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Readers' Guide

2019-2020 KU Common Book, Tales of Two Cities

First-year and new KU transfer students will receive Tales of Two Americas, the 2019-2020 KU Common Book, at their Orientation session. New students will read the book over the summer. The Readers' Guide will help students navigate the core ideas, themes, and events in the book. Make sure to follow @NewJayhawks on social media where we will post updates and information about Tales of Two Americas using #KUCommonBook.  

Co-authors: Kate Nygren, Miriam Reder, Meagan Patterson, Logan Bell, Howard Graham, Antha Cotton-Spreckelmeyer, and Emily Gullickson

Introduction (John Freeman) through "American Work" (Richard Russo) - (ix-58)

Introduction by John Freeman (ix-xviii)

Genre: non-fiction, introductory essay

Summary:  In his introductory essay, Editor John Freeman reflects on his upbringing in Sacramento, provides brief summaries of the work that comprises the anthology, and establishes an overarching theme for Tales of Two Americas. The book aims, he writes, to “create a framework that accounts for what it feels like to live in this America, a framework that can give space to the stories that reveal how many forces outside of wages lead to income inequality” (xii). 

Key Terms: anthology, inequality, precariat

Context:

Discussion questions:  After reading the book, consider Freeman’s statement that there are “many forces outside of wages,” which contribute to income inequality.  

  • What are these forces? 
  • How do they work in concert to create a network of inequality? 

“Death by Gentrification” by Rebecca Solnit (1-18)

Genre: non-fiction / long-form journalism

Summary: Solnit tells the story of the killing of Alex Nieto at the hands of police in San Francisco in March 2014 and the wrongful death civil lawsuit filed in response. Solnit uses this particular story to reveal the larger impact of gentrification on San Francisco, explaining how communities are being driven out and how new inhabitants can stereotype and harbor bias against longtime residents who are ethnic and racial minorities.

Key terms: gentrification, police violence

Context: “What is Gentrification?” http://archive.pov.org/flagwars/what-is-gentrification/

Relevant fields: Journalism, Psychology, Sociology, Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies

Discussion questions:

  • After reading, can you list the many factors that led to Alex Nieto’s killing?
  • How does this story sound alike or different from other high profile cases of police shootings?

“i'm sick of pretending to give a shit about what whypeepo think” by Danez Smith (19-20)

Genre: poetry

Summary: This poem includes themes of exhaustion from dealing with white supremacy and gentrification.

Context:

Relevant fields: English, psychology, sociology, community health

Discussion question:

  • Where do you see themes of exhaustion in this poem? What is causing that exhaustion?
  • What is the final vision of the poem? What do you think Smith imagines has happened?

“Notes of a Native Daughter” by Sandra Cisneros (21-25)

Genre: prose poem

Summary: Cisneros recalls growing up in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago in the 1960s and 70s. She describes the everyday violence and cycles of poverty she experiences as a way to explain why she eventually left Chicago. 

Context:

Relevant fields: English, psychology, sociology

Discussion question:

  • This collection includes several authors’ “love letters” to their cities. This is not one of those pieces. What is Cisneros’s relationship to Chicago? Why?

“Dosas” by Edwidge Danticat (26-53)

Genre: fiction / short story

Summary: This short story features Elsie, a Haitian-born woman living and working in the United States, who receives a call from her ex-husband reporting that a once-close friend has been kidnapped in Haiti. Her ex becomes increasingly desperate attempting to raise the ransom, and Elsie must balance her feelings of betrayal with the threats against her former friend.

Key terms: dosa = “the last, untwinned, or surplus, child” (34)

Context:

  • The 2018-2019 KU Common Book: Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously

Relevant fields: psychology, pre-law, Caribbean literature

Discussion questions:

  • Why does Elsie still feel compelled to help raise the ransom?
  • What would you have done in her place?

“American Work” by Richard Russo (54-58)

Genre: non-fiction essay

Summary: In this essay, Russo addresses popular depictions of working class people, starting with a discussion of Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and moving on to current-day media depictions of White working class Trump voters. He also addresses the social value of different kinds of work, including both physical and intellectual labor, and the role of work in personal identity. Russo talks about the challenges of being asked to speak for working class people when he is no longer working class himself.

