Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New books and 2012 suggestions

As we stare down the rumblings of another year, we bravely face the need to clean, reorganize, list goals and promise things will be different.
Poo on that.
Let’s just read more good books and be done with it.
Fellow readers suggest these titles. I’ve included some of them here, and also a listing of relatively recent releases that promise to, at least, entertain or inform us.

Millbury’s Roving Readers nominate “Power of One,” by Bryce Courteney. While its title raises the image of a self-help book, this is a novel about a boy, during a war. It’s reputed to be “the classic novel of South Africa.” I have some reservations about that, but time will tell. It sounds fascinating: As World War II darkens the globe, apartheid begins to unleash itself in South Africa, where Peekay is born, abandoned, cruelly treated. He vows to escape his bonds through heroic plots and takes a journey through the land, with its tribal superstitions and modern prejudices, learning that words have the power to transform lives.

Several groups liked Meg Waite Clayton’s “The Wednesday Sisters,” which is right up all of our alleys, being a novel about a book club. Its members’ tight bonds, their personal growth and support for each other, enrich the story.

Several folks, mostly locals, or residents who’ve ventured elsewhere, responded to a request for “one terrific read.” I repeat their suggestions here, without prejudice:
Jenn Fenn Lefferts: “Unbroken,” a favorite in several book clubs, is an extraordinary nonfiction narrative of survival by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the popular “Seabiscuit.”
Beth Antos: You can expect a lot of prose in “Pillars of the Earth,” Ken Follett’s humongous work about intrigue and mayhem in the building of a 12th century cathedral (still being aired on public television). Wikipedia can help you keep the characters straight as you read this big boy of a book.
Barb Chapman: “Affinity,” by Sarah Waters, (“The Little Stranger,” “Fingersmith)” is about a late-1800s spinster in London who reacts to grievous loss by taking on charity work at a prison for women. It’s a historical novel, offering much appetite-whetting emotional conflict for book club members.
Al Tuttle: An overlooked novel (published in 1968, again in 2003), “It Happened in Boston?” is Russell H. Greenan’s amazing story of a brilliant, unhinged artist who strives to meet God face-to-face, seeking only to destroy Him. Unforgettable characterization and many plot twists that shock. An “underground” classic, it’s a fascinating read.
Elizabeth Marble: This reader prefers classics like Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” and “Great Expectations,” and suggests Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a sci-fi tale in which women are subjugated under a totalitarian theocracy after the United States government is overthrown. It explores themes of women in subjugation and their means of escaping it.
Amy Brenner-Fricke: Wally Lamb’s books (“She’s Come Undone,” “I Know This Much is True,” and “The Hour I First Believed”). Lamb looks for what is most real beneath the assumptions we make about others, whether it’s the behavior of a schizophrenic brother or the cutting humor of a young woman on the road to obesity. In “The Hour …” he confronts doubts about God and hope. I’d suggest as well “Couldn’t Keep it to Myself,” written by his female writing students at the York Correctional institution in Connecticut. Again there are powerful voices and moments of hope.
Diane Brown: suggests that Jane Austen is always a good read. Thousands of readers agree.
Michele Callan: Gail Tsukigama’s “Dreaming Water,” published in 2003, is a rich, multi-layered story about a mother and daughter, and two lifelong friends. The story surrounds Cate, recently widowed, her cares for her daughter, Hana, who has Werner’s syndrome, which ages a person at twice the normal rate.
Mary Montalvo recommends Ed Sutter’s “Patient 13.” This novel deals with the reverse of Hana’s aging disease. When an experiment results in an elderly alcoholic becoming physically younger, he flees the lab, only to be found by a therapist who uncovers centuries of memories in the man. Of course, those who could profit by it are after Patient 13’s blood. It’s sci fi, something many clubs don’t delve into, and may be a nice break.

