“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” by Matthew Desmond

It doesn’t happen every week (or every month, or even year), but every once in a while a book comes along that changes the national conversation… Evicted looks to be one of those books.
Pamela Paul, Ed. – New York Times Book Review

“Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”
― Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Last April, Matthew Desmond won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction for “Evicted.”

Evicted-Book Cover

Discussion Questions:

1. Have you ever been evicted or do you know anyone who has? If the answer is yes, what was your/their experience like, and how has it affected your/their life?

2. What was your experience reading Evicted? Were you surprised by what you learned? Was any particular scene or character’s story emotionally painful for you to witness?

3. Many people have very codified perceptions of “people who get evicted” and suspect that those people are largely responsible—through bad decision making—for their circumstances. Did you feel this way before reading Evicted? Why or why not? Did your opinions change after reading the book? If so, how?

4. In Evicted, author Matthew Desmond takes a narrative approach to an important topic and follows the stories of several real people. Which person’s story were you most drawn to and why?

5. 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 their property? What risks do they take? Do you sympathize with Sherrena or not?

6. On Larraine and her late boyfriend Glen’s anniversary, she spends her monthly allocation of food stamps on “two lobster tails, shrimp, king crab legs, salad, and lemon meringue pie” (page 218). Can you relate to her decision? How might you have judged her differently without knowing the backstory that Desmond provides?

7. Because they have children, Arleen, Vanetta, and Pam and Ned frequently find themselves shut out of available housing and resort to lies in order to secure a place to live. Are these lies justified? If you have children, how far would you go to shelter your family?

8. Although eviction is the central issue in Evicted, affordable housing interacts intimately with many other social issues. For example: Do parents who have trouble finding/providing safe housing for their children deserve to have their children taken away and put in foster care? Would affordable housing make it easier for addicts and recovering addicts (such as Scott) to enroll in programs that increase chances of rehabilitation? What other major issues can you think of that eviction affects, whether in this book or in the world in general?

9. How does race factor into the types of struggles faced by the individuals profiled in Evicted? What about being a woman? Or a single parent?

10. Did reading Evicted inspire you to want to help others in positions similar to those of the people in the book? If so, how do you think you might get involved? (Hint: Visit JustShelter.org to learn more about groups and organizations in your local area who are already fighting the good fight!)

11. Why do you think Crystal made the decision to let Arleen and her sons stay until they found another residence? How did tenants such as Crystal and Arleen rely on friends and extended kin networks to get by? Did this do anything to lift them out of poverty or distress? What limitations do these short-term relationships have? Why do you think agencies such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children seek to limit kin dependence?

12. Landlords repeatedly turned down Pam and Ned’s rental applications because they have children. Why? Do you think families with children should have 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?

13. 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?

14. Do you think housing should be a right in America?

15. Many Americans still believe that the typical low-income family lives in public housing. Unfortunately, the opposite is true; only 1 in 4 families who qualify for any kind of housing assistance receive it. In Evicted, Desmond proposes a universal housing voucher program. What do you think of that idea?

16. The government spends much more money on homeowner tax benefits for affluent families than on housing assistance to poor families. Is this situation justified? How would you address this issue?

About the Author:

Evicted-Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond is an American sociologist and urban ethnographer. He is currently the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and Co-Director of the Justice and Poverty Project. The author of several books, including the award-winning book, “On the Fireline,” and “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Desmond was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 2015 for his work on poverty in America.

“Shoe Dog,” by Phil Knight

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”

“Give up doesn’t mean stopping. Don’t ever stop”

“Life is growth. You grow or you die”

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight takes us through Knight’s tumultuous journey in creating Nike. From importing shoes from Japan, to designing the first pair of Nikes, to keeping up with growth, this book shows the struggles and sacrifices it takes to build a business.

Discussion:

1).  Consider these episodes Knight reveals and ponder the ethical questions they present:

  • Example #1. Lying about having a company he doesn’t have yet:

In his very first meeting with Onitsuka, the Japanese company manufacturing the Tiger shoes which Knight goes on to distribute, he lies about having a company. Having walked in with no more than the information he prepared for a Stanford GSB class project, Knight delivers his presentation and makes up a company name on the spot which he doesn’t have.  “Blue Ribbon,” I blurted. “Gentlemen, I represent Blue Ribbon Sports of Portland, Oregon.”

  • Example #2. Lying about an office he doesn’t have yet:

When a competing distributor of Tiger shoes, who Knight dubs ‘The Marlboro Man’ begins to compete against them with national ads, Knight flies out to Japan to meet with Onitsuka again. Faced with the concern that the Japanese company wants a larger U.S. Distributor, he lies again.

Onitsuka wanted for its U.S. distributor someone bigger, more established, a firm that could handle the workload. A firm with offices on the East Coast. “But, but,” I spluttered, “Blue Ribbon does have offices on the East Coast.”  The lie is so successful that he wins the deal.

