Friday, November 21, 2014

Inferno by Dan Brown

In his international blockbusters The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, and The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown masterfully fused history, art, codes, and symbols. In this riveting new thriller, Brown returns to his element and has crafted his highest-stakes novel to date.

In the heart of Italy, Harvard professor of symbology, Robert Langdon, is drawn into a harrowing world centered on one of history’s most enduring and mysterious literary masterpieces…Dante’s Inferno.

Against this backdrop, Langdon battles a chilling adversary and grapples with an ingenious riddle that pulls him into a landscape of classic art, secret passageways, and futuristic science. Drawing from Dante’s dark epic poem, Langdon races to find answers and decide whom to trust…before the world is irrevocably altered. (From the publisher.)

Illustrations that aid in understanding the book: 

Guide to Florence for the Inferno :

WHO Website:


Quote from the book:
“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who 
maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. 
- Bertrand Zobrist” 

Review by the NY Times:

Review by The Guardian:


Dan Brown's Website for the book:

Dan Brown's Facebook Page:

Interview with Dan Brown with the Wall Street Journal:

Interesting article: Dan Brown's "Inferno": Good Plot, Bad Science:

Copy of Dante's Divine Comedy from Project Gutenberg:

From Canto III

"All hope abandon ye who enter here."

Such characters in colour dim I mark'd
Over a portal's lofty arch inscrib'd:
Whereat I thus: "Master, these words import
Hard meaning."  He as one prepar'd replied:
"Here thou must all distrust behind thee leave;
Here be vile fear extinguish'd. We are come
Where I have told thee we shall see the souls
To misery doom'd, who intellectual good
Have lost."  And when his hand he had stretch'd forth
To mine, with pleasant looks, whence I was cheer'd,
Into that secret place he led me on.

Here sighs with lamentations and loud moans
Resounded through the air pierc'd by no star,
That e'en I wept at entering.  Various tongues,
Horrible languages, outcries of woe,
Accents of anger, voices deep and hoarse,
With hands together smote that swell'd the sounds,
Made up a tumult, that for ever whirls
Round through that air with solid darkness stain'd,
Like to the sand that in the whirlwind flies.

Discussion Questions from Litlovers:
1. You might begin a book discussion by providing some background on Dante's Divine Comedy—a review of the poem, as well as its historical influence on the development of art and literature.

2. Follow-up to #2: Before reading Dan Brown's thriller, how familiar, if at all, were you with the The Divine Comedy and its "Inferno" Cantica? Have you come away with a better understanding of the work? What are the ways in which the author uses Dante's great classic as a framework for his thriller?

3. Robert Langdon and Sienna Brooks race to save the world from a crazed scientist who plans to unleash his solution to the world's overpopulation. To what extent, if any, do you (secretly) agree with the Bertrand Zobrist in his desire, if not his methods, to control overpopulation?
How do you feel about this statement by Brooks:
As a species, humans were like the rabbits that were introduced on certain Pacific islands and allowed to reproduce unchecked to the point that they decimated their ecosystem and finally went extinct.
To what extent is overpopulation a real-life global problem? You might do a bit of research on overpopulation and look at some of the countervailing predictions, suggesting that the global population will actually begin to collapse after 2050.
4. Talk about the real possibility of a worldwide epidemic. How plausible is the threat as portrayed Brown's book?

5. Talk about Transhumanism. What is it, and does it pose a boon—or a threat—to the future of humanity?

6. Follow-up to Question 5: At the end of the book WHO Director Elizabeth Sinskey says, "We’re on the verge of new technologies that we can’t yet even imagine.” Those technologies come with dangers but also with hope.
Sienna Brooks adds this about Transhumanism...
One of its fundamental tenets is that we as humans have a moral obligation to participate in our evolutionary use our technologies to advance the species, to create better humans—healthier, stronger, with higher-functioning brains. Everything will soon be possible.
She then says...
If we don’t embrace [these tools], then we are as undeserving of life as the caveman who freezes to death because he’s afraid to start a fire.
What do you think?
7. Have you traveled to any of the three sites of the novel: Florence, Venice, or Istanbul? If so, how accurate is Brown's depiction of these cities? If you haven't been to Italy or Turkey, does the author bring the cities to life? Are they places you would like to visit?

