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Discussion Questions: The Pursuit of Pearls by Jane Thynne

April 28th, 2016

The Pursuit of Pearls_ThynnePerfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, here is the next thrilling historical novel featuring Clara Vine, the British actress and special agent who glides through the upper echelons of Nazi society, covertly gathering key intelligence—and placing herself in mortal peril.

Use the following questions when discussing The Pursuit of Pearls with your book club.

1.    Despite their seemingly different political inclinations, Clara visits her sister when she is upset by Grand’s suggestion of Leo’s death. Blood may be thicker than water, but do you believe, as Clara does, that it should be thicker than war?

2.    How does Clara’s status as an English spy change her relationship with Erich?

3.    Clara talks about all the things that have been rationed, such as coffee and meat, or made more difficult, such as easy travel. What do you think is the hardest thing for her to sacrifice? What would be the hardest for you?

4.    What advice would you give to Hedwig about the conflict between Jochen and her parents?

5.    Though Clara narrates the majority of the novel, we occasionally see events from Hedwig’s point of view. In what ways are the two perspectives similar? In what ways are they different?

6.    In part due to Clara’s mixed heritage many of her acquaintances ask where she would eventually like to settle down. Where do you think she should go?

7.    Conrad Adler knows that Clara is part Jewish, but she continues on with her life as always, even seeing Adler again. Do you agree with her decision, or would you have handled the situation differently?

8.    Themes of heritage pervade the book, often bringing into conflict ethnic, religious, cultural, and national identities. What do you think it is that makes you who you are?

9.    What do you think Conrad Adler means when he says that Clara has a look of “fire behind ice”?

10.  In a world of spies, secrets, and war, it is difficult to know who to trust, and Clara chooses her confidants carefully. Do you agree with all of her choices? Who in your life would you choose to trust if you were in Clara’s circumstances?

11.  Do you think Conrad Adler is a good man, or do you think he is as bad as the political party for which he works? Would you trust him? Why or why not?

12.  There are quite a few revelations as the final pieces of the book fall into place. What surprised you the most?

The Real Housewives of Nazi Germany

April 28th, 2016

The Pursuit of Pearls_ThynnePerfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, here is the next thrilling historical novel featuring Clara Vine, the British actress and special agent who glides through the upper echelons of Nazi society, covertly gathering key intelligence—and placing herself in mortal peril.

Here Jane Thynne writes about the inspiration for her novel, The Pursuit of Pearls.

When I first thought of setting a series of novels in prewar Berlin, I knew a few things. I knew that my heroine was going to be Anglo–German and an actress. I decided that she would be a spy who gains a valuable glimpse of the Nazi elite through the women around her. Yet while I understood a fair bit about the men and the politics of the Third Reich, I realized that I knew far less about the lives of the women in that regime. And increasingly, as I delved deep into the lives of women through their letters and journals, I became fascinated by what I came to think of as the Real Housewives of Nazi Germany.

Under Hitler, every aspect of a woman’s life was tightly controlled, from child–bearing, marriage, and social life, right down to her daily appearance. The ideal woman didn’t pluck her eyebrows, paint her nails, or dye her hair. Nor did she smoke. In the early days of the Reich, bars and restaurants throughout Germany were plastered with signs saying German women don’t smoke, and storm troopers who saw a woman smoking in public were advised to dash the cigarette from her lips.

But the control over women’s appearance didn’t stop at cigarettes and cosmetics. One of the first things Hitler did when he came to power in 1933 was to establish a Reich Fashion Bureau. He realized that fashion carries a potent political message and he knew exactly what image he wanted German women to project to the world. The female look should celebrate tradition, so the Bureau promoted dirndls, bodices, and Tyrolean jackets. Women should only wear clothes made by German designers, with German materials. By “German,” Hitler meant Aryan, which posed an immediate problem because the fashion industry and the textile trade of the time were dominated by Jewish companies. Hitler also frowned on Parisian couture, both because he disliked the French, and also because designers like Coco Chanel encouraged an unnaturally slender silhouette. A nation of women striving for slim hips and boyish bodies was certainly not ideal if Hitler was to achieve one of his major objectives—-to encourage prolific child–bearing.

