Friday, February 28, 2014

Being prepared for book club means reading the book!

There's an adage that goes: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. The same might be said for some book groups, who discover once-avid readers falling behind in the reading and either skipping meetings or coming unprepared (while eating the munchies and conversing about jobs or kids throughout the discussion).

So how do you keep busy members focused on the next book? Several area book group leaders shared their methods.

"I am very fortunate in that the members of my group really do read the assigned pages," said Betsy Johnson of Holden's book group. "We take our time working our way through books, however, allowing for plenty of discussion along the way (no chit-chat; I allow time at the beginning of our meetings for that)."

Being too busy is addressed by discussing how members want to approach the reading. Some may want more time to read it, with less-frequent meetings, while others meet more frequently or break the discussion into parts. "I suspect that clubs which meet monthly and read a book for each meeting do run into trouble, given the length of many books and the demands on contemporary women's time. We meet weekly," Johnson said.

Lancaster's Off-Track Bookies has at least a dozen members, so leader Sue Billings believes preparation is key. "Have prepared questions ready, to help the group stay focused on the book," she said, "and make the book selections a shared responsibility."

Karen Silverthorn, who leads Thayer Memorial Library's adult evening book group, also in Lancaster, echoes that philosophy. "Group members want a say in what books are chosen to be read," she said. "Hopefully, those less interested in particular ones will see that their choices are part of our yearly list and so will give others' choices a chance. They also like to plan ahead, not choose a new book each month. Since some like fiction, while others not so much, we do fiction one month and nonfiction or a biography the next."

Ann Young of Gardner's Heywood Library says one member mentioned she belongs to a group that meets in someone's home. There, she has to get the book on her own. It is sometimes a problem getting to a bookstore or ordering online, she said. Members prefer the library group, "because Heywood's librarians order the books for us and when we return one book, we can pick up the next," one member said.

But there is no discouragement for nonreaders either. Young adds: "Our group accepts members where they are. If they show up, they are welcome whether or not they have read the book. Some people just do not find it interesting, or do not have the time that month. We give everyone a chance to speak, but some have more to say than others and that is OK." Most members do at least try to read the book. "Because we collaborate in coming up with the books for the year, most people buy into the books we are reading," Young said. "I am not sure that if just one or two people selected the books we would get the same results."

Members are also encouraged to speak out, regardless of their opinion about the book. "One of our principles is to respect each person and the opinion they voice, so that people are comfortable saying what they think about a book — even if it is not in line with the majority."

Celine L. Livingston, coordinator of the New Earth Book Club in Shrewsbury, said she announces on the book club's website ( that it is required to read the book to attend a meeting. "We take turns to talk at the meetings, and each member gets a chance to reflect on the book," she said. The group meets at Shrewsbury Public Library.

In Sutton, the Full Court Press (a group of moms affiliated with a basketball program in Central Massachusetts and Rhode Island), staggers meetings to allow more than a month between selections. "We meet every six weeks (roughly), and we find that with that longer time frame most people usually have time to read the books," said Brenda Yates. "However, we really don't mind if people come to the meeting without reading the book. In general, nine out of 10 people probably have read all, or most, of the book. If someone has not read it, they understand that we can't worry about spoiling the book by talking about it if they haven't had a chance to read it.

"We also try not to pick books that are too long or intensive; that helps increase the odds of people finishing the story. We often get book recommendations from other book groups, so we know that the books have been well received by other book groups, which also helps. For us, the most important aspect of having a book group is the friendship and social time that the meetings provide, so we encourage people to come even if they haven't read the story. In short, we keep a low key, relaxed outlook and that keeps it fun."

The Women's Issues Book Group of Worcester, sponsored by the National Organization for Women, takes another approach, quipped Joan Killough-Miller. "We give away spoilers to ruin the book for those who haven't managed to finish it by the night of the meeting. And we make them sit in the time-out chair."

OK, not really. But she says reading the book is not a big problem within the group. "We're generally tolerant when someone had a hard time getting their hands on the book or hasn't quite made it to the end," she said. "Some of our people will read into the wee hours of the morning, or stay in all weekend to finish the book by Monday night. They're also good about sharing scarce copies. I've seen out-of-print books be passed along three-four times in the course of a month."

