A note from Emyl
Before you glance over these questions– For me, one of most fun things about writing books is connecting with readers. While lots of authors complain about book tours, I love going out and meeting people and hearing your stories. Some of them even make their way onto my pages (disguised, of course).
When it’s possible, I’d love to join your meeting in person, via SKYPE, telephone, or to answer questions sent to me by email. To arrange a ‘virtual visit,’ send an email to me at Emyl@EmylJenkins.com with the message line reading Invitation to join us.
Now on to the guides….
Because the Sterling Glass mysteries interweave antiques into the story, I’ve had several people ask for some questions appropriate to antiques groups, in addition to the usual book club discussions. So as a guide to begin discussions, or just to add own own enjoyment of this series, here are two sets of questions for both The Big Steal and Stealing With Style–one for book clubs, and the other for antiques groups. But none of these questions are meant to be exclusive to one type of discussion group and can easily be interchanged to fit everyone’s interests.
Also, many of the questions posed here relate not just to the books, but to our lives—whether we’re trying to figure out why people act the way they do, or we’re grappling with whether or not to buy a particular antique. As Amy Lowell wrote in 1912, “For books are more than books, they are the life/The very heart and core of ages past…” To which I would add, “past and present.”
The Big Steal
Questions for book clubs
1. The Big Steal opens with an epigram from Robert Frost’s poem, “An Importer.” Its mention of ivories, jades, etc., acts as a foreshadowing of what Sterling Glass will find at Wynderly. Earlier, in Stealing with Style, Sterling Glass’s first adventure, Sterling remarks: “Invite me over to see your things one day and after about thirty seconds I’ll know all about you.” To what extend do you think a home and its furnishings reveal a person’s true personality?
2. From the start, Sterling has conflicting thoughts about Michelle. On pages 5-6 she says: “Trouble was, Michelle Hendrix had been dogging my every step. And like the Tang horses, she, too, was proving to be perplexing.” Then on pages 16/17 she says: “Still, I tried putting myself in her shoes. With the house closed to visitors, she had to be lonesome. What else had she to do than show me around? I’m sure she thought I needed the orientation.”
What do these comments at the beginning of the book tell the reader about both Sterling and Michelle?
3. You don’t have to be an antiques aficionado to have read about the scandal that made national headlines when a senior curator at the Getty Museum was indicted on criminal charges relating to the acquisition of some antiquities. Just what makes antiques and antiquities so desirable? Do you suspect Michelle as being the thief? Do her actions suggest this, or is it Sterling’s observations that make you suspicious of her?
4. Ironically, national news is often mirrored in happenings occurring in smaller communities. That’s what happens in The Big Steal. Mazie’s situation reminded some people of Elizabeth Edwards’ story as she related it in Resilience. Michelle comes under suspicion at Wynderly at the same time the newswires are carrying stories about the incident at the Getty Art Museum. What are some incidents (of any sort) in your community that, coincidentally, have “mirrored” similar stories of larger, national interest and intrigue?
5. Sterling is attracted to both Matt and Peter. We learn that she has a comfortable friendship with Peter when she calls him to chat about her observations at Wynderly. What is your impression of Peter early in the book? Do your impression change as the book progresses? If so, why?
6. Sterling’s mother is a large part of her conscience. Is this true to life? How has your own mother shaped you in your adult life? Do you think your children will hear your voice in their heads when they are Sterling’s age?
7. Once Sterling is able to escape Michelle’s clutches, she heads straight to the attic knowing that this is where much information (and many secrets) are often hidden away. Writers have long used letters or diaries found in a box or trunk as a way to move a story forward. Is this is just a “device,” or is it true to life and happens every day? What are some other books where letters, receipts, bills of sale, even valuable treasures have been uncovered in the attic?
8. At Wynderly’s board meeting Sterling remarks, “Whoever had appointed the board members must have first made a call to central casting.” (page 38) She then sums the people up by their appearance, much the way she would identify an antique by its physical characteristics. Have you ever wondered if people look like they act, or act like they look?
