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Book Discussion Questions: The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff

Cover of The Kommandant's GirlTitle: The Kommandant’s Girl
Author: Pam Jenoff
Page Count: 395 pages
Genre:  Historical Fiction, Romance
Tone: Mesmerizing, Intrigue

Summary:
Nineteen-year-old Emma Bau has been married only three weeks when Nazi tanks thunder into her native Poland. Within days Emma’s husband, Jacob, is forced to disappear underground, leaving her imprisoned within the city’s decrepit, moldering Jewish ghetto. But then, in the dead of night, the resistance smuggles her out. Taken to Krakow to live with Jacob’s Catholic cousin, Krysia, Emma takes on a new identity as Anna Lipowski, a gentile.
Emma’s already precarious situation is complicated by her introduction to Kommandant Richwalder, a high-ranking Nazi official who hires her to work as his assistant. Urged by the resistance to use her position to access details of the Nazi occupation, Emma must compromise her safety—and her marriage vows—in order to help Jacob’s cause. As the atrocities of war intensify, so does Emma’s relationship with the Kommandant, building to a climax that will risk not only her double life, but also the lives of those she loves.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. A Publisher’s Weekly review called The Kommandant’s Girl “historical romance at its finest”.

Is this a historical romance? Would you categorize it differently? Mira Books, which published the novel, is a division of Harlequin. Did it ever seem like a Harlequin romance novel?

If it is a historical romance, then romance between whom? Emma and Jacob? Or Emma and the Kommandant?

2. Did you believe the romance between Emma and Jacob?

3. Emma and Jacob were married only a few weeks before they were separated. How do you think the story might have been different if they had been married for six months? One year? Five?

4. Was Jacob right to leave the way he did? Do you think he knew what Emma was doing?

5. Did you believe the romance between Emma and the Kommandant? Did the age difference bother you? As Emma wonders, if they had met in a different world, a different time, do you think they could have been happy together? Were they “star-crossed lovers”?

6. Did you find yourself more invested in Jacob or in the Kommandant?

7. Did you find Emma a sympathetic character? heroic? Was she a believable 19-year-old?

8. What was the most difficult challenge faced by Emma? How did her choices affect others?

9. Did her attraction to the Kommandant make her situation easier? What if she had not had feelings for him?

10. Emma struggled not just with betraying her husband, but betraying her faith. Do you think her struggle was portrayed realistically? Would you say she was unfaithful? Given the circumstances, were her actions “right”? In other words, do the ends justify the means?

11. Another review (Booklist) claimed that the author “succeeded in humanizing the unfathomable as well as the heroic”. Would you agree that the Kommandant, for example, was humanized? Did you find him sympathetic? Why or why not? If so, were you uncomfortable (as Emma was) with your sympathy?

12. Was the Kommandant really going to shoot Emma?

13. What was your opinion of Malgorzata and her role in the story?

14. How does Lukasz change the story? What if it had just been Emma and Krysia involved in the deception? What does Krysia add?

15. How was the underground portrayed? Did you feel you understood the danger? What did you think of Alek? Was his death a surprise?

16. How did you feel about Marta? Did your feelings change at any point?

17. Was Jenoff’s choice to have Emma tell the story from her point of view a good one? Was it well-utilized?

18. This is a first novel for Jenoff. Is that apparent? How so? Do you like the author’s style?

19. What was the greatest strength of the book? Its most serious flaw?

20. The book was originally titled A Fine Crack of Light. What do you think that meant? Which title do you prefer?

21. Even among those who like the book, the ending is often singled out as somewhat flawed. Did it end the way you expected? Was it satisfying?

22. How might you respond to other concerns/ criticisms:

-too many coincidences, especially in closing chapters
-language (e.g., Emma’s habitual answering of “okay”)
-not as deep or as evocative as could have been (tells, doesn’t show)
-too-familiar story; market full of WWII fiction titles
-too serious a topic to treat lightly

23. Many authors have an idea and then research the time and place. Jenoff walked the streets, was immersed in stories, and then felt compelled to write. Can you tell? Did that serve the story well?

24. Did the book’s setting enhance the story? What about the individual settings, such as the ghetto?

25. What themes would you say are throughout the story? The publisher suggests “timeless themes of hope, struggle, defiance”; would you agree with these? Are there others you would add? How well were the themes addressed and/or communicated?

26. What was the purpose of the book? Was it to learn about history? Did you?

27. What’s next for Emma? Did she and Jacob have a happy life? Does she change her mind about telling Jacob about the baby? Should she?

