Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book clubs have a style of their own

Libraries sponsor book groups. So do churches, seniors groups and social clubs. There are secular and spiritual groups, and community/neighbor groups started in a variety of ways.

Dozens of clubs, thousands of books to choose from — what’s a group to do? Turns out, plenty. Some groups specialize — history, politics (right wing, left wing and in between), the classics, poetry and biography, for instance — but many select from a combination, interweaving fiction and nonfiction with great literature, seeking variety and new knowledge. Picking selections is always fun — and may involve a luncheon, a special meeting at the nearby library or bookstore, snacks and wine at a member’s home. Those selections often sweep from mouth to mouth, club to club, town to town and state to state, occasionally creating best-sellers even before the publishers have time to tout them as such.

The book group I attend in Lancaster decides books for the year at one meeting, but sometimes makes a switch mid-stream if a better selection is suggested, or it’s felt that too many similar books have been lined up (depressing books tend to be panned over the winter months). Advantages are obvious: Books are more readily obtainable through various sources when there’s lead time, and there’s more time to read them. Deciding from month to month allows more flexibility in selecting timely choices from newer releases, but this can also force members to pay the hardcover price, since a popular new book is harder to get at the library. Sometimes the number of requests for a best-seller top 100, 200 or more — one reason it’s good to have a friend in the library.

If they know in advance, as well, most librarians will place individual holds on a book for their book club members, assisting them in the process of borrowing selected books.

Sutton’s Full Court Press book group — 12 former basketball moms who wanted to stay connected after their sons graduated — conducts cleverly themed book meetings. After reading “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” (by Helen Simonson), the group held its discussion within the format of a formal tea party. A ton of work, reported member Brenda Yates, but lots of fun. They also read actor Sidney Poitier’s autobiography, “The Measure of a Man,” and watched “Lilies of the Field” as part of that exploration. For their next book (“We wanted something silly”), they’ll read Jenn McKinlay’s mystery, “Buttercream Bumpoff,” and bake cupcakes from the book for a cupcake exchange. Then comes “Jane Eyre,” also paired with a movie.

Ideas like these keep meetings from becoming a bore, and change the usual framework, encouraging output from members who might be quiet at other meetings.

About a half-dozen Rutland-area readers attend The Cozy Book Nook group formed in September; they’d like to have tips on how to increase membership, as only four or five attend each meeting. Suggestions? The group meets monthly at Rutland’s Community Center. They’ve already discussed “Julia and Julia,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” “Dark Tide” (well-received by members) and “The #1 Ladies Detective Agency.”

In mid-February, I attended the Red Rock Readers group in St. George, Utah, where a group of spirited snowbirds held its February meeting at the local country club. It was quite a treat. After a perfect lunch, 15 members discussed Jodi Picoult’s novel about the impact of false accusations on innocent lives, “Salem Falls.” They also voted to invite their male partners to the next meeting, the topic being Lauren Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken,” about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who became a WWII hero through a harrowing, three-year experience after his plane crashed.

Since they’d found it would cost $10,000 to bring Mr. Zamperini to St. George, or $2,500 for a video and phone interview (an uncommon cost for author visits), they discussed alternatives common to clubs seeking authors: films, Skype interviews, documentaries. A Facebook friend and reader in Florida highly recommends Skype interviews at book discussions; we’ll have more on that on another date.

Betsey Johnson, member of a 37-year-old book club in Holden, chooses books for the group — a band of longtime friends who’ve seen each other through babies and grandchildren — and avoids most best-sellers. She made an exception for Kahled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” “Empire Falls” by Richard Russo and Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible.” This group really mixes it up, with classics and contemporary writers.

She mentioned Granta’s book of American Short Stories, a collection of strong new fiction by writers, which can provide hints leading to great novels. The “Best of …” series are a great source of authors. I read short story collections and lit journals such as Granta, Ploughshares (at Emerson College), Glimmer Train and the Paris Review to explore unfamiliar writers as well, and it was a story by T.C. Boyle that led me to his longer fiction, “The Tortilla Curtain,” “East is East” and many more.

There’s a brand new book club in Worcester, as yet unnamed, which recently read Jeannette Walls’ nonfiction narrative to follow up the jaw-dropping story of Walls’ upbringing, “The Glass Castle.” It’s her maternal ancestor’s story, called “Half-Broke Horses.” They’re currently reading “Cutting for Stone.”

How do you conduct your meetings, and where? What are the rules? How do you build membership? Send comments or questions, ideas, favorite meeting places and your group’s information to me, in as much detail as you wish. This is a great way to link one group to another, sharing knowledge of favorites and tips for groups.

Contact Ann Connery Frantz at, or write to her in care of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 20 Franklin St., Worcester, MA 01605.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reading for the head and soul