In one of the many bizarre hypocrisies of the Third Reich, the woman chosen to preside over this Fashion Bureau was Magda Goebbels, the wife of the Propaganda Minister. Like many other aspects of Nazi Germany, Magda Goebbels’s participation was rife with contradictions, and Magda herself was the living, breathing opposite of everything the Bureau promoted. Famed for her love of couture, she changed several times a day, slathered on Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, chain smoked, and wore hand–made Ferragamo shoes. Her favorite fashion designers, Paul Kuhnen, Richard Goetz, Max Becker, and Fritz Grünfeld, were all Jewish.

Yet there was a far greater contradiction in Magda Goebbels’s life than her fashion sense. Before she married, she had a passionate involvement with a leading Zionist called Victor Arlosoroff, who returned to Berlin in 1933 aghast at his former girlfriend’s choice of husband. To me, the idea that the wife of the arch persecutor of the Jews, Joseph Goebbels, should have had an affair with an important Jewish agitator seemed astonishing. But it was typical of the ironies that reigned in that terrible, turbulent regime.

One question always at the back of my mind while I was researching the lives of Nazi women was the extent to which they themselves had exerted a political influence on their husbands. Did any of them act as the power behind the throne? In some cases, the answer was yes. Annelies von Ribbentrop and Lina Heydrich were both considered more ardent Nazis than their husbands. Yet others, like Emmy Goering, actively interceded with their husbands on an occasional basis to save friends. Henriette, the wife of the Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, was the only one who actually remonstrated with Hitler when she confronted him over dinner at the Berghof about the treatment of Jews in Holland. She was never invited again.

Women are so often the untold half of history and their perspectives are frequently ignored. I think it’s impossible to visualize the Nazi leaders as people without getting a glimpse of their private lives and their most important relationships.

For me, understanding the Real Housewives of Nazi Germany, from the wives of the elite to the ordinary women in the street, was the key to making history and, I hope, my novels come alive.

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A Conversation between Anne Tyler and Anna Quindlen

April 28th, 2016

A Spool of Blue Thread_TylerA Conversation Between Anna Quindlen and Anne Tyler

When readers are asked about the novels of Anne Tyler, few of them will mention the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, or the many months her work has spent on bestseller lists. But they almost always mention how much her books have spoken to their hearts. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Breathing Lessons, Saint Maybe: For more than fifty years her work has been a literary touchstone on the subjects of family, love, loss, and resilience. To mark the paperback publication of this, her twentieth novel, she exchanged emails with writer Anna Quindlen, who recalled that when she published her first novel, Object Lessons, Tyler reviewed it in a thoughtful, kind, and teacherly fashion that she still holds dear.

Anna Quindlen: This novel, like so many of your others, is about the alchemy of family. Is there any point in writing about anything else, or is family really where the emotional action is in life, and in fiction?

Anne Tyler: I can’t count the number of times I’ve started a new book with the idea that this one will have nothing to do with families. But somehow, the minute I think of a character, I find myself considering the people he came from. I’ll bet that if I tried to write a thriller, I’d get sidetracked by the spy’s sibling issues.

AQ: This is also, in part, a novel about a love affair, a love affair with a house. “Houses need humans,” Red Whitshank says at one point; the novel also reflects how humans need houses. Do you feel that way about your house? And, by the way, are we really talking about houses here?

AT: Oddly enough, I have no particular attachment to houses. A few years ago I moved out of the house my children grew up in and I never gave it a backward glance. But while I was writing A Spool of Blue Thread I tried to imagine the story from a workman’s point of view, and I felt pretty sure that Red would be upset by the notion of a house abandoned. (Also that—-like a plumber I once knew—-he would roll his eyes at “Harry Homeowner” shortcuts.)

