Biographical fiction

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Author: 
Morris, Heather

This beautiful, illuminating tale of hope and courage is based on interviews that were conducted with Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov—an unforgettable love story in the midst of atrocity.

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners. Imprisoned for more than two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism--but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive. One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her--Dust jacket flap.

Discussion Guide: 

1. How did you feel about Lale when he was first introduced, as he arrived in Auschwitz? How did your understanding of him change throughout the novel?

2. What qualities did Lale have that influenced the way he was treated in the camp? Where did those qualities come from?

3. Survival in the camp depended on people doing deeds of questionable morality. Lale became the tattooist, but how did Gita’s choices affect her survival? What about her friend who befriended a Nazi?

4. Inmates in the concentration camp had to make life-or-death decisions every day. Why did some make the "right" decisions and survive while others did not?

5. Discuss some of the small acts of humanity carried out by individuals in The Tattooist of Auschwitz. How did these small acts of kindness have greater implications? Did it make you reconsider what you believe to be brave or heroic? Did this make you think differently about the impact of your own everyday actions?

6. The Tattooist of Auschwitz makes clear that there were also non-Jewish prisoners in the camp. How did the treatment of Jews differ from that of non-Jews? How did differences manifest themselves?

7. Had Gita and Lale met in a more conventional way, would they have developed the same kind of relationship? How did their circumstances change the course of their romance?

8. In what ways were the relationships between Gita and her friends different from the usual friendships between teenage girls? In what ways were they similar?

9. In what ways was Lale a hero? In what ways was he an ordinary man?

10. Lale faced danger even after the camp was liberated. How did his experiences immediately after liberation prepare him for the rest of his life?

11. How does The Tattooist of Auschwitz change your perceptions about the Holocaust in particular, and war in general? What implications does The Tattooist of Auschwitzs this book hold for our own time?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

The Queen's Secret: A Novel of England's World War II Queen

Author: 
Harper, Karen

If you love Jennifer Robson or The Crown you will love New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper's novel about Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.

1939. As the wife of the King George VI and the mother of the future queen, Elizabeth-"the queen mother"-shows a warm, smiling face to the world. But it's no surprise that Hitler himself calls her the "Most Dangerous Woman in Europe." For behind that soft voice and kindly demeanor is a will of steel.

Two years earlier, George was thrust onto the throne when his brother Edward abdicated, determined to marry his divorced, American mistress Mrs. Simpson. Vowing to do whatever it takes to make her husband's reign a success, Elizabeth endears herself to the British people, and prevents the former king and his brazen bride from ever again setting foot in Buckingham Palace.

Elizabeth holds many powerful cards, she's also hiding damaging secrets about her past and her provenance that could prove to be her undoing.

In this riveting novel of royal secrets and intrigue, Karen Harper lifts the veil on one of the world's most fascinating families, and how its "secret weapon" of a matriarch maneuvered her way through one of the most dangerous chapters of the century.

Discussion Guide: 

1. How did you experience the book? Were you engaged immediately, or did it take you a while to
"get into it"? How did you feel reading it—amused,
sad, disturbed, confused, bored...?


2. Describe the main characters—personality traits, motivations, and inner qualities.
• Why do characters do what they do?
• Are their actions justified?
• Describe the dynamics between characters (in a
   marriage, family, or friendship).
• How has the past shaped their lives?
• Do you admire or disapprove of them?
• Do they remind you of people you know?


3. Are the main characters dynamic—changing or maturing by the end of the book? Do they learn about themselves, how the world works and their role in it?


4. Discuss the plot:
• Is it engaging—do you find the story interesting?
• Is this a plot-driven book—a fast-paced page-turner?
• Does the plot unfold slowly with a focus on character?
• Were you surprised by complications, twists & turns?
• Did you find the plot predictable, even formulaic?


5. Talk about the book's structure.
• Is it a continuous story...or interlocking short stories?
• Does the time-line move forward chronologically?
• Does time shift back & forth from past to present?
• Is there a single viewpoint or shifting viewpoints?
• Why might the author have chosen to tell the story
   the way he or she did?
• What difference does the structure make in the way
   you read or understand the book?


6. What main ideas—themes—does the author explore? (Consider the title, often a clue to a theme.) Does the author use symbols to reinforce the main ideas? (See our free LitCourses on both Symbol and Theme.)


7. What passages strike you as insightful, even profound? Perhaps a bit of dialog that's funny or poignant or that encapsulates a character? Maybe there's a particular comment that states the book's thematic concerns?


