Sunday, March 30, 2014

They came, they talked, they concurred ... great book!

What do you do when the discussion goes too far off topic?
Joan Killough-Miller, leader of the Women's Issues Book Discussion Group in Worcester, said "It’s hard to know where to draw the line between personal sharing that relates to the book and people who just don’t know when to stop! It’s nice when people enrich the discussion by sharing relevant personal experiences. (We’ve had a biologist bring in actual micrographs of “Henrietta Lacks” (HeLa) cells, and we have a couple of members who grew up in Nazi Germany. Their memories help make some of the wartime books real to the rest of us.) But sometimes the conversation veers off in an irrelevant direction, and I have a hard time bringing it back!"
Not an unfamiliar problem. In Lancaster, we recognized chatter's inevitability—and its popularity—by naming ourselves The Off-Track Bookies. But, face it: competing conversations destroy the main topic in the room.
Let's be truthful: Women love to talk. That's one reason book groups are so popular among us. Men do have or attend book groups, and I'd love to hear if this problem is endemic to their experience as well.
Solutions mostly come from within. A strong group leader bears the main burden for reining in side conversations. While unintended, chatter is rude and distracting. If any member has a hearing impediment, participation becomes difficult. Many times these conversations are not whispered but spoken at the same level of the main conversation, or louder.
We all learned better than this in school, right?
The biggest problem is that getting together after a few weeks' absence is more than tempting; it's almost obligatory to share what's up, what we missed last time, what we're reading now, a particular author's other books, or one of the endless gossip topics related to movies, church or work life, people we know in common, the winter's broken arms and other injuries ... and on and on and on!
Anne Young, of the Heywood Library book group, resolved the issue: "When we first started, we did have this problem," she said. But time constraints for a one-hour meeting just don't permit it. "I allow 5 minutes after we begin for people to speak about other things. (One of the benefits of this is one of our members informed us about the program on PBS, Channel 44, that reviews books daily.) Since I am the facilitator, I limit the discussions, but allow people the chance to speak as they wish at the end of our meeting. I guess this is the other benefit of having the meetings at the public library versus a home meeting. Many of the members linger longer discussing other books or events after the meeting."
Establish ground rules when you launch a book group (they'll need to be restated, sometimes at each meeting). Plus, use email as a reminder, if necessary: no crosstalk, instead respect the main conversation (and those speaking); hold back once you've stated your opinion, to allow everyone a chance to talk about the book; stay on topic—limit comments to the book on hand, or at least related literary info.
One group leader allows a half-hour's conversation as she sets out snacks, then it's time to focus.
These things seem obvious and basic, yet groups ignore them. Strong leaders need to be coaches, cheerfully reminding everyone to stay with the main discussion and reaching out to quieter members, who may hold back rather than compete with the babble. It's the leader's job to make sure everyone has a chance to speak. Yes, there is a communal call to book group meetings, but many attend because they're interested in the book and want to discuss it!
It all boils down to one thing: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Don't cut another person's point of view to shreds, interrupt him or her, or otherwise show disdainful disagreement. It's OK to think differently, but it's not OK to pierce others' ideas. We're all fallible, and discussions are made up of differing opinions. You don't have to be a 1950s good girl in your manners—just follow the basics. To neglect that is to risk losing members who might otherwise contribute to the understanding of a selection.

Area book groups for April

A reader suggests forming a network of area groups to allow shared resources, such as an author visit, and communications. Not sure how to go about that, but it's worth considering. Any ideas? Send them to the address following the column.
Worcester Public Library readers will meet at 7 p.m., May 20, to discuss "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguru.
The Women's Issues Group, meeting April 14 at Barnes & Noble, Worcester, will focus on "Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers," by Valerie Lawson. (This story is also at the movies, as "Saving Mr. Banks").
Members of the Crawford Library group in Dudley will discuss "The Book Thief" by Marcus Zusak at their 6 p.m., April 3 meeting.
The C.S. Lewis Society of Central Massachusetts will discuss Henri Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming" at both April meetings, at 9 a.m. April 12 and 26 (Saturdays) in Auburn Public Library. Nouwen's encounter with Rembrandt's masterpiece is the topic.
Readers at Fitchburg Public Library will discuss "Defending Jacob" by William Landay during meetings at 1 and 6 p.m., April 9. Call 978-829-1780 for details.
On April 10, at noon, members of Leominster Public Library's book group will discuss "Mudbound," by Hillary Jordan. Edward Bergman, director of adult services, has details. The Brown Bag Book Group meets one Thursday each month for an informal book chat led by Jane Maguire. Bring your lunch; Friends of the Library provides beverages. On April 28, there's a 7 p.m. discussion of Stephanie Reents' "The Kissing List," short stories written by Holy Cross faculty member Reents. Patrick Ireland will lead the discussion.
Lancaster's Off-Track Bookies will discuss B.A. Shapiro's "The Art Forger" on April 10.
O'Connor's Books, Brews and Banters group will discuss Ann Patchett's "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage" at 6:30 p.m., April 23.
The April 30 selection at Heywood Library in Gardner is "The Interestings," a novel by Meg Wolitzer.

