Sunday, December 6, 2015

Books to give, or get, for holidays.



Giving a gift book is a risk if you don't know someone's reading taste. A gift card is always an answer to this quandary, but if you can find out ahead of time, through a friend, spouse or quick browse in their house, so much the better. Here are a few new books I'd consider a good gift:

Fiction

These days, World War II-era books are practically a genre by themselves. That time frame is the setting for Sara Gruen's latest, "At the Water's Edge," a very readable novel about a young woman dragged across the Atlantic to Scotland, only to discover her marriage is a sham and no one can—or will—help her escape from the threats she faces. The flavor of Scotland and small village life is rich throughout the book, spiced with a bit of romance and fantasy—in the form of a search for the elusive Loch Ness Monster. Gruen is the author of "Water for Elephants."
For the young man in your life—especially if he's still in the rebel and revel stages, the 20s, 30s, 40s, dare I include 50s?—Chuck Palahniuk is a can't-go-wrong choice. His latest is "Make Something Up: Stories You Can't Unread." He means it. For original voices and blunt thinking, Palahniuk ("Fight Club," "Choked") has earned a mighty reputation.
One of the most popular club reads lately, Lauren Groff's "Fates and Furies" is the story of a quarter century of marriage, told from "his," then "her," point of view. You just know they aren't going to match. This one must be prompting raging reveals during club meetings. More than that, however, it's the story of how a marriage is kept intact through the good days, and those "other" times.
Gregory Maguire of Concord is author of the legendary "Wicked" series, as well as several other seminal, magical versions of storybook tales like Cinderella ("Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister") and Snow White ("Mirror, Mirror"). He has released another unique retelling. "After Alice," his take on "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," was published the last week of October.

Nonfiction:

Maybe you have an eclectic friend, who is interested in many subject areas, listens faithfully to National Public Radio, is old enough to appreciate the good stuff in life and enjoys good writing. Here's a nice choice: Roger Angell's "This Old Man: All in Pieces." Angell is a baseball fiend and a fiercely good thinker and writer. His work, published frequently in The New Yorker (so you know it's first rate) consists here of a series of profiles, essays and interviews ranging across a broad subject area (Derek Jeter and Vladimir Nabokov? Really.) And guess, guess, guess his step-father? The famous E.B. White, himself a grammar and writing guru ("The Elements of Style").
"Gumption," by entertainer/humorous philosopher Nick Offerman ("Parks and Recreation"), is a collection of earthy, amusing essays about people he considers fighters or changemakers with gumption. I started out reading about Yoko Ono, who changed John Lennon's life (and the Beatles'), then stayed to read about Willie Nelson and Ben Franklin.

Biography
Willie Nelson, whose recent Library of Congress award ceremony included a musical reminder about what this country represents to immigrants, has released "It's a Long Story." Strictly for fans of the man—a hero to many for his courageous stance in favor of marijuana when it wasn't popular to do so—this book is direct. I enjoyed Willie's plain-spoken style and revelations.
I haven't read it yet, but "Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill" has me intrigued. Surely, someone who strategized with her husband amid the insane pressures of World War II has to have experienced a lot. Churchill played a role in both World Wars I and II and the book captures these situations, as witnessed in the family. I look forward to reading Sonia Purnell's biography. Purnell is said to be honest as well about Mrs. Churchill's maternal inadequacies.
We all hear about Mark Twain's youthful and mid-age writings, his Tom Sawyers, his witty essays. For the writer or Twain buff, I suggest two Twain-related books, both by the author: "How to Tell a Story and Other Essays," about writing, and Volume 3 of his "Autobiography of Mark Twain." This volume, the final in a series released in 2010 and onward,  deals with crises in his later years, but also includes much about the writing life—"a procession of episodes and experiences which seem large when they happen, but which diminish to trivialities as soon as we get perspective upon them." Not so his own legend.