8. Is the ending satisfying? If so, why? If not, why not...and how would you change it?


9. If you could ask the author a question, what would you ask? Have you read other books by the same author? If so how does this book compare. If not, does this book inspire you to read others?


10. Has this novel changed you—broadened your perspective? Have you learned something new or been exposed to different ideas about people or a certain part of the world?

 

(Questions by LitLovers)

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Author: 
Sullivan, Mark T.

Based on the true story of a forgotten hero, the USA Today and #1 Amazon Charts bestseller Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the triumphant, epic tale of one young man's incredible courage and resilience during one of history's darkest hours.

Pino Lella wants nothing to do with the war or the Nazis. He's a normal Italian teenager--obsessed with music, food, and girls--but his days of innocence are numbered. When his family home in Milan is destroyed by Allied bombs, Pino joins an underground railroad helping Jews escape over the Alps, and falls for Anna, a beautiful widow six years his senior.

In an attempt to protect him, Pino's parents force him to enlist as a German soldier--a move they think will keep him out of combat. But after Pino is injured, he is recruited at the tender age of eighteen to become the personal driver for Adolf Hitler's left hand in Italy, General Hans Leyers, one of the Third Reich's most mysterious and powerful commanders.

Now, with the opportunity to spy for the Allies inside the German High Command, Pino endures the horrors of the war and the Nazi occupation by fighting in secret, his courage bolstered by his love for Anna and for the life he dreams they will one day share.

Fans of All the Light We Cannot See, The Nightingale, and Unbroken will enjoy this riveting saga of history, suspense, and love.

(From the publisher)

Discussion Guide: 

1. BENEATH A SCARLET SKY is a work of historical fiction. As you were reading did you feel that the story was authentic? Given that the truth about what actually happened to each character is included at the end, talk about how Mark Sullivan crafted an interesting story while also sticking to the facts.

2. Throughout the book, Sullivan describes horrific scenes filled with violence, bombings and ruthless executions. How well do you think he captures the fear in the air? Does he strike the right balance between page-turner and paying homage to the brutal truth?

3. At the beginning of BENEATH A SCARLET SKY, bombs are dropped on Milan, destroying sections of the city. At this point, Mr. Beltramini’s grocery is saved. In talking to Pino Lella, Beltramini says, “If a bomb’s coming at you, it’s coming at you. You can’t just go around worrying about it. Just go on doing what you love, and go on enjoying your life.” What are your thoughts about his advice? Given what’s going on in the world today, do you live in fear of terrorism or war? How do you balance “enjoying your life” in spite of your fear?

4. If you or members of your book discussion group lived through World War II, here or abroad, how do your recollections match the emotions that you are reading here?

5. Father Re enlists Pino’s help to usher Italian Jews through the mountains to Switzerland and to safety. Catholics and Jews clearly have different belief systems. In today’s world, what do you think it would take for a Christian to help, say, a Muslim in a similar manner in a place of war? Do you think it’s possible for such an underground network to exist today?

6. Mrs. Napolitano is a pregnant Italian Jew who successfully escapes over the mountain pass in the dead of winter, in one of the most dramatic passages in the book. She almost dies along the way. If you were in her shoes, do you think you’d be brave enough to attempt the trek? What does it mean to be brave in the face of death?

7. There is a moment when Colonel Rauff, the head of the Gestapo in Milan, helps Father Re’s boys corral oxen into a pen. He enjoys himself and almost seems…human. What do you think the author intended by choosing to portray such an evil man in this light? Was it effective?

8. Just a few months shy of Pino’s 18th birthday, his father calls him back to Milan and demands that he enlist instead of waiting to be drafted. The catch? Enlisting with the Germans is safer. He is given a choice and chooses to enlist. Knowing you’d have to work for the enemy, what would you have done if you were in Pino’s shoes?

9. Almost by chance, Pino becomes the driver for one of the highest-ranking German officers in Italy. It’s a chance for Pino to become a spy, once again risking his life. If you were Pino, would you take advantage of the opportunity, knowing it could put your family in significant danger?

10. Pino’s best friend from childhood finds out that he’s a Nazi and accuses him of being a traitor. Pino can’t, of course, tell him the truth because it would put the mission in danger. What would it take for you to make a similar sacrifice? Is there a cause for a “greater good” that you’d risk anything for?

11. Anna catches Pino in the act of rifling through the Major General Hans Leyers’ things. When he tells her the truth, she softens and they kiss. What was your initial reaction during that scene? Did you trust Anna? Why or why not? How did your gut feeling change as the novel progressed? Do you think she deserved her fate?

