers, why might religious practice be diminishing? What role does religious faith still play in the slumdwellers’ lives?

12. Who do you think had the best life in the book, and why?

13. In the Author’s Note Katherine Boo emphasizes the volatility of an age in which capital moves quickly around the planet, government supports decline, and temporary work proliferates. Had the author followed the families of Annawadi for only a few weeks or months, would you have come away with a different understanding of the effects of that volatility? Does uncertainty about their homes and incomes change how Annawadians view their neighbors? Does economic uncertainty affect relationships where you live?

14. At one point in the book, Abdul takes to heart the moral of a Hindu myth related by The Master: Allow your flesh to be eaten by the eagles of the world. Suffer nobly, and you’ll be rewarded in the end. What is the connection between suffering and redemption in this book? What connections between suffering and redemption do you see in your own life? Are the sufferers ennobled? Are the good rewarded in the end?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

Talking to Strangers : What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know

Author: 
Gladwell, Malcolm

Malcolm Gladwell, host of the podcast Revisionist History and #1 bestselling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, David and Goliath, and What the Dog Saw, offers a powerful examination of our interactions with strangers---and why they often go wrong. How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn't true? Talking to Strangers is a classically Gladwellian intellectual adventure, a challenging and controversial excursion through history, psychology, and scandals taken straight from the news. He revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, the suicide of Sylvia Plath, the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal at Penn State University, and the death of Sandra Bland---throwing our understanding of these and other stories into doubt. Something is very wrong, Gladwell argues, with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don't know. And because we don't know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world. In his first book since his #1 bestseller, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell has written a gripping guidebook for troubled times.

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

What story impacted you the most? 

What is a stranger? Does the author define the term?

How do you view strangers? Do you “default to truth?”

Have you ever been deceived by a stranger? What was that experience like?

Should people be prosecuted for being deceived, as in the Sandusky case and the Larry Nassar case?

What problems does the author identify in our society? 

Do you agree with the author’s statement of the problem and assessment of human behavior?

Are the author’s explanations of why things happen sufficient? Do they take into account all factors?

Does the author tell the whole story in his case studies? What’s missing?

What elements regarding power, gender, sexual orientation, or race does this book leave out? What role do these factors play?

Do you think the author achieved his stated goal “to find out how to fix” the “strategies we as a society use to translate one another’s words and intentions?”

What does our future as a society look like? Does this book change the way you will behave?

Has this book changed the way you see strangers? Has it changed the way you see yourself?

How has Talking to Strangers affected your views on what happened with Sandra Bland? What do you think about her story as the main focus of the book?

Bossypants

Author: 
Fey, Tina

Before Liz Lemon, before "Weekend Update," before "Sarah Palin," Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.

She has seen both these dreams come true.

At last, Tina Fey's story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon -- from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we've always suspected: you're no one until someone calls you bossy.

Discussion Guide: 

1. Readers and reviewers are all over the map on Bossypants: some see it as a revealing memoir, others as an act of concealment, revealing very little of her personal life. Where do you stand on Fey's book? Is the book a memoir...or a comedy book filled with one-liners. Is it humorous...or insightful...or neither? Do you want more? Or does it leave you satisfied?

2. Speaking of one-liners, which ones do you find funny or, perhaps, insightful? Talk about the lines that tickled your funny bone...or others that struck the philosopher in you.

3. Fey has never been afraid to poke fun at female vulnerability...or to twist it. How does she do that here? Do you appreciate her take on the feminine? What matters most to Fey about being a woman? What matters most to you—whether you're a woman...or a man?

4. Which essay pieces do you find most engaging or provocative—the women's magazine parody, the "prayer" for her daughter, the pretend facts-of-life brochure, or the satirical "me time" for parents?

5. How have Fey's growing-up years shaped her? Does she devote time (and ink) telling us? If not, why not?

6. Fey takes issue with various comments, by males, that women are not funny. Here is Fey's own comment on that stance:

It's an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don't like something, it is empirically not good. I don't like Chinese food, but I don't write articles trying to prove that it doesn't exist.

Do you agree with her...or are men funnier than women? Is their humor different?

7. Artistically and philosophically speaking, authors tend to explore life's tragedies and the ways in which ordinary individuals cope with sorrow. Yet Fey finds that real life teaches her about comedy. What, then, is funny about life—is it funny? What kind of funny? Have you ever made observations—about people and situations—that could be turned into comedy skits or one-liners?

8. Talk about Fey's how-to advice on improv comedy. How did it prepare her for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock?

9. What's with the book's cover? Why would Fey have given herself hairy, masculine arms?

10. What does Fey tell us about her personal life—her husband, for instance? What do we know about him?

11. What do you think of Tina Fey? Has reading Bossypants altered your view of her? Why or why not?

12. Is Fey really Liz Lemon...or is Liz really Tina Fey? Who wrote this book—Tina or Liz? In other words, are they one in the same?

Killers of the Flower Moon : the Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Author: 
Grann, David

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. Her relatives were shot and poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances.

In this last remnant of the Wild West--where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes like Al Spencer, the "Phantom Terror," roamed--many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll climbed to more than twenty-four, the FBI took up the case. It was one of the organization's first major homicide investigations and the bureau badly bungled the case. In desperation, the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only American Indian agents in the bureau. The agents infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. Based on years of research and startling new evidence, the book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward American Indians that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly compelling, but also emotionally devastating.

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. Trace the "path" by which the Osage Indians eventually landed on the swatch of land in what would become the state of Oklahoma. Talk about their treatment at the hands of the U.S. government and others over the years. What angered or shocked you most?

2. Describe the early days of the Bureau of Investigation, its founding under Theodore Roosevelt, its original purpose, structure and operation, as well as its corruption, ineptness and bungled investigation of the Osage murders.

3. What made young J. Edgar Hoover an unlikely choice to head the Bureau of Investigation? What was his vision for the bureau—why, for instance, a nationalized police force rather than the existing patchwork structure? 4.  How would you describe Tom White? Talk about how he approached the investigation into the Osage murders? When he solved the crime, were you surprised by the identity of the mastermind? Or had you figured it out along the way.

5. Grann writes that "history is a merciless judge." What does he mean by that?

6. Talk about the last 70 pages of the book, in which Grann writes about working with current tribal members to uncover an even deeper conspiracy. By the book's end, what were your feelings about the Osage nation, its history, and its people?

7. What is the significance of the book's title?

8. Does this story have relevance to current events? Are there parallels regarding the Standing Rock Lakota nation and the Keystone pipeline?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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