The following recently published books may appeal to clubs seeking fresh reads:
Every Day by the Sun.” Dean Faulkner Wells—whose guardian and uncle was the famed author William Faulkner—published her memoir last spring, shortly before her death. She wrote of her life with William Faulkner, whom she called “Pappy.”
Then Again.” Actress Diane Keaton published this memoir in mid-November. It is about her mother and herself. Mom filled 85 journals during her life. So the real-life “Annie Hall” steps forward to reveal her mother, Dorothy Hall. Keaton’s portrait is candid, a memoir of four generations in her family. It’s also the story of her mother, restless and full of creative energy, seeking an outlet for her own talents.
It Chooses You.” Screenwriter Miranda July traveled around Los Angeles to meet strangers she found in the local PennySaver. For real. Her experiences resulted in these essays about strangers, as well as an artist’s experiences with procrastination, boredom and making art.
11/22/63.” They say good fiction begins with the question, “What if?” Stephen King’s latest, published Nov. 8, asks what if President John Kennedy could be saved from assassination by time-travel? Well, why not? King’s always unique, and we eagerly await this tale.
Damned.” The author of “Fight Club” released this in late October.
There was a popular cartoon strip in the Sunday funnies during my youth, Hatlo’s Inferno, that showed people in Hell, enduring various forms of punishment. It was grim. Palahniuk is well capable of outdoing Hatlo, and “Damned” is his look at Hell through the eyes of, unbelievably, as 13-year-old girl who finds herself there after death.

How do you keep members involved in your book club, and how do you seek new members? Share the details by contacting Ann Frantz at Catch up on earlier columns and other reading tidbits at (yes, two ee’s in reeap).

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Midnight in the Garden of Should and Sequel

So P.D. James has decided to bring "Death" to Pemberly, Jane Austen's setting for the gentility, romance and beloved characters of "Pride and Prejudice."
Here we go again.
Scarlett O'Hara found true happiness with Rhett Butler in Alexandra Ripley's sequel to "Gone With the Wind."
Holden Caulfield, the perennial adolescent of "Catcher in the Rye," became an old man in "Coming Through the Rye," a book legally challenged by J.D. Salinger, author of the original; it was eventually--glad to hear it--limited to publication across the water in Great Britain.
They're called "derivative" works, and I dislike them.
When an author creates and peoples a fictional world, using years of time and learning to do it, why should all that simply be lifted for use by an up-and-comer writer (with the exception of James, who has earned her own stripes)?
And, in reverse, why would a writer want to spend so much time reworking someone else's creation?
I learned this the hard way.
When I was 11 or 12, assigned to write a novel over the weekend, I sat down with enthusiasm and ideas to write my very own Nancy Drew mystery. Having been a fan of the Cherry Ames nursing series, I had noticed two listed authors, Helen Wells and Julie Tatham (also the creator of Trixie Belden). Tatham picked up the series after Wells turned to new projects.
Great idea, I thought. I could do that. I'd use the same framework but write my own story.

My English teacher didn't agree. She slammed a bright red D- on top, and added scathing comments about plagiarism.
It hadn't even occurred to me that I had taken someone else's work, in the sense that I used it. I was so embarrassed, and so young and ready to cry, that I never explained the idea and the original storyline I'd created to the instructor. Sad that she didn't bother to talk with me about it.
Perhaps that was the impetus to my dislike of derivative works. The old envy bean growing in my garden--Wah; I couldn't do it, so why should they?!)
But I suspect it's more about quality control.
More than one critic has said it, and I agree: these so-called sequels aren't as good as the original--meaning, they're lame. They're not as interesting, as authentic or as well-written. In truth, they're more like cold leftover pizza served on the literary table. Bleah!
As a writer, I can't stomach the idea that someone might take a character I created and turn her into an adult psychopath, a naughty librarian or any other incarnation that I didn't intend. I can only imagine how upset these developments would make Martha Mitchell (whose family authorized a sequel), Austen or Salinger.
And they're not the only ones. Lately, flipping books like hot properties seems the in thing to do. Are publishers encouraging this? Possibly. There is certainly a lot of promotional effort behind some of them.
But I see it as yet another step in the erosion of copyrights, as well as capitalizing on someone else's justly earned fame to sell a book.
I get parody and satirical or political takes on the old favorites. Even simplifying the classics for modern or younger consumption rings true. These efforts are not the same thing as going beyond what is perhaps the most famous ending in literature to revisit that "tomorrow" of Scarlet's thoughts. Frankly, I do give a damn. So just don't do it.
I don't want to meet Heathcliff on a motorcycle or Emma Woodhouse stuffed into a slinky bra and high heels as a modern-day hooker. Anyone contemplating those directions is invited to amputate their keyboard fingers.
What's wrong with using one's own ideas in a book?
Camping out in a famous author's yard this way is nothing more than selling cheap trinkets on the steps of a famous museum. They might have a moment's attractive appeal, but they lose it fast at home.
So give me Emma in Austen's own writing, and give me Heathcliff in the dark, deranged manner Emily Bronte wrote him. It was her only novel, for pete's sake--leave it alone.
And now, I must return to my new novel: "Midnight in the Garden of Should and Sequel."

