Tuesday, September 2, 2014

From beach reads to fall club selections

Toss out those dogeared, water-stained beach reads. It's time to reconnect and talk of ... well, summer beach reads, among other things. No better way to get your head moving again than to share sips, treats and book talk. Doubtless some July and August choices will become selections for the reading year. My own recommendations to the Off-Track Bookies will be Colum McCann's "This Side of Brightness" and "The Orchardist" by Amanda Coplin.
To help "sell" your suggestion, bring along a copy of the book and print out a little information about it; you won't have much time to push your choice, so make it count. If you are really strong on a book, you might consider e-mailing information to group members a few days before the meeting.
Large groups are more tricky; many have a lead person on the process, like the librarian or group leader. Send your recommendation to them; it helps.
Not all groups choose a whole season at once. Ours breaks it up into increments, and some groups go month to month, allowing for flexibility as well as keeping up with books new to the market.   
If you are new to the idea and want to find out if a book club is right for you, start at the library, where you can get the book readily and there's a librarian there to guide the discussion.
Alternatively, if you think you'd like to start a group, contact friends (or coworkers you can stand) and invite them. You can also seek out people interested in a special writer or topic (you may have to list the group on www.meetup.com or at special interest meeting places—colleges, coffee shops, newsletters—to find similar souls). Then, dig up books about or by that author/topic. You can also post your prospective group on library bulletin boards, among your Facebook friends or in a community listing with the local newspaper and town website. Meetup.com is another handy place to find like-minded readers.
Meet at a book store, library or restaurant for starters, until the group sorts itself out. After that, consider home meetings if that's a group preference. Do NOT take advantage of a bookstore or coffee house without buying a little something from them. It's thoughtless and cheap.
To keep your new group going, set up ground rules for smoother meetings: no crosstalk or talking over others, no dominating the conversation; give everyone a chance to speak; try not to repeat what others have said, and stay on topic. Finally, respect other people's opinions. Failing to do these things will lose you members.

Wanted: By the way, if you would be so kind as to share your season's picks with us, I'd love to list them in a "what we're reading for 2014-15" column. E-mail me to the address at the bottom of the column.
This is also a GREAT time to update your meeting info and contacts for "Read It and Reap," as I often reach out to group members for feedback on issues related to book groups and reading. Again, e-mail me as below!

Correction: I erred in a mention of the Speaking Volumes book group last month. The group does not broadcast on WICM 90.5; it uses the sub-carrier of WICN's signal to broadcast. Listeners can catch broadcasts on special radios supplied by the group or on Public Access TV in many towns throughout Worcester County (channel 12 in Worcester). Others may want to listen through the group's website, www.audiojournal.net.

Upcoming meetings:
The C.S. Lewis Society promotes exploration of ideas from science, the arts, culture, and everyday life as they intersect with what C.S. Lewis famously dubbed “mere Christianity.” Its objective is to facilitate engaging discussion and reflection of topics of enduring value for Christians and non-Christians alike. All are welcome. To learn more, visit www.lewisma.org. Steven Barrett will facilitate the 9:15 a.m. session Saturday, Sept. 13 on the first half of "Miracles" in Auburn Public Library, 369 Southbridge St. A second meeting, on the second half, is on Sept. 27, same time.
Meanwhile, Auburn Public Library's Evening Book Discussion Group will consider "The Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 11.
Levi Heywood Memorial Library in Gardner will host its next book group meeting at 4:30 p.m., Sept. 24. Topic is "The Orchardist" by Amanda Coplin, a beautifully written novel about losses and unconditional love in a family created by hardship and need. New members are welcome; for details, call Ann Young at 978 632 7638
Several events happen in September at Leominster Public Library. The Brown Bag Book Discussion group will discuss Kristin Hannah's "Winter Garden," noon to 1 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 4, in the meeting room. Readers may drop by; contact the library to borrow a copy of the book. At 2 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 28, author Stephen Puleo will speak about his book, "The Caning: The Assault that Drove American to Civil War." Puleo wrote about a congressman's attack on Sen. Charles Sumner—an incident that dissolved any pretense of civility between the South and the North on the slavery debate. The session is free; no pre-registration needed. Lastly, the Evening Book Group meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Sept. 29, to discuss Geraldine Brooks' "March," which follows the absent father in Louisa Mae Alcott's "Little Women" as he leaves his family to join the Union cause. Chris Cormier Hayes will lead that discussion. Request a copy of the book at the library's reference desk or online through the library's catalogue. For info, contact Edward Bergman at ebergman@cwmars.org.
The Douglas Library Book Group will consider Ray Raphael's "The First Amendment Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord" at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 9. In the years before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, local people took control over their own destinies, overturning British authority and declaring themselves free from colonial oppression, with acts of rebellion that long predated the Boston Tea Party. In rural towns such as Worcester, democracy set down roots well before the Boston patriots made their moves in the fight for independence. Call the library 508-476-2695 for a copy of the book. New members welcome. Refreshments inspired by the title will be served.
The Women's Issues Book Club in Worcester has selected "The Heretic's Daughter" by Kathleen Kent for its Sept. 8 topic. The author, a tenth-generation descendant of Martha Carrier (who was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692), personalizes the witchcraft trials in a fictional account.
In West Brookfield, members of the Merriam-Gilbert Public Library book group will discuss “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro. Meeting is at 4 p.m., Sept. 25. Call (508) 867-1410 for more information.
Northborough Free Library's Monday Evening Book Group has slated "Death Comes to Pemberley" by P.D. James on Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. The Friday Morning Book Group meets at 10 a.m., Sept. 12, to discuss "The Education of Henry Adams," by Henry Adams. This self-described "eclectic book group" considers contemporary fiction, nonfiction and classic fiction. Members also serve tea and the occasional dessert. The group selects books at the November meeting. "We vote and compile a list of 12 books to be read for the ensuing year—four in each genre," said Marie E. Nieber, facilitator. "Books scheduled to be read for the upcoming month are on hand at the library a month ahead of time." 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Lepore's life of Jane Franklin, 'Book of Ages,' drawn from letters, grief

