Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: A Mercy, by Toni Morrison

I finished A Mercy a few weeks ago, but haven't been able to corral my thoughts about the book until now. This is the first of Toni Morrison's books that I've read since Beloved, a book I was mesmerized by as a younger woman. And I'm glad I read this, which feels somewhat like a companion piece to Beloved, to reintroduce myself to Morrison's work after some years.

A Mercy takes place at the end of the 17th century, when America was a very wild and new place. It is the story of a household, a farm, on the edge of the wilderness in the New World. Jacob Vaark is the farmer, but it is less his story than that of the women who reside with him.

First there is Lina, a young Native American woman Jacob brings into his home to help him with the house and farmwork. Lina was the sole survivor of her village's massacre, and then survived the Protestant proselytizing of the stern white folks who first took her in.

Then Jacob buys a bride from England, and Rebekka shows up. She is happy to exchange the squalor of English city life and her valueless place as daughter of the family for the hard work of a New England farm, and the relative autonomy of being a wife. Rebekka and Lina achieve a mutual respect and good working relationship on the farm, but Rebekka's life is scarred by the loss of several children.

Jacob also takes in a young woman named Sorrow, who was raised on a ship and rescued from it when all others aboard had perished. Sorrow is an enigmatic character who seems to live inside her own head and carry untold secrets. Finally, Jacob reluctantly accepts slave girl Florens in payment for a debt from a slave trader.

When Jacob dies of smallpox, the four women's lives become insecure, as women alone in this harsh new world are never fully safe. And when Rebekka sickens with the disease, Florens takes to the road to find help in the form of a free black man, an artisan who worked for Jacob, and who may be able to cure Rebekka. This man also happens to be Florens's lover, and she goes to him with hope in her heart for a new and different life.

Like Beloved, A Mercy examines the psychological and moral intricacies of slavery. While Beloved takes place in the aftermath of slavery, A Mercy is there at slavery's birth in this country. A Mercy's characters demonstrate the more fluid state of slavery at that time, as the novel depicts slave traders, a reluctant slave owner, a free black man, and people of every color in various states of servitude, including a pair of white male indentured servants who almost (but perhaps not quite) provide the novel with comic relief. The subtlety of their relationships is brilliant; nobody is wholly innocent or wholly guilty, power can shift, and all are slaves to something.

The women in the story not only represent different races and social positions, they also represent the many different points on the spectrum of womanhood at the time: mother, sister, daughter, mistress, servant, slave, lover, wife, friend. And Morrison digs into the subtleties of all these relationships, showing their fluidity, too.

Morrison, whom I consider a magician with words, writes gorgeous, elliptical, poetic prose that evokes a waking dream. I enter the characters' consciousnesses, and end up in my own dream-like state as I read. It is easy to be swept up in Morrison's writing. The plot is non-linear, and the writing is impressionistic, but, maybe through Morrison's magic, or maybe just because the human brain works this way, the non-linear bits and pieces of the story and all of the impressions I've gathered coalesce into a whole that I see with more clarity than I ever expected.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Book Gluttony: Summer Reading Begins

My budget-imposed moratorium on book buying has ended, as I thought it would, in a furious spending spree on books, most at nearly full price. I held back for months and months longer than I thought I would be able to, however, [pats self on the back] so I feel okay about it all.

The first two books on the stack are my 13-year-old son's summer reading for school. Sorry, bub, but I paid for the books, so I'm reading them first.

I have never read any Tony Hillerman, so I'm looking forward to A Thief of Time, and yay! my son's also been assigned to read Laurie Halse Anderson's Fever 1793. All my blogging buddies have read and loved her book Speak, so I've been dying to read something by Anderson. Plus now I follow her on Twitter, and I like her style. And I happen to love books like this--historical and young adult and all about a plague--excellent!

I'm finally getting down to business and reading The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, for my own self-imposed summer reading project. Thank you Matt (at A Guy's Moleskine Notebook), for kicking my butt to read this one.

No Great Mischief, by Alistair McLeod is one of those books that I happened upon in the blogosphere, and sadly, can't remember exactly which blog, so can't give credit where credit is due. Has this ever happened to you? I can only remember it happening to me once before, but it's very annoying. If you are the blogger who turned me onto this book, could you please let me know in the comments? Thanks. I appreciate it. My sieve-like brain thanks you, too.

Next up, The White Tiger: A Novel, by Aravind Adiga. Recommendation by my book-loving cousin-by-marriage. Man Booker Prize-winning book, too, which I'm always interested in.

