Non-fiction

The Zookeeper's Wife

Author: 
Ackerman, Diane

A true story—as powerful as Schindler’s List—in which the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.

When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw—and the city’s zoo along with it.

With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen "guests" hid inside the Zabinskis’ villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing, and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital.

Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants—otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes.

With her exuberant prose and exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, Diane Ackerman engages us viscerally in the lives of the zoo animals, their keepers, and their hidden visitors. She shows us how Antonina refused to give in to the penetrating fear of discovery, keeping alive an atmosphere of play and innocence even as Europe crumbled around her. (From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. How does Diane Ackerman's background as a naturalist and a poet inform her telling of this slice of history? Would a historian of World War II have told it differently, and, if so, what might have been left out?

2. Reviews have compared this book to Schindler's List and Hotel Rwanda. How would you compare them?

3. Did this book give you a different impression of Poland during World War II than you had before?

4. Can you imagine yourself in the same circumstances as Jan and Antonina? What would you have done?

5. How would you describe Antonina's relation to animals? To her husband? How does she navigate the various relationships in the book, given the extreme circumstances? Is her default position one of trust or distrust?

6. Do people have a "sixth sense" and how does it relate to "animal instinct"?

7. Some might judge Jan and Antonina guilty of anthropo-morphizing animals and nature. Would you? Why or why not?

8. Can nature be savage or kind—or can only humans embody those qualities? As science and the study of animal behavior and communication teach us more and more about the commonalities between animals and humans, is there still any dividing line between the human and the animal world? If so, how would you describe it?

9. The Nazis had a passion for animals and the natural world. How could Nazi ideology embrace both a love of nature and the mass murder of human beings?

10. The drive to "rewrite the genetic code of the entire planet" is not distinct to Nazism. What similar efforts are alive today? Are there lessons in Jan and Antonina's story for evaluating the benefits and dangers of trying to modify or improve upon nature? Do you see any connection between this story of more than sixty years ago and contemporary environmental issues?

11. Genetic engineering of foodstuffs is highly contentious. So are various reproductive technologies that are now common, such as selecting for—or against—various characteristics when choosing from sperm or egg banks. How would various characters in this book have approached these loaded issues? (Questions from author's website.)

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Author: 
Hillenbrand, Laura
There are 10 or more copies of this title in Large Print: 
yes

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood.

Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit. (From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. Readers and critics alike have described Unbroken as gripping, almost impossible to put down. Was that your experience as well? How do you account for the page-turning quality given the grim subject material? Also, would your reading experience have been different if you didn't know that Zamperini survived? (Or didn't you know the outcome?)

2. Laura Hillenbrand gives us a moving story, one that brings to life the suffering and courage of not just one man but thousands, whose stories are untold. What is it about Hillenbrand's writing that saves her book from becoming mired in bathos and melodrama?

3. What do you admire most about Zamperini? What enables him to survive the plane crash and POW ordeal? Does he possess special strengths—personal or physical? Did his training in track, for instance, make a difference in his resilience?

4. How do the POW captives help one another survive? How are they able to communicate with one another? What devices do Zamperini and others use not only to survive but to maintain sanity?

5. What do you find most horrifying about Zamperini's captivity?

6. Does this book make you wonder at mankind's capacity for cruelty? What accounts for it—especially on the part of the Japanese, a highly cultured and civilized society? (The same question, of course, has been applied to the Nazis.)

7. Hillenbrand devotes time to the difficulty of veterans' re-entering life after the war. She says, "there was no one right way to peace; each man had to find his own path." What is Zamperini's path? How does his conversion under Billy Graham help him? What role does his wife, Cynthia, play?

8. Follow-up to Question 7: Why, after World War II, did the medical profession fail to acknowledge Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? After all, this was the mid-20th century, and psychiatry was a fairly established discipline. Plus, the horrors of World War I were only one generation behind. What took so long?

9. Unbroken is a classic inspirational story, but it lies somewhat on the surface, offering little in the way of psychological depth. Do you wish there were more instrospection in Zamperini's account? Or do you feel this story is rich enough as it is?

(Questions by LitLovers.)

Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog

Author: 
Grogan, John

Is it possible for humans to discover the key to happiness through a bigger-than-life, bad-boy dog? Just ask the Grogans. John and Jenny were just beginning their life together. They were young and in love, with not a care in the world. Then they brought home Marley, a wiggly yellow furball of a puppy. Life would never be the same.

Marley grew into a barreling, ninety-seven-pound streamroller of a Labrador retriever. He crashed through screen doors, gouged through drywall, and stole women's undergarments. Obedience school did no good—Marley was expelled. But just as Marley joyfully refused any limits on his behavior, his love and loyalty were boundless, too. Marley remained a model of devotion, even when his family was at its wit's end.