28. What life do you predict Lukasz will lead?

Other Resources

Mount Prospect Public Library Discussion Resources
Harlequin Discussion Questions
Lit Lovers Reading Guide
Personal Q&A with Pam Jenoff
Interview with Jenoff about the book
Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website
Kommandant’s Girl backstory

If you liked The Kommandant’s Girl, try…

Cover of The Lost WifeThe Lost Wife
by Alyson Richman

Cover of AnyaAnya
by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

Cover of The Diplomat's WifeThe Diplomat’s Wife
by Pam Jenoff (sequel to The Kommandant’s Girl)

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on May 6, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Historical Fiction, Romance

Staff Pick: Sound and Color by Alabama Shakes

Picture of BarbaraSound & Color is Alabama Shakes follow-up album to their Grammy-nominated debut, Boys and Girls. The music is rooted in bluesy rock with a wide range of influences including elements of punk and heavy metal. What really drives the album is the soulful, raw vocals of Brittany Howard. Adding to the vocals are funky rhythms interspersed with passionate guitar riffs and perfectly timed melodic keyboarding. This album is pure toe-tapping fun.

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on May 5, 2015 Categories: Music

Fiction: Heroes and Villains for Star Wars Day

May the 4th be with you! It’s Star Wars Day, and whether your allegiances are with the Rebel Alliance or the Imperial Forces, thrilling adventures await. The newest class of author recruits includes the best, brightest, and bestselling of science fiction and fantasy writers, so strap yourself in and return to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

For those who fight the good fight:

Razor's Edge book coverRazor’s Edge
by Martha Wells

Honor Among Thieves book coverHonor Among Thieves
by James S. A. Corey

Heir to the Jedi book coverHeir to the Jedi
by Kevin Hearne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those drawn to the Dark Side:

Maul Lockdown coverMaul Lockdown
by Joe Schreiber

Tarkin book coverTarkin
by James Luceno

Lords of the Sith book coverLords of the Sith
by Paul S. Kemp

 

By Cathleen, Readers' Advisor on May 4, 2015 Categories: Books, Fantasy & Sci-Fi

Do You Prefer Happy or Sad Stories?

Cover of Breathing Lessons

 Would you rather read a…

happy story?

“I hate (yes, HATE) sad stories because they always make me cry and I do not cry pretty (racking sobs, runny nose, red eyes and splotches all over)!!” -Denise from Fiction/AV/Teen

“I prefer stories with happy endings because they make me feel good and have a more positive outlook on life.”  -Donna from Fiction/AV/Teen

“I prefer happy stories because there’s already so much tragedy and sadness in real life in our faces everyday.”
-Joe from Research

 

 

 

 

 

sad story?

I prefer sad stories because there are many ways to be surprised in a sad story and because evoking those feelings remind me that everyone goes through them.” -Cynthia from Research

“Although I love ALL types of stories, if I had to pick I would probably say I prefer sad stories, because I feel like they more accurately depict life, which is never without its challenges. I think the happy moments also mean more and have a greater impact when they’re found in the midst of a sad story.”
-Janine from Circulation

“Writing that creates beauty out of heartbreak has an artistry I can’t resist.”
– Cathleen from Fiction/AV/Teen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

or are you torn?

“I confess to liking both sad and happy if the story is well written. A good sad story for me is one that has a moral or ethical conundrum that makes be think about it at the end. For happy stories, I like a good “coming of age” story where the protagonist learns a lesson about life and has an uplifting and/or happy ending.” -Larry from Fiction/AV/Teen

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week by the 2nd floor elevator we are displaying happier and sadder stories! Check out the titles below and more on the display. If you would like books picked out personally for your taste, ask a Readers’ Advisor at the Fiction/AV/Teen Services desk to match you with some books, or email us at readers@mppl.org.

The Happily Ever Afters

Cover of AnythingAnything Considered
by Peter Mayle

Cover of The Marriage Bureau for Rich People The Marriage Bureau for Rich People
by Farahad Zama

Cover of The Summer We Read GatsbyThe Summer We Read Gatsby
by Danielle Ganek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover of ScaramoucheScaramouche
by Rafael Sabatini

Cover of The Garden of Happy EndingsThe Garden of Happy Endings
by Barbara O’Neal

Cover of Breathing LessonsBreathing Lessons
by Anne Tyler

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Not So Happily Ever Afters

Cover of The Bluest EyeThe Bluest Eye
by Toni Morrison

Cover of SunflowersSunflowers
by Sheramy Bundrick

Cover of She's Come UndoneShe’s Come Undone
by Wally Lamb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover of If He Had Been With MeIf He Had Been With Me
by Laura Nowlin

Cover of Johnny Got His GunJohnny Got His Gun
by Dalton Trumbo

Cover of The Heart is a Lonely HunterThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter
by Carson McCullers

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on May 1, 2015 Categories: Books, Lists, Literary

Fiction: All the Rage by Courtney Summers

Cover of All the RageRed lips. Red nails. It’s not makeup. It’s armor. When you’re a girl from the wrong side of town, when you’re a girl being bullied by your former friends, when you’re a girl raped by the sheriff’s son… you need armor. Romy is merely trying to survive daily life, but the tension in her life triples when an ex-friend from school goes missing. Courtney Summer’s fifth novel, All the Rage, is the raw exploration of the strength of a high school girl, the failings of a small town, the responsibilities people have to one another, and the frail strings holding one person together.