10. The “Virginia way” runs throughout The Big Steal. When Sterling first sees Wynderly she muses that it is “unlike the stately eighteenth-century Georgian plantations Virginia is known for…” (page 2), and again she comments, “the house wasn’t at all in keeping with the slightly frumpy style this part of Virginia was famous for. . . Fashions might come and go, but not the family’s ancestral huntboard or threadbare Oriental rugs.” (page 15)
In the board meeting she is relieved when Houseman doesn’t mention her former husband, “…or elaborated on his well-known old Virginia last name, Glass. Southerners are notorious for dwelling on who you’re kin to, through birth or marriage.” (page 40)
What are some unique “ways” that distinguish your part of the country from other regions? Do “old-fashioned” customs still persist just among certain segments (economic or social) of the population, or in general? Do these “ways” make a region more colorful, or do they cause problems?
11. When Tracy DuMont is addressing the board (pages 48-51) she is confident, even brazen. Is she this way because of her power, which comes from her money, or is she actually speaking the truth and saying what the board doesn’t want to face?
12. People take to Sterling. Worth Merritt does (page 56), as do Frank Fox, Michelle, Peggy Powers, Miss Mary Sophie, and Tracy DuMont. Yet Sterling is sometimes suspicious of what peoples’ motives may be. On page 217 she chastises herself by saying, “I do wish I wasn’t so suspicious all the time.” What does this say about Sterling? Would you take her into your confidence?
13. Worth Merritt warns Sterling not to call Frederick Graham anything but Frederick (page 58), but Tracy DuMont calls him “Freddy.” (page 192) What does this tell you about both Graham and DuMont? And what does Worth’s explanation of Tracy (pages 59-60) tell you about her? Do you like Tracy in the opening part of the book? Do your feelings for her change during Sterling’s dinner at her house? How do you feel about her at the end of the book?
14. Worth says to Sterling, “Some nights I sit in our home that was once so lively, look around, and realize my old things have become my old friends.” Have you seen that happen in your own family? What one piece in your own home would you want to always have with you? Is it the most valuable piece?
15. Mazie kept her most loved and precious “old things” hidden away from the public. Why do you think she did this?
16. When Worth is talking about the Wyndfield’s money and Wynderly, he says, “Now don’t think that for one minute Hoyt and Mazie were affected by the Depression. . . Theirs was tobacco money…Alcohol and tobacco. The last things a man gives up in hard times.” Does that still apply today as it did then?
17. Wynderly and the surrounding countryside loom large in The Big Steal. To what extent does geography shape people in today’s world of technology and travel? Could these characters have existed in another environment?
18. Miss Mary Sophie is a complex woman, full of contradictions. What has contributed to this?
19. It can be argued that we have lost the once-revered feeling of family pride “at all cost” that Miss Mary Sophie speaks of when recounting her conversation with Mazie. (page 285) Why has this happened? Is such pride helpful or hurtful?
20. Can you put yourself back into Mazie’s time and envision the blind devotion she held for Hoyt? Do you think such love stories were ever really possible, or just wishful thinking?
21. Do Edith Wharton’s lines (page 333) that compare a woman’s nature to a great house full of rooms ring as true today as they did when she wrote them in 1893? In what way would Wynderly and its rooms fit this description of Mazie’s nature?
22. Though The Big Steal is a mystery, and antiques and objects are important to the story, yet another theme that runs through the book: How the women brought together by Wynderly—Mazie, Miss Mary Sophie, Michelle, Tracy, and of course, Sterling—view life and love. Discuss each woman’s views and how she is the product of her time and upbringing. (For example, in Chapter 33, on page 285, Miss Mary Sophie tells Sterling, “Mazie might have been a woman of the 1950s, but she had been a child of the teens—a full century ago, now. It was a time of gallantry and undying devotion. Mazie would never have done anything to disgrace Hoyt.”)
23. Who would you have Sterling end up with? Peter or Matt? Why? If you read Stealing With Style, how do you think her feelings are progressing?
Questions for antiques groups
1. Wynderly plays a large part in The Big Steal. The home, described as “a French chateau crossed with an English manor house,” was built during America’s popular architectural “Colonial Revival” era. What are some of the other European styles imitated in the newly sprouting-up residential neighborhoods of every town of any size in America during this time? And why, if the houses were “European” inspired, was the period called the Colonial Revival?
2. There is a popular phrase, “the taste of the times.” During the Colonial Revival many great collections were assembled by the fabulously wealthy. Some collectors focused on American antiques, while others imported treasures from England and Europe.
