Bison chili, paired with Munro’s very meaty text

Birchbark store
Courtesy of Birchbark
Birchbark Books and neighboring Kenwood Café are club hosts.

The 50 guests at the Birchbark Books and Kenwood Café BYOB Book and Dinner Club event last month had come from all directions: One woman hopped a Greyhound from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Another person was visiting from Germany, and another from Alaska. Prudence Johnson (chanteuse extraordinaire) was in the house, as were two literature professors from the University of Nevada.

Louise Erdrich, author and owner of the bookstore and a champion of building community through literature, was the host. It was the monthly club’s inaugural event — well, sort of. The invitation, to subscribers of the bookstore’s e-newsletter, drew so many takers that a second event was scheduled to accommodate everyone who had RSVP’d.

The club’s venue is the Kenwood Café, which adjoins the bookstore. On the “nouvelle Native” menu for this event was bison chili, sage corn bread, wild rice salad and acorn squash.
 
Amply fortified, the guests began the serious business of discussing Alice Munro’s most recent collection of short stories, “Too Much Happiness” (Knopf, $25.95, 2009).

Only on Sundays
Erdrich opened with an eloquent tribute to Munro, praising the award-winning Canadian author in particular for her depiction of the lives of girls and women. “It is very hard to gain an international audience for stories about women and girls,” Erdrich said. “And she’s consistently done this.” The acclaim “is truly earned,” Erdrich said, recounting a few biographical tales to illustrate what Munro had been up against:

• When Munro was a girl, she was permitted to read only on Sundays. That’s because women and girls were supposed to be knitting the rest of the week.

• When her first book was published, Munro’s father was very excited. He had wanted to write a book his entire life, and reasoned, “If Alice can do it, anybody can.”

Erdrich expressed relief that Munro, now approaching 80, had not fallen into the trap of her same-age male counterparts, who “become obsessed with, um, the loss of virility. Alice has never had this problem! She doesn’t have the [the character of an] aging female writer who is somehow gloriously attracted to a college co-ed.”

What she does have in this collection is a woman who breaks free of an abusive husband (for one night only) at a ghastly price; two girls whose summer-camp friendship takes an unthinkable twist; an older woman who survives cancer and the death of her spouse and then is cornered by a killer; a world-weary, lactating woman whose blithely indifferent husband creates a family schism; a summer girl who takes a job sitting with a cancer patient and becomes a pawn of the patient’s wife, his mother and his masseuse, and a college naïf whose more “experienced” roommate takes her down the rabbit hole (and vice versa).

More than a few readers had some truth-in-packaging issues with Munro.

“Why was it called ‘Too Much Happiness?'” one woman demanded to know. “So many of the stories had an underlying effect that was not happiness.”

Heidi Flores proposed that the title is antithetical. “It’s like an opposite,” she said. “Instead of ‘Too Much Sadness,’ it’s actually ‘Too Much Torment’ or ‘Too Much Struggle.’ Flores said she was amazed at the stories’ impact, and wasn’t the only person to wonder whether it was advisable to read them at night. “I had very disturbing dreams, and they were very powerful. I knew it was because Alice Munro was able to put me in touch with the emotions of the characters, and so the emotions … went with me into that subconscious world.”

War of words
It was too much for Sonja Pederson, who shot up from her chair to report that she and her husband had had a real Mr. and Mrs. at home over the book. “He used the ‘s’ word,” she said. “He called my interpretation ‘simplistic!’ ” Pederson confessed to internalizing much of what she reads in a book, and said that the darkness simply became overwhelming. “It was really getting me down, and finally I just told my husband, ‘This is just too morose.’ It wasn’t a book with a lot of hope for me. And so maybe I’m too much of a Pollyanna, but I guess that hope is something that really is important to me in a book.”

With that she took her seat.

“Is your husband here?” Erdrich asked as the dust settled.

Tom Dunnwald rose to take the stand. “We patched it up,” he assured the group. He pleaded guilty, though, to removing the dust jacket so that his wife would not be tipped off to the book’s contents before she started reading. And then he gave a passionate defense of Munro’s work:

“I have never read Alice Munro, and I was stunned by these great stories. They didn’t really depress me so much. I do criminal defense law. And you hear people justify almost anything. … She understood that, which I thought was fascinating. Everybody [in the stories] wants to be ‘normal,’ and they all normalize their behavior, which I thought was just intriguing. I was flabbergasted by her.”