8. Is this book a page-turner? Did you find yourself unable to put it down? If so, what makes it enthralling? If you didn't find Inferno an engaging read, what put you off the book?

9. Follow-up to Question 8: Brown uses a 4-part pattern for the episodes in his book: 1) Langdon is presented with a clue he must interpret, 2) he has a "eureka" moment, 3) he is pursued by villains who make a sudden appearance, and 4) he escapes after a hair-raising chase. Try going through the book to identify the pattern in various episodes.

10. What about the book's ending? Do you find it predictable ... surprising ... shocking ... frightening ... satisfying?

11. Have you read other Dan Brown thrillers? If so, how does this compare?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Summary by Amazon:
"Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement."

Review by the NY Times, "Jaunted by their Nightmares", Margaret Atwood:

Interview with Toni Morrison in 2001:

Interview with The Guardian in 2012:

Inteview segment for Oprah's Life Class:

Facebook Page for Toni Morrison:

The Toni Morrison Society

About the movie, Beloved, 1998:

Discussion Questions from LitLovers:
1. Consider the extent to which slavery dehumanizes individuals by stripping them of their identity, destroying their ability to conceive of the self. Consider, especially, Paul and how he can't determine whether screams he hears are his or someone else's. How do the other characters reflect self-alienation?

2. Discuss the different roles of the community in betraying and protecting the house at 124. What larger issue might Morrison be suggesting here about community.

3. What does Beloved's appearance represent? What about her behavior? Why does she finally disappear—what drives her departure? And why is the book's title named for her? 

4. Talk about the choice Sethe made regarding her children when schoolteacher arrives to take them all back to Sweet Home. Can her actions be justified—are her actions rational or irrational?

5. What does the narrator mean by the warning at the end: this is not a story to pass on." Is he right...or not.

Reading guide:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage by Robert Michael Pyle

Summary from Amazon:
Although no one had ever followed North American monarch butterflies on their annual southward journey to Mexico and California, in the 1990s there were well-accepted assumptions about the nature and form of the migration. But to Robert Michael Pyle, a naturalist with long experience in monarch conservation, the received wisdom about the butterflies’ long journey just didn’t make sense. In the autumn of 1996 he set out to uncover the facts, to pursue the tide of “cinnamon sailors” on their long, mysterious flight.
Chasing Monarchs chronicles Pyle’s 9,000-mile journey to discover firsthand the secrets of the monarchs’ annual migration. Part road trip, part outdoor adventure, and part natural history study, Pyle’s book overturns old theories and provides insights both large and small regarding monarch butterflies, their biology, and their spectacular migratory travels. Since the book’s first publication, its controversial conclusions have been fully confirmed, and monarchs are better understood than ever before. The Afterword for this volume includes not only updated information on the myriad threats to monarch butterflies, but also various efforts under way to ensure the future of the world’s most amazing butterfly migration.

Review from Yale University Press:

Documentary: Tracking the Monarch Migration from Nova:

Robert Michael Pyle's Facebook Page

Other Books by the author:

Recent Reading at Penn State, September 4, 2014:

ID tools for Identifying Butterflies and Moths:

In the Washington State Magazine: Life Histories of the Butterflies of Cascadia:

Some mentioned Butterflies of the West Coast of US:
Woodland Skipper:
Clouded Sulphur:

Compton tortoiseshell: 


Becker's White: 

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   * 

Interview with Robert Michael Pyle:

Discussion Questions to Follow:
1. What predators do monarchs encounter along their journey? See pp 35, 41, 48
2. What plants are similar to milkweed? See page 26.
3. When did migration actually start? Discuss the "Columbus Hypothesis", page 50.
4. Discuss other things that challenge monarchs along the route, including weather, difficult water crossings, etc. 
5. Discuss tagging of monarchs.
6. How have the changes in the landscape including damming effected migration patterns?
7. How did the author's theories about monarch migration influence research and lead to its confirmation?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 by Frederic Morton

