Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Going 'short' for book groups

If time—that miserable predator—is tearing at the edges of your group’s enthusiasm for long books, try easing the burden with a themed meeting, like the “books about books” theme below, or consider short stories, either an anthology with several authors or a single author’s collection.
Anthologies cover a colorful flotilla of topics: humor, mystery, foreign lands, women’s issues, history, marriage, you name it. Themes are widely varied and members can read as much, or as little, as they have time for. Try assigning certain stories, to facilitate discussion, or letting members choose their own and report back. Some of my favorites, based on price, availability and contemporary style:
Anthologies: 1. “Best American Short Stories” are edited each year by a different writer or editor—someone who really knows good writing—and they’re always current. I collect these anthologies and enjoy leafing through them for something, or someone, new to me. 2. “Best New England Crime Stories 2013: Blood Moon” is just one of about a dozen anthologies written by a solid group of mystery and frightening fiction writers in New England, some of them Edgar award nominees. 3. The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories are selected from the thousands published every year in literary journals. 4. “The New Granta Book of the American Short Story” is big and rich with well-known writers.

Literary journals: Experience (and support) new writing. They’re fun to discover in book stores across the country. For starters, I suggest Glimmer Train, Post Road (Boston College publication), Ploughshares (Emerson College publication), the Massachusetts Review,  The New England Review; Granta and Tin House. There are many others; these are most readily available. New and established writers all submit work to journals, since few general-interest magazines publish fiction.

Short stories by one writer convey a richer experience of that author. Members may want to read a single author or divvy up several for discussion.
 A few really good collections (strictly personal choices here):
 “T.C. Boyle Stories,” many here are from older Boyle compilations;
“This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz—contemporary male voice;
Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” exudes the pathos and pain of war;
“Bad Dirt,” Wyoming Stories by the inimitable Annie Proulx;
“My Father’s Tears and other stories,” by John Updike, a master;
“The Collected Stories,” Amy Hempel, for a contemporary female voice;
“The View from Castle Rock,” Alice Munro;
“The Whore’s Child and Other Stories” by Richard Russo, author of “Empire Falls”;
“Blasphemy” by Sherman Alexie, a vivid and humorous Native American voice;
“Tenth of December,” by George Saunders, just published and rich;
Alice Munro’s collections are numerous. Try “Dear Life” or “Too Much Happiness;”
Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth” or “Interpreter of Maladies,” both great.

Finally, If you are culling your bookshelves, plenty of people would enjoy donations. Consider the local library, and also the Prison Book Program in Massachusetts, which makes books available to prisoners and accepts donations at the Lucy Parsons Bookstore, 1306 Hancock St., Quincy. Call 617-423-3298 or email info@prisonbookprogram.org. Volunteers are always welcome for Tuesday and Thursday evening shifts. Details are on the web site, www.prisonbookprogram.org.

If your group would like to suggest biographies or other non-fiction writing for Read It and Reap, send them to Ann Connery Frantz, a fiction writer and writing group leader, who blogs at www.readitandreeap.blogspot.com and welcomes readers’ comments or suggestions at ann.frantz@gmail.com.