  • Example #3. Stealing information from his opponent

Over time, the relationship with Onitsuka begins to sour and Knight suspects that Kitami, the export manager, is talking to his competition. In order to verify this he steals valuable information during a visit to his offices.  The moment he was out of sight I jumped from behind my desk. I opened his briefcase and rummaged through and took out what looked like the folder he’d been referring to. I slid it under my desk blotter, then jumped behind my desk and put my elbows on the blotter.

  • Example #4.  Dating your student

As an adjunct professor, Knights meets and starts dating “Penny.”  They eventually get married and still are today.

shoe-dog-phil-and-penny-knight.jpg

Phil and Penny Knight

2).  Consider these five leadership takeaways from Shoe Dog:

  • Form a great team:

  • Never Give Up:

  • Fake it Till You Make It:
  • Travel the World in Your Early 20s:
  • Get Lucky:

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     3)  Reviews on Goodreads claim this book is, e.g., “one is the best business memoir I ever read,”  Do you agree?  Why or why not.

Review of “Shoe Dog” by Bill Gates: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Shoe-Dog

Phil Knight Discusses “Shoe Dog”: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/nike-creator-phil-knight-discusses-book-shoe-dog-38665783

About the Author:

One of the world’s most influential business executives, Phil Knight is the founder of Nike, Inc. He served as CEO of the company from 1964 to 2004, as board chairman through 2016, and he is currently Chairman Emertius. He lives in Oregon with his wife, Penny.Shoe Dog-Author Image

“The Power of Myth,” by Joseph Campbell (Author), Bill Moyers (Collaborator)

“The symbols of mythology and legend are all around  us, embedded in the fabric of our daily lives, and  the Moyers-Campbell dialogues are a welcome guide  to recognizing and understanding their meanings.”  — Cincinnati Post.

Power of Myth Angel

Power of Myth Cover

Quotes from “The Power of Myth”:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

“I always feel uncomfortable when people speak about ordinary mortals because I’ve never met an ordinary man, woman or child.”

“Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.”

“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.”

“The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”

“Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.”

Power of Myth-Follow Your Bliss

Discussion Questions:

Power of Myth-Tiresias

Tiresias strikes two snakes with a stick, and is transformed into a woman by Hera. Engraving by Johann Ulrich Kraus c. 1690. Taken from Die Verwandlungen des Ovidii (The Metamorphoses of Ovid).

1. Myths reveal spiritual truths about the world. Marriage demands a shift in our spiritual identity and view of the self: “[Marriage is] a purely mythological image signifying the sacrifice of the visible entity for a transcendent good” (p.7).

Summarize Campbell’s critiques of modern-day marriages and how they differ from true “spiritual” marriages.

  • transcend — to travel beyond a boundary (physical, psychological, spiritual, etc.)
Power of Myth Theseus

Roman Mosiac: Theseus & Minotauros.  Pompeii, Italy

Power of Myth-The Heros

The Heroes, Watercolor by William Russel Flint, 1912.

2. Campbell explains that modern life is “demythologized” (p.11), lacking the rituals that connect us to our human condition. Lacking rituals that connect the individual to the culture, people are left to their own devices to make sense of the world, often placing the individual interpretation of life against that of the society. “America,” states Campbell, “has no ethos” (p.10). Instead of stories that convey “the wisdom of life” (p.11), we have lawyers and professionals who focus on specialized issues, but are often ignoring the greater reality.

What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology?

  • Rollo May — a 20th century American existentialist psychologist
  • Ethos — “the understood, unwritten rules by which people live” (p.10)
  • Alexander de Tocqueville — A French political thinker and historian who visited America and commented on the roles of individuals and their nations
  • Heinrich Zimmer — a 20th century art historian who explored the differences between Western and Indian art
Power of Myth Mechanical Icarus

Mechanical Icarus

3. Campbell and Moyers discuss the impact of films as potential replacements for myths.Campbell questions whether films can replace mythology because the screen-writers often lack mythological understanding. When they do, such as George Lucas in creating Star Wars, the mythological heroes and archetypes can be revealed effectively to a modern audience that lacks the references.

Why is it that films affect us? Why may the experience be more moving in a theatre as opposed to streaming it at home? Why does a film actor assume the “condition of a god” in a movie theatre but only “celebrity”status on television?

  • Douglas Fairbanks — an early 20th century silent film actor who portrayed swaggering, sword-wielding heroes, such as Robin Hood, Don Juan, and assorted pirates
  • Pablo Picasso — 20th century Spanish painter who invented the art form known as cubism (in avant garde art form that depicts images as broken pieces depicting its subject from a variety of viewpoints)
  • Faust — a protagonist in many 16th-19th century German stories who sells his soul to the devil
  • Mephistopheles —an alternate identity for Satan, chief of the demons, developed in Renaissance literature

    Power of Myth-Mephistoles

    Mephistopheles (demon or devil).  Mr. Shitana’s attire and manner achieved a “Mephistophelian effect.”  Cards on the Table, by Agatha Christie (1936).