As for whether we’re really talking about houses: When I’m in the middle of a book, I’m thinking very concretely. I really am talking about houses. It’s only afterward that I notice some other, completely unintentional significance, and I believe it’s better that way. I distrust any symbolism that’s been thought out ahead of time.

AQ: As an oldest child, I’m a believer in birth order. How much of the chemistry among and between the Whitshank children is a function of that?

AT: Oh, birth order is crucial! I don’t know how I would flesh out a character without knowing his or her birth order. Firstborn -Amanda’s certitude, secondborn Jeannie’s mildness, lastborn -Denny’s resentment when Stem arrives . . . They all make sense to me.

I’m intrigued that you, like me, are an oldest child, because I have a feeling that a disproportionate number of writers are. I wonder if the parents’ more intense concentration on a child, when there’s only one, fosters a more vivid imagination in that child.

AQ: In the novel, you write of the Whitshanks, “Like most families, they imagined they were special.” I think that’s so profound. It reminded me of a quote from Sir Walter Scott about Jane Austen that I think also applies to you. He wrote, “The big bow–wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.” Did you ever want to be a big bow–wow? And do you think those who follow that path are afforded more credibility than their quieter, more domestic colleagues?

AT: During the several times I’ve read War and Peace, I’ve found myself skimming the war parts and concentrating on the peace parts. Which is to say: It’s not Tolstoy’s big bow–wow abilities that I envy.

Granted, though, I have often wished for the ability to see the larger scene. I’m like my reclusive artist character in Celestial Navigation: After I leave a room I am usually unable to reconstruct the room as a whole, but I can tell you exactly what the little screws looked like in the electrical outlet in one corner. I would love to possess, instead, the vision to write something like Faulkner’s hilarious panoramic description of the townspeople trying to catch a herd of wild horses in The Hamlet.

As for credibility . . . well, I do think that big bow–wow books are widely considered more important, at least than those confining themselves to a smaller canvas.

AQ: Do you therefore agree with the complaint that male writers tend to be taken more seriously than female ones?

AT: Only to the extent that it’s usually the men who write the big bow–wow books. I can think of some quieter male writers—-Kent Haruf with his Benediction, Stewart O’Nan with Emily, Alone—-who haven’t been taken half as seriously as I feel they deserved.

AQ: I was going to ask if you consider your work more character– than plot–driven, but it occurs to me that perhaps that’s the nature of all really good fiction. Your thoughts? Is character, or characters, where you begin?

AT: Sometimes it’s a character who sets things off—-a stranger I notice on a street corner or someone I overhear speaking in a restaurant. How would it feel to be that person? is what I’m wondering. What would it be like to live his or her life? But other times it’s an idle rumination, like Why is it that families generally seem to cherish just two or three handed–down stories, and discard some others?

The one thing I absolutely never begin with is plot, because the fact is that I am hopeless at plots, and have to rack my brain to come up with the simplest little event.

AQ: I once had the good fortune to sit next to Grace Paley at dinner, and at some point she said, “Think how prolific we would have been if we hadn’t had children.” Now that those years are behind you, do you wonder how you managed to combine mothering with writing?

AT: First I’ll have to quell my pangs of jealousy that you got to sit next to Grace Paley! But while she may have been right that we’d all have been more prolific if we’d been childless, I question whether we’d be writing as well. I think of it as a trade–off: When my own children were little they certainly derailed my writing life, but then when I was able to pick it up again I had so many more layers to me, and I felt I knew so much more about the world.

AQ: A Spool of Blue Thread moves back and forth in time: We begin in 1994, move forward to 2012, go back to 1959. Does that mirror the way we think about life when we are closer to its end than its beginning? In other words, as a younger writer might you have been inclined to be more linear in your approach to this?

AT: I’ll have to confess to a purely mechanical reason for the times when the novel proceeds backward: I had planned to go on writing it till I died. I positively hate finishing a book! I made up my mind just to describe one generation after another, endlessly. I worried, though, about running out of generations, so I decided to tackle them in reverse order. That way, I could take the Whitshanks back to prehistory, if I lived that long. But then I discovered that the Whitshanks before, say, 1920 were a meager–spirited lot, and I had to end the book after all.