Mystery
It's impossible to isolate a mystery, as there are many good ones and as many tastes in styles. I will mention Kate Morton's "The Lake House," because she is such a master of complex, layered mystery. It's well written.
Boston news celebrity Hank Phillippi Ryan has become an award-winning mystery writer. Her latest is "What You See," the story of a child abducted by her father.
Know any music lovers who read mysteries? Tess Garritsen just released "Playing with Fire," uniquely combining her musical ability (she's a violinist) with a knack for raising goose bumps on readers' arms. This story, from the creator of Rizzoli & Isles novels, follows a young Boston violinist whose family refuses to believe that her daughter becomes violent each time she plays the passionate, mysterious "Incendio Waltz," from sheet music purchased in Europe. A sub-plot revolves around a musical prodigy who falls in love during World War II—when Christian-Jewish marriage was not permitted and became grounds for incarceration. There's a review at www.readitandreeap.blogspot.com.

Science fiction
Not sure if this is sci-fi or reality, but Paolo Bacigalupi has an idea what life will be like in the Southwestern states if drought dries up all the water for good. This novel explores desperation and real possibilities.
Sci fi writers tend to produce series upon series, and I don't like to recommend that someone start in the middle. So instead, try Emma Newman's "Planetfall," a combination of science fiction mystery and an introspective look at mental illness, and "The Martian," by Andy Weir—the book behind the movie starring Matt Damon.

Religion
Marilynn Robinson is famous for insightful portraits of human spirit in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Gilead" and in "Lila," both familiar to book clubbers. Now, she has released "The Givenness of Things," in which she defines what is still inspirational and humane in our society amid its technological and big business obsessions. It's a stirring critique, drawing attention to what we remain as humans.

Contemporary:
I like Brandon Stanton's series of photographed tales about New Yorkers he meets on the streets, randomly profiled on his blog of the same name. Now, they're captured in a book, "Humans of New York: Stories." It's very readable and occasionally moving. Gives one a good perspective on what it's like to be human, period.
"The New Tsar" by Steven Lee Myers. Readers don't mind a downer now and then, and those with political interest will find this biography of one of the most frightening Russians since Rasputin: Vladimir Putin. The former KGB agent has built a complex system of autocracy around him as Russia's president. He'll probably be around for a long time, might as well bone up on him.

Classics—Book club suggestions:
Sterling Library's book club members sent in a few suggestions for timeless good reading, all of them good choices.
"We found that "Pride and Prejudice" and "The Great Gatsby" were tops in our group, followed by "Jamaica Inn" by Daphne Du Maurier. "Jamaica Inn" was perhaps the most surprising classic we read," said Lisa Perry. "None of us expected it to be as good as, and perhaps even better than, Du Maurier's best known work: "Rebecca." 
What are your group's suggestions for great classics—the old stuff—you've read? Send them to ann.frantz@gmail.com
Meetings in the area:
Leominster's Reading, Sharing and Laughing will meet Dec. 3, 7 p.m., at Chiabo in Fitchburg to discuss "Go Set a Watchman," Harper Lee's much-discussed early novel.
The Friday Morning Book Club in Northborough plans a discussion of Camus' "The Stranger" at its 10 a.m., Dec. 11 meeting.
Heywood Library's group, in Gardner, will meet at 4:30 p.m., Dec. 23, to view a video of "The Orphan Train," which they read about in Christina Baker Kline's book of the same name during November.
The Women's Issues Book Club will meet Dec. 14 for its annual celebration of Worcester-area women poets. The public is welcome to listen, or read, at an informal 7 p.m. gathering, being held this month at Frances Perkins Branch of Worcester Public Library, 470 West Boylston St. (Greendale). The Jan. 11 selection is "Elizabeth is Missing" by Emma Healey.
Off-Track Bookies from Lancaster is reading Jodi Picoult's "The Storyteller" for its Jan. 14 meeting, and has slated a potluck/gift exchange for its 6:30 p.m., Dec. 10 meeting, during which upcoming selections will be made.
At Haston Library, North Brookfield, readers will consider Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day" on Dec. 8.
Speaking Volumes, an audio book group (www.audiojournal.net) will discuss Louise Erdrich's "The Roundhouse" during its 8 p.m., Dec. 1 meeting.
Mendon Library Book Club plans to discuss "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry," by Rachel Joyce. Meeting is at 7 p.m., Dec. 1. January's selection is Kristin Hannah's "Comfort and Joy."
In the classics vein, members of Pearl L. Crawford Memorial Library Book Club will discuss Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" at their 6 p.m. Dec. 3 meeting. Up for Jan. 7 is "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. The Group meets in Dudley.
Ann Connery Frantz is a fiction writer and co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative in Lancaster. A career-long journalist, she is also a freelance writer and editor. Send comments or questions to ann.frantz@gmail.com. This column was originally published in the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette.