4. Campbell explores the symbolism on the reverse of the dollar bill and how it reflected the Age of Reason (sometimes called The Age of Enlightenment) from which the nation was born. Take one out of your wallet and examine it.

Are the symbols on the reverse side of the dollar bill mythological?

Power of Myth-First Great Seal

  • Deist — one who follows Deism, the belief in God through reason and knowledge, not through revelation or holy books; Deism often promotes the concept of the “Divine Clock Winder,” suggesting that God created the universe, but is now sitting back and watching the creatures of creation live on their own terms; many of the Founding Fathers were Deists
  • Angelus — a prayer in the Catholic Church that recites “Ave, Maria” (“Hail, Mary”) three times in its chorus
  • manifest — “to manifest” means “to show, understand, demonstrate, or embody something clearly”; therefore, a manifestation is the object that contains this knowledge or reality

5. Campbell describes the differences between our society and the mythological cultures, suggesting that our world view projected from the Bible is out of date with the realities of the modern world discovered through reason. Myths can transcend time and place, but cultural dogma cannot. The world has changed enormously in the past 3,000 years, but the Western religions are locked in the past. The letter from Chief Seattle illustrates the difference in world view between modern societies and the mythological mind set: “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.”

How do we live without myths? Why does Campbell say that America is moving too quickly to become mythologized? What are the four functions of mythology? Which of these four still operate in America today?

  • Paleolithic moral order — “Paleolithic” means “Stone Age,” reflecting the hinters/gatherers and earlyagricultural societies that used myths to communicate natural truths
  • Chief Seattle — a Suquamish Indian chief near Puget Sound who delivered a stunning speech after he signed the Nisqually Treaty in 1846; the subsequent war led to the death and internment of the Native Americans in that region by the U.S. government

Power of Myth-Chief Seattle

6. Campbell explains that all humans live through the same stages of life and they recognize universal images (archetypes), such as the serpent and the bird. Myths help us to see the God inside the Man; that universal truths exist inside our subconscious brains (dreams) that are interpreted in terms of the individual experience. Individual dreams tend to reflect the public mythology; when they don’t, only a hero can bring these two views into accord.

Why do myths reflect what we know inside is true? Why does Campbell call myth “the public dream”?

Theodore Roethke — a 20th century American poet

  • Christ — an ancient Indo-European term meaning “the anointed one” or “covered in oil”; related words include “grime,” “grease,” and “cream”
  • Shiva — the Hindu god of destruction and part of the Hindu Triad: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva
  • Sigmund Freud — a 19th/20th century Austrian neurologist who established psychoanalysis (the study of the interplay between the conscious and subconscious levels of the human brain)
  • Carl Jung — a 20th century Swiss psychiatrist, pioneer of dream analysis, and the founder of analytical psychology (the study of the forces and motivations of human behavior)
Power of Myth-Divine Dance of Shiva

The Divine Dance of Shiva

7. Campbell discusses how myths need to be read metaphorically, not literally. Myths are written in poetry, not prose, which is intended to allow the reader access to the unknown — that which escapes the confines of language. Campbell examines a few important Christian concepts through the mythological perspective, which existed during the first few centuries of Christianity, specifically with the Gnostics.

What is a metaphor and how does it operate in religion?

  • Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich, or also Freiherr von Hardenberg) — an 18th century Romantic author and philosopher who sought to describe the process by which man can establish harmony with Nature
  • Gospel of Thomas — one of many Christian Apocryphal texts that were excluded from the Bible when it was assembled by Pope Damasus at the Roman Council in 382 CE; these Apocrypa were often rejected by Roman bishops because they revealed Jesus more as man than God, as well as a mystic whose teachings were more in accord with mythology and the concepts of the sacred feminine
  • Gnosticism — Gnostics were early Christians who believed in “gnosis,” or the awareness of God through personal experience, as well as a dualistic divinity (light and dark divine forces in conflict with each other); they were persecuted and discredited by the early Roman Church
  • purgatory — a state/place between heaven and hell where the soul is purged of its sins in order to ascend into heaven; a main setting of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso); there is no mention of purgatory in the Bible, and the Catholic Church recently has backed away from this concept
Power of Myth-Noah's Ark

Noah’s Ark, by T. Poulakis after engraving of J. Sadeler (17th century).