AQ: Much of this novel, like your others, consists of pitch–perfect dialogue. Do you read your work aloud before you’ve finished?

AT: I do. I started that after computers came along, because I write all my drafts in longhand and it was hard to catch tiny alterations when I was shifting my gaze constantly between paper and computer screen. So I began reading my final draft into a tape recorder, and then I could follow on the screen as I played the tape back. What I hadn’t foreseen is that hearing my own voice saying the words would point out any false notes, loud and clear. Now my favorite piece of advice for beginning writers is to read their dialogue aloud.

AQ: I once read an interview with the novelist Amy Bloom in which she said that each novelist essentially has one subject, and hers is love. What’s yours, and why?

AT: Endurance, I would say, if I really had to pick just one. I have always been touched and fascinated by how human beings in general manage to just keep on keeping on—-how they don’t give up on each other and how they set out every day all over again, even when they know it won’t be any different from the day before.

AQ: This is your twentieth novel, a sentence I am tempted to write in ALL CAPS. What’s changed in your fictional concerns or technique? And what’s stayed the same, is built inevitably into Anne Tyler’s writerly DNA? Is there something you know now about writing a novel that you would love to confide to the woman working on If Morning Ever Comes?

AT: My essential concern with family has not changed, but much about my approach to the act of writing is very different now. In the early days, I used to think that novels were somehow less authentic if they were revised in any way. They should be spontaneous, I figured—-tossed off without a second thought. These days, I revise and revise; I love revising. I always feel I begin by writing a bad book and then I stretch it and add layers and texture to it so that gradually, over its many incarnations, it grows into a better book.

To my earlier self I would like to say, “Relax. The story will come in due time. Trust your characters. Let them tell you what happens next.”

AQ: I would assume that at this point your routine is set to music. (Is it, literally? I listen to music while I write, but many of my fellow writers say they find that impossible.) Could you talk a bit about time of day, length of stay, size of desk, method of composition?

AT: You must have amazing strength of character! The one time I tried writing to music I fell subject to a wave of sentimentality; I couldn’t seem to separate myself from the music’s influence.

What I do like listening to as I write is the sound of ordinary life out in the street—-children playing and workmen talking. I write at a bare white desk beneath a window that I keep wide open whenever the weather allows. As soon as I’ve finished my morning walk I settle there, whether or not I feel I have anything to say. If nothing comes to mind, I might putter around with notes and such but I don’t push it, and I give up after an hour or so. If something does come, I write it down on unruled white paper with a Pilot P–500 black gel pen—-that part is nonnegotiable. I don’t even want to admit how many dozens of those pens I keep in stock in case they’re discontinued someday.

Whenever I feel stuck—-when I come to a moment in a chapter where the characters simply refuse to go another step forward—-I’ve learned that I should just turn back a few pages and start copying those pages onto fresh paper, and eventually the fork where I made a wrong turn will become apparent. It seems merely reading something over allows mistakes to slide past me; actually forming the words again makes the mistakes all at once stand out.

I always feel I’m knitting a novel; it’s practically a handicraft, which is why I need to do it in longhand. If my right hand ever developed arthritis, I’d probably have to change careers.

My writing mind clicks off at about 1:00 p.m. at the latest, which is earlier than it used to be, but I take comfort in the thought that I seem to get more done in the time I do have. Then I put my work completely out of my thoughts and go on with the rest of my life. That’s something I feel most women writers are exceptionally good at—-partitioning—-because many have had to do it so often back when they had young children.

AQ: You are not a writer who has a Twitter account or a Facebook page, who goes on book tour or the Today show. Eudora Welty once said, “Writing fiction is an interior affair. Novels and stories always will be put down little by little out of personal feeling and personal beliefs arrived at alone and at firsthand over a period of time as time is needed. To go outside and beat the drum is only to interrupt, interrupt, and so finally to forget and to lose. Fiction has, and must keep, a private address.” I know Welty is an influence on your work, and I wonder if that sentiment was an influence on your decision to keep a private address.

