Sunday, June 26, 2011

Light summer reading, clubs

Read It and Reap
Telegram & Gazette, June 26
Many clubs take a break over summer, as members catch up on non-club reading. Before they do, though, they often choose one or more books for the fall. Usually, that involves a discussion followed by a vote; in other groups, a leader selects the choices based on input. Library clubs generally are decided among staff members.
To stay current, many clubs choose fewer than three selections at a time. That way, new books are more likely to be discussed. This is a more vital approach than blindly following the ever-growing list of “book club” selections with reader guides. Sure—these are good books. But there are too many good, non-trendy books to stick to a diet of routine club choices.
One helpful process is for members to describe their picks in a brief summary and e-mail each other during the week or two before selection. It’s easy to lose members if a group sticks to choices that are too saccharine or too dark; a blend is important, as is discovery.
One of the biggest book group complaints is that a book was too dark. There’s no escaping harsh reality in them. And, while we all have a different opinion about bleak (I’m thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s haunting take on post-Apocalyptic America, “The Road”), members also can’t agree about what makes them happy. Some wouldn’t touch Chick Lit with a Nook, and some prefer a pithy rather than humor and happy endings.
Dissension makes good conversation. Clubs also expose one to reading one wouldn’t ordinarily select, leading to discoveries. Some clubs consciously seek out cult writers, themed topics or first-time authors. Others define themselves as mystery book clubs, sci-fi readers or history clubs. It’s all good, really. Every genre has its high points.
But it’s summer now—time for a light touch by the pool. Books don’t need to be insipid to entertain. They can be beautifully written, or neatly contrived, to inspire good feelings. That a book expresses joy does not mean it is false or less than a worthy read.
Some of my favorites:
• Jan Karon’s series on a minister’s life in a fictional southern town, beginning with “At Home in Mitford,” portrays good people with light hearts and forgiving souls;
• Concord, Mass., author Gregory Maguire’s revisited fairy tales (the most famous being “Wicked”) includes new takes on Cinderella (“Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister”) and Snow White (“Mirror, Mirror”)—they’re whimsical and imaginative;
• New Hampshire author Nancy Clark’s “The Hills at Home” features a lively family of flaky relatives;
• Westborough’s Daniel Bruce Brown (disclosure: a friend) takes a farcical look at what the nation’s first Jewish president might encounter. “Roll Over, Hitler” won the 2010 fiction award from the Independent Publishers Association in May;
• Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” is one funny travel story, drawn on his solo trip along the Appalachian Trail;
• “I Feel Bad About my Neck” is Nora Ephron’s wry look at aging: honest and witty;
• Vermont author Howard Mosher writes with warm humor about small town life—and baseball fans—in his books. My favorite, “Waiting for Teddy Williams”;
• A book need not be funny, either. Kent Haruf is a master storyteller, revealing the fears and failures of people with honesty and kindness. I loved “Plainsong” and its old bachelor farmers who take in a teenager who is pregnant and alone;
• Langston Hughes’ “Not Without Laughter” is a rare look inside the childhood and adolescence of a young black man growing up in the Midwest. It’s beautiful;
• Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls” and “Nobody’s Fool” are lasting portrayals of small towns and rich characters. I will always love these two works;
• “To Kill a Mockingbird.” If you somehow missed it in school, read it. If you’ve grown up since you first read it, read it again;
• Annie Proulx is a favorite writer of captivating short stories. Her novel, “The Shipping News,” is absorbing.

This is only a start. Enjoy that beach chair.

Area book clubs, events
Note to clubs: What was your top read in the last season? What’s coming up for Fall? Contact Ann Frantz by e-mailing, or see blog at (two ee’s is correct).
STURBRIDGE—Armchair Travelers chooses a general theme for each reading year. Last season’s, No Place Like Home: the New England Experience, included: “The Wordy Shipmates,” Sarah Vowell; “Widow’s War,” Sally Gunning; “That Old Cape Magic,” Richard Russo; “The Orchard,” Adele Crockett Robertson; “The Last Days of Dogtown,” Anita Diamant; “Looking Backward,” Edward Bellamy; and “Country of the Pointed Firs,” Sarah Orne Jewett.
Author Hallie Ephron visited in May at Old Sturbridge Village to discuss her new New England-based suspense novel, “Come and Find Me.” Joshua Hyde Public Library Director Becky Plimpton invites adults and young adult readers to read Padma Venkatraman’s “Climbing the Stairs” before an Aug. 29 discussion, with a demonstration of Indian cooking.
Summer reading begins July 5; selections posted in the library, and at
HOLDEN—Betsy Johnson says, “Our group reads individually over the summer, and we spend the first meeting in September giving a ‘book report’ to the group.” Johnson previews and chooses the books and orders them for members so they’ll all have the same edition, eliminating reference confusion. Another difference: this group meets WEEKLY! “We always have a good discussion,” Johnson said. Members like the classics, and occasionally dip into an anthology to discuss a short story. Two favorites: Flannery O'Connor's “The Artificial Nigger,” and Eudora Welty's “Ladies in Springtime.” Also, Melville's “Benito Cereno.”
SUTTON—“We meet about every six weeks, so we will have another summer meeting, but we choose our book from month to month. Usually whoever is hosting the next book group picks the book, but that is our loosely held methodology. Just read: "The People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks (author of the new “Caleb’s Crossing”). Sutton’s favorite books this year included: "Same Kind of Different as Me," Ron Hall and Denver Moore; and “The Help" or "1000 White Women"—both of which generated a lot of discussion. “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” also generated a lot of discussion. At its next meeting, in late July, this group will discuss “The Girls with the Pearl Earring” and watch a movie of the book, starring Colin Firth.
GARDNER—The Heywood Library Reading Group meets year round, on the last Wednesday of each month at 4:30 p.m. Director Ann Young says attendance averages a dozen, although faces change with each book. They run by the calendar year, so they choose books in November, reviewing recommendations before voting. In February, everyone reads their own choice, then talks about that book. The group’s best discussion in 2011focused on Nell Painter's “The History of White People.” The funniest—although the subject matter was serious—was “The Help.”