Key terms: working class

Context:

Relevant fields: English, journalism, political science, global and international studies, American studies, psychology, sociology

Discussion Questions:

  • In discussing Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, Russo notes that Dickens’s readers liked seeing themselves reflected in a work of fiction.  Where do you see yourself or people like you reflected in media (books, movies, music, etc.)?
  • What role does work play in your identity or the identities of people you know?
  • What factors influence voter decision making? Russo mentions specific policies (such as reducing immigration) as well as broader issues of emotion and identity.

 

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"Fieldwork" (Manuel Muñoz) through "Mobility" (Julia Alvarez) - (59-99)

“Fieldwork” by Manuel Muñoz (59-68)

Genre: nonfiction, personal essay, memoir

Summary: Muñoz spends time with his parents while his aged father is in a rehabilitation center. During this time, he learns a good deal about his parents’ struggles to find consistent farm work when they came from Mexico to Texas and, later, the Valley. Muñoz comes to appreciate in particular his mother’s struggles from losing her first born to laboring in cold fields while seven months pregnant with him.

Context:

Relevant fields: sociology, Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies

Discussion questions:

  • Why is it important to Muñoz to tell this story at this moment in his father’s illness?
  • What do you know about your parents’/guardians’ work history? What sacrifices did they make?

“For the Ones Who Put Their Names on The Wall” by Juan Felipe Herrera (69)

Genre: poetry

Summary: An abstract poem evoking images of border crossing and violence, but also of the poem’s speaker contemplating while bird watching.

Context:

Relevant fields: English,  Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies

Discussion question:

  • What are the walls and fences Herrera refers to in the poem?
  • Herrera creates images that evoke feelings of violence and being trapped. Why?

“Trash Food” by Chris Offutt (70-78)

Genre: nonfiction; essay

Summary: Offutt, when asked to write a piece about “trash food,” takes offense at his editor’s insensitivity to issues of socioeconomic class. Offutt shares that he grew up in poverty in Kentucky and was often labeled “white trash.” He shares his own struggles with class-based stigma and frustration with the ways in which “trash” food can suddenly become trendy. He ends with an anecdote about an African American hardware store employee with whom he shares a human moment of connection on the basis of class and region.

Context:

Relevant fields: sociology, political science, culinary studies, American studies

Discussion question:

  • Name a “trendy” food that used to be “trash.” When and why did this change occur?

“Some Houses (Various Stages of Dissolve)” by Claire Vaye Watkins (79-88)

Genre: nonfiction; memoir

Summary: In a fractured narrative divided by sections based on where they were living at the time, Watkins tells the story of her childhood in the southwest and of her mother’s addiction and eventual death. The “you” she refers to is her sister.

Further watching/reading: In this interview, Watkins discusses growing up in poverty and the concept of “working class survivor’s guilt” that motivates some of her writing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjwfU5A2o9s

Relevant fields: architecture, psychology, English

Discussion question:

  • Why does Watkins speak directly to her sister throughout this piece? What does she hope her sister will understand or do in response?

“Mobility” by Julia Alvarez (89-99)

Genre: nonfiction; essay

Summary: Alvarez recounts a night she and her husband spent stranded in the Atlanta airport due to bad weather. The airport becomes a setting to discuss socioeconomic class and the inequality so obvious in service industries of this type. Ultimately, she ends on a hopeful note as people of many different races and backgrounds band together to make it through a night of sleeping on the airport terminal floor.

Context/watching:

Relevant fields: Business, sociology

Discussion question:

  • Why does Alvarez seem hopeful at the end of the essay?
  • Have you ever had a similar experience where you banded together with strangers?
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"Youth from Every Quarter" (Kristin Valdex Quade) through "We Share the Rain, and Not Much Else" (Tim Egan) - (100-149)

“Youth from Every Quarter” by Kirstin Valdez Quade (100-107)

Genre: nonfiction; essay

Summary: Quade recalls a summer working at an elite prep boarding school she once attended as a student. A Latina student, Ana, has enrolled in a pre-calculus class that is too advanced, but when Quade attempts to help her change to a more appropriate level, the dean refuses to allow any change. When Ana leaves, Quade must confront the many “flukes” that she benefitted from that assured her success in a school—a world—that was not an obvious path, given her childhood.