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Mark Twain Christmas in Hartford

Besides the book group holiday meeting ideas posted Dec. 1--along with book suggestions--there are fancy doings for Christmas in nearby Hartford, Connecticut.
On Saturday and Sunday (Dec. 10-11), noon to 4 p.m. each day, tour the former homes of authors Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Each a social critic in a unique way--Twain's Huckleberry Finn and many other writings let society have it between the eyes on its foibles and sins. Stowe made changes with her anti-slavery novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
The Stowe Center and the Twain House & Museum are opening their doors to invite visitors in for an old-fashioned Christmas celebration. There will be holiday garlands, decorated Christmas trees and so much more, introduced by a tour guide who will explain each family's traditions.
You can purchase a joint ticket to tour both of their homes, decorated for the holidays. Most events on these days are free, with an additional charge for house tours. Visitors receive a discount on the combination ticket for both tours. Cost is $20 for adults and $10 for children five through 15 years old.
Want more? There is so much going on:
Members of the Hartford Children's Theatre will portray a mischievous trio of excited Clemens' household daughters (Suzy, Clara and Jean).
Jolly Old St. Nicholas, too, will be on hand to meet children in the Mark Twain House, surrounded by life-size puppets from the Ballard Museum of Puppetry.

How about a horse-drawn carriage ride on the grounds?

High school singers will entertain with early-era chorales, and the Stowe Visitor Center is featuring holiday crafts for participants to try firsthand. Or, shop in both museums' gift shops, with a discount.

The Stowe Center will present two special Christmas exhibits, one--Reforming the Season"--showcasing popular 19th-century greeting cards, etchings, toys and other holiday goodies. The second exhibit is "Rooted in Reform: Portraits of a Family," featuring portraits from the Center's collections, including the Stowe family.
There's free parking and the two museums are next to each other at 77 Forest St. and 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford.
WHAT ELSE? Fun's not over yet.
* The "Steampunk Winter SolsticeTea Party" is a separate event, costing $10, at 2 p.m. Saturday. Call 860-280-3130 for reservations. This is part of a series of events in conjunction with an exhibit, "Steampunk Bizarre: The Unknown." At this event, hosted by Dr. Grymm and Miss Kitty, attendees celebrate the coming of winter with food, music, and a reading by Kady Cross (author of "The Strange Case of Finley Jane" and "The Girl in the Steel Corset"). Come decked out in your Victorian finery, or come as you are and bring a toy for Hartford Hospital, if you are able.
* There's also an event on Dec. 4: 
From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Twain House is decorated for the season and area homes are open for visits. This is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy early architecture and holiday decor in houses built from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. We hear that one house is completely filled with holiday trees!
This is a fundraiser for the museum. For ticket information ($30 each) call 860-280-3130 or visit
So enjoy the season with a literature and holiday combo that's tough to beat!


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Make bookclub a holiday fest

