Sunday, July 27, 2014

Okey Ndibe, Nicholas Basbanes and James Dempsey at Clark authors dinner

It's an American thing, this first-name form of address. 
In many places, he would be Dr. Ndibe. But here, it's different, especially among his students. "They call me Okey," he said. "Now, I love it."
Officially, he's Dr. Okey Ndibe, who teaches African literature and creative writing at Brown University and Trinity College in Hartford. Author of two novels, "foreign gods" and "Arrows of Rain," he joins two other speakers at Clark University's Book and Author Dinner in Worcester April 29.
Ndibe is a guest along with two former Telegram & Gazette writer/editors with equally impressive author cred—Nicholas Basbanes and James Dempsey. Organized by the Friends of Goddard Library, this event benefits the Friends and helps support a variety of programs at Clark and in the Worcester community, said Gwen Arthur, Clark University librarian.
Ndibe bases his talk about experiences in the United States in light of an upbringing that included the horrific civil war in Biafra. Thousands died of starvation alone in that era. But expect to laugh, he warns. To Ndibe, living is a joyful experience, and humor a strength, easing the culture clashes he encountered after coming to this country. Some are harder to accept than others, but there is one underlying truth to be considered:
Here, he is safe. Each time he returns to Nigeria his freedom, and his life, are in danger.
That's because he has written openly and critically about the government there, refusing to pander or yield just to be safe. He is co-founder, with award-winning author Chinua Achebe ("Things Fall Apart"), of the journal African Commentary and as a novelist has written about Nigerian struggles, both in their homeland and as immigrants. His essay, "My African Eyes" details his childhood experience of the terror in Biafra from 1967 to 1970. "We lived in the shadow of the sudden appearance of jet fighters that began to strafe the place. We would take cover in makeshift bunkers or underneath trees," he said in a recent interview. 
Estimates conclude that one to three million people died in that conflict, either from starvation or attacks. Some were his family members. His father, a civil government employee, was imprisoned for speaking out against human rights violations, and later sent the family out of the dangerous northeastern section of Nigeria into the southeast part of the country. They moved in with relatives, sometimes squeezing 10 into one room. What followed was years of deprivation, but also great family connection, in which people shared whatever they had with others.
He considers himself more enriched than diminished by his experiences. But there were costs. He grew up with the sound of bombs going off in the distance. "There was this loss of innocence, and awareness of the horror that's there," he said. "It was difficult to do the things children want to do."
"There was no food. We had to hunt lizards for meat, and would go for days without any meaningful meals. Some officials kept the relief food to themselves."
He also lost his native language after the family left northeastern Nigeria. "Nobody wanted to speak it," he said. Instead, he learned the dialects of his new home, and also English.
Yet there were positives, in the way people cared for each other, even during war, he said. "People took in refugees, gave a room to our family. There was a magical feeling of generosity from people, who had very little really. It moved and shaped me."
Upon reaching adulthood, he earned a business degree in Nigeria and worked as a journalist and magazine editor. He came to this country at 28, invited by Achebe. He earned a master's of fine arts and a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst while continuing to write for magazines and newspapers in this country. His essay, "Eyes to the Ground: The Perils of the Black Student," won a 2001 Association of Opinion Page Editors award.
As a teacher, much of his time is taken up with students and classes, but writing remains his focus: "It's important; when something is important, we find a way to do it," he said. "We're all 'officially' busy, but you can always do more and more. I'm passionate about writing, so I don't get as much sleep as other people—including my wife—would want me to get. I'm passionate about reading as well. I have to turn down some invitations because I have to do that. "
His fellow speakers, James Dempsey and Nicholas Basbanes, are strongly rooted in journalism and both are prolific writers.
Dempsey was a metro columnist for the Telegram & Gazette for many years and was a writing coach at the paper. He has published fiction, poetry and academic papers, and is teaching writing at Worcester Polytechnical Institute (WPI) as administrator of Literary Studies. He has a master's degree from Clark University.
Dempsey says he enjoys discovering and nurturing students toward their writing potential. Author of two novels, he remains interested in academic, journalistic and creative writing. He has written a biography of Scofield Thayer, editor of a literary journal, "The Dial," during the 1920s.
Basbanes, of North Grafton, is former literary editor of the Worcester Sunday Telegram and a writer whose passion for literature has spawned a number of books.
He has written both a column about books and authors ("Gently Mad") for Fine Books and Collections magazine, and a nationally syndicated monthly review of children's books for Literary Features Syndicate, co-written with his wife, Constance Basbanes. He has been described as "the leading authority of books about books," by the noted biographer and historian David McCullough, and has written several books, among them:  "A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books," a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He also wrote "Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture" and "Every Book Has Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World."
Basbanes received a National Endowment fellowship last year for his work in progress, about paper and papermaking. "On Paper: The Everything of its Two Thousand History" has been short-listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. It's also been named a best book of the year by Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Bloomberg News, Mother Jones, the National Post (Canada) and the American Library Association.
He is a frequent contributor to newspapers and writing journals.