What are some examples of both types of these collections? Is it possible to define one “taste” as dominating any particular “time” or era? (See the last paragraph on page 68.) How would you define today’s “taste?”
3. Peter Donaldson runs the Salvation Army’s thrift shop.
Worth Merritt, bemoans, “I sure do wish my parents had kept some of the stuff they threw away. I could open a museum.” (page 53)
What are some of the best buys you’ve found in second-hand shops over the years? And, looking back, have you ever sent items to these charity shops that you wished you hadn’t?
4. Sterling remarks that the values of antiques can fluctuate the same way stock values can. (page 3) What are some categories of antiques that you’ve seen swing—either up or down—of late, and why do you think these swings have occurred?
5. The “Dear Antiques Expert” opening to Chapter 5 (page 29) discusses faux finishes. Have you ever (mistakenly) bought a piece thinking it was real marble or jade or lapis or even a string of pearls or other jewelry, only to discover otherwise once you got it home or had it appraised? Share some of the ways you can detect the real and the “faux.”
6. Along the same lines— Ethically, what is the dealer’s or auctioneer’s responsibility to correctly identify his merchandise to his potential customers? Conversely, does the customer have any responsibility to inform the seller that a piece is different from how it is marked?
7. When Sterling is addressing the board (page 46) she tells them to be on the lookout for any items they might see either locally or elsewhere that could possibly have been taken from Wynderly. What usually happens to things after they have been stolen? Do you know of incidents where items have been recovered after a theft?
8. There’s much in The Big Steal about appraising and the need to know the value and market for antiques. In today’s eBay and Internet world, do you think the role of the antiques appraiser is slowly fading away?
9. The distinction between “antiques” and “collectibles” is made clear in the opening of chapter 7, as well as in the discussion between Worth Merritt and Sterling over dinner (page 53). Do you find the distinction to be important? How does the distinction between antiques and collectibles vary in different parts of the country?
10. Worth says to Sterling, “Some nights I sit in our home that was once so lively, look around, and realize my old things have become my old friends.” (page 63) Have you seen that happen in your own family? Do you ever think about the meaning “things” have in a person’s life when you’re antiquing?
11. Worth explains the influence of WWI on America’s taste for home furnishings (page 68). Give some examples of other national and world events that have influenced people’s tastes. What role does the media play in shaping our tastes today?
12. When Michelle is whisking Sterling through Wynderly, Sterling thinks to herself that there isn’t any hint of anyone having lived there. (page 32) “It was cold and sterile, the way most house museums are. No wonder people don’t want to visit them.” Have you found this to be true of house museums you have visited? What are some of your favorite house museums and why?
13. In The Big Steal antiques are used to conceal various illegal traffickings. Does this seem farfetched or realistic? Have you ever found anything concealed in an antique?
14. Do you think the fictional insurance company of Babson and Michael was justified in pursuing the values of the lost and damaged antiques at Wynderly? Should they have accepted the values submitted by the Wynderly board? What personal experiences have you had with insuring antiques?
15. Of the “Dear Antiques Expert” openings, which did you find most helpful? As serious students of antiques, did you learn anything new from these?
16. In the very beginning of the book, (page 4) Sterling says “I loved antiques for all the right reasons—beauty, craftsmanship, and especially the memories our treasures hold.” Are there other reasons for loving antiques? What first attracted you to antiques?
17. But Sterling also says, “Then I learned how some corrupt silversmith has fused 18th-century English hallmarks on the bottoms of Colonial Williamsburg reproduction silver pitchers…. It had forever changed the way I looked at everything.” (page 5) Has your knowledge of the deception that can transpire in the antiques world colored or influenced your love for antiques?
18. When Miss Mary Sophie is attempting to explain how Hoyt could get away with all that he did she says that he was their “F. Scott Fitzgerald.” (page 289) Have you encountered his “type” in your antiquing adventures? Is Hoyt realistic or just a character in a book?
19. What do you think Tracy DuMont will do with Wynderly? What would you do with it?
Stealing With Style
(the page numbers refer to the paperback edition)
Questions for book clubs
1. Sterling opens her story with a confession: “I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way because I’ve spoken first and thought second.” What image of her does that create in your mind? Do her flaws make her more or less likable and enjoyable to watch?