Monday, November 23, 2015

'Playing with Fire' is Gerritsen's latest



A novel often is the best way of presenting the emotional content of historical events. By fictionalizing a tragedy, a time or a way of life, an author invests them with human drama. Loss, love, spirit are transferred to the reader's mind within the realm of history.
So it is with Tess Gerritsen's "Playing with Fire," a novel in which she weaves the story of a star-crossed World War II-era couple with a modern contemporary mystery. The two stories are linked by sheet music, the mysterious, passionate "Incendio" which violinist Julia Ansdell purchases in a Roman antique shops during a visit to Italy. She brings it home to Boston and begins to practice its odd, minor chords and lightning-quick arpeggios.
But Ansdell's 3-year-old daughter displays uncharacteristically violent behavior linked to the music. Once she has clearly identified music as the source of her child's outbursts, she finds no one will believe her. Leaving the U.S., Julia searches for the music's history, tracking the music to its roots. While this may seem improbable, it is the framework of a nice little mystery: one that will bring its protagonist into seriously threatening circumstances as she digs into a murderous history that a family no longer wants to see brought to light.
Within the sub-plot, there is a sampling of the cruel depravity German soldiers visited on Jewish prisoners during the war, drawing readers deeper into the plight of the original composer, Lorenzo's, ill-fated life. The terror that he experiences in a concentration camp becomes part of the plot but also becomes the genesis of "Incendio," as Lorenzo grapples with horror and fury as he's forced to play as loud as he can to mask the screams of dying Jews. It is horrific, and Gerritsen's straightforward recounting of the situation is riveting, as well as scarring to one's soul.
Allowing Julia to ferret out such details as she digs into a lost life is that much more arresting, and Gerritsen does it well. She also creates a murder mystery that leaves Julia in a frightening situation far from home, attempting to bring justice to the memory of the violinist-composer.
All of this is recounted skillfully—the book is not at all confusing, and Gerritsen's skillful writing makes the action both fluid and exciting.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

'The little O, the earth' blends travel essays, poetry in harmony



"The little O, the earth" is a thoughtful, introspective travel journal, harmoniously compiled as a blend of writing, art and experience into an enjoyable exploration of the world and its great art collections.
Judith Ferrara's book, titled from Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," describes various flights of imagination through art, essay and poetry. The Worcester-based writer/artist will read from her book at 2 p.m., Nov. 8, in the Princeton Art Society, 18 Boylston Ave., Princeton, and at 7 p.m., Nov. 12, at The Street Beat, 1 Ekman St., Worcester.

The well-designed, square book she envisioned when she started succeeds in capturing the intellectual liveliness of a watchful visitor, seeking to absorb and learn from the best of the world's cultural richness. Ferrara's thoughts about art and the many places she has visited over more than a decade are candid and affecting. Readers are in Barcelona, Reykjavik and Amsterdam, Cote d'Azur, Florence and Rome, St. Petersburg, London and cities across the United States, through the eyes and mind of a woman whose goal—to visit the world's famed museums—may seem too ambitious, but seems to be well within her reach.