8. Campbell discusses the Santa Claus myth and how it operates to form relationships between parents and children. But the adult world ponders evil as well as good, so myths provide spiritual guidance for us to accept the dualities of life — both the bad with the good. We contribute and receive good and evil by participating in the game of life. Therefore, we must come to understand how our world of dualities operates, and to learn to avoid judging the world based on our bias of one duality over another. Myths teach us that. Campbell relates some tales from the Hindu “Rig Veda” and “The Upanishads,” high spiritual works.

What is the metaphor of Santa Clause? Why do myths teach us to not judge against evil?

  • Thanatos — The Greek personification of death (Roman Mors). He was the son of Night and the brother of Sleep, and his presence was fearsome. The Romans depicted him as a cherub. Freud’s theory of the Death instinct hypothesized that humans have two primal drives in opposition: Eros (lust, desire for pleasure) and Thanatos (the drive to end the struggle of life and to pass quietly into the grave).

Power of Myth-Upanishads

Power of Myth-Thanatos

Thanatos, Hypnos, Hermes, and the body of Sarpedon, Athenian red-figure calyx krater (a handled vase-like container), circa 6th B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art

9. Campbell describes his experiences inside ancient temple caves that depict mythological rites on the walls and ceilings. Acting as today’s cathedrals do, the cave places the participant inside another world from which to contemplate the mysteries of life. Girls are initiated into these mysteries by Nature herself, bringing the first menstruation, but boys must voluntarily be initiated into manhood through their societies. This is demonstrated by the stories of Australian aboriginal rites of manhood.

How are men and women initiated into adulthood differently? Why was there “no chance of relapsing back to boyhood” after participating in the aboriginal ritual?

  • William Wordsworth — A prominent English Romantic poet (1770-1850) who initiated the Romantic Age with his publication of Lyrical Ballads, poems that promoted the beauty and power of Nature
  • Bushmen — hunter/gatherer tribes from southern Africa
  • Samurai — feudal military noblemen from pre-industrial Japan; the name means “those who serve in close attendance to nobility”; they wielded the katana, the Japanese long sword
  • Martin Buber — An Austrian-born Jewish philosopher (1878-1965) famous for his essay Ich und Du (I and Thou) that examines the means of connecting with that which is different from us
  • “I,” “Thou,” and “It” — Buber’s philosophical construct that explains that the self (the “I”) is always understood in relation to the other, and that our relationship with the other must be understood either as an extension of the self (“I-Thou”) or as separate from the self (“I-It”)

10. Joseph Campbell was raised Catholic in New York City, and he witnessed many procedural changes to the rituals in his lifetime. In the past, rituals helped people to grow and develop into responsible members of their societies and their environments, but now these rituals have been reduced to catch phrases and symbolic spectacles that do not thrust the recipient into a new mindset, unless they choose to go there voluntarily. In short, Campbell argues that today’s Western rituals are a lot of show, but offer little substance, because they have been “dumbed down” and sterilized.

Why does Campbell criticize the Catholic Church for changing the delivery of the Mass from Latin to English in the mid-20th century? Why does Campbell claim that many of our rituals are now “dead”?

Power of Myth-Wheel of Life

Buddhist Painting: Wheel of Life

Joseph Campbell’s Influence on Star Wars:

Power of Myth Hero's Journey

For fun:

My Sweet Lord.  George Harrison wrote this song to serve as his accolade to the Hindu god Krishna as well as a call to abandon religious sectarianism as evidenced by his deliberate blending of the Hebrew word “hallelujah” with chants of “Hare Krishna” and Vedic prayer.

About the Author:

Power of Myth-Author Image

Joseph John Campbell was an American mythology professor, writer, and orator best known for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL’S BOOKS
Average rating for all of his books on Amazon: 4.3 · 201,349 ratings · 5,158 reviews

  • The Power of Myth 
  • The Hero With a Thousand Faces The Hero With a Thousand Faces
  • Myths to Live By
  • Primitive Mythology (The Ma… Primitive Mythology (The Masks of God, #1)
  • The Hero’s Adventure: Power… The Hero’s Adventure: Power of Myth 1
  • Oriental Mythology (The Mas… Oriental Mythology (The Masks of God, #2)
  • Pathways to Bliss: Mytholog… Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation
  • A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living
  • Occidental Mythology (The M… Occidental Mythology (The Masks of God, #3)
  • Creative Mythology (The Mas… Creative Mythology (The Masks of God, #4)

“Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” by Adam Winkler

“A succinct and fascinating introduction to the legal and historical issues at the heart of the gun debate.”