New fall books coming soon

Book groups sometimes fall behind the times, waiting for cheaper paperback versions of best-sellers to come out, or following the lead on suggested books that are sometimes years old by the time the group gets to them. It's fine to go that way, but to create a more contemporary focus, at least some of the time, stay informed about what's coming up. You'll learn more about contemporary writing by reading more newly published works.
The publishers of several top-notch authors plan to release their latest books this fall, among them Sarah Waters, Ian McEwan, Richard Ford, Jane Smiley and Marilyn Robinson. Poll club members regarding their willingness to buy (or borrow from the library) a new book for upcoming meetings. Here are a few of them:
Jane Smiley is releasing "Some Luck," the first of a planned trilogy about an Iowa farm family. Smiley is the Pulitzer-winning author of "A Thousand Acres," "Private life," and a long list of fiction and nonfiction books for adults and younger readers. She excels at creating intimate portrayals of characters whose lives are enmeshed with loving bonds and personal sorrows, but she has also has created a series of YA books about Abby Lovitt, a girl with a passion for horses—a good way to keep your child reading.
In October, Marilyn Robinson returns to her famed Gilead, Iowa, location with "Lila," the story of a homeless, hardscrabble young woman who marries Rev. John Ames—known to readers for his role in "Gilead," which won the Pulitzer Prize for its beautiful portrayal of a Congregationalist minister's life, his ancestry and the faith that surrounds them during the Civil War era. "Lila" may well join "Gilead," "Home" and "Housekeeping" as classics in American literature.
Ian McEwan, author of "Atonement," releases "The Children Act" in September. It's the story of a British family court judge dedicated to justice for children when she hands down verdicts that consider children's welfare. When a teenager falls ill and seeks intercession against parents who are members of a church that prohibits surgical intervention, she must weigh the boy's rights against religious beliefs.
Sarah Waters ("The Little Stranger" and "Fingersmith") is releasing "The Paying Guests," a novel about a widow and her daughter who take in a young lower-class couple in post-WWI London. The genteel are becoming the entrepreneurial class during class upheaval brought on by the war, and the Wrays must take on boarders in a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, even servants. Predictably, their lives will be profoundly altered. I'm looking forward to this one—which screams "Downton Abbey at me—being released in early September.
I'm also anticipating Colm Toibin's "Nora Webster," set for release in October. Toibin's novel is set in Ireland, and draws the life of a young widow and mother of four as she finds her way through grief, uncertainty and hopelessness.
The ubiquitous Jody Picoult releases "Leaving Time" in October. In the book, a young teen searches for her missing mother, long considered dead. Seeking help, she turns to a jaded detective and a psychic. Known for her meticulous research, Picoult explores psychic claims and the most interesting world of elephant behavior.
Margaret Atwood ("Cat's Eye," "The Handmaid's Tale") a prolific novelist and poet, brings out a new collection of short stories in mid-September. "Stone Mattress" contains dark humor, turbulent relationships and the slightly off-center fantasy she's known for.
And what would fall be without a new Stephen King? His "Revival: A Novel" comes out in November. The story is an intricate exploration of what happens in a small New England town upon the arrival of a new minister and his wife, both of them quickly forming dangerous, tantalizing bonds with townspeople. It's five generations in scope, people. Expect some interesting diversion.
Daniel Woodrell wrote "Winter's Bone," which became a movie and launched actress Jennifer Lawrence's career. On Sept. 3, he returns to that dark Ozarks world with "The Maid's Version." It's a novel based on a real incident—an explosive, fatal fire in an Ozarks dance hall. Don't expect sweetness, but Woodrell's unstinting attention to detailing the truth of that world and its people is impressive.
Richard Ford, author of "Canada," "Independence Day" and "The Sports Writer," returns in November with "Let Me Be Frank With You." His latest brings back Frank Bascombe, a richly drawn observer of late 20th-century life, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Be prepared to be entertained—and deeply moved—by an exceptional author.
Denis Johnson ("Tree of Smoke") releases "The Laughing Monsters" in November. It's described as a post-9/11 literary spy thriller. That's a lot of hats to wear. It's set in Sierra Leone, amid the terrors of civil war.