Don't expect a dull or overwritten collection of essays. These excerpts from her journals are rich with detail but spare in content. In them, she preserves her best sense of a place and person. There are tidbits of knowledge—like Rembrandt's bankruptcy list being used to restore his house for posterity, the misleading "two tuns of yellow" paint used in Monet's home at Giverny, and Renoir challenging himself to do better after heartbreaking exposure to the works of Titian, Veronese and Raphael—presented between her drawings, inspired by the museums and lands she saw. She briefly considers the music she relies upon as a backdrop for creative juices, the life of an artist, the love she developed for Goya's art after observing his work at The Prado in Madrid.

She writes about Worcester-born poet Elizabeth Bishop, and poet Stanley Kunitz's Worcester home, where she spent several years as a docent. She speaks of the training that goes into being a museum guide, or docent, and relates her joy at hearing a child, after staring at one of her works, solemnly pronounce, "Wow."

The book is filled with such moments, carefully folded together and crafted into a beautiful homage to art.
Her poetry relates to travels, recollecting thoughts about Van Gogh and Michelangelo alongside the realities of life for an artist, mother and writer. The assembled poems are warm, personal, and lovely; I won't single any out, because they are touching and unique. Oh, alright, I will: "No Apologies," which seems to marry the day-to-day life of mother and wife with the dreams and frustrations of creation.

Audio Journal an alternative

Speaking Volumes, a book club for those with visual impairments, holds frequent radio meetings, and the group's schedule is available at www.audiojournal.net. This is a terrific way to connect a friend or parent with vision issues to a book discussion group they can enjoy. Books are available, recorded on digital cartridge by the Library of Congress, through Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library and the Worcester Talking Book Library.
Volunteers discuss the book in the studio, and listeners may call in to comment and be part of the group. Selections are made at least four months in advance, allowing listeners time to reserve copies. The number to call to take part in the program is 508-752-0557. It is also possible to listen online, at the website. For more details, the show maintains a Facebook page—simply look up Speaking Volumes. 

Speaking Volumes is broadcast the first Tuesday of each month from 8 to 9 p.m. Discussions are archived on the website for a year. The selection for Nov. 3 is "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng. The schedule into 2016 includes: Dec. 2, "The Round House," by Louise Erdrich; Feb. 2, "Lawrence in Arabia," Scott Anderson; March 1, "Life After Life," Kate Atkinson.

Classic Book recommendations
 
This month, Betsey Johnson of Holden reports book club members who meet at the Congregational Church there often prefer to read 19th century English writers Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, the Brontes and George Eliot, as well as American writers Willa Cather, Henry James, Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. "Can't go wrong with any of these authors," she writes. Wharton's "Summer" and James' "Washington Square" are both short and readable.