–Eric Arnesen, professor of history at George Washington University and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars”

Gunfight CoverGunfight-We the People

“Federal gun control of the twentieth century has made machine guns unusual and uncommon, while the absence of serious restrictions on the availability of handguns has given people the opportunity to choose them for self-defense. The scope of the Second Amendment’s protections was not, in other words, defined by the original meaning of the Constitution. The protections were shaped instead by the marketplace choices of twentieth-century consumers, made within the confines of contemporary government regulation.”
― Adam Winkler, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America

 

Gunfight-CartoonCarsDriveDrunkGunfight Cartoon-Christmas Story Gunfight-Cartoon Congress

 

The Case:

Author Winkler explores the Second Amendment through the lens of history and the landmark gun-control case, District of Columbia v. Heller, 544 U.S. 270 (2008)).

D.C. v. Heller opinion link.

See also this animated explantion of the Heller opinion:

Discussion Questions:

1. In the book’s preface, Winkler states his goal is to demonstrate that two ideas—the right to bear arms and gun control—are not mutually exclusion propositions. In fact, historically, America has always had both. Did Winker accomplish his goal?

2. In 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court recognized the Second Amendment protected an individual right to bear arms thereby abandoning the militia theory. Winkler structures his book around this case and its individual players interrupting the story at carefully measured intervals to provide historical and legal digressions on gun rights and control. Was this an effective way to push the narrative?

3. Americans enacted gun control laws in the colonial era, at the founding, in the antebellum South, in the Wild West, during the Prohibition Era, and after World War II. Even towns on the western frontier enacted ordinances that required visitors to hand over their guns to public officials for storage for the duration of their visits. The towns sought to create conditions of law and order to attract investment, not Hollywood-style spectacles involving shoot-outs. Gun control efforts have a dark side including being the ostensible basis for the formation of the Klu Klux Klan. Did the historical evolution of gun control laws surprise you? Change your feelings about them?

4. An interesting aspect of Winkler’s book is that he uses history to take on “extremists” on both sides—the gun rights advocate who believes even modest gun control violate American traditions and gun control adherents (“Gun Grabbers”) who fail to appreciate that objective data suggests that gun control measures do not reduce crime. Did Winkler convince you that zealots on either side of the debate are misguided? Did he change your position on gun control?

5. One of the strongest arguments against gun control laws is that realization that the genie is out of the bottle. As of 2015, it is estimated that there are 300 million firearms in the United States. Firearms, if properly taken care of, will remain operational for literally decades. Winkler submits that it would be impossible, especially in the face of an adamantly opposed segment of the population, to confiscate existing firearms. In essence, firearms are here to stay. Do you agree that this reality poses an substantial obstacle to effective gun control legislation? What, if anything, can be done to reduce the existing stockpile of firearms? Should anything be done?

Gunfight-Gun and Drug Control

6. Walker suggests the now deceased Justice Scalia, the author of the majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller, wrote an opinion that was politically practical, but jurisprudentially questionable. For instance, the opinion claims that “long-standing” prohibitions on gun ownership, such as felon in possession laws, would not be impacted. Yet the federal felon in possession law is not that “longstanding” first appearing in the Federal Firearms Act of 1938. Justice Scalia, a long time critic of judicial rule-making and originalist, appears to have done just that—created a practical, but not originalist-based, interpretation of the Second Amendment. Is the D.C. v. Heller opinion a prime example of “judicial activism,” an activity which conservatives clam to adhor? Is judicial activism really just a label put on any opinion with which a constituency disagrees?

Gunfight-Supreme Court Decision Breakdown

7. Finally, did you think the book was a balanced, unbiased look at the history and politics of firearms in America?

Gunfight-Map

The Author:

Gunfight-Adam Winkler

Adam Winkler is a professor of constitutional law at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been featured on CNN and in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Republic. A columnist for the Daily Beast, he lives in Los Angeles.

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo.

behind-the-beautiful-forevers-alternate-cover

“A book of extraordinary intelligence [and] humanity . . . beyond groundbreaking.”—Junot Díaz, The New York Times Book Review
 
“Reported like Watergate, written like Great Expectations, and handily the best international nonfiction in years.”New York

From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities.

behind-the-beautiful-forevers-girl

“What you don’t want is always going to be with you
What you want is never going to be with you
Where you don’t want to go, you have to go
And the moment you think you’re going to live more, you’re going to die”

Literary Awards: Pulitzer Prize Nominee for General Nonfiction (2013), National Book Award for Non-Fiction (2012), Guardian First Book Award Nominee (2012), PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction (2013), Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest (2012), Dayton Literary Peace Prize Nominee for Nonfiction (2013), Ryszard Kapuściński Prize Nominee (2013), NAIBA Book of the Year for Nonfiction (2012), Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction Nominee (2012).

behind-the-beautiful-forevers-annawadiwithairport

Annawadi, India with Airport in View

India Daily Life

Annawadi’s Sewer Lake

behind-the-beautiful-forevers-annawadi
behind-the-beautiful-forevers-annawadi-with-airplane-overhead

The Players:

ABDUL HUSAIN

  • Hussein, has an adolescent son named Abdul. Abdul helps his family modestly by sorting garbage and bringing home scraps, a common practice in the slums.
  • Abdul begins the book as a quiet, hardworking boy. He obeys his parents and lives on a low key.
  • Fatima  immolates herself to try and blame the Husain’s after a disagreement. The police then detain Abdul, his father, and his older sister. Abdul is sent to a juvenile detention center, while his other family is sent to prison.
  • In prison he encounters “The Master” whom he dubs his savior who completely rearranges the view of his life. He is transformed and mesmerized by the “Master”
  • Abdul is a different man in prison, as he doesn’t care about his family or his future anymore, which occupied his every thought before that.
  • He no longer carries the pressure of providing for a family which consumed his life before prison.
behind-the-beautiful-forevers-abdul-from-the-play

Abdul (from the play)

ASHA WAGHEKAR

  • Asha is the mother of Manju. She is the “slum lord” or at least aspires to be. 
  • A slum lord is someone chosen by politicians and police officers to fund the settlement according to the authorities’ interests.
  • Asha grew up in rural poverty.  The 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 in the slum.
  • Asha ultimately falls from power but recovers in the end and gives up politics.
behind-the-beautiful-forevers-asha

Asha

FATIMA

  • The Husain’s neighbor.
  • She is a one-legged crippled woman. Fatima regularly abuses her children. 
  • She is very angry at life because of her crippled body and her family, who ostracizes her. 
  • She sets herself on fire and makes false accusations of attempted murder and abuse about the Husain boys.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Theatre Photocall, Olivier Theatre, London , UK

Fatima fights with Zehrunsia (Abdul’s mother)

MANJU WAGHEKAR

  • Daughter of Asha
  • Hopes to be the first in the slum to get a college education.
  • She objects to her mothers thirst for power and has long talks in the slum bathrooms with her friend Meena (who eventually poisons herself).
behind-the-beautiful-forevers-manju-examines-the-book

Manju Narrating a Passage from the Book (taken on Feb. 28, 2002)

SUNIL & KALU

  • Sunil is a young boy who follows the lead of Abdul and Kalu in the recyclables business and eventually is corrupted by his need for money and begins stealing.
  • By the end of the book however, he stops stealing and finds luck as the recyclables business rises again.
  • Kalu: One of the poorest of Annawadi, a 15-year-old scrap metal thief.
  • He steals from construction sites, which shows how being poor can drive you to corruption.
behind-the-beautiful-forevers-sunil

Sunil on the left, Kalu on the right

Discussion Questions:

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 slum-dwellers 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 city dwellers 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 corruption 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 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? Zehrunsia Husain waivers between sympathy for and disapproval of her difficult neighbor. In the end, did you?

10. Zehrunisa remembers a time when every slum-dweller was roughly equal in his or her misery, and competition between neighbors didn’t get so out of hand. Abdul doesn’t know whether 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 slum-dwellers, why might religious practice be diminishing? What role does religious faith still play in the slum-dwellers’ 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?

Of Interest: For some information on how the main characters are doing since Boo wrote the book, see this interview-http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/interview-with-katherine-boo/article6658707.ece

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Mirchi Husain waits for business

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The Annawadi Lake

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Annawadi from the Air

About the Author: Katherine Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. She learned to report at the alternative weekly, Washington City Paper, after which she worked as a writer and co-editor of The Washington Monthly magazine. Over the years, her reporting from disadvantaged communities has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. For the last decade, she has divided her time between the United States and India, the birthplace of her husband, Sunil Khilnani. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is her first book.

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“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” by Bryan Stevenson

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“Just Mercy,” won the 2015 Carnegie Medal for Best Non-Fiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the NAACP Image Award for Best Non-Fiction.

“The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth.  The opposite of poverty is justice.”

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

-Bryan Stevenson

“Just Mercy” is a powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice.

Introduction just-mercy-jail-cell

• From the 1970s to 2014, the U.S. prison population has increased from 300,000 to 2,300,000; the highest incarceration rate in the world.

• One in every fifteen babies born in 2001 is predicted to spend time in jail. One in three black males born in this century is predicted to be incarcerated.

• The United States has sent a quarter of a million children to adult prisons and jails, some are under the age of twelve.

• The number of women in prison has increased 640 percent in the last thirty years. • Spending on jails and prisons by state and federal governments has risen from $6.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $80 billion in 2014.

• Private prison builders and prison service companies have spent millions of dollars to persuade state and local governments to create new crimes, impose harsher sentences, and keep more people locked up so that they can earn more profits.

• Through his work with the poor and the incarcerated, Stevenson concludes that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.

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Discussion Questions:

1. “Just Mercy” begins with information about Bryan Stevenson growing up poor in a racially segregated community in Delaware. He remembers his grandmother telling him, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close” (p.14). How does Stevenson get close to the incarcerated people he is helping? How does getting close to Walter McMillian affect Stevenson’s life? Can you be an effective criminal lawyer without getting close?

2. Early in the book, Stevenson describes an incident when he was racially profiled and the police searched his car. He wonders, if there had been drugs in his car and he was arrested, would he have been able to convince his attorney that his car was searched illegally? Stevenson says, “Would a judge believe that I’d done nothing wrong? Would they believe someone who was just like me but happened not to be a lawyer? Someone like me who was unemployed and had a criminal record?” (p.44). How does Stevenson’s work shape his understanding of the justice system? Do his experiences make him more or less empathetic to those in the justice system? Is it surprising that someone whose 86-year-old grandfather was murdered would work so tirelessly against the death penalty?

3. As a result of his extensive work with low income and incarcerated people, Stevenson concludes that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice” (p.18). What does this statement mean? What examples in the book inform Stevenson’s position on poverty and justice? What is justice? What does “Just Mercy” mean?

4. Stevenson describes numerous workarounds within the United States legal system. We learn that nearly every prisoner on death row had been tried by an all-white or nearly all-white jury, despite a Supreme Court ruling in the 19th century that declared excluding black people from jury duty unconstitutional. Why do you think black people are excluded from the juries of black defendants? What factors should influence jury selection?

For an interesting discussion of this issue see this podcast:

http://www.wnyc.org/story/object-anyway/

5. Stevenson was interviewed by Terry Gross on the National Public Radio show Fresh Air. When asked about the McMillian case, he says, “…it was challenging because even when we presented all of that evidence— and we presented Mr. McMillian’s strong alibi, the first couple of judges said, ‘No, we’re not going to grant relief.’ It took us six years to get a court to ultimately overturn the conviction. And I think it speaks to this resistance we have in this country to confronting our errors, to confronting our mistakes.” Is there a lack of humility in our justice system? In America? Why does it take so much time, effort and perseverance to get the legal system to confront its mistakes? How could this be changed?

6. Stevenson provides examples of defendants whose mental illness is never mentioned at trial. Why do you think mental illness often goes unaddressed at trial? Should it be considered? If so, what are fair ways to try/treat individuals with mental health issues? What is our responsibility to people with mental health issues when these individuals become involved in the justice system?

7. Many United States citizens will find this book painful to read, demoralizing and even shameful. What kind(s) of emotional state(s) did the book bring up in you? Is this a book about combating racism? What is this book about?

8. Readers from varied backgrounds will approach this book with different knowledge and experiences. Did Stevenson’s examples resonate with you, or were you shocked? Is the book an eye-opener for you, or validation of what you already knew? Consider how your reaction would differ if you were of a different race or class; were the victim of a serious crime; or had personal experience with the justice system.

9. The United States’ use of the death penalty differs from other countries’ use. For instance, Germany abolished the death penalty after the Holocaust. In India, where the death penalty is legal, only a handful of criminals have been executed since the turn of the century. What do you know about other countries and their position on and enforcement of capital punishment? How might politics, religion, culture and/or history play a role?

10. In The New York Times, Ted Conover says Stevenson: “has the defense lawyer’s reflex of refusing to acknowledge his clients’ darker motives. A teenager convicted of a double murder by arson is relieved of agency; a man who placed a bomb on his estranged girlfriend’s porch, inadvertently killing her niece, ‘had a big heart.’” Stevenson believes the bomb builder never intended for the bomb to explode. Does it matter whether Stevenson’s clients are truthful? Should their honesty affect how well he defends them? Why?

11. What did this book teach you about the legal process in the United States that you did not know already? What questions do you still have, and how might you find the answers? What resources are available for people in Madison who need help navigating the legal system?

Disclosure: These questions are largely replicated from the Go Big Read: University of Wisconsin Madison Common Book Program website.

Just Mercy: The Stories

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Walter McMillian

“Mr. Bryan, I know it may not matter to you, but it’s important to me that you know that I’m innocent and didn’t do what they said I did, not no kinda way.”

Walter McMillian was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a young white woman who worked as a clerk in a dry clearing store in Monroeville, Alabama. There was no tangible evidence against Mr. McMillian. He was held on Death Row prior to being convicted and sentenced to death. His trial lasted only a day and a half. Three witnesses testified against Mr. McMillian and the jury ignored multiple alibi witnesses, who were black, who testified that he was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime. The trial judge overrode the jury’s sentencing verdict for life without parole and sentenced Mr. McMillian to death.

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The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned McMillian’s conviction in 1993 and prosecutors agreed the case had been mishandled.

McMillian was free but the trauma of his time on death row caused long term mental disabilities including dementia.  McMillian died at home on September 11, 2013.