December is frantic, but shouldn’t be too busy to include a meeting. This is a fine time for festivity—and great subject matter.
There are several ways to make your December meeting relatively more fun than Christmas snacks.
Apply imagination, and results will follow.
Here are some ideas I created after only a little brainstorming:
• Bring in favorite (and brief) sections or quotes from a treasured holiday story; take turns reading aloud, with a time limit of about five minutes. (Toasting each reading at its conclusion might add a zesty touch—but those taking their turn late in the process may find reading difficult.)
• Serve foods named in favorite holiday reading—you know, Figgy Pudding, goose, candy canes, wassail, and the like! If there’s one thing members like more than talking about books, it may be food and drink.
 • Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” appears in several incarnations around the area each Christmas. Dickens’ great-great grandson Gerald Dickens will be reading the story in early December at locations in Salem, Mass., and Nashua, N.H. Alternatively, a professional, full-company presentation of this perennial favorite is being presented at the Hanover Dec. 16 through 23 in Worcester—tickets are hot, so hurry!
• What’s your favorite holiday book? Encourage members to bring one along for discussion. It may be Dickens, or Evans’ “The Christmas Box,” or even “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!” Share, briefly, what made this book significant to them, or—if nothing stands out for a member—a recollection of their own early Christmas (time limits are a must!). This works just as well if members who want to share other holidays: Hanukkah comes on Dec. 20, and Kwanza on Dec. 26. What’s more fun than sharing traditions and stories from beyond the better-known territory of Christmas?
• Select one or two holiday stories that can be read quickly enough for your December gathering. There’s a lot to choose from, most of them blatant ploys to gain the holiday shopper, but these stand out:
— “A Christmas Carol,” There are so many versions of this book that one can easily obtain it. I collect well-illustrated versions, and a favorite is paired beautifully with drawings by Italian children’s book illustrator Roberto Innocenti (Harcourt, 1990).
— “The Nutcracker,” There are many beautiful editions of this classic tale (and ballet) as well. I have one illustrated by Innocenti and another by Maurice Sendak—both are fun to read (Truth now: How many of you have only seen the ballet?). Written by E.T.A. Hoffmann, it’s fun to read, and comes in handy when you take a child to the ballet and said child asks what’s going on. Nowhere else is the “King of the Mice” quite so evil.
—Holiday stories by authors such as John Cheever, Frank O’Connor, Alice Munroe and John Updike, all originally published in The New Yorker magazine, appear in “Christmas at the New Yorker,” a wonderful compilation of mood and hijinks (Random House 2003). Dig in.
• Bring in a quote. If the group has already made another selection for December, supplement the discussion by assigning everyone to bring in a holiday-related quote to share with others. Have a quiz about the source, and reward the top guesser with a book or an extra slice of Buche de Noel.
• For fun, members might like to read aloud, either as an assigned character, or taking turns, from a classic Christmas story or drama. Some good ones: “The Long Christmas Dinner,” by Thornton Wilder or “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by Dylan Thomas. If your group is particularly ambitious, they may wish to prepare a series of dramatic readings for the library to showcase during December 2012.
• If members want to keep it light during December, here are reading opportunities:
“A Christmas Blizzard” by Garrison Keiller—fans of A Prairie Home Companion will recognize the schtick, but members may also enjoy encounters with classic family horror stories, as in “The tree will catch fire” and “Your tongue will stick to a frozen pipe.” Mr. Sparrow, the main character, hates Christmas—the world's longest and unhappiest holiday, marked by the sheer horror of `The Little Drummer Boy'.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” Dr. Seuss said it all, and everyone should read (or watch it) annually.
“Christmas at Fontaine’s,” “E.T.” author William Kotzwinkle’s fanciful mystery about a department store amid the chaos of the season. Great fun.
“Holidays on Ice.” David Sedaris has written hilarious stories and essays. “The Santaland Diaries” is a wonderfully imaginative recounting of his time in the trenches as a department store elf.
“An Idiot Girl’s Christmas,” by Lori Notaro, is also contemporary. Like Sedaris, Notaro can be very funny, with dead-on observations of the worst Christmas can bring. These short stories cover the gamut—from bad Christmas gifts to being stuck buying tampons in a busy Christmas line.
“Letters from Father Christmas,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote these for his children; they’re full of adventure and misadventure.
 “A Christmas Memory,” by Truman Capote, is his beautifully written story—quite autobiographical—of a childhood in Depression-era Alabama. Poignant, rich in detail, it describes the warm friendship between an elderly aunt and a lonely seven-year-old child.  Available on film as well.
 “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is Dylan Thomas’ poetic, funny tale of a child’s past Christmases, when there were good things to eat, anxious adults, and snow just made for snowball fights. Short, and available online for free ( Very beautiful.
• No time for reading? How about a movie night? Easy to buy or rent, they’re ubiquitous this time of year. Suggestions: “We’re No Angels,” the 1955 classic with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Basil Rathbone, Aldo Ray and Joan Bennett; “A Christmas Carol”: I recommend two—1984’s version with George C. Scott and the 1999 film with Patrick Stewart.
Ann Connery Frantz is a fiction writer and avid reader, and a member of several Lancaster, Mass., book clubs and writers groups. Reach her at Her column runs in The Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette on the last Sunday of each month.