Unconditional love, they would learn, comes in many forms. Marley & Me is John Grogan's funny, unforgettable tribute to this wonderful, wildly neurotic Lab and the meaning he brought to their lives. (From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

 

1. What does John Grogan suggest our pets teach us about life and living? What lessons can we learn from them?

2. What is it that allows 4-legged creatures to burrow into our human affection? Why does this cross-species devotion exist —on our part and theirs? What do humans, in particular, gain from it?

3. For cat lovers, do humans have the same relationship with or devotion to—and from—their feline pets?

4. What parts of the book did you find particularly funny, even laugh-out-loud (LOL) funny?

5. Did you find Marley endearing, annoying...or what?

6. Use your discussion for personal stories and Show & Tell photographs. Everyone's got a great story to share!

(Questions by LitLovers.)

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

Author: 
Quindlen, Anna

In this irresistible memoir, the New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize Anna Quindlen writes about looking back and ahead—and celebrating it all—as she considers marriage, girlfriends, our mothers, faith, loss, all the stuff in our closets, and more.

As she did in her beloved New York Times columns, and in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Quindlen says for us here what we may wish we could have said ourselves. Using her past, present, and future to explore what matters most to women at different ages, Quindlen talks about. . .

Marriage: “A safety net of small white lies can be the bedrock of a successful marriage. You wouldn’t believe how cheaply I can do a kitchen renovation.”

Girlfriends: “Ask any woman how she makes it through the day, and she may mention her calendar, her to-do lists, her babysitter. But if you push her on how she really makes it through her day, she will mention her girlfriends. Sometimes I will see a photo of an actress in an unflattering dress or a blouse too young for her or with a heavy-handed makeup job, and I mutter, ‘She must not have any girlfriends.’ ”

Stuff: “Here’s what it comes down to, really: there is now so much stuff in my head, so many years, so many memories, that it’s taken the place of primacy away from the things in the bedrooms, on the porch. My doctor says that, contrary to conventional wisdom, she doesn’t believe our memories flag because of a drop in estrogen but because of how crowded it is in the drawers of our minds. Between the stuff at work and the stuff at home, the appointments and the news and the gossip and the rest, the past and the present and the plans for the future, the filing cabinets in our heads are not only full, they’re overflowing.”

Our bodies: “I’ve finally recognized my body for what it is: a personality-delivery system, designed expressly to carry my character from place to place, now and in the years to come. It’s like a car, and while I like a red convertible or even a Bentley as well as the next person, what I really need are four tires and an engine.”

Parenting: “Being a parent is not transactional. We do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor: We are good parents not so they will be loving enough to stay with us but so they will be strong enough to leave us.”

From childhood memories to manic motherhood to middle age, Quindlen uses the events of her own life to illuminate our own. Along with the downsides of age, she says, can come wisdom, a perspective on life that makes it satisfying and even joyful. Candid, funny, moving, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is filled with the sharp insights and revealing observations that have long confirmed Quindlen’s status as America’s laureate of real life. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. In the opening lines of the book, Anna Quindlen says about the arc of her life: “First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone, and became her.” Looking back over your own life, do you identify with Quindlen’s experience? Do you think you’ve “invented” yourself as you’ve grown older, or become who you always were? And how would you differentiate between the two?
 
2. Anna Quindlen loves everything about books—from the musty smell of old bookstores, to the excuse reading provides to be alone. Books, she writes, “make us feel as though we’re connected, as though the thoughts and feelings we believe are singular and sometimes nutty are shared by others, that we are all more alike than different.” What do you most love about books? Be specific: Is it the entertainment, the escape, the sense of connection? Something else entirely?
 
3. Anna writes hilariously about the small white lies—the cost of a kitchen renovation, for example—that can keep a marriage healthy. Do you agree? If so, fess up: Which of your innocent fibs do you think has spared your relationship the most grief?
 
4. Anna tells her children that “the single most important decision they will make…[is] who they will marry.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
 
5. Anna calls girlfriends “the joists that hold up the house of our existence,” and believes that they become more and more important to us as we grow older. Have you found this to be true? If so, why do you think that’s the case? What do you think close girlfriends offer that a spouse cannot?
 
6. The difference between male friendships and female friendships, Anna writes, is that “all male phone conversations were designed to make plans,” while phone calls between girlfriends “were intended to deconstruct the world.” What other differences between male and female friendships does Anna illuminate in the chapter “Girlfriends”? What other differences and/or similarities do you think exist between male friendships and female friendships?
 
7. In the chapter “Older”, Anna writes: “Perhaps if we think of life as a job, most of us finally feel that after fifty we’ve gotten good at it.” Do you think you’ve gotten good at life? What aspects do you think you could improve? And better yet, which have you nailed?
 
