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Sweet and Low




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About The Author

Rich CohenRich Cohen

Rich Cohen is the author of Tough Jews, The Avengers, and Machers and Rockers, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among many other publications, and he is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City.

photo: © Jeremy Medoff

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About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about Sweet and Low are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book.We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Sweet and Low.



Discussion Questions

1. At the beginning of Sweet and Low, Rich Cohen says, "To be disinherited is to be set free." What sort of freedom does he have in mind? Is there such a thing as negative freedom? How does this relate to the line in the Janis Joplin song, "Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose." And: Do you believe him?

2. Why does the author call this a Brooklyn story? How do the lives of these people connect to or amplifythe history of the borough?

3. He describes his family as expatriates—what does he mean by this? Is Sweet and Low an outsider’s story? How did growing up in the Midwest, away from the main players, determine the story he tells?

4. Is this a story of the American dream? If so, what does it tell you about the health of those old dreams?

5. Who is the most powerful member of the Eisenstadt family? Who drives the action? Is it Ben, Betty, Marvin, Gladys, Ellen?

6. Why did Aunt Gladys take to her bed? Why did she stay? Why do you think she finally left the house?

7. Why was Ellen disinherited? (If you know the answer, please contact the author through his publicist, c/o Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010). Could she have done anything differently? Who, if anyone, is to blame, and why?

8. What do you think the author means when he says Grandma Betty had a parenting style that can be described as, "Love is finite." How did Betty’s childhood determine the way she raised her own children.

9. How might things have been different if Uncle Abraham had lived?

10. How do some of the key parts of the story serve as symbols in the life of the family? Saccharine, the sugar packet, the fish tank in the factory where the tropical fish died?

11. What do you think happened at Cumberland Packing at the time of the scandal? Did Uncle Marvelous know about the criminal infestation? Did Grandpa Ben? If so, why did he do nothing to avert disaster?

12. Based on this story, can you come up with some reasons why a family business tends to last no more than three generations? What roles do the different generations play? Fathers, sons, and grandsons? How might a person upset this pattern and save the company?

13. At the end of the book, the author and his family get in a plane and fly away. What does this mean? What do you think the author is trying to say?

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