Area book clubs

Members of the "Greatest Book Club Ever" at Douglas' Simon Fairfield Public Library will discuss Stephen King's "The Shining" at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 5. Public welcome. Call to reserve a copy. The library's "Book Bunch" meets at 6 p.m., Nov. 19. Also at the library, at 6:30 p.m., Nov. 13, readers will discuss Michael Tougias's "The Finest Hours" about a Nor'easter off Cape Cod that destroyed two oil tankers, and the effort to rescue their crews. There are also two young people's book clubs at the library. For details, contact the library.
Lancaster's Thayer Memorial Library Adult Book Group takes on Mark Haddon's unique and very readable novel, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" at its 6:30 p.m. Nov. 24 meeting. Check with the library to reserve a copy. The Thursday afternoon book club meets at 1 p.m., Nov. 12, to discuss "Pascali's Island" by Brian Unsworth.
Also in Lancaster, Off-Track Bookies will discuss Geraldine Brooks' "People of the Book" at a meeting Nov. 12.
"With Malice Toward None," a life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates, is the discussion focus for a 10 a.m., Nov 13 meeting of the Friday Morning Book Club, Northborough Library.
In Mendon, says Brenda Whitner, readers will discuss Jo Jo Moyes' "Me Before You," a novel about a caretaker assigned to a young man who intends to commit suicide after being paralyzed. Meeting is at 7 p.m., Nov. 3 in the town library.
Dudley book club members will meet Nov. 5, 6 p.m. in the Pearl L. Crawford Memorial Library to talk about Jeannette Walls' "Half-Broke Horses." For details, call 508-929-8021 or leave an email address at the library.
The Holden Gale Free Library's Book Club will consider "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin at a 10:30 a.m. meeting, Nov. 3, and, on Dec. 1, "A Spool of Blue Thread" by Anne Tyler. Copies are available through the library.
Bannister Book Group, Merrick Public Library, Brookfield, will meet Tuesday, Nov. 24, 7 to 8 p.m. to discuss "Kindred" by Octavia Butler, a novel about a modern black woman transported back in time to a slave plantation in the antebellum South. "Harrowing, haunting story," one reviewer said.
"The Other Wes Moore," by Wes Moore, will discussed at 6:30, Nov. 2, in the Jacob Edwards Library, Southbridge.
The NOW Women's Issues Book Group, Worcester, will meet Nov. 9 to discuss "Euphoria" by Lily King. Meeting is at 7 p.m. in Barnes & Noble, 541 Lincoln St.
"The Remains of the Day," by Kazuo Ishiguro will be discussed at Haston Library in North Brookfield on Dec. 8. This is the combined November/December meeting
Brown Bag Book Club at Leominster Public Library has slated "And the Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini for its Nov. 5 meeting at noon.
The Nov. 18 meeting at Fitchburg Public Library is about Cheryl Strayed's "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific West Trail." Discussions are at 1 and 6:30 pm.
"Orphan Train" by Christina Kline is the topic of a 4:30 p.m., Nov. 18 meeting in Heywood Library, Gardner.
Whately Library hosts an author visit and book discussion with Jeannine Atkins on Saturday, Nov. 14, starting at 11 a.m. Whately’s own Atkins will lead a discussion of her new book, "Little Woman in Blue."
Books will be available for purchase and signing. Library is at 202 Chestnut Plain Rd. Call 413-665-2170 for info.

Ann Connery Frantz is a freelance writer/editor who also writes fiction. Send information and ideas to ann.frantz@gmail.com.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Don't miss Boston Book Fair -- it's a readers' nirvana!




 
Boston Book Festival organizers have announced the author lineup for the seventh annual festival, slated for Oct. 23-24 at Copley Square, Boston. Some 175 authors and presenters are expected, and events—beyond two ticketed events—are free. They are held in buildings surrounding the square and adjacent churches, with many sessions in the Boston Public Library. The largest groups meet in Trinity Church.
A large crowd attends, so arrive early for good seating. This is a chance to hear authors who have won some of the most prestigious writing awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, Caldecott and Newbery awards, and the Mann-Booker Award. Sessions include scientists, architects, historians and authors of multiple genres.
One special element—the city-wide "read" of a story—features Jennifer De Leon's "Home Movies" this year. It has been available throughout the Boston area, free (check libraries, book stores), in preparation for what may be the world's largest book discussion. For details, see the web site, www.bostonbookfest.org.
The few paid events generally are inexpensive, and proceeds support free events at the festival. At one, author Neil Gaiman will interview his wife, memoirist and singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer, on Oct. 24. Her book is "The Art of Asking." Cost is $10.
The other paid event is exclusive to BBF supporters at the $150 level or higher: Margaret Atwood's kickoff keynote speech, Friday, Oct. 23. This is the festival's major fundraising event, hence the price. If you'd like to donate, see the web site (there's a $50 to $100 level as well as much higher possibilities).
Workshops, interviews and spirited discussions are offered all day each day, with the festival kicking off late Friday.
Among other major participants: Atul Gawande, Colum McCann, James Wood, Louis Sachar, and Libba Bray. A complete list is available online.

The site features a large contingent of booths set up by booksellers, publishers and other book-related enterprises, plus free music and lots of food stands. The entire day is relaxing and cheerful, as participants are surrounded by others who love books!
***
Recommendations for classic favorites
This month, the Northboro Friday Morning Book Group recommends these classics for clubs to consider—"which we feel are highly discussable.  We consider a classic as being published in the 1960s, and previously and we've read four classics a year for the past 14 or 15 years."
1)  "Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain
2)  "A Man for All Seasons"  (the play)
3)  "Middlemarch, George Eliot"
4)  "Two Years Before The Mast," Richard Dana, Jr.

Book groups/selections for October
The Athol Public Library's "Booked for Lunch" club will discuss "Delicious!" by Ruth Reichl  when the group starts its season tomorrow (Monday). "Our group varies in size from 12 to 24. Membership is not required and participation varies based on the selection (and often time of year!). We encourage new folks to join us," said Robin Brzozowski. "Throughout the year we read popular fiction, a few non-fiction selections and an occasional classic. Everyone is given the opportunity to share their thoughts."
NOW Women's Issues Book Group will discuss "The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.” This hefty title is by Anne-Marie O’Connor, and it concerns the real-life story of Adele’s Jewish family, their ordeal in Nazi-occupied Vienna, and the fight to reclaim the famous painting, stolen by Nazi officers. A movie version (called the “Woman in Gold”) starred Helen Mirren. The group meets at 7 p.m., Oct. 12 in Barnes & Noble, 541 Shrewsbury St., Worcester.
Off-Track Bookies in Lancaster has slated Sue Monk Kidd's "The Intervention of Wings" for its Oct. 8 meeting. "Wings" is based on the life of Sarah Grimk√©, an abolitionist and early proponent of women’s rights. On her eleventh birthday, Sarah—daughter of a wealthy plantation family—is presented with her own slave, which horrifies her. Hetty is the slave. The two defy traditional slavery.
At Lancaster's Thayer Memorial Library, book club members will talk about Kathleen Norris's "The Cloister Walk," a memoir of her time as an oblate (and Presbyterian minister) who examines her faith while staying with Benedictine monks. Meeting is Oct. 27.
At 7 p.m., Oct. 27, Merrick Public Library in Brookfield, members will read Rachel Joyce's "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry," a novel about an anti-hero seeking himself, and respect, in his travels.
The Contemporary Book Club at Gale Free Library, Holden, will discuss "Black River" by E.M. Hulse at 10:30 a.m., Tuesday, Oct. 6. Check the library for a book loan.
Mendon Public Library's group will discuss "A Snicker of Magic" by Natalie Lloyd (a 2014 Newbery Award nominee) on Monday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. Call librarian Brenda Whitner for details.
At Simon Fairfield Public Library in Douglas, book club members will discuss Derek B. Miller's "Norwegian by Night" at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 13. The N.Y. Times described this book as having "the brains of a literary novel and the body of a thriller." Call 508-476-2695 to reserve a copy.
Malcolm Gladwell's "David and Goliath" will be the focus of a 4:30 p.m. Oct. 28 meeting at Gardner's Heywood Memorial Library.
Haston Public Library, North Brookfield, chose books for the new season at an August cookout. The group has slated "A History of Reading" by Alberto Manguel for its Oct. 27 meeting.
Erik Larson's "Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania" is the topic for Crawford Library's book group, meeting at 6 p.m., Oct. 1 in Dudley.
"The Girls of Atomic City" by Denise Kiernan will be discussed at Leominster Public Library's Brown Bag meeting on Oct. 1.
Fitchburg Public Library's book club will discuss Sue Monk Kidd's "The Invention of Wings" on Oct. 14 at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
In Southbridge, group members will discuss Michael Ponsor's "The Hanging Judge" at 6:30 p.m. in Jacob Edwards Library.
Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth," eight stories exploring family life in India, Thailand and the United States, will be discussed at the 10 a.m., Oct. 9 meeting of Northboro Public Library's Friday Morning Book Club.

Ann Connery Frantz writes about authors and book clubs for the Telegram & Gazette. Contact her at ann.frantz@gmail.com.