“We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do—we do it all the time.”

Having valiantly made our way through such tomes as Moby Dick, We the Drowned, and Bleak House, it maybe comes as no surprise that the Brown Baggers were ready to read something shorter. For April, we turned to one of the masters of the short story, Alice Munro and her latest, Dear Life. A well-known Canadian writer, Munro has only written one full-length novel but her work has been widely published in magazines and collections. Last year, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and the committee noted her as “master of the contemporary short story.”

It was an interesting experiment to attempt to discuss an entire collection of stories. After sharing some biographical information about the author, group members started off the discussion by sharing more general thoughts about the book as a whole.  Munro’s unique writing style was at the forefront of our talk. While many of us agreed that she has quite a way of conveying much with her sparse prose, it was difficult to read the stories one after another. The group members who enjoyed the stories most allowed time to lapse between reading sessions, maybe reading one story a day. Others who attempted more than one in a row found the experience especially bleak. While the prose was incredibly well-crafted, the tone and themes of small town isolation and rigid social confinements could accumulate into a depressing reading experience. That being said, we agreed that this showed the real extent of Munro’s genius. Even with few words, she could completely portray a vivid and evocative scene.

More information about Alice Munro:

Find more stories by Munro in the JMRL catalog

Interviews, facts, and more resources on the official Nobel Prize website

Review of Dear Life in the London Review of Books

Read The Bear Came Over the Mountain, originally published the the December 27, 1999 issue of the New Yorker and later adapted into the film Away from Her

Hankering for more short stories? Give one of these a try:

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

The Swimmer by John Cheever

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

 Do you have a favorite short story? Chime in and let us know in the comments!



“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.