Summary from Good Reads:
"Thunder at Twilight is a landmark of historical vision, drawing on hitherto untapped sources to illuminate two crucial years in the life of the extraordinary city of Vienna—and in the life of the twentieth century. It was during the carnival of 1913 that a young Stalin arrived on a mission that would launch him into the upper echelon of Russian revolutionaries, and it was here that he first collided with Trotsky. It was in Vienna that the failed artist Adolf Hitler kept daubing watercolors and spouting tirades at fellow drifters in a flophouse. Here Archduke Franz Ferdinand had a troubled audience with Emperor Franz Joseph—and soon the bullet that killed the archduke would set off the Great War that would kill ten million more. With luminous prose that has twice made him a finalist for the National Book Award, Frederic Morton evokes the opulent, elegant, incomparable sunset metropolis—Vienna on the brink of cataclysm."

Article from the BBC News: "1913: When Hitler, Trotsky, Tito, Freud and Stalin all lived in the Same Place"


Vienna Review Interview with Morton: At Home with Language:

Discussion Questions:
1. What were the factors that made Vienna at this time the center stage for many significant persons of the century?
2. What were the different groups and who were some of these people?
3. How did the rigidity of the culture and society of Europe, especially in Austria, as mirrored in the relationship of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, help make the war inevitable?
4. What made the relationship between Franz Joseph and Franz Ferdinand so difficult?
5. Discuss the relationship between Austria - Hungary and Serbia and the issues that caused tensions between these countries.
6. Was Austria unreasonable in their ultimatum to Serbia?
7. What other action could they have taken in response to the assassinations?
8. What were factors that caused the war to be so horrific, and why was this not better anticipated?
9. How and could Franz Ferdinand have made a difference in preventing the war if he had lived?
10. Why did so many people mistakenly think that his views made war more likely?



Monday, July 7, 2014

Bernd Henrich's The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration

Book Summary provided by Good Reads:
"Heinrich explores the fascinating science chipping away at the mysteries of animal migration: how geese imprint true visual landscape memory; how scent trails are used by many creatures, from fish to insects to amphibians, to pinpoint their home if they are displaced from it; and how the tiniest of songbirds are equipped for solar and magnetic orienteering over vast distances. Most movingly, Heinrich chronicles the spring return of a pair of sandhill cranes to their home pond in the Alaska tundra. With his trademark “marvelous, mind-altering” prose (Los Angeles Times), he portrays the unmistakable signs of deep psychological emotion in the newly arrived birds—and reminds us that to discount our own emotions toward home is to ignore biology itself." 

Washington Post Review: "The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration by Bernd Heinrich and The Surprising Lives of Birds and What they reveal about being Human by Noah Stryckern" by David Gessner:

Q & A with Bernd Heinrich on A Way to Garden (also Podcast available)

"Do Humans have some kind of Homing Instincts . . ," Scientific American, Oct. 21, 1998

PBS Nature Video: "Extraordinary Cats: Homing Instinct"

Homing, Migration and Navigation: Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Discussion Questions:
1. How are the topics, migration and homing similar and different?
2. Do humans have a homing instinct?
3. What positive and negative lessons can we as humans learn from the herding mentality?
4. How do animal and human home making and it's implications compare?
5. Discuss what you found surprising? Consider the eel, grasshopper, orb weaver spider, passenger pigeon, godwit, moth, etc.
6. Discuss the different means of migration including smell, magnetic, stars and sun.
7. Discuss the interaction of animals in their home territories including the effect of the American Chestnut and also bed bugs and other parasites in nests and homes.
8. Discuss predator and prey relationships as with the spider and passenger pigeon.
9. Discuss the successes and disasters of home building and site choices of animals versus humans including the Suriname trip.