Context:

Relevant fields: Education, sociology,

Discussion question:

  • Why does the dean seem to think it’s no big deal for Ana to fail out of Elliott Academy?

“Outside” by Kiese Laymon (108-111)

Genre: nonfiction; essay

Summary: This story looks at the humane injustice that comes with mass incarceration within America. Laymon tells the story of his friend, Dave Melton, who gets pulled back in the prison system after a parole violation. Laymon details the challenges that Dave has faced as a black man and member of the felon-class. The story talks about the white privilege as Laymon compares Dave’s treatment to a student, Cole, and the differences in their crimes and punishments. While Dave is in prison, Laymon brings him a new book each week; Laymon explains that this is a small gesture that won’t “free” Dave in any sense, but it’s some small form of community.

Context:

  • Mass incarceration and the felon class - Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow introduction, pp. 1-15 (especially pp. 12-15). Revised ed., The New Press, 2012.
  • Mass incarceration - Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, on Netflix.

Relevant fields: criminal justice, pre-law, sociology, American studies, African and African American studies

Discussion question:

  • How do institutions use oppression to perform new age racism?
  • What ways is the mass incarceration system reinforcing old, traditional ideals?

“White Debt” by Eula Biss (112-121)

Genre: nonfiction, essay

Summary: “For me, whiteness is not an identity but a moral problem” (117). In this essay, Biss explains the central challenges of whiteness for white folks who are working to unlearn their entitlement to their privilege. She connects the concepts of debt and guilt to argue that guilt could be a redemptive emotion, if white folks approach it with the awareness she stresses.

Context:

Relevant fields: philosophy, psychology, American studies, Critical race studies

Discussion question:

  • Biss writes, “Whiteness is not a kinship or a culture” (116). What does she mean by this? How is she breaking down our ideas of race?

“Leander” by Joyce Carol Oates (122-129)

Genre: fiction, short story

Summary: In this highly internal narrative, we follow Jessalyn—a well-meaning white woman—as she attends a meeting in an African American church for a community activist organization, SaveOurLives, working against police violence. Jessalyn is a stranger at the gathering, one of very few white folks there, and she becomes increasingly uncomfortable and unassured. She finally cuts a large check and leaves.

Context:

Relevant fields: English, political science, psychology, Peace and Conflict Studies, American Studies, Sociology

Discussion questions:

  • Why do you think Jessalyn attends the meeting, and why does she want to make a donation?
  • Why is Jessalyn uncertain about how much to donate?
  • How do you think the character Jessalyn views money?
  • What does Jessalyn's reaction to Leander tell you about her experience of people who are different from herself?
  • What is the author's intention in focusing on the word "tip"?

“Fault Lines” by Ru Freeman (130-145)

Genre: fiction; short story

Summary: Freeman’s story follows three separate women: Mira, a middle-class woman of color; Gabriella, a working-class woman of color who nannies for Mira’s children; and Iris, a working-class woman of color who also nannies and is Gabriella’s best friend. The story’s title, “Fault Lines,” reveals the divides that keep these women from fully understanding one another, as well as the breaks in life that have prevented them from pursuing dreams they hold.

Context:

Discussion questions:

  • What are the “fault lines” in the story that keep Mira especially apart from the other women? Where does their communication break down?
  • Can fault lines be bridged? Does Freeman suggest how?

“We Share the Rain, and Not Much Else” by Timothy Egan (146-149)

Genre: nonfiction; essay

Summary: Egan recalls a time in his youth when Seattle was affordable and offered strong, union-protected jobs like for longshoremen. The essay laments the elimination of such jobs and the rise of the tech boom which has changed Seattle’s landscape, although he remains hopeful that Seattle has enacted basic measures like a $15/hr minimum wage.