Wandering Stars, by Sholem Aleichem, is my book group's next pick. We're trying to squeeze in one last meeting before we take a break over the summer. So I really had to buy this one (she says, with a guilty wince). It's newly reissued, and I think the cover is beautiful.

People of the Book: A Novel, by Geraldine Brooks, has been on my list for a really long time. Actually, it's been on my BookMooch list, and finally I successfully mooched it! Yes! So it's the only book I didn't pay for. And a beautiful hardcover copy, too, so I'm thrilled.

So, tell me, what are your summer reading plans?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Salon: Reading update and PBS Videos

The Sunday

It's Memorial Day Weekend here in the US, a three-day weekend, so that means a barbecue, an extra day of kid duty, and if you're lucky, an extra day for reading. I'm trying to catch up on reviews, but I keep getting distracted by my reading...

Last week I finished Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, and we discussed it at my book group. It was a great discussion, as usual. It was also probably more personal than usual as the book is about women's issues: duty to one's self vs. duty to one's marriage and children, infidelity, a woman who leaves her children in order to follow the man she loves. Heavy stuff, and we probably could have discussed for hours more...

Now I'm reading David Ebershoff's novel The 19th Wife, which contains some twists on some of the same themes; it concerns early Mormon polygamy, and modern polygamy, and it's proving a very interesting read. I'm hosting a TLC book tour for this book on June 17th, so come back by for a review and more.

My husband is a member of the Television Academy, so we get "screeners" every year of almost all of the TV shows out there. Usually there are two or three episodes of the current season of a show on the DVD, and I almost never watch them unless there is something I've heard great things about. For someone whose husband works in television, I watch very little of it.

But last year we got the screener of Cranford, with Judi Dench in it, and I was thrilled. It was really good!

But this year I was extremely happy to receive the PBS/Masterpiece screener, because it not only has Little Dorrit on it, it also has the Kenneth Branagh Masterpiece Mystery series Wallander. I've heard such good things about both programs, I can't wait to watch!

So I'm hoping I'll be able to make some time to watch these today. Maybe tonight, after the kids go to bed...

Has anyone seen Little Dorrit? Is it a good adaptation?

How about Wallander? I keep hearing it's very good, and they may make it into a series. Or maybe they already have...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Weekly Geeks 2009-18: Home Sweet Literary Home

This week's Weekly Geeks topic, posted by the lovely softdrink, is:

"Take us on a literary tour of your home town!"

Hmmm...interesting one. I grew up in northern California, in a town called Danville, which is part of the "East Bay" area, outside of San Francisco. Danville is a commuter town, a "bedroom community" for San Francisco, and though it has its own history as a railroad stop on the Southern Pacific railroad, and is a lovely place, I wouldn't call it a literary town.

However, the San Francisco Bay Area has a rich literary history. Jack London was born in San Francisco and lived in the Bay Area and of course Mark Twain famously lived in San Francisco where he worked as a journalist, and described the weather to a T ("The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco"). The literary history continues on through the beat poets and expands to a wide group of writers who make San Francisco their home, including Dave Eggers and the McSweeney's crew.

But my little home town of Danville did have its own literary star, at least for awhile, in the late playwright Eugene O'Neill.

Eugene O'Neill and his wife Carlotta built Tao House, a beautiful Spanish-style house, on a hillside in Danville, and they lived there from 1937 to 1944. He wrote his final and most famous plays there, including “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” “The Iceman Cometh,” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” O'Neill garnered four Pulitzer prizes for his plays, and is the only American playwright to have received the Nobel Prize for literature.

Now the home is a National Historic Site, and you can visit and take a tour if you wish, but you have to make a reservation first. And evidently the Eugene O'Neill Foundation hosts an International Eugene O'Neill conference in Danville--who knew?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Booking Through Thursday--A Second First Time?

Here's today's Booking Through Thursday question:

What book would you love to be able to read again for the first time?

(Interestingly, I thought that I had thought this one up myself, but when I started scrolling through the Suggestions, found that Rebecca had suggested almost exactly this question a couple months ago. So, we both get credit!)

Good question. I guess books that made a big impression on me would be the one's I'd like to have a clean slate "do-over" for, so I could have the thrill again. I don't think I could narrow that down to just one, so here's a (fairly short) list:

1. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

3. Middlemarch, by George Eliot

4. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

5. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

6. Beloved, by Toni Morrison

7. Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

8. Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner

I'm sure I'll think of others later--there are so many books that made a big impact that I'd like to read for the first time again. Thinking about them makes me want to read them again, period.