I wrote this for the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, MA.. Published Aug. 3.

LANCASTER — History professor and writer Jill Lepore found some startling data at Thayer Memorial Library, and she returned to town recently, talking about the book that came from her research.

Speaking to a crowd of about 75 on July 27, Lepore — a Harvard University professor of American history and chairman of the university's history and literature program — proved that the best qualities in a good writer-researcher may be curiosity and the willingness to dig. She exudes energy and humor as she speaks, drawing upon a generous reserve of knowledge about early American history.

Of specific interest that evening was her recent biography of Jane Franklin Mecom, sister of Benjamin Franklin and a relatively obscure figure in history. Yet through patient research — some of it in Lancaster's library — Lepore crafted "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin," a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for Nonfiction. How did she turn an unknown life into a national awards finalist? Digging deep.

As a scholar of history, Lepore carries weight. She has written multiple historical books and co-wrote a novel. Her "New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan," published in 2005 by Knopf, earned finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

One might have expected she would be dry and academic, use big words and offer weak attempts at wit to get her points across. Not so. Lepore, born in 1966 in Worcester, is small in stature and large in personality. She dresses casually, in jeans, blouse, sweater and clunky heeled boots — obviously comfortable speaking to crowds. She proved to be a lively, warm speaker, witty, smart and plain-spoken, as she delivered the story of Jane Franklin Mecum, who married a brute at 15, bore 12 children and saw 11 of them die. She also carried on a correspondence with her brother that lasted for decades.

As a staff writer at The New Yorker, Lepore could rest on her laurels. Instead, she writes numerous essays and reviews for publications such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The American Scholar, along with prominent history journals.

Fittingly enough, her next book, to be published by Knopf in October, is about Wonder Woman. In 2015, she'll focus on Charles Dickens in America.

Not bad for a local girl, raised in West Boylston before moving to Sterling during high school. (Her parents lived there, on Franklin Street, until their deaths in 2012.) Lepore left home to study English at Tufts University, where she received a bachelor of arts, later earning a master of arts in American culture from the University of Michigan and a doctorate in American Studies at Yale University. Before Harvard, she taught at the University of California-San Diego and at Boston University.

Lepore describes herself as a regular "pain in the ..." to Sterling librarians as she obsessively read through George Orwell's works. She always wanted to be a writer, but studied math as a ROTC scholar for awhile before dropping it to follow her instincts, becoming a historian. Now she uses all those skills. She prefers "impossible" subjects and does her own research.

Jane Franklin was in that category, but Lepore says she felt obligated to bring her story to light. About half the letters Benjamin Franklin ever wrote were to his beloved little sister, Jane. They were among 17 siblings, raised poor and ramshackle. "Benny" Franklin ran away from home in Boston as a teenager, and we all know what he accomplished. Jane met a different fate more common to her gender, but remained a faithful correspondent throughout her quiet life.

Lepore named her biography "Book of Ages" after the title of a journal Jane put together. Coming from a family of printers, Jane had access to the resources needed for making paper and printing on it, creating books. Her own, however, is empty — except for the birth and death dates for each of her children. Lepore described it as "a litany of grief," and she said she abandoned the project once, finding it difficult as a mother of young children to write about so many young deaths. But The New Yorker requested an essay about the subject, so she found herself drawn again to Jane's life.

Nine blank pages in Jane's book are as upsetting, she says. There, Jane could have detailed her life — but did not. Lepore relied instead upon the letters to Benjamin for a history of Jane's thoughts and beliefs.

Born in 1712, Jane lacked the advantages Benjamin had by virtue of his gender and intellect. Married at 15 to a man with violent tendencies, she never had the chance to learn to write — common among women of that era. She was taught to read the Bible and little more. From Benjamin, she learned to write enough to respond to his letters in an uncertain hand, with poor spelling. At one point, she wrote, "I read as much as I dare." Despite their long, intense correspondence, Lepore says, Benjamin never even mentioned her in his autobiography.

Lepore's mother urged her to check local resources for bits of history connected to the Franklin family. She hit a bull's eye when she contacted Library Director Joe MulĂ©. Thayer library has a rich historical collection, which includes 20 books from Jane's personal library, given to her son, Josiah Mecum, and eventually her grandson, Josiah Flagg. The Flaggs were among Lancaster's earliest families. The library has a silk-on-linen sampler stitched by Jane's great-granddaughter, Sarah "Sally" Flagg. Better still, Lepore discovered, the library boasts two 1765 oil portraits by Joseph Badger — of Jane Flagg, later Jane Flagg Greene, and Josiah Flagg (Jane's great grandchildren by her daughter, Sally Mecom Flagg). The portrait of Jane Flagg Greene is on the book jacket. Lepore believes there is more information out there, as yet unrecognized by its possessors, perhaps tucked away in attics or family papers. She would like to see it.

Lepore points to the bifocals Benjamin Franklin invented as a symbol of the way she approaches historical research, using the larger, better seen images from history as a way of also seeing the smaller, harder-to-detail stories. She used those literary bifocals to draw a portrait of Jane Franklin's life.

"I'm more comfortable working with history," she said. "There aren't a lot of prominent women writers of history. The few there are, write about men. I think it's important to model for others that women can do anything." Thus, her continues her work.

In "The Prodigal Daughter," the New Yorker essay published in July 2013, Lepore wrote, "Jane Franklin never ran away, and never wrote the story of her life. But she did once stitch four sheets of foolscap between two covers to make a little book of sixteen pages. In an archive in Boston, I held it in my hands. I pictured her making it."

That was the start, and her book is the result.

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 www.readitandreeap.blogspot.com (note two e's). Send comments to ann.frantz@gmail.com.

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 (randomhouselibrary.com). Its First Look Book Club gives readers a free excerpt from just-published books, via email. Includes all genres. Sign up at www.TinyURL.com/FirstLookBookClub. 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, manybooks.net 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 www.gutenberg.org.)

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.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A gentle romance, a deadly desert in The Lemon Orchard

Luanne Rice is well known to readers of women's fiction. She has written 31 novels, most of them best-sellers, and five novels became movies or miniseries.
"The Lemon Orchard," her newest work, may include romance, but that is only the beginning. 
The relationship kindled between Julia, a grieving mother who is house-sitting at a lemon orchard in Malibu, and Roberto, the orchard manager, is based on their mutual experience of tragic loss. 
Roberto is the guilt-ridden father of a child he was forced to abandon while crossing through the desert enroute to the U.S. Julia has lost her daughter in a horrific car accident. Their shared pain crosses the societal barrier between a quiet, cautious American woman and an illegal immigrant making his way in this country. Julia's sympathy for Roberto's loss, and her skills as a cultural anthropologist, lead her to a search for the long-missing child, even though it has been five years since the incident.
Don't mistake this for a simple, uncomplicated romance; it is not. Rice portrays the tragic circumstances endured by impoverished Mexicans crossing into the U.S. in dangerous conditions and deadly heat, taken advantage of by unscrupulous "guides" and the occasionally cruel border patrol officer. 
This picture is not a pretty one, but it well details the conditions leading to illegal migration and continued residence in our country. The risks these people take are harrowing and very affecting to those unfamiliar with the realities of U.S. border enforcement.
Julia and Roberto ignore the mild disapproval of society about their relationship, and focus on recovering love, amid the crippling world of pain inherited by parents who have lost children—a devastating grief and self-blame that overrides anything else that follows.
Rice has written "The Lemon Orchard" with simple truth, careful research and a voice that speaks for common decency amid the indifference of law. She has related the arguments for and against illegal immigration to the experiences of characters in her book. The outcome may move you to the other side of the "moral" fence on this matter.
 "There has always been migration. That goes without saying when you have a rich country like ours sharing a border with a country as poor as Mexico," says a fictional member of the Reunion Project, a real organization which attempts to link those lost in the process of migration to those who seek them. "... The U.S. wants to protect the border." Where the two sides intersect, there is death.
Penguin Books published this novel in paperback and released it May 27. To learn more about Luanne Rice, see her website at www.luannerice.com.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A review:
"For the Kingdom and the Power: The Big Money Swindle That Spread Hate Across America," by Dale W. Laackman.