Erdrich appeared delighted by the couple’s willingness to fight — over literature. “Thank you,” she told them. “It’s clear that the two of you belong together.”

Adele Evidon, a polio survivor who uses canes and a scooter for mobility, seized on the theme of everybody wanting to “appear normal” and to rationalize. “It’s human nature,” she said. She told the story of a woman who stopped her recently on the Nicollet Mall. “She was very angry, and she said, ‘You think you’re really special don’t you?’ ” Evidon said she had no idea what to expect. Then the angry woman told her: “You’re really lucky, because we all have disabilities. It’s just that yours are obvious.”

No matter what the stories’ emotional and psychological impact, everyone seemed to admire the skill with which they were written, especially how few strokes of the pen were needed to bring a character to life or engage a reader.

“The character development comes up so quickly … that you feel like you’re in a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode,” said Tim Jones. “And that’s where her beauty lies. You don’t need 100 pages of development. You’re along for the ride on page 4 … and when she nails it on page 25 and closes it on page 30, you’re with it.”

John Baker, who lives alone off the coast of Alaska and had come inland at the urging of his sister, wondered aloud if anyone else had found “deeper underlying themes.” He haltingly explored the possibility that the terrors and griefs in Munro’s stories were illustrations of post-structural feminism, or feminist post structuralism, or both. And he cited evidence that semiotics were at play. “You know a letter is a letter, not because of what it is but because of what it isn’t,” he said, referring to the absent husband in the story “Deep-Holes.”

“Are you a semiotician?” Erdrich asked.

“No,” Baker said. “I live on a sailboat.”

A labor of love
After an hour or so, when the guests were replete and spent of their feelings and ideas, coffee and extra-dense “Mesoamerican” brownies were served.

Erdrich closed with fervent thanks to the guests; to the bookstore staff, especially store manager Susan White, who handled all the RSVPs (during the Christmas rush!); Catherine and Jeff Veigel, owners of the Kenwood Café; and the many friends who helped bring the bookstore to life, including Marianne Moore, who “pulled thousands if not tens of thousands of nails out of the wood floor.” The bookstore, now celebrating its 10th year, was and is a labor of love, Erdrich said.

“There was a dentist’s office here,” she said, “and the windows were blacked in, partly. … And there was a lot of mystery about the dentist. I have pictures of my daughters patiently scraping, getting the black off the windows. It’s come so far.

“One of the fantasies I had is that I’d be able to talk to … friends and neighbors about literature, that this would be an ongoing conversation, and that this would be part of life. In many ways this has come true, and especially this night it has come true.”

About the club
The monthly club is by invitation only to subscribers of the book store’s e-newsletter, online at birchbarkbooks.com. Here’s how it works: Bookstore owner Louise Erdrich selects a celebrity host, who then selects the book for discussion. Kenwood Café owners and chefs Catherine and Jeff Veigel decide on an appropriately themed menu and prepare the dinner. Guests bring their own bottle of wine. The cost is $45, which includes a copy of the book and dinner. February’s SOLD OUT event, hosted by poet and art curator Heid Erdrich (“aka Louise’s little sister; an honor I share with two other women”), features “Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life,” a short daring biography by the acclaimed Irish novelist Edna O’Brien. The evening, on Valentine’s Day, includes a write-your-own-erotic poem exercise. Up next in March: TBD.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Linda White on 03/08/2010 - 12:48 pm.

    So good to see you yesterday at Book Club Blast! I am glad to hear you are up to book stuff still. I eagerly await your next diary entry. And anyway, what is the March meeting at Birchbark? I can’t go to everything, but it is nice to live vicariously…
    Keep in touch now, ya hear?
    Linda

  2. Submitted by Laurie Kramer on 03/09/2010 - 07:30 pm.

    Hi Linda: It was equally nice to see you and so many book lovers at the event. And wasn’t that Lorna Landvik something? Oh, my stars!

    To find out about who’s up next for the Birchbark Book and Kenwood Café BYOB Book and Dinner Club, you need to sign up for the book store’s newsletter. It’s fun, and a must for book lovers: http://birchbarkbooks.com/

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