Context:

Relevant fields: economics/business, sociology, history, architecture

Discussion questions:

  • Egan adds a note of caution, saying, “The easy mistake is to think it was always better back then” (148). Why is this caution needed? What is his point?
  • Have you witnessed changes in your own neighborhood? What have they looked like?
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"Blood Brother" (Sarah Smarsh) through "Soup Kitchen" (Annie Dillard) - (150-205)

“Blood Brother” by Sarah Smarsh (150-155)

Genre: essay; nonfiction

Summary: Using second-person, Smarsh tells the story of “your brother” selling his plasma. The essay takes us through the process and gives us a glimpse into the life of this man who must return week after week to secure this small income. She uses this vivid scene to explain to boom in the plasma-selling industry after the 2008 financial collapse.

Context:

Relevant fields: biology, chemistry, English, sociology

Discussion question:

  • Why does Smarsh write the piece about “your” brother? What effect does this have on the reader?
  • Have you or anyone you know ever had to sell plasma? What expenses were you/they trying to cover?

 


“Hillsides and Flatlands” by Héctor Tobar (156-161)

Genre: essay; nonfiction

Summary: Tobar describes his experience of being a new father to an infant son while detailing a particularly heartbreaking murder of a young boy he was assigned to cover as a journalist in Los Angeles. The essay’s themes of grief and powerlessness help illustrate how an individual’s environment influences their relationship with and reaction to violence and death.  

Context:

Relevant fields: journalism, psychology, sociology, history

Discussion questions:

  • The essay describes several individuals’ reactions to the murdered boy: Tobar, local gang members, the boy’s mother, and another journalist. Compare and contrast these reactions. Why do you think they differ so much? How does their environment and context influence their reactions?
  • How would your hometown react to a similar murder? How may those reactions differ or remain similar among neighborhood residents?

“Invisible Wounds” by Jess Ruliffson (162-166)

Genre: graphic novel; nonfiction

Summary: Ruliffson provides an excerpt from an upcoming graphic novel that is a collection of interviews with veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The excerpt illustrates how a Sergeant’s past military service impacts his interpersonal relationships, emphasizing the role of stigma around mental health in daily interactions with others.

Context:

Relevant fields: military, psychology, visual art

Discussion questions:

  • What is the role of stigma and mental health in Sergeant’s story?
  • Were you surprised about people’s reactions to the Sergeant? Why or why not?

 “How” by Roxane Gay (167-180)

Genre: fiction; short story

Summary: Hanna and her twin, Anna, are stuck in a cycle of abuse and poverty. The story explains how Hanna and Anna find the courage and support to seek a better life. Gay breaks the story into short scenes all subheaded with a phrase that begins, “How…”

Context:

Relevant fields: English, American studies, sociology, Indigenous studies

Discussion question:

  • What factors prevented Hanna and Anna from making a change earlier in their lives?
  • Have you ever needed to make a big, scary change in your life? How did you find the strength (and resources) to do it?

“Enough to Lose” by RS Deeren (181-197)

Genre: short story; fiction

Summary: Deeren writes of a man’s experience mowing lawns for houses repossessed by the bank during the 2008 Great Recession while coping with the pressure of his wife’s desire to have a child. The story provides a close-up look into how the recession impacted the working class and one’s sense of security in economically turbulent times.

Context:

Relevant fields: economics, American contemporary history, creative writing, sociology

Discussion questions:

  • Rid says, “So what?” to the man’s concerns about why he is not ready to start a family (e.g. not a homeowner). What are your thoughts on those concerns? How does one know when someone is “ready” to have a family? Do you think Rid’s response is justified? Why or why not?
  • How did the Great Recession impact you, your family, and your neighborhood? How do you think it impacted America, overall?

“To the Man Asleep in Our Driveway Who Might Be Named Phil” by Anthony Doerr (198-204)

Genre: essay; non-fiction

Summary: Doerr describes his uncertainty and guilt over calling the police about a homeless man asleep in his car in Doerr’s driveway. Doerr contemplates how the homeless man’s racial identity, social class, and gun control laws could influence his decision to call the police on the man or act with hospitality and offer him a cup of tea.   

Context:

Relevant fields: sociology, social science, psychology, law

Discussion questions:

  • Doerr says the policeman said he did “The right thing.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?
  • What would you have done in Doerr’s shoes?

 “Soup Kitchen” by Annie Dillard (205)

Genre: prose poem

Summary: In these brief two paragraphs, Dillard begins by acknowledging that there are times when artists feel unable to produce art. She then raises the question of how artists can cope with these non-productive times, concluding that in these situations artist can maintain a sense of purpose by serving others.