12. After Pino and Major General Leyers are nearly killed by a British fighter plane, Leyers opens up to Pino and shares a bit about his life. Did this scene change the way you thought about him? Are people 100% evil, or is it possible to find humanity or goodness in everyone?

13. Major General Leyers gives Pino advice: “Doing favors… they help wondrously over the course of a lifetime. When you have done men favors, when you look out for others so they can prosper, they owe you. With each favor, you become stronger, more supported. It is a law of nature.” How does this statement inform Leyers’ character? Do you agree with this statement? Is doing and receiving favors about “owing,” or is it about something else?

14. Major General Leyers saves four sick children from Platform 21…and from death. Why do you think he does this? Out of the goodness of his heart, or is it one of his favors?

15. When the Germans surrender, the Italians turn on each other and many butcher each other to death, either for doing nothing or for being friendly with the Germans. Are their actions justified? Or is this violence just as condemnable?

16. Toward the end, Pino is given the chance to execute Major General Leyers. He doesn’t take it. Why do you think that is? What would you have done?

17. The ending is quite a shocker. Did you see it coming? Why or why not?

18. In certain sections, particularly in conversations between characters, Sullivan writes in a modern style. What effect, if any, does this have on the story or your perception of events? Does he capture the mood of the 1940s?

19. Sullivan provides information about what actually happened to the characters in the novel. After completing the book and finding out their destinies, did you feel each character got what they deserved?

20. In the preface, author Mark Sullivan admits to being suicidal the night he came up with the idea for BENEATH A SCARLET SKY. Did that information have any impact on how you perceived the book?

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Author: 
Horan, Nancy

From Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank, comes her much-anticipated second novel, which tells the improbable love story of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his tempestuous American wife, Fanny.
 
At the age of thirty-five, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium—with her three children and nanny in tow—to study art. It is a chance for this adventurous woman to start over, to make a better life for all of them, and to pursue her own desires. 

Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her children repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. Emerging from a deep sorrow, she meets a lively Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who falls instantly in love with the earthy, independent, and opinionated “belle Americaine.”

Fanny does not immediately take to the slender young lawyer who longs to devote his life to writing—and who would eventually pen such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson’s charms, and the two begin a fierce love affair—marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness—that spans the decades and the globe.

The shared life of these two strong-willed individuals unfolds into an adventure as impassioned and unpredictable as any of Stevenson’s own unforgettable tales. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1) In order to separate from her unfaithful husband, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne takes her children across the continental U.S. and the Atlantic to study art in Europe. Do you think it’s the wisest choice, given the impact on her children? Would you make a similar decision under the circumstances? Are there other options she could have pursued?

2) At first glance, Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson might seem an unlikely match. Why do you think they are so drawn to each other? Why does their relationship endure?

3) The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a phrase synonymous with the idea of the divided self. At any points in the novel, does Louis seem to live a double life? Does Fanny? In what ways do Fanny, Louis, and other characters struggle with their own identities?

4) After criticizing a story of Fanny’s, W. E. Henley incites a quarrel with Louis that threatens their friendship. Does Fanny deserve the criticism? Do you think she and RLS enhance or hinder each other’s artistic ambitions and accomplishments?

5) Take a look at John Singer Sargent’s painting “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife” (1885; currently in the Steve Wynn collection). What do you think of his portrayal of Fanny and Louis?

6) Many of us feel the need to shape a story out of the facts of our lives. In making these stories, we sometimes create myths about ourselves. Does Fanny invent myths about herself? Does RLS do the same?

7) The Stevensons travel all over the globe in search of the ideal climate for their family, from Switzerland to the South Seas. How do landscape and environment affect each of them? 

8) Many of Louis’s friends find Fanny overprotective of her husband. Do you agree or disagree? Are her actions justified?

9) In Samoa, late in their marriage, Louis suggests that the work Fanny does is not that of an artist. He tells her, “No one should be offended if it is said that he is not an artist. The only person who should be insulted by such an observation is an artist who supports his family with his work.” Do you agree with this? What does Fanny consider her art? Do you agree with her views?

10) Why do you think Horan chooses “Out of my country and myself I go” as the epigraph for this book?

11) What is Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary legacy? In what ways does reading UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY change your view of him and his writing? (From the author's website)

The Paris Wife

Author: 
McLain, Paula

A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, The Paris Wifecaptures a remarkable period of time and a love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.

Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. Surrounded by beautiful women and competing egos, Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history, pouring all the richness and intensity of his life with Hadley and their circle of friends into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises.

Hadley, meanwhile, strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly and her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.