She supplements the book choice with related material. For instance, the March selection is "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," by Susan Cain. The group refers members to the author's website to listen to her TED talk and find links to forums and other resources. They may even take the Quiet Quiz, says Killough-Miller, "though you probably know whether you're an introvert or an extrovert."

Upcoming meetings

The Founding Fathers' Reading Group meets at the Northborough Free Library the last Wednesday of every month, focusing on the Founding Fathers and that period. Interested persons are welcome, says Barbara O'Mara. Next meeting is Tuesday at 10 a.m. Members will discuss the first half of Gordon Wood's Pulitzer-winning "The Radicalism of the American Revolution." For more information:">

Dudley's Crawford Library book group will discuss "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand at 6 p.m. March 6 in the library.

Lancaster's Off-Track Bookies has slated Adam Johnson's "The Orphan Master's Son" for its March 13 meeting.

Women's Issues Book Club, Worcester will discuss "Quiet" by Susan Cain at 7 p.m. March 10 (second Monday) in Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 541 Lincoln St., Worcester.

Ann Frantz writes about authors, books and book groups in the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette. Send club news and suggestions to   

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Matthew Quick launches 'The Good Luck of Right Now' to follow 'Silver Linings Playbook'

Matthew Quick, Holden resident and author of the novel-turned-film, "Silver Linings Playbook," has begun a book tour to promote his latest novel, "The Good Luck of Right Now." That book, too, has been optioned for film by DreamWorks. In fact, all six of his novels have been optioned for film. 

That's pretty good luck as well. 

Though Quick wasn't published until age 34, he's written since his teens. He's won several prestigious book awards and finally met a primary goal in his life: to be a full-time writer. For several years, he taught literature and coached high school soccer. The kids nicknamed him "Q," a moniker that has stuck. 

On Feb. 11, "The Good Luck of Right Now" is being released by HarperCollins, his U.S. publisher. Little Brown & Co. publishes his young adult books: "Sorta Like a Rock Star," "Boy21" and "Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock." His books are published internationally. 

Quick will appear at Porter Square Books in Cambridge at 7 p.m. Feb. 25 to give a talk and sign books. He'll do the same at 6 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Boston Public Library, and at 7 p.m. Feb. 27 at Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport. No appearances have yet been scheduled in the Worcester area, though the tour is just getting started. 

Quick loves seeing the finished product. "I'm thrilled," he said. "It's very exciting. I worked so hard on this book; it's exciting to put it into the world. DreamWorks is busy with the adaptation as well. It's still wonderful to me to open up a finished book when I have received by box of new books. A book tour is a nice time to celebrate and mark the occasion of finishing another story. Most writers will tell you it's almost like giving birth." 

Although he keeps writing — his next book is in the wings — Quick finds book tours a wonderful distraction. "The schedule involves traveling every day on airplanes, cars and trains. For me, it's hard to write fiction when I'm not alone in a room. I love talking with people (about the book) but writers mostly sit alone in a room all day by themselves. When they're thrust into society, as they are on tour, it takes a different kind of energy." 

"The Good Luck of Right Now" is written as a series of letters to actor Richard Gere. Reviewers have used terms like "quirky," "off-beat" and (from author Garth Stein): "the greatest feel-good misfit road story." It deals with Bartholomew Neil, a middle-aged man who lives with his mother and is poorly equipped to find his own way in life. When she dies, he finds a "Free Tibet" letter from Gere in his mother's underwear drawer and sets out to find the answers to life from Gere. (Do we see a starring role there?) 

Quick likes that his books are finding their way into film. He's open to looming opportunities to do screenplays, saying, "I will probably try that at some point." In the meantime, he's happy to be living in Holden with his wife, novelist and pianist Alicia Bessette. 

(Ann Connery Frantz writes about authors and book clubs for the Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, and blogs at this site).

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Life is good for Della Valle, author of 'Jerks in Boston History'

History doesn't have to be a dry subject. Author Paul Della Valle is having quite a lot of fun with it. After the Sterling resident wrote "Massachusetts Troublemakers: Rebels, Reformers and Radicals from the Bay State" (Globe, Pequot Press 2009), its publisher approached him for a second book, one that was right up this history buff's alley: a profile of people behaving badly, titled "Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Boston History." A topic more suited to Della Valle's biting wit may not exist.