Context:

Discussion questions:

  • Dillard presents the notion of “a good day’s work”.  What constitutes a good day’s work for you? What kind of work leaves you feeling most satisfied at the end of the day?
  • This piece suggests volunteering and other forms of service as a way to feel personal satisfaction.  Is this a good reason for community service?
  • How do you deal with times when you are feeling unproductive or struggling to achieve your goals?

Relevant fields: Community health, psychology, public administration, social welfare, theatre & dance, visual arts

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"Howlin' Wolf" (Kevin Young) through "Happy" (Brad Watson) - (206-267)

“Howlin' Wolf” by Kevin Young (206-208)

Genre: poetry

Summary: Young imagines the music of famous blues musician Howlin’ Wolf as an expression of the pain inmates at the infamous Mississippi Parchman Prison underwent. Young suggests that the pain that creates the blues sound is fed by a cultural memory—in this case, the forced back-breaking manual labor as part of Parchman’s convict leasing program.

Key terms: Parchman Prison; convict leasing

Context:

Relevant fields: English, history, sociology, community health

Discussion questions:

 


“Looking for a Home” by Karen Russell (209-239)

Genre: nonfiction; essay

Summary: In one of the longer pieces in this collection, Russell tells her story of moving to Portland, Oregon and coming to realize the breadth of the housing crisis there. While she recounts her own story of looking for an affordable apartment and, later, playing the bidding war to buy her own home, she also discusses her interactions with Portland’s growing homeless population. Throughout, Russell grapples with her feelings of guilt and responsibility at her privilege in having a series of homes while witnessing this crisis.

Context:

Relevant fields: economics, political science, sociology, journalism

Discussion questions:

  • Russell mentions the “perverse incentive problem” (215). What is this idea and how might you respond to it?
  • Despite herself, Russell becomes desensitized to homelessness and the struggles of the folks she sees each day. How does constant exposure affect our ideas of what is normal or acceptable?

“Visible City” by Rickey Laurentiis (240-241)

Genre: poetry

Summary: This impressionistic poem provides a vision of New Orleans, Laurentiis’s own city. The poem celebrates the city’s international influences and seeks to separate the city’s image from the horrors of Hurricane Katrina.

Context:

Relevant fields: English, American studies

Discussion question:

  • What vision of New Orleans does Laurentiis seem to want to convey to his readers? How can you tell?

“Portion” by Joy Williams (242-252)

Genre: fiction; short story

Summary: In this darkly-comedic, bizarre short story, Arthur, the story’s protagonist, has been visiting a friend in an asylum in Florida when he meets the Governor, who lives there as well. Arthur strikes up a friendship with the Governor, agreeing to take responsibility for the Governor’s poor decisions and broken promises made while he was in office. 

Context:

Relevant fields: psychology, English, social welfare

Discussion question:

  • How does Williams set the “rules” of the world she creates in this story? What moments surprise you?

“Apartment 1G” by Nami Mun (253-264)

Genre: fiction; short story

Summary: In their apartment, Lee and his wife—Korean immigrants to the United States—must confront the terrible crimes they have committed in pursuit of the American dream. As the story unfolds, the crimes and Lee’s solution become clear.

Context:

Relevant fields: English, American studies, social welfare

Discussion questions:

  • What are the motivating factors that convince Lee and his wife to take this final action? How do you know?
  • Why does Mun include the character of the daughter, Songmi?

“Happy” by Brad Watson (265-267)

Genre: nonfiction; short essay

Summary: Watson recalls his youth in Meridian, Mississippi when his white mother of modest means was able to hire a black woman to be their maid. Watson remembers being amazed as a boy to realize how very little his mother was paying this woman for her full-time work. This feeling is compounded when he witnesses what he believes to be her wrongful firing.

