Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book collection needs your help

John and Anne-Marie Monfredo, founders of the Worcester: The City that Reads Committee, recently kicked off their fifth annual book drive.

They hope to gather more than 25,000 new or gently used books for children in preschool through Grade 8. The books are distributed to schools, preschools and local organizations in June. Collection sites will gather books between now and May 15 and are spread throughout the city and include banks, bookstores, the Worcester Public Library, supermarkets, restaurants, the Senior Center on Vernon Street, the DCU Center, the Jewish Community Center on Salisbury Street, the Greendale YMCA and a variety of other businesses.

Individual public and private schools, colleges, organizations, and businesses are holding individual drives to benefit the effort, and Scholastic Books has already donated more than 1,500 books to get the drive started. For more information, call the Monfredos at (508) 853-3444.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

for Book clubs - get moving!

Don’t just sit there—get moving. While many book groups simply greet, meet and treat, some groups are more enterprising: they explore, travel, invite in or Skype with authors, play with book themes (like Sutton’s cupcake party for Buttercream Bumpoff, mentioned Feb. 27).
Members’ appetites are voracious and they want more. It’s out there, waiting for them; they just have to locate it.
“I so wish that some of the local Worcester colleges would host occasional lectures, open to the public, on classic books like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Steinbeck,” wrote Brenda Yates, of the Sutton group, “Full Court Press.”
We second that idea, but add that contemporary fiction is just as interesting to some. Published authors especially fascinate both readers and aspiring writers; increasingly, authors and bookstores are catering to book groups, as a way of increasing sales. Anita Shreve lectured and signed books at Tatnuck Booksellers in Westborough last year. She packed the store’s meeting room. The Toadstool bookstores in Keene and Peterborough, N.H., regularly bring in regional authors to good-size crowds.
When Fitchburg State College invited Jodi Picoult to speak at its 2006 New England Writers Series, she also visited the Leominster Barnes & Noble to sign books—and a long line formed as dozens of fans presented her with their books, many of them planned to attend the FSC session that evening.
Oh, yes; the interest is there. “I think that there are enough book groups in the area that if local colleges would sponsor some evening book seminars—perhaps pay as you go, $15 to attend a lecture or something—that there would be a good market for it,” Yates said. “I think there are plenty of people who would love to read a book and then have the book taught to them. I just read Wuthering Heights and I sure would like someone to explain that one to me!”
Those who love writing love books as well—and dozens of people in this region hone their craft in writing groups. The Worcester Writers Group’s 67-person membership is hardworking and healthy. The poets of Worcester’s Poets’ Asylum are just as active. In Berlin, the Metrowest area, Lancaster, Shrewsbury—community after community—writers groups have formed alongside their reading counterparts. And they share a love for sessions with authors.
Being so close to Boston, there’s a generous amount of activity in this area (as there is in the Berkshires). Emerson College in Boston, home to Ploughshares literary journal, sponsors readings, as do PEN New England and Grub Street—“the” center for serious writers. PEN’s monthly series is generally free, but involves jogging into the Boston area.
Once a year, the Boston Book Festival hosts a passel of noted writers and hundreds wander about freely, listening to and seeing writers like Dennis Lehane, Joyce Carol Oates and Bill Bryson. It’s a premiere event and a great fall field trip.
To find events, check regional book stores and libraries (where your club can also rent a movie that pairs with what they’re reading). Libraries bring in speakers when funding permits. The New England Crime Writers makes the rounds of many area libraries, discussing mysteries and writing—they’re a large group, made of fledgling as well as more published mystery writers. Groton Library’s large endowment permits it to bring in a roster of speakers. The Greater Worcester Community Foundation funds speaker programs within area libraries.
Speak up. Librarians want to know what you’d like, and they’ll try to move mountains to get it. Lucky libraries have a few thousand set aside for speakers (and willingly accept donations to the cause). Book sales are a critical resource for funding such activities, so take your satchel and buy, buy, buy. Find out if your library offers free meeting space for book club events, and ask if such assists as Skype—for phone-video interviews—and large-screen projection are available.
“We travel at least twice a year,” reports Debby McDonald of Millbury’s Roving Readers Book Club (second Tuesdays, monthly, 2 p.m., at Barnes & Noble in Millbury). “We read a book and choose a destination connected it.” The club’s 12 to 15 members met at the Orchard House in Concord while reading Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Women—and there are several writer-connected sites in the region. Mark Twain’s Hartford, Conn., residence is a historical site with many book-related events (
The Millbury group’s meetings are published in Millbury’s Barnes and Noble newsletter as well, promoting interest. Reading Ethan Frome, they traveled to author Edith Wharton’s house. “While reading The Diaries of Adam and Eve, we went to the Mark Twain House,” McDonald said. “We went to Salem to a museum, to see a Chinese home, as we had read so many Chinese stories. We have had two different authors come and talk to our group; one was Amy Belding Brown, the author of Mr. Emerson’s Wife.”
Food matters. The group has had a formal tea at one member’s house. They always plan a visit to a good restaurant in their travels. (Currently, McDonald says, they’re reading Jodi Picoult’s House Rules.)
If your group has had different adventures, share them through this column. I’m glad, also, to include other libraries and clubs as they make their programs known. Princeton Public Library’s book club meets monthly—with an evening and an afternoon group, as well as two children’s book groups, says Wendy Pape, director.
Ann Connery Frantz is a journalist and fiction writer. Past columns are included on her blog about books and book clubs at (note the two ee’s). E-mail your comments or questions to