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on April 30, 2015 Categories: Books

Staff Pick: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Picture of CynthiaMedieval historian-turned-mortician Caitlin Doughty brings a unique blend of historical perspective, practical training, and newbie experiences to her exploration of modern death in the U.S.  The essays in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes include some gory details, but also honest accounts of a new mortician sometimes fumbling her way in the space after death.

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on April 28, 2015 Categories: Books, Nonfiction, Picks by Cynthia, Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Now, Voyager

Cover of Now VoyagerDiane of Fiction/AV/Teen services suggests Now, Voyager

Hollywood cranked out women’s pictures, or weepies, with excessive emotional fervor from the 1930s to 1950s. For many historians, 1942’s Now, Voyager starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains, is the definitive weepie. Davis portrays Charlotte Vale, a dowdy Boston spinster, oppressed and driven to a nervous breakdown by a domineering mother. She recovers with the help of a kindly psychiatrist, played by Claude Rains, who runs a mental health sanitarium. After leaving the doctor’s care, Charlotte takes an ocean voyage where she finds self-confidence and love through a romance with an unhappily-married man, played by Paul Henreid, and ends up taking his emotionally troubled daughter under her wing.

 

For more movies featuring Bette Davis as the headstrong lead try

Cover of Dark Victory
Dark Victory follows the life of a fast moving Long Island socialite who skids to a stop when she discovers that she has less than a year to live.

Cover of The Letter
Set on a rubber plantation in Malaya, The Letter centers on a woman’s reasons for killing a man who was a close family friend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover of The Old MaidHeadstrong, beautiful Tina has nothing but disdain for her Aunt Charlotte, in The Old Maid, but unloved, unlovable Aunt Charlotte is really Tina’s mother, whose romance with a Civil War soldier that didn’t return resulted in Tina’s birth.

Cover of Deception
World War II has separated pianist Christine Radcliffe from her great love, cellist Karel Novak. Thinking Karel has been killed in action, she is unexpectedly reunited with him. Pulling off the ultimate Deception, she’ll lie to keep her shameful past as the mistress of a wealthy composer a secret.

Cover of The Great Lie
In The Great Lie, tempestuous and ambitious concert pianist Sandra shares a bond with down-to-earth Maggie and her little boy, Pete. No one knows that Pete is Sandra’s son – the son of the heroic aviator both women love.

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on April 27, 2015 Categories: Movies and TV, Picks by Diane, Staff Picks

New in Historical Fiction: Girl Athletes, The Effects of War, Thrillers, The Creative Life

Every other Friday the Library will bring you short lists of buzz-worthy books. Take a look below to check out some of the newest historical fiction titles that have arrived at the Library.

Girl Athletes

Cover of The Fair FightThe Fair Fight
by Anna Freeman

Cover of Girl RunnerGirl Runner
by Carrie Snyder

Cover of GwendolenGwendolen
by Diana Souhami

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Effects of War

Cover of A Slant of LightA Slant of Light
by Jeffrey Lent

Cover of The SympathizerThe Sympathizer
by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Cover of The Last Flight of Poxl WestThe Last Flight of Poxl West
by Daniel Torday

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historical Thrillers

Cover of Whisper HollowWhisper Hollow
by Chris Cander

Cover of The Bone Tree The Bone Tree
by Greg Iles

Cover of Garden of LiesGarden of Lies
by Amanda Quick

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Creative Life

Cover of Mademoiselle Chanel Mademoiselle Chanel
by C.W. Gortner

Cover of The Bridal Chair The Bridal Chair
by Gloria Goldreich

Cover of Paris RedParis Red
by Maureen Gibbon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For these and other fresh reads, stop by the second floor Fiction/AV/Teen desk or email us at readers@mppl.org to talk to a Readers’ Advisor about new and old titles tailored to your taste.

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on April 24, 2015 Categories: Books, Historical Fiction, New Arrivals

Fiction: The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

Cover of The Fire SermonIt is four hundred years after the nuclear apocalypse. All humans are born as twins: the flawless, superior Alpha at the top of society and the deformed, mutated Omega shunned to the bottom. Cass is an Omega with a rare mutation: the ability to see into the future. Zach, her other half, is the Alpha, and as he rapidly rises in rank he puts Cass in more danger, for if one twin dies the other twin dies too. Francesca Haig has crafted a well-thought out world to deliver The Fire Sermon, an action-packed story of hatred, betrayal, and one girl unknowingly on her way to change the world.