Context:

Relevant fields: economics, African American studies, sociology

Discussion questions:

  • Why does Watson title the essay, “Happy”?
  • What does the woman’s firing indicate about power structures in this place and time?
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"A Good Neighbor is Hard to Find" (Whitney Terrell) through "The Worthless Servant" (Ann Patchett) - (268-316)

“A Good Neighbor is Hard to Find” by Whitney Terrell (268-279)

Genre: nonfiction; essay

Summary: Terrell tells the story of the relationship he developed with Terry, the son of his next door neighbor in Kansas City, MO in the early 2000s. Terrell, a white man, encourages Terry—a black high school student—to consider college. Terry applies and receives an academic scholarship to KU, but even with financial aid, Terry determines that it’s too expensive, and he joins the Air Force instead. Terrell grapples with his own failure to consider Lawrence’s whiteness and the expense of KU, and ultimately respects Terry’s decision.

Context:

Relevant fields: economics, higher education, sociology, African American studies

Discussion questions:

  • Terrell ends by saying, “[Terry’s] not coming back, I don’t think. Which makes him a stronger man than me” (279). Why does this make Terrell happy? What does he believe Terry has escaped?
  • What was your first impression of Lawrence? Did it feel like a welcoming community? Why or why not?

“Here in a State of Tectonic Tension” by Lawrence Joseph (280-281)

Genre: poetry

Summary: In a poem full of vivid images, Joseph describes Detroit as a vast urban landscape changing rapidly under deindustrialization.

Context:

Relevant fields: business, economics, English

Discussion question:

  • Why does Joseph compare Detroit’s landscape to several areas of Turkey in the opening lines?

“Once There Was a Spot” by Larry Watson (282-284)

Genre: nonfiction; short essay

Summary: This story looks at the evolution of class in Bismarck, North Dakota through the middle to late 20th century. Watson grew up in a quaint town with each person having somewhat equitable housing. However, after returning to the town, he found that new housing had boomed and deemed old houses unlivable and not enough for the modern society. Class divides are now much more apparent in the houses built from the 1970s on.

Context:

Relevant fields: architecture, economics/business, sociology, psychology

Discussion questions:

  • How is the housing market showing growing inequality in America?
  • What other ways is changing to increase the “need for more” as stated in this story?

 


“Hurray for Losers” by Dagoberto Gilb (285-293)

Genre: nonfiction; essay; memoir

Summary: Gilb recalls his experience considering college and professional experience and reflects on the ways that degrees of privilege restrict or give access to different groups. Gilb candidly discusses the things he didn’t know when it came to college and the unequal treatment he witnessed on job sites. Ultimately, he conveys the idea that success is not only bestowed on those who’ve earned it.

Context:

Relevant fields: Chicanx/Latinx studies, sociology, business

Discussion question:

  • Where do you see privilege/oppression in Gilb’s story? How does it match or conflict with your own experience?

“La Ciudad Mágica” by Patricia Engel (294-304)

Genre: nonfiction; essay

Summary: In short scenes, Engel tells the story of a changing Miami—one becoming more diverse. She reveals both white anxiety about the “takeover” of people of color there, as well as her own belief in the beauty of this diversifying population. She ends by explaining “her” Miami and the journey she took to arrive at this city.

Context:

Relevant fields: American studies, Global and International Studies, English

Discussion Question:

  • Why does Engel tell this story in these very short scenes? What do you think she wants her readers to get out of this?

“American Arithmetic” by Natalie Diaz (305-306)

Genre: poetry

Summary: The poem discusses the disproportionate number of killings of Native Americans by police. Diaz plays on the word “race” to reveal predatory undertones of America today.

Context:

Relevant fields: Indigenous studies, math, statistics, English, sociology

Discussion question:

  • Diaz repeats the word “race” throughout. How does its meaning change? Why does she do this?

“Worthless Servant” by Ann Patchett (307-316)

Genre: nonfiction; profile

Summary: Patchett profiles Charles Strobel, founder of Room in the Inn in Nashville, TN. A Catholic priest, Strobel has devoted his life to humanitarian work—providing shelter and support services for Nashville’s homeless population. Patchett’s profile introduces details of Strobel’s life that might have turned another person away from the faith, but not Strobel.

Context:

Relevant fields: religion, sociology, journalism

Discussion questions:

  • Patchett explains the title, “Worthless Servant,” on page 314. What does it mean and why does Charlie like it so much?
  • Why do you think Freeman chose to place this profile essay at the very end of the collection?
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