A detailed history of the Ku Klux Klan's financial dealings and public image, Dale W. Laackman's book gathers in one place the truth behind the extensively dirty financial underskirts of the Klan's first coordinated leaders: a pair of marketing experts who built the Klan up for personal profit.
Laackman portrays the rise of Edward Young Clarke Jr. and Elizabeth "Bessie" Tyler—fellow Klan leaders, marketers extraordinaire and sometime-lovers—who used the organization first defined by William Joseph Simmons (a minister dedicated to the concept of white superiority) for fun and profit. From the start of their involvement with the sleepy, 5,000-member Klan in Georgia, they conceptualized a large, nationwide Klan, selling hate and bringing in easy money. And so it went—for some years.
Laackman skillfully fills in the broad patchwork of information surrounding the Klan's astounding growth to nearly a half-million white men dedicated to the exclusion of blacks, Catholics, Jews, immigrants and any other non-white, non-native species of mankind. The Klan did, however, include women as members at one point, both to convey a reputation as a social organization and to publicly exploit its progressiveness in having a female leader (Tyler, who ran things in the shadows for years).
The Klan's roots extend from post-Civil War decades to the present, though the numbers are back down to around 5,000 in estimates from the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2012. In the course of its growth as an ostensibly benign fraternal organization, the Klan has executed murders, beatings, political control and terror. Laackman doesn't focus on the individual crimes and misdoings, already well documented in other books. Instead, he details the careful shaping of a financial empire built on the profit from hatred—money used for the personal benefit of its founders.
Relying strongly on material gleaned from histories, legal hearings and extensive newspaper coverage, Laackman portrays a brilliant marketing campaign, boosted by the blockbuster 1915 movie, "The Birth of a Nation," and nurtured by American suspicion of immigrants and Papists. "Bessie" Tyler herself came from an innocent-sounding movement titled "Better Babies," in the early 1900s, which embraced standards for valuing human worth—linked to the now-infamous but once popular Eugenics movement later linked to Nazi practices. (Plant breeder Luther Burbank even opposed immigration, claiming it diluted the human race with inferior stock.)
Clarke had a mixed record, including fraudulent financial operations within church organizations.
They were a match for the ages, and their impact together certainly proved that true. Laackman's story of the public relations firm they founded, the Southern Publicity Association, and its growth into the financial foundation of the Klan, is carefully framed and meticulously documented. They modeled pure hatred on the popular fraternal organizations of the time, using that to mask its purposes and dedicating the Klan to the preservation of societal goals like the protection of womanhood (from non-whites, we assume) and continued segregation (elevated to near slavery in practice).
At various points, disenchanted Klansmen (and, some say, undercover reporters from the North), spilled the beans on the Klan's money-making scheme and exposed it, but Congressional hearings on the accusations, following detailed newspaper coverage, led nowhere—officially. This may have been because a Georgia congressman introduced legislation to force Congress to investigate all fraternal oranizations at the same pitch and level as the Klan had just experienced.
It's not a pretty story, but it's a fascinating recounting of the many anti-Black realities that led to the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, which finally broke the back of segregation laws and the Klan. Along the way, the reader glimpses lives involved in the battle between pro- and anti-Klan forces: reporters and publishers, whistleblowers, legislators. The best of early newspapering is on stage as well.
Also revealed is the infighting and various machinations the Klan leaders took to hide their misdeeds and keep the Klan viable, even while they were exposed for earlier frauds and grievous social misbehavior involving brothels, alcohol, and arrests. Laackman describes it well as a family "dog fight." The Klan was a broken organization, though hate was not eradicated and some membership exists today.
Anyone interested in the inner workings of the Klan, the impacts of greed and fraud on an organization, the power of public persuasion that is tapped by expert public relations and the best of early newspapering will find it in "For the Kingdom and the Power." The book was released in May by S. Woodhouse Books, a new imprint of Everything Goes Media, a Chicago-based non-fiction publisher. It's available as a book and e-book.
Laackman received a bachelor's degree in history and a bachelor's in advertising with a master's in television and film. He worked in television, writing, directing and producing, before turning to historical research and writing. He lives in Chicago and this is his first book.