"Perfectly Miserable," anyone?
  "Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town," by Sarah Payne Stuart, was released in June. This wry memoir is about a Concord, Mass., girl's upbringing amid the WASP culture of guilt and duty dictated through its legacy of local literary women—from Emerson's wife to Hawthorne's, to the most famous of all, Louisa May Alcott. Rigid rules for rigorous raising make this a funny, and not enviable, tale of family life.

Book club meetings:
The next meeting of the Douglas Library Book Group will focus on Daniel James Brown’s "The Boys in the Boat." Meeting is at 6:30 p.m., Aug. 12. The book is about the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and its epic quest for an Olympic gold medal. Call the library 508-476-2695 for a copy of the book. New members welcome. Homemade refreshments inspired by the title will be served.
The Leftovers, a sci-fi novel by Tom Perrotta (also a new HBO series) is the July 31 discussion focus for Leominster's Reading, Sharing and Laughing. Perrotta lives in Belmont. The group meets at 7 p.m. at Chaibo, a Fitchburg cafe.
Speaking Volumes, Audio Journal's Worcester-based broadcast book group on WICN, 90.5, will discuss Jojo Moyes' "Me Before You," from 8-9 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 5. Call in discussion points to 508-752-0557.
The Sturbridge book group, A Book Between Friends, will discuss Stephen King's "11/22/63," a novel about a time traveler's efforts to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, meeting on Saturday, Aug. 16.
Members of the New Earth Book Club in Shrewsbury will meet Aug. 28 at Eller's Restaurant in Cherry Valley to discuss a recent Anne Lamott book, "Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son." Meeting begins after a 6 p.m. dinner.
Ann Connery Frantz is a freelance writer/editor and a cofounder of the Lancaster-based Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative. Her blog is (note two e's). Send comments to

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Of 'Lemon Orchard' and book deals

Go ahead: Buy a book at full price now and then, just to keep the process going. It's good for publishers and great for authors. Only the genre stars make much anyway, so do what you can to support good literature from others.

Building a library, though, comes from a range of book purchases, from free to full price. If I'd paid list price for all the books in 10 bookcases at home, well, it'd be a pretty costly, nutty thing to do. So of course I did not. (Now I only have to worry about reading them all before I die.) A fair amount of the time, though, I plunk down the full price—especially at author signings. It's a good thing to support them in this way.

That said, while promising to pay full price some of the time, here are tips to get book-related perks for nothing, or nearly so.

Random House publishes "Book Club," a rundown on new titles for library-sponsored book clubs ( Its First Look Book Club gives readers a free excerpt from just-published books, via email. Includes all genres. Sign up at Other publishing houses do the same thing. Check the publishers of some favorite authors and see what they are promoting. In these situations, dedication (frequent checking) pays off. The publisher's Readers Circle offers giveaway contests and some freebies, like this month's short story by Jodi Picoult, available for downloading.

Go to favorite authors' web sites and follow them regularly. This is a good place to find free books as each new book comes to publication. It's a promotional gesture, and fans love it. I'd rather have a real book than an e-book anytime.

Book Bub and Book Perk—granted they're selling something—often include a free read with their ebooks, for those reading on Nooks or similar devices. I'm not much for electronic readers, though I have them on my iPad and as a Nook, still they're great for vacations, plane trips, dark theaters before the show comes on, or just slipping into a purse. Though it will usually cost me, I've decided I no longer want to tote around a large book (Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" did me in), so I'll order larger selections that way in the future.

E-book libraries, available with readers, don't make a show of it but do offer free books from earlier or classical realms. Search for books on sale or $0.00 and see what comes up. This is a good place to find the classics you never read but always meant to. I'm into Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" right now. I don't get many books this way (nor do I buy many), because I'll never read that many, but for an easy way to take your reading along, e-books can't be beat.

To shortcut the search, Kindle offers Free Kindle Classics, a master list of free ebooks, for 99 cents. Find it with a search on Amazon. Buyer beware: Know your authors. Everyone knows which books are classics, and therefore pretty good reads, but there is a large amount of what's politely called drivel out there for free. You'll generally find this out the hard way. But it's not true that you can't get something for nothing. There are plenty of good reads available—first books by unknown authors or older books that haven't sold well. Select carefully.