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Trina Garnett

Proscecutor’s charged Trina Garnett, a 14-year-old mentally disabled girl, with second-degree murder after setting a fire that tragically killed two people in Chester, Pennsylvania. She was tried in adult court and sentenced to die in prison.

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Joe Sullivan

A court sentenced Joe Sullivan (39 in this picture) to die in prison for an offense that happened when he was 13. A severely mentally disabled boy, Joe was blamed by two older boys for a sexual battery that was allegedly committed when they broke into a home together.

The lawyer who represented Joe in his one-day trial has since been suspended from the practice of law, and the biological evidence that could have exonerated Joe was destroyed in 1993.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) took on Joe’s case as part of a national litigation project to challenge death-in-prison sentences imposed on young adolescents. EJI petitioned the Florida state courts to strike down Joe’s sentence, but the state courts dismissed Joe’s case. EJI appealed Joe’s case to the United States Supreme Court, and Joe’s sentence was vacated as unconstitutional when the Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that children cannot be sentenced to die in prison for non-homicide offenses.

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America incarcerates more people, both on an absolute and a per capita, than any other nation on earth.

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Jimmy Dill

The State of Alabama executed Jimmy Dill on April 16, 2009, for capital murder, in spite of serious concerns that he did not receive the adequate legal assistance necessary to ensure a reliable conviction and sentence in his case. Because he was poor, Mr. Dill had only an appointed lawyer whose pay was limited to $1000 and who did not investigate or present evidence in Mr. Dill’s defense. Alabama is the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners.

The Author:

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Bryan A. Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is  1985 graduate of Harvard, with both a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government and a JD from the School of Law.  Mr. Stevenson joined the clinical faculty at New York University School of Law in 1998.

Stevenson has been representing capital defendants and death row prisoners in the deep south since 1985, when he was a staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia. Since 1989, he has been executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a private, nonprofit law organization he founded that focuses on social justice and human rights in the context of criminal justice reform in the United States. EJI litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.

Stevenson’s work has won him national acclaim. In 1995, he was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship Award Prize. He is also a 1989 recipient of the Reebok Human Rights Award, the 1991 ACLU National Medal of Liberty, and in 1996, he was named the Public Interest Lawyer of the Year by the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers. In 2000, Stevenson received the Olaf Palme Prize in Stockholm, Sweden for international human rights and in 2004, he received the Award for Courageous Advocacy from the American College of Trial Lawyers and the Lawyer for the People Award from the National Lawyers Guild.

“The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think,” by Douglas T. Kenrick & Vladas Griskevicius

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“Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.”

– Bertrand Russell

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity,
and I’m not sure about the former. “

– Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

“He who dies with the most toys, is, nonetheless, still dead.”
– Unknown

When it comes to making decisions, the classic view is that humans are eminently rational. But growing evidence suggests instead that our choices are often irrational, biased, and occasionally even moronic. Which view is right—or is there another possibility?

Discussion Questions:

1. Throughout the book the authors offer a series of public and personal seemingly deprecating anecdotes demonstrating that what may seem irrational may in fact be sound from an ancestral evolutionary perspective.

What is your favorite example of such an anecdote? Did reading this book change how you perceive or judge individuals such as the building superintendent, Ray Otero, who “invested” $30,000 a year in lottery tickets?

2. The book takes an evolutionary look at our irrational biases. The underlying hypothesis is that, rather than being design flaws of the mind, our biases are actual design features.

Do you agree with the hypothesis’ underlying premise that human decision making serves evolutionary goals? That underlying conscious proximate decisions are subconscious ultimate behavior reasons as determined by the current subself in control of the mind at that particular moment?

3. Human evolution is designed not just to ensure survival and reproduction but to achieve several very different goals. Further, unlike the standard rational consumer economics model, humans do not seek just to feel good or to “maximize benefits.” Decisions alter based on what cognitive subself is dominate at the moment of decisoin.

Did you find the author’s characterization of the seven subselfs of human minds convincing? Were you surprised at how easy it is to activate the dominance of a particular subtype? For instance, the mate-acquisition subself (“The Swinging Single”) can be activated, and thereby placed in the dominating decision-making role, by reading a romantic short story.
4. Contrary to what many psychologists and economists used to believe, market economics is the wrong way to approach most of the decisions you make on a day-to-day basis. Your workday life will be a lot more livable if you do not deal with your bosses, peers, and spouses like you would deal with a stranger haggling over the price of a used car.

Is mainstream economic theory fundamentally flawed because it is based on the presumption that people seek to maximize utility given limited means? Could it be that economic models still have robust predictive values even though the underlying assumptions do not always mirror reality (the model is valued for its simplicity, not its descriptive accuracy)?

5. Last, and most important, what did you think of this book? Would you recommend it to friends?

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Which is the Rational Animal?