(Pic from:

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The President's Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

(Photo is from Time of the authors)

Summary from Good Reads:
The Presidents Club, established at Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration by Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover, is a complicated place: its members are bound forever by the experience of the Oval Office and yet are eternal rivals for history’s favor. Among their secrets: How Jack Kennedy tried to blame Ike for the Bay of Pigs. How Ike quietly helped Reagan win his first race in 1966. How Richard Nixon conspired with Lyndon Johnson to get elected and then betrayed him. How Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter turned a deep enmity into an alliance. The unspoken pact between a father and son named Bush. And the roots of the rivalry between Clinton and Barack Obama.

Time magazine editors and presidential historians Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy offer a new and revealing lens on the American presidency, exploring the club as a hidden instrument of power that has changed the course of history

(Photo from the Washington Post of present and past Presidents alive today)

NY Times Book Review:

The Simon and Schuster's Reading Group Guide:

The Discussion Questions from the above listed S&S Reading Group Guide:
1.List and discuss the most unlikely relationships in the Presidents Club. Who reached farthest across the aisle? Why are former and current presidents so likely to work together, even when their policies and personalities differ so drastically? Consider Truman utilizing Hoover in Europe all the way through Clinton and Bush 43’s current joint humanitarian efforts. 

2.Do presidents seem to have more influence when in office, or after? Name a president whose policy and experience lasted far beyond their term(s). Are there any who seemed especially ill-suited to lead at the time of their presidency, but invaluable upon leaving the position? 

3.Was Johnson at fault for not helping protect Nixon’s presidency? Are there truly limits to how far a club member should go to protect one of its few brothers? 

4.Compare and contrast Eisenhower’s strictly regimented, committee-oriented style of leadership to Kennedy’s looser, on-the-fly tendencies. What seems the best way for a president to administer his power? For that matter, where exactly does the power of a president reside—in his ability to unilaterally think on his feet, or the various specialists and experienced people at his disposal? 

5.Eisenhower said (of Kennedy), “I am all in favor of the United States supporting the man who has to carry the responsibility of our foreign affairs.” There is a strain of thinking in early club members that the public should unconditionally support the hard decisions a president must make, lest the rest of the world view us as weak and un-unified. Do you agree with this? Is dissent and assembly against a president’s policies something citizens should avoid? 

6.It is often said that a president’s success can be measured by the disasters he avoids. The authors even write, “We know what happened when each president presided; they are often just as proud of what didn’t happen.” How has the Presidents Club helped men in office to avert calamity? Consider especially JFK’s utilization of Eisenhower during the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, and Clinton’s call upon Nixon for advice on Russia and Bosnia. 

7.Many club members (Truman the haberdasher, Eisenhower the soldier, Reagan the actor) did not choose politics as a first profession, and came to the game relatively late in their careers. Yet, these three are some of the most esteemed, sought-after minds in the history of the club’s ranks. What do you make of non-politician politicians? Is there something to be said for their prior experience making them more efficient presidents and counselors? 

8.Discuss LBJ’s nearly manic use of the Club’s knowledge for speech writing, policy making, and deal-brokering. Is there a point at which a president must shake free of the club and establish himself as separate from his predecessors? 

9.Was Jimmy Carter “worth the trouble?” What do you make, in lights of today’s Arab state, of his furtive appeal to Arab and world leaders behind Bush’s (and the UN’s ) back? Did he go against Club code? Were his actions treasonous? Was his shunning by Bush 41 warranted? 

10. Though Clinton had the most former club members at his disposal (5 in total), individual relations with his predecessors all took on a unique, half-antagonistic quality. Discuss his collaborations (and attendant contentions) with Nixon (Russia), Jimmy Carter (Korea and Haiti), and Ford (Clinton’s impeachment trial.) Were the club members helping the president, or protecting the presidency? 

11.Do you think Bush 43 would have had a more successful presidency if there were not an “unspoken pact” between father and son regarding presidential advice? Would Bush 41, with an impressive record of foreign policy achievements and national deficit reduction, have been able to avoid some of today’s major American problems by doling out executive wisdom to his son? 