8. “One of the amazing, and frightening things about growing older,” Anna writes, is that you become aware of “how many times it could have gone a different way, the mistakes that you averted, not because you were wise, perhaps, but because you were lucky.” Can you think of an example in your own life, of when you might have gone another way? How might things have been different? Are you grateful you ended up on the path you’re on?
 
9. Anna writes about our attitude toward aging and our looks: “Women were once permitted a mourning period for their youthful faces; it was called middle age. Now we don’t even have that. Instead we have the science of embalming disguised as grooming.” How does she think that our society’s love of youth, and youthful looks, affect the way women lead their lives? Do you agree?
 
10. At her age, Anna writes, she’s stopped trying to figure out why she does what she does. “I fear heights, love liver and onions, prefer big dogs over small ones, work best between the hours of ten and two. Who knows why? Who cares?” What are some of the quirks you’ve stopped fighting, the eccentricities you’ve come to embrace in yourself? In your friends, your family?
 
11. “Those little stories we tell ourselves,” Anna writes, “make us what we are, and, too often, what we’re not. … I can’t cook. I’m not smart. I’m a bad driver. I’m no jock.” Anna recounts her own story of overcoming one of these “little stories,” and doing something she once thought impossible: a headstand. Do you have “little stories you tell yourself” about who you are, and what you can do? Are there times when you, or a friend or family member, have overcome one of these “mythic” obstacles and done something you thought impossible?
 
12. Anna calls her body a “personality-delivery system.” She doesn’t require a “hood ornament”—what she really needs “are four tires and an engine.” Do you find this notion comforting? Or do you feel appearance is more important than that? Discuss.
 
13. Anna draws some meaningful distinctions between parenting young children and parenting young adults. As she puts it, “It is one thing to tell a ten-year-old she cannot watch an R-rated movie; it is another to watch her, at age 30, preparing to marry a man you are not convinced will make her happy.” What do you think are some of the biggest challenges in parenting young and older children? Some of the greatest joys? What has parenting taught you about yourself?
 
14. The “alchemy of parenthood” is watching “so much scut work”—dinners, sports, school, doctors’ offices—manifest itself in “unique and remarkable human beings.” Why do you think it’s so difficult to see the end product on the horizon—the “Sistine Chapel,” as Anna writes—during the day-to-day routines? Or, do you think there are moments within the daily routines when parents can catch glimpses of the larger thing they are helping to build?
 
15. In the beginning of Part I, Anna’s daughter asks her what message she would give to her 22-year-old self. Anna has two answers: first, that her younger self should “stop listening to anyone who wanted to smack her down,” and second, that the bad news was that “she knew nothing, really, about anything that mattered. Nothing at all.” Did this advice ring true to you, too? If you were to give a message to your younger self, what would you say?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

Author: 
Larson, Erik

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
 
A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.

But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
 
Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming—yet wholly sinister—Goebbels, In the Garden of Beastslends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror. (From the publisher.)

Genre: 
Discussion Guide: 

1. William Dodd went to Germany believing that Hitler would have a positive influence on Germany. Why were so many at first enamored of Nazism and willing "to give Hitler everything he wants"?

2. How would you describe German society at the time of the Dodd Family's arrival in Berlin? Talk about the ways in which Germany appeared to be a modern, civilized society...and, of course, the way in which that appearance was at odds with reality.

3. What was it that made Dodd begin to suspect the rumors he had been hearing about Nazi brutality were true?

4. Why did Dodd's—and numerous others'—warnings about Hitler fall on indifferent ears in the US? What was the primary concern of the US in its relationship with Germany? Was the US stance one of purposeful ignorance...or of sheer disbelief?

5. Did America's own anti-semitism play any role in dismissing the growing chorus of concern ?

6. What do you think of William Dodd? What about him do you find admirable? Were you mildly amused or impressed by his sense of frugality?

7. What was Dodd's reputation among the "old hands" at the State Department? What role does class play in how he was viewed by his diplomatic peers?

8. What about Martha? What do you find in her character to admire...or not? Did she purposely allow herself to be blinded by Udet and Rudolf Diels...or was she truly dazzled by their charms? Her promiscuity could have made her a serious liability. Were you surprised that her parents seemed untroubled by her multiple love affairs, or that they didn't try to reign in her behavior?

9. How does Erik Larson portray Hitler in his book? Does he humanize him...or present him as a monster? How does he depict Goebbels and Goering...and other higher-ups in the Nazi party?

10. How does the fact that you know the eventual outcome of Nazi Germany affect the way you experience the book? Does foreknowledge heighten...or lessen the story's suspense. Either way...why?

11. What were events/episodes you find most chilling in Larson's account of the rise of Nazism?

12. What have learned about the period leading up the World War II that you hadn't known? What surprised you? What confirmed things you already knew?

13. Is this a good read? If you've read other books by Larson, how does this compare?

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

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