A Mercy

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A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

Stoner by John Williams is not about a dude who smokes blunts all day.  It’s about a man named William Stoner, and the book tells his life story in a mere 278 pages.  The prose is unadorned and crisp, and it captures the true essence of its protagonist, a man who grew up on a farm, and then studied, and went onto teach, English literature at the University of Missouri.  In other words, a person who isn’t particularly noteworthy in the broader scheme of things. This is a heartbreaking and beautiful novel, one of the best I have ever read, or will have the privilege to read, in my life. Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon deserves all the praise it’s getting--and then some.  It masterfully interweaves three storylines (all of them compelling), and its characters, lost and alienated from the world and themselves, are rendered with insight and compassion.  I won’t soon forget the image of the severed hand in the cooler, or the eerie lighthouse motel, or the magic supply shop on some forgotten Cleveland street.  This novel made me want to use exclamation points, and watch scary movies, and read Shirley Jackson, and throw my computer out the window with a paranoid shriek.  Such a fun read. Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson: What a wit Antonya Nelson wields, and what sharp observations!   I absolutely adored this collection of stories about fucked-up people and their bad choices, their sad aftermaths.  I loved how she compressed time, and how, with a single phrase, I understood a moment for all of its awkwardness, anxiety, hope, and honesty.  I want Ms. Nelson to come over my house, share a vat of pasta, and tell me some more stories. A Mercy by Toni Morrison and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: These two books, however different, will forever be paired in my mind.  I read them fairly close together, and in both, the prose stunned me.  I read significant portions of each out loud, lying across my couch, or sitting up in bed, or pacing from room to room.  I did this mostly because I was trying to understand Woolf and Morrison’s books better, but also because their prose is so beautiful and intricate, that it deserves to be recited as poetry.  I feel grateful to have been let inside of their worlds—that syntax, those sounds.  They made my year all the richer. More from A Year in Reading

Digging into the 2010 IMPAC Longlist

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2010 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 156 novels on the list, nominated by 163 libraries in 43 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2008 (including translations). Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers. Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least six libraries. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (9 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, England, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, and the United States) A Mercy by Toni Morrison (8 libraries representing Barbados, Lebanon, Portugal, Switzerland, and the United States) The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (8 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, England, and Finland) The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (8 libraries representing Brazil, Canada, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, and the United States) The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (8 libraries representing the Czech Republic, England, Ireland, South Africa, and the United States) Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (7 libraries representing Austria, Ireland, South Africa, and the United States) Breath by Tim Winton (6 libraries representing Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and the United States) Indignation by Philip Roth (6 libraries representing Belgium, Germany, Spain, and the United States) The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon (6 libraries representing Croatia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and the United States) The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher (6 libraries representing Australia, England, Greece, New Zealand, and the United States) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (6 libraries representing the United States) You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few: In the Netherlands, The Jewish Messiah by Arnon Grunberg and The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker In Canada, Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden and The Great Karoo by Fred Stenson In New Zealand, Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those: From Jamaica, The Same Earth by Kei Miller From Romania, The Outcast by Sadie Jones From Columbia, The Armies by Evelio Rosero From Denmark, Machine by Peter Adolphsen From Iceland, Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason

More Pulitzer Speculation

Monday is Pulitzer day. You know who we expect to win, but PPrize.com, a site for book collectors, has compiled its own prediction list (via). It's heavy on literary heavyweights, with Home by Marilynne Robinson, The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike, and Indignation by Philip Roth occupying the top three spots. I like our pick (as anointed by the Tournament of Books A Mercy by Toni Morrison), but I wouldn't be surprised if it goes to a book a bit more under the radar.Meanwhile, abebooks has posted their "Top 10 Forgotten Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novels" encompassing potential hidden gems like Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson and Honey in the Horn by H.L. Davis.

Bold Prediction: A Mercy Wins the Pulitzer

By now you've read the result, Toni Morrison's A Mercy edged out Tom Piazza's City of Refuge to win The Tournament of Books. Now, if I were a betting man, and it were possible to bet on the Pulitzer winner, I'd bet on A Mercy. Why? The Tournament of Books has called the Pulitzer winner the last two years running. In 2008, Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took home the Pulitzer on the heels of the Rooster. And in 2007, Cormac McCarthy's The Road saw its Pulitzer win presaged by not just a Rooster, but also its unlikely companion, an Oprah's book club pick. On April 20th, we'll see if the Rooster still has the jump on America's oldest literary prize.