What's on your list of best "first time" reads?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Night Navigation by Ginnah Howard, a review

Ginnah Howard's novel Night Navigation was sent to me by the publisher, and I didn't know what to expect. What I got was a needle-sharp look into the life of a mentally ill drug addict, and his relationship with a loving but frustrated mother, who can't help but give him one more chance, over and over again.

Howard's novel alternates focus between the viewpoint of Del Merrick, a mother in late middle age, who would like to be focusing on her art and living a normal life, and the viewpoint of Del's deeply troubled adult son Mark, who has fallen back into drug addiction, and therefore back into Del's life. Both Del and Mark also have to contend with the ghosts of Mark's father and brother (Del's late husband and her other son), and guilt over their deaths. Through the course of the story, mother and son come together, and come apart, and find out more about themselves and each other in the process.

Howard writes matter-of-factly about the horrendous life of a drug addict; the desperation, the manipulation of everyone around them, the physical pain of addiction, the casual way violence enters the lives of those who cannot manage their own lives and become slaves to drugs. It's compelling to watch, kind of like a train wreck--and it's definitely not for the faint of heart.

Bleak, yes, but I really enjoyed the poetic imagery Howard employs to tell her grim tale. And there is some hope infused here, too. Del is a relatable character, even if you aren't a mother. But if you are, it is oh so painful to imagine yourself in her situation. She has been bound to these men she has loved, and they have either died or are in the process of killing themselves. It is a hard thing to read about, and yet Del's life, in the every day, is quite beautiful. She is an artist, she lives surrounded by rural beauty, and when writing about Del's life, Howard's writing showcases the beauty that exists in the mundane, if we only open our eyes to see it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mother's Day and crazy bloomin' stuff

I had the nicest Mother's Day on Sunday. This was partly because I had such low expectations, I think. I've never been a big fan of these types of holidays, the ones that seem like they were made up by marketing departments to sell us more stuff. But that doesn't stop me from drinking in a little appreciation for all I do as a mother, if anyone is willing to give it.

So my husband stayed with our little girl while I took the boys to the Star Trek movie. I really enjoyed the movie, and my lunch of popcorn, candy and soda. Yum! The movie was good enough that I'm going to take my husband later in the week. He shouldn't miss out just because he sacrificed on Mother's Day!

I also got a little reading time in over the weekend. I started reading Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, which my book group is reading this month. So far, I am enjoying the story, which, I was surprised to find, includes a lot about the role of women in society at the time. It is making me want to do a little research on Frank Lloyd Wright, however--I know his work, but don't know the first thing about him, other than that his personal life was "colorful". And of course, Loving Frank is a novel, so I'll probably look around for some non-fiction on the subject.

The photo above is from my front garden. Last fall I got a bee in my bonnet, so to speak, about gardening with native plants. I did a little research, joined my local native plant and wildflower foundation, and planted the front garden with natives. This spring it has paid off, as I've got loads of beautiful purple blossoms, and I don't have to water nearly as much as I used to.

The photo below is what my husband calls our "hundred-dollar blackberry". That's because he thinks that's probably how much it costs in labor and water to produce the few fruits and vegetables we grow in our back yard. But isn't it crazy that fruit is already ripening here in Southern California?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Reader's Diary

We enjoyed our whirlwind trip back to the rainy east coast, and, to my amazement, I actually got some reading done. I finished Vanina Marsot's Foreign Tongue: A Novel of Life and Love in Paris, and Ginnah Howard's novel Night Navigation. The two novels couldn't be more different, but both were enjoyable in their own ways.  Now I'm really, really behind in my reviews...oh, well, c'est la vie.

I had fun talking books with my husband's sister and his cousin, both voracious readers whose tastes generally mesh with mine. Our cousin mentioned Aravind Adiga's Booker-prize-winning novel The White Tiger as a must-read.  It's now more firmly on my list!

My BookMooched copy of Nick Hornby's Housekeeping vs. the Dirt arrived this afternoon, which absolutely made my day.  I love when something on my BookMooch wishlist pops up in my email, and I'm quick enough to get it!  I was lucky enough to snag this copy, and I'm really looking forward to starting it.

Must start organizing my thoughts about all these books I want to write about.  Maybe this weekend.  But I want to see the Star Trek movie, and then there's Mother's Day...I'm guessing I'll be just as far behind on reviews on Monday.

What do you all have planned for this weekend?