Saturday, February 4, 2012

Mark Twain's passion lives on at his Hartford residence

Mark Twain's former home at 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford, Conn., is far more than a museum-like tribute to the famed author of "Huckleberry Finn," "Tom Sawyer" and a plethora of sharp-witted stories and essay.
The house is also dedicated to encouraging readers and writers to explore more of the literary field and, as such, it invites both those who scribe and those who read to visit for literary events.
MEMOIR: There's a memoir writing class there--an 8-week course that's in its third year. Participants meet Wednesdays, with the goal of exploring and writing memoir, and eventual publication on the Twain House website.
You'll have to register by Feb. 15 and cost is $600. It runs March 7 through April 25, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
To register, please send a brief letter or email of interest to Steve Courtney at or call 860-247-0998, Ext. 243.

DENNIS HORGAN: Also coming up soon is a visit by novelist and long-time Hartford Courant columnist Dennis Horgan--noted for a sharp wit right down Twain's alley. He'll speak on Feb. 8, at the unconventional hour of 5 p.m. (reading starts at 5:30). This is part of the Writing at the Mark Twain House events.
His newest book is Ninety-Eight Point Six ... and Other Stories, a series of stories relating to human identity, he says--how people are "defined by happenstance, by odd decisions and accumulations in their lives." He'll read from the book and discuss "Storytelling: Our New Golden Age." He's explored internet opportunities for writers, and likes the "razzle-dazzle" world he's found.
Sessions like these are always glad ones for writers and readers--who are often one and the same creature, in fact. It's free to attend--even the 5 p.m. reception. Horgan will sign books after his talk. He's clearly funny: "I was born in a Boston taxicab during a Thanksgiving snowstorm, which didn't quite make it to the hospital on time ... such a beginning is likely to shape how you look on the world."
His stories range from the tale of a grocery store manager who torments customers by moving items around, to the story of a woman who creates a new life for herself on Facebook. He's also written Sharks in the Bathtub and Flotsam: A Life in Debris, both essay collections, and the novel The Dawn of Days.
Check the web site for details.
THE PLAY'S THE THING: On Feb. 10 and 11, the short play A Love-Chase, written by Twain's daughter Susy and originally performed in the house in 1889 by the Twain children, will be presented. This is part of a Valentine's Day-themed event that includes a concert by Israeli guitarist Shay Bachar, and a champagne and chocolate reception. Performances are at 7 and 8:30 p.m. both days, and tickets are $28 to non-members. Space is limited, so make reservations soon at 860-280-3130.

Friday, February 3, 2012

One interest or many, book clubs proliferate

If it were difficult to start a book club, there’d be fewer of them. But reading groups proliferate like squirrels at bird feeders. They meet in libraries and homes, churches, restaurants and bookstores. Oprah single-handedly launched thousands of isolated readers into shared experiences with books (and created best-sellers overnight). Professional organizations often have associated reading groups.
Still, I hear from T&G-area readers seeking a book group in their area. Usually, I point them to the library if I don’t already know of a group, since librarians tend to be tuned in to reading groups, and often help order their selections. So that’s where you start. You may even be able to leave a note on the library’s bulletin board. has links to area bookclubs, listing selections, feedback and members. We found one for Leominster, as well as Worcester’s Wine and Dine and Page Turner book clubs; New Earth Book Club in Shrewsbury; an interfaith book group in Holliston, a history book group in Chelmsford, and even a dog-friendly group, the Sweet Wag Dog-Eared Book Club, in Framingham. A women’s issues book club meets at Barnes & Noble in Worcester. Many senior organizations sponsor clubs as well.
If you just want to launch your own, here are some recommendations:
·         Decide what you want to read—it may be a select genre, like sci-fi, history, hobbies, current events, women’s fiction, romance, or biographies. Most groups gravitate toward a mixture, to broaden their exposure to new writers.
·         It won’t take many people to make a book club, though seven to ten usually provides enough people to ensure a meeting with at least half that number. More than ten can be unwieldy, depending on the strength of the leader—there’s a bit of force needed in the art of keeping talkers from dominating and chatters from gossiping… all at once. Decide how many to start with, but be open to new members as word spreads—they’re the lifeblood of the group.
·         Establish a time for the first meeting—to organize selections.
·         Tell everyone you think would be interested. Tell the librarians. If it’s a special interest group, get the word out to likely readers. Post a flyer in likely places. Put a notice in your church, school or club news. 
·         At the first meeting, set a regular meeting time and location.
·         Always serve food, unless meeting in a bookstore. Then, for pete’s sake, patronize the store!! Stores need book groups’ support.
·         Don’t be too rule-bound: flexibility may work best for members, although your group isn’t likely to survive if you bend to whims. But democracy in book selection, discussion rules and food selection (just kidding) works wonders!
·         Someone needs to lead the discussion—and it may be you. Or someone who loves a particular book. Or a teacher-member. Avid interest is the key to a good group discussion. But, mainly: someone does need to steer the conversation so that it doesn’t veer into politics, gossip, health complaints or “the great movie I saw last night.” They don’t call our Lancaster group “Off-Track Bookies” for nothing.
·         Take the group’s temperature after a couple meetings. Is the discussion style working for everyone? Any second thoughts about the best way to discuss a book? Printed notes of the questions for discussion, if they exist, are helpful for some.
·         You may wish to vote on selections after a couple of meetings, once you have a gauge of members’ interests. Or, let the person hosting the meeting choose a book. Some groups allow one person to pick the selections, but that’s a risk should other members grow bored. Consider dedicating a year, or a portion of it, to the exploration of a single topic or author. Out of ideas? offers plenty, along with opportunities to win the book your club wants to read.
·         Try not to contain book selection to one genre or time frame. New books are also available through libraries, websites like Amazon and, and on electronic readers at a lower price (which has begun going up—good news for writers). Second-hand stores and libraries often sell recent books at low prices; ask around.
·         Be creative. E-mail an author to see if he or she will give feedback to your club, or even visit. Invite an expert in the subject matter, or a local teacher, to give the discussion deeper layers. Above all, experiment with your new group and find out what works for you as a whole.
·         Consider a meeting at which each member brings in a favorite book, talks about it and lets the discussion flow around that talk. This works well with issue-oriented books in such areas as women’s literature, non-fiction, biography … and it stimulates new ideas for future reading.
·         What to discuss? Newbies can be intimidated by a club setting, so start off with set discussion questions. Here are some areas to talk about: writing style, and whether it worked for the reader, and how it affects the story being told; social issues arising from the book, such as “The Help,” with its view of 1960s color barriers between women and household help; how readers react to the author’s point of view; how strong are the characters, and how do we like or hate them? It’s endless, really.
If you belong to a large book group, or an unwieldy one, contact me. I’d like to know how you keep order! Ann Connery Frantz writes fiction and blogs about books at Book club members are invited to share their experiences, recommendations and problems—on a book club level, of course! Email