12.Gibbs and Duffy write, “Presidents typically land in office thinking they know better than their predecessors. Having just spent an entire campaign convincing voters this is the case, they naturally come to believe it themselves. But then something like a chain reaction occurs: they win the office, then the office strikes back, challenging a president, chastening him, confronting him with all he doesn’t know.” How does this apply to Obama’s presidency? Though he campaigned on the notion of an end of Clintonian democracy, has his presidency now transformed to a facsimile of the 42nd President’s policies and sensibilities? 

13.What were the most notable instances of duplicity between members of the club, both before and after their appointments? In what ways were they able to bury the hatchet after becoming former presidents? Consider Ike and JFK, Nixon and Johnson, Nixon and Reagan, Ford and Carter, and the rivalry between Clinton and Obama. 

14.In the conclusion, the authors write, “If the Presidents Club had a seal, around the ring would be three words: cooperation, competition, and consolation.” Identify a particularly salient instance of each of these ideas during the Club’s colorful history. 
- See more at:

Book Discussion on C-span:

History Book Review Interview:

A Short Summary by Nancy Gibbs by Time:

(Photo from The Washington Post)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

Discussion Questions:
1. Who is Mary Poppins? Where does she come from?
2. What unique qualities does Mary Poppins possess?
3. What chapters were not in the movie and why?
4. What kind of parents are Mr. and Mrs. Banks?
5. What will become of the children after Mary Poppins leaves?
6. Did Mary Poppins leave a meaningful impression on the Banks?
7. After watching "Saving Mr. Banks", do you view the story differently? Why?
8. How well did the movie "Mary Poppins" capture the book and what makes it different?
9. Discuss your favorite parts of the book and movie and why!

Disney's Official Site for the movie:

Summary about the author from Goodreads:

New Yorker Article: Life and Letters:  Becoming Mary Poppins:

Biography about P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins, She Wrote

Spoonful of Sugar on YouTube

The Secret Life of Mary Poppins - BBC Documentary from 1964:

Nine 'Mary Poppins"Facts from "Saving Mr. Banks" that they did not get right:

Mary Poppins Lesson Plans

Mary Poppins Study Guide

Other Books by P.L. Travers:

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by R. Aslan

Questions and Topics for Discussion from Random House:  

1. What is the difference in the ancient mind between Fact and Truth?

2. Discuss the Jewish definition of Messiah. Was this a religious or political office, or both?

3. Define the roles of the Jewish priestly hierarchy in Judea. How would a typical Galilean family like Jesus’ view this group?

4. How did Jesus’ upbringing in Nazareth lead him to a deeper understanding of social justice?

5. Discuss the Roman occupation? How did this political context shape Jesus’ outlook and actions?

6. What role did the Temple of Jerusalem play in the lives of the Jews in Jesus’ time?

7. With the above questions in mind, how do the words of the Gospels reflect Jesus’ relationship with both the Romans and the Jewish hierarchy and his call for social justice?

8. After Jesus’ death, his followers formed two separate camps based on two competing interpretations of his teachings. What are your thoughts on James and Paul?

9. How did James’ and Paul’s differences form the Christian church we know today? Why do you think Paul’s interpretation flourished?

Fox News Interview:

Interview with Jon Stewart:

Friday, January 3, 2014

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin


Acclaimed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin illuminates Lincoln's political genius in this highly original work, as the one-term congressman and prairie lawyer rises from obscurity to prevail over three gifted rivals of national reputation to become president.
On May 18, 1860, William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Abraham Lincoln waited in their hometowns for the results from the Republican National Convention in Chicago. When Lincoln emerged as the victor, his rivals were dismayed and angry.
Throughout the turbulent 1850s, each had energetically sought the presidency as the conflict over slavery was leading inexorably to secession and civil war. That Lincoln succeeded, Goodwin demonstrates, was the result of a character that had been forged by life experiences that raised him above his more privileged and accomplished rivals. He won because he possessed an extraordinary ability to put himself in the place of other men, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.
It was this capacity that enabled Lincoln as president to bring his disgruntled opponents together, create the most unusual cabinet in history, and marshal their talents to the task of preserving the Union and winning the war.
We view the long, horrifying struggle from the vantage of the White House as Lincoln copes with incompetent generals, hostile congressmen, and his raucous cabinet. He overcomes these obstacles by winning the respect of his former competitors, and in the case of Seward, finds a loyal and crucial friend to see him through.
This brilliant multiple biography is centered on Lincoln's mastery of men and how it shaped the most significant presidency in the nation's history. 
(Provided by the author and organized by Litlovers)

Written in 2005
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
944 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780743270755

Discussion Questions

(provided by the Publisher Simon and Schuster)

1. Letters and diaries provided the greatest resource for Doris Kearns Goodwin in recreating the emotional lives of Lincoln and his cabinet. What will historians 200 years from now use to recreate our inner lives? 

2. What are the leadership lessons that our new president can learn from a study of Lincoln’s emotional intelligence and political skills? 

3. How was Abraham Lincoln able to win the Republican nomination in 1860 over his three chief rivals–Seward, Chase, and Bates–all of whom were more experienced, better educated and better known? 

4. The night before his election as president, Lincoln made the decision to put each of these three rivals into his cabinet. What led him to this decision? What does it say about his temperament? 

5. Lincoln has often been portrayed as suffering from depression all his life. Yet, Goodwin suggests that while he had a melancholy temperament, he developed constructive resources to combat his spells of sorrow. By the time he reached the presidency, Lincoln was the one who could sustain everyone else’s spirits. What were the means he used to shake off his sorrow? 

6. How different would the course of the War been if Seward had won the nomination and the presidency? 

7. President Barack Obama has said he would like to follow Lincoln’s example and surround himself with rivals and people who can question him and argue with him. What are the factors in our modern media and political culture that make it more difficult for a president to create and maintain a true team of rivals? 

8. How did Lincoln stay connected with ordinary people during his presidency? 

9. How and why did Seward’s attitude toward Lincoln shift? 

10. What role did Lincoln’s sense of humor play? Where did he develop his storytelling ability? What are a few of the most memorable stories he liked to tell? 

11. How did Lincoln’s thinking about slavery evolve over time? What led him to issue his Emancipation Proclamation? How would he answer complaints that the Proclamation did not free the slaves in the border states? How did Seward contribute to the timing of the Proclamation? 

12. How would you characterize the complex relationship between Mary and Abraham Lincoln? When they first met they seemed well suited, yet their relationship deteriorated over time. To what extent did each partner contribute to their troubles; what role did external events play? 

13. What role did Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas play in his rise to prominence? How would you describe Lincoln’s attitudes toward the prospect of black equality as revealed in the debates? Why did Lincoln favor the idea of encouraging blacks to emigrate back to Africa? 

14. Why did Lincoln put up with Chase for so long, knowing that he was maneuvering against him to win the nomination in 1864? What finally undid Chase? Why did Lincoln appoint him Chief Justice? 

15. How would you describe the change in Stanton’s attitudes toward Lincoln from the time they first met as lawyers to the end? How did their opposing styles lead to positive results in the cabinet? 

16. What is the picture that emerges of George McClellan? Why did Lincoln not fire him earlier? Compare and contrast McClellan’s style with that of General Grant. 

17. Lincoln took great pride in the fact that 9 out of 10 soldiers voted for his reelection, even knowing that a vote for him meant lengthening the War since McClellan was promising a peace compromise. How did he develop such a rapport with the soldiers? 

18. How did the women in the story affect the lives and careers of the men surrounding Lincoln–Frances Seward, Kate Chase, and Julia Bates? 

19. How would you describe the complex relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass? 

20. How might reconstruction have been handled differently if Lincoln had not been killed?

The Movie: Lincoln
Official Trailer from Steven Spielberg: