A certain slant of light

It took me all of Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, to figure out what the title referred to. Life doesn’t show much mercy on the tragic characters who people Morrison’s narrative, set in early America, when life’s cruelties were bleakly unforgiving. I initially assumed Morrison’s title was ironic, like that of Annie Dillard’s The Living, which seems to feature more deaths than it does lives. But Morrison’s novel is not a piece of irony, and neither is its title. There is a poignant mercy in A Mercy, even if it takes the entire novel for readers to realize it.

Mud season

Morrison’s novel opens with Florens, a lovesick teenage slave, setting off to find the object of her affection, a freeborn African-American blacksmith who had been hired by her master to construct an iron gate at the entrance of his palatial new home. Despite her infatuation, Florens’ mission is dire. Her master, a trader named Jacob Vaark, has succumbed to infection before occupying the new home he built with a fortune amassed from speculation in the slave trade, and now his wife–Florens’ mistress, Rebekka–is dying of the same illness. Believing the blacksmith who wrought the gate at the entrance to her husband’s doomed mansion will be able to heal her sickness, Rebekka sends Florens on a solitary errand to fetch him.

Gnarled tree

This is the linear narrative that underpins A Mercy. Florens starts her journey at novel’s beginning, and we follow her progress as the narrative continues. True to Morrison’s typically Faulknerian style, however, the narrative tells other stories, meandering from character to character and from present to past as it punctuates Florens’ journey with the back-stories of her compatriots. Florens tells her story in the first person, but a narrator tells the stories of her fellows. We see how Jacob Vaark became a reluctant participant in the slave trade. We see how Rebekka traveled to America specifically to marry Jacob, a man she’d never met. We meet Jacob’s other slaves: Lina, a Native American whose family and village were destroyed by smallpox, and Sorrow, a crazed and outcast orphan who survived the shipwreck that killed her father. We meet Williard and Scully, indentured servants who work on Jacob’s plantation, and we meet the freeborn blacksmith whom Florens is sent to find, hoping his mastery of medicinal herbs will save Rebekka.

Tombstones with trees

Meeting this disparate band of characters gives us an odd sort of insight into the nature of Jacob Vaark, a man who profits from the slave trade–and who owns slaves–without ever really condoning the practice. We want to believe that Jacob is a good man; we want to overlook the source of his fortune, the lavish way he decides to spend it, and the fact that he has surrounded himself with slaves and servants, most of them women, whom he has specifically chosen for their low likelihood of causing trouble. A house and plantation peopled by women, Jacob reasons, will be less rowdy and prone to riot than a plantation populated with randy young field slaves…and yet each of the orphans, outcasts, and survivors Jacob chooses carries her own hidden tragedies. There is no escape from trouble, Morrison suggests, regardless of who shares your story. This sharing of suffering is one of several subtle mercies that become beautifully apparent by novel’s end.

This is my long-overdue second review for the 2009 Audiobook Challenge, whereby I pledged to listen to (and review on-blog) twelve audiobooks in twelve months. If you’re interested in participating in the challenge, please visit J. Kaye’s Book Blog for details; you can access links to other participants’ audiobook reviews here.

It’s been more than two months since I reviewed my first audiobook of 2009 (Marilynne Robinson’s Home), and during that time I’ve listened to more than a half dozen audiobooks. In other words, I listen to books far faster than I review them! I figure I will have time to catch up with reviews this summer when this living is easier.

In the meantime, the photos illustrating today’s post are similarly “belated,” as I took them in Salem, Massachusetts last month. I previously blogged Salem’s Old Burying Point Cemetery in October, 2005; if you want to see what it looked like this February, you can view the entire photo-set here. Enjoy!

Just Paint

There’s an inherent danger in starting a new novel by an author you’re familiar with, for the new work has to fight against the expectations engendered by the previous. I first encountered Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel Housekeeping in the early ’90s, when I was a Masters student at Boston College, and in the intervening years I’ve repeatedly taught (and thus repeatedly read) it for the “Literature of the Open Road” class I teach at Keene State. When in 2005 I first read Robinson’s long-anticipated second novel, Gilead, it took me a while to warm to the story. It’s difficult not to make comparisons between a first and second novel when you’ve repeatedly read and taught the former during the years you waited for the latter. With her new novel Home, though, Marilynne Robinson invites comparison between her previous narrative and its successor, as Home tells the exact same story as does Gilead, but from a completely different perspective.

Bear'sVille Place

That switch in perspective makes all the difference, for even though I revisited (via audiobook) Gilead right before starting to listen to Home, I didn’t feel like I was being cheated by mere rehash. In Home, Glory Boughton’s perspective on her wayward brother’s story is as different from the Reverend John Ames’ account in Gilead as any two novels could be. In Gilead, the Rev. Ames writes as an old man who struggles to forgive his own namesake, John Ames “Jack” Boughton–the wayward son of his childhood friend and neighbor, the Reverend Robert Boughton. Rev. Ames is a Congregationalist and Rev. Boughton is a Presbyterian…but both clergymen share a similar outlook when it comes to young Jack, who returns to Gilead, Iowa after a long absence. Neither Rev. Ames nor Rev. Boughton knows what Jack Boughton, now in his 40s, has been up to for the past 20 years, but neither minister believes it can be any good. In Home, Robinson returns to Jack Boughton’s story, but this time as understood by Jack’s 38-year-old sister, Glory, who has returned to Gilead to tend her ailing father after having gone to college, taken a teaching job, and settled down elsewhere.

Stars and strips

Having read Gilead, I approached Home as a detective might re-visit the scene of a crime gone cold: where are there clues–hidden or brazenly in the open–that I missed the first time? Jack Boughton’s life is a modern re-telling of the parable of the prodigal son: having left Gilead after he shamed his pious family with a string of much-gossiped misdeeds (the very acts Rev. Ames agonizes over in Gilead), Jack returns to his father’s house after years of presumably misspent youth. No one–particularly the elderly and increasingly decrepit Rev. Boughton–knows why Jack has returned, and no one seems bold enough to ask him. Home at last, Jack is nevertheless a stranger to his own family and hometown, and his pained conversations with his sister Glory offer the only hints readers get into his unknown life outside Iowa.

If you’ve read Gilead, you know (eventually) the secret Jack harbors: you know the heartbreak that eventually drives him home. Reading Home with this bit of secret knowledge, you find the novel rife with dramatic irony. Privy to the story Jack isn’t telling, you note each of the clues that Glory, Rev. Boughton, and Rev. Ames miss. Privy to the story Jack isn’t telling, you wonder when, how, or whether his full story will be known.

Trust is unnecessary

Jack Boughton isn’t the only wayward child in Home, however. In Gilead, Rev. Ames notes that Glory Boughton returned to Gilead to tend to her father after the failure of her marriage; in Home, you learn that this, too, is an impartial story. Both the Boughtons and the Ames–like, perhaps, the inhabitants of Gilead itself–are quietly proud, keeping both their joys and sorrows close to their hearts. Whereas Gilead, like Housekeeping before it, is a first-person narrative, told in the form of a long letter Rev. Ames writes to his young son, Home is narrated in the third-person. We as readers aren’t privy to Glory Boughton’s hidden heartache, but a fragmentary story emerges from both the narrator’s limited view and the snippets of story Glory shares with her brother as they grow in confidence. At times, particularly at the beginning of the novel, the narrative seems to creep on crippled feet, the dialogue between Jack and Glory being so painfully polite as each tries not to betray the other’s feeble trust. In time–by book’s end–you realize that shared confidence is a sacred thing, not to be entered into lightly.

Cosmic Moose

Although I found myself occasionally comparing Glory, who feels trapped in Gilead by filial obligation, to the rootless character of Sylvie in Housekeeping, Home is more closely akin to Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Each work features a piously close-knit Presbyterian family headed by a strict minister father; both the Boughtons and the Macleans deeply love one another but seem uncertain how to communicate that love. Whereas in Gilead, the Rev. Ames struggles with the question of whether a lifelong troublemaker can truly change, in Home both the Rev. and Glory Boughton struggle with the difficulty Norman Maclean faced in A River Runs Through It: how can you help a troubled, self-destructive loved one who doesn’t seem to want your help? Both Glory and Jack Boughton come home to their father’s house in Gilead when it seems they have nowhere else to turn: home, it seems, is where you go when every other road leads to a dead-end. While Glory Boughton is able to maintain an appearance of respectability in tending her father, however, the Boughtons, Rev. Ames, and all of Gilead, it seems, know Jack as nothing but a failure.

Parking by permit only

With Gilead fresh in mind, I wondered as I listened to Home how Robinson would end the story. I knew how Gilead ended, but I suspected Rev. Ames wouldn’t (indeed, couldn’t) have the last word in this alternative account. Knowing the secret that Jack keeps meticulously hidden from his father and sister–a secret whose unveiling serves as the emotional turning point of Gilead–I wondered when, whether, or how Glory, her father, or any of the town would learn the reason for Jack Boughton’s absence from and eventual return to his father’s house. As Robinson’s retelling, from a slightly different perspective, of a familiar story continued, I tried to guess various ways of bringing the narrative to a close, all of them somehow unsatisfactory. The ending of Home is much better than I envisioned: not exactly happy, but ultimately hopeful. Even when you’re exiled from a place you never felt native to, the hope of home can be an enduring balm.

2009 Audiobook Challenge

This is my first review for the 2009 Audiobook Challenge, whereby I pledged to listen to (and review on-blog) twelve audiobooks in twelve months. If you’re interested in participating in the challenge, please visit J. Kaye’s Book Blog for details; you can access links to other participants’ audiobook reviews here.

I’ve already begun listening to Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, so I’ll review that as soon as I’ve finished. In the meantime, if you’re intrigued by the colorful images accompanying today’s post, feel free to view my complete photo-set showing the funky fence at the corner of Franklin and Brookline Streets in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Enjoy!

Nose in a book

One of the frugal habits I learned as a child was to love the public library. My parents aren’t bookish, but my mom appreciates a bargain wherever she can find one, and public libraries are a bargain-hunter’s dream. As a child, my mother would often take me to the Bexley Public Library–located on the other side of the tracks from our working class neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio–and read magazines while I selected an armful of books to borrow. It was a profitable endeavor for both of us. Growing up in a neighborhood without many children, I learned to love reading, and my mother didn’t have to subscribe to magazines. Where else but at a library could my mother have let her budding bookworm of a daughter wander at will, free to choose anything she’d like to take home?

One of the downsides of my teaching schedule is the relative lack of time it leaves me for pleasure reading. During a busy semester, it feels like so much of my time is devoted to reading student papers, when I (finally) find a free moment, the last thing I want to do is read more. Over the past year or so, though, I’ve discovered (and yes, this makes me a decidedly late adopter) the pleasures and downright convenience of audiobooks. Even when my eyes don’t feel like reading another written word, I can pop on my earphones and have someone read me a story. I’ve found it to be a wonderful way to relax, and during busy semesters, audiobooks (which I listen to during my frequent drives between New Hampshire and Massachusetts, or while I’m doing housework, or occasionally while I walk the dog) have been my biggest connection to my bookworm past.

2009 Audiobook Challenge

This new-found fondness for audiobooks (or perhaps, more accurately, a New Year’s decision to finally come clean about my ongoing audiobook habit) is why you’ll now find a link at the top of my blog to a page titled “Audiobook Challenge.” As a way of encouraging myself to keep track, on-blog, of the books I listen to this year, I’ve signed up for J. Kaye’s 2009 Audiobook Challenge. Since I’m already in the the habit of listening to audiobooks, why not make a New Year’s resolution to continue the practice?

J. Kaye is challenging folks to listen to twelve audiobooks in twelve months, but for me, the real challenge is to blog each of the books I listen to. I have a long-dormant blog category called Book chat where I used to post my thoughts on books I read…but I haven’t written any book posts since the spring of 2007. Now that the New Year is upon us, I want to keep track of what I read and what I think about what I read. Although I’m not committing to write full reviews of the books I’ll listen to over the next twelve months, I want to keep at least a brief record of what audiobooks I’m listening to, as much for my own future benefit as for anyone else’s.

Looking back on 2008, for instance, I quickly jotted down thirty (!!!) audiobooks I listened to over the course of the year, most of them borrowed from either the Boston Public or Keene Public Libraries, both of which offer digital audiobook downloads. (Several of the titles below came from Keene State Library’s Mason Library or the Newton Public Library, which offer CD audiobooks.) Thirty audiobooks in a year is a lot of virtual “reading,” and all of it was free!

Books to read, places to go

  1. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson
  2. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
  3. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute To His White Mother by James McBride
  4. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman
  5. Night by Elie Wiesel
  6. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff
  7. This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation by Barbara Ehrenreich
  8. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
  9. Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup
  10. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
  11. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
  12. Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York by Adam Gopnik
  13. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen
  14. How to Be Alone: Essays by Jonathan Franzen
  15. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman
  16. Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez
  17. Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher
  18. Middletown, America: One Town’s Passage from Trauma to Hope by Gail Sheehy
  19. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch
  20. Audition: A Memoir by Barbara Walters
  21. A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father by Augusten Burroughs
  22. Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison
  23. The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives by Cheryl Jarvis
  24. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
  25. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama
  26. Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, by John McCain
  27. Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics by Joseph Biden
  28. Wake-Up Call: The Political Education of a 9/11 Widow by Kristen Breitweiser
  29. Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama
  30. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond


In retrospect, my 2008 reading habits show several things. First, I listen to far more audiobooks than I read actual books; second, although I show a marked preference to nonfiction narratives, my tastes within the nonfiction genre truly are eclectic. I credit this partly to my own curiosity–there’s little in the world I’m not interested in learning more about–but I also credit the fact that (according to one of my mother’s favorite sayings) beggars can’t be choosers: if you’re relying upon free audiobooks downloaded from one or another of your public libraries, you’re necessarily limited to what’s available. In retrospect, having some relative limitation on your reading habits isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I typically find I learn to take an interest in whatever book I’m listening to once I’ve given it a fair chance. As my mother (again) would say, you can’t beat free.

Although I don’t have any definite reading list set out for 2009, I want to make a conscious effort to listen to more fiction. At the moment, I’m listening to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I’ve already read but which I’m re-visiting before diving into Robinson’s latest novel, Home. Since I began listening to Gilead in 2008, it doesn’t count toward J. Kaye’s challenge, but I’ll tackle that soon enough. In the meantime, feel free to follow my book-by-book progress on my Audiobook Challenge page, and consider taking the challenge yourself. What’s not to like about books for free?

Needless to say, I snapped today’s images of the bookish statue outside the Newton Free Library last June, before she was topped with New Year’s snow. Apart from the ponytail, which I acquired only as an adult, this bronze bookworm with her jacket, ball-cap, and backpack could be a clone of my younger self, at least after I was old enough to take myself to the Bexley Public Library on my bike.