Brown Baggers 2014 Selections

The Central Library Brown Baggers met yesterday to pick reading selections for the upcoming year. Group members brought a wide variety of excellent book suggestions, but there are only so many months in the year! Check out the list of finalists below to get a head start — there’s also still time to start reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior for our meeting on January 16 at noon.

February: The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
March: True Grit by Charles Portis – Big Read 2014 title
April: Dear Life by Alice Munro
May: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane
June: The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow
July: Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
August: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
September: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
October: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb
November: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
[No December selection -- meet to pick titles for 2015]
January 2015: The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

“There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honour … The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual.”

As a moderator, it’s always interesting to predict the reactions of our Brown Baggers. Ian McEwan is a popular author as well as a critical darling. He has been nominated for the Man Booker prize six times, winning in 1998 for Amsterdam. General reviews of Sweet Tooth, the group’s selection for November, were positive, although a few critics noted that it was not McEwan’s finest work. Our group mostly fell along the lines of the latter reviewers, noting the lack of depth in characterization and problems with the voice of the female narrator. When compared to some of the author’s earlier books, Sweet Tooth fell flat for some readers. Group members instead recommended Atonement, Saturday, and Solar as other books by McEwan to try.

Some group members did note that McEwan did succeed capturing a certain bleak atmosphere, demonstrating the not-so-glamorous side of espionage. It was also interesting to see that along with earlier 2013 Brown Bag reads The Sense of an Ending and American Pastoral, this book tackled some of the same questions and reflections on age, memory, relative truth, and the purpose and power of fiction.

Group members also discussed a few authors who were more successful in subverting narrative expectations or capturing the grim details of spying without losing the reader’s interest. Of course, whenever spy novels are the topic at hand, John Le Carré must be mentioned — try one of his classics, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Another title that many group members championed was Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Agree or disagree with the Brown Baggers? Share your thoughts in the comments below! Make sure to join us December 19 at noon to pick the bulk of our 2014 selections — check out the JMRL wiki to see reading lists from past years.

“….the architect and planter, struggling against the moralist” : Discussing “Master of the Mountain”

Living in Charlottesville, it’s hard to escape the shadow of Thomas Jefferson. From Monticello on the mountain to the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s influence is everywhere. But should this Founding Father be placed on a pedestal or should his written opinions concerning slavery be compared more critically with his actual practices in managing his estates? The Brown Baggers Book Group tackled some of these questions in their latest meeting while discussing Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.

Our group was lucky enough to have a special visitor: Christine Sternberg Patrick, former Assistant Editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. It was great to have an expert in the room to establish background facts and establish a context for the information presented in the book. There were many surprises in reading, and the group discussion tended more towards our own preconceived notions not only of Jefferson, but of colonial-era slavery, its defenders and opposition, and other weighty issues of the era and their effect on the present day.

Many group members offered additional reading suggestions regarding these topics. Check out one out at your nearest JMRL branch:

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis

Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia by Susan Dunn

Help Me to Find My People: the African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams

JMRL also carries other books by Henry Wiencek, including his work on George Washington. C-SPAN’s Book-TV also offers a chance to hear the author speak about Master of the Mountain on their website. And of course, there is no shortage of other books in JMRL’s system about Jefferson.

Make sure to join the Brown Baggers on November 21st at noon to discuss Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.