Ann Connery Frantz invites your ideas and questions about book club gatherings at Groups, send the next month's selection by mid-month for end of month publication.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Confess to Oprah before starting a book club

When Oprah Winfrey talks, people listen, and Oprah's a big reader, so it follows suit that her book selections led the best-seller lists for many months while she was doing her television program. 
I like her taste in books, though I disagreed when she announced she would discontinue her Oprah book club because not enough good books were being published. She later changed her mind, and gave it a go for awhile. These days, she recommends  good books through Oprah's Book Club 2.0, online. Cheryl Strayed's "Wild" was the first in this incarnation of the club.
Anyway, Oprah asked a few questions for those starting a book club, to get it started on the right note.
I've repeated the questions here, providing my own answers:
·  "Why are you starting a book club?" If you don't like to go along with crowd, and don't really care what anyone else thinks about a book, you may not be the ideal candidate for this project. If you lack enough time to read the book and be prepared for a meeting, forget about it; getting there will become a major challenge.
·  "What type of people will make up the club?" Are you thinking of friends or acquaintances only, or looking to meet new people? How wide open will you get to new members? What do you think a member should bring to the group? Do you plan to discuss the book online, instead of meeting? Then another sort of reader entirely may be best.
·  "What types of books will your club read?" This is important, as you can lose members by picking a stream of books that members dislike. Decide early on whether novels, spirituality, travel, classics, etc., are the genre for your group. Don't vary without discussing it.
·  "Do you want to lead the club?" This is a critical role. Leaders coordinate meetings, inform members and help them find books, answer questions and make sure everyone has directions to the meeting. They may end up contacting guest authors, arranging to Skype or answering last-minute questions from people interested in joining. Evaluate your time and your disposition before roping yourself in. If the meeting is at your house, will you provide refreshments? If not, who will?
·  "What are the minimum and maximum number of members your club can accommodate?" If you are meeting outside anyone's home—say at a local book store or restaurant—size may be stated. But also, when a group gets over a certain size, discussion can fly into the wind. Discussion has to be controlled, and membership numbers play into that.
·  "When will your first meeting take place?" Members need to discuss frequency with a realistic view to reading time, vacations, holidays and such. Some groups take December and January off, and we can certainly understand why, having missed the last two meetings because of work deadlines.

Books and authors:
Former Massachusetts resident Connie Matuzek, a Worcester Polytechnical Institute graduate, has published "Forty Years at Saquish Beach," a memoir about his life with a wife and two daughters at the private beach community 30 miles south of Boston. For more information, visit

(Read It and Reap, Jan. 26)
Ann Connery Frantz, a fiction writer and freelance writer/editor, welcomes ideas, questions and news of your group’s upcoming meetings at, and two reading gems: Nancy Pearl, Hallie Ephron

Somewhere in the heat of things, I missed posting this column, published Dec. 29. Here's a look at Internet link, for book groups, and an interview with Hallie Ephron.

There's an Internet link for readers with every kind of shared interest, at which readers will find rich options, both to learn more about literature and to connect. is free, and includes a service that's a little different. 
As with, a regional link for all kinds of clubs, Bookmovement gives clubs their own space, but the site is limited to book groups. Each group has its own visual and easily accessible page, “My Club Page,” for listing materials related to upcoming books, authors, meeting times, reading lists and suggested discussion questions, as well as forums to continue discussion online.
If you are overwhelmed by multiple schedules (and who isn't?), this is a place to quickly locate meeting info and book details. Bookmovement provides reading guides for 20,000 books, shows how many clubs are reading each, and gives clubs space for ratings, plot summary and discussion questions. Individuals may join in to add perspective, or add a specific book guide to their club page with a simple click.
There’s a place to post individual “wish” lists, archive books already read, and other book-related info. This definitely tops using ripped-out notebook pages, I'd say.
There’s also a newsletter, book recommendations, new releases, and–always welcome–book giveaways. The site claims to compile the ratings of books discussed at 35,000 clubs. Since not all great books make great club selections, the ratings give readers an idea of which may yield stimulating discussions.
The site also includes books nominated for writing awards, lists of light reading, and reviews. As an added feature, a section dubbed Author Chats reprints author interviews. There are also lists for group leaders, to help them run the meeting and guide the discussion.

The site links to Nancy Pearl (“Book Lust”), a well-known librarian who has abundant advice for book clubs on operating a group, selecting books, and getting the most out of reading. (Genre fiction, she points out, doesn’t lend itself to any discussion, since everything is pretty well spelled out for the reader and nothing is left to question.)
Her recommendations: mark up the pages as you go along—yes, go ahead and write in the margins if it’s your book; look for the tough questions as you read—everyone may have a different answer when it comes time for discussion; analyze the themes and the characters, as getting to know them well provides insight into the story; notice the book’s structure, and decide whether it works for you as a reader, and whether it helps to tell the story; compare the book to other authors and books, considering who else may have written on the same theme.

Hallie on touring:
Hallie Ephron, a Boston area author from a markedly creative family, is often on tour, visiting a lot of book clubs between the conventional book store stops. I asked her about the large number of book clubs on her tour—as opposed to the old bookstore visits.
Clubs, she says, are a natural venue. “Writing and publishing books is gratifying, but it's mostly one-way communication until you actually get to interact with readers. So getting to speak to a book group or a book club is really the icing on the cake. It's been a treat to speak with local book groups at homes and libraries, where there might be a dozen or more readers, and big book clubs with hundreds of avid readers—like the Greenbrook Country Club's Book Club in New Jersey. Lately I've been speaking about my new novel at a string of Jewish book clubs across the United States."

A plus for any visit: She says club members usually have already read the book when they meet. “The neat thing about speaking to book clubs is that anyone in a book club is, by definition, an enthusiastic reader and an informed human being. Which is to say, these are the most interesting people you can hope to meet. Plus they ask the best questions. I'm always delighted when someone spots a theme or a connection or a clue that I didn't consciously put in, and yet, there it is.” 

This column appeared in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette on Dec. 29, 2013. Send your central Massachusetts group meeting info, questions and suggestions to