AT: I hadn’t heard that Eudora Welty said that, although it certainly makes sense to me. But my choice to stay as private as possible hasn’t been so much a conscious decision as a matter of personal temperament: I’m shy out in public, and nervous with audiences.

In recent years, as writers have been pressed to play more of a part in publicizing their books, I’ve undergone more interviews than I used to, and what I’ve learned from those experiences is that whenever I talk about writing, I can’t do any writing for some time afterward. I think it makes me too conscious of the gears creaking behind the curtain.

AQ: Some of your best-known colleagues have retired in recent years—-Philip Roth, Alice Munro. A BBC interview suggested that this would be your last novel. Say it ain’t so!

AT: I think that story got started because people misunderstood me when I said I planned never to finish A Spool of Blue Thread. But in fact there’s already a next novel, because the Vintage Hogarth Shakespeare series will be publishing my modern–day version of The Taming of the Shrew in 2016. I’m really not sure how I’d keep myself occupied if I didn’t have a pen in my hand.

Discussion Questions: My Name is Lucy Barton

February 29th, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton_StroutA new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout is cause for celebration. Her bestselling novels, including Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, have illuminated our most tender relationships. Now, in My Name Is Lucy Barton, this extraordinary writer shows how a simple hospital visit becomes a portal to the most tender relationship of all—the one between mother and daughter.

  1. Lucy’s husband asked her mother to visit her in the hospital, and paid for her trip. Do you think that was a gesture of love on his part?
  2. What role does the gossip Lucy and her mother share play in the book?
  3. Do you think Lucy blames her mother for the more painful parts of her childhood? Could her mother have done better?
  4. WWII and the Nazis are themes that profoundly affect Lucy’s father (and hence her whole family), Lucy’s marriage to her first husband, and even her dreams. Discuss.
  5. Lucy expresses great love for her doctor. How would you describe that love?
  6. Lucy’s friend Jeremy told her she needed to be “ruthless as a writer.” Did she take his advice? How?
  7. Why did Lucy keep returning again and again to see the marble statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
  8. How has the poverty of Lucy’s childhood shaped her life and her work?
  9. What does living in New York City mean for Lucy? Do you think she feels at home in New York?
  10. What did Sarah Payne mean, when she said to Lucy: “We only have one story”?

Discussion Questions: Girl at War by Sara Novic

February 26th, 2016

Girl at War_TP_NovicFor readers of The Tiger’s Wife and All the Light We Cannot See comes Girl at War by Sara Novic, a powerful debut novel about a girl’s coming of age—and how her sense of family, friendship, love, and belonging is profoundly shaped by war.

This is a book about war through the eyes of a young person, both a child and a young adult. What are the benefits and drawbacks of a having a child/ young adult narrator? Imagine Ana in her thirties. How might she tell the story differently now?
Ana’s father tells her the story of “Stribor’s Forest” after a particularly difficult day for the family. Do you see echoes of the story’s moral throughout the rest of the book?
In what other ways does storytelling or narrative become important for Ana?
The end of Part 1 features an aside about language—Ana says she grew up thinking all languages were ciphers, translatable by swapping out alphabets. Why is this important to the story? Why do you think the Nović chose to include it during a moment of extreme violence?
The novel’s four sections often end at times of high tension. Why do you think Nović chose to write the story in a nonlinear fashion?
While at the UN, Ana makes the statement that “there is no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia.” Given her experiences, what do you think she means?
A lot of minor characters help Ana to safety along the way—who was your favorite and why?
When Ana returns to Croatia, she and Luka wonder how long it takes to forget a war. What do you think?
How might the story have been more or less effective had Ana and Luka become romantically involved?
How would you say Ana changed as a person throughout the course of the novel?
This story has in turns been classified as “historical fiction,” a “war story” and a “coming-of-age story”—which of these resonates most with you?
The end of the novel is fairly open-ended. What do you think happens after the final scene?

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