Staff Picks: Morrison, Marcom, Lethem, Frankfurt, Binelli, Seidel

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The "staff picks" shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own "Staff Picks" in a feature appearing irregularly.A Mercy by Toni Morrison recommended by EdanNow, Toni Morrison doesn't need my staff pick (I'm sure it pales in comparison to her Nobel Prize in Literature), but I thought it appropriate since she's a contender for this year's Tournament of Books. Also, one time I tried to hand-sell A Mercy at the bookstore where I work, and the customer said, "Oh I hated her other book, you know, that Caged Bird Singing one?" So, let me set the record straight: Toni Morrison is not Maya Angelou. Got that? Also, I must say this: Toni Morrison has written an incredible and mesmerizing new novel. The prose in A Mercy blew me away, it was so strange and beautiful. From start to finish this book's language put a charge through me - I actually felt the prose in my body, as a tingling in my wrists and up my arms. The language itself transported me to this historical era (the 1680s), and my mind had to shift to accommodate the language, and thus, this particular, brutal, past.The Mirror in the Well by Micheline Aharonian Marcom recommended by AnneLike a wanton lover, Micheline Aharonian Marcom's Mirror in the Well leads you sensuously and breathlessly into the throes of an affair between "she," the unnamed adulteress, and "you," the beloved. Lust yields to ecstasy that seesaws into despair as the married mother of two's web of trysts, lies, and longing grows larger. The blazing physicality of Marcom's language is like a feminine countersignature to Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer; the trapped wife's ennui and awakening shares its soul with Louis Malle's The Lovers.The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem recommended by AndrewJonathan Lethem pushes the unsuspecting reader into one troubling, convoluted short story after another, then, when he's good and ready, spits the reader out into the real world, leaving him twitching and scratching his head, barely able to catch his breath before luring him back into his alternate universe where futuristic horror butts heads with mystery and suspense.The genres aren't new to him - his novels Amnesia Moon and Motherless Brooklyn ventured into futuristic sci-fi and mystery, albeit taking routes into these genres that I hadn't taken before - but it's a different experience to get these flights of fancy and fear in seven short bursts. I was exhausted and sometimes unsettled after each, but I couldn't wait to get back into Jonathan Lethem's crazy world.On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt recommended by EmilyA rare treat awaits those who missed On Bullshit when it came out in 2005. Professor Harry Frankfurt's unassuming little volume (four by six inches and a mere 67 pages long - somewhat physically reminiscent of the original binding of Maurice Sendak's Chicken Soup With Rice) is not only, to use its own words, a "crisp and perspicuous" account of what bullshit is, but also a lesson in clean, graceful prose and logical, orderly thought.And what is bullshit, you ask? Quoting a bit of Longfellow that Ludwig Wittgenstein considered a personal motto:In the elder days of artBuilders wrought with greatest careEach minute and unseen part,For the Gods are everywhere.Frankfurt explains the mentality that these lines express: "The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work that would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit." And so beings an excellent explanation of the carelessly made and shoddy product we know as bullshit.For its clarity, gentle humor, conversational tone, and intelligence, On Bullshit is a delight. So charming is Frankfurt's book, that even those traumatized by encounters with philosophy's mind-wrecking titans (Hegel or Kant, say), might find themselves taken in.Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die by Mark Binelli recommended by MaxI'm not sure I have much fortitude for the mini-genre that has been termed "ahistorical fantasia" (coined by Matthew Sharpe author of Jamestown, perhaps the most widely recognized example of the form), but I do know that Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, is undoubtedly ahistorical fantasia and undoubtedly a thoroughly entertaining book. Here's the ahistoria: Mark Binelli reimagines Sacco and Vanzetti not as suspected anarchist bombers but as a slapstick comedy duo from the golden age of cinema. And here's the fantasia: the pie and seltzer plot of Binelli's pair slowly melds with the death-row fate of their real-life counterparts. The book is incredibly inventive and manages a rare feat: It is both challenging and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes simultaneously.Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel recommended by GarthGertrude Stein aside, Frederick Seidel's Ooga-Booga is the most excitingly strange book of poems I have ever read. In this case, the oddity lies not in the syntax, but in the author's peculiar persona, at once cool and fevered. The collision of the "debonair" voice, the hallucinatory imagery, and a prosody keenly (even innocently) interested in rhyme and wordplay shouldn't work, but it does: "And the old excellence one used to know / Of the chased-down fox bleeding its stink across the snow." Consumed steadily over the course of a couple of weeks, Ooga-Booga reveals itself as a cohesive, almost novelistic statement about death, sex, wealth, motorcycles, and geopolitics. (And doesn't that about sum it up?) I'm torn between the trenchant short poems and the long, visionary ones, like "Barbados" and "The Bush Administration." Against the latter, one might say that elegy gets done to death these days. But when has it ever been so savage, or so full of joy?

