Friday, March 30, 2012

Get more from your book group

Want to bring more to the meeting than crackers and cheese? How about a little more prep for the actual discussion? One can easily obtain all sorts of information about books, authors, criticism and analysis by reading books or researching online. This collection of sources is mainly, but not exclusively, printed material—available through the interlibrary loan system (
“Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those who Want to Write Them,” by Francine Prose, stands up well six years after its publication. Prose, a writing instructor and author of two dozen books (fiction, non-fiction and children’s), includes a list of challenging titles for reading groups, and reviews themes and aspects of writing we can look for while reading books. Citing examples from published work, she discusses such elements as storytelling, character, dialogue and style. This book is simply well written—not didactic or academic in style.
“Reading Group Choices” is an annual publication with selections for lively book group choices among titles published the year before. Written with book clubs in mind, this book offers questions to stimulate discussion and help in making selections. Editor is Charlie Mead. Writers run the gamut from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Antonya Nelson and Barbara Kingsolver to Mary Kay Andrews, Rebecca Wells and Anchee Min, Ken Follet, Dave Eggers and Lorrie Moore.  (Just for fun: One book recommended in the 2011 edition is “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective and a World of Literary Obsession.” I know, sounds like all of us. It’s a non-fiction look at John Charles Gilkey, who stole rare books—not to resell, but for his own collection. Author is Allison Hoover Bartlett.)
“The Reading Group Handbook,” by Rachel Jacobsohn, reviews what a book club can be from start to present. It covers choosing members, organizing the group, “Rachel’s Rules of Order,” the art of discussion, member-led vs. professionally led groups, locations and types of book groups, and more lists of “enduring books.” There are extensive reading lists. Jacobsohn, who says “Reading groups are not just all the rage, they are our hope for a better future,” includes many sources for review information and details on how to get books for the group at a discount.
“The Mother-Daughter Book Club,” by Shirleen Dodson, suggests ways to improve the mother-daughter bond through books that both will enjoy and share through discussion.
“The Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet,” by Evan Morris, reveals a proliferation of online connections for readers groups, including the American Library Association,, individual publisher and author pages, online library services, and links to criticism and magazine articles related to books. Many review publications are published online, some by subscription only. They include (free), The Women’s Review of Books, Reader’s Advisor, the Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews (free).
“The New York Public Library Guide to Reading Groups,” by Rollene Saal, is also updated regularly, and features aspects of getting a group under way, finding good selections, and library resources. There’s also advice on how to read a book, how to have a lively discussion and how other reading groups are conducting their meetings. There are 38 lists to help select reading, by topic, including short stories, the Holocaust, classics, ethnic writers, “hip” writers, women’s interest, magic realism, science fiction, travel, ghost stories and much more.
This helps choose selections, by better informing readers about types of writing.
Women’s fiction, for example, tries to tell readers about a woman’s journey, offering a way to learn and grow, and to relate to others what it is to be a woman. Examples: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, Sandra Dallas’, “Prayers for Sale,” and “Not My Daughter” by Barbara Delinsky.
Literary fiction (the kind that wins all the awards) focuses more on how the story is told, through techniques like style and narrative voice. Examples: “Atonement” by Ian McEwan, “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” and “The Weight of Water” by Anita Shreve.
Magic realism involves a subject that, while based in situations and actions that are not quite believable, still manages to convince the reader of a greater truth—fantasy set in the real world, one might say. Example: “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”
Read It and Reap is published monthly in the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette. Ann Connery Frantz writes fiction and would love to hear from book group members at

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Order in the Club? Probably not!