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review of A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé, published by Europa Editions in 2009.
Cossé, a journalist, playwright, critic and author of historical novels and a satirical thriller, lives in

In her fanciful mystery, a paean to great literature, “A Novel Bookstore,” author Laurence Cossé portrays the world of books and booksellers while, at the same time, blissfully indulging in those thoughts about great writing that entertain so many who love literature.
Publishing and bookselling are in a crisis—as threatened in other nations as they are in the U.S.—with electronic books and mass-produced best-sellers grabbing the top focus among those who market and sell books. But what of true readers, Cossé asks; who serves those who love great writing and savor works they can place on their shelves at home? Who or what in the publishing industry is serving them by devoting the bulk of promotion money and display space to those who write the kind of thrillers and romances, non-fiction “how-to” books, trashy biographies and personal exploits that have come to dominate the once-enviable best-seller lists at respected journals and newspapers? It is as much an indictment of the reader as the industry.
There is a passion to great literature, believe the founders of The Good Novel bookshop, and they attempt to conduct a business dedicated only to the top one or two percent of writers, refusing to sell what is deemed less than wonderful by their board of secret writing advisers. The goal seems simple enough, but it upsets the publishing world around Paris.
A mystery takes shape amid the framework of likeable, dedicated characters, whose love for literature can’t permit them to sell anything but the best; members of their advisory board—who don’t even know each other’s identity—are being killed or injured. Alarmed by this, the owners quietly attempt to work with an investigator who can link the incidents to the perpetrator. At the same time, their lovely idea begins to turn to chaos: not because the people don’t like their bookstore, but because they, in fact, do.
Everyone who is left out by the selection process wants in. And, therein, jealousy is born.
Competitors stake a place for themselves on the high road, decrying the store as a self-indulgent, wasteful drain on the “fragile publishing economy.” The biggest of the chains, VLAM, cannot tolerate The Good Novel’s existence (yes, we get the tongue-in-cheek reference), and charges elitism, class condescension, the impossibility of judging what is destined for greatness over time. The chain challenges the little store’s values, placing itself in the position of servant to the masses and moral champion. In a published statement, VLAM exclaims, “Our love of the novel and of the book is so great that we cannot see why, or even how, one could exclude, by means of a selection process, 99 percent of the titles available. Our passion, and our cause, is to respect the diversity of cultures, and the diversity of individuals.” It sounds so noble, so correct—but is it?
Indeed, The Good Novel bookstore, in Meribel, France, represents an improbable concept for operating a profitable business, but VLAM’s campaign raises a counter hue and cry among book lovers, who flock to the little store with their purses, ready to buy books in support of the idea that great literature must be supported. A sympathetic letter from an author tells of the same response to the success of an early novel—first praise and excitement, then “the attacks” from every quarter. It is the world of ideas at its worst, is it not?
The war of words carries over to the internet, where readers duke it out in support, or rejection, of the store’s ideals. An actress tells of her weariness with books recommended by others, and her need to escape her work through reading. She praises The Good Novel for bringing her the relief she seeks. “How can people attack a place that is so good for you?” she writes.
“Every subtlety in life is material for a book,” Cossé writes through a character. “Novels don’t contain only exceptional situations, life or death choices, or major ordeals; there are also everyday difficulties, temptations, ordinary disappointments; and, in response, every human attitude, every type of behavior, from the finest to the most wretched. … Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life.”
In the aisles of The Good Novel, readers quietly, and excitedly, explore worlds they had not discovered through the massive walls of popular culture in larger bookstores. While many of the novels cited are French, Ivan Georg, known as Van, is the store manager, and a partner to Francesca in the enterprise. An American by birth, he holds Cormac McCarthy as the greatest living author on the planet, thus introducing French customers to All the Pretty Horses and its successors, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. Van is captivated by people he sees in public, reading great books; they alone fascinate him, leading to long conversations with strangers about literature. “… One of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking,” he says to a fellow bus rider. And that explains the great popularity of book groups these days, as well—even if they do dip into the less-than-great works available to them. After all, A Novel Bookstore’s concepts are arguable among many who love reading not just for greatness but for its gifts of experience and entertainment. And that is one of the devices that keeps this novel going: one wants to know whose idea will win.
The mysterious deaths? On one level, they are symbolic of the store’s battle to survive amid industry-wide self-immolation—catering to the lowest common denominator in a world polluted by that sensibility. They will be solved, or not, toward the book’s end.
We all love to take a breather in a popular novel sometimes; that doesn’t make us bad, simply human. Most of us will admit, secretly at least, that we are as ready to snack on the latest chiller-thriller or well-written romance as the next browser. We want that change of pace, that easily digested tidbit. But when we’re ready for an eight-course meal, we must seek a great book—and those are the books on The Good Novel’s shelves. A different menu for a different customer. Call it snobbery, if you will, but who does superiority better than the French.
A friend once commented that he never reads novels, that only nonfiction meets his desire to learn more of the world. Yes, we reply—you’ll learn about the world. But what of its emotions, the desires and failures of the people who make things happen, the parallels between one stage and another, the mechanics of life when they’re first felt, rather than demonstrated by history? What about imagination, joy, bitterness and cries from the unheard? They are in fiction—in Dickens and Dumas, in McCarthy and Mistry, in Hemingway and Faulkner—on the shelves of The Good Novel bookstore.