The Notables: 2008

This year's New York Times Notable Books of the Year is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:Beautiful Children by Charles Bock (Garth's review, Beautiful Children Goes Free, Beautiful Children: The Numbers)A Better Angel by Chris Adrien (a most anticipated book)The Boat by Nam Le (Edan's interview with Le)Breath by Tim Winton (a most anticipated book)Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee (Mark Sarvas' pick for a Year in Reading)His Illegal Self by Peter Carey (Garth's review)Home by Marilynne Robinson (a most anticipated book, a National Book Award finalist)Indignation by Philip Roth (a most anticipated book)A Mercy by Toni Morrison (a most anticipated book)My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru (Garth's Inter Alia #9: The Aquarian Age is All the Rage)Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (Garth's review, Kevin's review)Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff (a most anticipated book)Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner (a National Book Award finalist)2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Why Bolaño Matters, Arriving 658 Years Ahead of Schedule..., Bolaño's Big Book Makes Landfall)Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (a most anticipated book)When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (a most anticipated book)The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike (a most anticipated book)

The Most Anticipated Books of the Rest of 2008

As we reach the year's midpoint, it's time to look at some of the books we are most looking forward to for the second half. There are many, many intriguing books on the docket for the next six months, but these are some of the most notable. Please share your most anticipated books in the comments.August: Chris Adrian wowed readers in 2006 with his post-apocalyptic novel The Children's Hospital. That novel's ardent fans will be pleased to get their hands on a new collection of stories called A Better Angel. The collection's title story appeared in the New Yorker in 2006. More recently, Adrian offered up a personal essay in the New York Times Magazine about getting a tattoo.September: Philip Roth remains tireless, and his latest effort arrives in September, less than year after Exit Ghost garnered seemingly wall-to-wall coverage. With Indignation, Roth takes readers to 1951 America and introduces a young man, a son of a New Jersey butcher, trying to avoid the draft and the Korean War. An early review (with spoilers) offers, "Indignation is a sad and bloody book, and even if it delivers nothing particularly new - indeed, most of Roth's books could be retitled Indignation - it is a fine supplement to Roth's late achievements. And we learn a lot about kosher butchery."Norwegian author Per Petterson collected a number of international prizes and upped his name recognition with Out Stealing Horses, which appeared to much acclaim in English in 2005 and won the IMPAC two years later. I read and enjoyed his In the Wake, which was written before Horses but appeared afterward in translation. Of that book, I wrote, the "boundary between madness and loneliness is plumbed to great effect." Petterson's latest to be translated for American audiences, To Siberia, is his second novel. Like Petterson's other novels, To Siberia is inspired by his parents, who died in a ferry accident along with two of his brothers in 1990. A snippet of an excerpt is available at the NYRB (and more if you are a subscriber).According to our Prizewinners post, Marilynne Robinson's 2004 book Gilead was one of the most celebrated novels of the last thirteen years. Gilead arrived 24 years after Robinson's debut, Housekeeping, but Robinson's latest, Home, comes after only a four-year hiatus. As Publishers Weekly first reported, "Home shares its setting with Gilead, and its action is concurrent with that novel's. Characters from Gilead will also appear in Home."Kate Atkinson is bringing back her reluctant detective Jackson Brodie for a third book, When Will There Be Good News?. An early review on a blog is mixed, and apparently he has a wife in this one. (Not sure how all the Brodie fans will take that!)Garth writes: "David Heatley's My Brain is Hanging Upside Down is a graphic novel that takes readers deep into the uncomfortable psychological undercurrents of everyday American life. Like Chris Ware, who gave him a prominent blurb, David Heatley is a double threat with a pen: both words and drawings are adventures in style."Garth writes: "Indie stalwart Joe Meno delivers Demons in the Spring, a new collection of 20 stories, each of them illustrated by a leading graphic artist."October: John Barth, one of the leading lights of American fiction, has a new book on the way. The Development is, according to the publisher promo copy, "a touching, comic, deeply humane collection of linked stories about surprising developments in a gated community." A story from the book "Toga Party," appeared in Fiction magazine and in the Best American Short Stories 2007. There's not much on the book just yet, but "Toga Party" won some praise from readers.Also making October an impressive month for new books will be Death with Interruptions by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago. Though the book will no doubt be allegorical like many of Saramago's works, the title is apparently meant somewhat literally as the story involves eternal life.Garth writes: "Ingo Schulze's 2005 tome, New Lives, finally reaches American shores, in a translation by the magnificent John E. Woods. According to Schulze, it concerns an aesthete who finds himself plunged into the sturm and drang of capitalist life. Die Zeit called it 'the best novel about German reunification.' Period."John Updike will follow up one of his best known novels, 1984's The Witches of Eastwick, with a sequel, The Widows of Eastwick.Sara Gruen of Water for Elephants fame will return with Ape House. It "features the amazing bonobo ape."November: Garth writes: "Characteristically, Roberto Bolaño throws a curveball, delivering 2666 a massive final novel that both does and doesn't match the hype surrounding it. I haven't decided whether or not it's a good book, but it is, indisputably, a great one. I devoured it in a week and haven't stopped thinking about it since."It's not every year that we get a new book from an American Nobel laureate, but this year we will get A Mercy from Toni Morrison. The promo description on Amazon is downright mysterious, offering this brief blurb: "A new novel, set, like Beloved, in the American past." But she has been reading from the book at various events and Wikipedia already has some details, though these appear to be pulled from promotional material as well. We can glean that the novel will take place in the 17th century, the early days of slavery in the Americas.Please let us know what books you are most looking forward to for the second half of 2008 in the comments.
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