I always look through sale racks at bookstores. It helps to know which authors are good, because some very good books get placed in the bin from time to time. It's worth a look. For a little help with the selection process, offers reader reviews of freebies, and includes the classics as well as newer books. Project Gutenberg is a must site for readers, since this site offers thousands of free, expired copyright books and was the pioneering e-book site. (There's also a self-publishing wing at

Many online book clubs are nothing more than venues for book sales. Book of the Month Club, that age-old mother of all book clubs, has morphed into BOMC2, offering club members books at a low flat fee. Still, that isn't free!

Since most clubs have a spending budget the size of a pea, there are also authors who don't charge to visit with your club by Skype. Additionally, there are a fair number of notable authors within reach of Worcester. They will occasionally visit (it's nice to offer gas money or a gift). Find them by contacting the author (most have web sites these days), or searching online. I've noticed a fair number of authors who've laid the process out for readers, with web sites offering excerpts, reviews, book club questions, librarian/bookseller info, etc. They're people who are well prepared for the online revolution.

One online site, by the way, offers books in exchange for reviews. GoodReads is the site, and there are conditions, (plus it's competitive), but they're available. If you accept a book and then don't post a review, regardless of length, don't expect to be high on the list of future freebies!

Bookmarks: Those who, like me, still read print books, also have a fetish for cool bookmarks. Yes, the grocery list will do—but then it is missing when it's time to shop, so I buy bookmarks (as book club gifts too) at the Legacy outlet on Green Street in Clinton. This cool, recycled paper products shop sells bookmarks for about a dime apiece, and they're lovely, printed on heavy paper for long use. It's also possible to print bookmarks out from free templates you find online. There are dozens of possibilities, not quite free if you must also buy paper, but almost.

Going to the Boston Book Festival at Copley Square Oct. 23-25 will net you freebies galore, ranging from bookmarks to books and magazines (and candy!). Book fairs are always a good place to visit, and Boston's is very large and mostly free. Only a few activities have a price tag on them, and it's kept low.

While online book clubs have proliferated, and you can join them for free, the only way to get free food is to join your local book club! Somehow, the best cooks end up hosting the groups, and offer an array of healthy and not-so-healthy treats. Do your part: either bring something along or find a way to contribute to the cook's purse. Our group surprised its host with baking supplies to further the cause!

Inexpensive, though not free, are the books scooped up at huge book sales, most often during the summer and early fall. In July, for instance, join other bibliophiles (or, as I've been told, bookaholics) at the big sales: more than 16,000 items are on sale at the Stockbridge Library Association sale, July 11-13. Another biggie, touting more than 120,000 items, is the Newtown, Conn., annual book sale, July 12-16 at Reed Intermediate School. Closer to home, Gardner's beautiful Heywood Library, 55 W. Lynde St., has accrued 10,000 items for sale Aug. 1-2. Sept. 20-21, is the Friends of Morse Institute Library sale on Route 135, where 20,000 items are available for 50 cents to $1. Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster fills Town Hall's auditorium with table after table of books on Oct. 4. Caution: Attendance not recommended for anyone without ample bookcase space!

Your library is, hands down, the biggest source of free books, from new releases to best-sellers and classics. And you get to return them when finished—an advantage for the space-pressed among us. I find it difficult to admit to this status, but my son-in-law reminds me that I cannot take them with me when I go (as if he's anticipating that event any day now!)

Speaking of bookcases, I once fashioned a charming one in a guest room using a polished pine bunk-bed ladder. It leaned against the wall, prettily, filled with books I imagined a guest would enjoy. Several did. But you can get free plans for building bookcases at a number of places. Ana White, This Old House, and several woodworking firms and magazines—Fine Woodworking, Start Woodworking, Rockler Woodworking, for instance—offer plans. Check around; there is quite a variety.

A good summer read:

Luanne Rice has empathetically drawn on the personal impacts of immigration laws on families living within and outside the United States in her latest novel, "The Lemon Orchard." A Connecticut native (honored with the Governor's Arts Award this month in that state), Rice has published 31 novels. She sets this story of broken lives and tragic losses within a Malibu lemon orchard, where a Mexican living illegally in the U.S. grieves the loss of his daughter while they crossed the desert. He meets and forms a bond with an American whose sorrow over a deceased daughter drives every decision she makes. It's a good story, not laden with pat answers or predictable outcomes, and offers eye-opening details about the horrors immigrants encounter as they make their way across the desert trying to enter this country.