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on April 23, 2015 Categories: Books, Fantasy & Sci-Fi

Book Discussion Questions: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clarke Newell

Cover of Empty MansionsTitle: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
Author: Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, JR.
Page Count: 456 pages
Genre:  Nonfiction, Biographies
Tone: Suspenseful, Extravagant

Summary:
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed a property listing for a grand estate that had been unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled into one of the most surprising American stories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Empty Mansions is a rich tale of wealth and loss, complete with copper barons, Gilded Age opulence, and backdoor politics. At its heart is a reclusive 104-year-old heiress named Huguette Clark. Dedman has collaborated with Huguette’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have had frequent conversations with her, to tell a fairy tale in reverse: the bright, talented daughter who is born into an almost royal family of amazing wealth and privilege, yet who secrets herself away from the outside world. Empty Mansions reveals a complete picture of the enigmatic Huguette Clark, heiress to one of the greatest fortunes in American history, a woman who had not been photographed in public since the 1920s.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

1. Is it difficult to understand why Huguette chose not to live in any of her beautiful homes for the last 20 years of her life?

2. Huguette preferred solitude for so much of her life, and then apparently enjoyed the hustle & bustle of the hospital environment. Does this make sense to you? Does it help explain her decision to spend so many years in the hospital? What other factors might have contributed to her choice?

3. Is there a “right” way to spend or give money? Do you believe this depends on if you’ve earned the money yourself or if you’ve received it through an inheritance?

4. Why did Huguette prefer giving to individuals versus institutions?

5. Why do we care how wealthy people spend their money?

6. Consider Andrew Carnegie’s theory (pg. 113) of the three stages of life – education, making money, and giving all the money away. What are your thoughts on this when applied to W.A. Clark and Huguette?

7. How important was control to Huguette (with her environment and in her relationships for example)?

8. Her wealth aside, was there anything unusual about Huguette?

9. What traits of Huguette are to be admired? What traits of hers were not so admirable? What were some of her gifts? How about her limitations?

10. What makes her a challenging biographical subject? Does her limited circle of contacts make her more or less interesting to read about? What makes her a good biographical subject?

11. Do you believe Huguette suffered from mental illness? What is the authors’ stance on this?

12. What lingering mysteries about Huguette remain? Does this book answer questions or raise additional questions?

13. Huguette is reported to have said “we are all a little peculiar” — do you agree? What does the term “eccentric” mean to you? Do you believe the term has an association with wealth or not necessarily?

14. The authors point out at the end (pg. 354) that Huguette was not necessarily as isolated as we might think – she had regular visitors, had nurse Hadassah, was pen pal to many, etc. What are your thoughts on this?

15. Here we have a book written about someone who intensely guarded her private life and went to great lengths to avoid the spotlight (for example, avoiding selling items out of fear of attention it might draw). Are there any ethical issues to consider with this book?

16. Consider the title — Do you find empty houses troubling or wasteful? If so, does the size or value of the house affect your level of concern? (Fancy vs. plain, huge vs. modest, unique vs. ordinary)

17. Do you believe the title was a good choice? Does it reflect the content of the book? Would you describe Huguette’s life as mysterious? Is it fair to single out Huguette’s “spending of a great American fortune” when she wasn’t his only heir and her share of W.A.’s estate was just one-fifth?

18. What was your response to the detail of gifts and donations – fascinated? Disgusted? Puzzled? Wonder? Why do you think the authors included such detail? (examples: page 247, 261, 264-5)

19. Why did the authors devote a large portion of the book to W. A. Clark?

20. In what ways did Huguette differ from her father? What character traits did she have that resembled his?

21. Do you like how the book was structured? It is not always chronological; did you like this or not?

22. How did the “Conversations with Huguette” sections affect your reading experience?

23. What did the authors hope to achieve by writing this book? Do you think they succeeded? What do they want us to know about Huguette?

24. Are the authors objective and balanced in their portrayal of Huguette? Do you think other authors might have presented a more sensational account of her life?

Other Resources

Images from Huguette’s life
Lit Lovers’ Discussion Questions
Video Interview with Bill Dedman
NPR article on auction of Huguette’s items

If you liked Empty Mansions, try…

Cover of The Secret Rooms Cover of A Curious Man Cover of The Phantom of Fifth Avenue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey
A Curious Man by Neal Thompson
The Phantom of Fifth Avenue by Meryl Gordon

By Jenny, Readers' Advisor on April 22, 2015 Categories: Book Discussion Questions, Books, Nonfiction