Della Valle, familiar to locals as a bluegrass musician and journalist, has turned his talents toward teaching and historical writing. He's having as much fun as ever.

A former reporter with the Telegram & Gazette, he founded the Lancaster Times & Clinton Courier, covering both towns with a vigilant eye for nearly a decade before selling the paper several years ago. He teaches English at Clinton High School, having previously taught at Southbridge and Ashburnham public schools. (He has also taught writing at Clark University and journalism at Northeastern.) One can sometimes find one of his bands — Lizzie O'Dowd and the Sheep Shaggers and the Worcester County Bluegrass All Stars — performing at a local nightspot, festival or town square.

His first book launched the second.

" 'Troublemakers' was my idea," he said. "Then, they asked me to do this one, part of a series they have in different states and cities. There must be at least 25 of them with the same title — Jerks in Colorado, Jerks in Arizona." He laughs.

Don't think that means Della Valle simply filled the book with tried-and-true tales, however. This book is a quirky, funny read, bursting with choice bits of history, employing his trademark candor. He applied both wit and skill from his newspaper years toward researching his choice of 18 notorious bad guys. The publisher insisted that his subjects be dead for at least 50 years. ("You can't libel dead people," Della Valle quips.)

He talked Pequot into letting him break that rule, however, to profile Charles Stuart, one of Boston's most shocking modern-day killers. Stuart joins Albert DeSalvo (the Boston Strangler), Charles Ponzi and Mayor James Michael Curley in the book. Perhaps less predictable were historical figures like A. Bronson Alcott (father of author Louisa May Alcott) and Gov. Henry J. Gardner, whose drive to rid Boston of Irish scum personified the Know-Nothing Party of the mid-1850s. Even Abe Lincoln criticized Gardner's viciousness toward Irish immigrants.

From the get-go, Della Valle had some characters in mind: "My grandmother loved James Michael Curley because he gave a pillow to her brother in the Fernald School (in those days, pillows weren't always standard issue); she loved him for that. That's the way he operated — he gave things to people; he sealed loyalties. The 'mayor of the poor' was also a total crook. I love the joke line from the times — when the City of Boston bought his house after he died, it was the second time they'd paid for it. Curley was outrageous and powerful, with friends as staunch as his enemies."

Another subject in the book is serial killer Jane Toppan. "Karen (his wife, poet Karen Sharpe) came up with Jane. I had never heard of her before. She killed at least 31 people. She did it for sexual kicks; she'd get in bed with her victims as they were dying. And she was remorseless."

He wanted to profile more women, but couldn't find suitable subjects. "There aren't that many females that are jerks," he said. He opted to leave Lizzie Borden out, since so much has already been written about her case.

He has one regret. "I would have loved to put in Whitey (Bulger)," he said. But the incarcerated mob leader doesn't fit the profile: "You can't have someone who is still alive."

Della Valle has woven historical tidbits with wicked twists. With an 18-month window to write, he chose to cram the work into six months before its due date. The guy still prefers being on deadline.

"I need to have the gun to my head," he said. "I worked during vacations and school breaks, but not much at night, 'cause you're tired from teaching; there's so much you have to do for teaching, to prepare and such."

He has another book in his head, and is working on a plan for it, centered on the concept of "banned in Boston."

"I love histories that reveal the stuff the history books didn't teach you," he said. "The Mass Bay founders were hateful, despite what good they did. A lot of people say the U.S. is a Christian nation, but Thomas Paine was so anti-Christian. He wanted complete separation of church and state. It was the age of reason, of free thinkers. The Founding Fathers did not intend us to be just a Christian nation."

He's also fascinated by Horace Mann, whose accomplishments inspired Della Valle to become a teacher.

In the meantime, he has his English classes, and he's started an acoustic café on Thursdays at the high school, having discovered a multi-national chorus of voices at the school when he brought his guitar to class. "They love it. Kids are so talented," he said. "They all know every word of every pop song. They all know the harmony parts. One class said we should just do some after-school stuff. There are about 20 kids a week who come, and they're from all over."

On his own, Della Valle can sometimes be found playing with the Sheep Shaggers — a band his son, Rocky, and daughter, Lisa, are involved with — at the Black Sheep Tavern, or, in better weather, golfing. And then there are the grandkids, 4 and 1, to occupy him. Life is good.