A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty, The Paris Wife is all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. In many ways, Hadley's girlhood in St. Louis was a difficult and repressive experience. How do her early years prepare her to meet and fall in love with Ernest? What does life with Ernest offer her that she hasn't encountered before? What are the risks?

2. Hadley and Ernest don't get a lot of encouragement from their friends and family when they decided to marry. What seems to draw the two together? What are some of the strengths of their initial attraction and partnership? The challenges?

3. The Ernest Hemingway we meet in The Paris Wife—through Hadley's eyes—is in many ways different from the ways we imagine him when faced with the largeness of his later persona. What do you see as his character strengths? Can you see what Hadley saw in him?

4. The Hemingways spontaneously opt for Paris over Rome when they get key advice from Sherwood Anderson. What was life like for them when they first arrived? How did Hadley's initial feelings about Paris differ from Ernest's and why?

5. Throughout The Paris Wife, Hadley refers to herself as "Victorian" as opposed to "modern." What are some of the
ways she doesn't feel like she fits into life in bohemian Paris? How does this impact her relationship with Ernest? Her self-esteem? What are some of the ways Hadley's "old-fashioned" quality can be seen as a strength and not a weakness?

6. Hadley and Ernest's marriage survived for many years in Jazz-Age Paris, an environment that had very little patience for monogamy and other traditional values. What in their relationship seems to sustain them? How does their marriage differ from those around them? Pound's and Shakespeare's? Scott and Zelda's?

7. Most of The Paris Wife is written in Hadley's voice, but a few select passages come to us from Ernest's point of view. What impact does getting Ernest's perspective have on our understanding of their marriage? How does it affect your ability to understand him and his motivations in general?

8. What was the role of literary spouses in 1920's Paris? How is Hadley challenged and restricted by her gender? Would those restrictions have changed if she had been an artist and not merely a "wife"?

9. At one point, Ezra Pound warns Hadley that it would be a dire mistake to let parenthood change Ernest. Is there a nugget of truth behind his concern? What are some of the ways Ernest is changed by Bumby's birth? What about Hadley? What does motherhood bring to her life, for better or worse?

10. One of the most wrenching scenes in the book is when Hadley loses a valise containing all of Ernest's work to date. What kind of turning point does this mark for the Hemingway's marriage? Do you think Ernest ever forgives her?

11. When the couple moves to Toronto to have Bumby, Ernest tries his best to stick it out with a regular "nine-to-five" reporter's job, and yet he ultimately finds this impossible. Why is life in Toronto so difficult for Ernest? Why does Hadley agree to go back to Paris earlier than they planned, even though she doesn't know how they'll make it financially? How does she benefit from supporting his decision to make a go at writing only fiction?

12. Hadley and Ernest had similar upbringings in many ways. What are the parallels, and how do these affect the choices Hadley makes as a wife and mother?

13. In The Paris Wife, when Ernest receives his contract for In Our Time, Hadley says, "He would never again be unknown. We would never again be this happy." How did fame affect Ernest and his relationship with Hadley?

14. The Sun Also Rises is drawn from the Hemingways' real-life experiences with bullfighting in Spain. Ernest and his friends are clearly present in the book, but Hadley is not. Why? In what ways do you think Hadley is instrumental to the book regardless, and to Ernest's career in general?

15. How does the time and place—Paris in the 20's—affect Ernest and Hadley's marriage? What impact does the war, for instance, have on the choices and behavior of the expatriate artists surrounding the Hemingways? Do you see Ernest changing in response to the world around him? How, and how does Hadley feel about those changes?

16. What was the nature of the relationship between Hadley and Pauline Pfeiffer? Were they legitimately friends? How do you see Pauline taking advantage of her intimate position in the Hemingway's life? Do you think Hadley is naive for not suspecting Pauline of having designs on Ernest earlier? Why or why not?

17. It seems as if Ernest tries to make his marriage work even after Pauline arrives on the scene. What would Hadley it have cost Hadley to stick it out with Ernest no matter what? Is there a way she could have fought harder for her marriage?

18. In many ways, Hadley is a very different person at the end of the novel than the girl who encounters Ernest by chance at a party. How do you understand her trajectory and transformation? Are there any ways she essentially doesn't change?

19.When Hemingway's biographer Carlos Baker interviewed Hadley Richardson near the end of her life, he expected her to b e bitter, and yet she persisted in describing Ernest as a "prince." How can she have continued to love and admire him after the way he hurt her?

20. Ernest Hemingway spent the last months of his life tenderly reliving his first marriage in the pages his memoir, A Moveable Feast. In fact, it was the last thing he wrote before his death. Do you think he realized what he'd truly lost with Hadley?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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