2. Peter, too, seems to have made some errors of his own along the way. Reflecting on his good deeds as a “retired minister” and his struggles with his conscience when serving as a priest (page 262) what do you think of him? Have you known people who have entered religious service with good intentions only to be disillusioned? Does this “change of heart” seem to happen more in the ministry than other professions?
3. Before meeting Sterling Glass did you have any preconceived ideas about antiques appraisers? How does she fit your concept? How not?
4. How does Leemont fit your image of the typical mid-size Southern town? Had you ever heard of a Starvation Party before? What other insights did the book give you into the South?
5. At the museum party Sterling is chased down by a fellow who stands out from the other guests. (page 43) Why do you think he is there? Does his later role in the book come as a surprise to you?
6. Sterling really doesn’t want to bother with Sol, but ends up agreeing to see “his mysterious molds.” (page 57) Once she meets him, though, she is fascinated by his molds and enchanted by him. What makes Sol such an endearing man?
7. Sterling’s mother acts as her conscience in some scenes. In others she goads her on. In your mind, how would you describe her? What sort of relationship do you think they had when her mother was alive?
8. The New York auction houses are both the source of some of the greatest art treasures in the world, and a playground for the rich and famous. What has created the mystique around Sotheby’s and Christie’s? At the very opening of the book Sterling remarks that “Even my friends working at the auction houses and museums find it’s hard to be around fabulous objects when they can’t afford them.” (page 3) Anna and Dana Henchloe certainly prove the validity of that statement. How involved to you think Nigel and Richie might be in underhanded schemes?
9. Speaking of ethical issues as they relate to valuable objects, what do you think of Peter’s handling of the album quilt at the very beginning of the book? (page 12)
10. Throughout Stealing With Style we see the elderly taken advantage of. Is this a recent problem, or have we become more aware of such scams as our population ages and we hear more about Alzheimer’s, etc.? Have all the price guides and shows like The Antiques Roadshow contributed to such situations as the public becomes more aware of the value of antiques and art? In other words, does “opportunity makes a thief?”
11. One of my own favorite characters in the book is Maribelle Mason. Have you ever encountered an antiques dealer similar to her? Is she a dying breed?
12. If you were Sterling, would you have ventured out to Sol’s the second time? What other precarious situations can you imagine an appraiser might encounter?
13. In Stealing with Style Jane Finn and the roofers are poised and eager to take advantage of the elderly. Have you witnessed this in your own lives, family, neighborhood? Why are they able to continue to do this?
14. Ed Pavich tells Sterling that she couldn’t expect much help from the NYPD. (page 293) Does this ring true? How would the law enforcement in your own town react to similar crimes of personal property to those Sterling encounters in Stealing With Style?
15. Why do you think antiques come and go out of fashion? What are some of today’s “fashionable” styles? Do your parents or grandparents have some antiques that you don’t like at all? What are they and why not?
16. And of course, the loaded question…Peter or Matt?
Questions for antiques groups
1) Most people think anything that belonged to a grandmother is antique. We grannies don’t like that much. What are the legal, connoisseur, and generally accepted definitions of an antique? How has the line between these definitions become so smudged?
2) Why is it important for appraisers to know history, especially the role inventions, play in civilization?
3) Before arriving at an accurate and fair value for an object, what are the various points an appraiser has to take into consideration? When can condition be given a little slack? How really important is rarity?
4) What is the difference between Art Nouveau and Art Deco? Why do you think one style is so much more popular than the other?
5) Would a “reproduction” made from an original mold would be more valuable than a reproduction that is made from a new mold? What might some of the differences in an old and new mold be?
6) The opening question to Chapter 21 (page 214) deals with fair market and replacement values. Do you think the popularity of auctions, both local and national, have blurred the difference between these values?
7) In Stealing With Style, the Creightons are representative of a growing problem in today’s world: elderly people unable to adequately care for and protect their treasured possessions. What is the antiques community’s responsibility in such situations? Have you seen situations where such people were taken advantage of by antiques professionals?
8. How do the think the proliferation of reproductions has affected the antiques market? Do they make people want the real thing more or less?
9) On a personal note, I was thrilled when Robert Sack of the venerable and incomparable Israel Sack Antiques wrote after reading Sterling’s adventure, “Stealing with Style not only has “style,” but “gets it right.” What are some of the myths that have grown up around antiques and the antiques trade that are just plain wrong.