Book club members know that discussing a book introduces new questions and ideas about life. Reading, and writing, are a means of escape, education, emotional change.
The same process occurs within writing groups. I belong to one at the Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster (now expanded to two groups). As we discuss each other's writing for the day, interpretations are often varied; layers in the writing unleash different emotions and memories among the listeners.
That's the way it is with reading, guaranteeing that book group discussions will always be varied. And that's a good thing.
We love books in different ways. Witness some favorites:
"East of Eden" called to me not so much because of its story line - an errant wife, overbearing father, brothers at odds and competing for love. Steinbeck played them so well against each other and drew each of them so intimately that motives and painful regrets became clear in each of these complex people.
"The Great Gatsby," describing a social class known to Fitzgerald but removed from high school lives, means much more today - both for its simple clarity and an adult's ability to understand the actions and failures of Gatsby and Daisy so much more intimately.
In Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible," one must absorb thousands of words dealing with the everyday evolution of a missionary family's experience in the jungle wilderness to reach the real core, an unfolding insanity that imprisons the family in an autocratic father's misguided missionary zeal - until they can no longer bear it, and must escape their losses.
Many of us first knew the values of strong character, loyalty, and familial love through the characters of Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem in Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." One remembers its lessons about racial prejudice, childlike innocence and inquiry, and a father's dedication to doing what's right while teaching his children to do the same.
Book groupers seldom agree on motivations and quality, because each brings to the discussion a different preference for writing style, drama, characterization, subject matter. We read in order to be moved.
I am deeply interested in character development within a well-told story. Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance" was beyond my knowledge of Indira Gandhi's Indian "democracy", but it defined the annihilation attempts on India's outcasts, through a small set of characters whose lives are bled by India's political and social climate, and whose friendship turns to loving support and protection, despite class differences. I consider it great literature, but some of my fellow club members could not get through the book, putting it down because of its dark reality, its size, its painstaking portrayal of the time and place where these characters lived.
Book selection, then, becomes an exercise in compromise, resulting in our exposure to others' valued books.
We read selections we might never have chosen otherwise, and learn about new authors. As generations of writers emerge, new styles and concerns join the literature of the day. T.C. Boyle writes simply and affectingly of illegal immigrants and their interactions with California's affluent class, which hires - and exploits - them without regard for impact in "The Tortilla Curtain." Andre Dubus III stages the conflict between poor white and affluent immigrant in "The House of Sand and Fog." Dave Eggers draws the curtain open on New Orleans in Katrina's wake, in the staggering, non-fictional "Zeitoun." Jenna Blum portrays the life of a woman forced to become a German collaborator in "Those Who Save Us." Massachusetts resident Daniel Bruce Brown takes a zany but politically astute look at the first Jewish presidency (and the 51st state of Israel) in the new, humorous "Roll Over, Hitler."
In "The Glass Castle," journalist Jeannette Walls swallows us up in the jaw-dropping story of her childhood among loving but disastrously inattentive, indigent hippie parents. We experience the thoughts and actions of an autistic teenager through the ringing truth of Mark Haddon's novel, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night."
There are so many examples. Without literature, our experiences are too limited for a complex, expanding globe. We roam the world, explore unfamiliar emotions and enter the lives of people or characters we might never otherwise know.
And that's the joy of book club membership, sharing lives, opinions and laughter around a table set with new books and good food.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The blog for book groups and readers

This is a monthly column about books, book group members, and reading. It’s focused on what turns you on, book-wise, but not necessarily on the form that a book takes these days.

Times are changing, faster than we can fathom. Years ago, when a publisher told me our newspaper would be read on an electronic tablet someday, I didn’t realize that reality might include magazines and books. But it does. We’ll talk about them in a future column.

I cling like lint, against all reason, to the dozen or so bookcases in my home, loving each of the hundreds of books I’ve collected and — to the disgust of my children — am unwilling to part with many of them. You may be like me. There is nothing like a book group for finding friends with that shared obsession.

As I write this, 14 to 18 people, of mixed ages and genders, occupy several tables next to me in Barnes & Noble, Leominster. Nooks in hand, they punch keys, make notes and ask rather a lot of questions to an instructor who is outlining step-by-step instructions for using their new toys. Must have been a big Christmas trend.

But form isn’t everything. Whether you prefer the paper-and-ink version of best-sellers, digital books or the fading pages and moisture-stained covers of old classics, here is proof: People still love to read. To that, I say “yahoo.”

So, whether you are staring into an electronic gizmo (an e-reader) or holding a bound edition in hand, this column is for you, book fans. More specifically, I’m homing in on book group members, who’ve done so much to further the spread of book popularity, good reading, library use and thoughtful understanding in fiction and nonfiction.

Book groups — clubs, if you prefer — have done more to advance book sales than many of the former proponents: the revered newspaper best-seller lists, magazines dedicated to what’s new in fiction and nonfiction, word of mouth, and — always in style and always in front — libraries.

And right here and now, let’s thank Oprah. Oprah Winfrey has done more to boost reading and book clubs than any individual in recent history. Pooh-pooh her choices or not, many of them have been excellent. For anyone to automatically dismiss them is to ignore the many excellent classic, literary and popular choices she has introduced to the nation, among them Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”; “House of Sand and Fog” by Andre Dubus III, Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” and many, many other well-written, top-quality books by such writers as William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Anita Shreve, Wally Lamb, Joyce Carol Oates, Tolstoy, even the embarrassingly ungrateful but astonishingly talented Jonathan Franzen, twice.

The one thing we all share is our love of reading. For some, it’s all about a good story (as well it should be); for others, the biography or memoirs of both the famous and unknown; history; how-to and inspiration. Our world is made a much bigger and more extraordinary place by books. If they have slipped from mind among the young, it’s because we’re too busy doing other things — perhaps the e-readers will help mend that situation.

This column will consider new books, top book group choices — especially from clubs in this region — and all things book group-related: area stores that encourage book groups and bring in authors; library-facilitated book groups and lectures; tips for maintaining members’ interests and growth; starting a group; online book clubs; sources of online reviews and more.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me about your group. I want to know who you are (many book groups have funny monikers); where you meet; if you’re accepting new members; what books you’re reading now or have just discussed; what questions you may have about your book group.

So send your comments or questions, your ideas, your favorite places to meet or find books, and your group’s information to me, in as much detail as you wish. This is a great way to link one group to another, sharing knowledge of favorites, and tips for groups.

Ann Connery Frantz is a lifelong newspaper writer/editor turned freelance nonfiction writer and editor. She is also the author of several short stories and a novel. Some of these columns are published in the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette. She blogs at Contact her at