From the Feb. 26 T&G/Ann Frantz
Read It and Reap, for book groups and readers

What’s wrong with a little extra gossip during book group meetings?
Nothing—if it’s kept in check. But excessive side conversation and loud exchanges of opinion are liable to diminish attendance by those who actually want to talk about a book. Moreover, not respecting the need to LISTEN, then comment, more or less one at a time, denies readers a chance to talk about how the book affected them, and leaves quieter types out in the cold and unhappy.
Book groups are popular not only because people love to try new books, but because they like to get out and talk about them. Meetings are a great social outlet as well. And sometimes, frankly, the book stinks and no one wants to talk about it. That happens, so in that case, talk about why it’s so awful.
The group I attend is talkative, in part because of its large size. Still, I love it, especially when a book actually excites them enough to keep the topic going throughout the meeting. But more often, I’m afraid, our Off-Track Bookies get sidetracked from the book by related topics, or hold personal conversations in pairs while others are talking. We may have to do something about it—or not. Members are good old friends, avid readers and boisterous arguers—which can be an asset, or a distraction. And, says member Mary Pratt, of Clinton: “I … enjoy the socialization as much as the discussion questions. We are aptly named.”
Mixing conversation with book discussion does work, oddly enough. The ideas start to fly in all directions once the imagination gets going. But when a group gets seriously out of control, the leader has a number of options to keep it moving forward:
Serve taffy. Put it right in front of the worst offenders. Anyone with a mouthful of the stuff can’t talk too much. But spare the wine—it can work in the opposite direction.
If these low-down tricks fail, it’s time for sensible suggestions.
Stay in charge. “What works is a few ice-breaking minutes before the book discussion, and then some time after,” says Northborough book clubber Linda Boch. “We have the hostess lead the conversation. Seems to work pretty well.”
Talk about ground rules. Discuss—one at a time—what’s working, or not, about the group. Set up some basics for courtesy and discussion.
Don’t jump, just guide. Many times, the conversation goes off on a tangent—but that tangent may well bear on the topic. Be flexible about returning to the specific questions of the book when a conversation has actually stemmed from it. Just don’t let it go too far, or deny others a chance to talk about the book they’ve actually read in preparation for the meeting. The leader is responsible for encouraging the group to listen and allow quieter members to express their opinions.
Ask a pro to help. Some groups may want to consider asking a librarian to other professional—check at the bookstore, schools, etc.—to lead the conversation a time or two. An outside presence can help keep the focus on the book, and upgrade the conversation with questions and reflections.
If your group is too large, consider segmenting it. Some members may want to break off to try other topics, for instance, or meet separately from the main group one month, together the next. Whatever works is good.
Eat. It soothes the savage in all of us—especially when there are men in the group. As my cousin, Richard Connery of Guilderland, N.Y., puts it: “We have lunch. It fixes everything.”
Bell the cat. The “cat” being the conversation. If it’s really bad, place a small bell adjacent to your arm and give it a ring when people get out of control. After awhile, members will anticipate the ring before they take over the conversation.
Pass the bell. Members must agree in advance that the person holding the bell has the floor until his or her comment is finished. Then, hand it off to the next one. This could be very annoying, so it’s only a last-ditch suggestion.
Always have questions ready for the discussion—and e-mail them to members ahead of time if you can. That allows readers to focus more on the book and be ready to discuss it. Doing a little homework on the author or the subject can add interest to the talk. By the way, there are more and more readers’ guides available. Try specific author pages or publishing houses, and there are several online reading group guides. Here are a few sources to start with:
Area clubs:
The Book Club at First Parish in Concord recently read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and is reading Emma Donoghue’s “Room” for March, to be followed by “Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography,” and Tina Fey’s “Bossypants.” The group meets Sunday evening and Tuesday morning, once a month. E-mail
“Reading, Sharing and Laughing” meets at Chaibo in Fitchburg for laughter and ideas. The group reads a variety of fiction and nonfiction. Meetings are the first or last Thursday night of each month. Book recommendations welcome. For info, look the group up at The group is meeting March 1 to discuss Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus.”
Shrewsbury’s New Earth Book Club meets at the Worcester Barnes and Noble at 7 p.m. on specified Friday evenings. This group has met faithfully since the start of 2008 to review a fairly eclectic and challenging list of books. Most recently: “The China Study” by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, at its Feb. 24 meeting. To join, find this group at

Please send your book club questions or notes to Ann Frantz, whose column also appears at Send into in an e-mail to