“If you want anything done right, you will have to see to it yourself every time.”

ImageThis month, the Brown Baggers discussed JMRL’s Big Read selection, True Grit by Charles Portis. One of the main objectives of the Big Read is to get various members of the community reading and discussing one book together, so the group was delighted to welcome a whole posse of newcomers. We gathered ‘round the proverbial campfire and had a great discussion.

To help ground us in the story, we started our meeting with a brief overview of the novel’s timeline. Many of the background events and characters were true to life, including William Quantrill, Judge Parker, and Cole Younger. True West magazine has a great timeline of the novel’s events, with real historical events highlighted, along with a helpful slideshow.

First and foremost in our lively discussion was the character of Mattie. The group agreed she was a wonderful character to root for and certainly embodied “true grit.” It was also interesting to consider that she narrates the novel when she is much older, but describes herself as clearly and bluntly as any other character — no rose-colored glasses here. We also thought her plain-speaking was a great source of humor. Although she is very strict in her Presbyterian morals, her determination to seek justice causes her to pick Rooster Cogburn to aid in her mission. Rooster is also a sympathetic character, but he’s not quite a paragon of moral virtue. He’ll use whatever methods he has to in order to get the job done, but as many of us noted, this unorthodox brand of justice is a trope that we often enjoy, whether in Westerns or modern-day superhero stories.

One group member noted that perhaps the novel’s publication date (1968) also influenced the work; perhaps there is a parallel with America’s reputation as a “global cowboy” in terms of foreign involvement — an example that has persisted today in certain cases. The group also touched on both movie adaptations and how they have colored our perception of the novel. Even for those who hadn’t seen either, John Wayne is practically a pop culture icon: the archetype of the gruff cowboy. As you might expect from book group members, this frustrated many who prefer to read the book first before viewing the film equivalent. We also noted that no matter how faithful an adaptation, Mattie’s voice will always be strongest in print.

More information about True Grit and JMRL’s other upcoming programs can be found on the library’s Big Read page.

Find out more about the history behind True Grit in True West magazine.

The Wall Street Journal takes a look at Charles Portis.

Make sure to join the Brown Baggers at noon on Thursday, April 17 to discuss Alice Munro’s Dear Life. See you then!

“Izz, I’ve learned the hard way that to have any kind of a future you’ve got to give up hope of ever changing your past.”

ImageEach month when the Brown Baggers gather, we’ll often start with an introduction to the author and their background. While it doesn’t always impact our interpretation or feelings about the writing itself, it adds another dimension to our discussion. While preparing for our monthly meeting, the glaring lack of information about M.L. Stedman, author of The Light Between Oceans, became just as noticeable as a richly detailed background. Perhaps it is only appropriate that this author seems so mysterious, as secrecy is such an important part of the novel.

At the heart of this novel is a complex moral dilemma and group members were eager to share their take on the plot. Each character had his or her own support within the group — some more than others, but few if any were deemed completely unsympathetic. Many of us agreed that Stedman’s rotating narrative effectively forced the reader to view multiple sides of the story. It also allowed insight into how peripheral characters were affected, such as Isabel’s parents, or Hannah’s sister and father. Group members enjoyed a spirited debate about the “right” way various situations should have been handled. Another vital part of the book was the vivid description of natural surroundings. This made for a jarring contrast between the social civility of the mainland town and the savage beauty of the fictional Janus Island.

While the author is quiet on many of her personal details, she has done some interviews about the book:

Interview with The Age (Australian newspaper)

Interview with the Christian Science Monitor

Interview with Foyles (British bookstore)

Make sure to join the Brown Baggers at their next meeting on March 13 (a week early!) to discuss True Grit by Charles Portis, the 2014 Big Read title. JMRL will be offering a variety of related programs all month — see you there, pardner.


“The world of sensible seasons had come undone.” — Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior

ImageCharlottesville isn’t quite part of Appalachia, but we’re pretty close! Opinions were mixed on the Brown Baggers’ latest read, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, but as always, a lively discussion ensued. Almost everyone in the room was familiar with other works by Kingsolver, so it was interesting to compare and contrast this title with the rest of the author’s canon.

Kingsolver earned degrees in biology and often tackles social or environmental issues in her work, even establishing a literary prize for writing addressing social change. Our group found the discussion of climate change and the tension between science and religion to be an intriguing part of the work, although a few group members felt this exploration occasionally came across as preachy or a bit contrived. Others felt that although it may have been slightly manipulative, they enjoyed the fact the novel challenged their viewpoints and made them slightly uncomfortable.  

Another theme of the work that the group discussed were the unique family dysfunctions and dynamics presented in the book. A lot of these points also were tied into the socio-economic tensions laid out between the characters. Some group members debated whether some of the town’s unique character was specifically Southern or just indicative of an American small town.

For further information:

Check out other works by Barbara Kingsolver in JMRL’s catalog.

“The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear” by Jim Robbins – A 2013 New York Times article about threats to the monarch butterflies’ migratory habits.

“Barbara Kingsolver’s got the Red State blues in ‘Flight Behavior’” by Hector Tobar – A review of Kingsolver’s book in the Los Angeles Times.

Join the Brown Baggers next month on February 20 at noon to discuss M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.